Smoke in the Sewers by Newton Webb




The urchins, Tregor’s Foxes, pressed themselves into every corner, every nook and cranny of the dank, brick basement. Metal hooks hung from the ceiling on long iron chains. The foetid scent of damp iron and old blood filled the room.

Mick wanted to look away-but he couldn’t, Tregor always knew when they did and then they were punished too. He sat next to his friend Evan, a Welsh lad abandoned in the city as a toddler and raised by the Foxes. They nestled together, enduring in solidarity.

A ring of light illuminated Tregor as he sat on a wooden chair, his long tattered coat hung from his heaving shoulders. His lips pursed, Tregor breathed heavily through steepled fingers. His eyes focused with the intensity of a hawk, framed by thick bushy eyebrows.

‘One more time,’ he growled, his voice low and gravelly.

Tim whimpered. He knelt on the cold flagstones, prostrating himself before his master. ‘I was carrying the package, so I was. Then I saw it. I saw it, Sir! It were red smoke but alive. I would be paste, Sir, actual paste, but the Shadow saved me… she…’ he trailed off and trembled as Tregor’s eye started twitching.

‘Where is the parcel now?’ Tregor asked quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.

Mick felt sick. He knew how this performance ended. How it always ended.

Tim closed his eyes. He knew too. Tears fell freely. ‘I lost it. I did.’

‘Lost it,’ Tregor said. ‘You were carrying a parcel of opium? Then you saw some smoke that came alive and spirits that haunted you?’

Tregor was on his feet with an explosive movement, his hand around Tim’s scrawny neck as he hoisted him up high. His chair shot back into the serried ranks of terrified urchins. Tim couldn’t speak even if he wanted to. His face reddened as he managed a last desperate squawk. Tregor dumped Tim down onto a metal hook. There was a sickening squelch, followed by high pitched screaming as Tim dangled, his shoulder impaled on the chain. Arterial blood sprayed red. Mick could feel it on his face. He ground his teeth as he tried to remain impassive. Every instinct cried out for him to wipe away his dying friend’s gore.

‘Nobody leaves the room while he lives.’ Tregor’s one eye swung malevolently around the room. It met Mick’s and paused.

He knows.

Mick shook, forcing himself to hold Tregor’s gaze. He bit his lip as he trembled and prayed. He could taste blood before the baleful look moved to the next urchin.

Tim was still screaming as Mick made his fateful decision.

Life with Tregor was death, today, tomorrow, or in a week, he didn’t know. But he knew. He knew.He had to get Maud out of here.

They had to flee and soon.

He took one last look at Tim as he fell silent. Just another dead fox in London.

***

A thunderous roar woke Mick. He was too tired to react as Tregor’s boot crunched into his thigh.

‘Up, up,’ Tregor bellowed. ‘You fat, lazy, miserable excuse for Foxes.’

Mick’s body ached from the cold floor. He pushed himself to his feet as the other children stirred around him. Maud was already up. She had to get up earlier to prepare the gruel. The watery meal got thinner every day, much like the Foxes.

They gathered together, bowls of gruel in their hands, as Tregor sat on his wooden chair. Mick’s eyes kept wandering to the hook where Tim had died last night. The blood on the floor, walls and ceiling had dried. It was indistinguishable from the other stains now.

An enormous pile of boxes waited next to Tregor’s chair and as the Foxes approached, he doled out the smuggled goods, each of them nailed shut, with oriental lettering inscribed on the top. Tregor instructed his Foxes as to where they should deliver their cargo. Tregor’s deep-set eyes were hollow pits. Pits that seemed to see everything, know everything. Mick didn’t need to look down. He knew what he was standing on. The dark patina they were forced to stand on served to remind them of the consequences of failure.

Tregor gave Mick a box destined for Cheapside. He bowed obsequiously and backed away, avoiding eye contact. Mick waited for Maud to join him as Tregor gave her a box for Fleet Street. The two of them walked solemnly through the basement kingdom of Tregor’s Night Foxes until they reached the grate. Unlike the rest of the building, this construction was new. The sewers, so recently built to cleanse London of the Big Stink, had instead become a conduit for all kinds of filth and villainy.

They clambered down around the other Foxes, who flittered off on their nefarious errands until they were alone.

‘Maud,’ Mick whispered. Then repeated when she remained silent. ‘Maud, we ain’t going back.’

She spun, wild-eyed. ‘You mustn’t say that, brother. You mustn’t!’

‘Maud, if we go back, we’ll die. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month. But we’ll be proper dead.’ Mick took her hand. ‘I’ve made plans.’

‘What have you done, Mick.’ Mick led her down one side of the sewer. There was a maintenance cubby, nothing more than a platform with a grate above it, but it was reasonably dry.

Maud pulled back. ‘We’ll be late. Please, Michael, I am begging you. Don’t you be doing this. It’s madness.’

Mick pulled her harder, then worked free a loosened brick. A tiny bag, a silver crucifix and two silver candlesticks nestled alongside a box marked with Chinese letters, the twin to the ones they carried that made her recoil.

‘Oh Mick, what did you do…’ Maud gasped.

‘Nothing. I turned up to make my delivery and the mark was dead wasn’t he. He was lying in his bed next to his bleeding pipe. I had to climb in through a window,’ Mick said.

‘Tregor will—’

‘Never know. We’ll take this box, the money and leg it to the countryside. Somewhere where Tregor will never find us.’ Mick held her tight, imploring her. ‘Please, Maud, don’t choose death. Choose life.’

But Maud was no longer looking at him. She was looking behind him, her face wracked with terror.

Mick froze. A cold sweat ran down his back as he turned, expecting to see Tregor.

A girl, dressed in rags with long matted hair, faced them. Her face was white. Unnaturally white.

The stories they had whispered at bedtime, the rumours of sightings in the sewer, the urban legends they had pretended not to be scared by.

They were true.

It wasn’t Tregor, it was the Shadow.

‘Run,’ the Shadow squeaked at them.

Mick looked at her, dumbstruck. ‘Erm, what?’

‘The smoke’s coming. You gotta run.’ The Shadow disappeared back into the sewers.

Mick looked at Maud. The unexpected combination of events overwhelmed their thought processes.

‘The red smoke that Tim saw,’ Maud muttered.

‘I thought he was smoking the product like the grown-ups do.’ Mick wandered back to the sewer. It was then that he saw it. A ribbon of red smoke languidly coiling through the air. It seemed to turn as if sensing Mick.

Then it hurled towards him like an arrow. He spun and ran. ‘Open the bleeding grate Maud, run!’

But Maud didn’t. She stood stock-still, trembling.

Mick pulled her to follow him to the ladder, but the smoke caught up with them, billowing around Maud. She screamed before choking, gagging on the sulphuric cloud as it prized her jaws open, streaming through every orifice. Her body tensed, her arms thrust out as she spasmed in pain. Within moments, as Mick watched in horror, the cloud was absorbed, in its entirety, into his sister’s body.

There was silence.

‘Maud,’ Mick whimpered, eyes wide with concern. ‘You… okay?’

Maud turned to him, her eyes sharp. ‘Three boxes of opium and some niknaks, Mick? You expected us to run away with that?’ She eyed the stash with disdain. ‘Who would we even sell it to?’

‘What happened?’ Mick asked, climbing back down the ladder.

‘I grew up. Now hide your stash and then let us go.’ Maud watched, tapping her feet patiently.

Mick just looked at her. ‘You’re different. It’s the smoke. It’s done something to you.’

‘Sometimes smoke is just smoke, Mick. How many types of smoke are there in this city, do you reckon? We are underneath heavy industry in a methane ridden sewer.’ Maud reached for her throat. ‘It was unpleasant, toxic even, but it has dissipated now. The pain gave me clarity. Now, hurry up. We are going.’

Mick crammed his stash back in the hole. Maud handed him her box and he reluctantly put it in along with his own.

‘What’re we going to do now?’ he asked. Part of him was furious that Maud was upturning his plans for them both. Part of him was relieved.

Her eyes narrowed. ‘We are going to kill Tregor.’

She turned and marched back down to the sewers.

‘Maud!’ Mick followed her as she headed towards the headquarters of the Night Foxes. She ignored him until he grabbed her shoulder, at which point she violently shrugged him off. ‘Maud, this is mental. It’s suicide. It’s a bleeding death sentence if we return with no boxes and no payment. He trotted behind her. ‘Remember Tim.’

At that, Maud paused. She looked coldly over her shoulder. ‘I remember Tim. He was an abject lesson in what could happen if Tregor remains alive.’

‘What’re you going to do?’ Mick said, his voice tinged with panic. ‘He does shits that are bigger than you.’

‘I told you, I’m going to kill him.’ Mick was out of breath from the punishing pace Maud was keeping up. She, however, seemed unaffected. From the corner of his eye, he turned and, for the briefest of moments, he saw the Shadow watching them.

He cursed under his breath.

Maud had reached the ladder leading to the Night foxes’ basement. Mick made one last grab at her. She turned, shoving him with tremendous force. Mick skidded along the gantry on his back. He watched, surprised, as she clambered up the ladder. ‘Maud!’ he shouted one last time. Fear gripping his heart, he glanced over to see the Shadow watching him still. Concern was visible on her ghostly face.

With a grim sense of resignation, he quickly scaled the ladder after Maud. If his sister was going to die, she would do it with family.

The den was empty, the Foxes all out on errands except for Tregor’s pet boy, Herb, who was hiding in the corner, trying to stay out of sight.

Mick entered to see Maud marching towards Tregor. Tregor roared, standing up to his full height, his fur coat splaying out behind him. ‘What are you doing, back so—’

Before he could finish, Maud dropped into a sprint and hurtled towards him. Her hands flicked out, her nails growing longer and sharper, and she uttered a hellish scream.

Mick was stunned into inaction. He forced himself to lumber after her, fear causing his limbs to react slowly.

Tregor’s eyes widened in shock. He threw his rum bottle at Maud. She smashed it to one side, then leapt into the air, raking her claws across his face. A giant arm struck her, sending her tiny form flying. She twisted in mid-air, kicking off from the wall to land on all fours on the floor.

Mick balled his fist and punched Tregor’s chest. It felt as though he had hit solid oak. Mick looked up just in time to see Tregor cuff him. He spiralled until he landed on the ground, his eye narrowly missing one of the room’s many dangling hooks. Blood filled Mick’s mouth and he spat it on the floor. His head spinning, he turned and tried to stand. His legs betrayed him and his vision blurred.

He heard Maud hiss at Tregor before running at him again. Blood matted the arm of Tregor’s fur coat. Fury made his features stretch, his veins bulge and his eyes narrow. Tregor howled with rage, spittle projecting from his cracked lips. He lashed out with his boot.

Maud rolled to one side, ducking around one of the hanging hooks. Her hand flicked out and blood splattered from the back of Tregor’s calves. He collapsed onto the floor. Cursing, he rolled onto his back and pulled a pistol from his jacket.

BANG.

The first shot tore into Maud’s shoulder, throwing her backwards. Tregor rose unsteadily to his feet as Mick let out a long, mournful moan. He crawled towards his sister’s body on all fours.

The second shot took her in the eye. Her body collapsed onto the floor, twitching.

‘You thought to kill me? Me!’ Tregor fired a third round into her skull. ‘Tregor? I am fear made flesh. I am power incarnate.’ He fired a fourth round. ‘I am the monster in the night.’ He fired a fifth. ‘I am the devil that rules the underworld.’ The pistol clicked. All rounds spent.

Tears filled Mick’s eyes as he reached Maud, gently stroking the pulped remains of her face. He waited for Tregor to pick him up and place him on a hook as he had done with so many others before them. Instead, he recoiled as Maud brushed Mick’s hand to one side, sitting up. The bullets squeezed out of her body as her wounds knitted together. She looked Tregor in the eye with a venomous gaze and said, ‘I am Maud, and I find you lacking.’

‘No,’ Tregor gasped, fear lighting up his eyes for the first time in many years. He threw the pistol to one side and pulled a cleaver from his belt with one hand, and a long knife with the other. Staggering on his injured leg, he queried, ‘What are you?’

‘I told you. I am Maud, and I am Queen of the Night Foxes.’ As Maud threw herself forwards, Tregor lashed out with his cleaver. She jerked back, her hands moving with impossible speed to slash his wrist as it passed her.

He stumbled back.

Pressing forwards, she sidestepped a clumsy lunge from Tregor’s knife. Sliding in closer, she lacerated the femoral artery in his thigh with her blade like fingernails. He stepped back to avoid a strike at his throat but collapsed back onto the floor.

His top hat rolled to the other side of the room, coming to a stop at Herb’s feet. Who was already sobbing with terror.

Tregor clutched at his thigh to stem the tide of blood as his red arterial flow joined the black stains left by Tim only the day before.As the red pool spread across the floor. Maud placed her hand on his heart and a roaring sound filled the chamber. Tregor’s eyes glowed red as light erupted from them. The scent of roast pork filled the room. Tregor’s corpse collapsed to the ground. Acrid smoke was rising out of the sockets where once his evil eyes had been.

Mick vomited on the floor. He looked up to see Maud walk over to a hook and lower it. Drawing back Tregor’s head, she rammed the vicious hook through his back. Pulling on the chains, she raised him up. It made a grisly trophy for their regime change.

In the corner, Herb was still shaking. He crawled towards the exit. Maud took a step towards him and he collapsed, curling up into a ball.

‘Maud… Herb’s our mate,’ Mick said, as he slowly stood up. His body was shaking after his adrenaline rush.

Maud levelled her gaze at her brother before finally nodding. ‘Of course.’ Turning to Herb, she said, ‘Get up. You will serve me as you served Tregor.’

Herb was uncharacteristically silent as he nodded, his vast mop of curls limp and lifeless as he kneeled down in submission.

‘How did you—?’ Mick started.

‘Not now. The important thing is that we find sustenance. Tregor’s life was almost spent before I found him. He won’t sustain my body for long.’ Maud looked back at the grate. ‘Herb, cook my brother something. In fact, prepare a full meal for everyone on their return. Not the thin scrapings Tregor used to give them. I want them to be healthy.’

Mick looked closely at Maud, trying to recognise any signs of the old Maud.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘I am stronger. The weakness in me was burnt away.’ She smiled at him, the warmth of her expression never quite reached her eyes though. ‘Fear not, brother. First, we consolidate our power in the sewers, then we’ll take London.’ Maud walked towards the grate. ‘I have business to attend to. Stay with Herb and keep an eye on my palace.’

Mick nodded. He didn’t know what to say. His day had gone from one terror to another and now, maybe he had time to process it. He felt hollow. He leaned against the wall, the corpse of Tregor slowly rotated on its chain, regarding him through eyeless sockets.

Herb pulled at his sleeve. ‘Come on, mate, let’s get into the kitchen. Anywhere is better than this place.’

The two of them shuffled into the back room, the tiny stove was still burning from the morning’s breakfast. Herb cursed as he touched the hot iron door, forgetting to first wrap his hand in a towel. He threw more coal into it, locked the door and then collapsed into a rickety wooden chair. Mick joined him.

Herb reached into a crate, pulling out a bottle of rum. ‘Tregor isn’t going to care anymore, is he?’ He poured a couple of large splashes into two tin mugs and handed one to Mick.

The scent of rum churned Mick’s stomach. ‘I can’t. My stomach is ruined.’

‘Sip it, mate. It’ll sort you out.’ Herb downed his mug, then refilled it. ‘What the hell just happened?’

Mick took a sip, then another. Herb was right. It helped. ‘One thing, then another. It’s been a bastard of a day. I don’t know how to explain it.’

‘Well have a bit more rum. That’ll help.’ Herb sploshed a bit more of the dark fluid into his mug.

Mick took a deep breath. ‘Well, turns out Tim wasn’t lying. We saw the Shadow. I thought she was going to kill us, then she warned us about the red smoke, which also existed. It’s in Maud now. I guess that is why she isn’t worried about bullets and can roast people like chestnuts.’

‘That makes no sense. About as much sense as watching our little Maud do… that.’ Herb pointed at the entrance leading in to Tregor’s chamber. Maud’s chamber now.

‘I don’t understand any of it,’ Mick whispered. ‘Tregor’s gone and we should feel safe. It’s my sister, for God’s sake. But,’ Mick trailed off.

They sat quietly for a moment. On the stove, a large pan of water steamed. Herb reached over and threw in some bones. ‘This used to be Maud’s job.’

Mick didn’t respond.

‘Are you sure that even is Maud?’ Herb asked.

This time Mick responded. His eyes, deadened by trauma, looked into Herb’s. ‘That’s my sister. I won’t hear any different. The smoke has strengthened her, that’s all.’

‘What was she going to do to me? After she smoked Tregor?’ Herb busied himself chopping vegetables. Mick heard the quaver in his voice all the same.

‘Herb, she wouldn’t hurt you. No more than she would’ve hurt Tim. She is your mate.’ Mick looked down at the floor. ‘This is a good thing. This is good for us.’ Even repeating it still didn’t dispel the doubt in his mind. Everything about Maud was different. Her mannerisms and her stance. He barely recognised her from the shy, submissive sister he had grown up with.

Several hours later, Maud returned to take her place on Tregor’s chair. Her skin seemed wan and stretched. Her eyes were dull and lifeless.

‘Are you alright, pet?’ Mick asked, concerned. He brought her a bowl of stew, but she waved it away.

‘Thank you, Mick, even a body as young as this burns out fast. Stew won’t help me anymore. I need souls. Tregor’s black, shrivelled excuse for one could not provide much sustenance.’ Maud smiled at him. ‘You will look after me, won’t you?’

Mick put down the stew and held her head to his chest. ‘Of course, Maud, I promised, didn't I? We’re family.’ For a moment, he could see the old Maud in her expression. ‘Maud, we gotta get rid of Tregor’s body. It will scare the bejesus out of the others.’

Maud contemplated his words for a while, then shook her head. ‘It should scare them, brother. The more they fear, the more they will obey.’

And with that, the familial bond between the two siblings was gone again. Mick watched his sister sadly, wondering what thoughts were brewing behind her eyes.

The Foxes filtered into the chamber as the evening gradually traversed its inexorable journey towards night. The hanging corpse of Tregor hung as a stark testament to the new order. One by one, they sank to one knee, pledged fealty to Maud, and then retreated to the side of the room. Bowls of thick stew, which would ordinarily be the height of luxury, proved cold comfort in the gruesome charnel house. Maud offered words of encouragement, promising safety, security and eternal friendship to those who followed her. Mick and Herb filtered through the urchins, telling them of the duel between Maud and Tregor, seeing the looks of disbelief.

Evan wouldn’t make eye contact with Maud, he whispered to Mick, ‘This is too much, mate.’ Mick couldn’t disagree with him.

It was night when the last Fox came in, hesitantly joining the group in the shadow of Tregor’s body.

Maud banged her fist on the chair. ‘Welcome to a new era for the Night Foxes. The beast has been slain. Now, the wealth of the poppy trade shall belong to all of us, not just Tregor.’

A muted applause sounded.

‘How did you kill Tregor?’ Jack asked. The tallest of the Foxes, he was nineteen and already growing into an imposing figure.

Maud regarded him with an icy gaze. ‘I fought and slew him with my bare hands. If anyone feels they would make a better leader, they are welcome to try the same with me.’ She cocked her head to one side. ‘Would you like to claim the chair, Jack?’ Behind her, Mick moved up to take his place at her side. Jack was a head taller than him, two heads taller than Maud. Not that it would make a difference.

As Jack moved towards Mick’s sister, Mick watched sadly. Another Fox was going to die. ‘Don’t do it, Jack,’ he warned.

‘Or what Mick? You think I’m scared of a lanky streak of piss like you?’ If anything Jack seemed emboldened by Mick’s threat. Mick shook his head.

Maud stood up as Jack approached Mick. ‘Do not challenge Mick, challenge me. Take the chair if you can.’

‘Oh piss off Maud.’ Jack absentmindedly made to backhand Maud out of the way as he continued towards Mick. She caught his wrist, snapping it in one movement.

Jack screamed, his eyes widened with surprise.

He fell to one knee. Stepping closer, Maud placed her hand on his chest. His eyes smoked as he fell to the ground, dead.

As he died, Maud’s eyes brightened. Her skin took on a rosy hue and she returned to her chair reinvigorated. ‘Anyone else think they would make a better leader for the Night Foxes?’

They greeted her with silence, the occasional muttering of disbelief the only response. Maud pointed at two of the Foxes. ‘Dispose of the bodies.’ She released the chain holding Tregor up. The demonstration was complete. She no longer required her trophy.

Mick had a restless night. Her talons outstretched, his sister’s face loomed over him haunting his dreams. It was almost a relief when Maud banged her chair, waking the Foxes. ‘Herb will make breakfast. Mick will collect today’s boxes. Then everyone will wash. I will not have my followers decimated by disease.’

Fear of Maud outweighed the foxes’ disgust of washing and they obeyed. After each Fox had washed, Herb handed them a thick bowl of warm gruel and a tin mug of water.

Mick went into the back with Tregor’s key, pulling out the boxes and stacking them next to Maud. She opened up Tregor’s book, looked at its pages, and then handed it to Herb. ‘Assign the Foxes to their deliveries.’ She waited patiently in her chair while Herb read out the assignments.

Mick took his assignment, bowing to Maud and taking his box from her. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?’ he whispered.

‘Why would I want that?’ she answered.

‘I…’ Mick bit his lip. ‘You might need me.’

Maud gave him an amused look. ‘I think you need my protection more than I need yours. Be gone, you have your task.’

That was it.

Mick took his box and walked to the grate. He could feel his sister’s eyes boring into the back of his skull.

The foetid stench of the sewers was a welcome reprieve. Mick felt guilt at war with his sense of relief. He knew he should be grateful to his sister and thankful for the red smoke that empowered her, but instead, a profound loss pervaded him.

As he splashed through the damp tunnels, he felt an itch on his spine. Several times he turned and thought he saw a glimpse of someone, something, following him. A flash of white, or a flicker of movement, was always on the edge of his vision.

He clutched at the box and increased his pace. Mick stopped to catch his breath, watching behind him.

Rats swam through the thick waters and water dripped from the ceiling but the Shadow didn’t emerge. He felt sure she was haunting him.

She didn’t harm Tim, nor did she hurt him. If anything, she had tried to warn them. Could the Shadow be some sort of otherworldly nemesis to the red smoke?

Physically, if not mentally, rested, he continued his journey towards the Strand. The Shadow had indeed tried to warn them about the smoke, but Mick wondered if it was still something they should fear. Maud had torn through Tregor and saved them from his brutal reign. Part of him worried she was no longer his sister, and the other part felt envy that the smoke had chosen his little sister, Maud, rather than him.

He increased his pace. The more he dwelled on Maud, the more uneasy he felt.

Opening up the grate, he climbed out onto the busy streets beside the river. Street sellers hawked their wares while others proffered less respectable delights from the shadows. Mick slid through the crowd.

He saw his mark’s address and knocked, keeping a wary eye out for his competitors. The door opened and a severe-looking face with tiny circular spectacles looked down upon him. They narrowed with distaste before placing a small bag into Mick’s palm.

‘You will inform your master that I will require double the quantities for the next shipment. My work has reached a sensitive point,’ the man said.

‘Right you are, guv’nor,’ Mick confirmed, flicking through the bag’s contents before passing the package to his customer.

When he turned, he saw three children standing watching him. He only recognised one of them, but they were all clearly members of the Silent Ones.

The largest of them, a swarthy kid with lank, greasy hair, pulled out a knife and tapped it against his thigh.

Eyes widening, Mick backed away. His heart was thumping. ‘What ya doing boys? The Foxes have an agreement with your master. We stay below ground except for deliveries and you control the surface.’

The knife stopped tapping.

As one, the three children pounced. There would be no negotiation. They removed their tongues during initiation.


Mick turned to sprint for the grate. It was a good four hundred metres. The surrounding civilians cursed and shouted as he raced through the jostling crowds. He could hear behind him the sounds of pursuit and increased his pace. Every second he imagined a knife plunging into him.

He was close now. If he had the energy he would have spent it praying for more speed. As it was, he focused on the grate and pounded his feet against the cobbles. Ducking around a stall and vaulting a stack of barrels, he made it to the grate. With a last effort, he lifted the grate and jumped. Mick felt a hand grip his shirt for the briefest moment before his weight tore free. As he plummeted down the shaft, Mick caught the ladder, the rusted metal cutting his hands before he could slam his feet into the rungs halfway down. His knees crashed painfully against the iron structure.

Breathing heavily, Mick looked up. The three faces loomed above him, eyes silently regarding him from the sewer grate. Mick took a moment to catch his breath before shouting out. ‘It doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t attack us. We don’t attack you.’

But of course, they couldn’t respond if they wanted to. One minute Mick was withering in the mute urchin’s malevolent gaze, the next, they were gone.

Clambering down the rest of the ladder, he turned to limp home, his trousers sticking to his bleeding knees.

***

The foxes’ den was quiet as Mick entered. Herb slowly stood, stirring a pot full of stew. He blinked at the state of Mick. ‘What happened to you? You look, well, like shit.’

‘The Silent Ones just tried to murder me in the bleeding street. They must know that Tregor is dead,’ Mick said. ‘It’s been one hell of a day.’ He slumped down against the wall. ‘Where’s Maud?’

‘She’s gone. She did the same thing yesterday. Just upped and went out for most of the day,’ Herb said.

Mick regarded Herb curiously. ‘How long is she away each day?’

Herb shrugged. ‘I’m not her keeper, mate. I stay quiet and keep out of sight as much as possible.’

‘You know you are still her best mate, right?’ Mick whispered. ‘She has always cared for you.’

Herb was silent for a long time before he said, ‘And I love Maud. If that’s still her.’

‘You can’t say that.’ Mick shook his head.

‘I know I can’t.’ Herb looked around, his face unusually pale. ‘That’s the problem. It’s the first time I’ve been unable to speak my mind in front of her.’

Mick accepted a large bowl of thick stew from Herb. He waited for it to cool as the steam wafted up. He barely noticed the taste. His thoughts were dark as he pondered his sister.

It was several hours before she returned. Only one of the other Foxes joined Mick and Herb as they waited for her.

Maud looked around the den imperiously. ‘Where is everyone?’

Mick shrugged. Herb remained silent. It was Evan who finally spoke. ‘They’ve run.’

‘Explain,’ Maud said, her voice tinged with rage.

‘The other gangs know that Tregor’s dead. I don’t know who ratted us out first. But someone must have spoken. The truce has been broken. It’s mental out there, not a good time to be a Fox.’ Evan held out his hands. ‘The other gangs have either been attacking us or forcing us to join them. I had to run from the Dockers, or I’d have got a boat hook between my shoulder blades.’

Maud snarled. ‘I don’t have the power to deal with this now. I can’t leave the sewers yet.’ She pounded her palm with her fist. ‘I need more life force.’ She slowly stopped, raising her gaze to Evan, a wintry smile stretching across her face as she stepped in close. ‘With your help, I can leave this sewer and hunt down the other gang leaders.’

Evan nodded. Mick’s eyes widened. She wouldn’t. Not Evan.

‘Come here,’ Maud demanded.

Evan got up and walked over. When he was close enough, he smiled hopefully at her.

‘You will be remembered,’ Maud said, reaching out to stroke Evan’s cheek. Her other hand flew out and struck him in the chest. His eyes smoked as his body fell to the floor.

‘Hell’s teeth Maud, what have you done?’ Mick cried out. Looking down at the corpse of his best friend, Evan.

Maud regarded Mick closely. ‘I needed the power. Soon, I’ll be able to leave the sewers and feed on those above.

‘Who is next, then?’ Mick said with disgust. ‘Me? Are you going to kill your brother? Or will it be Herb?’

A squeal sounded from behind them. ‘Don’t drag me into it! I’m far too pretty to be killed.’ Herb looked at the smoking corpse of Evan. ‘Evan…’ He sank down next to him.

Maud tapped her feet impatiently. ‘Stop making a fuss. Eat well and get some sleep. We are short-handed now. Our delivery commitments outstretch our capacity. We will have to prioritise if we are to maintain control of Night foxes’ business and hold the sewers.’ She looked at Evan’s corpse. ‘We’ll find the others soon. They will pay for stealing from us.’

***

Mick didn’t sleep. He sat scrunched up against the wall and closed his eyes, pretending. After an hour, Maud rose and left the den. He waited until she left, stretching his aching muscles before clambering down into the sewers.

He followed her trail for about a dozen feet before a small voice startled him.

‘Please don’t.’

Mick jumped. He spun round to see the Shadow watching him from a narrow side tunnel. ‘Your name is Mick, isn’t it?’

‘How do you know that?’ he asked. He watched her warily. The spectre didn’t seem all that threatening after the events of the last few days.

The Shadow walked closer. ‘I listen to everyone, but nobody ever sees me. Or if they do, they run away.’ She bowed her head. ‘I’m so sorry about your sister. She seemed nice. But you mustn’t follow her. You mustn’t.’

‘What do you know about my sister?’ Mick said. His voice was louder than he intended. It echoed down the tunnels and sent the Shadow scuttling back into the tunnel.

Her face slowly returned, peeking around the corner. ‘Not here. You are too loud. Follow me.’

Mick followed the Shadow. She led him through the stinking, underground maze until they reached a section of what Mick had thought to be a wall, instead it transpired to be a ‌door. The Shadow pulled at the handle and it swung open. The stench of dead fish hit him as he stepped inside a colossal basement full of huge vats of brine. The walls and floors glistened with a white, powdery crust of salt. It looked like a winter wonderland.

A small terrier came running up and barked at him.

Realisation dawned as he looked at the Shadow.

‘You aren’t a ghost,’ he said. Stepping closer to the filthy girl, he stroked her cheek with a finger. The white powder gave way and underneath, he could see her skin. ‘It’s salt.’

‘I don’t think I am. Sometimes, I am not sure,’ she said shyly.

Mick sat down. ‘Who are you?’

‘My name is Tess. I live down here. My job is to look after Egg.’ She pointed at the terrier, who recognising his name, yapped happily. Suddenly, a look of concentration flashed across her face and a flash of silver flew from her hand.

Mick turned to see a dead rat impaled on a small knife.

Egg ran and picked up the rat, bringing it to her. She took out the knife and dropped the rat in a bucket which already contained many of its fallen brethren. Finding a box, she sat down on it. ‘I used to feed Egg and he would kill the rats, but he isn’t as fast these days, so now I kill the rats and he picks them up.’ She scratched his ear and ruffled his fur.

‘How long have you worked here?’ Mick asked.

‘All my life, I think.’ She screwed her eyes in concentration. ‘I don’t remember not working here.’

‘You tried to warn us about the smoke,’ Mick said.

Tess nodded. ‘It has been in the sewer for a week now, ever since they tried to expand the sewers down south.’

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Tess said, hanging her head. ‘It started off entering the workmen. It would make them fight each other. When it ran out of people to fight, the body would drop dead and the smoke would look for a new body. It couldn’t move far at first, but it seems to be able to travel further with each day.’

Mick bit his lip. ‘It is in my sister now. How long has she got? Can we save her?’

‘I’m so sorry.’ Tess looked down at the floor. ‘It only lasted an hour or so in the workmen. I don’t know how it’s lasted so long in your sister.’

‘Why didn’t it enter your body?’ Mick asked, regarding the scruffy rat catcher suspiciously.

‘I don’t know,’ Tess admitted. ‘I don’t think it can see me. Nobody seems to see me.’

Mick shook his head. ‘It has to be more than that. The Foxes thought you were a ghost, but we still saw you. The red smoke chased us. It chased Tim.’ He looked at his finger, the salt still staining it from where it had touched her face. ‘I don’t think it likes salt.’

‘Or the smell of eels.’

Mick snorted. ‘Nobody likes the smell of eels.’

‘Oh,’ Tess said, curling her arms close.

‘No offence,’ Mick said quickly.

‘None taken.’ Tess smiled at him.

Mick stood up and started to pace. ‘Maud disappeared for several hours yesterday.’

Tess nodded. ‘She went back to where the smoke came from. I don’t think the smoke can survive being far from its home.’

‘Will you help us get it out of my sister?’

Tess sat silently for a while and then nodded. ‘I don’t know how to, but I will. If you promise me ‌I won’t be alone anymore.’

‘If we get the smoke out of Maud, then I promise you that you can become a Night Fox. You can live with us and we’ll be one big family.’ The salt crunched under Mick’s feet as he paced around the cannery. ‘As for how. I think I have an idea. Come and find me first thing tomorrow morning.’

Tess smiled shyly, her face lighting up even as the salt on her cheeks cracked.

‘I’ll see you soon,’ Mick said. He stepped out into the sewer and raced back to the den.

***

On his return, Mick crept into the kitchen. Herb was fast asleep in one corner. He stole past him to go through the cupboards. Finding what he was looking for, he slipped it into his pocket.

A few hours later, Maud returned. Mick continued to feign sleep until she announced loudly that it was time for the deliveries.

He looked at the creature his sister had become. ‘We won’t be doing that today, Maud.’

It regarded him curiously, ‘Won’t we? Are you giving the orders now, Mick?’ It shook its head dismissively. ‘You will take two deliveries today. You need to move fast.’

‘You ain’t all-powerful. Not yet at least.’ Mick reached into his pocket. ‘Get out of my sister and we’ll say no more of it.’

Herb had woken up. He peeked out, his eyes wide with fear. Cautiously, he backed away to watch from the sanctuary of the kitchen.

It looked at Mick’s hand in his pocket, snorted dismissively, then flickered its gaze back to the retreating chef. It smiled malevolently. ‘Herb has the right idea. You bent the knee to me, Mick. Why choose to betray me now?’

‘Because you ain’t my sister. You’ve just stolen her body, wearing it like a jacket.’ Mick stepped forward. He tried to will more anger into his voice to mask the quavering fear.

It chuckled. ‘No, I am not your sister. She is here, watching all I do. Right now, she is screaming at you not to be an idiot.’ It advanced on Mick.He took a step back. ‘But, to be honest, this is all good timing. Your life force will be enough for me to finally break free into the city above.’ It sniffed. ‘All those souls, just waiting to be harvested. When I’m strong enough, I’ll bring my clan through the rift, too. It’s been a very long time since we were last in Britain.’

‘Who are you?’ Mick demanded.

‘You can call me Mabli. Know that I have achieved where all my illustrious kin has failed. I have found a way back. They will hail me as their champion.’ Mabli started to circle Mick. He stepped to the side to keep himself between it and the grate. ‘The Fomorians ruled these lands thousands of years ago. Back then, your kind called us gods. Now, I return to find that you worship a carpenter. Pathetic.’

Mick gritted his teeth. ‘Mabli?’

Mabli cocked an eyebrow. ‘Yes?’

‘Fuck off home.’ Mick pulled his hand from his pocket and hurled a thick cloud of salt into its face. Mabli howled with pain and fury as its flesh smoked and burnt. Mick was already running. He lifted ‌the grate and half climbed, half fell down to the sewers below. Landing on the gantry, he ran towards the cannery as fast as possible. Behind him, he heard Mabli. It roared in a horrific perversion of his sister’s voice. He knew it couldn’t be far behind him. It was faster. He prayed the salt had slowed it down enough.

His legs burned as he forced himself forward. His lungs felt tight and his chest was close to bursting. He could hear the slapping sound of its naked feet pounding the sewer path. He expected to feel its talons raking across his back at any moment.

He was halfway to the cannery when he saw Tess waiting at a junction. Her eyes focused behind him, her hands flickered and two flashes of metal flew past him to thud into his pursuer.

‘Where are you?’ He heard Mabli cry out in frustration. ‘What manner of fae dares interfere with the Fomorians.’

Mick stumbled on, his legs moving like pistons. He no longer concentrated on running. He just tried to make it down the path and to keep breathing. When he saw the entrance to the cannery, Mick almost passed out as relief flooded his system. The door was wide open, a parting gift from Tess.

Egg waited, yapped encouragingly, wagging his tail as Mick slumped through the doorway and collapsed onto the salt lined floor. He rolled onto his back in the shadow of the huge pickling vats. They surrounded him, the last resting place of thousands of eels.

Egg licked his face as Mick lay on his back, shuddering breaths filling his lungs with precious air. His throat tasted of copper and everything hurt as his body protested at the relentless abuse.

He blinked. When his eyes opened again, he saw an enraged Mabli in the entranceway. Egg barked at the intruder. She gave him a look of disdain, making him yelp and hide behind a vat.

She turned her attention back to Mick. ‘Very clever. You are right to recognise that we don’t like salt.’ Mabli stepped into the cannery. Its feet smoked where it trod on the salt lined floor. ‘But you are so very wrong if you think this cave can protect you.

‘No,’ Mick panted. He scrabbled on all fours to the iron stairs leading to the upper gantry.

Mabli followed him. ‘Oh yes,’ it said in a mocking tone. ‘Goodbye, brother, you’ve proven quite the thorn in my side.’

Reaching the upper gantry, Mick struggled to stand on unsteady feet. His limbs were on the verge of collapse.

‘Ah, your last stand.’ It sneered at him. ‘Didn’t think this through, did you? Pathetic.’

‘You have to fight this, Maud, don’t let it do this,’ Mick panted.

Mabli laughed. ‘Did you honestly expect that to work?’

Its hand blurred out towards Mick’s heart. Mick stepped back, clutching at its wrist. His other hand grabbed Mabli’s blouse and then he toppled backwards, dragging it with him.

The two of them fell down into the vat of congealed fish. The thick liquid surrounded Mick’s body, the long, slimy forms of dead eels wrapped around him as he plunged down towards the bottom of the vat. He flailed. Already exhausted, he fought to reach the surface. At the same time the viscous jelly seemed to suck him back down.

With an explosion of breath, he broke the surface, but almost immediately sank again. His limbs screamed with protest as he forced them to propel his body upward once more. All around him, he could see the liquid bubbling as red smoke dispersed into the air.

Mick looked around for Mabli, for Maud, but it was still underwater. He ducked under, reaching through the coiling flesh but he could feel nothing. Taking a deep breath, he dived through the tubular corpses, desperation mounting. Suddenly, he felt something; his fingers pushed frantically until—yes, cloth! He grabbed at it and pulled his sister's body to the surface.


She was unconscious.

His other hand scrabbled frantically at the slippery sides of the vat as he realised that there was no way out of his watery prison. He screamed with frustration and pounded his fist against the unyielding metal.

All of a sudden, a wiry hand grasped his wrist. With a final burst of effort from his legs, Mick managed to push himself upwards. Then, guided by his saviour, his fingers found the lip of the vat and he was able to pull himself up out of the water.

He saw Tess lying on her front. He passed Maud’s cold, wet body up. Tess gripped her as best she could until she had the small girl by the armpits and was able to slowly lift her up on to the gantry. She rolled Maud on to her front and slapped her on the back. Maud coughed once before vomiting up salt water through the holes in the iron gantry. Leaving her to cough up all the fluid she could, Tess helped Mick to clamber free.

Mick half crawled, half slid towards his sister. He rubbed her back as she continued to clear her lungs. He wiped her slimy, wet hair away from her eyes, cleaning the jelly off her face and eyes.

‘Maud’, he ventured nervously.

‘Mick?’ she answered quietly, her voice raw from the vomiting. Tears erupted and she wept freely, curling into a ball and rocking. Egg appeared from nowhere to lick at the distraught girl’s face.

‘It’s okay now, Maud.’ Mick patted her shoulder. He reached down to pull her into his arms and hugged her, both their bodies were freezing cold and slimy. Mick looked around for the smoke but could see nothing.

Tess was sitting with her legs crossed, watching them. ‘It’s gone now,’ she reassured them.

Maud shivered with the released adrenaline and the cold. ‘The Shadow?’ she said, looking at Tess.

‘A girl and our friend. She saved our lives,’ Mick confirmed.

Maud gave her a weak smile, before being subsumed by another coughing fit.

***

Mick led the girls into the Foxes’ Den. Tess held Egg close to her chest. He looked around curiously, then sniffed, eyes widening as he caught the scent of stew emerging from the kitchen.

Herb slowly poked his head out.

‘It’s safe now, Herb. Maud’s okay now. The smoke has gone,’ Mick said wearily.

‘Who is your friend?’ Herb asked. Still reluctant to leave his sanctuary.

‘I’m Tess,’ she answered.

Mick pointed at Tess with her thumb. ‘We couldn’t have saved Maud without her. I said she could stay with us,’ he grinned. ‘She doesn’t need to be alone anymore.’

Egg barked.

‘And this is Egg. He is a ratter.’

Herb knelt down and held out his arms. Egg jumped down from Tess and leapt into them. ‘Then he is most welcome!’ Herb looked into Egg’s eyes. ‘I wouldn’t feel lonely if I lived with you.’ Egg barked and then licked Herb’s face.

‘So what now, Mick?’ Maud asked.

Mick walked over to Tregor’s chair and kicked it over. ‘This becomes firewood. We ain’t having a ruler. We got some money in Tregor’s stash and what’s left of his opium. We will do what needs to be done, but we will do it together.’

He looked at their faces and for the first time in years, the tightness in his chest relaxed as his heart felt the beginnings of something that could well be hope.

***

Deep within the sewers, a crack showed through the brickwork. It exposed a fissure, which led down through the rocks to an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the pagan god Jupiter. A circle of Corinthian marble columns surrounded an altar which had broken in half.

A red glow dimly shone through the sundered stone.

THE END


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