Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television.
His latest urban fantasy novel is Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? from Tor. He lives in Gloucestershire with his wife and son.
‘I’m just someone who makes television,’ said a plummy voice Sefton recognized. He turned up the volume on his car radio and heard it identiﬁed as Gilbert Flamstead, the actor who played the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. ‘The three of us, myself, Alice and Ben—’
‘The three actors who play Sherlock Holmes? I heard you got together now you’re all ﬁlming in London at the same time. Do you have a message for the murderer?’
‘No. We don’t.’
‘So you refuse to condemn the killing?’ Typical bloody journalist. Sefton had always liked Flamstead: too smart ever to give a quote that didn’t have some side to it; horny as fuck. The idea of him getting together for drinks with Alice Cassell, who played the US TV version of Sherlock Holmes, which was normally set in Los Angeles, but was also ﬁlming three episodes in London at the moment, and with Ben Speake, the Shakespearean actor who was the star of a series of knockabout comedy Sherlock Holmes movies out of Hollywood, the latest of which was also ﬁlming in London now, to talk about the murder . . . well, he saw why the news was leading with this, but come on, at this length? Bank raiders actually caught, Star Wars, all that?
‘Being just some bloke, I do not have the authority to condemn the killing. I feel desperately sorry for Mr Lassiter’s family. I never want murders to happen. OK?’
A week ago, the same media outlets had been saying that ‘Holmesmania’ had been ‘gripping the capital’, with groups of fans of each of the three versions location-hunting across London and gathering to scream at a press call with all three actors in deerstalkers. (Flamstead and Cassell had been rolling their eyes at theirs, which their characters never wore.) The media had immediately made the connection: ‘Rache’ had also been scrawled on the wall in blood in the ﬁrst Holmes novel.
Sefton had followed the case distantly, certain SC&O1 would have someone they fancied for it and were just taking the time they needed to put the case together. If killers, in the wake of the Ripper murders this summer, had taken to scrawling things on walls again, especially in what could well be their own blood, so much the better, because it provided an immediate supply of DNA.
The next item on the news was something about an injury to a footballer. The foiled bank raid was mentioned fourth, by which point Sefton was making amazed gestures at the radio. He sank back in his seat as he heard the bare details. It all sounded kind of puny now. Damn it. He’d been hoping this small success would be the hammer he needed to start ﬁxing his friends.
‘Wasn’t that great?’ Sefton, trying to project a sense of pride and accomplishment, strode into the Portakabin across the road from Gipsy Hill police station. This served as the ops room for the four-person team that everyone in the Met who didn’t work at Gipsy Hill assumed were an elite unit. ‘Successful operation.’ He gestured at the makeshift ops board made of cork. Every point on the operational objectives list had been circled as having been achieved. ‘Suspect in custody, being left to stew, waiting until we ofﬁcially offer him a deal, because his team thoroughly ratted on him. We’re saying to the Met mainstream, “Hey, our existence is justiﬁed, here’s a crime you can understand, and oh, by the way, it’s solved.” What could be better?’
The three other members of his team were standing apart from one another, looking off in different directions, like they were an indie band posing for an album cover. They all looked as if they had a long list of things that could be better.
Sefton sighed. Costain and Ross he could understand. They’d had a relationship, and, because of an extraordinary betrayal of trust by Costain, it had fallen apart. Costain looked guilty; he moved guilty; he seemed angry with himself about that guilt, all the time. Ross, on the other hand, had frozen. Through occult means, in a fruitless attempt to get hold of something that might be able to free her dead father from Hell, she had sacriﬁced her future happiness, lost the basic ability to feel joy. Sometimes she’d pause for long moments after she was asked a question, as if the effort of answering might be too much. She and Costain came in every morning and didn’t speak to each other.
Ross had recently been away for a week, taking a training course in statement analysis at the Dallas police academy. She’d been doing a lot of that, upskilling to be more of a tactical analyst, putting the team ﬁrst as they got more and more into the detail of the London occult underworld. When she’d got back, Sefton had asked her about Dallas, what it had been like to be in a city where the Sight didn’t work. Surely, he’d asked, it must have been a relief to get a break? The look on Ross’s face as she’d just shrugged had told him that for her, there was no longer any such thing as a break.
Those two Sefton might have been able to deal with, had it not been for Jimmy. Detective Inspector James Quill, immediately following a vastly successful operation, was currently rubbing his face, as if he was again dealing with a vast anger that Sefton had seen too much lately. He’d literally gone to Hell, and Sefton understood the fear that sometimes crossed his boss’s face, the stress that made him jerk at an unexpected sound. However, Sefton couldn’t shake the feeling there was something more to Quill’s pain. It was as if, for Quill, looking at the rest of them these days made his stress worse. A couple of times, when he’d been alone with Sefton, he’d started to say something and then stopped himself. It was as if he carried knowledge he couldn’t share, despite having briefed the rest of them on all the details of Hell. Whatever his secret was, it was a burden.
OK, then. Moving forward. ‘We need to start looking for a new operation,’ said Sefton. ‘We need to at least start working out what we want to ask Ballard.’
There was silence again. Nobody knew where to start. Nobody wanted to be here.
Sefton walked with Lofthouse down the corridor that led to her ofﬁce in Gipsy Hill police station. He was grateful as always that the four of them tended to get immediate access to their boss.
‘It’s not like Quill’s not talking,’ she said. ‘He told me about what he saw in Hell. Dear God.’ She led him in and closed the door behind them. ‘I debriefed Quill about Operation Dante – and now it occurs to me that he named the bank job that and I never even called him on it.’ She put her hand on her desk as if to steady herself. Was Sefton wrong, or was there a burden on her shoulders too? Of all of them, their boss should be the one with the least tension, not having the Sight herself, but beneﬁting from their success, getting good word of mouth across the Met, but . . . no, this was also someone who wasn’t sleeping too well.
He waited for her to sit before doing so himself. ‘I wanted to, ma’am.’ He had something big to ask of her, and he felt the need for formality. ‘Thing is, in the old days he kept up such a brave face I thought maybe it was a good thing he’d made a joke out of it.’
‘Such jokes do not ease his pain now, though, do they?’
‘That’s what I wanted to meet with you about, ma’am. This unit might have just had a major success as far as the mainstream Met is concerned, making it, I’m sure, a lot easier for you to defend our funding, but I can’t see how we can go forward. I can’t see how we’re going to work together again. Dante basically fell into our laps. We separated into our specialities, and we didn’t have to interact much beyond stuff we’d done a hundred times before. The next time something from our world comes along, something that pushes us, that demands we rely on each other . . . excuse my French, ma’am, but’ – and there went the formality – ‘we’ll be fucked.’
‘I had rather begun to realize all the above myself. Do you have some new options for me?’
Sefton took a deep breath. ‘You’ve been helping us all this time without sharing the experiences that got us here. You believe us when we tell you about impossible things. You’ve asked us not to question you about it. Clearly you know something about hidden London. Clearly you knew the Continuing Projects Team, the guys who, we presume, used to be our sort of law in this town.’ He remembered the personnel ﬁle with her name on it they’d found in the ruins of the CPT’s headquarters in Docklands. Since then, Lofthouse had refused, incredibly, to discuss the matter with them. Quill had said she’d intimated that was the price of her continuing to let them operate. ‘We’re at the end of our tether, ma’am. Anything you can add to our knowledge would help.’
Lofthouse closed her eyes.
‘It’s time for you to come clean with us, ma’am.’
He thought for a moment that she was going to yell at him, but no. She was ﬁghting some internal battle. Finally, she managed to look at him again. ‘Do you know,’ she asked, ‘when the temple building you found in Docklands was destroyed?’
Sefton felt bemused at this sudden turn. She sounded like she didn’t know. Which was contrary to what he’d assumed about her involvement with the CPT. ‘We can only say it was after a certain date, ﬁve years ago, when the records cease. Everyone who talks about the old law says the CPT seem to have stopped presiding over London around then.’
‘I gather, from what you’ve all told me about previous operations,’ said Lofthouse, ‘that it must take a great deal of energy and concentration on someone’s part to make everybody forget the Continuing Projects Team?’
‘That’s correct. We haven’t been able to discover anything else about them. It’s like they’ve been erased from history, except for their pictures, left at the site, we think, as a demonstration of that power.’
‘Right.’ She seemed to have decided something, but it wasn’t a pleasant decision. From the look on her face, it meant a whole world of tough choices. ‘That’ll be all, Detective Constable.’
Sefton was amazed. ‘But—’
She gave him a look that dared him to make her repeat herself.
When Sefton had left, Rebecca Lofthouse let out a long breath and put both hands on her desk. She did the breathing exercises to make herself calm, the ones she’d been using since just before she’d visited Quill’s team in Docklands, when they’d been exploring the ruins of the ‘temple’ of the Continuing Projects Team. That had been the point when horror had entered her life.
That horror had known what she was going to discover when she visited them. She had already made attempts to do something about her situation: slightly; quietly. She’d thought she’d moved covertly, but if, as she’d been told during the Russell Vincent case, MI5 had noticed what she’d been up to, then, she was sure, so could the terrible power that was watching over her.
Now things had to change. Sefton’s visit had crystallized a feeling she’d had herself. For the sake of James Quill and his team, she had to start taking some risks.
A week later, at the end of another working day that had been devoted to tidying up the loose ends of Operation Dante, Quill stopped his car outside his semi-detached house in Enﬁeld and shut off the engine. He hesitated, as always these days, before going inside. He just needed to take a moment, to prepare for the role he had to play at home. He had to appear to be a jolly daddy for Jessica and reassure the continually worried Sarah that he was OK.
It’s everyone who ever lived in London.
That was what the sign above the entrance to Hell had said. He saw it in his memories every day. He had so many questions. He worried about what that meant in practice. He’d seen, in Hell, people from all time periods. Did ‘everyone’ include visitors to London? Was one night at a Holiday Inn in Clapham enough to sentence you to eternal damnation? Better act like that was the case. Some of those in Hell had thought, in their confused way, that there’d been other sorts of afterlife before, that this was a recent change. Could it change back?
He hadn’t told anyone. He couldn’t bring himself to. On his journey home tonight, he’d seen the usual horrors of hidden London. They seemed obvious now, meaningless. They were nothing compared to what was waiting.
He got out of the car, went and unlocked his front door, and when he heard Jessica calling from inside, he made himself not think about what the things in Hell would do to her. He made himself not think, as he did, over and over, that there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Instead, he forced himself to smile.
‘Laura called.’ Sarah had that expression on her face again as they made dinner: busy, happy engagement. It was one she’d held on to for weeks. When Quill had ﬁrst come back to life, had literally returned from Hell, she’d waited for a while, then had gently begun asking lots of questions, trying to get him to talk. He’d burst into tears, the ﬁrst time, then yelled at her to stop. The tears hadn’t come back, but the yelling had. Over the weeks, her questions had fallen away, and she was now being supportive, hoping he’d come to her. She would wait forever. He was angry all the time. He was full of ﬁght or ﬂight, waiting, every moment, for a blow that might kill him, might send him to Hell again. He had thought he was brave. He wasn’t. His depression . . . well, he didn’t know where that began and actual sanity ended now, because now there genuinely was no future. The previous evening, she’d carefully asked him about the end of the operation, and he’d done what he’d started to do instead of yelling, played the part of himself to talk to her, talked about how pleased the team all were.
‘Oh,’ he said now, ‘how’s she doing?’
Laura was Sarah’s sister, who lived in Inverness and worked in computers. Quill had known her, when he’d ﬁrst met Sarah, as Derek. There had been an awkward phone call before the wedding. ‘Mate, listen, I’ve got a favour to ask. I want to come to the wedding as . . . OK, this is complicated, so I’m just going to say it. I’m having a sex change. That’s not what they call it these days, but that’s what I call it. By the time the wedding comes round, I’m going to be living as a woman. Is that OK?’
Quill had thought for a moment that Derek had been joking, but no. ‘Does Sarah know?’
‘Not yet. I wanted to talk to you ﬁrst.’
‘It sounds,’ Quill had said, ‘like you and I are going to need a few pints of therapy.’
When they went out, Quill had asked loads of questions, as coppers did, interested in someone who was doing such an extraordinary thing. He’d had a bit of awareness training back in the day, but this was a mate. Derek had ﬁnally told Sarah everything. Sarah had been angry about Derek talking to Quill ﬁrst, but Quill had seen the situation as a sign that he was getting on with her family, and had talked and talked about it, to the point where the siblings had told him he could stop. He’d made sure Laura, as she now was, was welcome at the wedding.
Now, they went out for a pint when Laura was in London, though Laura’s capacity for alcohol had declined a bit, and largely talked about Scottish soccer, of which Laura had an extraordinary knowledge. Every now and then, though, Laura would, a bit deliberately, move the conversation to wider topics, in a way that Derek hadn’t. Quill had got the feeling she’d been freed, and did his best to join in, though there were times he wanted to say that maybe Sarah should have come along too. He’d started to refer to her, a couple of pints in, as his ‘best mate’, which she probably was now that Harry had gone, but at one point, Laura had corrected him and said, ‘Best friend?’ Quill had nodded. So he now had a best friend who wore dresses and make-up, and sometimes tried to get him to appreciate fabrics. He hadn’t seen her since he’d got the Sight, and the idea of going out with her and talking about her stuff and not at all about the depth of shit he’d got lost in seemed like it could be a blessed relief.
‘She’s ﬁne,’ said Sarah. ‘She’s had a promotion. She’s coming down at the weekend.’
‘Great.’ There was that momentary ache about the possibility that the sign over Hell’s doorway also referred to visitors to London, but no, he could choose not to believe that.
‘Yeah,’ said Sarah. ‘She’s house-hunting. She’s moving to London.’
In his tiny ﬂat above a shop in Walthamstow, Kev Sefton had ﬁnally managed to get to sleep, his boyfriend, Joe, snoring soundly as always beside him. The background noise of London at night strayed in through the window, which was still open, just about, the ﬁrst cool of autumn making the curtain ﬂap.
Sefton was dreaming tension dreams, his legs working at the duvet. Behind his eyes, he was looking up into the pleading face of . . . It wasn’t quite the actor who played Sherlock Holmes, with the posh accent and the dextrous ﬁngers. Sefton knew, in the way one knows things in dreams, that this was no actor; this was something from the heart of London itself, something with the weight that sometimes crashes into dreams. This man had crashed in, desperate, panting, and was scrabbling at Sefton’s shirt, not trying to get it off – this wasn’t going to be that sort of dream, no matter what his mind tried to make it. The man was trying to make Sefton understand something. Oh, it was Sherlock Holmes, the real Sherlock Holmes! (Was Sherlock Holmes real?) He needed him; he was crying out. Sefton couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was desperate; he was looking for help. The man turned and ran, down darkening streets, streets full of fog, shadows suddenly falling over him. Sefton pursued him. He ran round a corner and collided with . . . with nothing. There was a gap, a gap where Sherlock Holmes should be, a gap in the air!
Sefton fell through it and found himself falling—
He woke up with a start, tense, his arms still ﬂailing. Joe mumbled something beside him. Sefton let his breathing slow. When he’d been an undercover, he’d grown used to that sort of dream. He’d ignored them as obvious, not indicative, but now he was on the path to being . . . something else, something he didn’t have a name for, now he was always looking into the ﬁne detail of hidden London, trying to ﬁnd ways to leverage it for his team, maybe he should start paying more attention to what his unconscious was saying. He got out of bed and rubbed his forehead. What had that dream said? That Sherlock Holmes had gone. Well, you could interpret that as saying there was something missing in terms of the law. The dream could have been about the way Lofthouse had hustled him out of that meeting without providing him with anything that could help his friends.
No, that was reading it like someone in a magazine advice column would read it, adding one too many layers of awake interpretation. The dream had said Sherlock Holmes had gone. A ﬁctional character had . . . Oh, oh, now, wait a sec.
Sefton went into the other room and found the holdall in which he kept all the gubbins he experimented with that was ‘very London’. He was hoping that soon Ballard’s collection would be added to it, if they could make a deal with him. All those lovely items yelling with the Sight that they’d found on him, all out of Sefton’s reach now, in evidence boxes. Sefton found a pendulum made of lead from a Roman sewer. He swung it gently. Sefton had been pondering, lately, what it was about the London-ness of an object that could possibly lead to it having any sort of power. It was ancient thinking, against science, that mere association could alter a physical object. So far, everything his team had found, while mind-boggling, had surrendered to rationality, in the end. Some sort of reason, some sort of natural law, must work for hidden London, or they wouldn’t have got as far as they had with the business of deduction, with logic. It was still their only way to salvation.
He found a map of the Underground, unfolded it and spread it out on the carpet. He held the pendulum above it and let it swing. He closed his eyes, feeling for the tiniest deviation from the lean of the ﬂoor, and was sure, after a moment, that he felt something. He’d done this many times before, in many locations, to establish a norm. He always sat in the same way, programming his muscle memory to feel when there was any inﬂuence on the pendulum. Now there was something that was making his body recall that lurch in the dream, that moment of falling, as if . . . something or someone was indeed missing from London. He opened his eyes and watched the pendulum slowly subsiding and . . . glitching, by the tiniest jerk every time. He folded the paper several times, each time starting the lead swinging again, each time watching as it swung towards the same general area, until he thought, Yeah, it’s pretty obvious where I should go, isn’t it?
He grabbed some clothes and went to ﬁnd his car keys.
Baker Street was still busy close to midnight, with people wandering from the Greek nightclub down the road, street sweepers clearing up, deliveries being made, the cold and the neon in the dark making Sefton think of approaching winter. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, which was actually at 237– 41 Baker Street, but said 221B on the door, was a couple of shop-fronts along from a pub called the Volunteer, which had only night lights on, the staff clearing up.
Sefton had never been here before. The museum itself was a neat little frontage with Victorian lamps, a sign, a blue plaque visible beside a balcony on the second ﬂoor. It was so obviously artiﬁcial on this big, busy, modern street, a house conversion the ﬁctional aspects of which dated back only to 1990, the point at which it had been decided that the chance to make a proﬁt should take precedence over the reality. From Sefton’s Sighted point of view, it was like the mass consciousness of London had demanded the building exist.
There was, thank God, a single light burning on a higher ﬂoor, otherwise, he realized, he’d have no way of getting in. He went and rang the doorbell, several times, and when a face appeared at the window above, he held up his warrant card.
The interior of the museum was exactly what he’d expected, a ticket booth followed by a narrow staircase, with captions pointing out exactly how authentic every piece of bric-a-brac was. Sefton felt uneasy as one of the assistant curators, a petite young woman with a ponytail, who identiﬁed herself as Ann Stanley, led him upstairs to ‘Holmes’s ﬂat’ on the ﬁrst ﬂoor. Clean-up today, she’d told him, had taken longer than usual, so, exhausted, she’d made use of the small room the museum kept for staff to stay over. This was the sort of building Sefton and his team were getting used to exploring, with every detail of its history shouting at them because they had the Sight. Only, this one had been designed that way for ordinary people and had nothing of the actual Sight about it. No real home, even of an eccentric Victorian detective, would have this much signiﬁcant detail. They’d laid it out like nobody ever threw anything out or cleaned up. The items on display were props, fakes. That was why it all felt so . . . nauseating, to someone with the Sight. None of these items sang with it as they should. The house felt . . . vulnerable, compromised, as if by laying out all these things that should have the weight of the Sight to them, it was inviting something terrible to happen that would lend them that property for real.
The curator unlocked and let him into the ‘consulting room’, asking lots of questions, which suddenly Sefton couldn’t hear, because now all his attention was taken up with what was in the centre of the room. Between a settee and a bearskin hearth-rug there lay the body of a man. He wore a deerstalker and one of those short capes. He lay on his back, one arm stretched out in what looked like a helpless plea towards the smaller of two desks in the corners of the room. Sticking out of his chest was a straight knife with some sort of decoration on the blade. The weapon tugged at Sefton with the gravity of the Sight. It was the only thing here that did. Around the body had formed a pool of blood.
‘What’s that knife doing there?’ asked the curator, puzzled. She obviously couldn’t see the body, or her reaction would have been much more urgent.
(C) Paul Cornell 2016
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.