Barton looked at the scrap of parchment he held between his fingers: 2653 Arcturus Street. The clay numerals above the polished oak door matched the number that the Painter had written out for him. Beyond the door slept a family that had been torn apart by the loss of a child. He was about to shatter their peace and tear the scab from the wound. Would his heart, his conscience be able to withstand it?
This could so easily be my door. If collections don’t pick up it will be my door, my Lilly on the other side of it.
Barton shook his head to clear the image of his unsuspecting family sleeping in their beds. He jumped when his partner laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s all right buddy,” Joff said. “We’ll get through this one together.”
“This one, and how many more afterwards?”
“As many as it takes.” Joff raised his leather-gloved hand and pounded on the door. “City Watch! Open Up!”
The house echoed, sending the hollow drumming back to the two men on the doorstep. When nobody answered, Joff raised his hobnailed boot and kicked at the lock until the wood splintered and the door swung open with a bang!
Barton and Joff drew the lanterns from the deep pockets of their oversized coats and struck a match to light them. They walked through the house, looking for the bedrooms first.
“Looks like they’ve scarpered,” Joff said.
“Shit on them.”
The beds were cold, stripped of their blankets and pillows. The closets were as empty as the beds. A few jars of pickles decorated the shelves in the larder, but the coal stove held nothing more than a heap of ash.
“The Painter is going to be pissed,” Joff said.
Barton could only answer with a strangled “Mmhmmm.” He pocketed his lantern and sat down heavily on a wooden stool next to the stove. “What am I going to do?” he asked as he grabbed twin handfuls of his short, dark hair and pulled until the pain in his scalp became more demanding than that in his chest.
“We could try and find them.”
“They’ve been gone for days already, the stove is stone cold. There’s no way we could find them now.”
“Then we have to go back and tell the Painter that they’ve left,” Joff said. “It’s not our fault they ran.”
“I could lose my family over this,” Barton said. “I’d rather lose my life.”
“The Painter is a generous guy, he’ll understand,” Joff tossed Barton a jar of pickles as they walked out of the dark house.
The street outside was alive with late night traffic. Shoppers hurried home carrying parcels bound in paper. Wagon wheels creaked over the cobblestones in counterpoint to the staccato beat of horses hooves. Pickpockets dipped into the purses of beggars and merchants alike. Only the Touket City Watch was safe from the nimble fingers of the city’s misspent youth.