I do not mind working nights, I am the first to admit. Sometimes — Christmas, for instance, and New Year’s Eve — it grows lonely, just me and Jamie, siting in our little Portakabin on the edge of the car park. Watching our little fuzzy blue-tinted screens and waiting for something to happen worth getting cold for.
I never thought — when I was a boy, growing up in Russia – I never thought I’d end up as a security guard. Oh, I was a very naughty young man, then. Nothing was too wicked for me, no dare too extravagant. And ladies — well, I had an eye for the ladies, too. To look at me now — this stout, grey respectable gentleman that I am now, with this fine moustache, so — you’d never imagine that I struck fear into the hearts of the good parents of my little town. What a bad influence I must have been, then! And now I frown at the youngsters who come to play on the very fringes of the municipal refuse dump where Jamie and I patrol, with our good dog Bear, and I smile to myself under the shadow of my uniform cap. So like me, these naughty boys. I sometimes have it in my heart to let them go without any punishment. They are only children, I tell myself. Only playing. Although it is dangerous to play here, I cannot deny them so much. So I put my finger to my lips when Jamie is in one of his ferocious moods, and shoo them silently away.
Jamie, now, is different, and thinks that children should be seen and not heard – because he came from a strict family whom he does not like to speak of. He thinks that boys and girls of their age should not play in so dangerous a place. I think his family may be dead now. Certainly, when I speak of my own family, he frowns most fiercely and becomes very quiet, as if he is thinking of things which distress him. I do not like to see my friend Jamie sad, and I laugh and play with Bear, to make him smile again. Bear is his dog, truly, and it makes my heart glad to see them go out into the darkness together. I know Bear frightens the young children because he looks so like a wolf — a big black and silver German Shepherd Dog, with serious gold eyes like an owl’s. Bear is a good dog, and I am pleased that he takes such care of Jamie. Sometimes I fear that bad things might happen to my friend, out there with the rats and the shadows. I am a superstitious old man, and I hear things that ought not to be heard, in the darkness. They make me afraid. Bear takes care of Jamie, and Jamie takes care of me. We each look out for one another, and so peace is preserved.
When I first came here, twenty years ago, I was a little thinner, my hair a little darker, but otherwise much the same. I thought it would be a very quiet and dull life, here on the outskirts of the city. Cars pass in the darkness, to and fro on the unlit road. Quieter, even, when I first came to work here. No, I do not like to say that Jamie and I work the “graveyard shift” —and I speak for both of us, here. Things happen here that do not merit mockery. Things that we neither of us understand. Strange and evil things, sometimes. This is where all the waste of the city ends, the unwanted, the rejected. All things broken and dead find their way to us in the end.
We are here, the three of us, night after night, to ensure that the foolish and the wicked do not find their way down here in the darkness, picking their way through the towering piles of rotting food and black sacks squatting like toads. It is not safe. Things move in the night, dislodged by the scurrying rats. Things fall. Heavy things — fridges, stark and white and desolate against the blackness, all blotchy with rust like bloodstains. As I tell you, I am a superstitious old man. Jamie laughs, but he is a Scot — a Highland Scot, unless I am much mistaken in my placing of his town of birth — and he knows the truth of what I feel. I would hate to think that because we failed in our duty one night we allowed wickedness to roam loose in the city.
For wickedness it is, I do not lie. The people who come here after dark are truly evil, in a way that I — I, who have lived through wars the like of which this world has never known and, God willing, will never know again — cannot even begin to understand. I cannot even begin to imagine why a child-mother should choose to smother her newborn child and abandon its corpse to the rats, swaddled in black plastic. To my shame, after so many years I have become accustomed to the sight of the little squash-faced puppies and kittens, their eyes squeezed shut against a world that would see them dumped amongst the rest of the household rejects. I swing the sad little bags of kittens and puppies into the freezer with the rest of the animals they collect from the roads, ready to be incinerated. The babies create a nine-days’-wonder, the police come and go, and nothing in the end is done. Sometimes we have found bags of severed limbs, chopped like meat. They cause a stir, I can tell you! People listen to us then, that something is wrong here. But they never listen for long enough, and I sigh and return to setting the world to rights with Jamie and Bear.
The door opens, and the posters on the walls ruffle like leaves in the sudden draught as Jamie comes in with Bear panting in his wake. I pat my knees for the dog to come, burying my face in the thick wolf’s ruff of fur round his solid neck, smelling the clean frost scent of outdoors overlaid with the sharp rotting scent that hangs everywhere here. In winter it’s none so bad. In summer I am glad for the coolness of night, because the stench of rot must be unbearable in the hot sun. I — I know what the stench of decay can be, and so does Jamie. It makes my past hang before me, hovering like a fat bluebottle, buzzing with memories I would choose not to think on. I take a biscuit from the packet of custard creams on the shelf and hold it for the big dog to take from my hand. If the children had ever seen a wolf they would know that our good Bear is nothing alike; I have seen wolves, the last wolves, in the deep black forests of the old Russia, and I know their slanted goblin-eyes and sharp faces. Our honest dog, with his lolling tongue and idiot smile, is nothing to fear, but fear him they do — which is to the good, as it keeps them from playing and climbing amongst the rubbish, and hurting themselves.
“You spoil that dog,” Jamie says gruffly, and I look up at him. Although his face is in shadow from the shiny peak of his black security guard’s hat, I see his eyes twinkle. Bear’s tail wags slightly, once, before he returns to his job of attending to the biscuits.
When Jamie first came here, I never imagined that we would become fast friends. He is so much younger than I, and when two cultures meet — the old and the new — I feared that sparks would fly. Of the two, he is more traditional than I, I discover. He likes everything to be — just so. We argue about foolishness — what to listen to on the little wireless radio we have in the cabin, whether to switch the heater on. I know he thinks of me now as a kind of father, which I do not mind. My son has been dead for many years now, and I think if he had grown to manhood he might have done worse than to be like my friend Jamie. And sometimes, when I am feeling bitter, I think that had Jamie been mine for the raising I might have made a better man of him than his own flesh and blood have done. He is a good man, but harsh. He sees black and white, with no in betweens. I think perhaps for him it is better so. He cannot tolerate wrongness. With Jamie a thing is either right, or it is not; and if it is not, he cannot rest until he has made it so. He is like me in that way.
He and I have this in common also, that we are both alone in the world. This, I think, is why we can work at nights so easily, because neither of us has a home — not a true home, where a wife and family wait for us. We both have a place to rest our heads, no more. I do not pry into Jamie’s past. I know that his wife and son met a violent death — murdered, he said once, by soldiers. I tell him everything. I can’t help it. Age, and loneliness, have made my tongue loose. I tell him that when he can count as many years as I can, then he will be the same. He usually looks at me and smiles, silently.
“Quiet tonight,” I say into the silence broken by the sound of Bear’s jaws snapping at the biscuit.
“Aye,” Jamie says comfortably, standing with his back to me, taking two cups from the cupboard above his head. “Too quiet. D’you want a drink?”
He’s pouring me a cup before I answer and I smile at the sound of the liquid splashing into the container, and Jamie’s housewifely click of the tongue as he takes a cloth and wipes away the drips he has spilled.
He turns and frowns at me. “What? It’s a cold night, you’ll be needing a warm before you go out there.” And then hands me the cup, steam rising gently from its contents. “See? Freeze the breath in your mouth, that will.”
“There have been colder nights,” I say softly, thinking of winters in Russia, where the birds froze in their flight and the rivers grew solid as opal, and he glances at me sharply.
“Oh, aye, I’m not doubting that. But there’s a wee nip in the air tonight, for sure. Shall I put the fire on for ye?”
“That would be kind,” I say with the appropriate gratitude, and hide a smile under the rim of my cup. I do not feel the cold half as much as he thinks I ought to, at my time of life. Still, I am not one to show lack of appreciation, and I submit meekly to his fussing. He takes his cap off, laying it on the table, and once again in the light I’m amazed and touched by how young he looks. It makes me sad, sometimes. He is only a lad at heart, my friend Jamie. It seems a shame that he will never marry again, never have more children. He’s young, yet. It seems a waste to have chosen the nocturnal life he’s chosen for himself. He’s a good-looking boy – nothing like my slight dark-haired son, but a fine man nonetheless, with his broad shoulders and fair skin. Without the peaked cap he looks like a barbarian, with his bright red hair down on his shoulders and the two warrior’s plaits either side holding the loose strands off his face. We are nothing alike. I catch a glimpse of our reflections in the dark window glass – mine sleek and neat and dark with this fine moustache like a walrus’s, black eyes deepset like raisins in a pastry man’s face, and Jamie, pale and fierce and bright as bronze. I stand up and draw the blind, shutting out our faces, and put my hand on his shoulder in passing. “Shall we have some music?”
We put the radio on, and listen to bright tinny music in our small bright haven while the rats scurry and scream outside in the darkness and the frost falls like iron, and Bear lies between us under the table with his head on his paws and sighs deep canine sighs of bliss.
We sit for a while in silence, sipping our drinks, hands wrapped around the heat of the china mugs — it goes cold so quickly, in this bitter weather. Then Jamie washes the cups and sets them neatly on the draining board, drying his hands on a tea towel. He pulls his chair up beside mine, and we continue to sit in silence for a while, each wrapped in his own thoughts as we have done for so many nights.
I break the silence. “Look, now,” I say, nudging Jamie. On the screen, as we watch, we see a lank figure edging around the edge of the car park, towards the shadows. We watch as he lifts a sack — a light, angular sack — and scrambles toward the perimeter fence, towards the darkness.
Jamie sighs and gets to his feet. Bear sighs also and follows him. I make to stand but Jamie frowns at me. “You stay here in the warm. This is still my watch. When I catch him I’ll bring him back to deal with.”
I continue to watch as the tall, ominous figure of my friend goes striding jerkily across the screen, the black dog-shadow at his heels. The shape with the sack is climbing the wire as he approaches, hand over hand, like a spider, a few feet from the ground, not far enough to throw his burden over. And, I think, what is in this sack would need more hiding than that, with the care he is taking to keep it hidden as he drops back to his feet on the shiny black tarmac. I see Jamie stop at the bottom of the fence — see Bear spring for the figure’s feet, and drop, snarling, as my friend grips the figure by the arm and marches him back across the car park. All over in a matter of minutes. These people, these vermin who creep out under cover of darkness to disguise their wickedness under cover of a thousand tons of refuse a day — they should listen to the children. They fear us. They say we never sleep, and that we keep a wolf who will chase you and bite you if you play here. They say other things, but those are the truest.
Jamie pushes the figure through the door, a thin swaggering youth in jeans and a waterproof jacket. The boy is evil. I can smell it on him like cheap perfume, the scent of something wrapped around nothing — a shell, a hollowness at the core. I remember with nostalgia the days when evil was easy to identify, a simple matter of darkness against light, right against wrong, good against bad. Life was simpler then, I think. Now, I think, too many excuses and fine shades between blackness and whiteness. Too much quarter given. Jamie darts a swift look at me and grins, his teeth flashing like the moon on water in his pale face.
He holds the boy still. His hands are red with cold, and an old scar from a broadsword slash across the back of his wrist stands out white as the moon. He has a swordsman’s good broad wrist still, I think approvingly, and lace my own hands in my lap — good strong hands, yet, and more than capable of snapping this boy’s skinny neck should he prove troublesome. “I smell blood on this one,” Jamie says. “Shall we see what he’s brought us?”
Bear snarls, his lips wrinkling at the boy. The boy snarls back — without baring his teeth, but a mindless animal snarl nonetheless: an arrogant gesture of defiance. Jamie shakes him sharply. “Show some respect for your elders, ye wee scrawp!”
Wriggling, the boy swears and blusters, promising us death and the police in equal measure and the vengeance of his little-boy friends. “He has friends, did you hear this?” I say mildly to Jamie. “Shall we be afraid?”
“Na.” He kicks the black sack at his feet towards me, and I kneel to open it. Jamie is right. It smells of blood. It is sticky with it. The black plastic is slick and tightly knotted, and I tear it open with my fingers.
Inside is a baseball bat, clotted with black blood and fine strands of short chemical-blonde hair. I bite my lip, look up at my friend Jamie. “Oh, dear, now,” I say. “That is not good to see.”
“Phone the police,” the boy says, the light glinting from the ring in his eyebrow as he lifts his head insolently, like a young bull challenging the old. He is young. Young, and very foolish, and full of pride. “You can’t prove nothing. It’s not mine. My mate gave it me to drop off.”
“Is this so?” I nudge the contents of the bag with my toe, and Jamie draws back, curling his lip in disgust. “Perhaps then you could explain to us what kind of boys are your friends, who give you such presents?”
Jamie starts to throw the contents of the boy’s pockets onto the table, frowning as the light reflects from his technological playthings.
“How old are you, boy? Seventeen? Sixteen?” I am guessing, by the angry purple spots that dot his neck and chin, that he is not yet expert in the art of shaving. His skin is unhealthy, pasty, like some of the things that writhe away under the black sacks on the tip. The boy’s lips tighten, and he sneers at me.
“Not as old as you, granddad. What are you gonna do with me, anyway? You’ve not seen me do anything, so I reckon you ought to just let me go. I’ve not done nothing wrong.”
“Correct,” I say. “You’ve not done nothing wrong. Therefore you have done something wrong.” I sift through the contents of his pockets, sighing. He has too much, too soon. His bright expensive toys — the heavy gold rings, the tiny mobile telephone that my fingers are too large to use, the gaudy watch — these are things that no child his age should own. His flat shiny eyes have seen things that no child his age should have seen. He has forfeited his right to childhood. I see Jamie’s nostrils flaring and frown inquiringly.
“Drugs,” Jamie says. “That’s what I smell. Blood and the white powder.”
I see the street-glaze over the boy’s eyes crack momentarily, and his scrawny Adam’s apple move in a swallow. “What are you, a fucking sniffer dog?”
Jamie’s hand moves so swiftly that it doesn’t seem to move at all, simply gripping the boy’s cheeks till his mouth opens in a parody of a pout. “Mind your language, laddie,” he says calmly. “Now tell us what you were doing here.”
“I told you. I was dumping — ”
Jamie’s hand squeezes the boy’s pimpled cheeks into that vile pucker again. “Please, laddie, don’t treat me like a fool. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.” He releases the boy, and commands Bear to guard him. The big dog crouches, snarling, hackles raised. Now he looks like a wolf. I smile inside. If the children could see him now, they would be right to be afraid.
I open the tin box we keep on the shelf behind me, and rifle the contents. “Baz. Was he a friend of yours?” I lift the inscribed lighter so that the light reflects from it like a beacon into the boy’s eyes, starting to moisten now in terror. I wipe the crusted blood from the edges of the sovereign ring before I show it to him. “You probably won’t know this. Many of you boys have the same one alike, I think. They are cheap things. But this you might know?” I show him the identity bracelet, engraved with a name. I see him start to tremble. “Ah, a friend of yours.”
“Not, I think, a friend,” Jamie says from behind him. “Rivals, I’ll guess.”
The boy’s shoulders stiffen, and Jamie grins savagely. “A good guess, aye? Bet you’ve been wondering for months what happened to yon.”
“He met us,” I say. “And his friends thought it was your friends that had taken him, yes? And so one of his friends thought he should avenge him by hurting one of your friends
“Gang, Mikhail,” Jamie says, smiling slightly. “Ye ken the word perfectly well. Ye’ve heard it often enough on the wireless news.”
“Yes, yes,” I say impatiently. “And this is all about drugs? Selling drugs? That you rob, and hurt, and kill? This is so?”
The boy’s head snaps up. “I don’t take drugs, man, I’m not stupid!”
“No, but you take from the ones that take drugs, yes?”
The boy’s eyes focus on something just behind me, and I realise that he has seen the drained corpses of the two rats who furnished Jamie and I with our earlier snack. “You’re worse than the rats, so don’t be so proud,” Jamie says calmly, pushing the boy back against the worktop. The boy is whimpering now, whimpering like a baby and feebly squirming. I feel nothing but disgust for him now. When I was his age I was already blooded, had killed my first man in the service of Tsar Peter in the great wastes of Russia, with my hands and a small knife. Blood and snow and wet black fur, and the smell of any of the three still makes my heart sing with the memory. This child is a mewling pup, and his unworthy blood deserves to be forfeit that men — real men, warriors, such as myself and Jamie – might live on.
I open the drawer and take out the roll of shiny black sacks in readiness.
My friend Jamie — Red Jamie, as they named him in the years before he walked from Culloden Field two hundred and fifty years ago — takes a small, wicked knife from the breast pocket of his uniform jacket.
For myself, I hunt to feed, no more; enough to survive, to carry on my small defence of the city. No one misses these vermin, these rats on two legs who come under veil of darkness. One, perhaps two, a month, from the hundreds who swarm the streets, peddling their death and their dreams in equal measure. The police assume they fight each other, like the rats in the sewers, eating each other alive in their fight for supremacy. They go unmourned. But they are welcome here.
But Jamie hates the English, I know this much about him. I am thinking that perhaps he will never forgive for his wife and baby, no matter how long since. There is only blood will pay him back, and so for Jamie, I think, it is not simply a matter of feeding but that like a fox, once he is released into this henhouse of a city he will kill and kill for the sheer pleasure of killing. I — I was a Cossack, once, though such things hold no meaning, now. Pride and honour and duty are my life’s blood — and so also for the Highland Scot. Jamie hates the English, but he would not see the evil that haunts this side of the sleeping city loosed upon its wider streets. We have both lived too long and lost too much to let such darkness go free. The fact that he so enjoys his work is pleasant for us both, but not a necessity.
The boy cries out, and the crotch of his jeans darkens with urine as Jamie forces his head to the side, the blue vein down his white neck popping to the surface as the angle of the boy’s head distends it with warm rich blood. Jamie nods to me to bring the cups closer. I hold the china rim against the boy’s skinny jerking neck as Jamie sticks the knife in under his ear.
Outside in the darkness, a rat screams as a feral fox breaks its spine.
(c) Dark Angel, All Rights Reserved
Tags: Bloodlust-UK, Dracula, Keeping the Rats Down, Short Story, Vampire, Vampire Fiction, Writers
- 'Forever' by L. Marie Wood
- 'Intolerance' by Miles Deacon
- 'Mainstreaming' by Lida Broadhurst
- 'The Hand That Feeds You' by Richard Jones
- 'Dialogue with Reality' by Dennis Kriesel