's 2016 Horror Write-off:

Clock Struck One

Submitted by Huw Saunders

"Ha! Jesus! I never thought we'd lose those crackheads!"

Carola falls easily into a much slower pace, and the streetlights stop blurring. Even through the canopy of low trees, the street is painted in yellow power. She turns back, keeps turning to follow Antheniel as he passes so that she almost twirls on her heel, then draws up close and throws an arm around him.

He takes her in under his arm, and she breathes, and says "God, it's good to move again! I feel so alive!" It all calms him, but he is still panting the adrenaline out of his muscles, they are confused to find themselves not giving the crackheads a beating.

Her hand moves down, cups his arse, and before long they have forgotten what they are doing completely and end up kissing like piranhas there in the half-shelter of the doorway of their building. A passing taxicab honks encouragement. They break apart, more flushed now than they were after the sprint, smirking at each other as if they are much, much younger.

"Maggie, we're back!" calls out Carola when they get inside, and they continue into the living room. There Maggie is, watching World's Greatest Home Movies. She takes a dazed moment to look up and notice their arrival.

"Hello!" she blurts. "How was your night?"

"Magical," says Carola, eyes drifting shut as she speaks. "How was she?"

"Quiet as a mouse. You'd be spoiling me to pay, really."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous - what was it we said, forty? Let me just-" Carola tails off as she opens her handbag and starts to look for her purse. "Where are you, you little fiend?"

"Let me," says Antheniel, so softly, as his hands slip into her handbag as well. They root around together, fingers entwined for large parts of it. Eventually they come up with the right notes between them.

"Nice one," nods Maggie, snatching the money. "Until next time?"

"Absolutely," says Carola, squeezing Antheniel and being squeezed back, "we must do this again, maybe in a week or so, maybe less, we'll call you."

The very moment they hear her close the front door, they tumble onto the sofa together, onto the spot already warmed by the heat of her bottom. Already they have a wisp of sweat on them from the run, so they slip into this quite easily. Carola cries out so soon, she fears for one mad second that Maggie is still in hearing distance, and then, more sensibly, that she might wake Pearl - so she reaches down and brings Antheniel's firm hand over her mouth.

"I needed that," she says with passion, real vigour, when they are lounging together afterwards.

"Me too," sighs Antheniel. "It's been far too long - I mean, being out, just us."

"Far too long," Carola echoes. "I'm very ready for bed. Should we check in on her, and then-?"

They rearrange their clothing and get up. Carola is most of the short way down the corridor before Antheniel flips on the light.

"Mousey!" she cries, looking down. She says it with surprised enthusiasm that is quickly strangled when she gets a proper look. The mouse is sitting insolently in the doorway, hunched on its hind legs. Its fuzz is a washed-out yellow that was maybe brown many moons ago. Painful red sores cover its distended cheeks, and its tail is little more than a charred-up stub that looks to have been broken badly in a dozen places.

Before they can shoo it, it has dropped onto its feet and skittered off into Pearl's bedroom. They follow it in, and stop dead again. The cradle lies empty. Behind it, there is a yawning hole in the wall, a gaping wound probably big enough to admit one child.

Officer Czernosky kneels in front of the hole, and shines his torch inside. He blinks - it barely even touches the darkness, suggesting the space inside extends much further than it has any real right to. The warm air drifting out of it feels almost like breath.

He rises, and takes a long, appraising look at the young couple shaking in the doorway. "Alright," he says, "let's sit down, and go through this again." They repair to the living room. The officer takes the sofa, which is still even warmer than Maggie left it. Antheniel and Carola stay on their feet.

"We got home," says Carola, voice fragile, "and Pearl was gone."

"Your thinking is that the babysitter took her?"

"It must have been," says Antheniel with a sigh. "Nobody else was here, nobody else could have got in."

"Margaret Planchette, you said? We'll look her up. So you last saw her when you left? When was that? If she's got any baby-snatching sense she'll be miles away by now-"

"No," insists Carola, "we saw her when she got back, that was maybe an hour ago."

"Did she leave with the child?"

"No, of course not! We paid her, she left pretty much straight away."

"Alright, I'm confused. She abducts your child, then returns, contrary to all logic. You then pay this woman who's just gone off with your kid, and you send her off again - that's the size of this, is it?"

"We didn't realise Pearl was gone, until...afterwards."

"Oh, so you paid her for watching your child, without making sure she hasn't abducted her - my God, what am I sitting in?" Czernosky's eyes narrow when they flush, squirm, and avoid eye contact.

"It took a while until we noticed, alright? I mean, it's like you said, why would she come back after abducting Pearl, that makes no sense, right? So we hardly expected that she had taken Pearl, we thought everything was fine."

"Mm, makes no sense. You took the words right out of my mouth." Czernosky gets to his feet, and raises a finger, all Columbo without even feigning an exit. "And how'd that hole get in the wall, exactly?"

Antheniel is thrown for a moment, before saying "It was here when we got back."

"Oh, right. That's what you're going with."

"What are you-"

"Look here, son. I'll call up this Margaret Planchette, assuming she exists. But I can smell the booze on your breath, and I can see those marks on her neck." This is accompanied by a finger jabbed towards Carola, who flushes again and raises a hand to her throat. "You say your baby's disappeared, fine, I'll do my job, I'll see if any babies have turned up. But if you two have a lick to do with this, then I suggest your baby un-disappears before I run you in on wasting police time."

Carola nearly chokes on her own spittle. Eventually she coughs out "You think we-"

"I don't think anything, I'm professionally obliged not to. All I know is a child - an innocent, vulnerable baby - is missing and there's a profound lack of leads. So I suggest that you two don't leave town. I'll be in touch." And before they know any different, he has swept out, down the same route as Maggie took what seems like an age of the earth ago.

Antheniel collapses onto the sofa. He has no qualms with its stickiness. "Jesus Christ," he says, looking up at Carola with eyes made soft and liquid by the enormity of events, "what do we do now?"

Carola looks back at him, and begins to sob, when the eerie calm of the room is profaned by three hard knocks on the door.

"Sorry to disturb," says Maggie, "I think I left my-"

Carola grabs her by the neck, and drags her inside, while with the other hand she slams the front door closed. "What did you do to her?" she roars.

Maggie looks between them, between the mad figure of vengeance gripping her voicebox and Antheniel's stolid presence somewhere off in the distance. "What did I do to who?" she just about manages.

"Pearl is gone. You took her."

"No!" explodes Maggie, going white as cremation, "no, I checked in on her, she was sleeping peaceful, I left her be, she was fine, I left her be..." And without any ceremony, Maggie sobs too, her knees give way and she ends up on the floor with Carola following her down, not willing to release her.

"You seem troubled," says Antheniel, as coldly as he can muster.

"I wouldn't!" says Maggie, still streaming, eyes red. "I wouldn't do that, not to you, I don't even want kids."

This is actually enough to make Carola let go of Maggie's throat. The story checks out - Maggie only agreed to watch Pearl because it was that, or being homeless. Where some people cross the street away from unfamiliar youths, Maggie crosses it to avoid pushchairs. The pair of marigolds she brought for tonight, in the event anything happened that would require her to actually touch Pearl, are sticking prominently out of her back pocket.

"I'm so sorry," Maggie weeps, "I should have been better, I should have paid more attention, then Pearl would be here and everything would be alright..."

"No, look, Maggie, I'm sorry," says Carola, still crouched on the floor with her. "I mean, I wouldn't have thought that you- Pearl's gone, Maggie. Someone's taken her. Who else could it have been?"

"I don't know, there wasn't anyone else. Have you called the police?"

Carola hesitates. "They may be looking for you."

"Yeah, that makes sense," sniffs Maggie. "It was only me here, I don't know how this happened."

"There is one thing," says Antheniel. They take Maggie through to Pearl's empty bedroom, and show her the hole.

"Jesus," says Maggie, regarding the emptiness with caution at first, then eventually getting down to her hands and knees to try and peer in properly. "It's giving me a bad feeling."

"Maybe the mouse chewed it," says Antheniel.

"Maybe ten mice chewed that," says Carola.

"What mouse?" asks Maggie, hurriedly standing back up.

"There was a mouse. It looks messed up."

"It's just a mouse, you're only thinking it's involved because we saw it right before we found Pearl missing," says Antheniel. "But yeah, it looked like the worst mouse ever. It looked like it should be hanging around derelicts stealing copper wire."

Maggie's mouth opens and closes a few times, as if she is trying to restrain herself, before she says "I know someone who might be able to help."

They put on some coffee, but before it is even done there is a knock at the door. Antheniel opens it and sees a skinny young Hispanic with old, blotchy track marks creeping out from under his short-sleeved wagga dubstep shirt. Antheniel's main takeaway is that the man is weirdly underdressed for the cold of the night.

"Call me Joe," he says, quite cheerfully, combining his shake of Antheniel's hand with crossing the threshold. He raises his head, and sniffs the air inside, sucking up great nostrilfuls of it. "Yeah, something's up here. Lost your kid, you said? Terrible business, terrible. So where's this hole you mentioned?"

Antheniel brings him to Pearl's room, where Carola and Maggie are waiting expectantly, and gestures towards the hole, the hole that exists more-or-less where Pearl should be.

"Yes, I see," says Joe, with a sharp intake of breath, and then almost unconsciously "This is not for you. Would you mind waiting outside?"

"What?" says Carola, stepping towards him.

"A lot of people seem to find my methods...unnerving."

"You about to shoot up in here?" demands Antheniel.

"No, because I did before coming out," Joe replies. Antheniel looks down, vaguely chastened, with no obvious response presenting itself.

"He knows what he's doing," adds Maggie. So Antheniel and Carola follow her out, Joe closes the door behind them, and they have coffee in the hall.

"What methods-?" begins Carola, before they hear the chanting, low but regular and ululating. The interesting part is when the second and third voices come in.

"I don't think he's shooting up," admits Antheniel. They drink their coffees without really tasting it or noticing their hands are moving. Before it has even lost its warmth, Joe bangs out through the door, sweating profusely and looking like he hasn't slept in a week all of a sudden.

"Your child is still alive," he beams.

"What? You found her?"

"I - no. No, I'm sorry, I should have been clear. She has been taken. Now, I hate to tell you this, but you probably won't be able to get her back."

"What do you mean, probably?"

"I mean, you could do it. But you wouldn't like it. There would be a cost, a high cost."

"Maggie," says Carola, through her teeth, "if this is a long-winded way of holding Pearl for ransom-"

"No, listen. I don't mean a cost in money. The way would be full of danger, for yourselves and for others. It would mean exposure, to...well, to things you sensibly didn't expose yourselves to just now. To things, more importantly, your daughter will already have been exposed to. And you may not like what they've done to her."

"I will do anything to get her back."

"Yes, I believe you will. My professional advice is to accept it. The rest is up to you."

"Accept it?" roars Carola. "Do you have a kid?"

Maggie winces, but Joe just says "Yes. I understand what it is to have your kid in danger. But I am telling you to stay out of this, for your own sake."

"Then help us, at least," says Carola, her fury not completely burnt off. "If you understand what it's like, you'd help us."

"I can't. I'm sorry. Don't get me wrong, I want to, I don't think you deserve to lose your kid, nobody deserves that. But there would be a, a loss of innocence. I don't know if I could deal with seeing someone else go through that again. I'm sorry."

Antheniel wakes up alone. He comes through to the living room to see Carola, sitting where they had been so happy only hours ago, holding a cigarette between trembling fingers. "I couldn't sleep," she says, takes one look at him, and starts to cry.

"I couldn't either," says Antheniel, and they hold each other for a long time. Even that act seems futile, both of them knowing full well it won't do any good if and when outside forces descend to rip the other away. Eventually, when the emptiness of it all hits a bit of a lull, he asks "Heard anything from Czernosky?"

"Been parked outside since before sunrise," Carola moans into his shoulder.

He stares at the wall, thinking what will become of them. Czernosky's idea that they did it isn't insane from an outside perspective, after all. There would be no pleading a first offence for something like this. Czernosky, too, may be a good family man, and then personally see to it that they end up in raping prisons.

"I had this idea," says Carola, eventually, once she has recovered enough to speak coherently. "The mouse must have something to do with it. It was when we mentioned it that Maggie called that guy, right? Maybe there's another guy we could call."

So they look in the phone book, under 'r'. Before long there are heavy knocks on the door, and Carola answers it to be greeted by a natty young European, his hair cropped short apart from one boyish quiff on his brow. "Skirt," he says, with a laugh and a leering flick of the head. "'ow do you do? I am Remi Georges, ratter to the great and prosperous. You called?"

"We have a mouse problem...I mean, there was a mouse...I'll explain. Come in."

Remi gives a whistle. A little white terrier that looks half a rat itself stops pissing on the potted plant in the corridor, and follows him inside.

"Oh!" says Carola. "Um, I think it said 'no pets' on the lease-"

"Never fear, mon ami. Neigeux 'ere is no man's pet, 'e is a qualified and seasoned ratter like myself. Your landlord can take it up with Neigeux if it comes to that."

Neigeux looks up at Carole, and bares his teeth. She moves, just in case he hasn't finished his piss. Before they can get to Pearl's room, Antheniel comes out of the living room to intercept them.

"Remi Georges," Remi says with a nod.

"I'm Antheniel," says Antheniel. "It's through here."

On seeing the hole, Remi sucks air through his teeth in the traditional tradesman fashion. "Lucky you called me when you did, ah? I trust you 'ave moved your baby out of 'arm's way."

"What?" Carola chokes. Neigeux sniffs around the hole, and instantly recoils.

"This is an infant's room, no? Or 'ave the mobile and cot deceived me?"

"Yeah," nods Antheniel, trying to keep it together, "she's elsewhere."

"That may be best. Judging by the 'ole I suspect your mouse may take some moving. Neigeux, see what you can see," he adds, flicking a finger at the hole. Neigeux makes a series of outlandish noises, that sound almost like 'fuck yourself'. "Go on, you devil," Remi says, directing the dog with his boot. With a stream of profane whines, Neigeux scrabbles up into the hole.

"What happens now?"

"All being well, 'e returns with a mouse or mice, and we discuss the bill. So, 'ow long 'ave you been infested?"

"Well," begins Carola, "we only saw it yesterday, that's when the hole appeared-"

"Quite impossible! No 'ousehold rodent could create a 'ole of such size in one day. Perhaps if this was a Brazilian capybara, it could do that much damage - but then the question becomes why, ah? 'ave you any food in the 'ouse that such a beast might try to get at?"

"No - no, we saw the mouse, I told you, it was normal-sized. It just looked weird. Look, what exactly will your dog do to it?"

Remi laughs. "Ah, 'ow your civilisation shelters you. 'e will begin and end with a bite to the back of the neck."

"We have to tell him," says Antheniel, "before anything happens, and - can you smell whisky?"

Carola sniffs. "God, yes, it reeks - where's it coming from?"

Neigeux's head reappears through the hole. He yips, almost as though it means something.

"The very fellow!" declares Remi. "What 'ave we got back there, ah? Is there a nest?"

Carola and Antheniel pause too, awaiting whatever answer might come. Neigeux yips again, this time in pain, before vanishing backwards down the hole. Remi darts forward, plunging his arm into the hole up to the shoulder. He fumbles around and curses.

"It was the mice!" says Carola, jumping to her feet. "It was the mice, or whatever's in the hole, it was them that took Pearl!"

Remi tries to withdraw his arm, only to find it stuck at the elbow. Antheniel and Carola seize him by the legs and pull him loose. Then they hear the squeaking, and there is the mouse, looking down on them from atop the wardrobe, making short sharp rapid little noises as if it is laughing at them.

All three of them lunge at once. They crash into each other, and then into the wardrobe. While they are still tangled in a heap, they see it leap gracefully down to the ground, not even breaking stride as it lands. Before they can move it is scuttling across the floor with uncanny speed. Remi struggles free, leaps, and misses it again as it scrambles up into the hole split seconds ahead of him.

"Serpent grand!" he exclaims. "They are certainly like no mice I 'ave ever encountered! If you will excuse me a moment, I must get my tools."

From the window, they watch him going out of the building over to his van. Then they are distracted by the unmarked steel grey Crown Vic parked on the other side of the street, and the Czernosky-like bearing of the man inside. Before they know it, Remi has returned, looking far more of a ratter than before - spring-action traps hang from his belt, and he has a sledgehammer in his hands.

"You may wish to put down a sheet," he says.

"I mean..." stutters Antheniel. "Try and stay away from the hot-water pipes, will you?"

"I will try, but my judgement may be impaired by my partner being in imminent peril." Then with a few long strides he is back in Pearl's bedroom, and widens the hole with one rattling crash. They can practically feel slivers of drywall hitting the ground, disrupting whatever order was left in the apartment after Pearl's disappearance.

Suddenly Carola's head swims and she feels something beginning to work its way loose inside her. She stands up, meaning to run to the bathroom. All the blood rushes from her head and paralyses her for a moment. After a long second she manages to stagger through, and falls onto the toilet.

As her uterus writhes with phantom pain, she looks down and sees red gristle hit the bowl. Every strike of Remi's sledgehammer makes the toilet shake, and she hears it just as much as feeling it.

"They said it wouldn't happen after six weeks," she moans, she has been moaning in agony anyway but for one moment it turns into words before it becomes a complaint once more. One particularly large chunk of uterine lining pushes itself out of her. This is nothing, though, she thinks of the tearing and stinging with which she brought Pearl into the world, and tries to bargain with any larger force at hand, praying that she will go through that again in a heartbeat if it gets Pearl back.

She walks back to the living room bowlegged.

"Should know, watch," says Antheniel, nodding in the direction of the crashes, "and make sure it''s alright?"

"No," says Carola, raising her voice slightly over the noises of destruction, "I'm going to stay here, and so are you."

"Yeah, you're right - I didn't much want to try going through the hole myself, anyway." Though privately, Antheniel is pretty sure they absolutely will end up going through the hole. It is just that, if anyone had to smash up their apartment and lose them their deposit, he would rather it not be him.

Carola swallows hard, and asks "What if we can't get her back?"

"Cut and run," says Antheniel almost instantly.

"We'd look guilty - but, then again, we're going to look guilty anyway if we don't find her. Where would we go?"

"Far away," he shrugs.

"Well, agreed."

"Some place where the mice don't look like they've been dipped in battery acid. Some place where it's not fifty apartments to one three-floor building and the smog doesn't start hanging low in autumn."

"And where the tradesmen aren't deranged, yeah, sounds good - you got any plans on finding this misty wonderland?"

"Drive directly away from here. We'll get there sooner or later."

"Sounds about right." Carola looks down into the street at Czernosky again, and idly waves. He waves back and though it's hard for her to tell from this distance, seems to give her a cheery smile. "We should have listened to Joe, shouldn't we?"

Antheniel slumps in his seat, looking at nothing. The fists balled in his lap relax and dangle and he nods.

"Christ," says Carola to nobody in particular, her throat hollow. She lights a cigarette. "I couldn't leave her, not if there was even a chance - I couldn't, I don't know why I even thought about it. She's only just come along and-" She looks at Antheniel, and chokes on her own tears.

"We both thought about it," he says, gently. "We haven't abandoned her."

"We'll call Maggie, get Joe back," says Carola, now oddly calm. "And we'll fucking make him tell us what's going on with that-"

"Pardon," says Remi, and they jump. He has popped his head around the door, and his face is coated in black filth. "I think I 'ave found the problem."

He has done a decent job of widening the hole. Now it is some three feet across, with jagged edges, and seismic cracks extending out into what remains of the wall. It is still pitch black inside. He has not put down a sheet.

"Follow me," he says, kneeling, with one hand up on the edge of the hole, clearly about to crawl inside.

"Knew it," Antheniel says to himself.

"Do you remember when we first moved in, and I checked over the floor plans?" says Carola, moving to follow Remi as his boots vanish down the hole.

"I - yes, there was that empty square, the lettor said it was the gas pipes. And then," he continues warily, "then we just forgot all about it."

"Be careful! There is a slope!" the cheery continental tones echo back through the tunnel at them. Carola groans, stubs out her cigarette on the inside of the hole, and crawls inside. She nearly backs out instantly, unsure if what she is touching is slippery or sticky. One thing's for sure, it stains, and she regrets having not changed out of the nice clothes she wore last night.

"Why didn't you bring a torch?" she calls after Remi. No answer returns. She forces herself onward, moving carefully to not strain her still-delicate innards. The walls give slightly under her weight, and wonders what has happened here, because this cannot be the natural state of whatever the building is made out of. Something drips on her back and startles her so bad she cracks her head on the ceiling.

"Jesus!" hisses Antheniel, behind her - he has clearly just touched the walls. "Landlord's going to hear about this. I mean, we should probably let him know at some point anyway."

Carola awkwardly shuffles her hand down towards her pocket, going for her lighter. As she does, she brushes something warm, something covered in matted fur that jerks and scuttles away immediately. She does not shout, but her arms give way and she falls on her face. After a few moments, she becomes glad her mouth was closed.

"I hope this isn't all just mouse-mess," says Antheniel.

"Yeah, I'm with you there." But it is not a huge worry - it doesn't smell like it. In fact, the tunnel smells of nothing, a conspicuous lack of smell, not even the foetid air anyone might have expected.

She sparks the lighter. Its flame burns with a blue edge. The walls of the tunnel are so black it doesn't even help much. The light catches the occasional pinprick of moisture and it looks for all the world like the night sky.

As they'd been warned, the tunnel does begin to slope - so dramatically that they cannot stop themselves sliding down it and out the much wider other end, into the middle of a corridor. It seems to be some kind of bunker. The walls look like concrete, but they are almost completely obscured by huge bundles of wires strung along the length of the corridor, thicker than a man's leg and wrapped in plastics that were once red and blue and pink, but have faded to basically the same colour as the concrete. Somewhere in the background - inside the walls, it seems - something huge and powerful is humming. Over to their left, Remi is peering through the crack of a huge, reinforced metal door that was probably once part of a bank vault.

"Remi!" hisses Antheniel, instinctively keeping his voice low.

Remi looks over his shoulder, and jumps, in the same way as they did on seeing him smeared with filth. "Ah, you found your way 'ere," he says, hushed as well. "I assume you never knew you 'ad an access tunnel, ah?"

Carola looks back - this end of the tunnel is easily twice the size of the other, gaping open like a cave. They could have walked into it upright.

"No mouse could do that!" says Antheniel, on turning back and getting a look at it. Remi frantically shushes him, and he winces. His voice echoes up and down the corridor, louder than it should be. Remi braces himself, Carola puts her back to the wall. Finally the last remnants die away, and the humming resumes, regular and rhythmic but distorted, as if through water, like the heartbeat of whatever parasite this is that has latched on to their apartment.

"For a moment, I thought-" begins Remi, and the door bangs open. It catches him square on the chin and throws him as a wall of mice thunder through.

Carola and Antheniel can just about parse the advancing furry tide as many beings rather than one vast entity, but they have no time to scream before the mice are already upon them. Instead of flowing around their feet, the mice go up and over. Tiny little claws skitter across every inch of their exposed flesh, like brushing a million thorns at once. After the initial shock it is like being hit by a wave, a rush that is strong despite itself.

It isn't so bad, Antheniel reckons, as he tries to collapse into the foetal position. Even if every mouse in the mob is dripping with TB, he can't get too much filthier.

One slips up his trouser leg. "Jesus!" he cries, thrashing about for air. "Why are they doing this?" After snuffling around, it is unable to negotiate his waistband, and must return the way it came, and his complaints give way to indistinct moans and wails of distress. There are claws in his eyes and fur in his mouth, and then suddenly it is all over, they are gone, and he looks after them just in time to see them vanish through a crack at the other end of the corridor.

"It was like they were scared," says Carola, getting unsteadily back to her feet. "Like they were running from something."

"I fear you may be right," says Remi, who is keeping an eye locked on the door. That very second, an ugly noise floats through it and towards them, some kind of bestial grunting with an undertone of raw fury.

Antheniel and Carola retreat into each other's arms, all the while whatever it is that now approaches goes "Wuugh! Wuugh!" A shadow passes over the threshold and without even meaning to they screw their eyes shut.


The dog advances slowly and deliberately through the door, still crying "Wuugh! Wuugh!" after the mice. Remi sweeps him up and spins him around in joy.

"Ah, my old comrade-in-arms! I knew this damnable place wouldn't be your end, ah? Not you, who disembowelled the famous rats of 'ampton Court!" Remi produces a silver hip-flask engraved with two crossed rats. "'ave a nip, mes ami, get your strength back."

"Are you drinking on the job?" says Antheniel.

"Never!" declares Remi, pouring brown liquor into his palm so that Neigeux can lap it up. "Neigeux, 'e likes a sniff now and then, ah? 'e 'as a difficult and demanding job. I would like to see you bite 'ousehold pests to death sober."

Neigeux attempts to snarl at Antheniel, but hiccups instead.

"We should check through the door," says Carola. "It looked like they took Neigeux off through there, right? Maybe that's where they took Pearl."

"And, there won't be any mice through there now," says Antheniel.

"Attend, Neigeux! They 'ardly need our 'elp at all," chuckles Remi, and absent-mindedly swigs from the hip-flask.

From the hole to the end of the corridor is easily the length of their apartment. When they go through into a huge room with some vast mechanical-looking tapered cylinder laid across the floor, they wonder exactly how far it was that they came through the hole. The heavy stink of mouse droppings creeps up on them at first, but before long they wonder how they could ever not have noticed it.

"It would seem others 'ave been 'ere," says Remi, sweeping the beam of his torch - which he has only now taken out - across the cylinder, revealing explosions of graffiti with rust creeping out around them. The humming is even louder in here. Antheniel touches the cylinder with his knuckles and feels a faint oscillation from inside.

"This thing's still going," he says. "So how can this place have been abandoned?" The mouse shit, rather than carpeting the room, is confined to a few discreet piles in the nooks and corners. By the constantly moving beam of the torch, he thinks he can see little pawprints in the dust.

Carola is still by the door, patting at the wall. She finds a switch and flips it. The click actually echoes, and Antheniel and Remi jump. Nothing happens.

They collectively shrug, either with their shoulders or their minds, and move further in. Remi's torch skips across the ceiling, over endless tangled crawling pipes and ladders that must have once had nice safe handrails. When they are about halfway across the room the lights blink - only once, but encouragingly.

"Are bulbs?" says Remi, with European distaste.

"Oh Christ," says Antheniel, "this must be a government building."

"Anyone know the penalty for trespassing on federal property?" says Carola. "I don't think those guys tend to accept if it's an accident." By now the lights are flickering rapidly, as if there's a storm overhead. It is by this strobe that Carola spots the first mouse, and it could well be the same mouse they first saw, it has the same rash, but now everywhere they look there is another, crawling out from under machinery and from inside cracks, and the more they look the stronger the lights become.

All of these ones have that matted yellow fur, that sickly red infection around the mouth, these are no day-mice like the dear little beasts that swarmed them in the corridor, these are clearly the embittered rearguard for whom even Neigeux holds no fear. Every single one of them is sitting calmly in place, their eyes on the intruders.

Neigeux, for his part, has started to froth. "This might sound crazy," says Antheniel, "but I really don't like this. I think this is genuinely a bit weird."

"I am inclined to agree," says Remi, who has shifted his weight onto his back foot. "Between the kidnapping and this formation, I almost think they are collaborating some'ow - and believe me, I 'ate collaborators."

At that, the mice begin to squeak amongst themselves in rough harmony. For brief moments it just about coalesces into a back-and-forth of two big eeks, while the lights pulse brighter.

"I 'ave only encountered such a thing once before, when Neigeux and I fought the rat king of Verdun - a curious beast said to 'ave eerie powers, formed when eight or more rats get their tails stuck together, you know, all knotted up with mud and merde-"

"No, fuck off, no way did you fight a magic rat," says Antheniel, rounding on him. The lights are as bright as a surgery.

"Nine magic rats."

"Oh, right, you've convinced me. Is this part of the service, these bullshit stories? Rats aren't fucking magic, there's no such thing as magic!"

Remi chuckles in an ugly way. "Mon ami, were you not a client I would punch you in the mouth for doubting me. Attend - I still bear scars from the rat king of Verdun..." He points to a completely blank spot on his wrist. Even though his watch is filthy, it still shines obnoxiously in the light.

With a hum that shakes their skulls, something blue and brighter than the sun leaps from above down to Remi's watch. Ghostly fire hangs in the air for a second, then vanishes. He shrieks, clutching at his arm, and through his fingers they can see thick black scorch marks on his flesh.

This seems to kick it off. The mice finally stop their cheeping. Some of them slip away into cover, more of them charge forward. Neigeux bolts for the door, Remi - bowing to his colleague's seniority - follows. Carola's head flashes back and forth, between the advancing mice, but her legs refuse to move until Antheniel has actually grabbed her and said "Run!"

As they sprint back the way they came, the lights start flickering again. They hear the same loud hums happening behind them, and all their hairs stand on end, as if the air itself is fighting every step of their path and wants to drag them back.

Remi nearly pulls the door shut after him when he bangs through. "Quick!" says Antheniel, bowling Carola on through, and stops for a second to look back. The lights are going like an epileptic fit, some are bursting under the strain, and beneath them the room is full of more huge blue flashes that sear themselves onto his eyes, reappearing when he blinks. For one second he sees the mice, not following them, just all writhing in one great mass over the machine in the floor, but he slams the door behind him good and hard anyway.

There is no time to pause in the corridor. Neigeux is already scrambling his little terrier legs up into the hole. Remi dives after him.

Carola hesitates. "We can't leave. Pearl's-" She hesitates again, screwing her eyes shut.

"I know," says Antheniel, "she's on her own, she's probably cold and hungry and she might even be dead, but we need help. This is bigger than us now, this is bigger than...a lot of things. But there's people whose whole job is to help us now, right?"

The tunnel seems longer going this way. Even given that they're going uphill, it's more of a struggle than it should be. When they're finally almost through it, and can see Pearl's bedroom ahead of them, the silhouette of a mouse stands before the light and squeaks at them before it is reabsorbed into the darkness.

They carry on out on their hands and knees for a few moments, because they cannot quite grasp the strength to stand up. Remi is searching his heavy bag, throwing aside traps and bottles of poison, until he finally pulls free a revolver of classic gunmetal black.

"No!" screams Antheniel, solely at the sight of seeing this happen, here. Remi doesn't seem to notice.

"They think they can best the man who personally drove a thousand rats from the streets of Bangkok?" demands Remi, not of anyone in particular. "Oh, my little friends, now we shall see 'ow the worm turns for you." But when he goes to storm back down the hole, Antheniel and Carola block his way.

"No," says Carola, "not that." She is trying not to tremble.

"Do you want for me to solve your mouse problem, or not?"

"Yes, but-" It gives her pause. All she can think is that Pearl is somewhere down the hole, and no matter what dangerous elements are in there already, she cannot let another one in. "We've already trespassed on federal property, right? Do you really want to go letting a gun off in-"

Remi sees the mouse pop its head out of the hole, curses in Flemish, and shoots. Carola falls aside, crying "What the fuck, Remi?" through the void in her ears.

"Little devil! This time!" says Remi, wheeling round with the gun in a fairly professional two-handed grip. He sees the mouse skulk behind the stubby legs of a dresser, and squeezes off another bullet at it. The mouse leaps away unharmed, but one of the legs is obliterated, and the dresser loses its balance and topples sideways onto Carola's leg.

Antheniel starts forward, to try and get hold of the gun. At the same time, the mouse goes for a hail-Mary play straight between Remi's legs. As he turns on his heel to take another shot, the outstretched gun catches Antheniel on the chin with some force.

"I am terribly sorry!" says Remi, the gun dropping to his side while the mouse makes good its escape through the open door. "I assure you, I would only ever use a gun on a dumb animal."

"What did you just do?" Antheniel asks. He touches his jaw, and looks at his own blood. "You just started shooting up our house, you're going around with a rabid dog" - at this, Neigeux scoffs perceptibly - "you know, at this point nobody would blame us for calling the police."

There is a crash, which from its direction and timbre sounds very much like the soft wood door to their apartment being kicked in. "Police!" shouts Czernosky's voice, when the dust has settled.

"Oh, fuck," groans Antheniel.

Czernosky sweeps in, his own gun at the ready. "Drop it," he says, registering Remi instantly. "Now."

Cautiously, as if placating a bear, Remi reaches out, his fingers well away from the trigger, and releases the gun. It bounces on the carpet and goes off into Czernosky's foot. He falls backwards, howling, and lets off one wild shot that hits the ceiling. All the lights fuse, the one in here so violently that the bulb bursts. The glass lands, quite softly, on Carola.

"Never fear!" says Remi, weakly, and gets his torch back out.

"Shine that in my face, and I will frame you for child molesting," says Czernosky. "Now. Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?"

Carola frees her leg. "Well, you know this already, but we have a daughter called Pearl, and-"

"Oh, thank you, miss literal. Please explain exactly why I'm the lucky one who has to stop you people killing yourselves playing with guns."

"It's like this. After we talked to you, we were trying to think up ways of finding Pearl" - Czernosky snorts at this, but she bulls on past him - "so we hired a rat-catcher."

"That's me," adds Remi, cheerfully.

"Of course! What else?" says Czernosky. "In all fairness, I'd have expected you to hire a lawyer. Alright, so, you've got Monsieur le Rat here, he's helping you find your kid, what then? What was the next step in this wonderful plan of yours?"

"We decided to look in the hole, and something grabbed his dog," says Antheniel.

"What dog? Jesus, what's that on my hand?" Neigeux, quite put out by this, returns to drooling on the carpet.

"So obviously then we had to go inside the hole, which meant we had to widen it."

"I bet you did," replies Czernosky, his voice low and dangerous.

"I 'ad to widen it," maintains Remi. "To the 'ighest professional standard, I will 'ave you know."

"So, is that why you're all so filthy? Crawling about in the hole?"

"Exactly! You see, you understand."

"Sorry to backtrack here, but why a rat-catcher? Why this one, obviously, but why a rat-catcher at all?"

"There was a mouse," Carola chokes out.

"And while he's here for that, you get him to do some light finding a missing baby. Yeah, I follow you."

"No, it's...the was the only thing that was wrong!" says Carola, just trying to get the thoughts out while she still can. "It wasn't us. It couldn't have been Maggie, I'm sure of it. The only thing that was different was the mouse, and...there's hundreds of them! Down there, and they're all messed up-"

"Officer down," Czernosky adds aside into his radio, "suggest sending two ambulances. Do carry on."

"The hole, it connects to...I don't know what it is exactly, it's like some nuclear bunker or something."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah! Like some disused Cold War thing."

"Now, that's trespassing on federal property."

"For Christ's sake! Our daughter is gone! We need help, we need your help!"

"Well, I don't know," says Czernosky, resting his chin in his hand. "You see, now I could believe you didn't kill your kid, but I'm getting this very strong feeling that you're insane."

"My dear sir," says Remi, "on my 'onour, on my soul, on the very profession of ratting I swear that they are telling the truth."

Two more policemen are holding torches and looking down the hole. One whistles. "You guys better tell the landlord," says the other.

"It's alright, Mitch, they went you one better," says Czernosky, as a paramedic bathes his foot in ethanol. "They hired a rat-catcher."

Mitch turns away, towards the hole, as he snuffles loudly with laughter.

"Alright," says the first policeman, once he feels comfortable enough to stop biting his tongue, "here's what we can do. We'll get in touch with the city council and have them look up records of federal facilities that might be the one on the other side of the hole here, at which point they'll contact whatever agencies are needed to make it safe. This could be anything from hazmat teams to a rat-catcher" - he looks at Remi, who is having a drink with Neigeux again - "probably a different rat-catcher. Unfortunately, as there's no proof you didn't knock that hole in the wall yourselves, your landlord may and probably will hold you liable."

"Well, that's okay," says Antheniel, wearily, from where he has curled up with Carola in the corner, "that's only money."

"Of course, in the event that your baby isn't found in the facility, we will be left with no option but to conclude that you are responsible, at which point the hole will become malicious property damage during the commission of a felony."

"We don't know it was during," says Mitch.

"Well, no, but why take the chance? The good thing is, any damage you can prove was caused by the rats will be the federal government's fault, so you'll be able to counter-sue for the value of the repairs, unless of course the facility is formally disavowable, which it's entirely possible that it is."

"Why is this like pulling teeth?" asks Carola.

"Do you know, I was just thinking that," says Czernosky.

"Don't exaggerate," says the paramedic.

"Officers," asks Remi, "at this point, can we think of any reason why these two respectable private citizens might have called in a ratter, instead of your good selves?"

"He got a green card?" Mitch asks Czernosky.

"Listen, guys, don't worry," says the other officer. "Obviously there's a lot of red tape, and a whole menagerie of toes getting trodden on. But the important thing is, there's a child missing, an innocent baby. That's what really matters here, and come hell or high water, we're going to do our damnedest to-"

His radio crackles like speech heard from too far to really make out. He listens very closely, then beckons Mitch into a free corner, and they talk, also too quietly. Mitch makes a series of tight, sharp hand gestures, then massages his temples.

"Is something the matter?" asks Carola, with all the politesse she can still muster.

"Right, well, that's all fine," says Mitch loudly, moving towards the exit, followed by his unnamed partner. "Someone should be along soon to make sure there's no gas leak or whatever. For now, I'd say hang tough and it'll all turn out alright."

"Where the hell are you-" Czernosky gets out before they're gone and have slammed the door behind them. "Oh, well, that answers that."

"Do you suppose something weird might be going on?" sneers Antheniel.

Czernosky scoffs back. "More like they have something actually important to do. You may not know this, but ours can be quite a demanding job - easy with that fucking needle!" he adds to the paramedic, now trying to patch his toe back on.

"Ah, sir, we are minds of the same kind," says Remi, coming to sit next to him in the hall and offering him the hip-flask. "I once nearly lost a toe myself, sometime after midnight in the sewers of Milan. It was the night before the Carnival Ambrosiano, and I 'ad been called in at the last moment and at great expense to see off a rat colony that threatened to overwhelm the public facilities-"

"Then how'd you end up doing house calls? No, fuck it, I don't care, where did you even find this guy?"

"Phone book," admits Carola, as if she has been broken down by twelve hours of constant questioning.

"And how did you possibly match what Vienna woulda paid him?"

There are heavy, clumping steps coming into the apartment. Neigeux's hair rises. Czernosky and Remi's heads both snap to the side. Antheniel tenses, wondering what monstrosity is now slouching towards their home to be born. Carola barely notices.

"Lieutenant Butler," Czernosky greets them with a flick of his head. "We were expecting city workers."

"Keep waiting, kid." The woman who now walks into Pearl's bedroom has to stoop slightly to get through the door. From a distance, her clothes could be mistaken for a police dress uniform, except that they are clearly reinforced - when she moves they do not quite move with her. "You the parents?" she demands, and doesn't wait for a reply before squatting by the hole. She reaches in, then withdraws her hand - fingers now crusted in the same filth that covers most of the people in the room - and tastes it.

"How is it?" asks Czernosky.

She spits down the hole and rises with dignity, while wiping her hand on the back of her trousers. "Mildly acidic," she says, turning back toward the door. Remi is confused for a moment, then jumps at noticing the indistinct scientist next to him, their hands folded together like a mantis.

"Yes, as we'd expected," says the scientist, their tone neutral and revealing nothing.

"Jersey Barren procedure?"

"There doesn't appear to have been any major exposure, but we can probably stretch the point given everything."

"Right." Butler turns to face Antheniel and Carola. Antheniel rises to look her in the eye, and comes up short. "I understand my colleague has accused you of murdering your own child. I, and the department, would like to apologise."

"About time," says Antheniel, and nearly flinches at the face she pulls - more disgust there than when she tasted the filth.

"We'd also like to formally offer our sympathy regarding the loss of your child. Now, did you take anything from the facility you accessed?"

"No," blurts Antheniel. Under her solid arm, he can see Remi grin and draw a notebook halfway from his pocket.

"Did you sustain any open wounds while in the facility?"

"No, this wasn't until afterward," he says, touching the gauze that the paramedic put on his chin.

"Right. Good. Well, I'm happy to say this won't present any further issues for you. You will have to move out of this apartment, but we can offer you compensation of 50,000 dollars for the inconvenience." She looks pointedly at the scientist, who double-takes so hard they nearly fall over, and begins pulling huge bundles of loose bills from their pockets.

"What about Pearl?"

"What pearl?"

"Our daughter. The daughter you vicious bastards thought we'd killed."

"Suspected," complains Czernosky.

"You need to consider your position," says Butler, still standing quite casually. "You have been the victim of one of these unfortunate phenomena that some unlucky people just end up in. You are coming out of it extremely well. You will have 50,000 dollars cash, and no police record. The loss of your child must be a blow, but I take it you're capable of producing another?"

Antheniel's mouth is open. He means to respond, but nothing comes out.

Carola flies past him, on her feet now, lashing out with a fist. It is heading for Butler's face, but she catches it in her palm, twists Carola's arm around, and knocks her down with one contemptuous kick of her boot. Carola lands hard on her stomach. She feels as if she has screamed and not stopped, but in fact has only let out a soft, wet whimper.

"'ow dare you strike a lady!"

Remi is about half Butler's size, but he has caught her by surprise and belted her squarely in the throat. Neigeux instantly joins in, he leaps up and bites at the crotch of her combat trousers. He finds nothing inside to tear at but aggressively chews all the same.

"Oh, Christ! Of all the times!" says Czernosky when he reaches and finds his holster mysteriously empty. The scientist registers this, and walks off, whistling.

Butler stumbles around, nearly falling headlong over the shattered dresser. She sweeps one brawny arm around, but Remi is too fast, he dances out of her reach, so it catches Antheniel alongside the head and opens up his chin again. Remi is straight back in with a body shot, an audible smack to the sternum. Butler's armour absorbs the force easily, it doesn't even slow her down, and then she is upon him, she backs him against the wall hard enough to shatter it further, before bearing him to the floor, leaning him painfully halfway into the hole and getting her hands onto his throat.

Now Neigeux abandons his previous plan of attack, and lunges into the hole with them. His jaws find Butler's wrist, and while half his teeth scrape on her ceramic cuff, the rest sink through her skin and into the meat beneath. Somehow Remi has the chance to kick out with the length of both legs. It doesn't exactly throw Butler off him, but it gives him enough space to scramble free and get back on his feet.

"Stop!" begs Carola, but it is far too late for that. Butler seizes Remi again, this time by the lapel, then there is a snap and she pulls back howling with a mousetrap biting into her fingers. He leaps forward with a straight right and bowls her over, straight into Antheniel. Neigeux, in all the excitement, misses his mark and gets his teeth into Antheniel's thigh.

Butler struggles upright, weathering Remi's blows until she can turn one aside on her arm. Immediately she drives the other into Remi's midsection. For a moment he tries to carry on, then folds to his knees with one long low wheeze.

"Right," says Butler, speaking perfectly level despite one side of her face rapidly swelling and moving through red into purple, "now, maybe you people would like to get out of here under your own power, rather than being removed." She peels the mousetrap off her fingers and lets it fall. "It's a completely free choice."

Neigeux goes for her shin. This time she can devote her full attention to stomping him. But Remi is not quite finished and leaps on her back, wrapping one slim arm around her neck and letting his dead weight do the work. She reaches back to punch him but the sudden lack of oxygen is robbing her fists of their force. With a few wobbling steps she slams him against another wall, with his delicate head between her broad back and the wall. He falls off her like a sack, but by now Carola has picked up Remi's pistol, and to her own horror has aimed it in Butler's general direction.

"I'm curious, how do you see this ending?" asks Butler, as Carola's hand trembles more violently. "Do you imagine that by holding me at gunpoint, you can get me to invest myself in a lost cause? Because believe me, that's what it is."

"My baby-"

"Oh, shut the fuck up. You don't understand what's going on at all. You are looking into the teeth of an existential threat, the like of which you simply do not comprehend, but the upshot is that if you keep fucking around before I can do what's necessary, there will be thousands of young women just like you, all sixteen-and-pregnant, all young, dumb and full of come, all of them crying for their babies! Now put that fucking thing down before I make you!"

Carola's arm wavers dangerously as Antheniel holds his breath. Then there is a shot, an explosion that shakes the room. Nobody is visibly hit, Carola is certain she didn't do that, but here comes Butler all the same, bulling forward, first grabbing the gun and then beginning to crush her against the wall.

Butler's face, bloodied, bruised and absolutely furious, fills Carola's blurring vision. Now it is her turn to feel all the fight drain out of her along with the oxygen. Somewhere off in the distance, Antheniel moves up behind Butler, then he is thrown aside.

A hand in a rubber glove takes hold of Butler's head, and wrenches it to one side like it's a serious attempt to break her neck. Then her face explodes outwards as more shots make the windows rattle. Blood hits Carola's face just as she has enough room to breathe in properly.

Butler keels over. Behind her is the paramedic, holding Czernosky's gun, their face covered by a surgical mask and behind them Czernosky lies dead on the floor with his brains spilling out. As Carola screams, the paramedic stands over Butler, and casually fires twice more into her head.

"Run!" cries Remi, charging into the paramedic. They both go down to the floor, and get tangled with Czernosky's body, slipping and sliding in his viscera. With that way closed, Antheniel and Carola instinctively look to the hole, yawning wider than ever now, and as they limp towards it console themselves thinking it is not such a bad choice, that they can look for Pearl properly this time, that the interior was not so very hostile, not compared to out here. It is then that the mice march forth, they look like a lemming-style swarm but also like an ordered column.

"Remi," hisses Antheniel, frozen in place as the first rank stare him down, in particular one specimen the size of a guinea pig, its ears torn up with little curls of skin hanging loose, its fur mud-brown, and a scar over one eye. It might be his nerves, but his hairs are standing on end and crackling with static electricity. Meanwhile Remi and the paramedic are thrashing around trying to throttle each other. "He's right. Run."

The mice slowly turn their heads, following the progress of events as first Carola, then Antheniel awkwardly step over the brawling couple and the corpse. A flying elbow that could belong to either Remi or the paramedic hits the bite on Antheniel's leg and he winces, but keeps going. Then they make for the front door, wondering if this does not mean they are admitting defeat.

Neigeux gradually comes to. His instincts kick in quickly, and he prepares to dive back into this new fight, to find the most vulnerable part of the paramedic and give it a proper mauling. Then he looks over his shoulder, and sees the mice in a rough semi-circle around him. While he lacks vocal cords, his thought process is indistinguishable from what would have a human in a similar state of intoxication crying come on, you little bastards!

They burst out onto the street, without food, supplies, or weapons. Remi's van, parked badly and emblazoned with the heraldry of a long-extinct noble house from Lichtenstein, stands in front of them, but they want nothing more to do with it. Instead they revert to their earlier instincts, and start walking in the direction of the police station. They are not strictly culpable for Butler's death - and even with three bullets in her skull, she seemed to be trying to get up when they left - or Czernosky's, and there is still a faint chance the next officer they meet might do their duty.

Even though it is still mid-morning, all the streetlights are on. It is hard to notice, but they do, because even that beats thinking more about the experiences of the past twelve hours. Further above than the streetlights, the sky is blue and untroubled by clouds. It is a perversely nice day. Antheniel has it hard going on his leg - Neigeux's bite is vicious, although he reflects that with all the whisky it will at least be clean. Still, he presses on, and takes frequent looks over his shoulder.

It is only as they round a corner that they hear a cry of "'old on!" Carola sighs, and they look back to see Remi limp down the street after them. Blood is running from his mouth and brow. Even Neigeux has made it, although he has lost huge patches of hair and skin. "My friends," says Remi, falling easily into step with them, "things are stranger than they appeared, ah? What 'aven is this we now make for?"

"The police station," admits Carola.

"Oh, right. Well, I 'ope you will not think me rude if I suggest an alternative."

"What, because you might get into a fight with one?" says Antheniel.

"My dear sir, I never get into a fight without good cause. No no, I am reluctantly forced to suggest that we contact your White 'ouse immediately."

The day has short-circuited Antheniel's higher faculties enough that he replies "You're not fighting him, either."

"We must inform the 'ighest office in the land immediately. Today I 'ave seen things mortal men were not meant to."

"What now? The hole? The bunker?"

"You were lucky to miss it. It was mere moments after you left. I 'ad just laid out the 'ospital porter with one punch, and was about to pursue you to pursue my fee. Only then did I see the big officer return to 'er feet, despite the 'ead wound. I prepared myself for another round, when the mice attacked. They bit 'er on the 'eel and it was as if she 'ad been stung by a snake. Then, I saw with my own eyes great bolts of lightning fill the room and strike her as dead as a doornail."

Antheniel simply continues to look at Remi, almost as if expecting more.

"An unusual occurrence, would you not say?" tries Remi.

"Oh, thank God," says Carola, spotting a policeman as he sidles out of an alley. "Officer! Officer!"

"Huh? What?" the man goes, trying to waft away the smoke that wreathes his head. He is unused to having members of the public approach him.

"Something horrible has happened," Carola begins. "Well, a couple of things - our baby's missing, and two policemen, I mean police people, are dead."

"And there are mutant mice on the loose!" adds Remi. "You must inform your superiors immediately!"

"Jesus Christ," Carola nearly sobs.

"This man does not represent us," says Antheniel.

"Missing baby? Dead officers?" says the policeman, and blinks. "Right, well, that's - thanks for letting me know - I'd better take you to the station to make an official report."

"There is no time!" says Remi loudly. A manhole cover in the alley begins to shake. "At this very moment, these unusual mice are surely escaping the catacombs and are coming to invade the surface world!"

"You say he doesn't represent you?"

The manhole cover flies off its hole, flipping end over end, landing with a crash. A mouse pops its head over the edge, its nose constantly moving, twitching from one direction to another, before it zeroes in in the policeman.

"For the love of God! There!" says Remi, attempting to grab the policeman's arm and spin him round. He shoves Remi away, hard, and draws his taser.

"Get on the ground, sir!" the policeman screams, while a wave of mice bubble up from the sewers, approaching from behind cautiously. Remi is frozen in fascinated horror. The policeman's finger tightens on the trigger of the taser, when before it can fire it bursts in his hands, and he shrieks as wires of electricity burst over his hands, burning the flesh beneath them black.

"Run again," suggests Remi, and this time they need no prompting, Antheniel is already stumping away with Carola half-supporting and half-clutching him, as behind them mice pour out of the manhole in all directions.

As they come up to another intersection, Antheniel throws his arms out, stopping Carola and Remi in their tracks. He is looking up, at a set of power lines that are sparking and swaying dangerously. With very little fanfare the cables come free of their moorings and begin to flail around wildly, making only faint distorted sounds. One tendril whirls looping towards them, then snaps straight at its full length and curls back, and the crackle of a direct current rings in their ears.

They turn, to escape the other way. The power lines over there have come free completely, they have landed on a parked car, wriggling their way along its roof like an octopus and leaving scorch marks.

"Oh Christ," says Carola, looking up and down the street and practically seeing arc lightning between the buildings in both directions. "What now?"

"You wound me, madame," says Remi, pulling out a crowbar. "When you 'ire me as a ratter, you are not just getting a ratter." He goes for the nearest door, not even bothering to try and lever it open, just busting through the glass and reaching inside to unlock it. "I always 'ave a plan, even if it is to rely on the grace of God."

Antheniel tries to rush after him, and so does Neigeux. There is some confusion. Antheniel trips badly but rights himself on the doorframe while Neigeux pulls ahead. Finally Carola can get through after them. As she steps up onto the threshold her hindbrain detects the whipping and whirling of the cables. Then something touches her leg, and her vision goes.

Fury. Screaming voices all around. Fires on the horizon, in the darkness.

Dispute. A million beings and a billion teeming, multiplying opinions. Demands to shrink back into the dark, to hide away from the enormity of events. Insistence that they press on, get out there and cry havoc, let nothing turn them from their task. The worst of times, the best of times, the only time available.

Isolation. Being torn apart from something integral and precious. Not one quick rip but an active process, as if gradually pulling a wound apart on its longest seam, the agony sometimes overwhelming but always keeping up a heavy tempo. This is not pain in the mean nervous sense, not really, it is the phantom pain of a lost limb, something conspicuously missing that should have been there, its loss simply wrong.

Betrayal. Whatever natural laws and consistent values there might once have been, stripped away. No other choice now. Forced to take the obvious course of action, damn all the consequences, damn the personal penalties, damn the risks.

"Get her legs!" someone says, it might be loud but also miles away and hazy.

The fury again. Back where they started. And conflict, too. Other beings, swarming with their own routines and processes, blissfully cloudily unaware until it is all too late, until their way of life, so isolated, so self-assured, is shattered. All the lights go out.

Dimly, through the fog of her spinning brain, Carola just about senses Antheniel as the one holding her upright.

Fireworks in her head. Sudden flash of mob mentality, losing individuality, marching in a group with commands not spoken but coming from above. A humanoid twelve times the size of God in serge blue draws its weapon and lets off copper death but it only has seventeen to try and beat a regiment of a thousand. Once it is off its feet it is over in moments.

"Get her legs, damn you!"

"I 'ave many skills, and 'elping you carry a much smaller person is not one of them!"

Flashes coming faster, going faster, written fifty feet wide in fire across the blank walls she can halfway see through her eyelids. Orders from God above to charge and conquer. To rise on wings of glory and victory and hate. To bow before the chosen one. Follow them. To be the greatest, be of the greatest, be with the greatest...

Antheniel's face comes back into focus like a tv bursting into life and Carola holds onto him with all the strength left in her body.

An apartment door opens, someone comes out saying "Hey, whaddya doing" and has no chance to continue before Remi's crowbar catches them on the chin. Neigeux's teeth miss their shin by fractions of an inch, and he contents himself with a good snarl. The apartment door slams shut, and Remi returns to knocking through the back door - no windows this time, just one solid bit of pine that Remi doesn't much fancy losing a fight to.

"We're inside! Just open it!" says Carola, exhausted but forceful.

"It's deadbolted!" says Remi. "I am only a simple man, but I am not 'olly stupid!"

Carola's head rolls, mostly from fatigue, but she sees faint white light upstairs. Since the lights in here are out - either fused or just not on - she reasons "The window! Upstairs - the fire escape!"

"Remi!" calls out Antheniel, and points.

"Ah, my friend," says Remi, and his crowbar bites into the door again, "you forget, 'ow will poor Neigeux negotiate a fire escape?"

"You can carry him!"

"Oh, very well." Remi gives the door one last smack before he sweeps up Neigeux and follows them upstairs. They clatter across the next landing. An apartment door hangs off its hinges, and one bare bulb flickers within before it bursts. Remi kicks through the window, sweeps the shards from the edges and helps them through. As they climb out, movement impeded not by their injuries but by the situation, there is a crash inside that they have come to recognise as a front door being put through.

Antheniel tries to kick the ladder free, but it is stuck fast. He jumps, so does Carola, before he can even think about catching her, and she lands badly. Her midsection nearly cripples her for a second. Remi mounts the railing and dives after them. Seconds after he lands, the back door - weakened by his sterling crowbar work - explodes into splinters. The paramedic is standing there, gloves bloody.

"Stop!" they say, but nobody listens.

They hammer down endless streets, all different but pretty much the same. Power cables everywhere are out of place, these ones have lost their initial enthusiasm and lie across parked cars and newsstands, waving feebly. There is no traffic - clearly everyone has had the sense to stay safely inside.

Carola gasps, a choked little sound. It probably began as a curse, now it isn't anything. She tries to lean against a mailbox and ends up sitting on it, hands on her thighs.

"We have to keep going," wheezes Antheniel. He dares not lean on anything else and so puts his hands on his hips, trying to lean against himself and trick inertia.

"Where?" asks Carola. "Where do we have to go? Do we ask some other poor fool for help? Do we admit we lost Pearl and we couldn't get her back? I don't want to be that person, I don't want to give up on her."

"Madame," says Remi, as if appealing for calm to a mob he has just shot a member of, "I did everything in my power to-"

"Fuck off, Remi! She wasn't your daughter! You don't even know her!"

"There," says Antheniel, pointing down the street to a low, squat granite building, with only a few points and edges marking it out as a church. "No electricity - we can hide - take a minute." They have been at full speed for too long, and Antheniel's leg is beginning to seize up, but they still manage a stumbling jog in that direction. As they go, a fire truck crosses the next intersection, then moments later, goes back the other way.

The doors are already open, but nobody is about to ask why. Neigeux, bouncing ahead, is at them first, then reverses completely and jumps back with a "Wuuugh!". A fresh column of mice slowly emerges, these ones even rougher-looking, covered in open, greasy wounds. But it is the way they walk, upright and balanced on their haunches, that stops the humans in their tracks. As their pace fails at the foot of the church steps, Carola glances around for an exit, and laughs in despair to see the paramedic following them up the pavement.

"Wait! Stop!" they cry. Gradual as an earthquake, the mice step purposefully forward, then stop a few feet in front of where Neigeux snarls and trembles, and stare him down.

"Oh, that it should come to this, caught between your traditional rock and 'ard place," pants Remi, and gets his crowbar back out. "No fitting end for the man who solved the mystery of the disappearing rat of Bristol, wouldn't you say? And Neigeux, my poor Neigeux - I mean, think of 'is pups..."

Even with threats on only two sides, Antheniel and Carola do not run in any of the other directions. They have been over that. The mice are eerily silent and stoic, and there are dozens of them, while there is only one paramedic. They come running up, with Czernosky's gun still in their hand, heading past the humans and towards Neigeux, and none of this stops Antheniel from staggering forward and belting them in the stomach. Even with all of the fatigue that tempers the blow, it knocks the paramedic down.

"Stop! You don't understand!" they shout now, unresisting as Antheniel gets a good hold of their scrubs to punch again. "The dog! For God's sake! The dog!"

Neigeux is still vibrating with anger, the mice are still giving him a long, hard stare, and there is nothing that appears to reach fever pitch. But all the same, the frontmost mice suddenly have little sparks coursing across their fur, and Carola feels the static lifting her hair as if she has been plunged into water. All the light goes out of the world before the electricity on the mice.

"Get him out of the way!" says the paramedic. Still holding a handful of scrubs, Antheniel looks round, confused, just in time to see the mice scream and obscure themselves in a whirl of yellow light that reaches up to the sky. And there, from one solitary cloud drifting above, a second bolt reaches down to answer them.


A huge invisible force crashes down, just in front of the church. Remi is nearest and is thrown on his back, Carola feels the slipstream trying to do her the same. When the light levels are back to normal, and the dust has settled - and it feels like this takes a few minutes - Neigeux is gone, the paving slabs cracked and melted where he was, and scattered with black ash. The mice slowly come into focus through the fog. They haven't moved.

"Rodent bastards!" barks Remi, flying at them ready to go all in. The paramedic seizes him from behind, getting him in a competent half-nelson even as Remi thrashes and swings the crowbar about and strikes back with his head.

"Let them go!" hisses the paramedic - and as they all look, the mice are going, their column continuing out of the church and hopping down the steps with surprising dignity, walking past the humans with barely a glance. One looks up at Remi and tuts to the next mouse, but they keep in step.

Then they see what must be the core of the column. An honour guard of particularly scarred mice bear the torn-off cover of a bible on their shoulders, which supports another mouse, a dead mouse, a little albino, laid out on the woodpulp with its tiny hands folded over its belly.

The procession of mice goes into the street, and parts around a storm drain, assembling on its other side, bowing their heads. When the dead mouse arrives, the front two pallbearers let go, and it slides down the drain. This is somehow reverent.

After a little pause, the other mice follow their fallen friend into the drain. One last one pauses, looking back at the humans. It raises one paw, it looks to be smoothing down the fur of its head, then it vanishes down there too.

Antheniel and Carola stare after them for a long time after they have gone, focusing on the black slat of the storm drain, trying to reconcile what they have just seen with the idea that the mice took Pearl.

They turn to Remi. He stares glassy-eyed back at them, and says "I 'ave never seen such a thing before."

They turn to the paramedic, who simply says "Joe sent me."

"That son-of-a-bitch said he wouldn't help," says Carola, as they go into the church, their way no longer obstructed. It is as empty and serene inside as they had been vainly hoping. "We begged him, our daughter is gone and we begged him."

"I bet he loved that," says the paramedic. "There are others involved now. Screw it, you've probably guessed, there are government agencies involved now. Their first responsibility is to restore order, and if they can do that by getting their hands on a new source of power, hey, fine. They're not worried about pissing off another sovereign nation in the course of that."

"What, what sovereign nation?"

"The mice."

"Ah," nods Remi, in his weary, knowing way, "it is much like the time I was in 'ot pursuit of a family of rats 'oo 'ad escaped over the border of two Balkan states that no longer exist, and was forced to get two passports to avoid any unnecessary confusion."

"Maybe, if one of your Balkan states was in open civil war."

"Now that you mention it..."

In the aisle, a mouse has been torn apart. It is sprawled at the base of a pew, ripped open from its throat down to its tail. Antheniel winces, looks away, and his gaze lands on a whole pile of twisted little bodies. He tries simply looking front and centre, but there is no help there, because around the pulpit is a whole graveyard. Between the scorch marks, half-vaporised bodies and severed heads, there are more intimate stories - there, two mice lie together for eternity, each biting deep into the other's neck.

It gets worse up every step of the pulpit. Tiny claw marks that trail along for a bit and end in a pool of slippery red macadam. A mouse slumped over the edge of a step, covered in a hundred wounds, its bones visible here and there. On the step below are easily a dozen more bodies.

Before Antheniel can take another step forward, something he took for a body on the bottom step looks up, then stands, and bars his way, looking him dead in the eye, its nose twitching. Then it appears to catch onto something, and stands aside, waving one paw like it's gesturing him onward.

At the top in the pulpit itself is a wicker basket, and inside it is-

"Pearl!" shrieks Carola, and charges up the steps, trying not to squash the bodies but not exactly hell-bent on that. She sweeps Pearl up in her arms, and holds her there atop the pulpit, feeling the little warmth on her chest and too relieved to move or speak.

"We'll have to get out of here quick," says the paramedic. "One faction is in the ascendancy, obviously, but it seems they're regrouping. They won't be of much help when the agencies arrive."

"I do suspect they may 'ave some work for a ratter supreme in the near future," says Remi.

"Why'd they take Pearl?" asks Antheniel.

"If I may?" says the paramedic, and climbs the pulpit, approaches Carola and Pearl. They look closely, then turn to look in the basket. They are about to give up when something catches their eye, and they kneel, to look at the inner wall of the pulpit. "Yes, here we are. I know these runes."

"Runes?" says Antheniel, weakly. "Remi, you wanna chime in here?" Remi shrugs broadly.

"It reads...hold on...'she was to be the greatest of all. As no one ever was.'"

Before Antheniel and Carola can speculate on just why this is, spotlights shine in through every stained-glass window in the place. A voice on a loudhailer says something threatening, but irrevocably distorted. Riot police block the front doors, except their perspex shields have 'SURRENDER' written on them.

The mouse at the bottom of the pulpit stands in front of the steps again. It gives one loud squeak, and more appear, popping out from under the pews, sticking their heads over the balcony, some even tumble out of the pipes of the organ, and every single one of them is looking at the doors.

"Do not worry," says Remi, "I 'ave a plan."