I don’t have very many friends. Contacts, yes. You need them, in my line of work. Old mates, chums in the trade, people who owe me favours, that kind of thing. But in terms of actual friends – people I would bother to put myself out for and I could trust to do the same for me, people whose company I enjoy just for the sake of good company – I realistically have very few.
It’s hard work keeping up any kind of relationship with other human beings when your job takes you all over the country at a moment’s notice. (Made even more difficult when that ‘notice’ is the fact that someone is out to kill you.) I’ve been avoiding London for a while in particular. When I was last there I crossed one Mr Scallet and narrowly escaped with my life.
But this means I have also been avoiding one of my oldest and dearest friends, who I haven’t seen in a good ten months. A visit has been long overdue, and, on balance, I’d rather risk the wrath of a cheated businessman than the ire of a friend who has a wealth of potential blackmail material on me.
And so, perhaps unwisely, I found myself back in London, standing under Waterloo Bridge with Peggy. Shopping.
Like a lot of women, Peggy loves to shop.
“Oh, look! A first edition Compendium of Blood Rituals of the Basilisk!”
Unlike a lot of women, Peggy loves to shop for extremely rare books of a macabre and supernatural nature. She specialises.
“Are you going to buy it, or just fawn over it?” I said.
“Hang on, I need to check the teeth are in good condition.”
I tried to show willing. “Is that a technical term for part of the-”
I stared as she produced two sets of heavy pliers from her handbag. She grabbed both covers of the book and then, with no small amount of effort, levered the pages open.
“Oh,” I said. “Those are some big teeth.”
“Healthy, too,” Peggy replied, cheerfully. The book began to growl. I edged behind Peggy. “I think it likes us. Who’s a good boy, den?” she cooed.
“How do you know it’s a boy?” I murmured.
She released the pliers and the book snapped shut.
“Don’t be silly, Jack. Books aren’t gendered. They don’t mate.” A thoughtful look passed over her face. “Well, except for-”
“I don’t need to know,” I said, quickly. I don’t want to know about literary mating rituals, and I definitely don’t want to know what parts qualify as the genitalia. I like reading. But I knew I was going to spend the rest of the day wondering about it, so she had won anyway. I watched her haggle with the vendor.
The Southbank Centre Book Market is one of those locations where a regular marketplace overlaps with the Black Market. On the surface, it’s just an open-air, second-hand book market. A good stomping ground for readers and collectors to come and riffle through heaps and heaps of books to their heart’s content. But if you want access to the really rare stuff, you have to know what you’re looking for, and who to talk to.
You usually get the friendly and energetic vendor at the front. He’s the salesman: the one who asks if you need any help, if perhaps he can recommend you a title, if you’re having a good day, and my, what uncharacteristically nice weather it is today, we take cash and credit cards, would you like a bag, sir?
Ignore him. The man you want will be sitting near the back, slouched in a cane chair, usually wearing a cardigan and a grumpy expression, with his eyes closed. If you speak to him, he’ll be rude and pretend to go back to sleep. But if you persist and quietly indicate that you are looking for goods of a darker nature, he may grudgingly rise from his rickety chair and lead you to a table set aside from all the others.
This table wasn’t there a moment ago, mind. It’s here now, and only for you.
Peggy is well known to all of the unconventional book dealers in the city, and to most of the usual ones as well. Most of those tiny, musty old antique bookshops found tucked in peculiar corners tend to run a Black Market operation alongside their normal book selling (or book-hoarding, as the case has often seemed to me). The shop owners are hard-nosed, ruthless collectors of literature who would sell you the same rare volume for several hundred of your finest pounds, but refuse to buy it off you for more than a fiver. Peggy, with her bright blue hair and slightly dumpy features, was no exception.
A cloud of defeat settled over the prickly vendor. She’d beaten him down to a half price deal on her Compendium. Peggy claims to hate confrontation but will haggle like a tiger. If she picks up a book, it’s hers.
“Pleased with yourself?” I said, eyeing the tome now being wrapped in tissue and a thin silver chain.
“I’m sure Larry doubles the price for me just because he knows I’ll get it for less, one way or the other,” she said, a little petulantly. She tossed her head – I think she still forgets she cut her hair short – and her nose stud caught the light. It was shaped like an elephant today. I wondered vaguely why anyone would want to decorate their nose with an elephant.
“Man has to make a living,” I remarked.
“Well, I deserve a discount, all the books I buy from him,” she replied, irritably. I felt a spark of sympathy for Larry, having Peggy as a regular customer.
“How about that drink now?” I suggested.
“Sure. I know just the place. It’s right up your street.”
I frowned at that. ‘Right up my street’ didn’t sound like a very good thing. ‘My street’ is usually more of a dark alley full of broken glass and weird shapes lurking in the shadows. I would be deeply suspicious of anything claiming to be right up my street.
I was right to be.
I enjoy pubs as much as the next man. There’s nothing quite like the companionable atmosphere of a respectable drinking establishment. Even the less respectable ones have a certain charm to them (although actual charm is rarely found in their patrons).
But then you have the downright seedy dives, the ilk of which would consider the mud to be a step up. The kind of place where shady dealings occur so frequently that criminals need to wear name tags to make sure they don’t end up in the wrong meeting. Where the things you find on the bottom of your shoe look more appealing than the menu – and, indeed, the clientèle. The kind of place where you couldn’t catch a moment’s peace without a shifty character in an oversized trench coat sidling up and asking in an urgent murmur whether you want to buy a watch.
“Peggy,” I said carefully, taking in our surroundings. The bar staff had fists for faces and I could already feel the tell-tale squelch underfoot. And there was, of course, a man in a trench coat now hurrying furtively towards us. I wear a trench coat myself. But mine is stylish and not shady whatsoever. Although it does have a lot of pockets. But I have never sold watches from it. Except maybe once.
“This is a lovely place to drink, Jack. I’ve been here before.”
“Peggy, this isn’t ‘lovely’. This place is so far from ‘lovely’ it lives in the opposite end of the dictionary. No, we don’t want to buy any watches, thank you.”
This was to the trench-coated man, who froze halfway through his sidling.
“Not just any old watches though, guv,” he implored. “Time-catchers. Special, see? They catch time and store it. Stay ageless, hold off those wrinkles, miss.”
Peggy’s expression turned to ice.
“Wrinkles?” she enunciated, with glacial precision. Poor man. He had no idea what he had just done.
“We all get ’em, miss,” he continued, blissfully unaware of the mountain of frosty rage building before him. “Look see, you take your watch, you set it to ‘store’ and-”
I stepped in between Peggy and the hapless tradesman. “Look, mate. I’ve run this con before and I know those watches absorb about as much time as the Pope swigs sambuca. I think you should sally off before you lose a limb, okay?”
He shot me a bitter glare, but at least had the decency to leave.
Peggy scowled after him. “What do his watches do, then?” she asked, despite herself.
“They don’t catch time,” I explained. “They do catch wrinkles, though. Thing is, they take them from one part of your body, your face, for example – but not your face, I didn’t mean your face! – and deposit them all elsewhere.”
“Like, on your feet?”
“Doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Say that after you’ve seen fifty years worth of wrinkles compacted into one foot. Not much use for walking, I can tell you that.”
“Huh. Like voluntary elephantiasis. Gruesome. C’mon, let’s get a drink.”
I followed her to the bar despite my feeling of unease. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder even as she asked me what I wanted.
“Will you stop doing that?” she insisted. “Just because it looks a little… down-market, doesn’t mean it’s a dangerous place. And I promise the beer’s really good here.”
I tried to keep my scepticism to myself. “Sorry. I’m just a bit on edge, I guess. It’s been a rough couple of months.”
“Still slumming it?”
“I’ll have you know my car is far from a slum. But yes, I am still enjoying mobile living. We had a brief spate of a few weeks camped out in a pub basement telling people’s fortunes and what-not, but you know me. Can’t stay put for long.”
“Tell me more about this coblyn friend of yours. She sounds like a character.”
“Ang, well. She likes pasties, and tea, and beer, and once you know that you’ve pretty much got her sussed.” Ang had opted to stay and snooze in the car rather than join me on this trip. Books, she had made it quite clear, were not her cup of tea.
Peggy took a sip from her drink. I looked at my own with disappointment; about two inches of foam on it, and I wasn’t convinced the glass was clean. “Isn’t it weird that she’s travelling with you?” said Peggy. “I thought coblyns preferred to stay close to home.”
“I think her home stopped feeling like one. Says she misses the humans, misses the work, and misses… well, misses having meaning,” I replied.
“I suppose it’s horrible to feel you’ve been forgotten.”
“She’s not the only one, either. Some of her friends left home and now she’s looking for them.”
Peggy’s eyebrows shot up. “And you’re helping her?”
“It’s business. I don’t work for free. She paid.” I hid my expression with a quick swig. To my surprise, the taste was acceptable.
“Must have been a big fee.”
“Mm.” The hairs were prickling on the back of my neck. The feeling of unease remained extremely present. “Speaking of business, how’s the shop? Going well?”
“Mm,” I murmured. The hairs were prickling on the back of my neck. The feeling of unease remained extremely present. “How’s the shop? Business going well?”
“As well as I like. Got a big consignment of spell books in. You know, the ‘cycles of the moon’ and ‘crystal healing’ junk you like so much.”
“They sell well.”
“There’s also a grimoire on demon-summons I think you’d be interested in. We should swing by the shop later so you can have a look through.”
I smirked and shook my head. “I always seem to come off the poorer one, whenever I do business with you.”
“It’s not my fault you haggle like a dithering grandmother.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment; I’ll have you know my gran is a fine haggler. Once saw her beat a man down from fifty to ten pounds on a pair of orthopaedic slippers. And she made him throw in a pair of socks as compensation for the trouble.”
Peggy chortled pleasantly, making her rather full bosom bounce in a way that would have been quite distracting, if I wasn’t preoccupied with trying to surreptitiously peer round the room again over the rim of my glass. That’s when I noticed the two grim-faced men staring at us from a dark corner. Not a good sign. They locked eyes with me, and my blood ran cold.
“Actually, Peggy,” I said, urgently. “I would be interested in picking up a few books off you. We could head there now?”
“Nonsense, Jack. We’ve only just got here. Have one more drink, at least.”
I took her am and tried to steer her to the door. The men rose from their corner.
“Peg, there may be some very bad men here who want to kill me. We have to leave.”
She gave me a concerned look, but it was quickly surpassed by anger.
“You bloody fool. What have you done this time?”
We were nearly out the door when I felt a steely hand clamp down on my shoulder.
“Mr Hansard?” came a voice like a death toll.
I spun, fist flung out for a punch. I’m not a good fighter, and I don’t look like a good fighter either. I’ve learned to use this to my advantage: if you look incapable of swinging a good punch, no one expects you to throw the first one.
The first man staggered back, out of shock more than anything. His friend’s boot caught me in the stomach, and a swift blow to my jaw had me winded and dizzy. I grabbed a glass from the nearest table and hurled it at his face. The glass missed, but the beer didn’t.
The other one grabbed a fistful of my hair and wrenched me backwards.
“Let go of him, you bastards!” Peggy, somewhere to my left.
“Run!” I tried to shout, but it was muffled by a mouthful of fabric as one of the goons twisted my trench coat around my head. I flailed blindly for a moment, and suddenly there was a piercing scream.
I escaped from my coat to see one of the men – the screaming one, to be precise – stumbling around with a… a book, firmly clamped around his head. It had teeth.
I couldn’t move, I was so stunned by the sight. So was the other man, evidently. And most of the other patrons, for that matter. We all stood motionless for a good two, three seconds watching the guy being chomped on by a vicious piece of literature.
A hand closed round mine and pulled me out of the gloom and into the street.
“Where now?” said Peggy, wide-eyed.
I considered quickly. “Anywhere,” I said. “So long as we get there fast.”
We took off, twisting and turning through the crowds, who took no notice. Funny how easy it is to not be seen when there are so many people around.
We came to a stop a few streets away. Peggy was clearly struggling.
“You all right?” I asked, sidestepping the thought that she had just saved both of us when that really should have been my job.
I patted her shoulder as she caught her breath. And then I realised she was crying. I stepped back in astonishment. This was my fault. I should have been more careful.
“There, there,” I said, uncertainly. “We’re safe now.” I’m not particularly good at being comforting, but I’d give it a shot for Peggy.
She mumbled something through the tears.
“What was that?”
“…bloody book…” she sniffled.
“I really wanted that book, Jack!”
I stared at her, nonplussed.
“You’re upset about the book,” I said, flatly.
“It was one of a kind.”
“We’re one of a kind. We’re lucky we got out of there.” Not that you should have been drawn into that in the first place, I mentally added. “I almost feel sorry for the guy,” I said. “That Compendium looked brutal.”
Peggy sniffed and dried her eyes. “You should see my Jane Austin collection. Bloodthirsty.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Who were those men, Jack?”
“Who knows. My best guess is that they work for the last guy I sold inspiration to, and that was months ago. Long story.”
She gave me a doubtful frown. “Just how many people are you hiding from in this city?”
“If I counted, it would ruin the surprise.” I offered her my arm, and a smile. “I’ll walk you home, and then I think I’ll get out of the city as fast as I can.”
“Got more trouble to get into elsewhere?”
“It’s a living.” I grinned.
We turned a corner and found ourselves on Oxford Street, thronged with traffic and shoppers and noise and chaos. I breathed in the fumes and felt at home.
Together we pushed our way through the crowds, jostling shoulders with strangers and banging knees on wayward shopping bags. You always have to be on your toes in any throng of people, constantly on watch for that errant elbow that might catch your face, or sly fingers searching for undefended wallets. More importantly, a crowd means lots and lots of witnesses, which means lower chances of impending death.
“Why would they be after you for selling inspiration?” asked Peggy after a while. “Those men, I mean?”
I shrugged. “Usual shtick. The inspiration might have not been perfectly up to scratch, per se. I get the impression this may have slightly vexed the fella who bought it, as he threw me off a bridge.”
“Oh. Was he a bad guy?”
“He threw me off a bridge!”
“Well, I never know with you, Jack. Sometimes I think you’re asking to be thrown off a bridge. You never know when to leave well enough alone.”
“I don’t always deserve it. Sometimes I’m even honest,” I said, indignantly. I noticed her face still seemed tight with worry. “Look, I’m sorry our catch-up was interrupted so rudely. It’s my own fault, I know. But I promise I’ll try and keep out of trouble, at least for a little while.”
“That’s like a fish promising to give land a shot.”
“Well, the catfish did all right.”
She smiled but it faltered, and her gaze was torn across the street.
“Do you think they could have followed us?” she fretted.
“Nope. No chance.”
“You’re sure, are you?”
“Certain.” Suspicion dawned. “Why do you ask?”
“I just feel like we’re being watched. Like that man over there, he keeps looking at us. And outside that shop, that guy in the red hat is– Oh.”
We stopped. We had no choice. As if from nowhere three men in slick grey suits had stepped apart from the crowd and encircled us. Ambush.
“Mr Hansard?” said one of them.
“I’m popular today,” I observed to the world in general.
“We’d like you to come with us, Mr Hansard.”
Peggy stepped closer to me. “I don’t have any more Compendiums, Jack,” she whispered.
I beamed at the most heavy-set of the three. Young lad, dark hair. Shame he’d found such immoral employment.
“We aren’t going anywhere. And these gentlemen aren’t going to do anything,” I said. “Lots of people here. Lots of people to remember faces. And faces usually result in names. I don’t think Mr Scallet would like that.”
I stared down the one in front of me, fixing my smile in place. I felt Peggy’s hand close around mine.
“Jack,” she said, softly.
My ears began to register what they weren’t hearing. The noise. The bustle, the hum of activity, the roaring of buses and the drone of hundreds of people all talking, laughing, shouting at once. It was all gone.
I risked a glance up the road.
All the people. All those busy, busy people. Gone.
Oxford Street. Empty.
I was impressed.
And, for the first time in a long while – well, for the first time in at least two months – terrified.
The dark-haired youth gave me a cool smile.
“I think you should come with us, Mr Hansard.”