Disclaimer: The character Angel belongs to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy etc. With apologies to Charles Dickens, as the character Sam owes a lot to Jo in Bleak House, but hey at least Dickens is out of copyright.
Cat and Mouse
London, November 1860
The wind came blowing from the west, cold and threatening early snow. It blew through the well kept streets and squares of the western part of the city. In those squares and in the parks where windswept nursemaids hurried their freezing charges back to the warmth of their nurseries, the last leaves were being blown from the trees to leave nothing but a decaying sludge on the ground to mark their passing. Now the sooty branches were bared to claw futilely at the leaden sky, moving in the gusts of cold wind blowing eastwards. There streets became dirtier, busier, and noisier, despite the cold. Shop signs swung in the wind, the creak of the hinges drowned out by the shouts of street traders and hawkers, the rumble of carriage wheels and the clopping of horses hooves on the cobbles, slithery with mud and other filth. This made the streets treacherous for the numerous pedestrians to cross. Here, the entrepreneurial destitute could scratch a living with shouts of, "Sweep the crossing clear for you, sir!" And were rewarded less often than they worked with a farthing or if lucky a ha'penny. In winter they worked hardest, for least reward.
Huddled in a disused doorway, by a crossing near Grays Inn, a ragged, verminous boy leaned on his broom and shivered. Apart from the usual smoke and other city smells he could smell snow on the wind and he was afraid. He knew how dangerous the snow could be, how easy it would be to slip into the deceptive warmth that lead to a frozen death. Every winter dozens of the poor and the destitute died of the cold in the snow and heavy frosts.
His flickering eyes spotted a potential flat and he darted out into the street ahead of the prosperous businessman crossing the road. The boy was a stunted figure any age between eight and fourteen, half starved like most of his kind. In his desperation to make another copper he was drenched by the filthy water thrown up from a puddle by the wheels of a passing carriage. It was for nothing too, as the man waved him off with a cry of, "Away with you, you thieving scoundrel!" Which was harsh as the boy was no thief, or not most of the time at any rate.
It was getting late, and he was faced with the choice of paying for his lodgings or eating. There was a third choice, but the hiring mart up at the White Street railway viaduct would be over by now, and he only went there if he was truly desperate. Today he could suffer the painful emptiness in his belly, but he had to get out of the coming snow. And there was always the chance he could filch something to eat on his way back to the nethersken where he lodged. But today was not one of those days, and he was too late to fight for a place near the fire in the kitchen of the lodging house. So he ended up, crammed in a side room with twenty others, elbowing off the occasional lecherous touch. If he had ever had a mother to care for him he couldn't remember her, but somebody must have given him the only name he knew he had, Sam. And as for friends, well how could you be friends with people you had to fight with to keep your food or the little money you made?
During the night the temperature rose slightly and the threatened snow fell as rain. There was mud everywhere now. When Sam got to his crossing the next morning there was plenty of work for him to do, if, once again, not much pay. He kept busy all day, a shambolic looking figure swathed in old sacking that almost kept out the wet.
Then, as the afternoon wore on, and lights began to appear in the shop windows with the approach of dusk, the rain stopped. The lamp lighter began making his way along the street, lighting the gas that cast a soft pale light into the gathering darkness.
Into this scene strode a tall, well dressed man with a rattan cane, York tan gloves and shiny, black top boots. A real flash cove, Sam thought as he saw him coming along the flagway on the opposite side of the street. When he started to cross, Sam darted out in front of him, sweeping a pile of horse shit out of the way of those boots. Glancing hopefully back at the gentleman, Sam saw amusement glinting in the man's eyes.
"There ye go, boy!" the gentleman said as he reached the flagway. Sam clutched the coin the man had carelessly tossed him and retreated back into his doorway. He looked down at it and his eyes widened. A deaner! He stared after the figure as it walked away, disappearing into the dusk, torn with indecision. The man couldn't have meant to have given him a whole shilling. No-one had ever given him that much before, well not for sweeping the crossing. What if it was a mistake? Before the man could decide that it was and come back for his money, Sam ran down to the baker's shop on the corner. As it was late, they were selling off the day's left-overs at half price, before closing. He bought a pie, still almost warm, and wolfed it down on the spot he was so hungry. Then he bought another because it was so good and some nearly stale bread for the morning. It left enough over to pay for a glass of daffy to keep out the cold and lodging for a couple of nights.
Three days later, the money had run out. Dusk found him once again huddled in the doorway by the crossing, but for several hours there was no reduction in the flow of traffic, footed or wheeled. Then slowly it began tailing off and his hopes of making enough to pay for lodgings began to dim. But there were still enough people around to make it worth his while waiting. He only needed another ha'penny. The nearby bong of St Giles church clock told him he only had an hour to get it before the nethersken would be closed for the night. But he knew his chances of doing so in an hour were slim. He began totting up places he might try, things he might have to do, to get out of the cold.
Then a heavy footstep sounded, echoing along the pavement. Sam looked up and saw a figure walking towards him, fading in and out of sight as it stepped in and out of the pools of yellow light cast by the street lights. The figure staggered slightly, and the boy realised the man was probably drunk. A softer touch then. Wiping his nose on his sleeve he stood up and stepped out of the shelter of the doorway, into the cold night.
"Clear the way acorse the road for you, sir!" he shouted.
The man paused and stared down at him. He might be dressed like a real swell, but Sam knew he couldn't be because when he had spoken previously he had sounded just like the Irish navvies who crowded into the rookery where he had his lodging.
An eyebrow shot up as the boy spoke. "Well, what is it we have here, a tender morsel? And all by its self too," he said to himself.
Sam thought this was an odd thing to say but he only repeated doggedly, "Clear the crossing for you, sir?" trying to stop his teeth chattering, wondering if the cove was too drunk to remember the largesse he had given, or no longer cared.
The man laughed, a not particularly pleasant sound and started to lurch towards Sam. He had a strange, lustful expression and Sam backed away, a sudden twist of fear clutching his guts.
The man smiled again, and his nostrils flared as if smelling the air, but he must have been drunker than he thought, because he tripped, cursing, on one of the flagstones and sprawled into a puddle, the filthy water splashing onto his face. He lay there on his stomach for a moment, then laughed with real humour and said, looking up at the boy, "Well there's not much point in you sweeping the crossing to keep me boots dry now, is there?"
Sam smiled back and then his face fell as the prospect of money faded.
But the cove wasn't finished. "Don't just stand there, boy!" he said. "Help me up." He held out a peremptory hand.
Sam shuffled forwards, uncertain at the change in manner, and took the man's hand. It was cold and clammy. The man must be as cold as he was, for all he gave no sign of it.
Using Sam as a crutch, the man heaved himself to his feet. His other hand leant on his bony shoulder as he did so, and Sam could feel the man's fingers digging into him, almost as if he were feeling how much flesh there was on him. Once on his feet he looked down at him. "Hardly worth the taking," he muttered to himself.
Sam breathed a sigh of relief, he had been nerving himself up to do whatever it was the cove wanted, if it meant getting out of the cold. The cove noticed, and laughed as if he had read his mind. "So, what's your name, boy?" he asked.
"Sam, sir," the boy replied, puzzled at the familiarity. They didn't usually want to know his name.
The man flashed another smile at him. "Well, Sam here's sixpence for ye." He tossed him a coin, before lurching off into the dark.
That night the snow finally came, thick flakes falling out of a gravid sky, grey before they reached the ground. Grey from the moment of crystallisation, turning to thick, black slush within minutes of falling.
It was too wet and not quite cold enough for the snow to lie long, so by the time Sam saw that now familiar figure walking along the street the following evening, it had all gone. Quickly he dashed out, and swept the cobbles of the crossing clear, before standing expectantly at the other side.
But instead of tossing him a coin, the man grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him along the street before flinging him down into the open maw of an alley that ran back towards the rookery. Too surprised to protest at first, Sam picked himself up, saying in an aggrieved whine, "Wot'd I do?"
The man smiled then, a horrible, predatory smile and something happened to his face. Sam backed away and felt his spine slam into the rough brickwork of the alley wall. He stared mesmerised into glaring yellow eyes that had moments before been brown. He couldn't move for fear.
"Give me your arm," the creature growled at him. Sam whimpered but didn't move.
The creature repeated, "Give me your arm."
Every muscle quivering, Sam forced himself to lift his arm, and the thing took his hand. It pushed his ragged sleeve back, above his elbow and examined his arm. Despite his terror, Sam noticed that the creature seemed to find his grimy skin distasteful. It ran one cold finger down his arm, that sent a fresh tingle of fear up his spine, and the hairs rising on his neck.
Then suddenly the creature bent its head and Sam felt a stabbing pain above his wrist as the creature slid its razor sharp teeth into his flesh. Before he could scream, the thing had slapped its other hand over his mouth, stifling any sound. Then through the pain, he began to feel a wonderful, drowsy ecstasy; his knees began to wobble, and the world began to go black round the edges of his vision.
Then suddenly it was over, as the thing let his arm fall, and the ecstasy faded back into pain. Tears trickled down his face, leaving twin tracks on the dirty skin. The creature disdainfully shook them off his hand as he took it away from Sam's mouth, and changed back, once again looking like the handsome gentleman he usually appeared to be.
He hunkered down, so that he was looking Sam in the eyes. "Ye know, Sam," he said in a casual voice, as he pulled down the sleeve of Sam's jacket, covering the livid marks on his arm, "ye needn't be thinking about running away, or going on the tramp, I'd only follow ye and catch ye, believe me. And then I'd have to kill ye."
Sam believed him, but he caught the suggestion that if he didn't run, he might live. Hope must have flared in his eyes as the man laughed and continued, "See an if I wanted ye dead, do ye not think ye'd be dead this minute? There now, here's a shillin', get yerself a big juicy steak, feed yerself up." He smiled in a perfectly friendly way as if the nightmare hadn't happened.
When the man had gone, Sam let himself slide down to the ground, and clutching his arm to his bony chest, cried his heart out with fear, hopelessness and despair. Eventually hearing the clock on the nearby church chime the half hour, he gulped back the sobs and wiping his snot covered face on his sleeve, pulled himself to his feet.
The next evening there was no sign of the man. As dusk approached, Sam's eyes started flickering fearfully backwards and forwards among the throng. Oh, he had thought about running, or about getting himself transported, but he was quite sure that someone who could turn into that creature, was, as he had said, perfectly capable of tracking him anywhere - probably to the gates of hell itself, if he were so inclined. Then as the street began to clear, just as he was beginning to relax, Sam heard those heavy, purposeful footsteps striding along, before he ever saw the man. Fear clutched at his heart and he huddled back into his doorway, trying to merge with the wood.
The man stopped at the crossing, waiting. Then he came over to where Sam was sitting, staring up at him, rabbit like.
The man looked at him cheerfully. "Ye know, Sam, that's not like you to be avoidin' your customers," he said.
"N' no, sir," Sam responded through chattering teeth.
"What? Am I going to have to ask ye to clear the crossin' for me?" the man asked. His face was still cheerful, but there was a edge in his voice.
Sam shivered. "No, sir," he repeated and clambered to his feet. He swept the crossing for the man as quickly as he could, keeping his eyes on the ground.
When he reached the other side, the man said to him, "I don't know what's got into ye Sam, I really don't." He shook his head. "It's almost as if you're afraid of somethin'." He tossed the boy a penny and walked off.
Sam stood there staring after him. He didn't know what to think. He pushed back his sleeve to check the bite mark was still there, that he wasn't going mad.
The next night he didn't see the man, nor the next, but on the third the nightmare returned. He had just finished wolfing down one of the lukewarm pies from the baker's shop, and was starting on another as he walked back to his lodgings. It was cold and frosty, the streets once more nearly empty. He had just turned down an alley that lead into the rookery when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Sam jumped out of his skin because he hadn't heard anybody behind him, and turned round.
"Well hallo, there Sam, and where is it you're off to?" said the swell cove, grinning at him as he grabbed his wrist.
And so it went on. Sometimes Sam heard the man approach, others he didn't. Sometimes he was the predatory monster, others he was just another passer by who knew his name. Sam never knew which it was going to be. At first, every sight of the man filled him with dread, but as the days and then the weeks passed, he discovered how quickly you can get used to anything, no matter how dreadful or terrifying it might be. Then in the week before Christmas, he didn't see the man for five days and he discovered that there was something much worse than getting used to dreadful things. He discovered he needed what the man did to him. He needed that ecstatic near-oblivion with a desperate, raging hunger he hadn't known he possessed.
Daffy didn't help. He tried drinking himself unconscious, but that only made him feel worse. Eating didn't help either. He was eating more and better than he had in his life. The money the man gave him saw to that. And yet he didn't see the dark shadows under his eyes, or notice the way what little flesh he had was melting off his frame.
With Christmas coming, he could usually be guaranteed that little bit extra from the people he cleared the crossing for as their consciences were pricked in a once-yearly feast of charity. But this year it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered any more was when he would see the man again.
And then on Christmas Eve, there he was, walking along the street, with that firm stride and a serene expression. He glanced down at Sam as he ran out in front of him to clear the crossing, which he did, frantically sweeping filth back from those shiny black boots. When he reached the other side, he waited, holding out his arm. The man stared down at him, amusement glittering in those brown eyes, and dropped a penny into the boy's outstretched hand. The boy didn't move, and the man raised an eyebrow.
Sam continued looking up at the man. "Please," he whispered.
A triumphant, satisfied smile broke over the man's face as he seemed to consider. Then he said simply, "No." and walked away.
Sam stared after him for a couple of seconds, then started running, a tired, shuffling run. He caught up with the man and clutched at his great coat. "Please," he begged.
The man whirled round, saying, "Get your filthy hands off me!" and hit him full on the face. The force of the blow knocked Sam over, and he lay there on the ground blinking back tears, and tasting copper as blood ran into his mouth.
The man's eyes flared yellow for a moment, then faded back to a brown now cold and hard. "Go away," he said and prodded Sam with his boot. When the boy didn't move, he kicked him harder, until he started to slowly scrabble backwards. The man shook his head, as if in exasperation, before leaving Sam sitting on the cold flagway as small flakes of snow began to fall out of the dark sky.
With a sob of sheer hopelessness, he picked up his broom and scrambled to his feet. He looked at the penny still clutched in his hand. He now had enough to pay for his lodgings. But instead of hurrying back to the rookery, he let the coin fall to the ground and shuffled back across the street to his doorway. He squatted down in a huddle, hugging his knees to his chest, tears trickling down his face, as the flakes of snow got larger and began to lie.
Hours later, it was still snowing when Angelus approached Sam's crossing again. It was only just after nine, but the heavy snow had driven most people indoors. He wasn't surprised to see a familiar shape huddled in a doorway by the crossing and he smiled, the boy was waiting for him. Then his eyes narrowed as he looked more closely at the shape, seeing the way the snow had fallen on it, was slowly covering it. He walked over to look more closely and frowned with dissatisfaction as he realised the boy was dead. All that effort wasted. He would have been at the utter nadir this evening. All that despair sweetening his blood even more than usual. Then he paused. The boy had to have known the danger of snow. Maybe he had just let it happen. He should have considered that. He bent over and touched the boy's cheek. Cold. All warmth, all sweetness long gone. Not worth drinking now.
He stood up, the light from the street light behind him making a halo around his head, and pulled out a cigar. He struck a Lucifer on the sole of his boot and lit it. He savoured the taste of the tobacco for a few moments then said ironically, "Merry Christmas, Sam." And he turned and walked back towards the gin-palaces and the brothels where fresh prey lurked.
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