My eyes did another circuit of the tables and the human flotsam and jetsam besides myself that had taken up temporary residence in the East London greasy spoon. I tried to blot out the whirrs and clicks and clinks and tapping of coffees and teas being made, the clatter of cash and change, the pooled jabber of conversation, and the faint smell of grease and coffee and disinfected table-wipes. Sunlight gleamed through the smudged windows but did little to illuminate what I’d come here to find out:
Which of them would be victim, which the culprit…
There was a table of ladies, by speech covering three East End generations (four if the baby was a girl and the teen pregnancy of the otherwise youngest); didn’t seem likely for either vic or perp. An old chap in suit and tie for a job he might once have had sat coughing away in the corner, doubtless ruing the day the smoking ban came in. I rather hoped the young bloke who’d come in with his beard, cap and laptop might have been the aggressor so I had an excuse to give him a slap.
The businessman in his late 40’s? He was sat at the front by the window, suited and freshly latte’d (doubtless a revolutionary development for this gaff) doing his paperwork and making sales calls on the go. An older gent was at the back reading the FT, perhaps just keeping his hand in or an eye on his shares. Well business meant money and money meant motivation, and if one of their dealings was significant enough…
There were others. Two twenty-something ladies whose skin tone and accents said Spain. Builder types eating a second breakfast. Another Mum (late twenties) with pre-school sprog… The bloke who I guessed had been studying the racing pages of the tabloid rag under his arm returned undaunted from the betting palace across the way.
I was still none the wiser as to what or which element was at risk of or about to inflict some potentially terminal injury of a magical or paranormal nature.
That’s why I get sent in see, magical-slash-paranormal stuff. Marwood by calling, magician by vocation and no, not the pulling rabbits out of hats type. Really. By present occupation – as in what in a professional capacity I was presently occupied with – it was off-the-book wild goose watching. I wouldn’t have liked a chase of the same but at least then I wouldn’t have been sat on my arse and trying to keep myself alert while the boredom, sales talk, coughing, and red label tabloid gossip was draining my will to live.
‘No, Alex,’ I’d said, ‘no. Not again.’
‘This is the same guy isn’t it? The diviner the Company axed.’
The Company was London’s – and the UK’s by extension – Worshipful Company of Magicians. It was the secret guild of which both Alex and I were members. She was directly employed by them though, in some secretarial role. Whereas muggins here, with a bit more of the hokum and a bag of cantrips, was doing the journeyman thing, further from their auspices and prone to getting caught up in some well intentioned do-gooding nonsense off the books when the call came.
Anyway it took a fair bit for their Chamber of Paragnosis (or whatever they were calling it these days) to give one of their truth-hacks – diviners – the boot, sketchy a magical discipline as it was. And I’d had first-hand experience of why this one had been.
‘I wasted a whole day on park benches in Wimbledon Common on his say so Alex. There was no attack, not by a black shuck, not by a warlock. So unless it was a bloody Womble using dark hexes in some territory war – and underground rather than overground – I lost a day for the cube-root of bugger all. I passed the time debating the odds on whether I was going to get haemorrhoids, and whether you were more likely to die from piles than boredom.
‘And as for the afternoon I spent at that bloody inner-city community farm with half a tube-full of school kids on the off-chance the Shetland pony was actually a Scottish horse beastie…’
‘Look I know but…’
‘Just tell me it’s not the same geezer. I mean it is him who sent me off on those other occasions isn’t it?’
Alex didn’t speak then – too honest that one. But that’s partly why I gave her my number in the first place. Then she said: ‘Yes it’s him. But he’s also the guy who gave the heads up on Aidan Travers.’
I’d sighed. This whole off-the-book business (sub rosa as we call it), trying to save a few lives and limbs where the Company has potentially dropped the ball, worked by a serious degree of anonymity. I hadn’t a clue who this guy was. Best I didn’t. But despite a good start when he foresaw the kidnap of the rising star of the ballet scene by a goblin element, I’d subsequently got the picture of just why he’d been given the heave-ho.
Bugger of it is is that it’s kind of like the National Lottery only in moral terms: once you’ve bought in to the sub rosa thing and paid your metaphorical idiot tax you’re caught in the bind. Like, what if this week it’s you?
But, much as I was willing to lend my services in a good cause I couldn’t keep doing this for no good reason, couldn’t let myself become a slave to the habit. It was like that giant bloody hand in the adverts repeatedly appearing; only it was its gargantuan middle finger that was extended and pointed upwards while entirely being there for my reference and consideration.
‘I did offer to contact one of the others instead Marwood – but he’s more insistent than usual and he says it has to be you. He says if you’re not there someone’s going to be hurt and something bad will happen because of it.’
I left my response for a few seconds to show my displeasure, knowing I was already going to go to the bloody café.
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘fine. But this is the last time. I expect to have cause to hit something in some fashion. If I don’t…’
Sadly an hour in beard-face packed up his laptop and left as I reached the dregs of coffee numero one. It was while I was working through my second that, from the ladies table, the teen with the Croydon facelift left with the lady of the generation above, taking the kid with.
The mouthy old trout who I’d already named ‘Mo’ stayed though (‘No, I’m all right here,’ she told her younger counterparts) and called over the waitress to order a steak’n’kidney pie with chips and mushy peas. The builders had gone back to the site for proper man-work and / or skiving with another cuppa with sufficient sugar to stand a spoon in. The old stock-market hobbyist had likewise departed with his pink paper. Others washed in as they washed out; flotsam and jetsam.
I’d axed my intake of burnt ground mud when I felt the caffeine jitters coming and asked for tap-water (I bloody resent paying for bottled water at the best of times). I was tracking present company with little glances while moving on from cocking up the medium difficulty Sudoku in today’s Metro to do the same on the simple one. ‘Mo’ had porked through her pie and chips and was wiping the excess from her chops with a napkin. The Spanish ladies were gone now, replaced by a less visually appealing table of East-European blokes, Polish at guess. Something in their rough cheer and intense bicker, made them the more credible threat than anyone else, but even that was a balance of the most likely of unlikely odds.
After nursing my tap-water for the better part of further hour I thought it probably time to order some food – from hunger, but also because I didn’t want the waitress / proprietor getting arsey. From amidst the filling trays the currified option of the Coronation Chicken (so named for its debut at our Queen Liz’s coronation) radiated up to me in cartoon nuclear-spill yellow.
It seemed to wink with its raisin embellishments in shared conspiracy. Choose me Marwood, it seemed to say; it’s all a crock of shit, even if it’s only us who knows it. I knew by then I was dangerously bored, but I was in need of some sense of camaraderie on this fool’s errand, even if it was that of a sandwich filling.
It didn’t taste bad. I ate it as slowly as I could. It didn’t last nearly long enough.
I looked to each occupied table in turn, wiping my mouth on a napkin in drawn out motions. More had come. There was another suit I was keeping eyes on – cockney, something of the Del Boy, used-car salesmen by prejudice. Pierced Camdenite chick, local for the cheap rent of the east at a judgement, shop hand of a truly boho boutique rather than some mainstreaming high-ticket knock-off for urban twats. Something in her spoke of a magician mate of mine; something to register but not on which to dwell. Similarities meant nothing.
Then there was the roadie – well that what I had him down as. An all-but-neckless pug of a man he was, decked in black T and combats, skin-bald but with compensating beard jutting from his chin. It was a proper beard that could have devoured that of the young bloke with laptop and cap at the same rate he currently was a double sausage, egg and chips. It was a face and body on the razors-edge of good-hearted alternative lifer and grizzled hard man of one-percenter biker morality and temperament, for which the former might be mistaken. An itinerant drifter, like many a journeymen mage and masters besides; a face that could be there one day, gone the next. Eyes on.
I had a foot to my bag: between there and a few other places I had a little something for all the regular eventualities and at least some of the less so. I’d got a few artificed doo-dads, bit of alchemy – powders, stones, liquids… a vapour or two. My sword and sling were in there also, though I couldn’t see a scenario where these might be more useful in a close-quarter café fracas than anything else. Still my hands were ready to reach for whatever, and my lips twitched, ready with whatever spell might seem appropriate in the emerging circumstances.
I’d also half-graffitied a glyph on the table’s underside in my alchemical pastels, something that could be likewise adapted for best use as charm or ward or something else. It would be quick to complete but, aside from having drawn it without looking, perhaps less effective than if drawn in one go (as if maybe the universe thought it was damn cheeky for the lack of commitment).
But still nothing. Every quiver I felt, each potential tug on those perceptions of the esoteric and paranormal, perceptions I’d honed in my apprenticeship and since, were nothing that couldn’t be explained away by anticipation and paranoia.
Wild bloody goose watch.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ the waitress asked giving the table a wipe, English-speak for order something or piss off you waster (well that’s how I took it anyways).
‘Um, bit of cake? The chocolate one.’ I was sure I’d seen a chocolate one. There’s always a chocolate one in case your mayo’ed sandwich or fried meat/chip combo proved too low in calories for your liking.
The sun had gone, westward and beneath some ugly cloud formation. My glance to the window trailed on the way back to take in the female art student (who’d snuck in, sat at the table to my left), original suit, roadie and then I’d check in on…
Ahead, calorie-dealing waitress now gone, Mo gazed directly at me.
‘You looking at me boy?’ she enquired in a voice rasped hoarse by a life of fags and shouted retorts that had never been withstood.
‘No,’ I replied, not too quickly, ‘just…’
‘Coz I’m free if you like what y’sees. I likes me a toy boy…’
No! a very loud voice in my head cried (Uhm, no, it added a little more calmly, no thanks, thanks anyway…)
Fortunately whatever gormless expression my face had fallen into was concealed by the blessed return of waitress avec cake, and I pulled open the free paper for screening value before she’d left (Mo cackling at my discomfort in her wake).
Crock of shit Marwood, the contents of my consumed sandwich mused up from my stomach, just a crock of shit mate. I’d lost my appetite but picked at the cake, wondering if to eat it was somehow disloyal to the coronation chicken. I was beginning to think it time call it quits. But part of me held onto the suspicion of something being there, just on the cusp, on the very limits of my senses.
I’d been half aware of one of the new arrivals. He’d gravitated toward the table the builders had been at when I’d first come in. I thought for a second he might be one of them. He wasn’t in his high-vis jacket now mind, or the work clothes they’d been wearing. Was I right? I tried to place the face from memory, the memory of this morning. It seemed to be tugging another instead (had we met?). I was also thinking about where he was sat, because there’d been four of them. And if he had been present this a.m., sat at the same table diagonally across from mine, he’d been obscured by the builder sat opposite. But he’d have had a good view of whoever was coming in…
Having got a cup of tea in to wash down the cake I retook my place and looked around again. Left round to centre: Art chick, suit, roadie… Right to centre: Poles, Camdenite, Del Boy, bloke who might have been a builder… And then the old hag sat opposite who I certainly wasn’t…
I’d just felt something. Definitely. Some kind of hokum – hard to tell what kind but definitely something.
There it was again, a flicker on the periphery of my sense of the uncanny. Something was happening.