Rivers of London- Chapter One

This week we’re giving you a chance to acquaint yourself with Ben Aaronovitch’s Sunday Times bestselling series of supernatural London Detective novels. We’re serializing the opening chapters of the first book, Rivers of London.

Ben’s books are uniquely passionate about the city he calls the capital of the world, so we thought we’d also tell you why we love London so much.

I’ve lived in London since 1986, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. My two sons were born in Hackney and go to school there, they are completely at home in London. And I can’t think of a better place for them to grow up. London is different city every day, it’s a different city round every corner. It’s a city of mad histories and alarming futures. A city of roads and marshes, towers and canals, tunnels and trees. The arts are everywhere all day and every day. It’s exhilarating and exhausting all at once. There’s nothing quite like it. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

And Ben’s novels bring all of that to vivid life.

To celebrate our week long part serialization of Rivers of London we are giving away five copies of Rivers of London, London Edition daily. To enter to win read the below exact and send the answer to this question: What is the name of Peter Grant’s partner? To: competitions@orionbooks.co.uk with the subject line: Rivers of London by 11.59pm 13 July 2012. Good luck!



Chapter One: Material Witness

It started  at one thirty on a cold Tuesday  morning in

January  when  Martin  Turner, street  performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the  body was that  of one  of the  many  celebrants who had  chosen  the  Piazza  as a convenient outdoor  toilet and dormitory.Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’ – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being  in distress.The fact that it was entirely  possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good- Samaritanism  in  London   is  considered  an  extreme sport  – like base-jumping or  crocodile-wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.

As  Martin   noted  to  the  detectives  conducting his interview,  it  was  a  good  thing  he’d  been  inebriated because  otherwise he would have wasted time scream- ing and running about – especially once he realised  he was standing in a pool of blood.Instead, with the slow, methodical patience  of the drunk and terrified,  Martin

Turner dialled 999 and asked for the police.

The police emergency centre alerted the nearest Inci-dent Response Vehicle and the first officers arrived on the  scene  six minutes later.One  officer stayed with a suddenly sober Martin while his partner confirmed that there was a body and that, everything  else being equal, it probably wasn’t a case of accidental death.They found the head six metres away where it had rolled behind one of the  neoclassical  columns that  fronted  the  church’s portico.The   responding  officers   reported   back   to control,   who  alerted   the  area  Murder   Investigation Team whose duty officer, the most junior detective con- stable on the team,  arrived  half an hour  later: he took one look at Mr Headless and woke his governor.With that, the whole pomp and majesty that is a Metropolitan Police murder investigation descended on the twenty- five metres of open cobbles between  the church  portico and  the  market   building.The  pathologist arrived  to certify  death,  make  a preliminary assessment of the cause and cart the body away for its post-mortem.(There was a short  delay while they found  a big enough evid- ence bag for the head.)  The forensic  teams  turned up mob-handed and, to prove that they were the important ones, demanded that the secure perimeter be extended to include  the whole west end of the Piazza.To  do this they needed  more  uniforms at the  scene,  so the  DC I who was Senior Investigating Officer called up Charing Cross nick and asked if they had any to spare.The shift commander, upon  hearing the magic word ‘overtime’, marched into  the  section  house  and  volunteered everyone out of their nice warm beds.Thus the secure perimeter was expanded,  searches were  made,  junior detectives sent off on mysterious errands and finally, at just after five o’clock, it all ground to a halt.The  body was gone, the detectives had left and the forensic people unanimously agreed there was nothing more that could be done until dawn – which was three hours away.Until then,  they just  needed  a couple  of mugs  to guard  the crime scene until shift change.

Which is how I came to be standing around Covent Garden in a freezing  wind at six o’clock in the morning, and why it was me that met the ghost.

Sometimes I wonder whether, if I’d been the one that went for coffee and not Lesley May, my life would have been much  less interesting and certainly much  less dangerous.Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I’m considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom  of my father,  who once told me, ‘Who knows why the fuck anything happens?’

Covent Garden is a large piazza in the centre of London, with the Royal Opera House at the east end, a covered market   in  the  centre   and  St  Paul’s  Church  at  the west end.It  was once London’s principal  fruit and veg market  but that got shifted  south  of the river ten years before  I was  born.It  had  a long  and  varied  history, mostly  involving  crime,  prostitution and  the  theatre, but now it’s a tourist  market.St Paul’s church  is known as the Actors’ Church, to differentiate it from the Cathedral, and  was first  built  by Inigo  Jones  in 1638. I know  all this  because  there’s  nothing like standing around  in  a  freezing   wind   to  make   you  look  for distractions, and there was a large and remarkably detailed  information plaque  attached  to the side of the church.Did  you  know,  for  instance,  that   the  first recorded  victim  of the  1665 plague  outbreak,  the  one that  ends  with London  burning down,  is buried  in its graveyard ? I  did,  after  ten  minutes spent  sheltering from the wind.

The  Murder  Investigation Team  had  closed  off the west of the Piazza by stringing tape across the entrances to King Street and Henrietta Street, and along the front- age of the covered market.I was guarding the church end,  where  I  could  shelter  in  the  portico  and  WP C Lesley May, my fellow probationer, guarded  the Piazza side, where she could shelter  in the market.

Lesley was short,  blonde and impossibly perky, even when wearing a stab vest.We’d gone through basic training at Hendon together  before being transferred to Westminster for our probation.We maintained a strictly professional relationship, despite my deep-seated yearning  to climb into her uniform trousers.

Because we were both probationary constables, an experienced PC had been left to supervise us – a responsibility he diligently  pursued from  an  all-night cafe´ on St Martin’s Court.

My phone   rang.It   took  me  a  while  to  dig  it  out from among  the stab vest, utility belt, baton, handcuffs, digital police radio and cumbersome but mercifully waterproof  reflective jacket.When I finally managed to answer,  it was Lesley.

‘I’m going for a coffee,’ she said.‘Want one?’

I looked over at the covered market and saw her wave.

‘You’re a life-saver,’ I said, and watched as she darted off towards James Street.

She hadn’t been gone more than a minute when I saw a figure by the portico.A short man in a suit tucked into the shadows  behind  the nearest column.

I gave the prescribed Metropolitan police ‘first greeting’.

‘Oi !’ I said.‘What do you think  you’re doing?’

The figure turned and I saw a flash of a pale, startled- looking  face.The  man   was  wearing   a  shabby,  old- fashioned suit complete  with waistcoat,  fob watch and battered  top hat.I thought he might  be one of the street performers licensed  to perform in the piazza, but it seemed  a tad early in the morning for that.

‘Over here,’ he said, and beckoned.

I made  sure I knew where my extendable  baton was and headed over.Policemen are supposed to loom over members of the public,  even helpful  ones.That’s  why we wear big boots and pointy helmets, but when  I got closer I found the man was tiny, five foot nothing in his shoes.I  fought  an urge to squat  down to get our faces level.

‘I saw the whole thing, squire,’ said the man.‘Terrible thing,  it was.’

They drum it into you at Hendon: before you do anything else, get a name  and  an address.I produced my notebook  and pen.‘Can  I ask your name,  sir ?’

‘’Course you can, squire.My  name’s  Nicholas  Wall- penny, but don’t ask me how to spell it because  I never really got my letters.’

‘Are you a street performer ?’ I asked.

‘You might  say that,’  said  Nicholas.‘Certainly my performances have hitherto been confined to the street. Though  on a cold night like this I wouldn’t be averse to bringing some  interiority   to  my  proceedings.If  you catch my meaning, squire.’

There was a badge pinned to his lapel: a pewter skeleton  caught  mid-caper.It seemed  a bit goth  for a short  cockney geezer,  but  then  London  is the  pick ’n’ mix cultural  capital of the world.I wrote down Street performer.

‘Now sir,’ I said, ‘if you could just tell me what it was you saw.’

‘I saw plenty, squire.’

‘But you were here earlier this morning?’ My instruc- tors were also clear about not cueing your witnesses. Information is only supposed to flow in one direction.

‘I’m here  morning, noon  and  night,’  said Nicholas, who obviously hadn’t gone to the same lectures  I had.

‘If you’ve witnessed something,’ I said, ‘perhaps you’d better come and give a statement.’

‘That  would  be  a  bit  of  problem,’   said  Nicholas,

‘seeing as I’m dead.’

I  thought I  hadn’t  heard  him  correctly.‘If  you’re worried about your safety .. .’

‘I ain’t worried about anything any more, squire,’ said Nicholas.‘On account of having been dead these last hundred and twenty years.’

‘If you’re dead,’  I said  before  I could  stop  myself,

‘how come we’re talking?’

‘You must  have a touch  of the sight,’ said Nicholas.

‘Some of the  old Palladino.’  He  looked  at me  closely.

‘Touch of that from your father, maybe? Dockman, was he, sailor, some such thing, he gave you that good curly hair and them  lips?’

‘Can you prove you’re dead ?’ I asked.

‘Whatever you say, squire,’ said Nicholas, and stepped forward into the light.

He was transparent, the way holograms in films are transparent.Three-dimensional, definitely  really there and fucking transparent.I could see right through him to the white tent the forensic team had set up to protect the area around the body.

Right,  I  thought,  just  because   you’ve  gone  mad doesn’t mean  you should  stop acting like a policeman.

‘Can you tell me what you saw?’ I asked.

‘I saw the first gent, him that was murdered, walking down from James Street.Fine, high-stepping man with a military bearing,  very gaily dressed  in the modern fashion.What I would  have considered a prime  plant in my corporeal days.’ Nicholas paused  to spit. Nothing reached  the ground.‘Then the second  gent,  him  what did the murdering, he comes strolling the other way up from Henrietta Street.Not so nicely turned out, wearing them  blue  workman’s trousers and  an  oilskin  like  a fisherman.They passed each other just there.’ Nicholas pointed to a spot ten metres short of the church  portico.

‘I reckon  they know each other,  ’cause they both  nod but they don’t stop for a chat or nothing, which is understandable, it not being a night  for loitering.’

‘So they passed each other ?’ I asked, as much  for the chance to catch up with my note-taking as to clarify the point.‘And  you thought they knew each other ?’

‘As acquaintances,’ said Nicholas.‘I wouldn’t say they were bosom  friends, especially with what transpired next.’

I asked him what transpired next.

‘Well the second,  murdering gent,  he puts  on a cap and  a red  jacket  and  he  brings  out  his  stick  and  as quietly and  swiftly as a snoozer in a lodging  house  he comes  up  behind  the  first  gent  and  knocks  his  head clean off.’

‘You’re having me on,’ I said.

‘No I’m never,’ said Nicholas,  and  crossed  himself.

‘I swear on my own death, and that’s as solemn a swear as a poor  shade  can  give.It  was a terrible  sight.Off came his head and up went the blood.’

‘What did the killer do?’

‘Well, having  done  his  business he  was  off, went down  New Row like a lurcher on the  commons,’ said Nicholas.

I  was  thinking that  New  Row  took  you  down  to Charing Cross Road, an ideal place to catch a taxi or a minicab or even a night bus if the timing was right.The killer  could  have  cleared  central  London  in  less  than fifteen minutes.

‘That wasn’t the worst of it,’ said Nicholas, obviously unwilling to let his audience get distracted.‘There was something uncanny about the killing gent.’

‘Uncanny?’ I asked.‘You’re a ghost.’

‘Spirit I may be,’ said Nicholas.‘But  that just means

I know uncanny when I see it.’

‘And what did you see?’

‘The killing gentleman didn’t just change his hat and coat, he changed  his face,’ said Nicholas.‘Now tell me that ain’t uncanny.’

Someone called my name.Lesley  was back with the coffees.

Nicholas vanished  while I wasn’t looking.

I stood staring like an idiot for a moment until Lesley called again.

‘Do you want this coffee or not?’ I crossed the cobbles to where the angel Lesley was waiting with a polystyrene cup.‘Anything happen while I was away?’ she  asked.  I sipped my coffee.The words – I just talked to a ghost who saw the  whole  thing  – utterly  failed  to leave my lips.

The next day I woke up at eleven – much  earlier  than I wanted  to.Lesley and  I had  been  relieved  at eight, and  we’d trudged back to the section  house  and  gone straight to bed.Separate beds, unfortunately.

The principal  advantages of living in your station’s section  house  is that it is cheap, close to work and it’s not your parents’ flat.The disadvantages are that you’re sharing your  accommodation with  people  too weakly socialised  to live with normal human beings,  and who habitually   wear  heavy  boots.The   weak  socialisation makes   opening the  fridge  an  exciting  adventure in microbiology,   and   the  boots  mean   that   every  shift change  sounds like an avalanche.

I lay in my narrow  little institutional bed staring  at the poster of Estelle that I’d affixed to the wall opposite. I don’t care what they say: you’re never too old to wake up to the sight of a beautiful  woman.

I  stayed  in  bed  for  ten  minutes, hoping   that  my memory  of talking to a ghost might  fade like a dream, but it didn’t, so I got up and had a shower.It  was an important day that day, and I had to be sharp.

The Metropolitan Police Service is still, despite what people think,  a working-class  organisation and as such rejects  totally  the  notion   of  an  officer  class.That  is why every newly minted constable,  regardless of their educational background, has  to spend  a two-year pro- bationary period as an ordinary plod on the streets.This is because  nothing builds  character  like being  abused, spat at and vomited on by members of the public.

Towards the end of your probation you start applying for positions in the various branches, directorates and operational command units  that  make  up  the  force. Most probationers will continue on as full uniformed constables in one of the borough commands, and  the Met hierarchy likes to stress  that deciding  to remain a uniformed constable  doing vital work on the streets  of London  is a positive choice in and of itself.Somebody has to be abused,  spat at and vomited on, and I for one applaud  the brave men  and women  who are willing to step up and serve in that role.

This  had  been  the  noble  calling  of my  shift  com- mander, Inspector Francis  Neblett.He had joined  the Met back in the time of the dinosaurs, had risen rapidly to the rank of Inspector and then  spent  the next thirty years quite happily in the same position.He was a stolid man  with lank brown hair and a face that looked as if it had  been  struck  with the  flat end  of a shovel.Neblett was old-fashioned enough to wear a uniform tunic over his regulation white shirt, even when out patrolling with ‘his lads’.

I was scheduled to have an interview with him today, at which we would ‘discuss’ my future career prospects. Theoretically this was part of an integrated career devel- opment process  that  would  lead to positive  outcomes with regards to both the police service and me.After this discussion a final decision  as to my future  disposition would be made – I strongly suspected that what I wanted to do wouldn’t enter into it.

Lesley, looking unreasonably fresh,  met me in the squalid  kitchenette shared  by all the  residents on my floor.There  was paracetamol in one of the cupboards; one thing you can always be certain of in a police section house  is that there will always be paracetamol.I took a couple and gulped water from the tap.

‘Mr Headless has  a name,’  she  said,  while  I made coffee.‘William Skirmish, media  type, lives up in Highgate.’

‘Are they saying anything else?’

‘Just the usual,’ said Lesley.‘Senseless  killing, blah, blah.Inner-city violence,  what  is London  coming  to, blah.’

‘Blah,’ I said.

‘What are you doing up before noon?’ she asked.

‘Got my career  progression meeting with Neblett at twelve.’

‘Good luck with that,’ she said.

I knew  it was  all going  pear-shaped when  Inspector Neblett called me by my first name.

‘Tell me,  Peter,’  he  said.‘Where   do  you  see  your career going?’

I shifted  in my chair.

‘Well, sir,’ I said, ‘I was thinking of CI D.’

‘You want to be a detective?’ Neblett was, of course, a career ‘uniform’, and thus regarded plain-clothes police officers  in much  the  same  way as civilians regard  tax inspectors.You might,  if pressed,  concede  that  they were a necessary  evil but you wouldn’t actually let your daughter marry one.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Why limit yourself to CI D?’ he asked.‘Why not one of the specialist units?’

Because you don’t, not when you’re still on probation, say that you want to be in the Sweeney or a Murder Investigation Team  and  swan  around in  a big motor while wearing handmade shoes.

‘I thought I’d start at the beginning and work my way up, sir,’ I said.

‘That’s a very sensible  attitude,’ said Neblett.

I suddenly  had a horrible  thought.What if they were thinking of sending me to Trident?  That was the Operational Command Unit charged with tackling gun crime within the black community.Trident was always on the lookout for black officers to do hideously dangerous undercover work,  and  being  mixed  race  meant that I qualified.It’s not that  I don’t think  they do a worth- while job, it’s just that I didn’t think  I’d be very good at it.It’s  important for  a man  to know  his  limitations, and my limitations started  at moving  to Peckham and hanging around with yardies, postcode  wannabes and those  weird, skinny white kids who don’t get the irony in Eminem.

‘I don’t like rap music,  sir,’ I said.

Neblett  nodded  slowly.‘That’s useful  to know,’ he said, and I resolved to keep a tighter grip on my mouth.

‘Peter,’ he said, ‘over the last two years I’ve formed a very positive opinion of your intelligence and your capacity for hard work.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘And then  there is your science background.’

I have three  C-grade A levels in Maths,  Physics  and Chemistry.This  is  only  considered a  science  back- ground outside of the scientific community.It certainly wasn’t enough to get me the university  place I wanted.

‘You’re very useful at getting your thoughts down on paper,’ said Neblett.

I felt a cold lump  of disappointment in my stomach. I knew exactly what horrifying assignment the Metropolitan Police had planned for me.

‘We want you to consider the Case Progression Unit,’ said Neblett.

The theory behind  the Case Progression Unit is very sound.Police officers, so the established wisdom has it, are drowning in paperwork, suspects have to be logged in,  the  chain  of evidence  must  never  be broken  and the  politicians   and  PA CE , the  Police  And  Criminal Evidence Act, must  be followed to the letter.The  role of the  Case Progression Unit  is to do the  paperwork  for the hard-pressed constable so he or she can get back out on the street to be abused, spat at and vomited on.Thus will there  be a bobby on the beat, and thus  shall crime be defeated and the good Daily Mail-reading citizens of our fair nation  shall live in peace.

The truth  is that the paperwork  is not that onerous – any  half-competent temp  would  dispose  of it in  less than  an  hour  and  still have time  to do his  nails.The problem is that police work is all about ‘face’ and ‘pres- ence’ and remembering what a suspect  said one day so you can catch them  in a lie on the next.It’s about going towards  the  scream,  staying  calm  and  being  the  one that opens  a suspect  package.It’s  not that you can’t do both, it’s just that it’s not exactly common.What Neblett was saying to me was that I wasn’t a real copper – not a thief taker – but I might  play a valuable role freeing up  real coppers.I  could  tell with a sick certainty  that those  very words  ‘valuable role’ were rushing towards the conversation.

‘I was hoping for something a bit more proactive, sir,’ I said.

‘This would be proactive,’ said Neblett.‘You’d be performing a valuable role.’

Police officers, as a rule, don’t need  an excuse to go to the pub, but one of the many non-excuses they have is the traditional end-of-probation booze-up  when  members of the shift get the brand  new full constables completely hammered.To that end, Lesley and me were dragged  across  the  Strand  to the  Roosevelt  Toad and plied  with alcohol  until  we were horizontal.That was the theory, anyway.

‘How did it go?’ Lesley asked over the roar of the pub.

‘Badly,’ I shouted back.‘Case Progression Unit.’

Lesley pulled a face.

‘What about you?’

‘I don’t want to tell you,’ she said.‘It’ll piss you off.’

‘Hit me,’ I said.‘I can take it.’

‘I’ve been temporarily assigned to the murder team,’ she said.

I’d never heard  of that happening before.‘As a detective?’

‘As a uniformed constable  in plain clothes,’ she said.

‘It’s a big case and they need bodies.’ She was right.It did piss me off.

The evening  went sour after that.I  stuck it out for a couple of hours  but I hate self-pity, especially mine,  so I went  out and  did the  next best thing  to sticking  my head in a bucket of cold water.

Unfortunately it had stopped  raining while we were in the pub, so I settled for letting the freezing  air sober me up.

Lesley caught up with me twenty minutes later.

‘Put your bloody coat on,’ she said.‘You’ll catch your death.’

‘Is it cold ?’ I asked.

‘I knew you’d be upset,’ she said.

I put my coat on.‘Have you told the tribe yet?’ I asked. In addition  to her  mum, her  dad and  nan,  Lesley had five older  sisters,  all still  resident within  a hundred metres of the  family  home  in  Brightlingsea.I’d met them   once   or  twice  when   they’d  descended upon London en masse for a shopping expedition.They were loud to the point of constituting a one-family breach  of the peace, and would have merited a police escort if they hadn’t already had one, i.e. Lesley and me.

‘This afternoon,’ she  said.‘They  were well-pleased.  Even Tanya, and she doesn’t even know what it means. Have you told yours yet?’

‘Tell them  what?’ I asked.‘That I work in an office?’

‘Nothing wrong with working in an office.’

‘I just want to be a copper,’ I said.

‘I know,’ said Lesley.‘But why?’

‘Because I want to help the community,’ I said.‘Catch bad guys.’

‘Not the  shiny  buttons, then?’  she  asked.‘Or  the chance to slap the cuffs on and say, “You’re nicked, my son”?’

‘Maintain the Queen’s peace,’ I said.‘Bring order out of chaos.’

She  shook  her  head  sadly.‘What  makes  you think there’s  any order ?’ she  said.‘And  you’ve been  out on patrol  on  a  Saturday   night.Does  that  look  like  the Queen’s  peace?’

I went to lean nonchalantly against  a lamp  post but it went wrong and I staggered around a bit.Lesley found this much funnier than I thought it really deserved.She sat down on the step of Waterstone’s bookshop to catch her breath.

‘Okay,’ I said.‘Why are you in the job?’

‘Because I’m really good at it,’ said Lesley.

‘You’re not that good a copper,’ I said.

‘Yes I  am,’  she  said.‘Let’s be  honest, I’m  bloody amazing as a copper.’

‘And what am I?’

‘Too easily distracted.’

‘I am not.’

‘New Year’s Eve, Trafalgar Square, big crowd, bunch of total wankers  pissing  in the  fountain – remember that?’  asked  Lesley.‘Wheels  come  off,  wankers   get stroppy and what were you doing?’

‘I was only gone for a couple of seconds,’ I said.

‘You were checking  what  was written  on the  lion’s bum,’ said Lesley.‘I was wrestling  a couple of drunken chavs and you were doing historical  research.’

‘Do you want to know what was on the lion’s bum?’ I asked.

‘No,’ said  Lesley, ‘I don’t  want  to know  what  was written  on the lion’s bum,  or how siphoning works or why one side of Floral Street  is a hundred years older than  the other side.’

‘You don’t think  any of that’s interesting?’

‘Not when  I’m wrestling  chavs, catching  car thieves or attending a fatal accident,’  said  Lesley.‘I like you, I think you’re a good man, but it’s like you don’t see the world the way a copper needs to see the world – it’s like you’re seeing stuff that isn’t there.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Lesley.‘I can’t see stuff that isn’t there.’

‘Seeing stuff that isn’t there  can be a useful  skill for a copper,’ I said.

Lesley snorted.

‘It’s true,’ I said.‘Last night while you were distracted by your caffeine  dependency I met an eyewitness  who wasn’t there.’

‘Wasn’t there,’ said Lesley.

‘How can you have an eyewitness  who wasn’t there, I hear you ask?’

‘I’m asking,’ said Lesley.

‘When your eyewitness  is a ghost,’ I said.

Lesley stared at me for a moment.‘I would have gone with the CC TV camera  controller  myself,’ she said.


‘Guy watching  the  murder on  CCTV,’ said  Lesley.

‘He’d be a witness who wasn’t there.But I like the ghost thing.’

‘I interviewed  a ghost,’ I said.

‘Bollocks,’ said Lesley.

So I told her about Nicholas Wallpenny and the mur- dering  gent who turned back, changed  his clothes and then   knocked   poor–   ‘What  was  the  victim’s  name again?’ I asked.

‘William Skirmish,’  said Lesley.‘It was on the news.’

‘Knocked poor William Skirmish’s head clean off his shoulders.’

‘That wasn’t on the news,’ said Lesley.

‘The murder team will want to keep that back,’ I said.

‘For witness verification.’

‘The witness in question being a ghost?’ asked Lesley.


Lesley got to her feet, swayed a bit and then  got her eyes focused  again.‘Do you think  he’s still there?’ she asked.

The cold air was beginning to sober  me  up  at last.


‘Your ghost,’  she  said,  ‘Nicholas  Nickleby.Do  you think  he might  still be at the crime scene?’

‘How should  I know?’ I said.‘I don’t even believe in ghosts.’

‘Let’s go and see if he’s there,’ she said.‘If I see him too then  it will be like corob … like crob … proof.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

We wandered arm  in  arm  up  King  Street  towards Covent Garden.

There was a great absence  of Nicholas the ghost that night.We  started  at the church  portico where I’d seen him  and,  because  Lesley was a thoroughgoing copper even when  pissed,  did a methodical search  around the perimeter.

‘Chips,’ said Lesley after our second  circuit.‘Or a kebab.’

‘Maybe he doesn’t come out when I’m with someone else,’ I said.

‘Maybe he does shift work,’ said Lesley.

‘Fuck it,’ I said.‘Let’s have a kebab.’

‘You’ll be good at the  Case  Progression Unit,’  said Lesley. ‘And you’ll be .. .’

‘If you say “… making  a valuable contribution” I will not be held responsible for my actions.’

‘I was going to say “making  a difference”,’  she said.

‘You could always go to the states, I bet the FB I would have you.’

‘Why would the FB I have me?’ I asked.

‘They could use you as an Obama  decoy,’ she said.

‘For that,’ I said, ‘you can pay for the kebabs.’

In the end we were too knackered to get kebabs, so we headed  straight  back to the section house  where Lesley utterly failed to invite me to her room.I was at that stage of drunk where you lie on your bed in the dark and the room goes whirling  around you, and you’re wondering about  the nature of the universe and  whether you can get to the sink before you throw up.

Tomorrow  was my last day off, and  unless  I could prove that  seeing  things  that  weren’t there  was a vital skill for the modern police officer, it was hello Case Progression Unit for me.

‘I’m sorry about last night,’ said Lesley.

Neither of us could face the horrors of the kitchenette that morning, so we found shelter in the station canteen. Despite  the fact that  the catering  staff were a mixture of compact Polish women and skinny Somali men, a strange  kind of institutional inertia meant that the food was classic  English  greasy  spoon,  the  coffee was bad and  the  tea was hot, sweet and  came  in mugs.Lesley was having a full English  breakfast; I was having a tea.

‘It’s all right,’ I said.‘Your loss, not mine.’

‘Not that,’ said Lesley, and smacked  me on the hand with the flat of her knife.‘What  I said about you being a copper.’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said.‘I’ve taken  your  feedback  on board, and having extensively workshopped it this morning I now feel that  I can pursue my core career- development goals in a diligent, proactive but, above all, creative manner.’

‘What are you planning to do?’

‘I’m going to hack HO LM ES to see if my ghost was right,’ I said.



Every police  station  in  the  country  has  at  least  one HO LM ES suite.This is the Home Office Large Major Enquiry  System,  which  allows  computer-illiterate coppers to join the late twentieth century.Getting them to join the  twenty-first  century  would  be too much  to ask for.

Everything related to a major investigation is kept on the system,  allowing  detectives  to cross-reference data and  avoid the  kind  of cock-up that  made  the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper such an exemplary operation.The replacement to  the  old  system  was  due  to  be  called SH ER LOC K, but nobody could find the words to make the acronym  work so they called it HO LM ES 2.

Theoretically  you  can  access  HO LM ES  2  from  a laptop, but the Metropolitan Police likes to keep its personnel tied to fixed terminals – which  can’t be left in trains  or sold to pawn  shops.When a major  inves- tigation  occurs,  the terminals can be transferred from the  suite  to incident rooms  elsewhere  in  the  station. Lesley and  I could  have  sneaked  into  the  HO LM ES suite  and  risked  being  caught,  but I preferred to plug my laptop into a LA N socket in one of the empty inci- dent rooms  and work in safety and comfort.

I’d been sent on a HO LM ES 2 familiarisation course three   months earlier.At   the  time   I’d  been  excited because I thought they might be preparing me for a role in major  investigations, but now I realise they were grooming me  for  data  entry  work.It  took  me  less than half an hour to find the Covent Garden inves- tigation.People are  often  negligent about  passwords, and Inspector Neblett had used his youngest daughter’s name  and  year of birth,  which  is just criminal.It also got me read-only access to the files we wanted.

The old system couldn’t handle big data files, but because  HO LM ES  2 was  only  ten  years  behind  the state of the art, detectives could now attach evidence photographs, document scans and even CC TV footage directly to what’s called a ‘nominal  record’ file.It’s like YouTube for cops.

The Murder  Team assigned to the William Skirmish murder had wasted no time grabbing the CC TV footage and  seeing  if they could get a look at the murderer.It was a big fat file and I went straight  for it.

According to the report, the camera  was mounted on the  corner  of James  Street,  looking  west.It  was low- quality, low-light footage updated at one frame  per second.But despite the poor light it clearly showed William Skirmish walking from under the camera towards Henrietta Street.

‘There’s our suspect,’ said Lesley, pointing.

The  screen  showed  another figure  –  the  best  you could say was probably male, probably in jeans and a leather jacket – walk past William Skirmish and vanish below the  screen.According to the  notes,  this  figure was being designated WI TN ESS A .

A third figure appeared, going away from the camera. I hit pause.

‘Doesn’t look like the same guy,’ said Lesley. Definitely  not.This  man  was wearing  what  looked like a Smurf  hat and what l recognised as an Edwardian smoking jacket  – don’t  ask  me  why I know  what  an Edwardian smoking jacket looks like: let’s just say it has something to do with Doctor Who and  leave it at that. Nicholas had said it was red, but the CC TV image was in black and  white.I  clicked back a couple  of frames and  then  forward  again.The first  figure,  WI TN ESS  A , dropped  out of shot one, two frames  before the man  in the smurf hat stepped  into view.

‘That’s  two  seconds   to  get  changed,’   said  Lesley.

‘That’s not humanly possible.’

I clicked forward.The man in the smurf hat produced his bat and stepped smartly up behind William Skir- mish.The wind-up was between frames but the hit was clear.In the next frame Skirmish’s body was halfway to the  ground and  a little  dark  blob,  which  we decided must  be the head, was just visible by the portico.

‘My God.He really did knock his head clean off,’ said Lesley.

Just as Nicholas had said he had.

‘Now that,’ I said, ‘is not humanly possible.’

‘You’ve seen  a head  come  off before,’  said  Lesley.

‘I was there, remember ?’

‘That was a car accident,’ I said.‘That’s two tons  of metal, not a bat.’

‘Yeah,’ said Lesley, tapping  the screen.‘But  there  it is.’

‘There’s something wrong here.’

‘Apart from the horrible  murder ?’

I clicked back to where Smurf  Hat entered the scene.

‘Can you see a bat?’

‘No,’ said Lesley.‘Both his hands are visible.Maybe it’s on his back.’

I clicked forward.On the third frame the bat appeared in Smurf  Hat’s hands as if by magic, but that could just have  been  an  artefact  of the  one-second lag between frames.There was something else wrong with it too.

‘That’s much  too big to be a baseball bat,’ I said.

The  bat was at least  two-thirds  as long  as the  man who  carried  it.I  clicked  backwards   and  forwards   a few times  but I couldn’t  work out where  he was keeping it.

‘Maybe he likes to speak really softly,’ said Lesley.

‘Where do you even buy a bat that size?’

‘The Big Bat Shop?’ said Lesley.‘Bats R Us?’

‘Let’s see if we can get a look at his face,’ I said.

‘Plus Size Bats,’ said Lesley.

I ignored  her and clicked forward.The murder took less than three seconds,  three frames:  one the wind-up, two the  blow and  three  the  follow-through.The next frame  caught  Smurf  Hat  mid-turn, his  face in  three- quarter profile showing  a jutting  chin and a prominent hook nose.The frame after showed Smurf  Hat walking back  the  way he’d  come,  slower  than  the  approach, casual  as far as I could tell from  the stuttering image. The bat vanished  two frames  after the murder – again, I couldn’t see where it had gone.

I wondered if we could enhance the faces, and started looking for a graphic function I could use.

‘Idiot,’ said  Lesley.‘Murder  Team  will be  all over that.’

She was right.Connected to the footage were links to enhanced pictures of  William  Skirmish, WI TN ESS   A and the murdering gent in the smurf hat.Contrary to television, there’s an absolute limit to how good a close- up  you  can  extrapolate  from  an  old-fashioned bit  of video tape.It  doesn’t matter if it’s digital – if the infor- mation isn’t there,  it isn’t there.Still,  someone at the tech lab had  done  their  best,  and  despite  all the  faces being  blurry  it was at least obvious that all three  were different people.

‘He’s wearing a mask,’ I said.

‘Now you’re getting desperate,’  said Lesley.

‘Look at that chin and that nose,’ I said.‘Nobody has a face like that.’

Lesley pointed  to a notation attached  to the  image.

‘Looks like the  Murder  Team  agree  with  you.’ There was a list of ‘actions’ associated  with the evidence file, one  of which  was to check  local costumiers, theatres and  fancy-dress  shops  for  masks.It had  a  very low priority.

‘Aha!’ I said.‘So it might  be the same person.’

‘Who can change  their  clothes  in less than  two sec- onds?’ asked Lesley.‘Do me a favour.’

All the evidence files are linked,  so I checked  to see whether  the   Murder   Team   had   managed  to  track WI TN ESS A as he left the crime scene.They  hadn’t and, according  to the action list, finding  him  had become  a priority.I  predicted  a press  conference and  an appeal for witnesses. Police are particularly interested in talking to . . .would be the relevant phrase there.

Smurf  Hat  had been  tracked  all the way down New Row, exactly the route Nicholas had said he’d taken, but vanished  off the surveillance grid in St Martin’s  Lane. According to the ‘action’ list, half the Murder Team were currently  scouring the surrounding streets for potential witnesses and clues.

‘No,’ said Lesley, reading  my mind.

‘Nicholas .. .’

‘Nicholas the ghost,’ said Lesley.

‘Nicholas  the  corporeally  challenged,’   I  said,  ‘was right  about  the  murderer’s approach, the  method  of attack and cause of death.He was also right about  the getaway  route,  and  we  don’t  have  a  timeline where WI TN ESS A is visible at the same time as Smurf  Hat.’

‘Smurf Hat?’

‘The murder suspect,’  I said.‘I need  to take this  to the Murder  Team.’

‘What are you going to say to the SI O?’ asked Lesley.

‘I met  a ghost  and  he  said  that  WI TN ESS  A  put  on  a mask and did it?’

‘No, I’m going to say that I was approached by a potential  witness  who, despite leaving the scene before I could get his name  and address,  generated potentially interesting leads  that  may further the  successful outcome of the investigation.’

It made  Lesley pause  at least.‘And you think  that’ll get you out of the Case Progression Unit?’

‘It’s got to be worth a try,’ I said.

‘It’s not  enough,’  said  Lesley.‘One: they’re  already generating leads  over WI TN ESS  A , including the  possibility  that  he  was  wearing  a mask.Two:  you could have got all that information from the video.’

‘They won’t know I had access to the video.’

‘Peter,’ said Lesley.‘It shows  someone’s head  being knocked  off.It’s going to be all over the internet by the end  of the day, and  that’s if it’s not on the ten o’clock news.’

‘Then I’ll generate more leads,’ I said.

‘You’re going to go looking for your ghost?’

‘Want to come?’

‘No,’ said Lesley.‘Because tomorrow is the most important day of the rest of my career, and I am going to bed  early with  a cocoa and  a copy of Blackstone’s Police Investigator’s Workbook.’

‘Just as well,’ I said.‘I think you scared him away last night,  anyway.’

Equipment for ghost hunters: thermal underwear, very important; warm coat; thermos flask; patience;  ghost.

It  did  occur  to  me  quite   early  on  that  this  was possibly  the most  absurd  thing  I’d ever done.Around ten  I took up  my first  position,  sitting  at an  outdoor table of a cafe´, and  waited for the  crowds  to thin  out. Once the cafe´ closed I sauntered over to the church portico  and  waited.

It was another freezing  night,  which meant that the drunks leaving the pubs  were too cold to assault  each other.At  one  point  a  hen  party  went  past,  a  dozen women  in oversized pink t-shirts,  bunny  ears and high heels.Their pale legs were  blotchy  with  cold.One  of them  spotted  me.

‘You’d better go home,’ she called.‘He’s not coming.’ Her  mates  shrieked with  laughter.I heard  one  of them  complaining that  ‘all the  good-looking  ones  are gay’.

Which was what I was thinking when I saw the man watching me from the across the Piazza.What with the proliferation of gay pubs,  clubs  and  chat  rooms,  it is no longer necessary for the single man about town to frequent  public   toilets   and   graveyards   on  freezing nights  to meet the man  of their immediate needs.Still, some   people   like  to  risk  frostbite   on  their   nether regions  – don’t ask me why.

He  was about  one-eighty  in height  – that’s  six foot in  old money  – and  dressed  in  a beautifully  tailored suit  that  emphasised the  width  of his  shoulders and a trim  waist.I  thought early forties  with  long,  finely boned  features  and  brown  hair  cut  into  an  old-fash- ioned  side  parting.It was hard  to tell in  the  sodium light  but  I thought his  eyes were  grey.He  carried  a silver-topped   cane  and  I  knew  without   looking  that his shoes were handmade.All he needed  was a slightly ethnic  younger  boyfriend  and  I’d have had  to call the cliche´  police.

When  he  strolled  over to talk  to me  I thought he might  be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all.

‘Hello,’ he said.He had a proper  RP accent, like an English villain in a Hollywood movie.‘What are you up to?’

I thought I’d try the truth.‘I’m ghost-hunting,’ I said.

‘Interesting,’ he said.‘Any particular ghost?’

‘Nicholas Wallpenny,’ I said.

‘What’s your name  and address?’ he asked.

No Londoner ever answers  that question unchal- lenged.‘I beg your pardon?’

He reached  into his jacket and pulled out his wallet.

‘Detective  Chief  Inspector Thomas   Nightingale,’   he said, and showed me his warrant  card.

‘Constable Peter Grant,’ I said.

‘Out of Charing Cross nick?’

‘Yes sir.’

He gave me a strange  smile.

‘Carry on, Constable,’ he said, and went strolling back up James Street.

So there  I was, having  just  told  a senior  Detective Chief Inspector that I was hunting ghosts,  which, if he believed me, meant he thought I was bonkers, or if he didn’t believe me meant he thought I was cottaging and looking to perpetrate an obscene  act contrary  to public order.

And  the  ghost  that  I was looking  for had  failed  to make an appearance.

Have you ever run  away from home?  I have, on two occasions.The first time, when I was nine, I only got as far as Argos on Camden High  Street  and  the  second time, aged fourteen, I made  it all the way to Euston Station and was actually standing in front of the depart- ure boards when I stopped.On both occasions I wasn’t rescued   or  found   or  brought  back;  indeed,   when I returned home  I don’t  think  my  mum noticed  I’d gone.I know my dad didn’t.

Both adventures ended the same way – with the real- isation  that in the end, no matter what, I was going to have to go home.For my nine-year-old  self it was the knowledge  that  the  Argos store  represented the  outer limit  of my understanding of the  world.Beyond  that point was a tube station and a big building  with statues of cats and,  further on, more  roads  and  bus  journeys that  led to downstairs clubs  that  were sad and  empty and smelled  of beer.

My fourteen-year-old self was more  rational.I didn’t know  anyone  in these  cities on the  departure boards, and I doubted  they would be any more welcoming than London.I  probably didn’t even have enough money  to get me further than  Potters  Bar, and even if I did stow away for free, what was I going to eat? Realistically I had three meals’ worth of cash on me, and then it would be back home  to Mum  and  Dad.Anything I did short  of getting back on the bus and going home was merely postponing the inevitable moment of my return.

I had that same realisation in Covent Garden  at three o’clock in the morning.That same collapse of potential futures down  to a singularity, a future  that  I couldn’t escape.I  wasn’t going  to drive a fancy motor  and  say ‘you’re nicked’.I was going to work in the Case Progression  Unit and make a ‘valuable contribution’.

I stood up and started  walking back to the nick.

In the distance I thought I could hear someone laughing at me.