In Peckham, no-one can hear you scream. When the shriek rose from the alleyway into the clear night sky, it was lost in a cacophony of sirens, traffic, shouting, foxes and thumping music. If it weren’t for the light pollution, an onlooker might see that the stars in the sky above Peckham were looking down with their usual contempt. However, the stars this night might be seen to be looking on Peckham with perhaps a little more interest than usual. Paying just a little more attention that they ought to.
After all, murder was one thing, but this was something else — something they hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
Just North of Peckham town centre, a mile or so below Burgess Park, Georgie Macmillan was steadily pushing a pram, winding her way back home from her first class at Cross-Fit in central Peckham. Joining had seemed like such a good idea at the time – they offered free childcare whilst you were there, which even with just one child would be a great deal. Georgie, however, had two baby girls – twins. They ought to give parents of twins the Iron Cot as they leave the hospital, a double-breasted medal of honour for those about to enter a battle that no person can win.
Georgie had a strange sense of pride as she thought about the gym childminder – a battle-hardened, bearded man made of densely packed muscle who wouldn’t look out of place in a TV series about Vikings – but who today had nearly been broken by the girls. But right now, they were both looking at her unblinkingly with their large blue eyes, smiling broadly and bubbling with happiness. Occasionally a look of inner turmoil passed briefly across one of their faces as wind travelled in one direction or another looking for an exit. But at times like these (wind withstanding) Georgie just wanted to take a snapshot in her mind. She knew better than to bother trying to perpetuate that sort of rubbish on Instagram. That perfect motherhood moment? So very, very rare.
Georgie was exhausted. Today had been the first serious exercise she’d done since before the girls’ arrival, and the instructor hadn’t been easy on her. Wearing a far-too-tight t-shirt for his enormous frame, the hairy, muscle-bound hero leading the class had seemed to take great joy in forcing her to do one more rep here, another squat there. Part of Georgie – deep, deep down – felt good, healthy even. But another part – much clearer and a little more vocal – just wanted a gin and tonic and a lie-down. Getting the kids fed and off to sleep felt like life was dealing her an eternal ‘one more rep’. Every. Single. Night.
Looking up as she turned the corner she saw blue and white tape blocking off a section of the road. The tape was the usual police tape, signifying an area of mild interest to the local residents, but the scene itself looked anything but ordinary. Three large dark blue police vans, which Georgie generally associated with football riots, sat parked on the opposite side of the road, apparently unoccupied. A white tent had been placed on the opposite side of the road blocking the path. As Georgie walked forwards towards it, a large green truck pulled out and slowly crawled down the road, growling as it billowed smoke from its exhaust. As it passed her, she could see faint lettering along the side that must have been painted over in a slightly different shade of muted green. A dark red cross was still visible on the rear, which was made of tarpaulin stretched across instead of shutters. Everything about the truck screamed military.
Lost in thought, she continued walking towards the site when a policeman appeared in front of her out of nowhere, blocking the way. “Sorry ma’am,” he said, peering into the pram suspiciously, “where are you going to?”
“Potters” she replied, her eyes also fixed on the girls. They tended to become the mediator of any conversation. A momentary look of confusion passed across his face. Georgie pointed down the road, “It’s literally right there.” She could see the entrance to the Close, beckoning her home.
“You’ll need to head back around the block,” he said, a little more forcefully than was necessary. Georgie sighed and looked into his face. She drew back slightly as she saw his drawn features, like someone with all the life sucked out of them. They locked eyes, and she realised the effect was compounded by his pale, grey-blue eyes and two-day-old grey stubble. Everything about him was… muted. He continued, “You can’t come past. You can get around,” he paused, and after consulting his phone for a moment continued, “down past Calypso and back around. Sorry for the inconvenience,” he said with almost, but not quite entirely, no feeling whatsoever. He tried a smile, revealing two gummy red rows of stumpy teeth. The smile cracked, and he dropped it. He kept looking at her, through her, but she had the impression that the man had switched off inside.
Feeling uncomfortable, she turned, grumbling as she began the newly extended walk, before stopping abruptly, her frustration belatedly coming to the boil. Spinning back around she stormed towards the officer. The policeman, who had been watching her walk away, visibly tensed. “What’s this all about anyway?” She asked.
“Police matter. It’s under control,” he said dispassionately. Watching his face, she could see he was lying. She’d seen police cordons a lot lately around town. The other mums had been saying there was something sinister going on – gang fighting or something probably. But that was likely just town gossip – Peckham may have a bit of a name for itself, but it was pretty rare to see anything like this nowadays.
It was late August, and it had been a hot, heavy summer – fourth or fifth record-breaking temperatures in a row, she’d heard. That seemed to increase tensions – there were the stabbings in the park last summer, riots a couple of years before that. But this was something else. This was maybe the third forensic tent she’d seen this week, and in the ‘nicer’ parts of Peckham, too. Where was gentrification when you needed it?
She was about to press harder for more information when a couple of doors slammed in the row of houses to her right and two ladies, one very large, one small and wiry, came out of their homes angrily. They were yelling and cursing at the top of their voices, heading straight towards the officer.
“It’s not right,” yelled the larger woman, red in the face, “he shouldn’t be hanging out with them. Why’s he so interested? They’re just kids!” Her eyes were closed as she yelled, as though the force of shouting would make her eyeballs pop out. Having finished making her point, she nodded, harrumphed, folded her arms and popped open two piggy eyes, staring the smaller woman down. It was a comical gesture, presumably intended to be intimidating. Georgie quickly suppressed a smile – she’d seen these two around, and their families were often at each other’s throats in the road. There was nothing quite like a bit of Peckham street theatre.
“Only a couple of years older,” retorted the other, “and the way your Mercedes carries on, strutting around like a peacock in those little skirts… I’ve got belts bigger than them skirts! Anyway, it’s nothin’ to do with me—or you for that matter. He’s his own man now, they can do what they likes.”
“Yeah, like pushing drugs on my kids—”
“Take that back, slag! He ‘ent done nothin’ of the sort! Anyhow they ‘ent kids no more—”
“—and taking them to parties, getting up to all sorts—”
“They followed him! It’s not Tyler’s fault!”
“He bullied them into it! I haven’t heard a word from them since they went out last night! I told ‘em! I said ‘don’t you follow that scummy trash’! It’ll end in tears, I said.”
At this, the small woman sucked in a deep breath and launched into a tirade of expletives. Georgie flinched. People could be really creative with swear words in Georgie’s neighbourhood.
It was amazing that someone so small could shout so loudly without the cigarette leaving her mouth. The first woman returned the gesture with hand signs. Georgie gave a slight cough.
The skinny woman gave a looked sharply at Georgie, then noticed the pram, her face switching instantly into a broad, genuine smile, as she said, “Hiya love,” in a thick Geordie accent. Georgie returned a tired smile and the usual British response – great, thanks – she’d always made an effort to greet the neighbours. The subtext of course being; life is not great, but I don’t want to burden you with my troubles. The skinny woman turned her attention back to her neighbour who was rolling her eyes infuriatingly while rocking her hand back and forth.
The policeman gave a nervous glance towards the white tent behind him, trying to look preoccupied and important. After a moment though, his shoulders sagged, and he reluctantly walked towards the two women, visibly unexcited about the prospect of dealing with this new intrusion. “Ladies—” he began to say weakly, but before he could get another word in, they turned on him in unison.
“Who do you think you are?” Said one, then turning to her previous assailant said, “who does he think he is?”
“Some copper ’n all,” said the other, looking him up and down, “what are you doing standing around here when my boy—our kids are out missing?” The hot-tempered new best friends put their arms around one another and began a pantomime of drying each other’s eyes. The policeman took a step back, flustered. He started by taking names; Tyler, Ellie, …Mercedes (this one got an eyebrow raise), their relationship; Ellie and Mercedes are sisters, got it, then asking questions about last known whereabouts, last time seen, occasionally pausing as he tapped on his phone.
The officer now well and truly preoccupied, Georgie decided that this theatre had run its course and took the opportunity to quickly wheel the pram off the kerb and started walking down the middle of the road, straight past the tent. The kids were pretty notorious around there, and they’d be able to look after themselves. It was probably just some ill-conceived all night lock-in or something. The policeman’s reaction seemed so unsympathetic though. They must see awful things every day, but there was something a little off about it— Georgie sighed as she peered into the dusty windows of the riot vans parked up against the road, but there was no sign of life in there.
Continuing down the road, she glanced at the white forensic tent that had been erected in the middle of the police cordon. The entrance was flapping in the warm summer breeze, and as it opened briefly she froze. It was just a glimpse, but she’d caught sight of something – an animal, several animals perhaps – lying in a pile in the centre of the tent. Ginger fur matted with dark red streaks.
“Under control”, she thought, dubiously, looking back over her shoulder. This seemed like a mess to her. Who would do something like this? Thinking about it, quite a few people she knew around here would run over a fox if they had the chance, the beasts. Foxes in Peckham were pretty cocky — it was common for them to walk alongside her on the town path, utterly unfazed by the presence of humans. She looked at the officer who was standing vacantly as the two women verbally assaulted him and each other. A fresh wave of weariness washed over Georgie, overtaking any sense of intrigue she had felt even moments earlier. Home was just around the corner, so she upped her pace a little – the aim now was to get the girls (and herself) to bed, and fast.
Feed. Bath. Change. Story. Feed. Bed. Collapse.
As was often the case the neighbours two doors down – a very friendly (and equally loud) family of Brazilians were having a party. Adults sang along to blaring samba music as children screamed and played in the garden, throwing things and pushing each other into the paddling pool. Georgie caught herself grumpily looking forward to the winter – the street would at least be more bearable during the winter months as the parties and late night barbecues gave way to quiet nights in, away from the cold. God, she sounded like a boring old hag – how had that happened? Unconsciously Georgie looked down at the girls who were finally beginning to drift off to sleep and felt her heart swell. Maybe it had changed her, but she wouldn’t give this up for the world.
Slowly but surely Georgie fell into a long night of disturbing dreams. The screams of the children next door rolled into eerie yapping foxes with empty eye sockets, their skin hanging loosely from them. They chased her in the streets as the pavement rolled under her heavy legs. She tried to escape, but there was an impossibly heavy barbell on her back, the weight of it forcing her legs to sink into suddenly sticky, muddy ground. Then she was lying alone in quicksand in the centre of Burgess Park, mist enveloping her, animal sounds all around. She tried to push herself up but the harder she tried to escape the more trapped she became, the noise building to a deafening, echoing roar all around her.
Georgie woke up gasping for air, her heart racing. She took a deep, shaky breath and anxiously looked around. Shards of orange street light lit the room up like soft lasers as they found thin gaps between the bedroom shutters. Usually when she woke it would be to the twins gurgling and goo-gooing happily to themselves—one on either side of the bed—but this morning they were both on the edge of dramatic tears. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who had just woken from a bad dream.
She flicked on the side lamp and gently lifted Clio up to begin feeding, glancing at the digital clock on the side of the bed. The large green digital numbers read 04:15. She sighed and wondered how long it would be before the girls would sleep through a whole night without a feed. For that matter, when was the last time she herself slept all night?
One thing Georgie had quickly learnt about parenting was that it was about catching the girls’ complaints early on. If they’re hungry—feed them. Tired? Get them off to sleep by Any Means Possible, short of a dram of whisky. (It was tempting though). It seemed obvious but it was all too easy to allow too much time to pass from the first warning signs, and then it would be impossible to pull them back from the brink of baby-insanity. Over-hunger or over-tiredness meant only one thing: a very long day for Georgie. And right now, the girls were at least one of those. She shook her head and eased herself a little more upright in the bed, groaning as she felt all sorts of Cross-Fit battered muscles in her arms and back screaming at her. She had thought that the daily act of hiking up and down a couple of flights of stairs with two baby girls in her arms would have prepared her for the exercise, but apparently not. Mercifully, after a short feed Clio stopped crying for a while, lying wide-eyed in a satisfied baby coma while Georgie scooped up Wren.
With Wren now feeding happily, she rested her head back against the headboard, enjoying a moment of peace. She listened. It was still and quiet, absent the usual hubbub of Peckham – cars, shouting, music, bins, mopeds, foxes—her mind fell back to the scene with the white tent the day before. What the hell had happened there? And what was that creepy grey policeman doing standing around, making weary mums walk twice the distance home? She pictured the tent entrance, flapping in a stormy wind. Animal carcasses slumped on the ground, red stained fur and skin—perhaps her imagination was getting the better of her. There was ominous distant rumble overhead, low and drawn out, signalling a plane on the flight path from the East towards Heathrow.
She had a One Minute Mother Shower(TM) and, barely clean, attempted to blow dry her long, raven hair. Clio, noticing the lack of attention began to wail. Wren followed suit shortly after—Clio certainly seemed to be the trendsetter when it came to tears. Georgie looked at her tired face in the mirror and, not for the first time, thought fancifully of getting away on some kind of spa trip. She clicked off the drier and as the whine of the motor faded, the silence she’d previously noticed outside felt even more apparent. She stood achingly and pottered across to the bedroom windows, levering the blinds open a little, and peered out.
Georgie and Jack’s place in Peckham was out of the centre of town, in a relatively quiet suburb—for London. People had raised their eyebrows when they had first moved in a decade earlier. ‘Is it safe,’ they had questioned in hushed tones. It was true, they had found it more difficult to get friends to come and visit than when they first lived in Little South Africa, also known as Wimbledon. The trick was to keep the drinks cupboard fully stocked and the barbecue primed to go all year round.
The street they lived on, Potters Close, was a small cul-de-sac, a mini tributary running off the larger Chandler Way. The ‘way’ in Chandler Way was convoluted and confusing to get through by car, which rewarded the locals by reducing the traffic — people tended only to drive around there to get to somewhere else on the estate, not to pass through. However, at this early hour, it was still common to hear the hustle-bustle of activity outside — to her chagrin, one of their neighbours ran a catering business and would often be loading or unloading at ungodly hours. This morning though, not even a distant siren, a regular part of the Peckham dawn chorus, disturbed the scene. The neighbouring gardens were empty in the soft dawn light. A pale blue hue settled on the yards to the back of the house, with a light mist rolling scattered along the ground. The scaffold running up the side of the house opposite was empty, a single bucket at the end of a rope swinging gently to and fro in an unseen breeze.
Georgie’s thoughts drifted to her husband, Jack, away on a production job abroad for a week. The news had started the most significant argument they had had in ages. He’d told her he would be away with work, leaving her to look after the girls herself the whole time. A whole week! Georgie had shouted at him through sleep-deprived tears; she hated that Jack’s work took him abroad regularly. But that was the price for being in the film industry, he’d responded, infuriatingly calmly, with his great big, irritating, lovely, disarming smile. His work showed up like buses; none or all at once. He would be rattling around the house every day barely fending off an existential crisis when suddenly he’d be whisked abroad, too busy to even call his family. After a couple of days of tension between them, Jack had donned his serious face, only used on rare occasions, and offered to quit the industry, again. But she knew better — there was only one thing worse than being on your own looking after twins for a week: living with someone who has had their dream career taken away from them, and it’s All Your Fault. Georgie guiltily realised this was the first time she’d thought about Jack since waking up. It was three days to go until his flight landed, but who was counting?
Craning to see into the party neighbours garden, she couldn’t make out much due to the dark, and their awning blocking her view, but she could just about make out a few chairs on their side strewn haphazardly across the garden. The Campos family had once again left their garden an absolute mess, but Georgie could hardly begrudge them that. Becoming a mother definitely made you judge other peoples untidiness differently. It made you part of a select, messy and overtired sisterhood.
She pulled herself away from the window, shrugged and tried to file away an odd sensation tugging at the back of her mind. She got back to tidying her unruly hair with a brush — as best as she could while holding one crying baby and rocking the other on her knee.
Eventually, Georgie decided to take the girls out for a stroll – they quickly became bored of their surroundings at home and had been antsy ever since waking up this morning, so a walk with the pram would hopefully result in a nap, that golden opportunity to reset and return to their cheery little selves. After the twenty-minute long, practically military operation of getting the girls into their outdoor clothes and into the double pram she found herself at last standing at the front door, flustered. She turned the key in the bottom lock, took the safety catch off, and pushed the handle down with a satisfying crunch of mechanical bolts coming undone. The doorway seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as the chilled early morning air crept in around the crack.
Still over-warm from the job of trekking up and down the stairs with two small sacks of potatoes, she quickly pulled the door open and strode out into a cool, dimly lit August morning. Her trainers squeaked as she paced away rapidly from the house, out of the estate and disappeared around the corner.
For a brief moment, she paused, going through the repetitive ritual of wondering whether she had locked the door. After the numerous return trips in the past — never having once left it unlocked — she had learnt to push through the self-doubt, and kept walking.
Keeping two babies entertained at one time is a super-human feat—one which had, at first, nearly driven Georgie to despair. Nowadays she primarily ran on autopilot. Somehow the girls seemed to be able to wriggle themselves into all sorts of impossible positions as she grabbed a different toy for them to play with — she’d comfort one, and the other would begin to cry as she became aware at this treacherous lack of attention. The absurdity of the facial expressions of pure betrayal they displayed had still not worn off on even the battle-hardened Georgie, who would find herself bursting into an uncontrollable smile. She never was very good at poker—too honest, Jack said. Georgie’s thoughts meandered on as she wound her way around the streets aimlessly.
As she passed a small row of shops something jolted her out of autopilot, and she looked around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The shutters were firmly closed on the shop fronts. Georgie paused, listening to the gentle rattle of the shop’s metal security shutters in the breeze. Usually, there would be someone unloading a van, even at this early time in the morning. It felt as though time was standing still, an eerie feeling in a city that rarely sleeps. A few small puddles glimmered with artificial light on the road — it must have rained a little in the night. She turned off the road and began to head down the town path. Generally, in the daytime, this route was a pleasant and leafy meandering walkway leading straight into central Peckham, but this morning it felt dark and oppressive. Light fell from sparsely positioned lamp posts that only served to make the dark corners of the path seem all the more dismal. Even in broad daylight, Georgie had seen strange things here including one time she had nearly jumped out of her skin when she realised someone was hiding in the bushes, not a meter away from her. The man had just winked at her and edged his way slightly further back into the hedgerow.
The girls were finally beginning to nod off in the pram as Georgie was crossing the open ground between the Library and the high street. Later in the day, this area would be busy with all sorts of Londoners going about their lives. There would be the old boys hanging out on the bench, students walking in and out of the library, mums popping in to the gym, early morning drunks wandering in and out of Wetherspoons, grumpy commuters cycling through, little street urchins who should be in school — it could be a right old Dickensian melee at times.
She was only fifteen minutes from home, but there was a nagging thought in the back of her mind. Perhaps she had left the door unlocked after all. Trying to think back over the short walk, she realised it drew a blank — she had been walking on autopilot. Thinking hard, Georgie could barely even remember the route she’d taken to get there. She sighed. That wasn’t unusual at the moment, and a fitful night of sleep had left her feeling pretty groggy. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, as her eyes fell on a small bag lying on a bench across the square.
Her first thought was of the homeless guys who often hung out around the area, staking their claim to the territory against no one in particular. But as she got closer to it, she realised it was a pretty smart bag – a leather satchel.
She looked around to see if someone had just left it for a moment. It couldn’t have been there long as a bag left out in Peckham was soon someone else’s bag. Arriving at the bench, she leant on the back of it to peer more closely at the satchel in the dim, dawn light—but withdrew her hand sharply, flinching as she felt the cold, wet surface. She stepped back, bewildered, looking at her hand. Bathed in the warm orange streetlight the actual colour of the dark liquid was ambiguous, but there was no doubt in her mind.
It was blood.
A creeping sense of dread began to fall on Georgie. She stood tensely by the bench, looking around while rubbing her hands furiously with a baby wipe. The library, usually a comical shape when seen in daylight, loomed above to her right. Across the walkway, she could see other familiar buildings, their forms made twisted and sinister by the absence of light. Shuddering, she imagined she could smell the warm iron of blood on her hands, even over the pungent disinfectant of the wipes. Georgie considered herself to be unflappable, but she was currently finding her mind full of an anxious threat of immediate danger — not just for her but for the girls. She glanced at her watch, but immediately forgot what time it showed.
Pulling her long sleeves over her hands to form a pair of make-shift forensic gloves, she snatched the bag from the bench. It was heavier than expected; a small but dense satchel of dark brown leather. Creases caught in the light as she turned it over, checking for blood. As she crouched down to attempt stuffing it into the already-full compartment at the bottom of the pram, her tired thighs screamed at her, and she gripped the pram handle hard, cursing under her breath. It was only half a day ago that Georgie had been walking back out of town across this very spot from her first CrossFit session.
She felt a warm prickling sensation, tingling all over, just on the point of beginning to sweat. Georgie tended to walk as though she was urgently needed somewhere, even when aimlessly meandering about town with the girls. It often wasn’t until pausing that she would become aware of the sudden warm glow of exercise.
Still squatting, she pulled her damp hair to one side, feeling the cool air on her bare neck. Tapping her watch revealed an animated half-moon, the friendly ‘do not disturb’ symbol — of course, she would have turned it off overnight to prevent anything from disturbing her precious sleep other than the girls. Rubbing her legs, she sensed the beginnings of self-pity. It was a sad emotion that she hated to feel just as much as to see it in others. She gripped the handle and pulled herself upright, drawing a deep breath. Spinning the pram around decisively, she began to stride back towards the town path, towards home. She would call the police as soon as she got there.
She had only travelled a few short meters when she nearly jumped out of her skin at a sound like a sharp hiss, coming from above. Looking up, there was a dimly visible figure at the top of the library block. It was only about five floors up, but in the hazy early morning light, it was difficult to see anything more than an indistinct silhouette. Another sound reached her ears, a short low whistle, and the person was pointing urgently with their arms, past Georgie. Craning her head around, Georgie peered back where the figure was directing her. There was nothing to be seen, just the alleyway between the pub and the gym. She glanced up again, but the person was gone. Already feeling anxious, a strange feeling started to dawn on her as she looked stared unseeing into the dark alleyway.
Varied dark grey shadows took form as Georgie’s imagination filled in the shapes with her vague visual memory of the area. She has walked past here hundreds of times but had never really looked. The air hung still, peripheral sounds coming in and out of consciousness; a fluttering of a plastic bag, a distant aeroplane overhead, the rustle of the breeze. Another gust blew gently across Georgie. Her eyes opened wide as a shadow shifted almost imperceptibly in the dark. There was something there. A soft but deep thump reached her ears across the open ground. There was a faint metallic clang, followed by a faint rustling — or was it the sound of breathing? The shadows seemed to dart and sway as she focussed hard with tired eyes. She could feel goosebumps on her bare arms, the tiny hairs standing on end.
She dragged her eyes away to look back upwards to the figure on the library roof, who had now moved further away and was pointing emphatically across the street towards an old council housing block. There was something about their urgency. Either she was being royally pranked, or something was very wrong. Maybe the gangs were at it again, and she was walking right into the cross-fire. Didn’t gang members have a lie in after an evening full of… gang stuff? Whatever the case, her gut was telling her to get out of there.
She looked homeward towards the town path, but rather than beckoning her, it too seemed foreboding and grim. With the hedgerow running down one side and walls and fences running along the other, she felt trapped just looking at it. For some reason, her mind wandered to those nature documentaries where the wildebeest stampede down gullies and channels in the African landscape, chased in by predators. Nope. She wheeled the pram again, now heading straight towards the tower block over the road, ignoring every fibre that was screaming at her to look behind. She wasn’t sure why, but she made an effort to walk steadily, quickly but not rushing. Although the sound had undoubtedly been present when walking into town, she was now painfully aware of the sounds of clothing that accompanied her walking, echoing in the square; the zip, zip, zip, squeak, squeak, squeak.
After a short walk and a dart across the empty road, she made it around the corner and head past a stairwell towards the lift entrance on the far side of the tower block where it faced into other buildings. Getting to a higher floor would give her a better view, but there was no chance of getting the pram up the stairs. She thumbed the large metal button to call the lift and glanced back around the corner anxiously while she waited for it to make its way down to her. It was two floors up, and painfully slow as it creaked its way to the ground floor. She caught a flash of her own reflection in the cracked window as the door opened – her eyes were wide open and afraid, her face pale.
Trying to snap herself out of it, she stepped into the lift, pressing the top floor button and breathed out a frustrated hissing sound – this was ridiculous. She’d call the police from the top floor as soon as she could see what was going on below. Jack had often had a go at her for going out on her own in the night with the girls, saying it wasn’t safe. But this was the first time Georgie had ever felt threatened before, and she knew it was all in her head. Perhaps she’d had too much cheese last night. Then she remembered the man on the roof, and the blood on her hand.
As the lift door juddered to a close, the thin, blurry window made of reinforced glass went dark. Georgie stepped back with fright. The door creaked as though a heavy weight had been leant against it. A snuffling sound came from underneath the door, but then the lift began the slow climb up to the top floor. As the elevator crossed the first floor, the glass became clear again. She watched nervously as the lift passed the window on each consecutive level, her heart thumping so hard she could feel it pulsing unpleasantly in her ears.
Enough was enough. Kneeling down, fiercely ignoring the pain in her legs, Georgie felt around underneath the satchel until she gripped the comforting weight and shape of her phone. The lift continued to slowly climb as she pulled it out, but as she pressed the front of the phone she realised the haptic button was lifeless — the phone was dead.
Looking down into the pram to check on the girls, who were both still asleep. Their peace made her feel ridiculous — but also fiercely protective. Wren was making signs of beginning to stir with the unusual sounds of the elevator working, a clanging of pulleys and rustily scraping metal cable. As the lift reached the top floor, it creaked and swayed unsteadily as it eased its way to land. The lights flickered slightly as it settled with a judder, and a pause of a couple of seconds felt like it stretched on far too long. Georgie held her breath. The door opened jerkily with a loud piercing scrape of metal against metal. She stepped out of the lift.
The great double doors crashed open, and the assistant stumbled into the room carrying arms full of files. Each one, on closer inspection, would have shown ‘eyes only’ in black stamped ink on each. Wide-eyed, she stood up straight and brushed herself down before staring horrified around the room. This was a COBRA meeting. The Prime Minister’s chair was empty, as usual, but a collection of her closest aides were talking agitatedly at each other across a large mahogany table. A couple of heads turned to give her a bleary, cursory nod. Most of the ministers were looking pretty relaxed. They knew the drill.
COBRA, or Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, is a meeting of senior ministers and Whitehall officials, gathering in response to an emergency situation, such as an act of terrorism or an outbreak of a disease in the UK. COBRA – it denoted decisiveness, taking action, an immediate strike. Watching the ministers the assistant mused that in reality most officials only really turned up because you got bragging rights with your peers, it was a break from the usual monotony of their everyday lives, and there was tea. Really, very good tea.
“Thank God it’s happening in Peckham”, one minister scoffed, “If this were in Kens my head would be on a block, not to mention a few investments…” A few older men along the table chuckled but were cut off.
“— I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, Lord Midding, of the nature of this meeting? We’re meeting with the express purpose of saving human lives.” The Lord screwed up his face, smirked, and shuffled in his seat. The speaker, Kathy Chatham, recently promoted Chief of Police, looked placidly around the table. “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have come for the tea” – a couple of jeers from the extremities of the table – “but I hope we can move onto finding a solution to the Peckham… ahem… incident.”
“Yah, pipe down Middy, Teach says so!” said one of the other members of the Lord’s Boys Club at the end of the table, guffawing loudly.
Good God, thought Chatham. It never failed to astonish her that every time she stepped into one of these meetings it was like being a fly on the wall of an Etonian boarding school common room. She’d rapidly risen up the ranks of the force, which was a testament to a broader change in society itself. And things were improving, as she gained more friends in high places, but dealing with these old boys was an eternal frustration for her. The best answer was just to treat them like the boys they are, even if it did earn her the nickname ‘Teach’.
“Up to date report please,” she motioned to the Home Secretary, who was sitting in front of the panel of coloured screens displaying news feeds and various diagrams behind her. She coughed.
“Well, we know very little,” the Home Secretary responded after a moment. She agitatedly waved her arms around in a manic fashion, “we sent tactical teams into a few areas late yesterday, but we had… a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” One minister asked grimly.
“The sort – not to put too fine a point on it – where our tactical teams go to investigate something disturbing and then disappear without a trace.” There was stunned silence around the table.
After several seconds, one of the Whitehall officials’s piped up, “All of them? In London?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “We sent in officers to run a coverup and report back. It must be pretty obvious that something is up to the residents – but they probably don’t know what it is. Hell, we don’t even know. The main thing right now is to contain the situation. I motion for military intervention.”
“Against what?” Midding scoffed, “We don’t even know what’s going on over there. Some kind of chemical damage I heard?”
“Yes Lord Midding,” the Home Secretary said with barely concealed distaste, “that’s exactly what we leaked to the media an hour ago. The truth is, we have no idea.”
“That’s not strictly true,” piped up the assistant, speaking just a little too quickly and loudly out of nervousness. She stood with her back to the wall, suddenly flushed with embarrassment, aware of the eyeballs scrutinising her. She gripped her files a little harder, studying the floor just in front of her feet. Glancing up, Chatham motioned her to continue.
“There’s a video on Twitter,” which was accompanied by some groans around the table, with mutterings of “bollocks,” and, “what’s your niece posting now, eh Middy?”
“I’m telling you,” she said, turning a flustered crimson, “some of the less… refined media are already reporting it.” Chatham looked at the assistant for a moment.
“What’s your name?”
“Digby, Ma’am. Laura.” The chief of police watched her face.
Georgie watched anxiously as the elevator door slid across, revealing the top floor of the council building. In front of her, a brightly lit stairwell disappeared down towards the lower levels. A ladder, enclosed in a metal rib cage, ran up the wall leading straight up to a hatch in the roof. Easing forwards, her senses heightened, she quickly poked her head around the entrance, looking to either side and then pulling her head rapidly back into the lift. The corridors seemed empty. The flats looked quaint, with potted plants outside and clothes left to dry in the warm summer evening draped over the balcony railings.
Breathing a sigh of relief, and wondering just what she had expected to see, Georgie stepped out of the lift, pulling the pram out gently with her. She clicked her tongue unconsciously when she saw a bright yellow Ofo bike laying discarded beside one of the doors. This is why we can’t have nice things. You were supposed to be able to rent those things from anywhere, but people had taken to making it as difficult as possible by putting them behind private gates, or in this case, on the top floor of a council block.
She was about to head down one of the corridors when someone whispered, ‘Oi!’ above her.
Looking up she saw the metal hatch in the roof had been opened, and there was an upside-down silhouette of a child’s head poking out. It looked comical, until the child motioned to her, putting a finger to her lips… quietly. Georgie nodded slowly, understood. The small figure tugged on its own ear and then pointed down the stairs. Georgie edged forwards and leant over the railing, looking down below. The lights in the council block were overly bright – those harsh blue daylights cynically designed by officials in far off plush architectural offices to combat the dark corners where drug deals and other illicit behaviour traditionally seemed to take place. She couldn’t see beyond the floor below, but she could hear a strange rustling sound that echoed its way up the stairwell.
She looked back up to the child, but the small face had vanished, the open hatch revealing a snatch of blood-red dawn sky.
Georgie looked at the girls and, not for the first time that day, wondered what on earth she was doing. She gently lifted Clio out of the pram first, expertly wrapping a shawl around her and the baby to tuck her tightly into her chest. Clio shuffled uncomfortably for a moment but then resumed her sleep. Gently tip-toeing down the first set of stairs towards the ladder, she reached upwards to grab it, but it was a couple of inches out her reach. She was so stiff from the previous day’s gym exercise that even the action of stretching her arms up felt like hard work. Was it really only yesterday? She paused as she heard a couple more pronounced scuffling sounds reverberating up the stairwell. After a moment she relaxed — it didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
Carefully walking back up to the very top flight of stairs she walked down the corridor and gently tapped on a couple of the doors, whispering a greeting, then waiting for a moment before trying the handles. They were all locked shut. As she moved back towards the stairs in the middle of the building, she glanced over the balcony edge and started as she saw a dark figure standing motionless on the ground floor below. The early morning light still made it difficult to see clearly, but there was something about the shadowy outline that made her skin crawl. As she stared at it, the shape moved subtly and it no longer looked like a figure but rather some kind of creature. Its large head hung low from broad shoulders. Georgie’s breath caught in her throat. She choked back a silent scream, staggering back as she did so. As she rested her back against the wall behind her, a potted plant was dislodged from the window ledge, and before she could grab it, it fell and hit the ground with a sharp, punctuated crack. She grimaced and looked over the balcony again. The figure had vanished. She lumbered back achingly to the stairwell, Clio still tightly wrapped to her chest. The shuffling sounds were getting louder.
Kathryn Chatham, Chief of Police stared in silence at the footage she was watching on the phone. After a moment the clip ended. “Can we get this up on the screen?” she said, a little more loudly than intended. Laura went to the panel and pressed a few buttons on the display computer. On one of the panels, a small video popped up. Everyone at the table leaned forward to see. Chatham’s face looked drawn as she watched it again.
The footage showed what appeared to be a party in a garden or possibly a small park – it was difficult to see as it was grainy and dark, and the video displayed vertically with thick black bars on either side of the wide screen. As they watched, they could make out a small gathering of people sat in a circle playing a game. Glitchy music played in the background interspersed with laughter.
A figure approached the circle and the video pans to show him, staggering towards them. One of the group screams, and they all stand up, backing away. The camera is very shaky at this point, but the figure is still roughly in the shot – one of the group asks if he is ok, walking towards him with his hand out – it’s now clear that the figure is injured. There is a loud noise like a car horn, and then several screams, and then the camera moves frantically around. The final frame, paused by whoever posted the video to Twitter, looked black but if you squinted two slightly different shades became apparent as a silhouette emerged. Though it was blurred as the object moved rapidly across the screen, it was a familiar shape to everyone around the table. There was a range of reactions ranging from gasps to scoffs. Somebody laughed.
“What are we looking at here?“ Asked the grim-faced man.
“Um, I think that’s pretty clear,” replied one.
“Well it’s clear what you think at least – but it’s pretty obvious to me that this is CGI,” said another. He continued, “next thing we’ll see Thor. This is just an elaborate stunt for some film coming out soon.”
“I don’t believe it either, but how do you explain what’s going on then? Beyond this video?” said another, her voice shaking slightly. True or not, this video was going to be absolutely.
“Can we contain this? Take it offline?”
“What’s to contain? No one will believe this rubbish.”
“It’s already had over ten thousand views – it’ll be everywhere soon. We can instruct Twitter to take it offline, but it’ll be all over the Internet like a rash soon, people will have made copies, we’ve got no chance. Again, we can attempt to discredit, but it’ll just seem like we’re trying to cover something up. I think,” Chatham said, swallowing, “that we’re in a Tricky Situation.”
“No kidding,” another mocked, “There are dinosaurs killing people in Peckham.”
Chapter 7 – coming soon
Watch this space!