This short story just wrote itself in my head while I was doing something entirely different, so I suppose I might as well let it out. Run free, little story!

What do you do when you’re trapped in a town run by a crook and ruled at its heart by fear? Even if he funds the roads and the schools and all the other public services, if this was a real town (shocker: nothing here is real), I really wouldn’t want to live there.

I won’t give out names. It’s probably not a good idea. Let’s just say that I live in a smallish town, not big enough to be a city, not so small that everyone knows everyone. So you can end up pretty alone, if you keep to yourself.

Let me just add that that’s a really bad idea.

The other important thing about this town is that it’s run by the Mob. They own it lock, stock, and barrel. Someone like me pretty much exists on sufferance. If I don’t look into their business, they’ll probably keep out of mine. If.

If I told you how we got here, this would be a much longer story. Suffice to say that I ended up standing pretty much square face to face with the boss. Everyone knows who he is, of course. We don’t see him, he’s got better things to do than walk the streets with us everyday citizens, but everyone knows, and nobody can touch him. So I knew just how in over my head I was.

He was pointing a gun at me at that point. I didn’t have much I could do about it, my hands were far too far away from anything I definitely wasn’t carrying. I just put them up and backed away real slow.

“You’re trouble, Miss River,” he told me. “You don’t follow the rules.”

Which was true. My code doesn’t include bowing down to a mob boss, not even the one who founded my hometown, even if half the population think he’s the best thing since sliced bread. Not thinking he’s the best thing since sliced bread is one of the grounds for ending up shot, after all.

“What can I say?” I shrugged. “I’m contrary like that.” I shouldn’t have been running my mouth, but the adrenaline and sudden utter certainty of my own impending doom combined in a really horrible way.

“Clearly.” He wasn’t impressed. “I’ll give you one last chance, Miss River. Or I can take you out, and everyone associated with you, until there’s no-one left who even knows your name.”

It wasn’t an idle threat. The Gent generally follows through on things like this, and he’s a sadistic scumbag to boot. One who employs a lot of other sadistic scumbags to be sure things get done. But I saw motion off to one side, coming up along the wall, and this stupid spark of hope lit up for a moment.

“It won’t get you anything,” I said. “You know they’ll do whatever you say. I mean, you do better by just killing me, right?” That movement was getting a lot closer now, in the shadows by the wall, and then my heart sank. I could have used just about anything, but here was the Gent’s own son, James, who I’d met before I knew who his father was. Most people knew the kid existed, but nothing about him, and a lot of people secretly hoped that having a kid would humanise him, but fat chance. That leopard wasn’t going to change his spots.

“Then you’ve still got more people, you know, serving you. They’re too scared to do anything else.” I took another slow step backwards. Maybe I could get closer to cover and drag this out for another minute or two. Seconds get really precious when you don’t think you have many of them left. “There’s no need for all that destruction. Really.”

“Ah, but if I only killed you, who’s ever going to know? No, Miss River, there has to be an example. An eye for an eye, if you like, and you’ve done more than enough to me and mine.”

That gun barrel looked like it was going to swallow me up.

“It’s a shame you won’t change your mind. I always do say I give everyone a chance.”

Some chance, I thought, but before I could even open my big mouth I saw the tiny little twitch. The Gent had amazing reflexes, way out of my league, and I heard the bang in the same moment. There was a blur across my vision, something that’d reacted even faster than he had, and I was still standing up, and someone else was on the floor. To my utter shock, it looked like James.

Well, shit.

He and I knelt by the body, which was the strangest and most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I wasn’t going to ignore a dying man and apparently neither was he. James muttered “Father?”, and the Gent bent over him, then looked up at me with the stone face of a millennia-old warlord.

“Get out, Miss River. Someone had to die today, and my boy just bought your life. But remember this: in the end, everything you have is because of me. You remember my boy, and you remember what you owe me, and you beg me to forgive you.” He looked away from me as though I didn’t exist. I’d just dropped beneath his notice again, an insect to be forgotten. I turned around and ran.

Of course, James didn’t die. He recovered from a debilitating attack of appendicitis, apparently. By that wonderful magic of complicit news editors, there were no bullets involved. I heard one of his bodyguards, presumably the one who’d been on duty at the time, committed suicide in a rather unfortunate and inventive fashion, and somehow I didn’t believe that story either. I’m not even sure I believe James’ story, that he cared about my life.

So here I am, staring into the bottom of this drink and about to order another one, and then probably another after that, and then those drinks are going to get together and invite a few friends to their party, and for a while, it’ll all be good. You see, if I take up that offer, that’s it. I can kiss my sense of justice goodbye. I don’t care that the Gent made this place back in the day, I don’t care that he claims to run it for our benefit – and if he did, he could do a damn sight better. I don’t know whether or not I should care that James tried to help me, because I don’t know whether the whole thing was just staged. I do know that if I bow down, I’ll lose something. I won’t be able to get it back. And I’ll be just as complicit in all this injustice as everyone else around me who sings the Gent’s praises, whether willingly or out of fear.

We shouldn’t have to live like that, under the thumb of some tyrannical overlord. Nobody should. The downside is, if you go up against the Gent… well, you’re going to lose. Then you die, at best. Or, you get to live a really long time, in some forgotten basement where nobody can hear you scream. There’s always rumours about that one. Technically, I don’t think the Gent has ever confirmed or denied them. He hardly needs to.

I drink my next glass, and my next, and I’m still going through the motions, but I know I’ve already made the decision. Even if nobody else will and even if it’s going to get me killed, horribly, I’ve got to stand up to him. Or what’s being a person even for?