48 - ames Herbert

1

WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

My eyes snapped open and my head lifted an inch or so from the floor; a mess of thoughts stalled any sense.

I pushed the quilt I’d borrowed off my chest and an empty beer bottle rolled across the dusty carpet when my booted foot (I’d learned to sleep with my boots on) knocked it over. The glass made a dull clunk as it struck a tiny centre table. I raised my head another inch, my body tense, hearing now acute; I looked right, I looked left, I even looked up at the fancy ceiling. Early-morning sunlight flooded through the open half of the balcony doors, butting in on a gloom caused by boarded windows. A slight breeze tainted with the musk of decay drifted through with the light

I listened.

Cagney, who’d found a dark corner to nest in – he liked the shadows; survival came with low profile – gave a mean growl, a soft rumbling that was warning rather than alarm. I brought up a hand to silence him and he obeyed; I could just make out the shine of his eyes as he watched me.

The quilt slid away when I leaned on an elbow and a sharp knife punctured the general ache inside my head, punishing me for the insobriety of the night before. There were plenty more brown bottles littering the floor around me, empty soulmates to the one I’d kicked over and counter-testimony to my long dislike of English beer. Skin scraped against jaw bristle as I wiped the back of my hand across dry lips.

Full consciousness arrived in a rush and then I was up, moving swiftly towards the light, crouched and quiet, ears and eyes alert for the slightest disturbance. I skirted the little round table and paused beside the open door to the balcony, keeping out of sight behind glass darkened by rotting blackout boards. Despite the early hour a dry summer heat maundered through the opening, its soft breeze carrying dust motes from the damaged city outside along with its sourness. I snatched a quick look into the sunlight, ducking back again straight away. Then I took another, extended look.

The last barrage balloons hovered over the battered land-scape like bloated sentinels. Much closer, directly opposite, the grey and grimed trio on the memorial plinth bowed their heads as if in shame, the words Truth, Charity and Justice now irrelevant.

Save for metal litter, the broad, tree-lined avenue behind them was deserted.

What then? I’d chosen this billet because the balcony room offered a good view of anyone approaching the main entrance; it also gave me plenty of places to play hide ‘n’ seek in. The building was a warren of rooms, halls and corridors, a honeycomb of hideaways. It suited me fine.

But someone had discovered my sanctuary; the mutt wouldn’t have growled for no reason. Maybe it was rats, skulking through the passageways, hardly afraid of humans any more. Or another dog, a cat maybe. But I didn’t think so. Instinct told me it was something else. Instinct and Cagney I’d learned to rely on.

I didn’t waste any more time.

The motorcycle was where I’d left it last night, carpet rucked up around its wheels. That was another thing I could rely on: a single-cylinder Matchless G3L, this one painted buff for desert warfare, only never shipped out. A survivor. Like me and the dog.

I moved fast, scooping up my fly-jacket from the floor and shrugging it on as I went. The added weight in the lining provided a small comfort. Out the corner of my eye I saw that Cagney was on