The door to the ground floor had been smashed in, a jagged hole where the bolt lock had been. I pushed a new magazine in my pistol, making a note to be more careful in future. Beth only had two, so if I ran out I’d have to find a quiet spot and manually re-load from the bunch of loose rounds tucked in a pouch on my belt.
Okay, maybe it would have been wise to do that now, while I was semi-sure there wasn’t anyone close. But I couldn’t be sure and I sure didn’t want to stand around outside any more than I really had to. And yeah, I was too pissed and just wanted to get this done.
So I shoved the empty mag in my pocket and drew back the slide to chamber a round. Mike fell in behind me as I approached the threshold. Danni could cover us from the rooftop if they had any reinforcements arrive.
I raised the gun, once more bemoaning my lack of a flashlight, and stepped into the darkness.
Tendrils of smoke wandered through the air, swirling in convection currents. The draft of cold carried it away from the doorway, pushing it to the corners of the room to cast dancing shadows on the tall walls of the two story space, almost like a small warehouse in height – if not length or breadth.
I followed the debris, patching together a narrative of what had happened. The door was destroyed, but there little evidence of a gunfight here. He mustn’t have had a gun with him? The space was filled with equipment. I recognised a few rudimentary items from the school chem lab – but the rest looked far too advanced. Hunks of glass, metal and plastic with chipped, worn paint clung to the walls, floor and benches. Where there were monitor screens, they were broken or torn off completely, leaving a sad-looking little bundle of stretched, snapped wires.
Large cylindrical containers interspaced the equipment, and a mess of tubes and pipes linked everything together. They were untouched. Those who trashed it probably didn’t want to come in contact with any of their contents.
Broken glass crunched under my boots like fresh snow after a cold night. The floor was littered with it, bent tools, and trashed electronics.
I followed the destruction to a metal staircase, suspended by cables. The source of the smoke, leaking from the edges of the door framed at the top of the jagged metal steps.
I could understand why the guys had gone outside for their conversation with the guy. There was no way anyone could make a clean assault through that entrance. The cover was non-existent, and sure enough I found the first evidence of a more even fight as I put my foot down on the first step.
The little light was on the other side beamed through a peppering of holes in the door. Anyone approaching this side would have to take the stairs, and with nothing either side would be easy pickings. Anyone at the top was relatively safe behind the thick concrete either side of the flimsy door. There was only one exit to the room, he would be an idiot to give up his position if they stepped outside.
So, the fight started down here. They made their intentions pretty clear. But there was no blood, no bullets. Things hadn’t gotten serous until they’d gotten to the second floor.
I tried to keep my footfalls light, but the metal had a way of resonating with each step I took. Loud, noticeable, but it didn’t linger. The scattered mess and irregular mass of piping and machinery damped the echoes of the room, the noise getting lost in its complexity.
I was perhaps being a little reckless. How easy would it have been for him to shoot a few more shots through that thin plywood? He could surely hear me.
Yet I found myself without much care. I didn’t feel scared, the anger from the stupidity of our earlier encounter was still burning in my gut. I was feeling direct. Fuck waiting around shouting at windows.
Someone who wanted to kill you wouldn’t walk up your stairs without caring about you hearing. The guy had a gun. He was pissed. He was cornered, and I didn’t want to surprise him. An enemy sneaks. An enemy hides the sound of their passage.
A friend makes themselves heard.
A friend knocks.
So I knocked. Three sharp wraps of my knuckles on the hollow wood.
There was no need to take too many rash chances though, before I got a reply of hot lead I grabbed the last support wire running from step to ceiling and swung my body over into the void to the left of the door, out of harm’s way should he decide I was a threat and act accordingly. I could drop to the floor below if there was a more physical attack.
“Hello?” I couldn’t hear any movement. There hadn’t been any firing for a while. Maybe he’d found another way out of the building? A quick escape while the siege was distracted? “If you’re there, I’m not here to cause any harm to you.”
“We, or I?” A gruff response, a deep but breaking voice – like it was overused. Overused, just maybe, because of a shouting match.
“Huh?” Once my head had gotten over its little judgement of the sound of the voice it tried to parse the meaning, and came back blank.
“We, or I. You have a friend, yet you didn’t use the collective term when referring to your intension to harm. It leaves your friend free to harm me should he or she choose.”
“Uh,” I wasn’t expecting a riddle. Besides, it seemed pedantic to pick up on such a tiny facet of what I’d said, the intension was clear. “Wait. If, say for the sake of argument, we did mean to… whatever… surely we’d be the last to tell you? We’d hardly care about lying. I’d have said ‘we’ anyway.”
“It matters to me, I-” He stopped mid-sentence and there was a low murmuring. An exchange of conversation too quiet for me to even pick up the voice of the person he was talking to. His own thick gravely tones were too obscured to make out the words.
“I can see why this guy pissed them off…” Mike said up to me from the floor below as he pushed copper rounds into his spare magazine with a repetitive and regular click, click.
I tried again, “You saw us, or heard us or whatever. We’re clearly don’t think too highly of the enemies you’ve made. I honestly don’t care if you tell me to fuck off right now. I’ll walk away. Just ask. But know that at the moment we could be the closest thing you’ve got to friends right about now, and whatever you choose to do – there’s probably going to be a fair few of their friends arriving very soon and they’re going to be pretty damn pissed when they see what’s been going on here.”
I took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. There was nothing I could do if he wasn’t going to trust us, just persuade him to run rather than stay in his corner. I wasn’t going to risk waiting around. I’ll offer freedom, by its very nature I couldn’t force it on people.
The response was by the screech of furniture moving. A thud, the light coming from the bullet holes flickered, disturbed by movement on the other side.
The click of a lock.
With calculated speed, the door swung outwards a crack. I pulled myself back onto the walkway and took myself down a few steps. I didn’t want my proximity to spook him.
I caught a glimpse of the scene on the other side. A limp hand fell through the open doorway, a smudge of blood on one fingertip. A body slumped against the door, kicked to the side, out of the way.
As the gap widened I finally caught site of our friend the chemist. No lab coats here. A thick fuzzy sweater stretched slightly over a barrel chest and hint of gut. Worn, stained jeans, loose around the waist. His face a mass of wiry hair, a mix of white, grey and jet-black that matched the short cut-hair on his head.
If I’m honest, not what I would have expected a chemist to look like, even an illegal underground Island chemist.
His eyes were sharp, and I realised he was studying me just as thoroughly as I was him. I guess my motives weren’t really clear, I wasn’t sure about them myself yet. To him, I was a substantial unknown. And I knew I didn’t exactly look the part, even if I was wearing a helmet and spattered with gore.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
“We can talk later, or at least while we move.” I was keen to get away, and not so keen to answer questions.
He took one last foot-to-head look at me, and nodded.
He turned, and stepped back inside. I tried to push down the burst of irritation, but thankfully it wasn’t long before he returned. Except he had a young girl, smothered in one of the most ill-fitting coats I’d ever seen, clutching his wide chest, her face buried in his beard.
He had mentioned a daughter. He must have been talking with someone. Made sense. I could imagine how this had panned out. A visit, routine. Calling in to collect the money. He was probably a bit short with them, understandably.
And I knew bullies, I knew them very well. They don’t like smart assed comments. Oh no. They are, however, very good at pushing just the right button. Finding that little thing that gets the most reaction.
And they go poking it.
Sometimes, very occasionally, they go poke a little too hard at the things that are a little too close to their victim’s heart. You can never tell at what point someone snaps…
So when one of them picks on his little girl, a bloody mess ensues.
I nodded to him, and we both made our way to meet Mike at the base of the steps.
He didn’t give us a glance, he was staring down at his hands, face bathed in the cold glow of a phone screen.
“Three Missed calls,” he said, with a flat voice.