We both froze, Beth’s hands held mid-air. The towel in her fingers dripped disinfectant, half way to a graze on forearm.
“Mike?” she whispered, but her voice hesitant, questioning. I had my own doubts. Mike wasn’t one to tread lightly when he was here. He let doors slam, jumped stairs. He wasn’t quiet. Could be Danni, she wasn’t with the rest. It would make sense for her to have looped around, hidden somewhere and come back here for lack of anywhere else to find us.
We waited, listening intently. I didn’t dare breathe, not for fear of someone hearing but so I the sound of my own breath didn’t mask that from our surroundings.
Silence. Or rather, the dull buzz of the city, pipes draining under our feet, the buzzing of the lights above our heads, even the subtle white-noise of air in my ears you never notice until you really listen.
I was hesitant to just open the door and check. The showers weren’t quiet, if someone had followed me back there could be a couple of guys waiting on the other side of that door.
Or Mike. Or nothing. Could just be a board shifting under a temperature change. If only we could check the CCTV. I should have been paying attention. I wasn’t so injured that I had to let my guard slip. Idiot.
I could think of only one way to try find out. I rose to my feet with painstaking care, ignoring the burning of tired muscles in my thighs.
My phone was tucked into a pocket of my pants, now in a pile idly kicked against the wall. I just hoped I hadn’t slipped it into a pouch on my belt without thinking – now lying uselessly on the floor with a submachine-gun I would have killed for right now. I crept to it on the balls of my feet, bare soles silent on the tiled floor. We’d been planning on keeping in touch, but it had completely slipped my mind as a way to check on the others until now.
The pocket was Velcro. Nice, simple, easy to open in a hurry. Just what I wanted. Except right now it felt like the noisiest thing in the known universe as I tore it open millimetre by millimetre.
Beth was on her feet and at the back of the room where the cavernous shower room was broken into a pair rooms with basic, brushed steel toilets.
I knew there wasn’t any other escape. I’d already checked for other exits, and entrances, before I’d even thought about using one of the showers.
Could be a good place to hide. I had to remember I had Beth with me. I couldn’t be reckless.
I wiped away the film of moisture from the screen and punched in the unlock code.
Eight missed calls, five from Mike and three from Danni.
A text message scrolled underneath it time stamped half an hour ago: ‘@jacks dads. cool dude. search missed us. call asap.’
So, not Mike.
There was a dull thud from below us. Something falling over? A stupid mistake by someone trying to keep quiet? That’s at least two people.
I took a glance around the room. It would be clear we’d been here, but then they knew that already, there was plenty of evidence of that as soon as they came through the door, assuming they had.
The floor was littered with the plastic from the dressings, empty bottle of disinfectant, and the pale red stain running from shower to drain, clothing strewn around the place…
I skipped over and grabbed my discarded vest and followed Beth. Didn’t have time to tidy up. The room was divided by block work that stopped short a few feet from the ceiling. It threw the cramped toilet rooms into a dank shadow that their own meagre lights failed to combat. It also left me with the constant fear that someone could pull themselves up and look over – but then this wasn’t school.
I didn’t want to get cornered, but it would be harder for someone to call for help at the back of the room than if I jumped them at the door.
Beth was pulling at the catch on the window trying to get it to open further than it was designed.
“It’s barred,” I said. Already been through this ritual. Mike’s grandfather hadn’t been a cheap fucker either, the bars were welded, not bolted, and straight to the metal frame.
I threw the vest over my head. The cold damp soaked right through the semi-dry t-shirt to my skin. I twisted to get at the straps but my rib screamed at me. “Here, help me with this.”
She gave up with the window with a frustrated growl before turning and snapped the straps at my side to pull the armour plates tight across my chest. They were battered, but mostly still good. I was unlikely to get shot in the same place twice in one evening.
I mentally cursed us for being in the one place in the building where was nothing I could use as a weapon. What was here was bolted down, and I was pretty sure even with my strength I couldn’t rip off a length of the stainless piping from the wall – besides, the noise and the mess would alert anyone to our presence.
“What if we-” Beth stuttered to a halt as the door opened.
Her fingers were wrapped around my arm, painful. I could feel the heat of her body pressed up against me.
There were quiet footfalls. Slow. A rustle, a boot nudging a box full of meds? The clink of glass on tile. Bottle. Disinfectant. All we could hope was that he’d give up, not notice the dark openings at the back of the room.
I couldn’t even hear Beth breathing, couldn’t feel her chest moving next to mine. We froze, eyes fixed on the opening to our hiding place, ears straining against the background noise for the slightest hint of someone about to leap around the corner and attack us.
Nothing. No more footsteps. No more movements. Was he gone? Or waiting, mirroring us on the other side of the stunted tiled wall, listening as intently as us for the slightest sound.
After an agonising minute of silence I heard the tap of boots again, towards the door-
Screaming. No, buzzing. A thousand bees, each and every one of them wanting us dead. Beth squeezed my arm, sending a jab of pain, but I hardly noticed, our little cocoon of silence was shattered.
Phone. Cast idly aside having served its purpose. Silent mode wasn’t so silent on a hard floor.
I jumped at it and mashed buttons until it shut up, knowing full well the damage was done.
There was a grunted “Hey!” Enough warning for me to get on my feet before he came around the corner.
I didn’t have time to prepare. No time to vault over the dividing wall and get behind him. He was on top of us before I could think. His gun was already out, ready. I lashed out with the phone, catching him in the chin, but his momentum carried himself into what was too-small a space for the three of us.
I fell backwards into the wall, my skull crashing into unforgiving tile. I slumped as I struggled to get my feet under me. My vision burst with flashing stars. I tried to blink them away as I pushed off to keep my guard up, only to find the focus of his attention on Beth.
She had grabbed the gun. My stomach jerked into a tight knot as they struggled for it, the muzzle pressing into Beth’s chest. I couldn’t watch her die. But she’d managed to drag back the slide on the top and the trigger was useless. He still lifted her from the ground and threw her against the wall with a bone-jarring thud.
They were so locked together there was no opportunity for me to get a limb for a lock. No elbows to break, no shoulders to dislocate.
I jumped on his back, target: head. Punching, clawing, so long as his focus was Beth he was helpless to defend himself. Anything to distract him from her. I gouged his eyes, fingernails clawing at skin. I grabbed an ear and twisted, hoping to pull his head down but tore, useless. It took him too long before he grunted with pain and pulled and arm up to his head to fend me off.
But he wasn’t going to let Beth get the gun, and Beth wasn’t giving up what little power she had. His one free hand pulled at my hair, my scalp burned as he tore at it. I gritted my teeth through the pain.
The crook of my arm found underneath his chin. He pressed it downwards as soon as he felt it close around his throat – he was no stranger to chokeholds.
But I’d hooked my fist under the crook of my other elbow, snaking one hand around the back of his head to brace all my strength into crushing his jugular. My weight pulled down against him, but he still had the strength for one last ditch attempt to dump me by throwing himself backwards onto the floor.
I held. But my grip slipped. Not enough pressure on the arteries. He was still conscious. No quick blackout as blood was cut off from the brain. He choked instead, his chest bulging for air. I denied it.
He kicked and bucked, twisting body wedged me into the space behind the stainless steel toilet, pipework digging into my shoulder blades. But I held, it gave me something to brace against, limited his reach as he tried to claw and punch at me. I hooked my legs around his chest to restrain his body and squeezed with all my strength.
Slowly. Painfully slowly, his kicking and bucking slowed, then stopped altogether. We were left, once again, in silence. I didn’t let go. I couldn’t risk it until I was sure. He could be feinting unconsciousness.
How long was it?
How long could you go without air? Minutes? I hadn’t been timing.
The silence wore on and the clammy skin of his head grew an unnatural shade of purple.
I unwound my arms and pushed at his limp body off myself, untangling myself from him. Panting, I looked to find Beth. She held the pistol out at him, tears rolling down her face.
“I couldn’t shoot. Not with you there.” I pulled myself to my feet, still keeping an eye on our intruder.
“I was fine,” I leaned against her, trying to catch my breath and persuade my knees not to shake so much. “I’m used to it.”
“It’d be too loud. I just didn’t’ want him to shoot, Alex. It’d be too loud. They’ll hear.” She shook, her whole body jerking erratically in my arms.
“You did good.” I put my hand over hers, and pushed the gun down to point at the floor. “You did good Beth, and we don’t need to worry about him.”
She looked at me, frowning.
“I think he’s dead.” I clarified.