In the distance I see the yard workers scatter. I lay there listening to my heart and trying like hell to make my legs stop shaking. It’s all too familiar: the rush of the battle, the way certain sounds fall away for others to take priority. I listen for the crush of gravel, a hammer being cocked, anything that would cut my life down. I hear nothing except wind and a dull ring.
I feel a familiar vice-like tension around my temples that I know would ease off with another shot or killed bottle. Focus Slate. You’re either quick or you’re dead, and spending the last few months drunk on my ass hasn’t made me quick, but I’m damn near dead. With the Webley leading I get to my feet, living life down the sights.
Doubt claws any confidence to shreds. Thoughts seem to swirl around me like the rail line boxcars. I'm lost in a sea of blaring whistles and the stench of burning coal. Some cars move and shift around me like the walls of a maze. The rail cars are imposing, intimidating, forcing my claustrophobic thoughts. A line of rail cars speeds by behind me ruffling my shirt until it rests like a clammy hand on my back.
I get on my hands and knees and look as far under the train cars as I can see. I wait. Sweat slides down my cheek as my mind’s eye projects the cold blue steel of a gun barrel pressing against my temple, Roger getting the final drop on me before he puts me down for good. I resist the urge to look up. I take a deep breath of the cold air and think like a soldier, rather than a rat surviving in the garbage of people’s lives. I’ve been a pawn for Colisetta, now Roger. It’s high time I think for myself.
Finally I see a pair of boots creeping between boxcars. The footsteps are slow, cautious, and coming my way. I grab a handful of gravel and scatter it. The effect works and I see the boots pick up pace. I can hear a man’s ragged breath as he moves past me. The boots stop. He’s hesitating, turning in two different directions. I crawl under the train car in front of me with agonizing slowness. I keep thinking the owner of the boots will kneel down and I'll be sunk, but I start to get a full picture of him as I move further under.
The boots move up to olive green pants and a beige cable knit sweater. I see the bloodstains starting on the shoulder and the purple and yellow bruising on his neck as Joey chews on the inside of his cheek squinting down the line. A revolver that looks like it would be at home anchoring a steamship gripped in his paw. I steady my aim, breath in through my nose and out from my mouth quietly. My old reflexes return and I tighten my finger against the trigger. A smooth squeeze slowly closing the loop of Joe’s life.
The blast is deafening under the rail car. A thick ringing fills my head making it feel like it’s stuffed with gauze. Joey stumbles. I watch him tap a charred hole his sweater with his left hand. Blood soaks the fabric. Joey takes off like a stag. A curse slips from me as I try to crawl to my feet and take off after him. A roar suddenly fills my ears. I look to my left to see the line of cars I'm underneath slamming into each other like dominos. I throw my weight into my elbows, crawling out from under the car before I get cut in half.
I see a pool of light pink blood, bubbles floating at the edges. One pops lazily as I spy another one. I follow the trail around corners and along corridors. I make it about a hundred yards before I see him in the distance. He’s laying against a coal car. When he sees me he tries to hold his hand cannon steady. He lets loose with half the chamber and I duck behind a tanker car with just enough time to hear the shots ricochet uselessly into the gravel. I zig zag through cars closing the distance. He gets a few more shots off but I think he’s just trying to scare me.
He can barely lift the big gun at my approach. His legs piston as he writhes in the stones. I land a kick and the gun skitters underneath a line of cars identical to the one he’s laying against. He swipes at me with a knife like a cornered snake coiling and striking with everything he has. He stops swiping at me when I draw a bead on him. He never takes his eyes off the yawning maw of my revolver. He speaks through blood stained teeth and I can hear him trying to pull air through the bum lung.
"I knew you were bad news.” He croaked. “From the minute you sat down I knew you were gunna screw everything up."
"An operation only falls to hell when you play fast and loose with orders. How do you like the extra 5 bills now? Don't spend it all in one place eh."
His eyes are all hate and I know he expects me to finish him off, even as the light fades from them and his head lolls against his chest. His fingers relax and the knife hangs loosely from them.
I turn to go back the way I came and at once I feel like something stings me just below my left ear. When I snap my attention that way I see Roger levelling a pistol at me,a line of tankers speeds by behind him. His eyes linger on the body for a few seconds. I see cold acceptance flash through them, a soldier’s resolve.
“I don’t get you Percy.” Roger hollers at me. “You stand in the way, yet agree with us.”
I shake my head. “not like this. Salvitore Colisetta and his outfit need to pay, but look at what it did over there. Are they any better off? Are we? How many times a night you wake up?”
“Too many people are asleep. Look at Carruthers. Fixing criminals so they can kill the city he lives in. Does he need the money? No. He gets to go home to his sectioned off life and do it all again the next day. Sounds like a dream to me.”
“Some of us don’t have a choice!” I scream over the cars rushing behind him. “We have lives. We have families, and when they get threatened, or worse, we do anything to save our skin. Even when it means carrying the ghosts of our decisions. I’m tired of my ghosts haunting me. I don’t want to add another one, but I will if it means ending this.”
“You think so?” Roger smiles. His coat hangs in matted wet clumps and I feel a shiver run through me. “You can barely stand Percy. How are you going to lift that gun when it’s so heavy?” I move to show him exactly how I mean to lift it and the gun feels like it’s a hundred pounds. My hand trembles. My bicep burns. I grit my teeth against the weight but it stays still. I hear the telltale bang and in my periphery see a row of coal cars speed by. Roger takes a step towards me keeping his gun at his side, relaxed like he has all the time in the world.
“You can’t save one person in place of another. Your entire mission here is officium futilis, Percy. It’s time to face that.”
The words mean nothing to me but I suddenly snap to attention. I can hear that god awful warbling that was coming from the record player as if it were playing beside me. My jaw locks. All I can do is stare at Roger as he edges closer. He’s an arm’s length away from me now and casually leans in. I feel my Webley is making millimetre progress on pointing the business end at him. Roger notices it and frowns like he’s found a fly in his bourbon.
“That doesn’t work.” He mutters over the drizzle. “Why don’t you do us a favor and point that at your skull.” The weight released from the revolver and I move to level it at him, puzzled at his suggestion. My body betrays me again as my hand makes for my temple instead. I try to put the brakes on, desperately moving to lower or drop the weapon. All I succeed in doing is slowing the weapon down. Roger scowls at this when he sees it, his brow darkening. A tisk of annoyance clicks from his lips.
“More fight in you than I thought, figured that brain would be pickled by now. No matter. You’ll obey orders. They always do.”
“what..did…you d…..d….d” I sound like a broken record. I can feel my face flush with the effort of speaking.
“Do to you?” Roger finishes, turning a hatred on me that dwarfs Joey’s. “I made a Fritzbomb, a contingency if my prototype failed, but the original should work just fine.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re dismissed, Glue Crew.”
My Webley is slowly crawling through space like a spider approaching a trapped fly. I can smell the stale raunch of my sweat as it pours out months of beer, bourbon, and bad decisions.
I hear the click of the hammer as my thumb drags across it. My eyes squeeze shut and I feel heat worm up my neck. Sweat drips off my chin and my muscles vibrate but I can just as much yank the Webley off track as I can wake up from this living nightmare.
In my mind I see the last three cards Louise’s ghostly spectre read to me. The grinning devil sitting on his throne, me as a trapped man, and my revolver bringing order to it all. I feel the finality of the reading.
I feel like I must have pulled the trigger and not heard the shot, Because I suddenly smell Louise’s perfume. Not just a whiff, but that same snootful I used to get early on when she’d make for the door. That grin painting her lips with invitation before she said the same five words every time: ‘see you next time Slate.’
I revel in the scent as tears spill from my eyes. She was still living with Harry then. The three of us painting the town red like there was no tomorrow.
I feel my finger start to squeeze.
The scent thickens on the wind and I feel a heat worm down my arm. Not the heat of tension but a relaxing one as if fingers are kneading my muscles. My arm drops a degree a second before the shot deafens me.
I'm still standing. The pressure on my arm feels so much like her gentle touch that for a second I can’t breathe. I feel a presence behind me, standing just outside of my vision. I tell myself I don’t want to look because I can’t, but deep in my heart I know I don’t want to see who owns the invisible hand, if it’s my wife in the flesh or her skeletal doppelganger.
“I don’t believe it.” Roger spits as he levels his pistol. I feel a hot sting pass through my shoulder. I drop to the ground and fire. My shot makes Roger spin and somewhere in the recesses of rational thought my brain registers the now familiar bang and I hear rail cars moving down the track before I see them. Roger stumbles once grasping his stomach. He looks from his blood stained fingers into my eyes. I see fear. It’s the first honest emotion I’ve seen from Roger, a soldier reckoning his mortality.
He looks down the line, realisation dawning. He looks back at me and I know the gears in that twisted mug are working overtime. His eyes harden and he starts to grin. I don’t like what I see in that smile. I see a man with a plan. I cock the hammer again; needing a tangible resolution to all of this. The hammer goes off but my Webley is empty. Roger stands on the tracks for a beat longer before the space is filled with rushing metal. I scream in frustration at the moving wall, wailing out months of pent up frustration and pain.
When the cars move on, the space before me is empty. Nothing but a semi automatic pistol. I watch the trail of passenger cars. Beyond the rail yards the forest stretches like sinister tendrils across the land. The wind ruffles the bare trees, sending a few errant leaves after the train. I see a small thread of black smoke against the grey clouds in the distance. I get to my feet slowly.
He’s gone, vanished into thin air. It’s impossible, but somehow not surprising. I stand still for a few seconds more. At first it’s just to catch my breath, but I linger hoping for just one more whiff of her perfume. After a few minutes I put pressure on my shoulder and start walking towards the sound of men yelling. In the distance I think I hear the wail of a police siren.