As an opportunity for fellow writers to have greater exposure, this section of my website is reserved for those wishing to make a written contribution to its pages.
Each month, a fresh third party will be given the chance to list here a submission of their choice, together with a suitable image for the piece of work. If you are interested send a message via the mailing address below, and we'll go from there.
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Christopher Law is a horror writer based in South East England.
He has appeared in a number of anthologies, including regular appearances in Burdizzo Books charity series.
He also has two solo connections available, Chaos Tales I and Chaos Tales II: Hell TV, with a third due for release this year.
You can find him here:
When Principal Curtis suggested Dylan apply for one of the half-dozen scholarships awarded by Salem Academy each year neither he nor his mother expected anything to come of it. The Academy was one of the top schools in the state, private or state, and competition for the scholarships was intense, particularly the full one Dylan needed. The chance had been too good to ignore and, guessing they’d lose nothing by trying, they applied. Dylan had been resigned to entering Larsson Junior High and trying to maintain the low profile he’d adopted since moving to this part of downtown. It had taken them a few minutes to believe the Academy’s representative when he knocked on the door with the offer.
“It would be a shame to let his talent go to waste,” the recruiter said, uncomfortable in their cramped sixth-floor apartment.
“How will he get there?” Astrid asked - practicalities always on her mind. “It’s too far for him to ride his bike. I don’t have a car, and I have to work most mornings.”
“The Second Avenue bus stops just outside your building,” the rep had known transport would be a problem, although he didn’t share the fact that it had almost cost Dylan the scholarship. “It takes a little while, about an hour or so, but it passes less than a block from our gates. The Academy is happy to help with the cost of tickets as part of the scholarship.”
“My baby boy, a commuter…”
Eighteen months later, just a few weeks into his second year at the Academy and the novelty of Dylan’s daily commute had well and truly worn off. He was well settled amongst his new peers—he was the kid who was so poor it was exotic and that saved him from the torments the other scholarship kids received—but the hour long bus journey would have been hellish if he’d failed to devise ways to keep himself occupied. The first line of defence was music—he’d saved his meagre allowance to buy a second hand I-Pod from Skelly’s emporium and filled it with downloads and the less embarrassing remnants of his mother’s once extensive collection, but that only went so far when the scenery was the same every day—rainy, grey and violent.
To cover the gap he turned to his stories, re-hashes of whatever he’d read recently. In Dylan’s imagination, Salem was populated by all manner of superheroes, time travellers and hero rock-stars. Until last week one of his favourites had been Tony Hot-Dog; an old man with a ridiculous moustache selling hot-dogs outside First National Bank by day, caped crusader by night. Mr. Skelly, an even older man with an even more ridiculous moustache, was Tony Hot-Dog’s accomplice, running his sprawling shop of tat, oddities and second hand electronics as a front. It was a fun game and he’d made several comics featuring the geriatric duo, eating up endless felt-tip pens.
Over the last week a darker story had come to dominate.
Salem had always been a violent city, something Dylan learned when he was seven and his journalist father was beaten to death by a gang whilst researching a story. The story had been nothing to do with the gang, he just happened to interrupt them stealing his car. They’d lived out in the suburbs then—on the same street as Sherri Johnson, one of the other scholarship kids. The life insurance company had refused to pay out, claiming Dylan’s father had needlessly and knowingly endangered his life by going to that stretch of Lower Larsson after dark. That decision precipitated the five year slide to downtown Astrid and Dylan had taken. Salem’s underbelly had intruded on the young boy’s life again last year, just a month after he started at the Academy. Bobby Spencer’s father was gunned down on the lawn of his house in the Riverside gated community by a business partner, the mob was involved. Then, last Thursday, it had come close again when The Stalker claimed his seventh victim—Sherri Johnson’s older sister Laurie.
The Stalker had struck for the first time in January but it went unnoticed—just another dead crack-whore. The second murder, another prostitute in March, generated a little more buzz amongst the detectives and analysts but still failed to register with the press. It took the third death—a suburban housewife found mutilated and burned—to grab the front page. The fourth death, a twenty-one year old professional escort, eventually earned the killer his name. The local news called him The Snatcher—a more accurate name—for a week or two but The Evening Post, the paper Dylan’s father had worked for, won the race with a series of headlines. When the fifth body was found in July, another suburban housewife dumped in a drainage ditch, the Post earned a public reprimand from the mayor for the headline ‘Is Your Gal Next?'.
The national media, casting around for something during a boring August, had latched onto the story when the sixth victim was found—a Czech casino singer on her way to the big time. Confidential sources told the Post that the savagery of each attack was increasing. When Laurie Johnson went missing last Tuesday the media had gone wild, and the cops had flooded the streets. The cheer-leading honour student was found in the lounge of an empty house by an estate agent and his prospective buyers. Hallway rumours at the Academy claimed that profanities and satanic messages had been written on the walls in Laurie’s blood, and that bits of her were missing—taken for consumption.
Laurie’s body was found Thursday lunchtime and Principal Dahl decided to give the student body Friday off. She hoped the move would quell the wild stories, aware it was a futile effort in the internet age. At least, Principal Dahl had been able to tell herself, Laurie Johnson hadn’t been part of this year’s burgeoning senior drug scene. There was no risk of a scandal on the back of this tragedy—just a dead rape victim they could mourn. A special ceremony, Dahl thought, just before Thanksgiving—that was appropriate.
The Friday off school, gladly welcomed by Dylan, was a problem for his mother. She had a full day at Pentecost’s, the diner downstairs, and had go straight from there to law firm she cleaned Friday nights. Normally Dylan just spent three hours alone in the apartment, doing his homework and chores, playing the copy of Modern Warfare Two his mother hadn’t found tucked between the pages of his dictionary, but she hadn’t been willing to let himself spend the whole day unsupervised—no matter how well he knew how to work the microwave or the fact he couldn’t leave the building without her seeing him through the diner windows.
“Mom,” he’d protested. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. You can trust me. Really.”
“I’ll ask Mrs. Wennerstrom.”
“Ah, Mom! Do you have to?”
Mrs. Wennerstrom was all right—way better than some of the last ditch babysitters he’d found himself with over the years—but she was ancient and chain-smoked. It sounded like pebbles were churning in her throat when she spoke, he could almost see them moving in the loose flaps of her neck. Whenever he had to sit with her he came home reeking of cigarettes and infuriated because she always made him watch crappy old movies. There were no cartoons or CGI films at Mrs. Wennerstrom’s.
“You don’t like staying here, do you, Dylan?” she’d asked on Friday morning, just after his mother left for the breakfast rush.
“No, not really,” Dylan said, sitting on the couch with his arms folded. He knew he was being sulky and childish and he didn’t care. It just made him want to sulk harder. He thought about how much fun it would be to kick Mrs. Wennerstrom’s massive HD-TV over and storm out.
“You’re growing up now,” she’d said, emerging from the cramped kitchen with a tray—chocolate milk and cookies for him, English tea and a clean ashtray for her. “I think I can show you some films you’ll actually like.”
“Yeah, right,” he was pretending not to notice the milk and cookies, although they did look good. Mrs. Wennerstrom baked excellent cookies.
It had turned out to be an excellent day. They watched a whole bunch of black and white gangster movies, James Cagney snarling over his Tommy-gun, and sharp talking detectives falling for lethal dames. As they watched them, Mrs. Wennerstrom had started to open up, taking little sips from a silver hip-flask. She told him about her youth, dancing in the casinos, and showed him the best photographs in her extensive albums. Of them all, she was most proud of the tattered black and white snapshot of herself, in skimpy clothes and an array of feathers, at the centre of the Rat-Pack. Sammy Davis Jnr. was kissing her cheek and Dean Martin was holding a glass like it kept him vertical. Faded signatures were dotted around the smiling group.
As the bus swung onto Upper Larsson Avenue—the respectable stretch—Dylan was one of those old-school detectives, working an independent investigation into The Stalker because he knew the police weren’t up to the task. He had a personal involvement in the case, but he wasn’t sure what it was yet. He liked Sherri Johnson, she was in the year above him but they spoke sometimes because he told her once that he liked her t-shirt—maybe she was the reason. That was the one he decided on, for the third time that day, uncomfortable with the fact he knew he had a crush on a girl. If his mother found out; he’d be tortured for days.
Whatever the details, he knew he was Dylan Steel—hard-bitten private-eye with a troubled past. It was his mission, his purpose, to crack the case and bring The Stalker to justice. He had some clues—Tony Hot-Dog always had his ear to the street, although he was no longer a superhero, just an informant. The word on the street was that the killer had a snake tattoo around his neck. Dylan Steel was the city’s last hope, battling against criminals and corrupt cops alike.
The bus left Larsson and headed towards the river. He was only twenty minutes from home and he hadn’t found a culprit. He’d considered a few—the two hooded youths who’d met with a complicated handshake—the homeless guy waving a broken kitchen knife at the policemen trying to arrest him. None was right, although all could have been guilty. He was impatient to choose a victim. The bus hit a pothole and the drift of rubbish under the back seat hit his heels. He always sat at the back and absently kicked the drift back again, annoyed that his chain of thought had been broken.
Forcing himself back into the daydream, trying to pick up where he’d left of, Dylan imagined what he’d do when he found The Stalker. It was easy to picture - spotting the snake tattoo - running from the bus. Right up to the point when The Stalker was cornered but refusing to give up. In the fantasy Dylan knew he’d have to draw his gun, be forced to shoot the rabid dog down. He tried to imagine what he’d say before squeezing the trigger - something tough and cool - but it was hard. In the real world he’d never even owned a toy gun.
The bus lurched through another, far deeper pothole. The dozen or so passengers, Dylan included, lurched into the air and landed with a collective ‘whumph!'. Dylan’s earphones fell out and he forget all about being Dylan Steel as he followed the wire into the rubbish drift between his feet, sifting through discarded fast-food cartons and soda cans.
He found it then, the carved eye on the handle staring up at him from beneath a candy wrapper.
“You’re not keeping it, Dylan,” Astrid said that evening, once she had satisfied herself that the bizarre artefact he’d brought home really was just a model. There was something about it that unsettled her and it had taken twenty minutes for her to decide that there were no hidden chambers, no secret buttons that turned it into a real weapon. “I don’t want it in the house.”
“I knew that already. That isn’t why I brought it home.”
“So, why did you then? Not even Mr. Skelly would want that. It’s made from scrap.”
“Yeah, but, it’s better than that. It’s recycled art, Mom, that’s really trendy now. And look at the handle. The carvings are cool. I reckon the Indians carved those.”
“Native Americans,” she absently corrected him, picking the gun up from the kitchen table again. She hadn’t really looked at the carvings before, more interested in checking for ways the thing could become lethal—except as a club, it was heavy enough for that. She didn’t want to look at them for too long, the eye carved inside the moon on one side seemed to bore into her head and the eagle looked like it might break free into the world. “You should have given it to the driver.”
“Yeah, Mom, like that wouldn’t have freaked anyone out. Besides, I found it. It must have been there for ages. I don’t want to keep it. I’m sure Mr. Skelly will want it. He’s got all those totem poles around the shop, and loads of other weird stuff. I bet you anything he’ll buy it,” he rattled through his arguments, his voice almost cracking a few times. “We could go to the movies with the money.”
“Pizza and a movie?” she smiled at him, accepting the gun in her home until Saturday.
“Yeah,” he grinned back. “We haven’t done that in ages.”
“It’s a date, Baby-Boy.”
“Mom! Don’t call me that!”
The heavens burst over Salem that Thursday night, the rain pounding on her window driving Astrid from bed before dawn. The gun had wormed a way into her dreams, waking her a half-dozen times before the storm broke. They were vague but over and over she saw it firing, felt the lurch of it in her hand. The only image that stayed clear, and was present in them all, was a good looking man, just past his prime with grey-flecked hair. If Art, Dylan’s father, had lived, it was almost how she imagined him looking now.
After checking Dylan was sleeping soundly she went to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Swilling mouthwash around, she ran through her finances. The cable company needed paying this week, and since they also provided their phone and internet service that was a priority. The Academy was very hi-tech and Dylan had to submit most of his assignments online. She’d paid the rent last week, but only at the expense of the medical insurance. Mr. Pentecost was a good employer, but there was no healthcare. The premiums were steep and she had to pay extra this month to stop the policy lapsing - a risk she couldn’t take.
Sums done, as healthy as they ever were, she washed her face and went to the lounge. The entire apartment—two cramped bedrooms, a bathroom and this area—would have slotted comfortably into her parent’s Montana kitchen but she’d made it into a home. Purposely not looking at the gun, wrapped in a hand-towel on the table, she looked over the breakfast counter at the lounge area. The furniture was sagging and the ancient TV took five minutes to warm-up before displaying a warped picture. Next year, once she’d paid the Christmas bills, she was going to replace the lot. Dylan’s present, an almost top of the range laptop she was buying in forty-dollar instalments, was the current luxury - redecorating was the next. She was looking forward to watching TV again.
Her eyes settled on the cloth parcel, an anonymous block of red cloth that could have contained a swimming costume. Dylan was right. It was a work of art. A slightly crazed one, but a work of art all the same. Forgetting the coffee she sat down, banging her knee against the folded down extension. The table was too large for the apartment and way too large for the kitchen area, but it was one of the first things she and Art had bought together - she couldn’t let it go.
She unwrapped the gun and hunched over to look at it, not wanting to pick it up. It didn’t look the same as it had last night, less like scrap. The effect was just a trick of the light - the sun was starting to rise but the rain was still falling in sheets, creating a greyness in the air that competed with the soft glow of the energy-saving light-bulbs overhead. It created a hybrid light she had only ever encountered in Salem, and never as strongly as this morning.
“What would Daddy make of this?” she said to herself, wishing the rain would stop long enough for her to sneak a cigarette on the fire escape. “What would he think?”
She came from a family of gunsmiths and knew them as well as any expert. Dylan knew nothing of his heritage - she had always hated it. It was fifteen years since she spoke to her family, they didn’t even know Dylan existed and it had been hard as she examined the thing last night to evade Dylan’s questions about how she knew so much. One day she knew she’d have to tell him about his roots, but not just yet. Finally picking the gun up, tracing a fingernail along the grooves of the eagle carving, she swore he’d never know that his uncles could well have made this thing - except they would have made a Luger that fired.
Thunder rolled again outside, so close and loud it made her jump, the gun flying from her hands and skittering to the edge of the table. She waited and the thunder rumbled again, hailstones pelting down and hammering the windows like the glass was going to break. The weather was in an apocalyptic mood today, and last night’s weather report had warned that it would last until at least tomorrow. Wrapping the gun in the towel again she wondered if the river would burst its banks, something Salemites expected to happen almost every fall but hadn’t happened once in the fourteen years she’d lived here.
Dylan’s alarm started to sound and she turned the radio on before starting breakfast, making eggs after failing twice at pancakes. She couldn’t stop her thoughts circling around the gun; like an itchy scab or mouth ulcer it was something she couldn’t resist poking at. She snapped at Dylan when he innocently unwrapped the thing to look at as he ate his eggs and didn’t apologise although she knew she should. They parted on grouchy terms outside the building, Dylan scowling his way to the bus-stop across the road, looking so young with the hood of his waterproof pulled up. Astrid, hunched beneath her umbrella, hurried into the diner, the breakfast rush already in full swing.
Neither her mood nor her concentration improved as the morning passed and by lunchtime she had screwed-up three orders and dropped a full jug of coffee into Ernie’s lap. Fortunately he was a regular and made light of the incident, gallantly leaping to her defence when Mr. Pentecost started to bawl her out in front of everyone.
“It was just an accident,” Ernie said. “No need to make a scene.”
“Go home, Astrid,” Mr. Pentecost sighed back, the wind taken from his sails. “I need you to have your mind on the job. You can work tomorrow afternoon to make-up the hours.”
“Are you sure?” she replied, looking up as she mopped up the spilt coffee and picked up the glass shards. She felt like a supplicant and it galled almost as much as knowing she pretty much owed Ernie the date he’d been after for the last year. He smelled bad. “I just need a cigarette; I’ll be okay after that.”
“Just go, Astrid. I’ll see you at twelve tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” she said to Ernie, standing up with a full dustpan.
“S’cool,” he grinned, showing his gaudy dental work. “You owe me sometime.”
“I guess I do.”
The rain had slackened to a steady drizzle. Angry and embarrassed she forgot to collect her umbrella from the break-room—a windowless cell beside the fire-door that stunk of the cigars Mr. Pentecost smoked despite all the warnings from the sanitation department. The thirty-second dash left her half-soaked.
It wasn’t like Astrid to be ditzy, and she blamed the gun. She knew it before she started stamping up the stairs, the scowl on her face exactly like her son’s that morning. Guns - real, replica or imaginary - where always the problem in her life, always the source of the most strife. From the arguments about gun-control that caused her to run away to Art’s death - the blow that caused his brain to bleed had come from the butt of a jammed pistol - guns were to blame. She hated them, wanted them gone from the world.
She slammed the apartment door and made the pictures rattle. Almost immediately she saw the red towel, taunting her from the kitchen table and her anger bubbled up a notch. She’d parted on bad terms with her son and almost gotten herself fired - and it was all the gun’s fault. It was the source of the distraction, of the entire problem, and she wanted it gone. If there was one she could just magic from a cupboard, she’d take a time-machine and make it so Dylan never found the damn thing. Then she’d go change a bunch of other stuff.
“Crap,” she said, kicking her heels against the door. “Crap-crap-crapping-crap.”
Working from twelve tomorrow didn’t leave enough time to get to Skelly’s Emporium and back. The old man didn’t open until eleven and it was a thirty minute bus-ride each way. He was closed on Sundays and, if she were to take Dylan along, there wasn’t a chance to take the thing there until next weekend. She still baulked at the thought of her baby-boy roaming the city alone, felt frantic every evening waiting for him to get home. Mulling the problem over as she changed into jeans and a sweater, she tried to figure a way to get to Skelly’s and back. If she’d owned a car it would have been easy, but going by bus it was impossible. The timetables ruled it out.
“Nothing for it,” she eventually said to herself. “I’ll just have to take it now, and Dylan can deal with it.”
There was a lull in the rain when she left the building, jumping over the large puddles that had formed around the over-worked drains as she hurried to the bus-stop. She thought about getting her umbrella from the diner but the morning’s embarrassment was still fresh and she decided to trust to luck. The gun, still wrapped in the towel, was at the bottom of her largest handbag, underneath all the junk it had accumulated since she bought it last year. Despite knowing the thing was just a model, she felt like a criminal on her way to dispose of a murder weapon.
It started to rain again five minutes after she boarded the bus and she watched it fall as they crawled through the cross-town traffic. She’d never seen rain so heavy, drops bouncing knee-high from the concrete. It was just as heavy when she left the bus and she so resembled a drowned rat when she entered the Emporium that Skelly laughed aloud.
“Long-time, no-see, Astrid,” he said, handing her a wad of tissues from the box on the counter. “You found some more comic-books for me?”
“Not quite,” she replied, wiping the worst of the water from her face and hair, dumping the soggy wad in the waste-basket he held up for her. “Not even close, actually, but I think you’ll be interested. It’s pretty unusual.”
“I like unusual. What you got?”
Unusual was one way to describe the vast array of clutter that filled the large store. The area around the door was like any other second hand electronics store - racks of pre-owned video games between displays of TV sets and tired games consoles - and that was how Mr. Skelly made his living. The rest of the store, almost two thirds, reflected his obsession with the old, bizarre and collectible. Furniture and knick-knacks jostled for room between boxes of comic-books and overflowing bookshelves; thousand dollar vases sat next to ten-cent Mickey Mouse figurines; the eight foot totem poles that fascinated Dylan guarded it all.
“Dylan found it,” she said, pulling the gun from her bag. “On the bus, if you’ll believe it.”
“Stuff likes to get around,” he grinned, frowning as he saw the gun.
“It looks very realistic, I know, but it is just a model.”
“And a very good one too,” his eyebrows knotted as he examined it - a good sign. “Your boy found it on the bus?”
“Yeah, just sitting under all the trash. I think it’s junk, but I promised Dylan I’d bring it down.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t want to tag along,” Skelly traced the outline of the eagle with a finger.
“He did, but I’m working tomorrow. He’s not old enough to go roaming alone. Not yet.”
“And you don’t want this in your home, huh?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with it awhile longer.”
“You aren’t interested?” her heart fell.
“Oh, I’m interested all right, it’s magnificent. I’d give you seven-fifty as my starting price. But I can’t.”
“Why not?” she wanted to scream.
“Don’t have a permit - real or replicas. Don’t wanna attract that crowd. This I’d have, the carvings are fascinating…” he trailed off, absorbed for a few seconds in the carved eye and moon motif. Then he grinned, his ancient face crumpling around his toothless mouth. “Don’t despair, though. I can still help out.”
“I think so. I know a collector. Leave me your number and I’ll get him to call you.”
“That’d be brilliant.”
“Not a problem” he beamed. “I like to help. Here, scribble your number down. I’ll call him this evening.”
“Of course,” she jotted down both her home number and her cell. “How much should I ask him for? If he does call.”
“Start at two thousand, but don’t let him take you below fifteen hundred.”
“Two thousand?” she felt a little giddy. “That much?”
“It’s the least it’s worth. I’d have turned a tidy profit.”
“I’ll get you something,” she replied, trying not to think what two grand could do. The thing wasn’t sold yet. “A bottle of whiskey or something.”
“A pretty smile is enough.” he grinned again. “You’d best get moving, though. The river’s gonna burst.”
“It hasn’t rained like this since seventy-two. It’ll burst. Trust this old fogey.”
Astrid left Skelly’s Emporium a little after three, only just missing the quarter past bus. She took refuge in a coffee shop for the half-hour wait until the next service, nursing a cappuccino and an iced cinnamon Danish. She was still damp when she returned to the bus-stop and, by the time it arrived ten minutes late, she was soaked through again. The city centre was slightly higher than downtown but even here the streets were turning into rivers, the sewers struggling to cope with the deluge. She wanted to call Dylan but her battery was dead. He’d be expecting her to be home or in the diner when he got there and she knew she was going to be late - probably very late.
Her anxiety turned to panic about an hour later after the storm found fresh energy. Several roads, including most of Larsson and Second Avenue, were closed because of the imminent flood and the bus was caught in the jam the decision caused. It was almost five when a junction fender-bender, just bad enough to stop the cars involved driving away, caused gridlock.
“Please let me off,” she said after fifteen minutes staring at the shutters of a convenience store.
“You wanna go out in that?” the driver said. “Ain’t you already wet enough?”
“I’ve got to get home to my son.”
“Understood, lady. Good luck.”
Astrid’s first instinct as she stepped out into the rain was to run. It was about three miles to the apartment and, even weighed down by her bag and wet clothes, she knew she was fit enough for the challenge. She resisted the urge, aware that her route was as important as her speed. Instead she set out at a brisk pace, the bag bouncing on her left hip, forcing the panic down so she could plan ahead. Before Dylan was born she and Art had loved to spend their time driving around Salem, learning all the rat-runs and neighbourhoods—it was part of what had made Art such a good crime reporter. She knew the city well, knew her building was only two blocks from the river. If it burst, she’d have to swim to the front door. At least she didn’t have to actually cross it, that was some source of hope.
There were two basic routes she could take home from where she was now - right towards Jefferson or left so she’d skirt along Lower Larsson. The first would take twenty minutes longer, but was by far the safer choice. The weather was bad but the Neon Lady boasted on the flyers that littered Salem that not even The Rapture would stop the dancing. The Lady was Salem’s most notorious strip-joint but the attitude, the grasping venality of the owners, wasn’t unique. She saw a payphone ahead and ran to it - she’d call home, speak to Dylan and take the safer route.
The phone had been vandalised, the handset trailing wires over the coin slot and the booth stank of urine. She was compelled to spend five minutes in the stinking shelter all the same, watching a shower of grape-sized hailstones fall. The noise inside the booth was incredible, and she saw dents appear in the thin metal roof. Her decision was made. The Neon Lady flyers had to be bravado - and what kind of creep would head out on a night like this?
Ten minutes later and she was on Lower Larsson, as deserted as she’d hoped it would be. She checked her watch; it was a quarter-to-six. The sun hadn’t set yet but the only light as she made her way quickly along the road, hugging the shuttered store fronts, came from the street lights and the alternating pink and green lights of The Neon Lady sign. The strip-club was shuttered like everywhere else, but the dancing hadn’t stopped. The river was close, but hadn’t burst yet. If it had the drains would be spewing water out, not simply getting overwhelmed. It wasn’t far now, just another half-mile before she could turn onto Lincoln and from there another mile to home. If she could fly, or skip over the rooftops, it was less than a mile. She prayed Dylan was there, rather than caught in some traffic snarl, watching the city succumb all alone.
A few hundred yards past the Neon Lady she spotted an option she had forgotten—an alleyway that cut diagonally across her route, joining Lincoln much closer to home. Gated at both ends it had never been a route she and Art could take, the reason it had slipped her mind. Someone had cut a hole in the chain-link gate, a purse-snatcher’s rat run, and she was clambering through it before she thought it through. It was no matter if the gate at the far end hadn’t been cut as well, she could climb it well enough.
She was almost at the far end when she spotted the van, the dim interior light shining between the open rear doors. She had been too busy dodging dumpsters, puddles and rats to notice it before and stopped dead when she did. A second later, thinking that she should run but unable to make her legs move, she saw The Stalker descending a fire-escape, silhouetted against a street-light. He was large and Astrid could tell it was a body thrown over his shoulder. There was no doubt about who she was watching, instinct was enough for proof.
The retractable ladder at the bottom of the fire-escape hit the ground with a clang and Astrid suppressed a cry. She knew she had to run, couldn’t bring herself to be so selfish.
“Leave her alone!” Astrid shouted as the silhouette deposited his burden in the van, fumbling in her bag and hoping she was right, that it was heavy enough to use as a club. She prayed he’d just get scared and run. “I have a gun!”
“Do you?” The Stalker called back. “Bet you miss me!”
He started to run and Astrid struggled to keep her knees strong. He was only fifty feet down the alley; she knew she had no hope of flight. Thirty feet away and she could see the boiler-suit and Halloween mask he wore. He was huge, at least twice her size. She thought about the self-defence classes she had taken, knew they wouldn’t help either, and as he came within ten feet she told herself to grasp the barrel, to use the gun as a club, but she pulled the trigger instead.
The shot went wild, ricocheting from a dumpster, but it brought The Stalker to a halt. She saw that he had cut away the bottom part of the devil mask so his own sick smile showed. His teeth were perfect, and filed into points.
“Pretty ladies never can aim,” he drawled, throwing himself forward.
Prepared for the kick now, hoping the miracle would happen twice, she pulled the trigger again. The Stalker fell in an untidy heap at her feet, carried there by momentum with half his head missing. Lightning flashed overhead, the deafening clap of thunder arriving simultaneously, and she forgot about the corpse at her feet, stuffing the gun back into her bag as she started to run. The girl in the back of the van was starting to come round and, choosing her priorities, Astrid left her to her fate.
She made it home just a few minutes before the river overwhelmed the defences, breaching along a four-mile long strip. Downtown disappeared under ten feet of sludgy, flotsam ridden muck and it was weeks before life started to get back to normal. For Astrid it was a magical time spent playing board-games by candlelight and eating the meals FEMA dropped off in the flooded hallway. She accepted a date with one of the workers that eventually led to marriage and her daughter.
She didn’t tell Dylan anything about the gun and the alleyway, not even when the news broke that The Stalker had been found dead - DNA samples confirmed it and he was later named as Jack Button. The girl in the van never came forward and, happy to be shot of the bastard, the police never really pursued the case. The gun became an ornament in Dylan’s room and, six months later, they’d both almost forgotten it existed.
“I’ll give you twenty-five hundred.” Holden Cosgrove, Mr. Skelly’s collector friend, said over the phone.
“I want thirty-five,” Astrid replied.