I was recently forced at gunpoint to read out a bit of the first chapter of the forthcoming Foxglove Summer. Since my actings are not the best some people have expressed an interest in knowing what that bit that sounded like mumble, mumble, T-shirt, actually meant - so here is a bit Chapter One - now in all intelligable writing(tm)!
Chapter 1: Due Diligence
I was just passing the Hoover Centre when I heard Mr Punch scream his rage behind me. Or it might have been someone’s brakes or a distant siren or an Airbus on final approach to Heathrow.
I’d been hearing him off and on since stepping off the top of a tower block in Elephant and Castle. Not a real sound, you understand – an impression, an expression through the city itself – what we might call a super-vestigia if Nightingale wasn’t so dead set against me making up my own terminology.
Sometimes he’s in a threatening mood, sometimes I hear him as a thin wail of despair in amongst the wind moaning around a tube train. Or else he’s pleading and wheedling in the growl of late-night traffic beyond my bedroom window. He’s a mercurial figure, our Mr Punch. As changeable and as dangerous as an away crowd on a Saturday night.
This time it was rage and petulance and resentment. I couldn’t understand why, though – it wasn’t him who was driving out of London.
As an institution, the BBC is just over ninety years old. Which means that Nightingale feels comfortable enough around the wireless to have a digital radio in his bathroom. On this he listens to Radio Four while he’s shaving. Presumably he assumes that the presenters are still safely attired in evening dress while they tear strips off whatever politician has been offered up as early morning sacrifice on the Today programme. Which is why he heard about the kids going missing before I did – this surprised him.
‘I was under the impression you quite enjoyed the wireless first thing in the morning,’ he said over breakfast after I’d told him it was news to me.
‘I was doing my practice,’ I said. In the weeks following the demolition of Skygarden Tower – with me on top of it – I’d been a key witness in three separate investigations, in addition to one by the Department of Professional Standards. I’d spent a great deal of each working day in interview rooms in various nicks around London including the notorious twenty-third floor of the Empress State Building where the serious investigations branch of the DPS keeps its racks and thumbscrews.
This meant that I’d gotten into the habit of getting up early to do my practice and get in some time in the gym before heading off to answer the same bloody question five different ways. It was just as well since I hadn’t exactly been sleeping well since Lesley had tasered me in the back. By the start of August the interviews had dried up, but the habit – and the insomnia – had stuck.
‘Has there been a request for assistance?’ I asked.
‘With regard to the formal investigation, no,’ said Nightingale. ‘But where children are concerned we have certain responsibilities.’
There were two of them, both girls, both aged eleven, both missing from two separate family homes in the same village in North Herefordshire. The first 999 call had been at just after nine o’clock the previous morning and it first hit media attention in the evening when the girls’ mobile phones were found at a local war memorial over a thousand metres from their homes. Overnight it went from local to national and, according to the Today programme, large-scale searches were due to commence that morning.
I knew the Folly had national responsibilities in a sort of de facto, under the table, way that nobody liked to talk about. But I couldn’t see how that related to missing kids.
‘Regrettably, in the past,’ said Nightingale, ‘children were occasionally used in the practice of…’ he groped around for the right term, ‘unethical types of magic. It’s always been our policy to keep an eye on missing child cases and, where necessary, check to make sure that certain individuals in the proximity are not involved.’
‘Certain individuals?’ I asked.
‘Hedge wizards and the like,’ he said.
In Folly parlance a ‘hedge wizard’ was any magical practitioner who had either picked up their skills ad hoc from outside the Folly or who had retired to seclusion in the countryside – what Nightingale called ‘rusticated’. We both looked over to where Varvara Sidorovna Tamonina, formerly of the 365th Special Regiment of the Red Army, was sitting at her table on the other side of the breakfast room, drinking black coffee and reading Cosmopolitan. Varvara Sidorovna, trained by the Red Army, definitely fell into the ‘and the like’ category. But since she’d been lodging with us while awaiting trial for the last two months she, at least, was unlikely to be involved.
Amazingly, Varvara had appeared for breakfast before me and looking bright eyed for a woman I’d seen put away the best part of two bottles of Stoli the night before. Me and Nightingale had been trying to get her drunk in the hope of prising more information on the Faceless Man out of her, but we got nothing except some really disgusting jokes – many of which didn’t translate very well. Still, the vodka had knocked me out handily and I’d got most of a night’s sleep.
‘So, like ViSOR,’ I said.
‘Is that the list of sex offenders?’ asked Nightingale, who wisely never bothered to memorise an acronym until it had lasted at least ten years. I told him that it was, and he considered the question while pouring another cup of tea.
‘Better to think of ours as a register of vulnerable people,’ he said. ‘Our task in this instance is to ensure they haven’t become entangled in something they may later regret.’
‘Do you think it’s likely in this case?’ I asked.
‘Not terribly likely, no,’ said Nightingale. ‘But it’s always better to err on the side of caution in these matters. And besides,’ he smiled, ‘it will do you good to get out of the city for a couple of days.’
‘Because nothing cheers me up like a good child abduction,’ I said.
‘Quite,’ said Nightingale.
So, after breakfast I spent an hour in the tech cave pulling background off the network and making sure my laptop was properly charged up. I’d just re-qualified for my level 1 public order certificate and I threw my PSU bag into the back of the Asbo Mark 2 along with an overnight bag. I didn’t think my flame retardant overall would be necessary, but my chunky PSU boots were a better bet than my street shoes. I’ve been to the countryside before, and I learn from my mistakes.
I popped back to the Folly proper and met Nightingale in the main library where he handed me a manila folder tied up with faded red ribbons. Inside were about thirty pages of tissue-thin paper covered in densely typed text and what was obviously a photostat of an identity document of some sort.
‘Hugh Oswald,’ said Nightingale. ‘Fought at Antwerp and Ettersberg.’
‘He survived Ettersberg?’
Nightingale looked away. ‘He made it back to England,’ he said. ‘But he suffered from what I’m told is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still lives on a medical pension – took up beekeeping.’
‘How strong is he?’
‘Well, you wouldn’t want to test him,’ said Nightingale. ‘But I suspect he’s out of practice.’
‘And if I suspect something?’
‘Keep it to yourself, make a discreet withdrawal and telephone me at the first opportunity,’ he said.
Before I could make it out the back door Molly came gliding out of her kitchen domain and intercepted me. She gave me a thin smile and tilted her head to one side in inquiry.
‘I thought I’d stop on the way up,’ I said.
The pale skin between her thin black eyebrows furrowed.
‘I didn’t want to put you to any trouble,’ I said.
Molly held up an orange Sainsbury’s bag in one long-fingered hand, I took it. It was surprisingly heavy.
‘What’s in it?’ I asked but Molly merely smiled, showing too many teeth, turned and drifted away.
I hefted the bag gingerly – there’d been less offal of late, but Molly could still be pretty eccentric in her culinary combinations. I made a point of stowing the bag in the shaded foot well of the back seat. Whatever was in the sandwiches, you didn’t want them getting too warm and going off, or starting to smell, or spontaneously mutating into a new life form.
It was a brilliant London day as I set out – the sky was blue, the tourists were blocking the pavements along the Euston Road, and the commuters panted out of their open windows and stared longingly as the fit young people strolled past in shorts and summer dresses. Pausing to tank up at a garage I know near Warwick Avenue, I tangled with the temporary one-way system around Paddington, climbed aboard the A40, bid farewell to the Art Deco magnificence of the Hoover Building and set course for what Londoners like to think of as ‘everywhere else’.
Once Mr Punch and the M25 were behind me, I tuned the car radio to Five Live, which was doing its best to build a twenty-four-hour news cycle out of about half an hour of news. The children were still missing, the parents had made an ‘emotional’ appeal and police and volunteers were searching the area.
We were barely into day two and already the radio presenters were beginning to get the desperate tone of people who were running out of questions to ask the reporters on the spot. They hadn’t reached the What do you think is going through their minds right now? stage yet, but it was only a matter of time.
They were making comparisons with Soham, although nobody had been tactless enough to point out that both girls in that case had been dead even before the parents had dialled 999. Time was said to be running out, and the police and volunteers were conducting intensive search operations in the surrounding countryside. There was speculation as to whether the families would make a media appeal that evening or whether they would wait until the next day. Because this was the one area they knew anything about, they got a whole ten minutes out of discussing the family’s media strategy before being interrupted with the news that their journalist on the spot had actually managed to interview a local. This proved to be a woman with an old-fashioned BBC accent who said naturally everyone was very shocked and that you don’t expect that sort of thing to happen in a place like Rushpool.
The news cycle reset at the top of the hour and I learnt that the tiny village of Rushpool in sleepy rural Herefordshire was the centre of a massive police search operation for two eleven-year-old girls, best friends, Nicole Lacey and Hannah Marstowe, who had been missing for over forty-eight hours. Neighbours were said to be shocked and time was running out.
I turned the radio off.
Nightingale had suggested getting off at Oxford Services and going via Chipping Norton and Worcester, but I had the satnav switched to fastest route and that meant hooking round via Bromsgrove on the M42 and M5 and only bailing at Droitwich. Suddenly I was driving on a series of narrow A-roads that twisted through valleys and over grey-stone humpbacked bridges before expiring west of the River Teme. From then on it was even twistier B-roads through a country so photogenically rural that I half expected to meet Bilbo Baggins around the next corner – providing he’d taken to driving a Nissan Micra.