Lanterns gave The Pickled Gherkin a warm cosy feel, but the soft orange light only reached about halfway up the stairs, after which I was quickly enveloped in pitch black. I slowed as I reached the top, took one step onto the landing, and bumped into the back of Jenny.
She threw her arms behind her and grabbed hold of me like she’d been waiting for me. “Shh.”
I get it. I know, I was being manipulated. She had me doing exactly what she wanted and she did it without even having to ask. Masterful. But being aware of it made little difference. I was still just a guy with all the regular guy bits and pieces. It’s hard to resist a pretty girl who gives you the eye, even if she’s just stringing you along. The chance that one day, maybe, perhaps, sometime in the future she might let you into her pants is enough to get most of us to act like fucking retards.
We stood there pressed tightly together, listening to the sounds of movement on the roof overhead. Ahead of us, there was an open door faintly visible from the light coming through a small skylight.
Jenny leaned into me, tipping her head back so it rested on my shoulder. “If we close that door and lock it, we might have enough time to get some nails and hammer it shut like they did to the back door downstairs.”
It was actually not a bad idea. No fighting, no trying to stab people in the dark, no Oldman-style wading through a sea of thugs in a narrow corridor. Take ten steps forward, shut the door. Done. My kind of plan.
She let go of me and edged forward. I followed. There was a tapping sound coming from up ahead. As we got closer, the small window in the sloping roof flickered as shadows passed in front of it. Someone was definitely up there.
From the doorway, there was enough light to see the skylight quite clearly. It wasn’t very big, but big enough to allow a person to come through if they kept their arms close to their body or over their head. A soft metallic glimmer revealed the latch that was firmly closed. The wooden frame trembled as it was worked on from the other side.
“Why don’t they smash it in?” whispered Jenny.
“Probably want to sneak in,” I said.
Jenny reached for the doorknob and gently pulled it towards her. “There’s a latch on the door.”
“Good,” I said.
“It’s on the other side.”
Not so useful, unless one of us wanted to wait inside with the a bunch of psychos. “The barman probably has a key we can—”
“There’s no keyhole. If you hold it shut, I’ll run down and get some hammer and nails.”
“Why don’t you hold it shut, and I’ll go get the hammer and nails?” I suggested.
“Because you’re stronger than me.”
“Well, you have nicer hair.”
“How is that relevant?”
“It’s about as relevant as my strength versus a bunch of professional goons.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?”
Before I could answer, the crack of splintering wood interrupted our little discussion. The skylight shook and then the entire frame was lifted out, leaving a hole. A pair of boots appeared.
I pushed past Jenny and hurriedly took up position on the other side of the dangling feet. I didn’t want to get into a fight, and I really didn’t want to kill anyone. In my hand I had the one weapon that would enable me to avoid both, hopefully.
After a couple of seconds of lining himself up, the carpenter fell through the hole and lightly landed on his feet. As he stood up, I waited until he was at the right height and then hit him as hard as I could on the back of his head with my sap.
I got a good solid thwack in, the kind where bat meets ball with a sweet pop and you know you’ve hit it right. He went down without making a sound.
Jenny, who was peering into the room from behind the doorjamb, lifted a hand at me. I think it was thumbs up, but it was too dark to see.
Another pair of feet appeared above me. I had just enough time to rollover the body on the floor so it wasn’t directly beneath the hole before my next victim arrived. He remained crouched, possibly trying to make out what was lying on the floor in front of him. I didn’t wait for him to get up this time and hit him like a golf ball. Assuming no cross-wind, I’m pretty sure I would have hit the fairway.
Carpenter number two fell forward on top of his buddy. I waited. There was no sound and for a moment I thought that was it, but then a head appeared.
“Brothers? Brothers?” The voice was quite young and high-pitched. Just a kid, probably. The head leaned down further into the room like Spider-man looking for Mary Jane. It was too tempting a target to ignore. I caught him beautifully with a smack on the kisser he wouldn’t soon forget, and he dropped through the hole head-first.
Despite my complete lack of sympathy for him, for some reason I caught his limp body and lowered it to the ground. I’m not sure I can explain the difference between brutally beating someone senseless and not wanting them to hurt themselves falling awkwardly, but it was more instinctive than logical.
I waited again, but no other members of the Carpenter’s Guild paid us a visit. Jenny crept into the room.
“Is that it?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I put a foot on top of Mount Abu Ghraib and jumped up to grab the edges of the empty skylight. I pulled myself up just enough to be able to peek through it, and then immediately dropped back down. I didn’t want a taste of my own medicine.
The couple of milliseconds my head had been exposed were enough to see there was no one else on the roof.
“I think we can get out this way. The other buildings are quite close. We should be able to jump across.”
“You want to leave the people downstairs?”
“Yes, Jenny. I want to leave them. You can stay if you want.” Enough of the heroic bullshit. I looked up at the hole. It would be hard to pull myself up through it. What I needed was something to stand on. Something a bit more solid than the heap of bodies.
“But don’t you think it’s strange?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think it’s very strange. Everything in this world is strange.”
“No,” said Jenny. “I mean, if the army guy wanted to grab all these people to make some money, why would he hire professional thugs to help him? They must cost quite a bit.”
She had a point. “You’re the one who said he was doing it for the money,” I said. “Maybe it’s something else. Maybe these guys owed him a favour.”
“Or maybe someone loaned them to him, so it would be more of a test for you.”
“For me? Why would anyone…” I didn’t need to finish the thought, I already had a pretty good idea of who would want to see if I could wangle my way out of a tough spot like this. It would mean he had gone to a lot of trouble, which he would only do if he had big plans for me.
“So, if I leave now and get out of here in one piece, would that mean I pass the test?
“Depends what they’re testing.”
If I abandoned these people to their fate and snuck away without a scratch, I could only see the Lord Administrator being impressed by my resourcefulness. The utter disregard for other people’s lives would probably be a bonus. If I managed to get out of here alive, I had no doubt he’d find a way to force me to go on some impossible mission where I’d be terrified the whole time, right up to my death. Success was not an option. Failure, on the other hand, would mean dying here and now.
“What we need to do,” I said, “is find a way to fail and still somehow survive.”
“And how are we going to do that?” asked Jenny.
“I don’t know,” I said, and then I shoved her as hard as I could, sending her tumbling to the floor.
Running up behind her was a figure with something in its raised hand. I raised my own hands defensively and a flash of brilliant white light exploded from my right hand. It wasn’t intentional and I didn’t have time to move my fingers in any particular pattern; it just happened. It didn’t last very long, but long enough for me to make out Little Chicken and the kitchen knife in his hand.
It could have been an honest mistake—a panicked kid, a dark room, threatening strangers trying to break in—but what the flare revealed was not a face surprised to see the wrong target. What I saw in his eyes was confirmation that he’d found his man.
And that was the last thing I saw. Not because he stabbed me—the knife never arrived—but because the white light had left me blind.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” screamed my attacker. The light had had the same effect on him.
I fumbled my sword out of its sheath and stood there waving it in front of me. “Jenny? Jenny, are you there?”
“Yes,” said a voice beside me. “Stop waving that thing about.”
I felt a hand on my arm, and then the sap was removed from my wrist. A few seconds later, Little Chicken screamed again.
“Ow! Ow! Stop, that hurts!” The familiar thwack of the sap rained down. I couldn’t tell from the sound where she was hitting him but I could tell it was a lot.
“Why—” thwack “— did you—” thwack “— try to—” thwack “— kill us?” Thwack, thwack, thwack.
“No, please, no, I didn’t.”
The rain turned heavy as more blows fell. And then they stopped.
“G-get away from me,” said Little Chicken in a shaky voice.
“Put the knife down,” said Jenny.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” His voice was smothered in tears. “He said he’d pay me. It was so much money.”
“Okay,” said Jenny. “I understand. Just put the knife down before you hurt yourself.”
I could hear them moving about. I still couldn’t see so I assumed he couldn’t either. He was probably striking out wildly.
“I said, put the knife doooooown.” Jenny’s voice moved across the room. Was she lunging at him?
There were sounds of a scuffle, and then Jenny screamed. Something flew past my face and bounced off a wall. More thwacks and yelps from Little Chicken which gradually turned into whimpers.
The thwacks stopped and something fell against me. Jenny.
“He stabbed me.” Her voice sounded weak and like she was continuously inhaling.
There was no response. I could feel her holding onto me tighter. I fell backwards, landing on my backside. She fell with me, cradled in my arms.
“Jenny, I can’t see. You have to tell me where.”
“He… stabbed… me…”
“In the... crotch.”
It was my turn to pause. “What?”
“In the pussy… He stabbed me right in the pussy.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He wasn’t aiming for it.” She was starting to sound a bit annoyed, but it wasn’t exactly a standard ‘I’m hurt, help me’ situation.
“Does it hurt?”
“Of course it hurts! Ugh.” Raising her voice made her grunt with pain.
“Alright, alright. It could have slipped in and out without hitting anything.”
“I don’t know what kind of women you’re used to, but no it couldn’t. It hurts.” She grabbed my shirt in two tight fists and moaned. “And it’s bleeding. You… you… you have to heal me. Please.”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Only… I have to use my hand. I have to put my hand over the wound.”
“I know that. Obviously. Ow. Ah. Colin, stop being such a dork and put your hand down my knickers.”
It was possibly the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me.
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