How low could you go? (~1122 words.)
Way Down We Go
She looked like she'd been dead for a while: stabbed in the chest. Her dark blood soaked the dirty concrete sidewalk of the alley. A typical Sydney alley on a typical wintry night. She was stiff and cold to the touch, and I slowly moved the cardboard she was hastily covered with and gazed at those blue, unseeing eyes.
This was how it was in this city now. People walked by the mouth of the alley, looking straight ahead, not wanting to know or get involved. Their collars turned up against the cold August wind. Hats, scarfs, caps, and hoodies. Shadows hiding faces.
I looked deeper into the alleyway. White steam escaped leaky manhole covers: rising and fading, whipped away by the wind. Rats as big as small cats scurried between dumpsters and piles of fetid garbage. At least the rats seemed to care for one another, or perhaps they only cared about their next meal. And that's what she would've become, their next meal, if I hadn't found her.
Maybe 'found' isn't the right word. I knew she'd end up here.
How did I know?
She'd told me.
A few nights earlier.
"A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money, Mrs. Nelson," I said to the comely widow. "What's the job?"
Her clear, glacial-blue eyes contradicted her age. "Mr. Slate, you are a... man of, let us say, many talents and—"
"You mean I'm shady." I corrected her.
"Your words. Not mine," she said. "I would like you to kill me."
I felt my eyebrows shoot up. "Kill you?"
"Yes." Her facial expression saddened. "I have cancer. I don't want to die that slow, painful death, and I'm too much of coward to end it myself."
"Sounds like you need a bucket of Valium," I said, turning towards the door.
"Please hear me out." She took a step towards me. "I've considered all of those options, but I haven't the courage. I would prefer surprise. I dine at Rusty's Restaurant most nights. The back entrance is in Atkinson Lane, which is little more than an alley. I shall be using that entrance from now on. This micro SD card will be in one of my pockets." She held up the tiny memory card for me to see. "Instructions and a PIN number. The money, in cash, will be in a locker somewhere in this city."
"These days," I said, "I'm just a debt collector. You'll have to find someone else. Talk to Rusty, he knows people." I turned towards the door again.
Sure I felt sorry for her, but I wasn't her best solution.
"The card will be in my pocket all the same," she called after me. "In case you find your heart."
In case I find my heart? The thought almost stopped me in my tracks.
A few nights later, I was walking towards the Kings Cross red-light district. That's where I do most of my business. I stopped at Atkinson Lane. It was becoming a habit.
A stupid habit.
I stepped into the alley and noticed an odd pile of cardboard. I moved the cardboard aside and there she was. Her stab wounds were all over the place; it was definitely the work of some berserker. She didn't have a handbag. Maybe she was mugged. That would be ironic.
The SD card was in her pocket sure enough, and I had a gut feeling someone was watching me. Sirens wailed in the distance, getting louder. Time to make myself scarce. I needed time to think things through.
Once home, I popped the card into my phone and read the instructions. I needed a long talk with Jack. He always had the answers, sanctimonious as they were at times, good old Jack Daniels.
There was a knock at the door. I grabbed my revolver and headed for the peep hole: slow and quiet. I let out a groan when I recognised her and opened the door.
Stupid, I know.
There stood five-foot-nine-inches of pure trouble. Pat the Cat. Nobody knew her real name, so they called her Pat the Cat because she dressed in black leather, like cat-woman, and she had a beauty that turned most men into idiots. She lived on the streets, in between boyfriends, and she was on the run from The French Connection: a notorious crime gang in Marseilles where she was known as The Blonde.
We stumble on stones, not mountains.
"Je déteste quand tu me donnes ce regard, Mat." My French wasn't the best. I think she'd said: "I hate it when you give me that look, Mat."
Then she breezed past me like she owned the place and grabbed Jack by the neck and took a long swig.
"Hi Pat," I said and closed the door, turning towards her. "Make yourself at home."
She drew her piece faster than I could blink. Mine was still pointing at the floor.
"Où est la carte SD?" she said.
I rolled my eyes. "And here I was thinking you've missed me."
"I won't miss you," she said in broken English. "I swear Mrs. Nelson said 'handbag', not 'pocket'. Now lose the gun, chéri."
I let it slide from my hand, and it landed on the carpet with a dull thud.
She took two fast steps and kicked me in the balls.
Then she clubbed me with her gun and the world turned grey.
She stole my phone and the SD card, but I was lucky to be alive. Sure, my head bled a little and throbbed a lot, and it was hard to think straight, but most people don't survive a business meeting with Pat the Cat.
After all, money is thicker than water.
I had to get to the airport: that's where the locker was. I grabbed a suitcase that I'd prepacked for just such an occasion. Now, I needed a taxi. A fast one.
The airport was fairly quiet. I was in the second floor lounge. The locker was a good hundred paces away, but I could see it clearly. I wondered how long this would take.
The world belongs to a patient man.
I was half way through my newspaper when Pat turned up. She ambled over to the locker. Not fast and not slow, like she owned the place, and dialled in the pin number. The locker popped open. She reached a hand inside grabbing the suitcase handle.
The sawn-off shotgun, I had rigged inside the suitcase, discharged both barrels into her chest.
Damn shame really.
She was a good looker.
But nobody roughs me up like that and gets away with it.