The man hurrying through the streets shifted the serviette around his coffee.
He rubbed ineffectually at the spot where scalding liquid had landed on his suit. Alec had been up half the night with figures marching through his head and his eyes felt like someone had sandpapered them.
The first bars of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 were erupting from his pocket.
“Alec speaking,” said the accountant nearly dropping the handset as he tried to juggle his briefcase and paper cup at the same time. “But they… WHAT? Look, I’m nearly at the station. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
“’Scuse me fella. Got any… ,” said a figure sitting with his back to a wall.
Alec’s lips thinned.
“Terribly sorry, no I haven’t”
The executive who’d been responsible for removing as much of the city from public control as an air raid stabbed at the volume button.
“Tell the clients… ”
For a moment, all Alec cold do was stare at the dratted thing. The battery had died, and the offices of Pickaxe and Share were still forty minutes away.
“How about a drink then? One of those coffees would go down a treat.”
A tic spasmed at the corner of Alec’s eye.
“For God’s sake why don’t you people get jobs?”
“No need to be like that,” said the beggar. “I was just asking.”
As Alec stared at the youth’s scab pocked, needy, face he noticed the skin around his piercings were swollen and red.
“Just leave me alone,” said Alec trying to put as much distance between them as possible. But as he fled down the road toward the nearest metro, he stopped. It was unlike him to not know his route down to the last detail, and yet he was sure the alley hadn’t been on the app.
Alec peered at the unusual route marking bolted next to its entrance. It showed the outline of a hurrying man
He glanced at his gold watch.
Halfway down the passage that had quickly turned into a roofed over maw Alec began to shiver. The temperature had dropped by at least ten degrees and the intermittent lighting meant he could barely see where he was going.
“Should have taken an Uber,” he muttered as he fought the urge to break into a run. The last thing he needed to do was turn up at the meeting any more out of breath.
When the bulbs began to go out one by one Irvine’s grip on his temper lessened even more.
“Christ… why do we even pay taxes?”
He glanced up – only a single flickering bulb was left.
Glass rained around him.
In the darkness Alec felt his world shrink to the hammering in his chest, and when he realised the alley was closing around him like the coils of a snake his mouth dropped open.
“Help. Somebody? Anybody?” said Alec trying to brace his arms on either side. But it was no use. Soon he was caught so tight he could barely breathe. In the darkness Alec’s eyes darted from side to side as he waited for the gulp his mind screamed was coming next.
The first thing the figure lying outside the alley noticed was it was no longer morning, the next that he had a hugging a briefcase in his arms. He stared into space. He’d had a name but whatever it was every time he tried to grasp it it slipped out of sight. He was sure of one thing though: he felt like half the man he used to be.
With a hand that only shook a little he tapped the wall – nothing moved.
When he tried to recall how he’d got there all that surfaced was a feeling like he’d been chewed up and spat out. He picked a direction at random and followed the pavement as he struggled with a feeling like he wanted to run a bulldozer through his surroundings and start again with a better world full of numbers. If he could just remember what they were…
The next morning he woke outside the alley’s entrance again, and the morning after that, and the morning after that. By the end of the month his stubble had grown into a beard and the hole in his head was so large passers-by could see it in his eyes.
The tramp lying in the street tore his grey washed-out eyes, from the cracks of light leaking between the buildings.
A council worker with a litter picker was standing next to him.
“You alright?” said the stranger nudging him with its claw.
“I must have tripped.”
“’Course you did,” said the street cleaner. “I wouldn’t stay down there long if I were you. Do you want me to call someone? The name’s Ralph by the way. The emergency services all know me.”
The vagrant brushed ineffectually at the dirt on his threadbare suit and Ralph took note of the title deeds spilling from the case that seemed to be his only possession.
“People who it’s feeding on aren’t popular round here you know, mate.” Ralph shrugged. “The residents are afraid it will spread to them.”
The tramp sidled out of range. Whoever the lunatic was he might turn dangerous.
“I’ll be leaving then,” he said carefully.
“You do that, sir. Mind how you go.”
The vagrant did his best. He avoided the area around the alley as much as he could. But it never lasted long because he always ended up where he’d started, particularly after the street names stopped making sense. Soon when he looked at them it was like someone had tipped a scrabble board upside down.
When people began trying to walk through him he knew he didn’t have much time left.
“Please Miss? I need… ,”
The woman in skin-tight blue jeans with perfect calves turned her head but she might as well have been looking at a lamp post.
Night was drawing in by the time the man with footprints on his clothes found the stairs leading beneath a flyover that snaked through an area he vaguely remembered signing purchase orders for. He stepped through the rusty chain link fence that had been used to block access to the shelter underneath.
There was a caravan in there, and its door was open.
“Hallo?” he said trying to ignore the feeling that the walls were moving in as he stepped closer.
If there’d been anyone to watch they’d have noticed the way the lights went out inside after the door closed.
Ralph’s sleep had been disturbed. His dreams full of paperwork, numbers, and marching buildings that all seemed full of faceless yuppies. Dragging himself into work had been even more of a pain than usual.
“No change there then.”
He took in the mounds of filthy clothes and shoes with vanished owners.
“Getting worse round here isn’t it?” said a beggar with a face full of piercings sitting on a makeshift skate ramp. “They’ve sealed off access further in. Must think it’s dangerous.”
But Ralph didn’t bother replying. He was too busy examining the wall of polythene stretched between the pillars across his route. He shook his head – typical upper management behaviour. The part of the city hidden in its depths rarely showed itself where it could be seen but trying to contain it like that was never going to work. He paused and picked up a Rolex that looked like it had been dropped in a mangler and deposited it with the rest of the litter he’d been asked to remove.
Ralph shook his head.
“Always hungry, aren’t you?”
But if they were going to muck around with his itinerary he should have been informed. He was on the payroll, wasn’t he?
Plastic bulged by his head, and for a second Ralph saw nebulous suckers splay against the flimsy barrier.
“Thought that might happen. If it keeps feeding it’s bound to grow” he said only half aware he was speaking aloud.
“What was that?”
Ralph shut his mouth remembering he was supposed to stay schtum. The guidelines were very specific on investment.
“Nothing, they’ll be trying to give the place a deep clean I expect – remove any toxic materials they find.”
The beggar with the pierced face shook his head uninterested at this nugget of information, and Ralph relaxed. The city’s appetites were better left alone. Nobody wanted a panic.
“What are you supposed to be then?” said Ralph remembering his public service training. The kid reminded him of one of those dropouts. They were called Woke Ads, or New Age Alkies, something like that. He wasn’t local that was for sure.
“I don’t know, me I guess. What’s really in there?” answered the youth gesturing at the sealed off area.
Ralph stared at the distorted shape of a man behind the city council’s paltry barricade. As he watched it vanished.
“Looks to me like you’re not far from finding out.”
Kilmo started writing because mental health is a bitch and there didn’t seem to be much choice. He brought it from a squat in Bristol, to a car park, to appearing in various publications. He also has a story in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.