The Lion & The Unicorn

By Tom Ward

A policeman sets out to investigate a murder in a near-future where bad taste is illegal.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Chapter Seven – Criminal Elements

It was almost dark by the time I reached the International Zone. I parked the car in the police compound, a rough, concrete building standing between two wire fences. On one side stood Commercial Road. On the other: the collected human detritus of war-torn nations near and far – all safely locked away in a permanent refugee community that few police officers and zero civilians ever ventured into.

An officer on the roof swivelled her machine gun to follow me as I approached the gate.

The officer in the sentry booth sat up and scratched his chin. “Look into the screen please, Sir.”

I did as I was asked. There was a buzz as the small, rectangular screen scanned my retinas, then with a ping, it announced that I was allowed to pass.

“You’re not going in there alone?” the officer in the booth asked.

“Why not?”

“They’ve been unsettled today. They won’t be pleased to see you.”

“They need hosing down!” the officer on the roof shouted, standing now with her leg cocked beside the barrel of the machine gun.

Exhausted-looking immigrants hung to the fence at a safe distance from the checkpoint. They were the newly-arrived from down-at-heel nations; men, women and families dragged out of the surf at Whitstable, Brighton, Margate. They watched me without emotion, just vacant eyes observing the facts.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m only here for a quiet word.”

“Your funeral,” the officer in the booth said as he pressed the button to open the gate. Gears whirred and the gate slid slowly back. I knew that, behind me, the officer on the roof would have her machine gun trained on the temporary gap, in case anyone tried to rush through. She needn’t have bothered. The gateway to the rest of London seemed to hold little interest to the families clinging to the wire.

“Enjoy,” the sentry called as the gate closed behind me.

The streets were busy for November, with men and women, old and young, standing about enjoying the unseasonable heat. A few fires had been lit on street corners in old metal bins and used furniture was piled high here and there against the buildings, as though shoring up the walls. Faded murals of R.B. were just about recognisable beneath the ‘missing’ posters that had been plastered over them, his black beard and benevolent eyes looking down on the minutiae of immigrant life. Some of the occupants stood with their hands in pockets, eyeing me as I passed. Others took no notice, joining in the songs started by their neighbours, voices mixing in Urdu, Cantonese, and Moldovan, hymns that made little sense to British ears, or what we’d come to think British ears should be. Further along the street, fruit sellers were selling kumquat, tamarind, and carambola from their storefronts, holding up their produce to entice passersby, or sitting smoking in the warm night air.

The door I wanted was further down the street, in a building that had once been an old bookshop – a chain store outlet disguised as an independent shop that still bore the faint marks of the scraped-off name on the glass door. There was a brass buzzer beside it, a round black disk that looked like an old coin stuck to the wall.

I pressed the buzzer. “This won’t take long.” A sigh came from the other end. The door opened and I pushed through.

Families hung about the stairs, laughing or murmuring quietly. Old women in headscarves shared a flask of soup, two old men argued over a rusted harmonica that they snatched between them. If any of them knew who I was, they didn’t show it. From a door on the next landing came a plume of steam, bringing with it the stomach-swelling aroma of gyoza. It had been a long time since I had enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but the risk, if I was discovered, was too high to consider. Two large African men stood with arms folded in their black hooded sweaters, blocking my ascent. There was no point reaching for my badge – they knew who I was.

“It’s all right, Tony,” a voice called from the top of the stairs. Reluctantly, the two guys stood aside to let me past.

“Thanks, boys.”

“Well, if it isn’t our favourite policeman!” the man at the top of the stairs said, rubbing his hands together.

“Sid.” I bent to shake his hand. Even with his heeled boots he only came up to my stomach. It was something to do with the chemicals they used in the bombs they dropped on whatever country he was born in. But he didn’t complain. Most of him was normal, and his tailored suit did a good job of hiding what he didn’t want you to see.

I followed him through a heavy, lead-lined door. “What have you got for me today?”

“Oh, lot’s of crap. The usual,” he said.

In the next room young men and women dressed only in their underwear and rubber marigolds stood by long rows of tables, sorting through the products there. As we passed through I glimpsed waistcoats of vermillion satin, gilets with the stuffing coming out at the breast, corduroy trousers in viridian, square-toed brogues, bootcut jeans. Each and every item was a Category Two infringement under section A4000204 of the Culture Laws. Like Cindy’s bottles of authentic alcohol,  it wasn’t strictly down to Bagby and I to enforce sartorial rulings, but we could make sure the right people looked the wrong way – as long as Sid and his people kept us supplied with information about any serious infringements coming into the country.

“Come through to my office,” Sid said, holding a curtain aside.

The room was all bare wood, and tiny, as though built for a man of his proportions and constructed in a hurry. Sid sat on a low desk and I leaned against the wall. He indicated a cafetière of what looked like fresh coffee. I shook my head.

“Hard to believe anyone ever wore that stuff,” I said.

“Not in our lifetimes,” Sid said. “Or, at least, I’ve wiped it from my memory if we ever did.”

“You’re a wise man.”

“It’s been said. Now, tell me, what can I do for you today, officer?”

“Vasily Popov,” I said. “Low level runner. Thieving. Robbery. Makes extra money selling luxury items like tinned fruit and bandages to the population of the Zone. I know you know him, so save us both some time and tell me where it was you saw him last.”

Sid leaned back, tapping a finger against his teeth. “Vasily Popov…Vasily Popov.”

“Sid.”

“OK, I remember. Vasily Popov? Oh, yeah. I think I saw him two nights ago, early. He was drinking down by the social club on Effra Road. He’d just come in to collect some funds. Usually he sticks around, but he seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. Said he had some business in the West End.”

“Did he say who with?”

“I mean, I didn’t speak to him myself, I’m just recounting what a friend told me. But with Vasily it was always someone important. I think that’s exactly what he said. He had a job on for some rich guy. Some big shot.”

“Is that all you heard?”

“Afraid so. Any use to you? What’s he done now, anyway? He in trouble?”

“Not any more, he’s dead.”

“Fuck.” Sid blinked a few times then leaned his head back and whistled at the ceiling. “Popov’s dead? I never thought I’d see the day.”

“If you hear anything, you’ll let me know, right?”

“Of course, of course,” he said, jumping to the floor as I turned to leave. We passed through the workshop, back to the main entrance. A thought occurred to me.

“You don’t have any business with legitimate antiques guys, do you?”

Sid shrugged. “Antiques? Not really. The people I deal with only buy clothes, and they don't like to call them antiques. Puts the punters off. ‘Once-loved’, maybe. You have someone specific in mind?”

“A man called Jennings.”

“Never heard of him,” Sid said. “But if the police are interested in him, I’d say not having anything to do with him would be a good thing.”

“You could be right,” I said as we reached the top of the stairs. “I’ll see you, Sid.”

A shop on the next street along was being raided, police officers in LDNPD tactical gear dragging a man and woman out in their pyjamas, slamming them against the police car bonnet. A crowd was gathering, an angry murmur replacing the singing of earlier. I hurried back to the checkpoint. The officer with the machine gun shouted down that they’d almost given up on me. I smiled, pretending to laugh along. Then I got in my car and drove back towards the lights of London proper, happy to be on the right side of the fence and eager to put as much distance between me and the refugee sector as possible. Tomorrow, I would go see the antique dealer. But now I needed sleep. Visiting the International Zone was always exhausting.

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