Fane had been staring at the ceiling so long his eyes felt like knuckles. By now he knew every fissure, every mildewed spot like the back of his hand.
‘You could always kill the bitch,’ said the gaunt kid with the near permanent frown and set jaw of a fighter just before he steps into the ring. Fane let himself drop out of bed. He knew where that would lead, and he’d no desire to be abandoned in one of the holes the city kept for its orphans.
His reflection in the room’s solitary mirror waited for him to answer. But all his eyes did was watch him like they wanted to drill a hole through his head to somewhere else. He’d be patient. He’d been practicing his skills nearly every day now, and he had time after all, that was something.
From church workers, to teachers, it sometimes seemed like half the city’s men had traipsed through the flat at one point or another. All of them with plenty of ideas on how to solve his Mum’s problems. Nobody ever really listened to his.
Fane keyed up the power to the decks.
‘Now that’s a sad shower of rejects to have to deal with at the best of times,’ said the reflection in the mirror.
As far as Fane was concerned ‘family values’ was just another way of saying a lot of people enjoyed getting involved in your pain.
He thought of the last man to have put up with Mum for more than a week. The poor bastard had all but run out the door after he’d woken up with a knife at his throat after Mum had had one of her suspicious turns.
Fane put his ear to the wall, but the latest victim to have been treated to a wall shaking monologue must have left because the flat was silent.
‘Not a sound, count yourself lucky tovarisch. I have to listen to her every night.’
The rants never varied either. Men were all shits and the world was out to get her. Fane’s Mum wasn’t particular where she cast the blame.
‘You’ll never get out of here if you’re not careful Fane,’ he reminded himself.
Fane punched another crater in the wall and stared at the blood welling from his knuckles.
‘What is it Mum?’
‘Faaaaane, baaaaaby, come talk to me.’
‘…baby…come talk to me…’ The echo’s bounced round Fane’s head.
‘Go back to sleep Mum.’
‘Bayyyyby, I’m sorry I was nasty to you earlier.’
He reached for the light and wondered why he was bothering. The city was in darkness most of the time these days.
‘Ok, Ok, I’m coming.’
Fane didn’t really need to ask he could smell her even from where he’d entered the corridor, hot and sweet, like bile.
‘You been sick?’ said Fane.
‘I don’t know sweetie, I can’t see anything, the lights are off and I can’t find the switch.’
‘I’m not cleaning up again if you have.’
‘That doesn’t matter sweetie. Come and talk to your mother. You know I didn’t mean any of what I said last night.’
‘Course you didn’t Mum,’ said Fane entering the living room and catching sight of his Mum slumped on the sofa. ‘It was just the booze talking.’
‘You’re not upset with me?’
Fane shook his head.
Like he cared. He was going places one of these days.
‘No, you do wonders for me Mum.’
There was the sound of laughter, ‘You always cheer you’re old Mum up. Why won’t you talk to me anymore?’
‘Because you’re an embarrassment.’
He kept it low so she wouldn’t hear.
‘Sweetheart,’ his Mum searched the creases of her unmade bed. ‘Will you get me some ciggies? I need my ciggies, I’m all out.’
Fane’s eyes went to the window. It was dark. But he knew from experience the only hope of getting any more sleep lay in what was left of the bottle of vodka she was cradling and him doing what she wanted until she passed out.
‘You need to give me some money first.’
‘Baaaayyyby…’ It was amazing how she managed to sound hurt even with eyes that couldn’t focus. ‘You know I look after you, don’t I sweetie?’
‘I’ve cleaned the fridge out if that’s what you mean.’
‘I was enjoying myself Nicu. I’m allowed to do that aren’t ?’
‘Just give me the money and I’ll get you your cigarettes.’
Time to leave, if he stayed in the flat any longer he’d suffocate. Fane took a shallow gulp of foetid air.
‘Be careful Fane, you’re my little boy remember.’
The words followed him down the unlit stairwell.
When he was outside he felt a little better, although that didn’t stop the shivers. Fane’s clothes were shrinking faster than he could replace them.
He could just see the other tower blocks. Round here they were like roadmaps. You learnt to navigate by the silhouettes they cut out of the stars if you went out after dark.
He stepped into the square making sure to watch for signs of movement past midnight was when things changed, the streets got hungrier when they’ d emptied.
Nicu burrowed deeper into his thin coat. Last week they’d found a tramp lying on the pavement, frozen so solid they’d had to cut him off the concrete. He shivered, and took a short cut through a parking lot. The quicker he made this journey the better. He was clattering down the stairs when he saw the old man.
‘Git any spare change kid for an old war hero?’ the voice was full of a lifetimes tar and gravel.
‘Not enough,’ said Fane.
Ducts spread down the stairwell and at first he couldn’t barely see the figure wrapped in rags amongst the clouds.
‘I’ll tell you something you’ll want to know.’
Fane’s fingers felt like they had frostbite already, ‘Just let me past.’
‘I might,’ said the man as he leaned into the light, ‘but the others won’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
Fane shot a glance through the emergency exit’s cracked safety glass. Out there was the car parks lowest floor. It was so dark someone could be staring back and he wouldn’t know it.
‘Saw some of them didn’t I? Shifty little beggars, always hiding, waiting for the next one to come along. That’ll be you I expect.’
Fane stopped; suddenly the short cut didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.
‘Where are they?’
‘On the ramp, most of ’em anyway, like laying traps don’t they?’ Fane could see teeth flash where the light didn’t reach easily. ‘I know, used to do it myself. Why are you out at this time of night? You’re going to get yourself killed.’
‘They’ll lose,’ said Fane.
‘What a surprise, every lad your age is a cross between God and Superman. I was trying to be helpful not piss on your pride. Now, what is it that’s got you roaming about when it’s as cold as this?’
Fane let himself relax a little.
‘My Mum sent me to get her something.’
‘Ah, she’d be one of the all night variety?’ The figure nodded to itself like it knew exactly what that meant, ‘What’s her poison?’
‘Mostly booze and smokes these days. She wants me to go get her some.’
‘Or, she’ll be up half the night moaning? You don’t have to answer, I know the type. I might even be able to make your life a little easier if you’ll do something for me.’
Flames jumped high in the gloom as the man lifted the lid on an oil drum.
‘Stay a while; listen to a story. The fires hot, it’s got to be better then going and meeting them up ahead, don’t you think? They won’t wait forever it’s too cold for that.’
Fane considered his options. It wouldn’t hurt to listen.
As he got closer he could see the man more clearly, although he soon wished he couldn’t. He was a good example of what the streets did to their tenants. It looked like battery acid had been eating at his skin.
‘How old are you gramps?’
‘Forty last time I checked.’
He looked about ninety. The tramp took another swig from his bottle and rummaged in his pocket.
He tapped the cigarette packet against his forehead and Nicu’s eyes narrowed.
‘My name’s Ilia, drink?’
‘No, I’m good,’ answered Fane.
A thin stream of smoke escaped the man’s mouth as he sucked on one of the cigarettes he’d tapped out.
‘Not stupid are you? The stuff round here’ll take the years off you as fast as it’ll get you drunk. I’ve lost count of the amount of friends I’ve lost like that. Quit standing there anyway, if you won’t drink get closer to the fire’
Fane stepped a little closer to the warmth, careful to keep the drum between him and the tramp.
‘Where did you get the smokes? They’re almost as rare as food stamps these days,’ said Fane.
‘I’m connected boy, been around a long time; a hell of a lot longer than you by the look of things.’
‘Give me one.’
Ilia grunted and slung the battered packet in his direction.
‘Smoke away; enjoy every puff. They’re the best cancer sticks in town.’ A grin spread across his face exposing a row of rotten teeth. ‘But you’re at my death bed so listen.’
‘Whatever you say.’
Fane’s breath sucked between his teeth as he noticed something he hadn’t spotted before. It wasn’t just cataracts in the man’s eyes. He’d seen that look before, and the scarlet stains spreading across his cuffs.
Ilia noticed where he was looking.
‘Already started before you turned up kid. Didn’t hurt half as much as I thought. Saw you running by and thought I could do with some company for the last bit.’
‘I could… .’
‘What? It’s too late for ambulances now, way too late.’
Ilia shrugged, and the knife tinkled to the floor, steel catching what was left of the city’s lights for a second before the shadows claimed it.
‘Ah, I was coming to that. You wouldn’t know what it’s like to feel really afraid, not yet. You’re too young. I never used to feel like that either, but I learnt.’
‘I’m terrified already,’ Fane yawned deciding that he didn’t really care if some old tramp wanted to end it all. His life, his choice. ‘Better hurry up old man.’
‘At least I won’t have to spend another night with the scum round here. I’m better than that. It’s time to say goodbye. Nothing worth living for anymore, only the rotgut that keeps you going.’ He paused and shudder ran through him. ‘I can’t stop remembering.’
Fane thought of his Mum, there wasn’t much longer she could go on like she was before something broke either, and she wasn’t anywhere near as bad as this reject. He thrust his face over the drum so the man could see it clearly.
‘I’m tired of whining drunks gramps. What you’ve got to say better be important.’
‘’Course you are boy. Your problems are plain as day. I bet you think it’ll get better if you tough it out, it won’t. I’m living proof of that.’
Fane thought back over the amount of times he’d heard that before. It was his Mum’s favourite line. Nothing was going to get better. It was all somebody else’s fault. He supposed it made life a little easier for her to bear if other people shared her misery.
‘People used to show me some respect, you know? Chief Inspector Vladovitch: a hero of the migrant war.’
The tramp tried to leap to his feet, and slipped, slumping back into the garbage the bottle rolling from his nerveless fingers.
‘You’ll address me as sir.’
‘’Course you are… sir.’
That seemed to work, the man relaxed and dropped his hand, picking up the bottle and taking another swig as he did.
‘It wasn’t always like this you know.’ The old man fixed Fane with his washed out eyes. ‘No…it was a lot worse.’
‘It can’t have been worse than it is now,’ said Fane mildly surprised that the answer he’d been expecting hadn’t come.
For a moment Fane regretted saying it, but Ilia had already grabbed his chance. His smile matched the wounds on his wrists as he began to speak.
‘It was different back then, the whole of central Asia was on the move. I can’t say I blame them really, the seeds had failed for the fourth season in a row, and their wells had dried up. That pretty much took any hope of a future for most of them with it. The fighting did the rest as they tore themselves apart for what was left. They did what I’d have done; they moved. Not just a family, or two, whole populations upped sticks and hit the road. ‘The politicians and the far right tried to lock down the borders of course.’ Ilia’s laugh echoed off the walls flat, and hollow. ‘They might as well have tried to dam a sea.’
Fane stared at the flames, everyone knew how the war had started. It was rammed down your throat every day at school.
‘I’ve heard this before, what’s it got do with you?’
‘Just listen, it was my job to deal with them when they appeared picking through the city like we were the lucky ones. We used to take those vagrants out past the suburbs and shoot them so they didn’t disturb the families that hadn’t left.’
‘You shouldn’t have bothered. You got sold out, same as the rest of us.’
The look that passed over the man’s face was gone quick, but he couldn’t hide it.
‘I’m not talking about the betrayal.’
‘Then what do you mean?’
‘Wait and I’ll tell you. We didn’t know what was coming back then. I’ve heard of a plagues of locusts that hit Russia from time to time: the war was like that.
‘People are more difficult to kill though.’
‘Yes, but we did anyway, in droves. Not that it made any difference; they’d come back twice as strong. When the leadership disappeared the army didn’t take long to follow. It’d have included the force too, but we were too busy fighting each other for what was left. I shot them in the end before they took my share of the goods. How else was I going to start a new life?’
He took another swig from his bottle.
‘Anyway, they’d started up with the artillery before I decided I needed to get my family. The hills were black with them by then, and that was only a part of their army. At that point I was really beginning to sweat. The landlocked countries hadn’t had any food for weeks, and if there’d been a decent human being among them at the start there sure as shit wasn’t by then.’
Fane had to admit he was pretty interested now. He shuffled a little closer to the fire and watched the blood pool as it spread from the man’s wrists.
‘I don’t think you’ve much time left Inspector.’
It didn’t look like Vladovitch had heard him. He was staring though the alley wall like it didn’t exist.
‘I did my best to hurry, but the streets were rammed with bodies. By then everywhere I went there were people begging for help. I had to use my gun so many times I ran out of bullets.’ He paused, ‘You should have seen the expressions on their faces. When I got home it had been gutted, and they were making my boys watch what they were doing to my wife.’
‘Did you kill them?’
Ilia turned tired eyes toward Fane, ‘I bet you would wouldn’t you? A strong lad like you, but there was nothing I could do. I forget what happened after that. The world was full of bullets, and when I finally found my own I helped, just for the fun of it until there was nothing left to shoot at anymore.’
The Inspector paused, and stared at nothing for a moment. When he spoke again he was quieter; like he was scared to speak.
‘I remember sitting there in my cruiser for an hour, maybe two. Anyway, I was calm when the rats that had been nibbling at the city for weeks finally arrived in force. Behind them they’d brought their tanks. Those things were horrors. Even back then they were as big as houses. God knows what they’re like now.
‘Did they fire at you?’
Fane had to strain to hear him the next time Ilia spoke.
‘No, I think I had some idea about surrendering, but most of all I didn’t want to die in that car. I wanted the air on my face and something heroic on my lips. I’d been looking at the square’s statue you see, it was of a revolutionary general, and I was trying to find something inspirational for my last words. That’s when it moved.
He stopped, like he was waiting for Fane to say something, maybe to laugh, or call him a liar. But Fane kept his mouth shut; this was far too entertaining. He’d never seen a policeman bullshit their way into death too.
‘At first I didn’t believe my own eyes; cracks were running over it everywhere I looked. I thought maybe it was disintegrating, damaged by shell shot like a lot of the buildings back then.
Ilia paused, and drained the bottle.
‘But, it was coming to life.’
He looked straight at Fane then like he hadn’t lost nearly five pints of blood. ‘I know what I saw. Even if they tried to drug, burn, and beat it out of me. I know what happened. I see it in my dreams.’
Fane held his hands up, palms out.
‘I’m not arguing.’
The Inspector grunted.
‘He wasn’t the only one, either. There were more crawling from the houses, all the things the stonemasons had carved into the cities corners. Some of them weren’t human, some of them were. But they all seemed pissed, and they were all headed one way – towards the new comers.’
Fane hadn’t heard this before. The official story was the migrant army had been beaten back by the brave actions of the cities police who’d been the only ones not to run when the fighting got really bad.
‘To their credit the enemy at the end of the street didn’t stop when they saw them. They were men of God I suppose, and they didn’t give up their belief that they were protected even with gunfire skipping off the statues like hail. It was only when the things had gotten close enough to the migrants that the ricochets were digging holes in the fighters ranks that the men tried to get away. One of them managed to get a decent shot in, I remember that. But all his target did was pick itself up and replace its limbs like it was picking up sticks.
The enemy found out pretty quick that they had even worse problems. Because those tanks had gotten in the way by then. It’s not like you can reverse one of them down a street in a hurry – particularly when the drivers haven’t been trained in their use. By the time the worst of the screaming was over there wasn’t a man left standing outside those machines. Then the statues moved in to finish the job.’
‘But you were a hero, weren’t you? You killed them and saved the day, I expect?’
Fane smiled, the man would bleed out soon and his fantasy would be over. He wondered how many times Vladovitch had told it.
‘No, I got back into the car. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was terrified. I watched them climb back onto their ledges, one by one, praying to anything that was listening that they wouldn’t notice me.’
For a moment Fane thought it was over, the man was breathing so shallowly it was hard to tell he was doing it at all.
‘I needed to get that off my chest one last time. I told them all before they chucked me in the nuthouse. They couldn’t shut me up though. Now you can tell people too.’
Something cut the last thread that had been holding Ilia’s chin off his chest, and he slumped still clutching his bottle like it was the last thing that meant anything to him. It didn’t need much for Fane to tell he was dead.
It had to be one of the crazier stories he’d heard decided Fane as he rifled through the tramp’s pockets for the rest of his smokes. Fane’s stomach growled, but there were other more important things to worry about.
‘Come on, you’ve got to have something else to make all that listening worthwhile.’
He gave the dead man’s corpse a kick. The body would probably be found in the morning and if the tramp was lucky, reported. One less bum on the streets – at least the area would be cleaner.
‘Got you, that’ll do nicely.’
Fane rattled the change he’d found in the palm of his hand.
‘Enough for a decent breakfast.’
But, that wasn’t all the old man had had on him. As Fane rummaged through the rag the man had been using as a wallet his fingers found something unexpected.
Fane could feel the nubs of embroidery under his fingers as he pulled them free. He had to be sure.
He was looking at a Chief Inspectors pips, old and frail, but unmistakeable.
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