“Most of us Yard men would say that over time we develop an extra sense for danger close at hand. For me, the earliest glimmer of it appeared when I was still new to Lambeth division, wearing a scratchy blue coat with shoulders a few inches wider than my own, and I felt my way for the first time down a shadowed alley, truncheon in hand, braced for whatever skulked around the corner. After a dozen years of policing, I liked to believe my instinct had been honed to a keen blade. That I’d seen enough London crime not to be surprised by much. That I could sense the approach of something especially vicious by a prickling along my arms or a tightening below my ribs.”
“On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided. Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistry House. The unshaven, middle-aged man appeared as if he’d slept for several days and nights in his broadcloth shirt and the grimy cotton dhoti that hung in a thousand creases from his waist to his ankles. His small, squinting eyes were tired, and he exuded a rank odor of sweat mixed with betel nut.”
“The waiters were doing their best, with gristly good temper, but it was a job and a half feeding such a throng, and there were the usual aggravating women who ordered up veal medallions in fennel sauce –without the fennel, please!”
He pointed to the artifact I had just extracted from a packing crate. It was perhaps three feet in length, carved of some sort of exotic hardwood, and buffed to a smooth sheen. It was oddly festive.
“The nest was empty. Frederic said it would be but Martha had to see for herself. She hooked her arm around the oak’s thick trunk and peered down through the few remaining leaves, finally spotting Frederic’s blond head several branches below. Commotion on the ground caught her attention and she scanned the crowd of roaming classmates, narrowing her eyes at her older sister, Klara. Too bad the acorns have all dropped, Martha thought with a smile, as tossing one at her sister would be great fun. She raised her head and looked towards the mine. The tipple, twice the height of the towering oak, was easy to spot. She couldn’t see the gangway but she could hear the buggy’s wheels grinding on the iron rails and the mules’ sharp brays as they made their way in and out of the mine.”
“A small clearing in the forest was Carol’s favorite place. She could lie on her back beneath the blank canvas of sky. When her mother was alive, they would spread a yellow cloth, then sit and eat apples. Carol cannot remember anything her mother said, only the sound of her voice, and that she sometimes took off her shoes and unfastened her hair so that it tumbled like ribbon upon her shoulders and neck.”
“She heard the crowd before she saw them good. She noticed the grocer with his frail wife weeping into his shoulder. She saw the police and she even saw the white man across the street, his arms folded across his chest and a brown fedora pulled low over his brow. The rest of the crowd was made up of neighbors, street folks, ordinary residents of the corner and the block. But that man made her shudder. She recognized him from before, from those years around the time Percy left. Back then, he took up residence on her corner and block for too many weeks after Percy was safely away from the city. It made her grateful that she sent her son away, and it made her distraught that she had been right to do so. This wasn’t the first time during the month she saw him taking up his vigil outside her building. And here he was again, still on the lookout.”
“Nermina’s mind floats. She thinks of nothing. Tears continue to slide down her cheeks. She warms her hands-dirt packed under jagged nails-inside her slicker. She doesn’t want to remember. She doesn’t want to think or feel. But she feels the warmth of the injured man next to her and realizes that the bandage wrapped around his thigh is soaked with blood and that this is the source of the warmth. The man-a boy really, she thinks, has begun to whimper. “Thank you,” she says quietly, bowing her head as though in prayer.”
“The Otis River, upstate, was once a cradle of industry. Its rusty water and yellow tinted foam lips are partly a legacy of that past, and partly the simple fact of iron content in the earth. In the small-and getting smaller-city of Wattsville, which straddles both sides of the Otis, all the manufacturing plants were closed by the 1970s, but the red brick buildings that line the river’s banks make visitors-if there ever are any- hearken back to a time when machinery screamed under giant wooden beams, trains pulling into the station were regularly delayed by slow-moving freights, and leaded shop windows rippled the fedoras, furs, and crocodile purses of wealthy shoppers downtown. Now, like every other small city in the area, Wattsville struggles. Wages are stagnant. Industry is gone.”
The stone face of the churchyard sundial, though aged and worn, proclaimed its timeless warning. Life passes like the shadow.
With one finger, Lucy Campion traced each finely etched letter, ignoring the cheerful din of churchgoers released from St Dunstan’s long Sunday-morning service. The minister’s sermon had been particularly grim, emphasizing the wages of sin, even with yuletide nearly upon them. Life passes like the shadow. Where fall temptation then, she wondered.
‘That’s a magicked piece,’ a voice hissed in her ear. ‘Why lay your hands upon it?’ Lucy turned to face the old woman, taking in the dark costume of the long-bereaved. The earnestness to her demeanor gave her pause. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Can you not see the dead spiders upon the dial’s surface? Something ill is coming.’