She… would she do that? Say where I, we were? They were the words of a threat.
“Do I still have a choice?” she asked. Her hand fluttered to her throat again.
I blinked as I my mind whirred from the threat to her timid question. I only took a fleeting moment to understand what she meant.
She was scared. She was scared of me.
They might have been the words of a threat, but the tone didn’t match. It wouldn’t be a betrayal. She was threatening to offer information, merely… not hold it back.
I had to look at this objectively. I was asking her to throw her life away, for me. I wouldn’t throw my life away for me. She had every right.
“Okay.” I tried to keep my voice calm. I needed to keep emotion out of this situation. It was clear she didn’t want to take my up on my offer, which now I thought about what it was an offer of, wasn’t a surprise. I also knew that I sure as hell wasn’t going to stop her leaving. The thought horrified me. “If you want I’ll take you off the Island. Then I can take Beth somewhere safer.”
She seemed to relax at that. “And what do I tell them, if they come asking?”
I looked around the cold cramped little room.
A small sacrifice.
“When they come.” I shrugged. “Tell them the truth. I’ll mess this place up a little, make it look like we left in a hurry.”
It probably wouldn’t need much, it was already a mess.
“You think I’ll get away with that?”
“I don’t know. It’s the best thing I can come up with. Say I threatened your family. If you didn’t do what I said, I’d kill them. All I told you was to take Beth here.” I thought for a moment. “I could give you a black eye if you want? It’d make it more convincing.”
“Uh… No thanks.”
A way forwards at least.
I didn’t want to wake Beth until she’d had a chance to recover, certainly if we were going to be going to Mike’s. Would she be okay if I left her alone for a while?
“How do you manage? Here?” she asked as I twisted the key in the lock.
“What do you mean?” The Kolmek complicated things, but otherwise it was living any other place, I guessed.
“Someone tried to mug us on the way over here, I’d only just set foot in the place.” She winced at the memory.
“You just have to be careful.” I thought for a moment, imagined myself in her shoes.
Literally. I glanced down, at her clean, smooth grey trainers. An actual brand too – they didn’t look like knock offs.
“You look… expensive. Here, give me your jacket.”
“Come on. Trust me, if you want to be safer out there.” She grudgingly pulled her arms out of the sleeves and handed me it after a moment of slow, tangled vulnerability. It left her hugging her arms to her chest, breath clouding in the air even within the large expanse of the basement.
I bundled up her coat and held it against the wall as we walked. The rough blockwork scraped the surface, pulling threads loose. When we reached the ramp to the outside world I casually tossed it in the grimy puddle of slush. Shallow enough not to soak though, probably, but deep enough to give it a few messy stains.
“Here.” I picked it up, shook a few drips still clinging to the surface and held it up to the light of the night.
“Um, you just kind of ruined it.”
“It’s still fine as a jacket. It’ll still last just as long, keep you just as warm.” I passed it to her. “But it looks like shit now. Not many people are gonna try rob you for that.”
“People take one look at you in a nice new jacket like that and they think what else has she got?” I said as we picked our way up the ramp. “People don’t take one look at you in that.”
“It wasn’t really new.”
“It was new enough.”
Things were waking up. The sun hadn’t yet dragged itself over the unnaturally high horizon of the city buildings but the sky was brightening. Dawn. Not the worst time to be traveling the streets. I allowed myself to relax a little, confident that simply watching my surroundings was enough to avoid any problems.
For Emma’s sake I kept to the larger streets, but my hood was pulled low over my face, my scarf wrapped high on my neck. God knows what I was going to walk around unnoticed come summer.
We didn’t speak a word to each other until we reached the river. I hadn’t known Emma well, or long. I had few friends, few people I had reason to speak with and less I could comfortably hold a conversation with.
I’d like to count her as one of them, but our situation had driven something between us. Maybe I’d managed that all by myself.
“So,” she broke our mutual silence as we approached the pipe-bridge. “This is goodbye?”
“I guess.” We stood, side by side. What was there to say? I knew that leaving it like this wasn’t good enough. She deserved better. She deserved something.
The grating of the bridge rocked under her weight as she took a step forwards. Last chance.
“Thanks,” I said, “for helping Beth.”
She turned to face me with a sad smile and reached forwards. I flinched from her touch, but she ignored it and pulled me off my balance into an awkward hug. Awkward for me at least, my arms hanging in the air, lost.
“You really care about her don’t you?” She pulled back, giving me space to take a gasp of air. “You’re good together. Look after each other.”
“I’ll take care of her.” As best I can. Better than before. I couldn’t fail her again.
“You need to let her do the same for you Alex,” she said, “Here, you should give this back to Beth.”
She rummaged around in her pocket and produced the slim silver pistol I’d kicked from her hand the previous night, holding it out handle first. She must have pocketed it after the fight.
I took it. It was shorter and slimmer than the bulky black hand-guns I was used to. Lighter too, I might have mistaken it for plastic if it wasn’t for the cool surface or its mirror finish. Light enough and small enough for me not to notice it in a jacket pocket as I scraped it across the wall.
I could see why she was hesitant to take it off now. I had to wonder who she was really hoping to hide if from.
I glanced at her, sheepishly rubbing the rusted metal of the grating with the toe of her trained.
“If things don’t work out,” I said as I shoved it in the belt at my waist, “you’ll be welcome to come find me.”
She smiled, nodded, and turned to leave my Island.
I double checked the lock behind me. We had, at a minimum, the time it took for Emma to get home and be found. I had no way to know if there wasn’t someone waiting to meet her. A matter of hours, if that, I didn’t know exactly where she lived. It would probably take a while longer for them to get any information, however free she was with it. Then they’d have to organise a move against me.
We didn’t have long, but I didn’t want to wake Beth up quite yet.
I sat, cross legged, back to the door and knife in my lap regardless. While I waited and Beth slept I studied the little gun. I pressed the tab on the handle and the magazine jumped out and slapped the palm of my hand.
I was no expert, but the bullets seemed narrower and longer than what I was used to. The tips weren’t domed but had a dip in the centre. I slid it back with a satisfying click.
I brushed my fingertips along the surface of the short, stubby muzzle. Writing. I turned it to catch the light. Under some kind of serial number there was what I presumed to be the name of the manufacturer.
“My father gave me it.” Beth’s voice shocked me enough for it to fall from my hands into my lap, clinking against the knife already residing there.
“You’re awake.” I said, like it wasn’t obvious.
“You were gone,” she replied.
“Sorry. I was making sure Emma got home safe, if that’s safe.” I picked up the two weapons and crawled on my hands and knees over to her.
“She’s okay?” She pushed herself into a sitting position against the wall, blankets wrapped around her like a cape.
“I think so. She seemed a bit freaked out by all this.” I avoided her eye. “I really wish she hadn’t gotten involved. I really wish you hadn’t gotten involved in all of this, and I don’t even know what this is.”
Talking with Emma… it made me realise what effect all this had on Beth.
She had no home. She couldn’t go to school. She had no future, no prospect of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a pilot.
She had no father.
And, even if I hadn’t done any of these things, even if I didn’t pull the trigger on the gun that shot him, I was responsible.
And she knew that.
Felt the warm touch of her hands as they covered my own, but it was fleeting. I let her take the pistol from my grip and they were gone.