Brooklyn, February 1922
The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.
The boy never went to sleep until he had had that kiss. Every night, late, long after he had gone to bed, he would lie waiting in the darkness, until he heard the door of his room open, and saw the light ﬂood in from the landing. Then the shadowy ﬁgure and the sound of his father’s heavy footsteps across the bare boards. ‘Hey, little guy, you still awake?’ he would say in his low, booming voice.
‘Yep, big guy, I am! Can I see your watch?’
His father would take out the watch from his pocket, and hold it up by the chain. It was shiny, with a big, round face, and there was a winder on the top with a hoop the chain was attached to. In the top half of the face was a section that showed the phases of the moon. The sky behind the moon was dark blue and the stars were gold. Sometimes the moon was barely visible, just peeping out. Other times it was whole, an ochre disc.
Every night the boy would ask his father to tell him a story about the Man in the Moon. His father always did. Then he would tousle his hair, kiss him on the forehead and ask, ‘You said your prayers?’
The boy would nod.
‘You go to sleep now.’
Then his father would clump back out of the room and close the door.
That’s how it was the very last time.
Four men lurched their way up the street towards the house of the man they had come to kill. Three of them were unsteady because they’d drunk too much; the fourth because he had drunk too much and had a wooden leg.
They had been boozing to steady their nerves, to get some Dutch courage, they had reassured each other a while earlier, over clinking glasses and slopping beer and whiskey chasers, in the packed Vinegar Hill bar. The one with a wooden leg wasn’t convinced they were doing the right thing, but he went along with his mates, because that’s what you did when you were part of a gang. You either went along with them or they killed you too.
It was a few minutes to midnight and the street was dark and deserted, steady rain glossing the cobblestones. Each of them had a handgun, and two of them carried baseball bats as well, concealed inside their coats. It was a cold night. Cold enough for Hell to freeze over. They all wore ﬁngerless mittens.
‘This is it,’ their leader said, peering at the number on the front door of the row house. Vapour trailed from his mouth and nostrils like smoke.
Number 21, it read.
‘Are we sure this is it?’
‘This is it.’
‘He’ll be here; he’s just up the road now.’
Even in the darkness, the house looked shabby, like all its neighbours in this Brooklyn waterfront district. There was a curtained window to the right of the door, with no light on behind it. They tugged their balaclavas out of their pockets, and wrestled them down over their damp heads. Their leader raised his baseball bat in his hand, and stepped forward.
The boy lay in the darkness, snug in his pyjamas beneath the heavy bedclothes, listening to the ticking of the big, round clock in his room. Listening to the familiar sounds of the night. The drone of a passing ship on the busy, inky water of the East River close by. The clatter of a train, high overhead. The creaking of bed springs through the thin wall to his parents’ bedroom; moans from his parents. His mother crying out. His father’s loud grunt. The gentle patter of rain on the roof above him. The night had its own sounds. Its own music.
The tinkle of breaking glass was not part of it.
He froze. It sounded like it came from downstairs, right below him. Had the cat knocked over the whiskey bottle and glass his dad left out, empty, every night? Then he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Not his dad’s. His dad was already upstairs, in bed.
Several sets of footsteps.
He lay, motionless, his fear increasing. The door opened. A powerful torch beam struck his face, blinding him, and he shut his eyes. Heard footsteps in his room. He could sense a whole group of people, and was shaking with fear. Could smell tobacco and alcohol and wet clothing and sweat. He felt his throat was closing in, he couldn’t breathe, and his heart was going crazy. He opened his eyes and all he could see was dazzling light. He closed his eyes again, shivering, quaking in terror. Heard footsteps approaching the bed.
A hand patted his head, then his right cheek, playfully, the wool itchy against his skin.
Then a voice, coarse but soft, an Irish accent, right above him. Breathing heavily. ‘Just checking you out, kid.’
‘You – you – you’ll wake my ma and pa,’ he stammered to the stranger, suddenly ﬁnding the strength to speak and then to open his eyes again. But all he could see was the glare of light.
‘And where would we be ﬁnding them?’
He pointed, squinting. ‘Through there.’ He put a ﬁnger in front of his mouth. ‘They’re sleeping. Be quiet. You’ll wake them, and my sister.’ Maybe now he’d told them that they would go away.
The ﬂashlight moved off his face. But still dazzled, all he could see for some moments were pink ﬂashes of light. He heard the sound of footsteps, on tiptoe, moving away. A ﬂoorboard creaked. Then his door closed.
Maybe they had gone home. People often came into this house, at all hours of the night. Drinking, smoking, shouting, laughing, arguing. Mostly arguing, and sometimes ﬁghting. When they fought, his dad would throw them out. He was a big man. No one argued with his dad.
He pulled the bedclothes over his head so they would not see him if they came back.
Moments later, he heard his father bellow something. Then a loud thud, followed by another. He heard his mother scream. A terrible, terrible scream. Then she cried out, ‘Leave him, leave him, leave him! Please don’t! Please don’t. Leave him!’
Then he heard one of the strangers say loudly, ‘Get dressed!’
Then his mother, her voice quavering, ‘Where are you taking him! Please tell me? Where are you taking him?’
A minute went by. The boy lay frozen beneath the bedclothes, trembling.
Then his mother screamed again. ‘No, you can’t! You can’t take him! I’ll not let him go!’
Then ﬁve loud bangs, as if a door, close by, was being slammed repeatedly.
‘Ma! Pa!’ he screamed back, his whole body electric with fear for his parents. And now the footsteps were much louder, clumping down the stairs as if they no longer cared about being silent. He heard the click of the front door opening, then the roar of an engine and a squeal of tyres. And no sound of the door closing.
Just the echo in his mind of the terrible sound of his mother’s screams.
Then the silence that followed.
It was the silence that echoed the loudest.
Excerpted from Dead Man’s Time by Peter James. Copyright © 2013 by Really Scary Books/Peter James.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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