If you need to catch up on the story so far, check out the earlier chapters HERE
Ten hours had passed since David had emerged at dawn, blinking like a newborn into the streets of London. The earlier promise of light had been broken, and the rain had hung up its jacket and made itself at home. David barely noticed. He had walked non-stop, ignoring the blisters from the tight shoes and focusing on putting as much distance between the Underground and himself. He kept his head down, doing his best to avoid the people that infested the city. That had proved impossible.
David had been as surprised as anyone when people started showing symptoms so soon, during his escape from the Underground. When people got close, they got hurt. That didn’t exactly help him with blending in, which was a problem in one of the most crowded cities in the world. He’d hoped he’d managed to lose his pursuers since his flight from the station; the crowd of screaming stampeding commuters served as a good cover for his own escape. Still, he wasn’t about to relax. Along with being crowded, London was also one of the most monitored cities in the world, and cameras perched on every corner. So David made sure to keep his head down, his hood up, and to stay off the main streets as much as possible, just like he’d been told.
The sound of sirens grew, fighting for attention over the noise of the city. It was the tenth time that day David had heard the police. Each time they carried on past him, but that didn’t stop his pulse racing each time he heard that sound. The sirens seemed to grow louder, until it was all he could hear. He turned around, saw the blue flashing lights getting closer. A cop car. On this street. It was coming for him, he knew it. His eyes followed the car, until suddenly he was falling. People were yelling. Crying. David climbed back to his feet, and saw that he’d walked into a group huddled by a bus stop. He was so focused on the police he hadn’t noticed them. Now he was in the middle of them. People recoiling, clutching their heads, their sides. David swore. So much for the low profile. He darted into a side street, not looking back. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Instead, he ran.
It was an hour before David slowed down. If he’d could’ve kept running, he would have, but his body had reached breaking point, and then screamed passed. It felt like the last seven years had caught up with him, the Herculean weight crushing him. He stumbled again, catching the wall in time to stop himself diving headfirst to the ground. He knew he had to keep moving, but he knew that if he didn’t get rest soon, he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and it wouldn’t be long before he was dead. Or worse, back where he started.
The floor looked comfortable enough at the moment, but David wasn’t that far gone yet, so he continued. A few minutes of walking and he came across a small park, complete with a mostly intact bench. He shuffled toward it, and was about to sit down when he heard a yell. The other side of the park a gang of kids were sat on a wall, shouting and laughing, smoking and drinking. One of them was waved at him. “Hey, big guy! You lost? Need something?”
David held their stare for a few seconds. Bulges under the jackets on all four. If David had to guess, they were probably old school guns, the kind that fired bullets instead of sonic waves. He reckoned he could close the gap in about three seconds. Certainly before any of them could point those guns in his direction. They’d be dead before they got a shot off. And then he’d have four bodies to dispose of. A trail to cover. He turned around and walked away, ignoring the taunts. Boys with toys. He carried on walking until he couldn’t hear the jeers, until the sky turned dark and the rain whipped his face, and he found himself on the bank of the Thames. He sought shelter under a nearby bridge. He took a look around, and saw no-one. He leaned against the wall and pulled his coat around his shoulders. He just needed a moment, a few minutes to regain his strength, some time to rest his eyes.
A nudge woke him, and his first feeling was regret. Regret that he had to wake up. If he had a choice in the matter, he’d never wake up. Life didn’t seem to have that plan for him.
The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I’ve promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.
No-one had suspected that David was a student of literature, but poetry had been his guilty pleasure. There was something about the Robert Frost poem that had always stayed with him. He knew what it meant to have promises to keep.
The nudge came again, a bit more insistent. “Hey. Mister.”
David opened his eyes, to see a middle aged man in a worn shirt, torn jeans and a filthy jacket. “What?” he asked
The tramp scrunched up his nose in disappointment. “Ah, dammit. I thought you were dead. Couldn’t see you breathing and thought I might have hit the jackpot.”
“Excuse me?” David raised an eyebrow.
“No no, don’t take it personally.” The tramp raised his hands in supplication. “Only that’s a mighty nice jacket you’re wearing. I’ve been looking for an upgrade for a while now. Beggars can’t be choosers, you know?” He smirked, apparently quite proud with his little joke.
David shrugged. “Sorry, but I’m using it at the moment. If I die I’ll make sure I’ll leave it to you in the will.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, truly it is.” said the tramp, extending his hand, oblivious to the sarcasm. “The names Alan, Alan Sharp.”
“David.” He took Alan’s hand with only the briefest hesitation. “Just David.”
The tramp chuckled. “Hello Just David. Oh, there’s a lot of ‘first-name-only’s here, you’re in good company. Hey, I just figure if you can’t be honest here, then where can you be?”
David paused for a moment then climbed to his feet. He towered over Alan, a few feet taller and one wider. Alan didn’t seem to be bothered. “The name’s David. David Stone.”
“Well good evening to you Mr Stone.” Alan looked David up and down, the same way as someone looking at a new car and checking for leaks. “You’re a big man David, and you’re not looking too shabby. I’m guessing this is the first time you’ve found yourself under the bridge. What brings you down our neck of the woods? I’m guessing you’re too old to be running from mummy and daddy, so what is it? The wife kick you out? The tax-man?”
“I’m just looking to stay out of trouble.”
The man shook his head. “None of us here are looking for trouble. Seems like it keeps finding us though, am I right?”
David nodded along, letting Alan continue.
“Well, we’re all running from something, all got a demon or two on our back. Mine was gambling. Harmless at first, and I never gambled more than I could afford to lose. Turns out I could lose a helluva lot. Still, you’re not here to hear my sob story. Word of warning though. Don’t fall asleep like that too often. There’s some folks who’ll have that coat off your back and then slit your throat for the trouble. Take that fancy case of yours as well for no other reason than that they can.” Alan shook his head and sighed. “No, you want to be careful David.”
“Thanks for the warning, I’ll bear it in mind.” David looked around. “What’s the time? You have a watch?”
The tramp laughed and stood to the side and pointed up river. “Yes I do David, I’ve got the finest watch in all the world. Right there.”
David followed his point and saw Big Ben, sitting a mile or so downstream, dwarfed amongst the surrounding skyscrapers.
“There was a time that she stood proud over all this river, back when I was a kid. Then that Eye came, and soon after all these other buildings started springing up around it, each one bigger than the last. But Big Ben held her own. She’s still there, still standing, and she’ll carry on that way. Did you know that Big Ben is the name of the bell inside, not the actual clock or the tower?” Alan nodded as though he had just imparted a life-altering truth. “Not many people know that.”
“Is that a fact?” In truth, David couldn’t care less, but Alan seemed harmless enough, and David didn’t see the need to antagonise the first man who had spoken to him that day other than telling him to stop or surrender. Then a thought struck David. “How are you feeling Alan?”
The man shrugged. “Well, not too bad, thank you for asking. Got a bit of a cold, but who hasn’t this time of year, am I right?”
“No sudden headaches? No nausea? No sharp pain?” asked David, examining the man for any sign of discomfort.
Alan stroked his chin, taking his time with the question. “Now let me see. I’ve still got that hangover from this morning, but if anything that’s passing. No sickness. No aches, no more than usual anyway. Can’t afford Bliss, so there’s always going to be some ache. Why’d you ask, you a doctor or something?”
“No, not really. It’s just that everyone I’ve met today seems to feel pain when they get close to me.”
Alan didn’t seem overly surprised, rather he took an old cracked pair of glasses out of his pocket and examined David. “Hmm, is that so? You some kind of typhoid Mary then? You got some disease or something?”
David pulled the case a little closer, and felt the lie come out easily. “No, nothing like that. I’m as fit as a whistle.”
Alan nodded. “Good good. Don’t want to be getting sick or anything.” He leaned in closer, sharing a secret. “I’ve got too much to look forward to to go and get sick now.” He winked and leaned back before laughing hard.
David laughed along politely. He glanced over at Big Ben and made note of the time. It had been over ten hours since he last had anything, and he figured it was past time for a meal. “Tell me Alan, where can I get some food around here?”
“You really are wet behind the ears, aren’t you? If you ain’t got any money you take the food where you can find it. You’d be amazed how many people throw away perfectly good food.”
The idea of dumpster diving for scraps left David feeling less than hungry. It was then he felt the wallet in his jacket. He reached in and opened it up. “How much does it cost to get a burger around here?”
Half an hour later David and Alan sat along the edge of the river, both chowing down on a couple of fat burgers, tomato ketchup dripping from Alan’s mouth as they devoured the food.
“Damn,” said Alan, “If this ain’t the best meal I’ve had for years.”
“You and me both,” mumbled David, crumbs spilling from his mouth as he spoke. “You get the coke too?”
Alan produced the plastic bottle, holding it high. “You better believe it. The genuine article.”
They descended back into silence as the pair feasted on their banquet, then drank the coke as though it were finest champagne. Once they were all done, Alan lay back and burped loudly. For the first time in recent memory, David smiled. Alan laughed and patted his belly. “Well thank you Mr Stone, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me a in long time.”
“Hey, you got the food. Team effort, right?”
Alan snorted. “Anyone can walk into a Burger Bar and hand over money in exchange for food.” He paused, then shook his head. “Mind you, I did think they were going to chuck me out at one point. I just held up those credits real high so they could see them.”
“Thanks Alan. I couldn’t have walked in there.”
Alan was quiet for a moment, giving David another once over. “You real careful about keeping a low profile aren’t you?”
“It’s like you said, we’re all running from something. I’m not ready to be caught. Not yet anyway.”
Alan nodded. “I hear you. So you going to tell old Alan what it is that’s got you sleeping under the old bridge or you going to make me guess?”
“Maybe one day. Just not today. Not tonight. You know somewhere I can put my head down without getting my throat cut?”
“Hmm, not many of those places about. But I think I can get us in somewhere.”
“It’s got to be quiet. Not somewhere that asks questions.”
“Don’t worry yourself, I know a spot. May not be as safe as one of those government run shelters, but it’s warm, and there’s not that many rats. Follow me.”
Alan leapt up to his feet with surprising athleticism, and trotted off into the night. David picked up the case, then followed. They walked down the streets side by side, David with his head down and Alan with his head up, looking all around with his mouth open like a tourist in a foreign city. Alan led him through a maze of back alleys until they stood outside a decrepit building. It was all red brick and mortar, small and insignificant amongst the skyscrapers of the city. The doors were sealed, and the windows were boarded up. A cheap hologram message danced over the main doors, declaring the building unsafe and that entry was strictly prohibited. Alan sauntered over to one of the windows and plied a couple of loose planks away, before slipping inside. David had to ply a few more planks away before he could scrape through. Once in, Alan carefully replaced the planks, hiding any trace that they’d been there. Damp clung to the air, and with the planks in place the darkness was overwhelming. A small light illuminated the room; Alan was holding an old style smart-phone up, using the screen to light their surroundings. Stumbling through the shadows, Alan led them to a back room. “This is one of my favourite places. There’s kitchens on the other side of this wall, some cheap takeaway. When they fire up the ovens the heat leaks right through the walls. We’ll need to light a fire if it gets any colder, but it’s still better than nothing, right?” Alan smiled as though he had just introduced David to a five star room at the Hilton, and David couldn’t help but chuckle.
“It’s safe enough to sleep,” Alan continued. “I’ll hear anyone taking those planks off before they can get to us. Get some kip.”
Alan was snoring in minutes, leaving David staring at the crumbling ceiling. Sleep was calling him, but a thorn in his side kept him awake. He tucked his case under his head and started going over the plan, running through what he’d have to do over the next few days. He’d have to hit hard, and fast, and without mercy. He had promises to keep.