Just before dawn, as Belsair predicted, Melvin returned from his nocturnal adventures. This return was anything but stealthy, characterised by slamming doors, curses as he stumbled into furniture and walls, and crashes when the items he had procured during the night slipped from his drunken grasp and fell to the floor.
Jordan listened to the ruckus, a smile playing across his lips. He’d been awake for about an hour now, and was fully dressed awaiting the knock on his door that would summon him to action. Judging by the colour filtering through the moth holes in the curtains, Aldernon would be due to deliver this rousing knock in probably no more than a quarter of an hour. Melvin’s head would have barely have touched his pillow.
It was a cruel tactic, certainly. But none of the other Black Hoods would lose any sleep over it. Besides, it was none of their concern if Melvin was going to make it easier for them to deliver him to his destiny. Anything that assisted with the plan was seen as good... and using Melvin as a scapegoat—if needed—was better than good in Jordan’s mind.
From next door, there came one last crash, a final curse punctuated heavily with cussing words and then, the creak of the iron bed as it caught and held Melvin’s slight weight. There was silence for a few seconds. A thick, uneasy silence. In that silence, Jordan could hear his heart smashing against his ribs. And then, seemingly on cue, Melvin snorted, once, twice, thrice; the last time, the snort drew out, became a loud and vibrating snore.
Jordan had to stifle the need to giggle. It was almost too easy. And yet, unlike most victims of a practical joke, Jordan felt no sympathy. Melvin had done nothing to earn anyone’s respect. His deliverance would be satisfactory to many parties.
At length, the snores fell into a regular pattern, broken intermittently with a few snorts. Very soon, Melvin would reach the plateau that would herald deep sleep. Unless of course, there was something or someone to sabotage that...
Aldernon rapped at Jordan’s door quietly. Their conversation was non-verbal. A few brief nods, and a suggestive wink by Aldernon in the direction of Melvin’s door, which had been left slightly ajar. He crossed the hallway in three exaggerated steps, paused at the doorway for a split second, before raising his leg and kicking open the door. The effect was instantaneous, and somewhat tragic, and yet, revealing.
A scream came from within, high pitched, almost feminine. This was followed by a series of blurted words that Jordan couldn’t figure out. By this time, Aldernon was inside the room. All that Jordan could see was the movement of shadows in the grey light. He heard a scuffle, another burst of high-pitched squeals. A growl, Aldernon: “Get up!”
There was a thud. Jordan presumed that Aldernon had grabbed the boy and dragged him out of his bed. He took a few steps closer, curiosity compelling him to cross the corridor to take a peek. Then, Melvin shouted once more, his words freezing Jordan half way across the hallway.
“The assassin Maurice Jordan is next door! He means to slay the King!”
Jordan felt his breath catch in his throat as a sickly, churning sensation gripped his guts. He was prepared to accept Melvin’s role as a scapegoat in the plan
(the plan first, the plan last)
simply as a means to an end. But with that last shrieked sentence, following Belsair’s prediction to the letter, Jordan realised it was much more than a mere matter of survival for Melvin to take the fall. It went far beyond Jordan’s personal existence; a novice like Melvin endangered the whole Black Hood core.
Heat flushed through his body. Anger. He looked down, saw that his hands had bunched into tight fists. It took all of his willpower to unclench them, and yet more willpower to not follow Aldernon into that room and kick three shades of shit through Melvin. Instead, he counted to ten under his breath and progressed to the entrance in slow, measured steps.
By this time, Aldernon had Melvin pinned against the wall by the throat. His face was inches from Melvin’s, a mask of fury made grotesque by the shadows that half-hid his features. Even in profile, Jordan could see Aldernon’s eyes were concentrated slits, could see the way his mouth curled into a ferocious sneer.
“Go on,” he spat, voice inflected with venom. “Squeal like a little bitch.”
Melvin shuddered, his breathing nothing more than a series of hitching coughs similar to hiccups. His eyes were closed, squeezed shut, his lips pressed together so that they formed a thin pencil line across his mouth. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, reflecting like glistening pearls in the pale light.
“Nothing else to say?” Aldernon enquired. He angled his head slightly, peering at Melvin as if the boy were some species of bug trapped under a magnifying glass. Even half masked in shadow, the look of contempt was evident. Aldernon squeezed the hand constricting Melvin’s throat tighter and repeated his question. “Nothing else to say?”
“No!” Melvin gurgled. “No!” His hands weakly reached out to try and wrest Aldernon’s away from his throat, but no matter how hard Melvin squeezed, he simply lacked the strength to dislodge that manacle.
Aldernon gave one last mighty squeeze so that Melvin choked for air. His eyes snapped open, fixed blindly at first onto Aldernon’s. Recognition hit in an instant. Jordan saw the exact moment in the slow motion afforded to onlookers witnessing an intense event. Melvin’s eyes bulged, before his pupils narrowed, fixing on the man who pinned him to the wall. His shoulders sagged. Indeed, had Aldernon not been holding him upright, he’d have collapsed to the floor like a bundle of rags.
“Aye,” Aldernon growled. “Aye, look into my eyes and see who I am. See very clearly. Know that you have been called out and found wanting. I could kill you now. My actions would be justified. But I won’t. Alas, you are still useful, despite your... shortcomings.”
Aldernon glared at the boy for a few seconds more, pinning him to the wall with such a look of scorn that even Melvin, stupid misguided gutter rat that he was, dropped his gaze. He let go of the boy’s throat with a snort of derision and turned away. “Get your shit together,” he said. “You have ten minutes to meet as at the rendezvous point. If you’re late you will be left behind. If I learn that you’ve deserted us, I will personally track you down and open your throat.” He paused for a split second, and just as Felipe Belsair had cause to do the first night he made Melvin’s acquaintance, said: “A bit old to be wielding that child’s pig-sticker, aren’t you?”
Melvin gasped, and the knife he’d clutched for when Aldernon turned away dropped with a clatter to the floor. Aldernon shook his head slowly, snorted once more, then pushed his way out of the door. He paused to exchange another conspiratorial wink with Jordan, before stalking away.
Inside the room, utterly defeated, Melvin slid down the wall into a squat. Seconds later, he began to sob.