Short Story by Radek Pazdera


Zig zag

The erratic tapping of Judy’s foot against the floorboards was the only sound in the office. She hunched over her desk, catching up on paperwork from the past few weeks. The reports stacked up almost three inches high, and someone had to do it. She was the last person in the London Landmark Restoration and Maintenance Services that still wrote them longhand instead of typing them up on a computer, but nobody had enough courage to as much as mention it in front of her.

The first sunshine of the day poured inside through the two Georgian windows on her left, overlooking the busy Trafalgar Square. The light drifted along the two large desks, one at each side of the room, and illuminated a row of old mahogany filing cabinets at the back. A clock hung on the wall above them, marked with Roman numerals and yellowed by age. It didn’t tick, but it worked.

There was a heavy medieval strongbox on top of the cupboard, covered with sharp metal studs and a layer of dust. It had two locks and a faded sticker on the front that said: ‘FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY.’

Rogers, Judy’s colleague who occupied the desk opposite, was never good with documentation and now with his junior replacement tailing him everywhere he went, he had stopped doing it altogether.

She stifled a yawn and took another grey folder from the top of the stack. At least, the unfinished reports made the time pass quicker than staring at the back of her eyelids, trying to fall asleep.

The door opened at a quarter to nine, and Rogers walked in with Scott close behind him.

‘So at half four the next morning, the sexton rings me up, absolutely terrified. Apparently, the chimes were back. So we came down with a lever. Several police units at the scene, waiting for us to open the crypt up,’ Rogers said.

‘Turns out, it was a rat. The poor little chap gnawed its way in under the lid and kept — Oh, hey Judes!’

‘Morning, you two,’ she said.

‘Morning!’ Scott’s voice echoed from the corridor.

‘An early start, eh?’ Rogers binned the paper cup from his morning latte and finally moved out of the doorframe so Scott could get in too. He was carrying two takeaway coffee cups.

‘I need to talk to you about something,’ Judy said.

Rogers arched his brows. ‘Of course,’ he said and rested his briefcase on his desk.

‘Americano, two sugars.’ Scott handed one of the cups to Judy.

‘Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you.’ She smiled but could hardly conceal her surprise. In the 12 years that they had worked together, Rogers never thought of her when buying his morning coffee.

‘I’ll leave you to it then.’ It had taken an awkward moment of silence before Scott got the message. He quickly reversed out of the office, knocking over a bin full of crumpled papers and then almost hit his head against Judy’s desk while collecting the paper cup that had rolled under it.

‘Is everything all right?’

‘Yeah,’ she sighed. ‘I just didn’t get much sleep last night.’ Judy took a sip of the coffee, still pleasantly warm. Rogers sat down in his chair opposite.

‘Something is coming up that we’re not seeing.’

‘What makes you think so?’

‘The ravens are back in Barrow Lane,’ she said, her voice low and serious.

‘That doesn’t mean anything.’

‘How can you be so sure?’

Rogers exhaled slowly and audibly through his nose. His chair creaked when he leant back in it.

‘Look, I know that taking over the department can seem daunting,’ he said, ‘but you have absolutely nothing to be worried about.’

‘It’s not about that,’ Judy protested.

‘I wouldn’t recommend you if I weren’t certain that you can handle it.’

Judy felt her cheeks warming up.

‘The Investigation Department will be better off in your hands than mine,’ he said. ‘Besides, you’ll have Scott here. He doesn’t look it, but he’s good. Very good.’

She smiled and shook her head. They had shared this fifth-floor office for the past 12 years. All the stuff that they’ve been through together, maybe she was just freaking out.

‘Trust me; you’ll be fine.’

When everyone lined up in front of the Admiralty Arch, Sam took the camera off his neck and stopped a tall, bearded man who happened to be passing by. The man wore a long overcoat and old top hat with a long black feather tucked behind the ribbon.

‘Excuse me, sir, could you take a picture for us real quick?’

The passer-by looked a little out of his element but then agreed and took the camera from him. Sam ran over to the group, took Chloe into his arms and flashed his bleached teeth into the lens.

‘Thank you, good sir!’

‘Thanks very much!’ Meg said, and they waved their photographer off. She chuckled while her husband showed her the photo on the camera’s tiny screen.

‘All right, what do we do next?’ Meg asked. Kelly and Eddie, the other couple they were travelling with were looking at the map on the back of a hotel leaflet. Chloe held his father’s hand and watched Hannah and Jayden startle the pigeons that kept marching around them.

‘So we’re at Trafalgar Square,’ Kelly said. ‘There’s Nelson’s Column over there and — ‘ she paused to read it from the map ‘ — there’s National Portrait Gallery at the back.’

‘Sounds great,’ said Sam.

’There’s no admission,’ Eddie said.

‘Cool, let’s do it.’

‘Jayden! That’s enough, put it down, now,’ Kelly barked at the boy when she saw him going after the poor birds with a branch in his hand.

‘Jayden, Hannah. You heard mom,’ Eddie said firmly. The kids dropped the twigs and ran towards them, sheepishly hiding their hands behind their backs.

‘Is that a museum?’ Meg asked.

‘It’s a gallery. But they do have some fancy old paintings,’ said Sam.

‘Like the famous one of Henry VIII.’ Eddie inflated his cheeks and flexed his arms in a Hulk-like pose.

‘Henry who?’ Meg rolled her eyes and glanced at Kelly who was shaking her head. They agreed to split up: Sam and Eddie would see the gallery while Meg, Kelly and the kids get some snacks at the café under the column.

Meg and Chloe held a table that had just freed up while Kelly and the kids went inside to order.

‘Is it decaf?’ Meg said, taking a cup of coffee and a slice of double chocolate cake from Kelly. Jayden gave Chloe her CapriSun and KitKat.

‘Of course,’ Kelly said, mildly flustered. ‘Here you go, darling.’ She opened a can of coke for Jayden and gave Hannah her strawberry frosted doughnut and cranberry juice.

‘Thank God it’s such nice weather. I couldn’t stand another goddamn museum,’ Meg said. She leant back in the chair and put her hands on her bulging stomach.

‘I know, right? Ed always takes so much time reading all the signs. Oh my god, it drives me cray — zee.’

They ate their snacks, sipped their drinks and enjoyed the gentle warmth of the spring sun. The square wasn’t busy at all this morning. A few couples sat on the edge of the two fountains in front of Nelson’s Column. A group of teenagers were vacating the pedestal at the base of the column where they had eaten their lunch. The class gathered around the guide who talked and gestured widely before taking them down Whitehall towards the distant silhouette of Big Ben.

‘Mom?’ Hannah said, picking the frosting off her doughnut, ‘can I go take a look at the lions?’

Kelly squinted at the four metal statues under the column. Each one of them rested on a plinth with its massive front paws stretched forward. There was nobody there since the schoolchildren left. She didn’t see the four ravens, dark as night, perched on Admiral Nelson’s hat at the top of the column.

‘You can honey. But stay where I can see you near the first one, okay?’

‘I wanna see the lions too,’ Chloe chirped.

‘Mwe twoo!’ Jayden said with a mouthful of his Oreo doughnut.

The three of them hopped off the cold metal chairs and waddled towards the lions.

‘You had a scan already, didn’t you?’ Kelly asked Meg, keeping an eye on the children.

‘I had two. At 14 weeks and just before we left.’

‘So, you must know the gender?’

Meg nodded, her mouth full of cake.

Kelly’s eyebrows soared high above her eyes. She clasped her hands and her mouth curved into an excited grin.

‘It’s another girl,’ Meg said.

Kelly gasped. ‘Oh my God! Congratulations!’

‘Thanks. I’m excited for Chloe. I think she’ll love a little sister.’

‘Of course, she will.’

‘They told me after the first scan actually, but they weren’t 100% sure. I haven’t told Sam yet. He’s so excited about having a boy.’

‘Oh, he’ll be fine with it. I’m so happy for you!’

‘I just don’t know how to tell him.’

Kelly paused for a bit. ‘You’re not planning on having a third one then?’

‘Oh, hell no! This one’s gettin’ out and then I’m done.’ Meg moved her hands apart in a broad gesture that she almost knocked her coffee off the table. ‘What? Are you?’

Kelly shrugged and looked awkwardly away.

‘Mom! Mom! Can we take pictures with the lion? Can we?’ Jayden ran back to the table.

‘Sure honey, but no — ‘ she glanced at the statue and started yelling ‘ — Hannah, come down now!’ She sprung up and paced over to the column with Jayden trailing behind.

‘Don’t you make me climb up there!’ Kelly did her best to sound firm, but she prayed to God that she wouldn’t have to.

‘Mom, please! I wanna take a photo on the lion!’ the girl said, grinning from the lion’s back.

‘Fine, but I want to see you get down as soon as I take it. Those statues aren’t made to be climbed, darling. It’s dangerous.’ Before she could do anything, Jayden skirted her and clambered up the pedestal to jump behind his sister.

Kelly rested her hands on her waist and cocked her head sullenly. ‘Jayden!’

Meg caught up with them and picked Chloe up from under the statue. Luckily, she was too small to even get on the stone pedestal. She burst out crying as soon as her mother lifted her up.

‘You’re too small to sit on the lion, honey. You’ll fall and hurt yourself.’

‘Mommy! I…I wanna…’ she stuttered. She rested her head on Meg’s shoulder and wept. Meg closed her eyes and sighed.

‘You know what? I’ll lift you up there, and you can stand in front of the lion, okay? How does that sound?’

Chloe snorted and rubbed her eyes with her tiny fists while Meg hoisted her up to the edge of the stone pedestal straight under the lion’s huge jaw, almost as big as the girl herself. Then she stepped back to take a few photos too.

Hannah pretended to pet the lion’s iron mane, and Chloe lifted her hands in the air, so it looked as if she hung out of its mouth.

‘It’s actually kinda funny,’ Kelly whispered, searching for an angle that would fit all three of them in the shot.

‘I’ll take one more from this side and then y’all gettin’ down, understood?’

Then Hannah noticed the oddest thing: the metal under her hands started to soften. It grew warmer as if her touch caused it to melt. The texture changed too. The lion’s mane became as fluffy as the carpet in their living room. And then it moved. The statue swung its head to the side and produced a shivering roar.

Chloe jumped down from the plinth and dashed towards mummy with her palms over her ears.

Kelly dropped her phone on the ground and started to scream. With her hands covering her mouth, she watched the giant lion get up with her two children mounted on its back, Hannah holding onto its golden hair and Jayden gripping her sister’s purple anorak. Terrified shrieks begun to echo all around Trafalgar Square. People ran as fast as they could.

The four former statues stepped down from their pedestals and sauntered around the base of the monument. They snarled and growled and stretched their paws after hundreds of years of slumber. Suddenly, one of them leapt forward and landed in the middle of the staircase that led up to National Portrait Gallery. In another swift motion, it sent the cafe’s blackboard sign flying out of the way. Even the most reckless, who stuck around to take pictures on their phones, now ran for their lives.

Another lion crossed the road and sat down in the middle of the roundabout on the southern side of Trafalgar Square. It watched the moving cars with as much bewilderment as the drivers that drove past. When a black cab came around from Whitehall, it jumped forward. For no apparent reason, it buried its massive claws into the side of the car. The cabbie pulled the steering wheel, and the taxi spun upside down when it hit the kerb. Deformed metal and broken glass, it sounded like an explosion. The cab ground against the tarmac and tipped on its side before crashing into a lamp post.

‘Jump, Hannah! Jayden! Jump off, now!’ Kelly screamed, but they were both too scared to notice. She jumped up and waved her hands in the air to attract their attention. It worked better on the lion than it did on them. The beast produced a frightening growl and started prowling towards her. She took a few steps back but slipped and tumbled down.

The lion kept its eyes fixed on its prey, moving slowly and patiently, its tail low, sweeping from side to side.

‘No, no, NO!’ Kelly cried. She wanted to get up but couldn’t. She trembled with fear, looking into the golden eyes of her killer. The huge animal flexed its muscles and charged.

A thin streak of purple light swirled in the air. The lion’s enormous body jerked forward with full force, but it didn’t move an inch closer to Kelly. The light wrapped around the beast’s ankles and shackled it to the ground.

Kelly crawled backwards on her elbows, stricken by fear. The purple ordeal streamed out of the hands of a middle-aged woman in a long navy overcoat behind the lion, and it didn’t make Kelly feel any better.

‘Scott, can you help the children off the lion, please?’ Judy said, trying to direct the beast’s attention to herself. He scampered around and approached the animal from behind, looking as terrified as Kelly. But soon the tearful Jayden and Hannah were both on their feet, galloping towards their mother.

‘Step back!’ Judy ordered. She spread her hands, and the lion walked free. It roared and swiped its claw in the air, mere inches from her face.

Scott turned around to see how Rogers was doing. He stood in the middle of the roundabout with the other three lions surrounding him. His hands flashed purple every time he deflected a swipe of their deadly claws.

‘They’ll fall back into place as soon as they step back on the plinths. Try to get them back on the plinths,’ Judy screamed before having to counter another attack. She rolled away, got up and sprinted around the metal barrier under the column. The lion leapt straight after her. It flickered as soon as its paws touched the pedestal and the metal statue appeared back in its original position.

Try to what? Scott stared incredulously at Judy. It sure was easier to be casual about it when you had purple light shooting from your hands, wasn’t it? He ran across the road to Rogers. But what was he supposed to do? For the lack of a better idea, he took his wallet and hurled it at one of the lions. The beast swung its head around and growled, its nostrils flaring.

He climbed on one of the pedestals, hoping that it would too. ‘Come on, come on,’ he murmured, shaking all over.

The beast focused at Scott and then dashed forward. That was when Scott lost his nerve. He yelped in panic, abandoned his original plan and ran away. The lion jumped over the plinth and caught up with him just when he crawled under one of the tables outside the cafe. The lion roared and cleared three chairs out of his way with a single swipe. Scott saw the deadly protracting claws, one as big as his whole hand.

It would strike again, but a loop of bright purple light closed around its paw and suspended it in the air. With a nasty snarl, the lion swung around where Judy and Rogers were. They had lured the others back in their places already.

Rogers let go, and it immediately started after him. He hid behind the last free pedestal. The furious lion landed on it, flickered and turned into metal again.

‘You’re all right there, Scott?’

‘Am I…can you…what’s going on here?’

‘I wish I knew.’

Scott’s eyes widened, he was terrified. ‘Four giant metal lions just wake up and start destroying things in the middle of London. Then we show up and catch them by shooting purple blimming light at them with — ‘ he paused and pointed at Rogers’s chainmail gloves. ‘What are these?’

‘There hasn’t been an incident like this for decades.’ That was the first time that Scott had seen a hint of worry in the old man’s face. ‘Sorry about that. We were planning to ease you into it a bit more.’

‘Ease me in?’ he said, accepting Rogers’s hand to help him stand up.

Meanwhile, under Nelson’s Column, Judy was a part of an entirely different sort of conversation.

‘Hey! Excuse me, can you tell me what the hell is all this about?’ Kelly said.

‘I’m so sorry, madam. It was —‘

‘Your circus almost killed both of my children!’ she bellowed at Judy like there was no tomorrow.

‘I do apologise for the inconvenience, madam. It was entirely out of our control.’

‘I saw that,’ she snapped, ‘this will have consequences.’

‘I’m calling the police,’ Meg said from behind Judy, her phone on her ear.

Judy resisted the temptation to point the woman to the ‘DO NOT CLIMB’ sign, and she whistled and waved at Rogers instead. He replied with a nod.

‘Close your eyes, this will be bright,’ Rogers said to Scott. He closed his and took a deep breath. Then he pressed his palms together and struck them against each other in one swift motion. A flash of white light poured over Trafalgar Square. The raw intensity of it almost knocked Scott off his feet again, and everything fell quiet.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ Rogers mumbled to himself while he tucked the chainmail gloves back in his breast pocket. Unlike the crude pieces of middle-age armour, these were woven out of the finest threads of purple and gold. The rings were tiny, almost imperceptible and locked together perfectly.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead, walked over to the broken blackboard sign and turned it over. It was bent with five deep cuts across one side as if someone burned through it with a blowtorch.

‘Can you give me a hand here?’ Rogers said. Scott’s eyes slowly readjusted back to normal. He turned around a few times, confused until he realised where he was and who was talking to him.

‘Whoa, what happened?’ he said cheerfully, seeing the claw marks on the table top.

‘Let’s take it to the bins at Adelaide Street.’

Scott frowned. ‘What? Are we nicking a sign?‘

‘Come on, we’ve got to get this sorted. I’ll explain later.’ They picked it up and carried it across the square together.

Scott wasn’t the only confused one. For a moment, the bustle around the square came to a halt. People stood still, glassy-eyed, looking like they weren’t sure whether they were supposed to be there. The eerie silence faded away after a while. People went on about their business, and nobody remembered a thing.

‘What did you guys do?’ Sam said pointing his hand at the crashed taxi. Meg and Kelly turned their heads around.

‘How did that happen?’ Kelly said.

‘He must’ve been going too fast. We were sitting over there behind the column. I haven’t seen anything either.’

‘That’s what happens when we leave you alone with the kids for 5 minutes,’ Eddie joked while they watched a woman help the cabbie climb out of the car.

‘He’ll be all right,’ Eddie said after a while. ‘Let’s get something to eat. I’m starving.’ The kids cheerfully agreed.

As they were leaving, a loud croak caught Sam’s attention. He turned around and saw four ravens spread their wings, dark as the night, and glide away from the top of the column.

‘You’re all right, sir?’ Judy helped the driver to the nearest kerb where he could sit down. Grey smoke gushed from under the bonnet. There was shattered glass everywhere.

‘What happened?’ he mumbled, shaken from the collision. She inspected the blood on his bald head and checked his pulse.

‘The ambulance will be here in a minute.’

He nodded and kept staring absently past her.

‘Can I get an ambulance to a traffic accident at Trafalgar Square, please? Yes. A man in his fifties in shock with a surface head injury. Nobody else was involved,’ Judy said to her phone as she crossed the road.

Rogers and Scott dumped the broken sign next to the bins at the back of the office building and met Judy on the stairs up.

‘You dropped this,’ she said, holding Scott’s wallet.

He patted his pockets. ‘Oh yeah, you’re right!’

He thanked her and took his wallet back, wondering where could he have possibly lost it.

‘We need to inform the guardian immediately,’ Judy said when they reached the narrow corridor in front of their office.

‘Oh, I love The Guardian. I read it every day,’ Scott said. ‘You think we should give them a witness account of the car accident? I wish I’d seen it happen.’

Judy and Rogers shared a meaningful look when they entered their office on the fifth-floor. They both put their chainmail gloves back into the iron strongbox on top of the filing cabinets and locked them up again.

‘We’ll need to find him first.’

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