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Sinister

I saw her fall, and I can vouch for it that the fall, at least, was pure bad luck. Kathryn Blake has a reputation for overconfidence, and it’s not entirely undeserved, but I don’t believe that any degree of caution would have saved her from the unfortunate combination of a loose brick that looked sound enough, a startled pigeon emerging abruptly from a hidden niche, and a ledge that would have provided the handhold that saved her if it had not supported a thick, slick growth of some damp-loving vegetation, well nourished by the pigeons and watered by a leak she could not see.

We had been watching her in silent fascination, Kearney and I, since she first strolled casually into the alley below us. It had been early when we sat down with the maps and we had hardly noticed the evening fading as our conversation became more general, so as we sat in the dusk by the unlighted window we could see her clearly enough, even in the uncertain light that filtered through to us from the distant street. I’d known her, of course, from my first glance, as they had known I would. That would have been why they had chosen her, someone I would not only know, but would know had been sent. Not a company man I might not recognise. Not an associate I might not entirely trust. Kathryn Blake, plumb in the middle, as always.

My heart was in my mouth as she fell, and I was glad that Kearney couldn’t see my face as easily as he could see the scene below us. It was a short fall but a nasty one, with no time to find her balance and a potholed road to disrupt her landing. I thought for a moment that she’d managed it, but then she stumbled and went down in an ungainly roll, one arm flailing, and lay still. When I tore my eyes from the crumpled, childlike figure below us I found Kearney regarding me with a mixture of surprise and impatience.

“Are ye waiting for the bastard to get away?”

We were alone in the back room – I was still the new boy, and the only one of Kearney’s people still needing to rehearse my place in his plans – and I’d expected him to call for one of the others, scattered through the house at leisure. There were five to choose from, all of them older hands, already trusted. Still, if he’d elected me to fetch her I wasn’t waiting around for him to change his mind. I welcomed the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, and to let her slip away, if I could manage it.

I’d been expecting someone. It wasn’t only Kearney’s crew I was new to. He was my first target, and I’d barely got my foot in the door with him before I’d lost contact with my handler. Kearney had been willing to take me on for what I could do for him – I’m not the best burglar he could lay hands on, I’m sure, but I came with inside knowledge of a couple of systems he’d find useful – but he wasn’t greedy enough to swallow my resentment towards the service that seemed to have discarded me so readily at face value, and he kept too close an eye on my movements for me to get word out, derailing all our careful plans.

I hadn’t been expecting Kate, and I hadn’t expected them to play it this way – Kate slipping into the alley like a shadow, starting her ill-fated climb without hesitation, taking, evidently, a known route to a known goal. It was clearly planned; she was heading, undoubtedly, for the window most likely to give her easy access to the building, with a wide ledge for her to rest on whilst she worked and no risk of being overlooked by neighbours. Unfortunately for her, it was the window we were sitting by.

Kearney, I think, was persuaded that she had seen our two dark-windowed cars slide out early in the evening and expected, not unreasonably, to have the house to herself. Another night, that would have been true; tonight they had only been taken for servicing. I wondered if she knew. It wouldn’t be out of character for her to be planning her own capture, for her to count on being able to talk herself into the game once she was in Kearney’s hands, as I had done.

I wondered what place there was for me in that scheme, knowing her for the better thief.

 ***

I took the stairs as slowly as I dared, but found her close to where she’d fallen, still winded. She had propped herself against the wall, slight and darkly dressed, but visible in the dimness for her fair hair and pale face – paler, I think, than usual, though in the fitful light I couldn’t be sure. What I could be sure of, as I approached her, was that she was cradling her right hand uselessly in her lap, and trembling slightly even in the warmth of the night. It’s a funny thing, shock, striking sometimes out of proportion. I might well have been trembling myself as my shadow fell over her.

She knew with certainty the moment that I had masked her from that one overlooking window, and greeted me with a brief, flash-of-sunshine grin before asking

“Still with us, then?”

There were at least two answers to that, and though one was obvious and the other was something she couldn’t afford to trust I told her yes as I helped her to her feet, managing it as gently as I could under Kearney’s distant watch. She seemed willing to accept my word.

“And have we enough to go on?”

For arrests, she meant. To make it stick, to be sure the risks I’d taken hadn’t been wasted.

“Plenty.”

That quirk of a smile again, fleetingly.

“Well, come on then. I’m sure you’ve instructions to take me in.”

And so we did, a little mechanically on my part, supporting her as much as I could in the guise of keeping a firm hold on her. Even so she swayed against me as we made our way up the alley, and I looked down at her in alarm.

“You worry too much. If it helps, try to remember that I’m more sinister than I look.”

Before I could answer we were back in the house, and she was playing her part to the hilt, silent and grudging as I half pushed, half helped her up the stairs. I played along; I could already hear movement and muttered instructions from above, and knew anything we said would be just as audible. Even the few words we’d exchanged in the alley had been a chance, but as I hustled her into the long room at the front of the house I almost wished she’d taken a bigger chance – taken the time to give me a broader hint.

I suppose it had been a drawing room, that room. It had certainly been more than it was now, a bare, over-large space, an inconvenience to the conversion of the house into cheap flats. It took up the whole width of the building, with an entrance from the stairs and another into the warren of small rooms that made up the rear wing, and it had a kind of grandeur even now, despite its stripped walls and boarded windows. They had brought in halogen lamps from the garage whilst I collected our visitor, and we stepped into a harsh glare.

Kearney rose to meet us from the formica table that was the room’s only furniture. He was menacing without assistance, broad shouldered, running just a little to fat, striving for an air of bonhomie but never managing to disguise the hard calculation behind it, but he hadn’t trusted to his own appearances to put the fear of God into our guest. He’d ranged his men around the walls, silent and watchful, and the effect should have been enough to soften her up. It scared me, even though I was looking at half a dozen men I’d eaten and lived and worked with, men I’d have been happy enough to take a drink with, had I encountered them by chance in my local bar, and known perhaps just a little less about them.

Did they scare Kate? It was hard to tell. She still seemed to be unsteady from her fall, and anyway, she had her back to me, our only contact the fistful of her sweater that I held bunched at her shoulder. I heard movement behind me, the latching of the door, the closing of the ring, and I dropped my hold on her. Kearney looked her up and down thoughtfully, and his hands went to her waist – but only to unfasten her belt and examine the tools she’d carried. He tossed them across to Neal, who grunted his approval.

“Not bad gear, kid. Nice gloves, too.”

He moved with deceptive gentleness, faster than she expected, and she left it too late to evade him. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go. He caught her hands easily, and I thought for a moment that she might actually throw up or pass out as he pulled off the right glove. She did neither, but after the briefest glance at the wrist he took it in one meaty hand, almost lovingly, and squeezed.

You can say what you like about mental toughness and self-control. Pain writes its own rules. You can say it wouldn’t have helped her to name me: I knew that, and knew that she knew it, but with the pain coursing up her arm and bringing her to her knees I couldn’t expect her to cling to rational thought. For all that, my own safety wasn’t uppermost in my mind, though perhaps it should have been. All my attention was on the girl on her knees, paler than ever under the harsh lights, her eyes closed, her breathing ragged, livid shadows already patterning her hand. And Kearney held her wrist in his closed fist, and asked no questions.

I couldn’t keep my feelings entirely from my face. I didn’t try, and it was a matter of time before Kearney’s roving gaze singled me out, and he asked

“What’s amatter, Danny-bhoy? Not feeling squeamish, are ye?”

There was no point denying it. I could only retaliate.

“What if I am? The kid picked the wrong place to rob. We’re none of us in a position to take the moral high ground on that score.”

He dropped her and she subsided to the floor, watchful, feral, her right hand cradled in her left.

“Don’t ye think that’s a little naive, Danny-bhoy? Look around ye. Look at how she came equipped. Ye don’t earn enough to buy the best picking what ye can from dumps like this.”

“Well if you asked her, maybe she’d have an explanation.”

Whether he meant to or not he’d forced me into putting the question. I had to hope she had an answer planned; I tried to tell myself it was hardly my fault if she had not. I took a step closer and loomed over her.

“Well, have you?”

Of course she had. She span us the tale in short bursts, recovering her breath between. She was down on her luck. Her partner had got himself arrested and their flat and lockup raided. He’d kept his mouth shut and he’d gone down. She’d tried to carry on; she’d had little choice, with all her resources gone, and only the trade she knew and the tools she had grabbed and run with to support her. She wasn’t used to working alone. Research and groundwork had always been his areas, and besides, she was unnerved, and had abandoned a couple of jobs that might have been profitable. On top of that her regular fence wouldn’t touch her. Mud sticks when you lose a partner that way. She was out of cash and out of ideas when she saw our smart cars in her down-at-heel neighbourhood and decided she had nothing to lose by finding out whether there were richer pickings available than appearances might suggest.

She had grown bolder as she spoke, and by the end she seemed comfortable enough as she sat there, her damaged wrist in her lap, her free hand adding emphasis, here and there, to her tale.

“Ye’d buy that, would ye, Danny-bhoy?”

I said it didn’t seem utterly unlikely. I couldn’t defend her more than that, and I’d started to back away when he asked me what I was waiting for, and told me to search her. What could I do? I had her on her feet, and went over her. I made the worst job I could manage of it, under Kearney’s supervision, but I couldn’t avoid relieving her of a few more tools, some car keys, and a torch. I hesitated over the holster at the small of her back, but I couldn’t overlook it, not with Kearney overlooking me.

“It’s built in,” she said, not waiting for the obvious question, “and it’s empty, isn’t it? I hate to carry. My partner insisted, sometimes. It made him feel safer. He’s an idiot,” but she said it fondly, “that’s why he got caught.”

It was built in, integral to the waist of her trousers, and it was, as she said, empty. I remembered her lurch against me in the darkness, and I remembered, belatedly, that she was known as a pickpocket as well as a cat thief.

“Ye’d not have taken it off her and forgotten to tell me now, would ye Danny-bhoy?”

It would have been too late, then, to admit to the presence of her gun in my pocket, even if I had given him the loyalty I owed my service. I hoped she had taken my earlier silence for reassurance of my intent towards her, though in fact I hadn’t noticed the extra weight in my pocket. I denied his half-accusation with a little heat, held his eye a moment, and took the opportunity to melt back into the waiting ring.

It’s possible, though I hope it isn’t the case, that she’s given me more credit than I deserve for the next move. It’s true, I know, that my words were more effective, flung over my shoulder as an afterthought, than they would have been delivered pat whilst Kearney was still examining the holster, but the truth is that I didn’t think of the line until it was almost too late.

“Of course it could have come loose,” I told him. “That was quite a fall she took, and I didn’t stop to search for a gun I wasn’t expecting.”

He looked at me in speculation, and suggested that I go and look again. It was late. I was tired. I didn’t have to act my little flare of temper.

“Like blazes I will. Send some bugger else. I know I’m the new boy but I’ve done my turn tonight. I fetched the girl for you and all I’ve had is slurs in return. If I didn’t find the damn gun before, let someone else look for it now.”

I found I was eye to eye with him. I hardly knew how, and would never have dared try it in cold deliberation, but there was nothing left for it but to hold my ground.

“Well now, well now, me bhoy.”

I thought I heard soft, speculative menace in his words, but he dropped back, spreading his hands conciliatorily, and I hoped my relief didn’t show. He took the torch from the little pile of spoils we’d taken from Kate, and tossed it to Matt. Matt took the hint and left, and Stevie, after a momentary hesitation and a nod from Kearney, followed him.

***

That left us two to four – one and a half to four, perhaps – the best odds we were likely to get, but still not odds I liked in the confined space, even knowing that if there was a gun in my pocket it was the only one in the room. I shifted unobtrusively to get a better line, and found myself wondering a little blankly how to start it. I know how dense that sounds, but it’s no easy thing to pull a gun you only half believe in from your pocket, and hold it on men you’ve lived and worked with for over a month. Kate, of course, was not hampered by any such scruples. I could see her readiness and expectation, and I let my eye rest on her a moment too long as I hesitated.

Kearney followed my gaze and saw the same changes, the easy, regular breaths, the poised stance, her useless right hand hanging limply, now, at her side, as if it might, after all, be only sprained, though her pain had been real enough. He took a step towards her, and I found that whatever my conscious doubts I knew perfectly well how to start it after all, that my hand knew how to find the gun without instruction, and to thumb the safety catch aside, that my own voice was saying

“It’s not the girl you need to worry about, Kearney.”

His expression was worth a lot of the crap I’d had to take over the previous weeks, and it was obvious that despite his manner towards me he had trusted me more than I knew, perhaps even as much as a man of his kind ever can. There’s a little bitterness in that thought, always, however hard you’ve worked for the effect.

I had them lined up against the wall with their backs to me before the shock of the gun could wear off. I didn’t want to give them time to rationalise their fear away, to decide that it might be worth gambling that a man who hadn’t fired at the first opportunity might not be willing to fire at all. The truth was that with four of them, in that close space, I didn’t like my chances, however firm my resolve, and I didn’t want anyone to work that out, and to decide that he would be my last target, in a pinch, and that his comrades were, perhaps, expendable.

Kate didn’t speak until she was sure I could spare the attention, and then she apologised.

“It wasn’t quite what I had planned for the evening,” she admitted, and there was a compliment in it, of sorts. Coming from her it may even have been a better compliment than Neal’s half turn and startled curse when I called her by her name. You don’t get applause for my kind of performance, but that curse was an accolade.

She signed to me with her one good hand that she would have to call for backup, and how long we could expect to wait for it.

“We’re all unlucky sometimes,” I told her, as she had once told me, and she took it as I meant it, and managed a smile through her pallor.

I wanted our captive birds tethered before Matt and Stevie could make their way back, and calling for backup could wait on that, if it was not poised for immediate entry. I sent her to fetch tie wraps from the workbox, and she went obediently, either agreeing or deferring to me as nominally in charge, I wasn’t sure. I read them their rights whilst I waited for her, as much a novelty for me as for them. It loosened their tongues, and Neal objected peevishly

“Here, you can’t do that. You’re holding a gun on us. That ain’t right.” He grew braver. “It ain’t a proper arrest if it ain’t done right.”

I could hear the triumphant grin in his voice, but he didn’t move from his place. I smiled grimly, knowing I should have expected it from Neal. Always hot on his rights, our Neal. I quoted the guidance at him, the familiar words flowing easily without disturbing my concentration. I reserved that for their little shifts of posture, and for waiting for the first step on the landing behind me.

Kate reappeared in the far doorway, and I thought for a moment that she hadn’t found what I’d sent her for, until I realised she had stuffed the bundle of plastic strips into her waistband to keep her good hand free. I was about to beckon her over, to hand her the gun to cover me as I applied our makeshift handcuffs, but I was interrupted by Kearney beginning to turn towards me. I twitched the gun his way and he froze, his hands spread in a placatory gesture, but he did not turn back to the wall. He knew how much leeway I had to grant him, and I knew that in his place I too would be testing the resolve of my captor, seeing if I could stretch that leeway into a loophole.

He started talking, and I let him. I wasn’t paying attention to his words, and they washed around me without leaving a permanent impression. I had my line already drawn, and whilst he didn’t cross it I was prepared to let him talk. In any case I wanted to a few moments to consider my next moves, to be sure of not blocking Kate’s sightlines whilst I worked. I thought I could afford the time for that. I was wrong.

If I had listened to Kearney I might have made a better showing. As it was I noticed too late the momentary warmth in his expression and the softening of his stance, and before I could interpret it I had heard, too late, the step behind me, and Stevie’s giant hand was closing round my own, with Kate still standing in the far doorway – and looking about as sinister, I thought bitterly, as a chocolate bunny as she did so.

But I had only a moment’s view of her, and the thought did not detain me. I was already turning into Stevie’s hold, and there was a moment that passed without thought. He had the longer reach, but I was inside his guard where it could not assist him, and though he was the bigger man he had never been taught to use his bulk, except in intimidation. It was over in seconds, before Kearney and his men were fully aware of it, but I could hear them stirring, and as I lifted my eyes there was Matt in front of me. I could deal with him as rapidly as with Stevie but it would use, still, more time than I had. In another minute Kearney would have marshalled his men, and even with the gun I would be hopelessly outnumbered.

I took a stride forward, over Stevie’s encumbering body, determined to do what I could, but even as I moved there was a soft rush and a glint of light beside me, and Matt staggered and fell to his knees, his left hand clasping at his right shoulder, and at the knife hilt that had abruptly appeared there. My back was to the wall before I knew what I had done, and I had the room covered again, and a moment’s grace to look again at Kate.

Her left arm was still extended from the throw; I could see the end of the sprung sheath below her cuff, the sheath I had managed, in all honesty, to miss in my hasty search. She smiled, and shrugged, and took a tie wrap from her belt with her agile left hand, the hand that sinister lady favours, and went on quietly with her work, as if we had never been interrupted.

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2 comments on “Sinister

  1. Yeah! Wonderful stuff, as ever. Although I was disappointed not to see Kate finally light that unlighted widow from paragraph two.

    Like

  2. Ha! Knew I was right to put it here first. Thank you (and for the kinds words too)

    Like

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