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Excerpt: 'The City And The City'

Jul 2, 2009

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I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course — a child's mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.

The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks. I wasn't the first detective there — I saw Bard Naustin and a couple of others — but I was the most senior. I followed the sergeant to where most of my colleagues clustered, between a low derelict tower and a skateboard park ringed by big drum-shaped trash bins. Just beyond it we could hear the docks. A bunch of kids sat on a wall before standing officers. The gulls coiled over the gathering.

"Inspector." I nodded at whomever that was. Someone offered a coffee but I shook my head and looked at the woman I had come to see.

She lay near the skate ramps. Nothing is still like the dead are still. The wind moves their hair, as it moved hers, and they don't respond at all. She was in an ugly pose with legs crooked as if about to get up, her arms in a strange bend. Her face was to the ground.

A young woman, brown hair pulled into pigtails poking up like plants. She was almost naked and it was sad to see her skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh. She wore only laddered stockings, one high-heel on. Seeing me look for it, a sergeant waved at me from a way off, from where she guarded the dropped shoe.

It was a couple of hours since the body had been discovered. I looked her over. I held my breath and bent down toward the dirt, to look at her face, but I could only see one open eye.

"Where's Shukman?"

"Not here yet, Inspector"

"Someone call him, tell him to get a move on." I smacked my watch. I was in charge of what we called the mise-en-crime. No one would move her until Shukman the patho had come, but there were other things to do. I checked sightlines. We were out of the way, the garbage containers obscured us, but I could feel attention on us like insects, from all over the estate. We milled.

There was a wet mattress on its edge between two of the bins, by a spread of rusting iron pieces interwoven with discarded chains. "That was on her." The constable who spoke was Lizbyet Corwi, a smart young woman I'd worked with a couple of times. "Couldn't exactly say she was well hidden but it sort of made her look like a pile of rubbish, I guess." I could see a rough rectangle of darker earth surrounding the dead woman — the remains of the mattress-sheltered dew. Naustin was squatting by it, staring at the earth.

"The kids who found her tipped it half off," Corwi said.

"How did they find her?"

Corwi pointed at the earth, at little scuffs of animal paws.

"Stopped her getting mauled. Ran like hell when they saw what it was, made the call. Our lot, when they arrived" She glanced at two patrolmen I didn't know.

"They moved it?"

She nodded. "See if she was still alive, they said."

"What are their names?"

"Shushkil and Briamiv."

"And these the finders?" I nodding at the guarded kids. There were two girls, two guys. Mid-teens, cold, looking down.

"Yeah. Chewers."

"Early morning pick-you-up?"

"That's dedication, hm?" she said. "Maybe they're up for junkies of the month or some shit. They got here a bit before seven. The skate-pit's organised that way, apparently. It's only been built a couple of years, used to be nothing, but the locals've got their shift patterns down. Midnight to nine am, chewers only; nine to eleven, local gang plans the day; eleven to midnight, skateboards and rollerblades."

"They carrying?"

"One of the boys has a little shiv but really little. Couldn't mug a milkrat with it, it's a toy. And a chew each. That's it." She shrugged. "The dope wasn't on them, we found it by the wall, but," shrug, "they were the only ones around."

She motioned over one of our colleagues and opened the bag he carried. Little bundles of resin-slathered grass. Feld is its street name, a tough crossbreed of Catha edulis, spiked with tobacco and caffeine and stronger stuff, and fibreglass threads or similar to abrade the gums and get it into the blood. Its name is a trilingual pun: it's khat where it's grown, and the animal called "cat" in English is feld in our own language. I sniffed it and it was pretty low-grade stuff. I walked over to where the four teenagers shivered in their puffy jackets.

"'Sup, policeman?" said one boy in a Besz-accented approximation of hip-hop English. He looked up and met my eye but he was pale. Neither he nor any of his companions looked well. From where they sat they could not have seen the dead woman but they did not even look in her direction.

They must have known we'd find the feld, and that we'd know it was theirs. They could have said nothing, just run.

"I'm Inspector Borlu," I said. "Extreme Crime Squad."

I did not say I'm Tyador. A difficult age to question, this — too old for first names, euphemisms and toys, not yet old enough to be unremittingly opponents in interview, when at least the rules were clear. "What's your name?" The boy hesitated, considered using whatever slang name he'd granted himself, did not.

"Vilyem Barichi."

"You found her?" He nodded and his friends nodded after him. "Tell me."

"We come here because, 'cause, and" Vilyem waited but I said nothing about his drugs. He looked down. "And we seen something under that mattress and we pulled it off."

"There was some" His friend looked up not, superstitious.

"Wolves?" I said. They glanced at each other.

"Yeah man, some scabby little pack was nosing around there and"

"So we thought it"

"How long after you got here?" I said.

Vilyem shrugged, looked at his friends. "Don't know. Couple hours?"

"Anyone else around?"

"Saw some guys over there a while back."

"Dealers?" A shrug.

"And there was a van came up on the grass and come over here and went off again after a bit. We didn't speak to no one."

"When was the van?"

"Don't know."

"It was still dark." That was one of the girls.

"OK. Vilyem, you guys, we're going to get you some breakfast, something to drink, if you want" I motioned to their guards. "Have we spoken to the parents?" I asked.

"On their way, boss, except hers," pointing to one of the girls, "we can't reach."

"So keep trying. Get them to the centre now."

The four teens looked at each other. "This is bullshit, man," the boy who was not Vilyem said, uncertainly. He knew that according to some politics he should oppose my instruction but he wanted to go with my subordinate. Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling-back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark.

Excerpted from The City & The City by China Mieville. 2009 by China Mieville. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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