Sarah left the busy London road and descended the muddy embankment bordering it. Even in thick boots, she risked slipping with every step, but Howard put a hand against her back and kept her steady. “Remind me what this tip off claimed again?” she asked.
Howard kept his grasp on her shoulder and spoke to the back of her head as they continued down the hill. “It wasn’t really a tip off,” he said. “Local bus driver broke down here and saw someone skulking around in the ditch. When he asked them if they needed help, they fled. Palu only has us following up because we have zero other leads and two of the victims were found in inner-city ditches like this.”
Sarah reached the bottom of the embankment and glanced back at the main road. Like most London roads, it was chock-a-block. Dirty exhaust fumes billowed into the air. “I hate this city,” she muttered.
Howard stepped into the ditch beside her. “Huh?”
“Nothing. Come on, let’s check things out. It stinks down here.”
Howard pulled his belt up, raising the ankles of his trousers away from the mud, and nodded. “You okay? You look a little pissed off—more than normal.”
“I’m fine. I just don’t…” Her words trailed off. Something about the way Howard looked at her—like he actually cared—made Sarah want to open up. For a moment she almost spilled herself on the ground and said: No, I’m not fine, Howard. Ever since I met you, I’ve been battered and bruised, nearly killed a dozen times by evil men and wicked monsters, and seen my friends die. I don’t sleep anymore and every loud noise makes me curl up beneath the covers. Oh yeah, and my dead ex-husband has just returned and wants to act like nothing happened—like I didn’t lose half of my face and a baby back in that desert. I am not fine, Howard. Help me, please. Instead, she shrugged. “There are better things to do then trudge through the mud, Howard. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Alright,” said Howard. “You wanna take point?”
“Yeah.” She got going, examining the way ahead. The ditch cut alongside the road to collect runoff from a row of culverts. The ground was wet, with a thick scum of iridescent foam where chemical pollution from nearby factories had mixed with rain and sewer water. An animal corpse rotted a few metres away, a scrawny grey thing that could have been a fat squirrel or a skinny badger. Sarah thought pictured the figure skulking around down here and decided it was unusual enough to investigate—but by some local copper, not a pair of MCU agents. What was Palu doing sending them here? The MCU’s Director had been acting desperately during the last two months–ever since the killings started.
Also the same time Thomas appeared out of the ether to join the team.
Thinking about her ex-husband—or husband again now, she thought, as she had not divorced a dead man—forced a rush of anxiety into the pit of her stomach. The feeling was not so much one of butterflies, but a swarm of locusts eating the lining of her guts. Thomas made her nauseas—but for what reasons she had yet to ascertain.
“You think all these pipes lead into the sewers?” asked Howard, pointing to the culverts.
“How should I know? They probably lead underneath the road and out the other side. I remember playing in pipes like that when I was a kid, pretending to be an SAS soldier to impress my dad.” She almost laughed at the memory, but it died before it passed her lips. Howard knew better than to prod her about her childhood or her father, so he remained silent. Major Stone was dead, end of story. Sarah felt no guilt for thinking it was better that way.
Howard stepped over a pile of old bricks and pointed. “There’s a larger pipe ahead. You see it?”
Sarah did see it. “The bus driver said the person in the ditch disappeared. He could have gone in there.”
“What I was thinking. Let’s be ready.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, we don’t know what killed that squirrel back there, so we should be cautious. Could be a stray dog or anything. The fight against crime never ends.”
“Glad to have you on the team,” said Howard. He smirked at her and almost got a smile back in response. After a year of suffering her abrasiveness, Howard seemed to enjoy her bitter humour. He didn’t react to it or hold it against her. She kind of hated him for that.
They trod carefully through the stagnant water towards the large opening. As much as this seemed like a waste of their time, they were both too professional to lower their guard. Sarah had learned in the last year with the MCU that something could try to kill you at any moment. That was what kept her awake at night. Along with the faces of the men she had killed, and the ones who wanted to kill her.
The large, round opening had rusted bolts around its circumference, suggesting a grate had once barred access. The mid-day sun shone inside the first few feet, but shadows took over soon after. Stink and warm air flowed outwards and Sarah sensed moisture settling on her face. She had a subtle desire to gag, the muscles beneath her jaw bulging.
“Smells like arsehole,” she said. “We don’t need to go stomping about in there, do we?”
Howard raised an eyebrow at her and stuck out his comically square chin. “You want to abandon a lead?”
She sighed. “No, but I swear Palu is punishing us for something.”
“You’re paranoid. Come on, you said you want to get this over with. Let’s look inside.”
“Sod it then!” Sarah yanked the LED flashlight from the left epaulette of her black utility vest and clicked it on. The high-powered beam sliced through the darkness and dispelled the gloomy atmosphere. Now the pipe just appeared dirty; like a place no person should step into voluntarily. Nonetheless, she fixed the flashlight back inside her epaulette and allowed it to light her way forward.
Her footsteps echoed. The water in the pipe splashed beneath her boots.
Beyond the shaft of light, the gloomy atmosphere tried its best to close in on them.
Sarah wrinkled her nose as a stench assaulted her. “I really don’t think we will find anyone hiding in here. Least of all the Flower Man.”
Howard apparently agreed. In the glare of his own torch, his expression was glum. “Shame, because I really want to catch that sicko.”
Sicko is an understatement, thought Sarah. The killer the media had named ‘The Flower Man’ had killed twelve victims in just two months—a spree putting London’s previous VIP of serial killers—Jack the Ripper—to shame. This latest sociopath’s MO was the stuff of nightmares. He made gardens from his living victims—cutting out their eyes and stuffing the sockets with seeded soil. Filling every orifice with aggressively growing plant life and insects. The harrowing part was that it worked. The Flower Man’s victims became gardens, sometimes remaining alive for days. The last victim had been a twelve year old girl. She’d been found in a Lambeth ditch with daffodils growing out of her empty eye sockets and a dying Lupin planted inside an incision in her torso. Pain had sent her mind to oblivion long before her body joined it, which took less than twenty four hours after getting her into a hospital.
The details had made Sarah sick.
Like Howard, she would love to get her hands on The Flower Man.
Yet, she also wanted to run away screaming. She was well used to terrors by now, but the hell the MCU faced every day was too much to bare. Sarah had faced demons in the deserts of Afghanistan, but what had truly altered her forever was learning that there were demons at home. Nowhere was safe. The United Kingdom was a glass palace built on sand. The thick scars on the left side of her face were a constant reminder of the wickedness of man.
I just want to stop feeling this way.
As they dove deeper into the stinking tunnel, plinks and plops surrounded them as condensation caused droplet to fall from the ceiling. The darkness ahead grew hot and muggy.
“I’m sweating,” said Howard, sending his torch beam into an excited spiral as he reached up and wiped at his forehead.
Sarah nodded. “Me too. I’ve never been in a sewer before—I know, I know, what have I been doing with my life?–so I’m not sure if the whole tropical climate thing is normal. Is it?”
Howard shrugged. “Beats me. Sewer gases, maybe? I’m trained in underground ops, but I don’t think this counts.”
The further along they got, the more Sarah became sure that the heat was unusual. Maybe it was trapped sewer gases as Howard suggested, but it still seemed odd. Like walking through a greenhouse.
Howard stopped. “You hear that?”
Sarah nodded. “I hear buzzing.”
There was a corner up ahead, and despite herself, Sarah reached for her gun and removed the safety. Without word, Howard did the same. They both felt it—the sense that something was wrong.
I always feel like that, thought Sarah.
The glare of their torches made everything seem over-exposed. It would be hard to see. Sarah took in a breath and moved around the corner with her gun raised in front of her. She immediately batted at her face. “What the fuck?”
Howard was beside her and also taken by surprise. He covered his face with the crook of his arm. “What is this? Flies?”
There were flies everywhere, but that wasn’t what caught her attention. In a wide cavern where the sewer opened into a nexus of channels, a large lighting rig towered. Its warm orange glow, along with a droning buzz, suggested the multiple strips of bulbs were ultraviolet. The thriving weeds and plant life all but confirmed it. “It’s a garden.”
It was bizarre to see thick foliage growing in a dank sewer, like some otherworldly grotto, and it made the whole area creepy. Creepy because it meant The Flower Man had been here.
Or was still there.
Realising the same thing, Howard swept the cavern with his Ruger P95. He spoke urgently. “If this is one of The Flower Man’s gardens, he was here as recently as yesterday. He might still be close by.”
Painfully aware of the fact, Sarah nodded. Once again she was standing in the den of a wicked man. Her entire life had been filled with wicked men—Hesbani, Al-Sharir, Dr Krenshaw… her father. She felt sick to her stomach, like the serial killer had left behind a noxious ooze she was now inhaling. She wobbled and reached out, but there was nothing to hold onto. “Let’s phone it in. I need some goddamn air.”
Howard lowered his gun and moved towards her. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”
Sarah righted herself and stood straight. “It’s a bunch of weeds growing in a stinking sewer, grown by a deranged monster who turns people into flowerbeds. Just standing in this place makes me…”
Howard frowned. “What?”
Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“I just want to get back outside where I’m not breathing in piss and shit.”
Howard reached out and squeezed her arm. “Okay. Let’s move back-”
Howard spun and raised his Ruger. Sarah did the same with her SIG 229.
The strange noise came from a large patch of flowers growing beneath the heat lamp.
Sarah shook her head. “Oh God, no!”
She stumbled over to the centre of the cavern and crouched beside the flowerbed. Howard tried to move beside her, but she pushed him aside so she could get an unobstructed view. The girl was still alive.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” said Howard, his voice thick and anxious. He pulled his mob-sat out and dialled.
Sarah didn’t respond to him, her focus was on the victim in front of her. The girl’s age was indeterminate for she was coated with wet mud and moss. She shook her head from side to side, mumbling in terror. She could not form words because her mouth was packed with dirt. A pair of rubber tubes ran down her nostrils, allowing her to breathe—and preventing her from dying. Her eyes had been dug out and replaced with wilting daffodils. Sarah’s guts started a spin cycle, but she kept her calm. She needed to help this girl.
There is no helping this girl.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I’ve got you now. My name is Sarah. I’m a police officer.”
The girl’s mumbling became more frantic, suggesting she understood. Victims often were most manic when finally rescued. Sometimes you had to stop them from injuring themselves in a panic. In a panic of her own, Sarah clawed dirt from the girl’s mouth, removing root tendrils with her fingernails and feeling insects climbing up her wrists. Whatever had been planted had not yet sprouted, and with every finger-full of dirt removed, the girl could splutter and moan a little more. Eventually, she was gasping and choking, her throat clear for the first time in… how long?
Mhwa Har. Mhwa Har.
“Okay, sweetheart. Don’t try to talk. Just stay calm.” Sarah scooped out the last bits of soil from the victim’s mouth, wincing as a worm spilled down her cheek.
“Shit,” said Howard. “I can’t get a call through down here. I need to go outside.”
“Then go!” Sarah shouted at him.
Sarah stroked the terrified blind girl’s face. “It’s okay, sweetheart. Help is coming. You’re safe now.”
The girl shook her head. Nooo! H-h-heeeee heeeeere. He’s heeere.