It’s not the cold that gets to you first, though that’s part of it. It’s not the hard stone or the wretched smell of unwashed bodies and blood. It’s not the dark corners or the scuttling rats that scratch their way through the walls. What really gets to you is the damp—the humid air that clings to your face and hair, the constant drip, drip, drip of water falling from the ceiling. You can’t shake it, can’t avoid it—and how could you? In Beacon Hill, there is no escaping the sea.
After a while, though, you learn to ignore it. You can dismiss the way your hair sticks to the back of your neck, the way your breath seems to hang in front of you in a cloud. You can ignore the smell of salt and fish that constantly filters from the docks where men and women offload crates and boxes.
What you can’t ignore, though, is the pleading.
Alexa stood outside the door to the room, hands folded behind her waist as she remained perfectly still. The cold seeped through the metal and leather plates strapped to her body, sinking into her bones as she did her best to shut out the sounds of whimpering from behind wood and stone, the sounds of things snapping. After all, she couldn’t do anything about it; why should it matter to her? You are the monster, after all.
Time inched by slowly, seconds sliding into minutes. Alexa shifted her weight from one foot to another, a hand briefly fluttering to her pulled-back hair to smooth down pale strands. Muffled screams echoed through the hallway, fading away to fainter sobs. It seemed like an age before the door finally swung open. Alexa caught a brief whiff of piss and sweat, a small glimpse of a huddled figure strapped to a chair—and then a man stepped outside.
Alexa nodded briefly, respectfully. You always need to show respect; be polite. “All done here, sir?”
The man glanced toward her with a faint smirk, removing a pair of leather gloves. James was dressed fashionably, his periwinkle vest complimenting his blue eyes and pale skin. Reddish hair fell boyishly around his ears, loose strands curling at the back of his neck. He handed the gloves to Alexa, and she pretended not to notice the fresh blood that now stained them, “All done for now, Rook. You can clean up here, and then I’ll meet you upstairs.” His nose wrinkled as a brief look of disgust crossed his features, “You know I can never stand the smell for long.”
Alexa nodded, keeping her face blank as she folded the gloves, “Yes, sir.” Still as a stone.
“Good.” James watched her for a moment, his eyes roving over her face. Trying to guess what I’m thinking, I expect. Good luck to him. He never was good at reading her. If he was, I would have been floating face down by the docks long ago.
There was a brief moment where his eyes connected with hers, where they hardened faintly. Then, he offered her a quick smile and abruptly turned, “I’ll see you soon, Rook.” His back retreated down the hall, footsteps fading into the distance.
Alexa felt her muscles loosen slightly, holding back the sigh of relief that threatened to escape her lips. After all, the work wasn’t over. Far from it—it had only begun.
The boy couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Clothes hung loosely on his thin frame, hiding the cuts and bruises that no doubt riddled his body. His hands were bound behind him, tied behind the metal chair he sat in. His fingers were probably broken at this point, if the snapping Alexa had heard was any indication. Those would have to be fixed before the next session. She briefly made a mental note to have the doctor come in to see him. Business as usual. Fortunately, it looked as if he had passed out from the pain, his head slumped forward in a way that Alexa knew all too well. It would spare him a few hours of suffering, at least.
Alexa walked over toward the wooden table next to the boy, green eyes flickering across the bloodstained metal tools. They glittered faintly in the candlelight—sharpened, dangerous. It looked as if James had used the pincers—and a few of the knives. Deftly, Alexa picked up a folded cloth resting at the side of the table. It was stained red-brown, fresher spots showing where James had no doubt wiped his hands—but it would serve. She picked up the first knife and carefully began wiping away the blood.
That’s when she heard the sharp intake of breath—a faint gasp. The knife dropped from Alexa’s hands, clattering to the table as she spun around.
The boy’s head had lifted, wide blue eyes staring out from a tear stained face. Shaggy blonde hair swept across his forehead, clumping in damp patches. Alexa noted that tattoos curled from beneath his shirt, spiraling up toward his neck. A Bay Walker. His breathing was harsh, ragged as he watched her warily.
“Are you going to kill me?”
Well that’s one way to start a conversation. Alexa looked back at him, keeping her face expressionless as she replied, “Now why would I do that? It would spoil all the fun.”
The boy visibly shrunk back, and Alexa felt her heart squeeze slightly. It was always harder with the younger ones—to keep up the act. She turned away, picking up the knife she had dropped before she continued cleaning. Just don’t look at him.
“Are you…going to hurt me more?” His voice sounded tremulous—afraid. It should be. After all, he’s facing what he thinks is a monster. For a moment, Alexa briefly wondered what she must look like to him. Intimidating, probably. Then he spoke again.
“I thought…you’d be taller.”
Alexa didn’t pause in her motions. He was expecting a physical reaction; it would be more unsettling if she didn’t give it. Instead, she replied tonelessly, “Most people who say that usually find themselves with one less ear come morning.” She set down the knife, picking up the pincers. She held them up, making a show of examining them before she started cleaning them with a cloth. “Fortunately for you, Mr. King was very strict with his orders.”
The boy fell silent, and Alexa felt something like relief wash through her. She continued with her task, making sure to avoid looking at him as she wiped down blades and mallets. It’s so much easier when they don’t talk.
“…I miss my mum.”
The boy’s voice trembled as he spoke. Alexa could imagine the tears glistening in his eyes, the way they’d slide down his dirty cheeks. It wasn’t that unusual. They got like that sometimes—they felt the need to talk. But she couldn’t remember the last time there had been someone so young—so vulnerable.
“She…she probably doesn’t know what happened. I didn’t mean none of it, you know. It was just we’d all heard his sister wasn’t all right in the head. And Will got his hands on a bottle of the good stuff and was sharing. And I made a comment while he was walking by the docks. I swear I didn’t mean it. I just…please. I want to go home. My mum’s got no one else, and…well I know you’re not exactly the person to ask this. But if you gotta kill me, can you at least tell my mum what happened? Please? Please? Please?”
He continued. Alexa tried to wall out the sound of his sobs—the cries of a boy not-yet grown. She tried to pretend that he wasn’t there, just like she pretended with all of the others. Still as a stone. Alexa rested her black gloved hands on the table in front of her, closing her eyes.
I’m so going to regret this.
Sneaking someone out of a torture chamber is harder that you’d expect. Alexa could have waltzed outside with him, of course; it’s not as if anyone would have stopped her. After all, who would detain ‘Rook?’ The problem was that if she did that, James would find out—and that would mean the boy would end up worse off than he started.
The problem, in other words, was finding a way to get him outside without being seen—and then making sure he knew how to get out of Beacon Hill as quickly as possible.
The two of them skirted the hallways of the large building, keeping to the shadows. Alexa had left her usual armor behind—the dark outfit that looked so intimidating as she loomed in a corner. Instead, she had thrown on a dark green coat and hat, tucking her pale hair beneath. Far too distinguishable otherwise. They dodged workers and ducked into rooms, holding their breaths as they waited for people to pass by.
The boy followed her dutifully, unquestioning—and Alexa was grateful for that, at least. It would have complicated matters further if he asked about her motives. He’s probably just happy to get out of here. I don’t blame him—I would be too after a “chat” with James. It didn’t help that he was limping, though—and she had told him to keep his mangled fingers out of sight beneath his too-long sleeves. If she could just get him outside, though, he could probably find his way home.
Or maybe he’ll just be caught again.
“What’s your name?”
The question was quiet—no more than a murmur. Alexa didn’t bother to glance over her shoulder at the boy as they paused next to a doorway. She didn’t hear anyone at the moment, but that didn’t mean that someone wouldn’t come up on them at an inopportune moment—and she hadn’t led the boy this far to have him get caught. Besides, names complicated matters.
“It can’t be ‘Rook.’ That’s not a girl’s name.”
Alexa rolled her eyes and glanced over her shoulder, hissing at him quietly, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll change my mind about cutting your tongue out.”
The boy stared at her with those wide, blue eyes. For a moment, he looked surprised—and then stubbornness replaced it, “You don’t mean that—not really.”
Alexa repressed a sigh, turning to look down the hall again. That’s the problem with an illusion. It works well until someone finds that it’s as insubstantial as air. Instead, she spoke quietly, “It’s my last name. If you want to get out of here, then shut up.”
She darted forward, not pausing to see if the boy was following. They skirted a few more doors, and then Alexa had her hand on the one that led outside. She exhaled slowly, glancing toward the boy once more. They’d made it—hopefully without being seen. But that didn’t mean he was safe.
She lowered her voice again, whispering instructions to him quickly, “Listen to me closely. You’ll step outside onto one of the docks. From there, grab a ferry to wherever your mum is and get on the first ship out of here. I don’t care if it lands you straight in Old York—just leave. And don’t plan on coming back any time soon.” She paused for a moment, her eyes roving over the bruises that stood up against the boy’s pale face. “Change your names, too.”
The boy stared at her for a moment and then slowly nodded. He looked as if he was about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, he grasped the door handle, pulling it open. The smells of salt and sea and fresh air greeted them as the sounds of the docks floated on the breeze. For a moment, he stood still. Then he glanced at her again, “You’re not as bad as they say.”
Alexa raised a brow, “You’re right. I’m much worse.” She grabbed his shoulder and shoved him out the door, quickly shutting it behind him.
Much, much worse.
To call James’ room “lavish” would have been an understatement. It was practically exorbitant in the amount of wealth it showed. Books—real books—lined shelves that were carved from driftwood. Tattered, pre-fall rugs lined the floor and faded pictures hung against the cracked walls.
James himself stood next to one of the windows, his back turned to Alexa. He always starts like that—with his back turned. I wonder if he thinks it makes him seem more dramatic. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the pane, catching the faint highlights in his hair as he spoke, his polished voice sounding out through the room, “I assume everything is cleaned?”
“Yes, sir.” Alexa remained at the door of the room, hands folded behind her back as she watched him. She was back in her usual outfit, dark armor strapped firmly on her body once more. “Was there anything else you needed?”
James turned his head to look at her, “Nothing at the moment, Rook.”
Alexa nodded, “Then I will be downstairs, sir.”
James nodded, eyes boring into hers. Alexa stared back for a moment and then turned slightly, readying herself to leave. Don’t give him anything to use—no emotion, no feeling. Just leave. He can’t know, after all.
His voice stopped her.
“Although…” He paused and then took a step toward her. Alexa felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as he took another step. She fell still. Careful. She could hear her own breathing in her ears, and she suddenly remembered how very adept James was at using a gun—and how useless she was with any weapon.
He took another step, eyes still locked on her as he continued speaking, “I did think I saw something peculiar outside. I could have sworn I saw our mutual friend running down the docks—but that was probably just my imagination, correct? You wouldn’t know anything about that.”
Still as a stone. Alexa pushed down feeling, thought, emotion. She willed her eyes to remain blank, for her body not to betray her, “If you wish, I can go downstairs and…”
“No, that’s not necessary.” Another step. They were about three feet apart now—any closer would be uncomfortable. Alexa remained still. “You are my oldest…friend, Rook. And I realize that sometimes things…slip. But I am afraid that we’ll have to bring the mother in, now—and I am afraid that you’re going to have to watch.”
Still as a stone.
“You see, I don’t really condone this sort of behavior. It’s positively unruly. I appreciate the good heartedness of it, of course. But you should remember where your loyalties lie, Rook.”
Still as a stone. “Of course, sir. Is that all?”
James nodded and waved one hand, “Yes—for now.”
Alexa bowed her head slightly and turned—slowly, deliberately. Still as stone. She’d taken a few paces before his voice stopped her once more.
She turned slightly, glancing over her shoulder to see that he was watching her again. His eyes roved over her body as he smirked faintly, “Color suits you. You should wear green more often—though I suppose that would defeat your entire purpose. Black looks more intimidating.”
Alexa felt the bottom drop out from her stomach. For a moment, she felt her mask shift, felt how her features morphed to fear and disgust. She watched as James’ face lit up in a way that made her feel sick.
Alexa quickly bowed her head and murmured, “Thank you, sir.” Without further word, she walked from the room, heart pounding in her chest.
I need to run.
We are not always the beasts others think that we are. But that doesn’t mean that we still aren’t our own kind of monster.