I have quite an affection for chapter titles. I really do. I find they often add something extra to the reading – a foreshadowing, or an in joke, or just some little indicator that the author was having fun. Rick Riordan and Caimh/C.K. McDonnell would be two of my favourites for weird and descriptive chapter titles, but there are plenty more out there.
Of course, I quite like naming my own chapters too. But what often happens is that I’ll name them in the rough draft, intending to go back and rename them later, and I just … don’t. And having just looked at this, the title of the first chapter in the first book of a potential new series, I now realise I probably could have put a bit more thought into things …
However, in the event that you are not put off by a chapter about bins (or are even intrigued by the bins), read on, lovely people! I’m so excited to share DI Adams’ story regarding What Happened in London with you. She’s kept this one very close to her chest, but we all knew there was something up.
And now we get to find out …
Check back next week for chapter one, and don’t forget to get your ebook pre-orders in at all your favourite retailers! Paperback will be coming soon too.
Now grab your duck and mind those bins …
Baton. Light. Chocolate. Duck.
This is not DS Adams’ usual kit. This is not DS Adams’ usual case. She doesn’t think it’s anyone’s usual case, not with the vanishing children and the looming bridge and the hungry river. Not with the snap-snap-snap.
But six kids are missing, and she’s not going to let there be a seventh. Not on her watch. And she knows how to handle human monsters, after all. How different can this really be?
So: Baton. Light. Chocolate. And the bloody duck.
Let’s be having you, then.
What Happened in London
Ch 1: No One Predicted the Bin
The bin was looking at her. With intent. The bin was looking at her with intent, and she had no idea how she knew that, or how it was even possible (obviously it wasn’t), but that was the current situation.
Detective Sergeant Adams of the London Metropolitan Police had no time for problematic (and impossible) bins. She glared back at it, daring it to … she didn’t know. Bins were not something she’d considered a hazard before, other than in the olfactory sense, or as hiding places, but this one was different. Everything about it was just a little off. It was marginally too big, or too small. The colour was fractionally too intense, the familiar red on white of the logo too sharp, or the logo itself too big, or too small, or too something. And she could smell curry spices for some reason.
“No,” she muttered, and the world around her lurched, the yellow light stuttering. “No, what’s wrong with me? It’s just a bin.”
She looked away, peering deeper into the maze of slope-walled alleys, looking for her quarry. They had to be in here somewhere. She’d been right on their heels as they’d plunged off the street and into the dim-lit, secret ways that ran like veins just beyond the skin of London. They couldn’t have got far. She should’ve been able to see them, unless they’d hidden, but there were no turnings, no doorways, just—
“You,” she said, and turned her gaze back to the bin. It seemed closer. “But I’d have heard the lid go,” she added, frowning, and was sure – sure – that said lid creaked just slightly upward in response. It almost looked smug.
“It’s just a bin,” she muttered, and shifted her grip on her telescopic baton. “You’re just a bin.”
Now she was sure it looked smug, but she stepped forward anyway.
She wasn’t going to be beaten by a bin.
The evening hadn’t started with ominous bins. It had started at the Christmas market by the river, where warm yellow strings of lights sliced the riverside market into smooth wedges of rich colour and deep shadow. The scents of mulled wine spices and fatty sausage and frying onions fought against a persistent, fishy musk that the concrete-and-exhaust scent of the city couldn’t quite defeat, and the air rang with chintzy Christmas music, the grumble of cars, and the shrieks of excited children, as well as the shouts of adults who’d had a little more Christmas cheer than was probably necessary. A Christmas tree of inadvisable height, cinched into place by hefty cables, towered over the wooden stalls and glittered with baubles and ribbons and bells and even more lights, which somehow still did nothing to illuminate the mass of people swelling around it. Hats were pulled low over cold-pinched ears, scarves rolled high to shut out the ever-present wind from the Thames, and the swirl and hulk of winter coats robbed the crowd of definition, turning them into blurred swatches of colour.
Deep russet scarf/black coat/black hat. Navy scarf/maroon coat/cream hat. Brown/grey/grey. Stripes (colour unidentifiable in the yellow light)/black/blue. White on white on white, standing out a little against the rest, then lost again in the sea of revellers. People washed and surged around the market cabins like the tide, clutching mugs of hot chocolate and mulled wine, gnawing potato spirals on sticks or popping mini doughnuts into mouths sticky with spilled sugar, shrieking with delight at glittering glass ornaments and dancing metal candle toppers. The rich, low light rendered the stalls oddly intimate despite the crowds, an oasis against the city looming on its shoreside edges and the river curling past on the other, dark and muscular and indifferent.
DS Adams tucked her hands deeper into her pockets and stared at the crowd, watching a small girl in a bright orange puffer jacket wrestle an equally small boy for ownership of an enormous lollipop. Either they’d been let loose with their own pocket money or someone hadn’t realised the potential of large lollipops to start international-level incidents. The boy was clinging to the sweet grimly, pressing it into the chest of his jacket, and the girl had lost her hat, her hair wrapped around the stick somehow. They were both screaming, and the gloves were literally off on both sides. A woman with a takeaway coffee mug had picked the loose clothing up and was watching the struggle with such awed fascination that Adams decided she was an aunt or cousin – someone who wasn’t going to have to get the lollipop out of everyone’s clothes, anyway. The woman looked up, as if aware of Adams’ scrutiny, and gave an embarrassed little wave with the handful of gloves.
“I think they’re a bit overexcited,” she said.
“I think you need another lollipop,” Adams said.
“Ellie dropped hers.”
“Ah. Well, then.”
They both watched the kids for a moment longer, then the woman sighed, finished her drink, and went to pull them apart.
Adams shifted her gaze back to the crowd, wanting to say to the woman, Never mind the lollipops. Just keep them close. She spotted Zahid beneath the Christmas tree, heavy arms folded across his chest, beard half-swallowed by a wide red scarf, and caught the alarmed yellow flash of high-vis jackets drifting through the mass of people. Maintain a presence. That was where they were at. Never mind trying to catch whoever the hell was behind it all, just try to stop it happening again, because right now they had nothing. Nothing.
She took a handheld radio from her coat pocket and keyed it. “DS Adams, north quarter. Nothing seen. I’m taking a walk.”
“Adams, Mirza. Copy.” Zahid’s answer was short. It was quite possible their quarry had access to police radios – anything was possible, really, and anyone covering their tracks so bloody effectively had to know something. Adams supposed they could have kept to their mobiles, but there didn’t seem much point in it with all the uniformed officers squeezing through the crowds, less in the hope of spotting someone than in the cause of being seen to be Doing Something.
Adams nodded to a uniformed constable standing on the edge of the pavement, where a road came down in a loop toward the river. An ice cream van was parked at the kerb, doing unfeasibly brisk trade for the fact that it was cold enough to make her nose sting, and beyond it there was a posh lavender tea stall housed in a wood-panelled trailer decorated with dreamcatchers and twinkling lights. The last space was taken up by a battered Land Rover attached to a trailer that was old less in a vintage manner and more in a one-careless-owner-for-thirty-years one. The shutters were lifted, and there was a queue three deep outside it. Adams caught a whiff of melting cheese, and her stomach reminded her that coffee was not a food group, no matter how much of it she drank.
She hesitated, then decided that a quick tour of the market’s edges should earn her a toasted sandwich on her way back. It wasn’t like she didn’t have time. No one was going home any time soon.
The scream was long, and drawn out, and it seemed that the music simply fell away beneath it, crumbling to nothing. Adams broke into a run before the cry had even ended, shoving unceremoniously through the crowd and cursing the after-work happy hour partiers who were still swilling drinks and insulting each other good-naturedly. Her radio spat names, calling urgently for check-ins, and she almost tripped over a small girl in a dinosaur suit and a Christmas hat as she plunged toward the river. The crowd felt determined to hold her back, swelling in the same direction, drawn by the promise of drama, and for one moment she was half suffocated by the thick, mingled scents of burnt sugar and hot alcohol and old oranges. There was another scream, and someone shouted, and then she was elbowing a tall man in a fluffy hat aside and bursting through the crowded marketplace onto the quieter riverside walk. The cold air coming straight off the Thames snatched at her breath, and for a moment her nostrils were filled with salt and rusting metal.
She spotted a detective constable staring blankly up at the nearest bridge, its span dark and heavy across the water. “Harry!” she shouted. “You see anything?”
He looked around at her, then shook his head. No, of course he hadn’t. He’d have to have been actually paying attention for that, and she was willing to bet the thermos mug he was clutching held more than just coffee. She jogged toward the river, her breath harsh in the back of her throat, scanning the faces of the crowd as she went.
More police were emerging from the direction of the market, in uniforms and not, all of them checking the jostling mass of revellers and searching for the screamer. No one came running out of the night looking for help, and no one cried out again. Even the crowd that she thought had been pulled toward the shout had either lost interest or had never really been interested in the first place. There was barely anyone walking the cold banks of the river in the dark, just one teenaged couple swaddled in puffer jackets, scurrying back toward the market with their heads down. She angled toward them.
“Excuse me,” she said, then, when they didn’t look around, “excuse me.”
The young woman gave her a startled, alarmed look, but there was a smile playing around the corners of her mouth, and her companion gave a snort that threatened to tip into all-out laughter. They didn’t slow, and Adams was about to intercept them when Zahid loomed into their path, chest out and legs planted wide.
“DI Zahid Mirza,” he said, and the woman’s smile vanished. “Can I have a word?”
Adams left Zahid to deal with them, the adrenaline already fading. The scream hadn’t meant anything. Just some kids messing around at the edge of the river, tasting the shock of delighted fright that came from almost falling, and gave a better taste to the night.
She balled a fist and struck her thigh with it lightly, tasting frustration like old wine at the back of her throat. Not that she wanted anyone else to get taken, not with four kids already gone, vanished from the market and the riverside, but she’d like to have caught someone at it. Arrested someone.
Harry was still loitering at the edge of the crowd with his hat pulled down over his ears, his thermos swapped for a brown paper bag, and now he trotted over to her.
“Just those kids, huh?” he said, nodding at Zahid.
“Looks like,” Adams agreed, peering down the riverside walk. “You didn’t see anything?”
“Nah, nothing.” He glanced over his shoulder at the bridge, a quick, twitchy movement, then looked back at Adams. “They probably won’t come when it’s so busy.”
Adams gave him an unimpressed look. “The last kid was taken at seven on a Wednesday night. It wouldn’t have been any quieter.” Just taken. Whipped away into the dark, the parents turning away from the hot chocolate stand with cups in hand to find their daughter just not there. And no one had seen anything. No one had heard anything. One small girl just gone, like a stone swallowed by the river.
“We weren’t all here last time, though,” Harry pointed out. “That’s different.”
Adams nodded, squeezing the bridge of her nose with one hand and closing her eyes for a second. They felt scratchy. No one had been getting much sleep. The first kid had been one thing – one terrible, terrible thing – but the second had made them all sit up, both of them going missing from the Christmas market within a week of each other. The third had been five days later, and the fourth four days after that. All the stories were horribly identical in all the ways that mattered, and no one could doubt that this was a pattern. Someone was hunting the market, using it as their own personal honeypot. And they weren’t leaving a single sign behind.
She opened her eyes, looking to the sky as she did so, searching for a moment’s relief from the stark shadows and heavy lights down here. The bridge loomed at the corner of her vision, all tight lengths of cable and steel on top, hard grim brick and girders below. It dragged at her attention, and something moved. Her head snapped toward it, her body tensing with expectation. A jumper? The bridge was low, like so many along the Thames, but the water was hungry and treacherous, and teemed with hazards. Currents, shoals and drop-offs, the jagged skeletons of old structures hidden in the murky waters, fun things like Thames tummy and Weil’s disease. And that water was cold.
There was no one that she could see. No one perched on the high metal sides, nothing crashing to the water from the hulking metal struts. But she kept staring anyway, the sounds of the city weirdly remote, as if her ears had suddenly filled with water. Harry was saying something, but she couldn’t hear him, and the unceasing rumble of traffic was a murmur on the edge of her consciousness. The night was all sharp edges and strange colours, and there was movement on the bridge. No, not on it, under it. In it. Nothing she could be sure of, just a whisper of something almost out of sight, too big to be a pigeon, moving with too much intent to be a drifting piece of rubbish on the wind. Something twisted in her chest, a hungry, primal fright, because the movement didn’t make sense, it was—
The whiff of hot cheese dragged across her senses like a slap of cold water, and she blinked at Harry. He was holding half a sandwich out to her.
Adams wrinkled her nose. “No.” She looked back at the river, but Harry waved the sandwich at her again.
“I took the ham off this half.”
“You know it doesn’t work like that, right?” She couldn’t see anything on the bridge now. It was just stark angles and hard shadows, and nothing could really be under there. Although she supposed there must be workers’ access and stuff.
“Why not? It’s just cheese now. And they’re really good toasties.” He took a bite of the other half and nodded at her encouragingly as he chewed.
“It’s still got meat gunk on it,” she said. “You can’t just take it off and say, oh, now it’s veggie.”
“I don’t see why not,” Harry muttered, but he turned his attention back to eating.
Adams ignored him and walked down to the river with her hands in her pockets and her gaze fixed on the bridge. That strange moment of dislocation had gone, the traffic back to its normal assertive snarl, the constant hum of people and buildings and trucks and cars and everything re-establishing itself. She glanced warily up and down the path, but Zahid was looking the other way, into the crowd – where her attention should be too, she knew – and the riverside walkway was all but empty. It looked as if it should be fiercely lit by the stalking limbs of the streetlights that lined it, sown at regular intervals along the bank. Between them, and the ever-present glow of the city, and the heavy yellow wash of the lights on the bridge, it didn’t seem as if there would be much room for darkness at all. Even the Thames reflected the light back off its surface, catching it here and there on the crests of wind-driven waves, and glowing in the foam that followed them. But in practise, there was more dark here than Adams was entirely comfortable with. The bridge loomed large and shadowed, none of the illumination reaching its squatting girders, and the lights seemed to accentuate the dark rather than push it back.
She paced down the path, her stride measured and wary, still looking for that strange movement. It had to have been some scaffolding, perhaps, left behind by workers and shaken loose by the wind. Or it could be rubbish caught among the uprights, but it had seemed to own too many straight lines for that. Maybe some loose canvas, part of a protest sign or a tarp used for covering up repairs, still daubed with logos or slogans. Or … or it could be something. A handy way to hoist kids out of sight once they’d been grabbed. It was possible.
She quickened her pace, rubbing a hand across her eyes. Spots of weariness stayed behind when she opened them again, leaving swimming motes that threatened to spread, and a dull throb started up in her forehead. Great. Was this a migraine? She’d never had one, but it was that sort of thing, right? One of her friends at school used to get them, and she’d had to go to the nurse and lie in a darkened room with a facecloth on her forehead, like some Victorian heroine, and— Adams shook the thought loose. Why the hell was she thinking about migraines? Bridges. Bridges and kids.
She stopped under the loom of its arches and stared up at it, all vast grey girders stalking out across the Thames, indifferent to the sharp edges of the wind and the scrape of the waters at its supports. It should have been clear-cut, the night winter-close and heavy but still full of ever-present city light. The bridge should have been nothing but firm angles and straight lines, and as she followed its stretch across the river it was, but here, above her … she pinched the bridge of her nose again and blinked hard. The bridge was just a bridge. Not even one of the attractive ones the tourists all loved. It was brutal and utilitarian, and there was nothing interesting about it at all.
She was tired. She might even need to get her eyes checked. Or she really could be starting with migraines. That’d be brilliant. Just what she needed.
A duck quacked from the edge of the river, and she frowned at it. It waggled its back end and stomped up to her, examining her from one eye then the other.
“Seen anything unusual?” she asked it, then looked around a little guiltily. That was all she needed, being seen talking to a duck. Hardly add any credibility to the Met Police, would it?
She looked up at the bridge one last time, unsure of what she was looking for, but it gave back nothing.
“You’re no help,” she said to the duck, which looked put out. She started to turn back to the market, and as she did so her radio blared into sudden life, startling an answering quack out of the duck.
“All stations, all stations. MISPER reported, repeat, MISPER reported now.” There was an edge of both panic and triumph in the officer’s voice, and Adams’ heart slammed into high gear. MISPER. Missing Person.
“IC3, male, six years old,” the officer continued, and Adams turned on the spot, moving fast but taking time to really look, scanning the river and the path and the low banks of scrubby vegetation that had been poorly planted on the embankment further along. IC3. That meant he was Black, and in her head he was suddenly her little brother as he’d been years ago, shrieking next to her as they ran down the river path with their arms out and the winter wind carving past them, wild with the excitement of Christmas.
“Blue hat, red jacket, ski trousers. Name Alfie Penn.”
The path toward the market was empty, the underside of the bridge cold and hostile. There was no one near the water she could see, no one clinging to the waist-high river wall. Other side of the bridge, and there was the embankment with a patchy covering of low bushes— She stopped, straining to see in the dim light. There was someone there, standing frozen amid the undergrowth, hands clamped to their head. She took a step toward them, the hair on the back of her neck rising, and felt their attention shift to her.
“DS Adams, Met Police,” she shouted. “Stay where you are.”
Predictably, they didn’t.
Also predictably, she gave chase, leaving the startled duck behind.
It wasn’t until she reached the bin that things got unpredictable.
Lovely people, I hope you enjoyed that little preview of What Happened in London! There’ll be another chapter next week, so stay tuned.
But if you’re already convinced that you need to know more about unpredictable bins, you can head to your favourite retailers and pre-order your ebook now. It’ll appear on your ereader all sneaky and non-bin-like on the 27th, ready for the reading!
Paperbacks will be available to order in all the usual places on or around the 27th too.