The man walked across the street, looking both ways before emerging from his hiding place in the shadows of a building. He took long, careful steps, his well-worn shoes padding softly against the asphalt, hands clasped tightly around his gun and eyes absorbing everything around him. He reached the other side and without stopping began to make his way down the sidewalk, sticking close to the buildings in case something happened and he needed to duck in for a quick escape to shelter. Arriving at a corner, he turned right and entered the second building he came to. He’d been scavenging here for food and supplies the day before, and had managed to stockpile quite a decent haul before he was interrupted by a group of people making their way towards the building. They hadn’t seen him, he was sure enough of that, but fearing they would enter the building and find him there he’d stashed the food in a hiding place before making a hasty retreat. He had planned on returning later in the day, but by then it had gotten too dark for his liking so he’d resolved to play it safe and return the next morning, a decision he now regretted. If the food was gone he wasn’t sure what he would do.
He made his way through the building cautiously, glancing about corners and around stairwells before moving forward. It was common for gangs to claim specific parts of the city as their own, mugging and killing anyone unfortunate enough to be caught passing through. If this block belonged to the gang he’d seen yesterday he was in trouble: not only would his food most likely be gone but chances were high he’d run into someone eventually.
Fortunately enough he found his haul exactly where he’d left it: all six cans of assorted fruits and vegetables, tucked away behind a loose ventilation grate. This must be my lucky day, he thought, a grin spreading across his face as he stuffed the cans into his satchel. The moment didn’t last long: as he folded the bag closed and slung it back over his shoulder he heard footsteps overhead. Freezing in place, he looked up slowly, heart racing. The peeling plaster shook with each dull thump of the person’s steps, shaking dust from the ceiling and into the air about his head. Swallowing nervously he began his retreat, walking backwards with his eyes still trained on the ceiling.
Something clattered loudly to the floor at his feet, and he looked down to see one of the cans rolling away from where it had fallen from his bag. He bent down to snatch it up, but by then the damage was done. The footsteps had paused. For a moment time stood still, and he knew they had heard him but couldn’t bring himself to make the first move. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.
A muffled shout of alarm came from above, and now several feet were running above his head, presumably to the stairs. He didn’t wait to find out, unceremoniously stuffing the accursed can in his bag as he ran towards- the stairs. The only flight of stairs in the building, and consequently the same ones his pursuers were also heading towards at that very moment. Shit. He changed direction just as a pair of feet appeared on the step between floors, making quick work of descending. There was no other way down, and he ran through his limited options quickly before making his way towards the nearest window. It would have to do. He slid the window upwards, offering up a silent thanks that it did not jam, and ducked his head through.
The neighboring building was only a few feet away, the nearest adjacent window slightly lower than his own. Taking a precious second to gauge the distance, he took several steps backwards and, before he could psych himself out, dove through the window.
For a moment he was suspended in the air, two stories away from an encounter with the ground which would mean certain death one way or another. Then time came crashing back as he smashed through the window, landing ungracefully but for the most part unharmed in a bed of glass. Ignoring the ache in his body from impact he pulled himself to his feet, looking back to the other building. Two men stood in the open window’s frame, looking down at him with undisguised malice. Sparing no time to celebrate his small victory, he took off down the hall.
Chances were high the gang was already sending more men down to grab him as he emerged onto the street, and he knew he had to act fast if he wanted to beat them. He ran past a window at the end of the hall, and without stopping grabbed the banister and spun himself around and down the stairs. A large two door entrance awaited him on the ground floor, and he made his way for it eagerly, the taste of escape dulling his sense of caution. About fifteen feet from freedom the door swung open, and he skidded to a stop, feet sliding against the floor as he threw his body into full reverse.
Not waiting to see the person who’d blocked off his escape, he ran past the flight of stairs he’d just descended and turned into the nearest corridor. Heading for the emergency exit at the end of the hall, it was once again only a few feet from salvation that his hopes were dashed to pieces. The door was shaking, and he realized someone on the outside was trying to rattle it open. The fact that it could only be opened from the inside didn’t help him much; it served only to prolong their horrible game of cat and mouse, because while his pursuer could not get in, he still could not get out, and it was only a matter of time before the others closed in on him.
Looking around hysterically, he dove into the nearest apartment, closing the door behind him. He ran through the living room and kitchen, then checked and rechecked each bedroom before he was forced to accept that there were no windows, and no way out. He was trapped.
“Shit,” he swore quietly, before covering his mouth in admonishment as though controlled by two separate people. Hands shaking, he removed his gun and opened the cartridge. Three bullets. Three bullets would not save him from a gang. There were already at least four pursuers, and he was not a good shot. No, the gun would not get him out of this alone. Looking around the bedroom for inspiration from his surroundings, his eye caught on several coats hanging over the wall in a corner. For some reason it looked off, and it was only after he passed the bed that he saw why: they were hanging over a door, almost completely hiding the top half, the bottom of it obscured by the bed from his previous vantage point in the doorway. He rushed over and opened it, revealing an empty narrow closet. Looking over his shoulder, sure he could almost hear the men ransacking the other apartments looking for him, he squeezed himself into the cramped space and closed the door.
Waiting there in the dark with no sense of time passing, his breathing sounded dangerously loud to his ears, matched only in volume by his accelerated heartbeat. He tried to listen through the wood for any signs his pursuers were nearby, but whether because they were being quiet or simply because there was no one there, he heard nothing. Rather than ease his fears, this thought only served to make him more nervous. At one point in time (he couldn’t say how long after hiding), he heard someone searching the room, shifting things aside urgently. His breath caught in his throat, and he readied the gun, pointing it towards the door lest it open. In their hurry they must not have noticed the door, just as he hadn’t, because soon the sounds faded and he allowed himself to relax again, at least to a degree. Still, he waited for what felt like another two hours before turning the door’s knob and pushing on it. For a terrifying moment it resisted, and his first thought was that he was locked in and would starve to death, a victim of cruel irony. As he pushed harder and it budged, his second fear was that his pursuers were on the other side, trying to barricade him inside. Starting to panic he pushed harder, and to his immense relief it slid open with a grating sound, still resisting somewhat. Sipping out, he saw that the room had been ransacked, the bed pushed up against the door. He forced a nervous laugh at his own folly, and climbed over the bed to get to the door. Walking through the empty apartment, noticing the overturned furniture with mild interest, he made it to the front door and as he reached for the doorknob heard a voice on the other side. Stopping himself just in time, he strained to listen, readying the gun just in case.
“Where the hell are you Tyler?” The voice sounded off; mechanical and fuzzy.
“I’m back at the second apartment building,” a second voice replied, startling him. It was far clearer, not to mention louder, and he realized the man, presumably named Tyler, was talking with someone on a two-way radio. “I just wanted to give it a good once-over.”
“We already turned that place upside down,” the man on the radio barked. “There’s no way we missed him, and he’d be a complete idiot if he came back. Everyone else is searching far off from there; what the hell are you doing without a partner?”
“I’ll be quick, Ned,” he argued, sounding determined to stay. “I just have a feeling, y’know?” Ned said something he didn’t make out, but he must have consented because Tyler thanked him profusely before signing out. Recognizing his chance and deciding to take full advantage of it, he opened the door. Tyler was still fiddling with his radio, his back turned to the man, presumably switching it off so his presence wasn’t revealed by a sudden call while searching, but he looked up as the door’s rusty hinges complained. He turned, eyes wide and completely unprepared, as the man pistol-whipped him across the side of his head. He went down immediately, and the man pounced atop him, beating at his face and head with his fists. When he was sufficiently beaten beyond posing a threat, the man reached into his satchel, removing a long coil of rope. Straining to see through the swollen skin around his eyes, Tyler began to whimper, his eyes widening in fear when he saw what the man was doing.
“Shut up.” He said it coldly, giving no indication that only a moment ago he himself had been afraid of ending up in a situation much like this, their roles reversed. “I suppose I should have started with this.” Resting the rope aside, he removed a roll of tape, proceeding to tear a piece off which he then plastered roughly over Tyler’s mouth. He shook in protest, trying to cry out, but it was hard enough for him to remain conscious much less put much effort into resisting. Soon it was too much for him, and he fell under.
When he stirred his captor was pulling him to his feet, hoisting him by the rope that was now tied around his waist, doubling around to the back and tying off his arms before coming together and making a sort of leash, which the man was now lifting him by.
“Come on, up now. I appreciate you knockin’ out so I could tie you up; that was good. But now you gotta wake back up, cos I ain’t carrying you, and we got a-ways to go.” Tyler’s muffled voice protested, but he managed to steady his shaking legs long enough to stand, mostly to relieve the way the rope twisted at his arms, digging painfully into his skin. “Now,” the man said, turning Tyler to face him, “I’m only gonna ask you once, and I ‘xpect an honest answer. Are your friends coming back here?” Tyler shook his head quickly. “Good, good. Where are they at then? Are they thataway?” He pointed, in the direction he had come from. Again, Tyler shook his head, to which the man frowned. “You’re sure about that? Cause if you’re lying to me and we run into any trouble, I’ll waste you right there and cop. You can bet your sorry ass I’m not gonna trouble myself with keeping you alive if I need to run.” A nod this time, just as fervent as his previous. The man relaxed, satisfied. “Good. Now, turn around, an’ let’s go.” Obedient in fear, Tyler did so, and they began walking. True to his word, they met with no opposition, and although Tyler collapsed often, aside from this delay their journey was uneventful. Whenever this happened the man simply responded violently, kicking at him while pulling on the rope, and he would get back up every time.
The sun had passed its midday mark by the time they stopped at a building, indistinguishable from all the others. The man looked at it with a sense of pride, but it was interrupted by a sudden chill. He immediately recognized it; a sixth sense of sorts, developed by almost everyone who lived in the city as a result of the constant threat of danger. It told him there was someone watching him. Sure enough, the silence he had been reveling in before had taken on a sinister atmosphere; it was the silence of someone who was purposely making no noise. Looking about he saw nothing worthy of suspicion, but a window on the second floor of the building opposite caught his eye for the same inexplicable reason he had felt someone watching him. There was nothing off about it that he could see, not even anything unique. Still, the feeling persisted, getting stronger than ever. Suddenly feeling quite vulnerable standing there in the open, he tugged on Tyler’s leash, prompting him to keep walking. Tyler’s reaction was purely automatic; he had passed the point of thinking or even feeling long ago.
He ushered him inside, walking into the very first room on the right and leading him through it until they reached a bedroom tucked away in the back. It was well-lit; sunlight filtered through the window overlooking the street outside, and the layer of dust that covered all surfaces suggested abandonment and neglect. Tyler wavered in the center of the room, and the man noticed with a faint start, shaken from another moment of what appeared to be bliss.
“Ah, you’re probably wonderin’ about the state of the room, huh? I don’t stay here, see. This room’s for somethin’ else. My own room’s a few floors up.” In truth Tyler hadn’t even discerned that his surroundings had changed, but the man continued rambling as he tugged him aside, off of the large rug that occupied most of the floor. As he talked he stooped down, lifting one of the rug’s corners. With a flourish he pulled it back, and as the sunlit dust cloud cleared from the air, Tyler finally took notice. His eyes widened in the terror of realization as he noticed the trapdoor recessed in the ground at his feet, previously concealed by the rug. With a muffled cry he tried to run, but in a morbidly ironic twist of fate his legs finally failed him, and he collapsed in a broken heap on the floor. The man turned his upper body towards him, an amused look upon his face. “If you really wanted to get away, you should have tried that a long time ago, friend. It won’t be that bad, y’know. I take good care of my pets. I keep ‘em well fed an’ give ‘em lots of exercise.” As he spoke he lifted a chain from around his neck, revealing the key it held. He pressed the key into the trapdoor’s lock, twisting it with a faint resounding click. Grasping the trapdoor’s indented handle, he gave one sharp turn to the side and pulled it open with a grunt. The door swung upwards with a grating screech, catching midway in the air.
The darkness from inside seemed to reach out, spreading menacingly towards where Tyler had collapsed, paralyzed in fear. Like watching an accident unfolding before him in slow motion, he could not tear his eyes away despite every instinct in his body telling him to do exactly that. Looking down into that darkness, he knew with a certainty that filled every cell in his body until they were all screaming out in unanimous protest that if he entered that hole in the ground he would never see the light of day again. It would swallow him up, and he would vanish from the face of the earth forever. Something snapped in his mind, and he began to kick against the ground, pushing himself away with an urgency unmatched by his limited progress.
“Oh come now,” the man said, and he sounded hurt. “I just wanna take care of you. Look, I’ll introduce you to my other pets. It’ll be fun, you’ll see. Don’t you want to meet them?” Tyler crawled faster than ever, dreading the moment he would inevitably be stopped but unable to deny his natural instinct for survival. It came regardless; the man grabbed the rope, pulling him back towards the hole. “Enough,” he snarled, his patience gone. “The naughty ones get their legs taken away so they can’t run.” He hoisted Tyler to his feet, spinning him around to face him. “And the very naughty ones—” But Tyler would never learn what happened to the very naughty ones, because that was when the bullet ripped through his captor’s temple.
It happened faster than Tyler could follow, and all he saw was his captor suddenly fall aside, his head snapping violently to the right. No longer held up by the man, he fell as well, managing to twist in the air so that he landed facing his captor’s body. His body was still, but even so it was only when the blood began to spread with alarming speed that he realized what must have happened. He looked around half expecting to see his saviour standing nearby, their gun still raised in the air, nozzle smoking dramatically, but the body and himself not included, the room was empty. The stillness became unnerving, and certain he could hear the pool of blood crawling across the ground, making its way to where he’d fallen, he tried once more to free himself from his bounds.
Clyde shifted the sniper rifle, looking for the fallen man to make certain he had not missed. The body was obscured behind the windowsill, but it didn’t take long for a small red splotch of blood to spread into view, and he raised his head from the scope, satisfied. Deep down inside he’d known his aim had been true, but you had to be sure. If he let himself get into the habit of assuming, one day his arrogance would kill him, because that was how the city worked. If you allowed yourself get comfortable, get into a habit, you would die. It was as simple as that.
Slinging the gun over his shoulder, he grabbed his possessions and headed down the stairs, taking them one at a time. He was in no hurry.
He’d been tracking this one for three days now, ever since receiving word that several Scavengers in the area had gone missing. In a city where dozens were murdered on a daily basis, not to mention all the unfortunate souls who simply vanished and were never heard from again, disappearances like this were so common they’d been widely accepted as a fact of life a long time ago. The only reason Clyde had even looked into this particular case was that several of the victims had belonged to a powerful gang in the area, and their leader had hired him to do something about it.
Clyde was an assassin, one of few in the city for the simple fact that it was incredibly dangerous. And it wasn’t just the fieldwork that presented danger; in fact finding and dealing with clients was often far more risky than carrying out the actual assassinations. His clientele consisted of powerful and dangerous gang leaders, ruthless mercenaries, and worst of all, Cleansers. Even so Clyde made it work, most of which was possible thanks to the simple fact that Clyde was damn good at his job. His reputation preceded him, and his name was whispered in even the highest of circles. He’d come to command a certain degree of respect, made up of equal parts admiration, fear, and curiosity. Few dared test him because he was such an invaluable asset to anyone on his good side, and a dangerous threat to anyone on his bad side.
The gang leader who’d commissioned him for this particular job was known simply as “Atlas”, and it was well known he had a flair for the dramatic and a reckless streak. His unpredictable nature made him dangerous, and Clyde usually stayed away from men like him for that very reason. Unfortunately resources had been scarce as of late, and he’d been forced to take the job.
The target had been easy to track, but difficult to find. Clyde knew his kind well: they were like rats, darting through shadows like cowards but voraciously ripping through anything that slipped down into their domain. Picking up his trail took time, but Clyde had experience with his type and knew where to look. So long as you knew what to look for you could trace them back to their lairs easily: in the end, all creatures of habit were victims of predictability.
Clyde exited the building, looking both ways before crossing the street. He stepped through the doorway with a blade in each hand, wary of the prisoner. Just because he was the apparent victim in this case did not mean he was harmless; in fact Clyde had learnt from experience just what people were capable of when cornered and afraid.
As he took his first steps into the room he noticed there was one less body on the ground than there should have been. He wondered briefly if the captive had somehow managed to untie his bounds and escape, but as he walked further in he saw the trail of smeared blood leading under the bed. Slightly impressed with his train of thought if not his attention to detail, he made certain the hostile was dead before reaching both hands under the frame, lifting the bed onto its side. The man was curled into the fetal position, and he looked up at Clyde with unsettling indifference. He tried to hide his grimace as he crouched down beside him, pulling the gag down from over his mouth. The man gave no reaction, but seemed to study him more carefully.
“You’re safe now. I killed him.”
“He’s dead?” His voice was hoarse, and louder than Clyde felt was safe. He tried not to wince, nodding reassuringly.
“Yeah. Yeah, he’s dead.” The man seemed to take a moment to consider this before talking again.
“He was going to tuh- tuh-” the man’s face crumpled in on itself, and he broke down in tears, sobbing quietly as he turned his face into his arm, away from Clyde.
“I know. But it’s okay; he can’t do… he can’t hurt you anymore. You’re safe.” The man continued to weep, and Clyde considered patting his back in support, but decided against it. He knew with painful certainty that the last thing he needed now was someone touching him, however good their intentions. Instead he gave him some time to vent, silently checking through his options for later. When the man’s crying finally trailed off and he seemed composed enough to take care of himself, Clyde untied him, making sure to tell him before doing so. He flinched at his touch, but did not panic, which he took as a good sign. He was certain the man was not a threat; not in this state. When he was done Clyde helped him to his feet.
“Okay, do you think you can get yourself to safety on your own?”
“Y- yeah. I think so.”
“Alright. Good.” The man started to walk off, limping in pain, but stopped before the doorway and turned to face Clyde.
“Th- Thank you,” he said, his tone suggesting he recognized how strange and hollow it sounded. Clyde waved his hand dismissively.
“Don’t mention it…”
“Tyler. My name’s Tyler.”
“Don’t mention it, Tyler. No one should ever be put in a situation like that in the first place.” He seemed to contemplate this for a moment before nodding uncertainly.
“Well, yeah, I guess so, but I still was, and you saved me. So thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He offered him a tired smiled, which Tyler attempted to return with pitiful results. He turned to go again, but hesitated once more.
“What… what are you going to do?” Clyde’s expression darkened.
“You should go now, Tyler.” Tyler’s eyes flicked past him to the trapdoor in the ground, and he nodded, his head bobbing up and down one too many times. Clyde waited for a moment before following to make sure he left, then doubled back and made his way to the trapdoor. Taking a deep breath, he reached down for the handle, the end of the key still protruding from the lock, and pulled it open. The stench hit him immediately, the unmistakeable reek of death, decay and human discharge. He pulled his bandana up over his nose a moment too late, gagging as he swallowed the urge to vomit. His eyes watering, he wavered over the hole, debating whether or not he would descend. The nightmares would plague him for at least a week after, making his already irregular sleep habits restless, but if he did nothing he knew his conscience would make it just as hard for him. He had seen enough beforehand for one lifetime, that he was sure of, but he couldn’t risk leaving anyone down there to starve to death. The dark hole seemed to taunt him, indifferent towards the death of its owner. It practically screamed danger, and all of Clyde’s natural instincts for survival told him to stay away, even without factoring the stench into the equation. Whatever awaited him down below was evil; there was no going back once he exposed himself to it. He shifted his glance to the right, to the body of the man responsible for whatever acts had tainted the very atmosphere there. The right side of his face was mostly gone now, blown apart by the bullet’s exit wound. You did that, Clyde reprimanded himself. Lying there on the ground he looked far less dangerous. Peaceful, even. Clyde forced himself to absorb every detail of the man, his face contorting as he did so, and before his newfound determination could fail him he began his descent into the darkness.