Humberside City, nestled in the north of Britain, is on fire, and it has taken a few weeks for anyone to really notice. The fire brigade have been doing their best, as have the other emergency services, but whoever is behind the fires has been systematically running them ragged. Whitehall is worried. Something doesn’t add up, so they’ve dispatched a warlock – a former illegal mage, pressed into service of the government to deal with matters of the arcane – to look things over.
Jameson Parker is that warlock, and he’s pretty okay with that. His freedoms might be heavily restricted, and any unauthorised use of magic means he’ll be struck down dead instantly, but it could be worse. He gets more or less free rein to swan around Humberside like the big I am, and it gives him a way to atone for his less than stellar past. He’s better off without magic, and he knows it.
But is magic better off without him? The warlocks of Humberside don’t seem to think so, and there are rumbling that, as well as the fires, something big is about to go down. Jameson is not best pleased.
Below is the first chapter.
I was drinking whiskey. As drinks go, the stuff tastes like engine lubricant, but I wasn’t drinking it for the taste. The important thing about it was that she couldn’t stand the smell. An odd sort of memorial, I suppose, but then she’d always enjoyed my sense of humour. Besides, it’s a good thing to drink in front of a roaring fire.
The fire station had been on fire when I arrived, but it hadn’t truly gone up until about five minutes after I had perched myself on the bonnet of my car. From glowing windows to a flaming tower, it was quite a soothing sight. There’s something dangerously hypnotic about a lot of flames. Or maybe that’s just me.
I was getting closer. This was the fifteenth building the mystery arsonist had hit, and the first that I had managed to reach in time to catch the main showing. Most of the time I managed to arrive at a blackened husk of a building, smoke spirals and sobbing families being the best entertainment on offer by that point. But I’d gotten a handle on his pattern now, sussed out his signature. I was gaining ground.
I took another sip from my glass and scowled. The distant sirens of the fire brigade were just creeping into earshot now, speeding hell-for-leather on their way back from whatever wild goose chase the arsonist had sent them on. They hadn’t been gone long, I’d put money on that, but a pissed off wizard didn’t need long. Better they not have to deal with something they couldn’t comprehend, anyway. Trying to explain to a layman that the fire they were chasing was an evocation at the beckon call of some shadowy bastard-wizard would have been too much effort, and great pains had been taken to keep it that way.
With the last fourteen places, I hadn’t been willing to say one way or the other whether magic had been involved. Fire is a bastard when it comes to forensic techniques in the material realm, but it’s ten times worse in the arcane. It eats magic, carves through it like it isn’t even there, and that means any trace magic left by the arsonist tends to go up in smoke quite literally. But I’d made it to this one before that had happened. There wasn’t much, nothing I could particularly use, but there was something there, and that was enough to confirm my suspicions.
My phone buzzed in my pocket and I whipped it out and flipped it open. Flip phones may be old-hat now, but they’re still cool. ‘Hello, dear.’
‘Tell me you’ve got something this time, Parker.’ The voice was a silky southern accent, echoes of Oxbridge and a spoiled childhood, and young. Charlie had sounded young five years ago, when she had first started doling out instructions to me via telephone, and her voice hadn’t seemed to want to change. ‘Whitehall are getting uppity.’
I sighed. ‘Whitehall are always uppity, Charlie. Paranoia is their bread and butter.’
‘True, but we still need to shut this down. Did you get to this one in time? Just give me something I can show them to get them to back off a little.’
‘There are definite traces. Not enough that I can track it, but enough that I can confirm we’ve got a problem,’ I said. There was a small lie in there, but she wouldn’t know.
Charlie went quiet for a moment and hammered at her computer keyboard. Or possibly a typewriter. I can never really tell the two apart over the phone, and up at Whitehall it could really be either. They had been hesitant to embrace the information age. ‘Any leads?’
‘Nothing solid,’ I said. ‘I’m going to have a wander around, see what I can pick up. Maybe I’ll stumble across his casting site, find something that the fire didn’t consume. Of course, if you’d approve a little tracking spell…’
I’d been needling her about that little demand for weeks now, and each time she had become more exasperated. Now she was one step shy of full-blown annoyance. It did nice things to her voice. ‘Oh for God’s sake, Jameson! You know they’ll never sign off on that!’
‘No,’ I shot back. ‘They would never have signed off on that before I had proof that magic was involved. But now we know for sure, and if they want him caught I’m going to need to fight fire with fire.’ There was a pause. ‘If you see what I mean.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ she said. She did not sound happy.
I wrestled for a charming, yet patronising, way of thanking her, then gave up and snapped the phone shut. Then I finished my whiskey and threw the glass back into the boot along with the half-empty bottle and various oddities that accumulate in the rear of a man’s car. I swear most of them just come into being on their own. I certainly didn’t put them there.
Now I was just procrastinating. What I wanted to do was wait until Whitehall signed off on some minor magics. It had been so long since I had last cast a spell. Sensing the residue of our arcane arsonist had been divine, and now I was grasping for a way to throw off the enforced abstinence of Whitehall, even if just for a moment.
The tracking spell was bullshit really, I had a fair idea where to find my next lead, but I wanted my hit. Abstinence is all well and good when you’ve got no temptation, but a brush with your old mistress and the longing suddenly erupts in force.
Realistically, however, I didn’t have time to wait. There had been a sourness to the residue, one that spoke of power borrowed rather than the sweet tang of something innate. Back when I had been part of the scene, power brokers had been raking in the cash, although that was very much a product of the old way of doing things. Whitehall may not have had a firm a grasp on the North as it liked to pretend it did, but it had changed the landscape considerably in the last five years. It’s always easiest to grab the noisy ones, after all, and people selling their power were always going to be near the top of that particular list. But, if I could get to this broker, however, I could get to the arsonist. Surely there couldn’t be too many of them left to sift through?
That would mean, however, a trip to the underground, and I’m not exactly popular there. Not that I can blame them, before they’d gotten to me, I was suspicious of the Whitehall Warlocks too. Bastard turncoats, magic vacuums sent to enslave or destroy every free magician in the country, that’s what I had thought. It turned out that that was mostly correct, but slavery did have its upsides nowadays, at least the way Whitehall did it, although I didn’t expect my former peers to see that.
Finding them would be tricky. The knowledge that Warlocks could come for you at any time had driven the free magicians underground, and I wasn’t really equipped to find them. It wasn’t as if the free magicians were going to advertise themselves so people like me could come and kick in their doors. They had other means of feeling each other out.
You need a wizard to catch a wizard, that’s more or less Whitehall’s entire reason for having warlocks. Unfortunately, the easiest way of finding a wizard is by feeling out the tremors of his power and tracking it back to the source, like ripples in a pond. Ripples that warlocks can’t see because we are banned from using bloody magic. Whitehall, therefore, likes us to use our knowledge of the craft to find other solutions, since clearly that would be terribly easy to do. I prefer to cheat.
Before Whitehall brought me in, I had my fair share of connections. Most of them had shunned me the moment I’d been nabbed, but I had collected favours like kids collect the trading cards put out by whatever Japanese anime is big nowadays. Enough that cashing one in was no big deal.
I took one last look at the blaze and then climbed into my car. Ordinarily I would have called ahead, as is only polite, but I was quite looking forward to playing the warlock card for once. Humberside City was too far north of Whitehall to have really developed a strong and active cadre of warlocks, so most of my jobs were wild goose chases and token gestures to get our visibility up in preparation of the inevitable big push. It was a far cry from the well regimented and stringently controlled nature of the south. But the name still had some weight to it, and after so long chasing ghosts it would be nice to swing it around a little. My ego enjoys a good stroking.
As I drove, I tried some other telephone numbers from the old days, though. If this idea didn’t pan out, I would prefer to have a backup just in case. No-one answered, which wasn’t exactly a shock: when the Warlocks come for you, people tend to hear about it. Doubly so when they came for me, I should imagine. I did not go gracefully, to which I’m sure a great many will attest. A few of the numbers I dialled didn’t even ring, and I caught myself wondering how many people had been brought in since myself. More out of curiosity than worry, truth told. I’d never liked them enough to worry.
At least I was in the North, so I had that on my side. Northerners are not particularly well disposed to people from the government rocking up and telling them what to do at the best of times, and as such things were going slowly for Whitehall in this neck of the woods. They had a firm stranglehold on the South, but the bred in the bone independence of the Northerners made them more brazen and less careful than they should be. This was why an underground existed at all.
And yet, as I pulled up outside the bar that Toirneach Craic called his home, I felt myself gearing up for a fight. I swear I’m not always like this when I have to talk to an Irishman. Just the ones I have to meet in bars. Which, I admit, is where I meet most of my Irishmen. But I promise that’s just a coincidence. It is.
Anyway, look, let me get back on track. Part of the deal in becoming a warlock is that you can’t do magic any more, not even the simplest of cantrips, but to try and even the playing field you are allowed to have things enchanted by the few enchanters Whitehall keeps on staff. I’d eschewed the traditional amulets and bracelets for rings and a jacket – they were more practical and less likely to draw attention. Everyone was looking for amulets and bracelets, fewer people were looking for rings and almost no-one was looking for a fabric blazer to hold an enchantment of any kind.
Of course, this didn’t stop the entire room staring at me when I walked through the door, but I tend to get that reaction in any place I enter. I have one of those sexy faces, you know.
To be fair, describing the place as a bar was a bit of a stretch. It was only a bar in the same way sticking a long table in front of your drinks cabinet makes your dining room a bar. So when I say the entire room turned to look at me, I’m really only talking about two or three people. But they were angry looking people, so I thought it fitting to make the thing sound a little more grandiose. I’m sure you understand.
‘Well, that’s a face I ain’t seen in a while,’ came a voice from the far end of the room.
‘Oh, Brendy,’ I said, using his real name. What, you thought his poor mother actually named him Toirneach? ‘Surely you see my beautiful face when you close your eyes at night? Quite frankly, I’d be hurt if not.’
He had fashioned himself a little throne out of a wingback chair, a cheap plastic skull resting under one of his feet to give him a sort of bargain-basement Conan the Destroyer look. Well, if you substitute rippling muscles for poor posture in equal measure. He was going for the full slouch of villainy, but hadn’t managed the villain part. ‘You’ve got some nerve coming to see me Jimbo, as if I wouldn’t know what side you’re playing for now.’
Obviously, I knew he’d know. That was the point. ‘Then let’s keep things civil, shall we? No need for me to start flexing the bulging muscles of bureaucracy, right?’
‘I’m always civil, pal. You know me,’ he said, but his hands were gripping the arms of his little throne a smidge tighter than they had been. He’d always been good at masking his fear. ‘What can I do to facilitate your fucking off sooner rather than later?’
I know it might not look it, but this was Brendy at his most civil. He’d come a long way from when I’d first met him – some would say he’d fallen rather than come – acting as an agent of the Lord of the North during the period Whitehall now called The Dark Time. I’ll give you a greater run-down on that later, when it’s a bit more appropriate. It’s not something I like talking about for personal reasons.
Suffice to say, back when things were at their worst, Brendy was at his. His Toirneach name was an honourific at first, bestowed for his reputation as his Lord’s clean-up man. He’d turn up after the slaughter, doll it all up so word would get out and people who know exactly who was the biggest bastard in toy town. The thunder that followed the lightning.
He also made it his business to know other peoples’, which was why he had survived as long as he had and why I needed him now.
‘We’ve got ourselves a rogue wizard burning down bits of the city, as I’m sure you know,’ I said.
His eyes narrowed slightly. ‘Are you here to accuse me?’
‘Give me a break, Brendy. I’m not daft enough to take a run at you on my own, am I? I’d at least drag along a couple of meat-shields for that sort of thing.’
Part of the reason he had avoided the warlocks coming for him as long as he had was down to his reputation. It wouldn’t save him forever, but as long as he believed it would it would also keep me safe. He wouldn’t want to antagonise Whitehall by getting into a scrap with a warlock, but he’d have no qualms about ripping my soul out through my eye sockets if he thought himself threatened. He was a pleasant sod.
‘Then what do you want?’
I took a few steps forward. His boys, or whatever you call henchmen these days, shifted in their seats. ‘It seems our wayward mage is using someone else’s power.’
‘Looks that way to me.’
‘Interesting,’ he said and shifted his slouch. ‘Not many people left with the balls or the requisite debts to go into that game. Your lot have properly fucked up this neck of the woods, you know.’
‘Now now, there’s no need to start playing the blame game with me, Brendy. We both know we weren’t exactly innocent in the whole thing.’
One of Brendy’s boys leapt to his feet, shouting. ‘Don’t claim kinship with us, you blood-traitor fuck.’
Brendy held up a finger and the man sat back down, frowning but without complaint. ‘If you would like to argue about politics, perhaps it would be best we have a few drinks first. Friends should never talk politics sober.’
‘Is that what we are, friends?’
‘We were once, as I recall. It suits my purposes to keep you as that for now, rather than an enemy.’
‘Oh, mate,’ I said and forced myself to blush. ‘You say the sweetest things.’
‘Do you want a drink or not?’
I shook my head. ‘Already had one today, thanks. The information will do me fine.’
‘Just so’s we’re clear, this is you calling in a favour, right? I’m not about to sell you one of my own out of the goodness of me heart, like.’
Seeing as he had started putting the accent on thick, I figured it only fair to do the same. Besides, I’m English. You come at us with some weird foreign way of talking, it is in our natures to mimic it like masochistic mynah birds. Why do you think we’ve had so many wars? ‘Consider it me callin’ in one of me favours te be sure, boyo.’
I admit, I’m not very good at accents. I also admit that that was perhaps not the most politically correct way to address him. Then again, as you will learn about me, I am naturally imbued with supernatural powers of diplomacy. Even when I’m being a dick, it works in my favour.
Brendy let out a tight chuckle, although his boys were less forgiving. ‘Good, I’ve been wanting rid of that black mark. Although I can’t give him to you directly.’
‘That doesn’t sound like something I’d want to hear.’
‘I’ve not been blind to your lot spiriting brokers away in the dead of night. I figured it best to maintain some distance from them, in case Whitehall started casting a wider net. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how you can find him.’
I fired out a theatrical sigh. ‘You’re not good at suspense, Brendy. Get to the point.’
‘Keeping track of the clients is almost as good as keeping track of the dealer,’ he said. He leant forward, the horrid little plastic skull squeaking an inch forward as he did so. ‘There’s a gathering of minor talents, the sort that didn’t bother themselves with the politics way back when so haven’t really learned how the world is these days. Might want to ask around there. You’ll find them at the university.’
I laughed. ‘Of course.’
‘You get the best and cheapest booze in a university bar. That’s just a fact, pal. Doesn’t matter if the place has been shut down, it’s seeped into the walls by then.’
‘God, I hope they’re not drinking alcohol out of the drywall.’
‘You never know with these types.’
Here’s a thing you may not have known: fighting a secret war against your own magical citizens is not cheap, and yet you still have to pay for it. Governments tend to get more leeway with their overdrafts than your average wage-drone, but it isn’t infinite. You start seeing black holes in the budget, excessive cutbacks, and you can probably link it to magicians somehow. We’re not cheap to keep.
This government had chosen to siphon the cash from the education budget, and Humberside had not done well. Being as it had never been a particularly popular university, the income from students just wasn’t enough to keep the entire thing open. They’d wasted millions on whole buildings, only to find that they were now surplus to requirement. At this point half the campus was shut down, most of it buildings that had never formally opened at all. Perfect place for the empowered to meet for a tête-à-tête.
I’m not the super-spy or information broker that Brendy is, but I have enough about me to know whether I’m being spun a lie or not. The information he had given me felt plausible, however, and despite my current occupation I still felt like I had earned enough good will to get some measure of truth out of the man. You can’t end a friendship so easily, not with Toirneach Craic, in any case.
‘You can consider your favour repaid, mate,’ I said as I turned to leave. I was going for the whole dramatic exit, all loud footsteps and billowing coat, but he called after me.
‘There’s one more thing you might want to know. Consider it a freebie.’
I stopped but didn’t turn around. This was sounding awfully like the start of a setup. I made sure my rings were ready, just in case things were about to get nasty. ‘And what would that be?’
‘Only that it might be in your best interests to let this drop.’
‘And why is that?’
‘I am not in a position to comment. Perhaps, as a favour to you –’
I interrupted. ‘Goodbye, Brendy.’ I wasn’t about to let him lure me in with seductive little factoids like that. The man would use words like weapons if you’d let him, and I wasn’t really keen on finding myself indebted to him this time.
I made my exit before he could stop me, giving the dramatic thing a second go. I’m pretty sure it worked. It was totally swoon-worthy. Alas, the endorphins from being so cool had largely worn off by the time I closed my car door.
Brendy’s boys watched me from the windows as I pulled away from the last little embassy of the old ways.