Thick clouds were hanging in the sky when Stan turned into the dark, cavernous alleyway. The dull brick walls smelled like an acrid mix of sour potatoes and rotten eggs. Stan held his breath as he nodded to a buff man in the shadows. The man read his figure through the small apertures of his eyes while Stan shuffled uncomfortably past. After two minutes, the alley gave way to an inconspicuous door that blended into the dull grey walls, as if someone had chiselled it out by accident.
He turned the rusted knob and it gave way, surprisingly, without any sound. A single, naked light bulb illuminated the cramped space inside. Cracks crept across the ceiling and stretched their tentacles timidly towards the walls. In the middle of the room the man sat, arms folded across a small plastic table. The usual brown leather coat hung loosely on him as if he was a child in his father’s clothes. He looked up blankly at Stan, motionless and without recognition, but Stan could sense his mocking scorn, pity almost, at Stan’s reliance on his commodity for the past two years.
‘The usual?’ he asked.
The man reached into his leather jacket and pulled out a packet of fine, white powder sealed in a small plastic bag. He dropped it onto the table listlessly while Stan placed a crumbled set of notes on the table.
‘Prices are up.’ He said casually as if he had said it every single waking hour.
Stan stopped for a moment, his hand still poised in mid-air reaching for the packet.
‘By how much?’
The man seemed to enjoy his surprise. He moved his face into the center of the light and all his wrinkles gathered into a smile. ‘Five million.’
Stan gasped and withdrew his hand, as if he had nearly touched a snake. ‘I – I can’t pay that much right now. We barely have enough to live by. Can I pay you next time –’
‘You either take it or leave it.’ The man’s wrinkles were so deep they seemed like small crevasses. Crevasses that gathered dust and grime along with his cramped room. ‘There have been difficulties lately. Those raids by them stupid terrorist groups have been pushing the prices up. Not to mention we already have to bribe half the Department of Illegal Substances into – ’
‘All right, all right. I understand.’
When the room was silent, Stan could hear the man’s small wheezy breath struggling through the constricted space. He hardly knew this man but had known him for years. It was impossible to know when he took advantage of him and when he lied. With great hesitation, Stan took out two more notes and slapped them onto the table hard, as if he intended to send them through the fragile plastic surface.
A small spark of electricity escaped the wires of the light bulb and pass between them. A silence followed the last echo.
The crevasses tightened, then relaxed. The man chuckled, his grimy beard following the rhythm.
‘It’s best not to play the fool around here. You know that. And most of all you know that you can’t get such prices anywhere else. So I suggest a more polite payment next time,’ he extended his hand to Stan, ‘and I look forward to doing business with you again.’
Stan stared loathingly at the knobbly extended fingers. The black grit trapped beneath the long nails and in the lines of the hands seemed magnified ten-fold under his rage. Or was it the naked light? Without a word, he left the room and slammed the door so hard that the sound reverberated down the alleyway. The buff man looked up warily at Stan, poised to subdue him. But Stan walked calmly past and did not slow down until he had left behind the stench of the darkness and entered the greyness of light.
The small packet thumped against his thigh as he walked. Sometimes Stan thought the greyness of the clouds spilled their colours onto every building in the city, and he was probably right. He passed by the shops without looking at them. He had passed by these shops in happier days when the red and white sunscreens beamed happily at customers and the shelves were full. When a loaf of bread only cost two dollars and a pair of shoes ten. Now two-week old sausages stood on display, pleading people to buy them as the cardboard beneath announced three million dollars.
He had walked this street when the red, black and purple stains of humanity spotted this place like a mad slaughterhouse. He had walked this street more times than he could remember or wished to know.
Beneath his shoes, the face of Winston Chamberlain stared hollowly at him. Other dirty faces of Winston Chamberlain fluttered around, bewildered by the wind and beaten by the rain. They scurried across the asphalt and some pirouetted into alleyways as Stan walked pass. Beneath Winston Chamberlain’s face on these dirty white pamphlets were the words ‘CITIZENS UNITE! COMBAT EVIL AND DISSENT IN OUR FAMILIES.’
‘Hey you, I’m talking to you man.’
Stan looked up, half startled from his thoughts, expecting to see the police. Instead, three teenage boys stood in front of him, shoulders slouched, faces smeared with arrogance. They zoned in on him.
‘Give us your money.’ The demand was simple and elegant.
Stan’s hands were in his pockets. ‘You don’t want to do this,’ he said quietly.
‘Did you hear me or not?’ the tallest one stepped forward, pupils dilated in fumes, ‘I said give us the money!’
‘Hey!’ he shoved Stan back when Stan tried to push past. The boy flicked open a knife. ‘Don’t you dare play with me! Do what I say now!’
Stan pretended to ruffle around slowly. Suddenly he knocked the tall boy down beneath his chin. In one fluid motion, he backed away and pulled out his Colt revolver before the two boys could reach him. The boys froze, but thawed in a second. They each pulled out their butterfly knives and began waving them around in elaborate patterns, tracing unseen symbols in the air.
‘Are you honestly trying to intimidate me with that?’ he sneered as much as he could.
The boys stopped again, unsure of how to respond. They stood awkwardly with their knives pointed at him. The tall boy had gotten up now, covered in mud and the blood of his nose.
‘Oh, please go on,’ he mocked, ‘continue on with your pussy cat fighting ritual. Before you can even step forward to slash me or throw those dandy knives, my bullets will be between your eyes. So please, do continue.’
The boys’ shoulders loosened and their faces dropped in uncertainty.
‘You should be ashamed of yourselves.’ Stan said.
‘Ashamed?’ the tall boy flicked blood away from his nose and spat on the ground, ‘what shame is there in wanting to live? In wanting something more than a stale piece of bread every day? What shame is there in getting more in our stomachs so we can rob another day from death?’
‘Oh, you sound like such a poet,’ Stan smiled coolly, ‘perhaps you should go home and read your books instead of forcing death upon another person as hungry as you are. Go on. If you don’t leave when I count to three, and if I see you threatening anyone else again, you won’t be robbing death of any more days.’ He cocked his revolver.
The boys looked at one another in hesitation, pondering the dignity of flight. Their faces asked each other, ‘he won’t really shoot us, will he?’
‘C’mon, let’s get away from this freak.’ The tallest boy said. Stan could hear the subdued fear beneath his scorn.
He watched them until they were on the other end of the street and turned right into an alley. ‘Hooligans,’ he mumbled.
In his crisis Stan did not realise how much attention he had drawn to himself. Ten pairs of eyes, but it seemed like hundreds, were staring at him from every angle of the street, in admiration, in fear, in alarm. Stan tried not to think about the small plastic package in his inner coat pocket as he pushed past faceless onlookers.
Stan walked around for another thirty minutes, making sure no eyes or legs were following him. He passed the Iron Tower building, so named for its one extensive smooth side, with a picture of Winston Chamberlain splayed on it. He passed crumbling buildings caked in a layer of soot. Rickety metal stairs clung to their walls. The once beautiful shopping squares were now dotted with homeless people wandering or lying around in listless oblivion, their faces smeared with equally thoughtless trails of grime and tears.
The entire city had been powdered with a grey curse.