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Davey waited a full three hours before he finally got to the front of the bait cabin’s queue.
‘Hi there,’ he said to the heavyset Grim who manned the small wooden hut.
‘Whatcanagetcha?’ the Grim barked, running a hand through his thick black- and grey-streaked beard.
‘What do you have?’ Davey said.
‘Ain’t much left this time a day. We close soon to restock for dinner time. We got the dregs of the Grim gruel and a few cups o’ Joe left.’
‘I’ll take them, please.’
The Grim nodded, turned away.
The smell of burnt grease assailed Davey’s nostrils.
A blackened skillet at the far end of the fat-smeared counter showed the last remnants of the breakfast he could have had if he’d got his arse in gear.
The Grim came back, a big ceramic cup in his grease-stained hand.
Thick, dark liquid poured out as he set it down on the counter.
Next to the cup, he placed a small ramekin containing what looked like porridge.
‘Ten Grimners, then, lad,’ he said with a weary air.
Davey pulled out a note from his pocket.
The Grim scowled, shook his head. ‘Ain’t legal tender round here, lad. King Solomon implemented his own currency.’
Davey stared at him, unable to understand what he was saying.
A Grim behind him started shouting, seemingly annoyed by the delay.
‘So I can’t accept your money,’ the Grim behind the counter said.
Davey felt so bemused by his new habitat, so utterly out of his depth, that he began to cry.
‘Tellyerwhat kid, I can see you’re new round here, so this one’s on me,’ the Grim behind the counter said. ‘But you gotta get your sorry arse to the exchange centre and get some legal tender for your next meal.’
‘Thank you,’ Davey sobbed, ashamed by his show of emotion.
‘Enjoy, lad,’ the Grim smiled then shooed him away to beckon the next customer to the counter.
Davey followed the path as it curved away from the bait cabin and found himself in a small clearing.
Poorly-maintained wooden benches and unkempt copses of trees were placed seemingly at random around the flagstones.
It was an obsessive compulsive’s worst nightmare, but it was still heaven when compared with the garbage-strewn concrete sprawl of the city’s streets.
Grims were everywhere.
The odd few were deep in conversation, but mostly they kept themselves to themselves.
No one seemed to want to talk to him and that was fine with him.
He had no idea what to say to them.
He managed to find a seat on the end of a partially-rebuilt stone wall next to one of the trees.
As he did so, he took his first proper look at the meal he had received.
The coffee – or at least it smelt like coffee – in the ceramic cup was as thick and dark as road tar.
When he’d taken a swig of it, he found it very bitter, but with a kick that was absolutely lethal.
Already it felt like a woodpecker was going hell for leather on the back of his skull.
After a couple more sips, the taste grew stronger and sweeter.
The kick was amplified the more he drank.
So far, so good.
The ramekin containing what the Grim at the bait cabin had referred to as Grim gruel looked like an anaemic version of porridge.
It was a dull grey in colour and had the same consistency as cat litter.
The same taste too, when he eventually plucked up the nerve to try it.
The back of his throat was suddenly drier than the stone wall on which he sat.
‘Try mixing your Joe in with it,’ said a kind-faced Grim across the path from him. ‘Takes the sting out of it a bit.’
‘Thank you. I’ll try it,’ Davey said.
He tipped in a little Joe, swilled it round.
‘Don’t be shy, lad. Get it all in there,’ the Grim smiled.
Davey did as advised, swilling it round as he did so.
He sipped at it tentatively, unsure of what the combined tastes would be like.
To his delight the taste of the gruel was masked by the Joe.
He drank it back in one big swig, shuddering a little as the undissolved chunks of gruel hit the back of his throat.
‘Thank you,’ Davey said.
The Grim nodded his approval. ‘You need any help round here, you let me know. I’m door twelve, row twenty-seven. Take care of yasself, kidda.’
‘Thanks again,’ Davey said.
His head throbbed from the effects of the Joe.
His heart was pounding hard enough to make his nipples twitch.
But he possessed an alertness that he hadn’t previously.
It felt as though his body and brain had been put on fast forward.
With wide eyes, he tried to figure out how the hell he was going to find his way back to the shack.
While he was out in the sun, he thought he may as well get to know his surroundings.
He stood on one of the walls to gain a little elevation and saw that there were curved paths around the clearing, leading to more bait cabins leading to more clearings.
And eventually back to the houses.
Just like streets and blocks, he thought.
He went back to the bait cabin he’d gotten his breakfast from – he recognised the Grim behind the counter.
He nodded a greeting at Davey as he passed.
‘Thanks again for the free meal,’ Davey said.
‘Not a problem. You enjoy it?’
‘The Joe was nice.’
‘No one likes the gruel,’ the Grim smiled. ‘But it works wonders for your health. Choke it the fuck down, I say. Happy days to ya.’
Davey followed the curve up all the way until he reached the end.
A sea of multi-coloured tin shacks greeted his eyes.
It already felt like home.
But he found it hard to figure out which one he’d been staying in, since they all looked the same.
Or did they?
With the Joe in his system, revving his body and mind into a higher gear, he began to see things a little differently.
It’s not this row, he thought, assessing the path outside the houses.
His powers of recall were much stronger on the Joe.
Not this one either, he thought after a moment’s pause.
I think it’s this one.
Sure enough, there were the markings he’d made on the door before he’d left.
He pushed the door open and, as the Grim he’d met that morning had promised, his bag was there just as he had left it.
Things were looking up after all.
With the realisation that his property was safe while it wasn’t attended, he decided to search for the exchange centre.
He’d begun to save up from his lunch money and paper round when he’d first heard about the Cull Crews and had a pretty tidy amount tucked away inside his backpack.
The first Grim he saw that didn’t look like they were either high as a kite or like they would attempt to stab him if he tried to converse with them, he asked for directions to the exchange centre.
‘It’s right at the centre of the spiral,’ the Grim said. ‘Follow this path along until you get to the clearing. Go through the clearing and you’ll come onto the spine of paths that run right through this sector.’
Davey nodded, feeling like he really should have been writing all of this down.
But, he supposed, with the Joe in his system he’d recall it without any problems.
‘Once you hit the main spine, go left until you get to the giant statue of the King. Look at the statue’s face, turn one-eighty and the exchange centre is right in front of you.’
‘Ok, thank you very much,’ Davey said, smiling.
His initial concerns about this place were proving to be misguided, in spite of the ominous things he’d heard the previous night.
‘No problem, sonny. Hope ya don’t get lost.’
Davey followed the route he’d been told, again marvelling at the sheer scale of the tenement.
This was one small part of the entire camp and it was vast.
An explosion from the wooden area went up; the party starting early over there judging by the hollering and whooping and rainbow-coloured steam drifting over the camp.
The sound of raucous laughter carried on the wind.
It was comforting now, in the daylight and with a firmer grasp of his bearings and the people with which he shared the camp.
By the time he got to the park where he’d eaten his breakfast, he was feeling very much at home.
He found the path through the trees and began to follow it.
After what seemed like a long time, he began to feel as though he’d taken a wrong turn, but the Grim’s words were fixed in his mind, thanks to the Joe he’d drank with his breakfast.
‘I should be there by now,’ he muttered aloud.
There didn’t seem to be an end to the clearing, just a long, dark path through the secluded wooded area.
He looked back and the daylight and laughter and fires of the rest of the camp seemed like a lifetime away.
The flesh on the back of his neck began to creep and he suspected that he was lost.
‘But I followed exactly what he said,’ Davey said aloud, trying to wrap his head around the situation.
As if reacting to his words, the Grim he’d asked for directions appeared from behind the trunk of a stout tree.
‘Lost, sonny?’ he beamed, the way the shadows hung over his pale face making his features look like those of a grinning skull.
Davey backed away, but heard twigs crunching behind him.
He turned and saw another half a dozen Grims in a loose circle around him.
Bad intentions were blatant in their leering grins.
‘What do you want?’ Davey said, ashamed by the terror-induced quake in his voice.
The Grim who’d gave him directions approached. ‘Old Jimmy here thinks you’ve got some coin on ya, sonny.’
Davey cursed himself for being so open about his relative wealth.
It looked as though it had gotten him in deep water.
‘Gonna make it Old Jimmy’s coin,’ the Grim said, grinning an ominous grin.
‘And Billy’s,’ said a wheezing voice from behind him. Davey spun and saw that Billy was the first Grim he’d seen upon leaving his apartment block. As he smiled a horrid grin, Davey had a mental flashback of the rancid dog meat and squirming maggots between his jaws. ‘So pleased to see you again, Joker.’
Old Jimmy held a short but viciously sharp knife that glinted in the occasional shaft of light that pierced the canopy of leaves.
‘And maybe then, Old Jimmy will have a decent meal,’ he leered, licking his lips in a way that Davey found deeply disturbing.
‘Yeah, Jimmy and Billy goan spitroast you,’ Billy wheezed.
Fuck! They’re going to eat me! Davey thought, his panic beginning to petrify him.
‘You sure look tasty, boy meat,’ Old Jimmy grinned.
Behind Davey, another of the Grims laughed.
Davey turned and saw him whacking a stout length of tree branch into his palm.
Old Jimmy nodded.
And they all began to edge closer.
Next chapter is here