The Mechanics: Chapters 1-3

A shadow moved across rugged frozen ground, a shard of void sliced out of the night, carved into being then raised to life by the Epinoia. Tall and lean with long black hair thrown back by the wind. Oblivious to the cold, he strode across the ice-bright, snow-swept landscape, the heavy scrunch of footsteps disappearing into the swirling snowfall.
Gasometers haunt the black horizon, bound by ice-encrusted walkways and ladders and bruised by yellow blotches of light. The rugged moonsoaked wasteland off York Way echoed a vague reflection of nights in the Dauru desert’s white sands beyond his home town. The rippled dunes where groups of Xera lizards and large, crabby Koraks emerged from their burrows at night to scuttle after grime slugs and scrape for scraps around the outskirts of mining camps.
A distant muffled scream snapped him back to the present. He stopped and held his breath, his senses still heightened since his arrival.
“Hold still, you filthy little bitch.” The barely audible, harsh, angry, predatory voice dissolved into the hiss of the wind and snow. He tilted his head slightly in the direction from where the voice came. There. Traces of a faint whisper of a cry, almost lost in the raw, biting wind. The feeble pleading stung deep and touched some long-buried memory, a helpless, desperate cry of burning pain. Whatever torturous echo was buried in the darkness, it turned his stomach.
He changed direction, taking long strides across the ragged white ground, the tails of his long coat flapping behind him, his breath ghosting out and back across his grim features. Then, an old disused workshop, the door half open against a rubble pile, emerged from the swirling haze.
A thick, grey, weather-worn wood door sandwiched between metal plates hung ajar off one hinge. Without pausing, he stepped around it into the workshop. The frosted smell of old fabric, stale alcohol, and fuel hung in the gloom. Moonlight poured through a long, narrow window onto a short, stocky man crouched near the far wall.
The man turned, snarling. He had a cut on the side of his eye, and a trickle of blood ran down a stubby face twisted in anger. Behind him, another smaller shape, a young boy with short-cut auburn hair, dragged himself across an old mattress and curled into a ball in the corner beside a small mound of frost-encrusted beer bottles and rusted car engine parts.
The man fumbled in the pockets of a thick overcoat and then stood up, holding a gun. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Fuck off out of here.”
The boy behind the man let out a tearful, fragile moan.
“Leave him.”
“I said fuck off,” the man’s voice was heavy with frustration and primitive, unrestrained desire.
Sam raised his open hands and stepped back.
“Fucking gobshite wanker,” the man sneered, tightening his small, pug nose.
Sam leaned back and snapped his front foot, striking the man in the chest. The man stumbled back, firing the gun with a loud crack. The bullet crunched into the wall behind Sam, and crumbs of brick splattered and crackled across the floor and broken glass.
The boy made a faint, fearful cry and pressed back into the wall.
Sam took a quick step forward and, with a slight twist, swung a hard hook into to man’s face. The man staggered sideways, hit the wall, and dropped the gun. The boy screamed again and cowered back.
“Cunt,” The man rolled to one side and jumped to his feet, moving around Sam like someone used to brawling. Sam blocked his jab and came back with a sharp, fast jab to the side of the man’s head. The man staggered back, shook his head, pushed away from the wall, and came at Sam with an uppercut. Sam grabbed the fist with one hand and punched him in the stomach so hard that his fist almost disappeared into the flab and shirt. The man let out an ugly ‘oomph’ and crumbled to the floor, wheezing, and scrabbled forwards. Sam reached the gun first. He smashed the end of the handle into the man’s forehead and kicked him back.
Dazed and unable to sit up, the man blinked and wiped the blood from his nose. “You’re dead,” he grumbled.
Sam pointed the gun at the man, “Stay.”
The man grunted something, tried to lean up, and slipped back down, gasping.
Sam watched him for a second, then turned and stepped over the mattress to the child in the corner. Sam knelt in front of the child and put down the gun. He was mistaken. The child was a young girl. Half undressed, with jeans around her knees, she cowered back, peering up at him with glazed eyes. Then her gaze shot past him over his shoulder, alarmed.
Sam spun and dropped sideways to dodge the paint pot swinging at his head. He grabbed the gun and fired, his strong hand taking in the recoil. The loud crack filled the small space as the bullet smashed through the man’s nose and exploded out the top of his skull, trailing blood and brain matter and crunched into the wall behind him. The man tottered for a second, then crumbled to the ground, his hand still holding the paint pot.
The coppery smell of gunshot and blood spread into the cold, murky silence and filled the silent air, punctuated by the distant barking of dogs. He glanced over to the girl, still hunched up, head between her knees, shaking, maybe out of fear, cold, or both. Poor child, even if she hadn’t seen the killing, she knew what had happened. The girl peered at him, occasionally interrupted by bouts of shivering.
Kneeling by the body, he put a hand on the chest and closed his eyes for several seconds. As he lifted his hand away, the distant barking of dogs fell silent.
He searched through the pockets gently, like the man was sleeping and might wake up, methodically going through his pockets. BMW Car keys, several little aluminium foil folds of powder, a pack of cigarettes, and a box of matches. In addition to a wallet full of cash and a thick wad of money in an elastic band. More twenty pounds notes were stuffed inside a brown envelope. Sam pocketed all the money, then picked the gun up and slipped it into the inside pocket of his long coat. He paused for a second, then tore open the foil folds and emptied the powder over the body. He flipped the thin mattress onto it and stepped away from the acrid stench of urine and stale beer that puffed up.
The girl shook her head when he stepped towards her. “Lea’ me ‘lone.” She drawled, squirming and raising an arm in a feeble effort to push him away. “Don’ tush me.”
Sam stepped back. “You are safe now,” he said in a voice he hadn’t used for years.
The girl looked up from behind her arm, shooting a glance at the mattress and then at him.
He picked up the hooded duffel coat and offered it to her.
Eying him warily, the girl snatched the coat and clung like a child would a treasured doll. A red bruise bloomed around a small cut on her left cheek. She had what looked like a birthmark under one ear.
Sam reached out to her, “We must leave this place.”
The girl rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. “Alright,” She took his outstretched hand, and Sam helped her onto a piece of level ground. She wavered as she pulled up her jeans, now covered in dust and small stains. The sight of the mattress made her shudder and turn away. She quickly glanced at Sam, then buttoned her shirt and tucked it in with her T-shirt.
Sam helped her with the slightly oversized duffel coat and toggles. It hung loosely around her, her hands disappearing into the arms, so she pulled the sleeves up for her hands to appear. She kicked the car keys, then stopped and stared down at them. She almost fell when she bent over to pick them up.
“Leave them.”
“He’s got my bag.”
Sam let her pick up the keys and guided her out of the workshop. “Wait.”
Standing hunched into the oversized coat, her arms crossed tight across her chest, occasional shivers rippled through her body. She had a strange disconnect and uncertainty about her that didn’t seem caused by whatever drugs the man had made her take.
Sam lifted and straightened the door, then pushed it shut. Then he tore chunks of rubble and bricks from solid, icy mounds like they were soft as cake, then piled them against the door and frame, punching them into the narrow gaps and cracks. Then he kicked and heeled a solid mass along the base.
The girl rubbed her eyes with the end of her sleeve. That door looked really heavy. How could he do that? And his hands must be freezing.
Finally, he slapped the ice and dirt from his hands, stamping the grit and grime from his shoes. “Come,” he offered her his arm, “what is your name?”
The girl pursed her lips and averted her gaze, “Billy.”
“Where is home, Billy?”
“No,” she slurred, “no’ going back.”
“We will find safe place.”
They crossed the uneven snow-dusted ground, Billy’s arm wrapped tightly around his, gripping it with her other hand, bound by a moment of concern and comfort.
Her arm shuddered as little shivers ran through her. Sometimes she would wince from the cold or maybe a painful memory.
A tall wire fence separated the site from the road. Sam led her to a tear and pulled at the brittle, rusty metal. It creaked and cracked as he bent and curled it until links broke with a ripple of snaps, and the tear extended. He helped Billy through onto the icy, snow-covered pavement, and Billy stopped and looked up and down the street, peering into the hazy distance.
“This way,” Sam said, and Billy’s face dropped as they set off up York Way through the thinning, sweeping snow.
Billy needed to be somewhere safe. The man in the cabin he’d passed earlier was chatting with a young woman who hugged him and then disappeared up the road, hurrying through the snow.
Billy pulled away from him and slipped on an icy patch, and her grip tightened across his arm to stay upright. His arm barely moved.
“My bag,” she said, pulling him towards a car.
A small backpack lay on the front passenger seat of the car. Two colourful patches, winged insects the same shape as her birthmark, had been roughly sewn onto the back.
Fumbling with the keys, Billy opened the door, took her bag, and then rummaged through the glove compartment. She took out several bars of chocolate and stuffed them into her backpack, putting the last one in a coat pocket.
Sam took the keys from her and tossed them onto the dashboard. Then he took her hand, and they set off again.
Passing the arches at the back of the station, she leaned less on him and didn’t cling so much.
“Where are we going?”
“To a man who can help.”
Sam held Billy back in the shadows beyond the pool of yellow light around a pair of wide gates secured with a chain and padlock. A warning sign with a picture of two dogs flapped feebly on the side of a cabin. Inside, surrounded by fragile fumes rising from a roll-up, a figure sat reading a paper in the pale glow of a small anglepoise lamp. The tiny orange-red end of his cigarette rose and fell as he turned the pages.
“There,” Sam pointed at the man, “he is kind. He will help.”
“Is he your friend?”
“No. I do not know him.”
The man looked up and lowered the newspaper, took a final drag on his roll-up and placed it on the edge of the dull metal ashtray. Pulling the collar of his donkey jacket around his neck, he stepped out into the yellow lights. Tinny voices, followed by music, drifted out of the cabin, and the man closed the door. His old, worn, heavy, black boots scrunched into the blanket of untouched snow outside the cabin.
The long torch he gripped at a slight angle flicked on, and the beam slid across the snow and up into Sam’s face. Sam squinted and turned away. The light then moved across to Billy. She raised the half-eaten chocolate bar to her face.
The man switched off the torch. “What’s going on?” He spoke in a fearless Scots accent, even though Sam towered over him by at least a foot.
“She fell. I found her.”
“Fell, eh?” He looked down the road to the wasteland and workshops, then peered at Billy, “Is that right? Are you okay, lass?”
Billy lowered the half-eaten Crunchie bar and looked up at Sam, unsure what to say. Sam nodded to her, and she gave a long, worried look back down the road.
“Is she deaf?” the man said.
“No,” Billy protested indignantly, adjusting her grip on Sam’s arm, “Yeh, I fell.”
“Hm, you should be home this time of night.”
Billy responded with a shrug and took another bite of the Crunchie.
“She is homeless,” Sam said. “You know area, yes?”
“Aye.” the man gave Sam a perplexed look, “so?”
“You know good people?”
“Look, pal, you should take her to the police station. It’s…”
“No!” Billy blurted out. She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her jacket, then wiped away the thin streak, “they’ll take me back. I’m not going back.”
“Like that, is it?” The man tilted his head at her. “Alright, lass,” He gave Sam a wary look, “I suppose you could try the licensed squat down the road. Uni students live there, volunteer at Shelter, they’ll take her in. It’s not far. Ask for Nora, my niece. I’ll show you where.”
“She will be safe?”
“No,” Billy interrupted, “I’ll stay at your place.”
“I have no place,” Sam replied.
“What a pair,” Sandy murmured. “It’s alright, lass. They’re decent girls, very friendly.”
Sam looked down at Billy, who shrugged and gave him a nod.
“Good,” Sam said, “you take her.”
“What? Sorry, pal. You’re pushing your luck. I could lose my job if anything goes missing from the site.”
“I will stay. Watch for you.” Sam peeled three twenty pound notes from a wad. “Here.”
The man stared at the money, gave Sam a suspicious look then checked up and down the road. It was silent, empty. He pulled up the sleeve of his donkey jacket and checked his watch, “You’ll stay until I get back?”
“Ach, five minutes, who’s gonna know?” The man dropped the last half inch of the cigarette into the slush, where it fizzled out. He took the money, shoved it into a pocket, and then pointed to the cabin, “Y’can wait there. No one goes in or out. Aright?” He passed Sam the torch.
Sam nodded and took the torch. The name ‘SANDY’ roughly written over the mottled handle with the ‘S’ was scratched into the thick rubber. He slid the button up and down to turn it off and back on.
“Are you okay, pal?”
“Right, come on, lass,” Sandy reached out for Billy’s hand, but she clung to Sam’s arm and looked up at him.
“Wait,” Sam pulled his sleeve back to reveal three bracelets around his left wrist. He ran a finger along one bracelet and lifted it off. Then, taking Billy’s hand, he slipped it over her wrist. She watched in amazement as the band shrank to fit her wrist.
“How did it do that?” Billy pulled the sleeve back and moved the bracelet around her wrist. Pale red, yellow, green, and blue pea-sized crystals inside a delicate weave of soft, almost elastic, metal. Were they glowing, or was it just the reflection of light?
She ran the tip of her finger along the bracelet and over the crystals. “Thanks,” she murmured, distracted by their comforting warmth.
“Okay, now, Billy,” Sandy pointed up the road, “See that church there? The big house right next to it, your friend can see it from here.” He reached his hand out to Billy again, “Might even have a mince pie for you.”
“I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen,” Billy grumbled,
Surprised, Sandy looked at Sam, who shrugged.
“I will watch,” Sam said.
“Remember,” Sam said, “Sandy saw you. He helped you. That is all. You understand why?”
“I get it, mister… Sam.”
“What’s that?” Sandy said.
“Say nothing of me. You saw her, took her to squat.”
“Oh, aye?” Sandy looked down York Way to the wasteland and workshops, “Did you happen to hear bangs, like gunshots?” Sandy raised a hand towards the wasteland, “from down that way?”
Sam followed Sandy’s gaze, “Like gunshots? No.” It wasn’t like gunshots; it was gunshots.
Billy looked down and shook her head.
“Right,” Sandy said, “fair enough.”
Billy slid a finger across the soft crystals, then put her palm over it, “I’ll keep it, look after it, promise.”
“Come on then, lass,” Sandy looked up and down the road again, then offered Billy his hand.
Billy took a few steps, then turned back to Sam, “Thanks, mister.”
The pair walked in and out of the glow of snow-speckled street lights until they reached the big house and crunched up the moonlit grey, snow-covered steps. After a short wait, the door opened to a soft, pale yellow glow, and they both entered.
Sam opened the cabin door, and the sharp smell of cigarette smoke caught his breath. He slid open the window, and a crisp breeze sliced across the table, lifting the pages of a worn copy of the Racing Times. In the corner, an ashtray brimmed with several bent and crushed cigarette butts lay beside a small transistor radio and a small, Christmas-wrapped package. Sam pushed the window shut, flicked through the newspaper, and listened intently to two men speaking, repeating their words in a soft whisper.
Hunched against the swirling snow, taking careful steps to avoid icy patches, Sandy trudged back to the cabin, in and out of the yellow street lights, his black coat covered in white flecks.
Sam stepped out to meet him, “She is safe?”
“Aye,” Sandy took the torch, “come on, I’ve some coffee.”
Sandy pulled a small, wooden, fold-out chair from the gap between the desk and the wall, “There you go,” he sat down and produced a thermos and two enamel cups from the drawer.
“Nora and Diane were up, chatting as usual,” he said, pouring steaming coffee into the cups, “listening to their Joan Armaplating. Good thing you found her, pal.” He handed Sam one of the cups.
Sam scanned the empty street, “Thank you for your help.” He sipped the sweet, milky coffee, oblivious to the heat.
“Steady on, pal.”
Sam gave him a curious look.
“Coffee not too hot for you?”
“Right,” Sandy blew across the top of the cup and took a careful sip, “Sam, eh?”
“She looked pretty roughed up.”
“What happened to her?”
“She fell.” Sam took another gulp.
“And you came across her.”
“Did anything else happen with her?”
“Many things. Please say nothing of seeing me.”
“So, I just saw her walking past?”
“That is true.”
“Right.” Sandy unwrapped his Christmas gift. It was a framed, faded monochrome photograph of soldiers crossing a narrow footbridge. Sandy smiled, “from Nora.”
They sat and drank silently for a while, and then Sam said, “You were soldier?”
Sandy glanced at the photo, “Black Watch, Seventh Battalion. Fought in North Africa, Germany.”
“Hm,” Sam grunted and stared into his coffee. Mud and blood. He winced. Images of bodies lying in rubble flashed through his mind.
“War’s never a good thing to talk about,” Sandy said with an understanding nod. The radio crackled, and Sandy moved it closer to the window, adjusted the aerial, and then nudged the dial until the voice came out uninterrupted.
Sam finished the coffee and placed the empty cup on the table. “I must go.” Outside he took a quick step sideways into the shadow of the cabin. A few seconds later, a van made its way through the slush toward Kings Cross, its yellow headlamps capturing a constellation of swirling snow. The taillights disappeared around a corner, and Sam stepped onto the pavement.
The cold wind picked up again and swirled snow off the ground, sweeping it past them. Sandy hunched into the collar of his jacket and, stuffing his hands into his coat pocket, pulled out a pack of Old Holborn and rolled a cigarette. Then, with the roll-up cupped in his hand, he turned to the wall and lit up a match. The wind extinguished the tiny flame, and Sandy swore, turned sideways, and struck another match. This one got to the roll-up. He sucked in and blew out a small plume quickly swept away by the cold wind.
“You say you don’t have a place?”
Sam looked off into the distance, “Not yet.”
“Looking for digs?”
“A room, somewhere to sleep?”
“I will find a squat.”
“This time of night? Good luck with that. There’s an all-night cafe top of Gray’s Inn Road,” He took a puff of the roll-up and then pointed it down the road, the end glowing in the breeze. “A couple of quid, and you won’t be bothered. Maybe catch a nap.”
“Thank you.”
“Tell you what. There’s a room in that house,” Sandy pointed down York Way, “the tall one on the corner by the alley.”
The house backed onto the wasteland, and the workshop remains where the body lay under a mattress. A room where he could sleep undisturbed would be far better than a squat. And there was nothing in the workshop that connected back to him or Billy.
“Pete rents rooms there. Seems you got enough for a few months there.”
A few months? How long until someone found the body? Would the girl talk? No, she feared the police would take her back.
Sandy reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a key ring with two keys. “Paddy had a room on the top floor, worked on the site here. Finished his shift today and done a runner without paying his rent.”
“A runner?”
“Gone home to Ireland,” He shook the keys at Sam, “You might as well take them. Don’t think he’ll be coming back to pay his debts.”
Sam looked down at the keys.
“You’d get more privacy.”
“Yes. It is the house of Pete?”
“Aye. He’s away for a week, so I doubt he knows Paddy’s gone.”
Sam took the keys, “I will tell him when he returns. You are sure Paddy not coming back?”
“With the Carver brothers after him, I highly doubt it.”
Sam looked down the road into the middle distance for several seconds. “It is a quiet room?”
“On the top floor, right at the back of the house. Nice view of the alley. So, quiet enough.”
“Remember, say nothing of seeing me.”
“Aye, I got that. Good luck.”
“Yes, thank you.”
The tall house stood at the end of a long terrace with an alley between it and a builder’s yard with a couple of portacabins, tipper trucks, diggers, forklifts, and a small stack of skips, all encased by a tall ring metal fence. Beyond that were the abandoned garages and workshop
The wet cobbles lining the alley glinted pale yellow, sprouting a glittering, frost-encrusted drainpipe up the side of the house. Sam scanned the alley, clenched his fists several times, grabbed the frozen black, cast-iron drainpipe, placed one foot, then the other on either side of the pipe, and climbed steadily upwards to perch on the bathroom window ledge. He slid the window open, squeezed through and dropped silently to the icy bathroom floor.
The smell of bleach, shampoo, and soap lingered in the cold air. Sam slid the window shut and put his ear to the door. Then, not hearing anything, he opened the door gently and stepped out into a gloomy, chequered hallway heavy with the silence of a sleeping house.
Pale moonlight stained the dusty window overlooking the wasteland behind the house. At the front of the house, the yellow light of street lamps lingered over York Way.
Down from the bathroom, two doors faced each. The left one had a doorbell marked ‘Kate Bright.’ With no other doors along that side of the hall, there had to be more than one room. So the door opposite had to be Paddy’s room, next to the bathroom.
He slipped the key in and, unlocking the door slowly, eased it open, wincing at the faint creaks. Then, stepping inside, he carefully closed the door and released the latch. The smells of stale beer, grease, and tobacco smoke lingered in the air. Shapes and colours emerged from the gloom. Shabby, brown curtains hung across the windows overlooking the alley. A bare light on the end of a frayed hemp wire covered in a thin layer of dust and grime hung from the centre of a ceiling blotched with dried-out stains from old roof leaks. Large, gaudy floral design wallpaper lined the walls, and a mustard yellow lino covered the floor. A small rug with pale purple and yellow squares lay beside a chest of drawers and a double bed with its headboard against the wall. A radio stood on a small Laminate bedside cabinet between the bed and the wall with the windows.
A couple of worn and frayed jeans and a thin, faded denim jacket hung on the clothes rail along the wall to the left of the door, just past a pair of coat hooks. Several books lay inside a thick cardboard box with no regard for order. Under one of the windows, a small Trinitron TV stood on a wooden box at the foot of the bed. A kitchen counter under a long narrow shelf stretched along the wall on the right. A cup hung from one of several hooks. Cereal cartons and cans were scattered along the shelf. The sink at the far end had a grubby white plastic bowl containing crusty, unwashed bowls, cups, and cutlery. Empty beer bottles stood and lay along the counter. A key to the door hung off the hook on the end. Beside the kitchen unit stood a folding side table and two thin metal chairs. Two small sheets of paper lay on the table, rent reminders. A large suitcase that turned out to be empty lay under the bed. A twin-bar electric heater stood beside a coin-operated electric meter.
He placed the gun on the table, took off his long coat, and hung it on the hook beside the door, then picked up the gun and sat on the edge of the bed. What was he doing with this? He shouldn’t have kept it. He should have left it with the man, the man he had killed. After five days without sleep, was he even thinking straight? Yes. He’d done the right thing. The man had forced a moment that gave Sam no other choice, not if he were to survive and protect the child. Like Bob used to say to young boxers, the man’s move had sealed his fate.
He turned the gun in his hands. Scratched-out markings covered one side over the trigger mechanism. On the other side, he could make out, ‘1911 U.S.’ He slid the gun under the bed, then leaned forward and, resting his elbows on his knees, gazed blankly at the floor. It was dangerous to stay here, so close to the body. But he’d been awake for over five days.
He sat up, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. His breathing was coming easier. He reached over to the small transistor radio on the bedside cabinet, switched it on, and turned the dial until the tinny voices of people talking came out clearly from the speaker, then turned the volume down until the voices were a faint, soft drone. He slipped off his boots and massaged his feet for a few minutes. Then he found himself lying on the bed, still in his overalls.
The fading voices on the radio talked about an art exhibition in a place called Paris, followed by gentle music. The sound quickly dissolved away, and he fell into a deep sleep. 
Chapter Two