It started with a
Chest burning, throat stinging from screaming, she scratched at cement to get to her feet. A loose paving slab sent her falling again, her knee smacking hard against the ground. Knee throbbing, she hobbled along the black pavement. She had hoped to lose him down the labyrinth of alleyways. Had hoped to survive. Where was the exit?
She turned into an alleyway, its shadows masking a brick wall at the end. Bricks and poles from an old construction site offered no hiding place, no escape.
“Shit.” She twisted round to turn back. The tall black shape before her swallowed all hope of exiting. Adrenaline vomited into her brain as a sudden slice of metallic light came from the figure.
Shit, shit, shit.
Tired feet dragged her body back, until wet brick soaked her back. Terror scorched her muscles still. It lasted for-
The figure stepped forward.
Her fingernails tore through air as she snatched up a brick and threw it at her pursuer. Hearing a stumble and a grunt, she leapt forward, shoving a wheelie bin in his direction. A slither of light marked her vision. Watery knees buckled. Wet brick walls floated in her vision as she realised she was falling. The sudden crack of concrete slapped the air out of her lungs. On impulse, she brought up her knees. Weight met them instantly, nails ripping into her calves. A growl grated through her ears as she kicked out. It was cut off shortly with a thud and clattering of metal.
Rolling, her hands darted out at the surrounding stone for anything that could be used as a weapon. Cold hardness met her fingers. A shadow fell upon her and her ankles were suddenly seized, dragged her stomach against the ground. She twisted in time to see the black shape dive towards her, her pupils suffocating in the sickly light of that thin, white knife.
Inhaling her scream, she swung.
Blood sprayed as metal slammed into skin and muscle. Teeth splintered, fractured and wrestled free from thick roots. A hard jaw jammed down and bit through soft tongue. Bone cracked and finally snapped. A scream that could have been long, clear and shrill, gurgled instead, cut off by a crumbled fall at her side.
Each rib throbbed with her every heartbeat. Screams and sobs froze in her throat as she stared at the figure. Black folds of torn material hid his features from sight. The fleeting view of the savage broken face and shining teeth was all she had.
She fought to push herself up. Grit and stray shards of glass clung to white forearms through the fight to become vertical. The world turned into a nauseating haze of circles, the trickling warmth from her shirt cooed for her to be still. Muscles went slack and eyes rolled as she fell into blind oblivion.
A frozen grip woke her. Her knuckles and palms ached. Smudged skies and wet bricks glistening with slugs’ lazy trails crosshatched around her. She drank it in. Her head wouldn’t turn. Groaning, she rolled to her left and saw that she was still clenching her weapon from last night.
It was a long metal pole, chipped and dented in places, stained ruby at one end. The night’s events suddenly dawned on her, in one sudden jolt of acknowledgement. Her breath caught as she sat up quickly, the blood rushing to her skull. Nausea filled her mouth with bile. She turned, just managing to spit out the acid before spluttering onto her lap. Barely managing to swear, she wiped her lips, allowing her hazy vision to focus.
The body was gone, but the blood was still there. Her clothes were instantly soaked in sweat as she struggled to her feet. Grey surroundings burnt her eyes with a hostility that made her muscles cramp. What was going on? She swayed on her feet and put a hand on a wall to steady herself, the pole still locked in her grip. She looked down at it.
Dropping it, her ears popped with the ring that echoed around her.
They’re back… The thought pinged through her entire body, her stomach flipping again at the possibility. But the rules! They were supposed to stay down there! She spat again, but this time redness came from her lips. Watching it dissolve into the surrounding dampness, she shook her head. Tartarus…
She was never sure after that how long she stayed in that alleyway after that, mumbling to herself. All she knew was when she left, the pole came with her. The familiar cramping in her fingers was like a soothing balm of distraction.
She stuck to quiet streets like an addict would to heroin. Her eyes throbbed from looking behind. Where was she? How far had she come? Patterns of concrete ran beneath her feet in various shades of charcoal, moss, slate, and dirty nothingness dotted with past people’s gum. She didn’t look up. Didn’t want to see people’s expressions when they saw her. Didn’t want to know the reality of her state. Her side ached and felt sticky.
She had been cut. Her uncle had told her that it was better to be stabbed and feel pain, than not at all- because that was when you were in trouble. Holding onto that thought, her feet started to pound the streets.
She couldn’t remember how she had gotten home- how long it had took- what time it was- nothing. Her hand trembled as she held the door handle.
She didn’t have a key. It didn’t matter. The door was unlocked. The door was never unlocked. She walked in. Her hand absently trailed the deep grooves in the wall, her brain faltering in the information it was taking in. Her home looked like a three year old’s attempt of a montage. The chaos was sickening. Broken furniture littered the room like pretty confetti at a doomed wedding. She put a hand to her aching temple. Faces flashed through her mind, none of any importance until she came to one.
She staggered into the living room, spots of blood splashed across the carpet like ink blots.
No. no. no, no.
She followed the trail until she could see a pale hand stretching out from behind an upturned sofa. Fear coiled in the pit of her stomach as she stepped closer to see whose arm it was.
Knees buckled. Her body suddenly held no sensation. There was no such thing as weight. No such thing as gravity. No such thing as life. Salvation. God. That face… That sweet face... She retched and curled up onto herself as her stomach convulsed. Her throat and nostrils burnt. Her jeans were soaked through with hot acid. A bubbling started in the back of her throat until she couldn’t contain it. She screamed then, her sister’s staring eyes forever carving into her soul.
Something had escaped from Tartarus.
“Idiots,” she mumbled under her breath as she started sorting out table 28’s bill. “Absolute idiots.” Diane Stillman looked up to see the masses of people sitting on their arses stuffing their faces full of Oliver’s’ finest food and barking at the other waitresses for their drinks, their bills, a new set of cutlery, a new life, a new face- everything.
She tightened her apron around her waist, wishing she could tighten it around the fat child’s neck on table 12 instead. All the brat had done since he had waddled in was scream and cry.
“I-hate-children,” she said, crushing each word out through her teeth as she scrubbed a table clear.
Come on, she thought to herself. I should be bloody used to it now. She heard a table call behind her for service and ignored it. It’s just a job.
She gritted her teeth and dug her nails into the cloth. Fixing a smile onto her face, she turned to the table of three people.
“I ordered the chicken Caesar salad and not the chicken Caesar salad wrap,” a woman complained.
Looking at her pasty complexion and the three inches of grey root amongst all that dyed ginger, Diane was tempted to walk away. You ordered what you got. I repeated the order to you twice.
She reached out for the woman’s plate, focusing her eyes on anything but the glistening sheen of sweat on the heifer’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll have that changed for you.”
The woman’s pudgy little fingers snaked out onto the rim of the plate, pulling it away from her. “No- it’s all right,” she said, blinking more than necessary in alarm. “I’ll have this.”
Diane straightened up.
Then why the hell say anything?
She nodded her acceptance of the woman’s choice and apologised again before gathering some plates from a nearby empty table. Why do I have to pretend I care? Sorry that your chips aren’t crispy enough. Sorry there’s too much ice in your coke. Sorry you don’t have a straw.
The sound of each plate being stacked became louder and louder with each thought.
Like I haven’t got other things to worry about.
“I don’t give a shit! You can all shove it up your arses!” She wanted to scream. But instead she feigned a worried expression. “Oh, I’m very sorry about that- I’ll just go and sort it out for you. I’m really sorry- I won’t be a second.” She was good at pretending.
“Yep,” she quietly muttered to herself, “I’m an expert at that.” She was the perfect waitress. Putting up with the crap tips, the lofty customers showing off to their friends, the glares, the stares of greasy Bulgarian chefs down her top, whilst putting up with the incessant screaming of children, the shrill voices of the managers demanding for the salad bar to be filled up, the constant clinking and clanking of plates, following by the chorus of:
“We’d like our bill now.”
“Can we order?”
“Where are our drinks?”
“We ordered our desserts 20minutes ago.”
“This isn’t what I ordered.”
“Can you wipe our table?”
“Do you take card?”
“Can I have my change?”
“My coffee isn’t very hot.”
It’s more than I can take sometimes.
But no matter how much she hated her job- it paid- and the tips were good- not to mention that she was a bloody good waitress. She needed something to keep her mind active- pay the bills and all that shit. Jobs had been hard to get after the War in 1996 against the freaks, and she was lucky to have one. Megan and she had worked together at a pub a couple of years before her death, three years ago. People were shaky after the setup of Tartarus and were desperate to see a friendly face. Diane was good at replicating the one she once had. Megan never had to pretend.
Diane couldn’t get her face out of her mind. Her voice.
A plate, slick with gravy slid from her grasp. It smashed to the ground and drowned out the image of Megan’s ripped throat.
A distorted face stared at her, bubbles marking like diamonds on stretched flesh. The face blinked at her, eyes grey and watery. Diane closed her eyes to her reflection and pressed the cold glass to her burning forehead. Animalistic panting burnt a hole in her earlobe. She hunched up her shoulder trying to hide from it. A night out with Paulette did not always appeal to Diane. It was mostly because Paulette would get touched up in a corner of the club with a guy in a Fred Perry jumper, leaving Diane standing awkwardly with a glass of water in one hand and a half drunk Smirnoff Ice in the other. But not always. The rest of the time it would be the guy in Adidas.
This time it was a guy in a plain black shirt. Slim pickings here tonight. She didn’t even know why she had come out. It was a Wednesday night and wasn’t exactly, “banging,” as Paulette would say. She glanced to nattering barmaids behind the back bar, in their tiny skirts and crop top combos- a dress code that the club insisted upon. Diane could see the same bitterness reflected in their eyes as her own. Sex sells.
Stains from beer, spilt alcopops, sloppy tequila and Sambuca shots covered the table in a sticky film of filth. She didn’t notice until she leant forward, her forearms immediately cloaked in the mix of disgusting liquids, merging the hairs of her arms together. The sickly sweet smell was overpowering, making her nostrils burn.
She swore and made wet rings on the table with her glass of water, as if to cleanse the surface. She wiped her forearms dry on her black trousers- a stark contrast to Paulette’s costume for the night.
Her eyes wandered a few metres away to a dark corner. It was difficult not to make out Paulette’s bright purple sequinned skirt and the tight yellow vest that revealed more tit than what Lady Godiva would approve of. But whatever those fashion magazines said about dressing to nab a man, Paulette had clearly succeeded.
Tilting her head, Diane assessed the man. Nothing extraordinary about him. Sandy hair. Light eyes with dark circles. Medium height. Medium build. He had offered to buy them a drink. Naturally, Diane declined. She didn’t accept drinks from strangers. Paulette didn’t seem so concerned.
Pushing the half-drunk Smirnoff Ice away from her in disgust, Diane hoped that someone would collect it before Paulette would notice. Partly because she had drunk enough.
But mostly out of spite.
A high-pitched sigh set her on edge and she soon found her eyes drawn to them. Teeth gritted in revulsion, as she stared at the man’s hands slithering up Paulette’s thigh. She leaned forward to stand. She should get Paulette out of here. Enough was enough. As if sensing her thoughts, he looked over his shoulder at her and smiled, making her step falter.
He winked and put two fingers in his mouth whilst Paulette was nuzzling his neck, all the while staring at Diane. Fingers came glistening from his mouth in the flashing neon lights. They looked like slugs to Diane’s eyes. He winked again before sliding his hand up Paulette’s sequined skirt. Paulette made a sound as though she had just been stabbed.
Time to leave.
Diane stood, not caring about knocking several glasses to the floor and strode over to them.
“I’m going now, Paula,” she said, expecting a hasty stop in their activity. Nothing of the sort happened.
“See you later, babe,” the guy who had said his name was Matt, the movement of his hands unrelenting.
“Ok, I’ll see you later!” came an exasperated snap.
Diane’s jaw hardened.
Draping her jacket across her arm, she wished hadn’t even bothered to iron her top for the night.
Prick. Prick. Prickprick prickprickprickprickprickprickprick.
Painted faces seemed to leer at her as she walked out, her boots making loud snaps on the floor. Hatred of the people she passed grew. They were all here for one reason. To get fucked. It was a cattle market. Nothing more. Nothing less. Everyone was out to get their piece of meat for the night.
The music did nothing for her. She didn’t want to listen to some ghetto king rapping about all his bitches and jewels. Like she gave a shit. All she wanted was to get home. Finding the exit, she pushed past the eager queue of students trying to get in and suddenly regretted the seven pound entrance fee.
How could everyone go on as if nothing had happened? As if a war had never occurred? The only thing that had changed was that Halloween was no longer celebrated in Britain. No one needed reminders. No one spoke about it. It was just done.
Taxis drove past bearing their wares of pristine screwed up society back home to either fuck up or throw up. The fares of taxis had gone up since the war. They had learnt they could make a killing from scared girls whose parents insisted on them always getting taxis as night time, no longer trusting the public transport whose bus shelters were poorly lit and not covered by CCTV. Some people had taken advantage of that fear- had caused riots even after the peace treaty had been signed, after Tartarus had been opened and closed. Their excuses of burning down buildings and ransacking shops were based on exclamations of fear and protest against the unnatural that now lived below ground.
Diane pulled out her wallet. £2.61. She growled in annoyance and shoved it back in her bag. The entrance fee had rinsed her, and she hadn’t brought her bank card out. To hell with it. She’d walk.
Diane wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore. It was like she was daring whatever had come at her three years ago to make an appearance. To finish the job. She daydreamed of different scenarios where she would have the upper hand, how she would wrestle the truth from whatever creature had come to her that night. Who had murdered Megan Stillman?
Drunk people littered the streets, as it is usually the case on a Friday night. Repulsion made her nose twitch as she watched people howl at passing cars, laughing and shouting at each other. She envied their jovial state. Why did they let themselves get like that? They worked all week in their shitty low-paid jobs at Tesco or God knows where, just to blow their money at the weekend. The lads all getting together drinking cider, maybe snorting a bit of cocaine before, maybe pop a few pills, talking about how they screwed some girl or other, or how much of a slag that Gemma was, but how she gave great head. She could imagine the girls getting ready, pushing their boobs up, worrying about cellulite, swearing about the sudden appearance of a cold sore, talking about how weirdly shaped Steve’s cock was. Pathetic.
Bitterness had poisoned her mind for the night and directing her hatred towards society made her feel better.
How dare they pretend it had never happened? As though Tartarus didn’t exist.
She hated the repetition of these people’s lives. The casual acceptance of the nine to five. Working until they were sixty and old just so they could be finally free with retirement. Staying with the shitty boyfriend/girlfriend they had been with for the past year because they were too scared to be on their own.
She didn’t want to be stuck here for the rest of her life. Hell- even she had dreams. A bigger picture in mind. She wanted her own bookshop- not a big dream, but it was what she wanted. Just to work for herself would be a fantasy enough. But that had gone out of the window with Megan’s murder. All of her spare time was spent researching theories into why someone would harm her. How. When. Diane’s younger sister had been training to be an archaeologist. She was quiet. Harmless.
Biting her lip, Diane halted the train of thought in her mind. If it started she would be up all night in the kitchen researching. And she was so tired of it all. Her family had called her obsessed. Wanted her to get help. It’s over Diane. Let it go, they would say. So she had moved away, shut them out. She couldn’t bear for them to tell her to stop. She could never stop.
“Nice,” she observed as she walked around a splatter of beige vomit on the ground, holding her breath. She refused to breathe again until she had put twenty paces behind her. Stupid- she knew. When she was younger, she used to walk past a boy’s house that she hated. His name was David Mockley. He was the sort whose idea of lunchtime at school was picking his nose. Every time she walked past she used to hold her breath until she couldn’t hold it anymore, as if she was afraid of breathing in the same scummy air as him. She remembered seeing his mum beat him but it was normal at the time. She saw a lot of her friends get beaten by their mums. But shh, don’t tell anyone, they’d say. He’s been naughty, yeah? Let’s keep this between us. You’re such a good girl, Diane.
Keeping her head down these days was a priority. No one wanted to attract attention to themselves. She had moved away to a new town, gotten herself a new job, new friends. A new start. At least that was what it was supposed to be. She had joined various self-defence classes in 1996 as soon as the war started. Her dad had demanded it of her and her sister- the incentive of a box of Maltesers each if they did. It was nothing special. Just basic common knowledge moves. Bit of boxing. Just the usual kick and punch before it happened to you. It was a bitch though to keep it up every morning, but it was something she tried to keep up- even though the war was over. People called her paranoid but it didn’t matter. They didn’t know. They knew her by a different name, as a different person with a false smile. It suddenly struck her that she couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed.
Her hands curled into fists in her pockets as she quickened her pace.
He was hurting her. He liked to come to her when she was upset, firing up her emotions. He liked to make her feel helpless. Pathetic. She was. He hurt her to get to Diane.
“Come with me,” he would purr, fire dancing along his tongue. “Let me take you to a place where it’s hot with green fire.”
She wouldn’t say anything. She was always too afraid. She watched him pull the little girl’s hair, making her scream. He laughed. She wanted to go to him. Exchange herself for Megan. Take me, she wanted to say. Just stop it.
“Come to me.”
He pulled the girl’s hair again harder.
He pulled out a knife and slit her throat.
Her legs were twisted in the covers when she woke, sweat making them damp. Her breathing came out fast, making her heart pound. She lay back down on the pillows, exhausted but too tired to go back to sleep. She would just get eaten by his dogs again. She had to put up with this nearly every single night. Him taunting her, laughing at her, torturing her. Making her relive death after death after death. Fall down cliffs, limbs being torn apart, skin being sliced, being raped, and cut, burnt alive- she had been through it all. She had really struggled with it when she was younger but she was trying to control it. Her parents had wanted to take her to a vicar to be cleansed. What a stupid idea, she thought rubbing her hands over her face. Like that would stop him.
She wanted to get out of bed and get a glass of water, but a childish side of her was too afraid to.
“I’m such a dick,” she muttered, kicking the sheets off hot legs. She walked downstairs to the kitchen and put the lights on. Blinking at the brightness, she sat down at the kitchen table.
The police hadn’t done anything about Megan’s death. They had done their searches and picked out their suspects, all to no use.
“It’s someone from downstairs!” she would shout to their paling faces. “Can’t you see it’s someone from Tartarus?”
“That place is shut up, miss,” they would say, their jaws clenching down in denial. “A treaty was signed. You need to forget all about it.”
Megan had been ill before she died, so it seemed of little importance to those who had the power to do something. Maybe it had been a kindness she had been taken? People had mused. Rather that than the illness. Diane had pushed the police, believing the evidence too stark to deny.
“Maybe it was an animal?” the police had suggested.
Diane had flipped. “What kind of animal do you think could tear out her throat in England?” she had screamed.
“A big one,” had been the answer. The police were reluctant to question anyone below, but they had questioned the neighbours, looked at CCTV, to find nothing. So disturbances had been reported, no sights had been seen. Diane had felt hope rise in her chest. Maybe now they would investigate Downstairs. Maybe now they would listen-
It was part of the peace agreements when the war was over. Mind each other’s business.
That’s politics for you.
A groan escaped her throat. Resting her head against the table, she wondered if Paulette got home ok. She knew she shouldn’t have left her, but the patience for Paulette’s antics had worn thin. Diane rubbed her palms into her eyes, trying to resist sleep. The Man would be waiting for her.
A sudden crash and a sprinkling of glass made her jump up from her chair. Her heart felt as though it would crack her ribs with its furious beating. Ears burning for any other sound than the wind outside, she spun around to see her curtains blowing and glass glinting across the floor.
Her body froze, assessing the situation. She could hear nothing. She could see nothing from out of the window. It was raining outside.
“For God’s sake!” She walked over, too pissed off to even think of putting her slippers on and stopped at the sight of a brick on the floor.
What the hell?
Kneeling down, she picked it up, tiny shards of glass sticking to her fingertips. A grubby note was wrapped around it, kept in place by an elastic band.
COME TO TARTARUS
Her hands throbbed painfully and she threw the brick on the sofa, swearing. Her lungs burnt, suddenly unable to take in enough air. The faint splatter of rain touched the back of her neck, making her shiver. What the hell was that about?
“What’s wrong with the envelope through the door method?” She went over to the window. “Too cheap for stamps?” she yelled outside, furious. She kicked a pillow across the floor with a scream of outrage and looked back at the note,
Tartarus. The Underground city where all non-human species lived. Vampires, demons, werewolves- all that usual bollocks. She didn’t know what other species of weirdo they had down there- she didn’t have the list. They had only emerged in the last fifteen years, and it was still a taboo subject to mention in polite conversation. People were afraid of what they don’t understand- quite reasonable she thought. She kept herself to herself. She didn’t bother anyone- she just got on with her work. If people left her alone she did the same. No one wanted to talk about Tartarus. Let it be forgotten along with the people it took and the buildings that fell.
She sat down on the sofa, note crumpled in her hand. Tiredness wracked her shoulders. Her sister’s killer was somewhere in Tartarus. She had waited three years for the police to do something. For someone to help her- anyone. But no one even talked about Tartarus anymore. No one dared to, lest something heard them and rumble awake in the darkness.
Who was screwing with her? The letters on the note burned into her vision, black lines of provocation.
Diane Stillman had run out of options. The police continuously refused her pleas of sending an investigation down there, private agencies called her mad and the government ignored her countless letters. The case was closed on her sister’s murder.
After three years of fighting Upstairs, it looked like she was about to change tactics.
She looked around her rented apartment, hating the mushroom coloured walls, the salmon pink carpet and the browning tiles in her kitchen- the crappy restaurant job she would have to get up early to go to- the shitty mates. What did she have keeping her here?
“To hell with it,” she said. “If they want me, they’ve got me.”
That’s how her life started in Tartarus. The Underworld of Hades.