The child was glowering over the crushed flowers, he’d already kicked the soil across the street and trampled the pottery into the cobbles. A sharp eye couldn’t fail to recognise the purity of the child’s anger, Guss could tell the boy was a born soldier, who if recruited young enough would be loyal and ruthless to the bloody end.
The parents of the child were riddled with poverty and the melange of afflictions that weep from it: depression, addiction, bitterness. Guss knew how little it would take to separate and isolate the boy, he could have him creeping the backalleys before Christmas.
Guss was a valiant sort of vagabond, at his prime in his forties, not scared of a scrap but possessing a certain glamour and mastery. He was always restless, drifting from place to place, though he was never to be found sleeping rough and his many vices required considerable funding. For him the streets provided all he could possibly need, he was one, as it is said, who could muster gold from a cesspit. For much of the summer his activities were mainly legitimate, he was a seasonal agricultural worker and one with much skill and knowledge, there were small orchards in Kent that would perish without him. Yet in the winter, and ever longer as his years wore on, he sought shelter in the rotten bosom of Great Mother London and made his way as a rogue of the highest order.
Sure enough, the following month the boy was working for Guss. As he had expected, rage and abandonment made the child take to crime like a crow to carrion. Fortuitously the boy was also not without a mind, he was cunning and quick to learn. One night they were walking through a stretch of dilapidated slum that was dominated by Irish boarding houses. Across the open cesspool of the street they spotted a man spread out on the steps of a grimy drinking den, he was motionless and pale, maybe dead. From the look of his clothes he was a navvy, his ostentatious handkerchief in a disordered knot around his neck. This was the first lushpicking that the boy committed - Guss whispered in his ear “Handkerchief” and soon it hung from the boys neck as they shot down a bolthole.
One day Beansie, a portly costermonger, looked down over the rim of his barrow at the skinny boy and laughed, calling him “Little Slug”. The name stuck. For no particular reason other than an innate malice, the assorted thugs and thieves of the slum unanimously decided to make “Little Slug” the butt of all their scorn and derision. The constant mockery filled the boy with rage and as Guss appeared his only friend in the world he became ever more devoted and attentive.
So it continued through the winter, Little Slug learnt theft and trickery whilst carrying a deep burning wrath against the whole neighbourhood. As his proficiency in the arts of the night increased he began knocking off the costermongers and hawkers, leaving them with broken noses and missing goods, those who were prone to drink he would ambush outside the gin palaces and leave battered in the gutter. His talents had become such that no one could definitely pin the blame on him and his sudden growth spurt gave anonymity. His stealthy vengeance filled him with cold pride, and Guss, who saw it all from the shadows, was delighted at his progress.
In the early spring Guss began training the boy to pose as a chimney sweep before he became too tall. Indeed no one called him “Little” anymore, but “Slug” had persisted, though now it was uttered with far more caution. Guss was plotting a campaign of burglary, and on the evening of the first heist they stood outside a large prosperous townhouse. As instructed, Slug mounted the fine Regency fascia and then deftly scaled the shadowy side of the building overhanging the garden. He carefully hoisted himself up on the guttering and ascended the steep tiles. Sitting on the peak of the house he put his arms around the brick chimney. It was still hot, not scorching but uncomfortable to cling to. He shimmied along the roof and leaning over the precipice of the dark street attempted to whisper to Guss. His master, in his elegant suit, was looking up at him, red faced and cursing at his reappearance. “Get down that fucking shute.” he growled.
Just then a peeler turned the corner, his brass badge gleaming softly in the light of the gas lamp, in a second he caught sight of the whole scene. By the time Guss had turned and spotted him the constable was in full sprint with his truncheon swinging.
During the ensuing fight Slug made to clamber down to aid his master, but losing his grip he rolled off the roof and fell, landing flat on his back upon the lawn. He lay gasping for breath, unable to move as the commotion continued behind the brick garden wall.
The two men were grunting and shouting for many seconds, until the peeler yelled: “Down you cur!” and a sickening crack split the air. Guss fell silent. Other brash voices began to echo down the streets accompanied by a chorus of whistle blasts. By the time the whole squad of peelers had started combing the garden, Slug was already long gone.
Deep in the moldering recesses of the hidden slum behind Petticoat Lane, to the decayed walls of the Gothic block known as Pickers Palace, Slug stole away to where no peeler would dare venture. He snuck down the squalid corridors, skipping over a trench of open sewage in the courtyard, and deep within the gloomy complex unlocked a discrete door. The small room beyond was a stinking mess, with all manner of domestic detritus flung asunder. Slug locked the door behind him and kicking away an empty sack opened the revealed hatch. Guss’ hideout; in the basement like a glowing womb, the red drapes swaying in the candlelight.
Alerted by the unexpected light, Slug crept down the steps and peered around the corner of the screen that concealed Guss’ wide plush bed. A bony teenage girl was lying upon it, she pulled her coat around her and looked up warily. It was Polly, Guss’ mistress. They had seen each other before from time to time, but never exchanged a word, Guss had never allowed for an opportunity. Now without the master’s presence the two youngsters stared at one another, for a moment almost children again, until their vexations and caution returned and they slunk away to their own corners of the basement.
A few hours later loud banging came from above, the sound of splintering wood, then heavy trampling feet. Slug sprang up from his blankets. There was a prolonged riotous crashing, until eventually they tore up the hatch with a fanfare of drunken cheers. Slug stood there frozen as the gang tore down the steps. They were all the usual mob of local thugs and thieves that haunted Picker’s Palace, there was not one face among them that Slug did not know, and not one who hadn’t once cursed and reviled him. They had caught wind that old Guss had snuffed it and now they were coming to loot his gear. They laughed at the tall, awkward boy and the most surly amongst them, Dead Eye Dan, sneered: “Ha Slug! You filthy slime, get out of it boy, Guss’ shit is ours.”
Slug was pushed aside and brutally trampled by the charging mob, then pinned to the floor by the enormous arse of the costermonger Beansie. Meanwhile the rest of them ransacked the place, stripping it bare, sending the furniture flying. Soon they found Polly; she was dragged out by Dead Eye Dan, wrapped up in a velvet curtain.
Beansie clumsily stood up and raising his great bloated leg stomped upon Slug’s skull, knocking him senseless and bleeding upon the stone tiles. “That’s for knocking off the costermongers, you little shit.”
After the death of Guss the slum sucked up his existence and continued, uncaring, in its daily miseries. For in those streets death was cheaper than water. Just a few Kentish orchard keepers were aggrieved by his disappearance.
In the slums only novelty could give sensation to death, and so it was three years later, when horror came to grip the rough inhabitants of Pickers Palace. A series of murders began, but not the usual murders of the weak and lost, but of high ranking scoundrels. The multiple deaths shocked the underworld, the method was so appalling, the corpses were found in pieces, lacerated skin, caved in skulls, spread guts.
The great iron beast of the industrial revolution was glutted heartily that summer and its multitude of chimney stacks belched into the sickly, humid air of the slums an impenetrable smog.
In this jaundiced gloom Beansie waddled down the alleyway, looking about him. Most of his crew were dead and chills of terror were running through him. He had just been kicked out of the workhouse again, for he was a notorious loafer, and down this nook he sought the wide entrance to the main sewers. Through this grand confluence of filth he could roam miles to nowhere and hunker down with the rats.
As he turned the final corner there stood a looming figure, the features hidden in the miazma, the awkward bulk swaying. Beansie made to turn, but the figure bounded towards him with tremendous speed, yelping and snarling like a beast. An agonising pain erupted from his bulging calf and Beansie’s great mass collapsed upon the slick cobblestones. The bloody axe reeled up, and the figure lent into the orange light of the gas lantern. There hung the distinct features of Slug upon the hulking body, but his eyes were vacant and cold, drool oozed from his mouth, deformity twisted his brow.
Slug was unmoved by the desperate pleas of the costermonger.
With blank fury he butchered him beneath the toxic shroud of the night.