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WATCHING TREES GROW
OXFORD, ENGLAND, A.D 1832
If I was dreaming that night, I forgot it the instant that blasted telephone woke me with its shrill two-tone whistle. I fumbled around for the bedside light, very aware of Myriam shifting and groaning on the mattress beside me. She was seven months pregnant with our child and no longer appreciated the calls I received at strange hours. I found the little chain dangling from the light, tugged it, and picked up the black Bakelite handset.
I wasn’t surprised to have the rich vowels of Francis Haughton Raleigh rolling down the crackly line at me. The family’s old missi dominici is my immediate superior. Few others would risk my displeasure with a call at night.
“Edward, my boy,” he growled. “So sorry to wake you at this ungodly hour.”
I glanced at the brass clock on the chest of drawers; its luminous hands were showing a quarter past midnight. “That’s all right, sir. I wasn’t sleeping.”
Myriam turned over and gave me a derisory look.
“Please, no need to call me ‘sir.’ The thing is, Edward, we have a bit of a problem.”
“Here in the city, would you believe. It’s really the most damnable news. One of the students has been killed. Murdered, the police seem to think.”
I stopped my fidgeting, suddenly very awake. Murder, a concept as difficult to grasp as it was frightening to behold. What kind of pre-Empire savage could do that to another person? “One of ours?”
“Apparently so. He’s a Raleigh, anyway. Not that we’ve had positive confirmation.”
“I see.” I sat up, causing the flannel sheet to fall from my shoulders. Myriam was frowning now, more concerned than puzzled.
“Can we obtain that confirmation?” I asked.
“Absolutely. And a lot more besides. I’m afraid you and I have been handed the family jurisdiction on this one. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.” The handset buzzed as the connection ended.
I leaned over and kissed Myriam gently. “Got to go.”
“What is it? What’s happened?”
Her face had filled with worry. So much so that I was unable to answer in truth. It wasn’t that she lacked strength. Myriam was a senior technical nurse, seeing pain and suffering every day at the city clinic—she’d certainly seen more dead bodies than I ever had. But blurting out this kind of news went against my every instinct. Obscurely, it felt to me as though I were protecting our unborn. I simply didn’t want my child to come into a world where such horror could exist. Murder. I couldn’t help but shiver as I pulled on my shirt, cold fingers making a hash of the small pearl buttons. “Some kind of accident, we think. Francis and I have to investigate. I’ll tell you in the morning.” When, the Blessed Mary willing, it might be proved some ghastly mistake.
My leather attaché case was in the study, a present from my mother when I passed my legal exams. I had been negligent in employing it until now; some of its fine brass implements and other paraphernalia had never even been taken from their compartments. I snatched it up as if it were some form of security tool, its scientific contents a shield against the illogicality abroad in the city that night.
I didn’t have a long wait in the lobby before Francis’s big black car rolled up outside, crunching the slushy remnants of last week’s snowfall. The old man waited patiently while I buckled the safety restraint straps around my chest and shoulders before switching on the batteries and engaging the gearing toggle. We slipped quietly out onto the cobbled street, powerful yellow headlamps casting a wide fan of illumination.
The apartment that Myriam and I rent is in the city’s Botley district, a pleasant area of residential blocks and well-tended parks where small businesses and shops occupy the ground floors of most buildings. The younger, professional members of the better families had taken to the district, their nannies filling the daytime streets with baby carriages and clusters of small excitable children. At night it seemed bleaker somehow, lacking vitality.
Francis twisted the motor potentiometer, propelling the car up to a full twenty-five miles an hour. “You know, it’s at times like this I wish the Roman Congress hadn’t banned combustion engines last year,” he grumbled. “We could be there in half a minute.”
“Batteries will improve,” I told him patiently. “And petroleum was dangerous stuff. It could explode if there was an accident.”
“I know, I know. Lusting after speed is a Shorts way of thinking. But I sometimes wonder if we’re not being too timid these days. The average citizen is a responsible fellow. It’s not as if he’ll take a car out looking to do damage with it. Nobody ever complains about horse riding.”
“There’s the pollution factor as well. And we can’t afford to squander our resources. There’s only a finite amount of crude oil on the planet, and you know the population projections. We must safeguard the future; we’re going to spend the rest of our lives there.”
Francis sighed theatrically. “Well recited. So full of earnest promise, you youngsters.”
“I’m thirty-eight,” I reminded him. “I have three accredited children already.” One of which I had to fight to gain family registration for. The outcome of a youthful indiscretion with a girl at college. We all have them.
“A child,” Francis said dismissively. “You know, when I was a young, in my teens in fact, I met an old man who claimed he could remember the last of the Roman legionaries withdrawing from Britain when he was a boy.”
I performed the math quickly in my head. It could be possible, given how old Francis was. “That’s interesting.”
“Don’t patronize, my boy. The point is, progress brings its own problems. The world that old man lived in changed very little in his lifetime—it was almost the same as the Second Imperial Era. While today, our whole mind-set, the way we look at our existence, is transformed every time a new scientific discovery drops into our lap. He had stability. We don’t. We have to work harder because of that, be on our guard more. It’s painful for someone of my age.”
“Are you saying today’s world makes murder more likely?”
“No. Not yet. But the possibility is there. Change is always a domino effect. And the likes of you and I must be conscious of that above all else. We are the appointed guardians, after all.”
“And you’ll need to keep remembering it as well, not just for now but for centuries.”
I managed to prevent my head from shaking in amusement. The old man was always going on about the uncertainties and dangers of the future. Given the degree of social and technological evolution he’d witnessed in the last four hundred years, it’s a quirk that I readily excuse. When he was my age, the world had yet to see electricity and running water; medicine then consisted of herbs boiled up by old women in accordance with lore already ancient in the First Imperial Era. “So what do we know about this possible murder?”
“Very little. The police phoned the local family office, which got straight on to me. The gentleman we’re talking about is Justin Ascham Raleigh; he’s from the Nottingham Raleighs. Apparently, his neighbor heard sounds coming from his room and thought there was some kind of fight or struggle going on. He alerted the lodgekeepers. They opened the room up and found him, or at least a body.”
“Very definitely, yes.”
We drove into the center of Oxford. Half past midnight was hardly late by the city’s standards. There were students thronging the tree-lined streets, just starting to leave the cafés and taverns. Boisterous, yes; I could remember my own time here as a student, first studying science, then latterly law. They shouted as they made their way back to their residences and colleges, quoting obscure verse, drinking from the necks of bottles, throwing books and bags about … one group was even having a rugby scrum down, slithering about on the icy pavement. Police and lodgekeepers looked on benignly at such activity, for it never gets any worse than this.
Francis slowed the car to a mere crawl as a bunch of revelers ran across the road ahead. One young man mooned us before rushing off to merge with his laughing friends. Many of them were girls, about half of whom were visibly pregnant.
“Thinks we’re the civic authorities, no doubt,” Francis muttered around a small smile. “I could show him a thing or two about misbehaving.”
We drew up outside the main entrance to Dunbar College. I hadn’t been inside for well over a decade and had few memories of the place. It was a six-story building of pale yellow stone with great mullioned windows overlooking the broad boulevard. Snow had been cleared from the road and piled up in big mounds on either side of the archway that led into the quad. A police constable and a junior lodgekeeper were waiting for us in the lodgekeeper’s office just inside the entranceway, keeping warm by the iron barrel stove. They greeted us briskly and led us inside.
Students were milling uneasily in the long corridors, dressed in pajamas or wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cool air. They knew something was wrong but not what. Lodgekeepers dressed in black suits patrolled the passages and cloisters, urging patience and restraint. Everyone fell silent as we strode past.
We went up two flights of spiraling stone stairs and along another corridor. The chief lodgekeeper was standing outside a sturdy wooden door no different from the twenty other lodgings on that floor. His ancient creased face registered the most profound sadness. He nodded as the constable announced who we were and ushered us inside.
Justin Ascham Raleigh’s accommodation was typical of a final-year student, with three private rooms: bedroom, parlor, and study. They had high ceilings, woodpaneled walls dark with age, long once-grand curtains hanging across the windows. All the interconnecting doors had been opened, allowing us to see the corner of a bed at the far end of the little suite. A fire had been lit in the small iron grate of the study, its embers still glowing, holding off the night’s chill air.