In Angler’s Alley, cradled in the crook of a doorway, a beggar stirred. He was like sinew and skin stretched over the knobbly bones of an old tree, and his long, tangled beard was patchy and stained. A heavy shadow was shouldering its way down the street, and he raised his sunken eyes to meet it, disentangling his skinny limbs from his threadbare blanket. Despite the man’s massive size, despite his heavy boots, he barely made a sound. He walked with his shoulders drawn up, huddled into his patchy black greatcoat.
As he passed, the beggar reached out a thin hand and plucked at the hem of his coat.
The man yanked the hem of his coat out of the beggar’s hand and landed him a swift kick with one boot. Groaning, the beggar scrambled back into his blanket, filthy wooden bowl clattering against the stones. As the man turned, he got a glimpse of his scarred, craggy face, the curl of his lip and the glint of his eyes in the deep shadows cast by his heavy brow. Then he’d turned away again, pulling his greatcoat tighter around himself and grunting. He continued stalking single-mindedly down the alleyway as if he’d never been distracted.
Tom Cooke was supposed to meet someone here for a job he would’ve been fair fucking fine to do alone, and he wasn’t happy about it. It was a clocking cold night, in the first place, and he was already tense, thinking about what was to come – and being honest, he’d been tense all day. Ne, he’d been tense all week: the last eight days had been one bit of chroveshit after another, and he hadn’t had a moment’s peace, between Clark and Meggie and the gods-damned landlord and the fight he’d had with hama that morning. The last thing he needed in this mood was teamwork. Left to his own devices – if this shipment hadn’t been so crucial, this job so urgent – he’d have been at the Mad Queen right now, fucked up out of his mind, borne up on the winds of a warm, pleasant dream. Tangled up in some pretty lad’s arms, the whole world forgotten.
Instead, he was out here, meeting gods-knew-who in this shithole, far too cold and sober for his tastes. He stopped underneath a worn, half-broken sign – it wore a blob of chipping paint in the vague shape of a mortar and pestle – and leaned up against the doorframe, squinting out into the shadowy, moonlit street, scanning it. A small, black shape wound its way up the alley on the opposite side on four legs, tail flicking.
Tom smiled briefly, reaching into his coat for his flask. He took a long draught, feeling himself warm up; he watched, one eyebrow raised, as the cat stopped in its tracks. It was looking at him, its eyes glassy mirrors for the moon.
“’lo, lovey,” he cooed softly. “What’re you doin’?”
The cat stood stock-still for a moment, eyes fixed on him. Then it scurried on with hurried steps, snatching the occasional wary glance back at him before it disappeared into the shadows at the other end of the alley. Tom watched it go, taking another drink and then tucking the flask back into his coat.
After a moment or two more of waiting, hands deep in his pockets and shoulders drawn up around his ears, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. There was somebody else in Angler’s Alley with him, somebody approaching. The back of his neck prickled. Lightning-fast, one of his hands darted to the pommel of the dagger at his belt. His eyes flicked over the faces of the buildings opposite him, flicked up and down the alley, and then landed on an approaching figure. He licked at his teeth, stepping out of the doorway carefully.
Then the light fell over the figure’s face.
“Hulali’s fucking tits,” he snarled, a look of recognition and shock – and rage – spasming across his face. “What the fuck’s this about?”