It was raining, one of the sudden downpours that struck Oxford in the summer when the sky seemed to open and release a sea of water onto the town.
Peter Jakes, newly promoted to DS and transferred to OCP from County – practically a double promotion – stood by his window with a tumbler of cheap scotch and looked out at the street below. The streetlamp across from his flat cast a gold circle on the cracked pavement, water pooling in the crevices. Cars drove back and forth, water splashing up from under their tyres, their headlamps drawing long white lines in the dark evening.
Further down the street, far from the lambent illumination of the streetlamp, something moved in the shadows. Jakes turned to watch it; the shape of a young man emerged slowly, drunkenly, dragging a leg. Jakes’ eyes narrowed. The soft electric light seemed to shine right through the narrow figure, casting no shadow onto the wall behind. From his chest hung a few links of a thick metal chain, dangling freely.
He had been seeing them since the bad years, since he’d been bundled up and sent away to a boy’s home so grim it felt right out of a nineteenth century novel. He hadn’t recognized them at first, the vague shapes that haunted the corners of his vision. But the longer he stayed there the clearer they became: young girls with ripped clothes and bruises on their throats, adults with bloody wrists, old men with shaking heads and vacant stares.
Sometimes they talked to him. He never talked back. But occasionally, he listened. They told stories of violence and pain, of hurt and anger. Of suicide and death. It had been hard, as a child. As a detective, it had made his career.
He watched the street outside his window as the ghost – a car wreck victim, from the looks of it – staggered down the street dragging his useless leg behind him. He stepped into a line of shadow cast by a telephone pole. Darkness flickered, and nothing came out the other side of the black strip. Jakes narrowed his eyes, but still saw nothing. The ghost had vanished.
Eventually he shrugged, moved away from the window, and turned on the radio. Tomorrow, he started work at Cowley station.
One of the men at a desk near the front of the room pointed him over to an office against the far wall. In front of it, sitting like a lanky guard-dog, was a disheveled young man with ginger hair and a lop-sided frown. His hands were resting on the keys of a typewriter, but his eyes were fixed on Jakes as the sergeant crossed the floor.
“DS Jakes,” said Jakes. “I’m looking for DI Thursday.”
“DC Morse; his bagman,” replied Morse; Jakes felt his surprise stamp itself across his face and saw Morse’s face darken in response. Bagman was a sergeant’s job – a job he had assumed would be his. But perhaps Morse was just filling in.
“He’s through there,” said Morse, tilting his head towards the door behind him.
Jakes knocked on the door; through the window he saw the man on the other side give a curt wave, and entered.
The office was narrow and long, featuring a desk and interview chairs, as well as a coffee table and sofa set off to the side overlooked by a charcoal-stained fireplace. The room smelled of smoke and aftershave, a pervasive scent. Jakes stepped inside, shoes clicking on the red lino floor.
DI Thursday was middle-aged and heavy-set. His dark hair, greying at the temples, was swept back and his dark eyes were hard and unreadable. His jawline was running to jowls, the skin of his face sagging with age and a life lived in an unforgiving profession. His fists, resting on the desk, were sizeable. Altogether, a man not to cross. Jakes straightened towards attention. “DS Jakes, sir.”
“Fred Thursday. You’ve just come from County, have you?”
“Found everything alright?”
“No trouble, sir.”
“Good.” Thursday leaned back, chair creaking. Through the single-paned window behind him Jakes could see the car park and the brick building beyond, its chimney pots biting into the sky like tiny urban turrets. “We’re a small team here; I’m acting DCS at the moment, but there’ll be a new man along to fill those boots before long. You’ll have to work alongside DC Morse for the next few days while you settle in; I’ll check in with you as needed but self-sufficiency would be appreciated.”
“We’ve just wrapped up a major investigation, and short of a few court cases which DI McNutt’s crew are handling, there’s not much on the docket. I heard from Morse that a suspicious fire came in overnight; you can go out with him and look into it. I’ve some further files for you here that you can take on as well,” he said, tapping a small stack of manila folders on his desk.
“Why don’t you have a shufti through them; you and Morse can run out to the arson in the afternoon.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jakes again. Thursday nodded, and Jakes, sensing his dismissal, took the folders and left. His status as bagman wasn’t a question to raise at his first meeting with his new boss.
Morse was in and out of Thursday’s office several times that morning, clearly running errands and bringing in new information. It was a bagman’s job to act as his superior’s ears, eyes and nose in the nick, and also to enforce his direction be it spoken or unspoken; for a position that carried such weight Morse seemed a weedy pick. It wasn’t just that he was physically slight – he was no lighter than Jakes, although his ill-fitting clothes gave him an underfed look – but he gave the impression of paying attention to some inner world rather than the present surrounding him, as if he had withdrawn from the stresses and inconveniences of police work. His eyes, wide and sky-blue, rarely seemed focused on what was in front of him.
But then, Jakes was bound to take a dislike to the man filling his seat.
He ate in the canteen, rubbing shoulders with some of the other CID men who reported to DI McNutt and grumbled casually about Morse – chippy, aloof, an outsider. The food was tepid and fatty, the tea hot and sweet and midnight dark. The ceiling was stained with grease and nicotine, a monument to decades of police lunches. To Jakes, it felt like home.
Morse didn’t show himself in the canteen; working through lunch said the other coppers with sarcastic smiles. Brown-nosing, read Jakes between the lines.
By the time 1pm rolled around, he wasn’t looking forward to the trip to the suspected arson site with the DC. He picked up Morse at his desk and the two of them went downstairs to the motor pool.
Outside the warm July weather was sunny and fine, Oxford’s towering chestnut trees thick with rich green leaves, the window boxes mounted on houses bursting with bright colour. Inside the black Jag the mood was considerably darker. Morse was clearly not a talkative man and Jakes didn’t feel like making the effort. He could have commented on the DC’s smooth handling of the Jag’s cranky gearbox, or the fact that he clearly knew the Cowley streets like the back of his hand. He chose not to.
They crossed through Cowley’s tiny market heart into its industrial back yard. Passed by redbrick factories and dirty laundromats and shoebox churches into a district made up of tenement houses. Beyond that, in what seemed a residential wasteland where tyres and broken furniture had been abandoned on the pavement, were small Victorian houses of the type typically divided and rented out in bedsits. Morse came to park in front of one with a scraggly front garden and a wide bay window that looked out onto the street. Windows upstairs were broken, the front porch was uneven and coated by a badly chipping layer of varnish. The front door showed signs of distress.
A squatters’ den, Jakes diagnosed before he even opened the car door. “Rough neighbourhood,” he commented dryly.
“The production lines don’t pay well,” replied Morse, and swung the door open. Jakes stepped out as well, crossing the street and climbing up the crooked steps.
“If it’s abandoned, it’ll be squatters lighting it up. Drunk or high, no way to tell.”
The front door was locked but Morse produced a key and opened it; it was hardly necessary – most of the windows on the first floor look like they had been jimmied multiple times.
Inside was a smell of piss and sour beer and burnt paper. The carpeting had been ripped out in places to reveal older, narrow floorboards; the dark wallpaper had been rent and torn and scrawled across illegibly. Flattened cardboard boxes were scattered around, suggesting rough sleepers.
The downstairs was a square shape with the shadowy staircase in the centre; at the back of the house was the kitchen, lav and dining room while at the front was a sitting room and a space that might at one point have served as a study. It was the sitting room – now just an empty space littered with cardboard boxes and mouse feces – that bore the remains of the fire. A black charcoal stain licked up the wall to peel some of the ceiling away and reveal the dark interstitial space beyond. The floor was burned in a rough circle, and shreds of burnt carpet and wallpaper had floated throughout the rest of the room.
“The firemen think there was a pile of paper and cardboard there – old magazines and newspapers and the like. That’s what caught fire. A neighbour saw the flames in the window and called 999. Fortunately the fire was relatively contained and they were able to catch it early.”
“That’s all in the file,” replied Jakes, leaning forward to run a finger through the ash on the wall; it was thick and oily and his fingertip came away black.
“This wasn’t: this is the third fire at this address in the past 30 years. One of the firemen remembered another five years ago. I looked up that file and found that this was in fact the third. The first fire gutted the front of the house and they had to rebuild.”
“All that trouble to end up a squatters den.” Jakes snorted. “But there’s nothing suspicious in a place like this catching fire. Like I said, probably someone had a skinful and dropped a fag,” he said, just as movement beyond Morse’s shoulder caught his eye. He turned to look, and froze.
Someone was descending the staircase. A teenaged girl dressed in a night frock, her legs bare and her eyes wide. Her pale skin was blackened by streaks of ash, her feet were burnt stubs. A short chain hung out of her chest like the string of a talking dolly.
Jakes looked hurriedly away from the ghost of the dead girl even as Morse glanced over his shoulder. “Nothing more to see here,” he said gruffly, pushing past Morse towards the door.
“We haven’t even looked around,” protested Morse, but after another glance backwards he followed Jakes out, locking the door behind him and pocketing the key.
Jakes couldn’t very well talk to the ghost with Morse here. That would need a solo visit.
Jakes went home first – it would be better to pay a visit later in the evening, when the street was quiet and his appearance would go unnoted. He ate a dinner of tinned tongue and peas, and listened to part of a football match on the radio while he downed a pint.
The match was effectively over not long after halftime, Arsenal letting in three goals to zero, so he changed out of his suit into a pullover and canvas trousers and left the flat. He caught a bus to Cowley, and from there walked it. Conclusively solving a possible arson in his first week would be a feather in his cap.
Jakes arrived at the abandoned house and let himself in, treading once around the downstairs and returning to the burned-out corner. With no lights on inside in the setting sun he was in shadows, unable to distinguish charcoal and ash from the inky darkness. He crossed his arms and waited.
It took about fifteen minutes before the ghost descended the stairs, roaming in a random manner. Her fingers traced the dusty banner, the burnt stumps of her feet hovered just above the steps. From her chest hung a few short links of chain; no shadow accompanied her movements.
Then she saw Jakes and stopped, eyes widening.
He had never been harmed by a ghost. As terrifying as some of the apparitions were, full of anger and violence, they had never once been able to hurt him. They didn’t belong in this world anymore, he thought – they were no longer of it. They were simply trapped here, unable to pass on to wherever they ought to be.
The ghost on the stairs clutched at the bannister, trembling. This must have been her house, 30 years ago. And now it was used by rough sleepers and junkies. Being trapped in here with them must have been terrifying for her.
Jakes began to reach out and saw her attention turn from him to the front door. He paused, and then pulled back when he saw a dark figure come in through the open door. As the figure stepped into a long beam of light flowing in through the study window, Jakes stared.
The new-comer was a thin man in a sharply-cut black frock coat, the white shirt beneath clean and crisp. He would have looked like a guest in a wedding party except that his trousers were also pitch black, and for the fact that from his hip was hanging a sheathed sword.
It was Morse. Detective Constable Morse, here at the crime scene at nine o’clock at night wearing a goddamn sword. Morse, who even in the bright splash of sunlight, had no shadow.
“It’s alright,” Morse said to the ghost. “I’m here to help you.”
Jakes fell silently back into his corner, wishing himself unseen. Whatever was happening here he wanted no part of it. This was madness, insanity – talking to ghosts was one thing, coming as if ready to cut them down was another entirely.
“Who are you?” her voice was rough, the sounds of her breathing laboured. Most likely she died of smoke inhalation before the fire reached her. Hopefully so.
“My name is Morse. I’m here to open the door for you.”
Her brows darkened. “What door?”
“To the world beyond. The place you should be.”
“I should be here. This is home!” Her grip on the railing tightened.
“All alone? For all these years?”
“If I don’t protect it those men will destroy it. They come here and tear it up and drink and light fires. Fires!” she said, shivering.
“It’s not your home anymore,” replied Morse, gently, stepping forward. “You don’t have to protect it. You deserve to be happy.” He placed his hand on the sword’s grip, slowly drawing it. Jakes knew almost nothing about medieval weaponry; all he was able to tell was that the blade was long and thin and looked razor-sharp. The grip was black, headed by a rounded bronze pommel. “Let me help you.”
She released the railing, her arms pulling around herself. Morse raised the sword not with the blade extended towards her, but with the pommel facing her. Gently, he pressed the rounded bronze plate to her forehead leaving behind a stamp – it looked like a single flame.
All at once, like the instant a falling stone strikes water, she rippled apart into streaks of light. And then she was just gone, and the house was empty. Morse sheathed his sword and turned around, walking out the front door.
He never once saw Jakes standing in his corner.
It wasn’t until Morse was gone that Jakes relaxed, letting out the breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding. What the hell, he thought, was that?