Authors: David Horscroft
“Everything.... Everything is on fire. Bodies dangle from broken windows. Some of them thrash, some of them hang still. Columns of smoke rise across the city.
Gunshots stutter in the distance, from all directions. Corpses line the streets. The smell of burning rubble excites me. The screams excite me.
“The New World is dying. Nothing has ever been so beautiful.”
1: Threes, Blankets and Other Old Friends
They say that good things always come in threes. This seems to be the case with everything apart from horsemen and unsolvable physics problems. As such, it stands to reason that my life is almost entirely devoid of triples, and instead stands as a somewhat morbidly whimsical chain of singular events. While one could perhaps argue otherwise, I find that most of the links in this chain can be traced back to an event which not only occurred no more than once, but also left most of the involved parties feeling dismayed or regretful because of their participation. In my circles, I would refer to this event as my birth.
From an early age, I both shunned society and kept to my own devices. I was not a particularly brilliant child: I began to speak at the normal stage, started walking at a suitable time and, in due course, morphed through my pupal stages into an awkward teenager. It was here that I developed both an insatiable thirst for knowledge and the ability to insinuate myself into any situation, whether it warranted my attention or not. Throughout my schooling career, I spied on my classmates, disseminated rumours, stalked neighbours and ran a surprisingly tight surveillance ship for one of my age.
I am not a nice person. Let me make that entirely clear. Of the two foolish enough to brook a relationship with me, both ended their lives uncharacteristically early. No, I didn’t kill them. Not directly, at least. The first washed her torn love and misery down with a cocktail of sleeping pills and tequila; the second drove his car off a cliff in a blind rage. Learn from them: you cannot fix or repair me in any way. I am not broken. Despite my dismissive nature, my diminutive patience, my sordid proclivities or my violent outbursts, I am not some damaged individual to be changed or ‘saved’. Nothing is wrong with me.
By choice, or as a side effect of my repulsive persona, I now embody the word ‘pariah’. Those who are not my friends know me as Fletcher. The unstable individuals who claim to be closer to me know me as K. My full name is entirely irrelevant: simply a handle to which one can staple crimes and glories. You will not learn it; even I sometimes feel as if I have forgotten it. To the vast, uncaring universe, I am either K Fletcher or nothing at all.
I’ve learned many things over the course of my life. I know that a jumper never goes head first, that a good lie is ninety percent truth, and that a knife will scare a story out of someone far faster than a gun. I’ve discovered that every man, woman and dog has a price, and that this price is lower than most people ever expect. I’ve found out, first hand, that napalm is far more fun than advertised, and that chloroform, while old-fashioned, manages to do a pretty good job. Most importantly, I’ve realized that any problem—regardless of size—can be solved with the suitable application of murder or explosives.
There are very few people who could say that 2012 was a fun year. No one denies that. But what no one seems to remember is that the world was a nasty place before 2012, and it is an increasingly nasty place afterwards. I guess that’s where I come in, to remind you that humanity didn’t change. It just took off a mask and revealed the grinning flesh beneath.
I’ve noticed something peculiar about people and their blankets. Their warmth and comfort seems proportional to two things: directly to the amount of work scheduled for that day, and indirectly to the chance of being shanked by a smirking psychopath.
This law probably also involves kittens, somehow.
I stared at the motionless figure. I was standing in a house listed under the name of one Clive Jackson, a middle class accountant who worked for the government. However, multiple things were strangely out of place. Even for an accountant, the house was particularly lifeless. Art dotted the walls, but it was fully devoid of anything remotely personal. The heavy locks and aggressive security measures were just rude.
I cleared my throat pointedly. The effect was both immediate and amusing. His arms splayed in opposite directions before his eyes even finished opening. Right hand to the bedside table: raise the revolver and fire. One click, two clicks. The first misfire was all he needed to realize that I had sabotaged his weapon—the second was simply a product of instinct. The left hand closed around the handle of a knife that wasn’t there. This all happened over the course of half a second. Shoot first, hide in legal jargon and government identity nets later—that was always Vincent’s style. The analysis followed the embarrassing thrashing—he added together my luxuriant pose, my trench coat and—more importantly—the snide grin etched into my face. He spat out words, as if shocked and appalled by their taste.
“Jesus Christ, K! What the hell are you doing here?”
I said nothing. He deserved to squirm for a bit. I hadn’t forgotten the Seychelles.
“Jerk. Still haven’t forgotten the Seychelles?”
I remained silent just long enough to cut off his next sentence. Vincent was predictable like that.
“I was on vacation. You were rude.” I wasn’t. We both knew this.
He overlooked this fact and continued with his interrogation. “How did you find me? And how the hell did you get in?”
“Clive? Seriously? You sound like a trucker. I would have hoped to find you under a classier, more suitable alias. Like ‘Michelle’. Your security system is outdated and the locks on the doors were just a joke. If I weren’t such a nice person…”
My tone was laced with a potent dose of snark. It felt like I was dragging verbal barbed wire through mental tiramisu.
Vincent’s eyebrows stormed towards the centre of his face, cresting over his dark brown eyes. He was angry at my intrusion—of that there was no doubt. On some level, though, I also saw that a part of him was glad to see me.
Vincent and I had a long history. We’ve both tried to kill the other before. I almost succeeded, to boot: a minor victory I didn’t let him forget. Despite this, we’ve worked together on more occasions than I can count. He’s often called upon my services for tracking, surveillance and more, and feeds me with official information outside my reach. The biggest aspect of our friendship was that we were both without love or compassion for one another. Without personalities to analyze and care about, our relationship was based on mutual abuse, violence, power plays and occasional professional courtesy. We both understood that our careers would occasionally cross paths, and neither bore a grudge when it did.
They say that a friend will help you move house, but a good friend will help you move bodies. To all extents and purposes, Vincent was a good friend.
Now that the initial shock had worn off, and the chance of being shanked seemed relatively low, Vincent had settled into an uneasy recline. He repeated his previous question.
“How did you find me? I’m supposed to be deep.”
“Vincent. The fun is in finding out, right?”
Perfectly maintained teeth ground against each other: “Then. Tell. Me.” This was spoken in a way that unquestionably capitalized each word into its own angry little sentence.
“No fun in that.” The smirk had returned. I was infuriating when I wanted to be: all the time.
“Well. What do you want?” He sounded peevish.
“Nothing. I just came to talk—quality time between old friends.”
“Just to talk? Old friends? You don’t know the meaning of either.”
My smirk remained, but my tone turned to mock offense. “You wound my honour, Vince.”
“Honour? That’s another one.”
My smile vanished. “That was mean. Say sorry.”
Now it was his turn to grin. “No. Cut the crap, Fletcher. What do you want?”
I took a deep breath. Despite our posturing, asking anyone for help with personal cases was difficult. Even Vincent. No, especially Vincent. The room was still for a noticeable stretch before I spoke again.
“I need a coroner’s report. And a sample of DNA—a hair, some blood, anything. I’d get it myself, but I’m strapped for time and for some reason the morgue is sealed tighter than a nun’s virtue. Never seen so many suited spooks in a university hospital before.”
The grin was now devouring most of Vincent’s face. He had the uncanny ability to show every single one of his teeth while still managing to look condescending rather than stupid.
“K Fletcher—private eye extraordinaire—can’t get past some smartly dressed meatheads?”
“You know I’d hate to ruin such nice attire with blood. It stains, you know. Total nightmare to get out.”
“Deflecting. Jesus. So you really do need my help here?”
“I need to get to the body before it vanishes. You have the authority to walk in there and do just that. I’d have to forge documents, get clearances, ready my mop. I don’t have time for that.”
“Vanishes? Cremation?” His tone was hopeful, but he had realised what this was all about.
“It’s the boy, Vince. I’m sure it is. But I need hard evidence.”
He rolled his eyes.
I did not appreciate the gesture, and spoke again so as to intercept the inevitable lecture. “Don’t say it. I know your opinion on the boy. No—I’m not in love with him. No—I’m not insane. Just do this for me. Please?” I despised my tone, but this was more important than an ego war. I tried to soften the request.
“I promise not to stab you for another month, at least. Probably. Unless I really want to. Or I’m bored. Or lonely. Or—”
“I’ll do it.”
I nodded. “I would say thanks, but you owe me one anyway.”
He stiffened and almost argued, but I stepped in and placed a finger on his lips. This action was instantly regretted: the long lacerations down the back of my hand were clear, even in the murk of the room. I withdrew swiftly, but Vincent did not relax.
“A nobody, dealer near the centre of the city.”
The tense stare I was receiving did not abate.
“Get off your high horse.” I snapped. “It’s not like I killed the pope. Though, he is on my list. Just because you wreath your lethal urges in government-sanctioned murder doesn’t mean you can judge me for not doing the same.”
Silence lingered for a few seconds before I stood to leave. Vincent opened his mouth as if to say something, but caught himself at the last moment. I didn’t have time for this.
He probably didn’t hear me re-activate his alarm, nor lock his door. Few ever did.
The early-morning glow filtered cautiously through the gutted buildings as I walked home, as if even the light thought twice about venturing here. To be fair, I guess you could call this place a bad neighbourhood. To the unwary, all gutterages were dangerous.
. The name coined by the military soon after the dust and smoke settled. Most cities had at least one; many had even become one. It was used to describe those areas where the filth and scum has risen from the gutters to take the land. Looters and pillagers, rapists, thugs and hired hands, thieves, vandals and mercenaries alike, all fighting viciously over whatever valuables and prey they could find.
Cities burned, military cordons appeared from nowhere and districts were sealed up and quarantined from the rest of society. Until the world had worked out the rest of their troubles, this is exactly how they would stay: festering hives of humanity’s grinning flesh and blood. There was no real authority here, no law nor vice save the rules of survival. I think in a pre-2012 world that would qualify as a ‘bad neighbourhood’.
However, there were certain factors that I needed to take into account. While the rules of the gutterage were those of survival, the laws of the government zones involved high-powered military weaponry and a lot of bullets. My ego may be large to say the least, but I’m well aware that one of my few flaws is not being made of Kevlar. One did not take a simple stroll outside curfew times without becoming a veritable lead magnet, and so my lair in the gutterage had become my primary haunt.
I’m generally left alone as I traverse the broken streets. I don’t know why; my wiry build would usually attract potential attackers. Maybe it’s just that: someone striding so purposefully through a place which literally has no purpose is enough to put would-be thugs off. Maybe I’m the Zhuge Liang of the apocalyptic wasteland. Perhaps I have some pervading aura of malice and hidden weapons; something that can be sensed but not necessarily noticed. But, for the third time since the gutterage came into existence, someone decided to break the pattern today. Remember what I said about good things coming in threes? Sometimes, just sometimes, the saying is true.
I stopped the moment they came into sight. This wasn’t going to be some mugging or stick-up. That doesn’t happen here. Here, they run you through and take what you’ve got while you bleed out onto the bricks. Guns are rarely used for small-key incidents like this: bullets are valuable, and you learn not to use them unless absolutely necessary. A quick glance told me everything I needed to know: three men in their late twenties with switchblades all around. One had a gold hoop through his left ear, which I’m guessing was supposed to be a sign of authority. In actuality, it made him look like a queer. As they began to step around the broken-down cars they had hidden behind, I raised a hand and spoke.
“I’m not sure you want to do this.” They continued walking towards me, almost casually, switchblades in hand but nowhere near at the ready.