‘Why me?’ Kriste asked, knowing it didn’t matter.
‘Because you’re the littlest. And because I said so.’ Bishop smiled at her, but it wasn’t a nice smile and not just because of the teeth knocked out. Mum said his dad did it, but Bishop said he was fighting with a copper and got the better of him.
None of them would argue.
‘I bet she’s too scared,’ Nielsen said, his voice rising to a mimicking sharpness.
‘It’s haunted you know,’ Anderson added. The eyes behind his dirty glasses looked bored and cruel. ‘That’s why the money is still there.’
‘What if it’s too much for me to carry?’ Kriste had to try something. The sun was setting and she was going to be late for her tea.
‘Throw it out the door to us,’ Bishop said waving a hand around the checkerboard tiles of the lobby. A wind stirred through the derelict building and it creaked all around them, as if it were warning the interlopers.
‘Or else we’ll throw you out the window from the top floor,’ Nielsen said, sniffing and laughing.
‘If you go to the top floor anyway—’ she said, but Bishop’s flat palm stopped her reasonable objection. It didn’t matter. Everybody said he had killed the Nicholas’ dog. They had all seen it down in the ravine by the rail line. Poor Boris, dead in a ditch. He was a dumb dog, always chasing his tail but Millie Nicholas was sad.
Kriste climbed the rickety stairs. Her mum had said this place was build when she was a little girl. It had gone to rack and ruin. She didn’t know what rack meant, but the ruin was obvious. On the fifth floor she had to skirt around huge holes in the steps. Everything was so dirty and made funny sounds as she climbed.
Most of the floors had an A and B flat, but the top floor just had number 13. Everything looked grey outside the door: the floor, the walls, the door. Even the ceiling. The sun was going down. It was getting dark. She leaned over the railing. ‘I’m here.’
‘Well, go inside, you eejit. Find the gold.’
‘What if it’s locked?’ Kriste looked around. She didn’t think anyone had been there in years. There weren’t even any footprints in the dust. Not even bird droppings. They had covered the other floors and most of the steps. Pigeons were filthy and persistent, her mum said.
But they didn’t come up here.
She turned the knob and the door opened inward. Kriste wasn’t sure if she was hearing her own breath or the room exhaling. It took a few moments to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Where would the money be?
The sitting room had some broken furniture. The cushions of the sofa lay like dead bodies, their stuffing vomited out on the floor. Had people done it or animals? It was impossible to say. Kriste walked through the kitchen and dining room. A single window gaped, its glass in shards. Yet no light seemed to reach where she stood.
Kriste looked down at the footprints behind. She was the only one to have stepped in here in years. If it were brighter it might be fun to explore, to play in the kitchen or stack up the furniture for a fort. But her steps echoed in the silence and she did her best to make no sound.
The flat breathed on around her.
The first room had a bed overturned. Just the frame. There was no mattress. The wall was full of tiny holes. The air in here smelled different—sharper like some kind of metal. Maybe it was the bathroom, next to that. It almost looked usable, if not for the thick fur of dust covering everything. Her mum would never let her use a toilet like that one.
The last room was darker, smaller. Kriste pushed the door open. A small shaft of light fell from the single window and hit a spot in the middle of the floor. This room had all its furniture. There was a tiny bed, a chest for toys, a little wardrobe and even a tiny table with a lamp.
Kriste jumped. ‘Sorry, I didn’t think anyone was here.’
‘Just me.’ A little boy maybe four years old stood there with a Tonka truck in his hands. ‘Wanna play?’
‘I can’t just now. My…friends are waiting for me to bring them something.’ Kriste wondered if the little boy’s family would be away long.
‘Is it money? They always want money.’ The little boy seemed disappointed.
‘I don’t care about it, but the lads downstairs. They’re expecting some.’ Kriste felt bad. The little boy looked as grey and dusty as the room. And sad. He needed some cheering up.
‘I’ll tell you a secret. I usually just hide. But there is some money but it’s, I dunno. Wrong. It’s bad for you.’ He looked confused and opened and shut the door of the little dumptruck.
Kriste thought. ‘You mean like poison?’
The little boy smiled. ‘Yes, skull and bones. Poison.’
‘Maybe I can take it to the boys down there and they can sort it out.’ Kriste thought at least they would not beat her up or throw her from the top of the stairs.
The boy looked at her for a moment and kept playing with the car door. Finally he said, ‘It’s in the wardrobe. In the box. But I wouldn’t open it up.’
Kriste walked over and opened the tiny wardrobe. The door was red, though it was furred with dust, untouched until her fingers smudged it. Among the rotting clothes, there was a small box. When she picked it up, she could feel its weight. ‘This?’
The boy nodded.
‘Do you want to come downstairs?’ Kriste asked, feeling awkward. What if his parents came back? ‘You don’t have to see the mean boys. But you can watch them open the box.’
He nodded and the two of them walked down the steps silently. When they were within sight of the gang, Kriste held her finger to her lips and the boy melted into the shadows. She walked the rest of the steps to the catcalls of the boys and held the box out before her. ‘Is this it?’
Bishop ripped the box from her hands and tore it open. The gold gleamed. He yelled with delight and plunged his hands in. Anderson and Nielsen grabbed the other sides of the box and the yellow coins rained down on the black and white tiles of the lobby. Then there was only the panting of their excited breath as they fought for their share of the loot.
Kriste stepped back to watch their frenzied motions. None of them could decide between stuffing their pockets and hitting each other to try to grab more of the gold. Their breath laboured with the struggle.
Slowly she realised their breaths were getting shorter and shorter. Their faces were turning blue. The lads’ movements became more frenzied and then they began to slow. Finally they stopped. Kriste looked down at Bishop’s purple cheeks.
‘You should take their money,’ the little boy whispered at her shoulder. He started to gather up the gold into the box once more, holding its edges together.
‘I think I will,’ Kriste said. There was quite a roll of bills in Bishop’s pocket. Maybe she and her mum could go out to the movies this weekend.
Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White Rabbit, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.