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Birdcage

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It would have been a lot better, I thought afterwards, if Nightingale had caught me and Varvara Sidorovna Tamonina fucking on one of the lab tables. More embarrassing, yes, more painful, no. But one of my rules for living, and I've learned it the hard way, is never lie down with a woman who's more magical than you are. Plus there's the whole thing where she's about sixty years older than me, even if she doesn't look it, and she's not my type. So we weren't fucking.

We were doing magic. And it was my fault.

I'd kind of got used to having Varvara in the Folly, especially after she gave me some help with a really fiendish bit of Tacitus that Nightingale had set me. And she'd been in an unusually talkative mood over lunch, probably because Nightingale was working on something in the library and hadn't shown up. Molly had frowned at me as if this was my fault, and then dished up a plate of something Jamie Oliver-ish involving asparagus and carried it reverently away to find him. So Varvara and me were chatting, and after a while I decided to go for it and asked, "Will you show me how to do your freezing death ray?"

"My what?"

"You know. The freezing death ray spell."

"Ah." She looked amused. "I don't think that's a good idea, Peter."

"Come on," I said. "Once Nightingale fits you with his tracker bracelet, I won't have a chance to learn it, and it looks really cool."

She held out for a while, but she'd never had children, and I'd had a lot of practice wheedling things out of my mum. So in the end we trooped down to the lab after lunch, and Varvara looked around.

"How do you want me to demonstrate?"

I found some spare apples and put one on a bench, then thought for a minute, spread out some plastic sheeting on the bench, and put the apple on that. "Do it to this," I said.

Varvara smiled a little, looked at the apple and flung out her hand. The apple exploded in a shower of icy pulp. I frowned, trying to capture the forma in my head. "Again," I said. "Is there a word?"

"It's a combat spell," she told me. "No words. Just the image. I'll show you again."

I went to get another apple and put it on top of the Apple McFlurry coating the plastic sheet. Varvara looked at the apple, and I could feel the forma more clearly in her mind.

Then she suddenly dropped her hand and whirled around. "What--" I started to say. I didn't hear the door open, nor did I see him come in, but suddenly Nightingale was in the lab, striding forwards. What felt like a giant, implacable hand pressed me back and back, until I was up against the wall on one side. Varvara was being pushed the other direction much more quickly, and slammed into the far wall with her feet two inches off the floor. Then Nightingale was between us, facing her.

I realised I'd never really seen Nightingale angry before. And I couldn't move a muscle.

"What are you doing with my apprentice?" he said. His voice was oddly quiet, almost calm, but I recognised the stance he had taken, the same one as he has in the firing range. Molly was there as well, standing in Nightingale's blind spot, and her teeth were visible.

"I meant him no harm," Varvara said. Her words were calm too, but her voice was shaken, more so than after Nightingale had defeated her in a wizard's battle.

There was a low disbelieving hiss from Molly. Nightingale said to her, without taking his eyes off Varvara, "You didn't see this coming?" and she subsided.

"I asked her to show me the spell," I said, but none of them noticed. A moment later I realised that whatever spell Nightingale had used to pin me to the wall was blocking outgoing sound as well.

"You are forbidden to perform magic within the Folly, or anywhere else either," Nightingale said. "And you are not to communicate with my apprentice without my knowledge. Is that understood?"

"Yes," Varvara said rapidly.

Nightingale flicked his fingers, and she staggered forwards. Molly moved, and Varvara flinched. Nightingale didn't have to point to the door. Varvara hurried out, not looking at me, shadowed by Molly. The door closed behind them, and Nightingale turned.

"I asked her," I said again, wondering if I was allowed to speak now. "I asked her to show me the spell, sir. She wasn't trying to hurt me."

Nightingale released me from the wall and walked slowly towards me. "You are my apprentice," he said. "You have taken an oath. Seeking magical instruction from another--and from our enemy--is a violation of that oath." He looked his full one hundred and thirteen years for a minute, in his eyes, and I knew why.

"I didn't know that," I protested. "And it's not--I know you're my teacher, sir. I just wanted to see that spell. I thought it looked useful."

Nightingale continued to gaze at me with ancient eyes, and I tried to look back at him. I'm not betraying you, I wanted to say, I wouldn't do that. Then he sighed and half-sat on the corner of a lab bench.

"I teach you the spells I do, in the order I do, because this is the way to build up your strength as a magician," he said. "Adding random, unknown, dangerous spells to your repertoire could cause you significant harm. Varvara should know this, even if you don't. I told you before what the fatality rate was amongst the soldiers training to become Night Witches. You must not perform any spells except for those I teach you myself. You're already sloppy and inaccurate enough with your spells and your innovations you seem to think I don't know about. Varvara is not experienced enough to teach you, and her own spellwork is crude and unpredictable. If you wish to achieve control, you cannot imitate her."

Crude and unpredictable weren't words I would have used to describe Varvara's spells, but then, I'd seen Nightingale rip a building in half and still make sure not a single brick landed on him, or Lesley and me and our prisoners.

"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "I just wanted to know the spell."

"Your curiosity is going to get you killed," he said, but he didn't sound angry. It might have been better if he had. Instead, he sounded sad, like he was anticipating my death and already grieving for it.

"I'm sorry," I repeated.

Nightingale just shook his head and walked out of the lab. I didn't see him again for the rest of the day.


The next morning I was early in the library. I hadn't been sleeping that well, even with extra Latin to bore me to tears. But I was finally figuring out how the subjunctive is supposed to work, and I had two sheets of paper full of translated sentences Nightingale had asked for, plus some extra. But Nightingale didn't show up. I waited, and waited, and then got up and went to look around. He hadn't been at breakfast, and neither had Varvara. I finally found Molly in the reading room, dusting. She gave me a hostile look that clearly said you upset him.

"Where is he?" I asked.

Molly looked at the telephone.

"You had a call?" I hadn't heard anything ring. "Do you know who it was?"

Molly's blankness was answer enough. A case, I supposed, and one that was urgent enough to take Nightingale out on his own. Or else I was being kept out of the loop on purpose.

I went back to the lab and ran through all the formae we had been going to do that day, putting every ounce of effort into precision and control. Then I headed to the firing range and shot the hell out of a target for half an hour, and then it was back upstairs to tackle the next batch of paperwork. Nightingale hadn't returned by lunchtime. I settled down for the afternoon reading all the briefings about policing the Olympics. With the opening ceremony on Friday, the city was in an Olympic-sized uproar and while it hadn't impinged on the Folly yet, a prudent copper reads his briefing materials in advance. And it wasn't like I had anything else to do. Or anyone to talk to.

At supper, Varvara emerged. She was wearing a silver bracelet on her left wrist, which explained all the clanging I'd heard from the forge yesterday afternoon, and she sat at a separate table from me and didn't look at me. Molly stayed in the room with us the entire time, and escorted Varvara back upstairs afterwards. Nightingale did not arrive.

I headed out to the tech cave. The Jag was gone from its usual spot in the garage, I noticed. Optimistically, I tried Nightingale's mobile, but was sent straight to voicemail. He doesn't really see why he should switch it on unless he wants to make a call. I've shown him six times how to check his voicemail, so I left a message on the offchance that he would remember both that it existed and how it worked, and then logged in to HOLMES. There wasn't anything new for us there, and there wasn't anything in my email either, nor Nightingale's. I'd set Nightingale up with an email address recently, but since he seemed to think I should check it for him and tell him when anything important arrives, it didn't actually save me any work.

I watched a rerun of Battlestar Galactica and went to bed feeling frustrated, and dreamed about Latin verbs and freezing fireballs.

Molly was visibly worried when I arrived at breakfast the next morning, pacing about and dusting obsessively. Nightingale wasn't there.

"Where is he?" I asked her.

She gave her head a short sharp shake.

"He wasn't home at all last night?"

Another shake.

"No messages, nothing?"

Molly's look plainly said would I be worrying if there were any?

"He wasn't that pissed off with me. Was he?"

Molly gave a little shrug that said, you royally fucked up.

"Yeah, but. I mean, what if--"

Molly ran her polishing cloth over the top of the bust of Caesar Augustus a little frantically.

What if indeed.

Any police service takes the disappearance of an officer extremely seriously, and I'd studied all the proper procedures. The trouble was, they all started with notifying the missing officer's line manager. And I had no idea who Nightingale's line manager was, or if he even had any superior officers apart from the Home Secretary and the Commissioner. And it wasn't as if I had either of them on my speed-dial. Lady Ty did, but I wasn't about to go telling her that Nightingale had disappeared. But I couldn't find Nightingale on my own.

I took out my phone, hesitated over the numbers for a minute, and called DI Stephanopoulos.

She answered on the first ring. "Peter," she said suspiciously. "Please tell me that you don't go in for ESP or any crap like that."

"Um, no," I said. "We did some tests," I added, remembering going through them with Lesley. It wasn't really a happy memory any more. "But I don't think it's possible. Why?"

"I was about to call you. Had the phone in my hand. There's something that smells wrong about a new case. Have you heard about it?"

"Is Nightingale on it already?" I asked hopefully.

"No. But I'd like to talk to him about it."

"Yeah. Well. There's a problem with that, boss. Nightingale's disappeared."

There was a moment of silence as Stephanopoulos processed that. "When was he last seen?" she asked briskly.

"Around breakfast yesterday. Is that right, Molly? When he got the call?"

She nodded.

"And you only notice this now? I thought he lived there. I thought you both did."

"It's a big place. And he was pissed off with me," I added before I could stop myself. "I thought he was out on a case and didn't want me in on it, but he didn't come back last night. His car's gone. Should be pretty easy to track that."

"Yeah. Right. I'll get on it. You say there was a call? Trace that, find out who and when and anything else about that, and I'll start hunting for that fancy Jag of his. Do you have any," she said the word with great care and deliberation, "magic that you can use to trace him?"

"No."

"What exactly is this shit good for anyway?" she asked. I often ask myself the same question, but I said nothing. "All right," she continued. "Get on that call, take a look at his recent papers, see what you can put together about where he might have been going. And I still want you on this other business too. I'll get a team started on locating Nightingale, but I'm out at the recycling centre near the old Battersea power station with an interesting body that reminds me of you, so get your skates on and come take a look."

"Okay," I said. "I'll be over as soon as I can."

Identifying the person who'd called Nightingale yesterday morning wasn't difficult. The Folly doesn't get a lot of telephone calls--not even the call centres of Bangalore have our number, so we never get people wanting to refund us Payment Protection Insurance or install loft insulation or solar panels or give us suspiciously detailed instructions of how to rid our Windows computers of viruses. There's a trace on our line at the exchange, and all I had to do was get the information out of the unexpectedly helpful Geordie woman who took my call.

Nightingale's call had lasted two minutes and sixteen seconds and had come from a payphone in Charing Cross station. Which meant I wasn't going to get a nice name, address and credit card details from their phone provider. Fortunately, Big Brother is getting a lot better at keeping an eye on people, and the big train stations in London have more CCTV cameras per square metre than anywhere else. I might not be able to get a name, but I would have no trouble getting a face, and that would be a start.

I sent in the request for the footage, and headed down to the Folly proper to get my things before going out to Battersea. Varvara was in the atrium, silver bracelet visible on her wrist. She looked up at me warily.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" she said.

I looked at her. "Stay here and don't cause any trouble. Any more trouble."

"I wouldn't worry too much about the Nightingale if I were you," she said. "I would be very surprised if there is any power in London that can stop him going wherever he wants, whenever he wants."

All very well for her to say, but I was remembering a night outside the Royal Opera House, Nightingale shot in the back and on the ground in seconds. Against magic, yeah, I didn't know of much that could stop him, but a hit-and-run could happen to anyone.