The mob was trying to derail the train.
Up on the elevated Hammersmith and City railway line, a short distance from the ruins of Shepherd’s Bush Market and just back from where Goldhawk Road passed underneath the tracks, a ragtag group of men was hauling what looked like a thick silver rope up over the rails and passing it down to another group waiting on the street below.
A crane hook the length of a man’s chest was attached to one end. A short distance from the second group, an old double-decker bus lay on its side amongst the debris in the middle of the street, its windows smashed in.
‘Pull harder!’ shouted a bare-chested man from up on the tracks. Tattoos covered his back and his hair was dyed blood-red. ‘Get it looped through the frame!’
With a collective roar, the men in the street hauled on the wire rope. It stretched a few feet closer to the bus. Shards of broken safety glass crunched under their feet.
Across the street from the railway line, occupying the first and second floors of an old redbrick building which had a boarded-up supermarket metro on its ground level, was a local bureau of the Department of Civil Affairs. Concerned faces watched from behind windows protected from thrown stones by bent and twisted sheets of wire mesh. Another group of men crowded around the entrance, keeping the government’s enforcers trapped inside.
‘Haul! Come on, haul it!’
The men hauled, shouting and cursing. From somewhere further up the line came the faint blare of a train’s horn.
Crouched in the shadows of an alleyway between two nearby buildings, David Silverwood watched the mob with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. It was the biggest mob he had yet seen, and the skeleton crew of DCA agents inside the bureau building had not even tried to engage them.
With another collective roar of exertion, the men succeeded in pulling the wire rope as far as the bus. Two men hefted the crane hook in their arms and began trying to loop the wire around the rear window frame.
Sirens wailed in the distance. David crept back into the shadows of the alleyway to the lowered ladder of a fire escape and climbed quickly up to the third floor roof. From here he had a much better view of the railway line and Goldhawk Road heading away northeast towards Shepherds Bush Common.
The sirens were coming closer. A few streets away, two white vans threaded through the piles of debris, red roof lights flashing. David frowned. Just two? There was no way they could disperse a mob this size, but there were rumours that the DCA was spread as thin as it had ever been.
The large clock on the wall of an old post office across the street read three forty-four. Six minutes until the next train, by David’s reckoning. A couple of miles up the track towards central London, where the rails went underground for the first time, was the abandoned London Underground station of Melling Road Junction. In the days he had hung out there the trains had always come through every fifteen minutes, starting at five past the hour.
The vans came to a stop where an overturned car blocked the street. One of them made a hasty U-turn. David wondered if they would give up and go back, but then the back doors flew open and something stooped and cloaked leapt out onto the street.
It couldn’t be. Not here.
Another followed, taller than the first, something silver glinting in its hands.
So, the rumours were true.
Two men in DCA uniforms climbed out of the back of the van. One made a sweeping motion with his hands and the two stooped figures dropped into a crouch then bounded forward, up and over the piles of debris and lumps of fallen masonry that clogged the road, closing the distance to where the mob had gathered with unnatural speed.
David had never seen one, but he had heard the stories. In the last few weeks, the rumours had been everywhere.
He ran to the far edge of the roof, cupped his hands over his mouth and screamed, ‘Run! Huntsmen!’
A ripple of shock passed through the mob. The group in the street dropped the wire rope and scattered. The man with the powerful voice still screamed his commands, but only a hardy few were still listening as the rest climbed down from the elevated railway line, running after the others. As his last comrades deserted him, he walked to the bridge above Goldhawk Road and lifted his fists above his head.
‘Come on, you bastards!’ he screamed, beating one hand against his chest, brandishing a knife in the other.
Something whistled through the air and a silver bolt struck the man in the shoulder. A second took him in the stomach, and he tumbled off the elevated railway line to the street below. Moments later the first of the Huntsmen reached him, dragging him back into the shadows beneath the bridge. David lost sight of them both, but the sound of ripping, tearing claws, and the screams of a dying man came piecing out of the evening air.
The second Huntsman had gone in pursuit of the dispersing mob. It caught up with two men, claws slashing, downing them in one stroke. Then it dropped to one knee, lifted an arm, and something silver struck a third running man in the back, knocking him forward on to the bonnet of a burnt out car.
The clock above the old post office ticked over to three fifty.
The train came roaring down the line out of the three-storey townhouses on either side of the tracks. Its wheels struck the wire rope and for an instant it seemed to slow as the wire went taut, dragging the bus a couple of feet along the tarmac. Then the wire rope broke free and the train powered across the bridge, roaring straight through the now-abandoned Goldhawk station and hammering on towards the Hammersmith terminus, disappearing between the residential buildings on either side of the line.
As the train’s engine roar faded away, David scanned the streets for the Huntsmen, but they were nowhere to be seen. The last members of the mob had long dispersed, and the streets were nearly deserted. A couple of DCA agents had taken a few tentative steps outside their bureau building, but while the two DCA vans were still parked further up Goldhawk Road, of their occupants there was no sign.
It was time to leave. David headed for the fire escape, but at the last moment a tickle of caution made him pause.
He squatted, lowering himself flat to the roof. Then he eased forward until one eye could peer down through the rungs of the metal stairs at the street below.
Breath caught in his throat. One of the Huntsmen was down there, sniffing at the ground like some kind of hound, its hood fallen back to reveal the top of a sparsely haired scalp crisscrossed with silver wires.
‘Hey! Come on, let’s go!’
A uniformed man strode into view. The Huntsman snorted and looked up, growling at the newcomer.
‘Time to go, you ugly bastard.’ A hissing filled the air and the Huntsman jerked and squealed, a sound that made David’s hair stand on end. Then, with one last glance up at the fire escape, it slinked after its handler.
It clocked me, he thought, remembering the way its human eyes had paused on his. It knew I was here.
The handler led the Huntsman back to the vans. The other had already returned, standing tall with its head bowed like a friar at prayer, only the silver crossbow held in curved claws giving it away as something monstrous. David didn’t wait to see what happened next. Finding his nerves again, he hurried down the fire escape and away into the streets, crossing under the railway line and heading in a gradual arc towards the east, back in the direction of central London.
A few streets away he came across a city bus picking its way through the debris. He climbed aboard, taking a worn, colourless seat among a clutch of glum, disillusioned faces.
He peered out at the trash-strewn streets, wondering what had just happened, and what it meant for his safety.
Twenty minutes later, he flipped the driver a coin and got off. He cut through a crowded market and across a sloping, overgrown park to a cluster of tall tenement buildings.
In the apartment he had called home for the last two years, he ignored his flatmate, Taku, who was slumped on a ratty sofa in their sparse living room, watching old movies on a battered TV that had a crack cutting diagonally across the screen from left to right. He unlocked the room he called his own and then locked it again from the inside, adding an extra padlock as a secondary precaution.
There, he sat down on the bed and tried to let himself relax.
The Huntsman had smelled him. Had it not been for the intervention of the handler, he might be dead. No one could kill a Huntsman, everyone knew that. They were as close to invincible as a creature could get. According to word on the streets, even the government could barely control them. That was why they had been locked away for so long until the kids calling themselves Tube Riders had been bold enough to escape.
Everyone he knew thought it was rubbish, this whole story about the supposed Tube Riders. What were they anyway, just some urban myth about kids who hung from the side of London Underground trains late at night, peering in through the windows? They were ghosts, apparitions, some said, the trapped souls of train suicides. They couldn’t possibly exist, and they couldn’t possibly have gone on the run from the government, causing an army of DCA agents to follow on their trail, and bringing the Huntsmen back on to the streets.
No, most people thought it was bullshit.
David reached under his bed for an old cardboard box pushed right back against the wall. He pulled it out and tossed aside an assortment of tatty books, dusty ornaments, and other junk to reveal a smooth piece of willow at the bottom. About fifty centimetres long, it had two rubber straps on one side and two metal hooks on the other.
He gave a grim smile as he lifted up the clawboard and blew away the dust. Unlike most people, David knew the rumours about the Tube Riders weren’t just idle street talk. He knew they were true.
Once, he had rode with them.
And if the government was hunting Tube Riders, he might be in a lot of trouble....
Keep checking back for release news or sign up for the Mailing List to be the first to hear about new books and offers.