Why I wrote Slumdog Soldier

Everyone loves a great underdog story. In Rocky, a down-on-his-luck everyman fights for the chance of his lifetime. In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy we have Lisbeth Salander, the damaged outcast yet skilled hacker confronting society’s powerful abusive men who repeatedly target her (and other women) with impunity. In Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, our hero outsider stands up for the smallfolk against rich corrupt villains, armed with only a folding toothbrush and the clothes on his back.

I love these stories. There’s something so profoundly universal about the appeal of plucky outsiders taking on the establishment with grit and dogged determination, one lone hero against the world. Now…how to bring a fresh new perspective?

Why Historical Fiction?

I’ve always loved history from an early age. It’s fascinating to have that unique viewpoint into the living, breathing world of our grandparents and ancestors. Historical fiction’s made a triumphant comeback in recent years; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and Antony Horowitz’s The House of Silk have all garnered universal praise for their stories transporting the reader into rich evocative worlds that capture the imagination. Plenty more novels cover the Victorian Era, the legacy of colonial empire, the dawn of a new century and the onset of the First World War. Yet comparatively few have explored the Boer War and Edwardian Era. Those that do usually portray this period as an idyllic golden summer of peace, with leisurely afternoons on the river, tranquil garden parties and inter-class romances (classics such as Howards End, Wind in the Willows, The Forsyte Saga, Cavendon Hall, The Summer Before the War or the TV series Downton Abbey).

Which are great, sure. But rather unrealistic. They tend to be portrayed in an affluent setting, heavily featuring the wealthy aristocracy. As a result, they’re a bit too idealised, too…clean.

History: from the ground up

I hoped to portray an alternative view from the gutters in rich earthbound detail, a time of immense struggle and grinding poverty for the industrial working man. Robert Tressell’s classic The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was a withering damnation of this; it condemns the rich and powerful institutions of society preying on the working man, from hypocritical Christians and exploitative capitalists to corrupt town councillors. If you get the chance to read it, please do – it’s truly an eye-opening book!

Two of my favourite TV series also feature this grimy past of Britain’s industrial empire; Taboo follows James Delaney as he gathers a crew of underworld rogues and thieves to oppose the mighty East India Trading Company – the ruthless leviathan ‘with a million eyes and a million ears’ whose atrocities include slave trafficking, colonial plunder, and contract killings. Peaky Blinders explores Brummie gangster Tommy Shelby’s rise to power, from a street-level bookmaker to family leader of a criminal empire across Birmingham and London. Along the way, he faces other sharks in the underworld’s murky waters; local police, rival kingpins, the IRA, Jewish gangsters, Russian aristocrats, Italian mobsters, secret government organisations, and even the Crown.

Like Rob Wilson in Slumdog Soldier, both these protagonists also have deadly underworld sidekicks happy to help with wetwork; Taboo features Atticus and French Bill, two cutthroat rogues who regularly dump bodies into the Thames. Peaky Blinders has Johnny Dogs, a Romani gypsy fond of horses and playing the fiddle, who won’t bat an eye at burning a body in the woods.

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Universal Themes in Slumdog Soldier

The Unscrupulous Antihero

We’re on the side of the angels. Doesn’t mean we’re one of them.

Max Rockatansky. Lisbeth Salander. James Delaney. Jack Reacher. All four protagonists are lone wolves. Antisocial outcasts who prefer solitude. Often gruff and tactless towards their friends.

And utterly merciless warriors against the abusers of power, wealth and privilege; the timeless knight-errant archetypes of mythical Arthurian legend who right wrongs, slay dragons and defend the helpless. Whether with a shotgun, a golf club, a karambit or bare fists, all four antiheroes enact righteous vigilante justice, intervening as protective avenging angels on behalf of beleaguered innocents. For Max Rockatansky, it’s the community struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a tribe of feral kids seeking a better world, and the downtrodden wives of a tyrannical warlord. For Lisbeth Salander, it’s women victimised by abusive men, or her few closest friends and supportive journalists harassed by the state. For James Delaney, it’s his stepmother and partners in crime, especially those imprisoned and mistreated by the East India Company and the Crown. For Jack Reacher, his wards include Mexican migrants, small-town Coloradans, Nebraskan farmers, an elderly librarian, a single mum working as a cocktail waitress, and a quadruple-amputee war veteran.

All four are vicious towards abusers and sadists who prey on the weak, displaying unrestrained primitive savagery when delivering righteous comeuppance to society’s predators. All four fight back against the three-headed dragon (of greed, cruelty and corruption) that feeds off society & preys on so many real people in today’s world. These are classic hardboiled revenge fantasies that resonate with millions of people worldwide; all four protagonists strike back against evil oppressive forces on behalf of others, fulfilling that universal appeal of setting things right with violent retribution. Yes, they reduce their enemies to a quivering mess of broken bones, but it’s progressive vigilantism – the scumbag is killed, but always for noble reasons.

Hurt his friends and family or terrorise innocent settlers, and Max the Road Warrior will happily blast you with a shotgun or leave you cuffed to burn alive unless you saw off your own ankle. With Salander, anything goes: she will cripple you with a golf club, taser, axe or nail gun if you dare abuse women or harm her trusted friends. Target him or his allies, and Delaney will tear your throat out with his teeth, slash your tendons or impale you with baling hooks before disembowelling you. Profit from wartime or threaten the little guy, and Reacher will break your legs, slit your throat or just shoot you dead, then sleep like a baby (when asked how he feels about murdering five thugs, he replies ‘How do you feel when you put roach powder down?’). Such bullies include a Texas district attorney, a crooked general, Al-Qaeda agents, a Mexican drug lord, and a Russian mob boss.

Don Quixote said it best: all four are ‘willing to march into Hell, for a heavenly cause.’

And yet…despite seeking reclusive solitude and displaying utterly shocking violence, all of them have soft spots for the few decent people in their lives. Although gruff loners reluctant to emotionally invest in others, all four are nonetheless drawn to people in need, and won’t betray their innate better nature to turn down a plea for help. Their underlying kindness shines through when they act as guardian angels, regaining their humanity by helping others in need. Having such diverse characters defend the innocent against rapacious bullies, they give readers the visceral satisfaction that there’s someone just like them – Robin Hood figures for our troubled times who can fix a broken world. Yes, you could argue that it’s merely cathartic wish-fulfilling escapism…

But isn’t that the whole point?

In the real world, of course, we know the good guys don’t always win. So there’ll always be that huge appetite among readers for fiction that features proper cathartic punishment for villains.

I loved tapping into that universal appeal for my own protagonist’s journey, mirroring that Arthurian knight-errant archetype for a war veteran in an unfamiliar city. Sergeant Craig Harper is an ethical hero who avenges wrongdoing with his own feral code of righteous violence, but also this innate kindness; ultimately he’s trying to do the right thing and will always help innocent people struggling on the grimy margins of society. It’s his underlying decency and compassion that makes stories like his so elementally compelling. By escalating the greed, cruelty and corruption of the villains and establishing their victims’ innocence, hopefully the audience is fully invested when Craig avenges his friends with his own brand of violent justice against the wicked.

The bully: a universally relatable villain

Ultimately, this is a story about bullying. I’m hoping to illustrate its numerous layers throughout this story, from Vince the domineering landlord getting his kicks from intimidating defenceless people (see Chapter 12) right up to Starrick’s men; the wealthy powerful gangsters who relish humiliating and terrifying the weak, just because they can (see Chapter 18).

Why bullying? Well, because it’s such a relatable experience for so many people worldwide. We can’t truly empathise with Voldemort or Sauron, the stereotypical genocidal maniac out to rule the world. We can’t identify with Ramsay Bolton or Gregor Clegane, the sadistic psychopaths who delight in bloodshed. Most people haven’t had their parents murdered by a xenophobic cult leader, fought for their lives against giant snakes, been kidnapped and tortured for dark rituals, or watch numerous friends die in front of them. These monsters’ crimes are horrifying and numerous, but they’re distant, unfamiliar and fantastical. Like hearing about a serial killer on the news.

Hats off to Imelda Staunton and Jack Gleeson for portraying such memorable villains!

But everyone’s had a Dolores Umbridge or a King Joffrey in their lives. That one bully who made their life a living hell, the ones who were needlessly sadistic and condescending, and delighted in making others’ lives miserable. That one teacher who inflicts extra punishments just because they disliked you. You’ve complained to parents and authorities only to be ignored. You’ve sat through pointless classes and been silenced whenever you criticise. Umbridge is that teacher we all hated because she made our lives a misery and we were powerless to stop her. Joffrey is that teenage bully who lorded it over others and dominated the playground. Whenever someone was brave enough to push back, he would hide behind his mother’s skirts and his father’s reputation so he wouldn’t get punished.

Yet even as we grow out of school, there are still people in positions of power who act just like them. The manager who denies your schedule requests and penalises you for invented infractions. That customer who complains to corporate because their scam didn’t work on you, yet still persuade corporate management to side with their story. Cops performing illegal searches because they know you don’t have proof and can safely hide behind a badge as they harass you. Those who take callous pleasure in dominating others, abuse their positions of power to inflict pain, fear and suffering…and smile as they do it. The universal archetype we despise and can all root against.

Supervillains are bad guys in distant fairy tales, nightmare figures we hope never to face.

When they’re defeated, we breathe a sigh of relief.

But bullies are the villains we face every day. Bullies are personal.

When they’re defeated, we cheer.

*drops mic*

22. Cooldown

Craig trudges through the silent streets, towards the warm glow of the evening market ahead. The rich smell of fried onions makes his stomach growl. The growing chatter of voices. Rusty trots beside him, snuffling into his hand.

Thump thump thump.

He ducks into the bustling market, approaches the stalls of sizzling meat (still serving at nine o’clock, hooray). A ham sandwich for himself. A sheep’s trotter on the bone, for Rusty. Looks gross.

Rusty actually starts bouncing when he sees, yipping with happiness.

THUMP THUMP THUMP.

The White Lion is quiet when he walks in, Rusty tethered to the lamppost outside gnawing his bone. Susan is glumly gathering up dirty glasses, Jamie cleaning the floor with a wet mop. Behind the counter, the two waitresses are huddled together. Ellie’s arm wrapped around the brunette’s shaking shoulders as she murmurs gently. ‘‘Shhh, Jane. It’s okay, love.’’

They all stop and look up as he knocks on the doorframe. Ellie gives him a brief flickering smile. It doesn’t reach her eyes.

Then her expression deepens with concern. ‘‘You okay?’’

She is worried. After everything awful that happened tonight, she is worried. About him.

More kindness.

‘‘What happened out there, mister?’’

‘‘It’s been dealt with.’’ He steps up, reaches into his inside pocket. ‘‘They had a change of heart.’’ He slides the brown envelope across the countertop, packed tight with the wad of cash. Their eyes widen.

‘‘I’m just around the corner. Stainsby Road. That rickety old flat on the left, three doors up. Any more problems, you come to me, alright? And I’ll deal with it.’’ He places Pigface’s severed thumb next to the stuffed envelope. ‘‘In my way.’’

Ellie gasps. Jane turns pale. Jamie and Susan eye the bloody digit nervously.

”Why?” Jamie finally asks. ”I mean…what did they do it all for? Money? Power? For kicks? Why?”

Craig sighs. ”Some people’ll do any bad thing just ’cause they can. Or for fame. Or because they’re bored. Or exactly because they shouldn’t.”

He slides Pigface’s five gold sovereigns across the table. ”For your trouble, miss. I’m so sorry you had to endure that.” Jane’s eyes widen, glistening with gratitude.

He nods to them all. ‘‘G’night.’’ Then turns towards the door.

A faint gulp. A hand on his arm. ‘‘Wait.’’

Ellie. She hesitates, then twists one of the silver rings off her finger and presses it into his palm. A blooming flower. Curling petals.

It’s beautiful.

‘‘Keep it,’’ Ellie insists. ‘‘Please.’’

‘‘Why?’’

‘‘A keepsake. A reminder.’’ She smiles. ‘‘That the world ain’t all bad.’’

Nah, he agrees quietly. Just some of it.

‘‘Listen, I, um…’’ She trails off. Chews her lip. ‘‘Sorry, I just. I gotta ask…’’ She blushes, ducks her head, then looks up. ‘‘…Why?’’

Craig can’t say: Because nobody looked out for me, and I didn’t know how to let them if they’d tried. Because you helped me be human again, to relearn kindness and give help freely, and I can’t even begin to pay that back, not ever, but…

In the end, he shrugs. ‘‘Paying it forwards.’’

She stretches up on her toes, gently kisses his cheek. ‘‘Thank you.’’

She’s smiling again. At the bar counter, Jane gives him a watery grin.

Then Ellie giggles. ‘‘Sorry, I just, um. I never asked. What’s your name?’’

CALLUM HARRIS

Hang on, mission.

CALLUM HARRIS

No.

CALLUM HARR-

Sorry, mission. Not this time.

He holds out his hand. Smiles.

‘‘Craig Harper.’’

He should add another thing.

‘‘Pleased to meet you.’’

That’s better.

Her hand is warm and soft. There’s the sunrise smile again.

GOOD JOB.

– Crisis averted.

– Threats eliminated.

– Civilians avenged.

– Enemies deterred.

– Safe space achieved.

MISSION SUCCESSFUL

*

The night is cold and clear. Craig wearily climbs the stairs to his flat, each step seeming 4 feet taller than the last. Rusty a warm comforting presence at his side. Three flights, plus landings. Fifty-six steps. Ugh. Seems to take forever. The adrenaline is fast leaching out of him.

There’s a plate of cookies in front of his door, with a note scribbled on top.

‘‘Dear Craig – Come and see us any time tomorrow if you feel up to it. In the meantime, please accept this gift of thanks. For everything. Esther, Ollie, Amy and Suki.’’

Esther even drew a little scratchy paw print on the card next to her own signature. Ollie has sketched a slice of cake beneath his own name. Amy scrawled a smiley face.

It’s a gift from all of them. His first real gift. He presses the note to his chest. Warmth spreads through him, settling deep into his heart like glowing coals. A wave of fondness washes over him.

‘‘Thanks,’’ he whispers.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

After thirty seconds of rust-coloured trickle, the pipes in the bathroom groan, then release a fresh gush of hot water. The plate is piled high with cookies, studded with chunks of diced plums. He eats one while he slowly fills the grubby tub. Chewy and soft at the same time. It’s delicious. Then another. It crunches between his teeth. Walnuts, cinnamon, cherry.

WOW

Confirm. It’s damn good.

Rusty snuffles into his hand, whining softly and licking his fingers until he holds out a piece. Rusty’s eyes track the waving morsel.

‘‘Sit.’’

Rusty’s hindquarters flump on the floor.

‘‘Good boy.’’

Rusty snaps up the cookie.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Craig scratches lazily behind his ears as he chews. Then he sits still on the floor for two minutes to regain his equilibrium.

In. Out.

In.      Out.

Three breaths. Then three more.

In.              Out.

The cookies are delicious. They taste like mission complete and reward for a job well done. He undresses, eases into the bath and munches another, listening to the cockroaches scratching in the flaky walls. Steam coils around him; his aching muscles melt a little in relief under the soothing warmth.

He’s surrounded by cool white porcelain with his bones turning to rubber as Rusty licks his hand. Rough-warm-damp rasps over his fingertips.

Calm. Quiet. Safe.

In.          Out.

In.                        Out.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It feels…really nice.

Afterwards, he stands before the cracked mirror and twists and turns, checking himself over. A pinkish scrape on his brow, raw and tender. A vivid yellow bruise under his ribcage, slightly larger than a clenched fist. Definitely a cracked rib or two. But he isn’t pissing blood, and the dull ache is fading, and the stiffness is easing. A moderate headache, a gentle throbbing behind his eyelids. But no dizziness. No nausea. He hasn’t thrown up. He stands on one leg with eyes closed, and doesn’t sway. Walks a straight line of tiles from the tub to the toilet, eyes closed, and doesn’t wobble. He rubs his stomach while patting his head. No coordination problems, beyond his innate and usual clumsiness. He’s no ballet dancer or tightrope walker. Neat and deft and dexterous and light-footed are words that had never applied to him.

Rusty stares at him, head tilted, looking baffled.

Craig smiles. ‘‘Sorry, boy. Be with you in a minute.’’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The skull pendant goes on the shelf above the mantelpiece, next to Kate’s green bracelet. Gary’s packet of Navy Cut joins it. The stack of Rob’s gold coins. Ellie’s flower ring.

Doing good deeds. Stopping bad guys. Mementos. Reminders.

He slumps down on the mattress, exhausted. Rusty crawls in beside him to nuzzle into his chest. His arms curl around warm wiry fur. A steady heartbeat beneath his hands. The cracked clock on the mantelpiece reads: ten-thirty.

Bad guys deterred. Threats eliminated.

Neighbours safe.

MISSION SUCCESSFUL

‘‘Goodnight, Rusty.’’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Sleep folds him into its gentle embrace. He breathes in deep. Closes his eyes.

And doesn’t dream at all.


© 2017 Tom Burton

21. Reunion

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.

In. Out.

Thump thump thump.

In.         Out.

Thump thump thump.

In.                 Out.

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.

‘…Sit.’

Flump.

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!

DANGER

He drops into a crouch, raising the knife to eye level. The rustle of garbage.

THREATS DETECTED

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.

Oh.

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.

Dammit. Dammit

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.’

A pause.

‘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.

Huh.

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.’

‘Why?’

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.’

‘How?’

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.’

‘Yeah?’

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.’

Except…

‘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.’

‘Sir-’

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.’

‘Ladies first.’

‘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.’

‘Three.’

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?

RELUCTANT CONFIRM

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.’

MISSIONS ASSISTS.

‘I will.’

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.

Huh.

Rob holds out a hand.

‘Stay safe, brother.’

What even.

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?’

Crap.

CALLUM HARRIS

No, not that one.

CALLUM HARRIS

Stop it.

CALLUM HARRIS

Dammit, no.

In. Out.

‘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.

‘…What?’

‘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.’

‘Mm.’

GOOD GUY NON-LETHAL

Yeah, yeah.

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?’

‘Thanks.’

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.’

Craig smiles.

‘Now we’re two.’


© 2017 Tom Burton

20. Catharsis

Warning: Violence

Pigface lies rooted in the gutter, stricken with abject terror. A silver skull pendant around his flabby neck. By the wall, a rusty pipe half-buried under a heap of filthy rags.

Craig hunkers down, baring blood-smeared teeth. The knife is a solid comforting weight in his hand. Ice-cold razor steel.

Armed and ready.

Pigface turns white. Splutters in desperate last-ditch defiance, ‘Go on then, murderer…do it…just kill me…KILL ME!’

Craig yanks him up so hard his bloody teeth rattle. Rips the stuffed envelope from inside his coat.

No.’

CRACK!

Craig’s fist smashes into Pigface’s cheek. He sags limply, drooling blood. ‘…Why?’ he croaks.

Got enough blood on my hands already, Craig could say. No point in killing a defeated enemy. That way, they won’t know they’ve lost, and to be the real winner your opponent needs to be beaten and humiliated, and know it. No real triumph over a corpse, but savour a beaten opponent, who knows they’re beaten every day for the rest of their sad and wretched miserable life…

Instead, he leans close. Growls ‘You’re not worth the steel,’ and dumps Pigface into the gutter. Sheathes his knife. Fans his thumb through the sheaf of fresh one-pound bills. Twenty pounds, all accounted for. Tucks it away.

Pigface is shaking and wheezing. Sniggering. That dry, scornful chuckle of slow dawning relief.

‘That’s right,’ he leers. ‘Y’won’t kill me. You’re weak. Just like them. Throw me in court, I’ll skip right out. Free and clear, haha.’ He’s boasting now, puffed up and oozing with smug certainty. ‘Every juror’s got their weak spot, someone they wanna keep safe. They’ll never charge me. Maybe I’ll walk the straight and narrow, haha. Re-examine my life. Weak. Coward.’

Craig picks up the pipe. ‘You’re wrong.’

‘Weak,’ Pigface sneers, lip curled over crooked yellow teeth. ‘The young girl at the pub. Wossname. She yours?’

Craig turns away. Jaw clenched. Boiling fury churning through his skull.

Pigface’s eyes gleam. ‘She sobbed pretty, didn’t she? Her own fault. Dumb bitch won’t do what we want. A man should be obeyed. Says so in the Bible.’

In. Out.

Pigface sniggers. ‘Maybe next time you won’t be ’round to save her, we’ll take our sweet time. Prime juicy meat like that, I’ll let the boys have all their fun. Savour her nice ‘n’ slow, piece by piece. Squealin’ like a stuck pig, eh?’

Craig goes still.

No more mercy. No more fair play. He’s passed through the earlier stage of sizzling fury and is now in the calm lagoon of bubbling rage where the voice is steady, the voice is calm, the voice is soft. The still, icy focus of the Sergeant.

Two-handed swing, full force. Broken skull. Game over. Not the first nameless corpse, in a London back-alley gutter. Men get arrested. Scum get buried.

Gods know the man deserved it…

…but young Ellie is watching him. And Jamie, and Ollie, and Esther, across thirty hard years of piss-poor luck.

Pigface’s smile widens. ‘But there’s mercy for me, ain’t there? Forgiveness, even.’ He chuckles, that grating sound of: hey, this is all good larks, eh? ‘You think about that when I beat the clink -’

‘Compassion isn’t weakness,’ Craig says calmly. ‘Jamie, Susan, Ellie and Jane aren’t weak. Luckily for you, they don’t want trouble. They’re just trying to make a life for themselves,  working hard, trying to get by.’

Pigface spits contemptuously. ‘If God di’nt want ’em sheared, he wouldn’t’ve made ’em sheep.’

Craig breathes out. ‘And you’re the Big Bad Wolf, huh? Preying on the herd, hunting the lambs, keeping the sheep scared. Well, guess what?’

He shuts his eyes.

And the Sergeant opens them.

‘I’m the sheepdog.’

The Sergeant spins around, pipe slashing through the air.

CRUNCH.

Pigface screams in agonised shock and crumples to the gutter, clutching his smashed kneecap. Sickening crackling sounds of splintered bone. Another vengeful swing and his right wrist shatters, a vicious two-handed blow.

Pigface howls.

Two powerful chopping blows. Like a woodsman hacking a rotten stump to splinters. Pigface is thrashing around and screaming. Right arm flopping uselessly. Crippled. Broken.

For a brief second, the Sergeant feels a faint twinge of pity. Okay, he thinks, Pigface is a seriously evil bastard, maybe in his personal top ten – which is saying something when your general threw women and children into sunbaked camps to starve through a roasting summer – but even he doesn’t deserve this.

Then he remembers earlier. Jamie white-faced and trembling behind the counter, Ellie listless and sad, Jane shivering and crying as a monster drooled over her. While this bastard sat and watched. Smiling.

He gazes down at Pigface writhing and moaning and thinks: Yes, actually. He fucking does.

‘Stop!’ Pigface manages to gasp. ‘Stop, stop, stop!’

A solid boot into the mouth shuts him up. The Sergeant towers over him.

‘Hurts, doesn’t it? Being in pain. Being afraid.’

‘Wuh-what d’you think you’re doing?’ Pigface babbles. ‘Y-You can’t…you won’t…’

The Sergeant twists his collar tight, half-choking him. ‘Listen to me, you worthless meat-headed shitsack. Luckily for you, they’re good people. Unluckily for you, I’m not.’ His voice drops, a low venomous growl. ‘You don’t. Hit. Girls.’

Pigface stares up, mute with horror. Eyes wide in shock and disbelief. ‘…You.’

Oh, now he remembers. Terrific.

The Sergeant grinds his boot onto Pigface’s injured arm. Slowly. ‘Now…who sent you?’

Pigface gulps and rasps and finally squeaks, ‘Starrick!’

The Sergeant smiles.

‘Starrick?’ he says. ‘You have got to be kidding.’

He puts a lot of sneer in his voice, incredulous, like out of the whole spectrum of worrisome rivals his bosses could possibly think of, Starrick was so far down the list to be just about totally invisible.

‘You’re kidding us, right? Starrick? What is he, crazy?’

Pigface shudders. ‘You’re making a mistake. He’s the guy you can’t mess with.’

‘Excuse me if I don’t faint with terror.’

‘You’re making a mistake,’ Pigface whispers again. Starts wriggling and twisting. Eyes wide. Sweating and trembling. Mouth gulping.

The Sergeant thumps his skull against the cobbles. ‘‘Let’s recap, asshole,’’ he growls. ‘‘You spent six months in a gang trying to scare people.’’

He leans closer. Lightly brushes a hand over his right knee. Like swatting a fly off a bedsheet.

Pigface shrieks and twists away.

The Sergeant smiles. ‘How’s that’s working out for you?’

Pigface whimpers and squirms, scrabbling weakly against the cobbles. The Sergeant thumps his skull onto the floor. He stops moving.

‘Stay still,’ the Sergeant warns.

Pigface is frozen with dread.

‘We’ve got a message for Starrick,’ the Sergeant growls.

For all those who couldn’t fight back.

‘W-Who’s we?’ Pigface squeaks.

‘The National Society of Bully Beaters.’

‘Why’re you doing this?’ Pigface whimpers. ‘W-we never did nothin’ to you!’

The Sergeant hunkers down over him. ‘You’re done hurting people. Jamie, Susan, Jane, Ellie. They get justice…’

He raises the knife.

‘…You get me.’

He presses down.

Pigface howls and struggles, bucking and thrashing on the slippery cobbles. But the Sergeant just sits firmly on Pigface’s chest, pinning him down with both knees, Pigface’s  hand trapped against the cold floor as he works.

‘Stay still,’ he repeats grimly. Keeps sawing through muscle, cartilage, bone.

When he finishes, Pigface is sobbing, fat tears streaming down his face and dripping onto the blood-spattered cobbles. The Sergeant rips the skull pendant from his pudgy neck. Pockets it. Waves the severed digit before his eyes. The starburst tattoo imprinted across the thumb.

‘Think I’ll be keeping this.’

Pigface curls over, cradling his mutilated hand and whimpering. Whitefaced with bowel-loosening terror. ‘W-Who the fuck are you?’

The Sergeant smiles.

‘I’m the guy you shouldn’t’ve messed with, pal. The monster you dream about when you wake up screaming and can’t remember why. I’m the fog rolling in, the shivers creeping down your spine, the darkest part of the darkest night, and if you dare come near my friends ever again, I’ll find you. I’ll carve you up, real slow, piece by piece. I’ll smash your skull like an egg. Come near these people again, and I will rip you limb from limb, burn your bones down to ash and salt the earth after I’m done. I will burn up every memory of your name, and the world won’t ever remember it. I will unmake you, pal, and if you don’t want that to happen, you had better. Start. Running.’

He rips the money pouch from Pigface’s belt. It clinks heavy with coins.

‘Now you run along and give our best regards to Starrick. Tell him exactly what happened here. And tell him this.’

Oh dear, his knife seems to be digging into Pigface’s jugular, how did that happen.

‘Leave. This neighbourhood. Alone.’

He dumps Pigface in the muck. Pigface scrabbles to his feet, mewling as he cradles his mutilated hand. He limps off down the alleyway, hobbled over, blood dripping onto the cobbles. Crippled. Humiliated. Defeated.

The Sergeant watches him go.

Closes his eyes.

And Craig opens them.

In. Out.

In.          Out.

Message received.

Threats eliminated.

The leather pouch is stuffed full of dull silver shillings. Five fat gold sovereigns. Spoils of war. He pockets the lot.

The click-click of claws on the cobbles behind him. He turns, knife raised…

…And a scruffy shadow trots out of the darkness to snuffle at Gary’s cooling corpse. Looks up at him. Whines.

Chocolate brown eyes blink up at him. Black and tan fur. Splotches of grey.

Thump…

…Thump…Thump.

And something crumbles deep within him. A wave of hope surges through his chest.

Can it be…

Is it possible…

He looks away. Breathes out. Forces himself to look again.

Claws click over the cobbles. A cold wet nose nuzzles into his hand.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He sinks to his knees. Gently wraps his arms around the mongrel’s ribs. Buries his aching face in scratchy fur. The heavy reek of river silt and dried mud. The steady, solid flutter of a heartbeat. A warm raspy tongue wuffles into his ear and licks his cheek.

He’s here.

He’s real.

‘…Hi, Rusty.’

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.


© 2017 Tom Burton

19. Strike Back

Warning: Violence

The night chill seeps into his bones. A cloudless sky above, sprinkled with stars. Looks almost peaceful.

Almost.

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.

Targets acquired.

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.

Hey mission.

CONFIRM

Those jerks up ahead made the other civilians afraid. They made people stop smiling.

PROTECT

They scared an innocent girl. Leered over Jane. Made her cry.

PROTECT

They murdered an innocent lady who couldn’t pay. Locked her inside a burning building and left her to the flames.

PROTECT

They made Ellie sad.

PROTECT

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.

Not tonight.

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.

CONFIRM

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.

CONFIRM

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.

Fuck. That.

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.

SAFEGUARD CIVILIANS

ELIMINATE THREATS

Six.

NEUTRALISE ENEMIES

Five.

MISSION: PROTECT

You got it.

He slips out of the shadows.

‘‘Hey.’’

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.

‘‘My crew.’’

Pigface scoffs. ‘‘You’re kidding.’’

‘‘We’re not.’’

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.

Now!

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.

Oh fuck.

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 –

No 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.

Not good.

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.

Am I?

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.

‘‘And stiffer.’’

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.

For Jane.

Bullseye.

Flabby fat, bruised kidneys, floating ribs. His knuckles crunch deep. CRACK. Gary stumbles past and doubles over, wheezing.

Strike one.

Craig darts back out of reach. Raises clenched fists.

Game on!

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.

Misses.

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.

For Susan.

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.

For Jamie.

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.

For Ellie.

CRUNCH.

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.

THREATS ELIMINATED

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.

‘‘You first.’’

Steel flashes in the dark. He plunges the knife deep. Twists. Rips it free.

ENEMY DOWN

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