—I was born on a wet April morning—
—You said to start at the beginning.
—I told you I’d co-operate; there’s no need to threaten me.
—Look, mister, we’re spinning our wheels here. Do you want me to tell the story or don’t you?
It was a Saturday, early. It was my idea to get there before the crowds hit; I don’t like too many people. Jen’s a beach baby, she didn’t care to waste the best part of the day. Always friends of convenience, me and Jen.
Jen had this new guy, some no-name actor or rocker. He wasn’t her usual surf loser and she was out to make an impression. She needed a dress that would drop his jaw to his knees, and I needed a pair of shoes that would get me through a work day without crippling me. My family are big believers in work ethic, blisters or no blisters.
—Look, do you want me to tell it or not? I can sit here and wait if that’s what you want.
Like I said, it was early and the mall was quiet except for a bunch of gym types in pastel muscle tops hanging around by the fountain. Can’t say that Oakridge Mall’s any sort of urban centre, but when those high school kids hit, it’s like a bear pit on hormones. You don’t want any part of that.
Jen knew what she wanted and where to get it. That’s what I like about her, she has direction. I hate people who don’t know where they’re going.
Anyway, we were barely through the doors before the world went to crap.
First the sirens started. Ear-splitting klaxons coming out of the walls. I thought people would run but they didn’t, just stood around looking.
A sound like that, you can’t take it seriously. It’s too much. Jen and I did like everybody else, we tried to spot trouble coming. Should have known better; trouble doesn’t identify herself until she feels your neck under her ruby slipper.
Trouble is never what you expect her to be.
Next the shutters started to slam down. Started with the entrance, cutting off these two old ladies mid surprise-face, the stores after that.
Oakridge is one of those S-shaped buildings, all corners and long corridors, like a funhouse with nothing where you remember. One by one, from both sides of the entrance, the shutters rippled all the way round like a domino run. It didn’t quit until both sides crashed together over the archway into the food court and the rest of the mall. And the bathrooms.
Could’ve done with the food court later. Not to mention the bathrooms.
After that the lights cut out. It wasn’t dark, we had those big windows in the roof, but the whine of the aircon cycling down was not a happy sound.
“Lizzie, what’s going on?” Jen’s never been the sharpest with conversation, but hearing her made me realise the sirens had stopped.
I would have answered but I was watching a rat run up one of those wooden trellises fixed to the wall. Brown and fat with a tail like a creature all on its own, biggest I’d seen since my cousin Johnny used to take me junkyard-diving back when I was a cub.
My family prefer I don’t talk about that, but after today I suppose it doesn’t matter.
The rat stopped halfway up the trellis, half-hidden by some green stuff, not moving except for those little black eyes flicking around. Strange thing for a rat to do, sit out in the open like that.
Jen picked up on my not answering, and her eyes followed mine to the rat. She spotted it, she screamed, and all hell broke loose.
Funny how one scream is all it took. With the sirens and the steel doors and the power going out, everybody stood around politely like it was a dinner show minus the dinner. One little shriek from a redhead in a sundress and all of a sudden it gets serious.
I’ll never understand people.
The noise shook the rat out of its stillness, and it scooted up the wooden trellis to some pipes near the ceiling. Thing had more sense than the rest of us.
This woman, about thirty, dressed in a silky blouse and flower-printed skirt, was screeching and getting real worked up. Had a little boy with her, maybe two or three, and the kid clung to his mom’s skirt while she lost her shit. With the sirens and the steel doors and the rat, that was the first thing made me uncomfortable.
One of the mall cops calmed it. There were two of them locked in with us, a skinny, older one and a small, fat one with a bald spot. The skinny one had a moustache.
It was the short guy that calmed her. He took her over to the benches by the fountain, and the little kid trailed after them like he couldn’t think what else to do. The old one stayed with us; Jen has that effect on guys. Something about her nice girl vibe and the way she fills her sundress.
I could see an oil-slick of Muscle Men giving orders over by the fountain: pink, orange, lemon, mint, sky. A tall, pink one waved his arms and shouted, and a short, mint one stomped around in jackboots.
Talk about mixed messages.
“No need to worry, Ma’am,” The rentacop’s name tag called him Sims, “the security’s a precaution. It should be over soon.”
He moved off towards those Muscle Men before I could ask about what he meant by soon enough, precaution against what. He was talking more to Jen than me anyway.
With those big windows in the roof and no aircon, the place heated up fast. Jen and I found a corner by one of those fake marble pillars. We had some plant boxes to lean against, and green always makes me feel cooler.
We could have gone to the fountain like everybody else. I say fountain, but with no power to pump the water it was just a dirty puddle with ideas above its station. People bunched together in little knots of three or four, it was funny to watch them. They say crisis brings out the best in people, I say it brings out the pack animal.
Sims and his buddy floated from group to group, not staying long, smoothing little rumples and moving on before anybody pinned them down for answers. Pretending to be in charge, when really people watched the Muscle Men for hints on what to do. Pack always puts the strongest at its head.
So we sat, and got sweatier and more thirsty, until I hit the end of my patience. I stood up, ready to rattle that Sims guy until he spat up some answers.
Something happened by the fountain right then, more screaming but not Hysterical Mom this time. Whatever it was we could hear but couldn’t see with all the people moving around.
Jen stood up behind me; she doesn’t like trouble.
“Lizzie, let’s stay here a while longer.” Smart advice, but my gut told me we’d been on our own too long already.
The fountain was at the other end of our block of chopped-off mall. Every step I took towards it the gland of trouble at the back of my neck shrieked louder.
We were about halfway there when I saw him, hunkered in a doorway in a one-man bubble of isolation, his eyes on us instead of the fountain. His back leaned against cold steel, he had a battered canvas backpack between his boots and a Medusa pattern of inky hair around his face. And black, black eyes, not darkest brown but true absence of anything light.
Seeing him gave me a knotted feeling in the back of my head, hot and tight, like when you stay up all night then have to be in work for eight. The feeling like nothing’s real, that you’re just going through the steps of the dance until people stop watching and you can disappear.
I didn’t like that feeling, no I did not. I stepped past the guy and left him where I found him.
The mall cops came to meet us, both of them this time. I stepped to the left until I brushed against one of the plant boxes, the ones with huge, fuzzy elephant ears growing higher than my head. They wouldn’t see the Dark guy in his corner unless they got past me.
I don’t know what made me do it.
“Time for answers, gentlemen.” The aggravation in my voice wasn’t faked.
The short one was wearing a “George” name-badge. Could have been his first name or his surname, I was several levels past caring.
“Please tell us something.” Jen threw her voice in behind mine, hers slanted a lot more towards persuading.
Sims told us about the guy, the one they were looking for. He wrapped it up in a pretty package about safety and not wanting to cause a panic, but the short of it was that the authorities were hunting somebody and we weren’t getting out until they caught him.
He wasn’t in with us, of course not. Nothing dangerous, or we wouldn’t be stuck with only a couple of mall-cops for protection, now would we? Which might, maybe, have convinced me if I hadn’t seen that guy. My gland of trouble was singing so high I almost expected windows to shatter.
We let them lead us back to the fountain, Sims clucking around Jen like a momma hen, and I didn’t look back. I knew that Dark was gone.
About twenty people boiled around the fountain like insects, or maybe more like jackdaws. They twittered and blustered, flapped around each other, and made fuss enough for me to consider heading back to my nice, quiet pillar. We came in range and they fell over themselves to close around us and swallow us up.
Except for Hysterical Woman, who was still rocking and whispering to herself. The kid had figured out his options, and now he hung on the skirt of some mild-mannered, religious-looking type. You know the ones, with long hair and long skirts, and that Jesus light in their eyes.
The Muscle Men paid us no heed, clustered around something on the ground inside their inner circle. Which, when we came close enough, turned out to be the tall one, his pink t-shirt red now and slashed from right shoulder to left hip. His body underneath was sliced the same way, and his moans didn’t suggest the red was body paint.
That’s when I decided that I needed to find myself a blade. These Muscle Men seemed exactly the type to slip one into a belt or a boot, and I rated my needs over theirs at this point.
The rest were a couple of old guys, a handful of high-school kids whose hormones had lured them out early. Some moms and daughters, a scattering of men by themselves, and just the one kid, thank the Universe. One was plenty even if he was pretty quiet.
We settled in a corner where a pair of old guys gave us their bench. I wasn’t keen to let them—my parents came here from the Old Country when things got difficult for them there, and they have fixed ideas about what’s due to elders—but the old gents insisted.
Don’t worry, Jen thanked them prettily for it.
Seeing Jen pulled the Muscle Men towards us in ones and twos, away from their guy bleeding all over those black-and-white tiles.
“What happened to him?” If I had to put up with them I intended to get answers out of it.
“That guy, the one they’re looking for.” Jackboots threw me a sentence, enough to start my mind working.
Why would the rentacops tell us Dark wasn’t inside with us, do you think? They knew we’d hear the real story as soon as their birdies started to tweet.
I don’t need to tell you about my gland of trouble again, do I?
Sitting with the others wasn’t too much different from being on our own, except for the constant hum of other people, like insects crawling over my skin. It got hotter, and a couple of old folks cupped up water from the fountain puddle. Not me, no matter how hot it got. My cousin Johnny taught me to never drink from standing water, and Johnny never spoke anything but good sense.
I watched for Sims and George, but every time I spotted one of them he’d scoot away like a goosed gazelle. In the end I had to climb to my feet and corner Sims by the sliced-up Muscle Man, and that didn’t put me in any kind of good mood.
Sims saw me coming and his brush of a moustache started twitching. I waited him out, and when he spoke he spilled his guts. Although not in the same way as the Muscle Man, just in case you wondered.
The guy was locked in with us, is what he told me, his voice dropped, confidential. Safer to keep us there than take a chance on losing their perp. Top secret, he said, and he was trusting me not to start a panic.
Which tasted about as true as his last story. I swallowed it with a nod, though; no mileage in pushing him. You learn who a man is from what he chooses to lie about, is what I was told.
—That’s right, by cousin Johnny. You catch on fast, mister.
That was when I got my chance and took the knife. I could see the bulge of it at the top of that gut-slashed guy’s boot; I knew the Muscle Men were the type. I slid it out nice and quiet under cover of checking how he got on. Which wasn’t well, judging from the modelling clay colour of his face.
Jen was still preening under the attention of all those guys, even if they did wear pastel shirts. I walked a circle around the fountain, past Hysterical Woman and the religious type coaxing her to take an interest in her son. I tried to fit the pieces together—Dark, the rentacops, the gut-slashed Muscle Man. I was missing something important, I could feel it, and it made me itchy between my shoulder blades.
That’s when I saw the rat again. Closer this time, under a plant-box by one of the pillars. Not scuttling, just hunched and watching, with those little marble eyes flicking from Sims to the gut-slashed Muscle Man. To me. Something dark in those eyes, something knowing.
The sound of Jen’s raised voice pulled my head around; Jen never raises her voice. She was hard to make out behind so many pastel slabs of chest, and I realised I’d miscalculated. I thought having people around would remind them to be civilised.
What I should have thought about was how easy they shrugged off their gut-sliced friend.
They wanted Jen to go somewhere with them. I don’t know where, we were locked in a rectangle of steel without even a bathroom. What I did know was that Jen didn’t want to go, and no matter how much Jen drives me nuts, we have an understanding. She does the girly, up-front stuff and I see to it that she doesn’t have to go with brain-absent Muscle Men unless she wants to.
Which sometimes she does want. But not this time, and that’s my point.
I don’t draw the eye like Jen does, and I’ve never mastered the angry voice. Even so, when I tell a body to cease and desist they usually understand that I’m not playing games. The Muscle Men surely knew, and it made their eyes sparkly.
Jen eased out from between Jackboots and the one with the spider tattoo on his hand, and settled herself as close as she could get to an old guy with a Zimmer frame. She’s a smart girl, Jen.
Usually I talk first, to back them down if I can. It’s cleaner. Wouldn’t work with these boys, though. I could feel hunger in them for the hot splash of blood and the sweet ache of fist on flesh. The still part of my mind wondered about that, about the fact that we’d only been locked in for a handful of hours. Is this what we walk past every time we go to the mall?
Stupid question coming from me.
“She didn’t want to go.” I kept it mild, my back to the pillar and my voice pitched for the mothers and daughters, the religious types. Best to set the expectation here. That would be important, later.
Jackboots grinned, or better to say that he bared his teeth. He didn’t seem in any hurry to talk back, and his own expectation was clear as spring water.
There were four of them, the Muscle Men. I’ve been in worse situations, but that doesn’t count for much because I’ve been in some very bad places. Time to get my knife out.
And then he was there, my Dark guy. He slipped around the pillar like we’d planned it that way, loose and comfortable in his skin, somebody who’d tasted blood in the air as many times as I had. His hands were curled a bit, that funny colour that could be dirt or could be from the sun. Nothing like the bone-white of his face.
“Let me do this for you?” His voice was brown and rusty. I nodded and let him loose.
Two strides took him into the middle of them. They coiled around him like they had around their gut-slashed buddy, growling stupid man-things. They didn’t have his stillness, that perfect, frozen moment on the knife-tip before violence. I knew before it started how it was going to be.
Jackboots moved first. He held his knife blade down, like he’d watched too many Western movies, and slashed forward to where Dark should have been. The others loosened their circle to give him room.
And Dark killed them. I could tell you that he opened Jackboots’ stomach to spill his guts onto those boots, took Spider in the leg, lot of blood, messy. That’s just details, though. Dark pivoted like a dancer, like an artist who’s practiced his craft for years, and he killed them before they even knew they were in trouble.
Come to think of it, my gland hushed down to a tingle once Dark showed up that time.
While he danced and the Muscle Men died, Sims and George came up either side of me, their shoulders between me and the action. You’d imagine I’d feel protected but what I did feel was cornered.
Dark shook straggles of hair back from his face, his chest rising and falling under the charcoal of his shirt. He turned to face me and gave a small nod, mark of a dirty job done well. He stretched his fingers and curled those brown hands of his. No knife.
“Predictable.” Sims spoke from my left, surprising me because my day had twisted a long way from what I expected.
Dark said nothing, just limbered his shoulders in a way he hadn’t bothered with the Muscle Men.
“Having your enemies know what you want is a dangerous weakness.” Sims shot me a sideways look, a respectful nod. “You should have known we wouldn’t let you close to her.”
So. This was about me.
I knew it would come, someday, but Saturday morning in the mall is too popcorn even for my family.
I could hear twittering in the background, the people by the fountain, but it faded into the background like a radio turned low.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the kid let go of the religious type’s skirt and stand up. He was smiling. He didn’t look like a kid anymore, something about the way he moved, the way he swung his hips. I should have paid more attention to the mother.
“Well played.” His voice was too big for his body, too nuanced. “I didn’t expect you to take down all my pawns.”
The knife hilt slid into my hand without my thinking about it.
The not-a-kid must have seen the movement. He turned to me and bowed slightly. “Past time for a conversation with you, My Lady. Allow me to first take care of this small matter.” Words cold as stone from the mouth of somebody too small to put on his own pants.
It should have looked ludicrously unfair, the knee-high child facing off against the man with blood on his jeans. I hung on to my knife and tried to be ready.
They moved at the same time, Dark and the other one. Lunged towards each other, each throwing a shadow too huge for the body he was in. Dark was first to change. I could see the animal in him, his shoulders bunched with muscle and the tendons straining in his arms. His forehead bulged with a shriek of bone on bone and, for a second, I thought I could see horns.
The skin stretched on the other one’s forehead, chin, cheeks, into something that looked like old burn scars; tight and yellow-white and twisted. His nose spread and split, and long teeth flashed in the slit of his mouth.
They moved too fast for me to see much more than claws, teeth. Blood. The flash of a beak, black and wicked-curved. And the noise—a whistle and a screech all in one, carried on a vibration I could feel in my back teeth.
Have you ever seen two cats fight? You don’t know which part belongs to who, just that it’s vicious and it’s dirty and nobody’s getting out in one piece.
Feathers flashed, black and glossy, and were gone. Even moving fast I could see they were smaller, different. Brown and sleek, with long tails pink as lips.
I shouldn’t have known which one was Dark, but I did. The other had its long, yellow teeth clamped in his throat, and Dark’s claws were clogged with skin and hair from shredding its belly.
Sims stepped forward, his lips pulled back in what might have been a grin and looked more like a rictus. He raised his boot, ready to end things right there.
Being underestimated makes me itchy, and being manipulated makes my fingernails curl. So I took my knife and stuck it in his back, under the left ribs, angled upwards into his heart like cousin Johnny taught me.
In my family we learn right and wrong the way a person crams for a trigonometry mid-term. We put the work in, but it doesn’t come natural and it almost never sticks. Sims chose to play the game, and he picked the wrong side.
Dark ripped his throat free, losing flesh and a fair amount of blood. He jumped for a loop of hanging ivy, scooted up and across the ceiling pipes. The other one chased after, growling.
Leaving me with George, and what was left of the Muscle Men, and Jen, and the whole mess.
And here we are.
—I said I’d tell the story. I have no stake in what you believe.
—You do what you think is best. And so will I. I might even wait till Dark comes for me. I can feel him, close now.
—I warned you, mister.
Tara Saunders lives in a little house at the edge of a deep, dark wood. Stories whisper to her when she sleeps but dance away when she tries to catch them. She shares the dance with far too many cats and dogs, and with just the right number of childen. Find her on her website at www.tarasaunders.com for news about her first novel, Requiem for the Wolf, available now.
This is absolutely brilliant, Tara! I was gripped from the beginning and honestly did not see the end coming. Really well done!