“Mike.” I said, approaching from the alley I usually took out of the building when I was in my armour.
“Alex. I see you’re going for the scare the shit out of people look.” He was dressed in plan black. Black, not muddy grey. It stood out more than my dull matte armour with its smudges of brown stains, and a charcoal t-shirt. The t-shirt might appear to fit in with my serious attire, but that was because my vest covered the bright rainbow letters of a popular children’s cartoon plastered on the front of it. Having it exposed would likely reduce the fear of my enemies, as well as my stealth capability. But hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers when it came to t-shirt designs. I took what I could get from the thrift stores or, if I had to, washing lines. “Who’s your little friend? Are you starting up as a babysitter?”
“Hey! Shut up. Alexis, who the hell is this?” he said.
“Jack, meet Mike. Mike, this is… a friend.” I seemed to be gathering friends like one would collect leeches wading through a marsh. In a good way. Friendly leeches. Marshes had leeches didn’t they?
God knows what I was doing differently. Three months ago I hardly had reason to speak, other than to teachers.
Mike raised his eyebrows and studied Jack, who stuck his tongue out in reply. I ignored their posturing. They’d get along or they wouldn’t. There was little I could do about it.
“What’s the plan then?” Mike said.
“Plan?” I said, starting walking. “The plan is we go make a plan.” I scanned the walls until I found a suitable fire escape and jumped to grab the ladder half-lowered, I was up on the second level by the time Mike reached the base.
I was going to take the rooftops as much as possible until we got to the right area. I didn’t want word to spread that I was operating.
“Okay…” He caught the ladder on his third attempt.
Jack was up the drain-pipe and sitting atop the ladder by the time Mike had got a grip with both hands. “Slow coach.”
“Fuck you, little shit,” he grunted as he scrambled for footing on the brickwork, trying to push up and grab the next rung.
“Both of you shut up,” I said, hoping they weren’t going to cause trouble. I’d always gone out alone, I wasn’t used to managing others. I didn’t appreciate the bickering, it broke my concentration. “We are going to see if we can help a friend of Jack’s.” I held out a hand to Mike, he ignored it and pulled himself over onto the rusted iron walkway. “He’s gotten in a little trouble with your family, Mike.”
“You’re that Mike! You fucker, I’m going to-” I grabbed the back of Jack’s jacket as he lunged forwards.
This was going to be fun.
“There.” Mike pointed at a three guys who appeared to be trying to negotiate a price with a client. “That’s the place you’re looking for.”
“You think we can take three?” I said, I was dubious.
“Hey, you’re the expert here. Why are you asking me? I was merely pointing them out.” He swung his legs through the gaps in the railing like a kid on a swing. I felt a pang of envy, my own were going to sleep under my more suitable crouch. “You’ve taken out more before.”
“Yeah, but not in a group like that. They were spread out, or I didn’t have a choice in the matter.” I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in those situations if I could help it. “What do you know about the place?”
“Nothing,” he said. “The gang has a fair few girls, but not many brothels anymore. It’s easier just to outsource and get protection money. Trust me when I say it makes territory changes so much simpler.” He spoke so business-like. It was easy to forget what he really was until you approached a subject like this. It pulled the implacable unease I often felt when I was alone with Mike to the surface. “I’ve heard of this place, but I was never told much about it. It’s all a bit shady…”
“Everything you’re associated with is shady, Mike,” I said.
“Yeah, but this is shady for us. My granddad never talked about it at least.” There was a moment of quiet as we studied the entrance from our vantage point. Three mid-sized men standing in the doorway. Bouncers, of a sort, muscle to make sure people paid and didn’t cause any trouble. There were no bright signs like the other brothels I’d seen. They weren’t bothering to advertise their services. It struck me as odd.
“So those are the bastards that took Tom?” Jack said.
“Your friend is dead,” Mike answered. He’d insisted that they would never have kept him alive – pointing multiple reasons they had to kill him, even to the details of: ‘well, it wouldn’t even be much trouble to dispose of the body, they already had that girl to deal with’.
“He isn’t,” Jack muttered under his breath, but even I could hear the undertone of defeat, as if he didn’t quite believe his own words.
“Well, we’re not going through that door,” I said, and there was little more we would glean from watching it. “There might be another way in. Let’s scout around a little.”
“Okay! This will be interesting.” Mike grinned at me. I failed to see why.
The more time I spent at this the more juvenile it seemed to become. Was he mocking me? Was he purposefully not taking this seriously or was it just his personality? Either way, it highlighted the idiocy of what I was doing.
He was probably right, Tom was killed. Thrown in the river, or burned up in an incinerator. Which left us what to accomplish here? Save the whores? Was that to be my goal? The last time I’d tried to ‘save’ someone by charging into a brothel, I found out I had actually gutted them of their livelihood and endangered their lives.
What was to say these girls weren’t here by choice, and who was I to say that their chosen occupation was wrong? Those three men, were they not there to protect the girls? Make sure they got paid?
Then why did one end up wrapped in plastic being dumped in an incinerator?
“Are you coming?” Mike said, for once taking the lead.
We picked out a route across the walkways that had grown over generations. Littered with trash and never kept in good repair, they were perilous if you didn’t pay attention to your footing. As a result, our trek was silent, void of bickering. Even Jack shut up.
The building backed up onto some residential flats. There was no way to know that it would lead to a way though without spending half an hour trekking through people’s hallways. It looked like somewhere with semi-decent security too, with locked gates on the main entrance and bars on the windows. Even the high ones.
“Maybe we could get in through the roof?” Jack suggested. “That’s how we got into our hideout the first time. Sometimes there are these big roof-windows-”
“Skylights,” Mike interrupted.
“Yeah, I knew that,” Jack said.
“Worth a go.” But there was no path to the roof of the brothel. The flat expanse jutted out higher than its immediate surroundings. Lacking fire-escapes or significant protrusions, it would be difficult to scale. Difficult, but possible.
Or we could jump from the adjacent flats…
I gave Mike a sideways glance, and he grinned back at me, eyes glittering with the reflected spots of streetlights below.
I felt a giddy feeling of nervous apprehension rise up inside me. The rational part of my brain screamed ‘are you serious?’ but the hints of fear that flowed through me made me feel more alive than I had for days
We just needed to jump between those two buildings. It wasn’t much longer than six feet, an easy feat – but throughout our leisurely, if nervous, trek up there I couldn’t help but run through all the possible scenarios.
I could make it, but break an ankle. One was already weak and I wasn’t known for my durability when it came to skeletal injuries.
Or I could only just make it, slam my rib cage into solid concrete. What would happen then? Would my armour protect me from a shattered rib cage? Would I be able to drag myself up from the edge with my smashed fingers?
One thing was certain. The best armour wouldn’t protect me if I fell…
And, before I had a chance to reconsider, we were faced with the edge. Not much room for a run-up; it as a few feet before you hit the bulk of an air-conditioning unit.
I peered over it into the narrow alley below, Mike and Jack at either side of me.
“It’s high,” Jack said, helpfully.
“Easier than fighting three guys who could see us coming a mile off though.” I said, I just had to logic myself into thinking this was a sensible idea.
We stood in silence, absorbing the task ahead of us until a particularly icy gust of wind pushed a little stronger than the last. Jack wobbled, his hand grabbed onto my forearm and he nearly pulled me off as he hopped away from the edge.
“We could just… not bother? Like you said, we don’t know they have him…” he said, his back against the frosted steel of the air-conditioning unit.
“Hey,” Mike said. “Come-on. It’s worth a shot.”
“Go on then!” Jack replied, too loud for my liking. Not many people on a roof, but who knew how far our voices would travel? We couldn’t forget that we’d get shot if someone spotted us.
“Me? I’m not going first.”
“Of course not.” Jack spat.
“I’ll go.” I said.