It's said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, then the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will fall. Resurrected sorcerer Matthew Swift is about to discover that this isn't so far from the truth...
One by one, the protective magical wards that guard the city are falling. This is not good news. This array of supernatural defenses - a mix of international tourist attractions and forgotten urban legends - formed a formidable shield that protects the city of London from threats that are known to no one. But what could be so dangerous as to threaten an entire city?
Matthew Swift is about to find out. And if he's lucky, he might just live long enough to do something about it...
About the Author
Kate Griffin is the name under which Carnegie Medal-nominated author Catherine Webb writes fantasy novels for adults. An acclaimed author of young adult books under her own name, Catherine's amazing debut, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was only 14 years old, and garnered comparisons with Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman. She read History at the London School of Economics, and studied at RADA. Find out more about the author at kategriffin.net.
Read an Excerpt
The Midnight Mayor
By Griffin, Kate
OrbitCopyright © 2011 Griffin, Kate
All right reserved.
Prelude: The Heavy Metal Spectres
In which a sorcerer is surprised to find himself cursed, burnt, branded, chased, and condemned without any apparent reason and in the wrong pair of shoes.
The telephone rang.
… it’s complicated.
No room for anything else.
Time went by.
Don’t know how much. Watch fused to wrist; burnt. No clocks. Mobile phone somewhere in my bag, but my bag wasn’t on my shoulder. Wasn’t near at hand. I raised my head. Drying blood crackled like Velcro. I saw my feet. They were wearing someone else’s shoes. It took a minute to remember why.
I raised my head a little higher.
My bag was on the ground. It had fallen some distance away, spilling paint cans and old socks. Above it swung the telephone. A dribble of blood was running down the receiver and splatting droplets onto the ground. The blood was mine. There didn’t seem to be any other candidate.
I put my head back down on the concrete, and closed my eyes.
More time went by.
It started to rain. Proper nighttime rain, that sensed the wind chill and wished it was snow. I found that my left arm, the one that hadn’t answered the phone, would obey basic commands. I said twitch, it twitched. I said check for anything broken, and it checked. Nothing was broken. Even the blood running down the back of my neck was melodrama. There’s two kinds of head wounds—the kind that look worse than they are, and the kind that kill you. Not dead; not again.
I let my left hand relax.
The wind was blowing the rain in at a 45-degree angle. In the gloom it was visible only as a sheet across the sodium-colored streetlamp at the edge of this patch of concrete nothing. There was a drumming on the roofs and a rumbling in the gutters as three weeks of unswept dirt was washed into the grating. The rain was a blessing. We turned our shaking right hand up to the cool water and let it wash the blood off our fingers. Then, as it started to seep through my coat, shivering and the ache of deep-down cold began to replace the burning pain.
The decision to get out of the rain meant getting up.
Hercules didn’t have anything on us; Muhammad Ali would have been impressed.
We got up.
Halfway there, my knee slipped on the wet concrete. My right hand hit the rough grain of the floor, and we nearly screamed.
The Terminator would have given up and gone to bed by now; the Knights Templar would have called it a day.
I got up. My world swam between bloodred and sapphire-blue. A dying streetlamp buzzed like a mosquito. Water had pooled in the plastic bubble that held the bulb, casting rippling shadows over the black-silver street. I staggered to the phone. My bag was a faded satchel made of plastic fiber pretending to be cotton. I picked it up and slung it over my shoulder. The phone swung uselessly on its cord. From the speaker it made the loneliest sound in the world:
Wedged around the telephone itself, in the gap between machine and wall, were cards offering:
**PERKY PLAYFUL BLONDE**
THINKING OF ENDING IT ALL? CALL THE SAMARITANS.
I had a scarf around my neck; I noticed one end was scorched. I pulled it tighter and tucked it inside my coat, an off-beige color turning off-brown in the rain. Our head hurt. Our everywhere hurt, so many different parts demanding attention that it was hard to identify any single one. In my bag there was a first-aid kit, showing its wear. I found a bandage and wrapped it round my right hand. All I could see was blood, rain, and angry purple flesh puffed up so thick it was hard to tell where my palm ended and my fingers began. To hold the bandage in place, I pulled on a black fingerless glove. Pressure on the pain made it worse; but worse was good. Worse made the agony local, and meant we couldn’t notice all the other parts of us that hurt.
I looked around.
I was in a garage. I knew this because, facing the street, a stained banner the color of weak tea said: “CAR WASH AND SPARE PARTS.” There were no other clues as to its function. Just a concrete floor exposed to the sky, four walls of corrugated iron, and a chain across the entrance. The telephone and a few discarded buckets were the only equipment I could see. Weeds were coming up between the cracks in the floor, and a sheet of torn plastic that might once have been a roof flapped in the wind.
A truck went by in the street outside. The sound of wheels through water always seems further off than it is. At this time of night, or morning, trucks were almost the only vehicles, delivering tomorrow’s supermarket food to be stacked on the shelves behind yesterday’s leftovers. Trucks; and the night buses, every passenger a suspect simply for being awake, every driver a lunatic who hears the call of fifth gear on every empty street.
Our head throbbed. I could feel each artery pulsing. We felt sick. I looked at the telephone receiver; then reached out, knuckles first, not trusting my fingertips to it. And would have touched it except that a sound—or the absence of a sound—held me back.
The beeeeeeeeeepppp of the dial tone stopped.
I drew my hand away instinctively. The phone hung limp as a dead squid. I listened. The sound of rain, the buzzing of a neon light about to pop. I stepped back a few paces, nursing my right hand, watching the telephone.
The sound of rain, the buzzing of a neon lamp, the swish of distant tires…
We half closed our eyes, and listened.
Sound of rain, buzzing of neon, swish of tires, scuttling of rats beneath the streets, scampering of the urban fox, king of the middle of the road, rustling of a pigeon in its overhead gutter; what else? Hum of mains voltage just on the edge of hearing, smell of rain, that incredible, clean smell that washes the dirt out of the air for just a few minutes, banging of a front door somewhere, crackling of a radio left on in the night, wailing of a car alarm, sing-song soaring of a siren, a long way off, distant tumtetetumtetetumtete of a goods train heading for Willesden Junction, and… and…
And there it was, right there on the edge; there was the strangeness.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi bumph bumph chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi bumph bumph…
I couldn’t immediately work out what it was. Our ignorance frightened us. We wanted a weapon.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi went the sound. Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi. We didn’t even have to close our eyes to hear it. Advancing, getting closer. Chi-chichi chi-chichi…
The buzzing neon light gave up, popped and went out, shriveling from sodium orange brightness to a blue shimmer in its core before darkness took it. It’s easy to forget, in the city, how dark real darkness can be.
I started to walk. Climbed over the chain. Stepped out into the street.
There was someone at the far end, a few hundred yards off, smothered in shadows.
They were looking at me.
I turned in the other direction. If my shoes had been my own, I would have run.
I was in Willesden.
Willesden is a nowhere-everywhere.
It isn’t close enough to the center of London to be inner city, nor far enough away to be suburb. It isn’t posh enough to be well tended or have a single class of citizen, nor is it squalid enough to be dubbed “action zone” by a righteous local government bureaucrat. It doesn’t have a unique ethnic character, but instead a mix of all sorts pile in from every corner, from tenth-generation Englishman dreaming of the south of France, to third-generation Afro-Caribbean who has never seen the equatorial sun. It sits astride a maze of transport links, buses, trains, and canals, most of which are passing through to somewhere better. No one quite knows where Willesden begins or ends.
You can find anything you want in Willesden, so long as you don’t go looking for it.
I would not have chosen to be in Willesden of my own accord. But we’d made a promise, and our promise had taken us here. Then a phone had rung in a garage and we’d answered it…
… and now there was something else on the streets tonight.
I could feel it.
A sound like an angry bee stuck in a jar, banging its head in regular and rapid rhythm on the glass.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
Cynics call it fate, romantics call it destiny, lawyers call it malign intent. No one uses the word “coincidence.” I didn’t. If you see vultures flying overhead and hear the distant sound of cannon, you don’t call it coincidence, and in this city there were plenty of scavengers that could be lured out into the night, by the smell of blood. And our blood was a long way from merely human.
We thought of courage, we thought of fighting, we thought of running. Tonight, we concluded, was not a night for pride. Run.
I tried and couldn’t. The shoes on my feet had been part of the promise too. But they were too big for me, and the two pairs of socks I wore to try and make up for it were soaked with rainwater. My right hand had been used as bait in a shark-fishing competition, my head had been sawn off for the trophy and reattached with a staple gun. And deep down we knew, though we didn’t dare think about it, that these were probably just the superficial consequences of the night’s work. There are more things you can catch from a telephone besides a burnt hand.
So I walked as fast as I could through the rain, head rising like a pigeon’s to look ahead, then down to blink water from my eyes, then up again. Postbox, streetlights, falling rain, terraced houses, zebra crossing, with one of the flashing orange bubbles on its post smashed long ago. The lights were off in all the houses, except for the flickering of a TV to whose comforting nothings an old lady had fallen asleep this night like all the others. In someone’s back garden, a cat shrieked with that unnatural sound that was either sex or death.
At a T-junction ahead a night bus stood; shadows sat in the bright whiteness of its windows. It was a short-route single-decker, the kind associated with old people out to collect their pension books, and empty beer cans rolling with each acceleration and brake. I couldn’t see a number and didn’t care. Four red walls and a set of wheels were all the protection I needed.
I picked up speed, half walking, half falling over the rhythm of my own feet, no longer caring if I was cold or wet, so long as I was somewhere that wasn’t here. The road became lined with council flats, built from grey concrete streaked black in the rain. Lights shone from the communal doorways, and on the low wall separating the ground-floor flats from the street, some wit had written in tall white letters:
GIVE ME BACK MY HAT
I turned to follow the bus, in time to watch its brake lights disappear round a corner. Closer to, I saw the dim white light of a bus shelter, overhung by a plane tree. I went towards it, my shadow playing backwards and forwards like one cast on a sundial as I passed under the streetlamps.
There was someone at the bus shelter. Either I hadn’t noticed him, or he’d just arrived.
There were also other, nastier possibilities. We tried to ignore them.
He sat on the narrow red bench, which was designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. His knees were wide apart as if someone had stuck a frisbee down his pants, his arms were folded across his chest to make it clear he didn’t care about anything. He wore pale grey trousers three sizes too big, passed down by an elder brother moved on to better things, whose crotch began around the knees; a pair of black gloves like a motorbiker’s gauntlets; sporty trainers adorned with rip-off logos; and a hoodie. The grey hood was drawn so low over his face I couldn’t even see a protruding nose. It looked more like a cowl than a fashion accessory or, heaven forbid, protection against the weather. His head bounced gently to the rhythm playing from a pair of headphone cables that vanished into the interior of his tracksuit. The only sound that escaped them was a regular:
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
Not an angry bee, but the bass rhythm of a song turned up too loud; tune, if there was one, lost to beat. Madness was no longer talking to yourself; technology had changed all that.
But this was something more.
On the top of the shelter someone had thrown a small plastic screwdriver and what looked like a child’s left shoe, pretty pink turned dirty grey by the rain and the darkness. The single white lamp in the shelter was stained with dirty spots where a hundred insects had crawled inside it, and found it too hot for their wings to bear. A moth was the only survivor, fluttering impotently against the plastic cover.
The hoodie kept on bobbing to that invisible beat.
You don’t ask strangers their business when waiting for the bus. Especially not in the small hours of the morning. I leaned against the stop with its list of what was due when, and clutched at my burning hand.
Coincidence is usually mentioned only when something good happens. Whenever it’s something bad, it’s easier to blame someone, something. We don’t like coincidence, though we were newer to this world than I. Inhabiting my flesh, being me as I was now us, we had quickly come to understand why so many sorcerers had died from lack of cynicism. I had been a naive sorcerer, and so I had died. We, who had been reborn in my flesh, were not about to make the same error. Too many people had heard of the blue electric angels for our new-found mortality to ever be safe.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
And because I didn’t believe in coincidence, I raised my head from contemplation of the bus timetable, turned to the hoodie on the red plastic bench and said, “Hey, you got the time?”
He didn’t move.
“Hey, mate, you got a light?”
He looked round, taking his time. He didn’t need to rush; his kind never do. I stepped back, reaching instinctively with my bandaged fingers for the nearest light, the nearest whiff of mains power.
It’d have been nice, for once, to be surprised.
And “he” was an “it,” and “it” had no face. It was a sack of clothes sitting on empty air, a pair of white headphones plugged into the floating nothing of his not-ears. The body of his clothes, bulked out so humanly, was held in shape by air, by an ignorance of gravity and a perversion of pressure, by floating shadow and drifting emptiness bundled together into a nothing-something in a tracksuit. He was an it, and it was a spectre.
Once, when I was a kid, I was taken to see a seer. His name was Khan. He read the future in the entrails of old shopping bags and the interweaving of vapor trails in the sky. He told me a lot of things, most of them sounding like they came out of a Christmas cracker; but finally he said “Yeah, man… you’re like… you know… like gonna die.”
I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I kinda figured that.” Sorcerers do not have a long life expectancy, especially urban ones.
“Hey, dude, you totally don’t get it!” he replied. “You’re like… gonna die. It’s after when it gets complicated.”
At the time I thought he was being pretentiously metaphorical.
There are two ways to look at the gift of prophecy. Theory the first goes like this: prophet sees future = there is a predetermined path that the prophet is capable of perceiving = destiny = no free will = almighty God with a really sick sense of fun. Which is bad news if you’re anyone lower than “pope” in the spiritual pecking order of life.
Theory the second: prophet sees future = ability to determine with an almost omnipotent degree of accuracy and skill the one most likely future from a whole host of determining factors, including human free will, random variables and continual and unexpected cock-up, what will happen next = omnipotence = God in mortal flesh. Khan didn’t look like any sort of God to me, but as Mr Bakker always said, sorcerers should keep an open mind. Just in case someone tried to hit it with a sledgehammer.
That was back in the good old days.
Back before Mr Bakker’s stroke. Back before Mr Bakker resolved not to die. Back before his shadow grew a pair of teeth and a taste for blood. Back before the Tower killed the sorcerers of the city in Mr Bakker’s name. Back before his shadow killed me, one gloomy night by the river, in its endless quest for life. Before the blue electric angels, the battles and the vengeance and the life left behind in the telephone wires.
Back before we came back into this mortal world.
No human can survive having their major organs ripped out by the angry manifestation of a dying sorcerer’s incarnated will. Or, for that matter, by any other sharpened implement. And while my continued existence may argue against this medical truth, I was always reminded when I looked in the mirror that once upon a time my eyes had been brown. Not our burning electric blue.
Khan, in his own special, unhelpful way, had been right all along.
Imagine my embarrassment.
See what we were capable of, when the situation called?
Our feet flapped and flopped on the wet pavement, our breath was a puff of cloud lost in the rain. I’d never realised how ridiculous a man can sound when running, all bouncing bag and thumping shoe, graceless and soaked. I crossed the empty street and was inside a council estate in a matter of seconds that took an hour each to pass, rushing past doors behind iron grates, and doors with children’s pictures doodled on them, and windows broken and windows cleaned and doorsteps scrubbed and bicycles locked and bicycles smashed and bins overturned and bins emptied and flowers tended and pots abandoned and council pledges made and council policies forgotten and walls graffitied with all the rambling thoughts of the inhabitants…
C & J 4EVER
WHO DOESNT LIKE BULLET TRAINS THINK ABOUT IT
CALIPER BOY SMELLS
apkam geri ver!
There was a play area in the middle of a forlorn patch of grass: two sad swings above “safe” tarmac that falling children could bounce on. A bike, its handlebar, wheels, and seat ripped off, was chained to some railings.
Next to the bike, another spectre was waiting. At first I thought he was just some kid. But when he looked up, there was nothing inside that hood to stare with. And that nothing stared straight at me. He was dressed identically to the one at the bus stop; but nothing could have moved that fast, and the beat out of his headphones went dumdumdumdumdumdumdumdum with relentless cardiac monotony. For a moment we regarded each other, I too tired to look afraid, he too empty to look anything at all. Then he tilted his head back, and roared. It was the sound of old brakes about to fail, screeching a last scream on an icy road, of razored metal being scraped over a rusted surface, of a guitar string just as it snaps. I ducked and covered my ears, hoping to get below the sound. Around me it made each window pane hum and crack, and set the swings swinging in distress.
Spectres always hunt together, and it’s easy to mistake a summons for a scream. I pushed my left ear into my shoulder and reached deep in my satchel until I found what I was looking for: a can of red spray paint. I shook it and, turning on the spot, drew around me a double red line. It spattered in the rain, and started to blur. I thought for a moment it wouldn’t hold—but a double red line is a powerful enchantment, even in the worst of weathers, and as I completed the shape, its paint flashed brighter and settled, gleaming, into a solid state.
The summons stopped. Perhaps the spectre reasoned that sound wouldn’t do much good against my ward on the ground. Perhaps it ran out of air from inside its floating chest. The physiognomy of a creature that isn’t there is hard to study. I could hear the wailing of car alarms set off by the din; lights were coming on behind the area’s newly cracked windows. Soon the whole estate would be up and buzzing, and then so would be the police, and then questions, about the dead and the almost dead and the should-be dead. We couldn’t afford to waste time on such details.
The spectre moved towards me. He had no shadow and, apart from the dumdumdumdumdumdumdum of his headphones, made no sound as he approached.
Behind me was the chi-chichi chi-chichi of the creature at the bus stop and, somewhere against the car alarms, another rising bass line, of:
Boom boom boom boom-te-boom boom boom boom boom-te-boom…
I squatted down inside my red circle and pressed my fingers into the ground, sniffing the air. I had none of the right equipment, nothing that could do more than slow down the pack. Just checking my bag had wasted twenty yards of their inexorable stride. The nearest spectre stopped, its toes scraping the edge of my double red line. Reaching with a gloved hand into the saggy kangaroo pocket of its grey jumper, it pulled out a flick knife. The knife was cheap black plastic with a silverish blade which revealed a series of notches at the hilt end that probably served no purpose, except to make an ugly weapon somehow “cool” by being that bit more ugly. The blade was no more than four inches long; but when four inches is two inches longer than the thickness of your wrist, size doesn’t matter. We watched it, fascinated.
The spectre drew back the blade, held it up, and rammed it towards my face. As it passed through the air above the red lines it stuck, point-first, as if buried in thick foam; beneath it, the paint on the ground bubbled and hissed. Still the spectre kept up the pressure, pushing with both hands on the hilt. A little at a time, the blade began to move towards me.
Behind, a hiss-swipe through the air and the smell of burning plastic announced that the second spectre was doing the same with its knife. Coming out of a corner by the refuse bins was a third, heading towards me with a casual swagger. It knew it didn’t need to run.
I dug my fingers deeper into the tarmac. It bent beneath them with the cold, crinkly texture of dry cereal, resisted, then parted. I pushed in my fingers, my wrist, then the lower arm, then in as far as my elbow, straining to delve through the mass of the earth. Still not deep enough. I cursed and bent lower, pressing my cheek to the ground and pushing my shoulder into the tarmac. It was faint and a long way off, but close enough now for my fingers to tingle with it, and most of all, I could smell it. Gas mains have always been built down deep; it’s a sensible enough precaution.
I dragged my fingers out of the pavement, trailing loose chips of black tarmac. Wet dirt, grey, the color of clay, clung to the length of my arm as I pulled myself free. When my fingertips finally came away, there was a broad tear in the earth, and the air above it wriggled like a desert mirage. The smell of gas is artificially pumped into it at the factory, a dry stink that makes itself known in every part of the nostrils and tickles at the back of the throat. I scrambled to my feet and let it rise around me, watched it spill out around my feet and ankles and, raising my hands, dragged more of it higher even as the red paint I had sprayed onto the ground began to melt, dribble, lose its shape. As the shimmering on the air spread around me, bringing tears to my eyes and making my lungs hurt, I reached into my satchel, digging deep for a much-used lighter that had never lit a cigarette. I slotted it into my bandaged right hand, drawing my coat up around my face and hunching my shoulders to present as small a target as possible.
When the ward broke, it did so fast. The third spectre, Mr Boom boom boom boom-te-boom, was still a few yards away. The paint bubbling at my feet gave way, turned black, and peeled like dead skin off a corpse. Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi put his full weight on his blade, making it jerk forward and down in an arc meant for my neck. I closed my eyes, and spun the wheel of the cigarette lighter.
I was aware of pain in the vicinity of my left collarbone, but it wasn’t the moment to care. Though my eyes were pressed tight, the flash from the ignition burnt to the back of my retinas like a full summer’s sun. Even with my coat wrapped around me and all the will I could spare focused on keeping the flames away, the heat dried up every inch of my lungs, burnt the inside of my nose, turned my tongue to leather, singed my eyebrows and caused black smoke to dribble from my hair. It was the thump-hiss of all igniting gas stoves, and it spread out around from me in a pool of shimmering leakage from deep below the streets, a bright blue centre spitting out a circle of yellow flame. Those windows close by that hadn’t been broken by the spectre’s cry were now blasted inwards, shredding curtains, and embedding glass in every wall. The bins lined up at the recycling point were blasted open and their contents set instantly alight.
It faded quickly, leaving just a hiss-whine as the gas still trickling up from the pavement burnt at my feet like a candle, smothered to a tiny core by the falling rain. Every sound I still heard had to seep through a background whumph in my ears; every sight seemed dimmer, full of spinning whiteness that followed the movement of my eyeballs. Steam rose in tropical illusion from my hair and coat. The soles of my shoes, their laces charred, ripped away from the tarmac, leaving their impression on the hot earth.
The spectres had been thrown back from the blast, and two of them were still aflame. They staggered in the rain, trying to douse the fires eating through their clothing, revealing the nothingness beneath shreds of sleeve and blackened baggy trousers. Their headphones were still playing the relentless rhythms that marked out each one. A blast that would have stopped an angry mammoth had barely singed these creatures, and bought me not nearly as much time as I’d wanted. I cursed from the bottom of my soul. Feet hissing as my hot soles met the cold, rain-soaked tarmac, I ran.
I was two streets away before breathlessness and a burning in every muscle forced me to slow to an uneasy lope. My mind caught up with the rest of me, and reported another, new sensation—a hot, itchy dribble from just below my left shoulder. I kept walking, tugging my scarf and coat aside to see the problem, and found my shirt stained pink from a mixture of rainwater and blood. A spectre’s knife, though wide of its target, had certainly found something. The bloody gash ran from just below my collarbone to deep beneath my left armpit. With each step I took it opened and shut like it was telling some obscene joke. Turning our face away, we pressed our bandaged hand over the injury, and smothered it from sight. Not too far behind, we heard the spectres’ screams again and the crack of fractured glass. We tried to run, but only managed a few undignified paces before the pain throughout our limbs announced that death was preferable to haste.
A street corner brought me to a road lined with shops, the kind above which sat the owner’s home, lights dimmed and curtains drawn. These were the strange, unlikely businesses driven from the centre of town years ago: discount stores selling nothing but plastic boxes and drying racks, hairdressers specialising in dreadlocks, wholesalers of Jamaican spice, cobblers who cut keys and sold raincoats as well, suspicious computer shops offering 5p-per-minute calls to Zambia. Strange, anorexic mannequins, creatures with waists as thick as my neck, stared out from bargain clothes shops, with scornful eyes. Inside a darkened pub, the bingo machine rippled all the colours of the rainbow, promising a £20 jackpot on only a £1 investment and the spinning of three cherries. From overflowing council bins spilled free newspapers, and takeaway boxes, their contents snuffled out by a prowling, falafel-addicted fox. Cars were only one a minute, and the traffic lights phased red-amber-green-amber-red at nothing except me and the rain.
I could hear…
… still a long way behind, but no denying what I could hear, I was past the point where imagination lied…
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
Boom boom boom boom-te-boom boom…
Shhhshhhshhhshhha shhhshhhshhhshhha shhhshhhshhhshhha…
Spectres always hunted in packs. Four or five was the average, but I’d read an article that reported as many as twelve in some cities.
I staggered down the street, snatching hot neon light from the streetlamps as I went, and bundling it into my clenched fists, bringing its comforting sodium glow close to my face and chest to wash away the fear and the cold, until my skin shone with orange-pink illumination. To my right, a primary school, gates locked, wall high and covered with anti-climb paint. A mosaic by the children, demonstrating that drugs were bad and superheroes were about family. A doctor’s clinic, set back beyond sodden grass turned to mud, blinds drawn, a padlock sealed over the entrance. Launderette on my left, orange plastic chairs set in front of great, sleeping machines; vinyl store, rare enough now to be guaranteed a nerdy audience; locked metal door down to a snooker club; locked wooden door up to a discreet acupuncture clinic; shut post office selling kids’ toys and birthday cards; pharmacy promising YOU a better body; billboards, advertising action movies with strutting heroes, and perfumes worn by women with an elegant naked back.
My own back might end up with a knife in it before the evening was out.
Shhhshhshhhshhha shhhshhhshhhshhha shhhshhhshhh…
When I saw him, it was almost too late. He stepped out of the doorway without a sound, driving his knife up towards my ribs. We caught it by reflex, snatching his wrist and twisting. But all that twisted in response was an empty sleeve; there wasn’t any flesh beneath it to hurt. And still the knife kept coming. I stepped aside—and realised the futility of all my usual responses. There was nothing to kick, no flesh to hurt, nothing to shock nor batter nor damage. I looked into the spectre’s face. It rippled for a moment, then spat hot ash and black exhaust straight back at me. We covered our face, felt the ash burn our sleeves and thick dirt blacken our skin, tripped as we staggered back, half blinded by heat and dust, and sprawled useless in the gutter. Through rising tears, the spectre was a blur coming towards me. I raised my hands and, just this once, the pain helped, gave focus and determination to what must be done. The pavement ticked like metal expanding under a summer sun, cracked, and broke apart. Grey wires sprouted like ivy from the earth. I dragged them up, fueling their growth with will and fear even as I crawled away from the gutter into the middle of the street. The wires grew, divided, rippled, grew again, wildlife photography speeded up a thousand times; they spread, and uncoiled a flower of barbs. I flung the wires up from beneath the spectre’s feet and ordered them to dig deep into his feet, his legs, crawl up his ankles, and wrap around his knees.
The spectre ignored them, his trousers tearing with a slow crunch as he kept on coming, revealing the nothing beneath. But his shoes were a harder proposition: the barbs caught deep and wound down into his trendy trainers, tangling with the shoelaces, which strained but did not tear with the spectre’s uneven lurches towards me. I rolled onto my hands and knees, then got up on my feet; and once more the spectre, trapped by his feet, raised his head to scream, and I was bending beneath the sound and covering my ears, then running down the street at the sound of a thousand brakes locking against old metal casings.
A beggar sleeping in the door of a church looked up as I passed by, somewhere between running and falling. I snapped, “Get out of here!” and kept on going. He just stared. A light came on in a window overhead and a woman’s voice shouted, “What the fuck…”
I skirted a small grassy rubbish dump that the council called a “community green space” and turned onto a road overhung by old trees. A maintenance truck was parked ahead, its orange platform raised up high to a broken streetlamp that one guy in a neon jacket was replacing, cold and miserable in the rain. I ran past it, and he ignored me, knowing better than to ask questions of bleeding strangers running through the night.
They were behind me; I didn’t need to look to know. The pain below my collarbone that shock had kept off now began to make itself known. With every step I could feel my flesh open and close like the regular gulp of a goldfish. It was oddly electrifying, as if our body were not our own, but something we carried with us, and our distress someone else’s that we experienced at a remove, like secondary smoking. Given time, that would change, and the thought of what was to come only weakened us further, made our stomach ripple. I saw a square of light off to my right, ignored it, then looked again, and could have laughed or cried.
The place was called “Qwickstop” in bright orange letters on a garish green background. Set out front of its lit-up window was a graveyard of unlikely vegetables and fruit, from the standard bruised apple to fossilised butternut squash, all overhung by a limp awning that dribbled unevenly onto the pavement. On the door a variety of signs advertised such a multitude of wonders, it was incredible that such a small shop could do so much—it was an off-licence, a ticket stop, a mobile phone top-up shop, a member of Neighborhood Watch, an affiliate of Crimestoppers, an advertising centre for local messages and bulletins, a vendor of the Evening Standard, a vendor of the Willesden Enquirer, a profferer of fair trade and halal products, and finally, most important and stuck up in flashing LEDs in the window, it was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
I staggered inside this place of miracles.
There was a man behind the counter, listening to a local pirate station broadcasting in Urdu. He had a salt-and-pepper moustache with its own ecosystem, a bald patch as sterile and reflective as the moon, and a darkish skin, like wax that had dried unevenly across his scalp. He looked at me and decided I was trouble. I smiled as nicely as I could and wiped some of the soot and dust off my face with the corner of my soggy sleeve. He smiled back, like the expression had been sewn into his skin. Struggling to breathe normally, I staggered over to a large glass-fronted refrigerator and pulled out four bottles of the cheapest beer I could find. With my prize I hobbled back to the counter and said, “Pack of fags, please.”
“What kind, sir?” he asked. Always be polite to possible murderers: that was the twenty-four-hour-shopping philosophy.
“Cheapest you’ve got. And the strongest painkillers in the shop.”
The least expensive pack of cigarettes was £5.99. On the back it had a picture of a blackened pair of cancerous lungs. The painkillers’ selling point seemed to be how luminously green and futuristic they were, rather than their chemical content.
“And your Sellotape,” I said.
“Sellotape.” A roll of the stuff sat by the till, in a plastic device for easy tearing off.
“This isn’t for sale, sir.”
I leant across the counter. The action set my neck on fire and made my hip tremble. “I’ll give you twenty quid for the Sellotape.”
He answered on instinct. When an offer that good comes along, even the innocent suspect a con. “I’m sorry sir, it’s…”
“If you do not give us the Sellotape,” we said through gritted teeth, “you will die. The only question will be whether they kill you, or we do.”
He looked into our eyes. Once upon a time my eyes had been the same darkish brown as my hair. That had been then. They were now the bright blue of a summer sky, and reflective like the eyes of a cat. He pushed the Sellotape across the counter. I pulled out my wallet, and saw that a line of blood had run down my arm and over my fingers. I counted out forty pounds in stained notes, pushed them towards him, scooped up my beer, cigarettes, drugs and Sellotape, and staggered back out into the night. Behind me, he dialed 999. Forty quid doesn’t buy you much these days.
What I needed now was a quiet place to work. I found a narrow alley, that had been transformed into the local recycling station. I sat on top of the plastic jaw of a wheelie-bin and prized the lid off each beer bottle. We took a swig from one, just to make sure it was all right, then upended each bottle and let the contents dribble away. It wouldn’t be long before the spectres smelt it, even in the rain. I set down the emptied bottles and from the cigarette packet I slid out four white sheaths, carefully lighting each one. The flame flickered and spat in the rain, but these things were designed to catch in any weather, and soon gave a dull glow. I dropped a cigarette into each bottle, watching the smoke fill it. The Sellotape I put in my jacket pocket, the end sticking out ready to be peeled and drawn like a gunslinger’s pistol. Then I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chi…
Shhshhshhhshha shhhshhhshhhshha shhhshhhshh…
Boom boom boom boom-te-boom boom…
They came all at once, two from one side, two from the other. It’s only in movies that you get attacked by one person at a time. I gasped between the pain and the shimmering sapphire burning over my eyes, our burning sapphire fire, just waiting for me to let it out, “Hello, sunshines.”
The clothes of two were ragged black tissues draped over empty air, every part the traditional haunting ghosts, except for the headphones. A third had tears down the lower parts of his trousers, great gashes in the shoes on his feet. I slid down from the wheelie-bin as they approached, picking up the nearest beer bottle and giving it a gentle shake, feeling the suction of the air dragged in to feed the dull flame of the cigarette.
I picked the spectre who looked least battered, its grey tracksuit still intact, its head bobbing along to a muffled beat, and staggered up to it.
“Hey man,” I intoned, “like, respect.”
Any magician can tell you words have power.
Any urban sorcerer can tell you the greatest language of power is whatever the other bugger happens to speak.
So as I spoke, the spectre, recognizing the beginning of a binding spell, drew back a moment askance, and perhaps, in that non-brain behind that not-face drifting beneath its grey hood, realized what was about to happen. Much too late. We were too angry for repentance now. I drove the open lip of the smoking beer bottle straight into the middle of that empty void, stuck into that thick nothingness like it was a spear and this was war. I think it tried to scream, but the sound was sucked straight into the smoky glass; it raised its hands and clawed at the air, too late, much, much too late, whined and whistled as the essence of its not-being got sucked down into the interior of the beer bottle, and wriggled and writhed. The grey hood on its head began to droop as the non-skull supporting it collapsed and shrivelled inside my glass prison, then the shoulders drooped away, the torso began to flop and flap in the wet wind, the gloves dropped away from wrists too loose to support them, the arms withered down to flat nothings, the trousers dropped from the top and collapsed, the shoes seemed to shrink into themselves.
In a second, barely one second, there was nothing more than a pile of flopping grey clothes on the floor. I stuck my thumb over the mouth of the beer bottle, glancing inside it. The cigarette was still burning bright, as it would burn now for ten thousand years unless some idiot went and smashed it; in the smoke of its interior, eddying shapes spun back and forth in indignant distress like a miniature ocean storm caught inside a bottle with its model ship.
The other spectres were nothing if not taken aback. I slapped a seal of Sellotape over the mouth of the bottle and picked up another, flourishing it at them. “Come on!” I said. “You want to spend the next ten thousand years stuck at the bottom of the Dumpster?”
They hesitated. “Come on!” we shouted. “If you think that shadows and gloom can really harm us, then do what you will! We have no reason to spare you the consequence!”
Our voice echoed, a muffled whisper in the rain. The remaining spectres began to back away. We laughed, shook the beer bottle with its trapped nothing inside, watched the smoke twist and billow beneath the Sellotape seal, watched the orange cigarette flare angry crimson, and roared after them, “Come on!”
Then they were gone.
Even nothingness, it seems, knows how to keep itself alive.
We stood in the rain on a pavement stained with beer and overflowing with litter, not sure if we were going to laugh, cry, or both. In the event, we did nothing; for all our blustering, we were not about to chase after the spectres and finish the job. They knew how to recognise danger when they saw it. At my feet, a sopping tracksuit lay flopped like the rotting guts from a soothsayer’s ritual, turning black in the rain.
I picked up the bottle I’d pressed into the spectre’s face, pressed my ear against the side, and listened. Imagination playing tricks? From within the glass I thought, perhaps, just perhaps, I could hear…
Boom boom boom boom-te-boom boom…
I shook the bottle for extra good measure, and slapped a half-centimetre thickness of Sellotape over its smoky lips. As I did, I noticed blood had seeped through the bandages on my right hand, and was dribbling into the sticky recesses of my sleeve. The thought that I needed help made us want to cry, like a shameful child.
I went in search of a night bus from nowhere-everywhere to somewhere else.
We figured we’d work out where on the way.
The bus was a double-decker that advertised itself as being able to seat 36 passengers in the lower saloon, 48 in the upper saloon, and 23 standing. It made no reference to whether you could get a drink in the “saloon,” or if there’d be a man playing the piano.
There were two passengers on the bottom deck, three on the upper. The driver, when I got on, said, “Jesus!”
We pressed our hand over the slash below our collarbone. “What?” we snapped.
“You OK, mate?”
“No,” we replied. “You going somewhere or not?”
“I can call…”
He shrugged. Night-bus drivers learn not to take too keen an interest. “Sure. Whatever.”
I had a travelcard. Druids say there is no greater wand of power than a unicorn’s horn given willingly to the supplicant. In the city, there is no greater wand of power than a Zone 1–6 travelcard. It is freedom to go anywhere and see anything, and all it costs is a large chunk of your income. Then again, a unicorn’s horn usually involved quests and battling ancient demons, so the changing times weren’t all bad. I pressed my travelcard to the reader, which beeped appreciatively; the driver had the good manners not to look surprised. I half fell up the stairs, and sat down heavily in the back row. The back of the top deck is the naughty seat, where the kids sit to curse and swear when school gets let out. The floor was sticky with spilt beer and scattered with a liberal handful of greasy thin chips made of 40 percent potato. Yesterday’s half-read paper lay on every third bench, the sudoku finished, the corners torn.
I knew if I lay down across the back seats, I’d never get up again. I shuffled into the darkest, dimmest corner, pressed my head against the cold of the glass, and watched my blue-eyed, grey-faced reflection watch the street as it passed by in a pulse of rippling streetlights and illuminated ads. I fumbled painkillers out of their packet and swallowed them with the last mouthful of spit I could muster, pressed my fingers harder against the folds of my bleeding chest, and watched.
At the very front of the bus, a young couple, probably not out of their teens, sat hand in hand, politely not kissing each other and desperate in their discreet silence to do so. On the seat above the stair, where you can watch all the passengers come and go, sat a guy with close-shaven hair revealing the white lines of a dozen scars on his skull. Fresh stitches were sewn into his neck, where a short and well-placed knife had tried for the jugular vein. A scorpion was tattooed onto his temple, and beneath the sleeves of his denim jacket protruded the ends of a dozen more tattoos besides. We wanted to ask if the scorpion had hurt when the needles went into his temple, who’d saved his life with the stitches in the neck, and why so many scars on such a young face. Tattoos in that quantity meant jailbird.
Lights rose and fell across the rain-obscured blur of our vision. A cemetery rolled by, darkness behind closed, sombre walls. Empty wet football fields for the local amateur team, floodlights still on, endless railway lines over which slow goods trains creaked and clattered on their nighttime journeys; depots and working yards and goods yards and storage yards and open spaces for broken-down cars and, taller than the local council blocks, piles of shattered metal and torn-up engines. We were heading toward the sprawl of White City, where flyovers vied with tower blocks and the BBC as to which could be uglier. It’s easy to get lost in White City: shallow streets of identical, anonymous houses merge beneath a roaring motorway; great shopping malls squat above video shops and haberdashers specializing in the sari; council estates leer down at genteel terraced backstreets where media executives plot to steal their neighbor’s precious parking space. North and south play cunning, curving tricks on the unwary traveller, and navigation by a sense of style is nearly impossible. They give White City its own edgy magic, that ebbs and flows with uneasy irregularity, daring you to tap into a thick fist of here, only to have it vanish into a silken vapour two streets away. It was a magic of brick and neon, of solid and insubstantial matter mingling, as if life had forgotten how to make the distinction.
And whether we liked it or not, there was blood seeping into our clothes, and I needed help.
So, since the bus was headed in that direction anyway, I went in search of the Long White City clan.
I do not know how the Long White City clan came to be founded. To find the answer to that would require a history of graffiti that I never came to grips with, since it is in the nature of the art that no one keeps an official log except the police, and they don’t like to talk about it much.
What I do know is that sometime in the late 1960s, it was observed by those who bother to keep track of such things that a mutual collective of painters and magicians were coming together in the area of London known as White City, and between them practising a new and interesting form of magic. It was the Whites, more than any other group, who pioneered research into the new symbols of magic that were emerging with the urban evolution of the craft. The pentangle star was rejected in favor of the red “stop” octagon as a symbol of power; mystic runes in the Viking style were swept away in favor of the scrawled loop of silver paint plastered across an open wall. It was discovered that it was cheaper to paint a gargoyle protector than to commission one in marble, and that they served roughly the same end; it was realized that the image of a great eye painted at the end of Platform 14 of Clapham Junction station was a scrying tool of infinitely more value than your traditional bowl of silver water, and that nothing bound as effectively as a double red parking line burnt chemically into the earth. It was realized that those who found magic in the words and pictures drawn in the night would be better off as a whole if they stuck together.
So the Whites came into existence, as a ragtag formation of egoists, magicians, artists and all-purpose mystic dabblers, donating to a common union. I have some time for their methods, since only a fool denies the power of what they do, but generally my interest has been elsewhere.
The development of a new “mega-mall” in White City forced the majority of the clan to seek housing somewhere else. A war with the Tower, which at one time was the single most powerful mystic body in the city, drove them underground into the old tunnels of the Kingsway Telephone Exchange. That had been in Mr Bakker’s day; the bad old days of living shadows, dead sorcerers, and broken promises. It was a war that had killed me before I even knew it had started. When we had come back, I and us, we and me, together in the same flesh, we fought back. Mr Bakker had died. So had his shadow. So had…
Mortals died so easily.
The ending of the war brought the Whites aboveground again, albeit in smaller numbers than before. That the war ended and they survived had more than a little to do with us; we hoped they’d remember that tonight.
I looked for the signs.
An empty spray-paint can tossed onto the top of a bus shelter.
A painted elephant on the side of a house, playing a large trombone whose nose pointed further south.
A wall with four windows added onto it and a front door, from which a child with a red balloon peeked towards the nearest bus stop.
I changed buses.
A message scratched into the glass window of the bus—END OF THE LINE.
Not one from the Whites; they knew that such a message could be a threat, as well as an instruction. I ignored it.
A rat on the side of a green telephone router box, holding in its painted claws a tin of peanut butter, a knife dripping with a compromising yellow blob of the stuff, tip pointed towards the west.
I stayed on the bus.
A post standing up taller than the houses, laden with CCTV cameras, onto which a single white hand mark had been pressed in indelible paint. Another white hand a few doors down, and then more, getting more regular in succession until a school wall covered in a thousand multicoloured handprints, of which only one was white, a single finger extended and pointing towards a door.
I got off the bus.
My head was the inside of a tumbledryer, my throat the pipe for hot air. Someone was feeding old socks bound together with static in and out of me through the tear in my chest. My hands were the burning wires through which electric current flowed, my knees were the wobbly suspension springs on which the whole rumbling construction churned.
There was a door between an organic health food shop selling pink crystal lamps in its dark windows and a betting shop selling poor odds on bad investments. There was no name above it, no sign beside it. Just a solid metal door locked shut in a row of padlocked shops. A tiger was painted on it, leaping out of the framework with jaws gaping and eyes wild with fury. I stared at it, it stared at me, frozen forever in its leap. It’s easy to think that the eyes of a painting are staring just at you. In this case, they were.
I hammered on the door.
There was no answer.
I hammered harder.
Above me, a window slid back and a voice called out in the melodramatic whispered-shout of all good neighbours out to disturb the peace, “Who’s there?”
I stepped back onto the pavement to see the speaker better, but could only see the shadowed silhouette of a woman against a wash of white neon.
“I’m here for Vera!” I called back in the same quiet-loud call of the nighttime streets.
“I’m Swift! Matthew Swift!”
“I need help!”
“I don’t know you!”
“Tell Vera it’s Swift!”
Our stomach was a vat in which old bones were dissolved for glue. Each cell of blood in our body had grown little centipede legs that tickled and crawled along the inside of our veins.
I said again, “I need help.”
“Go to the fucking police!”
“I’m a sorcerer…”
So we looked up at her and said, “We are the angels. Help me.”
And the darkness in the window hesitated. We raised our hand towards her and let the blood trickle between our fingers, and as it flowed, it wriggled and wormed, coherent rivers of red breaking away into fat liquid maggots on our skin that writhed and hissed off each other, burning cold blue electricity over our flesh. “We are…” we called through gritted teeth, as the light of our blood turned our face electric blue, “… we are the blue electric angels. Please—help me.”
The woman in the window said, “Crap.”
The door opened.
We went inside.
The door led to steps, the steps led to a basement.
The basement was a club. The walls were painted with dancing people, most of whom were wearing very little clothing.
They were frozen on every wall and across every counter, stretched out over every pillar and rippling up onto the ceiling. The place stank of paint, magic, beer, smoke, and sweat. A few hours earlier, these pictures would have danced with all the rest; the floor was stained with a thousand prints set in paint of high heel, trainer, loafer, boot, sandal, and every kind of shoe that knew how to party. Some of the marks were still wet, and as we walked, our shoes—not our shoes, no, not quite—left blue footprints across the floor. Up was trying to be down, color was trying to be sound, sound was trying to be sense, all things playing tricks, the painkillers nothing more than a cobweb through which the pain slashed.
The bouncer who met me at the bottom of the stairs had skin turned almost purple with the weight of tattoos on it. Unlike the tattoos of the jailbird on the bus, these stank of raw, sweaty power burnt into the skin. He looked me over in the half-gloom of the silent, stinking club floor and said, “This way.”
I followed him without a word behind the bar to another metal door guarded this time by a furious polar bear whose fanged teeth dribbled silver saliva that rolled as I watched down his flat frozen skin, and whose eyes never left mine. The door led into a corridor whose walking space was 80 percent empty beer bottles. White strip lighting hummed and buzzed irritatingly overhead. The corridor led to an office, all leather sofa and important desk, cluttered with empty coffee mugs and more abandoned bottles. The bouncer pointed at the sofa and said, “There,” and I obeyed, sticking my legs up over one arm and my head back over the other. More painkillers. From where I lay I could see a brass-covered coffee machine, a photo of some minor celebrity whose name I couldn’t remember, and a monolith-sized chunk of concrete. I didn’t need to smell the power coming from it to guess what it was—magicians of every generation have always collected artifacts of power. I wondered how much the Whites had paid, or if they’d paid at all. Pieces of the Berlin Wall fetched a good price these days, and for good reasons, although very few people appreciated what they really were.
There were pieces of slogans still visible on the wall. A remnant of:
—ISTIAN LIEBE FAMK—
GEBEN SIE MIR MEINEN HU—
Or a sad half-remnant of the CND logo, framed in flowers.
I crawled to the end of the sofa, unable to resist my curiosity despite the fire cha-chaing up my nervous system and the ice weighing the rest down. I reached out to touch the concrete, brushed my fingers over a dozen layers of bright paint, tasted grey dust in the mouth, empty tightness in the belly, neon popping in the ears, crashing delight at the back of the neck, burning heaviness at the ends of the fingers, blue sadness behind the eyes—mostly just sadness, so deep and big you could fall forever and never even notice you were heading down. The man who owned this particular artifact didn’t need spells to protect him. A whiff of this magic and grown assassins would just sigh away.
I drew my fingers away. I heard the door open behind me in the sense that when he spoke, I was not surprised; but I did not listen to the sound until he actually said: “You like it?”
We didn’t take our eyes from the concrete.
“Four and a half thousand euros. You believe that? Four and a half fucking thousand euros for a piece of concrete with some paint on. Best buy I ever made. Drink?”
Wrenching my eyes away was like turning away from the dying man who’s just asked you for help. I looked at the man who’d entered the room. He was young, trying to look older than he was by cutting his hair so thin it bordered on the bald, growing grizzle but no beard, and wearing carefully aged and scuffed black leather. He leaned on the end of his desk with the casual air of a guy who’s seen everything and, while impressed by nothing, is still prepared to be amused by it. We disliked him instinctively.
I said, “I need Vera.”
“You’re Swift, right?”
“Yes. I need to see Vera.”
“She’s kinda busy at five in the morning, you know? How can I help?” His smile was like the spinning mirrored whiteness of the disco ball.
“You can get me Vera.”
“You look sorta crappy, gotta tell you.”
“Help me. I need… I need a doctor. I need Vera.”
“I thought that Matthew Swift was like, you know, tough.”
“I’m not tough,” I replied through gritted teeth. “I’m lucky. I’m so lucky that I can be killed by a shadow on the streets and come back without a scar on my skin. I’m so damn lucky that when I hear a telephone ring, I have to answer it and it’s always for me, always. I’m so lucky I can be attacked by a pack of spectres and walk away with all my limbs attached. I’m so lucky that I am we and we are me, and I’ve gotta tell you, we could rip your eyes out and feed them to you right now and forget in the morning that we were even here. You think you’re that lucky? Now get me Vera!”
He made the telephone call while I watched.
“Hey, yeah, sorry about the time, it’s… yeah, before you… just listen… no, I’ve got this guy here… says his name is Swift… what? Uh… blue. Bright blue. Yeah. No, pretty bad way. Like… you know… blood. Sure. Sure. Yeah, sure thing. No, I’ll… yeah… I’ll let him know.”
That was it.
Her name was Vera.
She was the almost properly elected head of the Whites. Almost properly, because it was generally agreed that if there was an election, she’d win, so what was the point of testing it?
She owed me.
She owed us.
She was one of the only people in London who knew that when the death certificate said I’d died, it hadn’t gone into enough of the details.
The clock on the wall said 5:45 a.m. when she turned up. She was wearing a big puffer coat twice the width and nearly all the height of her small body, and having a bad hair day. A pair of bright green leather boots vanished inside the silver iceberg of her coat, and a pair of pink mittens covered her fingers. She took one look at me and said, “Jesus, you look shit.”
I said, “I’ve been attacked.”
“Know who did it?”
“Got one of them in a beer bottle,” I replied.
“You kidding me.”
“No,” I said, and then, because it was 5:45 a.m. and we hadn’t slept for far, far too long, and every part of us hurt and bled and ached and was burnt and dirty and stuck to its own clothes with dribbling blood, we started to laugh.
They bundled me into a car. It was a surprisingly boring car, for the head of the Whites—a trundling little Volkswagen with the charisma of a dry blister. Vera drove, rushing to beat the early morning traffic as we raced through deserted streets.
I said, “I need a safe place. Just a safe place where we can recover…”
“It’s fine, I know.”
“I need a doctor…”
“It’s being sorted.”
“… someone who won’t report to the police… no records…”
“I know, I know. It’s being taken care of.”
Pink neon lights rising, falling, rising, falling. The rain had eased off into drizzle. The streets were a perfect black mirror reflecting every detail of the lights above. Office lights left on for the night glowed empty white squares on the dark sides of the buildings, men in blue caps were drawing back the gates of the Underground stations. The wheels of Vera’s speeding car threw up great sheets of water from the blocked drains in the sides of the street, spattering dirty brown stains onto the clean windows of the passing shops. In the kitchen windows of the early stirrers, lights were starting to come on, women in thick dressing gowns and furry slippers turning on the kettles, men shivering in their pyjamas scuttling for the heating. The first post vans of the day were rumbling through the streets, to deliver recorded packages and special parcels to the lucky few who merited their attention; outside the hotels, the international tourists going to catch the first flights of the day hurried to waiting taxis. We wanted to sleep; but by now we were too tired to stop our thoughts.
White City became Shepherd’s Bush, a big roundabout leading to everywhere and anywhere, on which sat a large, long-dead barometer, or thermometer, or whatever it had been designed as before the money ran out. Some time, a thousand years ago, there was probably a shepherd who had a bush on this roundabout. Now there were subways and traffic lights and purple-brown hotels with mirrored square windows to admire it all from.
Shepherd’s Bush became Bayswater, Bayswater rapidly became posh—big houses fit for a king and his servants, divided up into apartments fit for barons and their heirs, great trees hundreds of years old whose bare branches drooped twiny fingers between the yellow streetlamps. We followed the course of the Central Line running beneath the street and, as we drove, I could feel the whispered magics of the city changing, growing from that early-morning lull into a rushing, buzzing, humming rise as the city began to wake up for another day, hear it pushing inside my chest and running through my blood, a burst of energy that I didn’t want and couldn’t use but, even then, made me smile. Bayswater became Paddington, a maze of streets too tight for the uses they were put to, in which seedy hotels where you paid by the hour mingled with the mansions of the great and the squats of the passers-by. Those few mansions that had fallen victim to the war had been replaced with council apartments, but they were few and far between, and polite mews between grand, whitewashed houses still peeked their cobbled noses out into the paving stones.
The sun wasn’t yet up. All of London seems surprised, when winter comes, how little sun there is—day crawls its embarrassed way into existence sometime between seven-thirty and eight, when most of the city is underground or too zonked to notice, and then waves its goodbyes around the 3:30 meetings, when most of the city is too busy working to realize the day has gone. Winter seems to last forever, if it is measured by the staying power of the sun.
Vera parked in a residential bay in front of a white house on a neat white street of houses that could only have been in Paddington. She unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. I unbuckled mine, put my hand on the door handle and found it slipped off, leaving an ugly swipe of blood. Vera opened the door on my side and helped me out. My legs were a long way off, and somewhere between me and them there was a satellite delay. She slung my arm over her shoulders and walked me like a granddad up the stairs to the black front door of the white building, groped in her pocket for a set of keys, found one, opened the door. The corridor inside was all echoing tile and bare walls. A lift the size of a fat man’s coffin was at the far end. It climbed upwards like it resented the service, discharged us onto the third floor. Another black door, another set of keys. An apartment, furnished in plywood and polyester straight from Ikea, no pictures on the wall, nothing to mark it out as individual except on the inside of the door, where someone with a spray can had painted a giant picture of a lollipop lady, hat drawn down over her eyes, sign turned to “stop.” The Whites understand how to paint a good protective ward.
There was a sitting room that was also a kitchen, a bathroom with barely room enough to fit the bath, and a bedroom, mattress without any sheets. Vera didn’t bother to offer any, but deposited me straight down on the bed. There were thin net curtains across the window that filtered out the shape of the streetlamps outside while letting in all their yellow light, that stretched great shadows across the floor and up the wall.
I stammered, “Doctor…”
She said gently, “There’s one coming.”
I nodded, then let my head fall back on the mattress and closed my eyes, not bothering to peel away my ragged clothes.
“Jesus, Matthew,” muttered Vera. “What the hell happened?”
“Attacked,” I stumbled. “Attacked. A phone rang and I answered and… and it burnt me. I hit my head. A phone rang and… then creatures came. They came for us. It rang for us. I just need a safe place…”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said.
Or perhaps we imagined it.
We closed our eyes.
Dawn was grey and sullen.
Whoever was pulling the watch off my wrist did so by the light of a lamp by my bedside. The plastic made a sound like Velcro as it peeled away from my flesh. I opened my eyes. Vera stood at the end of the bed, drinking a mug of coffee. On the mug someone had written “I ♥ LONDON” in large pink letters. With her duffle coat off, underneath I saw that Vera was still wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown. We felt the sudden and odd urge to cry.
Seeing our eyes open, Vera said, “Go.”
It turned out not to be directed at me.
A sudden searing agony indicated that the target audience had done as commanded, and ripped, like a plaster from flesh, the burnt remnants of the watch from my wrist. A thousand pinpricks of blood welled to the surface, and we looked away, sickened at the sight.
“Cool,” said a voice by my left ear.
I risked a glance at its owner.
The creature of torment who had pulled my watch free was roughly the same height as her stethoscope would be, if it was unwrapped to its full length. She had a round, cheerful face, short dark hair that somehow managed to be both straight and bouncy at the same time, and a casually merry attitude towards my distress that marked her out immediately as a member of the medical profession. I half-recognized her. She said, “Have you been getting into shit or what?”
“I know you,” I breathed.
“Really? You know, that happens to me a lot.”
She opened a bag. There were things in there that only a genius with no moral compass could have invented. She pulled out a syringe. Perspective plays tricks on things that are going to happen to you: a three-inch syringe when it’s intended for someone else’s arteries is just a three-inch syringe. When it’s coming for you, it’s a foot long and gleaming.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Vera answered. “This is Dr Seah. You can trust her.”
“You can’t…” I began.
Dr Seah knew the sound of a refusal when she heard one, and knew that the only way to get round these things, was to ignore them before they could become admissible in court. She slid the needle into the skin of my exposed elbow vein without a sound, and pushed. We half imagined we’d see our arteries pop as whatever was in there rushed into our body; they didn’t. “Hold,” said Dr Seah briskly, putting a piece of cotton wool over the entry point. Vera held it.
“What did you give us?” we whispered.
“It’ll help with the pain. Well… in a way. Well, put it like this—you’re less likely to remember the pain afterwards, which is sort of like the same thing if you’re not too hung up on semantics, right?”
“There’s… I was attacked,” I said. “I was attacked, they found me, I picked up the phone and then they came for me, they found me before, they might find me, I need to stay, to be…”
“You’re as safe as you’re going to be here,” answered Vera. “If they find you here, they’ll find you anywhere, and at least then they can throttle you quickly with your own body parts before you bleed to death.”
Drugs straight into the vein. I found it hard to raise my head, heard my own words as if they were being hummed through water, felt my lips, huge and someone else’s, flopping fat as I tried to speak.
Fingers that had been trained how to heal on plastic dolls that couldn’t scream poked the slash down from my collarbone. “You’re a lucky guy,” said Dr Seah at last. “Long and shallow. Looks bad, but from a medical point of view, completely nah.”
“Yeah,” I croaked. “I’m just lucky.”
“Ever had morphine?”
“They gave it to me once. It made me feel sick.”
“Yeah, I know, crazy like that, isn’t it? Hey, Vera, can I ask you to put some more water on the boil?”
“You need it for cleaning?” asked Vera with the enthusiasm of someone already anticipating the gratitude.
“Cuppa tea,” was the reply.
As answers went, this was disappointing for the almost properly elected head of the Whites, who strutted from the room with the cool manner of someone far too sensible not to be of use, but who was not used to menial.
Dr Seah waited until she was gone, then leant in close. “Well, what do you want, good news or shiny news?”
Since we weren’t entirely sure what “shiny” news was, we went for the good news first. “You’ll live,” she said.
“Terrific,” I mumbled with a tongue made from sodden sponge.
“Want to know the shiny part?”
“Apart from this”—fingers of steel prodded the slash down my chest, a thousand miles away from my watching brain—“you’re OK. You’re going to need stitches, and while it’d be just so sexy to put you under for that, you kinda need anesthesiologists and guys with the paddles and you know, things that go ‘ping’ to do a general anesthetic, so I’m going to do it on local, and it’s going to hurt like ten kinds of buggery. There’s a few odd burns here or there, but they’ll just make you look ugly for a while and I figure, hell, you’re a big guy, you can handle it. The cut on the back of your head is nasty, but keep it clean and tidy and the worst thing that’ll happen is a bit of premature grey and a few banged-up brain cells. The only thing I’m not totally zoomy on is this.”
It took a while to realise she was holding up the beetroot lump of my right hand.
“I mean, I totally get that you’ve been electrocuted in the last few hours, like, totally. And you know, like I said, if life was shiny I’d have you wired to a heart monitor right now in case anything went pop.”
“Heard of bedside manner?” I growled.
“Sure,” she said briskly. “But I figure, you know, fuck it. But see, there’s this.”
She raised my hand closer to my face so I could see. At first I didn’t understand the problem; the beetroot looked slightly better cooked and less raw than it had a few hours ago, and some of the swelling even seemed to be on the retreat. Then it occurred to me: even in bad cases, electrocution rarely causes bleeding.
The blood, then, that had stained my right sleeve had come from something else. The something, almost lost in the folds of my puffed-up skin, was a thin red cross, carved with a scalpel into the palm of my hand.
We squeaked, “What did you do to us?!”
“Who, me? I didn’t do this!”
“We didn’t… it isn’t…”
“You’re telling me you didn’t notice that someone’s played Christian symbolism with your hand?” she asked. “You know, if you’re into self-harm then, seriously, don’t.”
“We did not do this, this was not there before… until… there was nothing there until we answered the phone!”
“Yeah. Now, while every case is, like, unique, I gotta tell you, electrocution by telephone leading to the appearance of a cross carved in the palm of the victim’s hand is unusual even for central London. You seriously have no idea how it got there?”
I hadn’t said that. I didn’t want to think about that. “Hide it,” we whispered. “Do what you have to do. Please.”
“Why do you want…?”
“Just do it! Please!”
Dr Seah hesitated, and for a moment there was something on her face that shouldn’t have been there, deep, and serious, and a little bit sad, a sinking of features that were built to smile. Then she shrugged, beamed, showing bright white teeth in a face the color of hot chocolate on a summer’s night, and said, “Like, whatever.”
She bandaged up my right hand. Whatever drug she’d shot into our veins was now playing games with the ceiling, pushing it slowly up and letting it fall again so low that it almost bumped our nose. We had never felt so degraded. But the drug helped keep us calm, keep us still, and made our feelings of rage seem more like a distant story, in which I would tell a childish me, sitting on my lap, of a man who’d been given a drug and who was in pain, in a land far, far away.
We do not handle pain bravely. When she started on the stitches, we looked the other way, and as the needle slid into flesh, we pushed our face into the pillow to hide the tears. Not so much of pain, but at the thought of pain, at the idea of what might be there, but which wasn’t actually except in the churnings of our imagination, worse than any truth. I bit our lip and recited ancient pointless things: song lyrics, shopping lists, bus routes, road junctions, declining verbs in exotic languages, anything to keep our thoughts away from our flesh and wandering in some mundane cage of artificial words and numbers.
Sleep, when it was all done, came easily. Real pain became a foggy memory, a comforting teddy bear that we held to our side like an old and familiar friend.
When I woke, it was dark outside. The streetlamp outside the window could have glowed at any hour, but the sounds gave a more precise time. I could hear the distant swish of traffic, too heavy for the deepest part of the night, and from the far end of the street, the sound of a pub, which with each opening and closing of the door turned out gossip and music onto the street in a slow, fading roll. With my eyes fixed upon the slow curve of passing car headlights across the ceiling, I had no more desire to sleep; but neither did I feel the need to get up. So I lay on the bare mattress, stained with smudges of my blood that turned our stomach to look at, and assessed. My right hand was an igloo all in cotton wrapping, my left shoulder and a good part of my chest a shirt-load of bandages. The back of my scalp had been cleaned of blood and disinfected, but the rest of me still bore much of the stain of the previous night, my skin feeling two inches thicker than its natural depth. My tongue was a stiff leather slab in my mouth, my stomach a shriveled hollow.
These discomforts were at first almost interesting novelties, but rapidly became an itching fury until at last, with a hiss of frustration, I swung my legs over the side of the bed.
On the bedside table were two bottles, one containing pills, the other liquid. A note said, “←THIS one for the pain, →THIS one to clean injuries. Seriously, don’t get them confused. M. Seah.”
There weren’t any other instructions. She gave me more credit for intelligence than I felt I merited.
I looked for my belongings. I was still in my trousers and socks, but my shoes—or rather, not my shoes, merely the shoes I’d been wearing—had been put at the end of the bed along with my coat. My jumper and shirt were nowhere to be seen, nor was my satchel. I staggered from the bedroom into the blinding light of the living room next door, where Vera sat on a dust-covered sofa, eating prawn crackers from a plastic bag and watching TV. She didn’t hear me enter, and as I tried to think of something to say I watched a dozen faces that the audience seemed to think I ought to know, learning how to sing and dance operatic numbers on ice while judges, who again I was supposed to recognise, hurled abuse at the weeping celebrities.
When I spoke, I was as surprised as Vera. I said, “Thank you.”
She jumped, spilling prawn crackers across the sofa, then stood up, pretending it hadn’t happened and glaring as if she dared me to say a word. “Yeah, sure. Hi. You’re up, then.”
“Thank you,” I repeated.
“Gotcha. And you’re welcome, I think. You look sorta crap.” She’d been trying to find something nicer to say.
“Is there a bathroom?”
“Yeah. You need fingers like a safe-breaker to get the hot water to work, and there’s no soap, but there’s a bathroom.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“I know. Thank you for that too.”
“Get on before I get all slushy. You want food?”
“Good. Dr Seah said you were to drink at least two litres of water when you got up, to make up for the stuff you lost when you were attacked… Matthew?”
“About being attacked. We should probably talk. Get cleaned up first. I’ll stick something in the microwave.”
Vera had told no lies about the bathroom. The tap was sensitive to the lightest touch; a breath was the difference between arctic death and fiery combustion. When the neighbor two doors down turned on their shower, the water pressure dropped to a sulky trickle; when they turned it off, it exploded in scalding steam.
I struggled to clean myself with my left hand while keeping both my right hand and most of the bandaging out of harm’s way. I dressed in suspiciously stained towels that smelt of fresh detergent and, poking my head round the door, said, “What happened to my clothes?”
“Disgusting,” Vera’s voice floated back. “A few more days and they’d have started talking. Men have no idea how hard it is to get blood out of clothes, and frankly, it’s not worth my time.”
“So, no clothes?”
“I left some stuff under the counter. It’s too big for you, but so’s your shoes.”
It wasn’t yet the right time to explain about the shoes. I thanked her and rummaged around until I found the clothes she was talking about. In them I felt like an escapee from a children’s cartoon, all cuff and trailing trouser leg, but at least they were clean.
Food was reheated Chinese takeaway. It was a meal designed to cause stomach cramps. We had never tasted such divinity and, when we thought Vera wasn’t looking, ran our fingers round the edge of the plate and licked sauce off our fingers. Vera was silent throughout the meal. She waited until a second after my plate had touched the table to say: “So. Attacked.”
I rolled my shoulder and felt the tightness of my stitches as the muscles stretched beneath my collarbone; I flexed my fingers and felt the taut hotness of that bright red cross carved into my skin, burning beneath the bandages. Not an unpleasant burning. Drugs and fire kept it interesting, alive, rather than the pure pain that numbs all else.
“What do you want to know?” I asked.
She went straight in with the priorities. “Will your attacker come here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think they’re capable of coming here?”
“Do they know about your connection with me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Am I or any of my people at risk for helping you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“All right. What do you know?”
I thought about it long and hard. “Nothing,” I said finally. “Absolutely nothing.”
“I think I deserve more than that.”
“I swear—nothing. I don’t know who, I don’t know why, I don’t even know how. I know that a phone rang, I answered, and the next thing the sky was doing backflips. I know that some time after that, a pack of spectres came hunting and will probably not come looking for me again.”
“I caught one. They know that I know how. Spectres aren’t stupid.”
“You ‘caught’ a spectre?”
I suppose I should have been flattered by the flat disbelief in Vera’s voice. It wasn’t that she thought I was a liar. She just knew enough about spectres.
“In a beer bottle,” I added for technical clarification.
“Really. Can I see this beer bottle?”
“It’s in my bag.”
She vanished into the bedroom and reappeared a second later with my satchel held out at the end of her arm as if it might start to tick. She put it at my feet. I opened it up and pulled out the beer bottle. The cigarette still burned sullen inside.
Vera took the bottle gingerly between her fingertips.
I said, “Listen to it.”
She obeyed, holding it up to her ear. I saw her eyes widen. “Christ,” she muttered. “You captured a ghost that’s into heavy metal.”
I took it back from her, put it reverentially on the table between us. “Yeah—don’t open it in a hurry,” I said. “Spectres aren’t known for their humor.”
“Why a beer bottle?”
“Why put a genie in a lamp?” I asked.
“Don’t give me the whole metaphor bollocks. I asked a simple technical question.”
“And got a simple technical answer. You use the container most appropriate. A lamp is a precious thing that grants illumination. A beer bottle is… well… not. I hate to get all sociopolitical on you…”
“… but there’s something to the theory that you can drown anything at the bottom of a beer bottle. Even if there isn’t something to the theory, enough people believe it so that there is.”
“I was being funny and sarcastic. I can do both.” She sighed, eyes not leaving the bottle. “Spectres aren’t stupid,” she said at length. “And they don’t go around attacking without reason either. You think they went after you specifically?”
“Because I don’t believe in coincidence. The telephone rang and…”
“Yeah, what’s up with you and the telephone? I would have thought, what with, you know, you being you… blue electric angels, gods of the telephone, song in the wire, fire, light, life, static interference with knobs on made flesh, Swift and the angels and so on and so forth—and now you’re scowling?”
“It was a trap,” we muttered; and saying it, we realised we were angry. “It was a trap designed specifically for us. We hear a telephone ring on an empty road in the middle of the night and we’ll answer it, we’d always answer it, and it would always find us. We are… it’s part of what we are. Someone used the telephone to target us. The telephone rang and of course we answered. Then they attacked us down the telephone, and sent spectres to finish us off.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Which you?” Her voice didn’t change as she asked the question. Nor did her eyes leave the bottle to observe our face, which was full of surprise.
“I suppose…” I mumbled. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter to you,” she corrected. “You’ll end up dead regardless of which you ‘they’ were after. But it might matter to ‘them.’ Some guy wants to blaze electric fire across the sky, then there’s no point just attacking Matthew Swift, but there’d sure be some credit to the notion of going after the blue electric angels. On the other hand, if some girl is pissed off that Matthew Swift ditched her at a party, then, sure, she might try and hurt him, and the blue electric angels will get caught in the crossfire. Just because you happen to be both entities inhabiting the same brain and the same body, it doesn’t mean other people are going to respect the difference. So the question is… did whoever sent the spectres and dialed the telephone want to hurt Matthew Swift, or the electric angels? Or both at once, since you are now, technically, the same?”
“A question we’ll ask,” we replied, “when we meet ‘them.’ ”
Silence. Then Vera said, “Why are your shoes too big?”
“It’s complicated. I was looking for someone.”
“And that meant you had to wear big shoes?”
“This pair helped, yes.”
“Who were you looking for?”
“Just a kid.”
“You think he attacked you?”
“No. He wouldn’t know how. Summoning spectres, attacking through a telephone, these things are complicated.”
“Yeah,” sighed Vera. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? We’re not talking any nitwit doing these things to you. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said ‘sorcerer’ hands down. Summoning the monsters, sending fire down the phones—it all stinks of serious magic. But the sorcerers are either dead or mad, except you, and you’re hardly the purest example of the kind. Which leads to the question, who or what else could be after you?”
“The old sorcerers are dead,” I replied. “Doesn’t mean new ones can’t take their places.”
“You taught any newbies how to summon spectres lately?”
I shook my head.
“See? It takes clout and experience to do these things. Some random sparking kid isn’t going to hack it. Who’s this kid you were looking for anyway?”
“Just a kid.”
“Is that it?”
“Pretty much. I made a promise that I’d help—he’s nothing special.”
“OK. You should know.”
Silence a while. I felt groggy again, fat on food and sluggish from the warmth. My skin tingled in a warning of imminent pins and needles. I hugged my knees to my chest, put my chin on them and watched the shadow of the bare trees outside moving across the glow of the streetlights. “What time is it?” I asked.
“Nineish. You slept deep.”
“I am grateful…”
There was something in her voice. It was a high breath that had rolled out despite itself, a push all at once through a clamped-up throat. I looked round, to find her eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Matthew,” she said again, firmer, getting control. “Matthew Matthew Matthew,” she added with a sigh.
“You believe in coincidence, Matthew? You believe… things like this are unconnected?”
“No,” she said at last. “Me neither.”
I waited for something more, but by now her gaze was locked, fascinated, upon the ceiling and there was no turning it away. I said, “I’ll be gone in the morning.”
“You think that’s smart?”
“The doctor gave me painkillers.”
“I think she may have mentioned something about taking it easy too.”
“Someone attacked us,” we replied. “We are going to find them.”
“Sure,” she sighed, rubbing the back of her neck with one pale hand. “’Course you are. Sure.”
She turned the TV back on. There was something more that she’d wanted to say, but she didn’t seem to have the inclination to say it anymore, and I was too tired to press her.
I went back to bed.
A telephone woke us. It wasn’t ringing. But we knew the instant we were awake that there was a telephone conversation happening nearby. We could feel the tingle of its energy up and down the length of our spine. Still dark outside; probably only a few hours had elapsed.
Through the bedroom door I could hear Vera’s voice, a series of mumbled sounds and shapes on the air. I rolled stiffly out of bed, padded to the door, listened. I don’t know why I listened. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but paranoia was what tied it up in a sack and buried it in wet concrete.
I heard Vera say, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. Didn’t tell him yet. He’s in a bad way… Look, I know how it seems, but I don’t believe that he… no, don’t do that. No. It’s just his word for it, and the spectre in the bottle. You ever see him summon a spectre, it sound like his style? Don’t give me that bollocks. For Christ’s sake, I don’t believe that for a minute—look, the guy seems genuinely freaked, I don’t think this is the right time to… yeah. Yeah, I know. Look, I’ll… if you must. But they won’t like it. You say that, you haven’t met them yet. I swear to God, if there wasn’t a fucking sorcerer still in that skin, they’d have ripped the city apart just for kicks. No, that doesn’t mean… yeah. I understand. You know where to go? OK then. Bye.”
She hung up.
I slunk back deeper into the shadow of my room, and heard her footsteps approaching the door. Quickly, instinctively, like a child about to be caught reading in the dark, we rolled back into bed, putting our back to the door and forcing ourself to take slow, steady breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. A spike of light spilled over us and up the opposite wall as Vera opened the door, looked in, then closed it again. We counted to ten and sat back up, looking round at the empty neon-washed gloom. Paranoia seems more reasonable when you’ve got twelve stitches in your side. I looked around for my bag and coat, not necessarily with the intent of leaving, not yet; just to have the comfort of them there, with their supplies. My coat was drooped over the end of the bed. Some kindly pair of fingers had even stitched the slash in its fabric back together with bright red thread. My shoes, two sizes too big, were by the bedroom door. On a chair lay a huge green jumper with a saggy hood and a kangaroo pocket; I pulled it on, dragged my coat on over it and looked for my bag.
It was next door, with Vera. So was my watch, although with the blood burnt to the strap it wasn’t such a loss. I checked my coat pocket for supplies. A few receipts for sandwiches, a couple of old crisp packets, a piece of string. Merlin himself couldn’t have made anything of this, not even a decent hand of cat’s cradle. I sat on the edge of the bed and reached for my shoes.
The doorbell pinged. It played the first few bars of “Oranges and Lemons” before Vera got to the intercom. She moved fast, not wanting me disturbed; mumbled into the speaker. “Yeah—I’ll let you right up.”
I did up my shoelaces, fumbling uselessly with my right hand and struggling to get any kind of grace or coordination with my left. I walked to the window, looked down into the street. Two sleek black cars were parked clumsily in the middle of the road, all shadowed glass and hungry, growling engine. A man was leaning against one of them. At first I thought he was a preacher, with a big black hat and a black featureless coat beneath which protruded a pair of black leather shoes. No dog collar, though, and the languid angle of his body and the fold of his arms were too young and cocksure for a priest.
Then he looked up, and he was looking at us. We drew back instinctively from the window, knowing rationally there was no way he had seen us, and knowing honestly that he had.
From the next room, I heard a tapping on the apartment door and the chain being drawn back. Paranoia is not good at finding solutions. I looked round the room, searching for the mains sockets, and quickly flicked on every one regardless of whether there was a plug to use in it. If in doubt, a sorcerer’s first line of defence is mains voltage, and I wanted there to be plenty around.
Vera’s voice from next door, speaking to more voices. “Asleep… Look, is this necessary? I mean, I know that… no, no, I’ll do it.”
The bedroom door eased open. Vera stood in the light. “Matthew?” she called gently towards the bed.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m up.”
“Yes,” she murmured, looking me over. “There’s some people here I think you should talk to.”
“Who are they?”
“They might be able to help.”
“Who are they?”
I loathe the Aldermen. Not the fluffy, cocktail-sausage-and-champagne aldermen, they weren’t the problem. The other Aldermen. The ones who only come out at night. Protectors of the city. The ones who do whatever it is that is necessary for the city to be safe; and right there was the problem. Sometimes “necessary” didn’t mean “right.”
I am scared of the Aldermen.
And the problem about Aldermen was that they never came out for the little things.
There were three of them, but none of them. On the surface they looked like escapees from the English Civil War, all big hats and black coats with fat black buttons. When the coats came off, the truth underneath was no better: pinstriped grey suits, silver ties and bright pink shirts designed to suggest the wearer’s uniqueness, and which every fashionable young suit wore to work. There were little, little hints as to their nature, once you bothered to look; one had on his right fist a collection of rings, one of which was burnt with the symbol of the twin keys. Pinned above a silk handkerchief sticking out of an old-fashioned waistcoat pocket, another had a small badge of a red dragon holding a shield. A third had the two red crosses, the smaller one etched into the upper left-hand corner of its larger twin, that were stamped on the emblem of the Corporation of London. Secret societies are extra-thrilling when you can feel the smugness of wearing them on your sleeve and still not being noticed.
They looked at me, we looked at them. I got the feeling they weren’t happy either.
Then one said, “So which are you?”
Vera rolled her eyes. The Alderman who’d spoken was young, male, and destined to rule the world. He had dark blond hair, slightly curled, a face just bordering on deeply tanned; bright blue eyes, a hint of freckle and a set of teeth you could have carved a piano with. If I hated Aldermen on basic principle, I hated him on direct observation.
“It’s not that simple…” began Vera, and I realised that she was also afraid. It takes a lot to frighten Vera.
“Of course it’s not,” said the middle man. He was older, with a little lined face from which boomed a great rolling voice, and neat precise hands. When he smiled, his every feature crinkled gnomicly, and so great were the welcoming good manners in his voice and every other aspect of his presence that I automatically didn’t believe them. “Mr Swift,” he said, “I am Mr Earle.”
He held out a hand only a few veins thicker than a sheet of paper. I shook it. “Mr Kemsley”—the young man with the teeth—“and Ms Anissina.” Ms Anissina was a woman in her mid-thirties, wearing clothes for a bright twenty-something and a hardened face fit for a dying warlord. Everything else about her was a frozen blank, neither hostile nor friendly, happy nor sad, lively nor subdued: just stone in a suit. Either she was a woman of hidden depths, or there was nothing beneath that marble surface to hide.
“I gather you’ve been injured; would you like to sit?”
I nodded, considering there was nothing to be gained from feigning a strength I obviously lacked. The one sofa had only space on it for three good friends. They left it all to me, and dispersed themselves casually around the room, just far enough apart to make it impossible to look at more than one Alderman at a time.
Mr Earle took up position by the window. I thought of sniper rifles and bright lights. He said, “Mr Swift, first may I offer my regrets that you have clearly been a victim of some violence.”
The words were the flat intonations of a busy priest, with three burials left to do before sunset and a migraine coming on. I said nothing. He didn’t care.
“How much are you aware of the remit of our duties, Mr Swift?”
“You’re the Aldermen,” I replied flatly. “A formation of like-minded individuals of a magical inclining whose responsibility is to ‘protect the city,’ whatever that means.”
“Yes—you hit upon an ambiguity there.”
“You are broadly correct. There is more to our mandate than a loose ‘protect the city’ and, naturally, more than simply ‘like-minded individuals’ in our exclusive choice of membership; but I don’t need to bore you with these details.”
I shrugged again, feeling skin stretch around the stitches, pain dribble down my spine. “I’m guessing you’re not here because you’re worried about my health.”
“Alas, that is not our main concern. I am sure you also understand our authority,” added Mr Earle, finding a point and sharpening it.
“I understand,” I replied, “that for nearly a thousand years there have been Aldermen watching over London, and that sooner or later anyone who opposes their will, dies. I know you serve the Midnight Mayor, who, if he exists, is the sacred protector of the city stones and whose heart beats in time to the rhythms of city life and so on and so forth.”
“You don’t believe in the Midnight Mayor?” he asked. “Interesting.”
“Is that what you meant by ‘authority’?”
“If you regard authority as merely being might, then yes. We could argue semantics all day, but I think you have the essential details. Well then, with all this in mind, perhaps I can ask you some questions. Where were you last night, Mr Swift, between one and three a.m.?”
I stared at him in surprise, which threatened to turn to anger. “Being stabbed by spectres,” I replied.
“But where, Mr Swift?”
“What were you doing in Willesden?”
“I told you. Being stabbed.”
“Mr Swift…” He sighed, then asked, “Is this your watch?”
He held up a sad, burnt piece of fabric and metal, 99p from a vendor on the street, with a faded Mickey Mouse behind the frozen hands. I didn’t ask how he’d got it, didn’t blame Vera for giving it to him. “Yes,” I said.
“I assume it was damaged during this… encounter with the spectres?”
“It stopped when I was attacked, yes.”
“At two twenty-five in the morning?”
“I wasn’t paying much attention to the time.”
“No, no, of course not. No, naturally, why should you?” On the edge of something else, he asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“Are you sure? Vera, my darling, a cup of tea?”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” growled Vera.
I could feel electricity buzzing through the walls, taste it on the air. A twitch of my fingers and I could wrap myself in it, send spinning mains lightning through the room, cranked up with all the will of a sorcerer’s magic to the point where flesh would pop. I said, “Maybe I would like tea.”
“Tea all round,” sighed Vera.
“Coffee for me,” said Mr Kemsley. “Decaf, if you’ve got it.”
The head of the Whites, one of the largest organisations of magicians, painters, and warlocks to burrow beneath the streets of London, smiled through her gritted teeth, and turned on the kettle.
“I don’t suppose anyone saw this encounter in Willesden?” asked Mr Earle.
“A large number of people, I suspect. But they wouldn’t know what to make of it.”
“Anyone… of alternative inclining?”
“I’m guessing you’re not referring to sex, biology, or morals?”
“Forgive me, Mr Swift, but in my line of work it can pay to be careful in one’s choice of language.”
“You can ask whoever attacked me. They’ll know what happened.”
“Ah, yes. And I suppose you have no idea who attacked you?”
“You didn’t see his face? Or speak to him?”
“No. It was all done by remote. Mr Earle?”
“Why do you care?”
Mr Kemsley almost snorted. Our eyes flashed to him and for a moment, he met our gaze, and cringed away from it.
Mr Earle said, carelessly, “Oh, you understand how it is, Mr Swift. After the business with Bakker and the Tower, sorcerers are in short supply. And sorcerers with… if you’ll forgive me saying it… such a casual attitude as yours towards death, resurrection, and the telephonic system cause us understandable concern, whenever anything bad befalls them.”
“So you’re just here because you care,” I said, letting the sarcasm show.
“Something like that.”
“Mr Earle?” we sighed, rubbing the bridge of our nose.
“Yes, Mr Swift?”
We looked up. He saw our eyes. Not just Mr Swift. My attitude towards the telephones had never been casual. “Mr Earle,” we said, “why do you keep referring to our attacker as ‘he’?”
He was good; but if he’d been brilliant, the question wouldn’t have slowed him down. It did now. “I suppose it must be my natural sociocultural gender bias. Forgive me, my dear,” he added, nodding to Ms Anissina, whose face remained empty, and Vera, who scowled.
My bag was at the foot of the coffee table. The bottle with the spectre in it was on the end. There were three lights in the room, small bulbs churning out bright whiteness from the ceiling. I had my coat and shoes on. Mr Earle guessed what I was thinking. It didn’t take much effort.
“You don’t like Aldermen, do you, Mr Swift?”
“No,” I replied.
“Why, may I ask?”
“You only come out for the big things.”
“I don’t understand…”
“When the peasants revolted in the reign of Richard II, the Aldermen came out to send the nightmares let loose by the fear of destruction back to sleep. When bubonic plague went through the streets, the Aldermen came out to stop the dead from walking. When the Fire of London gutted the city, the Aldermen made sure to save the precious treasures from the flames: the ravens in the tower, the London Stone—the altar supposed to have been laid by Brutus at the heart of the city, the heart of the damn country. When the bombs fell in the Blitz, the Aldermen were the ones who kept the things unearthed in the rubble from getting up and walking.”
“And… you seem to regard this in a negative light?”
“When the plague rats came to the city, the Aldermen made sure the dead didn’t walk. But they didn’t lift a finger to stop the dead from dying.”
“You are the protectors of the stones, Mr Earle, of the memory and the riches and the buildings of the city. You do not protect the people. So I’ve got to ask again—why are we having this conversation?”
Silence in the room, except for the slow bubbling of the kettle. Mr Kemsley shifted his weight against the wall. Ms Anissina took a slow, quiet breath. Mr Earle smiled. Skulls smile, and in the grave, Mr Earle will grin forever at a joke only he could understand.
“I respect your honesty,” he said at last. This is something liars say. “You’ve been frank with me, I’ll be frank with you. Quite regardless of your personal condition, our concern is larger than the mere trifle of whether you live or die again. We couldn’t care less if you were attacked or who attacked you, except that there are… matters at work which require our involvement. And you, Mr Swift, seem to be currently sitting in the middle of them.”
“I do not think I need trouble you by reporting them.”
“You already are troubling me.”
“Then I shall be brief to save us all further inconvenience. I believe you when you say you were attacked last night. I believe that you were hurt, I believe that you were afraid; all these things are empirically obvious. I believe that there are very few powers in this city, if not on this earth, which could make creatures such as the blue electric angels either hurt or afraid. I believe that the Midnight Mayor is one of them. I believe you attacked the Midnight Mayor. I believe you killed him.”
Strangely, we have never in our life been accused of killing a man.
I stared at Mr Earle and saw nothing but serious honesty in his little lined face. I looked at Ms Anissina and saw ice, I looked at Mr Kemsley and saw fire. I half-turned my head, looked at Vera and saw… for a moment, not Vera. Not quite: in the blinking of an eye, something else was standing where she should have been. Blink again, and there was Vera, face as empty as the mugs in her hand.
I looked back at Mr Earle and said, “You are totally shitting me.”
“I am quite serious,” he replied primly. “End of the line.”
A threat, as well as a statement.
“Why would I kill the Midnight Mayor?” I asked. “I don’t even believe he exists.”
“Come now,” he chided. “That’s a poor argument. You know the Old Bag Lady exists, you’ve met the Beggar King, you understand that Lady Neon stalks the lamplit streets and Fat Rat scuttles in the Underground. You of all… creatures… should know that the Midnight Mayor is real.”
“No,” I replied. “Besides, even if he were real, the Midnight Mayor can’t just die.”
“Of course not! The Midnight Mayor is an idea, a concept, a drifting title, a name that happens to carry with it some considerable power. No, no, no, the Midnight Mayor isn’t dead. Merely the man who happened to be him. There’s another Midnight Mayor out there, somewhere in the city, waiting to wake up and taste the carbon monoxide. Even you can’t kill an idea.”
Three faces carved with a pickaxe from old rough marble looked at me from around the room. I rubbed my aching shoulder, tried to shake the bumblebees from my ears. “Exactly how did you reach the conclusion that I did this, if this has even been done?” I asked, trying not to look at my bag and the spectre-filled beer bottle.
“Well,” sighed Mr Earle, “apart from the obvious qualifications—I mean as regarding your capacity to kill, which is well established, and your abilities when it comes to this matter—there’s a great deal of circumstance.”
“Circumstance? Is that it?”
“I did say a great deal,” he chided.
“It’d better be monumental,” I snapped.
He ticked it off on his fingers. “One:” he intoned, “your clear hatred for the Aldermen and by implication, our chief, the Midnight Mayor…”
“If you believe he exists,” I added.
“Who quite clearly exists, who was my friend and boss and who died last night face down in his own bodily fluids. Two: the manner of the Mayor’s death…”
“Stinking of sorcery,” he replied. “Three: files left in the Mayor’s office in which you were, I am sorry to report, the star. Four: your own injuries, most likely inflicted by the Mayor during your encounter. Five: circumstances around the city of London suggesting activities of the kind it takes a sorcerer or worse to inflict—you are, I think, still the only sorcerer in town?”
“Doesn’t mean that other sorcerers aren’t coming in from outside, or finding their abilities,” I retorted. “Life is magic; sooner or later there’ll always be someone new who works this out. What kind of ‘activities,’ and why do you care?”
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was just scared of losing count. “Six: your watch.”
“Your watch,” he replied. “Stopped at 2:25 when it was hit by what I’m guessing was a wallop of magical energy.”
“And by the coroner’s report, the Mayor died at 2:26.”
There’s no such thing as coincidence. At least there’s no such thing when it’s bad news. Everyone needs something to blame.
I said, “It wasn’t me.”
“You’ve killed before.”
“I’ve killed the shadow that killed me! I’ve killed a walking corpse with paper stuffed down his throat! We have never…”
“You killed Robert James Bakker. Your teacher, your mentor, your—”
“Robert Bakker was the fuel that kept a walking shadow feeding on blood and death for two years! Robert Bakker was the man whose shadow ripped out my fucking throat and killed my apprentice, who…”
“You’re not human, Matthew Swift. To be blunt about it. You’re not human.”
We stood up slowly. “We are human,” we replied. “We have all the apparatus of humanity and more. We were made by humans. You mortals pour your thoughts, feelings, stories, knowledge, everything you have, you pour it into the phone lines and sooner or later, it had to live. We are everything that you are and more. We did not kill your Midnight Mayor.”
Silence again. Then Mr Kemsley said, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
Mr Earle said nothing. Lips the color of old slushed snow pursed beneath a pencil-sharpener nose.
Vera said, moving towards me calmly, “If the old Mayor is dead, who’s the new Mayor? Is it done by appointment or what?”
No one felt inclined to answer.
We put our head on one side and looked at Mr Earle. His fingers twitched at his side. “No,” he said finally. “Either way, it’s not going to work.”
It’s not very easy to kill a sorcerer with magic, since nine times out of ten the sorcerer in question will be so hyped up on the stuff that they won’t even notice you’re trying. It’s very easy to kill a sorcerer with bullets. We die like everyone else—most of the time.
I knew this. I’d been reminded the second Ms Anissina’s hand went into her coat pocket. Which is why I pushed my bandaged hand up to the ceiling and curled my fingers around the lights, snuffing them out of existence before she had a chance to fire.
The good news was that Ms Anissina was, at the end of the day, an Alderman, trained in use of magic, not firearms. She fired anyway: blinding whiteness in a room of adjusting eyes. I heard something go, very quietly, ah. It wasn’t me. It was a sound somewhere between surprise and being stung by a nettle. Then Mr Kemsley’s hands were at my throat, and his fingers, once he bothered to stretch them, weren’t just mortal flesh; they sprouted aluminium, unfolded metal armor from between the tiny curved lines of his fingerprints, sharp and cold and harsh and unremitting, and above all else, conductive.
I fell back beneath his weight, letting him push me, throwing him off balance, overborne by his own momentum, and as I fell, reached out towards the nearest socket and grabbed for its power. Electric fire snaked through the air to my fingertips, obedient to command, and with a fistful of lightning I slammed my fist into the side of his head, hurling him across my body and over towards the opposite wall.
The light of the electricity gave Ms Anissina a glimmer to see by; she was the black shadow raising the gun. So I hurled the stolen brightness of the snuffed lights at her face, a blinding sphere the size of a football containing the illumination of the whole room in a bundle. She turned her head away, covering her eyes, and the gun fired again, flashing a starlight explosion from the end of the barrel and poking a hole in the ceiling.
I crawled back onto my feet, scooped up my bag from the floor and fumbled in the darkness round the back of the sofa. As my eyes began to adjust to the yellow light from the streetlamps and the blue glow of the electricity spun around my fist, a claw closed round the back of my neck. Five fingers had sprouted five painted black metal claws; skin had turned silver and weakness had turned to a vicelike strength that threatened to pop my spine out from beneath my skin. No one should have that kind of strength, but Mr Earle wasn’t just anyone. He pulled my head back so I could see the ceiling, and my back arched and bent to follow. In the light of the streetlamps and spitting electric flame I could see his face, and as I watched, the silverish metal covering of his skin was spreading even there, covering his lips, eyelids, spilling into his ears. His tongue flickered between his lips, and it was a thin red rolling fork; his breath was so hot it rippled the air and sucked moisture from my eyes, his eyes were bulbous, fishlike, burning white fire inside, and as he bent my head back even further, so far I thought it would break, I saw that the little pin on his lapel, the red cross of the Corporation of London, was glowing. Interesting, that. Very rarely do items of personal fashion glow, even under magical circumstances, unless they have something to do with events more than just bad taste.
Then Mr Earle raised his other hand, and it was a claw, and the curved tips of his spiked fingers were looking for the sockets of my eyes. I tried to reach up with electric fingertips, but his grip was so strong and so low that I nearly overbalanced and fell with the action. His lips rippled; not just human emotion, but an animal rippling.
Then Vera said, “Ah, shit.”
He looked round.
I did my best to look, and saw, in the very corner of my eye, Vera, standing with kettle in hand, an irritated expression on her face and blood running out of a neat, bullet-sized hole in her chest. Then she smiled.
And her skin was shining a bit too brightly, a reflective, acrylic glow, and her hair was dribbling down her back, melting and running down her face like eyeliner in the rain, and her face was melting, draining pale pinkness into her clothes, which wobbled and bubbled and fused into each other, and when she smiled, liquid white plastic sloshed over her running lips. Mr Earle and I stared at this shrivelling liquid thing in silence, both too surprised to say or do anything. Then Vera raised the kettle, little finger dropping off in a thick splat of pink as she did, and with what was left of her melting hand, swung it firmly into the side of Mr Earle’s face.
He crumpled without a sound, and I fell on top of him, balance completely gone. In a moment I had scrambled free again. But he had merely fallen, nothing more, and as I staggered up, a fist curled round my foot and a pair of burning eyes looked up into my own. Thin red blood was trickling over the silver skin of his face. Acting on instinct, good education, and pure adrenalin, I bent down and grabbed the glowing badge pinned to the front of his jacket. It was cool to the touch. He grinned as my fingers closed over it, revealing that forked little tongue, and white teeth grown to little fangs, and for a moment I doubted my own logic. But then his grin turned to something else, darker and more afraid, as I tore badge, lapel and silk away from his chest in a crackling heave, sparks flickering off my skin as my concentration lapsed and electricity stolen from the mains earthed itself around me.
The silver on his face immediately began to retreat, melting into his skin as fast as it had grown, and the blood, that had been a trickle, started to gush thick, gloopy rivulets into his hair. To my left, Vera was nothing more than a melted snowman of spreading paint, a sad lump of expanding colored liquid pooling on the floor. I dragged my foot free of Earle’s suddenly weakened grip and ran for the door. The lollipop lady painted on the inside had her back turned to me, one hand held up towards an invisible truck on the other side. I pulled the door open without thinking about it, ran out into the corridor, slipping Earle’s now dull badge into my pocket, and walked into the fist of the fourth Alderman, the one who I’d seen waiting by the car. It wasn’t a particularly hard punch, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it after it had landed, but it sent us staggering back against the wall and automatically we threw our hands up, snarling our anger and unleashing a blast of electricity, dragging it out from the walls and the ceiling to slam firmly into the Alderman’s chest. The shock picked him off his feet and slammed him back against the banister, which hissed and crackled as electricity earthed down the metal railings.
Then I was running again, tripping on the stairs and fumbling in the half-dark for support and guidance. The front door was open, the black cars of the Aldermen humming outside. I looked for a back way out, couldn’t find one, and hammered on the door of a ground-floor flat until a serious-looking gentleman with an important beard and a tartan dressing gown opened it. “Can I…” he began.
I kicked the door open before he could finish the sentence, marched straight into the flat, down a corridor lined with pictures of dead fish and serious ancestors, sometimes in the same frame, found a kitchen, the window too small and blocked by an extractor fan, then a bedroom, in which a woman wearing far too little lace, designed for someone twenty years younger and five stone lighter, started screaming. It was none of my business. There was a window at the back of the bedroom; I opened it. It looked out onto a small cobbled mews, full of recycling bins, Dumpsters, and impossibly angled parking spaces. I crawled out of the window and pulled it shut behind me. The woman just kept on screaming, as if I had the energy or the interest.
There was only one way out of the mews, into a street of expensive cars and not enough space to keep them in. No sign of the Aldermen, no sound of sirens. I ran to the end of the street, where I came to a network of zebra crossings and traffic lights, over which black taxis and delivery trucks swooshed in busy indifference. Here I slowed, skulking along the gloomy edge of a private garden square, and, sticking to the shadows at first, started to walk. A walking man never causes as much interest as a running man, and can sometimes get places faster. My head hurt, pounding from the inside out, against my skull. I walked with the confident, businesslike lollop of your good Londoner. Even if you’ve no idea where you’re going, you have to look like you do. It’s what keeps the locals different from the strangers.
I was in Bayswater. A tiny place in a big city, all things considered, but with its own unique character compressed between broad streets. If you didn’t look too hard, it was an upper-class part of town, all grand houses in white terraces. Pay a little more attention, and the wandering eye would notice the broken window against the tatty tea-stained cloth hung up for a curtain; a dozen doorbells on a single house; the council flat housing an old lady, wedged between the restored mansions with their knocked-through basement. There’s no place in London that’s ever just one thing. I passed graffiti in a dozen languages; alongside the long flowing curves of Arabic script, all kinds of names and doodles.
RIDAMMI IL CAPPELLO
SUPPORT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
And other slogans and messages, meaningless except for the one person who knew already what the meaning was. There was something that made us uneasy about the secret scratched paintwork sprawled across the bare walls, or slapped onto the side of postboxes. Wizards had long known the value of leaving their marks in their regular haunts, back from when the first Druid thought it might be interesting to carve a star into the bark of a tree and see if it started to burn. I thought about Mr Earle. Aldermen only ever came out for the big things.
The seeming dignity of Bayswater began to deteriorate into the endlessly changing buildings on the Edgware Road. Office blocks and underground car parks; palm trees in fake terra-cotta pots outside sliding glass doors; coffee shops; and all things Arabic. Every other sign was in swirling, elegant Arabic script, running right to left above the left-to-right English translation. Giant windows full of carpets, shisha pipes and overstuffed furniture; cars swooshing down the busy street; men in silk suits, walking ahead of women holding brown-eyed kids whose noses they dabbed with tissues from a gilt-trimmed box. Edgware Road believed in consumerism and cash. There were people, cars, CCTV cameras, restaurants and clubs, and shops that stayed open till 2 a.m. to serve Turkish delight and flat bread.
More to the point, there was the Tube.
There are two Edgware Road stations. Getting from one to the other involves taking a train four stops and changing. Getting from one to the other by foot involves walking under a small motorway. I went to the larger of the two, tapping in with my travelcard and staggering down the steps onto the first platform that took my fancy. Direction was an irrelevance. I slumped on a bench, holding my burning hand to my chest and fumbling in my pocket for painkillers. There was a vending machine selling a bottle of volcanically pure, organically treated, beloved, chilled, and pampered water for £2.50, or a cardboard pack of sugar-laced, chemically treated fruit juice for 60p. I slurped blackcurrant-flavored stickiness through a straw and swallowed the painkillers, then kicked another vending machine until it gave me chocolate.
A train pulled up on the opposite platform. It claimed to be going to Barking, but on its arrival it just sat there, chugging and clunking and not bothering to close its doors. The few passengers sat in silence and didn’t seem surprised.
Above my bench the board announced an eastbound Circle Line train was coming, but didn’t tell me when. If London Underground isn’t telling you when the next train is due, you can usually assume it’s bad news. I slurped more fruity sugar and waited. On the far side of the track, an enterprising graffiti artist with no fear of electrocution had written:
GEEF ME MIJN HOED TERUG
My thoughts, which had been left behind when the rest of me decided to run, had finally slipped back into the hollow comfort of my brain. Now they were setting up shop, putting out their wares and asking for a health and safety assessment.
Earle had said: the Midnight Mayor.
Which was alarming enough in itself, but then he’d gone further: the Midnight Mayor is dead.
And the Aldermen thought we’d killed him.
Which, while not true, was still justification for our execution.
And we had been attacked at 2:25 a.m., and they said that the Mayor had died at 2:26 a.m., and what was the use of their lying about it?
Even if the Mayor was real.
Even if the Mayor was dead?
I caught the Circle Line from Edgware Road to Baker Street; at Baker Street, changed to the Bakerloo Line for Oxford Circus; and from there took the Central Line, towards Bank and the City of London. The old city; the Golden Mile. The hunting ground of the Aldermen, and home of the Midnight Mayor.
Excerpted from The Midnight Mayor by Griffin, Kate Copyright © 2011 by Griffin, Kate. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Griffin's follow-up to A Madness Of Angels is just as vivid, witty, and modern. With the return of some characters and the introduction of some awesome new ones, Kate Griffins series continues to be a favorite of mine. A smart, original read!
I have to say that I liked A Madness of Angels better, just because, I felt, there were more mysteries (not just about the underlying plotline, but also about the electric blue angels, Matthew's death, etc.) but The Midnight Mayor is still amazing. It's action oriented (though he does get beaten up a lot) and has many shocking relevations. It's intensely written and has a lot of violence in it, like the first, but nothing particularly disturbing. Matthew seems to act a little more like his age (though not quite 30ish) and has reconciled himself with the blue electric angels a bit more (doesn't use "we" as much), but he still doesn't seem to develop any strong bonds with anyone, and he's lonely (or should I say "they"?). Many who were in the first book are no longer part of the second one, for one reason or another, but the new characters are just as interesting. All in all, you won't put it down once you've picked it up.
Matthew Swift was a sorcerer who would have been better off dead, which he believes he once was; as he muses that the Terminator and the Knights Templar would have quit if they had to deal with the 'electric blue angels' buzzing inanely inside his brain. Unless you are a voyeur, who wants to listen in on some puke talking sex over a telephone? Alas, the once proud sorcerer is back with his head aching from telephone lines, and electronic gizmos. However, having the buzz inside his head pales when he learns someone or perhaps something assassinated the powerful protector of London, The Midnight Mayor. The Aldermen, aware that someone of power committed the atrocity, accuse Swift. His first thought is flight, but he decides to investigate instead. He quickly realizes the invincible eternal magical wards that keep the city safe are being breached. London Wall has cryptic graffiti on it and the Tower ravens are dead. Each step he takes he uncovers a greater nightmare as Swift considers flight again as his conclusion is not very comforting. The Midnight Mayor is a strange refreshing urban fantasy starring a reluctant hero whose inquiry into what is going on and by who or perhaps better said as what makes for a fine thriller. The whodunit is cleverly devised as Swift finds wards failing while dodging a female human assassin who loathes sorcerers and their ilk. Complicated and not an easy read, Kate Griffin provides sub-genre fans with a deep tale of magic failing with ironically the only individual who might save the city is a target for death by those he is trying to protect. Harriet Klausner