An Assignment for Croup and Vandemar (working title)
"No." Door was adamant.
"It really is the only way." The Marquis assured her. "I can tell you I'm not the happiest about it either – I mean, they killed me – but we haven't got a choice."
"We always have a choice."
"Not this time. Do you want Richard to see the light of day again? This is Serpentine we're discussing, Door."
"Exactly! I barely think even those two will be able to stop her."
"But they will. Door, they have ensured the burning of entire cities, the torturing to death of whole monasteries. They can do anything, and they're virtually indestructible."
"I know." Door said, her voice cold as ice and sharp as a dagger. She was still a little sore on this point.
"Oh, come now, Door. Have you really not gotten over that? I have no idea how they escaped, but they did, and now they may be useful."
"De Carabas! These aren't some meagre murderers we're discussing; they're Croup and Vandemar! They are the slimiest, most terrifying, most evil creatures that London has ever known, below or above!"
"I know." The Marquis put a hand theatrically to his head and sat down with a bump on the garden chair, which just about managed not to disintegrate. Door gave him a withering look of utter disgust.
"Oh, Warrior!" called a crackly voice. Richard sat up groggily, rubbing his throbbing head. It felt as though he had been run over by a herd of elephants – not the first time he had felt this way since he came to London below. A woman entered. She was tall, and dressed in a ragged gown that once, a millennium or so ago, might have been a colour bordering on white. A long train drooped down behind her and trailed along the filthy floor. Serpentine, most dangerous of the seven sisters and Hunter's former mistress, had arrived. "How are we feeling?" She asked, in mock pity.
"A little rough." Richard answered truthfully.
"Oh dear, is my poor little warrior feeling sore?" Serpentine goaded, kicking Richard with the pointed end of her snake-skin stilettos.
"You had no call to do that." Richard moaned.
"My call comes from my heart, as the old saying goes." said Serpentine. "And my heart tells me you deserve all the pain I can offer you. Think of it as a service, my dear."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Richard asked, in a momentary fit of anger. Then he realised who he was speaking to and shrunk back against the wall, a terrified look in his eyes.
"I seek only recompense for what you have done to me, Warrior." The woman's voice was cold and emotionless.
"What? What have I ever done to you, other than turning up drunk? Door did that as well, and you're not doing this to her-" Richard was cut short by Serpentine's cruel laugh.
"What have you done to me? What have you done to me? Oh, Richard of Mayhew, have you no eyes? Can you not see what you have done?"
"It's Mayhew. Just Mayhew. And no I bloody well can't see what I've done."
"You killed Hunter.
“I did what?” Richard was outraged. “You killed hunter.” Serpentine repeated, her face stony.
“No I didn’t! What on earth made you think I did?”
“You had her knife. You were with her in the labyrinth.”
“So was the Marquis – why aren’t you kidnapping him?”
“The Marquis De Carabas is cruel and heartless, but he is not a killer. You, on the other hand, appear to be.” Richard sat stunned. He had been through a lot since he picked Door up of the pavement: he had ended up in London below, passed the ordeal of the key, almost been murdered by Lamia, killed the great beast of London, returned to London above and then come back again. But really, assuming he had killed Hunter was too much. He’d always respected the woman…except for that bit when he had thought she was a hooker.
“I wouldn’t kill hunter – I don’t think I’m really capable of murder. I respected her, admired her. And she gave me the dagger. Honestly.”
“And why should I believe you, upworlder?” mocked Serpentine.
“Because I’m telling the truth.”
“I sincerely doubt that.” Serpentine prodded Richard in the stomach with the whittled end of her staff and left. Richard was doubled over, tears streaming down his face. Damn. Why was he so weak? And why did no-one ever believe him? He untwisted and stood up, groaning with the pain and effort of it all. He looked at himself. He was dirty, filthy, even - he was in serious need of a wash. No-one seemed to have provided him with any water, though. He stood desolate. Was he ever going to be rescued?
Two men were walking through the smoky tunnels. They wore ill-fitting suits that had clearly been designed by someone who had been given a picture of a suit, but had less than no idea what one was, or how tall and hulking Mr Vandemar really was. The smaller of the two had gingery hair, and yellow teeth and eyes. He was the embodiment of a fox, sly, cunning and ruthless, with a mock-suave edge. Then there was his associate, a man too tall for normality, with wild black-brown hair and a mad gleam in his eyes. His teeth were longer and sharper than any should be, but the back ones were blunt enough to grind bone with ease, which they were frequently required to. Something squeaked in the darkness. Mr Vandemar shot out a hand and grabbed the wriggling shape. It was a black rat, and about its neck was a small scroll.
“The black rat, rattus rattus: collective noun, a plague.” quipped Mr Croup.
“ ‘s paper on here.” Mr Vandemar grunted, looking to Mr Croup.
“Give it to me, then, and have done with it.” Mr Croup snatched the scroll from the rat, greedily. He looked around. Mr Vandemar was still looking at him expectantly. “What?”
“Can I eat it?”
“Yes. Fine. Of course. Why do you feel the need to ask me?”
“I dunno. Just do.”
“Ok.” Mr Vandemar stared the rat in the eyes, unblinking, and then, in one expert motion, snapped it’s neck, before proceeding to grind it between his molars, eating from the head up. He made a face and spat out the back of the rat, which consisted of a mangled torso, bloody paws at the end of legs showing half-chewed sinew and half a tail hanging limply.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Mr Croup, in a tone of upper-class distaste.
“Sewer rat.” Mr Vandemar explained.
“Aren’t they all?”
“Yeah, but this one’s been in pig muck.”
“Nah – underfed pigs.”
“I see. Shall we be getting back now, Mr Vandemar?”
“ ‘Spose so.”
“Yes, quite.” The pair walked along in silence for a while, and then Mr Croup, as ever, began to talk. “I do believe, Mr Vandemar, that the Door girl thought she had got rid of us for good.”
“But of course she hadn’t. We kill people, Mr Vandemar, but we ourselves are exceedingly hard to kill, are we not? I prefer not to think of it as murder, but as an art form. People ask us to do a service, and we do it in the most beautifully excruciatingly painful way possible. Asking for an assassination from us is like asking an artist to do a commission.” They had arrived at the old hospital and they stepped gingerly through the splintered doors and down the multitude stairs to the basement. It was cold and dark, just how they liked it. Mr Croup took up a scalpel and proceeded to make fine lacerations with it on the corpse of a former client. Mr Vandemar set about looking for something to eat. There was a spatter of feathers and an avian squawking. After a minute or two, he spat out a few left over feathers from the pigeon he had been munching on.
“You going to look at the paper?” he asked.
“The one on the snack.”
“Oh, the rat’s scroll Now, Mr Vandemar, who do we know that uses rats for sending post?”
“Don’t know.” Mr Vandemar licked pigeon sinew off his fingers.
“Why, the Marquis De Carabas, of course. You remember - that nice crucifixion?”
“Oh, yeah, that.”
“So then, shall I open it?”
“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Mr Vandemar.” Mr Croup pulled the scroll from his pocket, unrolling it and reading it aloud. “If Mr Vandemar has not eaten this, I would like to notify Mr Croup and his associate that I will be coming to visit you sometime soon, in the capacity of possible employer, so please do not repeat your attempts at crucifixion of me. Yours, the Marquis De Carabas.” Mr Croup bunched up the note and tossed it to Mr Vandemar. “Stop licking your fingers and use this as a napkin.” he said. Mr Vandemar barely listened, and instead pulverised the note between his teeth and continued to lick his fingers. Mr Croup draped himself over a chair. “Well, well, well, Mr Vandemar, it seems we have interest from an unanticipated party. Why, we must ask ourselves, would the Marquis De Carabas, whom we murdered, wish to employ us? What disastrous turn of events could cause this dramatic turnaround?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a rhetorical question, Mr Vandemar.”
“Yes. Remember that in future.” Mr Vandemar ignored him, picking up a meat cleaver from the side and cleaning his nails with it, digging the monstrous blade under the edges.