Chapter 1. Rain
Blinds drawn to a bleak sky of a fading winter afternoon, the office was dim, grim and somber, but perfect for thinking. And listening.
Rustling, like beads across heavy linen, a hand reached over the desk, hovered for several long seconds above a plastic button, then pressed.
A small glass door opened, and two fingers (thick and strong) extracted an audio tape. The fingers pondered the cassette for a moment, tapped it thoughtfully, then lowered it into a strongbox.
The box, of course, was not empty. It contained some odd bric-a-brac, an oddly carved stick (broken), and a scroll. Encountering the latter, the fingers closed reflexively about the parchment, held it for a second, then put it aside.
A voice hummed — baritone; deep and rich, yet low; barely audible above the clattery heating duct. The fingers drummed absently on the desk for several seconds... then stopped.
Abruptly, decisively, a thumb surged forward to jab the intercom.
"Hey Mary? Any chance you could locate Tanner for me? I need an opinion on this."
Aha! That's it!
Like an athlete in the zone, Mione Granger saw it all fit into place — three books open to helpful passages, a few key photographs, and a tablet with all of her calculations — everything aligned beautifully, and her pen raced across the page.
"The pronounced flattening on one side of the slug strongly implies ricochet. Smooth deformation without scratches suggests impact with a shatter-proof, puncture-resistant surface such as mid- to high-tensile metal. Thus, further scrutiny of the crime scene should focus on examining the ceiling pipework for marks. Indentations in common piping (i.e., of regular, cylindrical shape) may shed crucial light on ballistic strike-angle, potentially enabling trajectory back-propagation to determine if the shot truly came from the cellar window (per Witness II), or whether the shooter might rather have stood at the foot of the stairs (our hypothesis)."
Lifting pen from paper, she straightened up and shook the stiffness from her wrist. She was in the process of proof-reading the passage, when... "Ack!"
Nearly leaping from her chair, grappling with the hand clamped over her eyes, Mione cursed aloud as the assailant's fingers withdrew.
A petite red-head smirked slightly as she moved into Mione's field of view. "Haven't your Crim' profs ever warned you not to sit with your back to the door?" She took an adjacent seat. "So, what goes, girl? Slay the problem set?"
"You wretch." Mione leveled a scorching mock-glare, huffed, then filed her homework into a folder. "I just finished it. And you? Done with your Psych essay?"
"Yep." Ginny Smith nodded absently as she rooted through her back pack. "Knocked off a half hour ago, and had time to go check the post. So, hey! I've a surprise for you!" She pulled out two tickets and presented them to her friend.
"Camden Palace. Tomorrow night." Mione squinted. "Mysti...? Uh...? Ginny, what the blazes are Mysti Stags?"
"Indie rock band. Their drummer is an old friend of my brother's." Ginny shrugged. "The ‘zines’ have nice reviews on them, and I've heard Susan playing their tapes. You'll like them."
"Like them?" Standing to collect her papers, Mione gave a skeptical look. "So, presumably they're nothing like Blink-182?"
"Oi?" Ginny blinked. "You didn't like Blink-182?"
"Like them?" Mione cocked a sharp eyebrow as she began to pack her bag. "The music was all loud and scronchy, and the boy standing up there with the microphone looked so... lost and angry."
"Oh?" Ginny looked away, fingering a silver chain around her neck. "I see."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to..." Mione paused, attempting to make eye contact.
"No matter." Ginny stood brusquely, avoiding her friend's gaze. "I need to return a couple of books. Meet you by the main entrance." She left the room before Mione could renew her attempts to apologise.
Mione sighed, upset with herself for being insensitive, but also somewhat flummoxed by her younger friend’s unexpected pique.
Indeed, from Mione’s perspective, it was puzzling why would Ginny even care? Didn't she realise that Mione had found their first (and only other) attempt at a concert to be a ghastly bore? Hadn't Ginny noticed that Mione knew almost nothing about modern music; that she was an introvert; a self-admitted wallflower, more at home in the library on a Friday night than a pub?
Ginny, on the other hand was lively, prettier, and in possession of some fairly hot tickets — why couldn't she just, well, ask someone else?
Mione paused for a moment, staring blindly out the doorway through which her friend had departed. A frown crept very slowly about her eyes, and, she shook her head.
Use the 'evidence' side of your brain, Mione-girl.
Indeed, Mione had to admit that Ginny was rather unlikely to ‘just ask someone else’. That was simply not the way her room-mate did things. She may have had the looks to get lots of dates, but she never went on any. She was witty and clever, and ought to be making plenty of new friends all the time... but she didn't.
It was almost as if Ginny was a self-imposed wallflower but, unlike Mione, appeared quite unhappy with that sort of life. Lots of things about the girl’s personality seemed to hint that she was rather lonely, and would do well with a broader circle of friends but, paradoxically, it seemed fair to say that Ginny kept... pushing people away.
Paradox upon paradox? Mione tapped her lip.
Not wanting to leave Ginny stewing downstairs, Mione hastened to finish physically sorting her books and papers, even as she tried to mentally sort the jigsaw scraps of this friendship issue. She puzzled over what it was about Ginny that 'pushed people away'? Was it her (perhaps overly casual) appearance? The penchant for drab denim; the sort of limp hair and pallid complexion that could be easily polished in ten minutes of primping? Could those all be signs of… self-sabotage?
But more likely that was beside the point. There could be plenty of unrelated reasons for Ginny's au naturel grooming, and Mione decided that the girl could probably wear a barley sack and still sparkle. Wasn’t it fair more likely the issue was really a general matter of… attitude?
Mione pursed her lips. Taking one final glance around the carrel to make sure she hadn’t left anything, she nodded to herself and stepped out into the corridor, convinced that she was finally getting somewhere with this.
Reticent. Sullen and evasive. Lost and…
Lost and angry??
Having reached the bottom of the steps, Mione stared blankly at the wall facing her.
Did the unintended 'lost and angry' barb strike a bit too close to home? Was Ginny some bitter, disillusioned Generation X soul, disrespected by a cold and shallow world, sick of being tossed aside by self-serving, dismissive baby-boomers?
Or, maybe she was just the product a lousy childhood?
Ginny never spoke of her past, but a difficult upbringing could well explain why this tough-minded, hard-scrabble, chippy little sparrow was having difficulty fitting in with the world.
Mione shrugged. She had no idea what the real story was but, either way, the ’lost and angry’ description seemed to fit. Furthermore, it put a simple intuitive label on the problem — the best first step toward tackling it.
Crossing into the library foyer, seeing her friend in the distance, Mione’s thoughts were finally honing in on a plan. She had learned (from unpleasant experience) that ‘Angry’ people rarely have patience for lectures or interrogation, so best forget that. More productive to focus on the ‘Lost’ angle.
Over the years, Mione had come to understand (more satisfyingly) that ‘lost’ people often responded well to a subtle nudge; a sign; a simple validation; a way forward. So...
"Ginny, I'm sorry I sounded off." Mione touched her mate's shoulder. "Thank you so for the invitation — I'd really love to go." She smiled hopefully. "Mysti Stags, you said? The name sounds rather cute, actually."
Ginny gave a millisecond glance and pushed her way through the first set of doors. "You ought not feel obliged, Mione. I'm sure you'll have loads of homework."
Bloody psych-majors. Mione bit her tongue and hastened in the girl’s wake. Smell pity a mile off, do they?
Mione put an extra effort into assembling a big smile, then caught the girl's eye as she came level. "Yes, Ginny, it’s true I’ll have a lot of work this weekend, however you..." She jabbed her friend's shoulder with a stiff index finger. "You are my friend. You're important to me. In fact you're so bloody important to me that I'm torturing my cheeks right now trying to look like a cheery little fop, but the fact is that even if I'm only three-quarters-keen to go with you, I seem to recall you spending two hours with me a couple of Saturdays ago trudging about the Tate Gallery trying not to grouse, so now it's my turn. And besides — there's no point living in London if I don't absorb a little of the modern scene, right?"
Ginny stared at her.
Stared with deep eyes.
Deep eyes that seemed to proclaim so much. Yet declare so little.
Ever since they'd first met nearly a year ago, Mione had puzzled over what was behind those eyes. What wonders and sorrows had they beheld? Mione doubted she'd ever know the half of it, but none of that mattered because, right now, it was pretty clear that those eyes were beholding... friendship... in a pure, most obstinate, form. And pure obstinate friendship was apparently something that Ginny could relate to. It showed in her eyes.
"Good lass!" Ginny flashed a hint of one of her rare, precious smiles. "I'll pop by here after last class, yeah? If we leave early, we can stop at Sheephaven for a pint and some chips before the show."
"Brilliant!" A heady warmth rose up from Mione's chest at the little spark in the girl's voice; at the subtlest bounce in her stride as the pair made their way down the front steps.
Guardedly, gazing off into the light sleet that was just starting to settle around them, Mione allowed herself a satisfied smile. Then she grinned at what her little victory had earned.
A good friend is a treasure; a good 'friendship' even more so!
Now she had merely to deal with the apparent fact that she'd just promised to attend another... rock concert??
... Never knew you; yet I chose you;
'cause the true you; truly shows you.
Wish I knew you;
Knew the true you...
But you're on the wrong-right side
of the right-wrong side
of the January veil of rain.
Harry Jordan's pencil trailed away, and clattered loose to the table. He pushed aside the notebook and slid wearily down the cheap wooden chair, staring through a window that was, truly, a portrait of January. Full of London rain.
He was about to reach for his long-forgotten coffee, when-
Harry jolted up; his glance darting down the hall.
He exhaled, rolling his eyes, recognising the sound as merely the wonky towel rack falling off the wall again — a state of disrepair that was likely to persist for a while because the obvious perpetrator was already now swaggering heedlessly out of the steamy loo, clad only in a towel, and belting at the top of his lungs, "... So go ahead 'n' shoot me; Cause I ain't goin' down. Aim an' fire yo' best shot; And I ain't hittin' the..."
Lee Jordan's atrocious vocals died away... and he burst into laughter at the sight of his adoptive brother cringing, hands clamped over ears.
"What? Bro, you no like my little lullabye?"
No answer. Apparently Harry's hands were pretty good noise filters.
Moving fast to exploit the temporary deafness, Lee grabbed his brother from behind and wrenched one hand askew to sing (mercilessly off-key) into the vulnerable ear. "Harry Harry very fairy! I sing so merry 'n' you don' care-y. Harry fai... Hey, what's this?"
Releasing his victim, Lee reached a damp hand down to retrieve Harry's notebook. "Hey." A small frown crossed Lee's forehead as the quick skim down the open page slowed to methodical scan. "Hey bro, sing me a bit?"
"Er, yeah." Harry took a big mouthful of cold coffee and jostled it about his throat for a moment. He tried (and botched) his first tentative middle-C. After a couple of coughs, he tried again.
"A flock of birds, an open sky,
The wind picks up; I wonder why.
The clouds close in, and I can tell..."
In seconds, the voice softened from the craggy morning gravel to something... artful... smooth enough to lull the senses; a cool shroud over the raw edge; a seduction just sweet enough to slide down easy... and cut straight to the heart.
For an opening stanza and refrain, Lee stood there, head cocked. By midway into the next, he'd grabbed chop-sticks from the dish rack, swept a clear spot on the counter, and was trying a few tentative taps. Almost immediately, he'd found a rhythm (Beat-bit–rasssp; beat-rasp; beat-bit-rasssp; bit-rasp...) to empower Harry’s voice. And there, in a dingy row house kitchen off Caledonian Park, the two brothers blended, synchronised; became a single entity... Partners in song.
For, indeed, Lee and Harry Jordan were more than mere brothers. They were mind and soul of a new sensation sweeping North London. The Mysti Stags.
"... right-wrong side... of the January veil of rain."
Beat-bit–rasssp... bit-rasp... bit.
The final after-tone trailed from Harry's lips, and the scene fell silent. With eyes closed, Harry leaned back in the rickety chair. Lee adjusted his towel, quietly set aside the chop-sticks, and gazed a long moment through the grey window.
"Mother of Mo, bro!" Lee scratched his chin. "We gotta score that. I can see it all now. Better than 'Three Feather Sunset'!"
"You think?" Harry opened his eyes; a half-smile playing on his lips.
"Moody, sensitive. Aye! The chickees'll love it." Lee grinned. "The blokes too — if that's your preferred."
With a little flick of eyebrow and finger, Harry offered a subtly (suitably) snarky reply, then gathered his coat from the back of the chair and crossed the room. "Got to run, Lee. Starting a new job over at C.U.L."
"Oh? City Uni Lon-dun?" Lee waved. "When you'll be back?"
"Finish at 5, and I'll race straight here. Plenty of time for the show, yeah?" Harry picked up his umbrella at the door. "Hey, if you talk to Dean, can you remind him to bring my Schecter?"
"Aye, bro. And my sweet love to all the pretty little lady scholars!"
Harry couldn't help but smirk as he ascended into the street. Crossing beneath the bare limbs of the nearby park, heedless to the cold driving drizzle, he turned his collar and hurried on, anxious not to be late for his first day of work at the library.
Lee watched absently through the gauzy curtains as Harry faded into the mist. He frowned a bit... because he was the older brother, and it was his job to keep a watchful eye on his quiet, sensitive little mate. But this time, he also smiled slightly, though he didn't really know why.
Finally, he pushed back from the window to get on with the morning.
Passing the loo, he glanced down at the collapsed rack, and resolved not to bother with it. Not today. He retrieved a bath robe from the floor, and left the rest of the carnage lie.
Crossing back over to the mail table, he shoved aside yesterday's Times (Another car bombing — bloody IRA!), and gathered the rest of the correspondence (Night club stationery? Brill!). Fingering a small parcel delivery, he eyed the label ('Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling'), before chuckling and turning away.
A mite tempting to curl up with a new book, but no. No time for flights of fancy. Not today. No distractions, because today was... big. Big!
Today was 'first-day-in-the-rest-of-your-life' big. It was Camden Palace, BIG!
Lee was ready to believe they had the tiger by the tail. He'd followed the rise of the best North London bands over the past few years, and he knew the stakes. A successful gig at the Palace could be a ticket to real record contracts and big-quid tour bookings! They were on the verge of all that; Mysti Stags had been smouldering warm now for more than a year and were set to burst into flame.
As long as they hung together.
Making his way over to Harry's piano, Lee clattered his sticks against a framed photo of the band, pondering the odds of their of sticking it out long enough to start tasting real success on the charts.
Eh. Not bad, not bad...
The 'talent' quotient was rock solid. Dean and Shay played a pair of mean guitars. Lee preferred not to brag on himself, but he had years of experience scoring pieces for local bands, and his arrangements always seemed to juice the crowds. Besides that, his percussion had recently started to turn some heads — especially after that recent shout (Ten metro drummers who can burn down the roof!) from Shakin' Leaf Mag. And, to cap off the squad, nobody was leaving Harry off their Christmas lists. Blimey, the kid had gifts!
On the flip side, there'd been some bumps on the road, and Lee knew there would be more. Shay partied too hard, and there were times his bass suffered a bit for it. And Dean kept angling for roles he didn't quite suit, like vocals (yeh, okay, decent back-up) and lyricist (erm, no). But, for the most part, the gang was really starting to pull onside and make beautiful noise.
Yeh. Not bad, not bad.
Now all they needed was one big spark. And, thankfully, that friendly young chap from North London Talent Agency seemed quite keen to hand them tinder and flint.
Ah. On that note...
Lee donned the robe and sprawled himself over a threadbare chesterfield. Folio in one hand and phone in the other, he dialed.
"Morn' Hannah, is Mr. Langley in yet?... Yeh, sure, I'll wait..."
"Nevi-man! Como estas?... Eh, brill!... Aye, we're all practised, mate. We'll be ready to... Oh? A half hour early? I'll try, but Harry's grueling 'til five... Aye then; thanks... Okay... Right... You reckon, yeah? Hey, one more thing, mate — you get all the papers from Gyorgi? Aye, would you mind checking his numbers again? No, I trust him, but, eh, to be truthful no I don't. Don't fancy him — he's like a-a-a some sort of sodding Severus Snape. Huh? Oh forget it — fictional character. Like Harry Potter, y'know?... Heh heh, yeh... Aye!... Hey, well thanks Nev — truly obliged! Yeh, we'll be there by six."
Lee jotted down a few notes, then grabbed the stack of mail and began sorting through possible gig invitations. "UnderSolo... Secrets Euston... Oh? Now what're you doing in here?"
Mixed in with the letters was last week's postcard from... Ronnie Smith.
Lee gazed at it. He scratched his cheek absently.
For a moment, Lee thought about... reminiscing.
All alone, all quiet but for winter rain tapping on the glass — this was the perfect time for a whole cascade of fond memories to come streaming back from sunny Devon summer rambles with old childhood mates, but... well... the problem was that he didn't actually recall too much of those days. Shutting his eyes, he could vaguely place, um, Fred and George? He (equally vaguely) seemed to recall hearing that they'd come to a bad end. Like a few other kids he'd once known. But of course he really didn't know details.
He gazed at the postmark (Pembroke, Wales) and stared for a long moment at the sloppy script, not really reading it, but nonetheless musing how it was nice of the bloke to send a note. Seemed a tad ironic though; this Ronnie kid must have been a couple years younger than Fred and George, so Lee had probably never known him as much more than some runty tag-along sprog.
But, hey, old friends are best friends, right? Even if you don't much remember them?
Lee's gaze shifted, settling blankly back onto the piano, wondering how he'd lost touch with his childhood friends. Lost touch with his whole childhood, for that matter.
And what had gone down in the intervening years? What had really become of his old friends? Like the Smiths. Or...
Was that really even their name?
Daft question — who the hell else would they be, yeah?
Funny how the mind plays tricks...
Shrugging, he hauled himself back to the present.
The present. As in, today. As in ‘knees-up concert tonight’. Oi, lots to do! He needed to get dressed, scrawl Harry a note on the revised meeting time, then high-tail his way down to Camden High Street to check all their gear. Meet with sound crew at 11; lights and props at 3.
Cool, cool, so very cool.
He burst from the chesterfield, ready to swing into gear, then glanced one final time at the postcard. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he recalled the final paragraph in the note ("Hey, did you know that my younger sister lives in North London too? Her address is..."). Lee had no recollection whatsoever about a little sister from that Smith brood, so he truly didn't know her from Eve but, on a whim, he'd posted her a couple of complimentary tickets a few days back. Just in case.
He shrugged. He bobbed his head a bit, hummed a bar from Harry's new tune. And he nodded.
Yeh. Be kinda cool if 'Little Sister Smith' drops by tonight.
Rough-hewn ceiling; random patterns in the wood; shadows dance from a single candle;
(somewhere out of line of sight).
Drifting near the edge of sleep; patterns shimmer, shift, rearrange into a menagerie of...
anything — dogs and dragons; hippogriffs and horses.
Then, there is the touch — slightly rough, yet still gentle; warm; loving.
There is a voice; a song; soft words lilting along with the flickering candle.
Another voice cuts in. Sharp! Frightened.
"Arthur! Godric's Hollow! There's been a...!!"
Ginny's eyes snapped open!
Heart pounding, a moment of bewildered terror passed before she resolved the indecipherable smear of endless grey into what it was — a harmless, crappy, dull winter sky, spitting drizzle into her face.
Cursing aloud, she wiped the sopping mess of rain from her eyes.
And yes — it was just rain, dammit. If her cheeks were puffy, that's because the wind was cold. Or maybe there were some bleeding caustic sulphates creeping down from the Midlands again. Or... or whatever.
Cursing softly now, Ginny hurried through the quad, checking her watch, hoping that her eyes weren't too swollen or pathetic, thankful at least that she never wore mascara, which would surely now be running all amok like a barking banshee.
Bounding up the steps, she pushed through the double doors and glanced toward the lift. Mione will be on third floor, so I'll... She tamped her stride down to a deliberate, respectful, library pace.
As she slowed, Ginny found herself listening. Hearing.
Ginny heard a voice. ("Certainly, Dr. Appleblum. One p.m. tomorrow.") For some reason, it seemed to captivate her. She listened closer, sensing kindness, a subtle melody ("And, is it all right if I move this caution sign?"), but perhaps she ought to have been attending less to the 'sound' of the words, and more to their 'content' ("Actually no. It's a drip coming down near the lift. I reckon it's made the floor very sl-")
"Aiii!" Feet flailing on the wet marble, arms scrabbling to catch her back pack, Ginny went down; her elbow jamming hard on the floor. On impact, she felt her tiny silver chain catch in the rough wool about her collar, and heard a sudden sharp metallic TING.
Gaping in horror, Ginny saw a small round band of gold bounding out of the chaos. It clanged again, twice and thrice on the floor... then raced like an escaped gaolbird, straight for the grate!
Panicked, Ginny's muscles tensed for an utterly futile lunge, but-
A young man hit the floor, chest first, hand outstretched, sliding on the rain-slickened sheen.
And that is when Ginny's heart so nearly stopped.
For, out past the frantic insanity, Ginny saw plainly as the gold ring mounted the grating, teetered on the edge... and dropped.
Despite the young man's best effort, the ring was surely on its way now to meet whatever Roman-era hell or sewer lay below...
Suddenly the ring was leaping out again. Like a bunting from a bush, it flew straight into the young man's desperate grip!
And that is when Ginny distinctly heard that gentle, melodious voice utter something a tad distressed. Something slightly coarser than 'oh pluck'.
And the next few seconds were as much garbled whirlwind as the prior few, because the voice was speaking very rapidly ("Here's your ring, miss! Happy chance it popped right out, yeah? Must have, uh, met something on the way down?") while a nervous pair of hands was helping her to her feet ("You're not hurt? Oh good! Blasted sign ought to have been here to, erm, caution, but...") and then he was rushing off ("Sorry, bus to catch! Can't be late for the, uh...")
And Ginny stared as the young man burst out the double doors of the library just in time for a gust of wind to catch his mop of jet-black hair full on, tossing it into the most exquisitely wild mess.
Rubbing her not-terribly-sore elbow, Ginny gazed out into the grey for a long moment. Very carefully, she pocketed her mother's wedding ring. And, without really knowing why, she smiled.