The silence of the night was rudely interrupted by a loud squeal of tyres. Some sleepers woke up and heard the roar of the engine as the car sped away. Others remained deaf to the excitement, unaware of their partners muttering obscenities about the driver before going back to sleep. Nobody bothered to get up and look out windows. The scream of rubber on bitumen came at the magical hour when even those late to bed had retired for the night and nothing beyond the extraordinary would rouse them.
The young man driving the car was not a teenager, nor a hooligan, nor was he drunk. The car had been paid for, though he hadn’t paid much. The squeal of tyres as it rounded another corner had more to do with a lack of tread on the wheels than the immense speed it was travelling at. The car, in fact, didn’t have much of a top speed at all. It would shudder and tremble as though anxious that pieces of itself would get left behind should it continue to accelerate beyond its capabilities. Its driver certainly knew that his car would not suffer for long before it died—he just needed it to get him as far as possible from the headlights in his rear-view mirror.
The young man over-steered around a corner, too busy checking what was behind to pay attention to what lay ahead. The back end drifted and he corrected enthusiastically, planting his foot but unable to control his car as it did the last donut of its life before it came to a stop, smoke pouring out of the bonnet and a hot, burning smell wafting through the interior vents. In spite of this, the young man tried turning the key. He sobbed, he swore, he slammed his palms into the steering wheel. A few drops of rain landed on the windscreen in mockery of his tears.
Before he could be found, before anything drove down the street, before anyone could call out to him, he opened the car door and ran. At first his running was aimless—it was as fast as he could go. His sneakered feet slapped the street in rhythm, accompanied by his harsh, panting breaths. His eyes were wide as he tried to make sense of the shadowed buildings either side of him; none of them looked like houses. It took him a moment to realise he was in a street full of shops. His heart was a wild animal, caged inside his chest, its pounding almost drowning out the low growl of his pursuer. He had to get off the road.
* * * * *
When the Hunter turned the corner in his pickup truck, he saw the abandoned car skewed across the painted lane, its driver door opened like an injured wing. He parked behind it, his headlights illuminating the inside. It looked empty but he needed to be sure. His handgun was clipped beneath the dash; he checked the magazine before he opened his door, using it as a shield to glance around the area. Barred shops, a line of parking meters and a darkened car a long way up the street. He couldn’t see anyone.
The Hunter removed his key from the ignition but left the headlights on. They worked better than the sparse circles of nearby streetlamps. He thumbed off the safety and approached his target’s car with his gun raised. Nobody was lying across the floor in the back or hunkered down in the driver’s seat. There was a disagreeable smell that tasted like machine oil in the back of his throat. He moved away from the car.
The street was too broad to cover for a proper sweep but he chose to walk it, gambling that his target didn’t have a weapon—perhaps a piece of pipe. The Hunter walked slowly, not wanting to miss or pass anything. There were very few places to hide. He stopped; up ahead was a very fat parking meter. He lifted the handgun and focussed intently on the dark shadow while he approached. He thought it might be a trash can… until it stood up and sprinted across the road.
The Hunter tracked the runner’s movements, finger on the trigger. A bolt of lightning zapped a streetlamp close by, forcing the Hunter to hit the street. It was followed by a boom of thunder so loud that he felt compressed by it. The streetlamps went dark but some of the shops had their lights on—enough to see by. The Hunter looked for where the runner had gone, thinking the other had dived for cover as well, but he saw his target disappear into the mouth of an alley as though the lightning strike had been imagined.
The Hunter glanced up at the single, small cloud that marred the night sky. Apparently he was to believe that the lightning came from that.
Fuck, he hated hunting Elementalists.
* * * * *
As the young man squatted behind the last parking meter, he thought to himself how unwise his hiding spot was. He’d initially believed his pursuer wouldn’t continue the chase on foot. The mistake had been made and there was no changing it as headlights accentuated his car, revealing it for the rusted shell that it was. Smoke was still churning out of the hood and he watched as it was inspected, willing the man hunting him to get back in his truck and leave.
Sometimes he was lucky—he remembered a few charmed moments in his life when he’d got away with a risk or a mistake. He wasn’t lucky now. He could see his pursuer walking carefully down the street, looking into the shadows, his gun aimed low but ready to be drawn up.
It was the sprinkle of rain on his windshield that made him think of how he could escape. Rain couldn’t be summoned without clouds and most clouds had a bit of charge in them. Swallowing his fear and channelling it as best he could, the young man’s fingers danced as though over an invisible keyboard, sending a mental message to the sky. It was part thought, part feeling, part something-else, like knowing when your body is in motion or unbalanced. He felt the charge building the same way he felt the Hunter looming; when it reached a point where he could no longer sit and wait, he thrust himself forward at a run.
He should’ve stumbled. He was going too fast for his feet but somehow they kept him up. He was ready for the flash and the boom so it didn’t surprise him or make him deviate. He’d seen the mouth of the alley across the road and decided it was the best option. He couldn’t count on being able to reach the end of the street before his pursuer regained his sensibilities. He ran as fast as he dared, without the weight of anything to carry or the idea that he might be leaving someone behind. He was a loner, travelling through the worlds like a supernatural gypsy… though weren’t the Romany folk supposed to have Wanderer ancestry? Maybe they did. Maybe the desire to travel was in the blood.
The alley ended in a chain-link fence. A ridiculously high chain link fence that didn’t even have a gate. Climbing it would make a chinking sound, alerting the Hunter to where he was. Chances were he wouldn’t be able to out-climb a bullet. He could’ve been lucky and the lightning might have struck the Hunter… but without it being properly targeted and a lot of tall, metal posts around as attractants, he didn’t think his pursuer would be dazed for long.
The best thing to do was hide. There were better hiding spots here even though the alley was surprisingly well-lit. There were lamps bolted into the wall along one side, making it impossible for him to blend into the shadows. There were darker areas where the light didn’t reach, sure, but he was sure they would be checked. The Hunter had displayed a careful thoroughness.
Hope for his salvation came in the form of a small, rectangular box on the ground in front of a bunch of rubbish bags. Cigarette butts littered the floor alongside it, painting a neat little scenario for the young man to imagine. Smokers; he would be happy to kiss one right now, providing the matchbox held something inside for him. The young man grabbed the box and slid it open, so amazed by the single, broken match he saw inside, that he couldn’t help but laugh his relief.
It seemed he was lucky after all.
There was an awful seafood smell coming from one of the piles of trash near a shop side door. It was probably a fish-and-chippery, where wonderful smells entreated the public by day and terrible smells entreated the rodent population by night. Did rats eat fish? He didn’t think about it too much as he held his breath and worked his way between black garbage bags and a couple of metal cans. He crouched and pulled one of the black garbage bags over the top of himself. It stank but he could always have a shower. If he got caught… well, he wouldn’t have to worry about the smell either way. His hiding spot didn’t bother him until he pressed his hand into something slimy and yielding.
* * * * *
It was the laughter that gave the Hunter pause because he wasn’t sure if it was real. His ears were ringing from the boom of thunder, his heart pounding from the knowledge that he was hunting someone who could throw the unexpected at him. He took a deep breath to gather himself and exhaled steadily. The Hunter lifted his weapon and approached the alley, not rushing. He wasn’t happy about the shallow light within—he would be easily seen.
The Hunter hovered at the corner, his pistol aimed for the centre of the alley, his body mostly concealed. He could see a lot of trash bags huddled around industrial bins on the opposite wall, as well as discarded boxes that could fit a person inside. Not too far from him, a skewed sewerage grate caught his eye before he discounted it. Skewed or not, those bastards weighed too much for one skinny Wanderer to lift, set aside and then pull back in place after himself.
There was nobody that he could immediately see.
The Hunter entered the alley, his back close to the wall with the lamps. There were benefits and liabilities to using the lights but it was more to do with all the garbage being piled on the opposite wall. If the Wanderer was hiding in there, he would rather have some space between himself and the freak who could heat his blood and make it boil, or freeze him with a single touch. He didn’t know if Elementalists could affect a person like they could affect the weather but it was better to assume the worst and keep some distance. The safest Wanderer was a dead Wanderer.
He moved purposefully, on the balls of his feet, staring into every puddle of shadow along the length of the alley, expecting a surge of... something. An element, a thrown missile, a man running the other way - it was impossible to predict. Near the end of the alley, close to a three metre high fence, he heard a scraping noise. The Hunter stopped, aiming in that direction as a man stood up behind some garbage bags, holding something in front of himself. He was about five metres away.
The Hunter’s first thought was that his quarry had a gun after all, before a flame burst to life in his target’s cupped hands, confirming the Wanderer’s identity. The Hunter’s mind failed to make sense of what he was seeing and he was momentarily dazzled as the fire grew into something circular and impressive.
It was only when he felt the hot wind that preceded fiery blasts and could feel his skin tightening that he realised his mistake. Instinctively, he pulled the trigger multiple times. He could no longer see his target but he held position as the heat intensified, hoping like fuck that if he managed to kill the Elementalist, the fireball heading his way would die too.
At the last possible moment, the Hunter spun into a ball, turning his back to the oppressive flames that threatened to lick and bite his skin. Instead of being engulfed, there was only silence and the refreshingly cool air of the alley. The fireball was gone. The Hunter uncoiled warily and approached the Wanderer. The body was partially covered by trash bags, an empty book of matches clasped loosely in hand and a vacant stare in his remaining eye. A bullet had hit him in the head; a lucky shot.
The Hunter felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. The end of a mission always left him feeling hollow, without purpose. Eventually the smell of rotting fish drove him away, back to his pickup where he called in his location. He didn’t want to hang around and he didn’t have to. Tonight he would dream of lightning and fire and if he was really lucky, he wouldn’t see the face of the man he’d just killed.
But it wasn’t to be.
© Delia Strange & Linda Conlon 2015, All rights reserved.