Fowler / THE INVISIBLE CODE
Close to God
There was a witch around here somewhere.
The Fleet Street office workers who sat in the cool shadow of the church on their lunch breaks had no idea that she was hiding among them. They squatted in the little garden squares while they ate their sandwiches, queued at coffee shops and paced the pavements staring at the screens of their smartphones, not realising that she was preparing to call down lightning and spit brimstone.
On the surface the witch was one of them, but that was just a disguise. She had the power to change her outward appearance, to look like anyone she was standing near.
Lucy said, ‘She won’t be somebody posh. Witches are always poor.’
Tom said, ‘I can’t tell who’s posh. Everyone looks the same.’
He was right; to a child they did. Grey suits, black suits, white shirts, black skirts, blue ties, print blouses, black shoes. London’s workforce on the move.
Lucy pulled at her favourite yellow T-shirt and felt her tummy rumble. ‘She’ll have to appear soon. They often travel in threes. When a witch starts to get hungry, she loses concentration and lets go of her disguise. The spell will weaken and she’ll turn back into her real self.’
She was crouching in the bushes, and wanted to stand up because it was making her legs hurt, but knew she might get caught if she did. The flowerbeds bristled with tropical plants that had spiny razor-sharp leaves and looked as if they should be somewhere else. A private security guard patrolled the square, shifting the people who looked as if they belonged somewhere else, too.
‘What does she really look like?’ asked Tom. ‘I mean, when she drops her disguise?’
Lucy answered without hesitation. ‘She has a green face and a hooked nose covered in hairy warts, and long brown teeth and yellow eyes. And her breath smells of rotting sardines.’ She thought for a moment. ‘And toilets.’
Tom snorted in disgust as he looked around the courtyard for likely suspects. Nearby, an overweight woman in her mid- thirties was standing in a doorway eating a Pret A Manger cray- fish and rocket sandwich. She seemed a likely candidate. The first of the summer’s wasps were hovering around, scenting the remains of office lunches. The woman anxiously batted one away as she ate.
‘It can’t be her,’ said Lucy.
‘Why not?’ asked Tom.
‘Witches don’t feel pain, so she wouldn’t be scared of a stupid wasp.’
‘Can a witch be a man?’
‘No, that would be a warlock. It has to be a woman.’
Tom was getting tired of the game. Lucy seemed to be making up extra rules as she went along. The June sun shone through a gap in the buildings and burned the back of his neck. The sky above Salisbury Court was as blue as the sea looked in old films.
He was starting to think that this was a stupid way to spend a Saturday morning when he could have been at soccer. He had been looking forward to seeing the Dr Who exhibition as well, but right at the last minute his dad had to work instead, and said, ‘You can come with me to the office,’ as if it was a reasonable substitute. There was nothing to do in the office. You weren’t allowed to touch the computers or open any of the drawers. His dad seemed to like being there. He always cheered up when he had to go into the office on a Saturday.
The only other father who had brought his child in that morning was Lucy’s, so he was stuck playing with a girl until both of their fathers had finished their work. At least Lucy knew about the game, which was unusual because most girls didn’t play games like that. She explained that she had two older brothers and always ended up joining in with them. She didn’t tell him they had outgrown the game now and spent their days wired into hip-hop and dodgy downloads.
‘How about that one?’ said Lucy, taking the initiative. Her brothers could never make up their minds about anything, and always ended up arguing, so she was used to making all the decisions.
‘Nah, she’s too pretty,’ said Tom, watching a slender girl in a very short grey skirt stride past to the building at the end of the courtyard.
‘That’s the point. The prettier they look on the outside, the uglier they are inside. Too late, she’s gone.’
‘I’m bored now.’
‘Five more minutes. She’s here somewhere.’ There were only a few workers left in the square, plus a motorcycle courier who must have been stifling in his helmet and leathers.
‘It’s this one. I have a feeling. I bet she belongs to a coven, that’s a club for witches. Remember, we have to get them before they get us. Let’s check her out. Come on.’
Lucy led the way past a sad-looking young woman who had just seated herself on the bench nearest the church. She had opened a paperback and was reading it intently. Lucy turned to Tom with an air of theatrical nonchalance and pointed behind the flat of her palm.
‘That’s definitely her.’
‘How can we tell if she’s a witch?’ Tom whispered.
‘Look for signs. Try to see what she’s reading.’
‘I can’t walk past her again, she’ll see.’
‘Wait, I’ve got an idea.’ Tom had stolen a tennis ball from his father’s office. Now he produced it from his pocket. ‘Catch, then throw it back to me in her direction. I’ll miss and I’ll have to go and get it.’
Lucy was a terrible actress. If the sad-faced young woman had looked up, she would have stopped and stared at the little girl gurning and grimacing before her.
‘I’m throwing now,’ Lucy said loudly, hurling the ball ten feet wide of the boy. Tom scrambled in slow motion around the bench, and the young woman briefly raised her eyes.
Tom ran back to Lucy’s side. ‘She’s reading a book about babies.’
‘What was it called?’
‘Rosemary’s Baby. By a woman called Ira something.’
‘Then she’s definitely a witch.’
‘How do you know?’
Lucy blew a raspberry of impatience. ‘Don’t you know anything? Witches eat babies! Everyone knows that.’
‘So she really is one,’ Tom marvelled. ‘She looks so normal.’
‘Yeah, clever, isn’t it?’ Lucy agreed. ‘So, how are we going to kill her?’
Excerpted from The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. Copyright © 2013 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.