To be human, I often wonder what it means. Is it to feel, or to have words with which to speak those feelings? Is it to have a name, or something which you wish to name? I think upon these things so often that they are now a beaten, dusty track. One I follow in endless circles, again and again, until, once more, the conclusion shows itself to me: to be human is to be free.
Free will. Not a single being in all of creation possesses an equal gift, and none, too, would appreciate it so little.
Sometimes on my nightly rounds I watch the little animals that wander the streets. Poor, aimless things they are, but they eat rubbish from the ground as if it was the finest of all foods, they fight and sing with little victories: filling the night they should be ashamed to occupy with their disjointed symphony. Fearful of the light, they hide under the skulking darkness because it is there that something deep inside them feels most at home. There is a wildness to it. A beautiful simplicity. In that emptiness, each creature would kill the other for a bone.
But, under the light of day, they must again disband: become a pet, a stray, a worker to their false Gods. Savages, they call them, but who is the real savage? It is not the animals that made themselves this way: they are slaves to their nature, to their biology, and led by some unknown force. Is it not those who can choose and yet still do wrong who are truly at fault? Would these animals not be envious, had they been gifted the ability to feel such things? Would they not watch, condemned to muteness as they are, and think: what would life be if only that choice were mine? They would. And you should pity them: those that live not even knowing just how unfortunate they are.
I know I am unfortunate, at least. I feel it night and day. A slow, sighing, restless presence that broods forever hollow in my stomach. Never sated. Shifting uncomfortably, even sharply at times. Pleading with me sorrowfully whenever I am still and unoccupied. I call it disappointment.
My finger tapped on the trigger impatiently.
“Where are you?” I called to the empty sky, answered by nothing but the silent tread of my cloth shoes upon the cobbles. Each step was long and careful, like every second stone could be a land mine. It was the kind of walk that couldn’t help but arouse suspicion, so purposeful and sure that it conjured images of unblinking creatures slinking through the undergrowth, the lazy flick of a tail, the tensing of muscles before the pounce. A hunt. As graceful as it was deadly.You’d never see me move like that in the day.
“Come out.” I purred, enjoying the excitement that sang down my spine as the sound passed my lips, and sniffed the smoky air, searching past the sticky tang that hung like the outline of an unpleasant face in the darkness. Her face, it was, bug eyes syrupy as molasses and spilling fog like insipid tears. Mouth wide and black and screaming. Cold as breath. Floating like a vengeful apparition.
A rummaging sound from ahead broke me from my reverie. By the time I turned back the smoky face was gone, dissipated into the shapeless grey of the street. It was a good thing, I suppose. Concentrating on one thing had always stopped that something inside me from its relentless churning and drew back its choking hand from my throat. I analysed the sound: it was a comfortable one, something like a dog rooting through the junk the townspeople left to rot at the end of the alleyway. These people liked things like that, hiding their trash around corners, as if it was all okay as long as it was unseen. I’ve never figured out how they ignored that stench it emitted, though. It was a piercingly sweet, fermenting smell like the shorn grass that used to lay, sweating sugar, across the fields that lined the town, drying to feed that would last the animals the coming winter months. I hated that smell, I used to have to walk the long way back from school to avoid the path next to the fields. I could get used to the manure they spread each growing season, the organic, dusty smell of cattle and sheep, even the sour, dried mud stench of the pigs; but that sickly sweetness assailed me with fresh disgust every year.
I didn’t have to look down to know that the tiny squeaking noises that had begun to echo through the main street were coming from the tens of rats that flowed from the alleyways as I passed them. They fanned out, churning like a brown stream around me. One of fat, humped bodies and sharp noses low to the ground, a squirming mass of bald-skinned tails and wiry fur.
As I strode along the street of leaning, close-set houses, they investigated every alleyway. “Is there nothing you can do but run and hide? Why not fight?” I called, interrupted by a particularly loud scrabble of claws and a few shrill squeals. An angry noise, one I recognised as a warning.
I peered into the shadowed darkness, the two houses that flanked the space there were so close together there almost seemed to be no gap at all; just a dark line through the red brickwork, a gaping crack in its carefully constructed exterior. The houses rested side by side with their dark windows sighing the sounds of sleep. It was safe. I stopped still and settled into the looming darkness that fell from the overhanging eaves of the roof like thick curtains.
It could have really been just a dog. Yes, it had frozen at the scratch of the rat, backed against the cold wall with its hackles raising like a monster from its back. The bristling rat backed away as I fixed my eyes on it momentarily. I turned my attention back to the shape and whistled short and low. “Here little dog. Come to me.”
It didn’t move, too distracted by fear I guessed. I could understand that, fear was the strongest of emotions after all. Under its influence even people could become animals again. It was always just there, waiting to climb from where it lay, submerged in their depths. To clamber up and sink its stinking teeth into their very bones, to shake them off and emerge: blood pumping and body tense for a fight and ready to run.
I tapped the thin metal barrel of the pistol against my leg, vaguely irritated by the steadfast way the creature ignored my calls. Would not respond to the safety my open palms offered it. But still I crouched and tapped the wet cobbles with my fist, even crooned, “Come here, come here now”, in the softest voice I could muster.
Eventually, a patch of the heavy darkness detached itself from the wall and moved slowly and hesitantly towards the dull light of the street with loud, rasping breaths. The long claws of its feet scraped against the stone as it skittered, white-eyed, with a nervous look behind it at the glowering rats that nipped at its ankles with their sharp front teeth.
“That’s it.” I reached out my free hand, wiping the mud from the ground off on the thick cotton of my trouser leg as I did. The dirt drew a dark line across the bright, stinging blue, joining the other patches of miscellaneous stains and tattered edges. I didn’t feel bad though. It wasn’t like this costume was mine to keep clean. This was the empire’s uniform. It belonged to someone else even if I was wearing it. So they could have it back dirty for all I cared.
A red rag tongue panted into the low light of the main street, then a scaly brush of a nose. I resisted the urge to draw my hand away and let the cold touch my fingertips. Its head pushed under my palm: wet fur plastered so thin that white skin showed through, eyes muddy amber.
“Poor thing.” I placed the gun onto the slippery stone and shrugged off my jacket. The Guard insignia embroidered to the pocket, the stiff blue of the fabric, the high neck that dug into my chin every time I opened my mouth: I hated it all. I cupped my hand over the little thing’s head and wrapped it in the fabric. At least it had some use now.
It’s round bulging eyes gazed out, too big for its tiny, shaking head, from under the enveloping heaviness of the fabric. Pathetically small. Those eyes stared, unfathomable and unnerving. Just the look heckled me, made my whole spine prickle where hair should have been and an animal growl pull at my throat. But I could resist. I broke its eye contact by stretching my arm out, shielding my face from it’s stare and at the same time snaking around it: picking the thing up in a bundle as I stood. My back was already aching from just that much, I was getting weak. Hungry. I stroked a finger along the little thing’s bony muzzle, maybe even as hungry as this one. Starving, I could even say.
You would have thought the man would feed his dog better.
“Now let’s find your owner.” I grinned, pointed teeth, cheeks numb in the cold blue air. It looked up with an unblinking, liquid stare that I couldn’t meet. I chucked it under the chin and rubbed my numb fingers around its temples with a touch I meant to be kind. It worked, it soon settled its head down with a sigh and blinked those terrible eyes. That was trust right there. To this thing I was now a hero, some kind of God that brought warmth and touched with soft hands. See, they didn’t ask for much, even I could do it. Just one loving stroke and you become a God. Maybe that’s why so many people have pets. Mindless slaves to look at them with devotion even when they’re the scum of the world.
“When are you going to come out and talk to me? I haven’t got all night.” I had, but he didn’t need to know that. I had allowed plenty of time for discrepancies, I always did. Nothing was going to threaten that this time.
There was a clatter from a bin lid in an alley a couple of houses up. He must have knocked it over as he rushed to hide. Getting sloppy. And he had been so sneaky in the beginning, it really was a shame. I was almost thinking that he’d gotten away and then I would have to get serious: couldn’t have him getting away and talking, could I? If I think about it that way, it was for his own good that he decided to run into a dead-end. Still, now he’d made his decision he had to face the light. No good hiding around corners from such an unwavering fate.
I didn’t quicken my pace as the tinny ring of the metal reverberated through the nearby alleyway. He had nowhere else to go: either come out and face me, or squirm further back into the high-walled darkness and have me come to him. The worm. I wondered what he would do. The result would be the same regardless but I think I’d have a bit more respect about it if he came out and faced me, looked in my eyes and accepted his fate. If he did that I might even let him get away again. More fun that way.
“Now what are you going to do?”
I paused to give him a chance, right outside the alleyway. If he ran now he could make past me. I could catch him if I tried, obviously, but if he put in enough effort I could extend this game a little longer.
The dog licked my hand as I pet it’s drying head, it had turned to tiny spikes which ran down its back like horns. It closed its eyes and sighed. How disappointing.
“Time’s up.” I strolled over to the alleyway, my shadow stretching strange and pale in the lamplight. I lifted the gun, careful to keep the puppy steady as it cradled in the crook of my arm. “I’ve made up your mind.”
His face was sweaty and pale at the same time, sticking out from behind the bin where he kneeled. It was sallow and waxen as a sick person’s but glistening around his protruding brow bone, deeply grooved forehead and sunken cheeks like a little moon hidden here. The eyes that stared at me under tense eyebrows were small, a colourless kind of grey, bloodshot. The streets must have aged him for I knew this man was no more than thirty. Might have been the scrabbling beard that was already peppered white and sparse.
He seemed to have been midway to standing up, for he was half kneeled but had one leg outstretched as if to run. Unfortunately it was a bit too late for that. “Stand up.” I didn’t even need to raise the pistol, he was already up, breathing ragged breaths through teeth I could only describe as decaying. His breath stank too. Alcohol. Obviously his stealing habit was not going towards a healthier lifestyle: for him or the dog.
I let him walk past me, dragging one leg slightly so it bumped along to the dips in the cobbles. Kept my gun trained on his shoulder through the thin wool coat he wore. A shot there wouldn’t bring him down but it would slow him enough for next time. Another leg would be too soon.
He shuddered into the street light, probably glad to be out of the confines of the alleyway, not that there were many more options out here. He turned to face me immediately, backing up a few paces as he found me unexpectedly close behind.
“Time to talk.” His mouth cracked open, the awful smell made me turn away slightly in disgust. I could see now that his gums were rotting: white, bloody and wet with foul saliva, some teeth so black they turned to nothingness. “I hear you used to work with the rebels?” I posed it as a question though I knew it was true. Not many people would bother to tell lies with the barrel of the gun in their face. Not when it’s information to save their lives.
His eyes darted around like he didn’t know where to rest them. Everything had turned a little sinister in the dark. “I was but I’m not anymore, I have nothing to do with them I swear!” His voice was high and squawking as the birds outside my window this morning. Irritating.
I put the hand holding the gun to my temple, closed my eyes a second to control myself. Man’s still trying to squirm his way out of this situation. “So they are still around here?”
“I didn’t say that!” He squealed desperately. “I have no idea what happened to them since the second rebellion. I’ve got nothing to do with them no more.”
“Is that so…” I said, he was starting to give me a headache. “Well then I guess you’re no further use to me.” I drew up the gun until it stood square before his gawking face. It would be so satisfying to shoot him dead right now, as he looked at me with pleading eyes. Disgusting. It would be so easy. But then again, this was important. The plan was important, every single step had been so meticulously put in place over these long years. Revenge. It would be worth all of this frustration in the end.
He screamed out a few indiscriminate phrases that melded into one long word that went something like: “nonononopleasegodno’, and began shaking his head furiously. I hardly even heard, too busy reminding myself why I was doing this, coaxing my twitching finger away from the trigger it longed to squeeze.
I relaxed my hand, letting the gun drop a few inches. “Okay then, how about we start this again?” I smiled widely. “You tell me where or who they are or I’ll kill you. Got it?” How I longed to just kill him. He would never mess me around like this if I could communicate just how close he was standing to death right now. But just a little fear would do to goad him on, anymore and he might freeze up entirely.
He nodded. “There’s a man who used to be a supplier for the first rebellion on Marsh Street. He smuggled guns out to some of the big players in the rebel army.”
“What’s his part in it now?” His little eyes relaxed slightly, familiar ground.
“Well he’s eighty-five so I don’t think…”
I interrupted him, raising my voice slightly until it echoed hollowly of the tall walls around us. “Stop playing around!” I sighed. You would have thought people would think a bit more before speaking when their lives are on the line. Fear, obviously, could not cure stupidity. “I need the names and locations of people involved with the rebels previously who are still alive and young enough to play a role in the next war.”
He put his purple, loose-skinned hands to his mouth: thinking. Eyes flickering from side to side whilst seeing nothing as he searched his brain. I was getting a bit impatient, a flaw of mine. Good plans cannot be rushed, I knew, but relying on people made things almost painfully slow. “Mrs O’Connor on Two-Brick Lane. She was only in her twenties at the time but I am sure I saw her at one of the big rebel meetings during the second rebellion. She would be old enough to have a crucial role now and I know both her parents were killed during that attack so she surely has reason to fight.”
I nodded slowly. That was a new one. If I remembered correctly she was the sharp looking woman who I always saw having serious conversations with other women in the town. She didn’t really look like a rebel type, I must say, but then again a good rebel never should. Covert. She could be an important member, if all the ‘friends’ she seemed to have had anything to do with it. “Anymore?” I didn’t have high hopes for him but you never know, thieves tend to stumble on more information than you would think.
“Old Johnny O’Bryan.” He mused thoughtfully. It seemed he had forgotten his situation until he looked up and waved his hand quickly. “Only he’s not really old, see, it’s just a nickname he got from some of the lads up the pub.” I didn’t care, wished he would just spit out whatever he was trying to say. “He’s always been rooting for the rebels but no one thought he was actually involved, see, but not too long ago he was saying something about wishing he could tell his boys about how bravely he fought and how he hated watching them be taught up by the empire like little soldiers who would even sell their own family if they knew they were rebels. Made me think he must have fought. And he’s only got one leg. He always says a beast tore it off him in the forest, but I’m thinking it could have really been lost in the war and he’s just lying so no one finds out.”
“Is that so?” He didn’t seem to have anything else to add but rumours and suspicions. A shame but what could I expect from a lowly street thief?
“No there’s more, there’s more!” He covered his face further with his hands, as if that could protect him. He fixed on me with watery eyes over the top of the gun barrel. “Please don’t.” He snivelled, snot and tears merging and adding wet trails like snail slime to his glistening face.
I should have said something now. Something to really hit home, make him realise what a pathetic, worthless human he really was, ‘die trash’ was a good one. Somehow, I couldn’t muster it, there was no anger in me. Maybe it was because of that contorted half-smile on his face, or the way his eyes were so different from hers, but looking at him just made me tired. This was not how she had died: her face would never have looked like this!
“This your dog?”
His head bobbed, “No.” His eyes flickered to it momentarily. Nothing.
See, this is how people are! You see, they’ll say anything in the end if they think it can save themselves. Selfish, easy to control; I could have spared him but there was no point. Even now, as he stared at death in my eyes, he refused to fight his fate. He would live as trash: die as trash. It was already written in stone.
“Hmm…Liar.” One click. He fell back to the cobbles, to his knees. Crumpled to a heap at my feet. Nothing but material.
Only you, in death, surprised me.
I looked down at the body for a moment more, taking in his bowed head, layers of baggy clothing, the way he sagged like he’d been deflated. And I tickled the head of the sleeping puppy in my arms, it squirmed and blinked it’s big, trusting eyes open. Licking my hand. Unwitting orphan.
I moved back, kicking his hands which had dropped onto my feet, bent and heavy like damp branches. I holstered my gun and reached down to grasp his collar and then heard the click behind me.
I didn’t turn. Why would I? I just spoke softly into the night.
“So you saw.”
The sound of his breath was loud to my ears, fast.
I turned my head slowly, hand still firmly on the rough-knit of the man’s collar.
He was standing around seven meters away, red tufts of hair darkened by the night but face still ghostly pale. It looked young: round, slightly flushed like he had run here. His breath was clouding in the air before him, curling away up into the darkness then dissipating. The only thing that seemed solid of him was the clear blue eyes that he glared with from under twisted brows.
My eyes left his, slipping down to the two hands that grasped the gun. They were shaking uncontrollably, like a brittle leaf in the breeze. His lips were pulled up, teeth bared and pressed together so hard his jaw shook. Scared. I knew that face. Usually not the look of the person actually holding the gun.
“You…” His voice shook too. Poor thing couldn’t even stand up straight.
I smiled. “Me?”
“You…you killed him. I saw you.”
I let the smile drop.
“Ah. Just in time to help.”
He continued to shudder in silence for a minute, waiting for me to explain. When I didn’t he spoke. A reedy, little boy’s voice. Just as pathetic as always. I could kill him too, he had seen more than I’d expected. I had known he was following, obviously. He wasn’t exactly subtle, despite all of his efforts clumsiness seemed to run through his veins: something that compelled him to trip over every raised rock or unexpected crevice. My headache must have been affecting me more than I had thought if he could get that close. But he was always meant to be involved. My alibi. If I could win him around, and from what I’d seen of him so far it would be easy enough, he would be vital in proving my innocence later on. Someone needed to know that it wasn’t me or else I was bound to be implicated: nobody trusted the outsider after all.
I was going to have to convince him without raising alarm: too nice and he would suspect me, too cold and he might pull that trigger. I’d backed myself into this one: I had wanted him to see something very different from me with one hand on a dead body and the other on a gun.
“Why should I help you?” He adjusted his grip on the gun, hand slipping in sweat. “Whatever plan you’ve got, this time it’s me who’s got the gun. I’m in charge this time.” That’s what he said, but it sounded more like the opposite was true. It would have been more convincing if he said it without stuttering every second word.
“I think you misunderstand.” I spoke quietly, rhythmic, slow as a heartbeat. “You are right, I killed this man.” He made a strangled noise so I put up a finger to silence him. “But what you don’t know is that he’s a thief. And not only is he a thief but a murderer too.” I paused for emphasis and then pointed behind him. “I know you don’t exactly trust me and I haven’t made myself particularly likeable but do you really think I’d do something like this without a reason? I think you will find that a few streets back a child has been murdered in their sleep.” That should do it.
“What?” He gasped. I let sadness etch itself on my face.
“I saw this man,” I gestured a foot at the pile before me, “break into a house on my patrol, so I followed him. I climbed through the window only to find the man was not in the first room. I looked through the house and found nothing. I had almost given up when I saw that one door that I had missed was slightly open, I walked in only to find it was a child’s room. The child I found on the bed brutally murdered. I called for the parents and told them what I had seen and that I was going to catch him. You can go and talk to them now if you wish. Though I’m not sure they are ready for interrogation.”
“Okay.” He glared uneasily like a nervous colt, bandy legs shaking. “But why do you need my help?” His blue baby eyes had narrowed. “Surely he is dead now so report it to the Guard’s and it’ll be over.”
He was walking right into this. I smiled, one finger up. “But that’s the problem you see. He is dead, yes, but the monster that is controlling him is not.”
“What are you saying? Monster?” His gun was still raised, I noticed. I still needed to assure him.
I twisted around so I was facing him, pushing the little dog further inside my jacket and dropping the man’s collar so he slumped face-forward onto the ground. He wasn’t really helping me look very sincere. “Ah, you were not born here, were you?” I didn’t wait for an answer, his expression was already relaxing but I didn’t want him to do something drastic before I explained. “Then you don’t know about it. It was just a decade ago when a spate of killings, much like this one, occurred before. First it was animals but soon children, also, began to die. The townspeople knew what it was, they had grown up on rumours about the great forest behind this town and the monsters that inhabit it.”
It was a convenient moment to break away from his gaze so I looked down and eyed him through my lashes. He was still standing stiffly, with his legs apart but bent like he wanted to run but was stuck to the spot. Well, it was fine if he knew some more of the story, I was going to have to tell him eventually if this was going to work.
“The people said they knew who it was and appealed to the Guards to go and find it. However, the Guards disagreed. The Empire said that they didn’t believe in such superstitions and that they wouldn’t have their Guard arresting innocent people when the murderers had been found. The people were angry but there was nothing they could do against them. Then one day the monster was reported with evidence. The Guards went to arrest the criminal but the townsfolk had got there first. They set fire to the house the monster was sleeping inside. It burned and the Guards reported the monster dead. The people were not satisfied though, for they knew that the monster would never truly die unless they buried it in a specific manner so it could never wake again. The Guards would not let them though, they frowned on the townspeople’s fundamentalist ways: they took the body and all was over, for a while at least. However if, as I suspect, this monster has awakened again, I must quickly deal with its pawns and then find the true culprit before the situation gets out of hand yet again.”
The boy’s hands relaxed, the gun moved down a few inches. His watery face drooped like the folding of a pale wing in the night: settling almost into his normal gormless expression again. He was looking for something to hold on to, waiting for me to explain away the doubt in him. Me, help him. It made me twist my lip just thinking of it. But, I sighed slowly, I suppose I had to do that much, extend a hand and help him out this one time. Then I imagined it and supressed the grin that licked around my mouth. Of course, trust would make it all the better when I pushed him back again. I could imagine his face as he fell back into that darkness: the shock in his eyes, the fear around his mouth, the hands that would reach out towards me, searching for my saving hand.
“There will be more cases. I must deal with them without letting the Guard’s find out what is happening.”
“Why not? The Guards could help! We are here to protect these people!”
“Last time the Guard did not believe that there was a creature at all. They refused to put the real culprit to death and instead arrested many of its soldiers. If the creature is not dead the killings will never stop. Because of this the townsfolk think that they are protecting the creature, even that they have it still alive among them. Ready to use as some kind of weapon. No, I must do this myself. All I ask of you is that you speak nothing of this to the rest of the Guards.”
“And why are you of all people so determined to help stop this? I wouldn’t exactly call you sympathetic with the townspeople. Not after what you’ve done.”
I sighed, held my hand to my head. My headache from earlier was still aching behind my temple. I squeezed my eyes closed for a second to quell the pain. “My whole family was killed in the fire the townspeople set. I don’t want it to happen again.”
I could feel him studying my face even as my eyes closed again. “Okay…” I looked up through my lashes, he still sounded reluctant but he had completely dropped his gun. As soon as it’s looming presence was gone from his view he appeared to relax and regain some of his strength. “But if it gets out of hand I will tell them.”
“Sure.” I whispered. He might not off even heard it had it not been so silent in the street. “Well you better get going, unless you want to help me get rid of him.” I grimaced down at the body and its neck which, as I pulled his collar, lolled almost impossibly to the side.
He looked sickly just watching it. I knew he would say no.
“I’m okay. I’ve got to get back.” He turned and then stopped, mid step. “Sorry for suspecting you, you’ve been my partner for a while now and you’re really good at what you do. I know we don’t always get on but that is no reason for me to think so badly of you. I really am sorry.”
I smiled and said my thanks, watching his figure as it disappeared into the maze of unlit streets. Then laughed shortly.
If only you had been this easy to convince.
I grabbed back on to his collar but this man was heavier than he looked. “Poor puppy.” I said, folding the jacket away from it so it could see again. I looked down at the little creature, it was trembling as I moved. “Did he eat all your food?” I took the man’s wrist and started dragging his body across the street.
Mrs O’Connor, he had said. She would do.