About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
As a rule, we don’t get to see the bodies when they’re fresh. It’s drilled into every modern copper that our first duty, after protecting life and limb, is to preserve the crime scene from contamination. That means the first plod on the spot doesn’t want to let anyone in but the murder team. And the murder team, when they get there, don’t want anybody else except the forensics people getting close.
They certainly don’t want to call in yet another specialist team until they’re absolutely certain they need to. Especially not us-on account of us being the Special Assessment Unit, famed throughout the Met as purveyors of weird bollocks, sudden violent upsets and, worse, poor detection rates. Especially if they’ve worked with us before.
DI Stephanopoulos being a notable exception to that rule.
She was waiting for us outside the entrance to the London Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane on a cold wet Wednesday morning in April, a hefty-looking white woman with sharp blue eyes and resting scowl face. At least I assume that was her habitual expression-certainly it was the one I saw the most. And she was definitely scowling when I tooled up with the Folly’s latest trainee in tow.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“This is Danni Wickford,” I said. “She’s on the course.”
That being the Basic Falcon Management Course, an intensive one-on-one jaunt around the world of magical policing with yours truly, so that me and DCI Thomas Nightingale, my governor, could get time off for bad behavior.
We refer to magical gubbins as Falcon in the police-all the better to draw a veil of comforting euphemism across the disturbing face of supernatural policing.
Danni Wickford was a DC from Kingston CID whose Performance Development Reviews contained phrases like “utterly reliable” and “completely dependable.” Dependable and reliable being the qualities that the Falcon Recruitment Committee-that is, me and Nightingale-had decided were what we wanted in a Falcon-capable officer. Physically she was a no-nonsense white woman, skinny, shorter than me with dark brown hair tied up in a French braid, blue eyes, and a pointy chin. Born and raised in Dagenham, she had a proper East London accent but, like me, could cycle through various degrees of middle-class, cockney, and Multicultural London English as the situation required.
Stephanopoulos favored Danni with a nod.
“Try not to pick up any bad habits,” she said.
“I’ll do my best,” said Danni.
The London Silver Vaults were originally built as just that-as vaults for valuable items. Shopkeepers used to store stuff there at night, safe inside meter-thick, iron-reinforced walls, and then bring them up to stock their shops during the day. At some point some lazy git asked why they had to schlep all this expensive-but, above all, heavy-metal up and down the stairs each day. Why not just invite the punters downstairs? Safer all round.
So the vaults were converted into shops and, voil, London gets its first ever underground shopping mall. Amazingly, I’d never heard of it and Danni had had to look it up on her phone while we drove over.
“The original surface building was bombed during the Blitz,” she’d said.
Which explained the neo-classical pile that was sitting on the site, now complete with faux-Georgian windows and rusticated masonry faade of the ground floor.
At least it was an easy crime scene to secure, with a marble reception desk guarding the main staircase down and the lifts. The cordon officer had simply strung a line of blue and white tape across the doorway leading from the atrium and turfed the vault’s security guard out from behind his desk. The cordon officer now sat behind it in his noddy suit, looking like a doorman from a dystopian future. Once he’d signed us in the log, we proceeded down half a dozen flights of stairs to a lobby with a coffee machine and a stack of crates with police labels.
DS Sahra Guleed was waiting for us at the inner cordon in a low-ceilinged waiting room with a black and cream colored floor and a couple of blue sofas that looked like rejects from the 1990s. At one end, a pair of gray metal and glass cases displayed artfully arranged collections of silver.
In the opposite corner was a huge old-fashioned safe with a maker’s plaque proudly welded onto its front: JOHN TANN-RELIANCE.
“Is this the new trainee?” asked Guleed when she saw us.
I introduced Danni.
“Try not to pick up any bad habits,” said Guleed.
“Yeah,” said Danni giving me a questioning look. “‘Course.”
Guleed waved us over to a storage box half-filled with packets of paper noddy suits. She was already kitted out with her hood up, drawn tight so that she could keep her expensive hijab tucked away in her jacket. We shed our coats and struggled into our suits and gloves, and I had to rifle through the cellophane-wrapped packets to find one in XXL size. You nearly always have to go one size up to fit them over your street clothes, and if you’re late to a scene you can end up squeaking round in something too small.
As we wrestled our way into our suits, Guleed filled us in.
“Just after nine o’clock this morning an unidentified white male entered the vault, made his way down here, then proceeded to one of the shops and threatened the proprietor. The proprietor hit the silent alarm, but before anyone could respond something happened-we don’t know what-and the male was killed.”
“Something happened?” I said.
“Want to guess how much CCTV there is in this place?” asked Guleed. “Want to guess how much of it is still working?”
Strong magic damages microprocessors-one of the telltale signs of a Falcon event tends to be the local CCTV getting knocked out. Us police like our CCTV. It makes our job easier, and our only complaint about the surveillance state is that it’s not nearly as seamless as everyone seems to think it is. Just ask anyone who’s had to sit through five hundred hours of grainy video on the off-chance someone in a hoody looked the wrong way at the right moment.
Once we were kitted out and as anonymous as stormtroopers, we waddled off to see just what “something” had happened to our victim.
The vault proper was guarded by a door forty centimeters thick, with the John Tann makerÕs mark embedded into the header. The weight of the door and the building above me gave me a queasy moment as I followed Guleed through.
Beyond the Tron door we turned right into a brightly lit and blindingly white corridor which infinitied off into the distance. It was lined with vault doors and display cases filled with silver. At the far end I could see blue and white tape and forensic types swishing around with cameras and collection kits. As we walked down the corridor I saw that John Tann’s name was on every header, but the name of each shop was displayed on the inside of the door so you could see them when the shop was open.
And inside each shop was the most silver. It was crammed onto shelves and free-standing display cabinets. Ranks of cutlery, salvers, and gravy boats. Lines of dogs and cats and bears and eagles and intricate galleons under full sail. All of it glittering in the bright white tungsten light.
And in each shop, standing or sitting amongst the splendor, was the proprietor or salesperson watching us slither past in our noddy suits.
“We offered them a chance to wait outside the perimeter,” said Guleed. “But they refused to go.”
Most of the shops had been owned by the same families for over fifty years, and so it was with Samuel Arnold & Co, two thirds of the way down the main corridor.
Samuel Arnold & Co was a double-width shop, which meant it had two John Tann doors, which was just as well because one of them was blocked by the body which lay sprawled across the threshold, legs sticking out into the corridor. The SOCOs backed off as we approached, I like to think out of deference to my expertise but more likely because they didn’t want to be associated with the kind of weird bollocks that doesn’t look good when making a court appearance. Me and Danni went in through the second door and picked our way down the narrow aisle between packed display cases until we could get a good look.
I’d noticed as I passed them that some of the shops seemed very specialized. One was all silver cutlery, salvers, and plates; another specialized in silver figurines or candelabras. Samuel Arnold & Co was mostly jewelry, the display cases showing lines of rings, chains, and pendants, while delicate spun silver necklaces hung around the necks of headless busts.
By the standard of murders most gruesome, this was not particularly bad. I’ve seen headless, faceless, and dismembered bodies. Not to mention the one that was cooked from the inside out. And it’s not that you get used to it, but you do feel a little wash of relief if the injury is small and neat and the corpse hasn’t yet started to smell.
He was a white man, looked to be in his fifties, with thinning brown hair cut short, regular features, pale gray eyes staring at the ceiling, thin-lipped mouth now slack with death. He was wearing jeans, trainers, and a plain purple sweatshirt under an olive Patagonia jacket. A hole, about a hand’s width across, had been burned in the sweatshirt just below and to the right of the label; it was perfectly circular and the edges of the fabric were charred black. Through the hole a huge wound was visible but its exact nature was obscured by congealed blood and unidentifiable bits. I’d have said it was a shotgun wound, except I couldn’t see any pellet holes surrounding the main injury and it seemed too deep.
“Does that look strange to you?” I asked Danni, pointing at the wound.
“Yes,” said Danni in a slightly squeaky voice. And then, in a normal register, “Yes, yes, it does.”
I called out to the hovering forensic techs and asked whether I could pull back the sweatshirt and have a look.
“No!” came the unanimous reply. “And get a move on.”
“We’re going to do an Initial Vestigium Assessment,” I told Danni.
Magic, including the everyday magic that permeates the world, leaves behind it a trace-an echo, if you like. You’ve probably felt it all your life-that sense of familiarity when you walk into a strange room, that shiver you felt for no reason on a particular stretch of pavement, the sense that someone just whispered your name. These can all be vestigia, or they can be random misfiring of neurons, a memory or even a daydream. Separating the two takes training and practice, and is the first step in becoming a Falcon-capable officer.
“Don’t worry if you don’t feel anything,” I said. “If you’re unsure don’t hesitate to ask me. Remember, that’s part of the training process.”
We were already squatting down by the body, so that seemed a sensible place to start. I leaned over and got my face as close to the corpse as I could. I smelled sweat, fabric softener, and, underneath, the first sweet, creeping hints of decay.
But nothing else but the random tick-tock of my brain.
I pushed myself back onto my heels and looked over at Danni.
“What can you sense?” I asked.
Danni closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. It was hard to tell behind the glasses, mask, and hood, but I think she frowned before looking at me.
“There’s nothing there,” she said. “Is there?”
I was impressed.
“No,” I said. “No vestigia down here at all.”
“You said there’s nearly always something,” said Danni.
“There’s some things that can suck magic out of the environment,” I said, and heard Guleed groan from her position in the doorway.
“Not that again,” she said as we stood up.
“Not what again?” said Danni.
“I’ll brief you when we’ve finished evidence collection,” I said. “You need to get hold of a crime scene map, locate all the CCTV cameras, electronic cash registers, phones, and laptops, and mark where they were when the incident happened. If we track the level of damage they’ve sustained, we might be able to triangulate the epicenter of the effect.”
Danni nodded and swished off to get the job done. Another phrase used in her reviews was efficient.
“Look at you,” said Guleed. “Ordering people about.”
“Better than the alternative,” I said, and we went and found the SOCO to make sure all the CCTV cameras and the rest were bagged and tagged.
“That’s going to cost money,” said Guleed.
“We’ll let Nightingale argue the toss with Stephanopoulos,” I said-that being, in my opinion, what senior officers were for.
“I love that you still call them by their last names,” said Guleed.
“When I’m a skipper like you I’ll call them Thomas and Miriam,” I said, but I wasn’t sure I ever would-at least not Nightingale. “I think I need to have a word with the witness.”
Phillip Arnold was a third-generation silver trader. He was proud to inform us that his family had owned a shop in the London Silver Vaults for fifty years.
“Although I’ve got to say I worry about the future,” he said.
Phillip was a young-looking forty-year-old white man with black hair and light brown eyes. He was dressed in a well-cut but, deliberately to my eye, old-fashioned pinstripe suit complete with embroidered waistcoat and matching yarmulke. His movements were nervous and he kept making repetitive little gestures with his hands. In normal policing it’s usually better to wait a bit before you conduct a second interview, but with Falcon cases you wanted to get in quickly. Faced with the supernatural, witnesses tend to rationalize away things they didn’t understand. So it’s better to get a statement before they can convince themselves they didn’t see what they actually saw.
And Phillip wasn’t at all sure about what he’d seen.
“A light,” he said. “Only not like a real light but . . . Have you ever been hit in the head?”
“Occupational hazard,” I said.
“Did you ever get that flash of light?” he said, making exploding gestures in front of his eyes. “It’s not really a flash of light but that’s what it looks like?”
“It was like that,” he said and clutched at the bottle of water we’d provided.
I was conducting the interview on the blue sofas in the lobby by the safe and the display cases. I was still in my noddy suit, which was not ideal, but I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t going to have to go back into the crime scene.
–This text refers to the hardcover edition.