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So it was with great trepidation that young Davey left the relative safety of his apartment block and took to the streets.
The streetlights in his district were usually switched off, but tonight they were on, showing the nightlife of the city in all of its squalor.
Towering, soot-stained concrete walls dwarfed him, making him feel tiny and lost.
Thousands of filthy windows seemed to watch him like cataracted eyes.
Most of the pavement was knee-high with burst black bin bags.
The screams he heard in the distance were an extremely ominous sign.
The city stunk if you were out in it too long, a disastrous side effect of the heavy industrial operations that were running day and night, night and day, every day of the year. (Something so happy and inefficient as Christmas was now a thing of the past – with no money to spend or food to indulge in, there was nothing much to celebrate anyway. Fun was extinct in this place and time).
Great swathes of unwashed Grims roaming the streets were also to blame.
The result was a thick, noxious smell that clung to the airwaves and made you feel sick and dizzy until you got acclimatized to it.
The scent was a heady cocktail of sulphur, shit, rotting garbage and unwashed humanity.
He tried to breathe through his mouth, but the smell crept in through his nostrils regardless.
He hawked and spat onto the pavement.
His head swam like the time he and his friend Dale had drank some of his dad’s beers.
He closed his eyes, leant against the wall and waited for the feeling to pass.
Ordinarily he’d take deep breaths to pull himself round, but this was not an option with the vile scent in the air.
It took a while to pass, but eventually faded.
This was not a good omen for the start of his new adventure.
He moved towards an alleyway, his footsteps slow and deliberate.
He wasn’t sure if anyone lurked in there, but he’d heard the stories of course, so he didn’t want anyone to hear him coming.
His right hand stayed in his pocket, the knuckles pale around the handle of the knife with which he’d tried to claim his first kill.
A noise from the darkness ahead of him made him start.
It sounded like animals, grunting and panting.
He pressed his back into the wall so hard it left an imprint of the concrete in his skin.
Inch by nerve-wracking inch, he moved up the alleyway.
He saw bare flesh, dimly lit by the meagre light from the apartment block above.
A man and a woman – both Grims by the look of them – rutted like dogs among the torn garbage bags. Their stench hit Davey hard, making him cup his free hand over his nose.
They were both grunting in what seemed like pleasure, and Davey felt he’d seen enough to determine that the woman wasn’t being made to do anything against her will.
He’d heard that that happened a lot out on the streets and had always said he’d step in to help, but now that he was potentially confronted with the scenario in real life, he wasn’t so sure.
His confidence seemed swallowed up like the dim lights in the darkness of the alleys.
He backed away, keen to get the leering looks of the couple out of his vision.
Time to find another alley, he thought with a grim smile.
Crossing the street was no problem these days as the majority of people were no longer allowed cars. The city had housed people within a ten minute walk of their place of employment.
Leisure time was a thing of the past, everything was about efficiency and resting ready for the next working day, so the ordinary family had no need for a car.
The only people who were supposed to have access to cars were the officials and the Cull Crews, although some did end up in the wrong hands on occasion.
He moved into the next alley, hoping this one would be better than the last.
A smell that was much more potent and nausea-inducing than the one carried on the wind assaulted his senses.
He glanced around for the source of the smell, keen to escape it.
The thousands of burst bin bags were not the problem; he was already used to the smell from these.
This was much worse.
He glanced down to his left and saw movement.
When he looked more closely, he realised what he saw was dozens of the city’s mutant strain of flies; big, black and around the size of an adult’s eyeball.
Beneath them, he saw the decaying frame of what looked to be a dog.
Before he could distract himself from it – especially the way the horrendous flies were crawling round inside the dog’s skull and the greedy slurping sounds they were making while in there – he heard something crashing through the obstacle course of rubbish.
‘Shoo, shoo, gerawaywiya,’ came a gruff voice. With the voice came breath almost as repulsive as the stench of the dead dog.
He saw a black cloak, a brief glimpse of an emaciated face.
‘Yer gonna claim that?’ the Grim said.
Just the thought brought Davey’s last meal a full six inches up his digestive tract. He gulped. ‘Err, no, I—’
‘Good, cos I’d hate to have had to stab yer for it,’ the Grim grinned, revealing a mouth that was more gums than teeth.
‘L-likewise,’ Davey said, not wanting to appear out of his depth.
‘Say. Why don’t we share it?’
‘Oh no, I’ve just eaten.’
‘Whatcher have?’ The Grim’s eyes glinted as his face lit up with hope. ‘Any left?’
‘No. Just some scraps I found in the alley yonder.’
The Grim held his eye for a second. If he knew he was lying he didn’t react.
‘There aren’t any left.’
The Grim nodded, a resigned look crossing his face as if he already knew this would be the case.
‘Well don’t mind me,’ he said, turning towards the carcass. He stopped halfway round, as if an idea had occurred to him. ‘Say, you don’t look like you’re from round here.’
‘No, I’m… not.’
The Grim pursed his lips, nodded. He pulled something loose from the dog with a sickly squelch and began devouring it.
Davey did his best to blot it out, but he felt like he was going to be sick all over the alley floor.
‘Tellyer what, kid?’ the Grim grinned. Bits of rotten dog flesh clung to his remaining teeth. A hail of maggots were expelled with his next words: ‘If you come with me, I can look after ya.’
Davey didn’t really want to go with the Grim, but he didn’t have any other options.
‘Where are you going?’ Davey asked.
‘Where do ya want to go?’
‘I-I’m not sure. I just want to get away from here. Out into the country, I guess.’
The Grim laughed hard, coughing up a lump of black phlegm in the process. ‘Oh, boy, that’s a good one. How ya planning to do that then, son? Sprout wings and fly over the fucking rubble?’ He hooted laughter, slamming a filthy palm into the top of his thigh as he rocked back and forth.
Davey shifted uncomfortably.
The sound was liable to bring more Grims and God knew what else out of the shadows, but mostly it unnerved him.
The Grim didn’t sound in screaming distance of his right mind.
‘Tellyer what. If you ever find a way out into the country you come back and fly me out there too, eh?’
The Grim’s laughter gradually subsided. ‘Fuck me, that was a good one,’ he said, backhanding a mirthful tear from his left eye. The tear had removed part of the dirt on his face.
‘Say, Joker, what’s your name?’
‘I don’t tell strangers my name.’
‘Very wise. I’m the same myself. So let’s skip the introductions and get down to business. These streets ain’t no place for a kid, especially one so wet behind the hat rests.’
Davey opened his mouth to protest, but the Grim waved it aside.
‘So I reckon you should come back with me. There’s a few of us, likeminded souls who would welcome you with open arms.’
Davey didn’t know how to respond.
But he had already learnt to trust his gut.
And his gut said something was off about the Grim.
‘Thank you, but I’m ok.’
‘Really? Where you gonna go? Gotta place to sleep?’
‘Erm yeah, my buddy lives just round here.’
‘You’re full of shit, kid. You won’t last five minutes out here without me.’
‘I don’t need your help. I can look after myself.’
The Grim scoffed.
Lunged forwards, his filthy hand reaching for Davey’s wrist.
Davey took a step backwards, and kicked out sharply at the Grim’s groin, the way his dad had always taught him to do.
Rather than being the holy grail of self-defence techniques though, this seemed to merely piss the Grim off further.
He exposed his swollen, pus-seeping gums and rotting stumps of teeth in a grin that was best described as murderous.
‘Oh, you’re in for it now, boy,’ the Grim said.
He lunged forward.
Davey’s hand went for the knife in his pocket, but the Grim clamped the hand to his side with a vicelike grip, stopping him from getting the weapon loose.
‘You think I was born yesterday? Everyone’s carrying these days,’ the Grim laughed.
The smell of his breath curdled in Davey’s nostrils.
It smelt worse than death.
His other hand moved up to Davey’s throat.
Clutched hard enough to make him gag.
He grinned, savouring the terror in Davey’s eyes.
Just as the hands began to crush into his windpipe, making the world blacken at the edges, a familiar yet strangely far away sound cut through the darkness.
Davey was on the verge of passing out; his breathing labouring, his brain beginning to feel it was growing too large for his skull.
Suddenly the pressure abated and the Grim had taken off into the dank alleyways.
For a split second Davey was puzzled, mostly due to asphyxiation but also due to adrenaline and the sudden turn of events.
His peripheral vision picked up a black vehicle and he realised with dread that this was a member of the Cull Crew, presumably alerted to his appearance on the streets.
He froze in indecision, pinned by the flashing lights and the searing sound of the siren – it sounded very much like a fire alarm turned up to eleven – and tried to summon the mental clarity to get out of this.
The Cullsman’s torch beam seared his eyeballs as it shone into the alley, and the standard bellow of ‘Knees, hands,’ drilled into his eardrums.
He saw the black, highly-polished boots and the matt black shotgun in the Cullsman’s hands and so many memories came flooding back.
He wanted to take the knife in his hand and ram it up to the hilt in the Cullsman’s guts, but he knew that now was not the time to fight.
Now was the time to run.
He surprised himself with his presence of mind and darted backwards with some of the grace he’d used in getting away from the first Cullsman what seemed like a lifetime ago.
He hurdled bin bags like an Olympic athlete.
A shotgun blast tore the air around him, blazing into his ears.
He felt the buckshot whistle past him.
Warm blood ran down his face as shards of brickwork rained down upon him.
He turned the corner, scanning for the way out.
The alley was long and straight. Maybe his arm span in width.
There was no escape.
He’d get maybe halfway down it before he was put down like a sick dog.
His eyes scanned for a potential solution and landed upon a shallow indentation in the wall, the bricked up remnants of a doorway.
Trying desperately to control his frantic breathing, he ducked into it.
The footsteps of the Cullsman were like shotgun blasts in the quiet of the alley.
Davey waited until the Cullsman was upon him, then dived out.
He aimed the spray-paint at where he guessed his opponent’s head would be.
To his delight, the thick paint covered the visor.
The Cullsman raised his gloved hands in a vain attempt to wipe the paint loose.
While he did this, Davey grabbed him and slammed his head hard into the brick wall.
The Cullsman let out a cry of dismay and landed on his arse on the alley floor.
Davey didn’t need a second chance; he darted down the alley, his legs pumping as fast as they could.
He turned left, darted down the next alley.
He couldn’t yet hear the Cullsman’s footsteps, so his confidence grew.
Blind luck and fear carried him on until he reached a maze of alleys.
He heard more sirens now, discovered that the sound tenfold was like having your ears and mind raped, especially in the primal state in which he found himself.
The lights seemed to illuminate every gap between the buildings.
He heard footsteps in the alleys all around him.
Legs leaden, pulse dangerously high, he ran on and on, instinctively taking corners onto more garbage-strewn hells, each one identical to the last.
Occasionally a Grim would shout abuse as he ran through what was basically their living room, waking them from their peaceful slumber among the rotting garbage bags.
After what seemed to be an eternity, and just when he was starting to feel like he could run no longer, the alleys opened out.
He saw a steep downhill slope, at the bottom of which was something he’d only ever heard stories about.
His young, innocent eyes had never actually seen the wondrous yet intimidating thing below.
The freeway tenement of Solomon King.
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