Tales of the grim

Short Stories of the Sedisverse

I – Growth

by Benjamin Maunder

 

Henry lowered himself into the darkness, the thin rays of sunlight punching through the smog of London barred from him by the thick iron of the manhole cover. With a grimace he carefully took each rung of the ladder, testing to ensure their sturdiness before placing his full weight on the decades old metalwork. The ever present stench of London’s waste assailed him with inescapable vigor with each labored step.

He had no doubt in his mind that his boss had singled him out for this, the bastard. No one liked pulling duty in ‘The Gates’, sordid little hole that it was. Feeling solid concrete underfoot he breathed a sigh of relief, quickly rejecting the filth that hung to the air with a labored cough. With fumbled half-blind motions he pulled the worn out re-breather over his jaw, replacing the air with a more filtered variation, a damn sight cleaner, but no amount of filters could remove the taste.

A powerful light sprung into life, causing darkness, as well as the rats that hid within, to flee from its gaze. Henry brought it close to his eyes, double checking the batteries. Satisfied with the healthy green glow blinking from its energy bar he cast a large arc through the tunnel. ‘The Gates’ had a notorious homeless problem and it was far too common of an occurrence for the disenfranchised to lurk in the warmer alcoves of the tunnels. It hadn’t been too long since a maintenance worker had been on the business end of a jagged liquor bottle, a memory that caused him to affectionately pat the stab vest covering his ample frame.

 

“Anyone there?” Henry spoke with a voice that portrayed confidence, but did not enforce it. Letting the words hang in the air for a few seconds he waited, half ready to bolt to the ladder once more. Thankfully, no response came, he was unsure if this reassured him or not.

 

The crackle of static crept into life, a tinny voice calling out from Henry's’ hip, the shock of the sound running a chill though his body.

 

“Hen'? You down there yet man?” The voice was one he recognized, Harry, another maintenance worker and old friend. Sparing a moment to chastise himself for being so easily scared Henry unhooked the receiver from his belt and brought it to his lips, pushing an exasperated burst of air from his lungs as he did so.

 

“Hey Harry, you scared the crap outta’ me buddy.” The re-breather served to punctuate his point as it extenuated each gasping breath.

 

“Heh, yeah I’ll do that.” Shaking himself sensible Henry started walking, damp footsteps echoing in the near silence as he moved. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen the blockage yet?”

 

“Give me a break, I just got down here.” Continuing to assault the darkness with the torch Henry cut his way through the tunnel, taking the first right he came to and silently praying he was still alone. “I’m as eager to get out of here as anyone, probably more.”

 

“Yeah…” Henry could almost see Harry nodding as he leaned back in the air conditioned office, with a hot cup of tea happily steaming in hand. Envy was a powerful motivator, he picked up the pace. “Well I’m looking at the readout here and it should be coming from Junction 32-J, just head over and sort it, then you’ll be back up here with the rest of us surface dwellers.”

 

“As long as I don’t get stabbed first.”

 

“Hey man, chill, that was a one in a million chance.” Wrinkling his nose in agreement Henry stepped over a small patch of mushrooms that were peeking out of a crack on the floor. Accidentally catching his heel on one and crushing it under foot, the raw pulp causing him to wobble and steady himself on the wall.

 

“Shit.” His heart skipping a beat, a startled chuckle rang through the re-breather.

 

“Henry? You okay bud?” Actual concern, which was a nice change of pace, Henry, looked back to the fungus behind him, the surviving mushrooms silently quivered in his wake.

 

“Yeah, just tripped.” Readjusting himself he headed off again. “Any word on Mike by the way? I heard the cut was pretty deep.”

 

“Oh.” An audible sip could be made out, the phantom of a memory passed through Henry, holding his London FC mug at home. “Last I heard he was getting out of the Hospital soon, ‘cording to Bill he’s healed up pretty quick.”

 

“Good, we’ll have to grab a drink when he’s discharged, blame him for the new gear…” Stopping Henry illuminated a nearby map attached to the wall, damp had claimed the majority of the old paper, but it was still legible. A thick layer of fungi had claimed a portion of it, eating away at what little remained. Regarding it with a raised brow he continued on his way.

 

“Not far from the blockage now, how big do you think it’ll be?” What passed as a disinterested mumble was the only comeback Harry offered, causing a tired sigh. “Well as long as I can deal with it no…” Henry cut himself off as the searchlight ran over a silhouette, a small figure that jutted from the edge of the next bend, a single unmoving foot, bare and caked in the filth of the city.

 

“For god’s sake.” Stopping in place he quickly ran the light across the length of the tunnel, searching for any further signs of life.

 

“What? You fall in?” Henry edged forward, curiosity mixing with apprehension with each step.

 

“No, I think there’s a drunk down here.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah man.. just, Oi!” Henry rounded the corner, bringing his flash-light to bear on what he hoped to be a harmless drunk. Though what greeted him tore the air from his lungs, shock pulling him to the edge of the walkway. As he had expected, the figure that lay against the wall was, at some point, human. Now only a putrid and near desiccated corpse leered at him, the half-light of the redirected torch flinging a horrific shadow across the wall, bathing yet more gently pulsating mushrooms in darkness.

 

Stifling a scream Henry pulled the torch back to encapsulate the husk, forcing him to stare with unblinking eyes at the figure before him. The body lay in an enveloping bed of fungi; a hundred quivering black capped mushrooms had pushed through paper-thin skin, dotting his form. Thick white tendrils of mycelium grasped out from the liquid waste below, wrapping around his other exposed leg, small bulges of flesh identifying where they began invading the body.

 

Harry’s voice called out from the receiver, breaking for instants to shout to unseen men and women on the end of the line. Henry was deaf to this, his entire consciousness dragged into focus on the sight in front of him. On the gaping hole that had been rent from the meat of the once man, on the necromantic rise and fall of a dead things chest.

 

Bile flooded into his mouth, filling the re-breather and choking him. Panic returned movement to his limbs and he clumsily struggled with the straps of his mask, both his light and the receiver abandoned to the darkness in the heat of the moment. The cascading beam of light revealed an extending mass of mushrooms, they stretched across the length and breadth of the tunnel, transforming it into a gruesome mockery of some faraway jungle.

 

The re-breather fell from his face, tumbling into the slurry, a sucking pop as it broke the surface. Spluttering, Henry voided himself onto the floor, his mouth filling with the taste of the death, tears gathering on the edge of his vision. With what sight he had he looked to his torch, gaze following its glaring path and falling upon another set of bodies that twitched beneath the webs of mycelium that claimed the area.

 

Planting both hands on the floor Henry collapsed to his knees, his mind futilely trying to rationalize the situation. The sane part of his consciousness screaming at him to run, to turn and flee back to the relative safety of the light above, but terror had dulled him, years of sloth had slowed him and an easy life had not prepared him for the harsh reality of this moment.

 

A ripple played across the sewage, an almost inaudible rattle filled the silence.

 

Henry snapped back into sentience, deaths cold hand lingering on his shoulder. With a stolen glance to his side he looked to the corpse, finding his gaze returned by unseeing eyes. Panicked he scrambled forward, overlong fingernails digging into the fauna and tearing damp moss from the ground.

 

The rattle intensified a bleak shape broke the water’s surface, slowly rising behind him.

 

The torch returned to hand, fat uncoordinated fingers pulled at it, struggling as an unseen force resisted him. Exposed flesh on his ankles tingled as the cool touch of plant matter wormed across it, grasping upwards through the loose cloth of his trousers, seeking a warmer place to settle.

 

Wet sounds of moving moss joined the rattle, cracking of long inert bones and the displacement of water melded together, a sickening mixing of life where none should lie.

 

With a final victorious tug Henry freed the light, thin white lines of mycelium hung from the plastic as he turned it on himself, exposing the darkness, exposing the horrors that were best left to the shadows.

 

All around him the necrotic amalgamation’s of man and fungi had peeled from their creeping deathbeds. Decomposing muscle and broken bones propelling them forward with shambling steps and terrifying direction, eyeless sockets locked in his path. Not just men, but rats and other rodents tore from the fungal flesh of the walls, each one a living hive of rattling mushrooms and single minded purpose.

 

In their midst though, a thing that defied the logic of nature loomed, brown capped and covered in the excrement from which it rose. Featureless apart from for a single fleshy stinger that flailed mindlessly before it, each vile movement heralding another burst of rattling. This fungal mass, pale white and pulpy, slid towards Henry, its speed dwarfing the aberrations that joined it’s advance.

 

Henry tried to pull his gaze from it; it’s every twitching movement demanding his adrenaline filled senses full attention. He tried to move, to flee, but the roots had wormed into the meat of his legs, penetrating deep and worming into his muscles. Pain coursed through him and all he could do was whimper in fear, the terrible mass gaping from the water, great droplets of filth crashing to the ground as it approached.

 

A stinger snapped outwards, catching the light and ripping it from Henry's grip. The heavy duty flash-light fell impotently into the sewage, the steady beam falling for one final time on Henry's quivering body as the aberration raised its stinger.

 

The light was sucked into the darkness, there was no final scream. Just a single wet thud, as the rattling ceased.

 

In the tunnels, life always flourishes.

II – The Pit

By Benjamin Maunder

 

It's funny what desperation will do to a person. The lengths we as a species will go to ensure our own survival. A starving man, left with no other option may choose to dine on the meat of another; a poor one may commit basest murder to claim even the most meagre of earnings.

I have seen desperation bring men to perform great evils, I have been one of those men more times than I dare to think. But these increasing acts of base defilement have been what kept me alive, there's no room for heroes in the Gates.

 

That's why I'm here, ankle deep in the filth of a ring, staring down with 250 pounds of pure dumb muscle, all the while fool's and criminals cry for blood around me. I wish I could claim I'm fighting for a noble cause. That people are depending on me to win, but the truth of the matter is much simpler, I need a drink and his blood'll pay my tab.

 

Adrenaline pumps through my veins, heavy humid air fills my lungs and the announcers dulcet tones beat at my eardrums.

 

“Tonight Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a treat for you!” He's a small man, plump, never missed a meal in his life. “Two of the most brutal combatants to ever grace our dank little hole stand ready for your amusement!” A single sausage like finger jabs in my direction, the crowd roars with delight as a spotlight rounds to me. “To my right stands one Mr. Thomas! Ready to bathe himself in battle once more for your enjoyment!” More screams of rampant blood-lust fill the air. Overfed hands wrap about my wrist and raise it into the sky, another volley of roars. Damn animals.

 

“And to my left stands his competitor, all the way from Snowy Siberia, Mr. Kriznev!” The Russian lumbers from the shadows, a guttural noise emanates from the mass of broken teeth one would call a mouth. Beady, bloodshot eyes dart across me, snapping about as a thin line of drool works its way to the earth. A lovely sight.

 

“So, with our modern gladiators introduced. I feel no need to delay the festivities any longer!” The announcer trots past me, a knowing wink passed in my direction, a snide comment hidden under laboured breath. I offer a sneer in response.

 

“Place your bets!” A snap of steel as the gate closes, the resounding din of iron on copper as the bell rings. My foe springs forward like a starving wolf, hands bared as claws, gleeful mania in his eyes. This is where Harvard gets you these days.

 

I throw myself to the side, narrowly avoiding a raking blow and he stumbles forward. His reactions are slower than expected, must be a tweaker. That's an advantage. I push off from the cage, greedy fingers worm through the chain link and scrape at my bare flesh as I move. The Russian catches his balance, rounding on me as I plant a boot into his exposed stomach; his maniac grin tells me he didn't feel it. A curse passes my lips as he grips my leg and pulls.

 

The world careens as a solid backhand finds my face; the screams of the crowd are blotted out by snapping cartilage. I reel back, vision blurred and unable to stop the charge that barrels me to the filth encrusted floor. A furious blur delivers a blow to my ribs, more bone cracks, fortunately the pain killers flowing through me dulls the pain to an angry ache. Then sight returns, I see his leering features inches from mine as he reaches for my neck. I bring my forehead to his nose in response, my turn to break something.

 

Blood spurts across my forehead and into my vision, he shouts out in pain and shifts his weight. Teeth gritting I push through the pain and tear him from my chest, pushing him to the filthy earth and wrenching myself to my feet. Red fills my right eye, my left is bludgeoned shut, and I can only hope it isn't ruptured. Around me well dressed animals scream and snort in derision, wads of paper change hands as bets rise and fall. A low, fury filled groan snaps my attention back, the Russian took the blow worse than expected, he squirms across the floor, blood and mud mingling about him. Best not to let him up, give him another shot. It's not the most entertaining way to win, but these clowns can rot before I start caring about that.

 

My fingers wrap into matted hair and I yank him to his feet, rounding my fist into his face, focusing as much force as I can muster into the crater he once claimed as a nose. More blood, now red is all I see.

 

A wild blow flies from his right, I take hold of his furled fist mid swing, twisting, bringing my own into his elbow. Crunch.

 

I push him back down, peeling his forearm back with me; I hear the bone snap back upon itself.

“Merc..!” His cry is cut short as I wrap my arm about his neck. Thick pulsating muscles resist me, his pulse matches mine. I squeeze.

 

Red.

 

Screams.

 

Red.

 

Roars.

 

Red.

 

Snap.

 

Red.

 

Black.

 

Time becomes fragmented when you lose consciousness. Memories shatter and become a puzzle you can't piece back together. I remember the blood, the pain, the feeling of his pulse increasing and raised voices bellowing at me. Then it all vanishes, a snapping blow to my skull robs me of my lucidity.

 

Now I can feel myself moving, not of my own volition, grime and filth pass through my hair and I feel the cold granite floor on the flesh of my head. Shadowed figures surround me as I move, blurring into one another as their cacophonous wailing becomes so much white noise. Yet one voice stands out amongst them, one I recognize, a friend.

 

“Haynes, we need you as soon as possible. He's fucked up, pissed off the wrong...” Darkness reclaims me, that viscous and uncaring abyss. It's cold.

 

I feel water on my face, leaking across my lips and mixing into my blood stained beard, I try to drink but my jaw refuses to move. Broken. I can feel bone grind on bone; it would be agony if not for the painkillers.

 

“Hang in there Elliott...” I'm trying. Darkness returns. Embracing me as a brother, a long lost friend, there's little I can do to reject it. I can only wait.

 

There are more sounds, echoing through the fog. Glasses meeting one another in celebration. The dulcet tone of a ringing bell. The howling masses calling for more blood. The forced joy of prostitutes, mixed with the sickening grunts of their clientèle. All forming together, creating the hollow song of the Pits. Southgate’s own little slice of hell.

 

Light. Glaring and harsh. The world tears back into focus and the first thing I see are headlights. I'm leaning against a wall, soaked to the bone by heavy, biting rain. Blood, mine or the Russians pools by my hand, washing away into the drains.

 

“We are taking him with us.” Three men stand in the rain; one is small, frail, clutching a glowing phone in defiant grip. The others tower over him, veritable giants in comparison. I can't make out any faces; the only light here is the car to their backs.

 

“Why? Who the hell are you?” I recognize the voice, Michael, my manager. He must have dragged me out of the ring, into the rain... why?

 

“Roach wants to see him.” Roach? Name rings a bell, don't know why. Either way, I need to move, get away. I grope in the shadows, grasping for something to hold to, brick, stone. Voices rise, Mike is arguing, fighting, I pull myself to my feet, barely able to sustain my own weight.

 

“The Gregory’s got their cut!” I glance over; he seems so small compared to them. “Why do they want Elliott? Do they want more? Tell me!” One nods at the other, the over-sized shadows of his arms reach out and encapsulate Mike, wrapping about him like the chains. I try to shout out but only manage a gurgled mess, my shattered jaw showing its worth.

 

“Why don't you just stay there with Petar for a moment, easier that way.” It begins to advance, ploughing through the rain towards me. Fight or flight, fight, always fight, you lose when you show your back. I steady myself on the wall, aching bones screaming at me to drop, to let what will happen, happen. A torch bursts into life, robbing me of a moment’s sight.

 

“You, come with me. Quickly now, I forgot my umbrella.” I spit a garbled curse through the ruins of my mouth. Slapping away his encroaching hand as he reaches for me, the minute reserves of energy I hold failing quickly. I feel myself slipping even now. The moment I buy myself is wasted as he simply returns the blow, straight to my gut.

 

Air flees my body and I double over, any other day I could have stopped that. What's wrong with me? What did they hit me with in the ring? Another strike to my back fells me, discarding me into the rainwater. A stabbing pain awaits me as a broken bottle cushions my fall, tearing into the meat of my arm. A foot rests on my back.

 

“Damn junkies. They always make it harder than it needs to be.” I can hear Mike shouting out; I can hear the clicking of a gun. I can tell that the bullet isn't for me. Mike has kids, a wife, people who would miss him.

 

“Get up Mr. Thomas, time to go.” I'm hoisted up, fat, well fed hands grip into the ragged jacket on my skin. Even through the rain I smell the stench of expensive cologne, the lingering odor of cigar smoke. The cool metal barrel presses against my side and his torch shows Mike on his knees, a shining iron to the base of his skull.

 

“You have an appointment with your betters.”

 

A single hand to my back, a push.

 

The shard of glass in hand bites into my fingers, freeing droplets of blood to run about it. The reek of copper and opulence fills my nostrils.

 

I see red.

 

The glass sings through the cool night air.

 

A man screams.

 

A gun fires.

 

Another scream..

 

Red.

 

Silence.

 

Sirens.

III – First Response

By Benjamin Maunder

 

James was aware of two constant truths in his life. The first; Francesca made the best coffee this side of the Thames. The second: there was nothing people wouldn't say to save their own skin. They would beg, barter and steal if they think it will keep them on the right side of the bars, in the good graces of those higher on the ladder.

As he stood in the observation room he reminded himself of these facts. They always proved far more reliable than the testimony of whomever was about to be unceremoniously deposited into the next room. James sipped at the warm brown swill an intern had left for him, mentally running through the check-list of excuses he was expecting to hear within the next five minutes.

A sharp rap on the door pulls his attention, before he can call out it is pushed open as a bearded man carefully manoeuvres past the weighty wooden frame, two steaming cups in hand.

“Evening Haynes.”

“Burdock. You know you're late right?” Detective Burdock shrugged, kicking the door shut behind him and offering Haynes one of the cups.

“Well partner, I was on my way down...”

“And some pretty young thing stopped you, just had to have your number?” Haynes sniffed the cups contents, it was a little light for his taste.

“Exactly.” Burdock chuckled, taking a sip and cringing at the heat. “So, what'd I miss?” James slid the dossier across the deck in his partners direction, who regarded it for a second before flinging himself into a nearby seat.

“Nothing then?” James inclined his head to the side, looking through the one way glass into the interrogation cell next door. “What did they do?” Burdock continued, blowing vigorously into his cup.

“Breaking and entering.” The cup joined the mug on the table as James tried to recall the file notes. “From what we can tell she's a low level Gregory, let herself into a bar on the lower east docks.”

“Why the hell do we have her down here then? B&E's Johnson's racket isn't it?” Burdock lent forward in his seat, “The Guv' just trying to keep us busy or something?” Haynes shook his head, revolving on his heel to lean on the desk.

“Not quite, word is she had a run in with our, eccentric friend.” Eccentric was the polite way of saying freak. Regardless of the phrasing, Burdock knew full well which friend James was talking about, it was enough for him to drain the cup in a few aggravated gulps.

“You mean the clown in the hazard suit?”

“Aye.”

“Well, ain't that a peach.” Burdock sighed, slapping his knees and standing. “Don't suppose they can give us a name?” Raising and lowering his eyebrows with a severe lack of reassurance James inclined his shoulders.

“That, would be far too useful. Sadly, Christmas is quite a time away.” A light flicked on in the other room, causing the two detectives to glance inside. “Suppose we can at least ask though.” The heavy steel door beyond opened, two uniformed officers escorting a young, slightly bedraggled woman strode in. Through a tirade of curses and underpaid labour the two aged men settle her into place, seating her upon a steel chair and attaching her hands into restraints.

Burdock and Haynes watched through the mirror, building initial reactions and taking stock. Even after the officers exited the room her barrage of slurs and unashamed hate refused to halt. Burdock spoke first.

“She seems nice.” He pulled a small silver coin from his pocket, casually spinning it on the desk.

“I'm sure her parents are proud, at the least.” Haynes glanced down at the coin. “Heads.” the spinning silver slowly came to a ringing halt, the flag of the Empire proudly glistening in the reflective light. Burdock swore.

“Bollocks.” He shot a harmless glare at James. “You, are a lucky bastard.” Taking the previously offered cup he turned to leave, scraping up the file in his free hand and clumsily opening the door with an elbow.

“I only gamble when I know I'll win, or with idiot's.” James smiled as the door closed, a silent laugh was returned. Turning back to the window James clicked the recorder on, a soft green glow popping into life. Although not the softest interrogator, Burdock reliably got results. Plus, it was always fun to watch.

The door opened and the barrage started again.

“Who the fuck are you then! Some flatfoot prick with nothing better to do 'ey?” Burdock waded through the insults and casually sat across from her, glancing over the file and sipping at his coffee. James chuckled from behind the mirror as Burdock continued with the cold shoulder, waiting for the girl to wear herself out or annoy him to the point where it loses all comedic value.

It was an interesting game, working out which would happen first. Burdock had finished his coffee before she calmed down, so now she lent back in her chair, fuming whilst he quietly closed the final page on her file.

When she did start talking it took all of five minutes for James to tell she was a dead end. Once Burdock broke through her confrontational attitude she went on about how she only broke in to save her life, that she was running from a burning man. The same nonsense they'd heard a million times over now, it was almost enough to drive the two detectives to desperation.

As Burdock and the girl spoke, James slumped into a chair in Observation, slamming his fist onto the table in impotent anger.

“I just need a hint.” Staring out through the mirror he muttered to an unseen power, or to himself. “Just some sign of who this guy is, what the hell he wants.” There was no unearthly voice to answer his pleas, instead he continued to sit in the dark, listening to the interview going nowhere in the next room.

“Fine then.” Head in his hands, James slowly massaged his temples, fighting the urge to close his eyes and drift into a dreamless sleep. A loud buzzing filled the air, the sound of vibration on wood, peering through parted fingers James looked up to see the bright glow of his phone erupting into the darkened room.

“What now?” With no small effort James roused himself from his seat, passing a quick glance into the room to see Burdock clearly restraining himself as the girl held a look of indignant superiority. A single name encompassed the screen on the small handheld, 'Elliott', James glared at the name for a moment as the phone vibrated across the surface of the desk.

Elliott was an old friend, one who had made a lot of bad choices, one of which had him end up on the streets. He didn't have a phone of his own, didn't like the idea apparently, which is why Haynes gave him one. That was over a year ago and this was the first time he'd ever called.

He picked up the phone.

“Elli...”

“Is this Officer Haynes?” The voice was panicked, hurried and short of breath, more importantly, not one Haynes knew.

“Yes, who is this?” James glanced into the adjacent room once more, ensuring he wasn't being heard.

“It's Mike, Elliott's... come on... Elliott's manager.” James opened his mouth but was cut off, the name rang a bell. “Look, Haynes, we need you as soon as possible. He's fucked up, pissed off the wrong people, the Gregory's are after us!” That sounded about right to Haynes, he grabbed a scrap of paper with his free hand, scribbling a note of absence for Burdock.

“Slow down, slow down, what's happened?” Details, that's what he wanted, the key was always in the details. There was more heavy breathing, the sound of rain and cars.

“Does it matter?” Yes, was the reply he wanted to give. “There are people looking for him, for me... they have guns Haynes, they have guns!” James gritted his teeth, pushing air past his lips in frustration. What in the hell was happening?

“Where are you?” Moving to the door James grabbed his coat, “I'll get there as soon as I can, but you better have some bloody answers when I get there.”

“An alley off Cannon Hill, please hurry!” The line cut out, Haynes pocketed the phone and moved with all speed out of the basement, taking each step two at a time. A million and one scenario's tore through his mind as he bolted through the ground floor of the North London Police Department, pushing past uniform's and walk-in's to a barrage of greetings and complaints.

'How did he get involved with the Gregory's?' That was question one, Elliott was bone headed, stubborn as a bull, but not stupid. No-one gets on the Gregory's bad side in Southgate, it did horrible things to ones' life expectancy. Reaching the Carpool he grabbed his keys, double checked the boot of his vehicle for Ol' reliable and started the car.

Cannon Hill was 15 minutes away with good traffic, 30 to 40 with bad. James slapped the siren on and peeled out of the building. Fortunately the roads were quiet, the sirens ensured that those on the road gave a wide berth to the black Sedan tearing through the streets. Behind the wheel a mix of worry and anger was plastered about Haynes' features.

“The Gregory's... fucking hell Elliott.”

It took 10 minutes for James to screech to a halt on Selborne Road, hurrying from the car he checked his phone and retrieved Ol' reliable. Still loaded, against regulations but it saved time.

Then a gunshot broke through the air.

James ducked on instinct, but the shot had roared from his south. He didn't wait for another and set down the street, bellowing into his ear piece as he did, rain beating a tattoo into his bare head.

“This is Detective Haynes, I have a 444 at Cannon Hill, Southgate! Requesting backup immediately, suspected Gregory activity!” Not waiting for a response he hurried onwards, internally he cursed, knowing he should have called it in earlier.

Another gunshot rang into the night and Haynes broke into a sprint, heaving at the air and a freezing chill tore into his lungs. He rounded into an alley at breakneck speed and stopped in his tracks.

He saw Elliott first.

His childhood friend was stood in the middle of the alley, a bloodied shard of glass glinting in the moonlight held firmly in his grip. His eyes were dead, a vicious snarl bore upon his lips and the form of a much larger man lay motionless behind him, a pool of blood washing away in the rain.

Two men were before him, one small and meek, head buried beneath his hands, the Second was large, stood with smoking gun in hand. Barrel pointed straight at Elliott.

Elliott fell. A blossoming flower of red across his chest. The shard shattered upon the ground.

Ol' Reliable barked, filling the moments silence with the rage of a semi-automatic shotgun.

“Elliott!” James heard the name, but didn't recall saying it as he levelled the gun at Elliott's aggressor, it was time to leave diplomacy to the 12-gauge. The thug reacted as James hoped, he rounded firing, James squeezed the trigger before the pistol had time to come anywhere near him.

The thug pulped as his side erupted from the shot, tumbling to the ground howling in agony. Haynes darted forward, keeping the barrel dialled on him and kicking the pistol into a drain. He kicked the second man, hard enough to cause him to look up through tear choked eyes.

“You Mike?” he spat, scanning the alley for other threats as he spoke.

“H.. Haynes?” Jame's nodded, inclining his head at the reeling Gregory.

“Put pressure on his wound.” He stabbed a finger towards the man and moved before he could get an answer, turning and jogging through the grimy water of the alley to Elliott's side. Discarding his weapon James dropped to a knee, muttering plea's to an unseen force for his friends life.

Elliott lay in a river of blood and filth, the fabric of his clothes dyed a sickly red from the wound at his chest. James put a finger to his throat, a wave of relief washing over him as he found a faint pulse.

“Thank God.” Taking an deep breath James inspected the gunshot, blood was oozing from an open wound on the lower right of the chest, Haynes quietly cursed, not wanting to move Elliott to check for an exit wound. He activated his ear piece once more, tearing off part of his shirt to compress the wound.

“I have a man down!” The words came with difficulty, as if forced through a mesh of steel in his throat. “I need an Ambulance ASAP, he's bleeding out and may have a ruptured lung!”

It took five long minutes for back-up to arrive on the scene. First came Burdock with fire support who secured the area and swept for any remaining Gregory's. Followed swiftly by the paramedic's who sequestered both Elliott and the two suited men into an Ambulance as soon as they had spoken with Haynes.

Micheal was taken in for questioning by another detective, he ensured that he thanked James before he left, but the worried expression's on the paramedic's faces' had instilled a new fear in Haynes.

By the time the rain stopped, the whole area had been taken over by the Police, transformed into a crime scene. Early morning Joggers and Dog-walkers gawked into the alley from beyond a thick line of tape, quickly ushered away by the Officers-on-duty. Haynes stayed behind, taking refuge in a doorway and lighting a hastily requisitioned cigarette as his statement was catalogued.

Then he walked from the scene, desperately trying not to dwell on the state of his friend. He returned Ol' Reliable back to her place in the boot, got in the car and drove home.

Back to Francesca and, he hoped, a hot pot of coffee.

IV – Home

By Benjamin Maunder

 

Haynes was struggling to recall his drive home. The last thing he could remember was seeing Micheal Steinbach get into a squad car. He'd lit a cigar and lurked in the cover of a rusted out shed, mind aflame with possibilities of the fate waiting for his friend. From there things became mercurial, flowing, like a dream he couldn't quite remember, nor could he be sure he had awoken from it. So how he came to be parked on the drive of his home was a mystery. One he had little interest in solving.

A long, exhausted sigh broke the air as James ran a hand through his hair, now greasy and matted from sweat and exhaustion. The clock on his dashboard flashed 6:30 reminding him of how long it had been since he last stepped foot on his driveway, a good 48 hours to say the least. Which also meant at least 48 hours since he last slept in anything nearly resembling a bed, or for that matter since he last laid eyes on Francesca.

 

It was that final thought that kept him seated, scouring the car for the pack of chewing gum Burdock had left the night before. The lingering smell of smoke still edged on his breath, which was normally enough to earn him a harsh tutting from his significant other. To James, there was no more terrifying a fate than a sharp tut and eye roll from one Francesca Mendez. Awkwardly twisting himself across the front seats of his car, James probed the recesses of his glove compartment, eventually wrapping his fingers about a foil wrapper and smiling with relief.

 

“Salvation.” He muttered, freeing a strip and sitting himself up. As he began chewing he absentmindedly watched the world around him through tinted windows, rubbing the stubble on his chin as he tried fruitlessly to move the nights events from his memory.

 

He had been in fire-fights before, when you worked Southgate it was hard to avoid them. Between the Gang of Gregory, Russian mob and general gutter scum 'The Gates' were noted as one of the most dangerous areas in London. James had been knee deep in the filth of it more times than he could count and this was far from the first time there was blood on his hands.

 

“Come on James.” The detective rested his forehead against the wheel, a thin layer of sweat coating his brow. “You've seen worse. Don't let this shake you.” The gunshot echoed in his mind, the look on Elliott's face was etched into the inside of his eyelids, the smell of the alley stuck in his nostrils. Clasping his head in his hands he swore quietly, tapping his skull against the wheel in a futile attempt to knock the images from thought.

 

“Get up.” He spoke to himself, beating a tattoo into the flesh of his head. “Get out of the car and go home.” Despite himself, he didn't move from his seat. “This isn't helping anyone.”

 

A light tapping on his window broke his disparity.

 

Tilting his head and parting his fingers, James glanced outside to see an auburn haired woman stood at his car door. She stood in red spotted pyjama's with a steaming mug of liquid heaven cooling in hand, her expression spoke of her displeasure of having to walk barefoot down the gravel driveway. Knowing better than to keep his loving fiancée waiting, James opened the window.

 

“You coming inside or are you quite happy in there?” She crossed her arms as she spoke, a single brow raising above the other. Her hair was a mess, short, tangled and indicative of the less than peaceful nights sleep she had endured the previous evening. James moved to open his mouth, a litany of excuses ready to pour forth, but rather than wait for an answer Francesca simply turned in place and cautiously began picking her way back up the drive, muttered curses following her with each clumsy step.

 

Feeling akin to a scolded dog, James shifted in place, slowly chewing at the now flavourless substance in his mouth and formulating a battle plan. Francesca was many things to him, though one thing she wasn't was forgiving. He had learnt many years ago that she held grudges for longer than some people held jobs, so it had always been in his best interest to remain in her good books. But multiple late nights and missed meals had left him squarely in the dog house the past few weeks, his brief sojourns home culminating in silence and cup ramen. He'd been dreading his return home as he knew Francesca would only hold her tongue for so long, “The Talk” was only ever around the corner and James had avoided it for longer than she normally allowed.

 

It was with a grimace he finally stepped out of the car. Warm sunlight escaped through the smog above and played across his skin, biting at his unshielded eyes as he wished for a dimmer switch. Groggily he moved to the rear of the car, not daring to cast his eyes to the living room window where he expected to see Francesca cataloguing his every movement.

 

“Into the belly of the beast.” he withdrew his briefcase before he made his way up the driveway and into his home, leaving his boots at the door and lurking at the threshold.

 

Francesca's shoes hadn't moved from their place on the rack, it was unlikely she had left the house in the two days since he started his last shift. The kitchen door was cracked open, with the sounds of a boiling kettle luring him towards it, like a moth to flame.

 

"Cess? You in the kitchen?” James tried his hardest to sound confident, he didn't succeed.

 

“Yes.” A shiver ran up his spine as James moved into the kitchen, one syllable replies were never a good sign. When he stepped foot inside he found Francesca had her back turned to him, busy with a coffee mug and pot. About her lay the skeletons of several pizza boxes and two discarded wine bottles, all neatly piled into the appropriate recycling areas. In the corner of the room the news silently played on the small plasma television, a young mother with babe in arms shouting at the melancholy reporter, James was surprised that the shooting wasn't being shown yet.

 

“So...” James took a seat at the breakfast bar, picking a grape from the nearby fruit bowl and anxiously popping in between his teeth. “I should probably apologise for being late home.” The grape was surprisingly sour.

 

“Sorry?” The word cut like glass, edged in by the sharp tone of Francesca's voice. The clink of metal on the china sugar bowl rang like a bell as he delicately placed it home. “I really want to avoid the fucking cliche here James...” She turned in place, Chelsea FC mug in a vice grip.  “But you're bloody sorry!?” The mug slammed home in front of him, black droplets staining . He ate another grape and wished he was back in the alley.

 

“I was heading home but...” James didn't get to finish.

 

“But what James? But fucking what?” Francesca threw her hands out in frustration. “You didn't even call!”

 

“It was late, I thought you would be asleep.” It was an honest answer, the only real defence left to him in the situation.

 

“Then leave a god damn message!” She collapsed into the chair beside James, head in her hands massaging her eyelids with her palms. “I worry about you, you bloody idiot.” she hissed through clenched teeth. James rested his hand on the nape of her neck, half expecting to be shrugged off, words flew through his mind at a million a second as he tried to snatch up the right ones, but he found none. Instead he reached into his pocket and withdrew a number of ten pence pieces, carefully placing them on the table in front of his exhausted partner.

 

“I saved you these, Burdock was going to waste them at the slots.” A lone eye peered out from between fingers at the piled coins. “Thought they'd be better off here, save him from himself you know. Plus now you can put them in the jar, so hey, win win.”

 

Francesca dragged her fingers across her face, the bags beneath her eyes more apparent as she pulled her skin taut.

 

“You're an asshole.” A small smile tugged at her lips. Scooping up the coins she moved from the chair momentarily gripping James hand in hers. James smiled back, the exchange of small change seemed to mean little to an outside observer, but it was a ritual to the two of them, a small token of affection.

 

“You're marrying this asshole.” He chuckled, finally bringing the nearby mug to his lips and absorbing the aroma of the freshly ground coffee. There was nothing quite like it.

 

“Don't remind me.” Francesca drew a small glass jar from a cupboard, sliding the coins into it as a comfortable silence settled in. The sound of metal on glass, a washing machine signalling it's end, the sipping of piping hot coffee.

 

“Are you okay?” She said as the last coin clinked home, resting her back on the counter and looking to James with concern. He returned her gaze, raising an eyebrow as he wiped black from his unshaven stubble.

 

“Hm? Yeah I suppose, what makes you ask?” Francesca crossed the room, arms folded as she did so.

 

“I know about Elliott, James. I know what happened.” Her eyes were piteous, full of concern. James went to open his mouth to ask the obvious question but Francesca jabbed her thumb towards the television in the corner in a pre-emptive answer.

 

“It was on the news, or at least enough of it was.” James glanced at the screen, currently showing a cruise across the Atlantic.

 

“Ah, yeah.” He shrugged, taking another sip from the mug. “He needed help, so I helped.” his lip twisted to form an indifferent expression, averting his eyes from Francesca's. He was well aware of the look of scorn slowly forming on her face. “He would have done the same for me.”

 

“Would he though?” Francesca leaned on the counter besides him, pushing the mug away from him.

“Elliott's thrown his life away, why are you making it your problem?” James scowled, he had hoped this argument would have died the last time she had raised it, but every few weeks she would resurrect it with renewed vigour.

 

“Because it has to be someone's problem 'Cess.” He glanced up, looking into the cool forest green of her eyes. “He's got no one else.” She kept a matched gaze, the effort to keep an appearance of anger on her face clear.

 

“Well who's fault is that?” She squirmed in place. “The man's a drug addict, it's no wonder his family disowned him.” James stood as she spoke, stretching his aching muscles as he did.

 

“He's a friend 'Cess.” He yawned, “And he's trying to improve.” Francesca's tired eyes displayed clear doubt at the sentiment, James could only offer half a grin to belay her distrust in his old friend. “His heart's in the right place. He just needs some guidance.” she shook her head, unconvinced.

 

“Don't we all.” She pushed off from the counter and wrapped her arms about James, gripping tight. “Just, don't let him drag you down with him. You actually have some people who love you.” She let go, pecking him affectionately on the cheek as she moved away. “Not that I'm sure why...” smiling warmly she moved past him, playfully nudging him as she did.

 

“I'm off to bed, there's more coffee in the pot.” Her voice trailed into the hallway as James recovered his mug, the contents still thankfully warm.

 

“Sleep well!” He called out, once more drinking deeply and gazing into the middle distance, finally aware of how exhausted he truly was.

 

By the time the sounds of footsteps from the floor above had silenced, James had retired to the living room, his mug refreshed and a local talk show dully droning on in front of him. He was absent-mindedly fidgeting with his phone, folding it over in his palm as his mind drew a blank of what to worry about first.

 

As the show ended and his mug emptied sleep began to aggressively pursue him, his eyelids began to drop of their own accord and it took an increasing amount of effort to reopen each time they lazily drew shut.

 

Eventually James stopped fighting and allowed himself to slowly shut down, his vision darkened and the familiar sound of the B.I.N.N opening sequence filled the room about him, it too fading as he passed into unconsciousness.

 

“Breaking news: Shooting in South gate this morning as Gang members....”

VI – The Long Night

by Benjamin Maunder

The evening was wearing in rapidly and with it came the cold chill of the clear sky. Elliot pulled his worn coat around him tighter, thankful he wasn’t going to have to spend tonight out huddled in some alleyway as he sipped covertly at the strong smelling bottle in his hand. Tonight he could get some real warmth.

 

He leant back against the wall of the homeless shelter, the converted church a beacon for the lost as much now as it was when it was first built. A constant stream of roughshod people passed by him, coming and going as the wafting scent of warm peppery soup carried in their wake.

 

A long sigh and he leant his head back, trying to focus on any thing other than the desire for another drink. He knew he’d had enough, god knew his social worker told him often enough. He glanced down to the bottle in his hand. Sighing as he gave in to its temptation and took another stinging swig. His face still stung from the fight the night previous and it was taking every ounce of will to ignore the desire to drown out the dull pain in his cheek with the cool numbness of cheap booze. Not that he had much will to begin with.

 

Those days were passed.

 

The mantra repeated in his head, dispelled by a twisting pain in his side from the bullet he’d taken and the ache in his arms that had plagued him for the past few days. He grimaced, wondering if he felt up to eating tonight as he looked back into the main lobby. Alice was there, smiling warmly to the long queue of people as they slowly filed past the makeshift canteen at the far end of the room. A different kind of feeling twisted in his stomach and he shook his head as he dismissed the thought. He was pretty sure he wasn’t her type, certainly not an alcoholic sleeping rough.

 

A spike of pain ran through his stomach again and he winced, grimacing as he clutched against his waist. The bullet had been one thing, but weirdly that had hardly hurt at all. This…. this was different. The pain was persistent and only seemed to be spreading. He’d already seen the shelter nurse about it, but she’d fobbed him off with some rudimentary aspirin, telling him it would pass with rest and a decent meal. At first it was the meals that had worried him. Whatever it was seemed to be doing the rounds; at least half the other homeless in the shelter seemed to be suffering the same.

 

Between the unseasonal cold and the persistent cramps it seemed life was only getting harder. Trying not to think on it he turned his attention to the comings and goings of the road ahead of him, massaging his temple as he noticed a car pull up nearby. The door opened to deposit Michael, Elliot’s friend waving to him before nervously thanking whoever else was in the car.

 

“Perfect timing!” He called up, the car door closing behind him as the vehicle slid away into the waning light.

 

“Police didn’t take long with you then?” Elliot asked, thinking back to the night before. “Thought you were up the creek for sure. Bent cops round here aren’t known for being the forgiving type.”#

 

Michael wringed his hands a little, looking slightly nervous. Elliot frowned, but didn’t mention it, taking another swig of the bottle and sneering as he realised it’d run dry. “Yeah well. About that…”

 

He sighed and shrugged. “They’ve got other problems to worry about I guess.” He approached up the steps, frowning as he noted the way Elliot rubbed at his forehead. “You okay? Surprised to see you out of A&E so quickly.”

 

“Just a flesh wound.” Elliot answered dismissively.

 

“You were shot!” He exclaimed, reaching forward to pull aside the torn coat. The bullet hole in his shirt was still clearly visible. “Do you even clean these?”

 

Elliot frowned and brushed his hand away in irritation. “Oh I’m sorry, I’ll try and get shot in my work wear next time.”

 

“Must have basically missed you.” Michael continued, whistling. “Lucky break man.”

 

“Yeah well, it sure didn’t seem it at the time.” Elliot growled, already tense as the urge to find another drink haunted his thoughts. Michael’s persistence wasn’t helping. He knew all too well the bullet had been anything other than a lucky miss, but right now the last thing he wanted to do was dwell on it. Let him explain the way it’d become little more than a nasty scar as no more than luck. It was easier that way.

 

“And the head?”

 

“Doesn’t matter. Just tired I think. Something going round the place maybe.”

 

“Well, if you’re up for it, I think we may just have the ticket.”

 

“No.” Elliot answered.

 

“Come on, you don’t even know what I was going to say!”

 

“Not another fight.” He said determinedly. “I promised Alice I wasn’t going…”

 

“Alice?” Michael interrupted, a mischievous smile stretching over his face.

 

“Ms Chamberlain.” Elliot corrected. “Whatever, look I said I wasn’t going to get involved with crap like that anymore. Besides I’m not really up to it.”

 

“Elliot is almost a grand on this one fight. A grand! Five hundred quid each easy, for one nights work. That’s minimum too. You don’t even need to win.”

 

“I don’t fight to lose.” Elliot growled back.

 

“Either way. No strings attached on this one, no pressure from the usual trouble.”

 

“Why? Where are they?” He muttered, doubtful the local gang would just pass by their usual interest in fixing the fights.

 

“God knows!” Michael shrugged. “To be honest I don’t much care either. First honest fight we’ve been offered in a long time.”

 

“I think you mean ever.”

 

“So you’ll go then?” Michael asked him, leaning forward hopefully. “Come on man, I need the help… Really need it. You know we do.”

 

“Forget it.”

Michael sighed, his thunder stolen as he glanced past Elliot to spy the young social worker at the soup table.

 

“That her?”

 

Elliot didn’t answer beyond a patient glare.

 

“I can see why you’re interested. Reminds me of… “ He trailed off, licking his teeth before he could continue. After a pause he looked back to Elliot, his face carved into that frustrating expression of his that seemed made only to speak truths Elliot didn’t want to hear.

 

“You realise she’ll never go for a guy on the street?”

 

“Yeah. Thanks.” Elliot muttered back, wincing again as a twisting pain shot up his forearm.

 

“Five hundred quid. One night. Get that under your belt on a regular basis and you’ve got yourself deposit on some shitty bedroom flat. Not much, but it’s a start.”

 

“Not the start she, or I, am looking for.”

 

“You expect to get a job with references coming here for your home address?” Michael asked him, that same expression of hard truths etched onto his face. “Come on man. One night. At very least, you get a free bacon sandwich while you’re there.”

 

“Oh well in that case.” He said sarcastically before breaking down into a long sigh. “Fine. When?”

 

“We leave now. Car’s just waiting round the corner.” Michael answered, shoving his hands into his pockets as his face melted into the smug expression he always wore when he got his way.

 

 

The match wasn’t far away, another quiet warehouse in another quiet estate. He’d not paid much attention as they’d wandered into the large room where a small crowd of miscreants and ruffians were gathering alongside others eager for a glimpse of bloodsport.

 

“You ok Ell'? You look… shit.” Michael asked him, leaning forward to be heard over the crowd.

Elliot wiped sweat from his brow, frowning as he looked at the moisture at his emaciated fingertips.

 

“Been worse.” He muttered.

 

“True. You sure you aren’t going to keel over in there?” He asked nodding to the ring. “I’ve already placed bets.”

 

“Your concern is touching.”

 

“It should be, the bets in your name.”

 

“Gee thanks.” He groaned sarcastically as they approached the edge of the ring. The eastern looking competitor inside it was already waiting, a cruel looking whip thin cur of a man high on adrenaline and god knew what else. Long tattoos of millipedes crawled up either of his arms and twisted weirdly as he flexed in preparation. He smiled eagerly through split lips and broken teeth, glaring at Elliot as he ducked beneath the crude rope ring that cleared the blood stained open concrete from the baying crowd.

 

“Keep an eye on that right hook of his!” Michael warned, taking Elliot’s coat. “And this one has a reputation for fouling, anything to inflict pain. Don’t let him near your eyes…. Or your waist.”

 

Elliot only frowned at him, saying nothing as he tried to steady himself. His head was pounding as he took off his coat and shirt and he could barely concentrate as the fat balding man that passed for a referee announced the two competitors.

 

Before Elliot could even realise the match had begun the taste of concrete was spitting from his mouth. He shook his head clear, vaguely aware of the shouts as his hair was pulled back and his head thrown forward again into the hard floor.

 

He spat blood, twisting his legs around to fend his foe off as he rolled to his back, kicking up to force his opponent back. Adrenaline flooded past the haze of his senses, bringing the world back into sharp focus. Blood was running freely from his nose and his cheek stung from the impact of the first blow. It didn’t matter. With a roar, he threw himself forward, punches flailing as both of them swung and blocked and dodged. They were well matched, but Elliot had been doing this for longer and experience was swiftly beginning to tell. Two punches landed hard into his opponent’s tattooed waist, knocking the wind from him as he staggered back.

 

Elliot tried to press his advantage, but a snap of sharp pain shot up his back, like the feeling of being stabbed. He hesitated, wincing and grinding his teeth, giving his foe a chance to recover. The tattooed man eagerly took his chance, punching at the wound at his waist viciously before grabbing Elliot’s arm and twisting, forcing him to the floor. The crowd roared and Elliot could hear Michael shouting warnings to him, desperate to get him to stand. The tattooed man didn’t relinquish his grip, instead he continued to twist, finally pulling the limb back onto his knee with a cruel crack.

 

Elliot roared, clutching at his arm as the tattooed man savoured the approval of the crowd. Barrelling into him, Elliot knocked the guy to the floor, cracking his fist and elbow repeatedly into the man’s jaw as he straddled him.

 

“Get off!” The man roared, shoving Elliot aside with a vicious jab to his injured arm.

Elliot hissed, picking himself up as his opponent stood, wiping a droplet of blood from his split eyebrow and licking it with relish.

 

The momentary pause lengthened, before being suddenly split by a deafening roar as both flew into a flurry of punches. Elliot snarled, his broken arm like fire as it hung uselessly at his side. He could feel it twisting, feel the bone grinding within the meat of his arm, but it was more, like a blaze that poured through his veins and deadening his sense of feeling. He roared, his remaining arm blocking a vicious blow aimed to his neck.

 

Without thinking of his injury, working purely on reflex and anger, Elliot’s broken arm punched upward.

 

The tattooed man staggered back, blood pouring from a string of wounds at his side. Four puncture marks glistened crimson in the cheap floodlight and the crowd roared in a mix of anger and sick jubilation. Elliot looked in shock at his left hand, blood staining his fingers. The feeling of fire returned, spreading from the break across his entire arm, working its way into his chest. He staggered back, feeling the thumps of the crowd as he almost fell into the ropes of the ring.

 

“Elliot! Elliot! Are you okay?!” Michael’s voice was a tiny sliver in the din of noise that hemmed around him and he rolled over the ropes, picking himself up to stagger quickly out into the cold night.

 

The wash of cool air gave scant relief as he fell to his knees outside the warehouse, clutching at the agony that spread from his arm. His whole limb was shaking now and he could feel blood running freely from the wound at his cheek as the skin seemed to tear ever wider.

 

He clutched at it, shocked to see his left arm respond as though the break had never happened.

 

“What’s going on?” He turned wild eyes to the mumbled voices, barely able to understand them through the heat and agony that tore through his body. Every breath made it worse, every staggered step tearing at his skin as though his very bones sought release from the prison of flesh around them.

 

He screamed, stamping his fist into the concrete flagstones before forcing himself into a run, ignoring the shouts of Michael as his friend forced his way from the crowd and out into the open street to follow. Elliot left them behind, fleeing into the cold darkness, tears of pain mixing with blood.

 

Finally he fell, he could not say where, but he felt himself rolling down a steep grassy slope, littered with trash that tore at his clothing. With a thud he landed against another building, a derelict husk of a warehouse that stood lost and alone in the black night. His every sense screaming, he smashed the flimsy boarding that blocked the door, slipping into the welcoming dark of the echoing room beyond.

 

“God! Help me!” He screamed, his voice sounding inhuman in the echoing abyss.

 

The light of the street lamps outside filtered into the room, casting streams of orange gold through the broken silence. He looked down to his hand as it fell into the light, stunned into shocked terror as he saw the skin split, blood drawing impossibly back into the flesh as it fell back, retreating before a wave of bone that grew to encase his hand, creating a taloned gauntlet of blood tinted bone.

 

For all its horror, he realised he felt nothing, tormented to watch as though caught in some impossible nightmare. He opened his mouth to scream, realising then that his face too was splitting open, bone rising from his skull to wrap about his head, entrapping him within a helm of twisted horror.

 

His body contorted, warping in the darkness, his whimpering cries of horror becoming distorted, monstrous things. Alone and afraid, kneeling upon the cold concrete, he leaned back and screamed his terror to the world.

 

 

“Elliot?”

 

He blinked, shaking as he slowly lifted his head from the grass.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

The daylight seemed to lessen as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. He became dimly aware of the figure standing over him and the flashing lights of a police car parked nearby.

 

“Haynes?” He croaked. “What’s going on… Where am I?”

 

The officer knelt down to him, reaching out a hand to help him up. “You’re in Mitcham common. Your friend Michael put out a missing persons request to us when you vanished last night. Seems you had quite a rough time of it.”

 

Elliot sat up, rubbing at his head and his looked down to see the tattered remnants of his clothing and the bruising that covered his skin.

 

“You get into a fight with a tiger or something?” Haynes asked.

 

“I don’t… I don’t know.” He answered, unsure what to believe, unsure what had been real. He looked to his left hand, the arm he’d sure he had broken was merely bruised. “I can’t, I can’t feel anything.” He said, testing the bruises as he frowned, concerned that none so much as ached.

 

“Well we’re going to need you to come with us.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Aside from the missing persons report… seems whatever you and this Michael were doing yesterday upset someone. Because it seems the Gregories abducted him this morning.”

VII – Climbing the Ladder

By Benjamin Maunder


 

“They're late.” Logan said to no-one in particular as he lurked at the edge of the dock, Armani suit pulled taut across his breast to fight the cold night air. Though he was not alone, none of his retainers answered his complaint, they were aware when his mood ran foul it was best to avoid his notice. The Thames was alive with motion, even at this late hour. Logan watched with increased irritation as the third party boat in an hour passed by, music blaring and the occupants teeming at it's bow. Yet there was no sign of the small fishing skiff the gentleman from Soho had been waiting for.

“Eleven o'clock. Not a hard deadline to hit.” Logan growled, snorting in the putrid stench of the city as he spoke. Clicking his fingers he summoned one of his men to his side, a stout unassuming man with a shotgun nestled in his arms, though the look on his face belied no shortage of worry.

“Yeah boss?” Logan didn't turn to face him, instead glaring into the middle distance and plotting a cruel revenge against the multiple boats that raised his hopes floating before him.

“Get the car Micky, I'm tired of waiting.” Micky nodded, happy that his boss's evident anger had avoided him.

“No prob' boss.” He adjusted his weapon and turned from Logan, inclining his head towards another of the men that lurked on the dock, the thin balding man returned the gesture and slipped from his post. As Micky watched their driver slink towards the road an irritated hiss of air tore from between his employers teeth, a sound that always heralded trouble. Micky felt his heart skip a beat.

“Mick. Am I losing my touch or something?” His calm tone belied his foul temper. “People used to respect me, hold me in high esteem. Now look at me.” Micky chose to pretend he heard the request.

“Called to some bloody filthy dry dock in the dead of night.” Logan's boot found a rat, sending it squealing into the murky depths of the Thames. “And they don't even send the Goddamn boat!” Logan roared with anger and rounded on his men, lips peeled back his teeth bared and clenched together.

“Where is the goddamn respect!” He ran his eyes about his men, who in turn forced their gaze to the floor. “Well?” Nothing about his question suggested he wanted it answered, though Micky took it upon himself to address it.

“You got our respect boss.” He hugged his shotgun like a child would their favourite toy. “The Gregories only what they are now 'cause of you.” Logan wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips, his stoked ego aiding in the calming of his mood. The businessmen relaxed, giving silent thanks to Micky and his often mocked proficiency at “brown-nosing.”

“Good.” Logan wrinkled his nose, snorting in approval, wrapping his arms back around himself and puffing his chest. “It's good to see that you boy's still know who's in charge.” non-committal mummers of agreement passed between the men, though Logan was deaf to them, his attention firmly locked on the Limousine that had just pulled up to the dock gates.

“Come on boys'” Logan marched forth, slapping Micky fondly on the shoulder as he passed, not noting the grimace it caused. “I'm done with those other fuckwads and all their theatrics.” Logan reached into his pocket as his men fell in behind them, pulling a mask from deep within his coat and taking a moment to regard it. Dim moonlight danced upon the polished china, plain yet decorative in it's design a work of minimalism. Logan sneered, flinging it to the ground and crushing it underfoot without hesitation, shattered ceramic erupted across the ground.

“We are going to show those bastards who they're disrespecting!” Logan stopped short of the vehicle, turning in place as the door behind him opened and the thin bald man slipped out, the tell-tale light of a mobile phone disappearing into his pocket as he drew himself into the open. Micky watched his co-worker closely as he slunk from the car, a machine pistol glinting from the shadows of his jacket. The man inclined his head towards Micky, a knowing smirk playing on his lips, Micky's finger twitched on the trigger guard.


“Boy's, we're gunna retake this dump! Fuck what the 'Beetles' say, I'm done with their bollocks!” Logan's proud declaration redrew Micky's attention, the aged mobster had a toothy grin plastered about his features, his yellowing teeth peaking beneath his beard. “People are going to remember my name lads, don't you doubt that!” Micky took a step forward in response, forcing a smile to the man who had paid for his kids education.

 

“We don't boss.” Logan nodded, he didn't note the man behind him. “We all know you're going places.”

The first shot ripped through his left leg, sending a hail of blood across the grime, painting itself across Micky's boot. A howl of pain tore from Logan's throat as he recoiled from the impact,his leg pulling out from him even as the second bullet turned his femur into a collection of toothpicks. Blood and filth coalesced about him as he collapsed to the ground, the shattered ceramic of his mask digging into the flesh of his back as his old compatriots surrounded him. Like a wounded beast he convulsed in agony, his voice a garbled mix of curses and stifled screams.

“I'll kill you! You fuckers! I will see each and everyone of you little pricks...” A steel toed boot caught his jaw mid sentence, lacerating the meat of his face. Teeth ruptured and scattered into the dirt, descending into the pooled muck about Logan.

A gun levelled at the mobsters head as it lay in humbled anguish, a gnarled finger resting on the trigger. Micky raised a hand to the driver, his shotgun now hanging loosely to one side.

“Hold up Chuck, we ain't meant to do it like that.” The driver raised an eyebrow, the fading smile belying the sadism that lurked beneath his otherwise solemn demeanour. Micky snorted, ignoring the hate filled profanities falling from the lips of his old employer, instead hooking his boot beneath his chest and forcing him onto his back.

“No more guns, t'boss was more than clear about that.” Micky nodded to his men, “We do this the old fashioned way.” He rested his foot on Logan's ribcage, slowly pushing his weight upon the meek figure below him. A low moan escaped as bones gave way, cracking and straining under the pressure of the 200lb man pushing down on him,

“Beat him.” Micky gave the order with as much ease as he would order a takeaway, not a hint of remorse lingering upon his voice. Beside him chains rattled and knuckles cracked, Logan could do little more than squirm and beg through shattered teeth as the shadows enveloped him.

“We're sending a message lads. Let's make sure it's 'eard.” Muttered agreement echoed about the mob, Micky locked eyes with his old employer one last time, his stare accusing and pitiable.

“Sorry big man.” He scowled, stepping back and sliding into the crowd of vicious sell-outs. “Got a better offer.”

A jagged rock started the onslaught, violently tearing through suit and meat in a brutal thrust. It was followed by boot and fist, chain and bat, sweat and violence. Only for moments did Logan struggle, his fingers forming an insubstantial barrier against the gleeful beating, shortly his cries of anger and betrayal turned to anguish, then to resignation as his flesh was bloodied and pulped.

Twelve minutes passed before its end. Then a final gunshot emptied his skull about the floor, a lone casing tumbling into the defilement by his unblinking eyes. The men, content with their work turned and left, eager to fill themselves with cheap booze and pleasures of the living.

Micky stood on the dock. His back to the scene of brutality, shotgun back in his embrace as a boat powered through the murk of the Thames towards him. Silently hoping his choice was the correct one.

VIII – On the Water

By Benjamin Maunder

 

A small fishing boat cut a path through the murky waters of the Thames, unmarked and mostly unmanned. Only the flickering embers of a cigarette signalled that anyone was alive on-board “The Reel Determined” ,though it's helmsman would have preferred otherwise.

Junior Calhon was leaning on the wheel, idly tapping the but of his smoke on his thumb as he passed yet another trade skiff. On the table beside him an empty bottle of scotch hinted at the Dutch courage he had earlier acquired and long since lost, every sign of a regretful evening of courting the women of London.

The headache he now nursed dulled him to the other ships about him, his mind solely focused on simply finishing the job at hand and collapsing into blissful unconsciousness. Rubbing his temples for comfort Junior drained the last embers of his cigarette, relishing its final embrace as he steered the ship from the Thames.

Carefully manoeuvring past a set of trade skiffs Junior piloted towards a shadowed tunnel at the rivers edge, one of the many canals that had been built following the Petroleum Wars. He smiled as the encroaching darkness enveloped his ship, shielding his pained eyes from the dozens of fog-lights that prevalent on the Thames, welcoming the shadows of the waterways. Setting a course and locking the wheel in place with a soft thud Junior sniffed at the air absently, checking the clock that rested next to the woefully empty bottle and smiling when he saw he was early. The man he had picked up about a half hour earlier had been very... insistent that he arrive on time, in truth Junior was just as eager, though his motivator was sleep over duty.

With a pained sigh, Junior detached from the wheel and stretched his exhausted limbs before slinking from the Wheelhouse and onto the deck of the vessel. stumbling over his own feet as the boat tapped the walkways that ran parallel to the canal.

“Bugger.” He grimaced as he held himself steady, shooting a worried glance over the edge of the ship. “Hope that didn't scratch the paint...” Shaking his head he readjusted himself, quickly moving across the ship to the cargo doors nearby and rapping on them three times. From beyond the door the sounds of movement could be faintly heard over the creaking of the hull, followed swiftly by a voice.

“Yeah?” Though muffled the door Junior could hear the bite of irritation on the man's voice.

“Just hit the tunnels, five minutes and I'll get you where you're going.” Junior slapped the door and moved away, not waiting for a response he doubted would ever come. Gregories weren't overly known for their gratitude, so it was rarely worth the time fishing for compliments from any of them.

Massaging his shoulder, he turned from the cargo doors and began strolling back to the wheelhouse, dimly curious on the purpose of his job. Bad choices and copious gambling debts had locked him into service with the Gregories for the past four years, though he had been lucky to rarely pull work more important that simple transit, moving nondescript packages throughout London's waterways. This was the first time his cargo had ever included live passengers, or so he hoped, so curiosity had gotten the better of him when he was given his orders, though he was quickly reminded it was none of his concern. For the sake of his own health, he didn't pursue the matter further.

Mere seconds after taking his place at the helm once more, lights burst into life further along the tunnel. A couple of wall mounted strobe lights illuminated a large alcove in the right wall roughly 200 feet from his position, with a makeshift dry dock cobbled together on the walkway. Assuming it as his destination Junior made a minor course correction and prepared to dock.

Only as the ship pulled up to the dock did Junior notice the three men lurking in the shadows of the nearby alcove watching him with intense interest. A chill ran up his spine as he considered the possibility of what could happen if was actually in the wrong place, though the lack of gunfire was enough to calm his mind, if only momentarily. Stepping outside of the wheelhouse Junior cautiously made his way to the edge of the vessel, trying not to stare at the three men detaching from the shadows and slinking towards him.

It was as he prepared the mooring line one called out, a youth with bleached blonde hair and a siut slightly too large for him. “Evening m'lad!” he shouted, his voice echoing about the enclosed walls of the canal. Junior flinched at the sound of it, his heart beating viciously against his ribcage as he slowly turned to greet the men, a toothy smile bared.

“Evening Sir's, how are you all?” The men boarded, the lead youth returning the smile as he strutted over, passing a cursory glance about the vessel as he went.

“Very good Mr... Junior is it?” Junior fidgeted, his feeling of unease increasing as he was addressed. The Youth moved closer, his aides branching out from his side and wandering the deck, their eyes never truly leaving Junior, even as he nodded in response.

“Yes Sir, that's me.” He smiled as he spoke, the nervousness manifesting in full.

“Not Sir, god no.” He offered a hand to Junior, “Name's Simon, Sim to my friends.” The two briefly shook, before Simon pulled back and wiped his palm clean on his trousers. “I understand you have a delivery for me Junior, not wrong am I?” Junior was shaking his head before he started talking, jabbing a finger towards the cargo hold as he replied.

“Not at all Si... Simon,” He offered a weak smile, behind him he could hear the tell-tale creak of the wheelhouse door. Simon's eyes moved passed him, inclining his head towards the man Junior knew lurked no less than ten feet from his back before returning his attention.

“Excellent, that's what I like to hear.” He slapped a hand down onto Juniors shoulder, The cargo doors started to edge open, small warning lights flicked into life, bathing both Simon and Junior in a sickly red glow as the cargo bay was laid bare. A lone man decked in a suit of fine black lurked within, a featureless white mask obscured his face, though his temperament was clear from the speed with which he exited onto the deck, rubbing the creases from his jacket as he moved.

Junior watched with curiosity, he had not remembered the mask when the man embarked, only a tired scowl and the stench that accompanied anyone who stood on the dry docks. He definitely didn't recognise the mask and that small detail lone terrified him. Even more so when Simons grip tightened on his shoulder and began steering him towards the masked man.

“Mr. Stag.” Simon bowed slightly, his grip causing Junior to mirror him.

“Mr. Grimmer.” Stag pushed his hands into his pockets as he spoke, glancing around himself. “Am I on time?”

“Of course Sir. My employer apologises for the travel arrangements.” Junior felt several pairs of eyes drilling into him as the two spoke, he shifted in place with clear discomfort. “As you well know, this was all very last minute.”

“I get it.” He shrugged, seemingly stretching his muscles.“It could've been worse I 'spose”

“Well we did what we could with the time, Junior here was very accommodating with our schedule.” Junior forced a smile, all too aware of the hand on his shoulder and the gun on Stag's hip.

“Good man.” Stag stepped forward, standing a breath away from the nervous ships captain who, despite being a good foot taller, appeared infinitely smaller. “Sorry for the hassle mate.” Junior's smile remained, though his gaze was directed on Stags shoe, locked onto the drying blood that flaked its toe.

“It's no problem...” his voice was barely audible, grim reality had stolen it from him. If this man was one of the Beetles and Junior had seen his face, there was really only one way things were going to end. “...I'm happy to help the Gregories, I know I can be helpful to you.” He turned his head up, eyes wide and erratic. “I won't tell anyone what you look like I swear!”

“There we are.” Stag sighed, nodding to Simon and drawing the pistol from his hip. Junior tried to struggle, but Simon was stronger than he looked, applying pressure to the back of his knees and forcing Junior to the ground.

“Sorry mate, it's just poor timing.” Stag pulled the slide back on the handgun, checking the chamber as Simon locked Junior in place, tears and bile streaming from the captains face. “Any other day we would have avoided this, but y'know the world, like us, ain't perfect right?”

“Please! I can help! I can..” A sharp blow to the skull broke him off, his vision blurred and flowed into itself, a torrent of blood filled his ears blocking out all sound as the pistol lowered to his forehead. An instant later grey matter spilled across the deck as Juniors skull exploded outwards, a mix of blood and bone coating the freshly varnished wood.

“At least it was quick.” Simon mused, sliding the retractable baton back into his jacket pocket. Stag shrugged, allowing his gun arm to hang loosely at his side and looking over Juniors body, the final expression of terror on the mans face now eternally etched into his mind.

“I 'spose.” Holstering the weapon he shook his head, refocusing on the task at hand. “Kid didn't need to die though, things are getting real messy real quick Sim.” Simon nodded in agreement, gesturing to the nearby men to clean up as both he and Stag moved towards the gangplank.

“They are indeed. But progress is never easy Sir.” The two disembarked, the narrow gangplank straining under their combined weight, groaning with the strain. “You know what they say about breaking eggs though.” An agreeable grunt emanated from Stags mask, the two stopping on the dry dock and standing in silence for a few stretching moments.

“The boys'll clean up here.” Simon declared, uncomfortable with the quiet. “You best hurry to the meeting, the others are waiting.”

“Good idea.” Stag glanced at the nearby door, “I assume?”

“Yeah, straight on once you're in.” Under the mask Stag wrinkled his lips into a mock smile, his whole body feeling heavy from the nights work. With significant effort he took his first step towards the entranceway, quickly ascending the nearby stairs and smoothing his suit down. A few droplets of blood had made their way onto his leg, staining the fine silk with a murky red. The man's name had already faded from memory, even if the image of his eyes had not. He wouldn't be the last person Stag had to kill tonight, he certainly wasn't the first.

Stag knew all too well, if one was to climb the ladder of progress, they would be doing so on a pile of corpses.

IX – From the Gutter

By Benjamin Maunder

 

 

“Don't touch me.” I shrugged Haynes off as he reached down to pull me from the gutter, instead forcing myself to stand on shaking legs. A numb feeling claims my body, a black mist my mind, everything from the night before is a faded dream, lost to whatever happened.

“Elliot, this isn't a request. You're coming to the station, like it or not.” There's a degree of threat to his voice, it's almost funny. Once more he offers a hand, something to steady myself on, I lean on the wall instead.

 

“Who took him? Where?” If he's right and the Gregories took Mike, we don't have time to stand around filling in forms. He must know that, despite his clean shirt and shaven face, he's still from the “Gates” no matter how well he hides it.

 

“I don't know, still hunting leads.” Something tells me I'm one of them, there's no way he'll let me leave then. Fine, can't fight him, it'll waste time. He knows I don't have a choice. “Let's go, we'll get you a coffee at the station.”

 

I don't bother hiding my contempt as he leads me from the shadows into the lucent blaze of his cars headlights, his partner, Burdock lurks in the car, embers of a cigarette throwing lines over his aged face. I pile in the back, once more pushing Haynes away as he tries to help. The two of them talk, I'm not listening, I'm trying to piece my memories back together once more. It's an exercise I had hoped to have mastered by now, but I'm still woefully ignorant of my own past.

 

Pain, that comes rushing back, but that's nothing new. I've woken up more than once with a dozen wounds that I can't explain. But there, deep in the fog, I hear the scream, an inhuman roar reverberating deep in the meat of my mind, it ripples over me, chilling me to the core. But what tattered memory spawned it?

 

Cold metal drew my attention back to the car, a pair of handcuffs had appeared on my lap. Burdock had somehow twisted his portly figure around to face me, tired eyes watch me with a half amused expression.

 

“You high or something Thomas?” Clever. I hold the cuffs up, turning them in the air and raising an eyebrow in his direction.

 

“Not yet. Why cuffs?” He chuckles, Haynes shifts uncomfortably. Looks like I'm a prisoner then, I'll remember this Haynes. “No chance.” The cuffs drop to the floor, a scowl takes Burdock, but he clearly knows when not to push it.

 

The rest of the drive is in near silence, Burdock tries to smoke again but a unsubtle grunt from

Haynes stops him, like an old married couple. When we pull up outside the station day's broken, a wave of sunlight leaking through the cracks of nearby tower blocks and glinting off of the tinted windows of the car.

 

“Detective Haynes, coming in with Mr. Thomas,” Haynes mutters into a dash mounted receiver, once more keeping his gaze far from me.

 

“No problems Detective, I'll release the main door.” A woman, receptionist I assume.

 

“Cheers.” He moves to leave, hand on the door when the speaker goes off again. “Miss Mendez is here as well Detective, I've asked her to wait in your office.” Haynes face drops at the name, whilst Burdock's glows, a perverse grin poking out from his patchwork beard.

 

“Thanks Becs, we'll be right in.” Burdock looks far too happy, but the cringe his comment brings from Haynes even makes me smile. It's a little painful, but more than worth it. Haynes slips from the car without a second word, the door slamming shut behind him. My door opens and I clamber into the damp London air, Haynes waving for me to follow him as Burdock flicks the lock on the car.

 

“How do I look Thomas?” Burdock chimes as he steps in behind me, slicking his hair back with spit. Haynes glances over his shoulder, catching my look of indignation, a painting of hopelessness across his own features.

 

“Leave it Burdock.” Haynes hisses as he takes the stairs, nodding politely to a couple of uniformed officers lurking nearby. One of them looks familiar, I'm sure I've seen him drunk as a sailor in the Pit before, the look he gives me confirms the suspicions.

 

“Come on Haynes, me and Fran have a thing, you can't deny it!” I'm ushered past Burdock as we reach the door, stepping into the uncomfortably moist air of the Police Station. A woman greets us, smiling over a remarkably clean desk, a legion of uniforms to her back with a library of data on the inhabitants of London. She and Haynes exchange a few words, to my side Burdock is arguing with an older chap, trying their hardest to mask the clash and subtle exchange of bank notes. Good to see corruption still nestles in the bosom of law.

 

We don't linger long, the moment Haynes finishes talking we move again, weaving through the maze of offices and corridors, once or twice he looked back, mouth open on the verge of saying something. I'm glad that he knows when to stop.

 

It isn't long before we reach his office, the misted glass hiding all but the shadow of the woman hiding within.

 

“Wait out here.” He motions to a nearby chair, smoothing his hair back, absentmindedly wiping the thin layer of sweat from his brow. He's nervous, a woman is waiting for him and he's panicking.

 

“The fuck Haynes?” I growl, repressing the urge to drag him from the building and back into the streets. Away from the stress of a relationship. He rounds on me, confusion clear, though his face shift when he looks me over. Despite my wounds, the ache that consumes me, a dim, unrelenting fury still holds strong, it's evident in every way.

 

“Really?” My eyes flick to the door, “Mike needs help, I'm not waiting for you here.” He moves to open his mouth once more, white teeth glinting from behind his lips. “You piss about, I'll work.” I turn, steadying myself on the wall, my body begging for rest. He doesn't shout back to me, but the sound of a door opening and closing cements him in my thoughts. I thought more of him.

I stalk back through the corridors, avoiding eye contact with those I meet. Sadly I don't get far before the pain reclaims me and forces me to halt, collapse into a seat with a look of defeat. In this state I'm no good to anyone, much less Mike if there's a legion of Gregories between me and him. The thought causes the knot of tension in my gut to tighten, a spike of dull anguish boils inside me, causing me to contort and warp in upon myself, cursing and swearing as I push my hands against the flesh of stomach.

 

What should have passed in an instant, burned on. A fire racing outwards from my centre across my entire body, turning my bones into napalm and forcing me to bite down the scream that tries to hurl itself from my lungs. It takes all of my will to remain seated, to not drop to the ground and surrender to the agony slowly consuming me but I manage, pain is only ever temporary, weakness is to be abhorred, hated.

 

“You okay there mate?” The voice cuts through the pain, dimly recognisable, I cast a glance off to see the man who had been speaking with Burdock. He looks concerned, not sure why, he doesn't know me. I growl in response, trying to straighten up and fight through the pain.

 

“Fine.” I grit my teeth, pushing off from the chair and turning to pass the Officer, stumbling onto another as a bolt of agony rips across my left leg. The chairs scatter when I impact, more pain, uncontrollable now, as if my whole body seeks to tear itself apart. A pair of hands wrap under my arms and seek to drag me to my feet, invading upon my skin, I lash out.

 

“Get off!” I shout, barley managing to pull myself back up. The man takes a step back, hand almost immediately inching towards the pistol on his hip. Reflex or threat, I couldn't tell.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” He spits as he talks, my eyes focusing in on the red edge of his

spittle, becoming overtly aware of the dregs of blood crawling out from his mouth. A line of crimson fleeing the black abyss carved into his shallow, rotting skin, leaking out like a river to crash about his feet. The ghoul steps forward, a single flesh stripped hand reaching out.

 

“You need to come with me.” My eyes are open, I can feel the lids pulling back into my skull. Every drop of blood that torrents from him screams out to me, begging for release from their prison of meat. The pain remains, a billion knives in me, the air in my lungs turns to ice water, breath becomes nothing, absent. I break, my first rule falls under it's own weight and I turn heel and run.

 

My feet pound the cracked tiles as more and more dead things pile in the building, screaming at me and begging for an end I could give them. I keep running, my heart pounding in my ears as I slam past another, sending it into a wall where it howls in anguish.

 

Heavy rusted doors slam open as I fling myself into them, the world beyond opening up to me, the collective heartbeat of a city forces itself into my head, drowning out all other sound. I run, moving as far and as fast as my body allows, the ache of my bones fading with each step. I pass hulks of cold red iron crewed by horrendous mockeries of men that cackle and scream as I lumber by.

 

Hordes more descend upon me, forcing me towards an alleyway where they do not pursue, but still haunt it's edges, blank pitiless eyes staring me down from afar as I crash fearfully into the filth.

 

Encompassed in shadow I wait, pulling long gulping gasps of air back into me, waiting for the wrongness beyond to stabilise and return to a semblance of rationality. This is not true, it cannot be, I know this, but the grating howls from the world around me causes me to doubt myself.

Micheal. I repeat the name, time and time again, like a mantra. He's out there somewhere, assailed by the scum of this city and I need to find him, regardless of what lies in my way. I won't lose anyone else. Not again. The pain has dulled, my bones no longer ablaze allowing me to stand without support, I cast a glance out of the alley, husks of flesh move about before me, their heartbeats still ringing in my ears. I continue to mutter his name, stepping forth into the throngs of death once more, keeping my gaze to the ground as they shamble past, focusing only on the path I must take.

 

I walk for an hour, the abominations around me slowly reforming into the men and women I know them to be. The vision passes over time, though its inset still terrifies me. I have suffered black-outs and hallucinations before, my lifestyle practically invites them into my skull, but this was different.

Not a drop of alcohol is in my system, sadly, nor any form of opiate, painkiller or other drug. My mind dwells on the distant memories of screams from the night before, guttural and primal yet eerily familiar. What is happening to me?

 

Effort is required to move the thoughts, refocus on what's important, finding Micheal is all that matters now. He has a family to go home to, I'll make sure he does.

 

 

Thistle Lane sits on the outskirts of what used to be Central London, whatever it used to be called has been long since forgotten, now it exists as a nation unto itself. It took two hours to walk here from the Station, significantly less if you can afford the Underground that leads directly into the Gates. Someone once said to me “If the Gates are Hell then Thistle Lane is the gateway”, a clumsy explanation but an accurate one. No-one who lives here wants to and as I walk across the boundary, thick perfumes and heady aromas assaulting my nostrils, I'm reminded why I left.

 

As soon as you enter, your senses are assaulted from all angles, perverse smells, sights and sounds dominate the street as a horde of life masses in the wide street. Vendors and grifters work stalls anywhere space allows, pawning discount and stolen goods to anyone fool enough to buy them. Pick-pockets ghost at the pockets of anyone not savvy enough to look for them, borrowing what they may. The puissant stench of opium wafts from windows, the moans and laughter of whores and their patrons mixing with the crowds endless droning. I move within the throng, another faceless man with little in his pockets and less time to waste on distractions. A woman, barely dressed, tugs at my coat as I pass, a swift invitation passed to my ear on honeyed lips. She's ignored. I have somewhere to be.

 

I come to a stop outside a mostly derelict housing project, the skeletal structure of a much larger vision clinging to its walls. At the front several women brazenly stand, beckoning to any man, woman or child who catches their eye, above them lies a banner “Welcome to all lost souls”, once it meant something different to what it does now. I used to live here, several years ago. Many of the women still know me, a few of them even like me, it takes all kinds I suppose. Of the five at the front, one catches my eye, a redhead by the name of Trish. I make my way from the surge of people, moving a man trying to sell me a watch to one side.

 

“Trish!” I call out to her, almost smiling when she notices me, removing her attentions from a bewildered looking youth and making her way down the steps towards me, loose clothing billowing behind her.

 

“Elliott you bugger.” She smiles, crisp white teeth contrasting with the black lipstick. “It's been months.” When she reaches me she drapes herself around me in an embrace, there's a warmth in it that I miss. “Where have you been?” Concern lies in the green of her eyes, her young face matching it.

 

“Around. Surviving.” I return the smile, best I can.

 

“Keeping out of trouble?”

 

“Always.” I lie, the slap to my chest shows me she knows. Behind her the other girls begin to take notice, two of them I know, the others are new.

 

“Don't lie to me Elliott! I know full well what the hell you've been doing.” Concern turns to anger, her mood matching her deep red hair. “You've been in the Pit, haven't you? After all the times we told you not to, that it wasn't worth it.” People around us start to take notice, a few chuckling at the sight.

 

“I did what I needed to.” Wanted to was closer, but I'm not lying. Without the money from the fights I'd likely still be here, working the same grim streets. Trish's expression lessens, but the anger still remains, like me it was an emotion that claimed her far too easily.

 

“Mhm.” Pursing her lips she turned, “Come on, lets go inside, not liking all these ASSHOLES GAWPIN' AT ME!” She shouted at the few men lingering nearby, watching with perverted fascination as she stands in plain view thin layers of fabric barely covering her modesty. The two of us headed back into the building, I nodded to one of the women I remembered and was rewarded with a smirk.

 

The inside of the Brothel hadn't changed, sure a new lick of paint covered the pocketed walls and a few new flowers dotted the tables, but the soul of the place wasn't any different. It still reeked of desperation, sweat and shame. I watched as Trish guided me through the all too familiar hallways, her gait as efficient as ever, never looking back nor glancing into the rooms we pass, no matter the multitude of sounds that oozed from open doors. We quickly found our way to her room, if it could be called that, a singular bed with stolen silk sheets surrounded by a few small boxes filled with personal items. Still, it was a roof.

 

I'd barely closed the door before she started.

 

“Why now Elliott?” She was pulling a long shirt over herself as she spoke, “You've been gone for months and now you walk back up here, bold as brass! Why?” I had to give it to her, she was sharp.

 

“Mike, he's been taken.” I spoke plainly, leaning on the door and allowing the weight of those words to wash over me. “I don't know who by, but the Gregories were involved. I need more info...”

The last few words were more for me than her, it occurred to me I had very little idea where to start.

 

“Jesus.” Her muted anger melted into concern, slumping down on the edge of her bed. “What did he do?”

 

“Nothing, it's what I did.” I shifted in place, the room was a little too familiar for my liking. “There were a few fights I was supposed to lose, I didn't.” She shook her head, just like Mike.

 

“Sounds about right for you.” She blinked slowly as she spoke, as if fighting sleep. “You always put your fucking pride first.” As usual, she was far from wrong. In the past I had spent a couple of years living in the same building I stood in now, though then I worked here rather than stopping by. Used to be I was the closest thing this dump had to protection, though that was on the good days. Bad days were different, caused by me saying the wrong thing to the wrong people, stepping up to those I should have bowed to. Left me in rooms like this, dressed like her. Never again.

 

“Well, do you have anything to go on? Any idea where he could be?” I shake my head, I have little more than nothing.

 

“No, few ideas though. Need to be quick, ask people who might know. But I need somewhere to lay low, just in case.” She watches me for a moment, carefully judging, like a cat eyeing her cub.

 

“Okay, whilst your looking you can stay with me.” a light smile plays on her lips, “But you'll need to make yourself scarce in the day, I still have to work.” I nod, there's not a lot more to say, moreover I don't know what to say. It's been a long couple of days and I hadn't planned to return here, ever if I'm frank, too many bad memories. Trish knows this, how could she not.

 

We share the silence for a few minutes before she offers to collect some food, not that she waits for an answer, jabbing a finger at a nearby wash basin as she passes. I clean myself off, enjoying the feeling of hot water on my skin, several months of dirt and grime wash away into the drain, I then take my shirt to the water and wait for Trish to return.

 

When she does she does so with soup and bread, hot and fresh, the best thing I've eaten in weeks.

 

We eat in silence again, every now and then Trish opens her mouth to speak and quickly changes her mind, it isn't long before the bowls lie empty.

 

“You look exhausted.” I don't doubt it, “We should get some sleep.” It's hard to disagree, I spotted an armchair outside the door when we came in so I stand and go to get it.

 

“Where are you going?” She asks, already half into her bed. It's small, inviting, familiar.

 

“Chair outside, I'll sleep there.” I open the door and move to step outside when a shoe catches me in the back of the head, glancing around I see her readying to launch another. “What the hell?”

 

“Come here you prick.” She parts the bed covers for me, her posture slackened and tired. “Just sleep here, it's fine.”

 

I linger at the doorway, all too aware of the eyes at my back as I watch Trish, a host of feelings long since forced into the darkness struggling to break free. I close the door and twist the lock in place, slowly lowering myself into the bed besides her. The warmth of her skin on mine is comforting, even as we push our backs to one another, I keep my eyes on the wall, noting the hole in the plasterboard I had put there months before.

 

My eyes close and the echoing howls in my mind begin again, lashing out in the grim emptyness in my skull.

 

“I missed you Elliott.”

 

The screams relent, pushed back into the dark by a torrent of regret

 

 

I dress and leave before Trish wakes up, she looks peaceful in her sleep. Far be it my right to wake her. As much as I try to slip out others in the brothel notice me, some take me for a John, others know otherwise, not sure which is worse.

 

Taking back to the streets I begin my hunt, information on the Gregories isn't exactly hard to come by, but the right information is expensive, both in currency and action. I start with the homeless I know, those I've seen around bin-fires or shelters, a few of them offer rumours and conjecture, but nothing solid, nothing that leads me any closer.

 

The Prostitutes on street corners are much the same, unsurprisingly they don't know Mike's name and kidnappings aren't exactly uncommon on Thistle Street or the Gates. Drug dens and Pawn shops ask for more in return than I can offer, though one gives me food and drink for the road “Services rendered” he says, can't recall what he's talking about, not sure I want to.

 

It isn't until I met a child, or more precisely, a gang of the little buggers that I get anything useful.

 

One of them recognised me in passing, calling out to me and stopping the one in my pocket from

stealing Haynes phone, which would have been a problem fairly immediately. The boys name was Matt, according to him I had stepped in when some big shot “pimp” was beating on him and his sister, breaking the bastards leg and two of his ribs. It sounded like something I would have done, never been a fan of people throwing their weight around, especially when children were involved.

 

Much like the others Matt didn't know Mikes name, admittedly he didn't even know mine until I told him. What he did know though was interesting, according to him and a few of his friends there was a man by the name of Bakara who ran a butchers shop nearby, word was that there was little that happened with the Gregories that Bakara didn't know about, even more-so when kidnappings were involved. It was the closest thing I had to a lead all day, so I thanked him and and offered the food I was given earlier in payment, thankfully they declined, said it was the least they could do.

 

With that I headed back to the brothel, passing an off-license on the way and thumbing the few notes still in my pockets. As I stood outside the voices began worming their way back into my ears, followed by a pang in my gut that demanded answering, Mike had kept me distracted for the day, but we all have our demons. By the time I stepped foot on the stairway into the brothel the Whiskey bottle was empty, the last of my money pissed away. It barely dulled the voices.

 

Trish's room was locked when I got there. Others within the building seemed to have gotten the idea who I was by this point and didn't bother offering their services, not that I would accept. The sounds of moaning and forced exhalation rang through her door, the grunts of a man not used to any form of excursion hammering outwards. A year ago, who knows what I would have done. Now I simply sat beside the door, keeping a vigil for the sound of violence, the liquor in my veins making me wish for an excuse, a moment of catharsis. I'm unaware of how long I was there before I fell asleep, but I awoke with a blanket draped over me.

 

Once more I left at daybreak, my body aching from the poor sleeping position and lack of stimulants. My dreams had been as they always were, black and red, with intermittent horrors filling the air.

 

The butchers itself was easy enough to find, it sat less than two blocks south of Thistle Street with a garish green sign pronouncing it's presence to anyone looking for it. “Al Bakara Butchery, Halal and Otherwise” pressed between a hairdressers and estate agents it was unassuming enough, rubbing the ache in my arms away I muttered a silent prayer that Matt hadn't lied to me.

 

The doorbell rang as I entered, a pleasant chime. Almost immediately the smell hit me, raw meat lined the walls hanging on all manner of hooks for display, with all kinds of flesh on display for the eager carnivore. Barring myself the store was empty, though a radio blared on across the room, a counter separated me from it, a large nondescript carcass lying on its top, bloodied cleaver embedded next to it.

 

“...vessel was carrying supplies from the lunar colonies is scheduled to arrive later today, British forces have since scrambled to secure the airspace around London. Experts suggest that....” The radio filled the relative silence, before I cut it off.

 

“Hello?” I call out, my own voice echoing about the room as I stalk its edges, inspecting the cuts of

meat surrounding me. The man is good with a knife.

 

“...CEO of Solarus industries has yet to issue a statement, though one is expected later today. The main thing that has arisen...” This time it's shut off and I turn to see a large man stood behind the counter, a bloody rag in his hands as he wipes them clean. A broad smile plasters welcoming features, a thick handlebar moustache hanging on his upper lip, his eyes latch onto me with interest as I meet his gaze.

 

“Hello friend!” His voice is deep, jovial, like he means to make the title stick. “How can I help you today?”

 

“You Bakara?” I approach, wary of the blade close to him. Though he simply nods in place of anything else, a pleasant change.

 

“I hope so, otherwise I'm in the wrong shop!” He laughs at his own joke, is this really the man I'm looking for? “Now friend, what are you in the mood for? Just carved some fresh steaks, or some pork if you're the type?”

 

“Information. Not food.” His face doesn't shift, even remotely. “Gregories.”

 

“'Fraid you lost me friend, I'm a butcher. Not some sort of information broker.” His eyebrow raises quizzically as he speaks. “Besides who would want to get mixed up with the Gregories? Dangerous people, or so I hear.” He leans on the counter now, his hand right next to the cleaver in a worryingly direct movement.

 

“They took someone, Micheal Steinbeck, a friend.” I now stand in front of him, the counter our only separator. “I have to find him. Quickly.” I could jump it if needs be, kick the blade away and get in close. Only preparations, I don't want to invite the red in, I can keep this civil.

 

He sighs, his smile fading to be replaced with passiveness and defeat.

 

“Persistent, about what I'd expect from you Thomas.” I never mentioned my name, I tense, ready, civility seems to have died. He notices my posture shift and smiles again.

 

“Don't shit yourself, I've seen you fight is all. You look different not covered in blood and crap.” He produces a set of keys from his pocket and throwing them at me. “Go lock the door, we'll have a chat about your friend then.” I glance behind me, the path back to the door isn't exactly long, but it's open, no cover between it and him.

 

“I'm not going to shoot you in the back friend, bad for business.” No choice but to trust him, I walk to and lock the door, my back tensed the whole way, still expecting a sudden explosion of buckshot to follow me. None came, it was reassuring to see my paranoia was just that.

 

“See friend, trust is a valuable commodity these days.” He stepped over to a break in the counter, opening it up and inviting me through. “Come come, let us talk in the back, it's a bit more private.”

 

I followed him cautiously, still pays to be wary after-all. He left the cleaver in it's place, rounding into the back room where several more carcasses hung, rivulets of blood collecting at their base, pooling into small red rivers that flowed into one another and massed in the indentations of the floor. Each step through here was accompanied by small voices, the demons beginning to claw back out, now is not the time so I do what I can to block them. The blood ripples as I pass, reaching out

towards me, this much I swear.

 

We stop in a small room, sectioned off from the killing floor and windowless. He closes the door behind me, I catch one last glance of something emerging from the pools of crimson.

 

“Well then Mr. Thomas.” Taking a seat he inclines for me to do the same, I oblige, I hear scratching at the door. “You are in a bad place, aren't you. No one really goes looking for the Gregories, much less with a look like that in their eyes.”

“Just tell me where to look. I don't need more.” He smirks to himself, at the door the scratching comes to a halt, only to be replaced by a low moan.

 

“Oh I'm sure...” A mobile phone is placed on the table and Bakara absentmindedly thumbs in a pass code. “Now lets say, I did know where your friend Steinbeck is...” Twice now he's gotten a name before I say it, he knows far too much. “...what benefit is there in me telling you 'ey? What will you give me in exchange?” This was the part I had dreaded, I have noting to offer him, less than nothing for that matter.

 

“I have nothing. No money or information.” I fight the urge to grab his phone and run, he shakes his head, chuckling.

 

“Then why bother coming? I don't run a charity I run a business, fair exchange is the cornerstone of everything I do. If you want to find your friend you better come up with something I want.” The phone goes dark whatever he was looking at vanishes into nothingness. I grimace, in truth he was right I hadn't planned for this, stupid, short-sighted, ignorant I should have known better, planned ahead. My error could cost Mike so much more than it'll cost me.

 

“I doubt I have anything you want.” Hollow laughter echoes in my ears. “But a man needs saving and I will do whatever I need to, to make sure that happens. With or without your help.” I move the chair back, bringing myself up to my full height. “No time for this.”

 

“Sit down Elliott.” Bakara says, his voice taking a harsher edge than his normal tone. A chill runs up my spine and I lock eyes with the man, he's pushed the phone across the table to me, an address clear on the the screen. “We are going to have one quick chat, then you can run off and play hero.”

This is unexpected. I sit down again, checking the address on the phone “Hayward Logistics, Canal Docks” I know the place, not far, less than two hours walk.

 

“You should know in advance he's not alone, one of the Beetles is calling in old debts, your friend has more than a few bills to clear from what I've heard.” Dammit Mike, he'd never mentioned being in with the Gregories, much less one of their leaders. Bakara watched me with morbid fascination, his dark brown eyes scanning my face for any sort of reaction.

 

“Why?” I question, memorising the address and pushing the phone back. “I cannot give you anything in return.” That bloody smile returns.

 

“Because I know when to make an investment.” He pockets the phone once more; “You look to be a good one. Plus, it's always good to help those less fortunate than you.” He leans in, getting as close as he can without standing. “However, don't get this twisted Elliott, as I said equal exchange is all part of what I do. Call this a loan of information, not a lot more.” The words that come next ring like a death sentence. “You owe me.”

 

This is what I expected, debt is nothing new to me, but still, this rings ill. Drug dealers, Madame's and thugs, I have been in the books of all of those, bound to them by poor judgement and action on my part. Bakara seems different, like he's been waiting for me to turn up empty handed at his door, begging for scraps. For Mike, this is for Mike.

 

I can't fail again.

 

With grim resignation I incline my head to Bakara, who continues to smile, wrapping his fingers like some cartoon villain. I say nothing more and take my leave, my last sight of the butcher is as he picks up the cleaver once more and sets into the carcass on his desk. As soon as the door closes behind me I break into a jog, considering returning to the Brothel, no time, no time, she'll understand. The weight of my phone shifts in my pockets, my mind wanders to Haynes, I should tell him, he can bring one thing I cannot, guns and men who can use them. If what Bakara says is right, I will likely need them.

 

I punch in the number, bringing the phone to my ear and listening to the tolling bell of the dial tone and I charge down the street.

 

Pick up Haynes, I need you.

X – The Conference

By Benjamin Maunder

 

The sound of music bounced from the corridor walls as the man who would be Stag walked through them, his mask thankfully dampening the worst of the thumping beat. He moved with the illusion of confidence, head held high and back straight, only the slightest hint of the panic in his gut evident.

 

Thankfully for him, the long narrow service tunnel was uninhabited by men, and the opinions of cockroaches didn't bother him. As he walked he replayed the nights events in his mind, all the choices he had made that led him to this long lonely walk, to the future that lay beyond the door lit in the near distance. The music that assaulted his eardrums rang from the door, faint, yet loud enough to be heard. It's beat was fast and erratic, the composition of the song random and jagged, like something thrown together on an old computer. Stag frowned as it became clearer, the mask becoming less effective with each step. Whatever 'appened to the classics.

 

He stopped at the door, hand wrapped around the cool handle, thumping music causing the door itself to vibrate. In truth, he hadn't expected to come this far, to be stood at this gateway, fate had a cruel habit of crushing dreams after all. At his back lay the darkness of the past, in his hand the entryway to an unknown future, with a pained smirk he pulled the door ajar and stepped within.

 

An instant after the door was opened the music increased it's tempo, the door no longer hiding the worst of its melody. Whatever the sound was, it wasn't to Stag's liking, even more-so now.

 

The room beyond was relatively small, a windowed office no larger than a cupboard with a spartan desk and large leather-bound chair at it's centre, a champagne flute and ice chilled bottle of Arman Du Brinac sat upon the desk beside a tethered phone. Beyond the window a trio of young women contorted over one another, barely covered bodies writhing in concert with the beat. Their stage was flanked by three more of the offices, it was only by looking at them that Stag realised that the windows were mirrored, one-way mirrors was his assumption, the thought of who could be sat behind them ran a shiver up his spine.

 

Taking a seat Stag found himself enveloped in the fine cushioned leather of the chair, a contented smile formed under the mask as he revealed in his own comfort for a moment, before turning his mind back to business. Three green lights stared out at him from the phones receiver, a fourth red one was embedded besides a small button labelled “Conference”, tentatively, he depressed the button and raised the receiver to his ear, his eyes returning to gaze at the dancers.

 

Two low beeps signaled the line connecting.

 

“Line four, activated.” A robotic voice announced, before cutting off once more.

 

“Ah there you are Stag, I was starting to think you weren't going to show.” The voice was masked, but unmistakeably male, as it spoke the second light on the phone flickered.

 

“About time, can we send these women away now and get onto matters?” The second was female, also masked, but infinitely more familiar for it. There was little doubt that the voice belonged to Roach, the sole woman within the ranks of the Beetles, she was the third light.

 

“Let 'em finish at least, I'm enjoying the show.” The final of the three lit the first light, a rough accent audible behind the augmenter. A low growl of annoyance was audible in the brief moment of quiet, enough to show Roaches displeasure at the request and more than enough for the dancers to be dismissed via a single buzzer that lit up on one of the booths. As soon as the light burst into life the music stopped, lights flicked from a medley of brightly coloured strobes to a singular muted glow. The women knew their mark and rolled from one another and off of the stage, exiting the room shortly thereafter.

 

“Happy now?” Said the first light, “Never knew you were such a wet towel Roach.”

 

“Well I always knew you were a pig Bloody.” The voices confirmed Stags suspicions, the first and second lights were Bloody-Nose and Roach respectively, which could only mean that the third belonged to Cardinal. Behind the safety of the mirrored glass Stag removed his mask and sipped at the freshly poured drink, cool bubbles tickling the inside of his mouth.

 

“Now now,” Cardinal spoke, “Less of the childishness, we are here for a reason.”

 

“Quite.” Roach asserted, the anger in her voice melting away. “Firstly, I believe there was some talk to be had about our Dragon. Or more precisely, why he isn't already dead.”

 

“Have we confirmed who he is yet?” Stag interjected, the voice modulator in the phone immediately masking him.

 

“Yes, it looks like Roaches Intel was bang on the money, McKenzie is our man.” Cardinal continued, “Bloody-Nose was looking into the addresses we pulled, with luck, he has some good news for us.”

 

Bloody-Nose immediately stepped in, the modulators making it a little difficult to differentiate one from the next.

 

“Mixed rather than good. I had all three places checked out and didn't get much, 'is old 'ouse is still occupied. Brother, 'is kids, must be 'anging about for t'will or something” an audible intake of breath signaled Roach about to speak, her light flickering.

“And before anyone asks, no, I didn't beat that 'outta them. I 'ave some finesse when its needed.” No one rose to interrupt. “As for the other two places, 'is loft and fire station, one was torched from inside out and the other was useless.”

 

“Torched?” Stag enquired, his curiosity peaked. “What 'appened there?”

 

“Not too sure, the lads think it was done on purpose though. Maybe McKenzie was looking to cover 'is tracks after whatever 'append, if so, he's bloody good at it. Other than that though, he's a ghost.”

 

“There's some irony there as a man supposedly dead.” Roach mumbled, you could almost picture the wheels in her head falling into one another as she spoke, setting a dangerously intelligent mind into motion.

 

The initial reports on McKenzie had shown he had burned to death in a warehouse fire, though no body was ever found several explosions had flung debris into the Thames, it was assumed his corpse had done the same. The Beetles now knew otherwise though, Conner McKenzie had since taken to covering himself in a fireproof suit and attacking their operations with a flamethrower. Initially the attacks were ignored as a some wack-job off his meds, but a few weeks in, survivor stories reached their ears through the corpses that whomever this man was, he was on the warpath.

 

“Then we are running low on options it would seem.” Cardinal offered. “Perhaps its time to call in a professional to help? The expense will be negligible next to our current losses.”

 

“Did you have anyone in mind” Bloody-Nose seemed excited by the prospect, or just happy to see and end to their Dragon problem.

 

“Sands? He's quick, effective and above all, discreet.” Cardinal offered.

 

“No.” Roach replied, in a distracted manner. “He refuses to work with us after the Oxford job, apparently it left a sour taste.”

 

“Pussy, I say we go with Cole then, he ain't the quietest but he gets it done, leaves a fucking message too when he does.” You could hear Bloody-Nose's grin as be spoke. Unlike Sands, Cole Black was a name that brought memories with it, of charnel houses and butchered bodies, if Sands was a scalpel Cole was a chainsaw. Stag shivered at the memory of cleaning up after Cole's last job.

 

“He does, but he also leaves a trail 'alf a mile wide.” Stag spoke, doing his best to convey authority.

 

“We should deal with the issue in-'ouse, saves this leaking out to the other families as well, they 'ear we couldn't deal with 'im then we look weak.” Murmured agreement followed, he smiled at the success of his statement. “We might not know where he is, but we know where his blood is...”

 

“My thinking exactly.” Roach said, her mind back in the conversation. “Let me collect them, we'll have our Dragon running after them like a lost puppy in a day at most. Plus, if they have any idea

where he could be, I'll find out.”

 

“You've already been told that won't work Roach.” Cardinal snapped, a little too quickly. “You've been pulled from this job for a reason, your ideas have a nasty habit of implicating the business. Stag and I will deal with this.” As he spoke Stag sat in quiet surprise, everything was as it should have been, Cardinals reaction may as well have been read from a script he didn't know he was reading. Now it was his line.

 

“Cardinal.” He paused allowing attention to be drawn back to him, “I believe that Roach's plan 'as merit. We've been playing the old game until this point and it's gotten us nowhere, it's time we adapted an' Roach knows the new rules better than we do.”

 

“But that's not the Gregories way.” Cardinal argued whilst both Roach and Bloody-Nose sat in silence, observing the changing tides.

 

“The Gregories way is to survive, no matter the threat we outlast it, before we grind it under our boots like every other opposer we've ever had.” Stag stood as he spoke, infusing his words with a well preformed anger. “That's the Gregories way.” Silence hung for a moment as he finished, bringing himself back to a cold demeanour and seating himself once more. Roach was the first to break the quiet, her smug tone impossible to mask.

 

“Well said Stag, I couldn't have said it better myself.” Cardinal's light flickered as he slurred to himself choking back any words he wanted to say. “I will have his wife and son in our care by the morning news.” Stag smiled, mirroring the expression he knew Roach would be wearing and relaxing into comfort once more. It seemed the gamble was paying off, now it was just a matter of keeping the odds in his favour.

 

“Well, if we're all done with that. We do 'ave another problem that's sprung up.” Bloody-Nose said reminding everyone of his presence. Stag raised an eyebrow in response, this was unexpected which in turn, meant it was bad.

 

“What problem?” He asked, leaning forward in his seat.

 

“Well one of my boys recently found out that the MET 'ave stumbled onto our dumpin' ring. Though they don't know it's us yet, it ain't an 'ard leap to make, we need'a nip it in the bud now.” He sounded casual as he spoke, as if what he said was a minor irritation to the Beetles rather than a potentially damning wrench in the machine. Stag shrugged to himself, one man was barely a problem that couldn't be resolved.

-

“Do you have a name?” He enquired.

 

“Yeah, Detective James Haynes South-gate division.” Bloody-Nose replied, “Only stumbled 'cross it by accident, but he's run it straight to the top o' the food chain. Shouldn't take much to rub 'im out.”

 

“We should have him killed.” Cardinal muttered coldly, his fouled temper clear. “Before he jeopardises more of our work.” Bloody-Nose grunted in agreement, it was only Roach cutting in that stopped Stag giving the order.

 

“No, we should leave him alone.” The interjection caught the assembled by surprise, if Roach was known for one thing, it was not her mercy.

“Why th' fuck would we do that?” Bloody-Nose asked mirroring the thoughts of each other member of the assembly.

 

“Because this could be a sign.” Roach stated, Stag turned his eyes to the heavens Hell of a time to get poetic. “I've been meaning to raise this issue for a while now and this seems the perfect time to do so. I believe that we should abandon the dumping, cut our ties with the Unshirri and move on, the risks are mounting day by day.”

 

“What risks?” Cardinal piped up again, possibly eager for an opportunity to reassert his dominance over her. “Barring this incident the dumping has proven to be nothing less than a profitable venture.”

 

“Its not just profit Cardinal.” She hissed in retort. “Ever since the Unshirri stepped foot in our city things have taken a turn for the worse.” Stag readjusted the receiver on his ear, it was alien to hear Roach speak like this, she was normally more reserved, secretive. “You may not notice it but I have made it my business to see everything they do. Barring the Sedis distribution they have us handling are you aware of the abductions? Murders?”

 

“You're talking nonsense.” Cardinal said, his tone contemptuous. “Seeing threats where there are none. Our partnership with the Unshirri is one of our best alliances, without them our movement into China would have been impossible.”

 

“That's irrelevant!” Roach snapped, “Whatever they have planned is bigger than us and personally I feel we should distance ourselves from it, even if it costs us a little progress, better than being caught up in whatever they have planned.”

 

“Hold up, you said abductions?” Bloody-Nose weighed in, “Who have they taken?”

 

“No one of import, hobos mostly, but that's not the point is it. Regardless of who they are taking, its the fact they are and they are doing so without a single thought to the repercussions. Did you not wonder why police presence has increased? Because the Unshirri are making more ripples than we planned, frankly, the money isn't worth the increased risk. We should cut ties, let this Haynes character follow the trail back to the Unshirri, from there it's no longer our problem.”

 

“What about the money?” Stag queried. “Is the risk not worth it?”

 

“Risk is always more preferable when you know the risks outcome.” Roach began, “And we don't know the outcome of this one. We took the job for the money, now we have a good enough hold on the city to function without it.” Stag sniffed, he didn't know the exact numbers but chances are she was right she was rarely wrong about these things, however that didn't stop the whole discussion from being a bizarre one.

 

“Why the sudden concern?” Bloody-Nose asked. “If things go south we'll deal with it, stuck up pricks in suits ain't nothin' we ain't dealt with before.”

 

“Bloody-Nose is right.” Cardinal agreed. “The long term risks are mitigated by the short term gains, there's no point cutting such a valuable relationship on someones 'Hunch'.” Stag gritted his teeth as they spoke against Roach this would come down to a vote, no question about it, Time to play your hand.

 

“I agree with Roach.” He said, speaking as bluntly as he could manage. “We need to better consider our alliance w'the Unshirri, we should take a step back and wait, see what 'appens and then reassess.”

 

“What?” Cardinal asked irritation edging his aged voice. “Have you taken complete leave of your senses Stag? Or has Roach just wormed her way into your head? We cannot simply back out of this deal, the Unshirri are powerful people and I severely doubt they would look favourably on us for cutting and running.”

 

“Your utter cowardice is growing increasingly irritating Cardinal.” Roach hissed, “Grow some balls and realise when you're wrong.”

 

“Wrong?” He retorted, Stag remained silent, willing Bloody-Nose to do the same. “My ways haven't been wrong over the last 40 years, if it weren't for them...”

 

“We would have never taken a dime back in the day, yes yes Cardinal we understand. What you seem unable to understand is that unlike you, the world has changed and it doesn't run on good will and empty threats anymore. We're all part of a great all consuming machine now, one that is Fueled by carrion and blood, we simply shovel that fuel and make sure we don't get dragged in as well.” Stag curled a lip as she spoke, not sure where her fervour had been drawn but all too happy it was not directed at him.

 

“So Cardinal, if you want to play this game the old way go for it, but when you are dragged beneath the wheels of progress and ground into a mass of blood and shattered bone, remember I offered you an out.” Roach punctuated the end of her assault with her raised voice, Stag could picture her stood in her booth, receiver held out before her as she yelled her own bleak truths. Once more he considered his latest decisions.

 

It took several long seconds before Cardinal replied, his voice was a mix of defeat and exhaustion, a man who has just become aware that the world has moved on without him.

 

“Very well.” He said, plain as day. “Then you will forgive me if I take my leave. This has grown tiresome.” He didn't wait for a reply before he disconnected , his light on the phone flicking to a bright red in place of the green. The sullen silence lasted a significantly shorter time this time around, Bloody-Nose breaking the silence with an extended exhale.

 

“Well that got dramatic.”

 

“Indeed.” Roach agreed, “Regardless of the old mans change of heart we should continue. What's next Bloody?”

 

Bloody-Nose grunted in agreement and began to speak of recruiting numbers, of how the new family members were streaming from across the city looking for a piece of the action. As he spoke, Roach reclined in her lavish leather-back chair, her porcelain mask playing between her delicate fingers as she wore a smile as wide as a Cheshire cat. The meeting had gone exactly as she had expected, almost every single action falling into place as she had fore planned. Stag was playing the part admirably, Bloody-Nose had learned his place and soon Cardinal would know his.

 

She sipped on a flute of wine, ideally listening to Bloody-Nose prattle on about unimportant matters and reflecting on the newest news. If the police officer mentioned earlier was as close as Bloody-Nose suggested then she would have to waylay his efforts, last thing she wanted was for him to be hurt in the line of duty after-all. Especially when everything was going so marvelously well for her.

XI – By the Cover of Night

By Benjamin Maunder

 

The lights of dock 13 were long since dark by the time Officer Haynes drove past them. He kept his headlights low, trying to avoid unwanted attention. Hayward Logistics was just ahead, nestled amidst grated metal fences and perched on the edge of the misty canal. He frowned as he regarded its bleak exterior, recalling how long the business had been implicated in his investigations. Until now, there had never been enough evidence to warrant a closer look.

 

Until now...

 

From the car, he watched as a small cluster of men walked the perimeter fence. No ordinary dock workers, the men seemed set on a slow patrol, circling the edge of the grounds in their heavy storm coats and grim demeanour's. He watched carefully, noting how long each circuit seemed to take them as he readied his service pistol from its hidden holster by his seat.

 

As they finally moved out of sight he took his chance, crossing the street swiftly with fearful glances for any camera he might have missed or any unknown guard lurking in the shadows. Using the crates and parked cars to avoid notice he slipped past the 'dock-hands' to reach the edge of the building. Up ahead he could make out a clutch of men talking urgently among themselves, more than one openly carrying hunting rifles and sawn offs. He cursed internally, grinding his teeth in annoyance at the thought of Elliott's idiotic charge to get his friend back. Carefully Haynes glanced down, his mood only further soured as he realised his backup was late and showed few signs of arriving soon. He sighed, noting Burdock's absence whenever the shit seemed to hit the fan like this. The thought became only stronger as a group of men chuckled a short distance up ahead, between them carrying enough firepower to level a small house.

 

As soon as they passed from view he slipped from his hiding spot, scampering into the cover of the storage shed nearby. Thankfully the door was unlocked and the interior barren, barring the steel drums that lined the walls. Clicking the lock into place behind him Haynes breathed a sigh of relief and knelt on the ground, keeping low of the nearby windows.

 

Ensuring the screen was dimmed Haynes pulled his phone from the pocket of his stab vest, a single LED light signalled a text from Elliott, “Warehouse 3, Crane closest to the Canal.”

 

'Blunt as ever.' He thought as he pushed the phone back into place, scouring the room for some kind of map as he did so. With luck a fire safety leaflet hung on the nearby wall, tattered and well worn but clear enough to guide him with some degree of accuracy so he shoved in into his pocket for further reference.

 

He exited the shed cautiously, muttering an idle prayer for the coast to be clear as he stepped back into the night, pistol drawn. The map proved exact, allowing Haynes to duck around the worst of the patrols and loop behind the main building towards the warehouses, thankfully noting the reduction in “dock-hands” the further he moved from the main building.

 

An unlocked gate led him into the first warehouse, large yet empty with only a few rats scurrying about the floor to add any signs of life. Not stopping to enjoy the company he hurried through, only momentarily ducking into the darkness as the sounds of laughter drew worryingly close and a pair of sozzled guards passed. Kicking a cockroach aside he moved on, sliding under a nearby shutter and slipping past the next warehouse as quickly as he dared.

 

Rounding the rear of the second Haynes melted from the shadows, his pistol now warily raised before him. A chain-link fence ran the boundary of the third building with barbed wire encompassing it's top, Haynes contemplated climbing it, but a youthful scar on his waist warned him off the idea. Instead he danced from cover to cover, keeping low as much as possible and hunting for a break in the fence. Though none seemed apparent, he had never wanted for bolt cutters before in his life. Surprise took him as he finally came to the warehouse gate.

 

A flash of a torch caught his eye, bringing his attention to the crumpled form of a dock-hand sprawled over the dirt with blood gathering at his mouth. Beside him the gate was forced open, its broken padlock discarded.. Switching off his torch before it drew unwanted attention, he approached cautiously.

 

The thug had been fortunate. Brutal as the hit had been, the man was still breathing. Checking around him, Haynes swiftly pulled him aside, leaving him out of sight in recovery to question later.

 

To Haynes relief, from the gate it was a clear run to the crane nestled by the Canal-side.. It was at the crane he found Elliott, truth be told, he smelt him first. His old friend lurked beneath the inner workings of the crane, leering out of the dark towards the fourth and final warehouse.

 

“You stink.” He announced as he stepped under the crane, covering his nose and raising an eyebrow. “Crawl through a sewer or sumin'?”

 

“Yeah.” Elliott didn't turn to greet him, his focus far too locked on the movement of men in the next warehouse. “Took your time.” He said causing Haynes to shrug as he stood next to him, crinkling his nose as the stench of sewage permeated the night.

 

“Seriously Elliott, you reek of shit. What possessed you to take the sewer?” Elliott thrust his thumb towards the second Warehouse.

 

“Run off pipes come out over there, right on the dock.” He nodded towards the pistol Haynes held loosely at his side. “Don't all have guns, indirect works better.”

 

“Indirect? Tell that to the poor bastard face down in the dirt back there.” Haynes raised an eyebrow at his friend. “I assume that was you?” He nodded in response, facing Haynes directly for the first time. Light played across his features revealing the gaunt mockery of the young man Haynes once knew, his cheeks were sallow, hidden beneath a matte of thick black hair that coated his lower face. Heavy black bags hung beneath his eyes and spoke of the exhaustion he must be feeling. A twinge of guilt bit at Haynes gut, the same one that emerged each time he saw what had become of Elliott.

 

“We need to go.” Elliott turned away again, removing the coat he wore as he spoke, sending a torrent of stagnant water tumbling from it's hood. Haynes twisted his lips and looked out to the final Warehouse, a single flatbed carrying truck was entering the gates, floodlights atop the warehouse itself swivelling around to mark its arrival and illuminate it's progress.

 

“Do we even know he's in there?” He asked, “We should hold here, wait for my back-up and storm the place, charging on alone is blatant suicide. Like you said, you don't even have a gun.” Elliott shrugged before pointing to the truck as it drew up besides the side of the warehouse, two sliding doors opening to allow it entrance. As it pulled into place the rear doors swung outwards and several figures disembarked, hopping from the cargo area and straight into the warehouses itself with a number of boxes being unloaded after.

 

“Third truck like that now..” Elliott muttered. “Second had prisoners, men in hoods” he turned to Haynes, determination steeled in his eyes. “I'm going in, wasted enough time already.” He didn't wait for a reply before starting to march out from the cover of the crane towards the now closing doors of the Warehouse. Haynes swore under his breath and jogged after him, checking his phone as he did so irritated to see no word from Burdock.

 

“Do you have a plan at least?” He whispered, the two of them crossing into the darkness of a nearby loading bay.

 

“No.”

 

“Know where he is? How many people are in there?”

 

“No.” Irritation became a low throb of anger in the Detective's temple, enough to cause him to stop in place and look over his friend with a look of dumbfounded surprise.

 

“Fucking hell Elliott I knew you had a death wish but this is blatent suidice!” He glanced about as he hissed at him, wary of any unseen onlookers. “We need some semblance of a plan before we just walk through the front door, haven't you seen the heat these bastards are packing already?” Elliott returned the look but didn't respond, Haynes supposed he knew that he was right and continued.

 

“We cannot just march over there bold as brass, we need to sneak in, get some idea whats waiting for us.” From their covered position he glanced out, scouring the warehouse for some blind spot where the floodlights couldn't reach. Blazing white beams moved about the area, laying every inch of the grounds plain to see. Whilst this made observations more than a trifle it also meant that there was no way of getting anywhere near where they needed to be without being made.

 

“Once we know what we're dealing with...” he muttered, thinking out loud. At his back Elliott shifted uncomfortably in place, clenching and unclenching his fists with worrying regularity, once or twice he muttered something under his breath, though Haynes paid him no mind.

 

Elliott mentioned run off pipes. He thought as a light passed over a boat docked to the west, Though I suppose he would have come out there if that were the case. The beam moved over a number of storage crates that seemed to give ample cover, though he doubted that they would be able to reach them in the first place. A thud echoed behind him as Elliott smashed his hand against one of the walls, teeth bared and muttered comments becoming more audible.

 

“Have to go, they won't wait, we can't wait. Need to go, need to...” Haynes nervously eyed his friend, this wasn't usual, not even for him. Turning his attention back his gaze followed the floodlights as they once more lapped the compound, before running over the base of the crane lying just beyond the boundary fence. An idea crashed into Haynes like a runaway train, a thin smile working its way across his lips as he followed the boom of the crane up, a feeling of satisfaction running through him as he saw the jib hanging over the roof of the warehouse.

 

“There.” He pointed, Elliott broke from his muttering to spy the crane. “We climb up and jump onto the roof.” He stood, passing a glance around the cranes platform, happily noting how bare it was. “There's no-one near by and the cranes workings will give us some cover from the light, should get us on the roof with ease.” Elliott too noted the connection and nodded, face grim but ready. Haynes swore there was no small amount of matted blood in his beard.

 

“Lets go.” The street-fighter growled as the two disembarked from their hiding spot and skulked towards the crane. Silently they approached, a gate much like the earlier one blocking their way. Two men flanked it, thin trails of smoke leaking from their smouldering cigarettes as they watched the approaching trucks.

 

Elliott dropped the first, wrapping his hands around his neck through the chain-link fence and pulling back, choking the thug into unconsciousness. Haynes surprised the second with the barrel of his pistol, pressing it coldly against the base of his skull and demanding the gates keys. As soon as the keys were surrendered Elliott slammed his closed fist into the mans forehead, sending him sprawling against the fence in a heap. Haynes ensured the gate was locked behind them.

 

After hiding the unconscious men they moved on, ducking thrice from view as the floodlights passed by before rushing forward to the next spot. When they reached the base of the crane the two stopped briefly to catch their breath and take stock of the situation, the crane extended upwards roughly 40ft, stretching right over the rooftop of the warehouse where several dozen windows lay with the warehouses internal lighting peeking our from within.

 

As he looked on Haynes remembered one thing, how very much he hated heights. With a low groan of grief he prepared to move, stepping onto the platform before Elliott's firm hand moved him to one side, a length of rope now hanging from his waist and a broken crate beside him.

 

“Wrap this around your waist.” he offered, handing out the sheet. “I'll go first, if you go, I'll support.” Haynes raised an eyebrow, surprised by the offer but needn't be told twice. Secured together they began the climb, Haynes heart beating like a steel drum with each rung as he tried to force himself to continue looking up and away from the deadly fall that loomed so close.

 

Below them men milled like ants as the warehouse doors briefly opened once more to allow a swathe of dock-hands out, unmarked barrels and crates in hand as they loaded the nearby ship. Elliott looked down at them as he clambered onto the jib strut, gripping the rope around him to offer Haynes more stability. He recognised a number of the men in the crowd, one he had even shared a meal with a few weeks prior, it seemed to him that the Gregories managed to drag anyone into their little family, preying on the weak and offering them an out that would never come.

 

With Haynes safely up the two men moved across to the roof, the guy line acting as a support as they hurried across. Their path took them over one of the floodlights, which Haynes was glad to see was unmanned, a hiccup in the plan he was hoping they could avoid.

 

“You okay?” Elliott asked as the two reached a drop off point, he having already jumped down and removed the rope. Haynes nodded, though did so with all the assurance of a man clearly lying.

 

The rope was abandoned on the crane hook, tied in place so as not to draw attention if anyone happened to be patrolling the roof, which would be the least of their worries if so. An ajar window nearby allowed them entry to the warehouse, dropping onto one of the steel rafters connecting the upper grating of the building to the rest. Haynes moved in first, pistol once more drawn and readied in preparation for any unexpected guests.

 

The interior of the warehouse was packed, thousands of steel drums and unmarked boxes crowded the floor and shelves, dozens more men and women milled through them carefully extracting select ones to be moved and replaced. To Elliott it meant little but Haynes recognised the barrels almost immediately, a surge of anger mixed with clarity rushed through him as he started to piece the puzzle together.

 

“You little bastards.” He hissed removing his phone from its case and snapping a few photos from his vantage point before a grunt from Elliott grabbed his attention. Elliott at this point had made his way further down the rafters and was currently squat above an office built into the second floor, the roof of the office was broken up by a large window that he was ushering Haynes to. Carefully picking his way over Haynes began to hear what had so caught Elliott's curiosity, a woman's voice, heavily distorted by some machine but undoubtedly female, floated up from the opened skylight.

 

“This could have been easier gentlemen.” The voice crooned, “If you had paid on time, well we wouldn't have this problem would we.” Haynes moved next to Elliott, below them the window allowed partial sight into the room, the lower half of a woman in a black business suit paced the floor, a power drill hanging menacingly at her side. Before her five figures knelt, bags obscuring their faces and their backs to Elliott and Haynes, more shadows were visible on the edge of visibility but little more.

 

“However, I sadly have to call in the debts.” The power drill revved punctuating her threat and several of the figures shuddered, one struggled at the wire around his hands, Haynes could make out a thin line of blood running from his wrists. She stepped forward moving fully into view, a white porcelain mask covered her face, dozens of blood droplets marring it's otherwise perfect surface. With a free hand she lifted the bag on one of the figures, whomever was inside whimpered in protest but seemed too weak to resist.

 

“And what you can't pay, I'll take in other ways.” The drill snapped forward, spinning through the thick burlap and into the soft meat within. A wet crack filled the air before being drowned out by a shrill scream and the howl of the power drill, the bag contorting and thrashing as it was stained red from the inside. Haynes looked on in shock, his body failing to respond as he demanded it move to help, beside him Elliott too seemed frozen in place though his eyes has widened to an unsettling size.

 

Men screamed and unseen voices chuckled as the drill was wrenched free, spraying grey matter about the room as the body slumped free of its grip.

 

Haynes gun had raised, the barrel trained expertly on the centre of her mask, trailing after her as she took a step back a shook the drill clean of blood and hair. He moved without through, with nary a dream of mercy present. Elliott said something as he dropped from the rafters onto the roof, stumbling as he touched down.

 

A modicum of thought returned as the shock faded and he remembered his duty. The mask could only mean one thing; the woman was one of the Beetles, one of the self proclaimed lords of the Gregories. The rumours had been true and she had been caught red handed. He shifted the pistol, readjusting his aim to her shoulder as she stepped before the next victim. He could not afford to miss this chance to capture her and he scowled in annoyance knowing the backup had still not arrived. As he did so, Elliot raced towards the opening.

 

Then the explosion came.

XII – The Confrontation

By Benjamin Maunder

 

Before it pierced his flesh I could feel him screaming. Not audibly, no, little more than a frightened whimper left his lips. But in my skull I could feel his horror, the final thumping heartbeats as his brain was liquefied with a power drill. They came like a torrent of water, faint drips drawing me across the rafters towards them, the closer I got the more they beat, like rain on a tin roof.

 

Thump.

 

The man who died, I'll never know his name but the sound in my skull will stick, like a rabbit caught in a trap, squealing and screaming as blood rushed into his eyes and filled his mouth.

 

Thump-Thump.

 

Haynes and I watched as he was executed. Powerless and meek, an agony of noise ruled my mind and held my body in a vice. I wanted to help.

 

I couldn't.

 

Thump-Thump-Thump.

 

The drill pulls free, showering the floor around it in crimson. I can hear true howls now, of pain and of amusement, mixed from different voices within the room. The drums continue through, rapid, uneven and heavy. Fear drives them, no matter the voice, except one.

 

Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump.

 

One is even, one is calm. My eyes free themselves and I find myself staring at the blood-flaked smile on porcelain features.

 

Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump.

 

My lip curls, anger edges my vision in the deepest reds and my teeth grit. Whoever he was, whomever he left behind, I'll make the Gregories pay their dues, every bloody drop. The skin on the back of my neck itches as the stink of death wafts into my nose. Like the finest opiate it sends a shiver through my bones.

 

Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump.

 

A glimmer of light flashes from the pistol in Haynes hand as it raises towards her. I let myself fall from the rafters, rolling forward when I hit the roof below me and raising on all fours like a beast. I should have a plan, something beyond rage. But Mike is likely in there, next on the chopping block. Can't let that happen.

 

I'll hit her first, drop from above and re-purpose the drill. Haynes should have my back, cover me whilst I use her for leverage. I breathe deeply, inching forward as alternate ends run through my head, of bullets ripping me to shreds before I can do anything, of a drill ramming though my eye.

 

Can't doubt, don't have the luxury. I reach the edge of the window, lurk beyond view and steel myself. Above me Haynes readies his pistol, I swear to god if he wings me with that thing. I go to move, then the world shakes.

A single catastrophic sound fills the air drowning out all other noise and the building fills with the red orange bloom of fire. Force flings me backwards from the window and I crash bodily against the concrete roofing, dashing my head and sending everything into a hazed mess of colours and noise.

 

I roll until I hit a wall, finding the sudden impact somewhat dampened by shock or something like it. Slight returns with merciful quickness though sound chooses otherwise. A ringing holds in my ears as I pick myself up and blink the world back into place. Haynes has fallen from the rafters, collapsed into a heap on the roof though he's slowly moving. Glass and dust tumbles from the roof across the warehouse, reds and flickering fire dancing from the falling glass.

 

Stumbling forward I move towards Haynes, trying to get a clear view of whats happening, of where the explosion originated. Voices call out from below, reaching up from the window break, muffled through shell-shock but still there.

 

“-ind out what's going on! Get up Simon, it's only glass!” Woman's voice, I think, angry one way or another.

 

Far from me, on the other side of the building, the great steel door that blocked us entry has been blown inwards, bent in upon itself in a twisted mess of blackened metal. Oil fed flames leak through the break, snapping greedily out at the poor buggers who held the misfortune of being a few steps too close. Wails of pain echo through the room as they are devoured by savage flames that spread far more rapidly than they should.

 

“'Ell?” Haynes pulls himself up to his knees, head cradled in one hand as blood wells from a fresh wound. “Wha the fuck?” He looks over to me at the scene beyond and becomes as transfixed as I by what we see.

 

The fires no longer spread, no, that's the wrong word to describe them. They charge, quickly and directly for their closest target, bounding across the wreckage like a starved hound after an easy meal. I have to look twice to believe what I see, Haynes rubs his eyes in disbelief as he does the same. We look on as a curling tongue of fire lashes over a crate, flinging one of the Dock-hands onto his back before lurching over and coalescing on-top of him, bestial and predatory in it's movements. Around the opening this scene repeats itself time and again, with fire seemingly springing to life just to reduce every living thing nearby to ash.

 

In seconds every man and woman who stood near the door lies engulfed in fire, reduced to a crisping corpse. The soft crackling of now static fire being the only sound. It seemed that we were all waiting for the next act in some horrific play.

 

“Sorry for the dramatic entry!” A voice echoes out across the whole warehouse, suddenly and unbidden. The voice is measured, confident, mocking, as if making fun of the horror unfolding below. Haynes looks on in horror, eyes flicking around the room, hunting for the voice's owner whilst the faintest hint of a smile plays on his lips.

 

“It's him...” He mutters, thinking aloud.

 

“But you must know by now that I have a flare for this type of work!” Each word reverberates through the rafters, difficult to track, I snarl in annoyance as a hand taps my shoulder and Haynes pulls my attention back to him mouthing a word and gesturing back at the window behind us.

 

Micheal. I'd almost forgotten him in the commotion. I nod and we turn back as the faceless voice calls out again.

 

“I have a burning question for everyone here tonight! Where is Roach!?” Another roar of flame punctuates him, erupting from a number of oil drums besides the rear door and sending a small group of fleeing men to crash ablaze into a stack of crates. Haynes and I bolt back to the window, wherein the woman is spitting orders towards a rapidly armed group of men, another explosion rings out in the warehouse sending a chorus of screams into the air.

 

“I have a short fuse everyone! Best not keep me waiting!” The woman is clearly shaken, the cool demeanour she displayed earlier burned away by fear. We move into place on either side of the window as she grabs at a man in a black suit, his face mere inches from hers as she hisses at him.

 

“You want your subjects take 'em, but you bloody well make sure we all make it outta here.” Haynes nods at me, another explosion, more fire wraps about in the air. Time's more than up. I drop through the hole.

 

I land on the woman, pushing her down with the momentum and pinning my elbow against the base of her skull. Before anyone can react Haynes fires twice after me, each shot slamming into the steel mesh at our feet and sending a shower of sparks into the air.

 

“On the ground! Metropolitan Police!” He barks the order, more authority in his voice than I have heard before. I smirk as I drag the woman up to her feet and wrap my arm around her neck. Six men glare at me, irons in hand and looks of murderous intent in their eyes. Exits to their back, should have checked that, shit.

 

“On the ground!” Haynes shouts again, I feel my captive pull against me to look back, try to steal a glimpse of him but I tighten my grip, feel her blood pumping.

 

“James?” She whispers.

 

How does she know that? Who the hell is this broad?

 

“Take 'em out!” One of the men shouts, I barely have time to drop her before the bullets start flying.

“WAI-” She shouts out, flinging her arm forward as a hail of gunfire expertly fills the air where my head lay an instant before. I don't see where she lands as I roll behind a metal desk, bullets ricochet around me and shred the filing cabinet. Paper bursts out in a million scraps and the torrential sound of automatic pistols and sub machine guns roar at me.

 

Tables fucked, won't hold up. I steal a glance in a mirror before it is reduced to shards, no exit. One of the six advances, shotgun in hand as a well placed shot from Haynes drops him, the bullet ripping through the bastards left eye and sending a crimson shower into the room.

 

“Run Elliott!” He shouts out amidst the noise even as he's forced to move away from the window.

 

I'm pinned. No question, no doubt. My cover is disintegrating around me. The only way I'm leaving here is in a fucking body bag. A bullet tears across me, spraying a gout of red across the wall, the impact barely moves me and the pain is non-existent. I stare at my own blood, hear the heartbeats of terrified men knelt behind the gunmen, behind the cowards. My lip curls, snarls.

 

I don't die here. We don't die here.

“Get in there Martin, drag the wretch out.” One shouts out, the bullets stop. I keep low, lurk beneath the desk.

 

“James get after the cop!” The same voice a second time.

 

“No! We leave now!” This time the woman, furious and to a lesser extent scared, a door opens and footsteps rapidly distance. A man steps around the desk with weapon raised, but his eyes flit back to her as she shouts her order. Perfect. I dart out, grab the barrel of the gun and pull it away from me, on instinct the trigger is pulled and a blast of shrapnel eviscerates the boxes behind me. A case ruptures and starts leaking a thick yellow gas around my feet.

 

I don't give the man a second shot and ram my fist into his windpipe, feel it fold into itself beneath my knuckles.

 

“Shit!” I wrap an arm around Martin and throw him forward towards the others, a gun barks and punctures his body. Served his purpose, I move past keeping low, my bones heavier than they should be.

 

Three more. One by the door, two in front. A snap shot catches my flank, I barely feel it as I barrel into another shoulder first slamming him into a pillar. Before he can recover I beat my left fist against his ribs and crumbing bone with each blow. I smell blood rush through a break in his skin and mix into the white of his shirt.

 

Red tinges my vision.

 

A blow catches my side and forces me off of the man, the butt of a rifle bruises my flesh. I stumble to regain my footed, swerving back to face my attacker as he spits in my direction, weapon raised at my gut. His friend slumps to the ground behind him, clutching at the blood-soaked wound at his side.

 

“Fucking bastard!” He shouts, pressing down. I tense, times up.

 

Glass erupts to my back, a shower of slivered light bursts past me and the weight of a figure moves over my shoulder, fast as a blink, red and white with flame trailing in his wake. It rolls as it hits the ground and the fires roar past him, snapping at the air and leaping onto the gunman, his face contorted with surprise melting into terror.

 

He barely screams as the flames devour him, turning him into a fiery pyre.

 

“Ashes to ashes.” The figure chuckles to itself, rising from a crouch even as the fires return to him, lapping around his heels like a snake. Whoever he is he's clad in some white and red getup, a mask shaped into a gaping maw covers his face. Most importantly two balls of fire rest gently in his hands.

 

He turns on me, head twitching to one side as he looks me up and down.

 

“Where is she?” A demand rather than a question, assuming he means the woman I incline my head towards the door, suddenly aware of how heavy my body feels. Must be blood-loss, adrenaline. Either way, he notices something, does a double take on me as if not quite believing what he sees. His posture sags and the flame flicker.

 

“What the hell?” He steps forward, red still edges, my vision begins to muddy and blur, yet I can see the blood in his veins. Feel the heartbeats. He crosses the room, walking as quickly as I would run.

 

“I thought it was just me.” He mutters, as I catch the glint of an iron to his back. The man I dropped raises a pistol and fires. I don't consciously move, I've thrown him out of the way before I realise it, sending him tumbling to the ground beside me as the bullet careens into my chest. I catch a glimpse of the look my killers face.

 

Horror.

 

I close my eyes and wait for the bite.

 

And yet, none comes.

 

I open my eyes, to be greeted by fire. A mote of red darts past me, striking my would be murderer as he stares gormless in my direction. It strikes his chest and explodes, tongues of orange rushing across his body and drowning his agonised howls, his gun drops harmlessly to the ground.

 

I should be dead, bleeding out at the least. Looking down and running a bloodied hand over my chest I touch at a spot, bruised and aching with the slightest hint of rapidly vanishing pain. There is the smallest cut, spread out like a crater in my flesh, nothing more. I press against the wound and feel nothing. Only the beat of my heart, the subtle movement of bone.

 

What is happening?

 

“Urgh...” The masked mans moan startles me, I turn to see him shaking is head, still squat to the ground, blood is pumping from his side despite his efforts to staunch the flow with his hand. I swear I pulled him away, there was only one shot, must have been.

 

“Earlier wound...” he grunts, sensing my question. “Stitches must'a ruptured. Sunnuva bitch.” He pulls his hand away and flicks droplets of red away, you can hear the grimace. The Dragon looks up at me, settling into comfort.

 

“The woman, get after her, she escapes then what was the point of all of this?” No jokes now, no threats. Somehow that's scarier. I shake my head.

 

“No. Here for them.” I gesture to those still hidden behind the blackened skeletons. A wash of red illuminates the room as a swathe of fires moves past the window, for the first time I hear the gunshots outside, the roar of fire. “Nothing more.”

 

“Noble, but bloody stupid.” He grunts, sirens are audible beyond the din. “I'll get them out.” I try not to laugh, turn away instead, walk to one who looks familiar.

 

“She'll come back for them!” He shouts after me. “They won't go two days free before she comes knocking, it's the way she works! Let's hope set in before ripping it apart with a bloody hacksaw.”

 

I pass the door, a body lies just outside it, burning hole in it's chest. A walkway beyond leads outside. I glance down it.

 

“And if she can't get them, she'll go for families. Kids, wives. Gregories don't give a damn who they step on, long as they survive.” He's not wrong. Seen that first hand, caused it.

Mike's little girl turned five couple weeks back. Scrounged together enough scraps to buy her a doll. Little mucker gave me a hug when I handed it over. “Thank you Unkie 'Ell” It's ponytails matched hers.

 

I nod. Open the door and run.

 

Cops have broken in, warehouse is a war-ground. Flames rage between the lines of exchanging gunfire as the Gregories protect their own. I rush over it all, the metal grating below shaking with each step as I bolt towards the opening in the wall. A cool wind holds outside, a shimmer to air as heat from the warehouse rushes out. I shoot my eyes over the area in front of me, hunting for a hint of the woman.

 

A ruined truck lies smoking by the torn apart wall, a number of flashing police cars docked besides it, sheltering several officers. Crates and barrels litter the open ground as often as bodies in pooling blood, no woman. I take the steps into the yard two at a time, running as I hit the ground and darting behind a nearby crate as errant shots chase after me. A pipe swings as me from around a corner and misses, I slam it's wielder to the ground and stomp across his shoulder as I rush by.

 

The canal is at my side now, fog lights scouring path ahead of me and casting my shadow into the sky. A shape moves ahead of me, bolting through an opened gate and into the next warehouse. I feel their heartbeat, familiar. I follow after, ducking past an number of men laying into one another with bat and truncheon.

 

I give chase through shadows and light, gunfire and sirens beat the air as often as her heart. She's visible now, as I am, she fires blindly behind her with a weapon that barks like a bloodhound. Wood splinters around me and another shot skirts my arm, ruining my balance and giving her distance.

 

She passes into an alley, I round into it in time to see her unload into the face of some poor copper who'd blocked the way with a car. She piles over the bonnet and I do the same moments later, another shot backwards blowing the windscreen apart. I duck away and glance back out in time to see her vanish into the darkness of the Warehouse I had lurked within barely an hour before.

 

I follow, stepping into the dark as the sounds of sirens follow us. The whole facility is glowing in the blue and red lights of the Metro police. But they don't reach us.

 

The darkness wraps around me as I slip inside. I hear feet on steel, the sudden stop of the woman taking cover out of view.

 

Thump-Thump.

 

“Who the hell are you?” Her voice mimics the Dragon's from earlier, echoing around the room.

 

“No-one that matters.” I shout. Stalking past a group of crates. A beam of light cuts down through a gangway above, could have cause the echo.

 

Thump-Thump.

 

“Determined for a no-one.” The resounding clink of shell casings hitting the floor echos out, long drop. Definitely the gangway.

 

“So I'm told.” I growl, stairs are in the open. Shells... revolver? Need cover.

 

Thump-Thump.

 

“You aren't Police, that much is clear.” A bin lid finds it's way into my hand, a small sound I move it. “So what are you? Concerned citizen?” I step into the light. “Or some idiot with a death wish?”

 

The first shot cracks as quickly as I thought, I dive forward and shield my head with the bin lid, hitting the base of the stairs and clambering up like a dog. Another rips a hole through the lid, ricocheting off the hand rails. I straighten up and charge, reach the top of the stairwell roaring as I go, shield deflects another round with a sickening thud.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

I see her raise from behind a collection of barrels, already back-pedalling, quick, not quick enough. I close the distance and fling the shield as another round fires towards me. Doesn't work like in the movies, but it does the job, crashing into the folds of her suit and causing her to stumble back. I do the rest, vaulting the barrels and launching my foot towards her gut, sending her sprawling to the ground.

 

She kicks up when I rear over her, I catch the foot and pull backwards, dragging her towards me. A blade flashes from her sleeve, rips across my outstretched hand and sending a shower of blood out. I flinch and she swings again, dance back, avoid. Another and another, she's messy untrained.

 

Overreaches. I grab the arm and beat the bend of her elbow, feel the fracture and hear the shout. I don't see the second blade, catches my side and holds there, pain minor, vision blurring.

 

She wriggles free, re-close, slam into her abdomen. Catch a blow to the side of my skull, she's quicker than I thought. Gets around me, frees her knife. Backhand her chin, feel the mask splinter and break, she steps backwards and wipes blood from ruby lips. Spits. Looks.

 

“I know you.” She hisses, hazel hair leaking out. “Elliot bloody Thomas.” She's hazy, I rock from foot to foot, giddy, holding to lucidity by a hair. Red, so much red. “You brought him here didn't you, dragged him into your shit!” She's shouting, retreating as I stalk forward, the itch on my neck returning. Blood rushes from fresh wounds.

 

The air begins to boil. Crates below splinter and barrels twists as flames rush into the openings.

 

She steps outside, the gangway becoming more stairs. “You're a cancer Thomas! Infecting everything you've ever touched!” A blade clatters off my shoulder, she turns and flees.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

I'm after her, two, three steps a time. Behind fires rise, chasing up the crane we ascend. A wrench is pitched at me, chain, hard hat.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

We reach the top. A dizzying height, thin railing between us and a plummet. I walk forward as she looks over the edge, to the long drop into the canal.

 

“Give up.” I wheeze, lungs struggling to produce words. “Come, stop.”

 

“Fuck you, freak.” She matches my breathing. I feel the heat at my back, the metal bends and creaks in the fires. She turns, dropping the mask to the ground, shattering into pieces. The fires perfectly frame her familiar features, the brown eyes and thick locks.

 

“You'll regret this, all of this.” She scowls, leaning against the bars even as they bend and melt, the crane shifts under it's own weight. “I swear I will turn your world to dirt Elliott. Then I will bury you in it.”

 

The metal gives. She drops backwards.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

I hang on the edge, held by limbs I cannot see as fires rage around us. My hand is a claw, wrapped in alabaster and tipped in blood. In my grip is her arm, dangling over the precipice.

 

“No.” I growl through gritted teeth. “No. Death.”

 

She smiles, sickly sweet, dirt and smoke darkening her features.

 

“There's always death Elliott.” Her arm is slick, her flesh frays. Flames eat at her hair. “Always.”

 

She pulls and her arm comes free, sending her plummeting into the inferno.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

My eyes darken, my grip loosens.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

I slip.

 

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

 

Fall.

 

Thump-Thump.

 

Thump.