Series: Sarah Stone Series, Book 3
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Sarah dodged the London traffic and descended the muddy embankment beside the road. Even in heavy boots she risked slipping, but Howard’s hand against her back kept her steady.
“Remind me what this tip-off said?” she asked, wincing as she nearly twisted her ankle.
“It wasn’t really a tip-off,” Howard told her. They reached the bottom of the hill, and he let go of her shoulder. “Local bus driver broke down and saw someone skulking around this ditch. When he asked if they needed help, the stranger fled.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. She imagined the drivers passing by thinking what an idiot she was tramping about in the mud. “Palu only has us following this because we have zero other leads.”
“And two of the victims were found in inner-city ditches like this,” said Howard.
Sarah glanced back at the main road. Like most of London in the morning, it was chock-a-block, and exhaust fumes billowed in the air. “I hate this city,” she muttered.
Howard stepped up beside her.
“Nothing. Come on, let’s check it out fast. It stinks down here.”
Howard tugged up his belt, raising his trouser cuffs away from the mud. “You okay? You look pissed off—even more than normal.”
“I’m fine. I just don’t…” Sarah’s words faded. Something about the way Howard looked at her—like he actually cared—made her want to open up to him. She almost spilled herself open: No, I’m not fine, Howard. Ever since I met you, I’ve been battered and bruised, almost killed a dozen times, and forced to watch my friends die. I don’t sleep. Every loud noise makes me curl up beneath the covers. Oh yeah, and my dead husband 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. So, help me, please. Instead, she shrugged. “Better things to do then trudge through mud, Howard. Let’s just get this over with.”
He shrugged. “All right. You want to take point?”
“Yeah.” She examined the way ahead. The ditch cut alongside the road to collect runoff from a row of cement culverts. The ground was a quagmire, thick with scum of iridescent foam where chemical pollution from nearby factories 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 pictured a stranger skulking around down here and decided it was unusual enough to investigate—but by some local plod, not a pair of MCU agents. What was Palu doing sending them here?
Thinking of her ex-husband—or husband again now, she considered—forced a rush of anxiety into the pit of Sarah’s stomach. The sensation was less akin to butterflies, and closer to a swarm of locusts.
“You think these pipes lead into the sewer?” asked Howard, pointing to the line of culverts.
“I don’t know,” she admitted—plumbing wasn’t one of her skills. “I remember playing in pipes like that when I was a kid though, pretending to be an SAS soldier to impress my dad.” She nearly laughed at the memory, but it died before it passed her lips. Howard knew better than to prod for details about her childhood, so he remained silent. Major Stone was dead, end of story. Sarah felt no guilt for liking it better that way.
“There’s a larger pipe ahead,” said Howard, stepping over a fly-tipped microwave. “You see it?”
Sarah did see it. This pipe had a circumference four times as wide. “The bus driver said the person in the ditch disappeared, right? Could have gone in here.”
Howard nodded. “Let’s be ready.”
“Yeah, something killed that squirrel back there, so let’s be extra cautious. It could be a stray dog or anything. The fight against crime is never ending.”
“Glad to have you on the team.” Howard pumped his first and smirked. She almost gave him back a smile in response. After a year of suffering her abrasiveness, Howard had finally learned to enjoy her bitter humour. She kind of hated him for that.
They trod carefully through the stagnant water until they stood in front of the large sewer opening. Despite her jokes, they both unholstered their guns. In the last year as an agent, Sarah learned something might try and kill you at any moment. That was what kept her awake at night. Along with the faces of the men she had killed.
Rusted bolts dotted the cement pipe’s circumference, suggesting a grate once barred access. The midday sun shone inside only a few feet before impenetrable shadows took over. Warm, stinking air flowed outwards. Sarah felt the moisture settling on her face. She fought the desire to gag, muscles beneath her jaw tightened. “Smells like ass,” she said. “We don’t really need to go stomping around in here, do we?”
Howard raised an eyebrow and stuck out his angular chin. He was about to tell her off. “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, so let’s look inside quickly.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.” 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. The pipe was dirty: a place no person should enter voluntarily. Nonetheless, Sarah fixed the glowing flashlight inside her epaulette and started forward.
Their footsteps echoed as their boots splashed in the water inside the pipe.
Sarah wrinkled her nose as the stench assaulted her. “I really don’t think we’ll find anyone skulking around in here. Least of all, the Flower Man.”
Howard apparently agreed, because in the glare of his own torch, his expression grew glum. “Shame, because I really want to catch that sicko.”
Sicko is an understatement, thought Sarah. The serial killer the media had named the ‘Flower Man’ had killed twelve victims in just two months—a spree putting London’s former murderous VIP—Jack the Ripper—to shame. This latest sociopath’s MO was the stuff of nightmares. He made gardens from his victims—cutting out their eyes and stuffing the sockets with seeded soil and filling every orifice with aggressively growing plant life and insects. The harrowing part was that it worked. Victims became gardens, sometimes remaining alive for days with plants growing from their bodies. The last victim had been a twelve-year-old girl, discovered in a Lambeth ditch with daffodils growing out of her scooped eye sockets, and a dying Lupin planted inside an incision above her groin. Pain had sent the girl’s mind to oblivion long before her body joined it, which took less than twenty-four hours after getting her to a hospital.
The details 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 used to terrors by now, but the constant stream of abhorrent monsters the MCU faced was too much to bare. She had faced demons in the deserts of Afghanistan, but what altered her outlook forever was learning there were demons at home. Nowhere was safe, the United Kingdom: a glass palace built on sand. The thick scars on the left side of her face were a constant reminder of man’s love of cruelty.
I just want to stop feeling this way.
As they delved deeper into the stinking sewer, plinks and plops surrounded them; condensation caused droplets to fall from the ceiling. The darkness ahead grew hot and muggy.
“I’m sweating,” said Howard, swivelling 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—but I’m not sure if this whole tropical climate-thing is normal. Is it?”
Howard shrugged. “Beats me. Sewer gases? I’m trained in underground ops, but I don’t think this counts.”
The deeper they went, the more Sarah was sure the heat was odd. Maybe it was trapped sewer gases as Howard suggested, but it still seemed out of place. Like walking through a greenhouse.
Howard stopped. “You hear that?”
Sarah stopped too. “I hear buzzing.”
A corner lay up ahead, and despite herself, Sarah removed the safety from her gun. Without a word, Howard did the same. They both sensed it—something was wrong.
I always like something is wrong, thought Sarah.
She took a deep breath and crept around the corner, her gun raised. She batted at her face frantically. “What the fuck?”
Howard moved beside her and was also taken by surprise. He covered his face with the crook of his arm and ducked. “What is this? Flies?”
Flies were everywhere, but that wasn’t what held Sarah’s attention. In a wide cavern where the sewer opened into a nexus of separate channels, stood a tall lighting rig. Its warm orange glow, along with the droning buzz of its lamps, suggested it was ultraviolet. Weeds and plant life thrived all around.
“It’s a garden,” said Sarah.
It was bizarre to find vibrant foliage in a dank sewer, and it transformed the entire area into a creepy grotto. Creepy, because it meant the Flower Man had been there.
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.”
Sarah swallowed. Once again, she stood in the den of an amoral monster. Her entire life was filled with wicked men—Hesbani, Al-Sharir, Dr Krenshaw… her father. She felt sick to her stomach, as if the Flower Man had left behind a noxious ooze that she now inhaled. She wobbled and reached out, but there was nothing to hold on to, and she almost fell.
“Sarah, you okay?”
“Let’s phone this 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. I don’t think he’s here.”
Sarah righted herself and stood straight. “It’s a bunch of weeds growing in a stinking sewer, put there by a deranged psychopath who turns people into flowerbeds. Just standing in this place makes me…”
Howard frowned. “What?”
“I don’t know.” Vulnerable. “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 get out of-”
Howard spun and raised his Ruger. Sarah did the same with her SIG 229. The strange noise had come from a large patch of flowers growing beneath the heat lamp.
Sarah looked around, searching desperately. Then she saw something. “Oh God, no!” She stumbled over to the centre of the cavern and knelt beside a large flowerbed. Howard tried to move up beside her, but she pushed him away. She wanted an unobstructed view.
The girl was still alive.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” said Howard, seeing for himself what lay in the flowerbed. His voice thick, nauseous. He pulled out his mob-sat and dialled.
Sarah focused on the victim. The girl’s age was indeterminate because of the wet mud and moss caking her face. Sensing Sarah beside her, she shook her head from side to side and mumbled urgently. She could form no words because wet dirt packed her mouth. A pair of rubber tubes ran down her nostrils, allowing her to breathe, and both her eyes had been scooped out and replaced with wilting daffodils. Sarah needed to help the girl.
But there is no helping this girl.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” she said. “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 were often most manic when finally rescued. Sometimes you had to stop them from injuring themselves in the panic. Relief could be even more powerful than fear.
In a panic of her own, Sarah clawed the dirt from the girl’s mouth and removed thin root tendrils with her fingernails. Insects scuttled up her wrists. Whatever the Flower Man had planted had not yet sprouted, and with every finger-full of dirt gone, the girl spluttered and moaned a little more. Eventually, she gasped and choked, her throat clear for the first time in… how long?
“Mhwa Har. Mhwa Har.”
Sarah stroked the girl’s feverish brow. “Okay, sweetheart. Don’t talk. Just stay calm.”
“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.”
* * *
Sarah stumbled. Her SIG trembled in her hand and she almost dropped it.
Shit shit shit.
The blind girl’s warning was clear. She mumbled it over and over: “He’s here. He’s here. He’s here.”
Howard shot an arm out to steady Sarah. “We don’t know he’s still here. He might have fled when the bus driver saw him.”
“He’s here. I know it.”
Splish splash splish!
Footsteps came from the sewer tunnels.
A beast stalked the shadows.
Howard’s hand still gripped Sarah, and for once, she didn’t shrug him off. Everything about this felt wrong.
Splish splash splish!
“He’s here! He’s here!”
The blind girl’s shouting jolted Sarah. She looked at Howard and pointed. “Take position!”
He gave no argument and hurried to the far side of the cavern, dissolving expertly against the wall. Sarah stayed with the victim, SIG no longer trembling, finger poised over the trigger.
The blind girl screamed.
“What is all that noise?” came a high-pitched, yet stern voice from the tunnels. “A garden is a quiet place. We’ll have no noise. You are… Hmm, yes… oh my…”
The blind girl thrashed and squealed like a stuck pig at the sound of the voice.
What monster can do this to a person? thought Sarah.
The wet footsteps in the tunnel had halted.
The killer knew they were there.
Sarah and Howard peered at one another, jaws tense, eyes wide.
Help me! the victim begged. Don’t let him get me.
“Quiet,” shushed Sarah.
The footsteps in the tunnel retreated. Quickly. The killer was running. The blind girl’s mouth had been packed with soil, but now she screamed. Her pleading had given them away.
Sarah raced out of the floodlit cavern and sprinted into the dark sewer tunnel, but was halted as she stumbled into knee-deep water. She had to battle to keep from falling under. “MCU, stop… stop right now!”
Ahead, a shadowy figure tilted around a corner. The Flower Man had got a head start on her. Sarah took aim and fired, hoping to scare him into stopping, but it didn’t work. The Flower Man was getting away.
“Sarah!” Howard appeared to her left, at waist height and clear of the water. He reached down. “Get out of the muck. There’s a walkway up here.”
Sarah grabbed Howard’s hand and hoisted herself up. Atop the walkway, the two of the them sprinted side-by-side. Sarah was the faster runner of the two, but her waterlogged boots slowed her down. As such, they rounded the corner at the same time and were met by a long, high-ceilinged tunnel. The Flower Man had not got far enough ahead to escape pursuit. In fact, they were gaining on him.
“He’s slow,” said Howard, sweating from the heat they’d left back in the cavern. “We’re catching up to him.”
Sarah increased her pace. Her flesh squirmed—she was about to come face to face with a monster—but the girl’s screams echoing through the tunnel behind her was enough to spur her onwards. “MCU!” she hollered. “Last chance. Stop now or I will fucking kill you!”
The suspect kept running—in a strange, limping gait—and didn’t look back. Sarah and Howard continued gaining on him, and he was no longer a silhouette. His features had taken shape. Tall. Skinny. With a lame left leg.
“Stop!” Howard ordered. “It’s over.”
It’s over. Sarah repeated the words in her head, enjoying them.
The Flower Man’s reign of terror was about to end.
Another monster removed from people’s nightmares.
Is that why she still did this, why she still chased bad guys? Would catching this monster allow her to sleep tonight?
She doubted it.
When they reached the next corner, the Flower Man had disappeared.
Howard looked around urgently. “Shit, where did he go?”
Sarah slowed her sprint to a jog and switched her tact from speed to caution. The sewers were a maze—a labyrinth—and the Minotaur lurked.
“Eyes open, Howard. He’s hiding.”
Howard and Sarah fanned out, Howard dropping back, Sarah taking point. Ahead, the walkway widened as the sewer channel entered a closed pipe underneath. Sarah waited for Howard to catch up, and they fanned out again, moving to opposite sides of the cavern. The smell was foul. Sarah’s wet boots slid over the slime coating the ground. This deep in the dark, she feared she might never see the light again. The beam of her torch seemed to get smaller, but it had to be in her mind.
Howard gave a silent signal with his fingers, motioning ahead. There.
Sarah saw it and nodded. Up ahead lay an open doorway, a sheet of metal hanging on a pair of hinges. “Might be his office,” said Sarah, her sarcasm lacking its usual passion. The cries of the blind girl had faded, but they still echoed in Sarah’s head. They abandoned her to give chase; failure was not an option. The room ahead was dark, a black cube daring them to enter. Sarah went inside.
Howard grabbed her. “I’ll take point.”
Sarah let Howard move through the doorway and gave him a few steps before following. There was once a time when her nerves were gilded steel, but after having to shoot her own father, who had just massacred half of Parliament, her courage had run dry. That was why she trembled all over.
Their flashlights lit up the new room, exposing it for what it was. The floor held a grimy mattress. Crates of bottled water lined one wall. It was a bedroom. The sewer wasn’t just the Flower Man’s killing ground; it was where he lived.
The newspapers enjoyed speculating about whether London’s worst serial killer had a family—kids and a wife—as many killers did, but it was clear now that this monster possessed no humanity at all. No more than a sewer rat.
“Jesus.” Howard pulled a face. “He sleeps here.”
Sarah threw out a hand. “Howard, look out!”
Howard was caught by surprise. A length of wood cut through the shadows and clocked him right in the chin. He grabbed his face and crumpled to the ground. He still clutched his Ruger, but was in no state to take a shot. Sarah brought her own weapon to bear, but the Flower Man dropped the length of wood and pounced on her. The back of her head collided with the brick wall. Stars danced in front of her.
Despite his lame leg, the scrawny man wearing gardener’s overalls was deceptively strong. He punched Sarah and crushed her nose, blinding her with tears. As she bent over, clutching her face, her attacker elbowed her in the ribs hard enough to floor her. If not for the fact she had survived her fair share of beatings in the past, and had grown accustomed to them, she would probably have been out for the count. But her body had hardened in the last year. She bit back the pain and rolled back to her feet.
The Flower Man descended on her again, like an angry wasp, jabbing and batting at her. “You will not come here and spread your pollution,” he yelled, his high-pitched voice echoing off the narrow walls.
Sarah chanced a kick, making contact with her attacker’s lame leg. He bellowed in agony and backed off immediately. Sarah reached to her belt and grabbed her cuffs. This might be her only chance to get the suspect under control, and she needed to end things now before things turned lethal. Flicking open the cuffs, she lunged forwards, attempting to secure the man’s wrists before he had time to recover, but he reacted quickly enough to dodge away. Off balance due to her lunge, Sarah took the full brunt of an uppercut to the face. The Flower Man grabbed her by the throat and squeezed.
Sarah struggled, but the fingers around her throat were like tightening vines.
“Hey, Green Dick!”
The Flower Man turned in time to see that same wooden plank now swinging at his own face. He tried to duck, but the plank walloped his forehead, and he dropped to the ground.
Sarah gasped, sucking in air and choking.
Howard stood over her. He dropped the piece of wood and put a hand out to her. “You okay?”
“I had it,” she said, shrugging him off and getting up on her own.
“No, we had it,” said Howard, ignoring her anger as he always did.
Sarah grunted. She picked up her cuffs and strode towards the moaning serial killer. “Your gardening days are over, arsehole.”
The entire room shook.
Howard tripped and fell into Sarah as the world continued rumbling. Both of them fell to the ground in a heap as stone chips rained from the ceiling. Even with their flashlights, it became impossible to see through the dust cloud filling the room.
Somewhere far off, a distant dragon roared.
Sarah reached out and found Howard in the chaos. Their hands met and locked together. “What the hell is happening?”
“I-I don’t know. An explosion?”
Sarah shielded her face and clambered to her knees. “We need to get out of here before the roof comes down. We have to get back to that girl.”
Howard braced himself against the wall and started to climb. The room had stopped shaking, and the dust was clearing. His left eye had swollen shut where the Flower Man smacked him with the piece of wood. “Let’s get sewer man cuffed and secured. Then we’ll call for help.”
Sarah nodded. She still clutched the cuffs and was unwilling to waste another second. Whatever just happened was secondary to the fact that they had a mission to complete. It might be her final mission, so she was going to make it count. The Flower Man was going to rot in a jail cell because of her.
She had him.
He was down.
Sarah stared at the empty space on the ground and cursed a dozen times. In the confusion, in the disarray…
The Flower Man had escaped.
“He’s gone,” said Sarah. “I let him get away.”
Howard stood beside her. “We let him get away.”