Rain poured from darkening skies.
It fell past the apartments of the rich and powerful, forming puddles in the yards of suburban middle-class houses, gurgling in little streams past sidewalks where homeless people slept in heaps of filthy rugs and cardboard boxes. The rain fell, and everyone in the entire city could see it, could hear the drops drumming against windows, slickening the roads, bouncing off the vast, anonymous blurs of umbrellas.
In the alley, only a narrow curtain of rain could find its way down between the enormous, vacuous brick walls of two adjacent skyscrapers. A skinny-looking cat was perched on top of a dumpster, as though proudly guarding its territory. Posters from an old anti-drugs campaign hung on the walls, slowly and pathetically peeling off. The only sounds were those of traffic from the distant streets at either end of the alley, making a continuous, inhuman orchestration against the pounding noise of rain against asphalt.
A man's footsteps emerged from this cacophony. His feet sank into the puddles and sent cold splashes of rainwater up around his shins, soaking his jeans. Whilst limping on his right leg, he ran as fast as he could. Every ten seconds or so, he would turn halfway around to glance back at the street, as if to check for pursuers. He was shirtless, and the rain trickled down his naked, slouching back, making him shiver in the cold. Handcuffs kept his arms twisted onto his back, the steel rings gnawing on his wrists.
Finally, the man started to slow down. He had reached the middle of the alley. His breath was ragged, desperately dragging air down into his lungs. His gaze flicked from one end of the alley to the other as he turned in a circle, and his eyes were inflamed and bleary with weariness, but wide with fear and adrenaline. Blood was dripping from his nose, having already left its dark trail down his chin and neck. Wet strands of dark brown hair hung into his eyes. Still more rain landed on his young, sallow face and trickled down, dripping off his stubble-covered chin.
He limped up to the wall and let his weary body lean against it. He closed his eyes. Slowly, he slid down, his naked back scraping against bricks until he came to rest in a small heap of garbage bags. He barely registered the squeak of a small rat scurrying out from underneath as he sat down on its residence.
For a little while, all was peaceful. He sat there, exhausted, slumped down motionless like a marionette doll abandoned by its puppeteer. The cold rain on his bare chest and face began to lull him to sleep.
Then, he heard the footsteps again.
Booted, slow footsteps, almost stealthy. His eyes fluttered open groggily, and he saw her again.
She stood just a few metres from him, in the middle of the alley. Half of her face was in chiaroscuro shadow, the other half white in the distant glare of traffic and streetlamps. The rain drummed softly against her drab coat, the hood of which was drawn back to reveal her albino complexion. Her light blue eyes were wide and unblinking. The rain sept through her shoulder-length white hair, making a few strands cling to her immaculately white cheeks.
"No," the man said, his voice barely above a hoarse murmur. "No …"
Still, the young woman stared at him.
"I didn't hurt her," he said. "Please … I just want someone to believe me. I'd never hurt her."
The woman brought a hand up from her coat pocket, producing a small, black object. The man recognized it. A cell phone. His cell phone.
She tossed it to him, and it landed on his flat belly. Wordlessly, the woman turned and began to walk away, slowly wandering down the alley towards the distant midnight din of the street.
"I didn't hurt her," he muttered. "I love her."
Terry stared as the woman slipped out of his field of vision. Terry let his head loll back against the wall. Terry let his eyes slide closed again. Only the monotonous pounding of raindrops on his skin was there to comfort him.
Finally, Terry curled his legs up and stretched his arms down, bringing his cuffed hands under his feet and up to the front of his body. He grabbed the cell phone, turned it on and made his way to an already dialled-in number. Through the noise of pouring rain, he could hear the long series of beeps. A male voice. "Who is it?"
"Terry. Listen, I'm in a pretty fucked up situation right now, and I just need you to send someone to -"
"Hey, slow down. How fucked up is this situation?" Jake's tone of voice was not apprehensive, but rather amused and curious. As a minor boss in the city's drug-dealing hierarchy, Jake knew all about fucked up situations. He knew Terry, and he knew that Terry was the sort of person who rarely got into those situations. He was just an ordinary user, leading a quiet, secluded life in his crummy apartment, regularly buying his drugs from Jake.
"I'll tell you later," Terry said. "Just send someone …"
"No. You tell me now, you tell me how fucked up this is, and I'll decide whether I want to send someone."
Terry gritted his teeth. The asphalt and bricks were rough and cold under his ass and against his back, the cruel steel relentlessly tight around his wrists, and this bastard was just sitting there in his warm office, deciding whether he should play the good samaritan or not. Terry was tired, confused, afraid, and now he felt a sharp anger spilling into the simmering blend of feelings.
"Fine. I'll tell you how fucked up it is," he said, raising his voice to the verge of hysteria. "I'm lying here in a fucking alley, okay? I'm lying here in the rain, I'm handcuffed, I've just been arrested for some sick shit I didn't even do, and … and …" His eyes started to ache with the stinging pressure of tears creeping up as he tried to force them back. "Just send someone to pick me up, okay? Just send someone who can get these fucking handcuffs off me!"
There was a moment of silence on the other end. Then: "Where are you?"
"An alley. The wide one between 32nd and Sunrise. It's just opposite the airport."
"Right, stay there." Jake hung up. Terry flicked the phone closed. All he had to do now was wait. Jake was a creep, but he didn't break promises. He'd send someone. He had to.
Terry wobbled gracelessly to his feet. He walked out to the middle of the alley where he would be easier to spot. And there he stood for minutes that felt like hours, his eyes running restlessly from one end of the alley to the other.
The rain was starting to recede into a light drizzle when a van materialized from the heavy blur of traffic and turned into the alley. The sleek, black vehicle drove slowly down between the narrow walls, stopping in front of Terry. A muscular man got out from the driver's seat and walked towards Terry with a bright smile cutting across his black face. "You're Terry?"
The handcuffed man replied with a weary nod.
"Jake sent me." He looked down at the handcuffs. Terry held his wrists out eagerly. "Yeah, standard police crap," the locksmith commented. "This'll be easy."
Terry followed the locksmith back to the van and sat down on the front seat next to his samaritan. He watched as the man took a small briefcase that had been perched on the dashboard and opened it, revealing a kit of shims, other tools and sets of universal handcuff keys for various security standards. He took out a small, simple-looking key. Terry turned around on his seat, heard a click, felt the steel rings spring open. He grabbed the open manacles and flung them out through the open door in his side.
"Feels good, yeah?"
Terry looked back at the locksmith as he rubbed lightly at his sore wrists. "Yeah. It does feel good."
"Jake said he wants to see you. I'll take you there."
The locksmith drove down the alley, picking up speed once he had returned to the broad streets. Even though it felt as if Terry had been in that alley for hours, and this should be a welcome return to less miserable surroundings, he did not focus on the city. He simply stared at the raindrops snaking across the windshield, only to be swept aside in the incessant rhythm of the wipers.
Jake's office was located on the ground floor of a small, abandoned factory, which was primarily inhabited by squatters these days. Contrary to the rest of the dingy building, this room was furnished with some wealth. A Persian carpet covered the concrete floor, and the walls were adorned by paintings that were as abstractly vacuous as they were expensive. Jake sat behind a mahogany desk. He was a short man in a rumpled, purple shirt, his face twitching with the slowly mounting effects of the fine line he had been snorting off the CD case on the desk when Terry stepped in.
"Hey! Terry! Been a while!" he said, his voice unnaturally loud.
"Hey," Terry said wearily, dropping himself into a chair in front of the coke-covered desk. He was still shirtless, and he noticed Jake staring appreciatively at his flat, rain-slick chest. Jake was openly bisexual with a leaning towards the gay end of the spectrum, and although Terry hardly had the best abs in the history of mankind, Jake was probably too crack-brained to notice.
"Hey," Jake said again. His dilated pupils finally rose to meet Terry's irritated gaze. "So why've you got the police after you?"
"They busted me for possession," Terry lied. He didn't have the time or energy to explain what had really happened, and he simply hoped Jake was too stoned to remember what he'd said on the phone about having been 'arrested for some sick shit I didn't even do'.
"Fuck," Jake said, staring into space for a few seconds. "I hate it when that happens to my buyers. I mean, fuck the cops! I'm trying to run a business here!" He was silent for a moment, then added as a sort of punctuating afterthought: "Fuck."
Terry nodded in absent agreement.
"Good thing you got away," Jake said with a smile. "Hey, want some of this?" He swept his arm out over the snow-white lines he had prepared on the desk top. "It's good stuff, and I'm feeling generous."
Terry shook his head no. "Thanks man, but I was just thinking I could get some tabs to use later."
"Help yourself. I think there's 150 milligrams on one of the shelves over there," Jake said, pointing to a cabinet.
Terry reached into the pockets of his jeans, then remembered that he'd left his wallet in his flat. "I, uh … I don't have any cash on me right now."
"Oh, that's alright." And Jake's smile grew even wider. He leaned back in his black leather chair. "You can just do me a favour again this time."
The rain was gone, but the night air was still cool and moist when Terry stepped out from the factory. The street was abandoned save for a few homeless men standing in the heat around a rusty barrel of burning trash. Terry closed the door behind him and stood there for a few long moments. There was a large puddle a few yards down the sidewalk, reflecting the black starlessness in its still water surface. Terry stared at the puddle, eyes weary. He still had a sticky, salty taste in his mouth.
A shudder of disgust came screaming down his spine, and suddenly he was running, slumping to his knees on the sidewalk, plunging his head into the cold puddle and lapping up rainwater, spitting it out again, savouring the icy, filthy taste as it invaded his mouth and blocked out the other taste. Anything was better than the other taste. Anything.
His movements were void of grace and balance as he rose to his feet. He walked off towards the more crowded streets, hoping to hail a cab that could take him to his apartment.
The elevator toiled upward to the twelfth floor where his flat awaited him. He leaned against one of the side walls. A foxed mirror in the back wall showed his face in the shadowy detail of the lift's interior. There were bags forming under his inflamed eyes, above hollow cheeks. He looked tired. He looked more tired than he'd ever looked before.
His right hand was in his pocket, clutching the packet of sugar cube-sized doses he'd been given after the favour. Like a dog rewarded for a trick.
"I hate you, Terry," he muttered. "God, I hate you."