Authors: Stuart B. MacBride
For Grendel (my own fuzzy little serial killer)
There’s blood everywhere.
It sparkles in the artificial light like diamonds scattered onto dark-red velvet. It fills the air with the scent of burning copper and hot rust, tugging at her belly. It soaks through her jumpsuit, making the cheap fabric cling to her gaunt body like a second skin.
She falls to her knees in the filthy toilet cubicle; shuddering in ecstasy. With a trembling hand she reaches forward and touches something that looks like boiled beetroot, but isn’t.
Memories burst across her tattered brain: succulent, delicious memories. The hunt. The kill. The sweet, sweet release. She wants to moan, but no sound comes out…
For a long time she just sits there, surrounded by the fruits of her labour. And then, bit by bit, her mind begins to return. A mind she hasn’t used for over six years. All sharp edges and buzzing noise.
Bees and broken glass.
For the first time since the trial, she understands where she is: this is a toilet. Cheap, municipal tiles encrusted with human filth and coated in a film of blood. Pine disinfectant fighting against the acrid stench of old urine. Slowly she
stands, the sticky handful falling from her numb fingers, splattering against the floor.
As she steps out into the low room a cloud of flies startle into flight and dance drunkenly through the boiling air, in toxicated on haemoglobin.
Not bees. Bluebottles. They’re pretty.
She holds out a hand and one lands on a sticky red fingertip. Hairy little legs. Fragile glass wings. Her thumb jabs forwards, trapping the wriggling shiny body. Holding it there. It buzzes and wriggles. A tiny life.
And then, slowly, she squeezes till it pops. A little explosion of yellow. A tiny death.
Broken bluebottles and glass.
There’s a mirror mounted on the wall above the sinks. It’s cracked, layered with graffiti. Mimicking the room’s shabby contents: the dirty walls; the streaks of arterial red; the flies; and the thing in the bloodstained orange and black jumpsuit, staring right back…
Suddenly everything is still. Even the bluebottles settle, not daring to spoil the moment.
Tears blur her eyes as she finally understands what she has become. The face in the mirror is not the face of a human being, it’s the face of an animal. A killer. A halfhead. No hair, no mind and no lower jaw.
She can’t even scream.
‘Control, this is Delta One Four, do you copy?’
‘Affirmative Delta One Four. You are cleared to proceed.’
‘Jacobs, you’re on sweep. Phillips: back door. I’ll take point. On three, two, one…’ The heavy plastic door slammed back against the toilet wall and suddenly the low, stinking room was full of flies. ‘Move! Move! Move!’
Jacobs charged in, his Field Zapper pointing everywhere at once. Out in the corridor Phillips was facing back the way they’d come, covering the entrance. Detective Sergeant Cameron ran into the toilets…then slithered to a halt on the blood-smeared tiles. Seven years with the Bluecoats and she’d never seen anything like this. There was something dark and sticky smeared all over one of the toilet cubicles. It used to be a man.
DS Cameron reached one hand up and keyed the little switch buried beneath the skin of her throat.
‘Control…’ She turned her back on the butchered remains. ‘We’ve got a problem.’
‘Now, can anyone tell me what this is? Anyone? Yes, Sophie?’
A small girl in a neon-blue tabard dropped her hand and grinned a gap-toothed grin. ‘It’s a bad person.’
‘That’s right Sophie!’ The teacher smiled. They were good kids. ‘Now, can anyone tell me
they cut bad people’s heads in half?’
There wasn’t even a moment’s pause: all twelve of them leaped up and down screaming, ‘Because they’ve been naughty!’
To be honest, the halfhead they were staring at didn’t look all that naughty, just another poor soul who wasn’t going to cause any more trouble. A man with half a face, a fried brain, and a barcode tattooed on his forehead. He was slowly mopping his way across the entrance lobby, cleaning the marble-tiled floor until it sparkled. The small group followed him, ignoring the priceless works of art lining the walls. They’d found something much more interesting. Some of the children pulled faces, sticking out their top teeth, pulling in their chins and rolling their eyes. One or two of them pretended to clean the floor with special, invisible mops. It was amazing just how much imagination they had.
‘Now, then,’ the teacher said as they rounded the corner, ‘what do you think the bad person did? Nigel, what do you think? What did he do?’
Nigel examined his boots for a minute. ‘Wath he mean to thomebody’th cat?’
be naughty wouldn’t it?’
‘Yes!’ they screeched.
‘Excuse me.’ The voice came from a well-dressed man waiting for the lift.
‘Just a moment. Young persons, what do we say to the nice man?’
‘We don’t talk to strangers!’
‘That’s right!’ The teacher turned and beamed at the gentleman in the dark-blue suit. ‘Aren’t they clever!’
There was a slight pause, then the man said, ‘Delightful.’
‘We like to come here and look at all the pretty paintings, don’t we?’
For the first time the stranger smiled. Obviously the children had worn down his initial reserve. They’d taken someone they’d never met before and, in a matter of seconds, turned him into a friend. They were wonderful that way.
‘I couldn’t help overhearing your question, “What did he do?”’
Nigel jumped up and down, waving his hand in the air, desperate to be the centre of attention again. ‘He wath mean to thomebodie’th cat!’
The stranger reached forward and ruffled Nigel’s hair, bringing an even bigger grin to the lad’s face.
‘He was indeed. A lot of them are to begin with. Before they escalate.’ The man dropped down and winked at the circle of children. ‘Moths, frogs, cats, dogs…Then this one turned his attentions to little boys. He liked to cut their fingers off, one by one, and stick them somewhere dark and private.’
‘Ooh!’ A little girl tugged at the stranger’s sleeve. ‘Did he stick them up their noses? Did he? Nigel’s
sticking his fingers up his nose.’
‘No I don’t! Don’t lithen to her, she’th a poo-head.’
‘Er, look, I don’t think this is entirely appropriate.’ For the first time the teacher noticed that the stranger’s smile didn’t go as far as his eyes. In fact, now that he
looked, there was something decidedly sinister about the man. ‘Come on, children, we…er…have to be going.’ He gathered them together, trying to get them to safety, but the nasty man kept on talking.
‘Then, when they didn’t have any fingers left, he would cut off their toes. If they were lucky they died from shock. If not, they were still alive while he opened up their tummies. With a kitchen knife.’
‘That’s disgusting! How dare you!’
The lift doors pinged open and the man stepped backwards through them.
‘When we caught him there were fifteen little boys buried under his floorboards and three more in the freezer.’ His expression hardened as he stared straight into the teacher’s eyes. ‘Try and remember that next time you feel like taking the piss.’
A soft chime sounded and the doors began to slide shut. ‘What’s your name? I’ll report you to your superiors!’
Clunk. With a dry whirr the lift departed taking the horrible man and his unpleasant stories with it.
Safely cocooned within the glass-walled car the nasty man in the dark-blue suit reached up and keyed his throat-mike.
‘Control, this is Hunter,
tell me the staff lifts are going to be back online soon!’
A voice crackled in his earpiece:
‘Sorry, sir, Maintenance are still working on it. Won’t give us a completion time.’
‘There’s a surprise.’ Outside the lift’s glass walls Glasgow baked, waiting for the rains to come. They were late this year, the unbearably hot summer dragging on and on, outstaying its welcome by months. Everything looked on the verge of death. Himself included.
He watched his reflection slide across the glass, not liking what he saw. Dark-purple bags slumped under his eyes; his proud, squint nose sitting on a face that needed at least another eight hours sleep and a better shave than the one he’d given it. Somewhere along the way, genetics had sneaked up on him, startling his unruly mop of dark brown hair into a slow retreat. Every year a little more forehead went on display. Have to get a clonegraft organized. Not for a couple of years, but soon enough.
He dragged his eyes away, letting them drift across the Network’s shadowed forecourt. Here and there, small pockets
of wilted vegetation waited for the blistering morning sun. Another party of school children was being shepherded towards the main entrance, to be lectured on the importance of maintaining law and order. Look at the pretty paintings. Or just make fun of the halfheads.
A delicate ping heralded his arrival on the thirteenth floor and William Hunter stepped out into the corridor. Someone was waiting for him.
‘Sir.’ Private Dickson snapped off a salute. She’d swapped her usual grey jumpsuit for a dress uniform in black and chrome, a huge Bull Thrummer slung causally over her shoulder. The siege rifle was almost as big as she was, its massive tremblers sticking up past her head, the tines dangling down by her ankles.
‘Lieutenant Brand said to tell you the team’s assembled and ready to go, sir.’ She stood to attention and Will couldn’t help but smile.
‘Are you sure that’s what she said?’
‘Those were her exact words?’
Private Dickson wouldn’t look at him. ‘Em…more or less, sir.’
‘I can check, you know.’
She sighed. ‘Sir. The Lieutenant said: “Tell him to get his arse in gear before I kick it half way to Edinburgh for him.” Sir.’ Dickson’s face had turned a delicate shade of pink.
‘Well, we’d better not keep her waiting then.’
At the end of the corridor a pair of double doors hissed opened onto the staging zone. Will followed Dickson out onto the roof and into the open air. The sudden change from climate-controlled comfort to baking heat was like being punched in the chest. Every breath was an effort as they marched past the hopperpads towards a waiting Dragonfly.
The gunship sat on four squat, hydraulic legs, a huge
asymmetrical salmon sculpted from blackened steel. All of its weapons’ bays were closed; they wouldn’t need heavy artillery where they were going.
As Will and Dickson cleared the barrier rail the Dragonfly’s engines growled into life, the concrete landing pad shimmering in the downdraught.
They clambered up the rear ramp and into the relative cool of the gunship’s darkened interior. A familiar voice sounded in Will’s ear,
‘Mr Hunter, how nice of you to join us…’
‘Morning, Lieutenant.’ Will made his way down the ship’s drop bay, nodding at the troops as he passed, looking for a vacant compartment. They’d kept one for him at the far end, next to the passageway that led through to the cockpit, directly opposite the six-and-a-half-foot-tall cylinder no one wanted to look at.
He clipped himself in.
Immediately the sound of the ship’s engines changed, roaring up through the octaves to a high-pitched whine. The ground beneath his feet surged and Will went with it, riding the wave of steel as the Dragonfly leapt into the sky and accelerated away.
It was a quiet journey: none of the usual banter that went on in the belly of a Network gunship. They stood, quiet in their bays, thinking about where they were going and how close they’d been to joining Private Worrall.
Will tried not to blame himself for what had happened. Why should he? It wasn’t his fault: Worrall had been careless. Worrall wouldn’t follow procedure. Worrall
to be the big hero.
But it didn’t stop Will feeling responsible.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Are you going to speak, or do you want me to?’ Lieutenant Emily Brand sounded a lot more subdued than she had when he’d clambered aboard. She leant on the rail
surrounding his compartment, shifting her weight effortlessly as the Dragonfly roared through the sky.
Emily was built for this type of work: lean, muscled, auburn hair cropped so short it was almost shaved. Like the rest of her troops she was in dress uniform: black, tailored, four chrome bars on her shoulder to show her rank. They’d be sending Private Worrall off in style.
Will glanced across at the metal cylinder. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk if you’re not…’ He was going to say ‘up to it’, but to Emily that would sound like a challenge. ‘I’ll do it. God knows I’ve done enough of these things; got the speech off by heart.’
‘Yes.’ She looked away. ‘That’d probably be for the best.’
The Dragonfly tilted and Lieutenant Brand headed back to her command station next to the pilot, leaving Will with an almost inaudible, ‘Thank you.’
He watched her go then reached forward to switch on the monitor mounted above his booth. The screen crackled and fizzed with static from the engines, but the view from the ship’s front gun ports was still recognizable beneath all that white noise: Glasgow.
The river Clyde sparkled like a barbed-wire fence, winding its way slowly to the sea, hemmed in by the massive barrier walls that cut the city in two and wrapped all the way around the outside. Keeping the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea from swallowing it whole. On the south side of the river the city changed; there were none of the great ‘revivalist architectural projects’ or trendy sandstone communities. Over there it was all foamcrete and industrial plastic, a grey landscape of compressed urban habitation units sweltering in the sun.
Will watched as sunlight caught the windows of a massive connurb block, shining like a warning beacon against the depressing, angular landscape. ‘Stay away’ it said. Something cold marched down his spine. He didn’t need to be told twice.
‘Landing zone acquired: touchdown in three.’
He lurched against the harness as the Dragonfly’s engines howled into reverse, bringing the gunship to a juddering halt in midair. Didn’t matter what they were doing, they always flew these damn things as if they were going into battle.
sounded in Will’s earpiece, and then the signal cut out.
Up in the cockpit Lieutenant Emily Brand was arguing with someone on the comlink—Will couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was clear. It didn’t sound as if she was winning.
Finally her voice crackled over the tannoy.
‘Sorry people: change of plan. Bluecoats need backup and an SOC team. That means us. None of the other units can attend. I know it’s shitty and I know it stinks, but it’s orders. Start your engines people, Private Worrall’s funeral will just have to wait.’
The ship swung in the air and the engines roared again. Will watched as the nice side of the city disappeared from his monitor, replaced by the foamcrete jungle. They were heading straight for the towering connurb blocks.
‘Listen up, people: we’re going into a known hot zone and there are Bluecoats onsite, so no itchy trigger fingers and no heroics! I don’t want to be carting anyone else back in a body-bag.’
Almost everyone stole a glance at the canister opposite Will’s booth.
‘Target is: male toilets, main entrance lobby, Sherman House.’
Oh no. No, no, no, no, no…Will tightened his grip on the handrail, palms suddenly cold and damp. Curses flew around the drop bay as the troopers moaned about the target. But there was worse to come.
‘ASD Hunter will be in charge of the pickup team. Anyone who doesn’t do exactly what he tells them, when he tells them, will suddenly find themselves having a very bad day. Understood?’
Will barely heard the half-hearted chorus of, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He was too busy trying not to throw up.
‘I can’t hear you!’
The steel walls reverberated with the deafening shouts of, ‘Ma’am, yes, ma’am!’
‘Better. We have an ETA of two minutes thirty. I suggest you make sure all weapons are locked and fully charged. Chitin will be worn! I see you out there without it and I’ll shoot you myself.’
All around him Whompers and Thrummers were buzzing into life, their targeting beams illuminating the dim interior with a sickly green glow.
Will reached for his throat-mike and asked as calmly as he could what the bloody hell Lieutenant Brand thought she was doing putting him in charge of the pickup team. Sending him out there.