Home > Hidden (Alex Verus #5)

Hidden (Alex Verus #5)
Benedict Jacka

Chapter 1

Russell Square is one of the odder areas of London. Squeezed between Euston Road to the north and Holborn to the south, it doesn’t have enough shops to be commercial and it doesn’t have enough houses to be residential. Instead it has a mix of universities and hotels, rich tourists and poor students rubbing shoulders in the busy streets. It’s supposed to be “literary,” associations from the old Bloomsbury group, though given that you’d have to be a millionaire to own property there nowadays I doubt you’ll find many artists living in the place.

What Russell Square does have a lot of is education: English-language schools for the expats, colleges for the students, and the British Museum for everyone. It was one of the colleges I’d come for, a long hulking brown-and-beige cinderblock called the Institute of Education, and as I approached I reflexively scanned ahead, searching for danger. I didn’t find anything and I didn’t expect to, but for some reason I found myself hesitating as I drew level with the front doors. For a moment I thought about turning away, then shook my head in annoyance and headed inside.

My name’s Alex Verus and I’m a probability mage, aka a diviner. I train an apprentice, do contract work for other mages, and run a magic shop in Camden when I’m not otherwise occupied with personal problems or with people trying to hurt me, the second of which happens more often than I’d like. I’m good friends with a handful of mages and one giant spider, and less good friends with the magical government of Britain, otherwise known as the Light Council. The Council don’t like me for two reasons: first, they think I was originally taught by a particularly nasty Dark mage named Richard Drakh and did various unpleasant things while serving as his apprentice, and second, they suspect me of being responsible for the deaths of two Light mages on separate occasions a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, it just so happens that both of those suspicions are true.

That wasn’t the reason I was here today, though.

As with most British universities the security at the Institute of Education is nonexistent, and I walked past the reception desk and descended into a big square concrete well with big square concrete pillars and big square ugly paintings. A sign at the bottom said LOGAN HALL, but instead of going straight in I veered left. The entry area narrowed into a corridor with few doors or windows. To my right I could hear a voice echoing, but I kept working my way around the edge of the hall, climbing occasional small flights of steps. Only when I’d circled to the back of the hall did I look through one of the doors.

The hall was a huge auditorium, faded red seats in semicircular rows slanting down to a raised wooden stage. There were hundreds of people seated within, but the one I was interested in was the man on the stage. He was standing on the podium delivering a lecture, and behind him was a projection screen that read European Integration in Historical Perspective. It was his voice I’d heard from outside.

I hadn’t opened the door, but there were wired-glass windows set into the wood that gave a good view inside, and I stood quietly, watching the man. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a stooped posture and hair that had gone nearly but not quite all the way to silvery white. At a glance the two of us wouldn’t have looked much alike, but there was something in his features of my own, aged and tempered. He hadn’t seen me—the corridor was darker than the brightly lit hall and I knew the lights inside would reflect off the window glass. I could have opened the door to step inside, but I stayed where I was.

I’d been standing there for maybe five minutes when a soft noise caught my attention. Different movements make different sounds—the steady tread of someone walking, the scrape of shifting feet, the patter of someone in a hurry—and with practice you can learn to filter them, picking out the ones that don’t fit in. It’s nothing to do with magic, just simple awareness, a primal skill that anyone can learn but which most people in the modern age have forgotten. But anyone who lives as a predator or as prey learns it fast.

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