Matt stood on the rooftop, scanning the city. Tuesday nights were usually quiet; no weekend revellers, no groups of tourists, just workers just want to go home and watch whatever reality crap was on television. The usual few druggos and drunks were around, and a couple of other homeless guys, but they weren’t a threat. Not tonight. Tonight they were just unfortunate to be out in the cold.
Perhaps tonight would be quiet, Matt thought. He’d stand on the roof for about an hour all the same, just to be sure. But everything was calm. Ordinary. A block over a toddler cried in frustration, too tired to be reasoned with. Two blocks down someone was serving vegetable lasagne. The teenage twin boys in the building across the road were laughing and wrestling and getting scolded by their mom as they crashed into the wall. At least a dozen households nearby were watching the basketball. A lone stranger wandered disorientated down an alleyway off 48th.
Matt spun around to face the direction in which he sensed the stranger. The stranger smelt as though he’d been sleeping rough for some time. He was nervous and confused, his heart rate was too high and his breathing laboured. He had a slight fever and it had been a long time since he’d had a proper meal. A very long time. Impossibly long.
Leaping across the rooftops, Matt positioned himself above the stranger, blocking out all other distractions. The stranger walked with his head bowed, shoulders hunched, and hands deep in his pockets. He didn’t want to be seen.
Matt stood on the rooftop, just out of the stranger’s eye line, should the man look up. The stranger glanced around, as though he knew he was being watched. His heart rate quickened and he picked up his pace, pulling his shoulders up even higher. As he did moved, Matt noticed something wrong with the sound the man made. Something unnatural. Something he’d never heard before. Similar to a hip-replacement, perhaps? Something artificial. Something metallic and cold. Something was wrong.
Matt leaped down from the roof and overtook the stranger in the shadows, sensing it was best not to approach the man from behind.
The stranger stopped.“I know you’re there,” the man said, his voice tight. He exhaled, and Matt could almost hear the stranger’s chest rattle.
Matt felt the tension increase the stranger’s body as the man clenched his fists tightly in his pockets. Matt stepped out of the shadows into the dim of the alleyway. “Why are you in Hell’s Kitchen?” he asked, slowly approaching the stranger.
The man shook his head. His heart pounded. “It’s not how I remember it,” the stranger said. Matt could feel the hot tears welling in the man’s eyes. “I don’t know the city any more. I thought - out of anywhere, here, but - I don’t know.” The stranger took a step back.
“Who are you?” Matt asked, but that seemed to be the wrong question. The stranger’s whole demeanour changed in an instant, as he stiffened, stood up straight and swung a punch at Matt, narrowly missing as Matt dodged just in time. Matt swerved as the man swung again, this time managing to grab the man's arm. He quickly let go as what he felt underneath the man's jumper was not flesh and bone, but steely and hard. Matt released why he hadn’t recognised the noise; because he’d never met anyone with a metal arm before.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” Matt said, blocking a hit, “I want to help.”
“You can’t,” the man said through gritted teeth, and swung at Matt again. He was quicker than Matt would have given him credit to be and too well trained to be an ordinary homeless guy. "You know nothing about me."
“I know you need help. You're hurt,” Matt said, ducking from a punch. The stranger just grunted and continued to fight. “I want to help you.” Matt recalled reading about a guy with a metal arm. Something in the news a year or two back? “Why are you in Hell’s Kitchen?” he asked again.
The man made no reply, save a grunt and continued to attack. Everything about the man’s movements were so methodical, as though he wasn’t thinking at all. As though some primal fight or flight instinct had just taken over.
Matt hit the man, noticing a pattern in his movements, which sent the stranger stumbling into a wall. “Why have you come back to New York? Who are you?”
The man yelled and ran at Matt. Matt ducked to block a hit, and got the stranger in the guts. The man dropped to the ground.
The stranger sprung back to his feet and again ran at Matt. Again Matt dodged him, but only just. They fought quickly, the stranger now trying to stab Matt as well as punch him. But now Matt was intrigued. Why would a homeless guy have a metal arm and a fancy Gerber knife. A WWII commando-style Gerber knife. A truck rumbled past along 10th, and for just a fraction of a section, Matt’s concentration was broken. The stranger noticed this momentary lapse in concentration, took advantage and pinned Matt against the wall with the metal arm, which also held the knife up against Matt’s throat.
Matt waited. He couldn’t compete with a guy with a metal arm. The stranger was too strong, now that Matt was pinned. He could hear the man’s heart pounding, feel the fear and terror surging through him.
“What are you waiting for?” Matt choked. Matt kicked himself for engaging. Why did he have to be curious? Why couldn’t he just leave the stranger alone? He knew why. Because the stranger was frightened and hurt and lost, and it was his job to protect his city, and those in it.
“You’re - you’re…” the man stammered.
“Finish it,” Matt coughed.
The man hesitated, then let go and stepped back. Matt dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. “I don’t know this place anymore,” the man said slowly, his hands shaking, and closed and pocketed the knife.
Matt panted and gasped for air. “Who are you?”
“I don’t know.”
Matt was about to answer “that’s a lie”, when the stranger’s heartbeat told him it wasn’t. The man honestly didn’t know who he was. Matt used the wall to help himself stand. “Let me help you.”
Another truck rumbled past, along with a motorbike. “Why have to come back to New York?” Matt asked again. He was met with silence. Matt listened. The man was gone. “So this is how that feels,” he said quietly to the empty alleyway. He listened harder, and could hear the stressed heartbeat and metal arm disappearing into the night. Matt began to follow the stranger, when a police car sped past along 10th, sirens blaring, blocking out all other noise. The car passed, and so did Matt’s chance at following the stranger.