The television set high in a corner of the grimy pub was a bit outdated, static periodically marring whatever happened to be on its single channel, like little ants darting madly across the screen. The bartender wiped the glass in his hands over and over, not noticing that it had reached a state of relative cleanliness some time ago. His eyes were trained on the reporter on the screen, whose face and voice were slightly warped by the ancient set.
“Police are fairly certain that the explosion was caused by a leak in a gas main, although scientists are still searching for evidence as to where the leak originated from. Latest reports have twelve dead and a suspect has been arrested relating to the incident.”
The bartender shook his head mournfully as the news switched over to something a bit more mundane. He began to direct a question to the man hunched over on the nearest stool, but then realized his patron was too absorbed in the bottom of his tankard to listen. He set the glass he’d been wiping back on the shelf behind him and flicked the television off.
The leaves skidded a bit over the sidewalk, swirling in small gusts before continuing on their way, and Christine Campbell smiled happily as a few of the red-and-brown foliage darted around her boots, sticking briefly to her legs before being blown off once more by the wind. Seeing leaves off their trees was, to her, one of the best signs of the year – winter was her favorite season, and oddly enough, the sight of the barren branches, accompanied by the rapid changing in the bitterness of temperature, brightened her mood as nothing else could.
The handle of the shopping bag she held in her right hand cut into her skin slightly, and she switched it to her left hand, glancing into a shop window on her left as she passed it. The attempt to scrape her wispy brown hair back into a bun had failed again today, though it was nearly the only hairstyle she wore. And what was more, her fringe had long ago been cut in such a way that odd pieces now stuck straight out from behind her ears – not the most attractive look in the world. She hastily tucked back the misplaced strands, trying not to linger too long in front of the window in case someone thought her strange for doing so.
The wind was blowing a bit more heavily down the street, but Christine didn’t mind at all, even welcomed it as she drew her scarf a bit tighter about her neck. Cold weather meant winter, and before long, Christmas – and she would be seeing her parents for the first time in months. Her job at the small local newspaper had started requiring later and later hours, and she hadn’t been able to get away to the country to see her family. But even though it would be over a month until she could go home, seeing as it was only the very beginning of November, the thought was enough to make her grin excitedly.
On the corner up ahead, a few doors down from the shop where she had stopped to fix her hair, Christine saw a small, white-haired man perched on a rickety ladder, painstakingly washing away the painted-on letters on his window to replace them with new ones. He turned in her direction as she approached, and she gave him a friendly smile, automatically tucking her hair behind her ears again.
“Cold day for a bit of shopping, eh?” he said politely, gesturing with a paint-speckled hand at the parcel she had clutched by her side. She smiled and shifted it a bit higher; the strap had now begun to cut into her hand again, and she wished she’d had the foresight to wear gloves.
“I love this weather,” Christine replied, laughing a bit and leaning back to read the gilt letters peeling over the threshold. “Allen’s Confections? Is this a sweet shop?”
The man nodded proudly, wiping his hands on his trousers and starting back down the ladder. “Best in town,” he said, winking cheerfully. “I’m Andrew Allen,” he added, extending a hand, which Christine shook despite its splattered state; a bit of paint never hurt anybody.
“I don’t know how I’ve never been here before,” she said now, leaning forward to look through the window, in which rows of little chocolate drops were all perfectly aligned, not a one out of place. “I usually have a sort of sixth sense for chocolate.”
Mr. Allen gave a tinkling sort of laugh that somehow seemed very much to fit him, as a chocolatier, and at that moment there was a smattering of what sounded like applause from somewhere nearby. Christine and the shopkeeper both turned to see a small gathering of people on the corner opposite, all clustered around something.
“There’s a man who stands there some days and plays the violin,” Mr. Allen explained, noticing that his companion was attempting to see what had grabbed this crowd’s attention. “He’s quite good – I recommend going and listening to him, if you have a moment.”
“I will. Thank you very much,” Christine said, smiling yet again, and Mr. Allen tapped the side of his nose as though the two of them now shared some wonderful secret. He held up a finger, motioning her to wait, and dug about in the pocket of the slightly dirty apron he had slung about his neck, finally withdrawing a red-and-white striped peppermint wrapped in red cellophane. Christine thanked him and, after checking for nonexistent traffic, crossed the street.
The pub became unnaturally quiet once the background drone of the news had been silenced; it unnerved the barman a bit, and he thought for a moment about turning it back on. But the reports for the last day had been filled with nothing about the gas explosion, despite the fact that no further evidence had turned up regarding it. He didn’t feel like depressing himself further.
“Can I get you another?” he asked his sole patron gruffly, now taking up another glass and going after it with the rag. The man shook his head almost imperceptibly, bending a bit lower and hiding his face further from view. His stein was long since empty, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere. It was odd behavior, but not unseen.
“Funny thing on the news, wouldn’t you agree?” he tried again with a forced politeness, leaning forward and locking his elbows so his arms stuck straight out at slightly bent angles. It was his job, he felt – not in the literal description, perhaps, but something that rode on his conscience – to be a friend to each and every soul that wandered through in various states of loss. And this rather strange-looking man looked like he could use a friend.
The stranger’s shoulders tensed at the question, though; it was a slightly unexpected response. His eyes darted up nervously to meet the barman’s, large and dark and laced with something that might have been fear.
There was quite a large number of people, certainly more than she had thought in looking at them from afar – nine or ten, all clustered around a man seated on a battered stool in the middle of the sidewalk. He wore a felt hat that was peppered with holes, pulled low so that his brow and eyes were in heavy shadow. His long, thin fingers held the violin bow delicately in his right hand, as though afraid he might break it, pulling it delicately across the strings while the fingers of his left hand moved across the fingerboard as though they had a life of their own.
“I’ve been coming ‘ere every week for goin’ on six months now,” said a woman to Christine’s left in a rather heavy Northern accent. “ This guy’s fantastic – ‘e really shouldn’ be on street corners, the way ‘e plays.” The man to whom she was speaking nodded pensively, his eyes not leaving the performer.
The violinist finished his number, and everyone clapped politely, moving forward here or there to drop a note or coins into the open violin case at the foot of the stool. “Obliged, obliged, obliged,” he murmured, as though it were a chant, and Christine idly wondered if he even realized that he was saying it anymore. She waited for the crowd to disperse, but no one seemed to want to leave. After the last coin had fallen with a slight plunk, he shouldered the instrument again, poised the bow over the strings, and began another tune.
It was at the onset of this new song that Christine’s attention was caught by a dark, hunched figure, moving just inside her peripherals, at the corner of her right eye. Turning slightly, she saw a man making his way toward the crowd on the corner, not looking up from the pavement, hands balled into fists in his coat pockets. She didn’t know why this particular man drew her eye as he did, but something about him – the slope of his shoulders, or the slightly awkward way he walked – was a bit off. And not more than ten paces behind him, but growing closer all the time, walked another man, erect and stiff, his eyes fixed firmly on the former.
The hunched man didn’t stop as he reached the throng of people, shouldering past Christine so that she nearly fell into the gutter. “Sorry,” he half-muttered, half-gasped, still not looking up from the pavement, not stopping but throwing the apology out over his shoulder. She frowned, automatically moving her hands in the motion of tucking her hair behind her ears without knowing if she needed to or not.
The other man, at least, had the decency to skirt around the fringes of the crowd, his eyes still trained on the other. Up ahead, the street broke for a moment into an alley, and it was down this that the first man ducked. The second man followed him without breaking stride for a moment. Overcome by curiosity and trying to ignore her conscience, which was telling her that it was extremely rude to eavesdrop, Christine shuffled a bit to the left, straining her ears to try and hear why these men were acting as they were.
“What’s that?” the stranger said quickly, drawing his still-empty mug instinctively closer. The barman raised his bushy white eyebrows in surprise without realizing he had done so.
“Funny thing on the news,” he repeated slowly, wondering if perhaps his patron was a bit slow in the head. The man’s lower lip appeared to tremble for the briefest of moments, and then he nodded hesitatingly.
“Well, I suppose these things do happen,” he said, and gave a nervous sort of giggle. Oh, well, it seemed to say, no loss. Twelve people, after all, not a huge number in retrospect.
The barman didn’t know why, but for some reason this man made him anxious, twitchy appearance aside. The thought briefly crossed his mind that maybe – just maybe – he was hiding something… He quickly turned and grabbed another glass that didn’t need cleaning, just for something to do.
Over the screeching, soaring violin notes, no intelligible words could be made out, but one of the voices sounded angry – extremely angry. The tone of his conversation sliced through the crowd to reach her with no difficulty at all. One of his arms briefly appeared around the edge of the building bordering the alley, waving in fury. Words like “betrayal” and “friend” could be heard through the music, and it was catching the attentions of the other bystanders as well.
Suddenly, the first man – the nervous-looking one, who had walked with a slight hunch as though walking against the wind – tumbled backward into the gutter, as though he had been pushed. The violinist stopped the music with a screech, and the entire crowd watched as he struggled to his feet.
“You all right?” asked one of them , stepping forward to help lift the stranger to his feet, but he clambered onto them before accepting the gracious offer, brushing the hand away. The dark-haired, bearded man who had been following the first emerged now, his eyes flashing dangerously with hatred. In his hand he clutched what looked like an oddly-shaped wooden drumstick, and Christine’s brow furrowed as she took in this slight detail.
“You are no friend of mine,” the bearded one spat, clearly audible now that the violin stopped. They seemed oblivious to the dozen or so spectators; it was only them, them and their conversation, that seemed to matter. He stepped forward as though about to shove him again, or perhaps hit him with the weird drumstick.
At that moment, the first man, the nervous-looking one, the shifty one, raised something and said words that Christine didn’t understand. She made a movement to do something – run, hide, stop him, anything – and her arm was poised in a gesture of motion. A flash of something orange – the sensation of being lifted off her feet – and everything went black.
It was peaceful.
Andrew Allen hurried forward at the noise – the windows of his shop had been blown clean through without any warning at all just now, and to say he was scared would have been an understatement. Bits of glass littered the floor and studded the chocolate drops like grotesque sprinkles, gritting underneath his feet as he stepped over them gingerly. All up and down the street, people were poking their heads out of doorways, screaming and running, yelling for help. They knew it was far too late – one look at the giant crater where the corner had once been, and Andrew could see that at once. But he joined the pleas for assistance anyway, if only for something to do.
His weak eyes, scanning the scene, fell on the still body of a girl lying near the deepest part of the crater, upside-down in an almost comical fashion, though nothing about the scene was funny at all. A cry rose in his throat, strangled before it could emerge as actual sound, as he recognized the white leather of the jacket, the bright paisley pattern of the scarf, and the way her left hand was still clenched in the act of holding something that no longer existed. It was the young woman he had talked to not five minutes previously, the one he had urged to be on that very corner.
“What happened, Andrew?” It was the hysterical voice of Ava Newton, the friendly, rotund young woman who owned the bakery down the block. On a typical day – which, it turned out, this was not – she resembled one of the rolls she sold, soft and warm and always covered in flour. Now she merely looked as though she were about to burst into tears.
“I don’t know,” the chocolatier said gruffly, a bit ashamed to find tears sparking his own eyes. He couldn’t look away from the young woman in the crater. He hadn’t even known her name, and now he found himself wishing he had asked.
Suddenly, he realized a sound was assaulting his ears – laughter, harsh and loud and cruel, spreading throughout the scene as an intruder, something that didn’t belong there. Andrew’s eyes slid up to come to rest on a tall man with long, dark hair and a beard to match, standing near the crater and just laughing and laughing…
His vision flashed red, and he began moving toward the man – for what, he did not know. He couldn’t shout at him, or curse at him, or do anything, but he was moving nonetheless. However, Andrew did not make it five steps before an official in a navy blue uniform laid a firm hand on his upper arm. He did not look like the policemen who usually made this place their beat; he was dressed all wrong.
“Unhand me. I had nothing to do with this,” the old man said firmly, trying to throw off the official’s restraint.
“I know you didn’t,” the man sighed, fumbling around in his pocket and looking dead tired. “Now, hold still a moment.”
“What are you -?” Andrew began feebly, watching as the official withdrew a thin wooden stick and pointed it directly at the old man’s forehead. But his sentence was left unfinished.
Over the top of the glass, the bartender watched as the man on the stool seemed to come to a decision about something. He rose suddenly and made a quick dash for the frosted-glass door leading back onto the sidewalk.
“Hey, pal!” the barman called, setting down the glass he was wiping too hard, so that it clinked on the counter. “You’ve got to pay for your drink, you know!”
The man jumped and turned back around, casting frightened eyes at the proprietor. “Sorry,” he muttered feverishly, scrambling around in his pockets and dumping a few coins onto the polished wood of the bar. He turned his back again and resumed his hasty exit.
There were two further things that struck the old barman as being odd now, apart from his patron’s general suspicious demeanor. One was that, as he looked down at the bar, he noticed that the coins the man had paid with were not like good British coins. They were oddly shaped, and of rather incongruent sizes. He picked one up, examining it warily, and decided it must have come from a children’s game of some sort. But no matter; he wasn’t about to chase someone up the street over a pint or so of ale.
The second notice that suddenly struck him, as though physically colliding with his head, was the wonderment at why his patron had a fresh wound on his right hand, where a finger had obviously recently been.
A/N: This story is a Christmas 2011 present for ToujoursPadfoot - one of my dearest friends and largest writing inspirations. Without her, it really isn't a long shot to say I would have left the site long ago, and she encourages and motivates me more than anyone else I know. And I am forever grateful.