Jorski Thurnam – known as “Horse” to his friends, and Watchman Thurnam to the rest of the city – stood in the middle of the intersection, and looked up the Street of Nets to where every oil lamp along one block had been extinguished. He cocked his head just a bit and focused on the mystery in front of him. For several hundred feet, the lamps on both sides of the street were burning. Beyond that, they were dark. He took a long draw on the pipe in his mouth, before tucking the briar into his belt. He glanced around. It was fairly quiet, as it often was in this part of town, this time of night. He unwound the strap that tied his truncheon to his belt. Weapon in hand, he started up the street toward the smear of darkness. He quickly left the large warehouses behind and moved into a neighborhood of small shops and rowhouses. He slowed as he came to Gundrin Way, the first cross-street, and heard the clatter of hooves on cobbles. One of the city’s black-painted broughams raced by, nearly cutting him off. Had he not been distracted, he would have banged on the side of it with his truncheon as it passed. It was moving much too quickly.
After it passed, he broke into a jog. He hurried to the end of the block, passing a beggar sitting beneath a lit lamp and a pair of young toughs posing as hard men. He ignored them, as he ignored the hound that darted into the street, barking at him. Jorski slowed to a puffing halt as he reached the end of the block and the beginning of the darkness. He caught his breath as he crossed the intersection and approached the fringe of shadows. This area was patrolled by the lamplighter known as Tall Wennel, never one to shirk his duties.
“Wennel?” Jorski did not yell. At night, voices carried.
Ahead of him, the entire block was dark; every lamp for two hundred feet had been extinguished. The storefronts of the darkened block melted into one vast wall, black on black. Jorski clenched his jaw.
“Tall Wennel?” he called again.
No answer. He stepped into the shadows and rapped his truncheon against the first unlit lamppost. The hollow clang echoed louder than he intended. He rapped again, lower. The sound was muffled; the reservoir in the pole contained oil and the lamp should be burning. He took a step forward and heard a crunch under his boot. Hundreds of tiny fragments of glass sparkled on the cobblestones. He looked back up and focused his gaze on the lamp itself. All four panes of glass had been shattered in their frame, as if something had struck it from four directions at once.
Jorski eased deeper into the shadows and approached the second lamppost. It was in the same condition – broken panes and extinguished flame. Darkness hid the third lamp. He assumed it would be like the others. He turned around and strode back into the light.
“Wennel? Tall Wennel! Where are you, boy?”
He stood silently, waiting for a response. He listened for anything out of place, but heard only the usual night noise. The surf washed against dock pilings. Ships creaked on their moorings. Faint sounds of revelry came from taverns a few blocks over. Two or three different broughams clattered by on streets in the distance. An angry couple raised voices in an apartment somewhere behind him. Cats mewled and hissed, fighting over some discarded scrap.
These were the normal sounds of Harbordown. Though he waited, he heard no furtive movements, no sounds of soft breathing, no quiet whisper. He turned back to face the dark street in front of him. Eleven years he’d had this job, working nights most of the time; never had he seen this many lamps out on one street. The Lamplighters Guild made certain that something like this never happened. Anyone or anything could be hiding in the shadows between here and the Debbin Road intersection.
He took a deep breath to call for Wennel again, but as he did, his nose twitched. He reached up and momentarily pinched his nostrils closed. He knew that smell. You couldn’t be a Downer watchman for long without smelling it. He sniffed the air again. A rare autumn afternoon rainstorm had washed the city clean of most of its usual odors. The smell of blood in the air was unmistakable – blood and gore.
"I heard a scream earlier,” someone said to him. Jorski jerked and nearly dropped his weapon. He spun, looking for the voice. A female figure waved to him from a battered doorway in the light. He recognized her, as he did most of the whores and nightingales left in his part of the city.
“It was a woman,” Touched Irma said. “Or maybe a boy.”
“How long ago was that?” he asked.
Touched Irma stepped away from the door and moved toward him. He saw the burns on her arm, neck, and face that had marked her since childhood. She raised her damaged, club-like hand and pointed into the darkness.
“It was ten minutes, fifteen maybe. Down the street.”
“You seen Wennel?”
“Not tonight,” Irma said, turning her back to him. She used the good side of her face to look over her shoulder. “Be careful.” She shuffled back to the doorway.
Jorski turned back once again to face the darkness. As he did, the bell from Nender’s Tower across the harbor rang three times. Though the tower stood nearly six miles away, the peal swept down from the elevated lands of High Town, echoing across the salt-water harbor, and into the lower, older portions of Harbordown. He glanced down at the streets and saw his shadows, cast by the lamps nearest him. They slanted away from him and merged into the confluent darkness. He reached into the front of his tunic and pulled out a wooden whistle on a leather thong. He held it between his teeth and strode into the darkness.
The glass embedded in the soles of his boots crunched. He stayed to the middle of the way, avoiding the puddles left behind from the rain. He moved carefully, ears pricked to the sounds of the street since he could no longer see it. He spent most of his waking hours after dark. At times, a week or more would pass before he would see the sun. He found that he never missed it. He reckoned it a necessary thing, for crops and travelers and such, but he preferred the darkness, with its oil-light shadows and bare stillness. A dark street or a dark night had never bothered him, until now.
He kept a steady pace as he followed the black thoroughfare. He didn’t hurry; you never ran toward danger. The crunching of the glass in his boots faded as the shards fell away. He passed a few small alleys. Some were nothing more than cuts to other alleys, and they were never lit.
When he reached what he guessed to be the center of the block, Jorski stopped and opened his mouth. The whistle bounced against his chest. He took another deep breath. The stench of spilled blood and black shite was richer. He could almost taste copper and chamberpot in the back of his mouth.
“Wennel?” No answer.
Wennel was one of the oldest boys doing the job, fourteen or fifteen years old. He and Jorski would occasionally cross paths and share a smoke. He was a good lad, responsible. Jorski respected him as he would any watchman, dockworker, or harlot who took pride in his or her job. The boy would never have let these lamps go unreported. He would’ve called someone out from the guild to replace the glass and relight the lamps. He certainly would have been waiting at one end of the dark block with a lit wick, ready to escort anyone who happened to pass through there.
Standing still, Jorski listened again. The noises he heard were almost exactly like the sounds he had heard earlier, except for one thing: the cats’ meowing and fighting was louder. It sounded as if there were many of them. Cats only congregated for one of two things: food or sex. No female was yowling in protest, so it was unlikely to be sex.
“Bugger,” Jorski muttered. He increased his stride, hurrying toward the end of the block, where the lights on Debbin glowed warmly. He drifted to the north side of the street, passing one tiny alley. As the distant lamplight grew brighter, he slowed to a stop at the mouth of Jasper’s Cut, a nasty little slash between two streets. It was an ugly place and always had been.
The odor of death and spilled blood flowed from the alley. He pinched his nose shut again and listened to the feline chorus no more than a few yards away. He took one step forward, kicking something with his boot. It banged and scraped on the cobbles. The tiniest flash of light played along its length as it skittered away. Jorski snatched it up. It was a four-foot pole, with a flattened hook above a thick stem of cord at one end – a lamplighter’s wick. The cord was cold; it had been extinguished some time ago.
This time Jorski ran. He left the dark street and crossed Debbin to the first lit lamp. He reached up and threw open the shutter, shattering the glass in its pane. He shoved the cord into the lamp, holding it until it caught fire. He plunged back into the darkness. He slid to a stop in front of Jasper’s Cut and raised high the flame.
Holding the wick over his head and his truncheon at his waist, he entered the darkened alley. The buildings overhung and nearly grew together two and three stories above him, hiding the sky. With only the flickering light over his head, he moved deeper into the alley. He moved cautiously, avoiding the piles of shite and garbage that the rain had failed to wash away.
The cat noises grew louder. A few of the feral creatures darted away as he approached. One hissed and swiped at his boot. He brushed it aside without kicking it. He didn’t blame it; it was just their nature.
A dark form lay against the back wall of a building. He started toward it, but one of the larger cats bolted directly at him and tangled itself in his feet. Jorski tripped, stumbled, and fell. His truncheon bounced away and his face slammed something soft. He still held the wick, which had not gone out. Jorski pushed himself back up to see what he had fallen upon. When he wiped the moisture from his face, his fingers came away red. He smeared his hand on his red-and-black tunic and reached for the body in front of him.
Jorski rolled Tall Wennel toward him. In the wick’s flickering light, he saw the boy’s mutilated face and chest. Jorski swore; he’d never seen anything like that done to a boy – or a man. Still kneeling, he turned away and vomited. A minute later, when he found he could stand, he wiped his mouth, bit down on the whistle, and blew.
Continue with Chapter One - "Malcolm"