Languid water welcomed Officer Cale Edmonds as he descended to the docks. The wooden stairs curved under the threshold of the upper tier. They creaked and moaned under his weight. Loose hanging wires swayed in the breeze and pipes stationed overhead groaned. The foundation of the city cried out, ashamed at the state of affairs infecting it.
The docks sat along the eastern edge of the city; the expanse had been all but abandoned in the years since the Stalker had struck. It was more of a store yard now than functioning docks. Ships still came by twice every week, just long enough to drop their crates off and hope someone grabbed them. While the docks flourished for those few hours, they were quickly abandoned. Children were never left alone, much less left behind.
At the bottom of the stairs Cale spotted the guardhouse. A single station for a mile’s worth of dock, Cale thought with bitter resentment. Nothing more than a small box, the guard’s station consisted of a single metal folding chair, an adequate candle, and a warm body. A flash of messy red hair above a sea of freckles, hazel eyes behind wire frame glasses, Liam spent more time lost in novels than he did paying attention to the, admittedly, abandoned docks. With his slender, bookish physique, Liam defied thoughts of an effective guard.
“Any action tonight?”
Liam didn’t answer.
Cale raised a lukewarm coffee as an offering. “Drink.”
Liam took the beverage, raised it to his lips, eyes flickering across the pages of the “latest” ancient novel. As far as Cale could tell, Liam hadn’t taken a drink. Instead Liam had adopted a statuesque pose, cup held in place delaying the final poison like in one of those tragedies he so often lost himself in. It could be hours before Liam realized he had the coffee in his hand and finally took a drink. Cale smirked and walked away. As much as he hated it, he had a job to do. A punishment reserved for failures, working the docks was a miserable duty most avoided.
You picked this. He weaved through containers left over from the last few shipments. Large imprints in the upper right side revealed whom they belonged to: different cities, settlements, and companies using the forgotten docks as their private storage. The containers circled one another, constricting movement and whistling with the wind, sometimes howling on bad nights. Shadows engulfed everything. He cut past one crate, blinded for a moment, then pressed into the makeshift construct.
Cale strained to catch any movement in the darkness from shattered lights. The council should’ve fixed them several cycles back. It would’ve made this job so much easier. Instead, this shadow-infested wasteland encouraged the riffraff. Well, let’s see how quickly lights get put in when another kid goes missing.
One of the few remaining bulbs burned in the distance, signaling another set of stairs, projecting silhouettes on the wall. He slowed, watched. The light remained constant, the shapes did not. They pulled away from the staircase into the darkness.
At first, the shadows massed together, but soon they spread and took on their own identities. Three of them: small, slinking, too awkward for adults, cautious enough to know they shouldn’t have come. Whispers, urgent and not hushed enough, hissed through the crates. The invaders remained on the outskirts, not quite daring themselves into the containers of weeks past.
Cale watched before stepping forward. While the figures clunked along the fringes, he made a silent line straight for them. His firearm remained fastened against his chest, untouched.
The figures disappeared around a jagged line of barrels. Cale kept the same speed, listening to their movements. Running his fingers along cold steel of the shipping container, he moved around to catch one of them, the largest one, venturing towards the labyrinth, retreating moments later. Quiet laughter followed as they teased and jostled each other.
Coming to a stop, he stared at the silhouettes, considered his action. The children crept forward, toying with the lines of shadows as they went. Cale balled his hand into a fist and rapped on the metal with the white bone shards that wrapped his fingers like a gauntlet. One, two, three times in a slow, measured beat. A breeze coalesced with the beat, twisting into something entirely inhuman.
The whispers stopped. So did the thump of the children’s footsteps. The three children froze, stared into the darkness. The sound of happy jostling was gone, replaced with the splashing of choppy waves.
Cale struck the crate once more.
Shrill shouts hit his ears as the silhouettes retreated, tripping over each other in their haste. Cale watched them, making sure they didn’t stay. He rested a hand on his gun, wondering what he’d do if the Stalker actually showed up again. His heart thudded, anxiety creeping into his chest. As he watched the last leg disappear over the last step, he turned back to the docks. He had a long night ahead of him.
With the area empty once more, he felt a wave of relief wash over him.
Thoughts bleary from the tail end of another long shift, Cale crossed the cluttered street and slipped into an alley. Old businesses that had once thrived were now mere hideaways for weary Officers. Ruined storefronts stretched around the bend, ignored by the majority, despite taking up the block. Smudged handprints obscured the dusty windows. A ‘For Lease’ sign tipped against the window, the numbers purposefully obfuscated to hide the building’s true purpose.
He pressed his hand against an inset tucked underneath a door panel and felt a multitude of pin pricks against his fingers. It clicked, the door slid open. Inside, a set of grimy concrete stairs led down into the fluorescent glow of an underground bunker.
Cale checked over his shoulder, noted the few wary stares, women clutching their children closer — then he descended the stairs, the door locking into place behind him.
The complex buzzed like a hive, busy bees stomping about with their menial tasks. His head ached with the tension, his eyes itched as he stumbled toward the cluttered desks.
His leg clipped the edge of one and three Officers cackled. He gave a weak smile and let them go back to their whispers. Dressed in their three piece suits, the rest of the commissioned Officials hung around with their coffee mugs, ignoring the actual work needed.
He collapsed into his seat, digging out the paperwork needed for his incident with the kids last night. One of the guards hit his desk with his hip, resting on its edge. Cale’s files tipped off the desk and spilled across the floor. “Nice going, Edmonds.”
Cale bared a smile at the man, his hand clicking against the metal desk. “Sometimes I just can’t help myself.” He leaned over, ignoring the Officer’s smug grin. A boot heel came down, leaving muddy stains along the lines of his report.
Cale stared up the leg. He stood. “Move.”
“How about you go back to the docks. We don’t want you here.”
“I don’t think you get it. An—”
“Another kid’s going to be killed? Please. We’ve heard it all. Especially from you.” He leaned in close. The onions he’d had for lunch wafted over Cale’s face. “So leave. Go back there, stop wasting our fucking time.” The guard walked away.
Cale glanced around. The place still buzzed, but he felt the eyes of each person on him. He looked down at the folders, pages bent and marred. Watching the guard saunter back to his buddies, Cale couldn’t reconcile the stupidity.
“Adrian,” Cale called after him. The Officer turned. Cale backhanded him, the bone on his fingers vibrating as the Officer crumpled to the ground. The buzzing stopped. Cale turned on his heel, gathered his files. He placed them on his desk, thought better of finishing the paperwork and headed for the door. He looked back as the Officer used a desk to try and stand. Cale said, “We’ll see how you feel when the Stalker comes back.”