Monday, February 13, 2012

Chuck Wendig's Unlikeable Protagonist Challenge

This time, the challenge is to make a an unlikable character that can still pull you into a story.
The Cost of Living

How much is a human life worth? Some people say there’s no way to measure it. They’re wrong. I usually get about twenty bucks for one. That’s how much goes missing as they bleed out in an alley. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

It usually happens like this. I track the mark for a bit. They walk with their head down and close to the buildings. They’re a lot like roaches or rats that way. They’re afraid of the street, so they hug the shadows where the real danger lurks. They keep their heads down to avoid eye contact staying blind to danger.

When I strike, I jerk them into an alley or come across the sidewalk from behind a parked van. Either way they end up in the alley, back against the wall staring down at the knife. Crying. Not all cry, but the ones that do don’t usually live. If I need to cut them, I leave the knife behind. I carry two. If I get caught at the scene, the knife I have won’t match, and works as an alibi. Who would carry two?

Why not a gun? People see guns as either or. There’s no middle ground. That’s because most people only know about them from television. People see a gun and they think it goes off then they either get hit and die, or it misses and they live until the next shot. Half the time, they try for it because they think there is no way out.

People see a knife and they can’t help but think back to the last time they cut themselves. The little tug on the skin as the blade grabs hold. The jolt as it finally slices through and slides along, parting the skin and exposing the nerves to the air. Then comes the pain. Intense at first, almost like burning. After a second, if they keep calm, it goes numb unless they move it or open the wound more. Nearly everyone knows those sensations. They may not realize they know them, but they do. Guns scare people. Knives terrify them.

Once in the alley, I make my demands. Cash. That’s all. Credit cards get cancelled too fast anymore and it’s too easy to get caught with them. The same goes for watches and jewelry. I get caught with a ladies watch engraved with “To my darling Christine” on the back, I may as well confess. No one autographs a twenty.

A guy with less than twenty bucks in his wallet will hand it over and see his family that night. A guy with more thinks he can beat the blade. One day, one will. One day someone will be packing a gun and looking like a target on purpose. But, it won’t be tonight.

Tonight’s mark is a woman about five-four with light brown hair and wearing a little black dress and heels. Club girls carry cash for tips and the cab home if there’s none on the dresser, but you have to get them early.

She gets out of the cab and moves against the wall. I cross the street to hide behind a delivery van parked beside a flower shop. At night, the plate glass is like a mirror. I can watch them coming and time it exactly right.

She gets closer and I feel the surge in the pit of my stomach. It will take less than a second to get her into the shadows, five more to get the cash, whether she struggles or not, and ten seconds after that I’ll be just another face in the crowd. A face no one looks at because eye contact can get you killed.

One step away I make my move. I rush in and shove her shoulder with my left hand. She staggers on those stupid heels and falls to the sidewalk. I’m not in the alley and people look. For that brief instant, they see me. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I apologize to her and help her up. I tell her I slipped off the curb and she seems to buy it. The people go about their business and I grab her from behind and throw her into the shadow. One second I’m there and the next I’m not. Five hundred people in sight and not one sees a thing. I love this city.

I pull the knife from under my jacket and her eyes grow wide. I tell her any sound she makes will cost her a life and I gesture for the purse. She tosses it further into the alley, just like they say to do. Crime experts see us as nothing more than dogs foraging for scraps. I don’t fetch.

I shoot out my hand and grab her by her poofed-up hair. I drag her further into the shadow on her hands and knees and tell her to find that purse and hand it to me like a good girl.

She crawls along and I hear the crying start. Shit. I like this knife.

I feel her stop and she mumbles “Here. Here it is, I’ve got it.”

I stop pulling her and let go of her hair. She stands up and hands me the purse with her left hand. I reach for it with my left and for an instant, it’s like we’re shaking hands.

Her shoulders shift and I feel a tug at my stomach. The tug jolts free and I feel the smooth slide of a blade slipping through my belly and into my liver. She backs away and I fall to the ground. I see her silhouette exit the alley and turn to the right. I feel for the knife in my gut and pull it out.

In what little light there is, I recognize it. It’s the one I left behind the last time I used this alley. Cops missed it. Slackers.

Warm blood flows into my lap. Or I’ve pissed myself.

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