THREE DAYS BEFORE THE HAMMER
The dark wants to eat me. I’ve spent long enough in dark places to know. I’m underground, buried deep, soil cramming into my mouth. The nightmare I’ve had since I was a kid. All I have to do is choke it down, fight the clawing panic, surrender to the shadows, but that would mean giving in, and Rumer Cross is no fucking coward.
I cough but there's no soil in my throat. I'm not in the ground. I'm slumped against something that shakes me like a doll. Why can't I see? My eyes feel like they're on stalks but there's only darkness.
A horn sounds somewhere and I remember.
The man in the street asked for a light then he knocked mine out. I was outside my place and I saw the fist coming, but I didn’t move in time. He must have bundled me into the van I saw at the kerb. The engine grumbles somewhere behind me and as annoyance hollows out my gut, I spy a hairline crack of light where the rear doors must be.
My head pounds and I go to scratch fingers through my hair, but they won't move. My wrists are bound behind me.
“Guy's a pro,” I mutter.
What does he want? And why the hell didn’t I duck when he made a fist sandwich with his hand? That one I can answer; I didn’t duck because nobody ever looks twice at me. I’m used to slithering around invisibly because I’m a shadow.
And I’m only half being dramatic. I’ve learnt to get by unnoticed – not that there’s anything that noticeable about me anyway. I could be any twenty-something city chick, my jeans a little rattier, my home-cut black hair more tangled, always getting in my face, which is a sun-shy kind of pale. Kids at school called me 'Oddzilla' and 'Tumour' thinking it would hurt me. Fuck them.
That punch hurt, though. My mouth feels weird. Numb and… big. Swollen. The guy must have a serious collection of rings. I run my tongue over my teeth and taste metal. A jag of pain shoots through my gum. One of them is broken.
Forget the teeth.
I can’t remember what the guy looks like. It was raining and my hood was up, so I didn’t see him until he was right by me, and when he asked for a light, the rain got in my eyes.
He caught me at a bad time. I’d lost the guy I was shadowing and I was in a foul mood.
Is that why I’m in the van? Is this guy a disgruntled client? Somebody I followed?
Nobody’s ever caught me following them, though. That’s how good I am at melting into the background, like one of those artists who paint themselves as brick walls or bookcases.
I wish I could remember his face.
No. I need to get out. It feels like I’m in a coffin, the van shrinking around me, and if I think about that too much, it seems like the coffin has no air and the earth’s weighing it down until I’m crushed.
The doors. If I can get to them, I’m home free.
As I try to push myself into a sitting position, I discover my feet are bound, too.
Finally, I’m on my knees. I reach for my boot, but the knife I keep there is gone. I swear and bite my lip. Biting my swollen lip makes me want to curse even louder, but I catch the curse and swallow it and focus on getting out. Getting to the sliver of light.
I shuffle on my knees and wonder how filthy it is in here. The reek of oil sears my nostrils. I keep shuffling, inch by inch, wondering how big this goddamn van really is, until finally I’m at the doors. I wrestle with the bindings at my wrists, but they bite my flesh, refusing to let go.
“Up,” I order. “Get up.”
It’s crazy how difficult moving is when your feet are bound and your hands are behind your back. Even without the rocking van. I think of the driver and I suck in a lungful of stinking air, throwing myself against the doors, digging my boots into the floor.
I’m panting now and it’s like I’m in a furnace. Sweat stings my eyes, but I’m up. I lean into the door and fumble for the handle.
There’s no goddamn handle.
I release a mad laugh. I never was lucky.
The screech of tyres tears into my dark hole and the van jolts under my feet. I’m tossed through the darkness. My face smashes the floor. Everything’s spinning and I’m not too proud to admit I might spew. I’m so busy trying not to heave my guts onto the van floor it takes me a moment to realise we’ve stopped.
Through the throbbing in my skull, I hear the driver getting out. Footsteps crunch and keys rattle. Grey light stabs the dark away.
The voice is tarred with nicotine.
Lying on my front, I feel vulnerable and exposed. Fear pumps in my temples and, yeah, this is bad. I twist around, trying to get a look at the guy, but he’s just a blurry outline, like he’s drawn with chalk. He’s carrying something. It goes over my head and I’m in the dark again.
“Out,” hacks the nicotine-tarred voice. Something drags at my wrists and I’m hauled into the rain. The guy’s strong. He seems to have forgotten my feet are tied, though, and I roar as I bellyflop to the ground. The rain batters me. My jeans and jacket tighten around my skin.
“Are you a moron?” I shout.
“Quiet.” Hands yank at my ankles and the ropes slacken. I fight the relief as I kick them off.
I scramble to my feet, still blind with the bag over my head, the cuffs working at my wrists like razors.
“Go,” orders Nicotine Man. A hand slaps my backside and every nerve in my body erupts. I don’t move. My jaw twitches with anger.
“Walk!” the man snaps. He’s to my left. I can see his filthy boots kicking the tarmac. I’m betting he’s armed, but that won’t matter with the element of surprise.
“I said–” Nicotine Man begins, but I cut him off by snapping my head at him. Our skulls crack together and purple stars pop inside the blackness of the bag.
Nicotine Man shrieks and I bury my knee in what I hope is his groin. He shrieks again and I can’t help smiling, shaking the bag from my head, savouring the rain as it runs down my face.
“Broke my goddamn nose.” He spits blood on the ground. He’s wearing rain-flecked sunglasses and he’s older than I thought. Mid-fifties, but lean with muscle, like a racehorse. Not a single hair on his head.
I hesitate when I see the gun holstered at his hip, but he’s clutching his face, red dribbling between his fingers.
A derelict warehouse squats across a grey patch of tarmac. I run in the opposite direction, toward the forest. I can lose him there.
Footsteps scrape the tarmac behind me. He won’t shoot. He wouldn’t go to all this trouble if somebody wanted me dead. Whoever his boss is, I’m betting he’d be angry if I turned up with a hole in my head. That’s what I tell myself, but it doesn’t stop my heart crashing against my ribs as if it’s trying to outrace me.
I barely make it ten paces before I’m tackled to the ground. My hair’s in my face and I can’t see. He punches me in the kidneys and I coil up, the breath trapped in my throat.
“Stupid cow.” He jerks me upright and I get a twinge of satisfaction from seeing his bent nose.
“What the hell do you want?” I cough.
His hacking laugh starts again.
“Why don’t you ask them?”
There’s movement in the corner of my eye. The warehouse’s battered doors are open and five figures in black suits and masks stand outside, each of them training a gun on me.
Nicotine Man’s laughter fills my ears as the bag goes back over my head.
Glass crunches under my boots. If I look down, I just about glimpse the grimy warehouse floor under the bag over my head. I hear rain again, the tinkling of chains – and something else. Scratchy music. The ghostly trill of a trumpet.
A hot stench floods my nostrils and I almost heave into the bag. It smells like rotting meat.
“It’s worse than a morgue in here,” I mutter.
Something digs into my back. The barrel of a gun. I keep walking. I swear I can taste whatever’s curdling the warehouse air. I’m actually grateful for the bag; it must be masking at least a little of the stench.
As I’m pushed on the music grows louder. A door opens and I’m shoved forward, presumably into another room, though it’s hard to tell. Something solid knocks the backs of my knees and I land in what must be a chair. Pinching hands bind my feet to the chair legs. I clasp my tied hands together in my lap, rubbing my knuckles, reminding myself to breathe.
Feet scuff away and a door shuts. It’s just me and the crackling record. I assume I’m alone. Reedy music warbles louder than ever and a smokey voice croons about how some guy did her wrong, how he was bad, bad, bad. The usual.
My head jerks to the side. There’s another sound. Soft breathing. Somebody’s nearby.
“So, here she is. The living Rumer.”
She hisses my name. There’s a hint of an accent in her voice, but I can’t tell where from. How does she know my name?
The bag’s torn away.
My eyes are fuzzy after the darkness and I blink the room gradually into focus. Slatted blinds filter in a neon haze. Something brushes my cheek. The room's filled with strange ornaments and little shadows flutter everywhere. Butterflies. They cling to wild spider plants and caress the grinning faces of Chinese dragons.
I thought we were in a warehouse, but this could be a seedy boudoir. There’s even a chandelier. Across the room, a figure lounges on a sofa. In the gauzy light, she's little more than a shapely outline as she leans into embroidered pillows, dark hair tumbling, smoke curling up from a cigarette.
I can’t help staring.
“When a man loses something, he loses more than the object that is taken from him. Don’t you agree?” The outline on the sofa speaks. “He also loses a part of himself.”
I twist in the chair but the ropes chew my ankles. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The figure sits up. Yellow light breaks over a disarmingly pretty face. She wears a patterned kimono that forms a V over a muscular chest and I realise it’s not a woman at all. The man’s eyelids are painted pink. He puts a fresh cigarette to his lips. The flicker of orange from the lighter briefly illuminates his face and I see one of his eyes is milky white.
“No matter what a man loses when something is taken from him, the thief always comes off worse in the end.” His voice rasps like torn paper. “Jealousy is a dog’s bark which attracts thieves, and you thought you could take from me without consequence.”
“Take…? I haven’t taken anything from you.”
Something on his hand catches the light. A silver ring.
“I have little time for thieves and even less time for liars.”
Thief? Liar? I’ve been both, but I’ve never seen this man before. Whatever he thinks I’ve done, he’s mistaken. He rises from the sofa and pads slowly toward me, muscle rippling, skin gleaming.
“Tell me where it is.” He drags on the cigarette. Orange embers simmer in his eyes and the smoky one shifts as if it’s sensed something mystical, something invisible to normal sight.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. “I haven’t taken anything from you.”
He bares his teeth and there’s a wink of gold. “She lies with her mother’s tongue.”
My stomach boils. He knew my mother?
I’ve forgotten about the rotting stench filling the warehouse. The butterflies. The scratchy music. Everything around him fades and it’s just me and the man in the kimono. I chew my tongue, preventing the questions from erupting in a stinky spew.
He stubs the cigarette out in an ornate ashtray.
“You’ll tell me,” he whispers. “You’ll tell me where the Crook Spear is.”
He's so close I smell his perfume. Cinnamon and something bitter. I’m certain I’ve never seen him before. I’d remember a face like that. I’ve shadowed plenty of people for Julian, followed them into alleys and grimy bars, but never this man. He’s not like the others. They’re petty criminals. This guy would eat them for brunch.
“I’ve never heard of any Crook Spear,” I say.
“Lies! I will not stand for them!”
He’s trembling now, snarling, his pink fingernails contorted into claws.
“You’ve got the wrong person,” I say, desperation edging into my voice, because the look he’s giving me is like needles and white fire. It makes me flush hot and cold and still the record singer croons about her rotten lover, her bad man.
“You’ll never leave this place alive.” Again the accent, soft but implacable. The threat seems to calm him. He's back in control. When he speaks again, his voice is thick as syrup. “The Crook Spear. Where is it?”
“I’ve never heard of it.” My shoulders ache and I realise they’re up by my ears.
“Your mother would be proud. The lie doesn’t even sound like a lie.”
“What's she got to do with this?”
He strokes my cheek. “In time. You will tell me where it is in time.” He looks past me. “Take her to the pit.”
Nicotine Man has been standing behind me throughout the whole thing. He tugs my restraints and I kick my legs free. Before he can stop me, I’m on my feet, knotting my bound hands together and pounding them into his gut. He makes an “oof” sound but grabs my hair and yanks. As my eyes stream, I thrash in his grip, but no matter how hard I resist, I can’t stop him dragging me out of the boudoir and back into the warehouse.
Angry yells echo all around me, taunting me in waves, and I’m only half aware they’re mine.
I’m hauled into a dirty grey square of a room. The smell’s so awful bile bubbles up from the pit of my stomach. I see a rusted grate in the floor just as it’s heaved up by a man in a black suit and a mask that covers his eyes.
“You’ve got to be kidding me–” I begin, but then I notice Nicotine Man’s drawn a blade from his belt. His brow knits together and he’s enjoying this, snatching my hands and running the blade through my restraints.
My hands snap free but then Nicotine Man tips me through the hole in the floor.
And I’m falling.
Then crunch, cement breaks my fall. Angry fireworks fizz in my brain, but as I spit dust and grunt into the floor, something worse distracts me. I try to stop panting; try not to breathe the stinking air at all, because now I know where the stench is coming from.