The small, back garden of the Victorian terrace house looked like the setting for a fairy tale. A thick, smoke-scented haze hung in the air and pearly moisture clung to every surface like a blanket made from glitter. Tendrils of mist snaked between the bare branches of fruit trees and shrubs, wove along brick walls and paving slabs, and flowed around the garden shed until its edges were little more than a blur.
Jack had no eyes for the spectacle as he hunched over the lock to the basement door, a grubby backpack dragging on his narrow shoulders. Each breath steamed the air in front of his face until the condensing moisture burned like hot acid on his chilled skin and made his nose run. A scarf would be heaven; thick and soft and long enough to wrap twice around his neck. He’d seen one like it at the railway station, but the trader had been too eagle-eyed for Jack to risk lifting it. He hadn’t reached for the matching gloves either and, as he struggled with the lock picks, he rued his cowardice.
Someone would see him.
Would catch him, if he wasn’t quick.
His fingers were so cold, he couldn’t feel the wards inside the lock. He curled himself closer to the door and strained to listen as he worked the skeleton keys, grateful that the fog dulled the hum of mid-afternoon traffic to muffled snatches.
When it finally came, the tiny snick was barely audible. Jack held his breath and turned the doorknob. It moved at the lightest touch, belying the long minutes of delicate picking it had taken to unlock the door.
Some of the older boys could open doors in less time it took Jack to draw a deep breath. He wasn’t that fast yet. Nor had he ever tried to open anything more complicated than a padlock or a car door. His attempt to break into this particular house had as much to do with the colour of the front door—bright red—as the beautiful car parked in the driveway. 69, Walgreen Road differed from the other houses in the street. In a world of soot-stained brick and black-and-white trim, it had colour. It had a vibe that drew Jack, made him throw caution to the wind and try to sneak inside.
He’d not dared breathe a word of his plan to anyone. Admitting his intention might jinx the outcome, especially as Jack wasn’t after money, jewellery or portable electronics he could sell. Not here, not today.
Jack needed a safe place to sleep. A space that would shelter him from the cold and damp of English winter. A space that wasn’t prone to erupt into violence in a blink and a heartbeat.
He was vulnerable on the streets. Vulnerable, seeking shelter in parks or underpasses. And he hadn’t escaped Jericho to let himself fall into someone else’s clutches.
He gripped the knife that was his solace and security. The straight, broad blade had helped him escape and had kept other men at bay. Finding a safe place for himself would do the rest.
The latch shifted under his fingers without a sound.
Holding his breath, and praying the hinges wouldn’t creak, Jack slid the door open an inch at a time.
Then he stopped on the threshold and strained to hear past the rapid thump of his heart as blood rushed in his ears.
Not a single sound reached him from inside the house.
Nothing moved in his line of sight.
Jack found the light switch beside the door, flipped it, and stepped into the basement.
Warmth flowed around his chilled form and silence wrapped him up like a blanket. He stood in a small, bare room where unadorned brick walls met a smooth, concrete floor. A rack beside the door held a pair of drab green Wellington boots, along with a few gardening tools and a broom. The coat hooks on the wall above the rack were empty except for an old umbrella.
A hint of mustiness hung in the air, but Jack cared as little about that as he cared about the lack of furniture or a carpet. He welcomed the soft silence in the small space like warm spring sunshine after a long, cold winter. Nothing moved, nobody shouted. Threats and danger were miles away. When he closed the door on the world, the traffic noise faded out. And the house breathed around him, safe and solid and a hundred years old.
The basement room was dry, and warmer than anywhere else he’d slept in weeks. A closed door marked a way out of the room.
Jack pushed it open, expecting stairs.
Instead, he found a second room, smaller than the one he’d come from, with a chest freezer, a central heating boiler, and a low sink with a tap.
Jack turned the tap one way and water flowed, droplets hitting the sink in a tinkling shower of tiny sparkles. He swung the lever back the other way to stop the soft noise and glittering stream, and silence settled over the basement once more.
Jack’s deep, shuddering breaths echoed in the empty space. Tears burned his eyes and clogged his throat until he swallowed them down, not ready yet to let them escape. He surveyed the two small rooms—deciding where to sleep and plotting the fastest way out the door if he had to make a run for it—all the while marvelling at the perfection he’d found.
When he spotted the extra key on the hook beside the door, he finally let go of his tight control. He shed his backpack and curled up in his chosen corner, back to the wall and knees tight to his chest.
For two hours he sat and breathed in the silence. Until he’d made himself believe that, for the first time since his escape, he was safe.
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