Title: Zombies of Wimbledon
Length: 3000 words
Content: macabre, PTSD, hurt/comfort, casefic, spoilers for Broken Homes
Summary: Everything is real, and that includes zombies, but they're not like the ones in horror movies.
Set after Broken Homes and includes some spoilers, though it's not about the events of the book.
Everything is real, Nightingale told me once, and that includes zombies. But that doesn't mean they're like the horror movies. Or the Jane Austen vs the zombie apocalypse books.
I'd been in the tech cave after supper, checking Facebook and discovering what was new in the lives of people I hadn't seen since the Year Seven end-of-year disco, when Nightingale had knocked on the door and informed me that we had a shout. Well, that's not what he said, because Nightingale doesn't say that sort of thing, but he made it clear that he expected me to be in the Jag in five minutes.
It was something from one of his mysterious network of snouts. You're really supposed to call them covert human intelligence sources, but I'm not sure Nightingale's are all human. They're definitely covert, since I have no idea how they're getting information to him. ESP is out, and I don't think they're using the telephone. But one had contacted Nightingale somehow, and according to him, her or it, there was a magical disturbance at a site in Wimbledon. And Nightingale rather suspected it was zombies.
That was when I started wondering whether we had a chainsaw in the boot. But according to Nightingale, ordinary zombies aren't particularly dangerous and the main problem is getting them back in their graves before they cause regular members of the public to panic. You get them, he told me, when there's been a magical event near a burial site and some residual magic goes into the corpses, and out they come. Then there are two issues. One is checking that all the zombies belong to known dead people and you haven't happened on some murderer's private dumping spot. The other is getting the bodies back where they belong before the normal authorities show up. Pathologists in particular have a real problem with their corpses taking a stroll around the place. And once you've got all that sorted, you have to work out what the magic that set the whole thing off was.
There's a second type of zombie, Nightingale added, that were more malevolent, but they were very rare. Which took me back to wanting a chainsaw, though I suppose Thomas 'shoots through four inches of battle-hardened steel like wet tissue paper' Nightingale would be even more effective so long as I stayed close.
It was a miserable wet night, and if I were a zombie I'd rather stay in my grave nice and quiet. Wet nights are good for coppers, because rowdy drunks stay inside and don't get into brawls in the street, and burglars come home early, and twockers--that's people who Take cars Without the Owner's Consent--don't feel such a need to show off to their mates. But apparently something magical had happened near a burial ground, and there were zombies about on a chilly October night.
I was driving, since the roads were quiet and though we had the spinner on, I wasn't really gunning the engine or anything, just dodging traffic lights and getting the worst of the imbeciles out of the way. Nightingale had his white Burberry on, and as well as his cane he had an umbrella. I had my warm, waterproof, neon yellow reflective police jacket. Style is all very well, but being warm and dry and visible to the average dozy motorist is better.
Nightingale's directions led us to a building site, and that wasn't a good sign. Legitimately dead bodies don't come out of the ground at a building site, generally speaking. There was heavy machinery parked around, a couple of Portakabins, a standard wire security fence around the place, and a lot of earthworks. It was a brownfield site undoubtedly going to be filled with as many tiny houses as the developers could get away with before people started mistaking the place for a battery farm. They were just grading the site, by the looks of things, digging at the higher end and using the spoil to level the rest of the ground. I pulled up the Jag not too far away, under some pine trees. I'm getting better at trees ever since Nightingale made it his mission in life to remedy my pitiful urban ignorance of all things botanical, but all I could tell you about these ones is that they had needles and pinecones, because I slipped on one when I got out. Nightingale and me took a look around.
"Fuck," I said suddenly as I saw movement near the upturned earth. "That can't be--"
But it was. I hadn't recognised the zombies at first because a lot of them didn't look like people. They were skeletons, mostly incomplete, just a few bones and skulls drifting around. If I squinted, I could maybe figure out where the rest of the body should have been by the movement, but for others it was baffling, like a couple of pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle swirling in the air.
"What is that?" I asked.
Nightingale didn't answer. I shoved a bit of the wire fence sideways and we went in through the gap, squelching in the mud and breathing fresh-dug London clay and pine needles, and watching the bones swirl around like macabre butterflies. A jawbone drifted by me at head-height, with a couple of ribs floating below, and I flinched back.
"Where did they come from?" I looked around the area. It had been a rather boring bit of wasteland before the building work started, from the looks of the bits that hadn't been dug up yet, and those were very old bones. An ancient burial site, I guessed, maybe even archaeological. Or there'd been an efficient serial killer who'd stashed his bodies here, a couple of centuries ago. "What do we do now?"
I looked around for Nightingale, and saw that he had stopped some way behind me. I hurried back to him, because if those things were dangerous I wanted him between them and me. It's not that I'm a coward. It's just that one of us can rip buildings in half with a casual gesture, and it's not me. Nightingale was looking around abstractedly.
"Sir?" I said again. "What do we do?"
He shook himself like Toby after a wet walk, and said, "First we rebury them. Catch them all and rebury them. Don't use magic, it makes it worse."
"Will they--do anything?"
"No. They're too old for any sentience to be left. They just need peace." His voice went soft on the last word.
"Peace. Got it." I left him standing there and trudged back through the mud to the Jag, where there was a shovel in the boot. All police officers have a shovel in their boot, though I have to say it doesn't get used for this reason very often. When I got back, Nightingale hadn't moved. I wasn't surprised. No prizes for guessing who was going to jump around grabbing weird floating bones and reburying them, and who was going to 'supervise'. Perhaps we should have brought Toby, I thought, and then was ashamed of having the thought. But he would have enjoyed it, and we do use dogs for finding bodies in other circumstances. Toby, the Zombie Bone Catching Unit.
But Toby was at home, so I did all the running around and catching bones. After the first couple I started to believe Nightingale that they weren't going to do anything to me, and got stuck in, catching bones--with gloves on--and digging a trench and putting them all safely in it. If it was an archaeological site, I was screwing everything up for the archaeologists, but I figured they'd have been even more upset with trying to catalogue bones that were floating around in the air. I was more than halfway done when I went over to join Nightingale for a breather.
"I think this might be the weirdest job you've ever taken me on, and that's saying something," I said. "Did Molly put any tea or anything in the car?"
Nightingale didn't say anything. An arm bone floated up to us suddenly, like a hand reaching. I sighed and reached out to grab it and carry it over to my trench, but Nightingale leapt backwards and pulled me with him.
"What?" I said, eyeing the bone. It didn't seem to be any different from the others.
"Put that light out," he snapped at me. I switched off my torch obediently, but the streetlights nearby still illuminated the scene. I looked up at Nightingale. That was when I realised he was dead white, and shivering.
"Are you okay, sir?"
He didn't answer that, and I guess it was a bit of a stupid question.
"Why don't you go sit in the car," I tried. "I'll finish this up." I tried to chivvy him away from the site without actually touching him. He didn't move.
"It wasn't like this at all," he said, very quietly "I don't know why it brings it all back."
I didn't ask what wasn't like this. Anything that might be like fresh-dug earth and human remains floating all over the place wasn't anything I wanted to know about, and probably nothing Nightingale wanted to tell. I already have enough bad dreams on my own account without adding Nightingale's set to mine.
"And besides," he said, "those were the other kind of zombies. It wasn't like this."
"Good," I said a bit more loudly than I'd intended. "Sir, it's freezing out here. Why don't you wait in the car for a bit?" And stop creeping me out with whatever horror scenes this is reminding you of. It wasn't as if the whole thing hadn't been creepy as hell to start with.
"No," he said. "I'd better stay and keep an eye on this." He looked over his shoulder at the bulk of the diggers behind him.
Now sometimes I can be a bit slow at putting the pieces together, I admit. But this time I thought I knew exactly what Nightingale was guarding me against. Captain Nightingale. I could just picture myself trying to explain to whatever poor contractor was doing this job just why their diggers all had enormous holes burned in them. Well, you see, when we were reburying the floating zombie bones your people accidentally disturbed, my boss had a flashback to when he was mixed up in something really horrible during World War II and thought they were German tanks...
Yeah. That wouldn't end well.
"Well, if you're staying, I could use some help," I said, and gave him the shovel. He looked at it as if he'd never seen a shovel before. "Come on."
Nightingale followed me down, and when I caught another couple of bones and put them in the trench, he covered them up. He still looked like shit, but at least he didn't look like he was going to blow something up. I recaptured the last couple of drifting phalanges and walked around the area a few more times to be sure. When I got back to the trench, Nightingale had raised a mound over it, smooth and neat and obviously practiced. I tried not to think about that. Then he walked slowly away, leaving the shovel. I picked it up and followed him uncertainly. He went to the bushes and pulled off some small branches and, with quick strong twists of his hands, stripped two branches bare, formed them into a cross, and used a thin whippy bit of plant to tie them together. Then he went back to the grave, and planted his cross at one end.
"That's going to freak everyone out, tomorrow morning," I observed.
"We'll deal with it tomorrow morning," he said, and he sounded a bit more normal.
I wanted to get away from here, and get Nightingale away too, but there was the most important part of the problem still to solve. "What about the magic that set this off, sir?" I said. "No use us going home if this is just going to happen again."
He nodded mechanically and began to pace around the site. I followed him. When we reached the bulldozer, he stopped, and so did I. I could feel it, the warm hum coming from the machine. It wasn't quite a magic bulldozer, but something magical had touched it, and recently. I looked at it. It seemed pretty normal to me, if you discounted the vestigia that made it seem like the engine was running when it wasn't. Perhaps I should have let Nightingale shoot it after all.
"It's a magic bulldozer," I said.
"That does appear to be the case."
"How do you get a magic bulldozer?"
"I have to admit I've never seen one before. Perhaps if it was exposed to some kind of strong magic itself?"
I looked at it. It seemed pretty ordinary, the same day-glo yellow colour all the heavy machinery was, battered but apparently in good working order. I put my hand on it, a bit warily, and felt a flash of the ordinary working lives of ordinary Londoners, a concentration of doing the laundry and putting up shelves and sending kids to bed and getting on with life. A familiar flash.
"Exposed to strong magic," I said. "They used a lot of serious machinery to clear up the rubble of Skygarden. Couldn't some of the magic have gone into that?"
"I've never heard of it happening before," Nightingale said. "But yes, it's possible. You recognise it?"
Nightingale too touched the bulldozer. "Yes. Stored magic. Like a wizard's staff." He looked around. "Stand back a little, Peter. I'll discharge it."
I watched curiously as Nightingale placed his hand flat on the side of the bulldozer, and I caught parts of the forma he was using. The bulldozer gave a sudden jerk, and Nightingale shuddered as if an electric current was running through him, and fell back a step. "There," he said. I touched the bulldozer again, and whatever I'd felt before was gone.
"Where did it go?"
"My staff. Waste not, want not." He sounded a bit more like himself, but he was still shivering. "I think that's all we need to do right now. You can call Merton Borough Command and get them to send someone over to keep an eye on the site until morning when they can take a proper look at what's buried here."
We walked back past the grave mound Nightingale had raised. I'm not a touchy-feely type, and neither is Nightingale, but when he slipped on the mud, I put my hand on his elbow to steady him, and left it there as we walked back to the car, and he didn't pull away. Or conjure up the raincloud he makes follow me around when he wants to make a point. We got into the car in silence.
"You have to understand, I'm the one who didn't go mad," Nightingale said suddenly as I started the Jag's engine, his voice barely audible over the roar. "I survived. I found a place to recover, and some work to occupy me, and I was fine, after a while."
"Fine," I echoed.
"Considering the alternatives. I assure you, I did."
"Fair enough," I said. I was starting to understand that, though. You picked up horrifically murdered bodies and saw babies thrown out of windows and chased floating bones around an ancient graveyard, and you were fine the next day, because being not-fine wasn't an option when the job had to be done.
"It's just sometimes," Nightingale said, and stopped.
"Yeah." I turned my head to look at him. "I don't think you're mad, sir," I said.
"I'm sure that's a great relief to us all," was Nightingale's retort. "Never mind, Peter. Let's go home."
But I did understand. You were fine the next day, and the next day, but sometimes you had to break down a little. Just a little, just enough to regain your equilibrium, just enough to remind yourself that you were human and the ugliness you dealt with every day wasn't normal. After that you could go on again.
I drove us back to the Folly and put the Jag safely into the garage next to the Asbo, and dared to look at Nightingale again. "Do you want to come up and have a beer?" I said, nodding to the stairs up to the tech cave. "Watch something mindless?"
"I dread to think what you would consider mindless," Nightingale said, but he didn't refuse the offer. The Folly is huge and we're on different floors, so if he has screaming nightmares I don't hear them, and if I have any he doesn't hear mine. We went up the stairs to the coach house, and I got two beers from the case in the corner and some crisps from a multipack I'd bought last week. Nightingale sat on the chaise longue and leaned back, then picked up the remote and passed it to me.
"I'm too tired to work this machine out," he informed me. "Go on. Do your worst."
I surfed through channels until I found something showing back-to-back episodes of Miss Marple, and we settled down to discover how all crime is just like the lives of the villagers of St Mary Mead. I dozed intermittently, and woke one time to find that a blanket had appeared across my knees. Nightingale was still awake, but I think he must have fallen asleep at some point too, because I vaguely remember waking up to see him with his head back against the cushions and his eyes closed.
But when the grey murky daylight filtered through the skylight and I woke up feeling less stiff and uncomfortable than I expected after a night on the chaise longue, he was gone. The room was tidied, our beer bottles put in the recycling box and the rubbish that I'd left around the place had been taken out. I went up to my room, promised myself yet again I'd get a decent power shower installed as I made do with a very quick bath instead, and put on some fresh clothes. Down at breakfast, I found Nightingale already there, sitting with toast and the Telegraph.
"Good morning, Peter," he said briskly. "Merton already has a forensic archaeologist at our building site. They think it's very old. Saxon, possibly. The property developers are most unhappy about it."
I bet they were. Human remains on a site were almost as bad as bats, peregrine falcons and rare orchids from a property developer's point of view. "Just so long as we don't have to investigate their deaths, I don't mind," I said.
"Outside our remit," Nightingale said. "But I think we might need to take a closer look at the other machinery used at Skygarden and check it for residual magic. You can contact the incident command and get some lists from them, and we'll see if there have been any other similar incidents of stored magic. A nice little job for you, once you've been down to the firing range..."
He was all business this morning, no more conversations about madness and bodies and death, and on the whole, I thought as I spread marmalade on my toast, I preferred it that way.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/10