Foxglove Summer, p.1Ben Aaronovitch
This book is dedicated to Sir Terry Pratchett OBE
who has stood like a wossname upon the
rocky shores of our imaginations – the better
to guide us safely into harbour.
1. Due Diligence
2. Mutual Aid
3. Operational Flexibility
4. The Falcon Assessment
5. Customer Facing
6. Stakeholder Engagement
7. Enhanced Interrogation
8. Proactive Measures
9. Post Incident Management
10. Intelligence Led
11. Service Delivery Option
12. Passive Data Strategy
13. Operational Compartmentalisation
14. Media Compliant
15. Window of Opportunity
16. Going Forward
Architectural and Historical Notes
Also by Ben Aaronovitch
In th’olde days of the Kyng Arthour.
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, Geoffrey Chaucer
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 from 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, 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 p
‘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 footwell 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.
A lot of the roads had hedgerows taller than I was and thick enough to occasionally brush the side of the car. You could probably pass within half a metre of a missing child and never know she was there – especially if she were lying still and quiet.
My satnav led me gently as a lamb through a switchback turn up onto a wooded ridge and then up a steep climb called Kill Horse Lane. At the top of the hill it guided me off the tarmac and onto an unpaved lane that took me further up while taking dainty little bites out of the underside of my car. I turned around a bend to find that the lane ran past a cottage and, beyond that, a round tower – three storeys high with an oval dome roof that gave it a weirdly baroque profile. The satnav informed me that I’d arrived at my destination, so I stopped the car and got out for a look.
The air was warm and still and smelt of chalk. The late morning sun was hot enough to create heat ripples along the dusty white track. I could hear birds squawking away in the nearby trees and a steady, rhythmic thwacking sound from just over the fence. I rolled up my sleeves and went to see what it was.
Beyond the fence the ground sloped away into a hollow where a two-storey brick cottage sat amongst a garden laid out in an untidy patchwork of vegetable plots, miniature polytunnels, and what I took to be chicken coops, roofed over with wire mesh to keep out predators. Despite being quite a recent build there was something wonky about the line of the cottage’s roof and the way the windows were aligned. A side door was open, revealing a hallway cluttered with muddy black Wellington boots, coats and other bits of outdoor stuff. It was messy, but it wasn’t neglected.
In front of the cottage was open space where two white guys were watching a third split logs into firewood. All three were dressed in khaki shorts and naked from the waist up. One of them, an older man than the others and wearing an army green bush hat, spotted me and said something. The others turned to look, shading their eyes. The older one waved and set off up the slope of the garden towards me.
‘Good morning,’ he said. He had an Australian accent and was much older than I’d first thought, in his sixties or possibly even older, with a lean body that appeared to be covered with wrinkled leather. I wondered if this was my guy.
‘I’m looking for Hugh Oswald,’ I said.
‘You’ve got the wrong house,’ said the man and nodded at the strange tower. ‘He lives in that bloody thing.’
One of the younger men strolled up to join us. Tattoos boiled from under his shorts and ran up over his shoulders and down his arms. I’d never seen a design like it before, interlaced vines, plants and flowers but drawn with an absolute precision – like the nineteenth-century botanical texts I’d seen in the Folly’s library. They were recent enough for the red, blues and greens to still be vivid and sharp. He nodded when he reached us.
‘All right?’ he asked – not an Aussie. His accent was English, regional, but not one I recognised.
Down by the cottage the third man hefted his axe and started whacking away again.
‘He’s here to see Oswald,’ said the older man.
‘Oh,’ said the younger. ‘Right.’
They both had the same eyes, a pale washed-out blue like faded denim, and there were similarities in the line of the jaw and the cheekbones. Close relatives for certain – father and son at a guess.
‘You look hot,’ said th
I thanked them politely but refused.
‘Do you know if he’s in?’ I asked.
The older and younger men exchanged a look. Downslope the third man brought down his axe and – crack – split another log.
‘I expect so,’ said the older man. ‘This time of the year.’
‘I’d better get on then,’ I said.
‘Feel free to pop in on your way back,’ he said. ‘We don’t get that many people up here.’
I smiled and nodded and moved on. There was even a viewing platform enclosed by railings on top of the dome. It was the house of an eccentric professor from an Edwardian children’s book – C.S. Lewis would have loved it.
A copper awning over what I took to be the front door provided a nice bit of shade and I was just about to ring the disappointingly mundane electric doorbell, complete with unfilled-in nametag, when I heard the swarm. I looked back across the track and saw it, a cloud of yellow bees under the branches of one of the trees that lined the track. Their buzzing was insistent, but I noticed that they kept to a very particular volume of space – as if marking it out.
‘Can I help you?’ asked a voice from behind me.
I turned to find that a white woman in her early thirties had opened the door – she must have seen me through the window. She was short, wearing black cycling shorts and a matching yellow and black Lycra tank top. Her hair was a peroxide yellow fuzz, her eyes were dark, almost black, and her mouth extraordinarily small and shaped like a rosebud. She smiled to reveal tiny white teeth.
I identified myself and flashed my warrant card.
‘I’m looking for Hugh Oswald,’ I said.
‘You’re not the local police,’ she said. ‘You’re up from London.’
I was impressed. Most people don’t even register whether the photo on your warrant card matches your face – let alone notice the difference in the crest.
Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes