Read the previous chapter, Chapter 4, here first.
Chapter 5 of Deviance, London Psychic #3. Click here for buy links to the full book.
Jamie looked more closely at the photograph on the church wall. Magda was clearly a friend of Nick's, their easy camaraderie caught on camera. Jamie knew she should let Missinghall know about the picture, but perhaps this wasn't anything important. After all, both of them worked with people in the community. But maybe it was time to meet Magda Raven officially. Jamie walked back down the nave towards the exit and out into the sun.
Magda wasn't hard to locate. She was a photographer and artist with a studio address listed on her website a block away. Jamie walked down a small alleyway, past the place where the Tabard Inn once stood, where Chaucer's pilgrims had met in the Canterbury Tales. Jamie smiled as she passed the blue plaque marking the spot. It was surrounded by scaffolding from building works in an area that was forever being reincarnated, with layer upon layer of history and life. This was one of the charms of living in London. Every square inch was saturated with history and the echoes of the past could be felt in every footstep.
The building ahead was an old warehouse converted into studio flats. It looked to be mixed industrial and residential, a working artists' haven. The main door had buttons with labelled names and businesses. Jamie rang Magda's bell, and a minute later the intercom crackled.
“Magda's Art. Can I help you?”
“Hi,” Jamie said. “I'm new to the community and I was on the walk last night. My name's Jamie Brooke. I wondered if I could talk to you about it.”
There was a pause and the sound of a brief muted conversation, before Magda replied.
“Last night was terrible. I don't really know what to say about it, but of course, come in.”
The door buzzed and Jamie pushed inside. The corridor was bare, concrete walls presenting a neutral face to the outsider. There were sounds of banging upstairs and the faint tinkle of a piano. A door at the end of the corridor opened to a bright space beyond. Magda Raven stood in the doorway, a tentative smile on her face. She wore a black t-shirt with butterflies all over it and blue jeans over bare feet.
“Come on in,” Magda said. “Kettle's on.”
The studio was spacious, with a high ceiling supported by metal beams. A row of rectangular windows allowed light to penetrate the space. A stepladder with a wide platform stood underneath one open window, a pair of binoculars and notepad resting on top. There were doors at the other end of the room, one open to give a glimpse of a kitchen. On one side of the studio, white panels separated part of the space, with cameras on tripods and distinctive silver umbrella flash lighting set up. Jamie could see a shadow moving in the space beyond.
“I'm in the middle of an impromptu photo shoot but we're on a tea break right now. Why don't you have a look around?” Magda said. “Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Coffee would be great,” Jamie said. “Black, one sugar, please.”
Oversize prints covered the studio walls, grouped by theme. Faces of Southwark residents captured in stark black and white, an old woman with wrinkles as deep as scars, a Rastafarian with dreads swinging, smoke wreathed around his head. A young woman leaned against a brick wall, cigarette in her hand, figure-hugging dress revealing slim curves. Her posture invited attention, but her eyes were haunted and cynical.
Birds dominated the next set of prints. Some whirled above the backdrop of the City, silhouetted against the stark outline of the Tower of London. A murmuration of swallows swooped above Stonehenge, a cloud of synchronized beauty in the beginnings of a storm. Then there were close-ups of the ravens Magda had tattooed on her skin, their feathers glossy blue-black, eyes bright. The final panel contained a series of prints in full color, scenes of the Borough streets that brought a smile to Jamie's face with their optimism. Red balloons against the white backdrop of the Globe Theatre. Street performers outside the Tate Modern striking poses for the passing tourists. The silver arc of the Millennium Bridge across the Thames with St Paul's haloed by a sunbeam. The multi-colored ribbons tied to the gates of Cross Bones Graveyard.
There was a corkboard next to the prints, covered in fliers about local events: a masquerade ball, the London Tattoo Convention, and exhibitions coming soon at the British Museum. Jamie's mind flashed to Blake and she wondered what he was working on at the moment.
“See anything you like?” Magda said as she handed Jamie a mug of hot coffee, waving her hand to encompass her prints.
“They're all beautiful.” Jamie pointed at the picture of the ribbons. “Cross Bones must mean a lot to you.”
“Last night …” Magda shook her head. “Well, I hope that last night wasn't the last memorial there, but the trauma of seeing what we did might mean we have to cancel it for a while.” She looked at Jamie more closely. “You're the woman who went to the body.”
Jamie nodded. “I used to be a police officer, so I'm used to crime scenes.” Jamie noted that Magda's body stiffened at her words. “But I'm a private investigator these days and I'm not involved in the investigation into the murder. That's with the police now. I recently moved to Southwark, so I'm keen to get to know the community. That's why I came along last night.”
“I'm sorry your first experience here was so memorable for all the wrong reasons. But this community is a rainbow of people, which means we have dark as well as light on the spectrum.” Magda pointed at the wall of images. “It's not possible to have life without the shadow side.”
“Did you know –”
Jamie's question was cut off by a voice from behind the screen.
“Where's my tea, Magda? I'm parched.”
O emerged from behind the screen, pulling a sarong around her body to cover her nakedness. Her elfin features were highlighted by dramatic eye makeup, as black as the tattoo under her clothes and emphasized by her ash-blonde cropped hair. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of Jamie.
“I remember you,” she said, coming closer. “Last year when Jenna Neville died, you came to the club. What are you doing here?”
Jamie was disarmed by seeing her there. O had broken through her defenses that night at Torture Garden. She had helped with a clue to the case, but also saw through Jamie's professional veneer to the pain beneath.
“I … I've moved here actually. I was there last night. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do.”
O came closer, her eyes fixed on Jamie's. “Does death follow you, Jamie Brooke?” O whispered. “Or do you seek it out?”
Jamie couldn't speak. The words were too close to her own thoughts. O broke the moment with a dramatic half turn.
“Why don't you stay while we finish the photo shoot?” she said. “We're trying to counter the images of death with life. Magda is a fantastic artist.”
“Only because you're such a great model to work with,” Magda replied with a laugh.
O walked back to the set, unwound her sarong and dropped it to the floor, completely at ease in her naked state. Jamie had seen her tattoo before when O had danced at the Torture Garden nightclub, but in the daylight, it seemed more unusual. Her back was inked with the head of an octopus with tentacles that stretched out to wrap around her slight frame. As she walked in front of the camera, the octopus moved with her, part of her spinal cord.
One tentacle wound up onto her skull, the black visible under short hair, another wrapped around her waist and dipped down between her buttocks. O turned to face the camera and Jamie couldn't help but gaze at how the tentacles of the creature roved across her body. Her breasts were encircled, with one nipple caressed by the creature, while another tentacle wound down between her legs, touching her hairless sex as it penetrated her there. The detail was exquisite and it was incredible to consider the hours of work involved in the entire piece. O was a work of art and her body the canvas. She stamped her originality on the world with her ink, and Jamie wondered if she could ever be as brave herself.
“How do you want me, Magda?” O asked, and there was a trace of flirtation in her voice. Magda walked round in front of the camera and turned O, her fingers lingering on the woman's shoulder, caressing her skin.
“Look up towards the window. We're going for angelic in the next shots.”
“A fallen angel, perhaps.” O laughed, her cornflower-blue eyes bright. She composed herself and stood as a statue while Magda clicked away.
Every few seconds, O shifted her posture slightly, changing the angle of her head or her limbs. Her dancing at the Torture Garden had been explicitly erotic, an invitation to sin in a venue that celebrated the physical and the unusual. But here, her body was an embodiment of creation, of human perfection, and the tattoo seemed only to emphasize her vulnerability. Jamie wanted to know why O had chosen this design. Now their paths had crossed again, perhaps she would be able to find out.
Eventually, Magda put the camera down, her face relaxing from the taut posture of the concentrated artist.
“We're done,” she said. “There are some great shots in there.”
O looked up out of the window, suddenly pointing.
“Look, Magda, the ravens!”
Magda spun quickly and climbed the stepladder up to the high window, gazing out at the birds above, transfixed by their flight. She pushed open the window and began to whistle, soft notes that lilted with a Celtic refrain. It would seem impossible for the tune to be heard above the din of the city and the wind that swept Southwark, but the ravens began to wheel closer.
Magda's song was like a silken cord, drawing the birds to her, and soon there were hundreds of them flying close to the studio windows, their dark eyes fixed on the woman who sang within.
There was a vibration in the air, a heightened sense of connection to the natural world, something Jamie hadn't felt so strongly before in London. It was as if the wild had been brought in here, the rhythms of a far older world reasserting themselves in this cornered civilization. Magda finished her song and threw her arms wide on the final note, the ravens cawing as they winged away and the sky was clear again.
“The ravens are my totem,” Magda said, her eyes dark as she descended the ladder. She pulled up her sleeve to reveal the tattoos on her arm in more detail. “They are on me and in me, and they channel my deeper connection to the city.”
“I've heard you called an urban shaman,” Jamie said. “Is that to do with the ravens?”
Magda smiled. “If I see beyond the skin of the city, then my sight is from the birds. But mainly I live in the world of the practical and human. Like last night.”
“Did you know the victim, Nicholas Randolph?” Jamie asked.
“I didn't recognize his body at first. I didn't know it was him …” Magda sighed. “Nick was a friend and we worked alongside each other. He used to work the streets himself years ago, before finding the church. He was gay and spent a lot of time helping the young male prostitutes. He didn't judge them, but helped them with health issues, education, even with places to stay when they were desperate. He visited them in hospital if they got beaten up. He bought their meds. He was a bloody saint and he didn't deserve to die like that.”
“But despite his good works, people judged him as they judge the rest of us,” O said. “Especially the Society, those bastards who marched behind us last night.” She shook her head. “Suppression of Vice – it's a crazy aim, especially around here. The sex trade has been in this borough since Roman times, through medieval London and up to today. The Society tell themselves that they're trying to save us, but they're really trying to get us to conform.”
O pulled on her clothes. Skinny jeans and a man's shirt soon covered her tattoo and she could easily pass for an art student on the street. Then she turned around sharply, her face set in determination.
“Tell her, Magda,” she said quietly.