Stella hefted the headless body of the angel onto her back. Its metal components grated uncomfortably across her shoulders and the smell of its rotting corpse was disgusting. The head dangled from her belt, the leather looped through its mouth making it leer up at her. ‘Easy there, fella. Not on a first date,’ she said to it.
‘You what?’ said Hook. He had an angel over each shoulder and was smiling broadly, happy with the day’s catch. He stood on top of a car bonnet, scanning the street. His weight pushed the vehicle’s front end down towards the debris strewn, filthy ground.
‘Nothing.’ She stared at Hook’s crotch. His legs were parted, braced against the weight on his shoulders and through them she could see a broken shop window, scattered mannequins…
Hook’s smile disappeared when he saw the look on Stella’s face. He raised his eyebrows.
Stella nodded behind him. Movement, she mouthed to him, silently. She placed her angel carefully onto the floor. ‘Just need to check the lobby one last time,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I saw some food in that back office.’
Hook nodded. ‘Take your time. The thumpers are still up and running; we’ll be safe for hours.’ He dropped the angels from his shoulders, letting them slam and slide from the car’s bonnet. The car rocked and rolled as he stepped down.
Stella glanced back on her walk to the hotel lobby to see Hook hoist his foot onto the bonnet of the car and bend to his shoe laces. His massive frame looked slightly ridiculous competing such a mundane task.
Entering the lobby, she ducked down, sure that the debris in the street would cover her, and scampered back out of the smashed doorway, switched left, crouch-ran for fifty yards and dashed across the street. On the opposite path she straightened and trotted towards the broken shop window opposite Hook, who was still investigating his shoe laces. He was never one for subtlety, she thought to herself.
The shop window was just a few yards ahead. Glass crunched as she covered the distance in two seconds.
Hook, matching her approach, dropped his foot and ran at the window.
They both burst through into the shop, scattering the mannequins and surprising the man cowering amongst the plastic limbs. Feebly, he held his arms over his head, remaining silent, just waiting.
Stella had stopped and held her arm out to halt Hook as soon as she saw him. The man was pathetic, no threat. She stared down at him, watching him try to push himself away, scraping his worn out shoes against the broken glass and mannequins. The dust and filth from the crash was still thick in here; the building itself sheltering the shop from the rains. Stella glared at him and realised that he had nothing left. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
The man stopped his futile efforts and slowly lowered his arms just enough to peer over them. ‘Jared,’ he said. ‘Jared Jenks.’ His voice was tired, defeated.
‘Sounds like a superhero alter ego,’ said Hook. ‘You got a mask in your pants?’
Jared looked to the big man, confusion and terror in his eyes.
‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Stella. The man on the ground was older than her, mid forties at least and possibly even older at first glance. That could be his condition, Stella thought. Half starved and exhausted did nothing for the complexion.
Jared stared at her. ‘You’re her,’ he said, his eyes widening in recognition. ‘You’re The Killer.’
Stella grunted a laugh. ‘Not for a long time, Mr Jenks,’ she said. ‘My days of killing in the ring are over.’
‘You were the Cynosure three years running. Every year up to the crash. My eldest boy had posters of you.’
‘I’ll bet he did,’ Hook smirked.
Stella elbowed him. ‘Not the right time, meathead,’ she said and then turned to Jared. ‘Can you stand up?’
Jared nodded and tried to stand. He could barely lift himself from the floor.
‘Looks like you’re all partied out, Jared Jenks,’ said Stella, smiling at the man. She didn’t move to help him. ‘What are you doing here alone, anyway? We haven’t seen a live one for months.’
‘We came into the city to find food. There’s nothing left. We were starving.’
‘”We?”,’ said Stella. ‘You lost your group?’
Jared coloured, nodded, said nothing.
Stella looked to Hook, who looked back at her, shrugged. Stella nodded.
Hook sighed a little. ‘Looks like you won the lottery, little man,’ he said to Jared, before turning to Stella. ‘What about the angels?’
‘You take your two and I’ll come back for the other one. I’ll help Mr Jenks.’ She bent to Jared. ‘I just need to see your wrists and ankles, Mr Jenks. Just to check, you understand.’ She pulled his sleeves back and then his trouser hems. Finding nothing, she grunted in satisfaction.
‘Got any batteries, JJ? You need batteries to get into our place,’ said Hook.
‘Ignore him,’ said Stella, smiling reassuringly and helping Jared to his feet. ‘We’ve got a place you can stay. Not exactly comfortable, but safe.’ She looked at him thoughtfully and added, ‘You don’t have any batteries do you?’
‘No, sorry,’ Jared replied.
‘Never mind,’ said Stella.
‘Where are we going?’ Jared’s head lolled on Stella’s shoulder.
‘Easy,’ said Stella. ‘I need a little help, Mr Jenks. You’re a dead weight.’
‘Pun intended?’ Jared slurred.
Stella laughed grimly. ‘Possibly. We’ll see.’
‘Where are we going?’ Jared repeated.
Hook caught up with them. ‘Vic's,’ he said, but Jared had closed his eyes.
Stella sighed, crouched, let Jared flop over her and hoisted him across her shoulders. ‘He smells nearly as bad as you,’ she said.
‘But he ain’t as good looking,’ Hook replied, grinning at her.
They walked on east through the streets of a devastated London. Limp litter flopped in their path. It was shifted by the light breeze so that it raised itself feebly and then gave up, dying each time a whiff of wind gave it some semblance of life. Faded graffiti covered the walls and told of terror and death and warned against entry, as if warnings were needed. The redundancy of the messages had always pained Stella. Right from the crash the words had been daubed and the people had died and died and died, regardless of warnings. The words continued on the abandoned cars. They slumped with their tyres flat, doors and fuel caps open and inviting but leading to nothing, the vehicles just empty shells, metal and glass frames drained of their fuel, their owners dead and still walking.
The silence was broken by a soft but insistent alarm. Stella glanced down at her pocket. ‘Thumper’s out.’
Hook nodded. ‘We’re nearly home. Should be fine.’
Stella reached her hand to her bleeping pocket, easily balancing Jared as she did it, and turned the alarm off. She glanced skyward at the distant sound of jet packs.
‘Long way away,’ said Hook.
Stella nodded in reply but they both moved closer to the buildings, as far away from the middle of the street as they could.
Smashed glass was ground against the pavement by the soles of their boots, its cracking protests so old and familiar they went unheeded. They trudged along West Cromwell Road, past a smashed Tesco and the ghostly Point West Apartments, its dark windows, filled with whispered threats, glowering at them as they moved beneath its shadow. Stella quickened her steps, Hook moving smoothly beside her, kept pace comfortably. ‘I hate that place,’ said Stella.
‘Creepy,’ Hook agreed. ‘We keeping this one?’ He nodded at Jared.
‘He’s not a pet. It’ll be up to him.’
‘Just looking out for you, boss. I know how you get upset when they, well, you know.’
‘Leave it, Hook.’ Stella’s voice carried a warning which Hook heard and ignored.
‘You can’t save everyone, Stella.’
‘Never tried to.’ Grim faced, she walked ahead, ignoring the big man.
Hook sighed dramatically and followed behind, allowing the distance between them to increase. ‘C’mon, Stella, I didn’t mean anything by it.’
Stella ignored him.
They walked on in silence, only stopping when they reached the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The grand entrance towered over them, the two solid wooden doors, dark and weathered, waited for them at the top of a short flight of steps.
‘Home sweet home,’ said Hook. ‘Hope Gregor’s got the kettle on.’ He looked to Stella, smiling between the backsides of the two angels over his shoulders.
Ignoring him, Stella climbed the steps and banged a complicated rhythm on the left door. She waited ten seconds and repeated the rhythm.
The door swung open to reveal a stocky man, grey-haired, middle fifties, suspicious eyes scanning Stella and Hook, flicking his gaze between the bodies of the angels and then the prone figure of Jared. ‘What’s that?’ he said pointing to Jared. His fingers were almost black with dirt and oil.
‘And hello to you too, Gregor. Nice to see that you’re safe and nothing’s eaten you while we’ve been gone,’ said Stella. She shook her head theatrically at him. ‘This is Mr Jenks,’ she continued. ‘I think he could use our help.’
Gregor scowled. ‘Anyone still walking and talking at the same time needs our help. Can’t bring them all in.’
‘We can bring in the ones we find,’ Stella said sharply.
Gregor shrugged and stepped aside. He nodded at Hook as the big man passed inside and then, with a searching look of the street, pulled the heavy door closed and lowered a thick wooden bar into place. The other door was similarly braced.
They hauled their loads through the initial entrance, past toilets and cloakrooms surrounded by grand pillars. Through more pillars they emerged into the rotunda. A large ringed desk dominated the room. The space inside it was taken up with work benches and machinery. Above that a huge chandelier made of spirals of dusty green and blue glass that sparkled in the summer afternoon sun. Three large sunlit avenues stretched away from the rotunda.
Hook bustled through to the work benches, slapping the angels’ corpses down one by one. ‘A bit of salvage for you, Gregor. Should be of some use.’
Gregor moved to the benches, nodding his head. ‘I’ll have these stripped down by nightfall. Get the buckets ready.’
‘Let me guess, my turn for slopping out?’ said Hook to Stella. He sighed as she nodded to him while she laid Jared carefully on the remaining work bench.
‘Did you get batteries?’ said Gregor.
They both shook their heads. ‘Got this though,’ said Stella fishing the phone from her pocket. ‘It’s got a signal.’ She threw it to Gregor.
He studied the screen.
‘It’s password protected,’ said Stella.
‘Where’d you get that?’ said Hook. ‘You never told me.’
Stella shrugged. ‘Forgot about till now.’
Gregor concentrated on the screen. ‘Shouldn’t be a signal. Nothing to give it one. All the satellites came down in the crash.’
‘All of them?’ said Stella. ‘How can you be sure?’
‘I can’t,’ Gregor replied. ‘Just assuming.’ He stared thoughtfully at the screen. ‘There must be operational masts for this thing to work. We need to find them.’
‘I’ll go tomorrow,’ said Stella.