We walked in silence for a while, both alert to any usual interest in us. When we passed through some less populated streets he began to speak.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked.
“Elaborate.” I was tired. Of everything.
“Going out, fighting,” he said.
I stepped around a wide puddle growing from a blocked drain rather than follow him through. God knows what it covered, and you could never be sure of how waterproof your shoes were. “No one else will do it,” I said.
“You do it to stop them? Like a vigilante, they are committing crimes and the police don’t do anything?” he said.
“I guess so.” I’d spent a while working out what I really got out of what I was doing. I would say a sense of purpose, a reason to exist, but it was more primal than that.
“You didn’t succeed,” he said.
“I am aware of that.” If he was trying to antagonise me he was failing spectacularly. I was well aware that I was doing little use, if any. I was never going to help. I’d come to the conclusion that I just needed an outlet.
He made an abrupt stop, “Show me.”
As he turned to face me I was expecting that stupid grin, but it was absent. “What? You want to come along?” I said.
“Sure,” he shrugged, “I want to see what you do.”
“Why?” He knew what I did, either from hearing about it from his family, or when I came to ‘rescue’ him.
“I’ve only ever seen the aftermath, I want to see you in action.”
“That didn’t really answer my question,” I said, picking up our walk again, past him. I liked to keep moving, it was serious winter coat weather. I didn’t like the restrictiveness and kept to lighter jackets, but it meant I had to maintain a bit of activity to feel at all comfortable in these temperatures. “Besides. You said yourself I’m not doing any good. Why bother going out again?”
His footsteps followed me, but he stayed out of my line of sight. We walked for a few minutes. Whether he was thinking, or just letting me stew I couldn’t tell. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as he spoke, “You want to, I can see it. You can’t just let this lie. You can’t walk away from what you are.”
“And what is that?” A monster? Someone who enjoys going out and making people bleed?
“A good person,” he said, to my confusion. “You want to help people in this place.”
The narrow street opened out onto a busier junction. People would overhear, if that really mattered. I scanned the faces but saw no characteristic tattoos. Most were milling about, talking. Except the build-up of overlaying voices brought followed a particular theme. An exchange of proposals, bargaining. Most commonly, glancing at blood-shot eyes and lucid postures – drunks arguing about prices. Not an uncommon sight.
“Any reason you took me here Alex? I didn’t think this would be your thing.” He drew up next to me and we stood, observing the bustle as he grinned at his little joke. I hadn’t been concentrating on our direction, I’d just picked our path based on which way looked easiest. Mike had been taking the lead earlier.
Someone pushed passed me, a belch of alcoholic breath washed over me. Enough to tantalise the gag reflex, but his gruff “Too fucking skinny,” filled my veins with ice.
“There’s always boys our age for sale,” Mike said, in mock helpfulness, “but they do come for a premium.”
My eyes came to rest on one of the working girls. She had a remarkable likeness to the one I’d seen the night before. Strange, whatever chemicals she had running through her veins gave her eyes the same glassy eyed look. A dead, rolled up in plastic look.
But didn’t she choose this? My mom could have had a life without that chemical dream. I did. What made these people so special that they needed helping?
Besides, look at how many people came here to buy. How could I blame those selling when there was such a willingness to buy?
Fuck these people. I turned on my heel and began retracing our steps.
Mike responded, after a skip to keep in step, “Change your mind?”
“I’m done with this Mike, It’s pointless. I can’t change anything here.”
I split up from Mike and made my own way back. Were he was spending the night, I didn’t want to know. It was none of my business.
I felt tired. Each step made my ankle ache and the jerk caused a spike of pain in my side that hadn’t been there yesterday, or this morning… I hated injuries, they always seemed to get hell of a lot more painful before they started to get better. I’d have to take a look when I got home.
My breath clouded in front of me. I wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I could pull them in under my jacket and shove them under my arm-pits. Guaranteed to keep you warm, guaranteed to get you killed if anything happened – even something to simple as tripping up. Stupid world, every grain of comfort had a price and it was always too high.
I rounded the corner to the flat when movement caught my eye. Running, in my direction.
They were too close for me to flee, and too fast. I was ready to fight, trying to figure out my first strike while simultaneously trying to work out who would know where to find me here. Was it Mike’s doing, or was it an opportunistic mugging?
“Alexis, Alexis!” Panting, a cloud of condensing breath and a boy.
“Jack, what the hell are you doing here?” My heart was racing with anticipation, I’d been ready for someone trying to stab me. Jack was… a little less of a worry. Still, I was annoyed. I thought I’d made myself clear. What did it take to get rid of this kid?
“No. Alexis, this is serious. I know you were messing about earlier.” He managed to smash together concern and a trace of naïve hope into two consecutive sentences. But he didn’t stop talking. “Tom wanted to go back, to see that girl. We’ve never seen a dead body before.”
“What?” I felt a chill run though me, shit. I told them to have nothing to do with that.
“I wanted to do what you said, I told him it was dumb but he wouldn’t listen.” I could see where this was going. Tom had been outshone by Jack, by me. He wanted to prove he was brave and doing something incomprehensibly stupid was the easiest method.
“He went back.” I said in the breathless gap hanging in the air.
“Yeah, I said I didn’t want to see no dead body, but he did. Then some men came.” They were looking for me, and to find out what the hell happened to their body. This was all down to me.
“Did you see them?” I said.
“Yeah, big fuckers. They had guns Alex! And they took him.” Took, not killed. But how the hell could I know where? I hit the mark with Mike, but as soon as they realised that what they found was just some street kid. A street kid who knew far too much to just be let free…
“Tom’s dead, Jack.” It was the only reasonable thing for them to do.
“No. No, no fucking no!” He was crying. I felt like I should have joined him. A normal person would. But I just felt a knot of cold in my heart. Another fucking life that ended because of me.
“I told you I’m dangerous. You shouldn’t be here. Go home.” I stepped around him, hopefully he’d take this opportunity and listen to me for once.
“Alexis! He isn’t dead, he isn’t.” Too loud, I shushed him but he carried on regardless. “I know where they’re from. That girl – what she was wrapped in, I saw this logo thing.” I frowned, he hadn’t had a decent look at the girl, he’d followed me out. “It was for this place in town, I found out where it is. That’s where the men were from, they might still have Tom.”
I couldn’t work out why, but I understood the need to try. If Beth had been taken I’d leap on any little scrap of a chance to get her back.
“I need your help,” he said quietly.
Help. Need. I thought for a moment. It didn’t feel so bad, knowing someone needed you. I could show him the place where they were from, it would be obvious they weren’t holding a kid. Put his mind at rest.
And hell, let’s make this a party. Might actually have some decent input on this, he might know what they’d have done with him. I rummaged in the wide pockets of my jacket and pulled out the sleek phone Beth had given me. It took a few taps to get Mike.
He picked up instantly, “Alex?”
“I changed my mind. Meet me tonight. Dress for the occasion.”