One of the benefits to carting wood every day was that it kept him in shape. Mortimer was big for sixteen, his shoulders were broad and his arms muscular. He was elated by the intimidation and respect his size brought him and that motivated him to get even bigger. He couldn’t afford to go to the gym but push-ups and chin-ups and sit-ups were free. When he wasn’t delivering wood, Mortimer was obsessively pumping himself up.
It wasn’t long, however, before he discovered that being big on its own was not providing sufficient results. bullying people was like a drug. This was something he could excel at if he just applied himself properly. He had to prove that nothing scared him.
It was in Port Babbage where he first heard the whispers of monsters in the sewers of Clockhaven. It was January, ten years after the fire. He’d arrived in the Port early with his kindling wagon, checking around for abandoned packing crates that could be broken down and sold. There were a couple of younger kids scavenging the docks ahead of him; he knew them by sight but couldn’t recall their names. His intention was to chase them off before they found the good stuff but as he approached, something in their conversation intrigued him.
“…and they’ll eat you right up,” said the little blond boy with soot staining his cheeks.
“Who will eat you right up?” Mortimer interrupted.
“Them creatures from the old Dunsany hospital,” the other boy said, peeking up at Mortimer through a shaggy mop of dark curls that even his oversized cap couldn’t contain. “They been bad in the sewers ever since the building was torn down last fall.”
The Dunsany Institution for Social Reform had been abandoned a decade. There had always been rumours the place was haunted but Mortimer assumed that was just a story parents told their kids to keep them from going inside and getting hurt.
“There ain’t no such thing as monsters,” said Mortimer. “And even if there were, it don’t matter much to me. I’d put a beating to them like I did with Ralphie last month.”
“My cousin, Joey, goes to school at the church and he says Brother Pizarro says to never go near the sewers,” the blond boy said.
“So frigging what,” Mortimer sneered. “Every grown-up says that.”
“Joey says they come if you call to them,” the boy continued.
“I heard you gotta holler ‘Dunsany’ three times,” the curly-haired boy with the cap piped up. “That’s when they come.”
“That’s stupid,” said Mortimer, giving the blond waif a solid shove to the shoulder, knocking the boy back a step. “You’re just stupid kids.”
“If we’re so stupid and you’re so tough, then why don’t you prove it?” said the dark-haired boy. “Go into the catacombs and say it.”
“Three times,” the little blond urchin said, holding up three fingers to add emphasis.
Mortimer wasn’t scared, not exactly, he was apprehensive to be sure. The railway lantern he carried to illuminate the catacombs cast strange shadows that darted from crack to crevice. The walls in this section of the passage were simply brick, to see any of the chambers he would have to venture deeper.
Mortimer glanced over his shoulder to see the small silhouettes of the two urchins. “Hey you two dumb little effers, is this far enough to satisfy you?”
“Say it,” the urchins urged.
Mortimer turned back to the darker passage before him. He put the lantern down on the ground in front of him and flexed his fingers. ‘This is so stupid,’ he muttered. Taking a deep breath, he raised his voice and called, “Dunsany….” He was about to repeat the word for the second time when he thought he heard something. If it had been real it had been fleeting.
“Hey, urchins, did you hear that?” Mortimer turned back but the two little boys, in the noble interest of self preservation, had run like hell at his first utterance of ‘Dunsany.’
“Frigging kids,” Mortimer shook his head. He was about to pick up his lantern when he heard the sound again, and froze. It had been a child’s voice humming a nursery rhyme of some sort; a little girl perhaps? He straightened up and peered as deep as the darkness would allow. “Who’s there? Are you lost? I can lead you out of here.”
Mortimer waited until the silence became too creepy. He turned and as he hastened toward the light of outside he thought he heard the laughter of a young woman, echoing off the walls from the passage behind him.