There are few things I find more ominous than a call to the Folly’s landline before I’ve managed to have more than a forkful of kippers.
It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that I took the phone Molly offered me that sunny May morning, clouds drifting lazily across the sky above Russell Square, and was informed that we had a case which would require inter-service co-operation, and also that I please remember to fill in my expenses form promptly in order to reclaim petrol at a rate of blah blah blah per mile.
I confess I’m not often at my best on only half a kipper, and beyond that it was usually Nightingale handling the official phone calls when he wasn’t - as he was at that very moment - busy catching up on the Archers while recuperating from a nasty fight against a group of self-described necromancers. I’d stopped in before breakfast, in fact, just in time to hear someone tell another that they were unsure whether they were really sure of what cowshed ought to replace the one blown down in the storm.
Nightingale seemed riveted, but then he’d only just finished up a week’s bedrest and would probably find a review of my dad’s new trumpet mute on a level with Tolkien’s best.
The service we would be co-operating with was the Gloucestershire police, and the location of the suspected Falcon incident was the mid-sized village of Sandford. A village self-described as the ‘Jewel of West Gloucestershire’, Sandford continues to be most noted for that little incident twelve years previous when it turned out their rock bottom crime rates were not, in fact, the result of the inherent purity of England’s pastures green but were actually, as it happened, due to a shadowy cabal of old white people who were hell bent on winning a Village of the Year competition and happily willing to commit literally untold amounts of murder to get it.
Needless to say, they hadn’t made a concerted effort for the title since.
Seawoll, on fine form despite the hour, was relaying this information with some relish, because he loved when I had to suffer for my magical art. I had to work very hard not to interrupt; thankfully I’d had almost a decade’s worth of practice by that point. God knew why Seawoll hadn’t taken early retirement already, with the stress liaising with me and Nightingale apparently put him through.
“Anyway, Sandford’s gone down in the world a bit but it’s nice enough if you like bunting and the smell of cow shit on a rainy Sunday morning,” he said, as a bookend on a long briefing which did not, at any point, specify the incident that had actually occurred. Apparently all that Gloucester had given them was the assurance that some weird bollocks was going on, although I imagine they didn’t phrase it in such a Seawollian manner.
“Alright, sir,” I said, trying not to sound anywhere near as dubious as I felt.
Seawoll audibly rolled his eyes. I have no idea what the trick to that is, but whatever it is, he’s mastered it. “Try to sound less like you’re chewing fucking glass, Grant. If this goes tits up it’ll be on your and Nightingale’s heads, not mine.”
Flattering as it was to be reminded that me and Nightingale had almost the same amount of legal authority following my recent and functionally honorary promotion to Inspector, I was still fairly cheesed off at being chivvied across the country so early on a Monday morning.
I had the apprentices to think of (habitually referred to as my underlings or even minions when Nightingale wasn’t around to roll his eyes) but they still weren’t trained enough to be sensibly sent out on assignment where neither of us could keep a very close eye on them.
“We need you out there in an advisory role, alright. Just keep your head down and try not to let on that the Met is employing a bunch of fucking wizards out of the public purse. I’d never be able to show my fucking face in the South West again.”
“They a bunch of gossips out there then, sir?” I asked curiously, my brain-to-mouth filter being apparently completely non-functional on Monday mornings.
Seawoll sighed. “Worse than the Met, if you’ll believe it. Now fuck off, Grant, stop giving me reasons to like anyone in your fucking department.”
I hung up and nodded thanks to Molly when she wiped the receiver with the cloth that was apparently dedicated to telephone cleaning. You never really understand the past until you’re forced to live in a world where you have a dedicated telephone cloth, I think.
“I’ll be gone for a few days at least,” I told her, trying not to grimace. She gave me a look which, with several years of experience under my belt, I could determine was sympathetic. It was all in the microexpressions. “Try not to eat any of the apprentices while I’m out. Even if Harry seems like she deserves it, the paperwork would kill me.”
I grinned at her before hurrying off to my room, where I packed a duffel bag with the basics - pants, socks, staff, all the things mum always tells you to pack extras of.
The door to Nightingale’s room was open just far enough for me to see that he was up and about, tidying away the various paperbacks I’d carted in during the previous weeks. I knocked on the door for form’s sake and stepped through. He was wearing one of those Peter Wimsey-style dressing gowns in a probably unconscious attempt at being named Britain’s Most 1920s Man. He’d win by default if the title actually existed, of course, but he did like to make an effort regardless.
“Morning,” I said, deliberately swallowing the ‘sir’ that still rose automatically to my lips. “How’s the hip?” It had been slashed quite badly during the fight, to the point that Abdul had given me a soothing lecture in the examination room in tones he could only have learnt in crisis training.
He tipped his head, non-committal. “Not as bad as it could be, I suppose. I’ll be hobbling around for a few more days, I’d wager.” He took a step closer and rested a hand on my forearm. “What seems to be the matter?”
“Something hinky in Gloucestershire,” I said, mostly to see him twitch at my choice of words. He claimed regularly that I was making them up, to the point that Harry had threatened to make him a Buzzfeed style quiz on them just to keep him up to date. “I’ve been called down, it’ll be at least a few days before I can get it all sorted. Probably more like a week.” I could only imagine the depth of regret that I might’ve been showing on my face. It was hard enough maintaining a professional demeanour when we were actually out on the job, let alone in the man’s bedroom where we were semi-regularly heavily unprofessional together.
“Hmm.” He brushed his thumb along my arm just once before turning and picking up my copy of Unseen Academicals. He handed it back to me with a smile. “Best be on your way before the M25 gets properly nightmare-ish, then. Let me know once you arrive, of course.”
“Of course,” I said. I grinned. “I’ll get you started on Von Lipwig when I get back.”
“I don’t think I want to know,” he replied. He waved me out of the door with only enough of a pause for a brief, familiar kiss, which would have to carry me through at least three days of parochial living. I did my best to memorise it.
The last stop before leaving was to check in on the apprentices - barely plural given there were still only two of them - and make sure they wouldn’t blow up the Folly in my absence. Thankfully I have the advantage of knowing Abigail’s entire extended family (by virtue of being part of it), and of knowing Harry’s girlfriend, who we saved from a vampire and who seemed to like me for reasons beside my obvious insane levels of charm and wit.
They were in the practice room when I stuck my head in, diligently practicing Pocket Quidditch with visors firmly in place. I felt a flutter of pride in my stomach.
“Alright, you ‘orrible lot,” I said, having got their attention with a sharp knock on the doorframe. “I’ve been called out for a consultation in the sticks. I’ll be gone a few days. If you need anything, ask Molly, and remember that she and I have a deep spiritual bond before you try and sneak in anything on the banned list.”
The banned list was set in place for any time Nightingale and I were unavailable or completely absent, and included alcohol, anything the Met would frown on under the latest healthy food guidelines, and Harry’s girlfriend. Mostly because she’d discovered a knack for stumbling on weird shit around the house; we were never going to be able to salvage the fourth floor bathroom.
“Try not to get Wicker Manned,” said Abigail, with apparent disregard for geographical inaccuracy. She volleyed the tennis ball they’d been using back at Harry before continuing. “And don’t worry, Nina’s visiting her brother this week so Harry won’t be able to smuggle her in without getting across the channel first.”
Harry hit her in the shoulder with the tennis ball. Abigail glared at her with considerable aggression.
“If I hear that any of you have formed a fellowship or started a rock band or whatever while I’m out, I will be deeply upset and probably give you very hurt looks on and off for several weeks. Just think of that before you get up to anything, alright?” My tone of Inspectorial superiority was still in the works.
They nodded, although Harry looked like she’d have liked to say something impolite if Abigail hadn’t elbowed him in the ribs.
“Right,” I said, with appropriate finality. “You should be able to reach me by mobile, unless I run into some trouble or the signal turns out to be as shite in Gloucestershire as it is in every other part of the countryside. If you don’t manage that, Sandford’s nick has a landline and they can pass on anything. If it’s urgent, shout and Nightingale’ll probably hear you.”
I slung the duffel bag over my shoulder, and nodded. “See you when I see you.”
The drive across to Sandford wasn’t too bad, all things considered, but it was still a relief to park up outside the local nick and stretch my legs after the long drive out.
I’d texted Bev while sat in a Welcome Break just outside Oxford, where I’d stopped for a coffee and a reminder that civilisation did exist outside of London. (It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.)
The text had included a brief precis of what I knew (fuck all) and an apology for likely having to miss our semi regular coffee date that Friday.
Her reply was characteristically short, but no less appreciated for it.
Bev [10:20]: dont forget 2 check in with the locals
Bev [10:21]: and no worries luv just make it up 2 me next week
Bev [10:22]: your turn 2 pay anyway ;) ;) ;)
She always knew just what to say.
I walked into the station trying my very hardest not to look like I owned the place. The desk sergeant, a white guy with thinning blond hair, was about halfway through a copy of an Iain M Banks book and with a mug of tea sat at his elbow. It had a picture of a church I assumed matched the one I’d seen half a mile down the road screen-printed on the side.
“Morning,” I said cheerfully. He did a very slight double take when he looked up. Despite the quick recovery I still felt a customary twinge of irritation. I had anticipated that I was about to be one of very few dark faces in a sea of white in Sandford, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. “I’m DI Grant from London. I’ve been instructed to liaise with local police on a murder case. The DCI told me to report to an Inspector Angel?”
A name and a half, that one, but not one I could throw any stones at when I work for a man with at least five syllables in his name - I’ve never asked about what might pop up in the middle.
I squinted at the man’s uniform, which revealed a name badge saying Turner.
“Is that right,” said Turner, raising his eyebrows. I couldn’t tell if he was actively belligerent or if it was just the accent getting to me. “Go on through, if he’s arsed to see ya he’ll be in the break room. Second on the left.”
I signed the visitor book under his not at all watchful gaze and proceeded, taking a moment to observe my surroundings. I’d heard that the previous station was blown up by a sea mine and so had been expecting a standard breeze block building of the type favoured by an architect from the ‘fuck it’ school of design, but in fact it seemed the service had, for once, not bowed to tradition and allowed a relocation to another period building.
It might even be listed, I thought as I took in the brickwork. Just an outside chance of it, but a chance nonetheless.
The break room was indeed second on the left, past a firmly shut door labelled ‘Weapons Locker’. The door was ajar, and I could see a number of officers lounging inside. The smell of illicit cigarettes was in the air. It felt like I was in an episode of Life on bloody Mars.
I knocked on the door. Every head in the room turned towards me, except for a dog which appeared to be asleep beside a desk in the far corner. It made me wish I’d brought Toby, for all that he was definitely in his dotage and had been officially retired from vestigia duty a few months before.
“Eyup,” said a man with a frankly heinous moustache. “You down from Lon-don?”
All Londoners assume that it would be impossible to mispronounce the ancient name of our beautiful city and come out on top of the interaction, but this guy had managed it and even made me feel condescended to. To be honest, I was impressed.
“Yep,” I said, feeling that formality would probably be a bad shout with this crowd. “Is Inspector Angel in? They say he’s the one who’ll tell me what’s going on.”
The only woman in the room laughed at that, a full throated snort. A handsome-looking white woman, somewhere between forty five and fifty depending on how well she was wearing her wrinkles. Dark brown hair and significant laugh lines around the eyes. “Oh, love, if any of us knew what the bloody hell was going on we’d have been thrown down the pit years ago.”
This set off a round of laughter. I took a few steps into the room and sat in a free chair, in a good spot to see both the door and the windows without turning my head. There were more filing cabinets in the room than you could shake a stick at, but it was still a lot tidier than I’d been expecting, somehow. Even during the unicorn-and-fairies-and-god-knows case I’d been mostly stationed out of the town, so I didn’t have much to compare the place to.
“Angel’s due back from patrol soon, anyway,” she continued, patting my hand. “He’ll sort you out, love. And if he don’t, I will.” She leered at me in an impressive display for a woman with a good fifteen years on my age. She wasn’t that bad looking but, being spoken for and also fairly sure the comment broke a few regulations, I laughed her off. Perhaps not the moment to suggest sexual harassment training when I was probably due for some on fraternisation myself.
“Appreciate the offer, but I’ll have to turn you down. Last time I got tangled up in the country I ended up walking naked down a riverside.” A real highlight of mine and Bev’s time together, that was.
The smoking man perked up at that, stubbing out his cigarette and narrowing his eyes. “That’s a story and an ‘alf, innit,” he said, beginning to grin. “I thought you London coppers were all stuck up buggers.”
“That’s just Angel, you dumb bastard,” said moustache-man. The task of collecting their actual names was getting more urgent by the second. He flicked a fifty pence piece across the table to his partner, who stuck it in what I could only assume was a swear box. He glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, speaking of, here’s the man of the hour. Oi, Angle,” he said, louder, and pointed at me. “Someone from London ‘ere to see ya.”
I turned. Inspector Nicholas Angel looked like an action figure representation of a police inspector, although with slightly more points of articulation. He was white, with greying blonde hair and a serious expression. He was probably a few years older than me, although I couldn’t swear exactly how many without potentially insulting him.
“Morning,” I said as I stood and offered my hand to shake. “Detective Inspector Peter Grant. I’m with the, uh, Falcon unit up in London.”
There was no dawning light of comprehension in Angel’s eyes, so I had to assume he was out of the loop on that particular euphemism. He nodded politely, though, and offered a smile. He had a good handshake, short and firm. “DI Nick Angel,” he said. “Sorry if I’ve kept you waiting, we’ve been swan-chasing all morning.”
He gestured over his shoulder to where another officer, dark haired and significantly shorter, stood. He was grinning cheerfully in my direction. Angel’s wedding ring shone in the light filtering in through the window. I smiled reflexively at the sight.
“Sergeant Danny Butterman,” he said. “That swan’s a real bugger, drained all me blood sugar.” He gave me what I was fairly sure was the scout’s salute and sauntered over to a plate of biscuits I’d failed to notice in my earlier field assessment. A grievous oversight.
Spitting crumbs, he gestured around the room. “Right to left, you’ve got Doris - no funny business, alright Doris? - then the Andes, Cartwright and Wainwright, the oldie’s Bob Walker, then you’ve got our loyal wonderdog Saxon and that’s Tony in the corner skiving off.”
To my eye Tony was definitely skiving off, but I kept myself out of the ensuing argument with what I felt was definitely maturity befitting my position. Or at least I did my best not to make any faces which might reveal my partiality.
Butterman was grinning in a way that could only, with my completely impartial view, be described as ‘shit-eating’. It was clearly a habitual expression. “Apologies if we seem a bit, um, informal with each other. We’ve all been ‘ere years now, it’s like a little family.”
“Yeah,” said Wainwright, he of the unfortunate moustache. “I don’t talk to me family that often. Wish this one was the same way.”
I snaffled a custard cream just before Angel beckoned me towards his office, which turned out to be just the other side of the corridor. It was a small room with just enough space for a desk, a filing cabinet, and a visitor’s chair. I sat in the visitor’s chair. It squeaked in protest, but didn’t seem in imminent danger of collapse.
“Alright, Inspector Grant,” said Angel. He sighed in a way that implied he’d been holding off on the instinct for several hours. “I have been informed by the powers that be that you are in charge of any and all unusual aspects of this case, and frankly, you’re welcome to all of them.”
“Right,” I returned, trying not to list sideways with the chair. One of the legs was half an inch too short. “Well, you’re probably right, but I’ll need to do some preliminary assessment to find out if it’s really our sort of unusual. What’s the nature of the crime?”
“Murder,” Angel said. He had an apparently innate ability to shout without raising his voice. “And a bloody weird one at that.”
“How so?” I asked. In all my years of work fighting against the ethically dubious I have come to find that an open heart and mind are the quickest way to information. Well, that and some judicious kicking in of doors, although a good impello had mostly replaced my uniform boots after a year or two.
He slid a case file across the desk. I opened it and, against my will, felt my eyes widen at the crime scene photo paperclipped into the front.
“Ah,” I said. I felt very proud to have avoided voicing my true and initial thought, which was something along the lines of ‘oh holy fucking shit’.
I suppose that it might be thought that, having spent so long with the Folly, I was entirely used to sights of grim murder and general bloodshed, but the truth is that I’m still not used to it. I hope I never will be, to be honest, although it’s hard to deny that I’m somewhat hardened these days.
This crime scene was certainly in the upper echelons of grimdark fuckery, if we’re being technical with our terminology. There was blood more or less everywhere that the image covered, with the exception of the crime scene tape that peeked into one corner.
The victim was half man, half hippo. And I don’t mean that in an edgy, fat-shaming sort of way either. I could see his teeth, mostly because a variety of them were scattered across the floor, and they were very much not human teeth. His face was bloodied but clearly distended beyond the swelling that might be expected from a crime of this nature, and his skin was a shade of grey not even a week or two of decay would naturally produce.
“I see what you mean,” I said, after a few minutes of study. The file itself was thin on detail - they hadn’t managed to ID the man as yet, although within twelve hours that wasn’t in itself unusual. There was very little forensic evidence that they could find, beyond a partial print on the window-frame of the house the body had been found in, and there was of course, drum roll please, no murder weapon. “Were there any personal effects found?”
I had a sudden and unwelcome mental image of blood spattered family photographs featuring, of all things, two small hippo children in sailor suits. I really am my own worst enemy half the time.
“He had his phone on him, but it’s totally dead so we can’t get anything off it. Just a little pile of sand that fell out when we took the back off.”
“I’ll have to visit the site. And see the body.”
Angel nodded. “I’ll take you over myself. It’s walking distance.” He paused for a moment before speaking, clearly weighing up something in his mind. “Look, I have got to ask this or I think I might actually go mad - this is definitely some kind of fucking magic or something, right? It’s not just a lad in a Party World hippo mask who got on the wrong side of some nutter?”
“No,” I said, sympathetically. “It’s definitely not that.”
“Fuck me,” said Angel. “Fucking magic.”
I could relate.
The scene of the crime was a terraced house a few streets away from the station, a pleasantly leafy and quiet area considerably marred by the carnage spiralling outwards from said crime.
Broken glass littered the pavement between the front window and the police tape, and the door was in several pieces, all of which were stacked neatly out of the way and in the process of being evidenced.
Angel led me through a crowd of forensic technicians, too busy with the massive quantities of detritus to pay us much mind, into the kitchen, where the crime had come to its fatal conclusion.
I always feel a bit cliché saying things like that, but sometimes you just have to carpe that fucking diem in the name of sounding like a real hard boiled cop. Also I just enjoy sounding like a twat from time to time.
Bev argues that it’s a lot more frequent than that.
The body had already been whisked off for an autopsy, I presumed, and there was an honest to god outline on the floor - not in chalk, thankfully, but still clearly showing the several pieces the poor sod had ended up in.
Both I and Angel had suited up appropriately for the occasion, face masks and boiler suits and all. This didn’t technically present a problem for sensing vestigia, given that my nose probably wasn’t actually involved in the process, but it still made me feel a bit ludicrous prostrating myself on the lino and pressing my cheek into the Ikea fitted cabinet beside me.
I was struck, suddenly, by the smell of lye, and cow muck, and the feeling of wood grain at my fingertips. I pushed myself up and shook my head thoughtfully.
Angel narrowed his eyes at me above his mask. He had a very piercing gaze; it was a bit unnerving, to be honest.
I tilted my head towards the back door, and we shuffled out into the garden, taking care to avoid the evidence flags littering the scene. The patio was mostly clear, thankfully.
“Definitely something magical involved,” I said, with all the steamrolling confidence that a statement of that kind requires.
“And how can you prove that?” Angel didn’t seem antagonistic, but the piercing gaze remained in place. It made me feel a bit like I was back in secondary, getting asked questions about binomial expansion in a way that implied I would die if I didn’t figure it out.
“I can’t,” I said. “But you’ll have to trust me. They do training for it up in London.” An understatement of the century, of course, but I didn’t fancy the chances of all the doubtless expensive gear the techs had wheeled out for the occasion in the face of any spells I might cast to prove my point.
“Right.” Angel frowned, or at least I assumed he did. It was difficult to tell under the mask.
It was the curse of the boiler suit. I was probably the only distinct human being in a fifty yard radius, and that would require a bit of squinting.
“Anyway,” he continued, turning on his heel. “Best get on to the hospital. They’re keeping the body there until the county coroner can get here from Cheltenham.”
“Has the autopsy already happened, then?” I asked. It seemed a bit swift, all things considered.
“Cause of death was determined fairly early on,” said Angel, dryly. I supposed I deserved that one, considering the whole ‘discovered in pieces’ thing. “But yeah, the pathologist pretty much leaped out of bed at the idea of a hippo man, as far as I could gather.”
After stripping out of our crime scene garb, Angel drove us across to the hospital at exactly the posted speed limit, at one point stopping to allow a family of ducks to cross the road. A lot of people stopped to wave at the car as we drove through the village high street, past a Natwest and through the shadow of the church.
It was disgustingly idyllic. If I hadn’t known about the series of grisly murders, and indeed the most recent addition to the Sandford canon, I might almost have been fooled into thinking nothing bad could ever happen there. I suppose that’s how the charade lasted so long.
The hospital was fairly small, on the outskirts of the village and completely architecturally incongruous. A cornerstone informed me that it had been laid for the millenium by none other than Princess Anne, who was probably the best of a bad lot when it came to the royals.
Angel looked a little pale on entering; our path to the lifts took us past the entrance to the ICU, and he paused by it long enough that I had to nudge him to keep us going.
“Alright?” I asked.
He blinked at me. “Mmmm.”
The man hummed like a steel trap snapping shut. Conversation over, then.
I was unconvinced, but if a man is going to conceal some deep trauma or other I can’t exactly be one to judge. Pots, kettles, glass houses, stones, etcetera.
The lift to the morgue shuddered and shook as it went down, and eventually spat us out onto the basement level feeling thankful to be alive. Or at least that’s how I felt; Angel had clammed up admirably and was giving nothing away.
The pathologist greeted us with a wan smile; she looked somewhat the worse for wear after her all-nighter working on the chimera. “Afternoon, officers,” she said. “I’ll just get the drawer for you. It was a real treat to work on such an interesting case; I’ve e-mailed a copy of my notes across to you, if that’s all you need.” She nodded at Angel, who nodded back. It was clear they knew each other, or at least had a passing familiarity. It made me miss Abdul, who would’ve jumped me with MRI scans as soon as I walked through the door.
“Did you do an MRI?” I asked, trying not to sound completely irrelevant.
She nodded. “The skull was already open and the brain looked interesting. It’s not really standard protocol but I thought it was worth doing. Oh, I’m Doctor Leigh, by the way.”
I waved at her, not quite sure how sterile everything was. “Inspector Grant, I’m down from London.”
“I can hear that,” she said cheerfully. “Anyway, I’ll pull up the scans while you have a look at the body.” She pulled the drawer out in one smooth motion and dashed to the computer.
The body was indeed in multiple pieces, and had been arranged as closely to human shape as possible, like the world’s weirdest Wentworth jigsaw puzzle. Hippo-face aside, it seemed as if the victim was about average height and weight for a man in his mid-thirties, a little on the paunchy side, no tattoos or other identifying marks. The hippo-face was not, so far as I could tell, the result of a dissimulo, primarily because it had remained in place and not left his face in the bloody ribbons I was still occasionally treated to a front-row view of by my unconscious mind.
Tearing on the skin indicated either a very large serrated knife or, just possibly, teeth and claws.
I ducked my head to get closer to the skin, attempting to ignore Angel’s incredulous look.
The same feeling of wood grain beneath my fingers, along with the whistle of wind through long grass, and the same agricultural smell. I rocked back on my heels.
Of course it’d be a fucking farmer in the West Country.
Angel’s incredulous look had not abated. I pulled him in by his shoulder and spoke in a conciliatory tone I’d developed for just such occasions as a liaison.
“If you bear with me for the next twenty minutes, I’ll explain as much as I can later.”
I wasn’t looking forward to the potted history of magic, but at least Angel’s look shaded to something slightly more understanding.
Doctor Leigh waved us over. “So I’ve been puzzling over these all morning - it looks like late stage Alzheimer’s, almost, but there’s no other vascular presentation. I’ve emailed a few specialists in neurology but none of them have got back to me yet.”
The scans were of course horribly familiar. I saw similar ones every time I went in for my biannual MRI, a grimly foreboding version of The Brain Your Brain Could Look Like.
“I’ve seen this kind of thing before,” I said, carefully. “It’s getting more common in London. If you can chase up Doctor Walid at UCH, he’d love a copy of those for his files. He’s basically the authority on this kind of degenerative injury.” I looked closer at the familiar, rotting-cauliflower pattern of the brain. Doctor Walid might be proud of my ongoing efforts at aversion therapy. “It’s pretty rare, he can explain more about it than I could.”
Doctor Leigh brightened. “Oh, bonza, I was worried there’d be no established pathology. Is it related to cause of death, do you think?”
I paused. It was possible, I supposed, that the chimera had performed some last ditch magical effort during the attack that had drained his brain of, well, vital energy, but I didn’t think it was that likely. While the house had been badly damaged, it was all as a result of forced entry rather than some sort of castle doctrine home defense. And I didn’t think the damage was quite at the fatal point, yet.
“I’m not a doctor,” I said, remaining non-committal. “But I don’t think so. Doctor Walid would know more.”
“Cool,” she said, giving me a thumbs up. She turned to Angel. “Like I said, I’ve sent my report on. Is there anything else you needed?”
“No,” said Angel. He glanced at me. “We’ll be on our way now. Thank you for your help.”
We left the hospital in contemplative silence. At least, I was feeling very contemplative. I was still finding it hard to get a proper read on Angel, who chose the moment we got back in the car to turn to me and say, flatly, “What the fuck.”
I buckled my seatbelt before replying. It gave me an extra two seconds to call up my best reassuring face. “Look, we established earlier that this case involved magic. Can you give me, uh, the sort of summary of your prior experience with actual magic, if it exists?”
I was banking on some weird shit going down while he was still in London. I had a vague recollection of stories of an odd bloke who’d moved back into the station house after a bad break-up, but beyond that the man was something of an enigma.
I’d heard the stories out of Sandford, but they’d all seemed a bit far-fetched, as hypocritical as that might seem.
“Well,” he said, still in something of a monotone, rhythmically clenching and unclenching his left hand. “While I was still in London I was on a case which got referred up the chain to some mysterious specialist crime unit my sergeant’d never heard of. The victim was found, uh, dessicated, after being seen a couple of days beforehand buying condoms at the Tesco down the road from the crime scene.” He leaned his head back against the headrest, looking mournfully at the car roof. “Never managed to follow it up.”
“Sounds like a vampire,” I said, figuring it might be best to rip the plaster off. “It’s definitely better for you that you didn’t have to deal with that one. There’s a whole volunteer fire department devoted to the job.”
Angel didn’t dignify that with a response, which was probably fair. I ploughed on, aware that this was a conversation neither of us particularly wanted to have.
“The long and the short of it is,” I continued. “That I am part of a nominally secret police department of wizards. There are four of us and only two of us are actually any good at magic, although my DCI has been doing it for longer than you and I have been alive. Vampires are one of a vast and terrifying array of people who inhabit an underground society they call the demi-monde, although most of them don’t actually live underground.”
I could have added any number of fun tidbits as further illustration, like the vampires-but-for-jazz, or the unicorn invasion of Herefordshire, but I thought that I’d done enough to be getting on with.
A long pause followed my explanation. Angel started the car and drove halfway back to the station in complete silence before he turned us onto a hard shoulder and started to laugh.
It took him quite a while to stop, to the point that he was wiping tears from his eyes when he called me a bastard and asked if I’d been to Hogwarts or not.
“It’s not called Hogwarts.”
Angel hit me on the arm. Clearly he’d reached the end of his professionalism for the day. I checked my watch and was surprised to discover it was already four o’clock.
“Right,” I said. “You alright to drive?”
“‘Course,” said Angel. “I once drove halfway to London from here after Danny stabbed me in the chest. Hysteria’s nothing.”
God, I wanted that story so badly.
“What do you usually do off shift, then?” I asked, as he manoeuvred the car off the hard-shoulder and back out into the winding country lanes. “Because I confess, one inspector to another, I’m really in the mood for a pint.”
The beer on offer at The Crown was just good enough that I was down half a pint of it before I realised that the rest of the table were looking at me in complete silence. It was unnerving but not unexpected.
“So,” said Doris. “Are you single then or what?”
The beer was also just good enough that I mourned the mouthful I lost to a spit take.
DS Butterman (“Call me Danny, everyone else does.”) smacked me on the back hard enough that I’d probably have to check for bruising in the morning. “Sorry about that, Inspector, Doris just likes to get the lay of the land every so often.” He grinned.
“By, what, laying with the land?” I regretted it the moment I said it, but apparently it was exactly the kind of humour that landed with Doris, and with the Andys.
“Close enough,” she snorted. “Anyway, I take it that’s a no! No worries, love. What’re they like?”
The neutral pronoun interested me, mostly because I wouldn’t have envisioned a parochial village of this size as having bothered to send their police service on sensitivity training.
I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, neutral pronouns or no. It was awkward enough having to explain the situation to Sahra and Jaget, the last time we’d all managed to make it to the pub at the same time.
Sahra had got me thoroughly drunk and then shook the story out of me while Jaget laughed. It was a good memory, despite the epic hangover I’d ended up with.
Eventually my pause got long enough that I started to feel actively embarrassed, which was probably more suspicious than if I’d laughed it off and changed the subject. I really need to work on a convincing fake laugh.
I ducked my head and took another sip of my pint. Doris rolled her eyes and smacked me on the arm. “No need to be shy, alright? We don’t bite, ‘specially not if whoever it is lives all the way up in Lon-don.”
“It’s just a bit complicated,” I said. I felt I was fairly convincing, considering I mumbled it into my pint glass rather than looking up.
Danny clapped me on the shoulder. “Ah, ‘salright mate. Just don’t keep it all bottled up, that way leads to trouble.” He looked significantly at Angel - Nick, since we were off duty - who smiled softly at him.
It occurred to me at that exact moment, like a flash of narratively convenient lightning, that their wedding rings matched. It was sort of like dramatic irony, but the weather wasn’t good enough for that. It’d been drizzling since we went off shift the hour before.
The Andys gave me dual looks which indicated that, were it not for the laws of the land, they would be bollocking me.
“I used to date a bird who wore a wetsuit everyday,” I offered, sending a mental apology to Bev as I said it. “Went swimming in the Thames. Liked to walk naked in the shallows.”
Nick looked deeply alarmed. “And she’s not dead? No horrible infectious diseases?”
“Not that I know of,” I said diplomatically. She’d got a nasty stomach bug a few months before, but she blamed that on the subpar kebabs we’d had the night before rather than the gallons of river water she’d swallowed while diving for Roman coins for one of her cousin’s school projects. “We broke up for, uh, different reasons.” Reasons I couldn't specify because I wasn't entirely certain that we'd actually broken up.
That led to a long and involved conversation about weird exes, mostly led by one of the Andys - Cartwright, I was pretty sure - who seemed to be a genuine scourge of the West Country.
It was pleasant enough, and I got through two more pints before I had to offer anything more personal than a few stories from secondary - I had a nightmare of a first boyfriend, mostly for the reasons you’d expect - and was just at the point of letting my guard down when Danny mentioned a girl from school and quiet fell, guillotine-style, over the table.
“What’s up?” I asked, feeling deeply out of the loop.
Danny shook his head. I glanced at Nick, who had Danny’s left hand in a tight grip, thumb brushing back and forth across his wrist.
“Realised she probably got murdered, most likely,” said Doris, bluntly. “Sort of a hazard of living in Sandford before Nick got ‘ere. Conversation’s always full of bloody sea mines.”
A weirdly specific metaphor, that, but it got a laugh out of the rest of the table and things mostly moved on from the moment of painful contemplation. Twelve years was clearly still a bit too soon.
I said my goodbyes after that third pint, not fancying a serious hangover on my first full morning in Sandford, and managed to pick up an escort to take me across to The Swan.
“They’re still putting coppers up there, then?” Danny asked, swinging his and Nick’s linked hands between them. “Nick did have to stay there his first few weeks, but that was just ‘cause dad wanted to keep an eye on ‘im.”
I nodded. “It’s the cheapest option, including Airbnb. The Met’s all for budget options.” Especially when they could charge our nick for it.
“It’s been twelve years and the Yelp page still gets complaints about broken glass in the carpet,” said Nick, dryly. “But it’s alright. The managers these days are much saner than they were when I was there.”
“That’s a low bar,” I observed.
He snorted. “Yeah, well, difficult to avoid out here.”
We reached the hotel in short order, so I bid my goodbyes and went up to my room. I’d checked in before heading to the pub, so I had the key, and discovered that the room was actually quite nice, despite the warning about broken glass.
Getting ready for bed only took me about ten minutes, including hunting in my hastily packed duffel for my possibly missing toothbrush. I called Nightingale, since it was only just gone eleven. The phone rang for a while before he managed to pick it up; he hadn’t had to go down the stairs in a week and a half, and it was Molly’s evening off.
“Evening,” I said, already starting to smile. It had been a long day, but an interesting one.
“Evening, Peter,” he replied. “Is the countryside still mostly intact?”
“Mostly,” I agreed. “No swans have been harmed as of yet.”
I provided him with a summary of my day, not even editing out the pub as I might’ve done a few months before.
“Well, I assume it’s a practitioner of some kind, although the vestigia or signare or what have you didn’t ring any bells. Could be a hedge witch who’s gone a bit power mad.”
“I suppose,” said Nightingale. “The chimera is an interesting tangle. I’ll see if there’s anything relevant in the old logbooks, get them sent down as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Thomas,” I said, still desperately unused to being on first name terms. “Uh, don’t overstretch yourself, though. Get Harry or Abigail on it if you need to, they might actually get excited about it.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.” He sounded rather like he was trying not to smile. I could see his expression in my mind’s eye, clear as day. I smiled back.
He filled me in on his own day’s amusements for a few minutes, mostly about Harry and Abigail’s ongoing attempts at learning impello - early days, yet - before we said goodnight and went our separate ways, metaphorically.
I put my phone on my bedside table, got under the covers, and was asleep within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
I awoke at eight the following morning to a slew of text messages from a group chat I didn’t remember letting Danny add me to, and a reminder from my mum to make sure I remembered to eat three square meals a day without Molly to chivvy me into it.
I smiled at the message despite the content; mum didn’t usually bother to text when she could call, and honestly I was a bit surprised she hadn’t somehow used her network of Sierra Leonean mums to supply me with jollof rice even out in the sticks, but either way it was nice to know she was thinking of me at - I checked the timestamp - Christ, four in the morning.
Dad must’ve been having a bad night.
In deference to mum I availed myself of the optional breakfast downstairs before I made my way across to the station, feeling pleasantly full on bacon and eggs.
The main constable’s office, Danny’s barrage of texts had informed me, was the office most often used for ‘situation room’ situations (his words), so I headed there after stopping in at the deserted break room for a coffee.
“Morning, Inspector,” came a chorus of two. Doris and Danny grinned at me as I sat down and set my mug - Sandford Juniors FC - on a nearby desk.
There was a whiteboard set up in the corner with various pictures stuck onto it, connected with actual string. It was fascinating in a less-manic Pepe Silva sort of way. I got up again to have a closer look.
The hippo man - I really hoped we’d find a better name for him soon - was in the center, with string linking him to a variety of printed out blog posts reporting sightings of similar chimera around the area. They didn’t use the word chimera, of course, but I find it’s best to trendset when it comes to operational lingo, rather than falling back on certain dehumanising vocabulary often popularised by the mass media. In other words, I felt bad calling them creatures when they were clearly sentient, even if most of the ones I’d met were batting for the wrong side.
“We’ve got a possible lead on our victim’s identity,” said Doris, once I’d finished examining the board. “But it could just be someone playing silly buggers.” She flicked a 20p across the room to Wainwright, who threw it into the swear jar.
Honestly, if it lead to an identification I’d be a silly bugger all day long. “What’s the lead?”
“‘E’s been reported missing by his wife, supposedly,” she said. “Got a report saying to be on the lookout for Douglas Roswell, mid 30s, ‘distinct facial deformities’, blah blah blah. Seems worth a go, eh?”
I nodded. Seeing an opening, she continued, “Not the only thing worth a go around here, is it,” snorted, and got a nod of respect from Wainwright for her trouble. I repressed an answering snort in an attempt at professionalism.
“Oh, and you got a bit of coverage in the Sandford Citizen,” she added, tossing me a folded newspaper with the headline ‘NEW BLOOD LIVENS UP POLICE?’. “Don’t mind about any bad spelling, no one likes to bring it up since poor old Tim got his head knocked in for it.”
I blinked. I confess I hadn’t looked too deeply into the Sandford case when it was still happening, being somewhat distracted at the time by the deep existential malaise that affects everyone who didn’t get their projected A-levels. “Did the attacker carry a big stick?” Better safe than sorry.
“Nah,” said Doris. “Got part of the church battlements dropped on ‘im.”
I decided not to treat the station to a digression on the subtle distinction between battlements and crenellations.
“Anyway,” I said, pivoting neatly away from the hideous image my brain was cobbling together from the remnant memories of all the faces I’ve personally seen collapse, “Have we managed to get in touch with the wife? And, uh, found out her name?”
“Helen Roswell,” said Danny, through a mouthful of cake. They always seemed to have something baked and delicious at Sandford station; it was an odd link between there and the Folly, which was regularly home to Molly’s recent experiments in gastronomy. “Lives in Glastonbury with her mother; says she and Douglas were doing a trial separation.”
It was unlikely she was lying about something any half-decent copper would see as a potential motive; I didn’t think she was that likely a suspect. Glastonbury certainly harboured a certain number of bona fide practitioners of various stripes, but most of them were either from a long line of country witches or Little Crocodile expats myself and Nightingale had personally put the fear of God and all His angels into.
The rest of the town’s association with magic(k) was mostly a lot of harmless wicca shops with some vaguely appropriative overtones, but I did rather like the Viking reenactment shop when we visited. Nightingale had given me a look that might almost have been described as indulgent, and only ribbed me slightly about the bearded wooly hat I bought under cover of darkness (at closing time).
I communicated this mostly through the tried-and-true avenue of a shrug and a squint. “Seems she might know of any enemies, at least. If she knows he’s missing that indicates ongoing contact - friendly exes, were they?”
“Only managed a quick phone call,” said Danny. “She was cryin’ the whole time so I reckon either they were still close or she’s just now realised she wished they were.” He was visibly drooping at the thought.
“Could be a guilty mind,” said Cartwright. “Old tart’s realised the error of ‘er ways just after delivering the fatal blow.” He mimed cocking a gun, or possibly something significantly more NSFW.
I frowned at him with my newly acquired Disapproving Inspector face, which was about as effective as the X-Ray Specs I’d bought out of the back of a copy of the Eagle as a kid. Nick gave him his own version, which at least made him back down and light another cigarette in a huff.
The old monitor on Danny’s desk turned out to have the regional HOLMES equivalent we needed to find an address for Mrs Roswell within a blistering twenty minutes of pressing the on button. Oh, to have the budget for an i3 processor.
I completed this task in relative silence, while Danny himself kept up a running synopsis of the action film he and Nick’d watched the night before, complete with colour commentary. It was of one I’d seen, but not so recently that I remembered all the twists and turns, of which there were apparently many. There wasn’t quite as much time to get out to the cinema for a few years, there, when Martin Chorley was still banging about.
“Don’t take it personally,” said Nick, when we left to chase up the aforementioned Mrs Roswell. “Both Andys still call me a wanker to my face about twice a month, although I like to think it’s out of love these days.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll take it as personally as I like, but I appreciate the thought. I’ve got it bad enough at home, my baby cousin just started in my department.”
Nick winced. “Didn’t you say there were four of you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And Abigail’s been hanging around for the better part of six years now. She got an A* in Latin A-level and then did Classics at uni so mostly I worry my governor’s eyeing her up as a replacement model for yours truly.”
This was mostly a joke, by that point in my life, but my self-esteem could be occasionally nebulous if I was coming off a bad case, or had particularly low blood sugar.
Nick gave me a sympathetic look. “Not quite the same thing, but I only ended up out here because the brass said I was making them look bad.”
I snorted. “Sounds like the brass, alright. You ever meet a probationary constable named Lesley May?”
It was almost painless, mentioning her. She was still behind bars at that point, several years away from even the suggestion of parole. Her most recent face was permanent. I was happy for her, as much as I could be.
“I think I heard rumblings,” he said, squinting thoughtfully. “But that was after I left. The grapevine only just reaches me out here, it takes years to get anything interesting.”
I smiled ruefully. “Don’t worry about it. Being at the roots isn’t a lot of fun, most of the time.”
“Why do you think I stayed here?” Despite his tone, I was fairly sure the quiet life wasn’t the answer, or at least not the only one. He twisted his wedding ring back and forth, a fond look in his eyes.
Driving to Glastonbury took long enough that I was beginning to wish I’d brought a book, and eventually had to resort to monument spotting out the passenger side window. This was a lacking activity in the West Country, land of Norman churches and not much else, and I ended up inventing a riveting little game called ‘Barrow or Just A Small Hill?’ over the course of the hour and a half drive. I tried to get Nick in on the action with the promise of beer later on, but he didn’t take me up on the offer.
We parked up outside the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, a far more impressive sight than any of my beloved small hills. With no way of scoring the game I decided that I owed myself a pint no matter which way it actually went, and called it a day.
The address we’d got was for the mum, a spritely Indian woman by the name of Meera Saxon (née Joshi), who answered our policeman’s knock promptly and with an offer of tea almost before we’d given our standard helping-with-our-inquiries spiel. I declined politely, mostly out of habit. I really didn’t want to end up cleaning an old woman’s house for the rest of my life, no matter how good her cuppas happened to be.
Nick took the tea but, I noticed, didn’t actually drink any of it during the interview. Smart man.
“Is your daughter home?”
Anya nodded. “She’s just having a rest at the moment. It’s been a hard time for her, poor thing.” She shook her head. “Poor Doug.”
“You knew him well, then?”
She shrugged. “He was my son-in-law. It’s hard for him, you know, what with the --” She gestured in a wide circle around her face. “But he was always very kind. It’s just sad things didn’t work out between him and my Helen.”
I raised my eyebrows. This wasn’t the narrative I’d been expecting, to be perfectly honest, and to be doubly honest it just made me kind of fucking sad.
“We’re sorry for your loss,” said Nick, patting her hand. “And I’m sorry we have to ask the kinds of questions that are barrelling towards this conversation, but -- did Douglas have any enemies? Anyone who might want to kill him?”
She smiled wanly. “Not anyone I can think of.” The sound of the stairs creaking echoed from the hallway. “I’m sure Helen could let you know anything more, she talked to him a lot these past few weeks. They were thinking of trying to make things work again.”
Helen drifted in a few moments later, a vision in a grey Snoopy dressing gown and blue flannel pyjamas. She’d clearly been crying, brown eyes puffy and bloodshot, but her hair was neatly brushed and braided into twin plaits and her pyjamas stain-free - whether this was an attempt to look presentable specifically for the police or for the world at large, only she knew.
She was holding a very large mug of what smelled like peppermint tea in her hands, and gave off an air of waifishness that even my well honed sense for bullshit was finding hard to ignore.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Roswell,” said Nick, tone shifting effortlessly into the classic soothing-the-witness register. “We’re very sorry to intrude at this difficult time.”
I nodded in agreement. While Nick settled her into the last free armchair, I let my awareness blur a little bit. The house was probably 19th century, built for factory workers or miners or some similar, unpleasant kind of work, and the brickwork held vestigia decently well. Churches were of course the best for this sort of thing, and anyone who’s been scarred deeply by The Stone Tapes has some idea of why, but I could deal with bricks.
There was nothing particularly that stood out to me. None of the unnatural abundance or absence of vestigia that you see from time to time in the aftermath of unpleasantness. I focused back in on the conversation, feeling considerably more at ease.
“Was there anything that he seemed concerned about? Even small things could be very important.”
Guiltily I retrieved my notebook from my breast pocket and started copying down information. Nick had his out as well, writing in what looked a lot like shorthand. I’d call him a weirdo, but my first thought was ‘oh, cool,’ so I really can’t judge.
Helen looked troubled. “He mentioned some kind of tiff he’d had with another lodger - he moved about a lot, you know, what with the --” She made the same motion her mother had minutes before. “But I never thought it would lead to -- to --”
She sobbed, an awful, raw sound from the back of her throat. Nick offered her a tissue.
“Did he mention the lodger’s name? A description? Really any detail could help,” he said gently. “Anything at all.”
It some time before Helen replied. We all waited silently while she swallowed, and squeezed her eyes shut. “I think -- I think he mentioned he was something to do with the business side of farming. Marketing or something. Mostly he thought Doug was, um, ‘the result of too much meddling in the affairs of mankind’. Nutter. I think that was what Doug told me he said, last time we spoke.” She bit at her thumbnail, already somewhat ragged. “I can find you the address, send it on to the station.”
“That would be great, thank you,” I said. “And… when was it you last spoke?”
She thought for a moment. “Today’s Tuesday, right, so --” She counted back on her fingers. “Yeah, I think it was Friday night he last called. Seemed worried, but not so much that I thought anything of it. He was a bit of a nervous personality.”
“What did you talk about, beside this mysterious lodger?”
“Oh, lots of things. He was, um. He was meant to be coming up here this weekend, actually. It’s my best mate’s birthday, we were going to see if we could try being in the same room for a few hours without shouting at each other.” She laughed wetly. “Suppose we won’t get to see how that’d turn out.”
Her mum reached out and pulled her into a hug as she started to cry. Nick and I said our thank yous and goodbyes with polite haste, and left them in peace.
I wish I could give you some closure on this part of the story, some nice follow up as a coda to all the mid-tale misery, but the truth is: I never saw those two again.
Mrs Roswell was as good as her word, sending on her late husband’s last known address before Nick and I were past Clark’s Village. Nick delegated the task of visiting the property to the Andys, and assured me that they would probably be fine.
“Their issue is wanting to do everything themselves,” he said. “All I have to do is make it seem like they really are, and they hardly bother me at all.” He grinned.
The Sandford police dynamic continued to baffle me, but then, I’d never really got to have the actual station-with-a-variety-of-officer-ranks experience past my days as a probationary constable. Maybe every police station has four swear boxes and a dartboard with old newspaper clippings of a local supermarket magnate turned murderer pinned over the bullseye.
The Andys came up trumps, anyway. By the time we got back to the station, the light starting to fade as the sun dipped under the horizon, they’d managed to collect and correctly evidence a variety of the late Douglas’s useful personal possessions, and got a list of potential names of the mysterious farming businessman.
Apparently being in the business side of farming was not an unusual career in and around Sandford, but it still narrowed the list of potential inquiries down from possibly infinite to a few dozen names, most of which would likely provide solid alibis.
To celebrate we went to the pub. Despite it only being my second evening in Sandford, I got the impression that most successes and indeed the majority of failures were celebrated with a trip to the pub.
I wasn’t about to complain. It’s a copper’s right to drink when technically on duty, and nobody’s business what he, she or they do with their liver so long as it doesn’t interfere with our ability to keep the Queen’s peace.
It was mostly empty, it being a Tuesday and only about six o’clock when we arrived - not that village pubs are naturally empty at six o’clock, but this was a pub with a dartboard that only lent darts out past nine, so we were able to secure the largest table with ease.
“I’ll get the round in,” I said, and went to the bar just in time to see a figure in a long black cloak - why the fuck not, offered the part of my brain that makes those sorts of unhelpful observations - cast a very unpleasant variant of lux in the direction of the grand majority of the Sandford police service.
There was very little I could do in the moment besides the obvious, which was to announce something vaguely police-like in their direction (I think it was something to the effect of ‘Oh no you don’t, sonny’, but phrased a bit less like I’d stepped out of an episode of Z-Cars) and follow it up with aer congolare, intending to snuff out Cloak’s own forma in its tracks.
Things didn't quite go to plan.
For one thing, aer congolare failed to snuff out the forma, revealing the fact that there was some weird bullshit going on before I could prevail upon the situation and cook up some unlikely falsehood about a gas leak or whatever other explanation the Home Office had come up with this week. For another, the forma in fact took the opportunity to rapidly expand in size, until it was about the size and shape of a respectable beach ball.
Every active mobile phone within ten feet was turning to sand as I contemplated my next move. The cloak didn’t seem inclined to run away despite my show of superior wizard strength and power (sarcasm doesn’t translate too well to text, but you get my point), and so I was forced to make a physical barrier in an attempt at intimidation.
Cloak seemed to be a good six inches shorter than I am, but a good bit wider. I had about five seconds to ponder the potential implications of this before I got grazed by Cloaks’ own aer variation (aeriation?) and was forced to focus on the task at hand.
I decided against trying anything complicated within the confines of The Crown, which left me with two undesirable options.
1. Relocate the crisis outside, thus potentially resulting in catastrophic damage to other structures around the village and the definite violation of the Statute of Secrecy (or whatever it was called when I wasn’t deliberately winding Nightingale up)
2. Attempt to contain the crisis within the pub, definitely resulting in further injury and likely with damage to a Grade II listed building with original 15th century glass panes in most of the windows.
Like I said, two undesirable options.
I sent a fireball at Cloak, smiled reflexively at the yelp as it hit them in the arm, and turned to check on my new friends.
All of them were looking at me like either they or I had just gone insane, and they couldn’t yet figure out which. I attempted to change my smile into something more reassuring and less battle ready, but I don’t think I really succeeded.
Nick mostly looked pissed off. This was also a valid and reasonable reaction to being attacked by a rogue wizard.
I turned back to find the Cloak several feet closer. I could smell that agricultural smell on the air again, along with an extra hint of something metallic and the feeling of cold iron at my fingertips. I got the feeling that was the signare that had faded from the crime scene.
The Cloak didn’t say anything as they approached, which was probably a good shout on their part to avoid being incredibly fucking easy to identify later on, but was really giving me the willies.
“You are causing a breach of the peace,” I said, quite reasonably, really. “And it would be better for everyone involved if you came quietly, without resorting to undue violence.”
Cloak immediately hit me with aer congolare, slicing through my shirt sleeve.
So much for peaceful negotiation.
I threw an impello at their stupid hood, hoping to put them off balance long enough to subdue them, and was somewhat surprised when they responded to being violently shoved over by throwing a fireball at me and then jumping out of a window.
Those poor, innocent glass panes. My poor, innocent jacket, which was now smouldering. I pulled it off and smothered it with practiced efficiency - it’s probably worrying that I’d done it enough times to become practiced at it, but that’s life when you regularly use (probably) your own cell’s capacity to release energy to make fire in the palm of your hands.
There was a moment of perfect silence in The Crown. The barkeep had been polishing the same glass for some minutes, eyes wide. No one spoke. I sat down heavily in the chair I’d only vacated, what, five minutes previously?
I wanted very badly to speak to Nightingale, who might have given me some constructive criticism but would at least have looked at me in a way completely dissimilar to how my temporary coworkers were looking at me in that moment - like I was somehow a cross between a zoo animal and a violent crime.
Apparently it was catching, I mused, thinking of poor Douglas Roswell.
Nick walked to the now broken window, looked out into the early evening darkness, and shook his head. “Vanished.”
I sighed. “Typical. You get a lot of those types around here?”
“Not for about twelve years,” said Nick, mouth twisting unpleasantly. “Although none of them were fucking wizards, as far as I’m aware.”
Danny pulled him back into his seat and commenced holding Nick’s left hand in both of his own, a task which apparently required significant concentration.
He turned to me once Nick was less visibly rattled, although he kept his hands where they were. “So,” he said cheerfully. “You got a magic wand?”
“No,” I said patiently. “I’ve got a big multipurpose stick.”
“What makes it multipurpose?”
“I can hit people with it,” I said.
“Wicked,” said Danny.
The rest of the night continued in much the same vein, except that we were all forced to decamp elsewhere so that the landlord of The Crown could do something about all the broken glass before someone did themself an injury.
We ended up splitting after a short reccy, with a promise to meet early at the station - I saw Doris giving me a speculative look, which I could only hope was related to my newly revealed magic powers.
I had in fact been done more than one injury by the mysterious cloaked figure - a superficial graze on my leg and a gash on my arm that bled sluggishly but continuously - but neither were bad enough to merit worse than Nick and Danny’s first aid kit, which they kept in the cupboard under the stairs in the cottage they’d apparently lived in together for almost a decade.
Nick sat me down on the sofa in their living room and rolled up my sleeve to assess the damage. He kissed his teeth at the sight of the cut, which wasn’t even the worst I’ve had from that particular forma.
I thought about telling him that, and then decided he could live without more evidence of the nastier side of my job.
Danny sat on the cushion beside me and took the opportunity to pepper me with questions while Nick patched up my arm. Thankfully he didn't think it needed stitches, so I sat as stoically as I could through an antiseptic wipe and the application of a bit of surgical glue before being bandaged up.
“What’s that you were saying during the fight, then?”
“What, like the Romans?”
“Yeah, it’s how I do all my magic spells.”
“Isaac Newton invented them after he was done getting bonked with apples.”
I was really looking forward to having an almost identical conversation with the rest of the unit when we reunited the next morning.
Nick patted Danny’s leg with his free hand, absently. He lowered his volume slightly for his next question.
“The man that stole calculus was magic, I can dig it.” He squinted. “What’s the coolest spell you know?”
I smiled. “Well, there is this one my governor showed me way back when I started my apprenticeship.”
“Yeah,” I said, and made it rain.
Peter [23:36]: don’t panic but i may have been attacked by a farming wizard
Peter [23:37]: i’m fine
Bev [23:38]: ofc you were
Sahra [23:46]: this group chat was a mistake
The next morning I had post.
It was delivered to the station, addressed in Nightingale’s pleasantly legible hand - he’s got two versions of his handwriting, that one and the piss-you-off copperplate. Contained within was a stack of logbooks from the early 1900s, a few newspaper clippings, and a short note unrelated to the facts of the case.
I shall leave the contents to your imagination.
Doris raised her eyebrows at me. “What’s your boss say, then?”
“Not much,” I replied, shoving the note hastily into my jacket pocket. I was deeply grateful that it was very hard to tell when my ears were burning. “He’s sent our nick’s records on, uh, animal hybrids. Chimera. Manimals. Whatever word sounds least terrible.”
“Oh, blimey,” said Doris. She had the top notebook open and was reading with impressive speed, flicking through the pages. “All sorts going on in ‘ere, in’t there?”
I distributed the rest of the logbooks equally between the officers present - Doris, Cartwright, and Walker, who hadn’t spoken a word to me in three days. Saxon woofed hopefully at me, so I offered him a dog biscuit I’d found in the side pocket of my duffel bag that morning.
The onus for finding the Mysterious Cloaked Figure fell to me, because (quite reasonably) no one else wanted to risk getting magic flung at them without any means of defending themself. Unfortunately for me, this meant I had to canvass all the farms in the countryside surrounding Sandford, as well as visiting Douglas Roswell’s last known address - also, coincidentally, a farm in the surrounding countryside.
We'd cleared alibis for almost all of the potential attackers overnight - the Andys were grumbling about overtime - so I had a few potential names down as I went on my rounds. I thought it deeply unlikely that the violent crime and the attempted violent crime were unrelated.
I went to Roswell's address last, after a long day of sensing absolutely no sinister vestigia in the hallways and living rooms of a dozen nineteenth century farmhouses at varying levels of restoration.
Apparently he’d been doing manual labour for Mister and Missus Conway, who spoke of him fondly but with a clinical detachment often observed in employers-slash-landlords who really don’t want to be implicated in a murder.
I tapped my notebook with my pen, mostly as an intimidation tactic. “What was his relationship with your other tenants like?”
Missus Conway shook her head sadly. “He was such a nice lad, you know, but that man just took so badly against him. Seemed downright cruel to me, you know, like that old film with ‘im what played Hannibal Lecter.”
Not quite the right animal, I thought privately, but pretty close.
I frowned. “Which man was this?”
“I’m terrible with names, I’m afraid.” She drummed her fingers against her cheek, then glanced at her husband, who had remained stoically silent throughout the conversation. “Oh, love, you remember ‘im, don’t you? Short man, just moved on. Juicy bum.”
Her husband said something which sounded like, “Billgraaamnicearsonimatun.”
“Thanks love,” said Missus Conway, who must have had a lot of practice. “Bill Graham, I remember now. Son of the Grahams what moved down to Cornwall after the business with the ennn double yoo ay.”
I wrote the name down with relief. “Thank you very much, Missus Conway. You’ve been very helpful.”
She bid me farewell by attempting to kiss me on the cheek, which is probably in contravention of some part of the criminal code, and was also just embarrassing. I deftly avoided her, having had years of practice with countless aunties, and got back in the police car I’d appropriated.
I called Nightingale from the car, mostly because I felt bad for neglecting to call him before faceplanting my pillow the night previous. He always appreciated being kept abreast of my activities, not least so he that could fill out an incident report before Seawoll got on his case about it.
After a short and profitable digression on the subject of that morning’s note, I corralled the discussion and recounted the evening’s entertainments.
There was a silence which I hoped wasn’t disapproving. I swear there’s a vestigia associated, but possibly I just know Nightingale better than most. Possibly better than anyone else on the planet, which gave me the screaming abdabs if I ever stopped to think about it.
“So you’ve identified the attacker?” He asked, at length.
I nodded, then remembered that phone calls are not a televisual medium. “Yeah, hopefully. This is actually a lot more straightforward of a case than I expected.” I rolled down the window and knocked on the tree I’d parked beside. Best not to go looking gift horses in the mouth.
“Good. Do try to arrest him without further injury, won’t you? The apprentices would never let you hear the end of it.”
I grinned. “I’ll do my best. Wouldn’t want Abigail calling my mum on me again.”
“Exactly,” said Nightingale. “The Folly would never recover.”
I had to hang up soon after, as the Law waits for no man, and also it started to rain badly enough that I didn’t even want to risk hands-free while on the drive back. I promised to call him again that evening, because - and don’t tell anyone I told you this - I’m a bit of a sap.
The station was buzzing with activity when I returned, conspicuously absent the logbooks I’d left and with the noted edition of several ancient copies of the Bristol Post.
“Afternoon,” I said, because there were more people there than when I’d left, and it seemed only polite. “How’s tricks?”
“We’ve been tracking a dynasty of hippos,” said Nick, with appropriate chagrin. “Danny and I checked the streets around The Crown but no-one saw nothin’, so far as we could tell. Doesn’t seem like clamming up, more like the thing just up and vanished, the bastard.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “I’ve got the bloke’s name, if that cheers you up at all.”
“It really does,” he sighed. “The Roswell family history’s bleak as anything.”
As it turned out, Douglas Roswell was in fact a second-generation chimera - a development which made my scientific hindbrain delighted and baffled in equal measure. He may even have been a little hippo-boy in a sailor suit, although Nick responded to my inquiry on this point with an invective rather than curiosity.
His parents had lived in a succession of low-income housing, his mother a chimera and his father a day labourer with an apparent lack of interest in how the hell that particular chromosomal union resulted in viable offspring.
I wasn’t a geneticist, though. I made a mental note to ask Abdul if he knew anyone who might be interested in a research project.
“Any other relatives?” I asked, peering at the pile of newspapers and scribbled post-its with interest.
Nick shook his head. “We’ve found an actual hippo that escaped Bristol Zoo back in the 80s, your governor had the lead on that, but can’t figure out where the bloody thing went.”
I grimaced. “Probably most of the DNA went into our man’s family history,” I said. “I never want to know the specifics, but human-animal hybrids like this are made with some pretty serious magic.”
And it rarely turned out quite so well for the hybrid, I carefully did not say. You’ve all seen that episode of Fullmetal Alchemist. You know what I’m talking about here.
“Well that sounds like a right barrel of fucking laughs,” said Cartwright, who was smoking a cigarette by a very much closed window. “But in the meantime, can you give us Billy fuckin’ Wiz’s name so we can do some real policing any time soon?”
“Bill Graham,” I said. “Stayed at the Conway’s farm for a few weeks, they haven’t seen him since the weekend but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s vacated the premises.”
Danny looked thoughtful. “That’s our cousin Anne’s husband’s ex-step-father, if it’s the same lad what acts half a foot taller than ‘e actually is.”
“As always, Danny, your in depth knowledge of Sandford family politics is much appreciated,” said Nick fondly. “Do you happen to remember what he looks like?”
“I’d recognise him to look at, I reckon.”
This was a bit of a coup for us, as it turned out, because Bill Graham turned up at the police station just half an hour after we started workshopping potential search strategies. Apparently in Sandford you could mostly rely on eyewitness testimony being volunteered before crimes were actually reported.
The level of trust in the police force was honestly a bit worrying to me, considering the inherent fallibility of man, but I supposed they’d lived through the death of a corrupt entity within their village and were allowed to be a bit clingy with the people who’d brought it down.
Unfortunately, Graham had not come to us to turn himself in peacefully and allow me to whisk him off to a magically-secure holding cell in preparation for being brought up on charges and officially remanded into custody. Things so rarely turn out that easily, although I won’t say that it’s never happened before.
In a far from ideal turn of events, it wasn’t me that first came across Graham when he turned up. That title went to Sergeant Turner, who didn’t get a chance to warn the rest of us before being knocked out cold against the edge of his own desk.
Nasty way to use impello, that, and one that left Turner with a nasty concussion.
The first inkling I had that something was badly wrong was the feeling of wood grain under my fingernails, a very different and much more unpleasant feeling than just having it under your fingers, as it turns out.
“We’ve got company,” I told Nick, just in time for the office door to creak open.
Bill Graham was not a physically imposing man. With shoe lifts he might have been able to claim a height just brushing five foot six, and his broad shoulders might, in another man, have been an indication of a sort of carthorse brand of strength, but age and one too many nights down the boozer had softened his silhouette considerably.
I confess I didn’t get a good enough view of his backside to assess the Conway’s opinion on it.
His greying hair was cropped close to his head and thinning on the top. His skin was pallid, shading towards clammy, and pale enough that I doubted he’d done any serious farmwork out in the fields since the mid-nineties. His glasses tilted slightly to one side. His shirt buttons were done up in the wrong places.
All in all, a portrait of a man not fully in his element. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop anyone from being dangerous.
“Good afternoon,” he said, in a level tone which put the hairs on my neck straight up. “Glad to’ve caught all of ya.”
“Is that so, Mister Graham?” I spread my hands, palms up. “Couldn’t you have called ahead? You’ve really put us on the spot.”
“Shut up,” he said, my attempt at conciliation apparently fuel on an unseen fire. “I’m ‘ere to sort things out, alright. Sort ‘em out good and proper.”
I was really starting to question what the point of all those conflict resolution seminars was if I was just going to get disregarded every time I left the city. Perhaps country policing was all about conflict resolution through having your nan call their nan, which I thought I could hear Danny whispering about behind me.
“Right,” I said, shifting so that I was stood squarely between Graham and Everyone Else. “And what would you mean by sorting them out?”
The likelihood of a coherent villain monologue is pretty low in our line of work, but I’ve found that it’s often possible to provoke a kind of incoherent, rambling confession that gives me enough time to come up with a non-violent resolution to the rapidly approaching fight.
I put one hand behind my back and waved frantically at Nick, who handed me a baton with nary a pause. This wasn’t quite what I was going for, as it happened, but then I wasn’t really certain what I was going for in the moment.
You know what they say about hindsight.
“‘S not right what’s been going on around here,” said Graham, taking a step towards us. There were about ten feet separating us at that point, Graham framed in the doorway and bathed in an unsettling fluorescent glow spilling in from the hall. “All sorts of odd things people just have to accept and move on with. Douglas bloody Roswell don’t know how lucky he had it, dying right quick like that.”
I was inclined to disagree, considering how many pieces we’d found Douglas Roswell in, but out of the corner of my eye I could see Nick scribbling in his notebook and I thought I probably ought to try and get the full confession out of him first. In the spirit of inter-service co-operation.
With a view to that, I dropped my shoulders, went onto my back foot, and generally tried to look as non-threatening as possible. Of course, the obvious prevents me from ever being completely neutral on that front (thanks, society) but I do a fairly good job at it for being over six foot tall and fairly wide in the shoulders.
Graham narrowed his eyes at me. “Yeah, I killed that fuckin’ monster. What’re you gonna do about it? Arrest me?” He laughed, a deeply unpleasant sound.
I shrugged, and unclipped a pair of handcuffs from my belt. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
He put his hand out, palm up, and summoned a werelight. I noted that he did it non-verbally. I wasn’t sure where he’d learned any of the magic he was clearly so well versed in, but it seemed he hadn’t been trained the way I had.
This was encouraging, because it meant the Little Crocodiles might not have made it out to the Levels, or at least that if one had he was probably a piss-poor practitioner to start with.
Hedge witches tended to be more imaginative and wouldn’t have started with a werelight.
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Very nice technique,” I lied. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
He responded by throwing it at me, which I thought was really quite childish.
I cast scindere, mostly for the look on his face when it came to an abrupt half not even halfway across the gap between us. While he was looking at it as if I’d punched him, I did actually punch him with a well placed impello.
He staggered, but didn’t fall, and got his hands back up in front of him to cast something I didn’t recognise, something that felt sharp and blunt and flat and round all at once.
This was not a good sign after almost ten years as an apprentice wizard.
It was also not a good sign that the spell - whatever it was - missed me by a few inches and caught Nick, still scribbling, in the upper arm. He went down without a sound, which was possibly the worst sign of all.
He was still breathing, at least.
I turned back to look at Bill Graham. He was sweating, now, pallid white skin turning red with exertion. I was somewhat worried he might have a sudden attack of narratively convenient hyperthaumaturgical degradation and avoid the arrest he so richly deserved.
“What was that?” I asked. I was a bit spooked by the lack of feeling in my own voice.
Graham smiled. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact,” I said. A fifth order spell had occurred to me, but it would take a while to put all the elements in the right order. I took a step forward, calling the first part to mind. “If you tell us now, we might be able to use it as evidence of remorseful behaviour, you get me?”
No response. I sighed, the second and third elements lining up neatly behind the first. I could smell that agricultural smell all around again, because of course the man’s vestigia smelled of bullshit.
I continued, fourth element readied. “It’s really for the best if you come quietly now, Mister Graham. No one wants this to end the way you seem to be pushing it. I don’t think you do, deep down.”
Graham shook his head. “No, I’m alright, mate.” I could almost see the words ‘blaze of glory’ flashing above his head like a neon sign.
The fifth part slid into place. I shook my head right back. “You’re nicked, mate.” I cast the spell, all five bloody words of it. The room echoed with it, just for a moment.
Everyone took cover.
Luckily the thing I’d cooked up was almost all bark - fifth order spells are often two good magical elements wrapped up in three or four more that are complete guff, and this was no exception. The two good elements were just particularly so, which I can prove with the empirical evidence that, when the smoke cleared, Bill Graham was immobile and ready for arrest.
I’d taken to calling that particular spell petrificus totalus, mostly to annoy Nightingale, but it was as close to it as magic could safely get in real life.
I handcuffed Graham with particular care and shouted at the nearest Andy - Wainwright, I was pretty sure - to put him in a holding cell. While he and the other Andy dragged Graham off, taking very little care to avoid injury, I turned to check on Nick.
Unspoken magic is dangerous primarily because it’s unpredictable - the results vary dramatically if you aren’t very, very rigorous with your training. I got the impression, as I put pressure on the wound in Nick’s shoulder, that Bill Graham hadn’t been that rigorous.
“We need to get him to the hospital,” I said, blood seeping through my fingers. “Do you have a direct line, or?”
I got the feeling just calling 999 might lose us some time, being at a police station and all.
“Yeah, ‘course,” said Doris, who was admirably sturdy in a crisis. I suppose when the last attack at your station ended with the place blowing up, this was probably a pleasant surprise. “I’ll get an ambulance, and we’ll have you right as rain in no time.” This she directed at Nick, who gave her a bleary smile.
Consciousness was a good step, anyway.
Danny was pale and quiet, knuckles white from the grip he was keeping on Nick’s hand. He was knelt down beside the two of us, trousers in the process of being ruined.
He mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, but might have been, “Everything’s gonna be just fine.”
I really hoped he was right.
Hospital rooms, it turns out, are pretty much the same no matter where you are. Small variations in decor and bedding colour aside, the atmosphere is always unshakably maudlin even when the patient is mostly cognizant and pleading to be let out of bed, please, I am so fucking bored.
This was the situation I found Inspector Nick Angel in when I went to visit him on my last day in Sandford. My heart went out to him, it really did.
Bill Graham was an easy collar, inasmuch as any of them are easy, and he yielded to my advanced interrogation technique of ‘asking him blunt questions’ with remarkable alacrity. Whether he was looking to piss me off with his less than polite language or to scare me with implications about some West Country based cadre of ethically challenged practitioners, the fact remained that he cracked like an egg and gave me all the information I required in about two hours’ worth of questioning.
His master (and he did use that term for their relationship - god, white people) had died of a stroke about two decades prior and left Graham his very tattered notebooks which featured a partial recreation of large portions of Newton’s Principia, along with extensive notes of an even more theoretical nature which Graham had swiftly put into practice on a selection of chimera across Somerset, Gloucestershire and the outer Bristol suburbs.
He’d been neat with most of them, using impello to simulate a whole lot of death by misadventure.
“Why the change?” I’d asked, curiosity warring with disgust.
“Deserved it,” said Graham, shortly. “Got above his station.”
Some more prodding revealed that Graham had seen the marriage announcement of the son of one of his victims (Christ, of course he’d murdered the mum) and decided to take matters into his own hands one more time.
A seducere and several aer congolare later, and he’d committed the murder that would finally bring him in. The HTD in Roswell’s brain was, it seemed, the result of the seducere being improperly cast and eating up his tissues which was… horrifying. I decided to ignore the idea for as long as humanly possible.
I made quite a lot of recommendations to the Gloucestershire Police about containment procedures in advance of his sentencing, and took myself off with some gratitude that I wouldn’t have to see the man again until the case came to trial.
“I’m really fine,” Nick insisted. I could hear him from quite a way down the hallway, although he wasn’t actually shouting. The acoustics of Cheltenham General Hospital were clearly excellent.
“As if,” said Danny, apparently amused by his husband’s disregard for his own health. I imagine they’ve had to hash the same argument out multiple times over the course of their relationship.
I knocked on the open door. “Everything okay?”
“I’m fine,” said Nick. “As you heard. Danny won’t hear of it, though.” He sighed sadly. “What’s a marriage if you won’t sneak your partner out of hospital?”
He pushed himself up with a poorly suppressed wince. Danny rolled his eyes and kissed him on the forehead before turning to nod at me. “Afternoon, Inspector,” he said politely.
Nick smiled fondly in response and then looked deeply annoyed at himself. I manfully restrained myself from laughing.
“I think you can probably call me Peter, Danny,” I said. “I’m officially off this case unless and until I get called for the trial, and God only knows when they’ll get around to that.”
“Alright then, Peter,” he said, somewhat tentatively. “What you been up to?”
“Got a full timeline of events off Graham,” I replied. “And I went out and got this for the invalid.” I handed Danny a bunch of grapes. “Sorry, I didn’t know if you like red or green better,” I said to Nick, who looked like he’d have dearly loved to punch me in the neck.
“Hey,” I said. “I got grapes when I got buried under Oxford Circus. Spell damage is basically nothing. I’m being magnanimous.”
Danny put the grapes in a forest of Get Well Soon cards that had sprung up on the bedside table.
“Oxford Circus?” Danny asked.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “But I suppose I could stick about for a bit if you’re really interested.”
The drive back to the Folly took me significantly longer than the drive down had, thanks to a mixture of bad weather and a really nasty pile-up on the A40, and I ended up getting back in the wee hours of the morning.
Nightingale was sat up in the mundane library, looking for all the world as if it was completely natural for him to be in there reading Monstrous Regiment in his pyjamas.
It wasn’t, to be clear. Usually he confined Discworld to his bedside table.
I smiled at him, feeling the stress of the car journey melt away. I dropped casually into the seat beside him and peered over his shoulder.
“Oooh,” I said happily. “I love that bit.”
“It has Vimes in it,” said Nightingale. “Of course you do.”
“He’s an excellent role model for the classic bobby on the street,” I said. And a great example of how a young idealist can influence the worldview of a jaded old copper, I thought privately. Although the similarities more or less ended there.
Thomas smiled at me, soft and quick. “I had missed your observations,” he said quietly.
“Yours too,” I replied, and kissed him, equally soft.
It was a bustling Friday night at The Crown, and Nicholas Angel was finally going to have the stiff drink he’d promised himself when he’d found out magic was actually real.
He sighed happily at his tumblr of whiskey, and leaned a bit more heavily into Danny’s side. They were at the pub as a duo, for once, the rest of the unit having split off for other cultural pursuits - the Operatic Society was doing a production of Iolanthe which Nick had been steadfastly refusing to attend for weeks.
Danny put an arm around his shoulders, a familiar and comforting weight. “Hell of a fucking week, eh?”
“Have I ever told you how much I love your gift for understatement?” Nick asked. He took a sip of his whiskey.
“You might’ve mentioned it once or twice, yeah,” said Danny, grinning. He turned his head, expression wavering. “Listen, Nick, I’ve got to show you something.”
Nick felt his fight-or-flight response kick into high gear. “Yeah?”
“Well, you know my ketchup trick what saved your life?” He rummaged in the table caddy for a moment.
“I do remember that,” said Nick, feeling deeply ill at ease.
Danny held up a ketchup packet. “You ever wonder how I did it?”
Nick nodded. He had a terrible feeling he might be married to a wizard.
The packet vanished. Nick felt something go squish in his shirt pocket. He sighed.
Danny smiled and wiggled his fingers. “Ta daaa.”