by Chris Henry
He stood on a small rise on the outskirts of the city walls and listened to the rain as it pattered against the hard ground. Light rose up from the city and cast harshly against the inky clouds. The air carried the clamour of the city, and reminded Dieb why he spent so much time outside the walls. It sounded so violent compared to the empty countryside. He slid down the embankment to the wall, and shoved a slab of concrete away to reveal a gap. Dieb stuffed the pistol into his waistband and slipped into the City.
The smell was the first thing he noticed: sickly, and sweaty. The City always smelled like a bad night in the gutter, the air full of piss and bile. It was enough to make him retch. Suddenly, a shadow spread across the ground in front of him. Dieb turned quickly to see a soldier towering over him, pistol pointed at him.
“‘Allo there,” the soldier smirked, “Got your papers?” Of course not, no one had papers; you can’t just come and go as you like in the Greylands. The only passport was a bribe: cash, food, drugs, favours. Anything to grease a palm. The Army’s ranks ballooned with men promised food and shelter. The City would’ve promised anything if it meant getting men on the walls, and boots on the necks of the peasantry. They fare better than the rabble, but not enough to keep desertion at a minimum. “Or maybe you’ve got something else for me,” he mused. The guard was a tall man, but his face was sallow with high cheek bones. His great coat hid a thin and under-fed body.
“Food,” Dieb replied. The guard smiled a bit, holstered the pistol, and motioned for Dieb’s bag. He unslung the rucksack and passed it to the man. As soon as the guard’s attentions were elsewhere, the gun slid from his waistband, and pressed into the guard’s ribs. “Quiet. Gun in the bag.” He complied. “Turn around, on your knees.” Again, he complied. “Close your eyes.” Dieb thumbed back the hammer, and waited a moment before he silently slipped away. It was a full minute before the guard realised he’d been spared, if only for the moment. His captain would probably have him shot for this. He too slowly slipped away into the city, and shed his uniform as he went.
Dieb trudged through the rainy city, and mulled over the door. Everything he’d found, the unspoiled rations and money, told him that door hadn’t been unsealed since the Exodus. There could be something worth while in there, he thought. All he needed were the right tools. No one sold cutting tools these days; they’re not edible, and besides no one can afford them. A shop isn’t likely to sell something that will be used to rob them later. He couldn’t think of anyone who might have the tools he needed; no high borne from the Golden Track to call for a favour, no mechanics or metal workers who might have them…
A gunshot, and screams. Another poor boy killed for trying to survive. The police drag another child away, a sad girl with a grief-struck face and blonde-hair that might be pretty some day. If she lived. For a moment Dieb thought of someone from long ago, felt the pistol through his shirt, and daydreamed about being a hero. Someone jostled him in the crowd, and the dream flitted away. Heroes die, he reminded himself, along with everyone else. A scuffle in the street, and the cops scramble to break it up before the fighters turned on them. The girl disappeared into the crowd, led away by a small boy. And then the slow smile crept across his face.
Jack, he thought. It wasn’t a warm thought, but one that carried opportunity.
He moved quickly towards the scuffle, and saw the two cops engaged in a fist fight with some of the largest boys he’d seen in a while. The crowd had formed a wide circle around the fighters. The larger, bald fighter knocked his opponent to the ground, the cop’s face bloodied. “Mosh! Scarper!” he shouted as he broke through the crowd and fled towards an alley. Dieb had seen him before, another one of Jack’s lads. The other boy heeded and quickly left his opponent slumped unconscious on the pavement. The fat, bloodied cop, scrambled to his feet, and fumbled to get his pistol free of the holster. Before he could, Dieb pulled his scarf over his mouth, and stepped through the crowd with pistol in hand.
Someone shouted gun and everyone scattered. The cop frantically looked around for the source of panic. He found Dieb with pistol raised, his other hand outstretched. “Gun. Slide it to me.” It clattered across the pavement until it stopped under his foot. Dieb wrested the other gun from the unconscious cop’s holster while he kept a sideways glance on the fat one. The two police pistols found a home in his rucksack alongside the army pistol. “Face down,” he said, before he disappeared into the crowd.
Dieb ducked down an alley and clamoured up a rusting fire escape to the roof. He kicked himself for that. Shouldn’t have got involved, he berated, That was stupid. A siren wailed in the distance and heralded reinforcements. He’d have to keep off the streets for a while until he could trade coats. Should have shot the fat bastard? he wondered, How do you even get fat? Dieb settled into the hulk of an old green house, a few panes remained to provide respite from the rain.
The pistols were laid out before him as he checked each one for value. The gun from the bandit was rusty salvage with five scratches on the slide. The army pistol and one of the cop pistols were the same service automatic, all dark metal and plastic, with full magazines. Nothing exceptional about them, but worth a fair price. The fat cop had a revolver with rosewood grips. It showed a lot of holster wear. Dieb could imagine the fat bastard practicing his draw in front of a mirror. He swung open the cylinder and found two of the six cartridges had been fired. It smelled of spent cordite. This was too valuable a gun for a cop, only someone from the Golden Tracks would have been able to keep this.
As night fell, the sirens drew distant and the city settled into a quieter routine. Most people stayed off the streets at this hour. Only the main streets had any lights, and neither the police nor army had much desire to patrol the darkened corners of the city. Dieb slipped into the cracks of the city and worked his way down into the Shadows.
He bribed his way into Jack’s presence; a mouse of a boy took the tin of meat and shook it vigorously, squeezed it and pressed on the sides to check for bulging and make sure it wasn’t a trick can. “A’right. Follow me,” the boy motioned. Deib followed quietly, but the boy continued to chatter. It made Dieb nervous. “I seen you ‘round b’fore,” he continued, “Tradin’ with Pops. You want me ta take you to him?”
“Just Jack.” The boy sighed and led Dieb through the Shadows. He could feel eyes on him as they passed through the more crowded areas. When they arrived at Jack’s, the boy took his meat and ran off into the dark. Dieb swore he could hear him laughing. Dieb pushed the door open, and found Jack tending his fire with a poker. Jack stared into the fire for a moment before he slowly turned to Dieb.
“Ah,” Jack sighed, “You.” He set the poker against the fireplace and gestured to one of the old chairs. Dieb set his bag down beside the chair before he settled into the chair. “Been a while, Dieb.”
“Been outside for a month,” Dieb said as he hoisted the bag onto the desk. He pulled out the food, water, and oil. Then he unrolled the coat and neatly set each pistol on the table. “Unloaded.”
Jack raised an eyebrow at the pistols, and picked up one of the service pistols. He racked the slide and felt the weight of it in his hand, before he set it back down and wiped the oil from his hands. “Very nice. Why bring them to me?”
“Tools,” Dieb replied as he set the keys down on the desk. “Found a door, but I can’t open it. Need a cutter.”
“Food? Treasure maybe. Don’t know, but I want to open it.”
“This is enough for maybe five hacksaws. Again: why did you come to me?”
“Hacksaws are too slow. I want a grinder, thermite, or a torch. Explosives. Anything fast.”
“Partner,” Dieb countered. He was frustrated with Jack’s stone face; a face that never betrayed a thought.
Jack turned back to the fire and stared at it in silence. The long pause made Dieb uneasy, and he shifted in his chair.
“Two days. Three tops. Have to be fast: bandit territory.”
“Take Dingo and leave tonight. Tell him to get a grinder. Take the guns with you, he’ll pick one. He’s shooter. Ask around for him, I don’t know where he is.” Dieb shovelled everything into his bag and got up to leave without a word. Jack turned to watch him go before he returned to tend the fire.