Bryn Celyn opened one eye and winced as the sunlight stabbed into it. Blinking rapidly, he managed to banish the dark spots dancing on the back of his retina and focus blearily on the clock next to his bed. 07:32, it told him mockingly. Was it possible for a neon display to do anything mockingly?
"Ring, ring", said the 'phone. And that definitely sounded mocking. He managed to pick it up on his third attempt.
"Oh, my", commented his editor's infuriatingly cheerful voice at the other end. "A little too much to drink last night?"
"Not a bloody drop. I was working on your rip-off puff piece series until gone 5am. I've had about two hours sleep and no coffee"
"I wouldn't call it a puff piece series", Amanda Goodwin said, still sounding provocatively happy. "Or a rip-off. More a... homage"
"The New Ingoldsby Legends? Ingoldsby was a hack. He wouldn't have recognized a genuine occult manifestation if it bit him on his ar..."
"... ticles not going well?"
"They read okay, if you're into the supermarket checkout counter end of the market"
"People at supermarket checkouts hand over money, Bryn. Your salary doesn't pay itself. Anyway, the story might just have become more than a puff piece. Turn on News 24"
Grousing malevolently, Bryn stumbled out of bed and grabbed the TV remote.
"... utter balderdash", the Mayor of London was insisting as the screen blinked on. "And I must say, I think it's in very poor taste for you to be spreading this sort of rubbish about". He glared indignantly at the camera, his blonde hair flying wildly about his head. "Even if this horrific crime does turn out to be the work of some madman who's fixated on those gruesome old stories, the last thing the police or anyone else need is for the media to start sensationalising it. Let's all reserve judgement until the police have a chance to investigate, shall we?"
The view blinked back to the news studio.
"That was Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, speaking earlier. For viewers who have just joined us, our lead story this morning is the brutal murder of a young woman in the Farringdon area of London. The young woman, who has not been named, was found with her heart ripped out in the early hours of this morning. The body was discovered in Bleeding Heart Yard, the site where legend claims..."
Bryn flicked off the remote and sank back onto the bed. He knew exactly what the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard was. A society noblewoman in the sixteenth or seventeenth century (depending on which version you believed), had sold her soul to the Devil and had been found, in the morning after one of her parties, ripped apart in the courtyard of her house, with the heart in her dismembered torso still pumping blood. But...
"It's a bloody fiction", he told Amanda Goodwin, his voice dull with shock. "It's called that because the inn that used to stand there had a sign with the bleeding heart of the Virgin Mary on it. Ingoldsby made the whole thing up!"
"Maybe the killer didn't know that", Amanda Goodwin pointed out. Her voice had lost a lot of its cheer. "In any case, since you're working on updating Ingoldsby's articles anyway..."
"Great". He cracked a yawn. "Can I get some sleep first?"
"A few hours. You'll be no use to anyone if you're dead on your feet. But don't hang around either"
He yawned again. "I won't. At least this is turning into real journalism"
"Always a silver lining". Amanda's voice was dryly ironic.
Bryn sat on a table outside the Bleeding Heart bistro, sipping a coffee and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. An excellent late lunch from the a la carte menu had left him in a mellow mood, despite the unusual number of morbid sightseers who were hanging around the place, attracted to the scene of a murder like flies to you-know-what. He'd suspected that the staff at the bistro might give him a cool reception if they'd thought he was one of them, so he'd gone for a crisp white shirt rather than his usual black, and forgone his make-up. The only unusual aspect of his ensemble was the large gold pocket-watch that he was twirling between his fingers, and that, he reflected, was a matter of practicality, not style.
He studied the reflection of the street in the brightly polished surface of the watch casing, clearing his mind and focussing his senses. Murders, especially violent murders, often created a strong emotional resonance. The odds on that happening were even higher if the killer had been something supernatural; they tended to leave their own distinct "signature" behind.
Except that he wasn't picking up a damned thing.
No, that wasn't quite true. He frowned thoughtfully at the image on the casing of the watch. He could sense swirls of horror, rage and disbelief hanging in the air like dissipating vapour trails, but there was no pain to be seen, no primal terror, and absolutely no trace of anything supernatural.
He slipped the watch back into his pocket and took another sip of coffee as he considered what that might mean, Most likely, the girl had been killed somewhere else and the body dumped here; that would explain why he could detect the emotions of the people who'd found her, but nothing from the girl herself. Which also meant, unfortunately, that any wraith she'd left behind wasn't likely to be here. Ghosts most often lingered at the place where they'd been murdered. He picked up his rucksack from the pavement beside him, pulling the Perspex skull halfway out and letting the sunlight refract through it. He allowed the sparkles to blind him and quickly looked away. Darkness closed in on his vision, and then he was looking into the Dark Umbra.
Bleeding Heart Yard was much the same in the realm of ghosts as it was in the mundane world, although the buildings were crumbling and looked Victorian rather than modern. It was also, as far as he could see, completely deserted.
Oh, well, it had been a long shot, anyway. He let the skull drop and zipped the rucksack up. He might as well just finish his coffee and go. Bleeding Heart Yard looked like a dead end. There was nothing left to indicate that a murder had ever taken place here.
He froze with the cup halfway to his lips. Yes, that was exactly what it looked like, wasn't it? As though a murder had never taken place. Except that that was absurd. Dozens of people had seen the body. The police had announced an investigation and appealed for witnesses. On the BBC News! Yes, it was completely absurd.
And yet, the thought refused to leave him as he finished his coffee and paid the bill. Sod it, he thought to himself. It couldn't hurt to look could it?
He stopped near the epicentre of the emotional storm he'd sensed. That, presumably, was where the body had been found. He pulled his monocle out of his pocket and set it into his eye before making a show of taking his shoe off and shaking out an imaginary stone, before pretending to lose his balance and half-falling to the ground. His palm pressed flat against the ground as he drew on his magic, reaching out with his senses to analyse what he was touching.
Asphalt. Aside from a few trace pollutants, that was it. In a place where a mutilated body had supposedly lain, there was no trace of blood, nor even any sign of anything that might have been used to clean away traces of blood.
As though a murder had never taken place...
A doctor's outfit was surprisingly easy to fake, Bryn mused to himself. All it took was a white coat, dark trousers, and black shoes. In an age of desktop publishing, getting an NHS ID badge wasn't much of a problem, either, unless someone looked too closely. And if someone did look too closely
well, that was what the gold watch was for. The Order of Hermes got really snooty when the Hollow Ones called that spell "I'm Not The Droid You're Looking For" rather than "Projective Emotional Induction" or whatever bullshit label they liked to stick on it, but really, what did it matter? The spell worked, that was the important thing.
Unfortunately, the drawback of pretending that he belonged in this damn' hospital was that he couldn't ask anyone for directions. He'd just have to find the morgue through trial, error, and a process of elimination. Or a sign that said "morgue", but they were diplomatic enough not to show those in the public areas, worse luck.
The lower floors seemed like the best place to start looking. He glanced around - good, at least the stairs were signposted - and headed through the crowd towards them.
He still didn't know what to think. A dead body didn't just vanish without trace, and there was no trace left at the place where it had supposedly been found. Something supernatural was going on, but he didn't know what. A mass hallucination, perhaps? Could everyone who'd found that body have been the victim of some kind of illusion?
He was still trying to think of alternative explanations when he reached the bottom of the stairs. Magic could certainly have removed all evidence of the presence of a body, but why would anyone bother? Everyone with a TV knew that the body had been found there.
The lowest level was stark, cold, white and clinical. Bryn looked around, and finally, there was a sign pointing to what he wanted. MORGUE
"I wouldn't, if I were you"
"Bloody hell!" He whirled around and glared. "You frightened the life out of me!"
"No I didn't. Trust me, if I want to drive the life out of someone, I don't bother frightening him first. Especially not if he's a Mage". The voice was almost cheerful, despite the menacing words.
His heart still pounding, Bryn stared at the speaker. He didn't look particularly threatening. Less than five and a half feet tall, his body was stocky, but not fat. An unruly mop of black curls framed his slightly rounded face, and his eyes were an unremarkable muddy brown. He was dressed in a plain grey hoodie and sweatpants, and his feet were crammed into grubby sneakers, without any socks. He looked a few years younger than Bryn himself, maybe nineteen or twenty, but he had the assured air of someone far older - or at least, far more experienced.
Bryn took a deep breath. "Who are you?"
"Always the same inane questions". The stranger paused, looking at Bryn expectantly. "Oh, come on! You must have got that"
A little incredulously, Bryn took out the watch and turned it, studying the stranger's reflection. His aura had bright flashes in it, almost like a mage, but for the most part, it was pale and washed out. Damn.
"Vampire". It took another second before the rest of it registered. "A vampire Twilight fan?"
The vampire waved his hand dismissively. "Sort of. Twilight's rapidly turning pop-culture vampires into a laughing stock. That has to be a good thing, from our point of view. It doesn't suit us to have too many people taking us seriously".
"Right". Before he could stop himself, Bryn added, "Your aura actually does kind of sparkle, though". Oh, crap. Had he really just said that?
The stranger threw back his head and laughed. "So people tell me". He sobered. "Oh, I didn't answer your question, did I? Mostly, I just go by "Doc", these days" His accent was mostly Estuary English, but every now and then, Bryn could hear a trace of Welsh.
"I've gone by "Bryn" my whole life, which might be a shorter time than the "these days" that you've been calling yourself Doc".
"Might well be", Doc agreed.
"So". Bryn made an effort to pull himself together. "You said I shouldn't. Shouldn't what?"
"Since you made an "ah-ha" face when you saw the morgue sign, and started walking that way, I'm guessing the morgue was your next stop. Not a good idea"
"One, the police are swarming all over the morgue, and two, they just lost the body of the Bleeding Heart murder victim. Someone's bollocks are going to end up on a platter for that. And if you turn up with a fake ID...", Doc waved his hand at Bryn's badge, "Doctor Frank N Stein, by the way? What were you thinking? Anyway, if you turn up with a fake ID just as they're looking for a scapegoat, you'll be the one who gets eunuched"
"They lost the body?" Bryn felt something click in his mind. Watson, the game's afoot... "When did that happen?"
"No idea. Quite recently, I assume, given that the shouting and screaming was still going on a few minutes ago. You don't seem very surprised". Doc cocked his head in an oddly dog-like gesture. Or perhaps, wolf-like, Bryn thought to himself. Vampires were supposed to be able to turn into wolves, weren't they? "Excited, I'd say. But not surprised".
"I'm not. I checked out the place where they found the body today. There wasn't any trace of it, and I was using magic to look. No ordinary clean up could have removed every sign that magic can detect, not this quickly. So I'm starting to think that the missing body never existed in the first place"
Doc looked genuinely interested. "Are you suggesting that it was some kind of hallucination? Affecting all those people at once? And all the people who handled the body when it arrived here?"
"It does seem pretty far-fetched, when you put it like that, but it's one theory that makes a kind of sense. Another one is that the body was some kind of fake that just..." Bryn gestured vaguely, "Pffffffft"
"Well, well. That's a strange idea. It's certainly not what I was expecting to find"
"Oh? So what were you expecting to find?" Bryn's lips curled into an evil grin. Always the same inane questions, huh? "What do you want? Why are you doing this?"
Doc uttered a brief snort of laughter. "Touché. I don't have good answers to those questions. I get hunches sometimes. Experience has taught me that it's a good idea to play them. I had a hunch that the Bleeding Heart Yard business might be important somehow, so I came here to see what I could learn. And then I saw you creeping about. Apparently I was right about this being important, if Mages are taking an interest"
"So far, just one Mage, and I don't have a clue if it's important or not. All I know for sure, right now, is that it's weird"
"I can't argue with that". Doc looked thoughtful. "Would you like to join forces?"
Bryn blinked. "Are you serious?"
"You want to know what's happening, I want to know what's happening, and we can each do things the other one can't. Why not?"
"I'm suggesting a joint investigation, not proposing marriage"
"Trust issues still apply"
"I've given you one show of good faith by warning you not to wander in to the morgue"
"Assuming you're telling the truth. For all I know, you're stalling me here while your fellow vampires steal the body themselves". Now that he'd said it, Bryn felt like a fool for not thinking of it earlier.
Doc shrugged, waving his hand in the direction of the morgue. "Don't say I didn't warn you, then"
Bryn snorted. "If I don't want to walk in on pissed-off coppers, I certainly don't want to walk in on body-snatching vampires. I'm staying here, thank you"
"Smart guy. Okay, what'll it take to convince you that I'm being honest with you?"
Bryn actually thought about it. "I honestly don't know. For all I know, you've been around for hundreds of years. With that experience, you could probably think of a way to fake any proof of your good intentions that I asked you for"
"Fair enough". Doc strolled casually towards the stairway entrance. Bryn took an instinctive pace back, and the vampire laughed. "Jumpy! Not that that's a bad thing when you're around Kindred, mind you". He smiled, flashing very white teeth. All the better to eat you with, my dear. "You needn't worry about me, though. To coin a phrase, I won't bite. Are you coming?"
"No, just breathing hard. And that's from fear"
Doc snickered. "I think I like you, kid". He pushed the door open. "I expect we'll meet again". He disappeared through it before Bryn had a chance to reply.
On the screen of the battered laptop, two identical faces stared out at Bryn. The one on the left was an eighteenth-century portrait, presently in the vaults of the National Gallery. The one on the right was a grainy black-and-white photo taken from yesterday's edition of the Sun.
Bryn tapped a fingernail against the desk as he re-read the Sun article. Samuel Farrell, well-known nightclub owner, blah, blah, latest victim of the Bleeding Heart Murderer found at Crimson, one of London's hottest night spots, blah, blah... his eyes returned to the National Gallery portrait, where another Samuel Farrell gazed back at him from across the centuries.
In retrospect, he was surprised that it had taken him so long to make the vampire connection. His meeting with Doc, back on that first night, should have clued him in.
The Bleeding Heart Murderer, as the media had dubbed him, had struck five times over the past couple of weeks. The victims had all been young, dark-haired women who the police had been unable to identify. That much of the story was known to anyone who bothered to open a newspaper or even watch TV. The city was in the grip of a climate of fear comparable to the Ripper murders, and its usually frenetic nightlife had slowed down considerably.
What wasn't widely known - the police having clamped down ferociously on any potential leaks - was that the bodies kept disappearing, no matter how closely they were guarded. The Met would be wondering if the entire thing were an elaborate hoax by now, except that several different detectives and pathologists had managed to examine the corpses before they vanished. All had agreed that they were the genuine articles. Bryn had pieced that together from several intensive - and headache-inducing - sessions of low-level telepathy at police press conferences. He wasn't skilled enough in the Mind Sphere to pick out more than surface thoughts, but luckily, the officers giving the briefings had had the inexplicable mystery at the forefront of their minds.
Three of the bodies had been found near nightclubs, but one had turned up on the steps of a house in Mayfair, and the other had been lying at the front gates of a used-car business in Peckham, of all places. The police hadn't been able to find a pattern.
The police, at least, had an excuse; they didn't know that vampires were real. Bryn did, and he hadn't worked it out until he'd tried running various keyword searches on the laptop's extensive but haphazard index of documents. The Farrell portrait had long since been consigned to the National Gallery's storerooms - the result, Bryn suspected, of Kindred manipulation. They wouldn't want to risk anyone who visited the collection noticing that a modern-day nightclub owner had the same name and face as someone who'd supposedly been dead for two centuries.
Fortunately, the laptop had a scan of it, from a photo in the diary of a nameless 1920s monster hunter. Once again, he felt a stab of regret for the knowledge that had gone up in flames when his Chantry's library had burned. Much of it still survived in the laptop in digital form, but the scanning project had been woefully incomplete when the books were destroyed by the fire..
With Farrell as a starting point, he'd done some cautious investigation and found that the present-day owner of the house in Mayfair had the same signature as the original one - even though the house had been built in 1724. The owner of the used-car lot in Peckham was harder to pin down, but after several long, intensely boring trawls through the newspaper archives, Bryn had found a grainy newspaper photo of him working on a clean-up crew during the Blitz.
So, the bodies were showing up near homes and businesses owned by Kindred. Someone was trying to draw mortal attention to the vampires, leaving gruesome calling cards that said "Hey! Something dodgy here! Take a closer look!"
The Kindred must be going nuts. Something like this would make them pull out all the stops, and after two weeks, they didn't seem to be getting anywhere. That was worrying. Whatever else you could say about vampires, they were frighteningly effective when they wanted to be.
On the other hand, a Mage - even an inexperienced Mage - had resources that a vampire didn't. Decisively, Bryn powered down the laptop and snapped the casing shut. Time to call in a favour.
Marble Arch is a famous London landmark, originally situated in front of Buckingham Palace. Modelled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, it now sits incongruously in the middle of a traffic island.
For aficionados of London history, it has one other claim to fame. It stands fairly close to the former site of the notorious Tyburn gallows, London's most infamous place of public execution.
It was that dubious distinction which had drawn Bryn here tonight. He lifted his Perspex skull to catch the orange light of a street lamp, feeling a bizarre urge to declaim "Alas, poor Yorrick".
Instead, he began a whispered invocation. "Jack Sheppard, I call and invoke thee. I implore thee and charge thee to appear before me and speak unto me".
He waited a second and then repeated the chant. On the third repetition, he was interrupted.
"Thee? Thou? You sound a right wanker"
Bryn jerked his head around, staring through the after-images that the refracted street lighting had left on his retina into the Dark Umbra. He stuffed the skull back into his rucksack and flipped his 'phone open. He didn't dial. The 'phone was for the benefit of any passers-by who might otherwise wonder why he was talking to himself.
"Yeah, but if I'd just said "Could I have a word, Jack?", you might not have felt the urge to show up and tell me what a right wanker I sounded"
Jack Sheppard laughed. "Okay, you've got me there". He strolled out from behind Marble Arch. A small, slim, round-faced figure with tousled fair hair, he'd been of the most notorious thieves of his day, and something of a folk hero. His legend had enjoyed a revival recently when the BBC had dramatised his life in a major Saturday night production, Sheppard.
Bryn had been a consultant on that show, thanks to some strings that Amanda Goodwin had pulled for him. Sheppard was a relatively old wraith, and quite powerful, but he had enemies. In death, as in life, he was a Renegade, an outlaw. The power he'd drawn from his increased notoriety had bought him a valuable measure of security. And that, Bryn reckoned, meant that Sheppard owed him a favour or two
"So", Sheppard said conversationally, "You wanted to talk?" His long, black coat flapped around him as he walked across the Bryn. A diamond ring glinted on one of his fingers. From the research he'd done, Bryn knew that they were the clothes that Sheppard been wearing when he was arrested for the last time - although he'd dispensed with the periwig in deference to the sensibilities of the modern era. Sheppard was surprisingly in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist for a wraith who'd been dead for as long as he had.
"Yes. You'd heard about the Bleeding Heart murders?"
Sheppard snorted, amused. "Not you as well!"
Bryn frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Doc was asking me the same thing not two nights ago"
"Doc? Kindred, short, dark hair, little bit of a Welsh accent? You know him?" Bryn blinked. "Just a minute, he can see you? Talk to you?"
"That's him. And yeah, he can. Weird, isn't it? His kind usually can't. But I've known him practically since the day I died. He's an okay bloke, for a bloodsucker".
Bryn frowned. "Usually can't? Do you know any others who can?"
"Nope. I've heard stories, mind, but I've never met one"
"I suppose that's a bit reassuring". Bryn took a breath. "OK, So, Doc asked you about the murders. What did you tell him?"
"Same thing that I'm going to tell you. There haven't been any murdered girls showing up as wraiths - that I know of - but there's a new gang of Renegades in town. Odd bunch, keep to themselves for the most part, with some far-out ideas for body modification and - so the rumour mill says - an unhealthy interest in vampires. They've been haunting the nightclub circuit for about a month now. It'd be an odd coincidence if they weren't involved somehow, but if they're behind the killing spree, I don't know how they're hiding it. That kind of terror and death leaves traces, and we haven't spotted any"
"That's not the only thing that's missing. The bodies are disappearing. Could a wraith somehow do that?"
Sheppard looked startled. "What do you mean, disappearing?"
Bryn shrugged. "Vanishing out of the morgue. Now you see them, now you don't"
Slowly, Sheppard asked, "These girls who are supposed to be getting murdered - can you describe them?"
"Not all that clearly. They're all young, pretty, and dark-haired, but apart from that... why the hell are you laughing?"
Sheppard tried to speak, but couldn't. He wheezed and howled with mirth, flapping his arms helplessly. Bryn rolled his eyes, waiting with all the patience he could muster until the wraith subsided.
"Don't you get it yet? The reason why the bodies are disappearing?"
"No, but you obviously do"
"I reckon so. How about a hint? These new Renegades I was telling you about? They're all young, dark-haired girls"
Bryn felt his cheeks grow hot. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But he hadn't realized that wraiths could manifest physically the way that other spirits could. "The dead bodies..."
"... are this new Renegade gang, right. They're manifesting as dead bodies and then skipping back across the Shroud once the coppers have had a chance to poke and prod them". Sheppard chortled. "It's brilliant! I wonder what the vamps did to them to piss them off so much?"
"Three guesses", Bryn said sourly.
Sheppard sobered a little. "Getting revenge on their killers?"
"Or killer? Serial killers often go after one specific type of victim. Maybe there's a Kindred preying on girls with dark hair". Bryn got a sinking feeling in his stomach. "But for so many of the victims to become wraiths,the way he's killing them must be pretty traumatic"
The mirth faded from Sheppard's face. "I could ask around, if you like"
Bryn considered for a moment. "It might be a bit premature to spook them, until we know more"
The wraith snickered. "Spook them?"
"Oh, shut up, you know what I meant. You said that Doc was an okay bloke? You think he might help?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Maybe. He keeps himself to himself, and I don't think he likes the other bloodsuckers much. They don't like him much, either. I don't know if he'd actually sell another one out to you, even a serial killer, but at worst, I don't think he'd rip your throat out for asking".
"Do I get my money back if you're wrong?", Bryn asked wryly
"You know better than that, mate. You pays your money and you takes your choice"
"Ain't that the truth. You know where I can find him?"
"If I were you, I'd start under Waterloo Bridge. He hangs out with the homeless there. He's like a kind of beggar King"
"The homeless? If he's an old Kindred, why isn't he rich?"
"For all I know, he is. Old Kindred get a bit funny in the head sometimes. Old wraiths, too", Sheppard added reflectively. "Maybe he just doesn't mind his food being smelly as long as there's a lot of it around and nobody'll care if it goes missing. Although come to think of it, I've never known him kill any of them. Or anyone else. Every now and them he makes an example of some bugger who tries to victimise them, but even then, he leaves the sods alive. Not that that's always a mercy, for the worst of them"
It crossed Bryn's mind that visiting the underside of Waterloo Bridge, alone and at 2am, while dressed in an expensive-looking coat and trainers, wasn't especially smart.
Unfortunately, the reason it crossed his mind was that he was visiting the underside of Waterloo Bridge, alone, at 2am, while dressed in an expensive-looking coat and trainers, and he was being stalked. Three skinheads, reeking of stale cigarette smoke and cheap beer even at a distance of three yards, had detached themselves from the shadows as he walked up to the bridge, and now they were fanning out to flank him.
Sod it. He cursed himself for his stupidity as he tried to figure out what to do next. His Chantry had had all sorts of defences against supernatural assault, and it had burned to the ground thanks to faulty wiring rigged up by a dodgy electrician in the pay of a cheap local gangster. That experience should have taught him something about getting fixated on supernatural threats and ignoring mundane ones. And yet he'd just walked into this, his mind filled with wraiths and vampires, totally oblivious to the ordinary dangers that prowled London's streets.
And now he was trapped.