"It's freezing,” groaned Pete, hissing steam between his teeth to demonstrate the point. “If this fire doesn’t pick up, someone's liable to trip on our frozen corpses on their way to work tomorrow. Can't believe it's only the fucking end of July.”
Hot Tin stood at the other side of the blackened steel drum, warming his hands leisurely. "Oldport's an unpredictable town,” he replied, without looking up. “I'd say get used to it."
"We should split, somewhere warmer."
The word "we" caused movement in Hot Tin's face. If the gesture was a smile, its faintness and Hot Tin’s whiskers saw to it that it wasn’t seen. "You got a pair of wings hidden away under that nice big coat of yours?"
Pete rolled his eyes. "I'm not suggesting we up and fly to Zaire for the winter,” he said, waving his arms expansively, "but it gets warmer as you go south. I saw some brochures for Cork, looked real sunny."
"Do as you please." Hot Tin peeled back the sleeve of his coat and angled the watch face underneath to the fire. He cursed, his breath misting the cold air. "Five days is a long time."
"I thought you said he was worse than a tom cat for wandering."
"He’s been known to take off now and then, does a few days in the fish factories in Rabhen's Point, or goes rabbit trapping around Brackmore. Five days is still a long time." Pete hesitantly asked if Hot Tin was worried. Hot Tin sighed, then spoke, "Living in Oldport tends to change the way you figure things.” He dropped the thought, rested on it for a moment, then picked it up and carried it home. “I’d say it makes you assume the worst, and take the rest as gravy."
Pete shivered and shrugged his collar to cover his neck. "Fuck, it’s so cold!"
"We’re getting a freak spell. After it passes, it’ll get a bit warmer for a few weeks, month maybe, but winters around here are mean, and they come early. In short: it’s not going to get a lot better before it gets worse."
"Story of my life," grumbled Pete, staring across the stretching flames at the older man. He seemed amused. Pete, on having his problems trivialized, wasn’t. Unsure of what else to do, he stamped his foot sullenly, and glared on.
"How long have I known you?" asked Hot Tin.
The eventual response, “a week,” fought its way up Pete’s throat and out his mouth.
Hot Tin bent over, scooped an armful of chipboard from the base of the drum, returned to his full height, tossing the wood on the fire. The flames recoiled, then crackled appreciation, then resumed their flicking, mesmeric gambol. New light flared in the alleyway, illuminating the red brickwork of the enclosing derelicts. A wooden pallet, which Pete had liberated from the bakery, leaned against the wall. Hot Tin had called the pallet “tribute.” Next to the “tribute” stooped the husk of a wheel bin, its front and sides eaten away by fire, spilled plastic guts stretching across the weed-shot tarmac and over the kerb. Little plastic stalactites hung from the drain grating below, where the ooze had been halted by the cold. Above and all around, the visual culture of the alley's previous occupants smeared the walls: primitive chalk depictions of male genitals and four letter words sprayed in cheap paint. The year’s theme had been frustration. Pete’s attention found its way back to his companion. Hot Tin’s features were indistinct behind his thick, gray-black beard. Trying to figure out his age was like guessing the original color of the overcoat he wore over a nautical striped jumper; a task better served by blind luck than serious deduction. He could have been thirty-five, tipping his cap to sixty, or as old as Egypt. He was tall, over six feet, and looked like he knew how to hurt a person if he ever took a mind to. If any credence could be given what seemed a twinkle of amusement in his eyes, he didn’t.
"Listen, you can take this whichever way you want, but for the record, I think you're a good kid." Pete knotted his arms and grunted. Hot Tin continued, "You're young, enthusiastic, eager for new experiences—I get that, no problem—I don't mind your company or showing you what way the ropes swing.” He paused, eying Pete keenly. “At the same time, I've been in this game long enough to spot a day-tripper." Pete lowered his eyes and began studying the flames with exaggerated, almost scholarly interest. "Hey, listen," said Hot Tin through a smile. "My first piece of advice—the throwaway—is roll with the punches. I know, it’s about as big a cliché as there is, but the world's going to throw worse things at you than a scolding from an old bum, especially if you stay around here."
Pete didn't answer.
"You're a student?"
“Why would you say that?”
"You in trouble? Running from something?"
Pete began to look a little less sore. "Not until now,” said Pete, ignoring the second question. His voice became almost upbeat. “Looks like the game is up."
"It’s been up ever since you walked into camp. Anyone know where you are?"
"A few people think they know where I’m not,” said Pete, grinning. “I'm supposed to be in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. Never been out of the country before—maybe I should'a went."
"Damn right you ought to. The elsewhere pilgrim, eh?" Hot Tin chuckled briefly, but then his face hardened. "Here comes the second piece of advice—this one you hold on to. If you want to take a slum holiday, see the sights, smell the garbage, go do it someplace else. Oldport might seem a typical coastal, two factory town, but take it from me—this place's no good." Hot Tin reached inside his coat, retrieved a crumpled pack of red Marlboros. He flicked the top with his thumb, slid one out, offered it to Pete.
"No good? Explain no good?" said Pete, drawing enthusiastically. He was trying his best to look tough and conceal his lungs’ lack of tolerance for tobacco, and doing particularly well at neither. He cleared his throat. "I heard things, but figured they were just stories."
"You messed up then," said Hot Tin, jabbing his cigarette at the flames, smoking, "badly. This country is pretty safe, generally speaking, but each year, 40 or 50 people—roughly one in 100,000—starts to like the idea of killing someone, and they end up liking it so much, they do it. There have been three murders in Oldport, this year, five suicides.”
The ember tip of Pete's cigarette shivered in the darkness. "What’s the population?"
"Changes too often for anyone to be sure, but I'd say about two thousand. Seems like every other week someone is shipped off to Lyssa House.”
"The asylum in Arkford—'bout 50 kilometers northeast of here. I spoke to a psychiatrist there once, a transfer from Dublin." Hot Tin looked at Pete and grinned. "Don’t go bothering yourself—I wasn't a patient. Anyway, this lady told me that she’s spent fifteen years in a high-care city ward, living around people who you couldn’t chance to leave alone for five seconds with anything as dangerous as a porcelain cup. She thought she’d seen everything..."
"What’s the problem?"
"Oldport is the European capital of sleep disorders: insomnia, sleep-walking, night terrors, or so I've been told. It got so bad with people tripping over one another at night that the town councilor figured it must have something to do with the water. He had it tested."
"What did they find?"
"They found… H-2-O,” said Hot Tin, playfully elongating each syllable.“Thing is, a few nights' lost sleep is a long shot from the worst of it. When it comes to the mental clockwork, pebbles cause landslides. A lot of full on lunacy—real bad stuff has happened here. I could tell you stories, but I don’t think you want that.”
Pete didn’t seem entirely convinced. Either that or he was temporarily suffering from a largely male affecting disease, one which made him need to seem brave and in control when the truth was something entirely different. Suddenly, he laughed. “Yeah, I get it, you're turning the screw, trying to scare the rookie."
“Ever hear of Phineas Mc Clintock?” asked Hot Tin.
“You’d probably know him by his other name: the Oldport Strangler.”
Pete's throat apple bounced like a basketball.
“He was born here, grew up here too. Made his living as a policeman.” Hot Tin spat on the ground and wiped his mouth. “In 1974, he decided a two-year killing spree might be the way to go. Seventeen people. Strangled every last one of them. They sent detectives from Sligo and Dublin. He strangled two of them too, and from what I heard, they were two smart and wary gentlemen.”
“Is he dead?”
“Yeah he’s dead. Been dead twenty years or more. But I wouldn’t relax if I were you—something happens around here every week. A man by the name of Fox lived around here. He was about sixty and never seemed to have much money. Spent his whole life talking about what he’d do, where he’d go, and who he’d go with if he had it. A week ago he won the lotto. You want to know what he did?”
Pete didn’t reply.
“He got the bank to give it to him in twenties—the whole thing, and he stacked it all up in a pile his back yard. Then he went into the shed, picked up a jar of petrol, doused the notes, doused himself, put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it. You can go check it up in the papers if you like, here’s a euro.” Pete didn’t accept the money. “Have I impressed strongly enough on you the idea that Oldport’s not a place for people with other options?” He took a final draw from the cigarette, a lover's last kiss, and flicked it into the drum.
The grin on Pete’s face had tightened to a sober line. He lifted his hand. The cigarette was out, indistinguishable from the surrounding darkness. Pete nodded dumbly.
"Good, because I wouldn’t have felt right if I didn’t.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Questions, you’re good at questions. Shoot…”
“That black rock at the centre of town, what’s...”
“You’d be better off asking a geologist, or an archeologist.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s some debate as to the nature of the ‘rock’, whether it is just that, or some type of primitive monument.”
"How do you know all this?" snapped Pete. "Why are you here? Why are you even living on the streets?"
"How I got here is a long story. More to the point, it's mine. And I don't know you well enough to tell. If you have sense, I won't get to."
A gust coursing from the bay found the alley's throat. Litter skittered across the ground in the shrieking cold. A rusted can scraped and rattled into motion before halting at the opposite wall with a tinny clatter. The two men drew up their collars and stepped nearer the fire. Pete opened his mouth, but Hot Tin hushed him, raising a finger to his lips. Pete listened and heard footsteps.
"The police?" he whispered, panic creeping into his voice. "Come to move us on again?"
Hot Tin's eyes were shut. "I doubt it. It’s just one person. The police rarely attend their duties at night, and never on their own. They've learned that if you start pulling on a line in Oldport, there's no telling what you'll find at the other end.”
Pete listened, silent and tense. As the steps drew nearer, they fell harder and faster, booming off the grimy walls like a war drum snarling for the death of venturesome young men. Hot Tin whispered assuringly, but Pete was only aware of the light of the fire, the slap of leather in the abominable darkness, and the haze of his breath.
"The man himself!” cried Hot Tin. "Come, brother, warm yourself by the fire!"
A pale face, propped on a sparse frame, wrapped in a dirty parka appeared at the periphery of the firelight. The manifestation was sudden, as if the light had carved a scarecrow from shadow and cursed it with life. It took Pete a stumbling moment to recognize Johnny.
"Where you been?" asked Hot Tin.
Johnny stared back for a long time before answering. "Here and there."
“You don't look so good. Something happen?”
Johnny didn't answer. Pete unzipped his jacket and snaked a trembling hand inside, drawing out two blue cans blazoned with intertwined golden lions. "Only got two. Either of you want one?"
Hot Tin hesitated for a moment. Then he reached out, grabbed a beer and squinting, scrutinized it under the light. "This is bad stuff," he growled, "real cheap and rotten. What do you think I am, a bum?"
"N...no, well," gabbled Pete.
Hot Tin threw back his head and roared laughter, a great wolf singing to the moon. The can hissed in protest and Hot Tin raised it, observing Johnny over a long swallow. "Just pulling your leg. No need to get bent out of shape."
Pete grunted and turned to Johnny. Dank curls clung to his face, which seemed bloodless, a chewing gum off-white. After a delay, Johnny flashed a smile, as cheerfully wicked as a sickle blade, and devoid of sympathy as a landmine. His eyes glowed, seeming to soak the fire’s light.
"John, what's your problem? Why are you looking at him like that for?" demanded Hot Tin. “Are you okay?”
Johnny's smile evaporated and he flicked his fever shined eyes to Hot Tin. "Fine. Why?"
"You don't look so good. Too much staring, not enough talking. What happened?" said Hot Tin.
"Don't give me that," snapped Hot Tin. “C'mon, talk to me."
The two men stood, eyes locked. Moments passed before Pete interrupted the contest with a less than convincing cough. "I'm going to move on tomorrow,” he said, “nothing to do with you guys or anything. I just don't think Oldport is for me.”
Hot Tin nodded. "Yeah, sure, I understand. Wake me and I'll see you off."
Johnny turned and disappeared into the shadows. There was a rustling, and he returned holding a long-necked bottle half-full with sloshing, golden-brown liquid. "I was savin' this for a special occasion—guess this is it."
Hot Tin's mood lightened instantly. "Powers whiskey—now you're talking!" He accepted the bottle eagerly, swallowed, winced, and smacked his lips theatrically, before passing the whiskey on to Pete.
* * *
Hot Tin woke. The alley walls reached up from around him, crowding in on a strip of crisp, blue sky. Straight ahead, the fire drum loomed. His head was a few million cells of agony and his back felt like an elephant had stood on it. He tried to sit, but was floored by a warning shot, which seemed to twist the tissues of his brain. He scraped his arm along the concrete to pull back his coat sleeve. It was six-fifteen, too early for buses. He called out to Pete and Johnny. A surge of anxiety hastened a second attempt to rise, but his stomach wrenched and watery bile exploded from his mouth. He slid, striking the back of his skull on the concrete and writhed like plastic on an open fire.
He remembered telling Pete about Oldport. He'd wanted to do it earlier in the week, but figured Pete would soon get tired and move on. It wasn't just that, the problem with stories was that attention eventually finds its way to the teller. Pete's growing skittishness. Johnny's return. He looked like he’d been stampeded by the four horsemen. Pete's shitty beer. The whiskey. Then nothing. Hot Tin struggled to his knees and grasped at the edge of the steel drum, feeling the phantom of last night's warmth. As he stood, nausea struck like a freight train riding the back of a thunderbolt, doubling him over. The contents of his stomach spattered down the sides of the drum and hissed on the embers. He probed the throbbing epicenter at the back of his skull. His hand came away wet with blood. Bludgeoned, he wondered. Improbable, anyone trying to creep up on him would have been seen. Passed out? He hadn’t drank that much. Based on where he’d woken, feet about a pace from the drum, it seemed like he’d toppled from his usual spot next to the fire. Eventually, he accepted the writing on his guts. Drugged. The list of suspects was brief, and he was pretty sure it hadn’t been the kid.
Hot Tin retched. His legs felt remote and weak. He just about got his chest across the drum before they gave way. He lay, head lolling, arms dangling, the tips of his boots pirouetting on the concrete. Then it struck for the first time since he’d been in Oldport, the first time in three years. His breath came in gasps, pain stung at his chest, his limbs began to twitch and flail. Foam dripped from his mouth, and darkness took the world, and the first image of Johnny formed from a stuttering deluge of form and color. He fought against the volume of detail flooding in, and studied the ragged man with feverish eyes. Hot Tin let the image go, and a series of precise pictures sprinted through his mind’s eye, like photos dropped to a desk in sharp succession. He held another. Johnny's smile was awful, predatory; that of a reclining wolf playfully dissembling about the size of its teeth. He resumed the mental slide-show. Time and more scenes of the night passed before he realized it wasn't just the pictures of Johnny that unsettled him, it was something about their flow, their progression. Then he saw it.
“You messed up this time, Abraham,” he groaned. “That boy's going to pay for your stupidity, if he hasn't already.”
A child would have seen it. He cursed himself. The night had been cold, well below freezing. Not one of the images had captured Johnny’s breath steaming the air, yet Pete’s and his own were clearly visible. Hot Tin didn’t like the direction the deductive signposts were leading: either Johnny’s body, and consequentially, his breath had been abnormally cold, cold enough so as not to show, or he hadn’t been breathing at all. Another detail leaped out at him: a small, fresh, circular scar, just above the Johnny’s right temple; the sort you might make with an electric drill. Memories of his last official case, seven years before, began to lap at the edges of his consciousness. Hot Tin began to tremble.
He stood, resisting pain and fatigue, and stuck close to the wall on his way out so not to disturb anything. He’d come back to listen to the alley’s story, but he already knew what had happened. Johnny, or rather the body that had contained Johnny’s soul, had drugged him, and abducted Pete in the night. To a belated nocturne of crow squalls, with looming interludes from distant cars, he marched. Before long, he reached Ten Hands Alley, a cul de sac tucked away behind the town's derelict cinema. He followed the corner, kicking up beer cans, plastic food wrappers and other detritus. Kneeling at the cinema's back entrance, he reached up the drain spout and pulled out a small plastic bag. He turned and scanned the windows of the overlooking flats. One of the flats had been burned out, its insides blackened and sooty glass teeth dangled from the frames. Most of the arrayed windows were smashed. No one to see him drive his shoulder into the door. The lock gave and the door clattered off the wall, before rolling back and settling to a stop. He entered, peeled off his overcoat, and sat on the dusty stairs. From a pocket, he drew a pair of scissors with blunted tips. Then, he pulled out the pocket, cut away the stitching and reached inside.
Hot Tin sat with a package on his lap. It was bubble packed and about the size of a gift-wrapped novel. He scraped back the three-year-old tape. The Smith & Wesson had seen better days. The grip was dented and the enamel on the four-inch barrel was chipped, but it would work. He used the scissors to remove the screws and pried off the grip and side plate, exposing the cold gray chassis. He took the revolver’s hammer from the plastic bag, fitted it, and put the whole thing back together. He dry-fired a few times and grunted approval.
He tore open another pocket and brought out a small metal box. From the box he removed two brass-colored bullets with .38S stamped on their base. He released the cylinder and slotted the rounds home. He spent a few moments staring at the callused knuckles of the hand gripping the gun, then hoisted himself to his feet. He pushed in the safety, stowed the gun in the back of his jeans, and stepped out into the morning sunlight.