How had it come to this? Marlon Kinsman leaned against the guardrail at King’s Cross Station and watched Eleanor glide effortlessly amongst the commuters. He pictured his mother, red-faced and shouting if she were to ever find out about his pickpocketing obsession. To think he was now treating it as a game made him quiver. His family needed money—any way possible—and Marlon was the man of the house.
Eleanor’s bright face popped up in front of him, derailing his train of thought. She held up a black leather wallet, her smile beaming from ear to ear. “Fifty pounds. Not amazing, but it’ll beat you.” Eleanor’s blonde, wavy hair flew around in the gusty November breeze as she tugged on Marlon’s arm. “You’re up hotshot, or you gettin’ cold on me?”
Marlon stood up straight and rubbed his hands together. Eleanor Floyd was his best friend and like a sister to him, but this dark path he walked on was also her doing. “Only once, then we call it a day.”
The butterflies always fluttered in Marlon’s stomach when he tested the law. This was no different. A mixture of fear and excitement caused adrenaline to flow through him, and he fast-walked towards his prey. A hefty man with a coffee cup in one hand and a phone in the other was the obvious target. Marlon wasted no time, and approached him from the side, slightly slowing his pace. He was surprised at his skill at times and the sleight of hand he used was that of a magician. His heart rate climbed faintly while he walked past two police officers but returned to normal in no time. He strode, cool-as-ice, back to a stunned Eleanor and handed her the wallet.
She silently applauded and checked the contents. Her lively chuckle caught Marlon off guard, and she opened the wallet to show him. “Cashless! I win—again.” But Eleanor’s smile disappeared. She held out a set of keys from inside the wallet and studied the driving licence of the owner. “It’s around the corner.”
“Don’t even think about it.” Marlon grabbed the keys and wallet from her. “We said we’d never get involved in anything else.”
“But this could be our break. Just think what it could do to us,” Eleanor pleaded.
“Land us in jail, that’s what.”
“Marlon, think about your mother, your little sister.” Eleanor looked deep into his eyes. “Just this once. You can keep it all, I’m in it for the ride. But we need to move now before he notices.”
Marlon didn’t ever remember agreeing, but before he knew it, they were walking towards the address.
By the time they arrived on Charlton Street, late afternoon darkness began to set in, and the road was ghostly quiet compared to the bustling bedlam of King’s Cross. The streetlights flickered on, beginning their shift for the evening. An unpleasant aroma filled the near-isolated road as Marlon and Eleanor scurried along in haste. They stopped while Eleanor made certain of the address—number sixty-eight. Marlon pointed to a house across the road and they crossed, moving like a silent cat in the night.
They were a few houses away when the pair spotted movement on the street. A shadow emerged off the ground and moved in their direction. They froze. All coolness from their pickpocketing escapade vanished. They were seized by sheer terror. Marlon moved in front of Eleanor and they backed away in unison. As the shadow moved under a streetlight, Marlon made out a large figure. It walked with a limp and came to a halt a few feet away. Silence followed, only interrupted by the limper’s heavy breathing. The smell was overpowering.
Marlon became aware of Eleanor’s trembling body behind him and knew he had to take control. “Do you need help?” Marlon wanted to sound confident but could sense weakness in his voice. He moved a step closer to the stranger. “Well, we’ll just be passing then.” He noticed the tattered clothes, dishevelled hair and smell of a man who hadn’t washed in a while. The tormentor was homeless.
The man approached Marlon and looked him in the eye. “I’m only gonna say this once. Stay off this road.” His voice was deep, commanding and from the North. “This isn’t a place to be wandering.”
Eleanor stepped aside and into view, grabbed Marlon by the arm and pulled him past the man. “We’ll mind our business if you mind yours.” She stopped, turned around and faced him again. “And we don’t have any money to give.” Eleanor flicked her hair nonchalantly and walked with her head up.
They reached number sixty-eight. The numbers on the black door were a shiny golden colour. It was a narrow house with two upper windows and one on the ground floor. All lights appeared to be off. Marlon took the key from his pocket and looked back down the street. He nodded in the direction they’d come from. “He’s still watching. Should we scare him off?”
“No. He won’t be troubling us.” Eleanor’s only focus was on the door. “Let’s do this.”
Marlon looked at Eleanor as if to ask if she was sure about this. She nodded. They were in new territory. Pickpocketing had been mastered—this game was new. The more Marlon turned the key, the less he liked it.
The door opened without any fuss, but Marlon cringed at the creaking sound. If there was anyone in, they would be onto them. The ground floor was dark and silent, and small enough for one of them to raid. They worked in whispers. Marlon gestured towards the upper floor. “You check it out, and no wasting time, just a quick in and out.” Eleanor saluted and headed for the stairs.
Marlon found himself in a small living room, the air was stale and the room cold. No-one had been in for a while. He found a black rucksack and emptied the contents. Just books. He used the bag to pick up items. A smartphone, tablet and laptop. He was in luck. Marlon checked cabinets and draws, emptying all to the floor. His eyes caught the jackpot and he trembled. His mouth went dry and his pulse quickened. Marlon grabbed the large bundle of cash and held it in both hands. A few thousand at least. This was what he came for and he dashed to get Eleanor and leave.
In the hallway, he looked up the stairs his friend had gone and spoke in a raised whisper. “El? El, get down here, let’s go.” No answer. He grabbed the rucksack and headed up. The noisy staircase did not bother him now, it was all about speed. He reached the top and could see three rooms, all with open doors. The one furthest away had a light on and Marlon headed there. He walked past a mirror and glanced at it. Something made his face turn ashen and he had to stop and double-take. He stared at his reflection and for a moment saw his father’s eyes in a ghost-like face. The man who had brought bitter pain to his family. Marlon was sweating in the icy-cold house, but shook himself and carried on, now running towards the end.
Eleanor stood dead still in the doorway, looking inside. She spoke to herself and Marlon could see the tendons standing out in her neck. She began to whimper. Marlon held her by the shoulders trying to break the trance. “Eleanor, what’s the matter? Speak to me! Don’t just …" That was when he noticed. In the middle of the room, tied to a chair with rope was a woman. Her red, blood-shot eyes pleaded with them. Duct tape around her mouth prevented her from speaking. Her arms were stretched behind her back, and her legs fastened by thick rope at the front. She had bruising to her body and face.
Instinctively, Marlon pulled Eleanor out of the room and closed the door. Breathing heavily, he paused to catch his breath. He looked Eleanor up and down making sure of no harm to her. “We’ve got to get out of here, now.”
Whining from within the room was heard and Eleanor looked at Marlon, puzzled. “We can’t just leave her here, let’s get her out!” She opened the door again. The woman was desperately struggling to free herself, tears streaming down her damaged cheeks. She again mumbled.
Marlon swept a hand across his forehead to wipe away sweat. “This is not our battle, El, let’s get out and call the cops.”
But his friend was already walking into the room and towards the woman. “Come on! Help me untie her.” Marlon was rooted to the spot as Eleanor battled with the ropes. “Marlon, she needs us!”
Marlon took a step into the room just when a loud thud shook the house from below. His leg muscles tightened, and he ran into the room, grabbing Eleanor by the arm and pulling her out with full force. “He’s back! Let’s get out of here.” Eleanor protested, but followed Marlon out, back along the darkened corridor and they sprinted downstairs. Marlon stopped at the bottom, looking at the outline of the man he pickpocketed. Now keyless, the large man attempted to break open the door. A heavy thump from his boot almost did as Marlon clutched Eleanor’s arm and ran through the kitchen to the back to the house. He tried to open the back door, but it was locked with no key nearby. “Quick, under the table.” Marlon guided Eleanor with both hands, forcing her down. Just then, the front door gave way and crashed against the wall. They scrambled to get underneath the large wooden dining table.
There was silence, followed by footsteps. Marlon looked at Eleanor and put his finger to his lips. He closed his eyes and prayed. The footsteps were closer, and he could hear him standing in the corridor. Marlon held his breath for as long as he could, before slowly breathing out. The man moved away and towards the stairs.
This was their only chance to escape, and Marlon nudged Eleanor to make her aware. They heard slow, heavy footsteps moving up—he was on the stairs. Marlon whispered in Eleanor’s ear. “Pull yourself together and be ready to dash.” He held his rucksack, ready to explode out of the blocks. This was not the time to cave in. He had his money and his friend, and now the opening he needed to shake off his pursuer.
Marlon crept from under the table while counting the steps of the bulky man ascending. He guessed there were around fifteen steps—he had counted twelve. There was a pause in the climbing and Marlon stood statue-still. His breathing began to quicken. They had no escape plan if he turned back around and came down. They would be trapped. How would I talk myself out of this? I’m not even the good guy here, I’m about to steal from this man. The footsteps started again, and they continued upward.
Marlon eased Eleanor up to her feet and they waited. Eleanor had tears in her eyes, and she gripped onto Marlon’s arms so tightly her knuckles went white. Marlon embraced her for a moment. “You’re going to run for your life when I say so. I’ll count to three.”
“What about you?” Eleanor whispered.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
The footsteps reached the top now and Marlon moved Eleanor in front. He could see the broken front door wide open. “One.” Marlon put the rucksack on his back. Another step from above. “Two.” The sound thundered down now, and Marlon didn’t hesitate. “Three! Go now and don’t look back!”
Eleanor’s slim legs moved like pistons and she made for the exit. Marlon moved cautiously, glancing up at the stairs as he passed. With no sign of the man, he made for the door. He had one foot outside when a booming voice from above shook his core. The massively built man had a voice to match is size, and Marlon wasn’t going to stick around to hear it. He left the house and reached the front gate when a shrill scream pierced the quietness outside. Marlon hesitated. Another overpoweringly desperate cry spun his world around and his heart ached. There were crashes and thumps from upstairs and the woman being held, howled and pleaded as if it were her final moments.
Marlon’s vision blurred and he closed his eyes. Images that had traumatised his childhood came back to burn a hole through his soul. His father beating his mother with a belt, as his tender eight-year-old eyes watched helplessly. How he cried and cried, begging daddy to stop, but the intensity increased. His father dropped the belt and when his closed fist connected with mum’s face, Marlon thought she was dead. That was the last he saw of the evil man he was ashamed to call dad.
A silence came over the street, which terrified Marlon immensely. The woman had stopped crying. Marlon’s reaction was instinctive and fearless. He dropped the rucksack at the gate and sprinted into the house heading straight upstairs. He reached the top and the darkness made him pause. He saw the light in the far bedroom and sprinted towards it, his fists balled so tightly he felt pain. Marlon reached the doorway and stood there looking at the back of the man he’d chosen to pickpocket an hour ago. His vast structure towered over the woman. She still sat in the chair but was now a limp ragdoll.
Marlon was about to make his move when he heard running behind him. Eleanor came bursting into the room and stumbled over Marlon’s leg. The momentum took her forward and she crashed into the big man’s bulk. He turned around and grasped Eleanor by the throat, his powerful hands squeezing the life out of her. The man’s eyes bulged, and he used the back of his hand to smash Eleanor across the face. Her body was thrown to the side and into a cupboard headfirst. She collapsed in a heap.
The man saw Marlon for the first time, his large nostrils flared and the cold eyes infiltrated. His colossal body tensed, and he moved towards the far smaller teenager. But Marlon did not flinch. He saw his father’s face in the man and charged. The brute was caught by surprise as Marlon ploughed his head into the man’s chin. Momentum took both men to the ground simultaneously and Marlon landed on top. The man was dazed, and Marlon pulled his arm back ready to unload. He pulled the trigger, but the shocked man was too quick and caught Marlon’s fist. He grabbed both arms and threw Marlon off to the side. The man was up in a flash and closed in on Marlon. This time it was he who readied his fist. And Marlon didn’t even see it happen but felt a thunderbolt to the side of this face. The pain was like nothing he’d felt before. He was helpless but opened his eyes to see what was to come next. It was worse than he thought. The large man pulled out a knife from his pocket. Marlon thought of his mother and sister at home. He had failed them for the last time.
Marlon expected to see darkness, but it never came. Instead, there was a massive thud, and the big man collapsed in front of him. The knife hit the floor. Marlon looked up and saw another figure in the room holding a long metal rod. He recognised the limp straight away, and the battered, hole-ridden clothes—and that stench. The homeless man held out a hand, and Marlon gladly accepted.
Marlon checked on Eleanor and the woman. They’d been through war but were ok. His face was beginning to get feeling back though it probably looked like a car crash. The tramp had used the rope from the woman to tie the monster-of-a-man. Eleanor had made an anonymous call to the police and ambulance services, and Marlon was eager to get away before they arrived.
He turned to the homeless man, face red with the embarrassment from their street encounter. “I don’t know how, but you knew this would happen. Thank you.” Marlon shook the man’s hand warmly. Eleanor followed his example.
The homeless man looked at Marlon and Eleanor in turn. “I may not’ve gone to college, but the streets schooled me.” He pointed a finger to his temple. “That’s all I need to survive out there. My world.” The saviour nodded towards the door. “I think it’s time you disappeared. I’ll take care of the mess.”
As they left the room, Marlon wondered who had the better life—him living at home or the man on the street. They made their way out of the house and into the cold. When they got to the gate, Marlon noticed the rucksack on the ground. He looked at Eleanor and paused.
“Aren’t you going to take it?” she said.
Marlon picked up the bag, and they walked in the direction they came from. They reached the point at which the homeless man confronted them. There were a blanket and a few belongings on the floor. Marlon turned around and looked back at the house and smiled. “His world.” He took the bag off his shoulders and placed it in the homeless man’s refuge.
Eleanor’s eyes watered. She put her arm through Marlon’s, and they walked off into the night. Somewhere in the distance, police sirens wailed.