(Rated M for language and adult themes. Also turned out a little longer than intended...)
2am Sunday morning. Dark, and still. The quiet so complete that even the smallest of sounds sent shrill echoes through the streets. Flickering, faltering streetlamps bit into the face of the night like sharpened teeth, piercing the blackness so that small pools of dull artificial light spilled out onto the pavement. With every screech of tyre on tarmac, the city held its breath.
Through this hushed and darkened landscape a figure strode, his heavy-booted footsteps pounding into the concrete beneath. Someone was following him. He could feel it. When he paused, he could hear them, hovering in the shadows behind him. He heard their ragged breathing. He knew.
It's one of the lads, he thought, picking up his pace. He was not a well dressed man, and in as nice a neighbourhood as this one, he could not help but stand out. His jeans and sweater were two or three sizes too big, as though he were part of some successful diet program - but the pallor of his skin betrayed him. I knew we shouldn't have done that last one. Not my fault it went bad, I did say, I did -
He stopped, and looked around. That over there, by the bushes. Was that there before?
Damn idiots are gonna drive me crazy. He shrugged, and kept walking, a little faster now. After tonight, it would be over. He meant it this time, tonight was the last job. And so what if the other guys find out about it? It ain’t personal. S’business. They screwed up last time, I can’t afford to bring ‘em in no more. Might be many things, but I ain’t no killer. F*** that.
He eyed the houses as he walked by, each dormant, snoozing, its secrets fast asleep inside. Spotting the odd light on here and there, he began to make up little stories to amuse himself, and to keep away the darker creatures swimming around in his mental fog. That light on next to the front door, across the street. The house with the birdbath. They left it on for their daughter: she’s at a party, and they don’t like her to come home to a dark house. Or this house coming up, on his side of the road. The third one from where he was now, with the green door and the slinky sports car parked in the drive. There was a light on in the room above the lounge. The couple who live there are having the worst argument they have had in years, and they will be up for most of the night. It doesn’t matter. They’ll be filing for divorce in a few years anyway. The man chuckled, amused by his private stories, wondering if he ever got one right.
Two streets ahead, his destination. A semi-detached house at the far edge of a newly demolished street. He’d been watching this place a long time now. Watching. Learning. Waiting. One resident, female, single, deaf. Her neighbours gone. Almost too good to be true. His last job, handed to him on a platter.
As it came into view, his heart sank. There was someone sitting on the kerb outside. He slowed his pace, peering through the darkness. Had they found out? Was it one of the gang, waiting for him to show so they could teach him a lesson in loyalty with their fists and feet and teeth?
No, he thought. Too small. Though hunched over themselves and difficult see with any clarity, as he neared he realised that this was no thug. It was a child, sitting at the roadside and crying.
He came to a halt at the child’s side, and wondered what to do about her.
Look at yourself, Frankie. It was his mother’s voice, white hot with judgement. Even now, with her ten years gone, he heard her inside of him. Perhaps it was the closest he would ever have to a conscience. About to leave that poor girl alone, and afraid. After what you did….
He closed his eyes tight, trying to block out his memories. All the blood, the screaming, the tearful pleas for mercy falling on deaf and greedy ears. And for what? A couple of TVs, a laptop, a pathetic amount of cash?
That poor, poor family.
He knew what he had to do.
Frankie took a seat on the kerb next to the girl. When he placed his hand on her shoulder, she flinched, and shrieked.
“No, nonono, it’s okay. It’s alright. I’m not gonna hurt you, flower”, he said, looking into her small, trembling face. Kid was made up like a tiny Gene Simmons. Her tears had smeared face paint across her cheeks. “Are you lost?”
The girl said nothing, but nodded sadly.
“Aw, well don’t you worry, we’ll find your folks”, he soothed, and gestured at her make-up. “Did you lose them at the fair?”
“Yes” she mumbled, wiping at her tears.
“I see…well, d’ya know the name of the street you live on?” Frankie asked.
The answer came from behind them. It was a boy’s voice, older, with an intensity to it which felt out of place in one so young. “We used to live on Barr Street. Used to.”
“He’s the one, Jamie” the girl said, turning to look at her companion. “He’s one of ‘em, look.”
Frankie turned with her, in time to see the boy emerging from the shadows in the garden behind them, his face painted up much like hers. If the girl was aged around seven, that made her friend around twelve or thirteen. His mouth was stretched into a tight, unnatural grin. He clutched a metal bat in his small hands. And then it hit Frankie, the realisation hit him in the chest and knocked out his breath like a gunshot. Barr Street. The location of the last job.
“No”, he gasped, transfixed. He shrieked internally for his legs to move, for his body to comply with his mind’s increasingly furious demands to get him out of here. To get him out of here NOW. “W-we we didn’t...oh God we didn’t mean it. You gotta believe we didn’t mean to hurt you...I was scared. I’m so so sorry, I am, I was so scared. Oh Jesus….”
Now it was Frankie’s turn to cry, thick, raw, ugly tears spilling down over his paling, weather-worn face.
“You were scared?” the boy leered. “YOU were scared? You don’t even know the meaning of the word. Look at us.”
Still frozen on the ground, Frankie covered his face with his hands, and shook his head. “No, you’re not real. This isn’t possible. You’re not real.”
“LOOK AT US!!!” the boy screamed, raising the bat above his head, shaking with anger. Still, the man refused. He curled into himself, whimpering, refusing to believe what was happening. Knowing he deserved whatever was coming.
But it didn’t come. With a screech of frustration, the boy threw the bat onto the ground and kicked, driving his foot into Frankie’s back. Pain ran through him like a hot knife. “Not yet” Jamie muttered. “Not yet.”
He took the girl’s hand and helped her up. The children leaned over Frankie, a pathetic, hysterical mess on the floor at their feet.
“Tell them we’re coming” the girl whispered. “We’re coming for you all.”
“It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” the boy added.
With that, they skipped away down the street, holding hands and laughing.
Suddenly, Frankie wished that they had killed him there and then.
Before the week was over, he would wish it again.