The route carries him into a locality suffering from neglect. Although the area has not fallen into total decay, signs of encroaching urban blight are unmistakable. Running full out, he races along the deserted sidewalk staying well out from the buildings. Occasional parked vehicles and under-maintained buildings line his way. Traffic is light a lone taxi and two nondescript cars roll down the street disappearing into the growing darkness while the distinct smell of stale garbage is prevalent.
Approaching an intersection, a tingle races up his back and dances across his scalp; he slows. There’s no traffic light here, merely an askew pole supporting a battered stop sign emblazoned with graffiti.
The skeleton of a stripped van sits curbside, its rusting body panels emblazoned with artful graffiti giving it the appearance of a long existing, if not permanent, fixture. Partially restricting his view of the street, the abandoned hulk leans toward the curb balanced at a precarious angle on a pair of concrete blocks. Lurking beside the van, a partially obscured shape of a large male catches his eye; Charlie slows to a walk.
A huge man steps from behind the van, his massive girth blocks the sidewalk but he moves with surprising speed given his size. Charlie plants his left foot and it skids on the grimy concrete, he stops a foot closer to the bulky individual than he wants to.
“Hey man! Got a light?” the man’s shrill, nearly falsetto voice echoes in the valley of brick and concrete.
The unexpected shrillness surprises Charlie and he almost laughs but takes a step back and scans the shadows without losing sight of the man before him. There, lurking in darkness outside the circle of light cast by an inadequate street lamp stands a second man. Smaller and thinner, the little man is silent, unmoving.
Even though he’s been running Charlie breathes easily as he says, “Don’t smoke.” He takes a step to the right in a move designed to avoid confrontation or achieve a more advantageous position lest he need to take defensive action.
The big man mirrors Charlie’s move edging his bulk further from the van. His huge frame blocks most of the sidewalk and cuts off a lane of escape.
The second man remains in the shadows but takes two slow deliberate steps in Charlie’s direction, his right hand deep in the pocket of a dark overcoat.
This is going to get ugly, fast, Charlie thinks.
The big man slides his hand into the pocket of his leather jacket and leans forward; only inches separate their faces.
“How bout cash? Got cash?” The high-pitched voice is softer now, and no longer seems comical because lowering his voice has the effect of instilling an undertone of malevolence in the question.
The stench of stale tobacco and cheap beer assault Charlie’s senses but he answers with calm reserve, “No…” he shrugs, “no pockets.” He raises his hands revealing the pocket-less sweatpants and shirt. In the distance a horn blares and a siren wails.
A metallic click come from behind the big man and Charlie tunes out the background noise as all his attention now focuses on the duo before him. He takes a deliberate step back.
The big man’s massive hand swings into view grasping a cheap switchblade. Pale light of the streetlamp glints on the chrome blade.
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