by Stewart Wilson
The cold wind whispers sweet nothings in my ear as I walk down the street. It's so late it's early and I've got a long way to go yet. The streets smell of rain and mold, and that brings Micky's voice right back to me. "You've got to get out of this, John." But I didn't. Not even when they found him with three bullets in his chest, slumped in a dark alleyway.
The cold wind picks up and I light another cigar, huddling in to keep the worst of the wind out. Micky's dead. Jenny's dead. If I'm lucky, it'll be me next. If I'm not, they'll kill her first. And here I am with nothing but a cheap cigar and a bottle of cheaper booze, slouching back to my office in a drunken stupor. Mark of the job. It starts slow, but before you know it everything ends up revolving around death.
I'm halfway through the cigar when I open the door to my office. There's someone in there already, someone I know. The fall of the skirt and the silk of the gloves tell me everything. The beard helps, too. He's got something for me. I never see Max these days unless it's about work, that's why he's managed to be my oldest friend without a lethal dose of lead poisoning.
"Long time, Max."
"What's a month or two between friends, John?" He stands, walking towards both me and the door.
"Too long when most of them turn up in the morgue." I catch myself before I can say more. I don't want to start a fight with him, not now.
"That might not be over. Carter's back."
I cross to the chair and sit down, stubbing out the cigar. "You're sure?"
"Damn straight. Checked in this morning."
"I thought you'd say that. Look out for yourself, man. I'll be seeing you." And with that he's away, heavy boots banging on the floor of my office.
That was my cue to start drinking.
* * *
Afternoon sunlight on my face. My tongue feels like the cat's shat on it again, but then I remember I don't have a cat. I almost collapse as I run for the bathroom and puke my guts out. The world doesn't spin, but my skull does feel three sizes too small. That's the one thing I really hate about drinking on my own. Nobody to remind me that water's good, that maybe the bottle of cheap whiskey I wasted the last of my rent money on isn't a good thing to drink in under an hour.
Images from last night flash through my mind. Max, the beard in a skirt, telling me that Carter's back. Carter swore he'd fuck everyone I knew in three new holes for what I did to him. I don't know how he got off the island, got away from the iron cage they told me he'd live in until he died, but that doesn't matter as much as seeing people safe. I don't worry too much about Max. I've never worried about him. He can look after himself, has a whole network of contacts across half the country who'll keep him safe. I worry about Becky instead.
A lot's changed since I sent Carter down. Most of the people I knew then are six feet under, victims of the weird fucks that flock to this city. There's only Becky and Max left. I throw up again when I think about that. My support network, my contacts and allies and people I can call upon boiled down to just two other people. That's the way life goes. That and lining my skull with spikes.
When did life get so bad that I have to drink nearly every damn night just so I can sleep? What the fuck happened to make the porcelain altar my morning friend? I follow up the vomit with a healthy chunk of green-brown phlegm, laced with blood. Body's falling apart, old man. Carter'd be as well letting you pickle yourself to death. But he's not going to. He's going for Becky first. I haul myself upright and grab my coat. I need to find her, need to warn her.
* * *
The bar's a good two floors below ground level at this point, down in a cellar nobody cares about any more. Time was it was a venue, a place people cared about. Not any more. Now there's just tourists and the occasional old bastard who remembers when things weren't so bad. I know I'll find her here. It's where we said goodbye.
A girl sways her way over to me. Can't be older than twenty-five. Already half cut and it's not even ten. She's doing a passable little-girl-lost schtick, but ruins it when I don't play along.
She's shouting. "What's your fucking problem?"
"I came here to get a drink in a bar I grew up with. What makes that a problem?" I can barely manage above a whisper. Only three cigars left, that explains why.
"You give me the eye then turn me away, fucker! You've some nerve, acting like you ain't hard under that disgusting old coat."
"Lady, I burned out the sex-centres of my brain six months ago. With a soldering iron. Vulcanised part of my meninges when I did, so sometimes I don't think so good. And a cheap fuck is the last thing on my mind." If I turn away she'll try to plant one on me, probably knock me into next week. So I fix her with a stare until she backs off.
That's when Becky comes in. She's dealt with the years better than I have. Black hair down to her waist, flowing black skirt and a mis-shapen black sweater to match. Not quite the femme fatale that Max somehow manages, but she never wanted to be. We've done each other so many favours that we don't bother counting any more, we just chalk it up to friendship. It's like we've been married twenty years, without kids or the messy emotional shit of the first fifteen.
"Evening, John." She smiles as she sits, getting me a cheap whiskey. What can I say, I'm a cheap drunk. We share a couple of jokes and dance around some small talk before I drop the bomb.
"Seen Max lately?"
"Not for a few weeks, no. Why?"
"He came to see me last night. Carter's back."
"Christ." Becky's pale at the best of times, but now she looks like a ghost. Carter knows about her. If he's playing it smart, he already knows we don't have anyone else. Just each other and the stains on the bar here.
"I don't know where he is or what he's up to. I do know that I want you to stay safe." I try lighting a cigar and manage not to cough.
With the bomb dropped, we stay in the bar until they pour us onto the street. Not much point in doing anything else. The only person I can turn to for reliable information is Max and if he has any brains he's out of the city by now. I got nothing I can do but wait and try to take that bastard down with me.
* * *
We're both leaning on each other when a face looms out of an alleyway. Carter. He's older, the ten years inside's not done him any favours. There's an ugly scar down one cheek, and his sandy hair is finally going grey. He's dressed up for the occasion, a new suit and tie. Same old pearl-handled knife, though.
Same old grin as well, lighting a flicker of madness in his eyes. "If I didn't know better, I'd call this a two for one sale."
I don't know what to say. My gun's back in my office, sharing a drawer with the scraps of a bottle. I can't throw a punch worth shit when I'm sober, right now I'd probably miss if I tried hitting the ground. I step forwards anyway, and Carter knocks the wind right out of me. He's kept in shape.
"Now, John. Behave. I'm only here to make good on that old promise. I was hoping I'd get that bearded tranny as well, but I don't think he's going to play. So it's just you two."
I choke down a ragged breath, wishing I could shout, wondering why Becky's not running. She's not come to my side. That'd make it easier. She's waiting for him to knife me, waiting for something to steal his attention so she can run without him catching her. Pity that isn't going to happen. The blade flashes faster than my eyes can follow, and she's on the ground. Bleeding. Wrists cut two, three times, and a deep slash across her throat.
Carter looks at me and sighs. "Sorry about that, but you know what they do to people like me in prison? Couldn't fuck either of you in a knife-hole if I tried."
I can speak, but I'm damned if I can move. "You... you're just going to let her bleed to death?"
"With you watching, while I walk away. I'll come back for you one day, Johnny, but not today. You've a lot of hurting to do yet."
With that he's gone, running into a pitch-black alleyway. And I'm left crawling along the pavement to Becky, who's choking on her own blood. I try pressing my hands to the cuts, but it doesn't work. Nothing works. She's breathing shallow, close to dying. I think of everything I want to say to her, everything I want to apologise for or to thank her for. Tears well in my eyes as I work out the simplest way to say what I never have, work out why she's the only one I still keep in touch with, the only person I care about any more.
Before I can open my mouth, she's gone.
And I'm crying in the gutter, cradling her body as her blood carries my will to live away down the drain with it. The bastard's won. I can't deny it. You never really know what you have until someone takes it away.