The Fire Of Dying Stairs
Shadows mask mystery.
Bones creaked as much as the staircase in the house. Andrew stifled his pained groans with a knitted cardigan sleeve. Though tempted to curse with a four-letter word, he resisted.
God’s favours were needed more than they ever had been.
It was after midnight, the peak of a cold British summer. Dread festered then froze in his stomach. Now he really wanted to swear.
Ten years in the navy, five burnt through as an officer, the rest spent in stuffy London offices that made up England’s military intelligence division. He had been trapped under flaming steel in the Pacific ocean and shot at countless times, but none of that pain compared to eight hours of paperwork. Having to wait for word back, be it from a telephone call, telegram, carrier pigeon, or anything that told him the status of his operatives, was cheesecake by comparison.
Andrew got to the top of the stairs, moving onto the landing. He looked down. Boot prints blemished the peaceful layer of dust. Two sets now. Andrew’s own, and another.
His. The one he had been briefed about in a coded letter the previous day. A suspected agent had been snooping around the cobblestone town that rested to the south of Swansea. That was half the letter descrambled, it had brought him here. The rest had been forced to wait. It had been a choice between stooping over a desk of pencil scribblings and code notes, or taking action there and then.
He counted his luck (favour?), that it was at least a fifty-fifty chance. His hand sweated a little on the grip of his nine millimetre Hi-Power Browning. Andrew unclipped the scuffed golden button, lifting the metal out of the holster, allowing it to flow with his scarred hand.
Andrew managed to ignore his wedding ring while he methodically checked the magazine and twisted the suppressor into place. It relaxed him, now his movements carried a wave of smoothness.
Light was sparse in the hallway. Andrew’s watch told him it was two in the morning. Both late and early enough that almost no one would be awake in the peaceful village.
Time was an important factor, he had to move.
Two doors in the top level of the house. One in front of him, another on his left. Nothing was in the left room except locked cabinets, shelves of vases and a sofa mummified in white plastic sheets. It did not stop the hand sweating. He rested his other hand on the bannister and took a sliver of comfort from the owls painted on it.
Painted by children? How long ago had they abandoned the house? Where were they now?
None of that mattered. The final door opened slower than the rest.
A large open window greeted him, yet Andrew did not get the chance to notice the pleasing star and cloud formations. All attention was aimed at the amber glow of the cigarette. Held by a gloved hand.
The shadowed voice left no trace of an accent, even the cadence was carefully designed to be as bland as possible. Flat and emotionless, in control.
Andrew could not see the face, but he did not have to.
Where the hand was, told him where the shoulder was, and from that the position of the heart and head fell into place. Andrew had already moved the Browning behind his leg, trusting the shadows to be kind to him as well. Moments seemed to come as minutes.
The shadow looked like he was taking it all in, a living camera. One last drag and the cigarette was flicked out the window.
“This game is pointless. Just walk out.” Spoken with unwavering conviction.
Before anything else could take place, the pistol appeared, Andrew’s sweating had stopped. It had not been the heat, there wasn’t any. It had been nerves. The trigger was pulled back hard. He heard no noise, but not because of the suppressor. Andrew landed on the floorboards, along with shards of a broken vase. Pain buzzed at the back of his skull. Eyesight and hearing thrown out of sync. The tension had camouflaged the sound of the stairs.
Andrew shifted himself, craning his neck upward. The Browning was across the room far out of reach. Dissipating smoke told him he had got a shot off, but his instincts and blurred eyesight told him he had missed by a shameful mile. Straight out the window. Shadow moved, withdrawing a fresh cigarette. His slow and deliberate gait clueing Andrew in that he was carrying more than a pack of Woodbine.
Unremarkable features emerged to meet him, the only hint of his exotic heritage being the subtle olive skin. A high weathered forehead and close-cropped hair hid male pattern baldness. Eye colour was hard to tell.
The shadow man took out his Zippo. He puffed out a fresh cloud, seeming to take no pleasure. Blood pooled up in Andrew’s mouth.
The firm stomping of boots came around his right ear before Andrew saw the lady. Unlike the man, she dared to smile a crooked smile. It matched her asymmetrical, square head.
A smile that widened as she showed Andrew a yellowed folder of documents, the card bookends tied together with fragile string.
“You’re too late, we have what we need. If this is what the United Kingdom has to offer, then that says it all. The revolution is just around the corner of London. You’re all fucked.”
The woman’s voice sounded like two pieces of tree bark being rubbed together.
Andrew stopped thinking. He made a mad scramble for the pistol. It was over before it started, the man of shadow broke Andrew's fingers with his heel, and the woman stomped on his back. Simple and effective.
She grabbed his legs, the shadow his arms. They carried him out to the landing, and like twins on a shared birthday, they swung their arms, and Andrew, in practice arcs, before letting go.
The fall cleared most of the stairs, it was the last three steps that finished off his spine and broke the former officer’s neck.
As Andrew Mcgann fell, the bannister art had caught his eye, and the owls looked like they were flying.
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