Myles Dáithín was early, because of course he was. It was an uncanny knack that he had when he was trying to turn up late, or at least not first, that everything would take far less time to do than normal. Even the buses, normally reliably late, would arrive not just on time but actually early or late enough to coincide with him reaching the bus stop.
So it was that he reached the City Centre almost an hour before he was supposed to be there. Probably longer before his friends would actually arrive. He jumped off the bus a stop late to delay himself slightly. If he had gotten off by the Adelphi Hotel, he would have had a much shorter walk to McKenna’s. From Queen Square, if he dawdled, he could possibly stretch out when he arrived so that he wasn’t standing around on his own for too long.
He could have gone inside early instead and talked to Lydia. That nearly made him laugh. What would they have to talk about? Even if she wouldn’t have been busy serving, what could he say that would give her any reason to be interested? No, that wasn’t going to happen.
It was just past nine and the sky was just beginning to darken, the first street lights coming on. Around him, most of the people moving about had bags of shopping with them, heading for the bus or the train as the shops began to close. They had fair rides in Williamson Square, though as one tired mother was struggling to get through to her crying child, they had stopped running for the night. This point was underlined by the group of Goths sitting on the edge of the Merry-Go-Round, smoking roll-ups and glaring at anybody who came too close to them.
Myles slowed down. Had one of them been staring at him? He was sure that someone pale with spiky, jet black hair had been standing behind them, but he had only looked that way for a couple of seconds. He stopped and looked back. There was nobody there. He shook his head and carried on, though now there was a cold feeling on the back of his neck.
It was forgotten once he came out onto Church Street and turned in the direction of Bold Street. Just a few hours earlier in the day, this part of town would have been packed. He would have needed to move in constant zigzags just to keep going forwards. But now there were only a few small clusters of people passing in different directions and a couple of buskers still playing as long as there was money to be made.
He did a double take over the road, when a group of three women in washed out jeans and skater t-shirts walked past him. One of them had thick auburn hair, almost orange, and for a split second he thought it was Lydia. It wasn’t. She was younger, and scowled when she caught him looking at her. Once they were further on, he heard them laughing. At him, perhaps.
Myles stuck his hands in his pockets and kept walking. It was darker now, and there were a lot less shoppers around, more people who at least looked like they could be heading to a club. Good. Not that he did, really, since McKenna’s wasn’t exactly a shirt, shoes and trousers kind of venue. But at least it suggested that he was no longer out too early. Although when he checked his phone, he was proven wrong since it seemed he had managed to get halfway across town in less than fifteen minutes.
He was in the shadow of the Bombed-Out Church, properly St Luke’s – an Anglican church that World War Two had reduced to a sandstone ruin, and only a short walk up Hardman Street away from McKenna’s. He sighed. He was going to be waiting around either way, and having a drink in his hand would at least pass the time quicker than walking around the block more than once. Hopefully.
If you didn’t know McKenna’s, you would take one look through the glass façade and assume that it was closed. Beyond the small foyer the bar, dance floor, couches and tables were shrouded in darkness. Having frequented the place intermittently since he was sixteen, and pretty much every weekend for the last three years, Myles knew just to push the door open and head downstairs.
It wasn’t much lighter down here, but the gloom was more purposeful, the spacing of the small spotlights on the ceilings meant to give that effect. There were already a handful of people here, mostly propping up the walls with a bottle in hand, and a band was setting up in the opposite corner to the bar. Behind the bar, of course, was Lydia McKenna.
A short, feathered bob of auburn hair framed cheeks spotted with freckles, dark green eyes and full lips that lit her face up when she smiled. When she spotted him and waved, he realised that he had been staring and made his way over to the bar.
“Hey chick.” She said. “What can I get you?”
“Alright. Err, I’ll have a Bud, please.” As she turned around to get a bottle from the fridge, he grasped for something to say. Lacking for anything more profound, he went with, “So how are you, anyway?”
She shrugged. “Oh, I’m alright. You know. How about you?”
“Not bad. Not much to tell, really.” He trailed off. There had to be something they could get into a real conversation about. That was when he saw the Download Festival wristband on her left arm. He nodded at it. “How was it, then?”
“What?” She looked down at her wrist and, when she realised what he meant, laughed. “Oh, that was last year’s.”
“Yeah. Getting them to last this long without falling apart is an art form, you know.”
They both laughed. But the laughter quickly faded and they were left there in silence. Myles searched for something else to say. There had to be something, but nothing offered itself up. He cleared his throat and took a swig of his drink.
Something at the other end of the bar caught Lydia’s attention. “I’ll catch up with you later, alright chick?” She smiled at him but then was gone, heading over to somebody else who wanted serving. Probably relieved to be, too. It had to be more interesting than enduring him staring at her while struggling for something to say.
Shortly, the silence was broken by music that was too loud to hear anything else over it. The band was still setting up, but this marked the proper start of the night. The lights faded away, only to be replaced by strobe lights which sliced through the darkness in time with the music. More people came downstairs, and those that were already there moved away from the walls and onto the dance floor.
His bottle was almost gone by the time his sister appeared. Jess was the same height as him, six-foot-one, but taller with her steel-plated boots on and her dark red dyed hair styled into a high, thick crest. The sides of her head were shaved. She was wearing thick black eye-liner and black lipstick, which emphasised how pale her skin was. Her sleeveless top showed off toned, strong arms; one completely covered by a sleeve of tattoos and one by a half sleeve that reached up from her wrist to over her elbow.
She ruffled up Myles’s collar-length hair as she reached him and put her mouth to his ear to say, “Who pissed on your chips?”
He scrunched his face up in confusion. “What? Oh. No, I’m fine.”
“Tell your face then, eh kid?” She squeezed his shoulder, then leaned on the bar. A moment later, Lydia greeted her with two bottles and a kiss on the cheek. After they had spoken, Jess took the bottles and presented one to Myles.
They were on their third drink by the time everyone else arrived. As they were ahead, Jess insisted on shots for everybody to catch up. Two rounds of them later, and Myles had a pleasant tingle in his head.
The dance floor was packed now. Nearby, a shirtless fat man got a bit too enthusiastic trying to get a mosh pit started and sent a rake of a boy with uneven stubble skidding across the floor. Around him, a hundred-odd people danced and drank and kissed and noticed nothing beyond their own little worlds. Myles sank another four bottles without thinking about it.
As he made his way back to the bar, itself a dance considering how many people he had to squeeze past and how many groups he had to shuffle through the middle of, he got the feeling that somebody was watching him. The tingling heat on the hairs at the back of his neck.
He turned and scanned the crowds, not expecting to see anything. He tensed, however, when again he saw the man with spiky black hair that he had seen earlier. This time, the watcher turned away and ducked into the crowd. Myles craned his head and stood up on his tiptoes trying to catch sight of him again.
A hand slapped him on the back and he jumped, earning a snarl from the short woman he nearly fell over. When he turned around, Kit Sanders was laughing so hard that he was clutching his belly.
“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to scare you…”
Myles looked around again, but there was no sign whatsoever of the man, so he returned his attention to Kit. “It’s alright.”
“Looking for someone?”
Myles shook his head.
“Alright, well if you’re after a drink, it’s my round.” Kit was large in every sense of the word. At six-foot-five, he towered even over Myles and Jess, and with his shaved head, big arms and barrel chest, he looked intimidating. Although now the biggest threat he posed was that he was drunk enough to fall over and crush somebody underneath him.
“No, it’s not.”
“Oh, well even so…” He shoved his hand in his pocket.
Myles grabbed his arm. “Stop it, daft arse.” A barmaid came over to them, and Myles ordered the drinks. Kit stuck out his hand with a note in it and Myles shoved it away. “You’re not allowed to take money off him, love, so just ignore him.”
The barmaid raised an eyebrow, a smirk on her face. “Oh? Why’s that then?”
“He robbed a bank, but the money’s marked so he’s trying to get rid of it.”
She leaned in closer, and traced her finger over his hand. “I suppose you’d have to put me in handcuffs, then?”
“Well, you’d have been bad, so I’d have no choice.”
Biting her lip, she reached over and took the note off Kit. When she gave him his change, she also handed something to Myles. Opening it up, he saw that it was a phone number. Kit was staring at him, shaking his head.
“It just amazes me how you can do that, but as soon as you’re actually interested in a girl you turn into a complete meff.”
Myles punched Kit in the arm before picking up the drinks and heading back from the bar. Kit followed him, laughing.
As the night wore on, Myles’s head got fuzzier and he completely lost track of time. At some point towards the end of the night, five of them ended up occupying a booth upstairs.
Kit was completely non-verbal at this point. He had tried to speak a couple of times, but the incoherent noise that had come out had everyone in hysterics, so he had stopped after that. He was still drinking steadily, though.
Jess, on the other hand, appeared almost entirely sober. She was on at least her twelfth drink, excluding shots of which she had downed more than a few, but wasn’t so much as slurring her words.
There was movement next to the booth, and Myles looked over to see Michelle standing by them. She was almost as tall as Jess but with a slender, dancer’s body. Her hair was an electric purple and her skin was milk white. She was swaying slightly, dancing but not in time to any music they could hear.
“Alright chick. Wondered where you’d got to.” Jess said.
Michelle grinned. “Well, I met this lad, didn’t I? We’re getting off now, so I’m just here to say turrah.”
Jess looked past her towards the foyer and nodded her approval. “Nice one.”
Myles found himself turning around to look, and for a moment he thought he was seeing things. It was the man with the spiky black hair. He blinked several times to be sure that he wasn’t imagining it, then squinted. There was something off about him, something he couldn’t put his finger on. A pulse inside his head, nagging at him like the beginning of a migraine. The man didn’t so much as look at Myles now, but it didn’t make him feel any better. When he turned away, however, the feeling faded.
“Give us a bell in the morning.” Jess was saying. “I want details.” They hugged, Michelle gave the rest of the group a wave, and then she skipped off.
Kit nudged Myles. When he looked Kit didn’t try to say anything, but he did raise his eyebrows. It was enough to get his meaning across.
“It’s nothing, mate. I’m fine.” He must have been imagining things. He shook his head, took a swig of his drink, and tried to put it out of his mind.
Another hour or so later, Myles felt queasy as he downed the last dregs of his drink. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time. Quarter to five. He’d lost count of how much he had drunk, but it was a lot and he hadn’t eaten since lunch.
He leaned over the table and punched his older sister in the arm.
Jess responded by slapping him across the head. “Tit.”
“Ow.” He said. “Youse fancy getting off, grabbing some scran?”
Most of the group shrugged or nodded. Kit said something that might have been ‘I could murder a kebab.’
“Whatever.” Jess said. “But let us finish our drinks first, eh?”
“Sound.” He stood up. “Err, I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll wait while you get nervous at Lydia.” Jess said with a smirk.
Kit laughed and snorted beer out his nose.
“Oh, fuck off.” Myles said, before heading to the bar in the basement. He found himself an empty spot and leaned over the bar.
Lydia spotted him and came over. “Alright chick, last orders is gone, you know. What can I get you?”
“No. I mean, I’m fine.” He said. “Uh, we were just about to go and get a burger or pizza or something. What time do you get off?”
“Not for a bit, cause I’ve gotta close up. And I’m gonna be a bore and head straight home for a kip. Sorry.”
“Oh. No worries.” He paused. “You’ll have to get a weekend off soon, so you can come out with us.”
“Sounds like a plan.” She winked at him and he felt his stomach tense.
Jess and Kit came down the stairs.
“Looks like we’re off, then.” He shifted his attention back to Lydia. “Probably catch you tomorrow, hon.” When she mimed a kiss, his face flushed and he stammered. “So, uh, see you later.”
Jess came over and shoved him. She leaned over the bar and hugged Lydia before they headed back upstairs.
Outside, Myles pulled his pack of cigarettes from his jeans. Jess snatched them from him and said “yoink” as she did, though she was gracious enough to stick a cigarette in his mouth and return the pack once she had taken one for herself. She lit hers first and then his as she exhaled from her first drag.
They headed downhill towards the centre of town. At the intersection with Pilgrim Street, Myles’s eyes drifted towards a young woman limping on bare feet across cobbles whilst her boyfriend held her arm – and her shoes with the six-inch heels. Beyond them, there was a slumped shape –
“That’s not right.”
He stopped. Even though he could only see the shadow, it was clearly a person propped against the skip. There was something about how limp the arms and the head hung. All the laughter had died in his throat and cold traced its way up his spine, despite the summer heat. He shuddered.
“Myles?” Jess had gotten a few steps ahead of him before she noticed he had stopped. “What’s up? Why’re you–” She followed his gaze and let out a breath. “Fuck.” She took a step forward. “Oh fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” All the colour had drained from her face. Her breathing became quick and shallow.
Steeling himself, Myles forced himself to walk forward. His stomach lurched and he felt incredibly faint as he took in the scene. He forced himself to put a hand on Jess’s shoulder, but the figure lying against the skip was all he could see. Everything else had bled away. There was only the corpse. Michelle’s corpse.
Blinking, he forced his head away and noticed that his best mate wasn’t with them. “Kit!” His voice quavered as he called out and didn’t travel far. He cleared his throat. “Kit!” This time the shout was loud enough and after a moment Kit reappeared at the entrance to Pilgrim Street.
He strolled back to where the other three stood. “What’s the hold up? I’m starving here!”
“Shut up, just get here!”
“I’m serious! I’m–”
Jess snapped out of her trance. “Kit just shut the fuck up! Get here now!” Her voice raised to a screech.
Kit ran over to them. When he reached them, he opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut again when his eyes fell on the body. He turned away. Only Jess was still staring at it, her eyes wide. Myles was watching Kit’s reaction. He, too, had gone pale and was swaying slightly on his feet.
“I dunno.” Myles said. “We need to call the police.”
That was when Jess threw up.