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.
My head was angled down, as if absorbed in the free London rag. But my eyes flicked around looking for telltale signs of casting in any of the individuals present – paraphernalia, the furtive movement of lips pronouncing whispered words in variations of Latin, Hebrew or anything else – signs of discomfort in another. There seemed to be none.
Art student: flipping the pages of some glossy periodical. Suit: phone call. Roadie: slurping tea. Poles: arguing, maybe just talking, tone and cadence quite at odds with any conjuring I could imagine. Camdenite: phone – gossip about a friend who needed to lay off the recreationals. Del Boy: flicking through his Auto Trader (perhaps for surviving Reliant Regals or Ford Capris). Uncomfirmed builder: late lunch of chicken and chips.
I decided on something general for the under-table glyph, something to undermine the efforts of the majority of esoteric efforts, if only a little. Play the odds; business as usual. Surreptitious mutter of the appropriate words and all sealed and sorted. This close I could feel its presence in the localised aetheric landscape.
I rummaged in my bag considering some specific bits, and an arrangement thereof, that would seem the least strange to the general clientele; the least obvious to a fellow practitioner who now was doubtless present and up to no damn good. I went for my student configuration. Notepad for doodling (magical warding in biro still being territory no one so far had managed to effect). Textbook – Business Studies; nothing anyone would take interest in, or someone who was reading it. Mobile so I could use its signal reception – or lack of – as a magical barometer for how fucked up things were getting (currently down to one-two-one bars from a high five).
Then I took out my snow globe; might look a tad weird but not likely to be interpreted as anything more than eccentric ornamentation. I gave it a shake and those alchemied flakes swirled around the solution within the artificed container. Good for keeping the aether moving, the magic going round, without stopping on any one person with a bit of a helpful nudge by some incanting on top; also festive (if in no respect seasonally appropriate).
I had a few other bits to hand and hanging round my neck but that would do for now. I picked a pen, a Bic, to chew and waggle thoughtfully and got down to my studies which were of everything but what was in the book. I gazed at a vacant spot on the wall, a little above head height, and checked each customer from the corner of my eyes.
Who was it? Who?
Art student – young. If she was a mage she couldn’t have been beyond apprentice stage. Mind malefic magicians have very different attitudes to preparing someone for life in the magical world. Less responsibility and aptitude so much as capability and how can you be most useful (steeple fingers and rub together). Victim more likely – though for no reason that leapt out.
The suit was certainly old enough, but he was still on the phone. Money means motive means higher on the potential victim scale.
The roadie had got himself a magazine. I risked a look: a philosophy rag. Meant nothing. A lot of roadies are a lot more intellectual than the average person would give them credit for. Possibly he could mutter some incantation more discretely beneath that bad mother beard/moustache ensemble. I’d check again later.
Two of the poles were leaving with handshakes and rough humour as farewells, no break in the act if such it was. Mind a lot of Polish magicians – czarownik and znakhari – carried swords, not unlike certain elements of London’s Worshipful Company; and some of these boys took their sword-practice very seriously. I looked for long bags like mine but found only an absence. One sat there doing something with his mobile, the other was now behind a Polish paper behind which he could… well I was keeping tabs.
Camdenite – just gone to use what horrible excuse for a lav they had here. Del Boy was still looking for his next second hand car. The builder-by-suspicion had finished his late lunch (during which he couldn’t have been conjuring). Mo was doing her knitting.
Back to the roadie, back to the Pole behind his paper…
The last bars… bar on my mobile disappeared. I felt a noticeable surge in the aether; oh it was all happening now. But what was happening? And to who? And who was the cause?
I got muttering under my breath behind the cover of my arm while my hand massaged my forehead in concentration which I was (just not on module 4.5.2 – a case study on the relative merits of Dawson’s Spanner Emporium or whatever). I cycled the words – part active spell, part mantra – to tune me a little deeper into the unseen drama that was trying to unfold.
It was some kind of hex – no, a whole bunch of hexes. The kind I’d mostly encountered were ‘thrown’, combat hexes and blasts you could dodge or deflect if you’ve got the protections, or counters, or the knack and knowhow to unweave them. These weren’t those. These were the kinds of cursing normally done from afar. But this was all happening in situ, up close: Some targeted attempt at grievous subtle-bodily harm if not outright occult assassination.
Yeah I was pretty sure there wasn’t any thread of spell-work extending beyond the threshold of this place. The long range stuff needed soma aside from anything else, nail clippings, hair or blood from the target, naming true and unprotected, and ritualling besides. On the other hand it took some serious expertise to do something up close without the extras or overt canting and gesture. The fact it was happening at all – and in multiples – spoke of proper talent, regardless of whether any of it had yet to land, to collapse into harmful certainty on the intended.
I identified the clotted pattern of a pestilenta hex, some kind of illness. I got busy with my own canting, too quiet even to be called a whisper, just the faint verbal markers of consonants to outline the spell. I pried into the hex with the incantation then worked on it bespoke until it frayed and its potency bled to homeopathic levels. Rendered harmless I tried to discern what I could of the others.
There was some kind of blight curse, an almost sentient gnawing thing that would suck at the victim’s vitality causing a wasting hunger. There was a pretty serious jinx as well, something that even those who conjured such things had little understanding of their true workings. Alone it was hazardous; in combination with something else… Around they went and around, kept loose by my artificed alchemical snow globe, and nudged on helpfully by yours truly so none settled on whoever their intended target was.
I was distantly aware, in the grey outside, rain beginning to spatter.
Ah – that was a more straightforward shock-hex. Not a physical blast of fulgar (that’s wizard-speak for electricity, small scale lightning like) but an aetheric jolt direct to the body. It’d give you a brief fit maybe but it was really to leave you vulnerable to one of the other nasties whirling unseen in the immediate vicinity. I lost it but was pretty sure I could break it apart the next time it came round.
Still though, I couldn’t work out who the assailant was and who the assailed. Sometimes a particularly sensitive magician can tell the former from the concentration of aether around that person or track back the other way. Well I’m a little sensitive, but…
On the other hand the assailant had no reason to suspect that another magician was present. My own workings were subtle and the problematic nature of this hexing meant that one coming apart could be accounted for by other factors. As long as I kept the hexes from settling, or if I could work out who it was and interrupt them, that would be job done. If the diviner who’d sent me here was on the money – and this time dollars to dinar he had been – there was an expiry date on this situation. So assuming I could hold them off until 4ish I could call it a day…
Something occurred to me then… but it was stupid. It was the kind of stupid you’d be stupid to follow – but moreso to ignore. Because it was the kind of twist that could bite you in the backside if you didn’t rule it out.
It was an awkward move to make, something I’d otherwise worry would attract attention. To the civilian contingent it might look a bit weird – that, just then, I’d decided the inward-facing seat to my left was suddenly more preferable to where I’d been sat these last hours. But to a magician, especially one busily magicking, if anything it’d be confirmation that whatever they were conjuring was manifest. Moreover it would indicate that I was just a regular member of the public who’d unconsciously picked up something going on, something which they could only put in the context of a strong preference for another seat. At least I wasn’t facing Mo now. I was also facing away from the art student and the suit. But now I could see the counter and the waitresses behind, cleaning up in the post-lunch lull.
Like I say, stupid; but had I spent the whole time facing away from them, only to watch someone keel over when all the time someone was merrily muttering hexes while washing dishes and making sarnies I’d have felt really bloody daft.
I felt another little rush then of those injurious esoteric forces and ‘decided’ that my original chair had been better in the first place. Again I doubted this would cause the slightest bat of an eyelid from a hard-working maleficer. And the average Londoner would simply add further points to the warning / avoid column in my tally (chair-changing slightly muttery potential nutter – and damn, he was so cute as well!) moving me from the default amber alert status towards if not into the red. If that irked me in the slightest we’d have parted unspoken ways within an hour or so, and, in that case, they and London could fuck off anyway.
Seated again I took stock. No change, not of note. The art student was sketching. The Camdenite was heading to the lav. And Mo, in between slurps of heavily stewed tea, had got out her knitting (perhaps a burberry knock-off for the sprog who’d departed with whichever of the other ladies his mother had been).
I absently took a sip of my own tea, staring into the Sudoku and feeling for the aether and the spells that articulated it into something with purpose. There was sufficient present to keep the bars on my phone down but, if I was any judge, there’d be a less subtle surge when any one of those hexes ‘locked on’.
I picked up on another hex, a replacement pestilenta for the one I’d pulled apart. I began to zero in on it while thoughts played in the background of my mind and…
What just happened?
I felt… fine. But as if I dozed off for a moment… zoned out for a second… did I…
Check the time.
Glance to mobile. No, only a little time had passed – but it had passed. I’d briefly lost consciousness in some sense. Could just have been a flush, tiredness, a momentary… something. But no. No that was too unlikely.
I blinked, blinked it away, shook it off…
Must have caught a glancing blow from a sneaky befuddlement as it went round: unlikely with my globe on the go but not impossible (its flakes were settling so I gave it a shake). Possibly because I’d been looking out for hexes had meant I’d metaphorically stuck my big fat metaphorical head straight in its approach? In any event I was glad for the pendant beneath my shirt (good bit of counter-hex artifice that, and particularly with befuddlements…)
Back to it – straight back in. Didn’t know if I could be any more focussed, now I’d shaken off the hex anyway, but I tried.
The aether was escalating. Someone was getting desperate, keeping the magical force built and ready for when an opportunity might present itself.
Glance to phone. Confirms: no bars.
Outside the rain was coming down like a mother and thunder rolled like a big fuck-load of rolling thunder… or something. Ignore. Even if somehow connected to the drama at hand what mattered was what’s happening in here.
The Camdenite was returning from the lav (Little mental note – possibly she’d been up to something in there?) and I took in the Pole who’d lowered his paper and…
There was that replacement illness hex. I dug in verbally, less subtly now, savaging an opening to tug it apart.
And there was the shock hex. Zinged past me last time you little bastard but I felt you coming round… Countered, blocked, bursting against the little anti-hex counter I’d dropped in its path. The roadie’s eyebrows twitched, some strange notion popping into his head as a by-product of the popped hex… assuming he wasn’t somehow orchestrating the whole thing and…
Mo. Mo was knitting. Mo was knitting and her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, her lips moving oh so fractionally…
And then came the thoughts, thoughts I had to let flow past and around and through and over me while I batted experimentally at the jinx, picked carefully at the blight curse…
Knitting, I… No. No that was daft. I couldn’t frame the old ‘dear’ with…
The aether built again. We were heading to the crescendo of the piece. Whoever it was must have become aware, if they hadn’t been before, that someone was fucking with their efforts. I had to keep it up, had to keep…
(There – got the blight curse, at least enough to have its excesses leech into the background…)
Had to keep at it. They were playing power hands now, trying to channel and funnel magical force into their maleficium to blast through my attempts at blocking… So when they did lock on it would punch straight through the natural defences of whichever poor bastard was on the receiving end…
I caught another sneaky befuddlement: Oh no you don’t, I mentally told it as it tried to evade the ‘net’ I wove around it and…
I came to my senses again. Must have been caught with… with another one… or something…
Whoever the hell it was must have got some artificium or something backing them up to keep this number of hex… Or maybe there was another…
Check the time.
Check the… phone (it’s called a phone I reminded myself) then get back in the weave and keep batting and picking and blocking and whatever the hell you can.
Phone – no bars, no surprise. Time. If I was any judge, fading befuddlement aside, I’d lost less than a half minute and…
I was back into the weaving and now was just knocking them around because it was a lot quicker and apparently all I needed to do was keep this going for a few minutes more and…
And while I was doing so the thought it hit me and…
And why had I spent a second wondering if it was the art student? Or the roadie? Or the camdenite? Or Mo or any other bastard for that matter? Why had I been looking at anyone else when the bloody suit had been talking into his bloody phone all this time? Because it’s not a case that Orange mobile has a signal when fuckwit mobile can’t get one, not when the cause of the disruption is the channelling from elsewhere of enough esoteric energy to super-charge half a dozen hardcore hexes. No it fucking is not.
Had I made him earlier, knowing who it was I could perhaps have traced back the threads and made shorter work of his maleficium. But as I was then, fuddled if only mildly and my focus caught up in the aetheric drama… I just had to keep knocking those hexes on and around.
But I was trying to work out if I could lob something over at the bastard and knock his concentration and…
Could I? (Could it be that Saviour – thy name is Bic?)
I waved the biro absently back and forth, back and forth, back and… I let it go with a flick of my wrist and all I knew was that it would be sailing in a parabola of some vaguely potential usefulness somewhere in his general direction… Then I was back in the abstract, back in the weave, sending round the curses and jinxes and round and round and round they go – where they stop nobody…
And then I had sense at where the threads were heading, where and to whom, who the victim was going to be in all of this and… Mo, foul old Mo, had a right to live whatever the hell this was about, at least I thought it was Mo and…
And I could ‘see’ into one of the hexes, and then another… See how to pull it apart and… And that’s what I was doing. Must have disrupted his concentration… not enough to stop them but enough to do this and that and that was another down and…
And suddenly there was a big surge of aaaaaeeeeettthhh…
And suddenly it was over: whatever had been going on had been played out.
I felt woozy for a moment – and then I didn’t.
Wall. Wall with tiles.
I was staring, total tunnel vision at a portion of wall between Mo and the possible builder, Mo on the blurred left periphery of my vision and…
And I was coming back to myself.
How long had I… had I been out? Long enough, apparently, for drool to pool and puddle and dribble from the corner of my mouth. I wiped my hand left cheek to chin, got rid of the spittle before it fell. How long…
Phone. Check phone… I couldn’t remember what the time had been beforehand but… Minutes maybe? Minutes. Bars – I’d got bars on my phone. And it was after four.
No one seemed to have keeled over. No one was panicking. Did that mean I’d done it, that everyone was all right?
I was suddenly aware of the café door closing and that certain folk were no longer there. I wasn’t looking around manically mind, the lingering befuddlement leaving a slow calm in its wake. The suit had gone. The art student had gone. The builder had gone…
And I needed to go. Like, pee go. I was aware I needed to go for a pee.
I bagged my stuff and headed into the cupboardly excuse for a khazi. Time had passed, I reminded myself while doing what needed to be done. My phone buzzed in my pocket as if in affirmation. I took it out. Two missed calls… new message. It was Alex. Then my dialling tone went off, Alex again.
‘Marwood? Marwood? Marwood are you okay?’
‘I’m… fine Alex. Your mate was right, something did go down…’
‘When I couldn’t get hold of you I was worried and I knew it might be magic disrupting the signal,’ (Alex paused for breath; I was rather touched by all the concern) ‘but then that would mean that there was something going on and…
‘Marwood – Marwood are you… peeing?’
I guessed I was. Yes, well, to be honest there was no guessing about it. ‘Um… No?’
‘Oh for… heaven’s sake Marwood… Phone me back when you’re not!’
She hung up and I was aware that the child in me was grinning his ass off so, feeling too tired not to, I followed suit.
I walked back through, realising the more direct path to the door took me past Mo. Given her earlier… words I’d have preferred to walk around. But it would have looked stupid – too obvious, too feeble – if I were to do that. Besides she’d had her fun. She had no reason to speak to me. And if she did I’d just keep walking past, keep on walking the short distance to the door and then I’d be outside, outside in the blessed bloody rain and I’d just keep walking and not look back…
But she wasn’t going to speak to me, I told myself. And what if she did? I was a magician. I dealt with dark shit. I had nothing to fear from a pervy old woman.
I felt her address like a jolt in the pit of my stomach.
‘I been watchin’ you,’ she said. ‘Watchin’ you watchin’ me; just like Jeremy fucking Beadle. But mostly I been watchin’ you.’
That strange feeling washed over me again, some kind of echo of the befuddlement, and I looked across the table to her and the leering grin I knew she’d be wearing.
And thoughts ran through my mind, thoughts that had begun stupidly when I’d looked back to her knitting in the middle of it all, thoughts I’d abandoned as stupid in the moment, disparate thoughts that now disappeared into obscurity leaving the truths that had been there all along. The kid – the little boy my thoughts now firmed – the one the other… Ladies had taken with them.
He wasn’t important in all this – and yet he was. It wasn’t a teenage pregnancy (a vaguely prejudicial half-presumption on my part), wasn’t the girl’s with the Croydon facelift. He was the other woman’s – the Mother’s.
Oh. Crap. This was serious shit – this was old pagan shit on the table here.
Not worshipping the great goddess or the goddess within, not buying books from the MBS dept of Waterstones or yer local Smiths. Not growing herbs, or going on retreat with your sisters (not that there weren’t a few genuine practitioners and covens amongst the modern Wiccan types). No this wasn’t any of that.
This was proper old tradition – perhaps the oldest: from when the men went hunter-gathering and learned what they learned and the women stayed behind and passed on mysteries that men could dismiss in disdainful jest (for they wanted knowledge only of pleasure and not the blood of the moon). This was lords and kings, rulers of counties and countries, humbled at the door to the birthing chamber and sloping off with their tails between their legs. This was healing and pelling and sour milk, brews and salves, flaccid cocks and remedies, spindles and distaffs and spinning wheels and weaving. And this was knitting needles off the books and away from the watchful eyes of unknowing men to preserve the lives or dreams or outward virtue of the woman who asked.
This was true old school cunning stuff, migrated from country to town and flavoured by brick and stone and mortar, the crap in its air and running in its streets, and working in its buildings and living in its homes, flavoured by it but unbroken in its transmission; Maiden, Mother and Crone, a coven of three, wyrd sisters and daughters and granddaughters thereof, true wicce of the big city.
The urban Wise.
I thought I’d been sent here to keep someone safe. And I had. That was probably all that truth-hack of Alex’s had divined, but knew it as cold iron truth.
It had to be me here, he’d told her, or someone was going to get hurt or worse and something bad would happen.
I didn’t know about the something bad. I’d thought I was here to keep ‘Mo’ safe, or one of the others. But I knew now which person in this café had been at risk during these hours.
And she’d been the one keeping me from harm.
‘Ah now y’sees the truth of it, Marwood,’ Mo grinned.
I felt a shiver at the sound of my name, and at the realisation that I’d had to be here to be as safe as I had been. If I hadn’t taken the job, dismissed the diviner… If I’d been elsewhere, elsewhere out there, in the open and exposed… How would I have fared then against a pro who’d got me in their malefic sights?
‘Maybe you’d ‘ave preferred the young un,’ Mo mused, closing up her handbag. ‘She might’ve set the blood rushing to them dogs cocks too much for them to work their maleficium.
‘Or maybe her mam, my eldest – her with the babe. She’s potent that one, especially just now with that lad. With her you got all that rage at the thought of some fucker dipping his finger in the brew and spoiling her gift to her ugly offspring – something like that anyways. But you got me and I’d say you been lucky either way.’
No, I’m all right here, Mo’s words to her younger counterparts came back to me as I stood there dumbly. She put away her knitting, the pattern of which I could feel the cat-curious part of me keening to see but which the wiser part (stronger on this occasion) studiously avoided in case I saw it, saw it properly, and discovered some truth therein from which I’d never properly recover.
‘Mind that weren’t bad, yer own workin’s. Y’managed to keep yer head for the most, kept yer focus in the fuddlement, kept those hexes and cursings on the move. Made me wonder…’
‘I… I thought I was the one keeping you safe… Lady.’ I said the word not as an American would, not as some unspecific term of address and possibly expression of bemusement and frustration as to a woman’s behaviour. No it was said with… respect. Because that was how you dealt with her like – well if you’d been properly trained and had the slightest bit of common sense about you. Not with fear, just respect. ‘Well someone here safe anyway,’ I finished.
‘Hah.’ She said. It was somewhere between a hah or a huh, between a grunt of hollow mirth and an utterance of the mildest surprise. ‘That so.’ She squinted then, in thought perhaps, her lips twisting into some new kind of ugly smile.
I said ‘I honestly thought… I saw the hexes going for you…’
‘Oh they were. They picked up on me in the end and one o’ them thought he’d ‘ave a go. Burned his fingers for him I did, burned them proper and left him with something to think on for a good long time…’
‘One of them?’ I queried then and Mo, still grinning, nodded. That had been the other thought that had begun to occur. This could have been a one man job but they in the plural hadn’t been fucking around. A collective effort of one or more maleficers: a hexer and a spotter, the latter being also a secondary on the hexing front, perhaps an artificer to handle the magical hardware I didn’t doubt was present. Well with the number of hexes and the aether-levels… ‘I made the suit in the end. The Polish guy… with the paper?’
I kind of wanted to get this right, recover a bit of propriety or something in this whole caper. I nearly picked the art student as the second, part from some undue sense of equality, and similarly from a sense of unlikely plot twist, just like I’d had a check on the waitresses. But life’s narrative is a little less clean and often a little more obvious…
‘Nah – builder; came in earlier, returned in his civvies.’ Dammit. ‘Like I says – some good work. Who knows, even by yourself maybe you could’ve… Well you wasn’t and that’s that.
‘Anyway… Came ‘ere as a favour I did – and don’t you go botherin’ that brain of yours with oo asked or why they wanted to make sure your tight arse was out of the fire. And I wouldn’t bother wonderin’ about them folk who set the fire going neither. Maybe you’ll one day know who sent them or maybe you won’t. It’s likely bigger than them and bigger than you.
‘You’re a pawn boy, just a pawn. But I gets the sense yer not that many checks from the other side o’ the board. You could change up, if you got there – if you wanted.
‘You could become a queen,’ she mused, all cunning and crafty and shrewish and shrewd. Then she cackled, throwing her head back in mirth: ‘Just like that Julian Clary!
‘I likes ‘im,’ she said: ‘‘e’s a dirty bastard.’
She settled back in her seat and put the rest of her things away.
‘You’ll be alright to go now. They knows they failed and they won’t try again and neither will the bastard what sent ‘em. They’ll look for an easier in for whatever they’re doin’ or wantin’ or whatever.’
She got to her feet and I thought she was going to go.
Then she said ‘Pass me yer mug. Don’t worry: I’ll take nothin’ from it and nothin’ from you, not knowledge nor anythin’ I’ll use against you. And what I give I give for free and with no obligation.
‘Not just anyone what can read tea leaves proper, Marwood. Not in these days of tea bags and what little escapes ‘em, and as for fucking pyramid bags…’ She rolled her eyes then looked straight at me. ‘Call it somethin’ for yer good manners an’ intentions – and from someone a lot older and wiser to a daft young bastard who’s going to get ‘imself in some real shit if e’s not careful.’
And she told me. And I listened.
‘Right, that’s me then,’ she said when she’d finished. ‘Got to get me lottery tickets for the big draw – double rollover this week.’
Frankly I pitied the National Lottery if this lady wanted something from them.
‘Julian fucking Clary,’ she cackled to herself as she stepped over to the doorway. ‘You don’t see ‘im so much these days. Not like that Frankie Boyle.
‘I likes that Frankie Boyle – e’s a filthy bugger.
‘Stay lucky boy,’ she said from the doorway, putting her brolly up. ‘Stay lucky.’
And then she was out and into the rain and gone, leaving me in some random greasy spoon in East London, somewhere in the metaphoric shadow of the metafucking Gherkin with the other flotsam and jetsam that had washed in. I didn’t follow suit, or follow her to the doorway to see her off. If I had she wouldn’t have been there, disappeared in some occult fashion into the rainy greyness and the weft of the great urbanity that is London; and if she had been there it would have been some anticlimax I couldn’t right then have taken.
They call me Marwood.
Don’t ask me – I haven’t a bloody clue either.