I pulled up my hoodie and popped a stick of peppermint gum into my mouth.
Like everyone else who haunted the subway past midnight, I knew that I had my territory cut out for me. There was Big Man, who usually haunted the Manhattan route but he was known to change his mind. And when he did, if you happened to be in his path, well it would suffice to say that it could get ugly.
But I handled my zones with the quiet efficiency and stealth of a cat. I didn’t run with the lions and I wasn’t big enough to fight them. But since we belonged to the same family, I could keep my distance and target areas which were least occupied.
Sometimes we had crews- the rough, street kids who came from poor in-the-rut families and found an identity in an art form that was frowned upon during the day but could own the night. There were other girls too. Some of them were even from well-to-do families but they were all united by a common cause. They wanted some meaning in their life.
I knew the people who boarded the subway during the day in their posh business suits and shiny boots, holding polished briefcases and an over-sized cup of Starbucks, scorned upon our nightly activities. But in the silence of the night, it was them and not us who went into hibernation mode. We were out.
That night however, I wasn’t feeling up to it. I called my friend Natalie, who was known as Rats because she was short and mousy and timid but very quick. Rats was the family I hadn’t had since I’d been a little girl. She was the most loyal sidekick i could have asked for. And we both did know that she was the sidekick.
So Rats came to pick me up and we went into our anonymous location under a bridge where we could get drunk and not worry about being in trouble because nobody ever came there. We usually stashed our stuff in a niche we had carved into the wall. We even kept a blanket there. But something was different today. I could feel it, as we settled on the shore.
‘Big Man is closing his network’ Rats began in a low voice. ‘He is thinking of fleeing the country. He’s bored, he has a lot of stuff. Or-‘
‘Or they’re tightening the loop?’ I completed her sentence.
It was a well known fact that some of the policemen on the fringes of our gangs operated with full knowledge of all the activities we sanctioned. Hell, they had their own share. Those were the dirty cops. But there were loopholes everywhere. Nothing was foolproof.
‘Well which is it!’ I asked in desperation.
‘I cannot know for sure. We need to find out. His people are wrapping up, little by little. Today I walked by the Dumpster. Its in pieces.’
The Dumpster was Big Man’s hideout. Piles of garbage, emptied tins of food, beer bottles and large plastic bins offered adequate storage space for him and his croonies and their stash. If they were breaking it down, it meant they were clearing their act. Or they had already been caught.
‘There is only one place we can look’, I said, watching Rats pull off her holey socks and run her hands over a large blister on her toe. It should have disgusted me if I hadn’t been used to such things, growing up as I did.
‘Where?’, she asked, distracted by her toe. Her world was simpler than mine. She didn’t see dangers until they were clear and out in the open. I saw the silhouettes as they solidified.
‘Its this place. Come on, we have to go now. There isn’t time.’
A little reluctantly, Rats began to put the sock back on. I got to my feet and pulled out a bag from inside the niche.
‘That’s our emergency stuff’, Rats said, her eyes widening.
‘Well’ I told her grimly. ‘I think this is one.’
We both had our backpacks on. Mine contained a wad of cash, a can of beer, a couple of bars of chocolate, a flashlight, a change of clothes, a rope and a small book that had some hastily scrawled contacts inside it. It was Rats record and she had made two copies because I couldn’t write. I could read just enough to pick out numbers and familiar words. She had gone over it with me carefully. Slowly. She’d been to school for a bit. I never had.
We didn’t dare take the subway with threats hanging in the air. Instead, we slunk past grafiti-covered walls and circled the Dumpster, trudging in the shadows until we reached a shop window with its shutters down for the night.
I took out the flashlight, and while Rats watched in amazement, I bent close near the wall besides the shutter. There was a small crack there. i shone the flashlight through it and blinked it. On-off. On-off. Then silence. Then on-off. On-off again.
‘What are you doing?’ Rats whispered into my ear.
‘Shh’ I told her. ‘I know somebody who is close to Big Man.’
And I did. Not many people knew that Big Man’s real name was Henry. Not many people knew that he had been born into a rich family, hit bankruptcy, been disowned by his family and fallen into shady deals. I knew this because somebody had accompanied Big Man down under when he had fallen. Somebody had been his right man for over a decade now.
I heard a gentle tapping. It was my signal.
‘Come on’ I told Rats and led her past the shuttered shop, down a back alley until we reached the back door. It stood ajar. Perplexed as she was, Rats trusted me enough to follow me into the darkness.
I knew my way here like I knew the back of my hand, even in the dark. We walked through quickly, I could feel Rats hot breath on my neck. We emerged into a low-ceiling room with a single lamp hanging from the roof.
But things were very, very wrong. There was broken furniture everywhere, the pillows and sheets were torn, cupboard doors stood flung open and the contents inside spilled out and most ominously there was blood. On the bed like somebody had been stabbed. On the floor, like somebody had been dragged.
‘What happened here? What is going on!’ Rats explained in horror, even more in the dark than me.
‘But I was aghast.
‘Allow me to explain, senoritas’ we heard an acerbic voice behind us and turned to find ourselves face-to-face with the hauntingly inimical figure of Henry aka the Big Man.
(to be continued)