Monday – 11 pm
Jasper, a six-foot ginger-haired thug, nudged his companion. “Hey, Benji, let’s roll this homeless asshole again and see what he’s earned for us today.”
“Sounds cool, man.” Benji’s skin was as black as Jasper’s was white, but something they had in common was the darkness of their hearts. The pair were twenty years old, had known each other since their schooldays and had never earned an honest day’s pay in their lives.
Jasper glanced over his shoulder before stepping into the dimly-lit alley entrance. He kicked the bulging sleeping bag. “Give us your savings, shit-head.”
Benji couldn’t miss hurting somebody who couldn’t fight back, and his boot was also embedded in the bundle before a response had come. The contents of the sleeping bag didn’t move.
“Maybe you should hand over your savings … shit-heads.” The voice was deep and gravelly and came from the unshaven, dishevelled man emerging from beside a nearby rubbish skip.
“Oh, this is gonna be fun,” Jasper said. “I don’t know who you are, but if you give us your money, we might leave you conscious.”
The man in the woolly hat, scarf and Army greatcoat shuffled farther back into the alleyway. “Let’s make a deal, eh, lads?” He moved another few paces, in the knowledge that he was being followed into the shadows.
“Who are you, ya’ soft shite,” Benji said and chuckled.
“My name is Victor.” The vagrant lowered his head slightly, and murmured as he turned, “Did you two beat, and rob Ozzie?”
“Who the fuck is Ozzie?” Jasper shook his head and unzipped his jacket, ready to get started.
“I’m… Ozzie.” A man with long grey hair and a matching beard limped out from a doorway near Victor. He stood, hunched over, looking at the two thugs.
“You’re still alive, you old bastard,” Benji said. “Don’t worry, Ozzie, we’ll put you in the hospital with your new mate … Hector … or whatever the fuck his name is.”
“The name is Victor, you fucking neanderthal. What about my deal?” He stepped away from his grey-haired companion.
“Jeez,” Jasper said. “You are desperate. Make us an offer, and then we’ll decide how badly we beat you.” He laughed.
“If you pay back the twenty pounds you stole from Ozzie, I’ll let you both walk away.”
Jasper half-turned to Benji and laughed, but as he did, he stepped forward and swung his right boot at the new vagrant’s groin.
Victor stepped back, dropped to one knee and caught the thug’s boot, using one hand on the toecap, and the other at the heel. A tug and an outward twist of ninety degrees resulted in a high-pitched scream from the ginger-haired bully with the freshly dislocated knee.
Before his friend had fallen, sobbing, Benji had already taken two paces forward and aimed a boot at Victor’s face.
The big man leant to one side, caught the incoming boot, but this time stood, while still holding the thug’s right foot. He kicked Benji so hard in the groin that he passed out as he fell.
Victor bent over the unconscious Benji, checked inside his multi-coloured beanie cap, and then rifled through his pockets, removing £50.
Lying nearby, Jasper got brave. “You touch my money … and … and you’re a fucking dead man.”
Victor was kneeling between the bullies. He turned to the sobbing and groaning Jasper, gripped his curly ginger hair with his left hand, and punched him hard in the face with his right fist. A dull thud sounded on the cobblestones from the impact of the thug’s head. He was in extreme pain, and only vaguely aware of his pocket’s being searched.
Victor walked to the alley entrance with Ozzie limping alongside, packed up their belongings and set off to another area.
“Remember, Ozzie, those two creeps back in the alley will be looking to take vengeance, so keep your wits about you, mate.”
“I will, and thanks again, Victor. Are you sure you don’t need some of this cash?”
“No, mate, I’ll be fine.”
Five minutes later, Ozzie was £120 richer, and on his way to a safe sleeping area. The money was tucked away in small amounts in different parts of his clothing. He accepted his new friend’s suggestion of a hostel to spend a few nights in comfort. He had a card with a phone number that a hostel volunteer was to call for him the next day.
Tuesday – 9 am
“Good morning, Mr McLennan, the beard is coming along nicely.” The pretty blonde placed a paper cup of coffee on the man’s desk. “How is the insomnia?”
“Not so bad now, thank you, Sally. I got four hours’ sleep last night.”
“My goodness, I don’t know how I’d function on four hours sleep.” The twenty-something shook her head and laughed as she went back out to her desk. She managed two sips of coffee before the first phone call of the day, and she hit the speakerphone.
“Good morning … The McLennan Agency… Sally speaking, how can we help you?”
“Good morning, Sally, it’s Harry, down at Bain’s Road hostel. I’ve got two names for your boss.”
“Go ahead, Harry.” Sally’s pen was poised over her notepad.
“We’ve got a guy in his twenties called Dickie Taylor, and another fella called Carl Osborne who is in his late fifties. Both gave me one of your business cards last night.”
“Okay, I’ll put Dickie down for ten-thirty, and Carl for eleven o’clock. Please remind them there is no need for collar and tie. All interviews are informal.”
“Both of these guys were showered and spruced up before breakfast. They look like different people. I’ll make sure they’ve got bus fares and give them the good news.”
“Bye, Harry.” Sally buzzed the intercom and passed on the details to her boss.
Tuesday – 11.30 pm
The tall man in the long dark coat, woolly hat and gloves stopped at the store entrance and chatted to the bearded and dishevelled man wrapped in two sleeping bags. They talked for a few minutes before the tall man walked on and spent a few minutes with the next homeless person.
As the dark figure approached the local park, he glanced over both shoulders before he climbed the gate. The public park had been locked late in the evening as usual, and the lighting was minimal and dim at best. The man walked the pathways in the moonlight, stealthily approaching the numerous patches of bushes and trees.
He paused and squatted beside a bench to gaze amidst the nearest bushes. After a look around, he crept into the undergrowth towards what appeared to be a makeshift shelter.
“Touch anything—you’re fucking dead.” It was a female voice, and the words were spoken as a sharp object touched the big man’s neck.
He slowly moved his hands out. “My name is Victor. I’ve got a thermos if you want to share a hot drink.”
Five minutes later, the pair were sitting in the bushes a few feet from the bench, whispering and sharing hot black coffee.
Victor continued through the park for an hour. He stopped at a body lying on a bench, and another in a sleeping bag under an oak tree.
Thursday – 10.15am
“Good morning,” Sally said. “How can I help you?”
“Anita Rawlings, to see Victor.” The dark-haired woman handed over the business card, as all interviewees were expected to do as authentication.
“Thank you … may I call you Anita?”
Anita nodded. She stood in her padded jacket, jeans and training shoes, looking around the small, spartan office. She unslung the large bergen from her shoulders and rested it on the floor. For a moment, her gaze fell on the blonde, who was pretty and well-presented but didn’t have the finishing touches of false eyelashes or fake fingernails.
“If you’d like a hot drink, Anita, that vending machine doesn’t require payment.” She smiled. “Choose something to warm you up and take a seat.”
“Thanks.” The visitor looked around suspiciously before turning to approach the machine. She pressed two buttons and was served a free, hot chocolate. She lifted the small paper cup and sat on one of the three comfy chairs. For five minutes, she sipped the drink and looked at the handful of posters around the walls.
At 10.25 am, Sally stopped working on her computer, and went to the vending machine. She pressed the appropriate buttons for a black coffee with sugar. Although wearing a blouse and skirt, her outfit was as understated as her makeup, but she still looked good.
Anita forced a smile and raised her cup. “I suppose that stuff must be okay if you drink it.”
Sally laughed. “I do, but this one is for the boss. He wouldn’t expect our clients to drink something he wouldn’t drink.” She lifted the filled paper cup and walked to one of the two nearby doors, tapped lightly, and went inside.
Anita looked at the office door which had a gold sign, ‘It’s Always Open’. She smiled as her gaze fell on the other door which was signed ‘Creature Comforts’, a military euphemism she recognised. It was probably the toilet and had soft toilet paper.
The first door opened and Sally came out. “Anita, the boss will see you now.”
Anita finished her drink and dropped the paper cup in the waste bin before lifting her bergen and going into the office. She closed the door behind her and looked around at the clean and tidy room. A town map with a variety of pins stuck into it took up most of one wall, while on another wall were two cork boards with numerous notes attached. A pair of comfy chairs were situated either side of the large window and between them a small table.
The big man in a crisp white shirt and faded jeans stood and came around the desk. “Hi Anita, and thanks for taking the first step.”
Anita shook his hand. “Thank you for seeing me, Mr—”
“It’s Victor. Please take a seat.” He indicated one of the two armchairs for his visitor, and he used the other instead of going back around the desk. “Where’s the blade today?” He grinned.
The thirty-year-old lifted one side of her padded jacket to reveal a hunting knife in a leather scabbard tucked under her arm. “Sorry, it’s become a habit.”
“Fortunately, I’ve opened all my mail, so you can leave it in there.” He sipped his coffee and smiled briefly. “When we chatted a couple of nights back you said you’d been shacking-up in the park for two weeks. How long have you been living rough?”
“About eight months, so enough time to experience winter, and appreciate the spring.”
“Have you had a brew?”
“I wouldn’t mind another—”
“What would you like?”
Victor left the office, returning two minutes later with the hot drink for his visitor.
“Thank you.” Anita held the paper cup between two hands and stared at the steam rising from the surface of the liquid. “It’s the simple things you miss.” She almost smiled.
“If you’d be happy to tell me how things went south for you, I won’t interrupt.” Victor sipped his drink. “Take your time, and start wherever you like.”
It took Anita fifteen minutes, to explain how, after serving in Afghanistan, she returned to the UK, left the army and had difficulty settling into regular life. A mundane retail job ended when she was fired for assault. She was deemed to have used excessive force to reclaim stolen goods from a male thief who threatened her. Within three months, she had difficulty getting a job to pay rent for her damp and dingy one-room flat. She had to move out, and life went downhill rapidly.
“Thank you.” Victor nodded when the young woman stopped talking. “You’ve been through the mill and survived.”
Anita smiled. “When you’re trained to put your arse on the line for your country, they tend to leave out the part that there won’t be much help when they give you your life back.”
“If you’d be interested in working for me, the pay won’t be great, but you’ll have decent, free meals and free accommodation. Any government benefits or military pension can be saved to provide you with financial security.”
“There are several roles to be filled, so I’ll give you a flavour of things. At my disposal, I have a small block of twelve flats. They’re simply furnished and heated, but more comfortable than a park bench. I have the option of another six flats if needed.” He grinned. “The jobs are related to how I found you. As of yesterday, I have four guys on training courses, and four other people on the ground at night … patrolling. I prefer the night patrols to be teams of two.”
“Are you telling me that you’ve got people being trained to go out and help the homeless?”
“No, it’s a bit more than that. The aim is to watch out for the most vulnerable, but especially any ex-service personnel out there. Physical fitness doesn’t make up for mental issues.”
“May I ask how many people you have on the team?”
“I only recruit from the veterans we find, irrespective of which service they were in. If you joined us, there would be ten people apart from me.”
“Am I allowed to ask why you’re doing this?”
“I don’t normally tell my story, but I’m not much different to you.”
“Except that you’ve got a job, a pretty blonde receptionist, and a point to your life, although you’ve obviously lost your razor.”
He grinned. “There are three things we can do, Anita. The first is to survive, which is natural. The second is to become isolated and buck the system. The third is to fight back, become a part of society, and feel useful again. It depends on your nature and adaptability how difficult those things are for you.”
“What’s this whole scene about … Victor … are you a counsellor or something?”
“No, as I said, I was like you once. I fought back the best I could.”
“You lived rough?” Anita’s eyes opened wide in disbelief.
“Yes. I lived rough in Iraq, Afghanistan, and finally, Syria. Of course, I was living rough because it was part of the job … in the same army that you were in. I came back here, and without family or a job, I had difficulty fitting in. I took offence sometimes when people looked down on me. I hit the bottle and anybody who disagreed with me. It was a long road, but I spent a year in the wilderness … mainly under viaducts, in alleyways, parks, and derelict buildings.”
“Shit. How did you end up with this … set-up?”
“I saved a man’s life one dark night. A couple of thugs were about to slice him up for his cash and valuables. He was grateful enough to let me have his sofa for the night. At breakfast time, we had a long chat.”
“He must have been a special guy.”
“Not really, he was just a businessman who’d had a few drinks and was on his way home. He was grateful to have survived the incident. He asked me to explain how I ended up on the street and said he wanted to help. The guy I saved had good contacts, and he helped me organise a grant. That’s how the accommodation, this tiny office suite and the courses are all funded.”
“I suppose you feel good when you get home at night.”
“I live in the same block as the rest of the team.”
Again, Anita’s eyes opened wide. “You don’t have a big salary and all the trimmings?”
“I have a military pension, and I get a monthly allowance from the grant. I have the use of a small car which is mainly for the job, and my greatest payback is knowing that we’re taking veterans off the street. In the past few months, we’ve put ten people back into the real world.”
“What sort of thing would you expect me to do?”
“Unless you wanted help to get back into another type of job, I’d be happy to have you on the team. You’re resourceful and capable of taking care of yourself.”
“Could I maybe join those patrols you’re training?”
“Do you have any other women on the crew?”
“Only two at the moment and one of them is on night patrols.”
“What does the other one do?”
“She works as my receptionist and admin clerk.”
“That girl out front … Sally … the blonde—” She squinted and shook her head slowly.
Victor nodded. “She was my first recruit after I saved my benefactor’s life.”
“How did you find … Sally?” Anita smiled, but squinted again, doubtfully.
“A few months ago, I helped her dispose of a guy who attacked her when she was sleeping rough.”
“When you say, you disposed of him, you mean you gave him a right kicking?”
“There wouldn’t have been much point, he was already dead. Sally used to carry a bigger blade than yours, and she stuck it in his groin. I said I’d help her if she’d help me with a new enterprise. We ditched the would-be rapist in a dumpster. His body will be long gone now.”
“Wait a minute, are you saying that Sally is an ex-veteran?”
“She was the sole survivor of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and lived rough until she could get back to her base … which took her a week. I don’t think she’s ever told anybody how she survived. She left the army shortly after, and couldn’t fit into regular life back here.”
“Jesus Christ.” Anita nodded and grinned. “Where do I sign up?”
This story is selected from Shadow: and other stories.