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LONDON'S SOUL IS MISSING.
When Sharon Li unexpectedly discovers she's a shaman, it's not a moment too soon: London's soul is lost. Using her newfound oneness with the City, she sets about saving London from inevitable demise, but the problem is she has no clue where to start. Meanwhile, a mysterious gate has opened, and there are creatures loose that won't wait for her to catch up before they go out hunting. Now Sharon and her motley crew of ...
LONDON'S SOUL IS MISSING.
When Sharon Li unexpectedly discovers she's a shaman, it's not a moment too soon: London's soul is lost. Using her newfound oneness with the City, she sets about saving London from inevitable demise, but the problem is she has no clue where to start. Meanwhile, a mysterious gate has opened, and there are creatures loose that won't wait for her to catch up before they go out hunting. Now Sharon and her motley crew of magical misfits must find a way to save the world...
It was raining when Sharon Li became one with the city.
The rain may have had nothing to do with her moment of profound spiritual revelation but is worth mentioning just in case. The kebab she was eating definitely had nothing to do with it but will prove relevant in the sense that if she hadn’t dropped it onto her trousers, she might have stood in the rain a little longer marvelling at the majesty of the universe, which could have had a long-term medical impact and thus affected the course of events yet to come. As it was, the sensation of orange goo oozing into the fabric of her jeans would provoke her to take practical action where other minds might simply have dissolved in mystical wonder.
Meanwhile she stood, bits of salad falling from their plastic box, her body temporarily forgotten. The rain rolled down her face, glued her black hair to her pine-coloured skin, deepened her orange top to sodden brown and seeped through the soles of her shoes. On a nearby railway line a goods train clanked by at ten miles an hour, its wheels screaming like golems being beaten to death. Two streets away the night bus threw up a sheet of dirty water from a blocked drain over a drunken group from a stag party wrapped in cling film and not much else. A car alarm wailed as a trainee thief smashed a window and made a grab for the mobile phone left on a seat. A door quietly closed as a husband, heading off for the flight to his conference in Spain, tried not to disturb his wife; she, entirely awake, lay sensing the warmth he had left behind. A fox stopped on its walk through the night and turned its head towards the sky as if wondering which star tonight shone for it behind the bank of sodium cloud. Paint dripped down the metal shutter of an off-licence from an amateur attempt at graffiti. A lorry laden with tomorrow’s milk skipped a red light because it could, and just tonight, just this once, the speed camera forgot to flash.
And for a moment, just one brilliant, burning, unbearable moment, Sharon Li knew everything there was to know about the city, every street and every stone; and her thoughts were in the wheels of the cars splashing through the puddles and her breath was in the gasps of air drawn through the railway tunnels and her heart beat with the turning of the river.
Then, because the human mind is only capable of comprehending so much, she forgot.
Later, in circumstances that Sharon Li would certainly have frowned upon, the entire balance of reality is about to be pushed off the bungee.
Soft cloth drags on carpet.
A door closes in the night.
Flicker of shadow across a door.
Sound of falling.
She says, “They’ll find you they’ll find you you have to get out now!”
Her voice is a gabble of forced breath, sandpaper in the throat, glass in the lungs.
A finger of wind commanding silence.
A brush of something soft against rapidly cooling skin, a whisper of sound that has no words, nor has ever felt the need.
“Let me live.”
Paper stirs across the floor.
She says, “No. That isn’t what I—”
And she dies.
That was then.
This is now.
He snuck in the back way as always, hoping that today his PA would get bored of trying to catch him. But there she was, as always, waiting at the bottom of the lift, papers in one hand, half-eaten egg and cress sandwich in the other.
He puts his face into neutral-yet-resilient and summons the lift. She slips in beside him, as if she’d casually been waiting at this place, at this time, a fortunate coincidence, two professionals having a chance encounter. And says, “Have you read it?”
“Good morning Mr Mayor, how are you? Why, isn’t it lovely if surprising to see you, I just happened to be passing!” he intones.
“Good morning, Mr Mayor. How are you?”
“I’m very well, thank you, Kelly, and yourself?”
“Absolutely topping, Mr Mayor, completely the best. Would you like a foot massage and a cup of tea before commencing the business of the day?”
He sighs. Every day they have this encounter, and every day it ends the same way. “What was the first question?”
“Have you read it?”
“Vague as that is, let’s play safe and go with no.”
“Kelly, I’ve got things to do, people to see…”
“I really feel it’s important.”
“You said that last week, with the white paper on basilisk activity in the Barking sewage works.”
“Well, it is important–you can’t think it’s not.”
“I’m sure it’s important. I just wish you hadn’t tried to prove your point by sending me on a field trip.”
“Mr Mayor,” she tries again, at once wheedling and determined, “just take a look at this.”
She hands him a paper. Since she’s been his PA, Kelly has got good at knowing just how much paper to give him at any time. Only one sheet of A4 and he feels patronised; an entire folder and he won’t bother reading. Five to seven pages of essential notes have become the standard, with the really important stuff, the absolutely vital stuff, tucked in around page 3.
He reads page 1 and huffs. Flicks to page 2 and sighs. Gets to page 3, shows no reaction, turns to page 4 and…
… turns right back.
She watches his eyes dance over the words as the lift slows to a halt on the top floor. The doors open but he doesn’t move. His lips move silently as if the portion of his brain usually dedicated to absorbing this kind of information is crying out for assistance from any other interested lobes.
He says, “No but what?”
“You’ve found the…”
“Too bloody right, and no, but seriously, what?”
“I told you it was important!”
“Yes but no but I mean sure, I get where this is coming from, but actually—”
“I’m told they get a lot of interest from Facebook.”
“Facebook! Facebook?! I’ve got a city infested with horrors of the night crawling from nether darkness; I’ve got monsters and demons and missing fucking goddesses and creatures whose footsteps burn the night and wards failing and meetings–bloody hell, I’ve got bloody fucking fiscal meetings with the directors’ board–and they’re doing this with Facebook?!”
“That’s how I understand it, Mr Mayor.”
“Couldn’t someone tell them to stop?”
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”
“But it’s ridiculous!”
“I think it’s rather sweet.”
He looks up from the paper, and now there’s no attempt to keep the horror off his face.
“Well, in its way…”
“Kelly, you’re a guardian of the night, a magician who wears black and not for its slimming properties; you’ve been trained in how to kill people in many different ways and when you’re not giving me bad news, you’re in theory running around the city hunting down all the things too nasty to be named, and you think this is sweet?”
She thinks about it. “Beats blood-drenched midnight orgies.”
The hall was hung with dusty red velour curtains. There were orange plastic chairs stacked against the wall, and a trestle table bearing an unwashed coffee mug, a free newspaper from yesterday afternoon, a ruptured tennis ball and a discarded umbrella with its workings mangled by a strong wind. One door led into the church next door; the other said FIRE ESCAPE and led into the mite-filled alley between the hall and the neighbouring barber’s shop.
The barber, Antonio Anthonis, born in Athens, raised on Eurovision, described the hall as “a nice enough place for the kids, yes?”
The vicar’s wife, who handled all the hiring and scheduling of events, described St Christopher’s Hall as “a friendly community venue where people of every age and disposition can come together in celebration of each other and their local area.”
The vicar, the Reverend Adam Weir, with a more liberal understanding of most things than his missus, described it as “twenty-five an hour and you’ll wonder why you’re forking out so much, but, believe me, when you see the other places you’ll just be thrilled. Price goes down to twenty pounds an hour if you can convince me you’re doing something moral or pious, and fifteen an hour if there’s free tea and biscuits. Church reserves the right to take leftovers and I don’t drink Earl Grey.”
Sharon explained what they did.
The vicar listened. His eyes had run politely but thoroughly over Sharon as she’d talked, taking in her ankle-high purple boots, cropped jeans with the tattiness left in, orange tank top and the streaks of electric blue dyed into the front of her hair. He nodded appreciatively at the key bits, though his eyes did eventually start to glaze over.
“So,” she concluded, “I think, yeah, that it’s… it’s moral and has biscuits.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “Throw in an extra packet of Jammie Dodgers and we’ll call it a tenner.”
That was five weeks ago.
She’d had to wait two weeks for Gospel Singing (Level 2) to finish their rehearsal period in the hall, and also, Power Dance (Dance Your Way to the New You!) had got in first to the slot she’d wanted, forcing her to push things back another three weeks. Following her posting of time and place on Facebook and Twitter, the feedback was generally good, though some people did ask if there was a discreet way in.
It had of course been one of the things she’d checked in advance.
She arrived early, while the hall was still occupied by Youth Judo (Discipline, Fitness and Safety for Your Children), and waited outside until the mums had collected their small robed warriors. The instructor was the last to leave. He was a short man with dreads down to his hip and a white duelling shirt that warped under pressure from within. His face was the brown of soil after rain, and his smile was dazzling.
“Dan,” he said, gripping Sharon’s hand with fingers that could have squashed coconuts like a wet sponge. “You must be… What do you guys do?”
“Support group,” Sharon explained.
“First time here, yeah? Where were you before?”
“Nowhere. This is our first meeting ever.”
“Wow, that’s great. Hope it goes well for you.” Another flash of teeth, brilliant in the fading light of evening. “Have a good one, yeah?”
And he too left.
For a moment Sharon stood alone in the hall.
Outside, the sky was a cloud-scudded grey-blue, sliced with falling autumn leaves. From the pub on the corner she could hear students from the local hall of residence discovering just what the deal was with cider and, importantly, what happened after. The smell of paprika drifted in from the restaurant two doors down. Someone dinged their bell as they cycled by. In Exmouth Market, lined with cafés, bars and boutiques, darkness was an invitation to raise the volume. The church and its community hall was a box of silence against the rising sounds of laughter and the clatter of glasses.
She put down her plastic bags on the table. They contained five packets of custard creams, six of Jammie Dodgers, two of chocolate fingers (milk) and two of chocolate fingers (white). A bag of apples to make up for the sweetness of all that had gone before and a bunch of bananas for those who didn’t like apples because, frankly, who didn’t like bananas? A large box of builder’s teabags, a smaller box of Earl Grey. Another small box–of herbal teas (mixed) for those who didn’t like tea–a litre of milk, a box of white sugar, a packet of plastic teaspoons, a packet of plastic cups, a packet of foam cups (heat resistant) and a bundle of paper plates. Two packs of bright red napkins because you never knew, one bottle of instant coffee in case no one drank tea, two litres of orange juice from concentrate, one litre of apple. A kettle. Small, white, plastic. Just in case.
Turned out, the hall had its own kettle. After all, the leaflet did say “amenities provided”.
Approximately half a mile from St Christopher’s Hall, and Gavin McGafferty is about to die.
He doesn’t know it right now; in fact, right now he’s having a hard time thinking of anything through the red haze of contempt clouding his better judgement. He walks, and doesn’t fully grasp where he’s walking, and under his breath he mutters, “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fucking…”
A bus sweeps by. It’s his bus. He was waiting for it at the stop outside the chemist, but when it didn’t come fast enough, he started walking to the next, and now there it is, passing by at that perfect point where he’s too far to run, and he knows, he just knows, that it, like everything else, is out to get him.
“Fuck fuck fuck SHIT…”
It is perhaps unfortunate, in a strictly humanitarian sense, that in less than fifty yards Gavin McGafferty will have his throat torn out with a single swipe of a fist-sized claw, his left ear ripped from the side of his face and his pelvis fractured by the sheer weight of creature bowling him to the ground. Nevertheless, his co-workers, when informed of the unfortunate event some twenty-two hours later, will pause a fraction too long as they consider his departure. There may even be some who, going to the bathroom afterwards to compose their faces in an appropriate mask of grief, find themselves looking in the mirror and breathing out a slow sigh of guilty relief. Gavin McGafferty is not a man who endears himself to the universe, and it is in this vein that he understands that the driver of the 159 bus that overtook him on the corner has waited–absolutely waited–just outside his line of sight for the right moment to screw him, personally, over.
The world has been conspiring against Gavin McGafferty from the start. He knows his co-workers talk about him behind his back; he knows that his work–which is fucking good fucking work, FUCK!–has been made to look shit by the apathy and personal hatred of his peers. He knows that no man can achieve perfection against such a world of inadequacy, but most of all he knows, more than anything else, that he is right and everyone else is wrong, and if he looks shit it’s only because the rest of them are out to get him.
“Fucking stupid fucking arsehole…”
He turns onto St John Street and sees the bus stop. The 159 is pulling away, two kids visible in the back seat, framed by the bus’s internal white lights, laughing, probably at him. There’s no one at the bus stop, no one on the road. They’re all on the bus, or inside the last fucking taxi in EC fucking 1, not that they even need it, lazy pricks, because they’re probably not going far, to a wine bar or something, whereas Gavin is going–Gavin is going to—
A motorbike grumbles into life behind him, distracting him from his train of thought. Its engine rumbles, a low throaty growl, then keeps turning over. He crosses the quiet street. The bike is still revving, but now there is something wrong with the sound: a potency, a thickness, a thing within it that…
“Fucking stupid fuck fuck fuck…”
… that pauses for breath?
He hesitates on the edge of the yellow light that frames the empty bus shelter. Something soft presses on a loose cobble stone, which sings a hollow note as it bumps against its neighbours. Other men might have looked back. Other men might have wondered. Gavin McGafferty knows better than to look. Only an idiot looks.
He steps up to the shelter and looks at the timetable. At this time of night, the 159 runs every twenty to twenty-five minutes, which he knows means at least half an hour. And it’ll be full of weirdo druggies and stupid kids, and he’ll be late, which is fucking fine because they can all fucking wait for him anyway but shit shit shit shit…
A ripple in the sound behind him, and it’s louder, and it’s closer, and that ripple–for that is the word–could almost be defined as the sound a soft leathery lip might make as it rubs its way across protruding fanged teeth, while a deep rumble inside a ribcage pressed within a hundred pounds of taut black flesh might yet prove the source of this persistent grumbling.
He’s not an idiot. Jesus, he’s Gavin McGafferty, he’s the shit, he’s the stuff, he’s the guy on the up, and all those fucking idiots around him who talk behind his back and try to bring him down because of their envy, their envy for Christ’s sake, they don’t understand. They’ll never get it, they’re the kind of guys who’d look, they’d look and he wouldn’t he wouldn’t he…
The start of the scream doesn’t make it all the way to his voice box before it finds itself some three feet away from the air that should have supplied it. The teeth that remove his left ear dig deep enough to crack the solid sphere of his skull like a pistachio. Arguably, it’s the combined weight of Gavin and his attacker hitting the ground that causes the fractured pelvis. But frankly, given the time the paramedics spend trying to identify the body afterwards, no one really bothers to check.
The first one arrived on time, at 9.05 p.m. exactly.
The next at 9.07. There was a lull at 9.08 and then, as if an infrequent and much-denounced train had finally pulled up, at 9.11 they all started to tumble through the door of St Christopher’s Hall, with sideways glances as if to say, and you are who? Some smiled nervously and offered to shake hands–or whatever limb seemed suitable. Others kept their eyes on the floor, or clasped the shoulder of a more approachable companion come along to give support. One or two sneaked in under the mantle of their own very special disguises or glamours: there was the ever-reliable yellow fluorescent jacket that nearly guaranteed invisibility to all who wore it, through to a full-blown burka, rather let down by the hint of talon protruding beneath as the wearer folded herself uncomfortably into a plastic chair.
“Tea, coffee?” Sharon asked the gathering assembly as they shuffled their seats into place. A chorus of grunted affirmations came back, no one wanting to acknowledge that they were so difficult as to need tea or coffee but, that said, if someone else was having one anyway, they didn’t see the harm…
One or two braver guests tried talking to each other, stop-start conversations that fell into a lull as they gathered into a communal circle. Watching from the corner of her eye, by the time the door to the alley finished banging shut Sharon had counted fourteen individuals of various shapes and sizes.
Not a bad number, she decided as steam began spouting from the kettle. And considering how limited her biscuit budget was, it was probably for the best. Not that anyone was going for the biscuits, though many eyes were upon them. Sensing this might be just the incentive to socialise that everyone needed, she grabbed two from a paper plate and munched loudly.
A voice said, “I’ve got ginger nuts.”
Sharon looked round. A freckled face peeked from beneath spear-straight hair that his mother probably told him was rich auburn but which no one else could deny was carrot from its pudding-bowl line up to its thick roots. The accent was Welsh, tinged with an apology for same, the height was average with an inclination towards short, the frame needed an extra ration of chicken soup, and the clothes were pure nerd. From the ends of the battered leather jacket one size too large, black fading to green where time had done its damage, to the ends of his never-run-in running shoes; from the beige trousers that sagged around the middle to the unironed tartan-pattern shirt with its mismatched buttons, this was a man who understood that he should care about fashion, but couldn’t quite make fashion care back.
She must have stared, because he swallowed, Adam’s apple rising and falling hugely, and said, “I suppose some people might be allergic to ginger nuts? I’m sorry, I didn’t really know what kind of thing you were supposed to bring to this sort of meeting, see?” He tried a grin, dazzling as a squally shower on an overcast day. “I suppose next time I’ll bring some fruit salad.”
“Fruit salad? Although some people don’t like pineapple, which I don’t understand because I really like pineapple but everyone is different aren’t they? I mean of course they are that’s why we’re here I suppose, even though actually,” a laugh designed to be rich found itself on hard times, “we’re not really!”
He pushed the packet of biscuits among the rest, and mumbled, “Would you like a hand with the tea?”
Sharon said, “Uh, thanks, I mean… yeah. That’d be great, cheers.”
“I’m Rhys,” the man explained brightly, occupying himself over the tea with the dedication of the truly relieved. “Rhys Ellis.” Then, in a lower, conspiratorial voice, “I’m a druid.”
“Really?” exclaimed Sharon, and now she too found that the mugs of tea were the most interesting things she’d ever handled. “That’s very uh… that’s very…”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“I learned druiding in Birmingham.”
“That’s less Welsh.”
“Yes, but my second teacher was from Swansea. Actually, my first was from Bangkok and he smoked these nasty cigarettes all the time. At first I thought they were some kind of herbal thing, see, to enhance his communing with the primal forces of the city, but in fact they were just cheap.” He laughed, so Sharon dutifully laughed as well. Before the laughter could end and words could muscle back in with disastrous consequence, she grabbed a handful of mugs and turned to the other people there.
“Tea!” she shrilled. “Who’d like a nice cuppa?”
So my name’s Rhys, and I’m a druid, see?
Well, I suppose I’m a druid, I don’t know, it all depends. According to the exam board I’m not actually a druid yet, I’m still an apprentice, but I was only one paper away from passing and if they won’t let me try again then I don’t see how they can be so… well… Anyway, yes. What else should you know about me? I work in IT–actually in IT support so it’s like when your system goes down at the office then I get called up and I go in and fix it and tell your people how to fix it see and that’s really interesting because I meet lots of people and every day is different and I quite like it. I mean, I like being a druid too, but it’s not like there’s much money in being a druid these days. Druid magic is all slow magic, all about being patient and letting the city’s rhythms take their natural course at a proper pace and everyone is all “No, we want it now” and they go to sorcerers and wizards and people like that even though actually sometimes the quick fix isn’t the right one, see?
Anyway, the problem… I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s like a massive problem, I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a disease, see, and it’s nothing criminal or anything like that! It’s more how… how everyone said I was going to be a druid and I was going to be the leader of my circle and all the lads in Birmingham were very excited and I was very excited too, but then when the season comes I just can’t… And also if I get nervous then sometimes it comes out too, and the doctor says it’s just psychosomatic now as how there’s actually nothing in the environment to set it off but it really does get in the way when you’re trying to summon a pipe dragonling or something, and so you see I don’t really want to I don’t exactly like to and it’s not a problem but it’s… well, it’s rather ruined my life, actually. There. I said it. I was supposed to be… and now I can’t. And I don’t know what anyone can do to make it better.
“Before we begin,” said a voice, “I totally have a question?”
All eyes turned to the speaker. If he’d had the vascular capability, he might have blushed. Peroxide-blond hair on a bone-white face, skinny blue jeans, leather shoes and a tight-fitting white T-shirt all proclaimed the owner, a man of probably no more than twenty-five years old, to be comfortable with his sexuality, even if the rest of the world wasn’t. “So yeah, hi there. I’m just wondering, with this meeting–are we going to change the hours for daylight saving? Only my complexion really takes some looking after and I can’t be having too much sun, if you know what I mean.”
Silence in the hall.
Eyes turned inexorably to Sharon. She rose to her feet. This moment was something she’d been preparing for.
She said, “Uh…”
And stopped. Somehow, in all those hours spent in front of the mirror practising being open-minded and understanding, with help from books carrying titles like Everything I Ever Needed to Know Was Inside Me Already, the rallying cry of “Uh” hadn’t been mentioned.
“… these are issues,” she added hastily, because you couldn’t go wrong with a good “issue” or maybe even a “challenge”, “which we can all address. If anyone has any concerns about the set-up of this group then of course please do say so, and we’ll try to, like, address that.”
It had been going so well.
“Excuse me?” The voice wasn’t loud or aggressive or even particularly projected but there was something in it, an indefinable thickness of sound, that cut through every conversation. The speaker was hard to focus on. There was a sensation of bulk, aided by the fact that the speaker’s chair seemed to be warping under pressure. But as Sharon looked and tried to gain an exact sense of weight or height or skin, or even gender, such information seemed to slip just out of her grasp, like wet soap in a hot bath.
“Excuse me,” he, or maybe she, or perhaps–yes and without wanting to be judgemental–perhaps it said, “May I have another biscuit?”
Several gazes flickered back to Sharon. “What? I mean of course. The biscuits are here for everyone to enjoy. Please, help yourself.”
“Thank you,” he/she/it replied, rising with the majesty of a sunken submarine from beneath raging depths. All eyes watched it go to the bar. All eyes watched it pick up a biscuit with a grace and care that surely came from having fingertips larger than a lion’s paw, and all eyes watched it return to its chair, which groaned under the imposition. It ate and, for a moment, there was an impression of teeth in that not-quite-face, teeth indeed that no wishful thinking could deny.
“Well, I think that’s just the kind of thing we should talk about,” said a voice at last, and Sharon nearly shuddered with relief as she turned to the new speaker. This was a man, mid-fifties, with demarcated strands of mouse-grey hair combed across his spotted, massy skull. He wore a navy-blue suit and a red club tie, complemented by a thick leather belt done up several notches too tight. But his face… Somewhere the gods of grease and the gods of time had drawn up their battle lines, and as their wars had raged the mercenaries of wart and spot had joined the foray, fighting to a standstill entrenched in the bags beneath his eyes, under his wattled chin and all around the remnants of his frayed hairline. At the gaze of the others, he bristled, and with petulant pride he declared, “You don’t see me coming here in a chameleon spell, and a cheap one at that, do you? I may see the appeal of an occasional glamour, the odd protective enchantment, when in more refined social circles. But here, surely, we must by definition wear our true colours!”
“There won’t be nudity?” queried someone. This was a question which Sharon had been hoping to posit herself, and so dismiss before the evening could get out of hand.
“I don’t think we should rush into things…”
“How does this work then?” asked a third.
This time Sharon was ready. She coughed, pushed her chair back, stood up with arms folded in front of her, and said, “Uh, yes, so I guess, uh, I should explain.” She took a deep breath and launched, far too fast, into her prepared speech. “Thank you all for coming to this very first meeting of Magicals Anonymous. I’m pleased to see what a good response we got from the Facebook campaign and on Twitter and I’m sure as the weeks go by we can come to help each other and… and stuff. Here we aim to support and assist each other with all our… our…” the eyes of everyone in the room, so carefully avoided, were beginning to burn into her “… our issues and things, and as this is the first time we’ve met I guess we should say a bit about ourselves and why we’re here. So, yeah. My name’s Sharon…”
“Hello, Sharon,” sang out a cheerful voice, into a silence. “What?” asked the speaker. “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?”
“… and I can walk through walls.”
He is the second greatest shaman who’s ever lived.
At least he thinks he’s the second greatest shaman who’s ever lived, but actually the matter is open to debate. He’s definitely in the top three, but it’s undecided as to whether he, or Blistering Steve, late of Streatham Common, is the true claimant to second place. The argument arises thus: did Blistering Steve succeed, in a moment of transcendent magical brilliance, in crossing the boundary between spirit and flesh and become, in a veritable flash of blinding light, a creature entirely of smoke and air; or, less impressively, did he merely contrive his own spontaneous combustion in an experiment gone tragically wrong? The evidence is vague either way, but as Blistering Steve’s rival to the title would point out, if his experiment had gone so well, surely he’d have been back, albeit in ethereal form, to let someone know?
Academic magicians are nothing if not prone to rivalries.
Laying all this aside, for now it is important to note the following:
Firstly, that the second–possibly third–greatest shaman who’s ever lived, has not today got his fix of peppermint super-strength toothpaste, and this has undeniably dented his mood.
Secondly, as he walks in that place between what is and what is merely perceived to be, with that special walk that only shamans know how to do, he looks down, sees something smoking beneath his feet, and is worried.
His name was Kevin and he was saying,
“… so yeah I mean it’s like so totally uncool what’s happening with modern hygiene. I mean, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, hepatitis, herpes, HIV, and that’s just like the stuff they pick up at the routine screening! You know how hard it is to find decent, drinkable blood these days? Alcohol, drugs, fatty diets, not enough green leaf vegetables and I’m like hello?! I’m not even going to drink your good stuff so I don’t see how you’re planning on living if that’s the best your cardiovascular system can produce!”
Sharon leaned a little further forward. This was, she’d concluded after the first ten minutes, the safest look to go with. The act of resting elbows on knees forced her into a position that showed interest, while resting her chin on her hand provided good head support and stopped her mouth from dropping open.
“Anyway,” concluded Kevin, trying not to twiddle his bright blond hair, “I was having some issues with the, you know, the…” He made a whistling sound and with two fingers twiddling in front of his face somehow managed to indicate the place where fangs might be. “So I went to the doctor and she was all like ‘So you’ve got a syndrome’ and I was like ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’m like the bane of the immortal fucking night or whatever what the fuck do you mean I’ve got a syndrome?’ and she was all like ‘Yeah but it’s a cool syndrome’ and I was like ‘Lady, don’t give me this it’s a cool syndrome stuff, because I’ve gotta tell you I’ve got some real issues with personal hygiene anyway and if you’re about to tell me that my body is now, like, out to get me, well I honestly can’t tell you what I’m gonna do.’ And she gave me this leaflet and was all like ‘It’s called Seah’s syndrome and you’ve probably had it for a while. So when you were living your blood group was O negative and now you’re dead’–and you know she said ‘dead’ which I thought was just so prejudiced–‘and now you’re dead your blood group is still O negative, so that’s like the only blood group you can drink.’ ”
“Is that a popular one?” asked Mrs Rafaat. She was resplendent in a bright orange sari, with greying hair and a collection of thin silver rings on the fingers of her left hand.
“Like fucking no!” moaned Kevin, throwing his hands up in the air. “Only like fucking eight per cent of the population or whatever! And turns out a lotta the guys got this, only it’s not cool to talk about it, which again I think is so like, so stupid? But if you’re AB positive or something like that well then you’re really okay because you can drink like anything but O negative and that’s all you can fucking have, and I don’t know if there’s like, any scientific reason to think this but I really think these O negative fuckers don’t live clean. I have to bring a questionnaire along now and everything. I mean, really, it’s like a fucking dis-as-ter.”
Silence as the room waited for a little of his indignation to clear. Then someone applauded, and the others joined in. Kevin shifted in his chair uncomfortably, flashing the lightly fanged grin of the rarely appreciated, not quite able to believe this moment would last.
“I’m sure we’d all like to thank Kevin for his uh… personal story,” Sharon recited, forcing a rictus smile.
“Thank you, Kevin!” intoned the room. It was curious, Sharon noted, how it only took two or three people to feel the urge to chant their greetings or their praise in harmony, and suddenly everyone else was joining in, just in case their neighbour felt the urge, and then their neighbour’s neighbour felt the urge and, before they knew it, they were being left out or worse being rude. It had almost become a competition to respond faster than others, so as not to be last and caught demonstrating a lack of appreciation.
“Does anyone have something they’d like to add?”
Everybody avoided each other’s stare. Then one hand–the strange hand belonging to the strange creature whose features no one could entirely perceive–went up, and that voice that was not he nor she but therefore had to be it and more of an it than the average something dared to be, asked, “What kind of questions?”
“Oh, the questionnaire!” exclaimed Kevin, face lighting up at a chance to explore his problem further. “Well…” A big black sports bag was pulled out from under his chair and opened to reveal, just for a moment, a box of latex gloves, a pack of sterile wipes, a tube of expensive-looking toothpaste and a spindle of dental floss, all floating on a sea of sterile packaging, before from all this a plastic folder containing several sheets of A4 was revealed, neatly typed up and laid out with tick boxes. “Dietary standards obviously, sexual history obviously, foreign travel of course, visits to malaria sites, iron content, recent hospital investigations, history of needle abuse, history of drug abuse, history of alcohol abuse, history of jaundice… In fact if anyone wants to take one I’ve got plenty of spares.”
“I really don’t think that’s gonna be a great idea,” blurted Sharon. As Kevin’s face fell she added, “But if anyone is interested in helping Kevin out I’m sure they can speak to him after the session.”
“What if we don’t know our blood type?” asked a small woman with mousy blonde hair who’d introduced herself as Jess (Hello, Jess) “and I turn into pigeons”.
“Well, I’d say you should like get yourselves tested and signed up to the donor register,” exclaimed Kevin. “And I hope you’ve all got donor cards too because there’s like thousands of people on the organ donor register who die every year because they can’t get a part and I’m like, guys, charity begins at home, you know?”
The next response came from a woman sitting hunched up, who wore with all the ease and familiarity of a polar bear in a bikini a full-length brown abaya that couldn’t quite disguise knee joints which bent the wrong way. From beneath her robe she produced a small whiteboard and a green marker pen. With her gloved hand–only three fingers in the glove, Sharon couldn’t help noticing, and two of them distinctly curved in a way which might well have been claws–she wrote carefully on the board and turned it to face the group.
Does the blood have to be human?
“Uh, yeah,” withered Kevin. “I mean, no offence, I’m sure your blood is like, totally amazing. But if I can’t fucking drink anything except O rhesus fucking negative, then banshee blood is probably like, way out there.”
“Can I quickly ask,” Sharon interrupted, before the conversation could get much more organic, “do you want a stool or something, because you don’t look very uh… very comfortable on the chair?”
The creature in the awkwardly worn robe turned its head slowly and Sharon could have sworn she saw a hint of amber-yellow in the tiny slit across the eyes. The marker pen slipped busily across the board.
Thank you, that is very kind, but I am happy to sit however everyone else sits.
“This is a place for everyone, regardless of their um… their situation… to be comfortable. If arrangements can’t be made for the comfort of our members here, then, uh… I think we can agree we’ve uh… kind of screwed up?”
The woman–if that was the term–hesitated. Sharon sensed that somewhere beneath the fabric a set of mighty teeth longed to chew on the end of the much-gnawed marker pen. Then:
Would anyone mind if I hung from the rafters for a while?
“Uh… that sounds fine to me. Anyone got any problems if…”
“If Sally hangs from the rafters?”
There was a chorus of “Sure, whatever” from around the room.
The creature called Sally nodded in what might have been gratitude, slipped her board and marker under one arm, and unfolded. Standing on the rickety chair she unfolded first from the knees, which bent backwards beneath her robe like the hind legs of a horse; a hint of talon curled round the seat of the chair for support. She straightened her back, which may have been long and spindly, and unfolded a pair of arms that may well, to judge by the stretching of the robe from finger to shoulder, or by the hint of protruding greyish-blue leather, have been connected to wings. She threw herself upwards in a single motion, not so much an act of strength against gravity, as a moment of pure intimidation in which the forces of nature considered their adversary and decided it wasn’t worth kicking up a fuss. There was a flap of black and grey, and a flash of red, and then three claws, each jointed three ways, locked onto one of the horizontal rafters under the sloping triangular roof. The robe flopped backwards, revealing stick-thin grey calves and boney thighs, clad, for the sake of decency, in bright red and white leggings.
Dangling upside down, Sally the banshee removed the whiteboard from its resting place in the crook of her arm, unpopped the marker pen with a flick of her thumb and carefully wrote:
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
The four greatest killers the world has ever seen have come to town.
Sharon Li doesn’t realise this and, frankly, why should she? There’s a lot of stuff out there for one girl to know, especially a shaman who’s expected to know so much stuff it’s a miracle she can remember any one thing at a given moment. And would she really want to know about this? Because Derek doesn’t.
Derek, high social secretary, and quite possibly high priest, of the Friendlies, servant of the Lonely Lady, watchman of 4 a.m. and, as if that wasn’t enough, moderately successful owner of a tool hire business operating out of Balham (third off the price if all items are returned on the same working day) says, “Who’s there?”
And then he sees.
“How’d you get here?” he asks, already knowing the answer but feeling he ought to keep the conversation going just in case. “What do you want?”
These are redundant questions, as he knows perfectly well what they want and, more to the point, that he’ll be unable to give it to them. Not through lack of trying, but because truly he does not know the answer to the question, the inevitable question:
“Where is she?”
He hopes the honesty shows in his face as he answers, backing towards the furthest wall. “I don’t know.”
The four greatest killers in the world didn’t knock, didn’t jingle, didn’t rattle, didn’t crash, didn’t jar, didn’t crunch on their way in, and now, as they move, they make no sound except the quiet mantra that is their murderous chant.
“Come on, pal…”
“Where’s the lady hiding?”
“Are you going to kill me?” Derek asks, or rather, the part of him that desperately wants to live and which, regardless of everything that common sense predicts for the next five minutes, still hopes to explore this receding option.
“Kill you?” one asks.
“Us?” one exclaims.
“Wanker,” offers a third.
“Tosser,” agrees the fourth.
“Why’d we do that, mate? You think we’re that kinda guys?”
“Gotta look out for that, mate.”
“Just give us what we want…”
Derek’s eyes dance to the one who makes this rather incongruous contribution to the conversation and see him smile. His smile is lecherous, his smile is the ogling grin of a man who’s spent too much time in high places observing the things that pass below, his smile is the smile God would have worn when enjoying a dirty joke with Satan, just you and me, hate the attitude, love the wit. Then his eyes move to the other three in the room. How they entered he does not know, but how they will leave he can fairly guess, and he sees that they too are smiling.
… but all the same smile.
A whimper escapes him before he can prevent it; his fingers scratch into the brick wall at his back. “Please…” he whines. “Please, I don’t know. She’s just vanished, that’s all, she just disappeared!”
“How’d she do that then?” asks one.
“Magic!” suggests another.
“Poof–farts–poof!” cackles a third.
“Right stinker,” concurs the fourth.
“If you can’t help us…”
“… then we’ll have to find someone else…”
“… because our guvnor…”
“… he wants her so bad…”
“… so bad I mean it’s like he’s got this massive thing…”
“Lovely pair of knockers.”
“So you see…”
Four faces fill his world, four faces and they are all the same face, the same smile, the same eyes, the same voice, whispering their words as the floor cracks beneath his feet and the walls grow fingers of mortar and dust to wrap around his throat and dig into his skin.
“… we ain’t never gonna stop…”
“… until you give us Greydawn.”
He tries to scream, but the concrete is already giving way beneath him, sucking him down, and the walls have curled their ragged fingers around his face, stopping his mouth with mortar and dirt, filling his throat, his lungs, with thick grey sludge, and still he tries, and no sound can emerge until he is bursting from the inside out with the weight of it and his eyes dribble tar and his face is red, then scarlet, then purple, then the orange-brown of sandstone and clay, and at the very, very last a tiny puff of air escapes his lips, the very last puff that he shall ever breathe, and if you listen closely, if you crane your ear right up next to his face, before it is pulled down into the foundations at his feet, you might hear this one word:
Before he is sucked down beneath the street.
She said, “I get so lonely sometimes.”
She said it so softly, so gently, that for a moment the gathered members of Magicals Anonymous exchanged glances, just to check that they’d heard it aright; but yes, that was the sentiment, that was the word.
“It’s not something I can really explain,” she sighed. “But these last few years I’ve just known that I don’t belong, and people won’t understand.”
The room lapsed into silence. The speaker was Mrs Rafaat (Hello, Mrs Rafaat).
“And I’m not really magical at all, you know. I mean, I’ve been tested because I was having these experiences, but they weren’t so much experiences as things that happened around me but actually I don’t know any wizarding or witching or anything and apparently if I tried to cast a spell it would probably just go puft, but the thing is I do seem to know things, and really things do seem to happen and I suppose I’m actually a bit of an intruder here so I really hope you don’t mind, but you all seem like lovely people and I am very interested and really yes–but yes, really actually quite worried. I’ve been feeling that way for a while, something I can’t quite put my finger on but I’m rambling. I’m rambling aren’t I? So yes, that’s me. Would anyone mind if I had another cup of tea?”
In her mid-fifties, she spoke with the faintest remnant of an Indian accent, softened by many years of life in Wembley. Her orange sari, threaded with blue and purchased in Bethnal Green some ten years ago, was getting a bit tatty round the hem.
“But I don’t mind, I mean some people say it’s silly to wear a sari in Wembley, but actually I think it’s very comfortable, and modest, and allows you to have some strong colour in your life without making a fool of yourself because it’s so easy with fashion these days to make a fool of yourself, I’d say it’s a safety thing, isn’t it, wearing what you’re comfortable with not to make a point. I’m rambling again, aren’t I? I’m sorry, I do that.
“Um, excuse me?” The bone-white, wrinkle-ridden, spot-stained hand of Mr Roding (Necromancy is such a misunderstood discipline) was raised in polite enquiry. “I don’t mean to complain, and I’m sure you’re a very lovely woman, Mrs Rafaat, but feeling ‘quite worried’ isn’t what we’re here for. I mean, we all feel worried, don’t we?”
A chorus of consent.
“But our worries stem from very specific causes. I, for one, can halt the passage of degrading time upon my body through the use of ancient lore studied over many a sagely lifetime, but I still haven’t found a solution for the skin-sloughing issue. The books recommend aloe vera, fat lot of use that was. But, the thing is, Mrs Rafaat, I’m not sure your problems really compare.”
Mrs Rafaat’s face sank. Seemingly each muscle contracted one at a time until only a pair of wide, sorrowful eyes protruded. “I’m very sorry,” she mumbled, unable to meet Mr Roding’s watery-green gaze flecked with shattered capillaries. “I just didn’t know where else to go and when I saw that this group was organising I thought… it seemed so right. I can’t explain it, but I know… I don’t know what I know I just know… there’s something terribly important I’ve forgotten. But I don’t know what it is.”
One or two dirty looks were shot at Mr Roding, who had the good manners to stare in shame at his shiny black shoes.
Sharon cleared her throat. “It’s okay, Mrs Rafaat. We’re completely on board with where you’re coming from. In fact, I’ve personally experienced something similar to what you describe. I uh… I know things. I don’t know how, but… there was this moment. A moment when I knew I knew everything about the city, everything that was, and has been, and will be again and then… then I didn’t. So I guess I’m saying that’s cool, you know?”
Was that a helpful response, she wondered? Did senior citizens appreciate the multi-faceted aspects of that well-worn “That’s cool, you know?” “We’re all glad to have you in this group, aren’t we?” she added, shooting a glare around at any possible dissenters.
A mumble of assent arose from the gathering, and Mrs Rafaat’s head lifted in cautious optimism.
“That’s very nice of you, but if you really don’t—”
“We do,” insisted Sharon. “We absolutely all do.” She had a very stubborn chin when she needed one. Somewhere in the lineage of the Li family several generations of well-bred Manchurian ladies had each married a well-educated young man, only to discover that while a charming smile went a long way, a sharp heel and well-kept nails might get you further.
“They say,” stammered Mrs Rafaat, “they say… something is missing. Places where there should have been noise are… Is this something people are worried about because I find it very worrying? They say that the spirits of things, I mean, not the spirits, not the fairies or anything fluffy, but the… the heart of things, the soul behind the walls the… the things with the ears, if that makes sense to you, they say they’re vanishing. One night they’re there–you walk alone but you are not alone–and then the next they’re… they’re gone.”
Someone coughed. The cough belonged to Rhys I’m-a-druid-well-sort-of-well-I-tried-but-you-know-how-it-is (Hello, Rhys). It was followed by a shuffling of feet, a twitching of elbow, a shivering of one shoulder and a slow look round the room just to make sure that no one really, really minded that he was about to speak.
No one seemed to mind.
“Uh, what do you mean ‘gone’?”
“I don’t know,” said Mrs Rafaat. “That’s the trouble with just knowing things; it never really comes with all the details.”
“When you say ‘spirits’,” interjected Mr Roding, “are we talking benevolent small essences or the malign unleashed power of a blue electric angel?”
“I’m very sorry,” Mrs Rafaat said, “it’s terribly vague.”
Ms Somchit (It’s not about the black, it’s about how you wear it) cleared her throat. At five foot two, with curly black hair falling to her shoulders and skin the colour of fresh almonds, she had the cheerful look of someone who had seen the worst that the world could offer and had actually expected it to be much, much worse. Her black clothes had a priest-like aura, and a small white badge in the shape of a shield bearing a red cross through the centre and a red sword in the top left-hand corner added to the ecclesiastical vibe.
“So… you’re experiencing hollowness, emptiness, doubt, despair and a great sense of wrongness,” she clarified, “but you can’t exactly say what it is. Have you tried acupuncture?”
“Oh God, acupuncture is like the most amazing thing ever,” agreed Kevin, brightening at the mention of medical intervention. “I had like, this utterly amazing craving for the blood of the innocent babe and then two sessions, acupuncture, me, and I was like, wow totally yuck with that virginal blood.”
“Can you get it on the NHS?” asked Mr Roding. “Acupuncture, I mean.”
“You’d probably need a referral,” offered Ms Somchit.
“How about counselling?” suggested Chris Hi-I’m-an-exorcist-but-you-know-I-don’t-think-a-confrontational-approach-is-helping-anyone. “It’s great that you’ve taken this first step, love, but actually talking things through with a professional can be so liberating.”
“Are there counsellors who understand the… the um… the magical thing?” asked Mrs Rafaat.
All eyes turned to Sharon. “I’ll look it up,” she promised.
The meeting melted away.
After, Sharon couldn’t remember the details of what happened at the end. It could have been the excitement of the moment. Or it could have been all the glamours and concealment spells clashing in bursts of steel-silver and emergency-blue light as their owners drew too near each other.
Someone had suggested that they all join hands and give thanks for the spirit of companionship. Someone else–probably Mr Roding–said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Then someone else suggested that if they were going to link hands in a circle they should sing “Auld Lang Syne”–until Mrs Rafaat pointed out that singing in the presence of Sally might be considered crass.
I don’t mind, replied Sally. I enjoy the vocal range of humans.
Eventually, they’d just shaken hands and promised to contribute to the Facebook page and come back next week. Sally had detached herself from the ceiling in a single flop that somehow landed her without a sound and nervously offered a three-clawed talon from beneath her robe for Sharon to shake. The skin was arctic cold and, as Sally carefully wound her claws round Sharon’s hand, struggling not to break anything as she did, Sharon heard the rustle of wings, heard a crunching just behind her ears and tasted a thing that could only be the feather-coated splat of raw pigeon bursting in her mouth. She turned green and locked her smile into place before Sally could notice. There was a hint of a smile behind Sally’s mask and, having succeeded with what was quite possibly the first handshake of her adult life, she spun brightly on the spot and, once she’d stabilised and got her wings back under control, carefully wrote:
Thank you for your understanding and support.
Then she was in the alley round the side of the building, there was an impression of blackness against the night and the beating of wings, and she was gone.
One person remained after the meeting filed out, and while this individual was trying to be inconspicuous, there was no denying its bulk and weight as it loomed over the biscuit table.
It had waited for the last one to leave, then said, “My name is Gretel.”
Sharon looked up and then, because Gretel was standing so close, she looked up a bit further. Features blurred before her eyes; not so much through a twisting of the light, but from a twisting of the brain, as if it couldn’t process what it was trying to see. She smelled old garbage dump and chilli sauce cutting through even the muddling power of Gretel’s cloaking spell. Resolutely Sharon thrust out her hand, palm open, and exclaimed, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gretel. I’m so glad you could come to our meeting.”
The thing called Gretel hesitated, then reached out one hand, wide enough to pick Sharon up by the skull, strong enough to crush any living thing it held. Sharon’s fingers brushed a palm of grey hairs bordering on soft quills or spikes, sticky with some orange stuff. For a moment she looked and there was…
Troll didn’t do it justice.
Troll wasn’t the word.
Sure, troll was what this was: undeniably, irrefutably troll, beneath the spell. But the mere word failed to capture the breadth of back, and the thickness of black quills covering face, shoulders, arms, hands, bare feet with yellow nails inclining to claws; elbows wider than Sharon’s waist, face rounder than a blown-up beach ball, and teeth stained the colour of the rubbish dump and sharpened on a diet of ground glass. Troll didn’t capture the stink of it; the head-spinning stench of it, troll didn’t capture…
Her eyes roamed across the creature and, no, the idea of “troll” had never extended to the extra extra extra large nightgown, patterned with garlands and puppy-dogs and doubtless the last in the shop that would stretch over Gretel’s prickly form. Sharon heard herself stammer, somewhere between the haze and the smell, “I really… hope to see you next week and that you’ll find the meetings… productive and helpful.”
Their palms parted and Sharon staggered back against the table, gasping down air.
Gretel the troll shifted uneasily. The floorboards creaked underfoot as she transferred her bulk from one foot to another, like a bus driver testing his suspension before a difficult hill. Then all at once, as if there’d only be one chance to speak and this was it, Gretel said, “I really enjoyed the food that you provided, Ms Li. That was very nice of you. I like human food but no one ever serves me not even the takeaway and I try to get the leftovers but people don’t seem to like it if I hang around their restaurants so I was wondering, Ms Li, and obviously I could pay, but I was wondering if you could maybe and you don’t even need to keep the receipts but I was wondering if anyone would mind if next time you or not even you or just someone someone in the group and I should have asked but I feel so ashamed but maybe if someone in the group could bring some pizza?”
It is forty minutes later.
The smell of refuse has diminished now, overwritten by the smell of Thai Panang curry and prawn crackers. She’d got a takeaway from the restaurant down the street, and the two of them, Gretel and Sharon, had sat in busy, munching silence on a bench in Spa Fields, a crafted park of unnatural dips and swells, and eaten. Sharon had used chopsticks, and Gretel had tried but couldn’t get them between her fingers, eventually knocking the two sticks together and using them as a very small shovel to push food directly into her mouth. Gretel had offered to share the prawn crackers, but the bag was already stained with the grease from beneath the troll’s fingers where they had smeared the plastic, and Sharon had said she was full up.
Getting into the park hadn’t been a problem. There was a rusty chain on the gate, held together with a thick padlock. Gretel had snapped the lock between her fingertips and tucked a five-pound note into a link of the chain by way of apology. When they were done, Gretel had smoothed out the dent she’d made in the bench where they’d sat by kicking it from below until once again it formed, more or less, a flat surface. Sharon, not wanting to add to Gretel’s modest vandalism, had taken a deep breath and walked straight through the fence. She found fences easier than walls. Less mortar, more air.
“Can you smell the fish oil?” Gretel sighed. “And the tiniest hint of cumin?”
“It’s very nice,” mumbled Sharon.
“There are so many people who don’t appreciate coconut in their cooking, but I think it’s just amazing. It balances the chilli, absorbs the ginger, softens the garlic, infuses the meat… but you must know all of this, being human.”
“Uh… not really. I kind of live outta the chippy.”
“Oh.” Gretel struggled to hide her disappointment. “Well, that’s very nice too. Do you cook?”
“Me? Not really. Well, my mum taught me a bit, like, Chinese cooking and that, but you have to go miles to get the proper ingredients and actually beansprouts aren’t the world’s greatest vegetable. I know it disappoints her that I don’t really try, because apparently I’m not going to get myself a nice young man like this.”
It had all come out rather fast. Gretel absorbed this information before coming up with the obvious question. “A nice young man?”
“Well, you know. The whole turning-invisible, walking-through-walls, not-cooking-beansprouts thing is really bad for relationships.”
“Is it? Why?”
“I guess… I think…” Sharon paused. “Actually, I have no idea.”
When they were done she collected the wrappings and recycled the cardboard boxes in the cardboard bin and the foil boxes in the foil bin; and with surprising speed and litheness for such a large creature, Gretel was gone.
Somehow, unnoticed, the hour had crept over the city when the moderately drunk called it a night, and the seriously drunk settled down because it wouldn’t really hurt, for one last pint. The bus stops along Rosebery Avenue were crowded with the two extremes of late-night humanity: those who suspected you were out to get them, and those who knew that you were their best, best friend in all the world. Exmouth Market stood at an unusual crossroads within central London, at a place with Underground stations all around, representing nearly every line to every place, yet where none was quite within convenient reach.
Sharon waited at the bus stop. Sadler’s Wells was emptying for the night, an audience of ballet lovers in pearls and expensive clothes thronging onto the street. Several examined the machine selling bus tickets, anxious to master it but careful not to let their ignorance look foolish.
The countdown on the bus shelter said the bus was seven minutes away.
Sharon walked to the next stop.
It took her three minutes.
Here the bus was still seven minutes away.
This stop was less heavily populated, partly due to a drunk woman, her skin blue-grey, eyes wide, trousers torn and a smell radiating off her that was much more than beer. She was harmless now, sat in the white fluorescent light of the shelter with her mouth open and a dried sheen of spit tracked down the side of her chin. But those few others at the bus stop kept their distance in case of worse to come.
Sharon walked on by.
Angel lay ahead, brilliantly lit, yellow and red, brake lights and outdoor café tables, pubs and restaurants. No matter what the time of year, crowds of drinkers here spilled onto the street, glass in hand among the ATMs, estate agents and mobile-phone shops, to down a pint or two after their curry, or sushi, or Afghan stew, or Thai platter, or chilli wrap or… almost any cuisine of choice.
The wealth of Islington was almost untouched by its status as a social hub, which pulled in every level of society to mingle opposite the antiques mall or by windows advertising LUXURY TERRACED HOUSE, BARNSBURY, only half a million quid per room. Class wasn’t dead; it had just learned to look the other way when queueing at the bar.
As Sharon rounded the corner onto City Road, her bus went by. The next stop was a hundred yards, beyond a set of lights. She considered running, chose not and oddly didn’t feel the spike of rage so common when missing a bus that only ran every twenty minutes.
Hugging the bus route nonetheless in the hope of transport, she headed on down City Road. A small rise created an almost-bridge above an old canal basin; canoes were stacked in neat racks on its far side, and converted brick warehouses jostled with new glass-fronted apartments that offered studio living to the sound of wavelets slapping against the bollarded waterfront and the rumble of traffic. A square metal shed bore a sign shyly declaring it an electricity substation and hoped no one minded this vital service being so inelegantly sited amid prime real estate. A garage offered twenty-four-hour conveniences and doughnuts of every kind; a bit of graffiti on its wall reminded onlookers to
Somehow the next bus was still seven minutes away, and would probably remain so until the instant of its arrival. The air smelt of rain to come.
Sharon thought without thinking. Distance passed unnoticed, as if she stood still while the city turned, and all because her mind was full of unstoppable, incomprehensible sounds…
So yeah, I turn into pigeons…
Dental hygiene is like so important when you’re a vampire!
There’s surprisingly little meat on a pigeon.
The one time I tried tea tree oil my skin actually just fell off!
He howled, and he howled.
Then they were gone.
She flinched, and didn’t know why.
There had been a moment…
A searing moment, an instant, in which everything had been, the whole city, the world, everything, had been so… so…
But now it hurt to remember.
And if anyone had been looking, which would itself have been remarkable, they may have observed as Sharon walked a certain… fuzziness about her, a certain… indescribable vagueness, not so much a fading or a vanishing, not exactly an attainment of nothingness, but more a sense that here was a thing…
… which did not merit the observing?
A manner in the walk, a briskness of pace, head down but chin forward, arms swinging but in no sense power-walking off that extra chocolate bar; rather a walk that could only be described as belonging. The walk of her who belonged, and if they’d looked…
Or rather, if they’d not looked…
Since not looking was the inevitable next step…
They might have seen Sharon Li begin to disappear.
But by then something would have made them look away altogether.
She rounded the bend towards Moorfields eye hospital, opposite a pub bearing the golden figure of an eagle and the words of a song:
“Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle…”
As a kid, the song had always bothered her. “That’s the way the money goes–pop goes the weasel!” She’d pictured a small twitchy-nosed furry creature exploding in the claws of a bird of prey, and when they’d sung it in nursery school, she’d cried.
All that had been long before the moment, before it had all gone wrong, before everything had changed and the fabric of reality had seemed a little… just a little…
Her pocket was buzzing.
Sharon struggled to free her head of thoughts, or not-thoughts, of this mess of unspoken ideas rattling around inside her brain like a penny in a washing machine. Her mobile phone was a grey brick, given to her when she left home by her dad, even though she already had a phone whose number he could never remember. He’d set himself up as the first number of her speed dial, and added to her contacts list a local doctor, police station, solicitor and sexual health clinic, folding her hand around it and telling her that she didn’t need worry about phoning home too much.
He’d made it all of forty minutes before calling her once she was out of the door, which, by her father’s standards, wasn’t bad.
Now, though, as her phone rang, no number appeared, and when she thumbed it on, it felt cold to the touch.
A man’s voice answered, conversational, light, friendly. It said, “We’re the one with the flaming wings.”
“By the traffic lights.”
She looked up. There were several sets of traffic lights ahead, by the ugly mess that was the Old Street roundabout, a rumbling grey-white place where three boroughs collided like hungover fighting bulls. There were always people waiting at the traffic lights, or walking up a ramp from the tangle of subways below, and at any one moment any number of them could be making a call.
But there was one leaning against the pedestrian-crossing sign beneath the symbol of the walking green man. He looked like someone bored with waiting for a taxi, but he had a phone pressed to his ear and even in the settling night she could see he was looking at her–and there were… there were…
“Come on if you’re coming,” he said and hung up.
For a moment Sharon stood still and did nothing.
She was confident her father wouldn’t have approved of her following strange men, but then, without actually forbidding anything, her father had never really approved of much. He’d just quietly hoped that his daughter, in her own sensible way, would come round to understanding why he wasn’t happy on her account.
To the left lay the road home, back to Trish (the loud one) and Ayesha (the quiet one) and yesterday’s washing-up and bed and sleep, and tomorrow she would go to work in the coffee shop for Mike (the short-sighted one), and nothing that happened tonight would seem real and Magicals Anonymous would be just another Facebook group until the next meeting, and she’d begin to doubt if it had happened, if she’d shaken the hand of a banshee and had dinner with a troll and received a phone call from a man who’d said, “Come on if you’re coming” and…
… and he was already crossing the street, heading towards Goswell Road. Which seemed, Sharon thought with a momentary flash of pride, pretty damned arrogant, like he knew she was going to follow, whereas he really couldn’t because that was kind of psychopathic, and what the hell kind of girl did he think she was anyway? Besides, she could look after herself…
She could look after herself.
Sammy the Elbow, second (maybe third?) greatest shaman the world has ever seen, once listed all the walks of the city. They went like this:
Tourist amble with bumbag bouncing and gormless face so that people know you wanna get mugged; rush-hour scamper of the tossers in suits who are way too busy to be late and so you’d better get out of their way; lovers’ sidle, hand in hand, the city nothing to them, movement just a way of getting closer together for snogging, yuck; copper’s stride of “I own this so bring it on if you dare”; traffic warden’s prowl, three in a gang, slow down the parking bay, quick to the next target and a cuppa tea; old lady’s waddle and fat man’s stagger, schoolkid’s skip and Mum’s ramble with the heavy buggy; jogger’s pain, late man’s breathless run, early man’s easy lope. Way you walk says everything about you in this city, says who you are, where you’re from, what you’re doing, what you want, what you’ll get. There’s only two walks what are any different from any of these, only two walks what matter for shit.
First one is the shaman’s walk, which moves at the perfect rhythm of the city, not too fast, not too slow, not owning nothing but not scared neither, the walk of them that belong, with nothing more and nothing less than that, them that are a part of something bigger, the walk which you can’t see, because you fools don’t know how to look. Beggar King gets it, knows it’s not just about the way you move, but the way you think, understands how to walk on the surface of the earth and leave no mark beneath your shoes, but then he’s the fucking Beggar King, if he doesn’t get it then what the crap does he think he’s doing wearing a crown?
Only one other walk worth the business, and only one dude gets it. It’s the walk that closes up the gate, it’s the wall that pulls the shadows along behind it, and you spot it by the way the pigeons fly, by the turning of the water in the overflowing grate, by the stretching of the light from the lanterns overhead, and by that tingling at the back of your teeth where all your fillings are starting to hurt. Only one guy does it, but it has been done for a thousand years, and that, you ignorant piece of piss, is the walk of the Midnight Mayor.
There was something funny, Sharon decided, in the way the man walked.
Not too quick and not too slow. Not idling but not in a hurry either. He didn’t limp or stagger, didn’t hesitate about the turns he made but neither did he flap; nor did he walk head down, uninterested in a destination he had reached a thousand times, but seemed to look around constantly as if absorbing a place he’d known as a child, familiar but distant, beloved and suspected all at once. It was a walk which she would have to run to match, yet if she equalled his pace and remained some easy distance behind, it was the precise speed at which it happened.
She hadn’t noticed the first few times, which she reasoned must be the point–no one else had noticed either. If you weren’t ready for it, then noticing that you’d accidentally turned invisible wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Nor was it invisibility as such. It was more… a lack of perception. She walked and, at a certain speed, with a certain movement, a certain state of mind, it was as if she was so much a part of the city–or perhaps…
… the city was so much a part of her?
… that passers-by no longer bothered to make the distinction.
This was that walk now, she realised, played pitch-perfect. But the man walking the walk in front of her wasn’t vanishing from sight, as she might have done; rather he seemed to move as if this was his natural state, utterly comfortable and entirely on edge.
She wasn’t sure she wanted to catch him up.
They walked, the three towers of the Barbican rising up on the left. Traffic in this part of town longed to use rat-run streets, little cut-throughs and byways, and to discourage such a notion, the council had closed off most of these, or put up bollards, or turned them into oneway routes so that now only the occasional well-read cyclist dared stray from the traffic-clogged beaten track.
It was therefore inevitable that off the traffic-clogged beaten track was precisely where they went.
They turned into Whitecross Street, by day a market selling handmade soaps, hand-reared meats, hand-fermented cheeses and watches that must have fallen off the back of a lorry. By night the shops were shut, and the pavements seemed too narrow for the empty tarmac road. With a policy of, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, street artists had been invited in to work on the walls of the old houses, or make their mark on the shutters pulled down in front of the pharmacy or stationer, leaving splashes of colour, jagged lines or tag marks, or the image of a fat bulldog with a lugubrious face, three storeys high and unimpressed by all it surveyed.
The man turned again, walking faster now that they were practically alone, daring Sharon to run after him, get too close. She matched his speed and felt the air around her begin to strain as the fine balance between what was seen and what was perceived struggled to know what to make of her stride. She caught glimpses of
fire at the end of an alley still not burned out
gaslight green in sodium glass
smell of frying
sound of the street vendor’s call incomprehensible numbers at impossible speed… for a pound!
and looked away, deliberately, from all the things that lurked, as out of sight as she was now. That was the major drawback about becoming invisible: all the other invisible things in the city wanted to know if they could join in too.
The man passed a tiny chapel, barely a cabin with a spike on its head, swung south towards the underpass beneath the Barbican, a place where expensive gyms clashed with convenience stores specialising in plantain and cheap fags, then turned again and was slipping through a galvanised steel gate, barbs on the top and a sign on the front that read: 24-HOUR MONITORING IS IN USE ON THIS SITE. Sharon heard his feet clatter on a metal stair as she hesitated, then took a deep breath and pushed on in. A rectangular yard, barely large enough to hold a lonely man’s car, was hidden from daylight by high brick walls. A single iron staircase led up to a fire escape whose door was drifting shut behind the man, and there was something here, something…
… which she had no better name for.
She stood on the cracked concrete of the yard, and looked up at broken windows, at walls with crumbling mortar, where even the graffiti artists couldn’t be bothered to paint. She saw the yellow lichen flaking off the bricks behind the stair, smelt raw sewage from a neglected gutter, saw purple buddleias sprouting from a crack in the wall.
A thing missing here.
She put her hand on the stair rail and felt rust, sensed the metal warp and hum beneath her step, thought she heard voices a long way off, and bit her lip and climbed. At the top a yellow sign hung crookedly by only one nail. It read, VISITORS PLEASE RING RECEPTION.
Sharon pushed the door back and the hinges groaned like a mountain trying to move. Inside, thin night-time light bounced off the shattered glass in the windows and formed a pattern of razored illumination across the floor. Among a vista of concrete pillars stood the remnants of machines that no one had bothered to sell, or wanted to buy. Some she couldn’t recognise; others hinted at their purpose: great pipes cracked in two, old pedals snapped in the middle, fat rusted wheels where once an engine strap had run; and all now silent. Even the beggars had fled, leaving the odd trace: a burned-out mattress, a crumpled beer can, a torn shopping bag and a note written in charcoal on the walls: DONT FORGET TO TURN OUT THE LIGHT.
She saw straggling ends of cable suspended where once bulbs might have hung, and listened to the drip drip drip of a shattered something at the other end of the floor, and wondered if there were rats here. She thought perhaps there weren’t.
“There used to be, you know,” said a voice, enormous in the silence, and yet, she suspected, not that loud.
She jumped, holding her bag in front of her like a shield, and shouted, “I know karate!”
A silence ate up her words, like a whale swallowing plankton. Then the voice answered, “Seriously?”
Sharon hesitated. It occurred to her to run, to vanish through the walls, to go back into the city, where, invisible, she would be safe, to walk the walk of all things unperceived, not that she’d ever tried it in an emergency, if this was that, if that was what this turned out to be. But despite its scepticism, the voice–male, young without being innocent–sounded almost impressed.
So, “Yeah,” she called into the dark, “I know karate and I kick and bite and scream and all sorts of mega-shit and you wouldn’t like to screw with me, okay?”
A shadow moved against the blackness, then crossed into the faint light cast through a shattered window. She saw a hint of dirty coat, a mess of dark hair and, somehow, a flash of too-bright blue eyes, impossible in the gloom. “There used to be something here,” he murmured. “When you came in here in the dark, it was the thing that guided your hand to the switch. When the machines failed, it was the tick before the bang that told you to get out of the way. When men said, ‘Wasn’t that lucky?’ the thing, whatever it was, laughed and knew there was no luck. It used to be here, and when all else failed, it kept the beggars warm by the fire and made sure the ashes didn’t quite go out and the wind through the window didn’t reach every corner. Do you understand what I’m talking about?”
“No,” blurted Sharon, still holding her bag to her, tense as a samurai ready to fight. “Sorry, no.”
The shadow sighed, ran a gloved hand under a badly shaven chin–and there it was: a tingling at the back of her teeth, a sensation on the air, a smell like metal trying to burn, just for a second, before it too became lost behind that blue-eyed stare.
“You have to find out what happened to the dog,” he said. “It’s important.”
The words took a while to digest. Then, “What?”
“I’d do it for you,” he went on, “but there’s… things. Politics, mostly, but also… it’s not really my field, you see? I mean, fire, flood, electrical damage, earth splitting in two, no worries, but this… And there aren’t many of you, there never have been, it requires such a special state of mind. And I imagine you’ve got a lot to do, so please believe me when I say it’s important. It’s more than important. It’s the single most important thing you’ll do. I mean, I’m told that childbirth is considered kind of the big thing in a woman’s life, something we’re probably not going to understand, but otherwise, please believe me when I say that there is nothing you can possibly do more vital to the well-being of the city than finding out what happened to the dog.”
Then, “You don’t know many women, do you?”
If it was possible for a facial expression to speak, then even in the darkness his face was a fluent conversationalist. Finally, “Okay, so the childbirth thing maybe wasn’t—”
“Also,” she said, “there’s this thing called email? If you wanted to talk to me about death and destruction and stuff, then you could’ve tried that. Or even buying me a cup of coffee or lunch or something. I mean, it could’ve been professional, but all this… kind of blows it. Who are you? You weren’t at the meeting.”
“No,” he admitted. “But I had someone keep an eye out. And actually, while my initial instinct was rather… Well, perhaps on reflection I can see what you’re trying to achieve. And I’m sorry about the lunch thing, I really am, but there’s people watching and emails are monitored, and I do respect what you’re trying to do, although…” His voice rose in indignation. “Although starting a Facebook group called Weird Shit Keeps Happening to Me and I Don’t Know Why But Figure I Need Help is not, may I just say, the best way to go about making friends. And did you have to call it Magicals Anonymous? Couldn’t you have started a group called something like… I don’t know… Self Help for the Polymorphically Dubious? or No Chanting Please or something a little less… in your face? Is that too much to ask?”
Sharon thought, then exclaimed, “Yes! Yes, it is too much to ask. Because I’m sorry, I know I keep coming back to this point, but who the hell are you and what the bloody hell is going on?”
The man sighed again. “Did I mention the politics?”
“Yeah, but that sounded to me like something you say whenever you just want to blame other guys for you being crap.”
“I do not; that is totally…” He hesitated, mid-indignate. Then, “Okay, so you may have something there. But seriously, this treading softly thing isn’t our style, and while I’m generally an open and honest kind of guy, and I know you may have a hard time believing this, in my experience all that this open, honest groove has led to is serious cleaning bills and writs for damages. So, sorry if I haven’t just jumped in there with ‘Yo Sharon, there’s shit going down, please fix it.’ ”
Sharon felt herself swallow without meaning to, and murmured, “You know my name?”
“Sure I do,” he replied. “You’re Sharon Li. You’re twenty-two years old. You work in a coffee shop as what I believe we’re now meant to call a barista, and you are, Christ knows why, the founder of Magicals Anonymous, a self-help group of the mystically buggered. You’re also, in case you’re wondering, so far in over your head that I imagine you’re soon going to have a hard time working out which way up is anyhow, and you’ve probably got enough brains to realise it, and though you’re a shaman you’re clearly not practised enough to recognise the hollow shell of a place, like this building here, where a spirit should once have been, so I’d work on that, if I were you.” She thought she saw the flash of a grin in the darkness, then he asked, “Have you considered evening classes?”
“You seem like you’re big on self-improvement, and anyway…” He stopped, his head turning with pigeon speed towards some unseen shadow. Sharon shifted, listening for something more, and thought she heard… maybe just a train passing below?
“The question you have to ask is this.” His voice sounded far-off, distracted, his blue eyes were turned elsewhere. “Where did they go? I’ve done all I can but I’m no shaman. I don’t know how to walk down the hidden paths. The spirits of the city are missing and it’s not natural and it’s not evolution and it’s not right and—”
And she heard it and so did he, somewhere outside in the settled gloom, a sound which you hoped would be an engine starting, the slow winding-up of oversized gears and which, as you listened, the more you listened, truth intruded on hope and it became…
“Don’t look back,” he said. “It wants you to look.”
“Time to go now,” he added. “Time to run.”
Starting at the very bottom of the register, almost too low to almost too high, it grew and grew and it became from the floor to the sky: hhhhhoooowwwwwillll!!!!
She looked up at the man in the window and there was light in his hands, light on his skin, a brilliant electric blue and he wasn’t human–nothing human looked like that–he was a thing wearing human flesh, he was a face pretending, a body bursting from something else inside, and as he looked round at her his eyes burned and in them were a million million voices all shouting all as one and she…
She didn’t know why and she didn’t know what from, but the man in the darkness had said run, and from his back had grown a pair of burning angel wings and she knew they weren’t real, of course they weren’t real, but they were real to her eyes, which was all the reality she felt she could cope with right now and
and she’d had supper with a troll
and shaken hands with a banshee
and heard a creature howl
So now she ran.
She ran straight through the shaman’s walk, that place where she became invisible and all the invisible things began to crawl out for her to see. She ran straight through it and out the other side, unseen footsteps running through the night, a gasp of breath heard where there was nothing to be seen; and as she ran, the shadows dragged behind her and the whispers of the things buried just beneath began to creep and clutch their way out from beneath the paving stones, tangle their memories around her legs and tell of
Drip drip drip on the cobble stone
Spring-heeled Jack jumping over the rafters
Ten for a pound, ten for a pound, get ’em ’ere!
And as she ran she felt lighter, thinner, as if she wasn’t merely becoming invisible to the eye that saw, but growing invisible in herself, her very matter melting about her, and on the streets there were creatures clinging to the walls, there were finger bones scratching their way out from between the lines of mortar, and a smell of… wet dog?
Something was sticking to her feet. She glanced down and there was a viscous goo on the pavement, coming up from below the pavement, thick and black and not black
thick and red and seeping through her shoes, and it wasn’t real, of course it wasn’t real, she knew it wasn’t real, but the streets were bleeding, seeping blood upwards, and the stench! She gagged and nearly fell, briefly flickering into visibility before picking up the pace again and forcing herself on, running, and she thought she could hear
something running with her.
In the darkness behind.
A great heaving of lungs.
A great falling of paws.
A great gasping of breath.
A great running monster whose breath stank and whose bellow-lungs pushed out air like
She wanted to look but then
“Don’t look back,” he’d said. “It wants you to look.”
Traffic surged past Old Street roundabout, but it was far, far away, horses pulling against the reins of the man in the Ford Mondeo who drove them, scuttling thief-boys spilling their Starbucks coffee, time mixing as past and present clashed in silent explosions around her, and she could taste blood in her mouth and knew it wasn’t her blood, and see the howling of the thing, of the whatever-it-was behind her, as movement in the air, like heat haze disturbing the sky, but this haze was all around, rippling against the street light and sucking the colour from it and
Don’t look back. It wants you to look.
Her heart was racing and her mouth was parched and crusted around the lips where blood was drying, and she wanted to laugh and throw her hands up to the sky and scream at the moon–which was not there–and tear at the silent traffic that stop-started against the lights and could not see her, nor even perceive itself, the drivers oblivious as the black fog of their engines melted with the black fog that had hung over London for a hundred, two hundred years and
She ran across the street and felt something move beneath her.
It was a jolt, a shock, an almost physical force that threatened to trip her, knocked the breath from her and sent her staggering, hands out to support herself against the nearest wall.
Her hands passed straight through and so did she, tumbling head first, through the wall of a private dental clinic and its posters of patients who reported their immaculate smiles to be the most important thing in their life, onto a scrubbed tile floor. She lay there gasping as the blood thundered in her ears and the world outside seeped back into place, reasserting the sodium colours of the night, the busy crawl of the buses and the weary honking of horns by irritated drivers.
Some lingering tracery of that shadow vision, the shaman’s vision that came with the shaman’s walk, was still settled over her eyes. She crawled to her hands and knees, then got up, keeping her back turned to the wall through which she had stumbled.
She listened but heard no howl.
There was, however, a breathing, a slow rise-fall, a steady drawing in and pushing out of breath, like a huge motorbike engine made of muscle, waiting to start.
She tightened her fingers around the strap of her bag, closed her eyes and prayed to who-cared-what-for-anything-good and slowly, stomach spinning faster than her step, turned.
No one there.
Just the slow thump-thump of breath that wasn’t her own. Her lungs were heaving, grabbing down air, but this sound, this breathing, this steady roar–it could circle the globe and still have oxygen left for resuscitating an elephant.
She told herself she was being ridiculous and knew she wasn’t.
She told herself that this was absurd, that she was standing inside a dental surgery on City Road and she’d get in trouble with the police if they found her and soon an alarm would go and she should really move.
And did not move.
She thought about Gretel the troll and Sally the banshee, about Kevin the vampire and the man with electric-blue wings, and wondered what they would do.
Stand here paralysed, she concluded. Frozen with fear at an unknown something waiting in the night.
She told herself she was a shaman.
She thought she heard a voice, tiny and far off. “Tonight, on who wants to be a shaman, will Sharon take the challenge or will she give up her dreams?”
Excerpted from Stray Souls by Kate Griffin Copyright © 2012 by Kate Griffin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 29, 2012
No text was provided for this review.