“This looks good,” Justin said.
A fence had been erected around the construction site, metal bars slotted into concrete feet, but there was space enough between a pair of un-braced sections for the both of them to squeeze through. Past the fence they dashed across a short stretch of open ground and into the cover of the scaffolds, draped with heavy tarpaulins. The wind ran through the tarps, making them snap and ripple incessantly, a constant and uneven percussion in the cold air. Rain splashed her face, driven through the gaps in the sheeting by the sudden gusts of wind.
At first she thought they might climb one of the scaffolds to find a spot to sleep, but she was nervous of the way the platforms swayed, and it didn’t seem as though there would very much protection from the rain. They kept looking, moving quickly, careful to stay away from any light as they explored the skeletal structure. Eventually Justin found a ladder that lead up to the second floor. The flooring itself was still only partially laid, but there were enough plank walkways thrown down for them to move around on. They found a stack of spare planks with a tarp tied over them. She undid a corner, cold fingers fumbling with the knot, and secured it to a nearby pillar to create a small covered space. The shape reminded her of the tents she used to make in her grandmother’s garden, with bedsheets and string tied to an apple tree that never grew any fruit.
It was late and she was tired. Her hands felt clumsy, and her legs ached from running. They crawled into the space beneath the tarp and wrapped Justin’s coat about themselves. He put an arm around her, and she slid easily into the crook of his shoulder.
Her thoughts drifted back over the last few days. After the attack behind the supermarket she had been mostly incoherent, too scared to really think. She’d followed him without thinking, not sure of what else she could do. That night she had slept in a church doorway whilst Justin kept watch. When dawn broke, she’d found him tucked against the edge of the church steps, dozing with his coat pulled up over his knees. The night after that, they’d sheltered beneath a disused railway bridge that did nothing to keep out the sharp autumn winds. When Justin had offered to bundle up together under his coat, she couldn’t find any reason to refuse. Curled up together, comforted by the warmth of his body, she’d slept more soundly than she could remember in a long time.
The days had also passed more easily. Though Justin was a stranger to London, his keen eyes could easily follow her lines as they danced across the rooftops, and his light fingers were always ready to snatch up food, money, or anything else he could steal away with. At times she had actually begun to enjoy herself. It was only in the quiet moments that she found herself thinking of the men from the alleyway, or the way the blood had glistened as it ran down the blade of Justin’s knife.
Rachael woke with a start. Eyelids flickered open as she remembered where she was. Justin was sitting bolt upright, his body forming a black silhouette against the light from the street. At first she couldn’t tell what might have woken him. Then, through the faint sounds of the city, she heard something much closer to. It was the soft crescendo of a falling length of chain. He crept to the nearby window frame and she followed, leaning over his shoulder to get a look. She saw the clustered silhouettes of a group of men entering the site. One of them had a pair of bolt-cutters in his hand.
“It’s those guys from before,” she whispered. “How’d they find us here?”
“I don’t know. Wait,” Justin said.
Down below, one of the men at the back of the group addressed the others in a voice like pouring gravel. He spoke with the calm assurance of someone used to giving orders.
“Search in pairs. Signal and detain.”
The speaker was a short, broadly built man with a squat and ugly shape crouched at his heels, sniffing the air. Something about him seemed familiar. Then the light caught his face, and she recognised the ragged scar that ran across his bare scalp, and the shape of the mangy dog at his heels. To either side of him she could make out two figures in long coats of gleaming red and gold. They were dark skinned, with wavy black hair and sharp features. The older of them had a thick beard, but there was little else to tell them apart. The rest of the group were comprised of tough looking men in jackets and jeans.
At the scarred man’s command, the four toughs broke away, moving slowly through the site, sweeping the light of their torches through the empty rooms. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the upper floors, and only a little longer before their hiding place was discovered.
A snarling sound caught her attention. She stole another glance at the dog on the leash, and a chill ran through her. What she saw wasn’t a dog at all. The leader of the strange group had an old man collared and leashed at his side, dressed in tattered rags. There was foam on his lips, and his hair was a mane of tangles.
Pulling back from the window frame, Rachael closed her eyes, and tried to shake off the image in her mind. It couldn’t have been real. She was sure of that.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Opening her eyes, she Justin’s expression, calm and focused.
“We’ve gotta get outta here,” she whispered, though she hadn’t the slightest idea how. The scarred man and the tall brothers in their long coats were still waiting at the gate. The only other way through the fence was at the back of the site, where they had slipped in. That meant going down the ladder, and through the men searching below.
“I’ll jump the one nearest the ladder,” Justin whispered. “You run while he’s distracted.”
She saw a coldness in his eyes, like the edge of a knife.
She grabbed his shoulder, as he began to move.
“What?” he hissed.
“I don’t know, just… Wait, OK?”
She looked around again, hoping for any other way. Then her eyes settled on the back wall of the building, where a garbage chute had been hooked up to the scaffolds.
She nodded, and Justin followed her gaze.
“OK,” he mouthed.
The second floor was mostly a patchwork, pieces of finished flooring connected by planks that bridged the openings. One long plank was all that connected them to the back wall, where the garbage chute began.
Justin gestured for her to go first. While he sat back in the shadows, watching the torch-lights flicker below, she crept out onto the plank. She felt it rocking slightly under her weight. She crawled, inch by inch along the length of the beam, as the men on the floor below swept through the building. She could hear them talking, calling out areas cleared in hushed tones.
She was about halfway across when she saw the movement at the front of the building. The man with the voice like gravel, and the ragged mutt that snuffled at his heels. He strode into the building like he owned it, casting his gaze about imperiously. She forced herself to breathe and continued shuffling along the wooden board, one inch at a time. She was almost there. She could have reached out and touched the lip of the half-finished concrete floor when she heard a howl, somewhere between the cry of an animal and a wail of deep anguish. The sound seemed to move through her body like an electric shock, and she very nearly slipped off the beam. It rattled beneath her, rocking perilously back and forth. As the movement subsided she glanced down, and once again she saw not a mangy hound but a ragged man with wild and frantic eyes, too much white showing as he stared into her with an awful hunger.
The man with the scar looked up and gestured, one hand pointing, almost lazily, as all eyes turned to her.
“Run!” Justin yelled, and she scrambled onto the hard floor. Rolling to her feet she glanced back to see him dashing across the narrow beam, as the men below made for the ladders. Justin grabbed her hand and together they ran towards the chute.
“Just like a water slide,” she told herself.
The plastic tubing thundered like a drum as she slid down. Metal ribs scratched at her hands and face, everything flashing past in a few seconds until she tumbled head first into a jagged mound of rubble. Dazed and battered, she barely had time to crawl clear as Justin came crashing down after her.
They sprinted across the open ground, torchlight lapping at their heels. She glanced back as Justin searched for the gap in the fence, to see the four men closing in. Over the shouting she heard a single barked command.
“Quickly,” Justin hissed, standing with one leg through the gap in the fencing. She followed him through, her heart in her throat.
As soon as they were through, Justin set off at a dead sprint. She followed him into the dark streets. As they ran she heard a wretched howl that seemed to split the air and made her insides writhe with fear.
They carried on running for a long time, until her lungs burned so hard that she felt she would collapse. At last they made their way up to a rooftop high above the streets. She lay on her back, gulping like a beached fish, feeling every part of her body burning and freezing at the same time.
As her head began to clear she looked up to see Justin leaning against a vent, looking nearly as worn down as she felt. Slowly, aching in every joint, she pulled herself to her feet. They would need a new place to bed down for the night. The thought of putting her head down anywhere seemed almost impossible. Her body was buzzing with nervous energy, she was freezing cold and she hurt all over.
She still hadn’t the slightest idea what had just happened. In Justin’s expression she saw only a hardness, as if he was still ready for a fight.
“Justin,” she began, softly, but the words wouldn’t come to her. It was all too confused, too impossible.
“It’s OK. I think we lost them. I hope,” he said. His expression remained unreadable. In a way, she was glad of that. At least one of them seemed to be in control of themselves.
“What just… No. This is too crazy. Those weren’t just a load of gangers. They sounded like they was army or something, and there was those two weird looking blokes in the red coats and all… And that… That dog he had with him. What the hell?”
Justin gave her a curious look.
“You didn’t really see a dog, did you?”
Rachael felt the hairs rising all down the back of her neck.
“How… How’d you know that?”
“It wasn’t a dog. It was a hollow man,” Justin said, turning away.
The words barely had time to leave her mouth. He pressed a finger to his lips and hissed a “Shhh.”
In the sudden stillness the sound of voices in the street below sent a chill down her spine. Justin glanced over the edge of the rooftop and gestured for her to do the same. She moved to the parapet and peered over. There were men moving through the street, their outlines familiar. At the back of the group she could already make out the shape of long coats flashing red under the street-lamps. Caught momentarily in a pool of light, she saw the wild eyes and tangled hair of the leashed man. He was sniffing the air like a bloodhound. Then his eyes fixed on hers and he let out a howl. She shot back from the edge, but it was already too late. She heard the voices in the street below and she knew they had seen her.
She could see the fear in Justin’s eyes, though he tried his best to hide it. Her mind raced, hoping for any idea that might see them to safety, but only one thought came to her, repeating over and over.
Numb hands fumbled on slick black slates. Plastic drainpipes rattled as she scrambled hand over hand. Loose tiles slipped under errant steps, cascading down onto empty pavements. Tires screeched and horns blared as she bolted across streets and intersections. Justin was with her, but he slipped in and out of her sight. She told herself that he could keep up, that he could look after himself. It was better than admitting that at that moment she just didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was getting away from that wild-haired man, away from those animal eyes.
She ran as fast and as hard as she dared, but the icy air tore at her lungs and the harder she ran, the more often she had to pause to draw breath, muscles screaming their protests. Every time they stopped, it was barely a few minutes before she caught sight of familiar silhouettes moving purposefully in her direction. The harder she pushed herself, the weaker her legs grew. On the rooftops tiredness was deadly. A misplaced footstep, a poor grip on a handhold and the pavement was the last thing she would see.
Still they ran, staying low now, keeping to the streets, cutting across walls and fences where they could. She was approaching a T-junction when Justin tackled her out of nowhere, strong hands gripping her arms as he slammed her into a wall.
“The hell?” she gasped, barely able to squeeze the words out, she was so short of breath.
“Hold still,” he said in a voice like a whip-crack. There was a metallic clicking sound as the knife appeared in his hand, the blade gleaming in the dim light.
She froze, pressing herself back into the wall as he held the knife up. Breathing shallow and fast, she looked at his face, watching his eyes for some sign of his intention. Everything about him was focused and sharp. The knife hovered at the very lowest edge of her field of vision. She saw him press the point of the blade to his own thumb, blood welling up around the tip as it sank into the skin. She couldn’t help but shrink back as he moved his bleeding thumb towards her face, and with a snarl of frustration he grabbed her by the chin.
“Hold still,” he repeated, his voice a low hiss.
She felt his thumb press against her forehead, moving slowly and deliberately across the skin, tracing some kind of pattern. Moving his hands away at last, he closed the blade and tucked it back into his pocket. She let out the breath she had been holding.
She could feel the anger flaring inside of her as the shock subsided. She was about to push him away when she heard the sound of footsteps from the street up ahead. Justin shifted forward, forcing her back into the shadows. They were pressed up close to the wall of a building, in the darkness between two street-lamps. His body was tight against hers, their faces touching as she watched the far end of the street out of the corner of her eye.
The scarred man stepped out into the intersection, his ‘hound’ sniffing the air in front of them. The tall brothers in the long coats were with him, and she saw the rest of his men spread out behind, searching the street. Then the thing on the leash paused, one hand raking at his tangled hair as he looked about frantically. He seemed lost. She heard grumbled curses, and then a loud thump as a boot caught the wild haired man in his side, rolling him over with the force of the kick. He yelped in pain, more like a dog than a man, and sprang to his feet again in the same hunched crouch.
She wasn’t sure if it was her heart or Justin’s that she felt pounding at her chest, as the wild haired creature took another look around, sniffing the air. Then he fell to the ground, curled up into a ball and began to whimper.
“Lost it,” the gravel voiced commander said.
“Commander Korban,” one of the tall men began. The younger and leaner of the two, she suspected, by the tenor of his voice. “This had better not be all that our money is worth.”
“He’s lost the trail. Don’t know how, but it happens. We’ll try again tomorrow, Mi’lord. That’s all we can do. He’ll be useless like this.”
“A hunting dog that can’t hunt should be put down,” the older brother growled, his voice deep and fierce.
“Good hollow men are a tricky catch. This one’s done well so far. It’s just a hiccup.”
“Korban, my brother and I do not expect ‘hiccups’ from a man of your reputation,” the younger man said, smoothly. Rachael desperately wished they would just move on. All it would take was for one of the group to look a little too closely into the darkness where she and Justin were hidden.
“Mi’Lord Bhandari, I have my reputation because I know exactly how things work out here in the field. If you can find a man who’ll promise you a job will never go awry, then I’ll show you a man who’s never been near a real job in his life. Get used to it. Sir.”
“Yes, I see it certainly wasn’t for your courtly manners that you were recommended,” the younger man sneered.
“You don’t pay me for courtesy,” Korban growled.
The argument seemed settled. With another swift kick, Korban got their ‘hunting dog’ moving and the group turned away, disappearing into the night.
Slowly exhaling, Justin took a step away, glancing to either side. At first she didn’t even feel as if she could move. She still seemed to be pinned to the wall by the ghost of him.
“Justin… What just…?”
He nodded to their left. It took her a moment to realise he was looking a low windowsill that would make a good foothold.
“Rooftop. Come on.”
“Justin, wait,” she hissed. “What the hell just happened back there. What was that… What was wrong with that man? And the thing you drew…”
She reached up to touch the mark on her forehead, but before her hand was even close, he caught her by the wrist. She’d forgotten how fast he was.
“Don’t touch it. Not yet.”
He let go and she snatched her hand away. She stared at him, furious.
“You know, any time you’d like to start making sense, be fine with me. How did they even find us? It was like that old guy was… Sniffing us out or something.”
“That’s what a hollow man does,” Justin said with a sigh. “You… You take a person and you clear out what’s inside. It leaves a space where you can put the thing you want. And then they search for that thing. They follow it anywhere, because it’s the only thing they have left. They’re used for tracking. It works best on people who are already a little… Gone. Closer to the Dream. But it makes them dangerous. By the time the change sets in, they’re more like animals than people.”
She stared at him, her mouth open in astonishment.
“Justin, what the hell does any of that mean?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean, it don’t matter?”
“I mean you won’t even believe me if I tell you, so what’s the point? Come on, we should get off the street.”
He turned away, testing the windowsill to make sure it would hold his weight.
“Come on. They can’t track you any more, but they’ll still catch us out here if they double back.”
He began to climb, and Rachael had no choice but to follow him up. At the top he turned to give her a hand over the parapet. Exhausted, she dropped down against the nearest chimney, drawing deep breaths.
“Will they come back?” she gasped.
“They can’t track you now. That ward will hold for a while.”
“That what? What are you even on about?” she said, as he slumped against the parapet. “None of this makes any sense man. It’s just…”
“Crazy, right?” he said, glumly.
“You’re not funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be.”
“So just tell me what’s going on already?”
Justin just gave her an exhausted shrug.
“What do you want me to tell you? I tried telling you the truth, and you told me I was nuts.”
“Telling me a bunch of stories ain’t the truth.”
He held out his hands, palms open and empty.
“Then I’ve got nothing left.”
“How do I even know you’re not with them?” she said, starting to get to her feet.
“Because I had a knife at your throat down there, and I didn’t give you up to them. Seems like that would have been the easy thing. Rachael, I’m on your side here. If you believe nothing else, believe that.”
Eyes narrowing, she regarded him carefully, but it was hard to argue.
“Fine. You’re with me. So what do we do now?”
“Now? We get some sleep, I suppose. We’ll have to get moving in the morning. I can keep refreshing the ward, but they’ll find other ways to track us.”
She said nothing. She felt as if she had used up all the words. Justin was right. For now, sleep was all she had left. On the cold rooftop, torn by the wind, she pulled her knees up to her chest and closed her eyes.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.