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"The Minority Council is that rare thing, a novel sufficiently well-written to transcend genre considerations through sheer readability" - Marylebone Journal
"London's magic has seldom if ever been brought to life so electrifyingly and convincingly." —- Mike Carey
"I'm fully convinced that Kate Griffin is a literary sorceress. She weaves the most intricate spells with clever, artful, snarky, luxurious prose, characters who are both painfully human and gloriously badass, and settings so magical you forget they're real places. When I get my hands on a new Kate Griffin book I put down everything else. She's just that good." —- N.K. Jemisin
"Griffin's novel mixes fantasy and reality into a plot that brings to mind Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere." —- RT Book Reviews
"Griffin's lush prose and chatty dialogue...create a wonderful ambiance." —- Publishers Weekly
"I love a lot of things about this book....the narration has meat and vitality, and it sings. Griffin's updating of magic is simply brilliant." —- Charles de Lint
"You need to read this series. Hands down." —- BSCReview.com
"Quite possibly the best urban fantasy novel I had ever read." —- Robwillreview.com
"The people are complex and compelling. It's these characters, and the interplay between them, that help the novel shine" - SFX
"Griffin has nailed it... fun" - SciFi Now
I had been in Deptford, hunting vandals.
Not your nice vandals, not the kind who trashed a park bench or burnt out a car.
These were the vandals who painted, on the walls of the houses, signs that sent all who looked on them, quite, quite mad.
They said they did it to show us the truth, and the truth was we were all being tricked. We were all insane, all of us who thought that the world was safe, and ordered, and had a purpose. They knew, they had seen, they were trying to make us understand.
I said, pull the other one, it’s got bells on, you’re just going around screwing up people because you’re screwed up in turn and besides, if the world really is as dark as you think it is, then I’ll take the illusion any day, thank you.
They answered, and who the hell do you think you are, jimbo (or words to that effect), you come swaggering on in here in the middle of the night and you’re all like, Stop being vandals or else—well we know people, you know, we can do you.
I made a few pithy comments, along the following lines:
My name is Matthew Swift. I’m a sorcerer, the only one in the city who survived Robert Bakker’s purge. I was killed by my teacher’s shadow and my body dissolved into telephone static and all they had left to bury was a bit of blood. Then we came back, and I am we and we are me, and we are the blue electric angels, creatures of the phones and the wires, the gods made from the surplus life you miserable excuse for mortals pour into all things electric. I am the Midnight Mayor, the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls. We turned back the death of cities, we were there when Lady Neon died, we drove the creature called Blackout into the shadows at the end of the alleys, we are light, we are life, we are fire and, would you believe it, the word that best describes our condition right now is cranky.
Would you like to see what happens when you make us mad?
They seemed to understand.
When they were gone, I walked along the river, heading east with the turning of the tide. Sorcerers in the big city go mad too easily; their hearts race at rush hour, their heads ache when the music plays in the clubs below the city streets, they breathe a mixture of carbon monoxide and lead nitrate fumes, and fresh air, clean, country air, brings on wheezing. I have always been careful to avoid the madness, but the river, on a clean, cold night inclining to winter, was a draw and a power that couldn’t be resisted.
So I walked. Over muddy quays drained down to the bed, past timber warehouses and cement factories, beneath the white bulbous lights of brand new apartment blocks and over crooked paths between cracked tarmac roads. Past shops with brown-eyed mannequins staring emptily out from reflective window-panes, through the smell of Chinese take-away guarded by a forever-saluting golden Nazi cat, across car parks to shopping estates where the average price of the average good was £14.99 and this month’s material of choice was polyester or plywood, past little chapels wedged in between the building society and the sixth-form college where, If You Believed It, You Could Achieve It. (Classes rated ‘Satisfactory’ by the Schools Inspector.) I kept the river to my left, paused to watch a flight of twin-bladed military helicopters following the curve of the water into the centre of town, leant out over a balustrade to see the silver towers of Canary Wharf catching cloud in their reflective surfaces, watched the train rattle away beneath Greenwich Hill, felt the shock as we crossed the Prime Meridian. Ley lines exist but, like all of magic, they are formed where life is thickest, and where meaning is imposed by man. Life is magic; magic grows where there is most life.
Quite how I ended up at the pier, I don’t know. But my feet were starting to tingle with a dry heat that might at some point become an ache, and even the curry houses and not-quite-Irish pubs were closing for the night. At the Millennium Dome, an exercise in civil engineering somewhere between a white pleasure palace and a blister in a wasteland, the gigs were ending, doors were opening, and people dressed to honour their chosen band were tumbling out towards Tube, bus and boat. Signs were going up at stations announcing the times of the first and last trains, as a warning to all who might linger too long. The footpath under the river to the Isle of Dogs was closed, a sign politely suggesting that travellers try alternative routes: access only between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday–Saturdays, please do not ride your bikes in the tunnel.
I hadn’t realised I’d been waiting for the boat back to the centre of town, but when it came, I boarded it, a catamaran that offered a full 30 per cent off the price of its fare, already 130 per cent higher than I had expected to pay. I paid anyway, and boarded a vessel built for a hundred and fifty tourists, now holding a crew of three and a cargo of twelve. A group of friends at the front wore T-shirts announcing that Life Is Punk, sported haircuts that in previous times would have been used to indicate rank in warrior tribes and were now worn to cause distress to difficult mothers, and talked loudly and with sweeping gestures about the brilliance of this and the horror of that. They seemed to be of that age when things were either one or the other, with no middle ground.
Near the back of the boat, a man was embracing a woman to keep off the cold wind from the river as we churned towards the west, and said nothing, and didn’t need to. In the middle section, two women, carrying guides to Londra, leant out of the window and gleefully claimed to identify the Tower of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye and Hampstead Heath.
I stood alone on the deck and tasted salt and smelt the river and felt the engine beneath my feet and knew that tonight there wasn’t much I couldn’t do, though I didn’t feel like doing much anyway.
Then she said, “Sometimes people come here to get clean.”
At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to me, I looked round, and there she stood, hands on the railing, hair flicking back and forward around her face, tangling in the wind, her eyes sliding over me like oil across silk. We stammered, “What?”
“Not physically clean,” she added, with a shrug. “More… clean inside. The river, washing away our sins.” I had nothing to say, but this didn’t seem to bother her. She held out one hand and added brightly, “Meera.”
We shook her hand, fingers sticking out of the fingerless gloves that hide the scars on the palm of our own hand. “Matthew,” I said. There was a tingle on our skin as they touched hers, an aching at the back of our teeth. Her eyes locked onto ours, and they were the colour of fresh chestnuts, flecked with yellow, and, for a moment, it could have gone any way.
Her fingers tightened, before releasing their grip, and she looked away, back at the river and the city rolling by. “I could tell,” she explained, casually, as if announcing breakfast. “The street lights dim a little when you pass them.”
“Is that why we’re talking?”
She grinned, and shook her head. “No.”
“We’re the only people at the back of this boat who are alone. I thought maybe we could be lonely together.”
She said that she was a risk analyst, working in the Isle of Dogs. Most nights, the people in her office went out drinking together—champagne, clubs, music. Sometimes they had teamwork evenings—paintballing, rowing, learning to play the ukulele…
“It’s a very easy instrument. Put us all together and get us playing: teamwork and music. Paintballing didn’t work so well. A lot of very aggressive men in my office.”
Tonight her colleagues had decided to go to a stripper joint and, for the first time, they’d invited her.
“It was loud and dull. It didn’t interest me.”
So did she just leave?
Yes. She’d made sure to be seen first, sat around with the boys, made the right sounds—even paid £50 to a Ukrainian for a dance—and once everyone was too drunk to notice or care, she’d snuck away, down to the river.
“It’s where I’m me,” she’d explained.
I said nothing; confessions of an innermost nature were never our strong point. We passed Rotherhithe, new brick apartments and converted wharves whose names—silver, guns, pepper—told their histories, along with the black cranes still bolted into their walls. She said, “I’ve got an aunt who’s a witch. Or a wise woman. Both, I think. She’s from Chennai, practises there. I got into it through her.”
“Do you do a lot?”
“She taught me petty glamours and enchantments. Beauties, cheap charms, precious dreams—nothing special. That used to be the extent of it. What about you? Why are your eyes so blue?”
I hesitated. “Complicated.”
“Your shyness only makes the story grow in my imagination. How much stranger can the truth be from what I’m imagining?”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” I suggested.
“I’m seeing dragons,” she retorted. “Dragons and volcanoes and adventures and demi-gods. Am I close?”
“Everything except the tectonic activity.”
“And you’re not shy,” she added, the brightness never leaving her voice. “Sad, maybe? Or is it fear? But not shy.”
We fell silent. Tower Bridge, all blue metal and pale yellow stone, was swinging into view round the bend of the river. To the north the lights in the windows of Wapping were out, apart from the occasional fluorescent kitchen and the blue-grey of a late-night movie.
Finally I said, “Used to?”
“Used to?” she echoed playfully.
“You said ‘That used to be the extent of it.’ As in, that’s no longer just what you do, with your magics. What’s changed?”
She made no answer. At length she said, “Give me your hand.”
I hesitated, but there was a seriousness in her face that hadn’t been there before, even though the smile remained in place. I put my hand in hers. Through her gloves I could feel her skin cold from the river wind. There was a colour in the whites of her eyes, a yellowish stain that didn’t belong, but which I couldn’t place. She took a deep breath, and when her lungs were full, breathed just a little deeper and I felt the change.
It started with a sound. First a fading, as the chugging of the boat receded, leaving only the lapping of the water against the boat’s hull; then a growing, as new sounds slipped in to take their place, as if they’d always been there, but had been drowned out by the noise of the here and now. A creaking of masts, a rattling of cloth, a flapping of sail. I listened, and heard the sound of voices calling out from the waterside, calling in East End accents for the dockmaster to come quick to the wharf, for that bloody old fool to mind his feet, for the sailors and dolly girls to clear the way, for the ship docked from India to wait her turn because there’s ten tons of meat what will spoil over here unless it’s run quickly down to market. And looking towards the banks, in the converted warehouses that lined the docks lights were springing up behind the windows, flickering candlelight and lamplight, and the water around us teemed with a hundred craft, fishermen guided by a single burning point of light slung over the end of their boat, pilots and watermen with their little vessels stained sewage-sludge green, the silent cranes on the sides of the river now in full motion, wooden wharves running out into the water from a place where stone embankment should be. I opened my mouth to speak, but Meera’s fingers closed tighter around mine in a command for silence and as we passed beneath Tower Bridge, a bare shadow overhead, I could see the craft swarming around the Tower of London and the sky above it was full of a thousand cawing ravens, spiralling like a tornado overhead, unseen by any but her and me, and I looked upriver and London Bridge was sagging under the weight of houses clinging to its sides, half-timbered houses and crooked clinging shacks.
I said, “Meera…” but my voice fell away into nothing, a fog was rising off the river, smothering the boat but somehow through it the sounds kept coming, wooden wheels on cobblestones, dogs barking in the night, the ringing of church bells announcing the hour, a watchman’s rattle, a donkey’s bray of distress, the roar from an inn on the south bank. “Meera!” I begged. “You’ve got to stop!”
She didn’t hear me. Her face was lit up with delight, her eyes bright, flecked with yellow, her fingers so tight in mine they hurt. A glow to the north caught my eye and, as I watched, flames sprang up in the darkness behind a skyline of crooked cramped houses leaning against each other for support, and they spread, and overhead London Bridge was crammed with faceless dark shapes of people pressing against each other and children crying and women screaming and the sky was full of ashes and the stars were blacked out by smoke and I said, “Meera! You have to stop, you’ve gone too far, we’ll…”
Then the boat jumped to one side, bumping against something below and there was a barge with a canopy and a pair of men pulling at the oars, and they wore doublets and stockings and shoes with buckles on and flat caps and looking up onto the bridge there were heads, four heads all in a row, stuck on spikes, tongues hanging loose, eyes rolled upwards, ragged zigzags around the still-dripping necks where the axe had struck a dozen times in an attempt to break the spine, traitors’ heads stuck on spikes and the shallow banks were stained with fresh raw sewage and not so far off at all, the place where the city stopped; and there was a boy on the bridge, and I heard a shout.
And for a moment, just a moment, I looked up, and met a stranger’s eyes. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old, in a rough cap, his face smeared with dirt and sawdust, and, God help us, he wore a dagger in his belt and a pouch on his hip and iron buttons and as he leant out across London Bridge and looked down towards the river, he saw me, and I saw him.
I felt the deck beneath my feet grow cold, arctic cold. My breath was slow, too slow, condensing in the air, sensation was going out of my feet and fingertips. There was a weight on my back, a pressure pushing me down and the river below was wide and dark and black, ready to pull us in. We gritted our teeth and with all our strength, with every ounce of power in us, grabbed hold of Meera’s wrist and pulled our fingers free. Her breath was steam on the air, her face was lit up in wonder and delight. I shook her by the shoulders and tried to shout, but my words were lost in the fog. I pushed her against the rail of the boat and, in that moment of confusion, forced her hands together with a sharp clap.
There was a noise too low to be heard, but I felt it. If whales wept, that would be the sound they made; if oceans talked, it would have been their language. It passed straight through our belly and out the other side, a ripple on the air that tore the fog around us to shreds, and for a moment it all ran backwards. The boy on the bridge darted away, the houses stretched out across the night, candles flickering in the windows, rats scurried away beneath horses’ hooves, fires rose and blazed and fell, leaving a cloud of ash, chimneys grew, smoke stained the sky, stone embankments advanced along the muddy banks, searchlights briefly swept the air and, far off, bombs blasted onto the docks of the East End before even that illusion was shattered and, with an unclenching, a letting out of breath, time returned to its normal place. I staggered as the spell broke, bumping into Meera who in turn caught hold of the railing for support. She was breathless, her face shimmering with sweat, but she was grinning, and her shoulders shook with a barely suppressed laugh. Our catamaran was passing beneath Southwark Bridge, towards the silver spike of the footbridge between St Paul’s and the Tate, engines slowing now as it moved in to dock, unperturbed by everything I’d witnessed.
And she was saying, “Did you see? Did you see did you did you see?”
“Meera!” I rasped. “You can’t do that, you can’t, you mustn’t, how did you do that?”
She clapped her hands together like a child, almost bouncing on the spot. “It’s here! It’s all here it’s all here if you just look the city built on layers and layers can you hear it? Can you hear it all the time it’s always there can you see?”
The cold night felt warm in comparison to where we’d just been. My legs were shaking. “Not possible,” I stammered. “No one should be able to do that, no one! How did you do that?”
“Don’t be a misery,” she retorted. “Wasn’t it incredible?” She opened her arms wide and for a moment I thought she was going to do it again. I caught her fingers in mine and pulled them back close.
Somehow the action had put us not a breath apart, her hands in mine. We hesitated, a strange tugging in our belly. She paused too, looking straight into our eyes, unafraid. Very few look into our eyes and are not afraid. What I’d meant to say somehow didn’t happen. Instead I heard myself say, “It was… yes. You’re right. It was. Incredible. Promise me—promise me you’ll never, ever do it again.”
“That kind of power—that sort of magic—isn’t meant. You can’t do it. You’ll burn. You’ll go too far and stay too long and you’ll burn. Promise me you won’t.”
She took an instant too long before she answered playfully, “Aw. It’s sweet that you care.”
Perhaps we could have said something else.
But the moment passed.
“I can see it now,” she said. “You’re the kinda guy who stands up when a woman enters the room, and doesn’t like to see ladies walk unescorted back to the bus stop. A regular knight in shiny armour.”
Our fingers were still tangled together, and didn’t show any sign of letting go. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Did I scare you?” she asked softly, as the boat chugged round the bend towards the Oxo Tower. “Back then, were you scared?”
“Do I get points for lying?” I asked.
“You care and you want points? I’m beginning to think you have an ulterior motive.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“Wouldn’t be talking to you if you did.”
“Is this how you talk to every stranger you meet on the back of a boat?” I asked.
“See—that scares me.”
“But you’re the first one I ever did magic for,” she added. “Were you impressed?”
“Honestly, yes. Never do it again.”
“Were you scared?”
“Honestly, yes. And may I add, as we’re standing here, never, ever, do it again.”
Her eyes widened; she stepped half a pace back as if trying to get a better look at me. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “You weren’t scared for yourself, were you?”
“I’d be pretty thick if I wasn’t.”
“Yes, and unfortunately, being pretty thick, you’re not quite smart enough to lie well.”
“I study the art when I can.”
She laughed, and her fingers tightened in mine. “We’re nearly at the end of the line,” she said. “You’re sweet. Some guys try to be sweet because they think it’ll make women go gooey inside. They think ‘Well shit, I ain’t got brains, I ain’t got brawn, I ain’t got nothing worth saying so I’ll try being sweet.’ ”
“Most people don’t think I’m ‘sweet,’ ” I said, struggling with the word.
“What do they think?”
“Most people don’t get much past the job description.”
“What’s the job description?”
“Protector of the city,” I answered with a shrug.
“See what I mean? That’s so sweet you could spin it onto a stick and call it candy floss. Don’t try too hard, though. You’ll spoil the effect.”
Our boat was slipping in sideways by the next dock. Above us, directly overhead, the London Eye, built as a temporary Ferris wheel to last forever, was lit up pale violet, its dark capsules turning at a glacier’s crawl through the night. Across the river, the Houses of Parliament were brilliant sodium orange, with flecks of blue and green cast onto its towers. The river was rolling east, washing away the smells of the city, great ridges and swells beneath its surface, like invisible smooth backs of whales.
Meera asked where I was going.
I said I didn’t know.
She said she didn’t live far.
I said I had work to do.
She said, “Yeah, of course you do, work, at this hour.”
I wanted to say, look, it’s not like that, but there are a lot of really good reasons why I should head into town now and find a nice homeless hostel to spend the night in like I usually do, or a doorway out of the wind or something and it’s been lovely meeting you, but seriously, careful with the magic because that’s the kind of shit that you don’t want to screw around with and while it was great, it was deadly, please don’t do that again. So yeah. Bye. See you around, maybe. Perhaps. Sometime.
What I found myself saying was, “Yeah, well.”
After such inspiring prose, she would have been well within her rights to walk away.
And neither did we.
Some five and a half weeks after the night on the river, I was sneaking in the back way to the office of Harlun and Phelps, bankers, financiers, dabblers in the arcane mysteries of the stock market and, quite incidentally, daytime employer of a very large percentage of the Aldermen who guard the city at night, when I heard a voice say, “… you are such a Nazi!”
The voice was young, female, indignant. It belonged to a woman in a bright purple hijab, white knee-length plastic coat, black slipper-shoes with a bow on them, and a glare that could wither moon rock. Upon reflection, her being in the goods entrance to the office of the Aldermen was no more implausible than my presence there; but whereas I was using the back entrance in order to avoid being caught by the Aldermen themselves and subjected to enquiries about memos, meeting agendas and roaming monsters, she was attempting to break into the back entrance for what appeared to be far more nefarious purposes.
A pair of security men were hustling her out to a barrage of “I have rights! Fascists, I demand my rights, I demand—you pigs!”
This last as she was barrelled out beneath the metal shutter of the goods entrance onto a ramp that ran down towards an underground car park where the mixture of bankers, financiers, analysts, secretaries, marketing men and magi who inhabited the glass-and-steel tower that I reluctantly called my workplace parked their expensive and sometimes environmentally self-conscious vehicles. For a second I considered going after her, but the urge passed and I turned back towards the concrete staircase that led to the service elevator.
This was a mistake. Where, not ten seconds before, the staircase had been empty and blissfully secretive, now it was inhabited by five-foot-seven’s-worth of Alderman, dressed all in black.
In the city of London there are two types of Alderman. The first, more pleasant, variety sits on local councils, shakes a lot of hands, attends a lot of parties, cuts a lot of ribbons and sometimes, on more enthusiastic days, lays a few foundation stones announcing that in this year of our lord, the worshipful Mayor/Councillor/Alderman for [Insert Borough Here] laid this glorious stone for our civic undertaking which will be of benefit for all. Thus, between the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., a small class of individuals moves around the city, not necessarily righting wrongs with their every deed, but hardly contributing to the overall mass of evil.
They are the first kind of Alderman.
The second kind of Alderman picks up the reins after a suitable dinner break, and works between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. These are the Aldermen who track down rogue nightmares and put them back to sleep; the kind who watch the old boundaries of the city walls for monsters that may come knocking in the night; who seal up the gates that should not have been opened, and hardly ever, if at all, hold parties with nibbles on sticks. In theory they serve the Midnight Mayor, soldiers in his army; reality having met theory, however, it clearly decided that theory didn’t have the horsepower to move in these kinds of circles and told it to get back to the car park. They were magical, they were dangerous, a lot of them were dabblers in high finance, and if all of this wasn’t enough, they liked to wear black and talk in short sentences to let you know just how mean they were. They were the banes of my life and it was of only some small satisfaction to think that we were, in our own quaint way, the bane of theirs.
And there on the staircase one stood in front of me.
Born a few inches shorter than me, she’d more than made up for it with a pair of knee-high black boots complete with heels that should have been internationally outlawed for crimes against flooring. Her Alderman’s black jacket was buttoned up tight round her neck and pinched closed around the wrists; her shape inside it was only mildly distorted by the weight of concealed weaponry. Her hair was auburn, cut to a bob; her nose was button and her chin was sharp; her ears too small and her eyes a little too large; she looked like a woman for whom good breeding had reached its logical conclusion and then run a bit too far. In one hand she had a black briefcase with a black lock, in the other she held a half-eaten tuna sandwich.
She was smiling, a sound of triumph in her voice at having found me. Doubt and suspicion bloomed in the murky corners of my mind. “Uh… yes?”
The tuna sandwich waved in the air, shedding pieces of lettuce. “I’m so glad to have bumped into you; I just happened to be passing this way and when I saw you I thought, ‘What a perfect opportunity’!”
I looked round at our surroundings. Service corridors in big financial institutions were not meant to be seen or understood by anyone earning more than a minimum wage. This one’s only feature was a single fire extinguisher. “You just happened to be passing?” I echoed, moving towards the goods lift in the hope that her boots would prevent her keeping up.
Hope faded as with a snick-snack of pointed heels she easily matched my pace. “Yes! Isn’t it fascinating down here? I often come down to say hello to the gentlemen who work security, or just to explore. Of course office blocks are all supposed to look the same these days but you know, if you’re just willing to open a few doors you’ll find that there’s a whole microcosm waiting to be found.”
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed, my meek not-quite sarcasm rolling right off her. “And fancy meeting you here, Mr Mayor, such good luck. Now I’ve got a few forms…” The next words vanished into a wodge of tuna as she stuffed the sandwich in her mouth and with her freed-up hand attempted to open the briefcase. I jabbed forlornly at the lift’s call button and watched the indicator above flash its way down from the sixteenth floor.
With the sandwich back in her hand and the briefcase on the floor, she flourished a bundle of documents stapled together on thin green paper. “Now has Ms Somchit talked to you about the liability insurance? We’re covering everything from reasonable property damage through to unavoidable contamination with vampiric substances or lupine contagions…”
Some bastard had stopped the lift at the ninth floor and seemed to be holding it there.
“… and until you get it we cannot guarantee any extra medical costs or more than a budget funeral should you find yourself injured in the line of duty…”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“Then there are the diary requests. Would you be free next Thursday to address the Worshipful Company of Magi, Maguses and Mages at their annual fundraising dinner on the subject of thaumaturgy in the modern age? I believe they do an excellent meal—three courses, canapés, string quartet, wine—shall I say yes?”
“What? Yes. No! Wait, no! Um…”
“We’ve had a request from a coven in Thamesmead regarding a blockage in the sewage system. Apparently someone’s been dumping their waste straight into the system and now they can’t get any peace for the cockatrice matriarchs hunting at night…”
“I’m sorry, who are…?” I tried again.
“… and we just need your final go-ahead on the payment to the enchanters to reactivate the deep wards in the building, against any further magical invasion…”
The lift went bing, and the doors swished open just as I said, “Who the hell are…?”
There were five waiters in the lift. They had white sleeves, black waistcoats, white aprons and polished black shoes. They stood round a trolley slung over with a white cloth, on which rested a single plastic bottle. Inside the bottle was a thick yellow-red mixture, bubbles rising furiously to the top. Every face was serious as they hurried past us, muttering earnestly to each other. I slipped into the lift, hoping the woman would be too busy watching their retreating backs to have noticed, but then a voice said, “Are we going to the twentieth floor, Mr Mayor?” and there she was, already pressing the button.
The doors slid shut with a finalistic ping.
We started to rise.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t mean to seem rude, it just happens that way, but who the hell are you?”
She gave a little “Oh!” of surprise and dismay, and in a flurry tucked the papers under one arm and the briefcase between her knees, and wiped her right hand on her jacket before holding it out.
“I’m Kelly!” she explained, and waited for me to understand.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Kelly Shiring?” she added, with an uncertain hope in her voice. “Your new PA?”
The sun was setting over London.
The previous Midnight Mayor had had an office on the highest floor of the building. Before being torn to pieces and, in the moment of his demise, taking the monumentally stupid decision to lumber me with the job of being his successor, A. Nair Esq. had sat behind a great long desk topped with leather, in a great long room whose windows looked over great stretches of London to the south and west, across the silver River Thames, through the summits of Centre Point and the BT Tower, past the four chimneys of Battersea power station and the red-white blip of Crystal Palace, to the greyness where the green belt began and the city toyed with maybe ending. At this desk, from three in the afternoon until six in the morning—for Nair was nothing if not serious about his job—he would be brought salads and thick drinks of semi-congealed vegetables and tortured vitamins, along with files on witches and wizards stepping out of line, news of phone calls that he might one day feel like taking, and the morning newspapers still warm from the press. All these would be laid in their appointed place, behind the pot for the black biros, which stood no more than half an inch away, and at a ninety-degree angle, from the pot for the blue biros, which was itself lined up at a right angle above the single, treasured, red pen for writing words that merited being in red. (Beware.)
As Nair’s successor, I was offered a range of equally god-like premises for the conducting of my mystic affairs, and at long last chose a small office tucked away between the photocopy room and the canteen. I had no interest in the photocopy room, but we liked the idea of never being more than ten yards from a fridge and a cup of coffee. Twenty-four hours after choosing this office, I arrived to find my presence announced by a nameplate on the door. Some two minutes and thirty seconds later, this plate was gone and I was finding a place to hide the screwdriver. Twenty-nine hours later it was back; eighty seconds after that it was gone, my skill with the screwdriver having improved. The message was eventually received, and after a while it was generally understood that my office served merely as an open-plan recycling unit where things were thrown which might come in handy but were unlikely to be read any time soon. A schedule replete with committee meetings, forums, management discussions and policy events was quickly trimmed down to the barest minimum of time spent in the building. Only one Alderman had been able to win from me anything bordering on management synthesis, but she had met her end in a tower block in Sidcup. And I had stood, and watched, and failed, and she had died for my mistakes. Since then, no one had tried to raise the question of my attendance record at senior management meetings.
The floor inside my door was covered with paper. In an electronic age, a forest had died for me to walk upon it. I stepped over requisition orders for summoning rituals, overtime forms for a project team of scryers seeking out a rogue necromancer somewhere out in Northolt, and pie charts dissecting various abuses of magic over the last twelve months—illusions, curses, enchantments, invocations and abjurations against persons or private property that were considered, by the Aldermen, to be a greater threat against the well-being of the city as a whole. Only a greater threat, mind. The Aldermen were tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, but didn’t give a damn about the criminal or the victim. Who had the time?
The window looked north, across a city of shadows in the setting sun. Low clouds formed a dark patchwork on a fiery sky of crimson and gold. In five minutes they would fade to cobalt blue, then bluish-grey, then the stained orange-black of an urban night. I couldn’t see the centre of the sunset itself, but its reflection blazed from the windows of the Barbican’s three towers, and made the pinnacles of St Pancras darken the streets below. Lights were coming on across the city, catching behind them the shapes of people still at work, framed like living images.
I played stepping stones until I got to my chair, and looked down at it. Anything absolutely, supremely important was usually left there; tonight someone had pinned a note to the chair back, written in large black letters:
THE BEGGAR KING WANTS TO TALK
It hadn’t been signed, and where the Beggar King was concerned, it didn’t need to be. Certain forces there are in every city which you learn, fairly early on, not to muck around with.
Another note caught my eye. A yellow Post-it, noticeable only for its smallness, was stuck on the corner of my desk. Someone had written, freehand with a blue fountain pen:
You can’t save those who don’t want to be saved.
I considered this, then scrunched it up and threw it in the bin on my way out.
Getting out of the building without being accosted was always hard. Word had usually spread and today when I closed the door behind me there was a small crowd of men and women in matching black coats and matching black expressions. The default expression for an Alderman in my presence was unimpressed, and this group was not breaking new ground. There were seven of them and, to deal with their collective lack of initiative or willpower, they had appointed a leader. He stepped forward, a man of about twenty-eight going on twelve, with caramel hair combed into a ridge above his forehead and locked in place with a wall of grease. He looked at me, and his silence suggested I should understand from that glance all the fine details of what currently annoyed them.
I said, “Hi,” and tried making my way back towards the elevator.
They moved together, and he dropped into step beside me like an angry mother marching a child away from after-school detention.
“You’re Bryce, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mr Mayor.”
“You’re a stockbroker, by day, right?”
“That’s correct, Mr Mayor.”
“And you’re here to tell me to leave off, have I got it?”
A wittier man might have smiled. He was not witty. “Mr Mayor, if I may say, your pursuit of Burns and Stoke is becoming detrimental.”
“If you will hear me out…”
The syllable bounced off him like a paper aeroplane off ebony. “Mr Mayor,” he explained, all soothing tone and restrained gesture, “Burns and Stoke’s quarterly pre-tax profit has increased and they have been very earnest in their development of community outreach on the wave of this…”
“Burns and Stoke,” I replied, “are a money-making machine abusing magic to achieve their success, and while I’m the first guy who’d say ‘Well, what the hell’s the point of knowing a few spells if you don’t use them occasionally?’ what Burns and Stoke do is not a little light dabbling in enchantment. It’s not hiring an affable seer to make a decent stab at the projected loss on the gold market in the next three days, it’s not getting a scryer to have a peek into the nickel mines of Kazakhstan just to make sure the investment is ticking over nicely, it’s not getting a corner witch to dress your CEO up in a pretty glamour when they shake hands with their business partners from Tokyo. I could overlook all that, all that would be completely fine.
“What Burns and Stoke are doing, Mr Bryce, is using power to beget more power and beget more power and what do they do with that power? Knock me down with a feather but they go and beget yet more power until suddenly I’ve got tectonic plates rupturing in Eastcheap, flooding in Hampstead and a lawyer standing in my office with a pair of vampire fangs dripping virginal blood and an expression on his face of ‘wasn’t me, guv’nor.’ ”
“Mr Mayor, Harlun and Phelps has invested heavily in this company…”
“Then I suggest you get un-invested soon.”
“The greater good…”
“Don’t even try.” I’d reached the elevator.
“The greater good…”
“You still seem to be trying, Mr Bryce.”
“The greater good of the Aldermen and the city itself will be served by a strong financial sector whose relationship with the magical community is such that a mutually beneficial and reasonably arranged settlement can…”
The doors opened and I stepped inside, turning to cut Bryce off mid-speech. “No,” I said and, for a moment, our eyes met, and his words ran dry. “You do not use the ‘greater good’ speech to try and justify something that you cannot be bothered to fix. You tell the board of Burns and Stoke that either they stop fucking around with higher mystical powers and get back to screwing up the economy in a mundane and sensible way, or I’ll come in and do it for them. Happy?”
The closing lift doors cut off his reply.
The sun was down by the time I left the building, leaving nothing in the sky but a pale grey stain, framed between tall buildings. Behind lit-up windows the city workers were visible, alone or in a group. There, a man with a loosened tie who’d locked his door but was caught perfectly in the light of his wall-sized window played mini golf on a roll-out green mat. Next door a man and a woman quarrelled, gesturing abruptly in what seemed more than just a professional dispute. Here, seven sat in a board meeting, coats slung on the back of their swivel chairs; there, a woman stood in front of a pie chart projected onto a screen, showing Opportunities and Challenges but absolutely not problems to be overcome. Three floors up, a man sat playing solitaire, and there another kissed his wife, who’d brought in their child, complete with red wellington boots, to collect Daddy from work. The magic in this place was old, rich and silver; it clattered on roads of tarmac laid on roads of stone laid on cobble laid on mud. It oozed up from the shadows between the street lights and steamed off the glowing silver towers. It was a heat haze that made our skin tingle.
Then a voice said, “You’re not one of them, but they let you inside. Why?”
I glanced round.
It was the woman in the purple headscarf who only a few minutes before had been screaming “Nazi!” at the security men of Harlun and Phelps. She regarded me with a look of speculation.
“Sorry. Don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do,” she replied. “Don’t give me that. Do you work there?” She indicated the building I’d just left.
“But they do know you. They let you inside, right?”
“It’s not exactly a nine-to-five job.”
“That’s fine, I don’t need to get in nine to five.”
She was a pale, coffee ice cream colour, with long rounded nails. The scarf that hid her hair was bright purple, shot through with silver threads, and layered so thickly it looked like she was wearing an uneven sponge.
There was a something about her, a crispness to the air, that set our senses itching.
I said, “What’s your beef anyway? What’s so interesting about that place?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “But I need to talk to someone inside it and no one will let me get a foot in the door. I have rights, you know.”
I waited for an indication of irony in her voice, and when it didn’t come I made what would be the first fatal mistake of the night. I said, “Who d’you need to see?”
“This guy called the Midnight Mayor.”
It was ten minutes later. We were in a chain coffee shop, drinking mass-produced coffee on a mass-produced sofa beneath some mass-produced art in a mass-produced frame proclaiming that Originality Can’t Be Bought. The girl was explaining, “… and I said, ‘I’ve been to the local wizards, the local wizards don’t know shit, they’re only into the magic because they think it’ll help them find a girl, as if’ and they were like ‘Look, darling’—can you believe they called me darling? I mean what the hell do they think this is, the Middle Ages?—‘look, darling,’ they said, ‘even if we knew this Midnight Mayor bloke, which we’re not saying we do, yeah, but even if we did’—I think they may have put in another ‘darling’ at this point—‘even if we did, you really think he’s going to be bothered with you and your like, little problem or whatever?’ And here, which I realise was wrong,” she added, throwing up her hands in what might have been contrition, “here I said some things which probably weren’t my most polite but you know, they were such arseholes, I couldn’t believe it, and since then they won’t let me get even a foot in the building. It’s been so fucking frustrating!”
She threw herself back against the sofa. Her fingernails were beating out a rhythm on the side of her coffee mug that wasn’t far off the Ride of the Valkyries.
I put down my black coffee with its layer of scum and said, “Sooo… you want to see the Midnight Mayor?”
She gave me a look, then added, “Yeah, like, wasn’t that the whole point of the story?”
“Does it have to be him?” I asked. “I mean, you’re talking senior dude here, the protector of the city and all that. And the guy, I’ve gotta tell you, the guy is usually a pompous ass. You tell someone they’re the protector of the city and, before you know it, you’ve got ego issues, you’ve got character defects, you’ve got nervous tics—I mean, I’m just speculating, but that’s how it sounds.”
“No!” she exclaimed. “This is important, this is protector of the city stuff! What use is a guy whose job is to watch out for the magical security of this place, if he doesn’t ever get off his arse and do it?”
My mouth was open for a comeback that my brain couldn’t deliver. She broke in with, “So, you going to help me or what?”
“I just need five minutes to talk to him, convince him that he needs to get involved. Those fuckers downstairs won’t even let me leave him a note! What arsehole employs people like that? It’s all like ‘Wow I’m the Midnight Mayor, I’m like, cooler and more powerful than you little people, so you little people can fuck right off.’ I mean, don’t you hate that?”
I managed a nod.
She let out a sigh, and shrank back into her seat. She was younger, I realised, than I’d given her credit for, barely in her twenties.
“So,” she said, “what do you… like… do?”
“What kind of things?”
“I’m, like, a… magical consultant.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Well, you know, if there’s spells people don’t understand or problems that people can’t solve, you know, involving monsters or magics or stuff, then they call me, and I come down and clean it up.”
“Does it pay well?”
“You have to declare to the taxman?”
“What? Well, no, I haven’t for a while, but that’s complicated…”
“I hate wizards who don’t declare to the taxman,” she said. “I mean, I get that you’re all busy summoning imps and enchanting elves and all that stuff, but you’re still going to use the NHS, aren’t you? You still want your rubbish collected, you still want your kids to have a decent place to go to school? Or are you just going to magic a stable job market and decent A-level grades into being? I think not, oh-no.”
“Actually there’s more to it…”
“So do you, like, work for the Midnight Mayor?”
I hesitated. Truth shot a sly glance at expediency, expediency waggled its eyebrows significantly, truth made a little noise at the back of its throat, and expediency jumped straight on in there.
“I’m the guy who does all the stuff he can’t be bothered with.”
“Does that mean you can get me in to see him?”
“Tomorrow at nine any good? I’ve got appointments all day from ten, but can maybe do a lunch meeting. He’ll have to come to me, of course.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves,” I ventured.
A look shot across the table that could have snuffed out a stadium flood. “You are going to help me, aren’t you?”
I leant forward, clasping my fingers between my knees. “I’m not sure you mentioned your name.”
“Nabeela. Nabeela Hirj.”
“I’m Matthew, nice to meet you. What do you do?”
“I work for the council.”
“Kensington and Chelsea.”
“And you do magic?” I asked, dropping my voice.
She shifted uneasily. There it was, that taste of cold thin metal on the air. “I… I’ve got a condition,” she mumbled. “It’s nothing. I mean, it’s fine. It’s nothing. But it’s, uh… you know, you have to get answers, don’t you?”
“I get that.”
“It’s not like it’s something I do for a living. It’s just something that’s like asthma, you know?”
“Anyway, when I was a kid my mum asked around, trying to get a few answers, and she met a few people who knew stuff, and then one guy said there was this bloke called the Midnight Mayor and he fixed things. Anyway,” she added, “I’m not here about me.”
“Then go on. What are you here for?”
She hesitated, then said, “You want to know what it’s about? Really want to know?”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Then you gotta come see for yourself.”
I tried not to sigh. The sun was undeniably down now. I could feel the Underground rumbling below, the rush hour slipping away into that indoors time when the kettle boiled and oil hissed in the pan. The Beggar King wanted to see me, the Aldermen were pissed off, and the night was about to begin.
“Sure,” I said. “Why the hell not?”
There are three kinds of living in London.
There’s living above stuff. In council flats, great blocks eighteen storeys high with views across same old same old, you live above someone else’s bedroom, you wear slippers, not shoes and lay carpet, not wood flooring. At night people navigate by your sitting room window, using your building as a marker through anonymous streets. Or you live above a shop, a pub, an off-licence, a hairdresser, in a little flat that smells of the trades carried on below.
Then there’s living next to something. In the streets of what’s termed the inner city, terraced Victorian houses look over little brick walls or restored iron railings from sashed bay windows and white-painted porches.
Finally, there’s living beneath something. It can be noisy neighbours walking overhead, life in the shadow of a mobile phone mast or under a flight path into Heathrow. However you look at it, this is the worst place to be. And in Nabeela’s part of town, there was one particular big thing you could find yourself beneath.
I said, “Oh. This part of Kensington and Chelsea.”
Nabeela was buttoning up her coat against the rising night wind sweeping over Westbourne Park Underground station. Not that it was underground here, where Tube trains crawled in the tail-winds of expresses out of Paddington and regional behemoths heading into London from Reading and Bristol. Houses clung to the edge of the railway cutting like chalk cliffs waiting to crumble, while on the other side, looking away north, was the West Way. It showed as dark mottled concrete just high enough that from the pavement you saw only the tops of passing vans. But you could still hear the motorway, the A40 bypass raised up above West London to carry commuters quickly from the suburbs to the city, without having to muck around with the piddling places in between. Nothing could disguise the fact that this was a beneath corner of town. It was where the expensive wine bars of Kensington gave way with a shudder to the council blocks of the Harrow Road; where municipal libraries stocking works by local authors were replaced by Wormwood Scrubs prison, and sports halls yielded to skater parks.
“What do you mean, this part?” We’d turned out of the station and were marching down the nearest street crammed in beneath the overpass.
“Well, you know, you say Kensington and I think… big houses, posh cars, shops selling organic Fairtrade baby socks, Conservative central office… you know, Kensington.”
“Yes, because London’s so homogeneous all the time, isn’t it? I mean, let’s not go jumping out of our little boxes any time soon, shall we?”
“You have lovely toes and I’ve stepped on them…”
“You leave my toes out of it!”
“I’m sure there was a point in this relationship when you wanted my help…”
“I’m still not convinced your help is worth much.”
“You’re not even dressed right.”
I stopped and looked down at myself. Charity-shop jeans going through at the knees and frayed round the bottom, a pair of worn-out trainers just thin enough to let me feel the ground beneath my feet, a T-shirt that once had invited people to Save Camley Park and was now only readable in very bright light, and a coat designed to endure all weathers and all flavours of curry sauce. I said, “What?”
“At least the arseholes in that office were dressed like proper protectors of the city.”
“Are you saying I don’t look much like the Mi… I mean, much like much?”
Nabeela looked us up and down, contemplated a fluent reply, and settled for a burst of laughter. She turned, and kept on walking. We seethed; I scuttled after. A short way on lay impounds for the dubiously parked, MOT garages specialising in people carriers upwards, depots for holding concrete sacks, and the rusted funerals of unlaid train track. Beyond rose once-grand terraces with pillared porticoes and seven doorbells each. We passed a gym in a converted two-storey factory which was now making its industrial heritage a selling point, and a barber’s shop with advertisements showing the same three male models whose faces adorned every such window from Harringay to Hounslow.
Nabeela was saying, “I did social policy at college, you know, and helped out at this youth group as a kid. It was all about getting kids involved in their local area instead of, like, knives. Anyway, I graduated into this, like, dire recession and got a job working part-time on youth projects for the council, which pays nothing, I should add, but you know, you meet people, you do things, it’s a living, isn’t it?”
“And this brings us into Midnight Mayor territory… how?”
She tutted something I didn’t catch, and turned the corner into an estate of little redbrick houses. The street was very much of the area: old married couples who’d lived there all their lives, taking care of their window-boxes and sweeping their little concrete patios; and families of unruly children and screaming parents who’d been dumped there with not much better to hope for. We came to a house whose one distinguishing feature was a wind chime of blue and green glass tinkling in the breeze. A buzzer by the door was taped over and inscribed in ancient blue pen with the words ‘NOT WORKING.’ Nabeela marched up to the door and banged the letter box a few times.
A light went on behind the blurry glass in the top of the door. A shadow obscured the peephole, a chain was drawn back, and the door opened. A voice said, “I thought you’d be back yesterday,” and a blast of centrally heated air and yellow tungsten light spilt out.
The owner of the voice was a woman, who time had placed in her early thirties but wear had pushed into her fifties. She had peroxided hair pulled back in a ponytail, brown eyes sunk above purple bags, and a smell of cigarette smoke around her like a fallen angel’s halo. Her accent carried the memory of Northern Ireland, but time in the city had dulled it into a rough grumble along the edge of her words. She let us in with a look of resigned wariness and, as Nabeela bent down and pulled off her shoes, she said, “Who’s this, then?”
“Matthew’s with the specialist services I was telling you about.”
The woman eyed me up suspiciously, but offered me her hand and said, “Izzie.”
Then a voice from the living room boomed out, “Who is it?”
It too had a Northern Irish accent, but harder and stronger, and carried along by a pair of powerful male lungs. Izzie shouted back, “It’s the council! They’re here about Callum.”
There was a thump in reply, and the sound of footsteps. A door opened, bringing a stronger blast of cigarette smoke and the sound of TV. I heard a voice proclaiming, “and tonight’s winner, taking home a grand prize of…” before the door slammed again. A man appeared, dressed in a duffel jacket and oversized jeans sporting a glimpse of tattooed ankles. He saw me and glared instinctively, saw Nabeela and glared habitually. “Have you got money?”
“For Christ’s sake, they’re here about Callum.” Izzie’s voice was naturally high, as if shouting had become the default mode between them.
“I’m asking for him,” retorted the man, shoulders going back and chin up. “You think I don’t fucking care, I’m asking for him, so we can look after him properly, yeah?”
“Well they’re not here about the money, okay?”
“I didn’t know that, how’d you expect me to know that, I’m not psychic, you didn’t fucking say!”
“I was going to say but you had to come in here and be rude, I mean for fuck’s sake it’s not like you even waited, did you, you never wait…”
Nabeela said, “Actually, if we could just…”
“Is that what this is, is that what this is about? It’s about your ego, you’re the one who has to do everything, isn’t it, a precious little martyr you are…”
“If we could just…” tried Nabeela again.
“Well maybe if you ever got your arse off that sofa you could actually help in this house, actually do something…”
“We just want to…” Nabeela offered, to no avail. I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off going to a council meeting. The row was, as most rows are, nothing if not dull, an endless reiteration of established opinions. It showed no sign of faltering, even after Nabeela murmured, “We’ll just go say hello to Callum…” and grabbed me by the sleeve, and dragged me up the narrow stairs.
Three doors led off the landing. A smell of shaving foam from one announced the bathroom; the second was shut tight and the third had on it the teenage standard signs of “KEEP OUT!” and “BEWARE OF THE DOG” and “PRIVATE—DO NOT DISTURB.” Nabeela knocked and, though no reply came, turned the handle and went inside.
It was indeed a teenager’s room. Posters and pictures covered every surface including the ceiling, where pages from magazines had been stuck above the bed. There were pictures of men with almost more piercings than skin, striking poses of musical manliness by racks of electric guitars. Posters showed women baring a lot of skin, in poses that might have been erotic to a monk being force-fed aphrodisiacs. There were a lot of pictures of motorbikes. Somewhere in the mind of the teenager called Callum, the forces of Environmental Awareness and Being Cool had met and gone ten bouts in the ring, before Being Cool had whopped Environmentalism out of the ring.
Callum himself was sat on the bed. He was fifteen, with hair shaven to near-skinhead at the back and top, but left at the front in a curly quiff, created by a hairdresser who didn’t believe in showing them the back. He was barefoot and wore jeans and a T-shirt with a faded logo showing a pair of open hands. As we entered he looked slowly round, turning only his head, and said without expression, “Hello. You are Ms Hirj of social services.”
Nabeela smiled and said, “Good evening, Callum. How are you today?”
She pulled up a chair, carefully depositing a pile of biohazard clothing onto the floor, and sat down in front of him.
“Thank you, Ms Hirj,” he intoned, his voice neither rising nor falling. “I am well.”
Nabeela went on, “This is Matthew. He’s a consultant.”
“Hello, Matthew.” Callum seemed to have grasped the necessary details of speech without tackling its full potential.
“Would you say you were a wanky little squirt?” asked Nabeela suddenly.
I raised my eyebrows, waiting for a torrent of abuse, but Callum only replied, “I will do better.”
“How can you do better?” Nabeela’s voice didn’t rise, but had an edge to it that warned of anger. “You’ve only got one leg.”
Callum’s eyes didn’t flicker, and both hands stayed in his lap, on his two functional legs with their perfectly functional feet. “You are here to help me,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Help you? I’m not here to help you. Why should I care about you? In fact, you’ve become such a pain in the backside that I’ve hired Matthew here to kill you. That’s what you’re going to do, isn’t it, Matthew?”
“Uh…” I began.
“He’s going to strangle you with his bare hands. Come on Matthew, let’s kill him.”
“Sure,” I mumbled, not shifting from where I stood. “Bare hands. Strangulation. Right up my street.”
Callum still didn’t move, didn’t even blink. Nabeela slapped him, not particularly hard, and snapped, “Come on, Callum, you’ve got a view on that?”
His head drifted back to its former position, one cheek faintly red from the slap. “You are older and work for the government. You know best.”
Nabeela straightened up, and shot me a look of pure “what do you think of that, then?”
I edged closer, squatted down, and looked into Callum’s vacant face. If this was an act, it was brilliant. His eyes drifted towards me and seemed to focus just behind the back of my nose. I said, “You heard of psychotic breaks?”
“You are a consultant,” he replied. “You are an expert.”
“It’s not psychological,” Nabeela murmured. “And no, it’s not an act.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Well,” she sighed, the expert dealing patiently with the layman, “there were no psychological warning signs, no history of mental illness in either him or his family, no causes, no gradual break, none of the typical symptoms of depression, psychosis or schizophrenia, no drug abuse, no crisis moment; nothing you would expect.”
“And there’re twelve other teenagers in the North-West London NHS trust area alone who are suffering the same symptoms.”
Callum went on blinking with clockwork regularity, staring through me. “Okay,” I said finally. “Why the Midnight Mayor? This could be… a disease, it could be food poisoning, it could be…”
“Are you really that thick?”
“… I’m just saying…”
“Callum,” interrupted Nabeela. “Tell Matthew about what happened three weeks ago.”
“Was there a fight?” asked Callum.
“Tell Matthew about the sound you heard.”
Something glimmered behind Callum’s eyes, and his head twisted as if looking around to seek a memory. Then he said, “I was out with my friends. We were not doing our best. We were wrong. I heard a sound. It gave pain. Some of us were afraid but I think it was a good fear. It made me better. Then it went. Did I remember well?”
“What did you see?” asked Nabeela gently.
“It hurt,” he replied. “Hurt.”
“I know it hurt,” she said, leaning forward and resting her hands gently on Callum’s own. “I know it is hard, but I need you to remember for Matthew here. What did you see, the night it hurt?”
“We were doing bad,” he breathed. “We are better now.”
“You and your friends weren’t being good? What were you doing?”
“You were drinking alcohol?”
“We were drinking… beer.” He stumbled over the word, spitting it out like a loose tooth.
“And then what?”
“The high-pitched sound, and then what?”
“What did you see?”
His tongue darted over his lips, the first sign of anything other than dead neutrality. “Callum,” murmured Nabeela, fingers tightening over his, “this is so important. Tell me what you saw.”
“A shadow. Fell. Fell on us. Sound and hurt and shadow.”
“Don’t want to.”
“Don’t want to.”
“You want to be good? You want to be better?”
He hesitated, then nodded dully.
“Then tell us.”
“Shadow fell on us. Sound. High sound. Sound hurt.” Callum scrunched up his eyes in a mimicry of pain. “Here.” He bent over double. Then straightened up and added, “Shadow had claws.”
Nabeela’s hands stayed resting on his. She smiled. “Thank you, Callum.”
“I did good?”
“Yes. Very good.”
“You are good,” he concluded, like one reaching the end of a long and difficult thought process. “I did good. I hope to do good. Thank you.”
Nabeela stood up, glanced at me and said, “Any further questions?”
I shook my head.
“Good. Maybe now you can get your boss into gear.”
The parents were still arguing as we let ourselves out. We closed the front door to a scream of “… bills? You think this is about the fucking bills…?”
Nabeela and I stood in the settling gloom of an early London night, breath steaming.
“Okay,” I said. “So what’s the deal?”
She started walking, and I fell into pace beside her. As she walked, she talked.
“Callum used to run with a bunch of kids from the local estate. There were five of them, aged fourteen to seventeen, used to hang out together. They did a bit of graffiti, smoked a bit of pot, drank a lot of beer, were loud at night. We sometimes got complaints from the neighbours—those kids were up at midnight drinking and shouting and I’ve got work tomorrow—those kids overturned a Dumpster—those kids pissed on my front door—that kind of stuff. It’s horrid—if you experience it, I mean. Rubbish, pee, noise, it all adds up, and so yeah, we had the odd word with them. But they weren’t criminals, they weren’t into knives or skunk or meth or any of that. They were just… you know… noisy pain-in-the-arse kids.
“So three weeks ago I get a call from the local coppers. One of Callum’s mates has turned up dead. He’s lying on his back on the local football cage where the boys like to hang out. He’s seventeen years old, and there’s blood in his ears, and running out of his nose, and he’s just staring straight up at nothing and there’s these marks all over him, like animal marks, claw marks, but—and get this—no animal they’ve ever seen. I mean when the cops tell you that, you start thinking okay, banshee, werewolf, let’s get out the garlic and the ginger or whatever. But when the cops arrived, the other kids were just standing there. Four of them, just stood in the middle of the pitch, and they’re not upset, or shouting, or defiant, or covered in blood, or nothing. The police psychologist does as a shrink will and diagnoses them all with post-traumatic stress, but seriously? Four boys all with the exact same symptoms, all at once, just stood next to the corpse of their best mate? And they all say the same thing. There was a sound, there was a pain, there were claws, and then they felt better. I mean, my God, next to a corpse and they felt better. That’s not werewolves, and it’s not just their brains. That’s something else.”
“Is it just them?” I asked.
“There’s been a few odd things. You hear of kids from problem estates, you know, the ones doing the drugs and the knives and stuff, and then one day they just turn round and go, ‘I shall be good’ and everyone’s like ‘Wahey, they’re better now, they’re going to be model citizens’ and it’s kinda left at that. No one cares if a kid stops being trouble; it’s just one less bit of paperwork. But this is the first time anyone’s died.”
“And none of the kids said anything.”
“Not about the murder.”
“The police are sure it is murder?”
Nabeela gave me the look of a domesticated homo sapiens starting to wonder if it was such a good idea to invite the Neanderthal cousins round for tea. “Nah,” she said. “Because, like, the dead kid totally tore his own skin to bits and completely managed to commit suicide by repeatedly banging his own head against the floor?”
“Anyone hear sounds of struggle?”
“No one heard nothing. Just the kids—they heard a high-pitched sound and that’s it.”
“Any signs of struggle on the four boys?”
“And you think it’s going to happen again? I mean, that’s where you’re going with this, isn’t it?”
“What do you think, consulting-man?”
I walked on before answering, taking my thoughts one word at a time. “I think there’s something here worth looking at. I think you’ve got very little to go on at the moment. I think if you took this to the Aldermen they’d tell you to get out, and in the grand scheme of things they’d be right.”
“Just wait a…” she began, but I cut her off.
“I think there still might be something else at work. And if there isn’t, then there’s a serious problem. I think you should probably have hired a private investigator. I think that the grand scheme of things is a cruel place. I think… I think…”
“I think I’ll try to help you.”
“Good. You going to call your boss now or later?”
Despite myself, we smiled. “The Midnight Mayor’s not all he’s cracked up to be.”
“And you’re Superman on speed?”
“Just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“I’m a social worker,” she retorted. “If something, anything good happens, it’s a small miracle. If something big happens, it’s Jesus walking on the water.”
We were heading back towards the station. A small chapel, with a poster outside exhorting us to ‘Save the Roof,’ housed a beggar in its doorway. He sat with his knees to his chin in a thick blue sleeping bag, nails cracked and hair grown white. A paper cup for any spare change stood beside him. I paused, and fumbled in my pocket for coins.
Nabeela was saying, “You know, when I said ‘You going to call now or later?’ what I kinda meant was, can you call now?”
“You’re quite… forceful, aren’t you?” I replied.
Her look could have stopped a runaway cement truck. “Call your boss. There’s something out there with claws. And this is your lucky day—someone else gets to deal with it.”
I’d found a small fistful of change, and put it into the beggar’s cup. He looked up, his gummy eyes red around the lids. He said, “Domine dirige nos.”
Lord lead us.
The words were half lost behind his almost toothless mouth, but they were still familiar enough to slurp out like a fart joke at a royal wedding. For a moment our eyes met, then he seemed to lose interest.
“You’re welcome,” I breathed. The ceremonial scars itched where they’d been carved in my hand. I glanced down the road, and thought I saw, under the glow of streetlight, another man—shaggy coat, tangled beard, crooked broken-brimmed hat—before he turned away and vanished.
“What’d he say?” asked Nabeela as we walked away.
“Where was it?” I demanded. “The murder. Where’d it happen?”
She didn’t answer, but turned off down a street of scruffy terraced houses. A few hundred yards on, and we came to a tarmacked area of open space surrounded by plane trees. A chain-link cage enclosed a small, five-a-side football pitch. Empty beer cans and a drift of crisp packets littered the edge of the cage. But only one small bunch of withered flowers with a note proclaiming ‘For Kenny’ suggested anything out of the ordinary had happened here.
The gate onto the pitch had a thick brass padlock around a heavy rusting chain. But the lock gave easily to persuasion and I let us in.
If there had been blood on the tarmac, it had been well washed off, leaving just the usual stains of spilt drinks and ancient trodden gum. A wall at the far end of the pitch bore a mixture of graffiti good and bad—at the top end of the spectrum, an urban fox in bright orange and black turned its head quizzically out of the bricks to glance at us as it trotted by. At the less arty end were the usual scrawls—BMN TEAM or MD4EVR or JESTER written in flares of blue and green across each other. I walked closer, letting the urban streetlight twist around me, the better to shine on the wall, looking for the tags and enchantments of the magicians who dabbled in paint. The White City Clan were the foremost graffiti artists, but other affiliations in the city—the Union, the Guild, the Tribe—as well as local hedge wizards and witches—used graffiti to mark their territory and spread their powers. I ran my fingers over the bricks, feeling the mortar scratch beneath my nails, and felt…
A thoroughly disappointing wall.
Nabeela said, “What you doing?”
“Nothing. Nothing there.” I turned away and, as I did, my hand brushed over a bit of paint half scratched out below the picture of a mermaid wearing a sailor’s hat. And there it was, that buzz beneath my fingertips, taste of metal on my tongue. I bent down to see closer.
It was an eye, drawn about the size of a human head, with a vast black pupil and a tiny iris of grey, set in a perfect white oval. There were no eyelids or lashes, no gender or any other colour; but it was still, unmistakably, an eye. And, looking at it, I could not shake the sensation that it was staring right back.
I pulled my fingers away, straightened up sharply and turned my back towards the wall.
“Something?” asked Nabeela.
I walked back into the centre of the pitch, careful to keep my back still facing the wall, and squatted down to run my fingers over the tarmac. “The kid who died—how old was he?”
“Claws, you said?”
“Callum said,” she replied. “I just reported.”
“Cremated,” she answered with a grimace. “Not so much use.”
“I didn’t ask. You born suspicious, or does it come with the turf?”
“I’ve got baggage. Issues with death, you know how it is.”
From where I was, I could see most of the street around. The houses were all pretty much the same, but on the corner, right at the edge of my vision, a little green and white sign lit up the night. A shop, stuck into the corner of a building—and, more than that, a post office. I stood up quickly. “Come on, then.”
Nabeela followed, with the look of one not sure whether to be hopeful or grumble.
The post office was one of those little local institutions that sold as many water pistols and “get well soon” cards as it ever handled mail. Its longest queues were probably pensioners arriving weekly to get their weekly tuppence from the harried woman behind the counter; alone in the night, it already felt threatened. The shutters were down, but a small ATM peeked through a cut-out in the metal. Above the cash dispenser was a CCTV camera.
I needed something to stand on. From the nearest small front garden, I dragged a heavy black bin by its encrusted handles, and kicked it into position below the camera. Supporting myself against the metal shutter, I felt the lid buckle beneath my weight as I shuffled my feet to the very edges of the bin. In this precarious position, I found the CCTV camera was just about reachable.
Nabeela said, “This is going to be impressive, right?”
I shushed her irritably and, leaning gingerly forward, put myself on the same eye-line as the camera. Tightening my fingers around it, I let my eyes drift shut and
flicker in darkness behind eyes rods and cones rods and cones pattern of darkness falling
flickering becomes dancing, dancing becomes darting, black and white static, static in front of the eyes and in the ears and then
and then here it comes run back and back a step further and
The image was bad, a black-and-white world seen through a bad hangover, but it was still recognisable. I could hear the little insides of the machine ticking over like a sleepless dream in the back of my mind, feel electricity running through me in the ridged patterns of current down a circuit board, my arms wired with silicon, my belly a microchip relaying data in and out of me in short sharp bursts, the snick-snack of information banging against the inside of my skull like metal blue-bottles in a jar. The football pitch was scarcely visible, the base of the fence’s nearest corner just peeking into my field of view. I forced the camera to roll back, digging into its memory.
It wasn’t on continuous feed, but took only a few images per minute. Cars jerked in and out of the street, captured for an instant and gone. Women with buggies talked to each other on the way to the nursery and then struggled home with shopping in the seat where babies had been. Boys in baggy trousers swanned into the post office and left with fizzy drinks in hand. The local drunk danced a lurid dance round the nearest lamppost for an hour or so of deluded circling. Cars parked, cars left. The rubbish truck obscured the image of the street for a long moment, then it and a thick pile of black bin bags were gone.
I pushed further back, searching for police cars and monsters. The image blurred, only the houses a constant, people running in and out of sight, bicycles being chained and unchained from railings. A queue of pensioners grew outside the post office, shrivelled, then grew back. The postmistress opened and shut the place, opened and shut, opened and shut. And suddenly, for just a second:
I felt a lurch in my stomach as I forced it to stop, dragged the image back to that flicker of police cars. There it was, a single police car rolling up into the street, coppers around the chain fence, then another police car, then a police truck, tape across the road, people in dressing gowns and slippers coming out of the front door to see what the fuss was about. I pushed back further, to before the first police car arrived and there they were, five of them, all boys, just like Nabeela had said. They had plastic bags, a beer bottle peeking out of the top of one, another splitting under the square bulk of a six-pack. They were only there for a moment before they had vanished inside the football pitch, out of sight of the camera. Images surged by, growing grainier as darkness fell. A couple of kids kicked a ball together down the street. A man and a woman paused to check their A–Z, bickering under a street light about where to go. An old woman pushing a shopping bag on wheels shot a dirty glance towards the invisible pitch. And then nothing.
And a little more nothing.
A plastic bag blew against the edge of the railings, and flapped there.
A car drove by and moved on.
The postmistress closed and left.
There was a shadow across the camera.
Then the first police car arrived.
I pushed back. Forced the film to go slow, one crawling image at a time. When it came, it was almost too brief to see; but there, just for a moment in a flare of static, something half unseen flitted past the camera. No, not past the camera; across the lights. I wasn’t seeing it, whatever it was: just a distorted shadow, a thing thrown by the light. I froze the picture, tried to find some detail in its grainy shape. The overstretching shadow of a body, swollen and lumpen? A protrusion that might have been an arm, or a flailing leg? Or possibly, just believably, a claw?
And then it was gone.
I let go of the camera with a shudder and slipped down from the top of the bin. Nabeela too was trying to hide a look of concern. I hadn’t realised how much time had passed. My fingers were turning white, my nose was heading for numb.
“You okay?” she asked.
I nodded, trying to catch my breath.
Just how big, and how bad, could have been the thing that threw that shadow? No answer satisfied me. Then my gaze drifted over to the wall of graffiti; and that single black-and-white eye stared right back.
“Wait here,” I murmured. As I walked back towards it, I opened up my satchel. Inside it I had all the usual tools of the sorcerer—blank keys, travelcard, map, Swiss army knife—as a matter of principle, and I also made sure to carry the most useful enchantment tool of the age. The can of spray paint I had for this purpose held a cobalt blue, and had done me all sorts of service. I shook it as I advanced on the painted eye, stopped a foot away, hesitated, then carefully began to write, straight over it.
IT HAS CLAWS
And as the drips ran down, washing over the perfect white of the eye, I turned and walked away.
We were on our way back to the Tube. As we got close to the station a train was just pulling out, blue-white flashes lighting up the houses clinging to the sides of the track as it screeched off towards Hammersmith.
There was a pause in the traffic on the nearby motorway, rare enough to catch my ear. In that pause, as I happened to look towards Nabeela, in its place there was the sound of hissing, of static hissing, so low and quiet as to be almost unnoticeable except for the lull in other noises. For a moment it was as though it came from close at hand—from where she stood—and…
Then a bus rattled by, and Nabeela was saying, “… so you’ll be okay with that, yeah?”
“If I can get something more, you’ll bring the Midnight Mayor down to see what’s happening?”
“Uh… I guess so. And, Nabeela?”
“Don’t do anything… you know…”
“Dangerous? Brave? Noble? Unexpected?”
“Let’s say… in violation of local council health and safety procedures.”
She laughed. “Hey—I totally did that when I went to you for help, right?” At the barrier, ticket in hand, she hesitated. “Hey, Matthew?”
“I don’t know if you’ll turn out a complete jerk or a waste of time. But, for coming down here, I mean, taking a look and all that…”
And that was the start of that.
The Hammersmith and City Line crawled out west, past decaying stations held up with scaffold poles and optimism. I had no particular justification in going this way, but felt that if I followed my instinct long enough, it would duly lead me to trouble. After all I was Midnight Mayor.
At Shepherd’s Bush, the low, jagged townscape was disrupted by the great white mausoleum of the Westfield shopping centre, encircled by traffic and moated by car parks. Turning south, the track ran above the street markets of Goldhawk Road, covered over for the night along their alleyways butted against the brick arches of the railway. The approach into Hammersmith was slow and jolting as we waited for a platform to clear.
I thought about the eye staring over the football pitch where, a few weeks ago, a kid had died; killed, seemingly, by a shadow that came and went in a breath. I thought about Callum, staring through me in his gloomy bedroom. I thought about the beggar in the chapel doorway to whom I’d given a few coins, and the note on my chair—THE BEGGAR KING WANTS TO TALK—and that other Post-it, left on the corner of my desk where its innocuousness guaranteed it would be seen.
You can’t save those who don’t want to be saved.
Outside the station, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked this part of town. Another shopping centre, this one a faded baby-pink, sat on a huge roundabout fed by yet another main road, this one from Heathrow and packed solid most of the day and night. Oversized pubs spilt out crowds, boozing alongside the stalled traffic, while buses vied to crawl up into the local terminal like a great herd at a watering hole. Hammersmith was a place between worlds, where motorway dwindled into A-road, where grand terraced houses with well-groomed gardens met with flats of immigrants fed on baked beans and Marmite; where great corporate offices shared sandwich deliveries with struggling enterprises whose every month in the black was a triumph beyond compare. It was a place of all magics at once, where, like hot and cold air colliding, the mystical flavour of the city created an unpredictable storm.
I started walking at random, heading south and west past curry houses, pet shops and mobile phone retailers specialising in unlocking without asking. I could taste the river, close but just unseen, its smell sometimes sneaking through gaps between the buildings.
I was nearly at Putney when she rang.
It would be nice to say I knew who and what it was, before it happened. But sometimes the phone just rings.
The number didn’t come up as hers, but when I answered I could hear her breath, hard and slow. Though her voice was distorted by the phone and something more, something worse, I recognised it at once.
“Matthew?” she said. “I’m… in trouble. I don’t want to go.”
“Meera?” I breathed, stopping dead in the street. Sometimes you don’t need to ask more questions, there was enough in her voice to know. “Where are you?”
“Don’t let them take me!” she gasped, and there was a jerkiness to her voice that suggested it was trying to break. “Don’t let them!”
“Meera, tell me where you are.”
“I’m…” she began, and the phone went dead.
I cursed and redialled.
Her phone rang for nearly a minute and she still didn’t answer. I was already boarding at a bus stop, heading for Putney Bridge station.
I phoned again as I crossed the Thames, remembering the cold of that night we’d taken the boat together from Greenwich, feeling it deeper now in my bones than just memory could recreate. Still no answer. At Putney I got out and beeped my way through the gate onto the mainline platform, leaping down the steps two at a time. The next train was in four minutes.
I pressed the phone between my palms, half closing my eyes, and forced my breath to slow. I slowed my thoughts, slowed my heart, forced the tension out of my arms, and opened my hands again to hold the phone between them like a lotus flower in the palms of a priest. Her number was already on the screen; I thumbed it, let it dial, and as it dialled, turned slowly on the spot, turning the phone to point south, west, north, and finally east. As it reached east it began to ring, loudly, a high tinkling coming from the little speaker. I swung south-east and the ringing faded down, lower; swung north-east and it rang louder. It wasn’t a perfect tracking system, but it would do.
I took the train, heading east towards Waterloo.
At Clapham Junction the phone still rang towards the north-east. I stuck on the train for Waterloo as we pulled out past commuters crowding onto the platforms, headed to such strange, surely promising places as Winnersh Triangle, Epsom Downs or Carshalton Beeches. If Clapham had the largest number of trains going through it of any station in Britain, it was merely where people changed, rather than a place prized for its own qualities. Waterloo, however, was a destination, teeming day and night with crowds impossible to navigate at any speed higher than the platform-hunter’s waltz. A swelling sea of commuters ebbed and flowed, from south London and the Home Counties, with the relentless quality of tidal drift. I wove past shops selling sausage pies, silk ties, mobile phones and novels about shopping and love recommended by people from the TV, and still my phone was ringing towards the north-east.
I dared not go underground and lose the signal, so struck out for the buses across the river. I caught one on the bridge itself, opposite the brightly lit walls of the National Theatre, whose flat grey shapes only came alive at night, under great washes of colour. As my bus headed up Kingsway, between grand buildings made from 1930s pride and Portland stone, my phone started ringing towards the east; I changed at Holborn and headed towards Chancery Lane and St Paul’s. It had been over half an hour since Meera had called. I spent a small surge of strength on turning any red traffic light green as we approached the old city boundary and, when we crossed into the Golden Mile, once encircled by the London Wall and whose symbol was still the dragon holding a shield of twin red crosses, I felt it like a jolt of pure caffeine straight into the heart. My scarred right hand buzzed: here, of anywhere in London, I was at home. My phone kept ringing towards the east, and I wondered how much further I would have to go: Bishopsgate? Aldgate? Shadwell?
On Cheapside the signal turned south. I jumped off the bus at a stop near the blank stone walls of the Bank of England, and the Merchant Exchange’s temple-like pillars. Tarmac gave way to cobbled stone and a church left over from the age of dark stone walls and low grassy graves peeked out between the glass towers of the city. My signal swung suddenly round and I followed, the sound of ringing accompanying me down an almost empty street. A sushi bar on the right was full of men and women in suits, never less than four to a table, eating expertly with chopsticks; on the left a small dry-cleaner’s offered a forty-minute service for the harried executive. I could feel all the shadows here, taste the power in the streets, deep and dark and waiting, feel it move beneath my feet, a well of time and magic that had no bottom, waiting to be tapped. The old stone city walls may have been mostly demolished centuries ago, but there were other barriers, unseen, wrapped around this part of the city, designed as much for keeping secrets in as enemies out. On street corners or embedded in coats of arms on grand municipal buildings, we could feel the watching mad eyes of the silver-skinned dragons of London.
Close, now. The slightest turn of my wrist changed the ring tone. A small street of older buildings: a tiny sandwich shop with sash windows and an empty lantern-holder of black iron; next to that, a wine bar and, incongruous in this cramped old street, a door of shiny mottled silver. A small red carpet had been rolled out in front, and a man, if men came in grizzly bear size, stood outside. A badge on his suit proclaimed him a licensed bouncer for a club calling itself Avalon. The closed door behind him, and the bolted look on his face, suggested that Avalon was not a universally welcoming establishment.
But it was in the direction of that door, and that door alone, that my phone kept ringing.
I hung up. My battery was nearly dead, and the silence felt shocking after all that trilling.
I walked up to the bouncer and said, “I’m looking for Meera.”
“Sorry, sir,” he said, not unfriendly, but in the tone of voice of a man hoping he didn’t need to get that way.
I smiled. There are two kinds of bouncers in London: the decent ones, just doing it for a living, who hope you don’t mind that they’ve got a job to do and if you’re going to throw up it’s probably time you went home—and the bastards. This man was not a bastard, and, upon reflection, didn’t deserve what was going to happen to him if he got in our way.
I said, “If I ask you to let me in without a fuss, it’ll be difficult, right?”
“Are you on the member’s list, sir?”
“Then I’m afraid I can’t let you in sir, unless a member will vouch for you.”
“I… don’t know her last name.”
He smiled ruefully. “Sorry, sir.”
Excerpted from The Minority Council by Griffin, Kate Copyright © 2012 by Griffin, Kate. 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 August 7, 2012
Posted July 23, 2012
As usual an excellent read and exciting trip through Matthew Swift's magical London. The characters are interesting, the magic superb and the plot twists and turns keep you wanting to read faster to find out what happens. My only critique is this: Matthew's seeming indifference to his position. It seems that many of his problems stem from him putting his fingers in his ears and going "la, la, la". Kelly may be the answer to this problem or at least it seems so in the end. I'm not saying that he should become uber mayor because his personality would not let him and a lot of what drives the story is his beliefs and attitude. I still think that this is an awesome series and recommend this highly to all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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