Earth Hour, they’re calling it. Pathetic. They think an hour without electricity will save them from global warming and their guilty consciences. Wrong again. The nightly hour of darkness begins tonight, eleven sharp, and as usual I’ll be one step ahead of everyone else.
I know exactly how it’s going to go down. The sheep will come home from their brain-dead jobs. Cook their plastic meals. Tiny kitchens, one-room apartments. Then they’ll suck up every bit of electricity they can until the lights cut out. Light their candles, look outside. Most people won’t have a clue what to do next. They can’t live without their phones, their TVs, their laptops. Reading a book by candlelight? Not that easy. Not that many people have books in Sonaya anymore anyway. What does the government expect people to do? Dust off their guitars and sing hymns? Not me. Fuck? Yeah, the lucky ones, maybe. But there are better opportunities out there for a man who knows the streets. A city in darkness. A one hour free pass to run wild. Happy birthday, Dag, don’t waste it.
It’s ten forty five and I’m down in Central Station. Everyone’s getting the hell out of here, and I don’t blame them. This isn’t the place to be after dark, even when the lights are on. Unless you like stepping on syringes and being shadowed by drunks. Not that I’m worried about that kind of thing. When you look like me, you don’t get a lot of trouble.
I move down the steps until I reach the brown line. The last train’s due. Shinji is down there already, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. No one knows what happened to that kid. He won’t even tell me anything about his past, and he tells me more than most. Baseball cap on, dark face, new tattoo on his neck.
‘How old do you have to be for a tattoo now?’ I ask, motioning for him to get up. He’s probably only about thirteen.
‘You’re late,’ he says.
‘Who did that scrawny little thing anyway?’ I ask. His tattoo is some kind of flower. Like the ones the gangs wear. Probably wants to make himself look hard. Stupid little thing.
‘Same as did yours,’ Shinji says.
‘Well now we look as stupid as each other,’ I say.
Shinji wants to say something else, but my eyes tell him to keep his mouth shut.
Sonaya isn’t an easy place to get out of, even if you want to. Not an easy place to live in, either, especially if there are always people after you. And there are always people after you if you’re a murderer. The only way I could stay in Sonaya was with a new face. Decided to ink half of it. Tribal lines, from the nose across one cheek, all the way around over the hole where my ear used to be. Shaved off the mane, too. Military style. Look at me, a new man. Chameleon Dag.
The train slides up, stops in front of us. Man, I wish they’d rebuild this whole underground. The pipe, they call it. Looks like shit. The respectables wouldn’t be caught dead on here. They’d be robbed before their polished shoes crossed the yellow line.
The doors open. There’s only two people on board. One of them’s a skunk, asleep across five seats. Face down, probably drank himself into a coma. Not worth my attention. The other one opposite him is an old gent in a navy suit, newspaper across his lap. Silver beard. Not many beards in Sonaya; you have to respect them when you see them. He barely looks up as the boy and I take seats opposite each other.
‘Smells like piss,’ the boy says.
The pipe always smells like piss these days. A revolving toilet for the scum of the city. We’ve only got three stops, anyway. The hand straps are swinging around and you can almost hear the nuts and bolts of the whole thing coming loose. This is what happens when you make stuff free to the public.
An announcement. End of the line for tonight. Shinji’s already at the doors, waiting for them to open. Kids have no patience these days. The hobo’s still asleep. Someone will come along to kick him off later. Or if he’s lucky, he can sleep through the night. The beard isn’t moving, though.
‘End of the line, old man,’ I call across the carriage. The doors open, and Shinji’s already on the platform. The beard looks up at me and just smiles. He’s not moving. ‘Lights’ll go out soon,’ I say. Damn fool. Don’t know how these morons end up in their cushty office jobs. He just keeps smiling. Looks like a simpleton. Shinji’s calling for me to get off, but I can’t take my eyes off this fool’s smile. Then something changes in his eyes.
‘Then you’d better get moving, Dag,’ the beard says at last.
Damn. Don’t like it when a suit knows my name. Can never be a good thing.
‘Five minutes till lights out, Kawasaki,’ the beard goes on. ‘Watch out for the tigers. They can see in the dark.’
I don’t wait for him to finish his sentence. I’m off the train and racing up the subway steps with Shinji at my shoulder.
‘Who the hell was that?’ the kid’s asking.
How the hell should I know? Nothing’s ever simple when you’re me.
‘Stick to the plan,’ I say.
I’m out of breath. Damn subway stairs. We come up at the fountain and the government office. Used to work up there once upon a time. Before the heartbreak and the handsome tax and everything went wrong. Yeah, I used to be someone once. Not like this kid, he’ll never be anything.
‘We breaking in or what?’ he asks.
Have to wait for the lights first. Streets are empty. ‘What time is it?’
‘Any minute now,’ the kid says, sitting down on the fountain wall.
Lights out. Snap. Just like that. Moon’s behind the smog. You’ve never seen a city so black.
The sound of a rising helicopter nearby. Get down low, might be someone important. The government will probably send all its drones out tonight, too. They won’t let darkness stop them from seeing everything.
‘Let’s go,’ the kid says.
Now it’s my turn to sit. Almost total darkness. I’m not gonna be caught by the tigers. I’m gonna become one myself.
‘What you doing?’ the kid asks.
‘Shut up and keep your ears open,’ I say. ‘Adjust your eyes, quick. I’m gonna need more than one pair tonight.’
I get up just as the kid’s getting comfortable. Gotta keep him on his toes. I head past the fountain to the front doors. Bold as brass, like I never lost my job twenty years ago. Doors are padlocked, of course. No one’s relying on electrics tonight. Back door. Revolving. Not now, though. Used to come out here for my smoking breaks when I was a kid. Man, I still remember the taste of cigarettes. Haven’t seen one in ten years. Hyenas would have you think they were weapons of war.
‘How do we get in?’ the kid asks.
I pick up one of the metal tables from the patio. Smash it through the glass. No alarms tonight. Not even any security guards. Yet.
We head on in. Bit of glass scrapes my cheek, tattooless side. Never mind, I like a few scars. Adds character. Lights are out, reception unmanned. There are footsteps, though, and the light of a torch coming from the stairway.
Shinji follows me behind the reception desk, out of sight.
‘I thought torches weren’t allowed,’ the kid whispers.
Damn kid. Didn’t know he was so naive. As if the government would follow its own rules. I hold up a finger to silence him. The guard comes through and waves his torch around dumbly. Her torch. Her eyes will never adjust like that. Advantage Dag. Just don’t look at the light.
‘No lights allowed,’ I call out to the darkness. Improvisation. Following my gut.
‘Who’s there?’ she asks. Sounds scared. Torch swings around stupidly. She’s coming our way.
I give the boy the eyes. Tell him to run to the stairs on signal. We’re good at talking with our eyes. Kid gets me.
‘Now,’ my eyes tell him.
The boy’s up fast and legging it. Guard’s too worried about getting him in the light of her torch to bother chasing him. And that boy’s fast.
‘Who is that?’ the guard asks to the boy’s back.
Dag’s moment. I’m behind her before she even knows what’s happening. Smack around the back of the head. Should keep her out for a while. We head on up the stairs. We don’t meet anyone else. Twenty flights we go. I take it slow. Not as young as I used to be.
‘You’re after your records,’ the kid says, taking a breather against a wall. ‘Police records. You’re gonna steal your file.’
Nice idea. At least he’s thinking.
‘Why would I do that?’ I say. ‘It’s not gonna erase what I’ve done.’ Damn stairs. ‘I’m gonna find my daughter.’
‘You don’t have a daughter.’
Dumb kid. But I guess he’s right. Anyway, she should have been mine. And she must have more family somewhere.
‘You mean the girl whose parents you murdered?’ Shinji asks. ‘You gonna kill her too and wipe out the whole family?’
That’s enough. I pick the kid up by the scruff of his neck and hold him up against the wall. I let my eyes do the talking again. He gets it this time. Sinks down onto the floor. First time I’ve ever seen anything like fear in his eyes.
Then a call from down below.
‘Is that you Daganae?’ a voice calls up. All polite like. Like a father checking if his kid’s come home. ‘Mr. Kawasaki? We’re here.’
Damn. Must be those tigers. The kid looks up at me.
‘Up,’ I command.
This time we’re running, and I don’t stop to think about my breath. Sounds like at least three on our tails, could be more. Kid falls over. And he’s meant to be the spry one.
‘The torch,’ he says, as I pull him up.
‘No,’ I say. Upwards. There’s something comforting about being in the dark. I don’t wanna break it.
We’re up on thirty, finally. Records. I try the handle. Locked. Shoulder barge the door. Nothing. Damn. Thirty one, then. Locked. Locked. Everything locked. This staircase is my whole world now, up or down. And I don’t fancy going back down.
The tigers are gaining, I can hear them.
‘The roof,’ the kid says. He’s ahead of me, taking two steps at a time.
Rather not go to the roof. Nothing good ever happens on rooftops. But I don’t suppose we have a choice.
The kid’s there already when I make it to the top. He’s looking at the door like he’s terrified of it. I don’t hesitate. Dag the Brave. It’s open. We’re up. And there’s someone already there.
Silver beard. Of course. Helicopter behind him. Silver in his hand, too. A Nambu, semi-automatic, by the look of it. And it’s pointing at someone’s head. A bagged head, body tied to a chair. The moon’s not giving off enough light to tell me who it is.
‘Took your time getting here, Daganae,’ the beard says.
Nowhere to run now. Hate rooftops. The three tigers burst through the door behind us. Soldiers in navy blue. Night vision goggles, big guns. Special forces, maybe.
‘Before anything happens,’ I say, ‘why don’t we just let the kid get out of here.’ Dag the Martyr. ‘He’s just a skunk, doesn’t know anything. Let him go.’
Shame they don’t give awards to guys like me.
‘Oh,’ the beard says, smiling that smile. ‘I think he knows more than you give him credit for.’
Shinji walks up to the beard, all cool like.
Damn. The flower tattoo. I should’ve known. Fooled by a thirteen year old? Must be getting soft.
‘Nothing personal, Dag,’ Shinji says, taking a wad of notes from the beard’s free hand. ‘But sometimes it pays to be on the right side.’
Not as smart as I thought, then. There is no right side in Sonaya, kid.
‘Recognise this one?’ the beard asks, motioning to the bagged head. ‘Thought we’d better take someone who means something to you. Wasn’t easy to do, though. You haven’t got many people in your life, have you Dag?’
Shit. Who have I dragged into this? My first thought is my daughter. But then I remember that she’s not really mine. Have to keep reminding myself. Then I think of Sara. Young writer, American, too smart for me. We have something, though.
‘Oh, no no no,’ the beard says. ‘You’re not thinking of that little novelist, are you? You’re getting soft, Dag. Anyway, we let you take care of her yourself. We let her out for a little night walk on her own downstairs. Just like you to kill her before you even looked at her face.’
Damn, the guard. Not a guard at all. But I didn’t kill her, just knocked her out. I think.
‘Oh, come on, Dag,’ the beard says, sounding disappointed. ‘You saw him this very night, lying on the train. Didn’t you even recognise your brother in crime?’
He pulls off the bag. Fairchild. Passed out. Biggest fool I know, Fairchild. Two peas, us. Better him than the writer, I try to tell myself. Fairchild has a way of getting out of things. Should have recognised him on the train, though. Getting sloppy.
I reach slowly down to my ankle. Brought a Beretta for safety. It’s gone. Shit. Damn stairs.
‘What do you want?’ I ask. Let’s get down to business. ‘If you thought I was gonna give myself up for this worthless punk, you thought wrong.’
Brave face and all that.
‘You killed an officer two weeks ago, Kawasaki,’ the beard says. ‘A sergeant, no less.’
‘So what? You wanna put me back in The Heights? I’ve done enough time there.’
‘Well, the law doesn’t agree with you on that, Dag,’ the beard says. ‘But that’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to do the police’s dirty work. They want to catch you, they can do it themselves. They were hoping to get you tonight, but I guess we got to you first.’
That slow smile again. ‘You want to catch the spiders, all you have to do is turn out the lights and wait for them to crawl out of their holes.’
Earth Hour. Nice cover. Wondered when those hyenas started caring about anything so important.
‘So what is it, then?’ I ask. ‘What do you want?’ It’s getting boring already.
‘The girl,’ the beard says. ‘The daughter of the man you murdered in cold blood. Where is she?’
I look at the beard. That’s all this is? I’ve no idea where that girl is. Went to her house to swipe her away the night I killed her pops. Place was empty, her stuff was gone. Thought the hyenas had got there before me.
‘If I knew where she was, we’d be long out of Sonaya already,’ I say.
Beard cocks the gun. So do the three behind me.
‘We’re very powerful people, Kawasaki,’ the beard says, tilting his head. ‘Can’t expect to kill a sergeant and get away with it. He was one connected man, and he made sure we were well taken care of.’
So that’s what this is. A protection racket. Same old story. They’ll want the girl alive and my blood all over the pavement.
‘No idea where she is,’ I say again. I’m fucked either way.
‘We’re not playing around, Kawasaki,’ the beard says.
I laugh. Gotta try and keep things cool.
Bang. Silver beard and the silver gun. Neither one flinches as Fairchild’s brain explodes all over the rooftop. Shit. Blood all over Shinji’s crummy shoes. He throws up on the spot, and I’m not far from doing the same. So long, Fairchild. Knew you’d go before me.
‘Congratulations,’ I say. Keep the voice steady. ‘Now I’ve got nothing to lose.’
Big Mouth Dag.
The beard has Shinji around the neck before I can even regret it. Silver gun at the little traitor’s head.
‘Last chance, Dag,’ the beard says. ‘Or it’s the boy first, then you.’
‘Why should I care about that little shit?’ I ask.
Bang. Again. Blood, again. Bang. Bang. Bang.
But it’s not the kid who falls to the ground. Silver beard, now red beard. Tigers have been slaughtered, too. Four bodies on the ground, and I’m not one of them. Big day.
‘You took my gun,’ I say, before I even turn around.
Sara’s standing there, shaking. Beautiful black skin in the moonlight.
‘You tried to knock me out,’ she says, trying to look all hard. She can’t do it. She’s just killed four men for me. Never even seen her hold a bread knife.
‘Any more bullets in there?’ I ask.
Sara looks down at the gun in her hands. She probably doesn’t even know.
‘Stick one in this kid’s skull if there are,’ I say, pointing to Shinji. He’s on his knees and he’s whimpering. Not cut out for this life, kid.
There’s a drone above us. Hovering.
‘Police are still out there,’ Sara says.
‘You’d better run, then,’ I say. ‘You’re probably more wanted than me now.’
She stares at me hard. Can’t resist those eyes.
‘Let’s go, then,’ I say.
I pick the boy up by the collar and drag him with us. I believe in second chances. I’ve had my fair few.
‘Twenty minutes of darkness left,’ Sara says as we reach the stairs.
A twenty minute free pass. Run wild. Live fast. Happy birthday, Dag, don’t waste it.
Tomas Marcantonio is a Brighton-born writer and English teacher. He graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Language and Film, and has since been travelling widely. His travels have influenced much of his writing, which includes travelogue Gift of the Gap, and his first novel The Leap of Grebes. He is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.
Read Tomas Marcantonio’s previously published story below:
It’s Not A Party Until Someone’s Dead