Sixty years on…
Magda was sitting on the upper deck of a bus in the traffic jam that called itself Wandsworth Road when her phone beeped three times. She sighed, then felt slightly guilty about it. She’d agreed to work these hours – hell she’d signed the contract and understood what she was getting into! – but right now when she was wishing she had some alternative route home just wasn’t the right time for work to be calling. She pulled the phone out of the inside pocket of her Snow&Rock padded jacket and double-tapped the home button. It beeped again as custom software intercepted the phone’s usual behaviour and a pin pad screen appeared. She tapped in a code number and then a second one when the screen told her that the first one was incorrect. Only then did the phone unlock and allow her access to her secure mail.
Come back in, read the message. There’s been a development.
Of course there was. It was seven in the evening, she was in a traffic jam trying to get home and maybe, if she was lucky, find that her flatmate hadn’t eaten all of last night’s casserole, and now work wanted her to turn around and go back because there’d been a development. That couldn’t wait until eight o’clock tomorrow morning. She stood up and stomped along the bus to the stairs, ignoring the cold looks the other passengers gave her, and went down.
She went to the exit doors and flipped the little plastic cover in the ceiling up, twisted the manual door-open switch there and stepped off the bus as the doors hissed open. She could hear the beeping as the driver tried to close them again, but two other people got off and onto the pavement before they were all closed again. Ridiculous really, to keep people trapped on the bus when it was going nowhere, but she’d read somewhere that the insurance rules required the drivers to only let people on and off at officially marked stops. She looked at the road, wondering if there was any chance of a taxi, and then started walking back to Vauxhall. It would definitely be faster.
She pass-carded her way into the foyer of the building where the security guard sat behind the desk watching television. He put the fingerprint scanner up onto the counter without even looking at her, so she returned the favour while she placed her index finger on the little pad. It beeped, an LED flashing green, and he pressed a button to allow her through the turnstile. On the other side there was another gate that needed pass-carding, and beyond that the elevators that also needed pass-carding. Inside the lift there was a panel of twenty-four buttons, none of which were marked in anyway. She pressed a pattern of them, and the doors closed and the lift glided to its destination.
All of this was, she knew, security theatre. It satisfied the people who came in to audit her organisation and make sure that they were keeping to the conditions of the PPP – Public Private Partnership, or how the government out-sourced various functions that were either too sensitive for politicians to have oversight of, or were too necessary for politicians to be allowed to fight over.
The lift doors slid open and there was nothing but darkness in front of her. Despite that she did this at least once every working day she still felt a sense of dread and had to concentrate to force herself to step out of the lift and into the darkness. As she did so she could swear that she could hear crickets chirping, and then a moment later the darkness was gone as though it had never been there. Behind her, if she’d looked, the lift was clearly visible and closing its doors again; around her was the anodyne furnishing of a modern office; low partitions walls, glass offices arrayed around the outside of the floor, large sealed windows and the low hum of air conditioning.
Catherine appeared around a corner and nodded at her.
“This way,” she said. “We’ll use Casino Royale.”
The meeting rooms were all named after Ian Fleming novels, apparently a condition of the PPP, though Magda found that slightly hard to believe. Casino Royale was on the LDAP as being appropriate for up to ten people and having both a telephone and VC facilities. It was on the side of the office overlooking the tangle of roads around Vauxhall bus station and the lights came on automatically as they walked in. The chairs were scattered around the room, most some distance away from the collection of tables in the middle.
“I think Gerard had one of his meetings in here last,” said Catherine, pulling a black, stretchy-fabric-over-steel-tubing chair to one side of the table. Magda followed suit, choosing to sit on the adjacent side, ninety degrees to her boss. “His group never want to sit anywhere near each other. I don’t know what he does to them.”
“You probably don’t want to know what he does to them,” said Magda with only a hint of joviality in her voice. Gerard was an Architect and his group were mostly considered dysfunctional by the rest of the office.
“Probably,” said Catherine. “Right, looks, thanks for coming back in. I guess you’d gone home already.”
It wasn’t a question but Magda answered it anyway. “I was on the bus going nowhere fast,” she said. “I’ll probably get back faster for coming back here and then going out again. The traffic is ridiculous on that road.”
“You could walk, couldn’t you?”
“Well, yes, but that’s not the point.” Magda felt uncomfortably warm and realised she’d not had time to take her jacket off and leave it at her desk. She took it off now, and Catherine waited until she’d draped it over the back of the chair.
“Magda, you were assigned to the Chartwell House group when you were promoted.” Magda nodded. “There’s been a development with one of those cases.”
“Really?” Her voice cracked with shock. “They’re all over fifty years old, how could any of them have a development?”
“Fifty years isn’t that long,” said Catherine. “That is not dead, and all that.”
“Well yes,” said Magda, her thoughts racing now as she tried to remember the details of the files. She’d not paid a lot of attention to them as they all seemed pretty much dead and done. “But even so, I think I’ve got Jack the Ripper in one of them….”
“Well that one probably is dead,” said Christine. “At least, if it isn’t then it’s going to be interesting, in the Chinese sense of the word, when it comes up again.”
“And messy I should think,” said Magda. “Do we have anyone up on containments at the moment?”
“No,” said Christine. “And that’s not the only area we’ve not got enough coverage in either. And that might be an issue.”
“Freddy Stanley just turned up. And I mean that literally; one minute he wasn’t there, the next minute he was.”
“Where?” Magda’s thought jumped at the name, but she couldn’t think what the connection was. She groped after it, still listening to Christine.
“Weatherwood House. They were carrying out the morning register and they found they had an extra patient. And an extra bed for that matter, the ward he was on was supposed to be full. They’ve checked and rechecked and they’re sure they’ve not lost anyone, but they’ve no idea where he came from, or even when except for ‘overnight’.”
Magda tapped her fingers on the table, still unable to place the name. “Weatherwood House is the funny-farm?” she asked.
“Employee recuperative facility, yes,” said Christine, but there was no reproach in her voice. She allowed herself a smile. “Oddly appropriate, really; we’ve decided to keep him there. We’ve moved him to his own room though.”
“Freddy Stanley,” said Magda. “The name rings a bell, something to do with France? Snails?”
“L’escargot français,” said Christine.