Whispers Under Ground

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9780575097667: Whispers Under Ground

A WHOLE NEW REASON TO MIND THE GAP
 
It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.

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About the Author:

Ben Aaronovitch was born in London in 1964 and had the kind of dull routine childhood that drives a man to drink or to science fiction. He is a screenwriter, with early notable success on BBC television’s legendary Doctor Who, for which he wrote some episodes now widely regarded as classics, and which even he is quite fond of. He has also penned several groundbreaking TV tie-in novels. After a decade of such work, he decided it was time to show the world what he could really do and embarked on his first serious original novel. The result is Midnight Riot, the debut adventure of Peter Grant, followed by Moon Over Soho.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

9780345524614|excerpt

Aaronovitch / WHISPERS UNDER GROUND

Sunday

chapter 1

Tufnell Park

Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living. Not the police bit, which of course she already knew about, having been at my graduation from Hendon, but the stuff about me working for the branch of the Met that dealt with the supernatural. My mum translated this in her head to “witchfinder,” which was good because like most West Africans, she considered witchfinding a more respectable profession than policeman. Struck by an unanticipated burst of maternal pride she proceeded to outline my new career path to her friends and relatives, a body I estimate to comprise at least twenty percent of the expatriate Sierra Leonean community currently in the UK. This included Alfred Kamara, who lived on the same estate as my mum, and through him his thirteen‑year‑old daughter, Abigail, who decided, on the last Sunday before Christmas, that she wanted me to go look at this ghost she’d found. She got my attention by pestering my mum to the point where my mum gave in and rang me on my mobile.

I wasn’t pleased, because Sunday is one of the few days I don’t have morning practice on the firing range and I was planning a nice lie‑in followed by football in the pub.

“So where’s this ghost?” I asked when Abigail opened her front door.

“How come there’s two of you?” asked Abigail. She was a short, skinny mixed‑race girl with light skin that had gone winter sallow.

“This is my colleague, Lesley May,” I said.

Abigail stared suspiciously at Lesley. “Why are you wearing a mask?” she asked.

“Because my face fell off,” said Lesley.

Abigail considered this for a moment and then nodded. “Okay,” she said.

“So where is it?” I asked.

“It’s a he,” said Abigail. “He’s up at the school.”

“Come on then,” I said.

“What, now?” she asked. “But it’s freezing.”

“We know,” I said. It was one of those dull gray winter days with the sort of sinister cold wind that keeps on finding ways through the gaps in your clothes. “You coming or not?”

She gave me the patented stare of the belligerent thirteen‑ year‑old. But I wasn’t her mother or a teacher. I didn’t want her to do something, I wanted to go home and watch the football.

“Suit yourself,” I said and turned away.

“Wait up,” she said. “I’m coming.”

I turned back in time for the door to be slammed in my face.

“She didn’t invite us in,” said Lesley. Not being invited in is one of the boxes on the “suspicious behavior” bingo form that every copper carries around in their head along with “stupidly overpowerful dog” and being too quick to supply an alibi. Fill all the boxes and you too could win an all-­expenses-paid visit to your local police station.

“It’s Sunday morning,” I said. “Her dad’s probably still in bed.”

We decided to wait for Abigail downstairs in the car, where we passed the time by rooting through the various stakeout supply bags that had accumulated over the year. We found a whole tube of fruit pastels, and Lesley had just made me look away so she could lift her mask to eat one when Abigail tapped on the window.

Like me, Abigail had inherited her hair from the “wrong” parent, but being a boy, mine just got shaved down to fuzz while Abigail’s dad used to troop her over to a succession of hair salons, relatives, and enthusiastic neighbors in an attempt to get it under control. Right from the start Abigail used to moan and fidget as her hair was relaxed or braided or thermally reconditioned, but her dad was determined that his child wasn’t going to embarrass him in public. That all stopped when Abigail turned eleven and calmly announced that she had ChildLine on speed‑dial and the next person who came near her with a hair extension, chemical straightener, or, God forbid, a hot comb, was going to end up explaining their actions to Social Services. Since then she wore her growing Afro pulled into a puffball at the back of her head. It was too big to fit into the hood of her pink winter jacket so she wore an outsized Rasta cap that made her look like a racist stereotype from the 1970s. My mum says that Abigail’s hair is a shameful scandal, but I couldn’t help noticing that her hat was keeping the drizzle off her face.

“What happened to the Jag?” she asked when I let her in the back.

My governor had a proper Mark 2 Jaguar with a 3.8 liter engine that had passed into local folklore because I’d parked it in the estate on occasion. A vintage Jag like that was considered cool even by modern kids, while the bright orange Focus ST I was currently driving was just another Ford Asbo among many.

“He’s been banned,” said Lesley. “Until he passes the advanced driver’s course.”

“Is that because you crashed that ambulance into the river?” asked Abigail.

“I didn’t crash it into the river,” I said. I pulled the Asbo out onto Leighton Road and turned the subject back to the ghost. “Whereabouts in the school is it?”

“It’s not in the school,” she said. “It’s under it—­where the train tracks are. And it’s a he.”

The school she was talking about was the local comprehensive, Acland Burghley, where countless generations of the Peckwater Estate had been educated, including me and Abigail. Or, as Nightingale insists it should be, Abigail and I. I say “countless,” but actually it was built in the late sixties so it couldn’t have been more than four generations, tops.

Sited a third of the way up Dartmouth Park Hill, it had obviously been designed by a keen admirer of Albert Speer, particularly his later work on the monumental fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. The school, with its three towers and thick concrete walls, could have easily dominated the strategic five‑way junction of Tufnell Park and prevented any flying column of Islington light infantry from advancing up the main road. I found a parking space on Ingestre Road at the back of the school grounds and we crunched our way to the footbridge that crossed the railway tracks behind the school.

There were two sets of double tracks, the ones on the south side sunk into a cutting at least two meters lower than those to the north. This meant the old footbridge had two separate flights of slippery steps to navigate before we could look through the chain‑link fence.

The school playground and gym had been built on a concrete platform that bridged the two sets of tracks. From the footbridge, and in keeping with the overall design scheme, they looked almost exactly like the entrance to a pair of U‑boat pens.

“Down there,” said Abigail, and pointed to the left-hand tunnel.

“You went down on the tracks?” asked Lesley.

“I was careful,” said Abigail.

Lesley wasn’t happy and neither was I. Railways are lethal. Sixty people a year step out onto the tracks and get themselves killed—­the only upside being that when this happens they become the concern of the British Transport Police, and not my problem.

Before doing something really stupid, such as walking out onto a railway track, your well‑trained police officer is required to make a risk assessment. Proper procedure would have been to call up the BTP and have them send a safety-qualified search team who might, or might not, shut the line down as a further precaution to allow me and Abigail to go looking for a ghost. Sorry, that should be Abigail and I. The downside of not calling the BTP would be that, should anything happen to Abigail, it would effectively be the end of my career and probably, because her father was an old-fashioned West African patriarch, my life as well.

The downside of calling them would be explaining what I was looking for, and having them laugh at me. Like young men from the dawn of time, I decided to choose the risk of death over certain humiliation.

Lesley said we should check the timetables at least.

“It’s Sunday,” said Abigail. “They’re doing engineering works all day.”

“How do you know?” asked Lesley.

“Because I checked,” said Abigail. “Why did your face fall off?”

“Because I opened my mouth too wide,” said Lesley.

“How do we get down there?” I asked quickly.

There were council estates built on the cheap railway land on either side of the tracks. Behind the 1950s tower block on the north side was a patch of sodden grass, lined with bushes, and behind these a chain‑link fence. A kid‑sized tunnel through the bushes led to a hole in the fence and the tracks beyond.

We crouched down and followed Abigail through. Lesley sniggered as a couple of wet branches smacked me in the face. She paused to check the hole in the fence.

“It hasn’t been cut,” she said. “Looks like wear and tear—­foxes maybe.”

There was a scattering of damp crisp packets and Coke cans that had washed up against the fence line—­Lesley pushed them around with the toe of her shoe. “The junkies haven’t found this place yet,” she said. “No needles.” She looked at Abigail. “How did you know this was here?”

“You can see the hole from up on the footbridge.”

Keeping as far from the tracks as we could, we made our way under the footbridge and headed for the concrete mouth of the tunnel under the school. Graffiti covered the walls up to head height. There was a piss smell but too acrid to be human—­foxes, I thought. The flat ceiling, concrete walls, and the sheer width that it covered made it feel more like an abandoned warehouse than a tunnel.

“Where was it?” I asked.

“In the middle where it’s dark,” said Abigail.

Of course, I thought.

Lesley asked Abigail what she thought she was doing coming down here in the first place.

“I wanted to see the Hogwart’s Express,” she said.

Not the real one, Abigail was quick to point out. Because it’s a fictional train, innit? So obviously it’s not going to be the real Hogwart’s Express. But her friend Kara who lived in a flat that overlooked the tracks said that every once in a while she saw a steam locomotive—­because that’s what you’re supposed to call them—­which she thought was the train they used for the Hogwart’s Express.

“You know?” she said. “In the movies.”

“And you couldn’t watch this from the bridge?” asked Lesley.

“Goes past too fast,” she said. “I need to count the wheels because in the movies it’s a GWR 4900 Class 5972, which is a four‑six‑zero configuration.”

“I didn’t know you’re a trainspotter,” I said.

“I’m not,” she said and punched me in the arm. “That’s about collecting numbers, while this was about verifying a theory.”

“Did you see the train?” asked Lesley.

“No,” she said. “I saw a ghost. Which is why I came looking for Peter.”

I asked where she saw the ghost and she showed us the chalk lines she’d drawn.

“And you’re sure this is where it appeared?” I asked.

“He appeared,” said Abigail. “I keep telling you it’s a he.”

“He’s not here now,” I said.

“’Course he isn’t,” said Abigail. “If he were here all the time then someone else would have reported him by now.”

It was a good point and I made a mental note to check the reports when I got back to the Folly. I’d found a service room off the mundane library that contained filing cabinets full of papers from before World War Two. Among them, notebooks filled with handwritten ghost sightings—­as far as I could tell, ghost‑spotting had been the hobby of choice among adolescent wizards‑to‑be.

“Did you take a picture?” asked Lesley.

“I had my phone ready and everything for the train,” said Abigail. “But by the time I thought of taking a picture he’d gone.”

“Feel anything?” Lesley asked me.

There was a chill when I stepped into the spot where the ghost had stood, a whiff of butane that cut through the fox urine and wet concrete, a Mutley‑the‑dog snigger and the hollow chest roar of a really big diesel engine.

Magic leaves an imprint on its surroundings. The technical term we use is vestigia. Stone absorbs it best and living things the least. Concrete’s almost as good as stone, but even so the traces can be faint and almost indistinguishable from the artifacts of your own imagination. Learning which is which is a key skill if you want to practice magic. The chill was probably the weather, and the snigger, real or imagined, originated with Abigail. The smell of propane and diesel roar hinted at a familiar tragedy.

“Well?” asked Lesley. I’m better at vestigium than she is, and not just because I’ve been apprenticed longer.

“Something’s here,” I said. “You want to make a light?”

Lesley pulled the battery out of her mobile and told Abigail to follow suit.

“Because,” I said when the girl hesitated, “the magic will destroy the chips if they’re connected up. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s your phone.”

Abigail pulled out last year’s Ericsson, cracked it open with practiced ease, and removed the battery. I nodded at Lesley—­my phone has a manual switch I’d retrofitted with the help of one of my cousins who’s been cracking mobiles since he was twelve.

Lesley held out her hand, said the magic word and conjured a golf‑ball‑sized globe of light that hovered above her open palm. The magic word in this case was lux, and the colloquial name for the spell is a werelight—­it’s the first spell you ever learn. Lesley’s werelight cast a pearly light that threw soft-edged shadows against the tunnel’s concrete walls.

“Whoa!” said Abigail. “You guys can do magic.”

“There he is,” said Lesley.

A young man appeared by the wall. He was white, in his late teens or early twenties, with a shock of unnaturally blond hair gelled into spikes. He was dressed in cheap white sneakers, jeans, and a workman’s jacket. He was holding a can of spray paint in his hand and was using it to carefully describe an arc on the concrete. The hiss was barely audible and there was no sign of fresh paint being laid down. When he paused to shake the can, the rattling sound was muffled.

Lesley’s werelight dimmed and at the same time reddened.

“Give it some more,” I told her.

She concentrated and her werelight flared before dimming again. The hiss grew louder and now I could see what he was spraying. He’d been ambitious—­writing a sentence that started up near the entrance.

“ ‘Be excellent to . . .’ ” read Abigail. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I put my fingers to my lips and glanced at Lesley, who tilted her head to show she could keep up the magic all day if need be—­not that I was going to let her. I pulled out my standard-issue police notebook and got my pen ready.

“Excuse me,” I said in my best policeman voice. “Could I have a word?” They actually teach you how to do the voice at Hendon. The aim is to achieve a tone that cuts through whatever fog of alcohol, belligerence, or randomized guilt the member of the public is floating in.

The young man ignored me. He pulled a second spray can from his jacket pocket and began shading the edges of a capital E. I tried a couple more times but he seemed intent on finishing th...

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