If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans
There would be no need for tinker’s hands!
Scottish nursery rhyme
London - 1976
It started at one thirty on a wet Thursday morning in March when Alvin Reimer, musician and, in his own words, intermediate level kung fu master tripped over a body in the alley behind Ludwig’s Pawn.
“I had to, well,” Alvin dropped his voice. “I was looking to have a slash, only there was this bloke here on the ground.”
Inspector Bellows took this testimony down with sweeping strokes of a ballpoint and a face devoid of emotion, and that was that.
The Coroner Officer had already come and gone in a swirl of mustard yellow Macintosh. Alex heard him tell the Inspector that the cause of death was a blow to the head, presumably self-inflicted after slipping and falling, which is something Alex’s blind grandmother could have told him after a single glance and a judicious test of the slip factor of the wet cobblestones. The body in question was one Ludwig Weininger, the owner, proprietor, and sole resident of the flat above the shop, and while he wouldn’t be expected to be dead, he would be expected to be in the vicinity.
It was all cut and dry, or should have been, except for the unrelenting drizzle, and it was only the tried and true signs of a burglary--smashed window, gaping door, empty till--that precipitated Bellows assigning a couple of constables to secure the scene until the Flying Squad arrived, presumably in hope that they would be interested enough in the case to take it off his hands or impressed enough with his discernment to recruit him into their ranks. Alex thought it was bollocks.
“This is bollocks.” Constable Marcus Stiles sniffled and winced as another drop of moisture slid off his helmet to land on the back of his neck.
“Buck up, for God’s sake,” Alex barked back. “You’re a constable in the Metropolitan Police Force not a delicate blossom left in the frost. Are you a blossom, Stiles? A fragile lily?”
Stiles sniffed again. “No.”
“Then shut it. We’ll do our duty, and we’ll do it as coppers should.”
“Unflinchingly.” Stiles sneezed pathetically. He was colt-like and awkward, with a face so open it hurt Alex to look at him for fear he’d see his younger brother Caleb looking back at him one day. “Why don’t you get us a coffee?” Alex amended. “Won’t hurt to have us both more awake.”
Stiles’s blue eyes brightened as the misery weighing down his features drained away. “Really? But, will you be alright on your own?”
“Nothing going on here at the moment, and there’s not likely to be. Go on. I’m sick of your commentary.”
“Thank you, Alex!” The grin Alex received was bright in the lamplight. “I’ll be back in a jif.”
“I want mine black,” Alex called to the thin, retreating back. Stiles saluted.
It was early yet--the dying gasp of a murdered night before the wounds began to bleed daylight--and the streets were quiet and still. Alex fancied he heard a pair of bright laughs and the distorted rumble of a radio a few blocks over, but it was far enough away that he may have imagined it. His ears had never been good, not even when he was a lad, though his mother liked to blame the unending roar of the textile plant for the lack. Pointing out to her that her younger son, husband, and indeed she herself had perfect hearing made absolutely no impact.
Still, Alex’s ears weren’t so poor that he couldn’t hear the smooth purr of the Jaguar as it pulled up in front of the pawn shop.
“This is a secure area under police investigation, sir. You’ll need to be on your way,” Alex said to the elderly gentleman who stood gracefully from the driver’s seat. Inwardly he tensed and then just as quickly berated himself for it. What sort of threat is this, Alex, he asked himself, a silvered bloke with a cane and a bespoke suit? Nevermind the fact that it was 4:00 a.m. and raining and there was no logical reason for such a person--or any person, rather--to be joining Alex on this patch of slick cobblestones in Camden Town.
“Oi, did you hear me?” he asked as the man came closer, cane hooked over his arm rather than deployed in an appropriate manner.
“DCI Thomas Nightingale.” The warrant card was produced and displayed in a movement as polished as the accent that accompanied it. “I received a call.”
“You’re Flying Squad, sir?” Alex eyed him and marshaled his expression into something closer to respectful than dubious. Nightingale didn’t look like anyone from Central Burglary Alex had come across so far. He was too well groomed with a trimmed beard that ran the sweep of a fine-boned jaw, accented by two slashes of cheekbone. The exquisite posture beneath the exquisite suit and the old-fashioned side part was gratis.
“Special Investigations.” Before Alex could request a definition, DCI Nightingale stepped past him to peer into the alley. “Ludwig Weininger was a confidential informant of mine.”
“Ah.” Alex relaxed as circumstances slotted into discernible alignment. “His body’s already been transported. I heard the Coroner Officer tell the Inspector that he slipped and banged his own head, most like,” he offered. “There was a burglary though, so we’re not releasing the scene until Flying Squad has a look.”
“There was a burglary.” Nightingale spun to face Alex and looked at him with such expectant focus that Alex had to rewind the moment in his mind to ensure Nightingale hadn’t asked a question rather than parroted Alex’s words back to him.
“Er, yes,” Alex replied anyway to be safe.
“What was taken?”
“The till’s empty, but as for merchandise, we don’t know yet. It’s a mess in there.” As the first uniformed officers on scene, Alex and Stiles had checked the interior of the shop for any lurking intruders before they were posted out in the wet to make room in the crowded shop for the Inspector and scene of crime officers.
“Hmm,” Nightingale replied and walked inside.
“Sir?” Alex hurried after him. “Sir, the scene is still secured. No one is allowed in without Inspector Bellows’s say-so.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Nightingale gave cluttered interior of the shop--towers upon towers of cockeyed, wooden shelves crammed with all manner of object--only a cursory glance before turning smartly down the back hall. “Ludwig maintains a register of his inventory on the shelf underneath the counter. Fetch it, will you?”
Alex followed after him instead. “Best we can tell, the thieves didn’t make it to the flat upstairs, sir. Door’s intact.”
“I’m more interested in Ludwig’s storage room for unique items.” Nightingale peered intently at the utterly normal drywall beneath the stairs.
Alex knocked on it with his truncheon. It echoed hollowly. “Do you reckon there’s something hidden in there?”
“I certainly hope so.”
Nightingale rested his hands on his cane, bowed his head slightly toward the drywall and did...something.
Alex blinked, and when he’d finished there was a door where he had hit his truncheon. He lurched backwards.
“Don’t worry, Constable, it’s only a door,” Nightingale murmured.
“A door that wasn’t there a second ago.”
The door was wooden with panels painted a deep, muted red. It creaked as Nightingale opened it.
Alex switched on his torch and played it about. The closet was small but much more well organized than the main shop, with fewer items placed with evident care on the shelves. “Looks alright. Aside from being mad.”
“Perhaps.” Nightingale continued to stare into the room a moment longer before shutting the door with a soft click. He looked at Alex. “The inventory?”
Alex had just found the ledger--thick and heavy, covered in cracked, green leather--when Nightingale joined him at the counter. Alex stared back into the hallway behind him and wondered if the door had disappeared again.
“Thank you, Constable.” Nightingale flipped through the pages until he found a slim section marked with navy hatch marks in the upper corner. He tapped a long finger on the list, which crawled cramped and painstaking down the page in the same navy ink. “I’ll need to check this list against the items present to be certain nothing is missing.” His face went wistful for a moment as he gently touched the aged paper. “One of the hazards of serving in a command of one. No one to task with grunt work.”
“I can do it, sir,” Alex offered, but Nightingale shook his head, closing the ledger with care.
“No, I’m afraid it would be too dangerous. The contents of that room are not to be taken lightly. I do appreciate your offer, however, Constable…?”
“Seawoll, sir. Alexander Seawoll out of Holborn Station.”
“Thank you for your assistance, Constable Seawoll, but I think it’s best for you to return to your post. I’ll finish things up in here.”
Alex’s booted feet were curiously heavy, and he couldn’t blame it entirely on the desire to remain dry for a while longer. “Are you sure, sir?”
“Quite sure, thank you.” Nightingale tucked the ledger under his arm. “I’ll inform the Inspector of my involvement.”
It was a very clear, very polite dismissal. Alex saluted. “Sir.” After a moment of hesitation he left his torch on the counter.
He was back outside in the alley just in time to meet Stiles as he rounded the corner in his oversized boots, two steaming cups clutched precariously in his hands. “Sorry I took so long, Alex. There wasn’t anything open for miles.”
Alex grunted and took the proffered cup, and it was only then that Stiles’s gaze landed on the Jag. He wiped the rainwater from his eyes as he blinked up at Alex. “Did I miss anything?”
“Nightingale, you say?” Sergeant Hillard asked back at the nick after Alex recounted events.
“Yes, sir. DCI Nightingale.”
“Just so,” the Sergeant remarked, staring down at the paperwork on his desk and stroking his bristling sideburns, a habit all the young men in the nick parodied mercilessly when they went out for a pint.
“He said he was with the Special Investigations command, but I’ve never heard of it.” Alex squelched his urge to jiggle his foot as he asked the question, a nervous habit he’d maintained since childhood. “Do you know anything about it, sir?”
“You’d be better served keeping away from him, Seawoll,” Hilliard said sagely. Very fond of sage airs was the Sergeant. He used the exact same tone and expression when explaining the proper method of filing a lost equipment report. “Keep your head down and your eyes on the street where they belong. That’s how coppers do it.”
“I’ll bear it in mind, Sir.”
“Now, about this torch you need replaced.”
“Do you think he was a, I dunno, a sorcerer?” Annie asked him as he told her the story over pasta.
Alex scoffed and forced himself to take another sip of the wine. He preferred beer, but Annie had brandished the bottle of Chianti with such excitement, he hadn’t had the heart to protest. “What, like Merlin?”
“He made the door appear. Like magic, you said.”
“He did something,” Alex agreed. “But I can’t say it was magic. Maybe it was more like sleight of hand.”
“With a door?” Annie’s scoff was far cuter than Alex’s, he thought, centered in her slightly upturned nose.
“It just seems like proper magic would be flashier.”
“Well, how would you know? Have you ever seen proper magic before? Maybe it’s not flashy at all.”
In point of fact, Alex had never seen magic, real or imagined. A solid, focused boy, even his childhood fantasies dealt firmly in reality: footballer fame or conspicuous wealth earned through manufacturing. Every year he’d blown out his birthday candles with breath unencumbered by unvoiced wishes.
“Alex, do you think next time we could have dinner at your place?” Annie asked with the tentative smile Alex only saw when she meant to ask about the progression of their relationship.
Annie was blonde, perky, and newly moved from Portsmouth. Alex had no idea what she saw in a plod like him, but he wasn’t one to squander an opportunity. And he was mad about her.
“Of course, love, but I have to warn you, it’s not so nice as your place. Life of a bachelor, and all.”
She blushed a pretty pink when he took her hand. “That doesn’t bother me, Alex. I’d like to see where you live. I’d like to know everything about you.”
Alex hid his giddiness with another sip of the wine. This time, it didn’t taste as awful.
Two days passed. Alex firmly placed anything involving magic and DCI Nightingale from his mind and got back to the business of proper policing, but he was reminded of both abruptly when pirates attacked the clothing shop across from King Stair’s Gardens.
“What ho!” one of the pirates yelled as he swung his cutlass into Alex’s helmet. It reverberated with the tinny, bee-like hum of plastic. “Prepare to be boarded!” He swung again, and Alex ducked, sweeping him into a rugby tackle.
“Bloody hell, Alex,” Stiles yelped as he helped Alex cuff the man to a convenient signpost. “Pirates! Who’d have thought?”
“They’re not real pirates, idiot. They’re wearing polyester.”
“But where did they come from?”
“I believe Pirates of Penzance is showing at the Savoy this month.” Nightingale’s cultured tones came from over Alex’s shoulder. He turned to see the man observing the chaos around them, silver-topped cane once again hanging in the crook of his elbow. “Constable Seawoll. I have your torch, but I’m afraid I forgot to bring it with me.”
“It’s not a problem, sir. I’ve already gotten a replacement.”
“Well done. What can you tell me about this?” He nodded his head at the twenty remaining rioters, all dressed in some variation of raggedy seafaring clothing, vests, and sashes. The leader--a heavy man with a red beard and an expansive hat--urged them onward against the forty strong force of Constables arranged in hasty barricade along Jamaica Road.
“Started half an hour ago up in Southwark, Sir, then made their way along the road. By their hollering, their intent is to pillage valuables from an encroaching vessel and demonstrate the might of the Dreadful Pirate Blood Beard.”
Nightingale regarded the band coolly. “So it appears. Constable, I need to reach that man in the tricorne. Can you assist me?”
“Right ho, Governor. Stiles,” Alex bellowed over the ruckus. “With me.”
Stiles served more as a human shield than anything--though the bones of his elbows impacted the midriff of many a pirate--but Nightingale proved astoundingly spry for a man of his years, and within a minute they reached the center of the seething mass.
“What outrage is this?” yelled the red-bearded pirate. “What affrontry? That you would dare-” his voice cut off with a muffled curse as Nightingale’s palm landed on his nose, long fingers extended to grip his face like an especially terrifying spider.
There was a beat, a pulse of pressure that Alex couldn’t be sure he didn’t imagine, and then the Dreadful Pirate Blood Beard and his pirate band collapsed onto the street. The police response team glanced around at one another in confusion.
“They should come around in a moment.” Nightingale pulled a handkerchief from his pocket with quick, economical movements and wiped his hand.
Stiles gaped at Nightingale with a slack jaw, and Alex nudged him. “Any idea what caused this, sir?”
Nightingale looked grim. “I’m afraid I do. There was only one item listed in Ludwig’s ledger that I can confirm is missing.” He assessed Alex with penetrating eyes. “I must say, Constable Seawoll, you’re taking this very well.”
“I believe in getting on with things, sir.”
“He’s from the north,” Stiles volunteered.
“I may be in need of some assistance,” Nightingale said, though he frowned as he said it. “How would you feel about me requesting a temporary loan of your services from your nick? Would that suit you?”
Alex tried to match Nightingale’s calm demeanor, but inside his boot, his foot wanted to dance a jig. “I’m happy to assist however you need, sir.”
“Excellent.” Nightingale turned to go, stepping casually over a pirate who was just beginning to stir. “I’ll come and collect you in the morning.”
As the slim, upright figure made its way back across the street, Stiles punched Alex in the arm.
“You’re going to be a bloody wizard!” he hissed. Alex punched him back.
“Don’t be daft.”
“Are you a wizard, sir?” Alex asked Nightingale the next morning. Nightingale hadn’t specified if he would collect Alex from his flat or the nick, and after an hour of uncharacteristic dithering, Alex had made his way to Holborn to find the Jaguar parked out front and a subdued Sergeant Hilliard informing him of his temporary reassignment, emphatic gravitas on the word ‘temporary.’
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss it.” Nightingale steered the Jag with as much grace as he did everything else, and the gentle thrum underneath Alex’s legs picked up in tempo as he accelerated into Camden Town. “But whatever else I may be, I am first and foremost a police officer. At the moment, one that is investigating a crime.”
“Yes, sir,” Alex said, chastened. “Where are we headed?”
“Back to Ludwig’s shop. We’ll need a location to work from, and that’s as good a place as any. In addition, I need to finish securing the remainder of his more dangerous items.”
“You implied yesterday the mass hysteria event was the result of something from the pawn shop.”
“Mass hysteria event?” Nightingale quirked a smile. “Is that what they’re calling it?”
“The entire cast of Pirates of Penzance began to believe during their dress rehearsal that they were actual pirates en route to Trinidad and the store was a merchant vessel carrying textiles and rum.”
“If that was the case, I suppose they acted as should be expected.”
“Sir,” Alex asked seriously, “do you know what’s going on?”
“I have a suspicion. Tell me, Constable, have you ever heard of a monkey’s paw?”
“I gather you mean in a situation other than when it’s attached to a monkey.”
Nightingale brought them to a smooth stop in front of the pawn shop and turned to face Alex fully. “A monkey’s paw is a magical item that grants whoever enters into contract with it five wishes, no matter what they may be. It’s immensely powerful and extraordinarily dangerous. According to his ledger, Ludwig was keeping one in the shop, the fool. I can find no trace of it.”
“What’s so dangerous about it?”
The sun rising over the buildings around them cast somber shadows across Nightingale’s narrow face. “Magic is never free. There is a cost to be paid, and for a monkey’s paw, the cost is always destruction and ruin.”
Alex felt his blood quicken and fill his ears with a hushed roar in response to the danger he saw in the bright gray eyes. An electric sense of adventure--a taste of boyhood excitement and wonder at the vastness and strangeness of the world that had eluded him as a child--welled up inside him with a wild shout. “Ruin how?”
Nightingale looked back out the windscreen, and the tension was broken.
“That depends upon the one that makes the contract. But I can tell you that the damage will be equal to the amount of power expended by the monkey’s paw in fulfilling the wishes. The greater the wish, the greater the cost.”
“Is there any way to stop it, sir?”
“The paw cannot extract its price until the contract is complete, which means that in the best case scenario we have four wishes remaining to locate it.”
“How would you like to start?”
Nightingale nodded toward the street in front of them, a mix of homes and businesses just opening for the day. “We need to discover who it was that robbed the shop. I’ve put in a request to the Flying Squad about similar cases to see if there’s a recognizable connection to other recent burglaries, but in the meantime our best course of action is to see if we can locate a witness.”
“If you need regular copper work done, sir,” Alex said with a grin, his blood still singing, “you’ve come to the right man.”
By the time the sun set, Alex’s feet were aching and no witness had been identified. Nightingale spent the morning at his side--participating in the knock and talks like he was still in uniform himself--but was called away to meet DCI Fielding of the Flying Squad shortly after lunch. He returned at five with a set expression that told Alex just as readily as his words that the DCI wasn’t hopeful of identifying a suspect.
“Though he did provide me with a list of the most likely fences for this neighborhood,” Nightingale allowed as he dropped Alex back at his flat. “We’ll visit them tomorrow and see if we can’t come up with another avenue of investigation that way.”
The next morning, however, their plans were waylaid by the appearance of mint-condition Rolls Royces strewn about Southwark.
“The driver says he got turned around on his way to Mayfair,” the constable diverting traffic around Old Kent Road said. “Got so confused he unloaded them right here.”
Alex peered through the windscreen of the Jag at the shiny curves of twenty Silver Wraiths winking with indolent ease in the sparse sunlight of Burgess park. A man on a bicycle stopped to take a photo with the milling crowd of spectators.
“Is this all of them?” Nightingale asked.
“No, sir. There are another couple at Surrey Square around the corner, but this is the bulk here.”
“Thank you, Constable. Carry on.” Nightingale directed the Jag away from the traffic barricade and back into the crawl of traffic like a orca into a stream of salmon.
“Do you think this is another wish, sir, or did the driver have an unrelated breakdown of some sort?”
“No, this was magic.” Nightingale glanced at Alex from the corner of his eye. “It’s difficult to explain, but there are signs for those with the knowledge to read them.”
“But was it definitely the monkey’s paw rather than,” Alex waved his hand in a complicated gesture meant to encompass things he knew nothing about and was discouraged from inquiring into, “something else?”
“There are few entities with the power to manipulate things to this level, and fewer still who would attempt it. I accounted for them all after our incident with the pirates.”
“Accounted how?” Alex backpedaled at the resulting stern gaze. “The robbery was in Camden Town. The pirates were in Bermondsey, and the Rolls are in Southwark. Wherever the paw is, it seems to be keeping relatively local.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Nightingale said thoughtfully. “What do you say, Constable? Ready to interrogate some fences?”
“Always, DCI Nightingale, sir.”
The first two fences were a bust, but the third--Ricky “the Grease” Leeds, oft to be found at the bar of the Rosy Bloom pub--went gratifyingly shifty the moment Alex mentioned Ludwig’s pawn.
“Can’t say as I know anything about that,” Ricky said, blinking watery eyes at something in the rough vicinity of Alex’s temple.
Alex leaned on the scarred wooden bar well within Ricky’s personal space with a tight smile that didn’t show his teeth. Ricky gulped and leaned away. “Now, now, Ricky. That’s not the answer my Governor and I are looking for. Are we, Gov?”
“I must admit I was hoping for a different response.” Nightingale came to stand against the bar on the other side of the fence. He didn’t lean as Alex did, but it seemed to Alex that he put forth an almost palpable magnetism, so intense that it felt as though he loomed over them both.
“I don’t know nothin’,” Ricky insisted, but his voice shook.
“I assure you that my Constable and I are unconcerned with the legality of your business. Our only interest in speaking to you is in the identity of the individuals who burglarized Ludwig’s Pawn Shop.” Nightingale paused, and for a moment it seemed as though the air in the bar grew thicker, dense and heavy enough to weigh on Alex’s limbs.
“It is of the utmost importance that we discover the identity of those individuals,” Nightingale continued. Ricky stared mesmerized at the stern gray gaze, a mouse in the thrall of a cobra. “You will tell us what you know.”
Ricky broke. “The bloke’s name is Tommy. Calls himself Tommy Rotten.” Alex pulled a face at the moniker.
Nightingale maintained eye contact with the fence as the pressure in the room slowly drained and then dissipated. “Where can we find him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t!” Ricky insisted when Alex edged closer. “I think he’s a local boy. I’ve heard him mention faffing about with the lads at Butler’s Wharf. He looks eighteen or so.”
Nightingale stepped away and Alex followed. “Thank you for your help, Ricky. I’ll make a note of your cooperation in your file.”
“Just glad to be of service, Gov,” Ricky said weakly. As they left, Alex saw him flag down the bartender, face pale and shiny with nervous sweat.
“Did you do something to him, sir?” Alex asked as they returned to the Jag.
“To make him tell us what he knew.”
“Certainly not.” Nightingale looked offended. “There is a time and a place for all things, Constable, and all this occasion required was standard police work.”
“I still think he may have done something,” Alex confided to Stiles that evening, their weekly meetup at their local. “You should have seen him, Stiles. It was like he grew twice as tall without changing height at all.”
“Bloody wizard,” Stiles hiccuped. He was on his third pint and well on his way to being trashed. “What happened next?”
“Nightingale dropped me at home and went to put in a request to Flying Squad to see if they know Rotten’s proper name and address. We’ll follow up tomorrow. See if we can’t nick the bastard.”
“How many wishes are left?”
“Three, if we’re lucky. Though there’s nothing that says this Rotten kid couldn’t have made some more already. Quiet ones.” Alex grunted into his stout. “Whoever heard of getting five wishes? What happened to three? That’s classic.”
“Maybe it’s one wish per finger.”
“Still. Seems excessive.”
“Monkeys are primates just like humans,” Stiles said reasonably. “We’re closely related, actually. They have five fingers on their hands just like anyone.” Alex swatted him on the back of the head. “Ow.”
“I suppose we’re lucky there are five, since otherwise we’d already be down to our last shot.”
“What happens if he makes all of them?”
Alex shrugged, and the movement translated into tiny ripples in the dark depths of his beer. He had a sudden, intense desire to be back with Annie at her tiny kitchen table with her terrible wine. “Dunno. Something bad. Nightingale is worried about it.”
Stiles shivered. “I don’t want to think about it. If it’s bad enough to worry a wizard, what hope do the rest of us have?”
Alex stumbled to Annie’s flat that night, slept on the couch, and woke up with a headache, a piercing pain in his bladder, and the sense he had forgotten something of crucial importance.
“It’s alright, Alex. You’re only running a few minutes behind. They’ll understand,” Annie soothed as he hopped around looking for his second boot. She was wrapped in a soft pink bathrobe, and her hair was scrunched up on one side from her pillow. Alex gave himself a moment to drink in the sight before attacking his laces. When he was finished, she handed him a piece of toast and a thermos of coffee.
“You’re the best bird I know, and I’d be a fool not to marry you.” Alex kissed her cheek, which blushed under his lips as his words penetrated. “I have to run.”
“Be safe,” she called after him. Her eyes shined in the dingy hallway lighting as he turned to wave goodbye.
He was ten minutes late when he climbed into Nightingale’s Jag, but Nightingale didn’t comment upon it.
“We have a name,” he said instead. “Tommy Rotten is one Thomas Lang of number 11 West Lane in Bermondsey. Seventeen years old and living with his parents, Linda and Tony.”
“Are we going to speak with them now, sir?” Alex asked after Nightingale made no move to start the Jaguar.
“We are,” Nightingale affirmed and then continued to stare at the steering wheel without moving. Alex was just about to elevate his response to one of visible concern when Nightingale spoke. “Constable, you need to be aware that this is very dangerous.”
“We can handle someone who goes by the name Tommy Rotten.”
Nightingale pinned him with solemn eyes. “It isn’t Thomas Lang I’m concerned about. The monkey’s paw, while not alive, possesses some sentient qualities. It will do whatever it can to ensure the contract is fulfilled.”
“Alright,” Alex said when it became clear Nightingale was waiting on a response.
“If you aren’t taking this seriously-”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but I am,” Alex interrupted. “I am taking this seriously. But what would you have me say? I understand this could be dangerous, but that’s not anything new. I’m a police officer.”
“This will likely fall well outside the spectrum of police work you’re acquainted with.”
“I’ll follow your lead. The moment you tell me to go, I’ll leave,” Alex asserted, crossing his fingers beneath his thigh. It was vibrating in tempo with his foot, and he stilled it.
Nightingale studied him for another moment before turning the key. “I’ll have your word, Constable. You’ll follow any order I give you the moment I give it.”
“I swear, sir. I know how to follow an order.”
Nightingale gave him an oblique look as they pulled away from the kerb. “That remains to be seen, Constable Seawoll.”
Number 11 West Lane was a red brick pile divvied into walk-up flats that smelled of fish and tinned beans. As Alex trailed Nightingale to flat B, he was trailed in turn by a pair of movers in gray coveralls.
The movers gave Alex the wary look he often received whilst in uniform; their eyes lingered on Nightingale even longer. “Alright, Tony, we’re off!” the taller of the two yelled. “Back for another after lunch.”
“After lunch, my arse! It’s only nine yet. You could do three more before then. Oh.” A big man with a bigger gut stepped into the doorway and stopped when he saw Alex and Nightingale. His thinning hair was black rather than red, but he looked, Alex thought, rather like the Dreadful Pirate Blood Beard. “Can I help you?”
Nightingale showed his warrant card. “Tony Lang? I’m DCI Thomas Nightingale, and this is Constable Seawoll. We need to speak with you.”
“Ah, yes, Inspector, yes. That’s fine.” Lang shifted a red-rimmed gaze to the movers over Alex’s shoulder. “After lunch is fine, Pete.”
The living room Lang escorted them into was low-ceilinged and dingy but surprisingly expansive, given the lack of furniture. “Sorry for the mess.” Lang gave an apologetic shrug and cleared a box off of a lone kitchen chair. None of them sat.
“You’re moving?” Nightingale asked. He peered avidly about the flat, his eyes lingering on the walls, and Alex had the sudden, absurd suspicion that he was looking through them.
“To the suburbs.” Lang’s chest puffed. “My ship came in at last. We found a nice, new place with a garden. In a few more days, it’ll be time to get out of this rathole. And it’s all thanks to cousin Myrtle, god rest her soul.”
Nightingale shifted his attention back to Lang. “My condolences.”
“‘S alright, though I thank you for saying so. I never even met the woman, as far as I can remember. She must have seen something in me, though, seeing as she named me to inherit. Poor bird, I can only assume she didn’t have anyone else. Now, what did you gentlemen need to talk about?”
“It’s about your son. Thomas.”
Lang’s round face darkened as bristling brows dipped to shade his scowl. “What’s he done now? Tommy!” he bellowed down the hall. “Get your skinny arse in here!”
Thomas Lang slunk into the room, all jagged lines and smirks and stinking of cigarette smoke.
“Tommy,” his father said, “these police want to speak with you.”
“What if I don’t want to speak with the police?”
“That’s outside your control,” Nightingale said, and this time he did sit, holding his cane in front of him and surveying the Lang family like a monarch with Alex hovering knight-like over his shoulder.
“Thomas, my Constable and I are here because of a recent break-in at a shop in Camden. Ludwig’s Pawn. Do you know it?”
Tommy Rotten turned the notch of his smug expression up a couple of notches. “No, never heard of it. Are we done, then?”
“In addition to cash and goods of higher monetary worth,” Nightingale went on as though he hadn’t spoken, “a unique item was stolen that night. It was stored separately in a special room under the stairs.”
“I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Thomas spoke in a raised voice as though he could drown out the suspicions with volume alone. “Don’t you need a search warrant?”
“We’re not searching anything,” Alex growled.
“Well, go ahead and search!” Thomas flung his hand out, grin wide and eyes glittering. “You won’t find anything.”
Nightingale tapped his cane on the floor with a sharp rap. “The reason I came to speak with you is that the item that was stolen from the pawn shop--the unique item--is exceptionally dangerous.”
“What, is it a gun or something?” Tony Lang blanched and whirled on Thomas. “What have you gotten involved in, Tommy?”
“I told you, I don’t know what he’s talking about!”
“I know you don’t respect me, but at least think of your mum and brother. What sort of example are you setting for Robbie, thieving and playing with guns?”
“Pop.” Thomas enunciated clearly through bared teeth. “I don’t know what this berk is on about, alright?”
Tony Lang looked to Nightingale. “What exactly was taken?”
Nightingale hesitated minutely. “An unusual item.”
“Yeah, we got that,” Thomas said loudly.
“Shut it, Tommy. Listen, if you’re going to accuse my boy, Inspector, you at least gotta have the courtesy of telling him what he’s accused of.”
“The nature of the item is classified.”
“Ah.” The bluster that had been directed at Thomas was redirected immediately. “This is a fishing expedition, is that it? You come in here, accuse my son of nothing in particular and see what turns up?”
“Mr. Lang, I can assure you this is of the utmost import-”
“You can assure me,” Lang cut in heatedly, “by getting out of my flat. And if you come back, you’d better have something solid.”
After Lang slammed the flat door at their backs, engaging the lock with a decisive click, Alex turned to Nightingale. “What would you like to do now, sir?”
Nightingale cast a slight frown at the barred door. “I didn’t get any sense that the monkey’s paw was in the flat, but I think it would be wise to place the Langs under surveillance.”
“You mean,” Alex dropped his voice, “there weren’t signs?”
“No, though to be honest, it’s possible there wouldn’t be any to see. Once the monkey’s paw is engaged in a contract, it does an excellent job masking itself.”
“I’ll call the nick. Get a few constables on rotation to watch the flat.”
Nightingale picked up speed as they returned to the Jag. “Tell them only to observe. I don’t want any more people coming into contact with the paw than are necessary to contain it.”
Alex pulled the evening watch himself, Stiles a chatty but reassuring presence by his side, but despite two thermoses of coffee, utter destruction of a package of Spangles, and a bum that went numb after hour six, Tommy Rotten didn’t leave the Lang flat.
“What if he’s making wishes right now?” Stiles asked him, shifting lower on the seat of the Cortina the motor pool had assigned.
The shouted argument from inside the Lang flat lifted in volume once again, a symphony of accusations and bitterness that had been playing since Mrs. Lang had arrived home from her shift. “I know what I would wish for, if I were him.”
“It’s sad,” Stiles observed, and he did look sad, long, thin face longer and thinner as his mouth tugged downward.
“You remind me of my younger brother, Caleb. Have I ever mentioned that?”
Stiles turned toward him, curiosity lifting his features. “You have a brother?”
“Did. He died in a road accident a few years back.”
“I’m sorry, Alex.” Stiles’s mouth twisted.
“It’s alright. He was a good lad. Just got ahead of himself sometimes. Didn’t always think things through.”
“He must have been proud of you, you being a copper and all.” Stiles said, looking at Alex with pride himself, like being associated with Alex was something special, something noteworthy. “He was lucky to have a brother like you.”
Alex blushed, but thankfully the car was too dark for Stiles to see it. “That’s enough out of you.”
Stiles gave him a lopsided smile and settled back to face the Langs’ front door as directed.
“My brother is a butcher,” Stiles remarked after a minute of blessed silence.
“It was completely empty one minute--nothing here at all save the trees and the bin over there--and then I turned around to check the shop window, and woooosh, there they were!”
Alex squinted in the sunlight, which was doing nothing to soothe the headache that was brewing in the pressure behind his ears. He always got headaches after nights of too little sleep followed by blathering witnesses. “Wooosh?”
“Yes,” the witness, one Avery Martin, agreed, this time accompanying the sound with a hand gesture that somewhat resembled a plane in flight. “Wooosh!” He shrugged. “I don’t know what else to tell you, sir. Can I go now?”
Alex grunted and waved him off then went to rejoin Nightingale at the edge of the park. The late afternoon sun came in at an angle, acute enough that the beams seemed to rebound from the impossible field of flowers spreading across the lawn and tint the panes of Nightingale’s face a rosy pink.
“What do you make of it, Constable?” Nightingale glared at the flowers as though they had caused unforgivable offense to his person.
“It appears to be a field of roses, sir.”
Nightingale’s frown deepened. “Begonias.”
“The flowers are begonias.”
“Whatever they are, they weren’t here before 4:00 this afternoon according to the shop owner across the street. According to him, they just appeared out of thin air. Wooosh.”
Nightingale raised an eyebrow but almost immediately returned to frowning. “This isn’t like the previous wishes where the desired item was diverted somehow toward the wisher. These flowers manifested entirely out of magic without reliance on the physical world. This is worrying, Constable. Very worrying.”
“We should still have one wish left, sir, and we know who’s got the paw.”
“We think we know,” Nightingale corrected. “And I can assure you we have a wish remaining. With the level of power we’ve seen expended on the wishes thus far, the balance to be paid upon the final wish is not going to be something anyone could overlook.”
The grim set of his mouth worried Alex far more than the words, spoken in the same calm, precise phrasing that Alex had come to expect. Looking back out on the pink sea of petals, the flowers seemed to take on a foreboding cast, for all that they continued to flutter cheerfully in the sunlight.
“I wouldn’t expect Thomas Lang to know it,” Nightingale said, voice quiet, “but at the turn of the century, begonias were used in the flower code popular among young paramours.”
“What did they mean?” Alex asked, pitch equally hushed.
Nightingale’s gray eyes shaded to something steely. “Beware.”
“I don’t believe these flowers are inherently dangerous,” Nightingale went on at his normal volume, the moment gone as totally as if it had never happened. “But it never pays to be complacent with objects of magical manifestation.” Nightingale held his cane out in front of him and bowed his head once, a slow nod coupled with an exhale so controlled Alex found himself breathing in sympathetic tempo. Opening his eyes, Nightingale tapped his cane on the ground once, definitively, and his mouth may have shaped a word. It was all very quick, and Alex was unable to be sure.
The flowers vanished like a bubble pricked on a blade of grass. Alex blinked at the abruptly verdant park and resisted the urge to rub his eyes.
“Come along, Constable. We need to pay another visit to Thomas Lang before it’s too late.”
“Actually, Gov,” Alex stopped Nightingale with a hand on his arm. “I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t think Tommy Rotten is our man, for all I’d like to thump him one, the little shite.”
Nightingale’s expression wasn’t skeptical, precisely. Perhaps patient. “And what leads you to this conclusion?”
“The pirates bothered me from the start. They don’t fit. Flash cars, yeah, I could see a thug like Tommy wishing for that, but pirates are so...juvenile.”
“You’re thinking of the younger Lang boy, Robbie.”
“I am,” Alex affirmed. “He’s, what? Thirteen?”
“Fourteen, per the records from Flying Squad.”
“Right on the cusp of burgeoning villainy. And with a brother like Tommy setting the way, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he was at the pawn shop that night with the rest of Tommy’s lads. He wished for pirates ‘cause he’s still a boy, a Rolls because he’s growing into a man, and money for his family because who wouldn’t wish for that?”
“And the flowers?”
Alex thought of Annie, lovely and pink in her shabby hallway. “For a girl, of course. What fourteen year old boy doesn’t have a bird he’d like to impress?”
Nightingale quirked a small smile once again, the second time Alex had seen it, and the first time it was directed at him. “Well done, Constable.”
This time there was no night to hide his reddening cheeks, but he suspected Nightingale was too polite to mention it. “Thank you, sir. What now?”
“We’ll return to the Lang residence and speak with him. After four wishes, he should realize he’s toying with powers beyond his ken.”
But when they pulled the Jaguar up in front of the flats it was to see Constable Beverty coming toward them with an anxious face and the awkward almost-run of a man in a hurry.
Beverty waved his hand to gain their attention even as Alex rolled down the window.
“He slipped past us, sir,” Beverty said, breathless. “Must have gone out the back when me and Finn were switching spots, the bugger.”
“Are you referring to Thomas Lang or to his younger brother, Robbie?”
Beverty blinked at Nightingale. “Well, Thomas, sir. That’s the one we was told to keep an eye on.”
“Do you know the whereabouts of Robbie?”
Beverty blinked again. “With Thomas, I expect, sir. Mrs. Lang came out a moment ago yelling about both her boys running out on account of the police surveillance. That’s how we knew they must have slipped past us.”
Nightingale’s face went stony, and Alex stepped in. He’d always liked Beverty. “Tim, we need to find Robbie Lang. It’s urgent.”
“Roger that, Alex. I’ll grab Finn and start a search.”
“Get whatever other constables the nick can spare down here too,” Alex interrupted. “We need to find him as soon as possible.”
“Whoever spots him is not to approach,” Nightingale broke in, tones brisk, “Call in his location, and keep a safe distance.”
“Yes, sir.” Confused but willing, Beverty trotted off to collect his partner.
“Leeds mentioned that Tommy and his boys like to skulk about the wharf,” Alex said as he rolled up the window.
“It doesn’t necessarily follow that Robbie does as well.”
“Robbie will want to go where Tommy does.” A brief image of Caleb at fourteen--vivid and painful--flashed through Alex’s memory. He’d spent that summer trailing after Alex like a duckling.
“It’s as good an option as any and better than some.” Nightingale pulled a tight U-turn in the street that left a blue sedan honking. “Call in our location for the search.”
“What’s your radio call sign, sir?” Alex asked, obediently picking up the car radio’s transmitter.
Nightingale gave him an uncharacteristically blank look, and Alex improvised. “Show DCI Nightingale and Constable Seawoll at Butler’s Wharf.”
The wharf--once a testament to London’s busy river-shipping industry, now fallen to bombs, disrepair, and performance artists--was dingy and gray with shadows that looked to Alex darker than the fading daylight dictated. The roads were strewn with rubbish Nightingale steered around as they navigated through the neighborhood.
“You shouldn’t leave the car in this neighborhood,” Alex said ten minutes later when Nightingale stopped the car at a rubbish-strewn kerb next to a bombed out warehouse. Nightingale didn’t appear to hear him, gaze trained on the shaded interior visible through the shattered windows and head cocked as though listening for something faint and diffuse.
“The monkey’s paw is inside this building.”
Alex’s heart began to pound again as his adrenaline surged. “Has the final wish been made?”
“No, we have time. Though not much.”
Though not specifically acquainted with the skeletal remains of the businesses of Butler’s Wharf, Alex was familiar with decrepit warehouses of their type. He found a gaping door halfway round, the boards meant to hold it closed pried off and stacked to the side. Nightingale went first.
“Robbie Lang?” Nightingale said to the lone figure inside. “We’re from the police. You need to put that down.”
Robbie Lang was seated on the nearest of three dirty wooden crates, fiddling with something in his lap that Alex, try as he might, was unable to focus on enough to make out any details. It was like his eyes kept wanting to slip away. A small torch was set beside him, the glow casting long shadows against the wall that jerked spasmodically with every twitch of Robbie’s fingers. There was no sign of Tommy.
“Robbie, put that down.” Nightingale’s tone was firm, but Robbie didn’t look up or acknowledge the presence of the police officers who had found him. His sweater was baggy on him, and the knit cap he wore was low enough to cover his eyebrows and ears: a young man drowning in hand-me-downs.
There was a shift in the shadows off to Alex’s right, and he put his back to Nightingale’s as Tommy Lang and two other young men lurched toward them. Tommy’s lads held bats. Tommy had a gun.
“Put down the gun,” Alex barked. “London Police Force. Drop the gun, and put your hands on your head, now!”
The three continued to stagger toward them, movements stilted and eyes vacant, and Alex choked down a sound of giddy hysteria trying to bubble out of his throat. Was this the power of the monkey’s paw, he wondered. Villain child zombies?
Tommy raised the gun, and without warning, Nightingale grabbed Alex’s shoulder and thrust him behind him, simultaneously thrusting his cane at the floor and barking out a word Alex was unable to hear over the thundering in his ears.
Tommy shot once, and Alex shouted along with the report of the bullet.
Nightingale showed no reaction to the shot--no movement, no gasp of pain--though it had looked to Alex like a direct shot from no more than ten feet away. Then Tommy was raising the gun again, and Alex didn’t have time to spare for the stupefied, awed reaction part of his brain wanted to make.
Alex threw himself at Tommy in his best rugby tackle and took down both Tommy and the lad to the right. All three of them careened off a crate, and the gun fell on the dusty concrete floor.
“I said, hands on your head.” Alex yanked Tommy’s arms behind him. He didn’t resist, and the other lad lay where he fell, equally quiescent. Alex glanced over his shoulder to see the third rooted in place with his bat dangling at his side.
“What the bloody fuck?” Alex asked under his breath, looking at the trio from his crouch over Tommy. He wasn’t sure who he was asking, but at that moment the only man likely to answer flew past him as though swatted by a colossal hand.
Nightingale hit the wall of the warehouse and then hovered there in the grip of some unseen force some five feet off the floor. His cane dropped with a clatter. From what Alex could see in the erratic shadows, his brow was creased in concentration as he fought against the air.
“Go away! Just go!” Robbie held his hand out in front of him, holding the dark object that Alex’s eyes refused to focus upon like a talisman to ward Nightingale away.
“I can’t do that Robbie.” Despite the strain on his face, Nightingale sounded calm, albeit breathy. “You’re playing with powers you can’t imagine, and you can’t be allowed to continue.”
Robbie sneered. “What do you know? You can’t tell me what to do. No one can. Not anymore.” He thrust the paw outward, and Nightingale grunted. The shadows grew larger with laughing disrespect for the laws of physics.
“Robbie,” Nightingale’s voice was a compressed whisper, but it carried in the warehouse regardless, “you’re going to hurt people.”
“I’m helping my family!” Robbie’s voice broke as he shouted, the unsteady creak of adolescence. “I can finally give them everything they want.”
Alex found his voice “What? Rolls Wraiths, roses, and a house in the suburbs? This isn’t worth the cost, Robbie.”
The furious glare turned toward Alex, but the paw stayed pointed toward Nightingale. Robbie’s eyes played over Alex’s uniform, and the sneer curled, transforming into something darker and ugly.
“Alex! Are you here? I’ve been sent as backup.” Alex recognized Stiles’s shout just before he stepped into the warehouse.
“More filth.” The shadows were so large now, the torch was nothing more than a sickly, dying glow. Robbie clutched the paw and flashed a smile that was more a grimace than anything in Nightingale’s direction. “I’d be doing the world a favor if I did away with you all.” He reached for the paw with his free hand.
“Robbie, no!” barked Nightingale, struggling to no avail just as Stiles made the belated realization that he’d walked into an active confrontation and put an uncertain hand on his baton.
All Alex could see was Robbie looking at Stiles with burning eyes and Stiles looking back in confusion. And then they both looked like Caleb, which is what hurt the most when Alex picked up the pistol Tommy had dropped and fired.
Robbie jerked back and then fell without a sound. As the monkey’s paw fell from his hand, the shadows retreated back into the corners of the warehouse to leave the torch once again in full glow: a spotlight on the small, unmoving body on the floor.
“Let’s get you out of here.” Alex jumped as Stiles touched his shoulder and jerked his gaze away from the scene. There were suddenly more uniforms in the warehouse, including a pair of paramedics who made their way toward Alex in response to Stiles’s waving arms.
“Where’s Nightingale?” Alex asked, realizing more time had passed than he’d realized while staring at Robbie’s body. His brain felt curiously fuzzy.
“He went to go dispose of the...weapon,” Stiles said, urging Alex to his feet. Alex went, wincing as the blood rushed back into his knees after so long kneeling on the concrete. Tommy and his lads were nowhere to be seen. “He asked me to see you got looked after. Not that I needed him to ask me.”
“Ah. Thank you,” Alex told him as he limped toward the door on legs that felt as shaky as a newborn colt’s. One of the paramedics moved to assist him, and he shook him off.
“No thanks needed. We’re partners, aren’t we?” Stiles smiled, but it was dimmer and more nuanced than what Alex had come to expect from him. He looked, Alex thought, older somehow. As though visibly aged in the space of a an hour.
Alex wondered if he looked the same.
Alex didn’t read the report that Nightingale filed about the incident, though he was provided a copy that he slid to the bottom of his desk drawer the moment no one was looking. The death of Robbie Lang was ruled an unfortunate though justified use of police force in response to a threat to Alex and a senior Metropolitan Police Force officer. Sergeant Hilliard even made sounds about a commendation being a possibility, but Alex put him off before he could get out more than a few words.
Alex was putting off a lot of people these days. He forewent his weekly pub night with Stiles, instead walking to his local for a pint each evening and sitting alone. He received a couple of invitations to his fellow constables’ houses for dinner, but he made his excuses, saying--honestly--that he still wasn’t up for being social. Not yet anyway.
The most difficult of the lot was Annie.
“Alex?” She called through the door. The third time she’d said his name, but the first time she’d visited his flat. Previously she’d only called. Alex couldn’t remember if he’d given her his address. “Alex, are you there?”
He sat on the floor with his back to the door and pictured her: her golden hair and deep brown eyes, so sweet and kind. He closed his eyes, unable to bear to look at her even in his mind, but it didn’t help.
“Alex, Lucas told me what happened. I know how you must be feeling.” She paused. “Well, no, I suppose I don’t really know, but I want to understand. I want to be there for you, and I am. Or I will be, as soon as you return my calls.”
She paused again, this time drawing in a breath that shook with imminent tears, and Alex clenched his eyes tighter. “I made a casserole for you. I’ll leave it outside the door.” Her voice strengthened with each word. “You can return the dish when I see you next. And if I don’t see you, you can keep it.”
Alex listened to the soft click of her heels against the scuffed wooden floor as she walked down the hall and cursed himself.
Alex left a message for him, but he was still somewhat surprised when Nightingale met him at King’s Stairs Gardens that evening.
“How are you?” Nightingale asked, seating himself next to Alex. Alex chose a bench that faced out on the river rather than the expanse of lawn that had previously been covered in beautiful flowers that didn’t really exist.
“Well enough, sir. Yourself?”
“Recovered, thank you. I’m glad you called me. I’ve been wanting to see how you are.” Nightingale gave Alex another of those faint smiles, though his eyes remained sad. “I’m sorry things turned out as they did. I hope you realize you had no other choice. He would have killed the three of us in addition to countless other police officers throughout London even before the monkey's paw extracted it’s payment.”
Alex didn’t want to talk about this. “I killed a boy.”
“A boy who would have killed you. A boy with a weapon.”
“He was still a boy.”
“There was nothing else you could have done.”
Alex drew in a breath. “I could if you taught me how.”
Nightingale stared at him, and Alex went on, getting to the heart of it at once the way his mother taught him. “I want you to teach me what you do. I want to learn magic. I want what happened in that warehouse to never happen again.”
Nightingale’s forehead began to crease as Alex went on until he was frowning. “Constable-, Alex, magic doesn’t solve anything. Frequently it only complicates matters. You having the skills of a magician would likely not have changed the fate of Robbie Lang.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“I know,” Nightingale cut him off, “that magic is not a panacea. It cannot be used to create a perfect answer when there are none to be had, nor can it erase the cruelties of the decisions the world can occasionally force upon us.” He glanced away to the river. “And I’m sorry, but I cannot teach you or anyone. There’s an agreement.”
Alex spoke through the knot in his throat. “What sort of agreement?”
“The sort that doesn’t change without intense discussion between all major parties. And Alex, even if I could teach you, I don’t believe it would be successful. It takes a certain mindset.”
“I don’t have the knack? Is that what you’re saying?” Nightingale didn’t answer. “Do you know how hard it was to ask you that? What happened in that warehouse...I’ll be haunted for it the rest of my life. I’m still not sure if I should thank you for stopping it or blame you for allowing it to happen in the first place. There’s nothing good that’s come of magic that I’ve seen, and even then-, even then I wanted it.” Alex laughed, and it sounded bitter. He put his hand over his eyes. “I’m a proper fool, aren’t I?”
“No. Just a young man who’s been exposed to the grayer parts of life and his profession.” Nightingale stood, placing a warm hand on Alex’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, Alex, you’re a fine copper. I’ve no doubt you’ll go far.”
He left. Alex stayed for a while watching the river and thought about choices, guilt, boyhood magic, and adult reality. Then he got up and went to see Annie.