After the war in the Parish, Adam is looking forward to a period of peace, but his superiors have other ideas. There are rumours from Oxford and the Cotswolds that Father John—who once almost overthrew Plymouth—is building an army, and someone has to go and investigate.
Arriving in Oxford, Adam is surprised to find a thriving city with a healthy populace and technology not seen since before the fall of The Sisters. He also finds it patrolled by the descendants of the Thames Valley Police, among them Detective Inspector Leonie Mellow.
However, it doesn’t take long for dark events to concern Adam. Murders, paintsplashed graffiti on walls, people going missing—and he can’t help but wonder if the past is following him.
Release date: November 7, 2023
Print pages: 304
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Mellow was in her office trying to get the week’s rotas to make sense when there was a knock on the door and Sergeant Fleet looked in.
“Boss?” he said. “The super says the chief super wants a word.”
She looked up from the worksheets strewn across her desktop. “And is there some reason why Superintendent Todd couldn’t have told me that himself?” Fleet started to reply, but Mellow held up a hand. “Don’t bother. I can guess.” Her immediate superior was an enthusiastic exponent of delegation, and his first instinct, on being told to deliver a message, would have been to get someone else to deliver it for him. “Did he say when?”
“Right away.” Fleet looked apologetic, even though none of it was his fault.
She sighed and looked at her paperwork again. “All right, Peter,” she said. “Message received.” She gathered the sheets together untidily and locked them in a drawer of her desk. “Let’s see what the chief super wants, then.”
The original headquarters of the Thames Valley Police Force, out in Kidlington, had been abandoned in the earliest days of the Long Autumn and everything of use brought into Oxford. At almost the same time, the old central police station on St Aldate’s had been rendered uninhabitable by a gas explosion and fire, so the remains of the force had commandeered a recently abandoned office building and made their headquarters there. There was no one alive now who remembered what it had been, in the final days before the coming of The Sisters. Mellow suspected that its purpose had ceased to exist the moment the comet fragments rained down all over the world, that no one now would understand what had once been done here.
Still, it was warm and dry, because a big woodburning boiler had been installed in the basement to power the radiators, and it had electricity because of the little grove of wind generators mounted on the roof, and the canteen was just down the corridor from her office, so things could have been worse. Some of the city’s outlying police stations had still not been properly renovated, and were miserable, cold, mouldy places.
The lower floors of headquarters were bustling with support staff and plain-clothed detectives and the occasional constable and sergeant in their black uniforms, but as Mellow climbed the stairs towards the fifth floor she saw fewer and fewer people, until she emerged in Executive Country and found it deserted.
Almost deserted, anyway. She stopped at a door bearing a plaque with CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT MAXWELL painted on it, paused a moment to make sure she’d got her breath back after the stairs, knocked, and went in.
In the outer office, Lucy, Maxwell’s secretary, was sitting at her desk. Mellow had no idea quite what Lucy actually did; on the very rare occasions that she’d been called up here, the secretary’s desk had always been completely bare, as indeed it was this morning.
“Go on through, inspector,” Lucy told her with a bright smile. “He’s expecting you.”
“Yes,” Mellow said. “I know.” She walked across the office to another door, with another
plaque bearing Maxwell’s name and rank, knocked, and waited until a voice from inside called her to enter.
Andrew Maxwell’s predecessor, Chief Superintendent Scott, had been content with a pokey little office on the third floor, next door to the squadrooms. He was a fifteen-year veteran of the force, had worked his way up quietly and competently from the rank of constable and had never forgotten that he was one of the team. Maxwell was cut from different cloth; on his arrival he’d decided a big corner office, insulated from the other ranks, was more suited to his status. He was rarely seen in other parts of the building, and some constables wouldn’t have recognised him at all if it wasn’t for the gold braid on the shoulders and over the breast pocket of his uniform.
Scott’s office had been comfortingly untidy, paperwork permanently scattered across his desk, and files and folders stacked against the walls; Maxwell’s was almost bare. There was a row of filing cabinets, and a couple of landscapes on the walls, and there was a huge desk innocent of any evidence of work, with a single uncomfortable visitor’s chair in front of it, and that was all. Maxwell was standing at the window behind the desk, looking out at the rain and sleet lashing down on the city.
“You asked to see me, sir?” Mellow said, standing beside the visitor’s chair.
Maxwell didn’t answer immediately, and Mellow knew he was counting to ten, keeping her waiting to assert his authority. She’d put up with more than enough of this sort of thing during her career, and these days it just bounced right off her.
Finally, he turned from the window. “Inspector Mellow,” he said ponderously, sitting down behind his desk and clasping his hands in front of him as he looked at her. “I have a little job for you.”
Mellow felt her heart sink. “Yes, sir,” she said.
Maxwell opened a desk drawer and took out a sheet of paper. “This comes directly from Chancellery,” he said, holding the paper up. Mellow took a step forward
to look. The handwriting was nearly illegible, the signature a wavy line with a dot at the end, but it was on official notepaper and the Chancellor’s seal was at the bottom.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“At some point in the next few days, someone will try to enter the city,” Maxwell said, putting the memo back in his drawer. “That person will be detained and brought here, and you will interview them.”
Mellow waited for more information, but it seemed none was coming. She said, “I don’t understand, sir.”
Maxwell sat back in his chair, a big man with short-cropped grey hair, a broken nose, and old scars on his knuckles. “I made it as simple as I could, inspector. What don’t you understand?”
Mellow was at a loss where to begin. Who was this person? Had the closed-border policy been relaxed without anyone bothering to tell her? “Do we have any idea when this person is coming?” she asked.
Maxwell shook his head. “We do not, or where they’ll be coming from. An advisory has been issued to the militia units manning the checkpoints. They’re to report any and all people approaching the city.”
“And when this… person does arrive, what am I to interview them about, sir?”
Maxwell gave her a hard stare.
“It’s often helpful to have some background, sir,” Mellow went on. “It gives us some idea what questions to ask.”
Maxwell cocked a bushy eyebrow. “Get their details,” he said. “Name. Where they’re from. What they want.”
“Use your initiative, inspector.”
“You’ll report directly back to me,” he went on. “Not to Chancellery. Understood?”
Maxwell sat looking at her until she realised she’d been dismissed. She left the office, nodded to Lucy, who was still just sitting at her desk doing nothing at all, and went out into the corridor. She closed the
door to the outer office behind her, then just stood there for a few moments. It was not her custom to get angry in public, although it wasn’t unknown. She knew it wasn’t healthy to bottle things up, but there was no other way to survive in the force these days, particularly if you were of a certain seniority. You did your job and you nodded nicely, and you kept your mouth shut. Detective Chief Superintendent Scott had learned that the hard way, and he had been far from an angry man.
She went back downstairs and poked her head into the squadrooms, but they were all empty. A dozen detectives were out in Blackbird Leys, looking for an illicit still which was producing a form of vodka that had already killed three people, and the rest of her team were investigating a spate of robberies in one of the Colleges.
She found Fleet in the canteen, tucking into a bacon sandwich, a mug of tea on the table in front of him. She sat down across from him and said, “We’ve been given a job.”
Fleet washed down a mouthful of sandwich with a swig of tea. “Is that what the chief super wanted?”
Mellow nodded. “Someone’s going to be arrested at one of the checkpoints in the next couple of days. We’re to bring them back here and… interview them.”
Fleet frowned. As well he might; put like that, it sounded particularly absurd. “Do we know where and when?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’ll do the interviewing, but I’d like you to go out and collect them, so stick around the office for a few days. Catch up on your reports or something.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
“And don’t tell anyone else. Not even the super.”
Fleet blinked at her. “What’s going on, boss?”
“I don’t know, Peter, but the chief super seems to want it all kept hush-hush, so let’s do that.” She got up. “You don’t have anything else on at the moment, do you?”
Fleet shook his head. “Nothing that can’t wait.” He paused. “Is this something dodgy?"
Once upon a time, there would have been no need to ask, but petty politics had begun to engulf the upper reaches of the force in the past few years, and these days it could sometimes be hard to tell what was legitimate police business and what was various senior officers jockeying for position. It was wiser, if one wasn’t sure, to stay well away. If that was possible.
“I don’t know,” Mellow told him. “But if it is, I’ll make sure there’s no comeback on you.”
They both knew this was a bold claim. Fleet said, “Watch yourself, boss. I like working for you.”
Mellow smiled. “It’ll all be fine, I’m sure.”
Fleet shook his head and looked around the deserted canteen. “Hell of a way to run a police force,” he said.
“It’s all we’ve got. I’ll talk to you later. And don’t worry.”
Fleet nodded glumly and went back to his lunch. Mellow returned to her office, took the worksheets out of her desk, and sat leafing through them, but trying to get the rotas to work smoothly was like doing a particularly fiendish puzzle, one where the pieces whined that they weren’t being treated fairly, and her mind wouldn’t settle anyway.
She got up and went down to the ground floor, where, in a little room at the back of the building, a sergeant named Sharpe was sitting surrounded by radio equipment painstakingly built by engineers from Trinity College. One console was permanently tuned to the force emergency frequency, and Sharpe was using the others to constantly scan through the wavelengths, keeping an eye on police communications.
“Haven’t seen you down here for a while,” she said when Mellow entered the room. “Bored?”
“Sick of doing admin,” Mellow said, pulling up a chair and sitting down at the comms desk beside her. “Anything going on?”
Sharpe reached out and flicked a switch and a burst of static emerged from a speaker mounted on the wall above the desk. She adjusted a dial minutely and Mellow heard a man’s voice. “That’s Dominic Baker,” Sharpe told her. “Out in the Leys. They haven’t found your still yet.”
Mellow suspected the still had been dismantled and moved to another location, but that was no reason to stop looking. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
Sharpe looked at her. “Like what?”
Mellow shrugged. “Don’t know. Something interesting.” She and Sharpe had gone through training together and had spent some time paired up on the beat, but Sharpe’s career had stalled and Mellow’s hadn’t. “Anything interesting.”
Sharpe turned the dial quite a distance, and the speaker started making a garbled noise. “There was a lot of chatter here a month or so ago, but it’s all scrambled, which means they’re pretty skilled-up, not just using bits and pieces of gear they’ve managed to repair.”
“Where is it?”
Sharpe shrugged. “It was very faint, like it was a lot of people using hand-held radios. It’s settled down a bit now, but you can still hear them sometimes.” She nodded at the speaker.
Radio equipment didn’t grow on trees; a community that was using it must, by definition, be technologically advanced. The force had triangulated two sources in the years since electronics manufacture had begun again in Oxford. The first, dubbed Red One, was somewhere in the Chilterns, not far from Goring. The other, Red Two, seemed to be quite some distance away to the southwest. Both of them were scrambled. There were sometimes others, when the atmospherics were right, unknown voices somewhere out there in the rain and the night, but not very many. Even allowing for the massive loss of life caused by The Sisters and the subsequent Long Autumn, England was a lonely place.
“Have you tried RDF?” Mellow asked.
Sharpe snorted. “Not worth asking for the manpower.” Radio direction finding was a painstaking process involving taking a radio set out, finding in which direction a transmission was the strongest, then moving some distance and repeating the process. It could take a while, and the equipment the police had wasn’t easily portable.
“Did you report it?”
Sharpe nodded. “Reported
it and never heard anything else about it. Chancellery probably already knew about it; they’ve got their own receivers.”
Chancellery, in this context, meant the Transport Unit, people best left alone. Mellow didn’t doubt that they knew exactly where and what Red One was; it was a powerful transmitter and close enough for them to have sent someone to the Hills to check it out. If they had, the information wasn’t being shared with the Thames Valley Police.
“Politics,” Mellow said.
Sharpe adjusted the dial again and the mysterious garbled message was replaced by the voice of an officer reporting in to a police station in Cowley. “Sometimes I think they’re talking to each other,” she said. “Red One and Red Two.”
Mellow looked at her. “Really?”
Sharpe shrugged. “It’s just a feeling. I listen to them, sometimes. Can’t understand a thing they’re saying, of course. Just a sec.” She took a pair of headphones from the desk and held one of them to her ear while she twirled one of the dials forward and back in progressively smaller increments, until she was barely moving it with her fingertips. Her eyes took on a faraway look, then she lowered her hand and listened for a moment. “There.” She handed the headphones to Mellow. “Have a listen to that.”
Mellow put the headphones on. At first, all she could hear was static. Then she began to make out, so faint that it was on the far edge of audibility, an irregular beeping sound almost buried in the background noise.
“What is it?” she asked.
“That’s Red Three,” Sharpe said with a big smile.
Mellow listened again. “No,” she said.
Still grinning, Sharpe nodded. “It’s another transmitter, and they’re talking in Morse.”
“What are they saying?”
“It’s code. Just lots of numbers. My guess is it’s a powerful transmitter and it’s a long way away. A lot further than Red Two. Maybe it’s France.”
Mellow didn’t see how that would help. She didn’t think there was anyone in the country who still spoke French. She said, “Do Chancellery know about this?”
“Not from me, they don’t.”
This was dangerous territory. Mellow glanced at the door. “You should tell them, Ruth.”
Sharpe shook her head. “I told you, it’s a really, really weak signal, and it doesn’t have a schedule. I only found it by accident. Chancellery’s comms room makes this one look like a scrapheap; if they have heard it, they won’t expect anyone else to.” She beamed at the consoles, the dials and switches. “No,” she said. “This is my secret.”
“Our secret, now,” Mellow said, wishing she’d stayed in her office and forced herself to work on the rotas.
“Yeah, but I know you can keep a secret, Leonie.”
Do you? Do you really know that? “You can’t trust anybody these days.” Mellow stood up. “Maybe you should try to think of some way to tell Chancellery. Maybe pretend you’ve only just found it.”
Sharpe shook her head again.
“Then don’t tell anybody else.”
Sharpe looked unhappy. “I thought you’d be interested.”
Mellow sighed. Sharpe was bright and she was a good copper, but she was almost entirely guileless, which was a bad thing to be these days. “And I am,” she said. “I really am.” She squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “But if you’re not going to report this, keep it to yourself, eh?”
She stayed on for an hour or so after her shift finished, just in case Maxwell’s mysterious intruder turned up, but when nothing happened she stuffed the rota sheets into her desk, locked the door of her office, collected her bicycle from the yard behind the building, and went home.
The centre of Oxford was an island, pretty much. The Thames and the Cherwell, swollen by decades of rain, had long ago washed their banks away, along with the bridges that used to stand there, and now the only way to cross them was by a series of steam-powered chain ferries.
Most of the population lived in the suburbs, on higher ground or beyond the reach of the floodwater, but all the shops were in the centre of town. On her way to the ferry across the Cherwell, Mellow stopped at a butcher’s and bought a chicken. The earlier heavy rain had given way to the usual miserable drizzle, and there were quite a few people out and about. Horses and carts choked the streets, work crews busied themselves with the unending task of reclaiming derelict buildings. She nodded hello to the occasional patrolling bobby she saw, but she was conscious that she recognised fewer and fewer of them these days. There had been a time when even in the outlying police stations she could have counted on seeing at least a few familiar faces, but now they were staffed by strangers, no way to know where their loyalties lay.
At the ferry crossing, the big flatboat was on the other side of the river, and after buying a ticket she had to wait for twenty minutes in the shelter beside the engine house while it loaded up with wagons and carts and foot passengers. When she’d been little, the Cherwell ferry had been the most exciting thing in the world, with the chimneys of its steam engines pumping smoke into the air and the sound of the machinery, the sense of being out in the middle of the river with the water running strongly beneath your feet. When she was seven, though, a cable had snapped and twenty-six people had drowned, and for ever such a long time after that she had refused to go on the ferry because she couldn’t stop thinking about the horses, still hitched to their wagons, being dragged down into the swirling brown water.
It was a long time since there had been a major accident on any of the local ferries, although the engines still broke down periodically, stranding the boats on either bank, or sometimes in the middle of the river. Now, it was just one more part of her journey to and from work, and she hardly thought about it.
Movement on the other side of the river caught her eye. When she looked, she saw that the green flag had been raised on the opposite engine house to signal that they were ready to pay out cable. She stepped out of the shelter and watched a similar flag rising up the flagpole over the engine house on this side, and a moment later there was the sound of
escaping steam and the winch starting up, and the ferry began to make its slow journey.
It was actually an operation of no small precision. The two winches had to operate in perfect unison, one reeling in and the other unreeling, otherwise the cable could snap or sag uselessly towards the bed of the river and let the current take the boat. When her father had realised why she was suddenly unwilling to go near the ferry, he had taken her down to the crossing one day and one of the ferrymasters had shown her the steam engine and the huge drum of the winch with its quarter of a mile of cable wrapped round it, still dripping from a recent immersion in the river. She still remembered vividly the smell of the tobacco he was smoking in his pipe. “The trick, little miss,” he had told her solemnly, “is to keep just enough tension, but not too much.”
She looked at the ticket in her hand, the poorly printed little slip of card that proved she had paid ten pence to use the ferry. And right there, really, was proof of how much things had changed since she was a girl. The tobacco that long-ago ferryman had been smoking had probably been given to him by a passenger in return for being carried across the river, because that was how it had been done for decades. Now, he’d have to go to a shop in town and buy it, and it would be very expensive because supplies were running low. Somewhere, the person who controlled those supplies had become rich. They could only spend that wealth in Oxford, it was true, but these days in Oxford wealth bought you influence, and influence bought you power, and that, she thought, was the whole problem.
The river crossing took about ten minutes. Then there was another five minutes to wait while the incoming passengers disembarked from the boat. Then there was ten minutes or so while the outgoing passengers boarded and the ferrymasters arranged them so that the weight of people and carts and wagons was evenly distributed. There was always one arsehole who insisted on parking his cart where he wanted, in spite of what anyone told them, and there was a period of shouting before everyone was settled and the flags went up again on the enginehouses and the ferry began to inch its way out across the river.
Mellow lived where she had always lived, the neat detached house on the corner of a street in Headington where she was born, where her father had been born, where her grandparents had somehow survived the fall
of The Sisters and the first terrible years of the Long Autumn, the house her great-grandparents had moved into just after their marriage, back in the days when there had been cars and aeroplanes and television and all the other things she’d read about when she was growing up. A lot of people had fled the city in the early days of the disaster, but many had remained, either because they were too fearful or because they simply had nowhere else to go. They were the ones who had finally organised themselves and begun to reclaim the city, old families who had gained a certain status in Oxford and then seen that status quietly and almost imperceptibly undermined.
It was dark by the time Mellow finally cycled along her street, but this had been a safe, quiet area for a long time now. Headington police station was just a couple of streets away, and the Neighbourhood Watch had always been strongly active. Most of the houses on the street were occupied and well looked-after. Each one had a windmill in the back garden and there were lights in almost all the windows.
The lights were on in the front room and the hallway of her house, to illuminate her way up the front path. She wheeled her bicycle around to the back of the house, took the bag containing the chicken from the pannier, then went back to the front, let herself in, locked the door behind her.
“Is that you?” a voice called from one of the rooms off the hallway.
“Transport Unit,” Mellow said, putting her bag and knapsack on the floor while she took off her coat and hung it up. “You’re under arrest.”
“Funny as ever,” her father said, wheeling himself out of his room and into the hallway.
“That’s life in the force,” she said, bending down to give him a hug and kiss the top of his head. “Nothing but comedy. How was your day?”
He shrugged, a big man in his late fifties with wild grey hair and legs that ended at the knees. “Same as yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that…”
“Yes, I get it, Dad.”
Dad.” She picked up her bag. “I got a chicken,” she said. “I thought we could have a roast tomorrow.”
“Sounds good to me.” He turned his wheelchair expertly in the narrow hallway and propelled himself towards the kitchen. “We’ve got the last of that stew for tonight.”
Mellow followed him into the kitchen, where saucepans of stew and peeled potatoes were waiting on the edge of the range. Her father reached over and set them on the hotplates while Mellow put her ID badge, radio, and sidearm on one of the worktops and her shopping on the kitchen table. He wheeled over and looked in the bag.
“Are you sure this is a chicken?” he asked. “Looks more like a pigeon.”
She sighed and opened one of the cupboards. She took out a plate and a big mixing bowl.
“Can we afford this?” her father said.
Three years ago, he wouldn’t have asked. Back then, Sergeant Jack Mellow had a pension from the Thames Valley Police, which in practice meant his old pals from Headington nick coming round every week with food and doing odd-jobs – one of them had built a series of low ramps around the edge of the kitchen so he could reach the range and the sink from his chair. Nowadays, his pension consisted of a constable coming round every two weeks and popping an envelope containing twenty quid through the letterbox. Added to Mellow’s inspector’s salary, they were barely getting by. They made their own electricity and grew their own veg, but they had to pay a monthly fee to the Municipal Utilities Department, which kept the water running and the drains clear, there were always repairs that needed doing, and food kept getting more expensive.
On the other hand, they were wealthy. The previous year, a couple of neat young bureaucrats had come down the street with an authorisation from Chancellery – a lot like the one Mellow had seen earlier today but this one had been printed – to assess the value of all the properties in the city. She’d been at work, but Jack said he’d expressed an opinion that there were a lot of houses in Oxford and the bureaucrats would probably be old men by the time they finished the job. Still, they had the official paper, so he let them in, and they poked about for ten minutes and left, and a few days later someone delivered
a letter – again on headed paper – bearing the news that the house was worth fifteen thousand pounds. Which was grand, obviously, but Jack pointed out that it was still effectively worthless unless there was someone willing to buy it, and neither of them knew anyone with that much spare cash.
It occurred to Mellow, though, that an exercise like this would be an ideal way of checking who was living where, a sort of unofficial census. There was a convention, going back to the early days of the Long Autumn when everything was chaos and resources were tight, that only registered residents of the city could live and work there. It was still quite a tightly enforced convention, although people did slip through the checkpoints from outside, and in a little corner of her mind, Mellow wondered whether someone was looking for unregistered residents. If they were, nobody had bothered to tell the police.
She put the chicken – and in truth it must have looked particularly pathetic in life – on the plate, popped the bowl over it. “It’ll do for us,” she told him. “And you can use the leftovers to make soup.” She carried the plate over to the larder and put it on a shelf. She’d heard rumours of a move to bring people’s wind turbines under the Utilities Department. She wasn’t sure how that would work, and it would cause a lot of resentment; the turbines belonged to the residents – Jack’s father had built theirs. But Chancellery had ways of dealing with resentment.
Mellow washed her hands at the sink, dried them on a threadbare towel. “I’m going to have five minutes,” she said. “I’ll be down in time to sort out dinner.”
“No rush,” Jack said, wheeling back towards the range. “I can cope.”
Upstairs in her room – the same room she’d been in since she was little – Mellow changed her clothes and then stretched out on the bed and lay staring up at the stain in the corner of the ceiling. It seemed a little larger today, which suggested the roof still hadn’t repaired itself. Once upon a time, one of her father’s old mates from Headington police station would have popped round one lunch break and fixed it, and she’d have given them a bag of potatoes or some carrots from the
garden in return, but the last time she’d visited Headington nick she hadn’t seen a single familiar face – she’d actually felt rather unwelcome, if she was going to be honest – and people who did repairs and various odd-jobs professionally wanted cash and quite a lot of it.
It occurred to her that coping was something they did, and compared to a lot of people in England it was something they did quite well. From what she’d heard, the rest of the country was a sodden, half-drowned catastrophe populated by farmers who were barely keeping starvation at bay. She didn’t know how true that was; she was thirty-five, and although she’d learned about the country’s geography at school, she’d never left Oxford. The presence of Red One and Red Two, and the apparently more recent discovery of Red Three, suggested the picture was more complicated than that, but that was the impression one got from outsiders who visited the city. At least, when outsiders were still allowed to visit.
Mellow closed her eyes and put a hand over her face, feeling the day suddenly weighing down on her. For the past eighteen months or so, Oxford had been turning outsiders away. The reasons given for this were many and vague, but seemed to centre around an assertion that the city was full, which it was not. Roads had been blocked and checkpoints set up, and a unit of the militia carved off under the auspices of the police to form a new Border Guard to man them, and anyone approaching Oxford was told, politely or otherwise, ...
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