A column of thick grey smoke billowed out of the lower windows of a building. A solid, writhing cancerous mass of colourless fog. Alive. You could have seen from across half the city, if a dull haze hadn’t settled before dusk.
Shots rang out from the top floor. The pressing air dampened the noise. There wasn’t even an echo.
At least it was an area we knew. I’d been to Jack’s dad’s before and it was close enough to Mike’s hideout for us to have passed through a few times looking out for trouble.
“Take it that’s the place?” Mike said. We were looking down on the scene from a rooftop on the opposite side of the street, down a half a block.
“Yep.” Jack was still hopping from foot to foot. “Pete said a few of ‘em tried to get in but there was shooting. Now they’re just standing outside shouting and shooting at the guy inside.”
“Good old fashioned stand-off.” Danni said. “Wonder if they’re going to wait it out or rush him.”
“With that smoke?” Mike said, “Wait it out probably. What is it, fire?”
“Not black enough.” I think. “Did you say he was a chem mixer?” I asked Jack.
“Yeah, something like that.”
Drugs? That made me wonder whether we should get involved at all. Perhaps it was best to just clean up whoever survived. “Probably chemical smoke then, no idea what it’d do to your lungs. Could be harmless.”
“Well, that guy’s still shooting out of it. Seems he set it off in his own house, can’t be that bad.”
I refrained from pointing out how desperate he could have been. Or still was.
Danni pulled out a pair of compact binoculars. No reason not to be careful, the situation seemed as stable as it was likely to ever get.
“Numbers?” I asked.
“Two on the roof, firing in. Long guns… ish. Subs?” I’d seen a few sub-machine guns. They were pretty rare to come across, even around here. Pistols seemed to be the weapon of choice. Automatic pistols, extended clips, that wasn’t unheard of. Longer guns… well, you had to carry them openly, or look like you were trying to hide a long, gun shaped object. I mean, this place was pretty lawless, but most people didn’t go around flashing heavy weaponry. A few members of the larger gangs did, as a sign that they could, but not with frequency. “Four on the ground. All I can spy from here.”
“Alright,” Six wasn’t many, but there could be more we couldn’t see. And we’d have to split up. “Danni, you want to take the roof? Get rid of them quietly, provide support from up there if things go to shit for us.”
“Jack, go make sure your dad’s safe.” I could see his workshop. Dark, silent, large wall of shutter closed. Just like everything else on the street it was no doubt occupied, ready to be defended. “When you’re done, circle around. Keep an eye out for any guys we missed, or anyone else coming to the area. I’m sure more will be on their way.”
Time-limit set, time to move.
“How will I let you know?”
“Uh…” Hadn’t thought of that.
“Phones on vibrate.” Mike said, as he pulled out a slim black tile from his pocket. “If we answer, fine, otherwise – two rings means incoming reinforcements.”
“Three, everything’s completely gone to shit and get the hell out of there any way you can.” I added.
“You call this ‘protection’ you mother fuckers?” There was a series of four, five shots. He wasn’t aiming, just shoving his hand out of the window, through the thick chemical smog, and pulling the trigger. The four figures on the ground weren’t even putting much effort into taking cover as the bullets smashed into the brick of the building behind them.
“We don’t protect you if you don’t fucking pay!” One of them shouted, before unloading a gun of his own at the window. I noticed only one even went through, the rest thudded into the wall surrounding it. “Anyway, you fucking started this.”
“You think one of you fucking cunts can put their dirty little hands anywhere near my daughter?” Another shot. “I’ll put another bullet through all of your heads too before I fucking pay your little racket.”
I pulled back from the corner we were crouched around. At least when someone’s making that much noise there aren’t any bystanders to avoid. The streets were empty. Problem was, it made it tricky to get anywhere near. Bystanders served well as camouflage, however dangerous that tactic was.
“Wonder if Danni is up there yet.” We really needed a better way to communicate.
“No shots from the roof for a while.” Mike commented. “We either trust her, or we don’t.”
“It’s not a matter of trust. Just sense.”
The argument continued, at least they were distracted. We could surprise them easy. The only problem was… well…
Guns. All four of them were already going all out. There was no chance we could close in and incapacitate any of them before they fired on us. If only the wind was in the opposite direction, blowing the smoke into the street…
We needed to flank them. And when they’re standing in the middle of an open street with only two entrances…
“Think we can get into the building they’re backed up against?” I asked Mike. I left the baton strapped to my leg and unbuckled Beth’s pistol from its holster.
“Worth a go.” We pulled back and sprinted through the tunnel of an alley through the row of buildings shared with our target. The shouting and the crack of gunshots faded as we moved, as more layers of brick and concrete came between us and the source, reflecting and distorting the sound. Moving back to move forwards.
The alley ended in a crude iron gate. The looked bars narrow enough for a kid to fit through, or maybe someone a little too small and skinny for their age.
Crucial word: Looked.
My arm got through okay. The bars brushed either side of my head, after taking off my helmet. I pulled my shoulder between them. About at my chest… nope. No further. I’d love to say it was because of my chest, but that would be wishful thinking.
Maybe… maybe if I breathed out? Get that little extra few millimetres… Worth a go right?
I forced the air out of my lungs and pushed through. I felt myself move further. Armour scraping on metal, buckles catching, digging into my flesh in the gaps between the ballistic plates. Should have taken the fucking thing off. Should have gone around.
Shouldn’t have gotten myself stuck. No, no, no. Stupid.
Fuck getting stuck. My body pushed a shot of adrenaline into my veins. I’d been stuck before. I’d felt that total unreasonable panic. I’d once shoved my arm through the bars of a shop window, trying to get… I can’t remember what. Food, probably. The body’s response was to dope you up and make you crazy enough to do anything to get free. Anticipating the need to break an arm to try escape a predator? What an interesting evolutionary mechanic.
I was getting distracted. There were more pressing concerns. Interesting how my thoughts go down such stupid paths when-
I really was fucking stuck. Backwards didn’t work. Forwards… Nope. I tried to draw breath, but the two iron bars either side of my lungs objected. The tiny scrap of air I could get in my lungs didn’t satisfy the aforementioned evolutionary process.
Why the fuck couldn’t I have taken my armour off? I’d have fit without it. My lungs were burning.
Best thing to do would be to calm down. Slow my breathing. Take things carefully.
Not in my skillset.
I was scrabbling at the bars, trying to claw my way through. How fucking embarrassing.
“As amusing as this is, we have more important things to do, Alex.” Dick. Fucking Bastard Idiot-
Mike’s body hit mine. The force was enough to push me through and send me into a sprawled heap on the ground. My elbow stung where it caught the bar, my wrist where I’d broken my fall.
But the lung full of air felt good enough not to care. Precious seconds wasted.
“Thanks,” I gasped, picking myself up and turning my attention to the padlock, now accessible. It was cheap enough to give way to a sharp punch with my baton, allowing Mike a more dignified entrance.