It was barely midday. The street was very quiet. I fidgeted, regretting I hadn’t had the foresight to buy a paper or magazine. The radio didn’t work particularly well either. Only two stations had a clear signal. My choice was between a turgid and pretentious radio-play, narrated in monotones by actors who appeared to be speaking through thick scarves, and a station that played nothing but jazz of the kind they play down the phone at you when you’re waiting on hold.
For hours the only signs of life in the street were a few pensioners walking their dogs and a young mother charging along, manouvering a buggy that seemed to have the same steering capabilities as a tank. She was loaded down with shopping, her toddler was screaming and she looked tired to death. I felt tired, just watching her struggle along.
By three my bladder was on the point of exploding. I drove around the corner, found a handy alleyway and by the time I returned, parking on the other side of the street, kids were appearing, coming home from school. Two girls passed. They were orange with make-up, panda-eyed, their hair dyed in streaks, fringes so long they must have been half-blind. They were both in school uniforms. They must have been about fourteen, but in different clothes they’d have passed for eighteen. I had no idea how old I was; could be anything from a worn twenty-four to a youthful thirty-two. I compromised at twenty-eight, and marked my birthdays on the first of January. But watching them laughing and chatting, sharing a set of headphones, I felt ancient in hardened cynicism, ninety at least. I couldn’t recall ever being that young.
A boy passed, slightly younger than the girls. He held a football and kept stopping to drop-kick it at lamp-posts and gates, or to try to balance it on his finger. He saw me sitting in the car and gave me a hard stare, turning his head to glance back as he walked away. I’d have said he was twelve or thirteen, with short, mousy hair that a few years before might have been blond.
I dropped my gaze and fiddled with the radio, but the click of a gate made me look up in time to see the boy walking up the path to Eleanor Gordon’s door. He let himself in with a key and closed the door behind him. Her son? I hadn’t imagined her having kids somehow.
Too hungry to sit any longer, I checked my watch and discovered it was close on four. My last meal had been breakfast back at the hotel at eight-thirty. I went to a MacDonalds drive-thru and ate soggy chips and a cheeseburger that looked and tasted as if the chef had been using it for a chair-cushion. Thinking ahead this time, I bought a couple of papers before I went back to my stake-out, a local daily and a national broadsheet. By ten o’clock I had read every word of both, including the obituaries, the crosswords were filled in and my hands were gray with ink. It was growing steadily colder, my toes numb and pricking, my breath making clouds in the misted-up car. Nothing much had happened at the house. Lights had been switched on, and now they were going off again one by one.
The roads were quiet as I drove back to The Admiral. Amongst its few amenities it boasted a large car-park. I switched off the lights and was plunged into darkness. The sky was overcast, the chill air held the promise of snow. I closed the door, blowing on my hands and stamping my numbed feet. There was a scrape on the tarmac. A footfall.
Several indistinct forms separated themselves from the deeper shadows, converging. I heard a soft laugh behind me and all the hairs on the back of my neck rose up.
I didn’t have time to call out, or even take a step. Someone behind hit me hard enough that I thought my skull had split. Then they all jumped me at once. I couldn’t see. My head was too full of flashing spikes of agony, my eyesight dimmed as the world spun around me. I stumbled and fell like a drunk, the floor of the car-park rising and falling with the waves of pain. A boot connected with my head just as I hit the ground. Another kick, in the stomach this time and I was curled up, moaning, struggling to breathe. Warm puke filled my mouth and I choked. I was scared and furious, lunging out and bucking my legs, but they dodged out of my fumbling reach and came in to pummel me again. I felt my nose crack. Blood was in my mouth now and trickling, warm and sticky over my lips. One of them took hold of the back of my jacket and yanked me round. My legs scraped and I kicked out in time to avoid someone stamping on my shin. There was more malicious laughter and I was cuffed in the side of the head. Another kick, to my ribs this time, and the one holding me wrapped his arm around my neck. I was choking now for real. I writhed and struggled, each small motion setting off waves of crippling, blinding pain. I brought up my hands and hung on, trying to get a grip on the sleeve that was pressed tight to my mouth, clawing frantically as lights flashed behind my eyes and my body screamed for oxygen. I was dropped, gasping and moaning. I managed to roll so I was sick on the ground instead of on myself but I was yanked up by my hair before my stomach stopped heaving.
“A friendly warning,” someone said in my ear. “Leave.”