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Excultus

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Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.

- Edgar Allan Poe
'The City in the Sea' (1831)

 


 

It had been a quiet night so far in Comms 4.

For TJ Tierney, Technical Comms Officer, the eleven 'til seven was one of those shifts you could expect to crumple up and toss away with the dawn - another night on the clock, another eight hours in the pay packet.

Tuesday night had now ticked into the small hours of Wednesday - and TJ liked Wednesdays. Nobody could ever be bothered to commit much crime on a Wednesday. It meant the calls were few and far between - a spot of arson, the odd mugging here and there, nice and easy.

It meant he got to have Maisie to himself for a while.

When she'd first started working in Comms, he'd found his new podmate a little standoffish - quick to scowl at his soda cans, his slanted humour and his non-standard additions to the uniform. Two months in, and she still scowled at all three - but with half a smile now.

And the pointy ears were really starting to work for him.

"Can you hear better out of your ears?" he asked, revolving in his chair as he opened a party-sized bag of salt and vinegar crisps. It was not long after one AM. "I mean… do they pick up more sound, or what?"

Maisie cast a fond frown towards him over their central console, adjusting her headset. "How would I know?" she asked.

TJ hummed, tossing a crisp into his mouth.

"I suppose you wouldn't, would you?" he said, thoughtfully, as he crunched it up. "You've always had them, so you wouldn't know any different... you must struggle getting hats to fit though. That, we can say for a fact."

Maisie bit her lip as a traffic violation flashed up on Lansdowne Terrace. She read it quickly and dismissed it from the hard-light screen with a slash of her finger, lips pursed.

"Can you hush up about my ears?" she said. "You're meant to be a police officer, TJ. Equality and diversity is page one of the handbook."

"I know, I know... I just never had a friend who's an elf before. I'm curious."

"We're not friends," she told him, with a flash of her elongated eyes. Her features were cast stark and smooth by the blue-tinged light of many surrounding screens. "We're colleagues. And I'm part-elf. And you've knocked the transmitter on your headset again."

TJ reached up for the back of his neck, tutting as he found the transmitter cocked at an angle. He began to twist it back into place.

"I don't know why I ordered these things..." he muttered. "The audio's not even that great on them. Might go back to the TX121 again."

"You spent two months harassing Officer Yardley for these," she reminded him. "'Life changing', you said. You promised him you'd lower our response times by twenty percent."

"Yeah, well… Yardley's a stubborn old arse." TJ pushed his chair back into place, briefly scanning a projected light map of the city. Nothing new. "And I'm a stubborn young arse who likes draining the department budget on new toys. We're a match made in heaven. Besides… only the best for my team of two."

Maisie smiled at him through her hard-light screen.

The truth was that TJ was the fastest responder on their books - Maisie knew it. Everyone did. Their outdated system, as highly-strung and fickle as a wild horse, obeyed him when it mattered. He knew London like the back of his hand, and he could get the street teams what they needed before they'd even asked for it. If he'd wanted to lower response times by twenty percent, he would have done.

TJ reached across the bank of computers that divided them, rustling the open bag of crisps in her direction.

She looked at him, one sandy blonde eyebrow raised.

"Go on," he cajoled. "The night is young - it's not even two. Besides, it's Wednesday. You know nothing ever happens on a Wednesday."

Maisie resisted for a moment more, eyeing the crisps with her tongue poked into her cheek.

She took one.

"Thank you," she said.

"Get a handful," TJ offered. "I've got another bag in my desk."

"How is your keyboard not full of crumbs?" she asked, scooping a handful of crisps from the packet.

"It is," he said. "That's the secret. Stops anything worse getting in there. I could pour Coke over this thing all night long, and the crisp shards'll just soak it right up. Magic."

Maisie shook her head slowly.

"You're a walking health and safety hazard, TJ… you know that?"

"Correction," he said. "I'm a sitting health and safety hazard. That makes all the difference."

The immediate response panel to his right flared a sudden violent orange.

"Here we go," he said. He flashed his hand across the panel; the LED on his headset blinked from green to red. "Comms 4. You're through to TJ. Hit me with it."

Maisie watched him through her screen, smiling as he dispatched a street team, an ambulance and a request for an incident report through to a suspected mugging on Osborn Street. It was sorted in less than a minute. He logged the call without looking, slurped the last two inches of his soda and tossed the cup over his back towards the bin. It hit the filing cabinet they never used, joining the others in the pile on the floor.

The response panel faded from orange back to vivid green.

"So your ears," he said. Maisie rolled her eyes. "Can you feel stuff in the tips?"

"Yes! Of course I can."

"They're normal ears, just... pointy? And you live a bit longer."

"Not much... I'm more prone to sunburn, too. Not as badly as my gran."

"Is your gran the one who's a proper elf?" he said.

Maisie sighed a little. "She's a 'proper elf', yes... they made her that way as a baby. Cost her parents thousands." She reached absent-mindedly for this week's call times on a clipboard, scanning through the printed list for her name. "I'm a... mongrel elf, apparently..."

"Don't say that," he said. "I didn't mean it like that."

Maisie didn't reply, comparing her call times to the rest of the Comms team. She was the sort of person glad to come somewhere in the middle, so long as she beat her best for last week.

TJ's name was highlighted with his usual star, pride of place.

"I'm just curious," TJ said, his round hazel eyes watching her across the computer bank.

Maisie put the clipboard away.

"You're too curious for your own good," she told him. "It'll get you into trouble some day."

"Yeah… so I hear," TJ said. "Still waiting."

She began to organise her pot of pens. TJ drummed his fingers on the desk for a while, thinking. Their various banks of hardware hummed and pulsed around them in the darkness, brightening the confined space of their pod with its glow.

"Neither of you are really… 'proper elves' though, are you?" he said.

Maisie frowned, busy turning all her pen lids to point upwards. "What do you mean?"

"You're not actually real elves," he said. "Stardust and forests and poetry. You're just… people. Modified to look like an old idea. All of us are."

Maisie's startled response was cut off by the sudden scarlet flash of her screen. It washed her features red.

She swiped her hand across the screen.

"Greater London Police - you're speaking to Maisie. What's your location please?"

The voice in her ear crackled with panic. "Hi - I'm in Hackney - at The Clockwork Lion on Pembury Road…" There was the sound of smashing glass. "Oh, shit - ..."

"What's happening, sir?"

"There's a fight - shit, they're kicking him apart - … three guys, big guys - they're stoneskins - I'm the landlord. Please, please do something."

There came another crash. Maisie began to whirl through her screen, selecting and dragging and flashing through windows.

"Sir, did you say stoneskins?"

"Oh - sorry, I just - "

"It's fine, sir. Just for my info." She flashed the details into place. "And there's an assault taking place?"

"Yeah - yeah, they've got him in the bar room - it's one of our regulars. Screaming about money. They're caving his head in - now, right now - "

"And where are you, sir?"

"I've got everyone locked in the kitchen - … God, please hurry - "

"Okay." Maisie's fingers flew across the screen. "Two seconds..." As she entered the final pieces of data, all six windows converged with a flicker into a single blazing blue square. 'SUBMIT'. Maisie slapped it with her palm. "We're sorting you out a street team now. Stay on the line with me."

As the data flashed from her screen onto his, TJ was ready. He streamed through buttons at lightning speed.

Gang assault - Hackney - high risk to other citizens - cross-human perpetrators, GAR01. Three. He didn't need the auto-suggestion of Armed Response that expanded across his screen. He flashed it away, hit 'Cross-Human Relations', spun through the night's list of street teams and snagged his finger on the name he knew would sort this out just gorgeously.

As his left hand hit call, his right was already dispatching the armed back-up team and the ambulance.

His headset trilled with the call connecting tone - four times - five.

"C'mon, Lestrade..." TJ muttered, flashing open a map and scanning for secondary teams in the area. There was no-one anywhere close to Hackney. The tone chirped on in his ear. "Don't screw up my high score..."

At last, there came a click and an intake of breath.

"DS Darling," said a pinched female voice.

"Darling, it's me," TJ said. She didn't laugh; she never did. "Got a gang assault on Pembury Road, pub called The Clockwork Lion. Three stoneskins are turning someone inside out. Where's the King of Hearts?"

"Detective Inspector Lestrade," she said, tartly, "has just gone to - … oh! He's here now. He's just coming across the street. Shall I put him on?"

"No, just tell him. Pembury Road. Clockwork Lion. Got Armed Response on the way for you, and an ambulance too. Alright?"

"Ah - yes, right... I'll make sure he's aware of the situ- "

"Cool," TJ said. "'Bye, Darling."

He hung up before she could spoil his call time record any further, dispatched a request for an Incident Report to Lestrade's wrist-set, and tugged open his drawer for a caramel bar.

It had been hectic for a Wednesday, he thought.

Probably dead through 'til dawn now.

 


 

Darling was speaking to Comms as Lestrade made his way back towards the car, carrying two americano coffees in the crook of his arm. She looked faintly concerned by the call - but then, Greg thought to himself as he crossed the road, his new sergeant seemed faintly concerned by nearly everything.

Darling had been with him three weeks now. He hadn't seen her smile once. Most of the time, she was reluctant enough just to get out of the car. If it weren't for his already bad record with sergeants, he'd maybe have requested a reassignment for her - but they were stuck together now, and that was that.

As with most things in his life, Greg was putting in a solid attempt at making the most of it.

"Everything alright?" he asked, as he got back into the car and handed her a coffee. She took it without comment.

"That man," she declared, "is very rude."

He pulled his coat out of the way of the door, closing it with a slam.

"Which man?" he asked.

"The boy in Comms 4," she said. "He's far too familiar."

Greg's face twisted with a smile. "What, TJ?" he said. He popped the lid from his coffee - two extra shots. It would get him through until dawn. "Well, he's a scamp sometimes... hardly a 'boy'... but he's good at what he does. You can't deny that."

Darling looked as if she really could. She pursed her lips, saying nothing.

"What did TJ want?" Greg asked, as he buckled himself in.

"Oh… there's an assault on Pembury Road. And while we're on the subject, I really don't think he should be using the term 'stoneskins' to refer to - "

Greg nearly dropped his coffee.

"An assault?" he said. "What, now?"

"Well... yes," she said, staring at him as if it were obvious. "Apparently there are three of them."

Greg scrabbled for his coffee lid.

"Christ, Darling, tell me that bit first! Here - …." He bundled the coffee into her hands, started the car and slammed the control for the siren. "Where on Pembury Road?"

"Oh! A pub, he said - "

"Which pub? There's nine of them!"

"Oh, the - … clockwork dragon...?"

"Clockwork Lion… right." Greg peeled the car away from the curb. "Who the hell are they assaulting?"

"Comms neglected to say."

"Back-up on their way, right?"

"I... think so, yes."

Greg briefly thought to snap at her that thinking back-up would be there, and back-up actually being there, were very different concepts - one of which would lead to a happy outcome, and one of which could get them pulverised. But there wasn't time to get her to understand that now. If she didn't know it already, he couldn't teach her it while driving at full-siren through Hackney. He wasn't sure why Lindsey Darling had become a police officer. He just wished the commander could have assigned her to someone else.

The Clockwork Lion was a few streets away - an old-fashioned little pub, softly-lit, with smoked panels of glass in the front window. They screeched to a halt outside and Greg wrenched off his seatbelt, hurrying from the car.

The chequerboard of fogged glass was an attractive sight in the London darkness - but made things rather difficult for Greg to see what the hell was going on inside. From the sounds of shattering glass and shouting, the guy was at least not dead yet. The assault was still in progress and there was no sign of back-up.

"Did Comms say three?" he demanded, as DS Darling came to hover reluctantly at his side. Her arms were folded, her shoulders hunched. She gave him an uneasy nod.

Greg set his jaw, staring at the closed door of the pub.

TJ would have handled it, he thought. Armed Response would be on the way.

Besides - if he didn't get in there now, there might be no-one left for Armed Response to save.

He steeled himself, took a breath and shoved open the door, ignoring Darling's gasped protest.

The place was a wreck - chairs smashed, tables upturned, and underfoot the glittering crunch of copious broken glass. Greg proceeded forwards with intense care, shards cracking under his boots. His quiet approach was lost in the frenzied shouting from behind the bar.

They were big fuckers, even for gargoyles.

Greg felt his stomach twist as he laid eyes on them - bulging necks, crumbling grey skin, faces warped back from sharpened teeth. Their fists were the size of a normal human's head. Dark grey veins stood out on their forearms like taut string.

They were doing their utmost to reach the top of the massive wooden shelf of drinks behind the bar. Crouched on top of it, crammed between the frescoed ceiling and shelf, was a badly-injured black jaguar.

The creature was raging, slashing the stoneskins to shit as they lunged at it. Every time a grey hand reached up to grab it, the jaguar caterwauled like a stray tom and tore at them until the hand went down. The gargoyles, also raging, were disinclined to let this stop them. They were swearing and shouting as they tore shelves and bottles from the wall.

Greg stared wide-eyed at the scene, trying to reconcile this development with what he knew of the world.

Then the obvious occurred; and Greg sighed.

This was going to involve paperwork.

Lots of paperwork.

His hand strayed briefly to the lump of the Magnum beneath his coat, fingertips flexing on it. Try without, he thought. Stoneskins would take at least four shots each, even if he wanted to take them out. Every bullet meant another six pages of forms. Best to fix these things without bloodshed. And Armed Response were on their way - so Darling thought, at least...

Steadying himself, with a suspicion he might regret this, Greg barked,

"Guys! Enough!"

His voice carried clear across the bar.

The stoneskins stopped immediately. All three turned as one.

The biggest's deep-set, blood-red eyes flashed over Greg's professional black coat, visible wrist-set, authoritative stance, and the petrified sergeant now hovering ten feet behind him.

A smile spread slowly into place.

"Police," the gargoyle said. His voice rasped, low, thick with gravel and dislike.

Greg reached for the hardware fitted around his right wrist, impressing the control for ID. A square of flickering hard-light appeared, scrolling his likeness, name and credentials for inspection.

 

DETECTIVE INSPECTOR
GREGORY MARK LESTRADE

#18200837H

CROSS-HUMAN RELATIONS
NEW SCOTLAND YARD

 

The gargoyle snorted, his humourless eyes cracking at the corners.

"Cross-Human Relations… huh." He cast a theatrical look of bewilderment around the wreckage of the pub. The edges of his mouth twitched. "Funny. I don't see no humans here, Detective Inspector. So I dunno what 'relations' you've arrived to sort out..."

Greg held the guy's stare. He'd been doing this long enough to know not to break eye contact with a gargoyle.

"Sorry fellas," he said. "It's a legal term, and I'm the law. How about we let Felix down from there?"

"You wanna get him down for us, inspector? I'd be appreciatin' that. The slink owes me quite a few quid, see. Not sure where the pockets are on a puma. We'll find 'em."

"Yeah… problem is, guys, I'm wanting him down safe. As in, not pummeled to a pulp by you lot." Greg raised an eyebrow. "So how d'we go about arranging that?"

The gargoyle gave him a look of poignant regret.

"Looks like we have a disagreement then, inspector. This ain't gonna be pretty. I suggests you look away."

"You used to police just looking away?" Greg asked, with a frown.

"Some of 'em," the gargoyle husked. "Smart ones."

"Shame you got me, then. And I don't have a lot of sense." Greg glanced at the top of the shelf, where the jaguar was beginning a discreet escape sideways. "Sir, if you wanna join this discussion at any point, feel free..."

The jaguar stiffened, shooting him a wide-eyed stare.

"That's a registered form, right?" Greg asked it, annoyed. "Seeing as the current penalty for unregistered forms is six months' minimum. More, for a dangerous form in a dense population area. Such as, y'know… a jaguar. In London."

The jaguar sneered at him.

One of the gargoyles made an unwise grab for it.

Over the sound of spitting, mauling, and the pained cries of the gargoyle, Greg caught the screech of wheels outside the pub.

Armed Response were here.

"Right," he sighed, and squared his jaw. "Enough, guys! No more!"

He strode forwards, pulling cuffs from inside his coat.

It was a mistake.

Over the course of the next few seconds, several things happened in quick succession.

First, the largest of the gargoyles lunged for Greg. Before he could even brace, fists like granite had seized the lapels of his coat and hurled him bodily against the nearest wall. There came a hideous crack. Greg wasn't certain if it was a rib or the back of his head. Pain whited out his senses, bleaching all thought from his skull. He choked, gasped and scrabbled for the fist now bulked at his throat.

Sergeant Darling let out a horrified shriek. The door of the pub then came crashing in, and armed officers charged into the room.

Panic seared across Greg's heart. Guns were drawn. Shots were about to be fired. He struggled, heaved his chin up from the gargoyle's fist, and gasped out,

"STOP!!"

The helmeted response squad froze. Every gun was levelled at the gargoyle - the base of the skull, where a bullet had the most chance of getting through.

Greg swallowed hard. He dug his fingers into the fist still crushing at his throat.

The gargoyle, red eyes filling with furious panic, watched him struggle without reaction.

"This - …" Greg gasped, his eyes shuttering. The fist loosened just enough for him to speak. " - … s'not necessary - …"

The gargoyle's face convulsed.

"How long do I get for assaultin' a police officer these days?" he seethed. "Maybe it's worth just bumpin' it straight up to murder."

Greg fought to quell the rising tide of panic, knowing it would only burn through his limited supply of oxygen even faster.

"F'you do that - …" he warned, staring into the gargoyle's eyes - he choked a little, hauled himself up and dragged in a sharp, much-needed breath. His pulse fluttered wildly against the fist that squeezed his neck. " … - you definitely won't get your money back, mate - …"

The gargoyle stared at him, scarlet eyes hard.

The grey mouth twisted slightly.

"I won't, huh?" he rasped. "Well, that won't suit either of us."

" - … prob'ly best let me go then - …" Greg managed, voice tight, as nonchalant as he could be whilst pinned to a wall by a bloke twice his size.

The gargoyle huffed. Reluctant humour glinted in his eyes.

"You ain't afraid," he remarked. It seemed to fascinate him. "Tell 'em to put the guns down."

Greg flashed his eyes to the Armed Response Squad still ready to fire at a moment's notice.

" - guys...?" he croaked.

Glances were shared beneath their mirrored visors. Most of them were directed towards the tall, athletic figure who stood at their centre - an officer Greg recognised by stance alone.

After a moment, with his unseen stare fixed resolutely on Greg, the squad leader gave a short nod.

The guns were lowered. So was Greg. The heavy hand uncoiled at last from round his throat. He drew a long breath through his crushed windpipe, unsurprised to hear himself wheeze slightly. His heart thudded in the sudden calm.

"Come quietly," he told the gargoyle, his voice hoarse, "and we'll talk about this… misunderstandings happen. Nobody's hurt. We can clear it all up."

The gargoyle studied him, quietly amazed.

"I ain't wearing the handcuffs," he warned.

"Fine," said Greg. He coughed, breath dragging in his throat. "You behave yourself nice in the car, though. And you're not going in the same one as the shapeshifter."

A smile spread across the cracked grey face. An agreement seemed to have been reached.

Greg turned his attention to the back-up squad leader, who was pushing up the visor of his helmet. The boyish, blue-eyed face beneath was crumpled with amusement.

"Can you play chaffeur?" Greg asked him.

Luke gave him a sloped smile. "Eight years of firearms training," he said, "and now I'm a taxi driver?"

"Great," said Greg. "That's sorted. I'll see you back at Scotland Yard in an hour for all the paperwork."

"You're not coming now?"

"Not right now," said Greg. He reached up to massage his throat. "I've got to shout at a few people first."

 


 

Top of the list was the landlord hiding in the kitchen.

"Next time you have a situation," Greg said, as Sergeant Darling took the other patrons' contact details for statements, "you give my Comms team full details, alright? I don't care if the guy's your mate. I could have had my eyes slashed out. That'd make apprehending suspects more of a challenge than I really want."

"They were beating him to a paste!" the landlord protested. "And there were three of them."

"I came bolting in here expecting some poor bastard having his head kicked in," Greg said, annoyed. "I discovered a weird reboot of The Jungle Book. I hope you had no prior knowledge of that, by the way. Concealment of unregistered shapeshifter forms is an offence."

The landlord bit his tongue, saying nothing.

Next came the shapeshifter.

"Change," Greg barked through the grill on the back of the van. "Now."

The jaguar raged at him for a moment, clawing at the grill.

Greg folded his arms, unmoved.

"You can hiss and spit all you like, mate," he said. "Only one of us is about to find himself pantless in a police cell. What're you doing borrowing money off gargoyles, anyway? Everyone else has learned their lesson with you, is that it?"

The jaguar's eyes narrowed.

With a disconcerting ripple of flesh, fur and skin, the big cat melted before Greg's eyes to become a scrawny, crouched and naked man. He was panting slightly, his teeth still bared.

"Why didn't you shoot them?" he spat. "They could have killed me, human!"

Greg rolled his eyes.

"Because that's how we solve our problems in the twenty-third century," he said. "By shooting them? Explains the state of this damn city."

He banged on the back of the van.

"Get him out of here."

Last, but certainly not least, was Sergeant Darling.

"Listen," he said to her, as they left the pub. It was now creeping towards three AM. He needed caffeine, nicotine and aspirin - badly, and not necessarily in that order. "That... wasn't good, what happened in there."

Sergeant Darling hummed in the back of her throat, fiddling with her wrist-set.

"Don't worry, inspector," she said. "I realise you didn't stick to protocol. I suppose it's easy to forget in the heat of the moment."

Greg stopped. He bit down on the side of his tongue.

"I'm not meaning me, Darling," he said.

"Oh?" she inquired, cool. "Then what were you meaning?"

"You weren't a lot of help, if I'm honest. You might as well not have been there."

"Neither of us should have been there," she informed him, point blank, as she gave him an imperious glare. "Protocol clearly states to wait for back-up before entering a hostile situation - which that very much was. I'm sorry, inspector. You might rush in where angels fear to tread, but it's definitely not the correct procedure."

Greg gathered together what little remained of his patience.

"Darling, when you're in a scenario where 'correct procedure' will end up with somebody being dead - "

"I'm fairly certain that procedure is made to avert such an eventuality, inspector."

"And I'm telling you that it'll let you down," he said. "Procedure's all well and good until something unprocedural happens, then you need to use your discretion. Human life comes first. That's the golden rule. It trumps all the other rules. Alright?"

Sergeant Darling sniffed.

"I'm not sure you should be using the term 'human life'..." she said. "Not everyone we work with identifies that way. It's actually rather offensive."

Greg briefly pinched the bridge of his nose. Stars give me strength.

"Get in the car," he told her, too exhausted to argue. Maybe he'd have a word with the commander in the morning, he thought. Some kind of training course. 'How to cope when Lindsey Darling is your sergeant'. There would be a support group somewhere. A circle of small plastic chairs and broken ex-DIs, sobbing into their hands. "I'm going to smoke..."

As Darling got into the passenger seat, she called,

"Would you do that away from the car, please, inspector? I'd rather not get all your secondary smoke…"

She slammed the door before Greg could reply.

He took himself and his cigarettes to the nearest alley to calm down.

As he leant back against the brick wall, wreathing himself in smoke to try and blot out the stench of piss, Greg reflected that all this had seemed like a great idea at one point. It didn't make him feel much better. Eighteen months ago, his world had been a rather enjoyable place - but that was before his return to London - before he'd moved back down here. Things were different now.

Forty-one, he thought.

Forty-two, in summer - if winter ever ended - forty-two with a messy flat, no friends outside of work, no hobbies except the TV, twenty cigarettes a day, and fifty hours a week with Lindsey Darling. It was a sorry state of affairs, however you tried to package it.

Greg turned his eyes skyward to the thin strip of stars above. They twinkled, even through the haze of his smoke. He watched them for a moment, thinking.

He knew exactly where it'd all started to go wrong. He could pinpoint it to even a handful of conversations. There was little point in regret. It wouldn't change things back.

All the same, he thought - it wasn't easy.

And it wasn't getting any easier with time.

He tried to cheer himself with the recollection that, because of him, a sneering and ungrateful shapeshifter would now live another day to unwisely borrow money.

He stubbed out his cigarette on the wall, holding in a sigh.

He couldn't leave Darling sitting there in his car all night - as much as he wanted to. Luke would be waiting back at Scotland Yard to begin their assault on Mount Paperwork. Slinks - shapeshifters - were always a bloody nightmare. The sooner they got it started, the sooner he could go home. There was half a bottle of white wine waiting in his fridge. He'd put a box set on, drag his duvet to the sofa and smoke until the windows went opaque.

It was as bright a prospect as he could hope for these days.

As he turned to leave, his wrist-set emitted a strange little noise.

Greg stopped, lifting it up from his side to listen. Information - maps, times and weather conditions - scrolled lazily across the bright blue screen.

It had sounded weirdly like a gasp.

Greg tapped the set, frowning.

Then the sound came again - and he realised it wasn't from the wrist-set at all. It was from somewhere nearby.

It was the sound of something trying to breathe.

The hair rose at once on the back of Greg's neck.

He looked quickly along the alley - bin bags, ragged open by foxes; old flyers; flattened boxes. At the end, on the right, there was a grated metal gate. Greg waited, listening, feeling his bruised throat tighten in the silence.

A third gasp came from the direction of the gate. It cut off this time, cracking.

Greg reached for his Magnum. He flicked the safety catch without taking his eyes off the gate, then in total silence - laying each footstep after the other with care - he proceeded down the alley.

There was graffiti painted across the gate. A gang sign, daubed in white to stand out in the darkness. Greg didn't recognise the symbol. It was like a trident, he thought. Forked, sharp. This in itself was strange. He'd picked up most of the others within weeks of coming back to London.

A new gang, his brain suggested - and as he reached a steady hand to open the gate, he realised it was a new symbol. The paint was wet. It gleamed as his shadow fell across it.

Greg eased open the gate. It let out a perishing creak.

Beyond was a small concrete yard. It was no bigger than Greg's bedroom - a cramped, grubby and cold little space. There was a door that led off into one of the buildings bordering the yard, and a few brick steps, and an old bike.

There was something else there, too.

The scene that was laid out before Greg, carefully arranged for him to find, changed everything forever.