This is chapter 6 of my on-going weekly fantasy/sci-fi/crime serial Tales from the Triverse. Update: this chapter is now out of early access and available for everyone to read!
If you’re new you can jump to the beginning here:
If you missed last week’s chapter, here it is:
Previously: After the body of a dead aen’fa girl shows up on the bank of the Thames, the case is assigned to DC Nisha Chakraborty and DC Zoltan Kaminski of Specialist Dimensional Command. However, DC Yannick Clarke suspects the body may belong to a missing person he was attempting to track with his former partner, the late John Callihan, and can’t resist jumping on the investigation behind the backs of his colleagues. All signs point to Soho…
Supposedly off duty: DC Yannick Clarke and DC Lola Styles
There was no police car to take as they weren’t officially on duty. This was Chakraborty and Kaminski’s case, and Holland and Hobb were on the night shift, so a small electric thrill went up Lola’s spine as she walked across the street from the office with Clarke and hopped onto a passing tram. It would take them across the river to Soho, somewhere she’d patrolled back when she was still in uniform. Mixed memories: go to the right street and it was a thrilling, vibrant cultural cauldron; take a wrong turning and you might never find your way out.
“Her name was Laryssa,” Clarke said. “We had the description, that she was missing, and the name. That was it. Didn’t have a location, or a job. The girl that reported her missing, Shona, had a change of heart after reporting it. Decided she wanted nothing to do with it all.”
“Maybe she was scared,” Lola said. She pulled her small notebook from her jacket and flipped it open. Clarke, standing holding the overhead rail beside her, looked over her shoulder.
“Your handwriting is terrible.”
“Oh, I have a shorthand,” she said, smiling sheepishly, “it’s quicker for me to write and also stops other people from snooping.” She glanced at him. “Present company excluded.”
Before they’d left the office she’d sketched down as much as she could from the evidence board, focusing on the detritus that had accumulated about and been retrieved from the girl’s body.
“Read some to me, then,” Clarke said. His knuckles were white where he held the rail.
The rocking of the tram as it crossed streets and changed tracks towards Dover Bridge and the river made reading her notes difficult. The tram was packed with jostling revellers, on their way from businesses around the portal station to the various entertainments on offer north of the river. Night was descending onto the city. She wondered which of them would be taking advantage of others, or being taken advantage of themselves by the end of the night.
“We’ve got the chain brand, of course. Then there was cargo netting wrapped around her arm, with ‘Barrindon’ printed on it.”
“That’s a shipping company, they’ve got a warehouse not far from here on the south bank. Handle a lot of cargo in and out of the portal station. So she was likely dumped in the river at least upriver from there, and I’ll happily bet it was from the north side.”
“If you think she was working somewhere in Soho, then they’ll have had to bring the body down the Barrel. Any other route would have been too risky.”
The Barrel: the maze of narrow streets snaking from the soft southern edge of Soho to the Strand. An entire area of London that effectively operated its own municipality, free from regulation or oversight. The police steered clear, happy as long as various trades stayed within the unofficial borders. Lola always found it hard to believe that the eastern end of the Strand had ever been anything other than rotten.
Clarke nodded. The noise of the tram’s wheels clacking muffled their voices such that nobody more than a foot away would be able to hear what they were saying. “We’re making a lot of assumptions, but given the brand we can assume her profession. Because she was found in the river she probably worked to the south of the area. Too far the north and they’d have disposed of the body some other way, somewhere else.”
“That leaves us with a really big area to cover, still,” Lola sighed. “And I’ll be pretty conspicuous in a lot of those venues.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Clarke said. “She was aen’fa. Not every establishment serves up her kind. Palinese specialists are pretty rare - at least, when it’s the real deal and not someone with stuck-on pointy ears.”
Lola grimaced. “Her kind? She was a real person, you know.”
“And now she’s a real dead person, and it’s up to us to find out what happened.” Clarke gave her an unexpectedly sympathetic look. “Don’t get emotional, they’ll sniff a cop before you even walk in the door.”
The city at night was when all the scum floated to the surface. The junkies and the whores and the dealers. The bankers coming out from their offices, leeching off the rest of them. All the crooked parts of London. It reminded Clarke of the decades he’d put into the job, all those wasted years trying to clean up a place that wanted to stay dirty. There was always more filth. When he was younger he’d seen himself as a righteous rain, washing away the worst of it. Each morning the city would be a little brighter, a little safer. That was an illusion he’d given up a long time ago, though Callihan had almost tricked him into believing it again.
Almost. Then he’d had his head taken off by a dragon from another dimension. Clarke sometimes wondered at how simple life must have been before the Joining, before those damned portals opened up.
Callihan had seen even Soho in a different light; to him it had been all of the bad, but also a crucible from where new ideas emerged, new ways of living and being. He always used to play tapes of music that made Clarke’s ears bleed, but Callihan insisted it would be the next big thing.
Clarke and Styles had split up, unable to square the circle that was a man in his mid-50s walking into bars with a twenty-something. There was only really one explanation and neither of them had much enthusiasm for it; plus, it wouldn’t have helped to strike up conversation if he already had someone in tow. So they’d gone their separate ways, Styles presenting herself as the assistant of a high-powered executive looking to arrange a particular kind of party and Clarke as a washed-up old man. It wasn’t much of a stretch for him.
He’d already been to four likely establishments, Styles another three, drawing a blank on each. They were into the hour of the wolf, that indistinct point between night and far-too-early morning. Now deeper into the warren of streets that made up the city-within-a-city, he was headed towards another potential club. Its neon signs flickered brightly, casting garish reds and purples and blues against the surrounding buildings. It called itself The Palinor Express and the façade of the building was adorned with an absurd, illuminated illustration of a jungle that was intended to represent somewhere more exotic than the streets of London. The spray-painted picture was as high as the first floor windows and featured all sorts of creatures, some of which might even be real. A hulking, beast-like koth was depicted, carrying a scantily-clad human woman. Clarke shuddered involuntarily, despite the crude rendering.
The bouncers on the door sized him up. “What are you looking for, grandpa?”
Clarke looked at them both with uncensored disdain. “Is this place genuine? Real Palinese, none of the usual costume bullshit?”
The larger of the bouncers grinned. “Oh yeah, they got it all in there. Long as you fulfil your end of the bargain.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly and Clarke pulled a handful of notes from his wallet, already wincing at the idea of trying to claim it back from Robin by the end of the month. It wasn’t the kind of place that produced receipts.
The doors swung open and he was admitted into the interior, pushing through deep, heavy curtains with only dim floor lights to guide him, until he reached the club proper. A polished wooden bar was the centre of the club, with tables and stages spun off from it in all directions. It was a large space, Clarke calculating that it must have been knocked through into the adjacent buildings. The space was filled with overflowing ferns and palm trees, most fake. Darkened booths were dotted around the edges of the room, each occupied by silhouettes of gyrating bodies.
A girl came up to him, probably about the same age as Styles, barely dressed in tiny skirt and what amounted to barely more than a bra. “Welcome to Palinor, hero,” she said. “You’ve embarked upon the adventure of your life, or at least of this night. Booth, table or bar?”
“Table,” he said, glancing at one of the podium tables. A dancer wrapped themselves around a pole installed through the centre of the table, the customers sat around its edge busy playing cards, or drinking, or throwing money at the show. “That one.”
He was led over and shown to a seat. The host handed him a folded piece of card. “Here is our menu, sir. I’ll be back to take your order.” He glanced at it: listings of services and storylines. He could be a knight rescuing a princess from an enraged koth. On the back were drinks. His attention was drawn to the dancer, and he was close enough to see that she was a real aen’fa, not a cheap body-paint knock-off like in the previous place. She was naked except for lace-like underwear which may as well have not been there. Seeing the new arrival, she bent down to greet him, her hair brushing his face. Her skin was turquoise, with flecks of iridescent green running down the sides of her face, her neck, over her chest and arms, like glow-in-the-dark freckles. Smiling, she turned away, her body twisting lithely, and that was when he saw it: a dark mark at the based of her spine, clearly visible above the line of her underwear, depicting two connected chain links.
The White Horse was a pub within walking distance of the SDC offices. It was the unofficial cop bar, watering not only the SDC but two of the local police stations as well. The sign hanging above the entrance depicted a white horse rearing up, though somebody had added a unicorn’s horn to the top of its head.
“Two more!” Nisha said to the bartender, shouting despite the pub being largely empty other than the two of them and a few randoms.
“Getting them in tonight, Chakraborty,” he said, pulling another couple of beers.
“It’s been a bad year.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“I’ll talk to my beer,” she said, not ungratefully. Paul was gruff but kind, the kind of bartender that knew the name of everyone who came into his establishment.
She carried the pints over to the table where Zoltan was finishing the dregs of his previous. He pushed the empty aside and drew the new one close. “I should get home soon,” he said. A crumpled cigarette smouldered in the ashtray. “They might be waiting up for me.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” Nisha said. She was more than happy not to return to her crappy one-room apartment. It had reached the point where even she was appalled at the state of it, but it was too far gone to be easily fixed. She’d need to take a week’s leave just to collect and clear out all the takeaway cartons. The sticky beer mats and pool table of The White Horse were an infinitely preferable way to spend her evening, at least until Paul chucked her out.
Work. Pub. Pass out. Work. Repeat. Slot in another pub whenever possible.
Zoltan looked at the head on his beer, like a builder checking a spirit level. “Don’t have a choice. When you don’t have a choice, it makes it easy. Well, not easy. But you can’t not do it. Like having a kid.”
“Well, my parents don’t approve and I don’t have any kids, so that keeps things nice and simple for me.”
Images of John Callihan played over in her mind, unbidden. Of him at his desk, or gesticulating animatedly at the board in the office. His laugh in the pub, the curve of his shoulders as they lay together on the mattress back at hers, knowing that they were making a mistake, again, but unable to stop. The investigation into what had happened had been assigned to another department, taken out of the squad, despite it being evidently portal-related. They had been deemed too close to work the case effectively. At least that meant there hadn’t been photos of his body up on the wall.
Unlike the aen’fa girl. “You ever wonder what the point of it all is?” she asked.
“Here we go,” Zoltan said, his accent coming through more strongly as it tended to when he was making a point. “I don’t, because there is no point.”
“We have portals to a world where there is actual magic. Floating cities. Creatures like something out of ancient myths. Or there’s the portal to Max-Earth, which is essentially our world but with all the shit extracted and jumped six hundred years into the future. Spaceships, colonies on other planets.”
“I know all this, Chakraborty.”
“And here we are,” she waved a hand vaguely at the inside of the pub, “doing the same old shit, clearing up after bad people, instead of being princesses or wizards or knights or whatever the fuck.”
“Luck of the draw. We were born on Mid-Earth. We’re middlers. In the middle. Average. Mediocre. Whatever.” He raised his glass proudly, as if making a toast. “Even if those portals had never opened up, there’d always be people like us doing what we do, and people like them doing what they do. The people on top rise up out of the muck by standing on the backs of everyone else.”
She took a swig, nearly spilling it down her front. “OK, but what about people like our aen’fa girl? What, she grows up in an amazing fantasy land and then chooses to come to London? In what universe does that make any sense?”
“You sound like DI Ford,” Zoltan said, laughing. His laughter was always loud, his mouth big and wide. Some people hid laughter behind an embarrassed hand: Zoltan beamed it to everyone nearby, not because he was a happy guy but because he wanted to be clear that he didn’t take the universe - any of them - seriously.
“That aen’fa. Comes over here, gets herself into trouble, winds up in the river. Then we have to clear up the mess.”
He tapped the table twice with two fingers. “Keeps us in employment.”
Styles had arrived half an hour later, taking a seat at the bar. Taking his wine glass, Clarke had extricated himself from the table with the dancer and made his way over to the seat next to her. Entering the establishment together would never have worked, but a leery old man choosing to sit next to an attractive, young woman? That made sense.
“Buy you a drink?” he asked, putting an arm around her shoulder.
She slapped his hand away. “Whatever you’re having. Any luck?”
He signalled for the barmaid to pour another two. “This might be the place. The dancer at the middle table has the same brand, in the same place.”
Glancing over her shoulder, Styles nodded. “You must have got a good look.”
“Yeah, yeah.” There was a time when he’d have treated being there as a perk of the job; now all he could think of was finding something useful and getting out.
“This Shona,” Styles was saying, “was she a dancer, a prostitute or bar staff?”
“No idea, John was the one she spoke to. The name, though, sounds human to me, and local. And this place specialises in Palinese exotics for the main events.”
“You know, aen’fa. They’ve probably got a few sedated koth backstage somewhere.”
“I knew what you meant, Clarke,” Style said, a little snippy. He already liked that about her: she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and wasn’t dancing around on tip-toes to please him. It should have annoyed him but he found it somehow endearing.
“So now what? She only ever spoke to John, and that didn’t last. She never gave us anything useful and refused to let us follow up.”
“Interesting,” Styles said. “Sounds like she was probably scared.”
“Talking to police does that to people who are breaking the law.”
“Sure it was because you were police?”
The barmaid came over with two glasses. She first positioned two paper napkins, then placed the glasses on top. “Enjoy,” she said, “and if you need a room, or additional company, just ask.”
“Do you know Shona?” Styles came out and asked the question straight up. Clarke looked sideways at her, eyebrows raised.
The barmaid’s face paled and she glanced behind her. “Who is asking?”
“I am. Lola Styles. I’m investigating the disappearance of Laryssa. A body has been found.”
Clarke could see Styles’ words percolating through the barmaid’s brain. This could go two ways: One, she denies all knowledge, which might even be true. Two, she calls the bouncers over and chucks them both out, painfully, and the entire place goes into lockdown with all traces of salacious activity scrubbed from the premises.
“Come with me,” the barmaid said, abruptly turning and leading them along the bar, then across the room towards one of the many doors leading off from the main area. “These two are looking for somewhere private,” she said to the burly man standing guard. He glanced at Styles, his eyes roving over her, then grinned in Clarke’s direction and opened the door.
They followed the barmaid down the black-walled corridor, lined with featureless doors on both sides. There were no windows or other adornments, only bare neon strips hung overhead. Clarke wondered if they were going to leave this place with all their bonus unbroken. Unlocking one of the doors, she ushered them into a small, boxy room containing a bed, a small sink and a tall mirror. A shelf above the head of the bed displayed a selection of sex toys, clearly intended to be representative of a wide variety of triverse species, made in a rainbow of colours and all manner of materials from rubber to various plastics and what appeared to be porcelain and polished wood. A pink-coloured bulb glowed overhead. The room smelled of people. The barmaid closed the door carefully, waited a moment, then turned to face them.
“Who are you? Exactly?”
“I’m Detective Constable Yannick Clarke.” No point in talking obliquely now. He pulled his badge from inside his jacket and showed her. “I was investigating the disappearance of an aen’fa called Laryssa with my partner, DC John Callihan. He’s no longer on the case.”
Styles extended her hand, and the barmaid looked at it suspiciously. “I’m DC Lola Styles. DC Clarke’s new partner. This is no longer a missing person investigation. A body has been found. I’m very sorry.”
The barmaid sat own heavily on the end of the bed, which creaked as she did so. “How do you know it’s her?”
“The body matches your given description,” Styles said. “Did Laryssa have a chain mark at the base of her spine?”
Nodding, the barmaid put her head in her hands, her elbows propped on her knees. “God,” she said, quietly.
“I take it you’re Shona, then?” Clarke felt the smallness of the room, the blackness of the corridor outside, the warren that was the alleyways beyond. It felt too easy, too convenient. But then, some things were. “You’d have saved us a lot of trouble if you’d kept in touch.”
Her eyes snapped up to meet his. “Calling the police in the first place could have got me killed. Talking to your partner was a mistake. You being here is dangerous for me.”
“Tell us what you know and we can protect you,” Clarke said. He almost meant what he said. He wondered how John would have handled this.
“I’ve got five minutes before they start wondering why I’m not back. I’ll tell you everything, but you have to promise to help me. If you don’t get me out of here, they’ll kill me too.”
Thank you for reading! This is the first chapter that is only available to paid subscribers: thank you for being one of them. The book is also serialising on the major social reading platforms (eg Wattpad), but anyone reading on this newsletter will always be a whole month ahead. Plus the occasional Wednesday bonus content is only available here.
Let me know what you think of the story so far - either this case or the general on-going story of the SDC squad.
Simon K Jones