The Running Game
Five past eleven.
Rachel’s shift should have finished three hours ago. She slammed her time card into the machine. Nothing. She gave it a kick, then another until it released, punching her card and signing her out for the night. The hospital locker room was unusually quiet. There was a nurse signing out for the night, two doctors signing in. Nobody spoke to each other--it wasn’t that kind of place. Grabbing her threadbare coat from her locker, she drew it over her scrubs--the only barrier between her and the unforgiving October night. She walked through the ER waiting room, eyes fixed on the exit. You had to ignore the desperation. Three hours over a twelve hour shift, you had no choice but to pretend like you didn’t care. Push past the mothers offering up their sick children like you could just lay your hands on them and everything would be better. Push past the factory workers bleeding out on the floor. Push that door open and get out. Get home. You had to. In six hours the whole thing would start again.
The first blast of cold air slapped the life into her aching body. The second blast nearly pushed her back inside. She tightened the coat around herself, but the icy wind still managed to weave its fingers through the thin material and loose seams. November was coming, and coming fast. She quickened her pace, trying to outrun the winter.
She hurried past the skeletal remains of another fallen bank, a relic of the days before the economy crashed and the country went to hell. Now the abandoned building housed those left to the streets: the too old, the too young, the weak, the stupid. Cops would be coming soon, moving them on, pushing them from one shadow to another until dawn or death, whichever came first. But for now they sat huddled around burning canisters, silently soaking in the heat as though they could carry that one flame through winter. They didn’t notice Rachel. Even the most evil of men lurking in the doorways, waiting for helpless things to scurry past, overlooked the young doctor as she made her way home. Nobody ever saw her. At least they never used to.
Three – two – one.
Nine past eleven. Right on cue.
She felt someone watching her. It was always the same place, opposite the third window of the old bank. He was hidden, not in the bank but close. So close she could almost feel his breath on the back of her neck. She'd watched muggings before, these were desperate times and people took what they could when they could. There were rapes too, five this week, at least five that had needed medical care. It was a dangerous city and getting worse. But this was different. He--and for some reason she knew it was a he--did nothing. For a week he had been there, never betraying his exact position or his intentions, but she could feel him and the longer he waited the more he tormented her. He knew where she lived, where she worked, the route she took to the exchange store. And he escorted her home each night without ever showing himself. It made no sense. And that made it so much worse.
She wasn't intimidated easily; doctors in St Mary's couldn't be. It didn't matter that she was only five feet tall and looked like a strong wind would knock her down; she could still take care of herself. But the stalking had spooked her. The sleepless nights followed as she wondered who he was, what he wanted, if he knew.
There was nowhere for her to go in the city, no place she could hide, no escape. If she wanted to eat she had to work, and he would be waiting for her outside the hospital--watching, doing nothing. She was tired of it, tired of everything, but there was something she could do. She could make it stop, one way or another. Whatever he had planned, whatever he wanted to do to her, he would have to look her in the eye as he did it, because she was done running.
She stopped walking and turned.
The street was empty. But she could still feel him there. The buildings pressed their darkness into the street and the spattering of hissing lamplights did little to expose the nocturnal danger below. There was noise. There was always noise; voices, vehicles, the persistent buzzing of the electricity struggling to reach the edges of the city. So much going on, yet so little to see--a perfect place to hide.
“Okay you pervert,” she whispered to herself. “Where’re you hiding?”
The road stretched back into a tightrope. Gingerly, her feet edged back towards the ruined bank. She scanned the buildings around her, the upper windows, the ground level doorways, waiting for him to pounce. One step, two steps. Look. Nothing. She retraced her steps to the next building. Then the next. He felt so close--why couldn’t she see him?
“You want me, well here I am, you freak. Come and get me!”
There was a shout from the bank. Someone running. A man. Her stomach clenched. She braced herself. He pushed by her, hurrying away. It wasn’t him.
She turned, her eyes trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Then warm breath touched the back of her neck.
The world went white.
With her face pressed into the filthy, cold road, Rachel waited. The ground beneath her trembled, but that was it. She frowned, waiting for something, trying to understand what she was doing lying in a stinking puddle at the side of the road. Hands were lifting her to her feet. She turned to the bank, but it was gone. Flames licked at the pile of rubble in its place. People stumbled from the wrecked building, choking and coughing, others with their eyes as wide as their mouths. But there was no sound, just staggered movement and growing heat. Rachel watched, feeling more curious than afraid. The silent panic was fascinating. She made to move and her ears exploded with noise. The shock of it knocked her back. Screaming, cries for help, the ringing of sirens came from every direction.
The ground shook again and the building exploded another mortar firework into the street. She felt her body being tugged away. But people were coming to help. People were still alive. She was a doctor, she was needed.
“I can help these people,” she shouted trying to fight off the man holding her back.
“It’s a lure bomb.” The voice was so cool it made her freeze. She looked at the stranger and swallowed the clumps of gravel lodged in the back of her throat. She had wanted to meet him face to face but not like this.
He stared at her with blank eyes. The dead and dying meant nothing to him. He was there for her and her alone. His hand still held her shoulder, holding her back. The hand that had pulled her to safety. So many questions ran through her head but she could only push one out.
“A lure bomb?”
A small explosion that drew in the police, she raced to remember. Followed by the bigger bomb that would blow them to pieces. She turned back to the space where the bank should have been. More people were rushing to help, pulling at the arms and legs of the buried. If they were lucky bodies would come with them.
“We have to warn…” The man had gone.
The sirens grew louder.
Rachel drew in a steadying breath. Three hours over a twelve hour shift – you have no choice but to pretend like you don’t care.
She started to run.
Charlie jolted awake in his chair, his face sodden with sweat. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Pain coursed up his back, reminding him of his nightmare. The recurring dream of the day it all went wrong. He fumbled through his pockets until he found his pills. The placebo was instantaneous, and the pain relief followed shortly after. He rubbed his eyes and returned to the camera positioned towards the apartment in the opposite tower block.
The lights were on, curtains open. Someone had come home and he’d missed it. His one job and he’d screwed it up. He kicked out at the crutch resting against his chair and watched as it skidded across the floor out of his reach. Flexing his hands he willed the crutch back to him. Nothing happened.
He lifted himself from his chair too quickly and his right leg buckled, knocking over the camera – only the most expensive bit of kit they owned. The lens cracked.
“Shit, shit, shit.” He shouted from the floor. The shockwaves of pain started to subside. Anger and shame fought their usual battle, while the voice inside his head urged him to just quit already. And, as usual, a persistent nagging from his bladder brought everything into perspective. He carried a lot of indignity on his shoulders, the last thing he needed was to be found sitting in a pool of his own piss.
This wasn’t how his life was supposed to be. Charlie Smith had been a legend. He was a Reacher, born with incredible powers and an arrogance that made anything possible. With his former self firmly in his mind, he rested his head on the floor and focused on the crutch again. His fingers stretched out, reaching for the plastic handle in his head. He could still sense the weight and feel of it with his powers, but to move it took an effort his brain struggled with. This should have been easy, but his telekinetic powers were failing him. The camera shook, turned on its side and then stopped altogether. The effort was exhausting and embarrassing.
Slowly, because nowadays everything had to be done slowly, he edged himself over to his crutch and, with it in hand, he managed to make it to the bathroom. It was a small victory, but it was nearly enough to cheer him up. That was until he caught sight of himself in the broken mirror fixed above the sink. He used to have charisma. He used to be able to smile his way out of trouble. Now he was lucky if people didn’t cross the street to avoid him. Greying hair, dull red eyes, pallid skin. He was thirty-three; he looked fifty; he felt like a pensioner. The great Reacher Charlie Smith--reduced to this. Things had changed so radically in just a year. One year, two months, and eight days.
The lock in the front door turned. Charlie straightened his clothes. Everything was normal, everything was fine. He could cope, of course he could cope. He checked his smile in the mirror and stepped out of the bathroom as his brother kicked open the door and then kicked it closed again, to make his point.
“Everything okay?” Charlie asked.
His younger brother wore a scowl so deep it could have been chiselled into his skull. Everything was clearly not okay. But with John it was impossible to tell how far up the disaster scale the situation was. Charlie had seen that same scowl when a job went sour and he’d seen it when someone spilt coffee on John’s suit.
John glanced away. He was annoyed with himself – never a good sign. Charlie braved a crutch-supported step towards him. There was a four year age gap between the two of them. and it had never been more apparent.
Charlie gestured for them to sit down at the fold-up table in the dining space. Most of the time John had everything under control. It was rare for him to make mistakes or miscalculations. and when he did he would beat himself up over it for days. He would need Charlie, a professional in screwing things up, to put everything into perspective.
“She saw me,” John confessed.
“She saw you!” Charlie said in disbelief. “You’re like a creature of the night, how the hell could see you? Jesus, most of the time I don’t even see you and I know you’re coming.”
John’s fists clenched and unclenched. He stood up to work off the tension and started to pace; short, quick steps, squeaking his leather shoes against the linoleum floor.
“There was an explosion. Some bastard left a lure bomb right on her route. I had to pull her away before the goddamn building fell on her.”
Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose. Even when his brother messed up he still managed to do something right. “What you mean is you saved her?”
John glared at him. “You’re missing the point.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. Only John would get himself so worked up over saving the life of their mark. “Listen, do you think he’d pay us if he found out we let her die?” Charlie said.
“You don’t know that. We have no idea what he wants her for!”
It was true, they didn’t and the fact was starting to chafe. The infamous Smith Brothers always knew the cards on the table before the deck was even dealt. Charlie planned jobs like he was writing a script. Nobody ever missed a cue. At least that was how it used to be a year ago. A year, two months, and eight days. Since then the jobs had dried up. They were lucky to get the Rachel Aaron case and that was only because Charlie’s old mentor put in a good word for them. But luck and even the backing of an old priest didn’t make the unknown any less troubling. They were out of their depth and they were still only in the shallows.