Rain ran off the top left corner of the crate. Jack reached over, cupped his hands beneath the runoff, and filled them with water. He brought his hands to his mouth, slurped some of it up, then used the rest to wash his face. The cool water helped clear his head.
The thunder rumbled then crashed mightily. It echoed on the air. The sound faded away after a few moments and was replaced by complete silence. Then...
Silence again. Jack thought the sound to be his imagination. He brought his knees to his chest and wrapped his blanket around them. Chin on his knees, he closed his eyes, hoping to doze off.
He thought of how he would obtain breakfast the following morning. He might find some change on the cobbles. Some usually could be found in front of the Ten Bells, the change having spilled out of the pockets of the drunkards as they stumbled along home. He might need to go into town, where it wasn't as poor, and beg. He hated having to do that. All Londoners stuck up their noses when an unfortunate from the East End bothered them for money.
"We'll see," he said.
Clik-clakity-clak-clak. Clik-clakity-clak-clak. It was like two sticks tapping against each other.
His eyes shot open. This time he knew it wasn't his imagination. He inched his way to the edge of the opening of the crate and peered both ways up the alley.
No one was there.
"Bugger," he said. Whoever's doin' that oughtta let up an' lemme sleep!
He leaned against the inside of the crate and closed his eyes. The rain was letting up though it still kept a steady drumbeat against his roof. He was glad he was indoors ... in a manner of speaking. There was a time when on rainy nights he didn't have anywhere to go and had to brave the weather by cramming himself up against door frames or steps partly covered by an awning, just to keep relatively dry. He was glad he had found this crate and that Mr. Harris was so hospitable in letting him use his alley.
The night wore on.
Clik-clakity-clak-clak. Clik-clakity-clak-clak. Clik-clakity-clak-clak.
Jack snarled. "That does it!" He threw back his blanket, crawled out of his crate and quickly got to his feet.
The alley was bare of any life. Just a few trash cans, some litter, and puddles twinkling in the lamplight.
"Who's there?" he called. No one answered.
The thunder rumbled but didn't crash. The rain had eased even more, just dribbling now.
With a huff, Jack went back into the crate and pulled a cigarette out of a beat up old pack from his breast pocket. He pulled a match out of the other breast pocket and struck it against the crate's sharp wooden corner. He lit his cigarette and tossed the match in a puddle not far from him. It went out with a fitsz.
As he drew heavily on the cigarette, the sound returned.
A thud on Jack's roof. Empty and hollow; thick-soled boots on wood. It was above him, whatever it was. He wanted to get out of the crate and see what caused the noise but, heart suddenly pounding, something told him he shouldn't. He decided to wait.
Silence. Silence for an eternity. Was it still there? Whatever it was? It could have been something that had fallen off old Mr. Harris's roof and landed on the crate. His crate was right up against the brick and mortar. It surely was possible.
He dragged on his cigarette, the sizzling sound of its cherry burning away at the paper and tobacco somewhat soothing.
A dull thud, but not as loud as before. Movement. Something was up there.
Jack tucked in his legs and inched his bottom along the inside of the crate so he was against the far wall. Another thud and then a splash as whatever it was jumped off his roof and landed in the puddle beside the crate. Clak-sploosh!
A cat? Maybe. Cats were common in the alleys. But a cat doesn't wear thick-soled boots. So Jack waited, listened, wanting to see if any more sounds would come. Then...
Clik-clakity-clak-clak. A pause. Then another clik-clakity-clak-clak.
Jack put the remainder of his cigarette out on the worn sole of his right shoe and crawled to the crate's entrance. His heart thumped rapidly in his chest.
Clik-clakity-clak-clak. Clik-clakity-clak-clak. Clik-clakity-clak-clak. It was moving around.
He swallowed a hard lump in his throat, like a small stone. He could almost hear it splash as it hit the rain water in his stomach. There was a tickle in his throat and he coughed. His palm immediately shot to his lips, too late to conceal the sound.
A footstep on the cobbles.
Jack breathed heavily through his nose. The tickle was still there and he so badly wanted to clear it. And he did. He couldn't help himself. The phlegm rising then settling in his throat suddenly seemed loud in the dead air.
Play it safe, he told himself. You'll wind up buggered, if ya don'.
He peered through a crack in the wood beside him. There wasn't enough light to see anything. All he could see was a smudge of black and a little of the brown of the wet street. Even the light from the street lamp at the end of the alleyway was dim.
"Hmph," he whispered.
For a long time there wasn't any more clacking. The only sound was the runoff water finding its way down the storm drains and to the puddles on the streets.
Gathering his courage, he crawled out of the crate.
A man was beside it.
The man wore a top hat; no hair, just skin so thin you could see the bone underneath. His eyes were enormous, round, bugging out of his head. The irises were as black as charcoal and surrounded by a thin ring of white. He wore a torn tuxedo, the bow tie untied and hanging unevenly around his neck. The cummerbund that looked to be once bright red was now a tarnished maroon, as if it had been covered in dirt for a hundred years and only recently recovered. Curls of smoke drifted faintly from the man's ears, as if his insides were on fire. And there, held in his right hand, hanging casually at his side, was an ax.