Copyright © Stuart B. MacBride 2009
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 why 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?’
‘Ooh, that would 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 always 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 really 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, please 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.