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Carmen woke with a start. She could hardly believe she’d been able to sleep in the cold cell with the rats only feet away. Sherwood lay on the floor next to her, his lanky body curled into a ball against the cold.
Reaching out a hand, she stroked his hair. He’d been a pillar of strength since their subterranean adventure began, refusing to give up, always ready with a new plan. They’d had virtually no time alone together since they had kissed, first in the restaurant and then at Piccadilly Circus.
He stirred, sat up and gave her a tired smile. “How are you holding up?” he said.
“If you’d told this aspie a few days ago what she’d be going through during our little underground adventure, I’d have slunk off and found a hole somewhere.” She shivered. “Well, maybe not a hole, let’s say a mountaintop. An open, airy, big sky kind of mountaintop. I’ve had enough of holes.”
They stared at the rats. Most were now awake. A few paced about, their eyes focused on the inhabitants of the cell with a cold intensity.
“They look hungry,” Carmen said.
“Those damn things are always hungry,” said Harry. He and the others were now awake also, at least those who had managed a few minutes of sleep under the stressful conditions.
Trimm stared at the rodents, his voice tinged with fear. “How are we going to get out of here?” he said.
Sherwood hadn’t a clue. They might as well be locked in a cell in San Quentin, he thought. The animals showed no interest in giving up. Their prey was too close, too helpless and too succulent to pass up.
One of the biggest rats again took a charge at the cell bars. The entire room shook from the force of its attack. Sherwood grimaced and grabbed the cell door to keep it from sliding open. At once, another of the beasts slammed into the bars near his hand, which he managed to withdraw an instant before its jaws closed with a crunch.
The ferocity of the two attackers seemed to rev up the others. Soon, they were all sucking and mewling and pressing in on the cell bars. Sherwood tried to keep close enough to the cell door to grab it if it started to slide open but not so close as to risk being clawed. It was a game of cat and mouse, and the inhabitants of the cell had no illusions as to who the mice were.
The standoff continued for over an hour, the rats periodically slamming into the cell, Sherwood struggling to keep the bars shut and the rest of the room’s pitiful occupants remaining out of reach.
The tension in the room was palpable. Trimm, especially, was nearly catatonic from fear. They could all see how the bars of their haven were beginning to weaken from the constant assaults. Several bars were now loose in the sixty year old concrete that encased them, and it seemed only a matter of time before the rats would break through. Most of the cell’s occupants could no longer bare to look at the creatures literally salivating for their flesh. They sat on the floor, their heads turned away.
This was how they were, only Sherwood paying attention to the beasts, as he fought to keep the cell door from sliding open, when they heard him gasp, “Oh, my God.”
Carmen was the first to look. What she saw made so little sense that she thought she must be hallucinating.
“Julia?” she said.
And Julia was there, standing at the door to the room, looking more bedraggled and haggard than Carmen had ever seen her before.
“Julia. My God, run! Get out of here. They’ll kill you!” Carmen couldn’t bare to look and turned away from her friend who was certain to be torn to bits.
But there was a strange silence in the room. The rats continued to stare at them and pace about, but they showed no interest whatsoever in Julia, as she moved across the room to the cell door.
“I can’t believe I’ve found you,” she said, looking at the bereft group in the cell. She put one hand on the bars and gave them a little shake. “Not a bad refuge, all things considered.”
Sherwood stood next to the bars, not believing what he was seeing. “How…?” he began.
Julia looked quickly at the rats which seemed to have quieted for the moment. “Why don’t you let me in, Sherwood,” she said.
Cautiously, he slid the cell door back two feet and then quickly shut it after she slipped through.
Hans was the first to greet her, hugging her tightly, then Carmen took a turn before she pushed her friend away.
“What on earth is that smell?” she said.
“My new perfume. I call it Salvation.”
“How did you get down here?” said Sherwood.
“I came down to find Hans,” said Julia. “I was worried about him, and then I stupidly got lost and trapped by those things.”
“Trapped where?” said Hans.
“In a missile stuck in the side of one of the cisterns. I found a way to get inside the thing to escape the rats and I discovered that someone else had stayed there also, a woman named Lila.”
Harry snorted. “I knew she had to have some place. But how did she avoid the rats? And what in God’s name is that smell?””
Julia held up a large glass jar. “Like I said. It’s the smell of salvation.”
They all stared at her blankly.
“I found this in Lila’s little nest. I think it’s a mix of body parts and offal. Somehow she figured out how to use it to mask her body odor.”
“That would have to make it pretty strong stuff,” said Harry, remembering Lila’s indescribable smell.
“The point is, it works,” Julia said. “I put it on and have been walking freely down here. The animals don’t pay any attention to me.”
“Give me some of that,” said Trimm, reaching for the bottle.
Sherwood stepped in front of him. “We’ll all use it,” he said. “But it looks like there might not be enough to go around. There are nine of us here. Why don’t you dole it out, Julia. Use as little on each of us as you think we can get away with.”
So she did, carefully spreading each drop as economically as possible. Soon the cell stank like the inside of a charnel house, and they had to fight the urge to gag. But as the noxious substance was divided up, the rats began to lose interest in the game.
“It’s a god damned miracle,” Harry said.
Slowly, one by one, the big rats left the room. Julia dipped the last drops from her jar and tossed it aside.
“I don’t have any idea how long this stuff works,” she said. “Or if I gave each of you enough to work individually. As long as we’re together in a small space, I suspect the collective impact of the odor will protect us. But we probably shouldn’t get too far apart once we start to move.”
“Move where?” said Trimm. “We don’t know where the hell we are. I don’t want to go walking around down here side by side with those things, no matter how much we stink.”
“I know a way out. I wandered around down here a long time, looking for Hans. I didn’t know that you three cowboys were down here too.” She looked accusingly at Carmen, Sherwood and Harry.
“Sorry,” Carmen said. “Sherwood thought it best to keep our little river adventure a secret. But while we’re on the subject, didn’t you tell anyone where you were going?”
It was Julia’s turn to look sheepish. “Nope,” she sighed. “I guess we’re on our own. But like I said, I found a passage to the surface. Not far from here. It looks like it only recently opened up from a cave-in. I wasn’t going to use it until I found Hans.” She squeezed his hand and Hans looked totally smitten. “Unfortunately, the rats have also found it.”
Sherwood looked aghast. “The rats are on the surface? They’re on the streets of London?”
She nodded. “And we need to get out of here too. I rather think Scotland Yard is going to need every one of its Inspectors…and sergeants.”