oOo oOo The End oOo oOo
Daisy Shennings stood behind the reception desk of the Howard Street Hospital for the last time. When she left, she’d be the last employee ever to shut the front doors. She’d turn out the last lights and shut off the last computer. The whole building would molder until the NHS Trust decided what to do with it. Maybe they’d turn it into low-income housing.
It was a sad thought. She’d worked there for going on ten years. She knew the hospital had seen better days, and that the staff had been steadily leaving since the NHS had opened a new hospital in their area that didn’t have mold on the walls wherever patients couldn’t see it, and electrics that only worked some of the time. But to Daisy the hospital simply had personality, and to abandon it felt too much like giving up. It had become like a second home; she knew all its rooms and corridors by heart. Sometimes she even joked with her colleagues that she was as much a part of the hospital as the doorknobs.
But tomorrow she’d be gone and only the doorknobs would remain. Then she’d be living off her severance package until she decided if she wanted to work at that new monstrosity, or whether she wanted to pack it in and get a different job entirely. Neither option seemed appealing, but life did have to go on without the Howard Street Hospital.
She shut the computer down. It was mostly there for show and solitaire these days. The hospital no longer had any sort of network, and they had admitted their last patient two days prior, after the poor sod had cut himself falling down his stairs. The last attending physician had patched him up and sent him on his way. After that, it was just a succession of staff moving their personal belongings out, and removals men coming for all the NHS property, save the final computer. Someone was supposed to pick that up while the scrap metal lads collected the last valuable bits and bobs from the once-great hospital.
The computer turned back on. She shook her head. Faulty wiring was making the place feel like an amusement park. You never knew what was coming next. Just the day before, all the lifts went to the top floor for no reason, and wouldn’t come back down no matter how many times she pressed the call button. At least she was still hardy enough to use the stairs.
The front doors opened with the sound of a strong wind. Daisy looked up from the computer to see a man and a woman standing right in front of her desk. She jumped, wondering how they had got from the door to her desk so quickly.
They were a striking couple. Both looked to be in their late fifties. The man was tall and unhealthily thin. He had a long, gaunt face and a well-groomed head of the whitest hair Daisy had ever seen. His eyes were a strange shade of green that reminded her of neon lights. He wore a white three-piece suit with a coat that seemed a bit too long, trousers that were rather too flared, and a broad tie that matched the green of his eyes. Reminded her a bit of the posh suits from when she was in her twenties.
The woman was beautiful. She stood nearly as tall as the man, and her hair was just as white. They could almost be twins, but instead of green, her eyes were a pale blue. The skirt of her white suit was loose and hung about her in folds, and the wide lapels of her jacket were decorated with swirling patterns done in tiny diamonds. She wore a collar of diamonds that probably cost more than Daisy’s flat.
“I’m sorry,” Daisy said, feeling self-conscious in front of such elegance, out of place though it was, “but A&E isn’t open anymore. I can call you an ambulance.”
The two people stared at her like they weren’t certain what she was. Then they turned to each other, their expressions a study in blankness. The woman said, still looking at the man, “We were sent to inspect the building.”
Daisy assumed the woman was talking to her, and was just being odd about it. “I didn’t hear anything about building inspectors. I thought you lot wanted us to clear out first.”
The man turned away from the woman after a long pause. His blankness broke as he offered her a close-mouthed smile that was simultaneously charming, alluring, and wrong; a smile that never reached his eyes. He reminded her of some kind of snake.
“My dear, it would hardly be an inspection if you were informed of our schedule, now would it?” he asked. Daisy was surprised that such a lovely voice came out of that body. He came around the desk to take her hand, and she was surprised by how warm he was. It must have been hotter than she’d thought outside. “We shan’t be in your way,” he said, “but we really must insist. We all have a job to do, don’t we?”
Daisy shook her head. She knew his charm was an act, but she felt herself drawn into it anyway, or maybe that was just the sudden upset stomach and headache clouding her judgment. “I …” she said, then dashed through the door behind her desk to throw up.
She stopped just inside the door, the feeling of illness receding as she caught her breath. She stared at the single table and chair left in the front office, willing their plainness to help clear her head. It took longer than she'd have liked to feel steady enough to turn back and peek through the cracked door. The building inspectors were still there in the reception area, and they seemed unaware of her spying.
“You shouldn’t have held her so long,” the woman said.
The man looked at his hand and frowned, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping away what looked like ash. After a moment he smiled again, this one reaching his eyes. A smile that was sweet and sharp as knives. “She left, didn’t she? None the worse for wear if she rests for a few hours.”
The woman was not amused. “You must be careful. You’re already far too close to the transuranics for your own good. Any major mistake, and you could be reassigned.” Her coldness melted a little. “It’s taken me far too long to break you in.”
Daisy wondered if they were maybe a bit more than colleagues. Not her business if they were, of course, but it was bound to make the working environment awkward. As for what they were saying, Daisy wondered if they suspected she was listening, and were speaking in code.
“The woman shouldn’t even be here,” the man said. “This hospital was meant to be empty when we arrived. They’re always empty when we arrive. I don’t know how they expect us to work with her here.”
The woman cocked her head. “Did we arrive too early?”
The man sighed, gave a shrug, and laid his hand on the desk’s surface. He went eerily still. Daisy stifled a gasp as she saw his eyes flare a violent shade of neon green light, sickly and beautiful at the same time.
Daisy shrunk back against the wall of the office. People couldn’t do that sort of thing. Not normal people. Maybe he was some sort of government experiment in hiding as a building inspector. It sounded like something that might happen on the telly.
Daisy heard a clatter from the other room, and she pressed her eye to the narrow opening between door and jamb once more. The man had stumbled away from the desk, the green of his eyes almost burning.
“Radium!” the woman shouted, catching him by the shoulders and supporting him before he fell. The man—was ‘Radium’ supposed to be a name? Maybe code names were part of being a government experiment, like 007 or Superman—squeezed his eyes closed. When he opened them again they were normal.
The woman steadied him and then stepped away. Her hands hovered close to his arm. “What did you find?” she asked.
Radium shook his head. “It’s wrong. We’re here years after the break, and yet we aren’t. Everything here is in chaos, so badly splintered I can barely trust my measurements.”
“We expected damage. You can repair it?”
“Not without killing the woman.”
They looked at one another, and Daisy had a horrible queasy feeling that had nothing to do with holding hands. “Would there be any other problems?” the woman asked.
“Diamond,” Radium said, “the year is 1999.”
“Twenty years late,” the woman code-named Diamond said. “How is that possible? Breaks can’t stretch that far.”
“Can’t they? The break in Antarctica was suspected to have swallowed up a century’s worth of explorers before we found it. It took four teams to close.”
“This isn’t Antarctica,” Diamond said. “Irregularities would have been noticed here. We would have been called sooner.”
“We were: 1979. But here we are, and here is the break as well.” Radium shrugged, a troubled look on his face.
“There’s something more. Tell me,” Diamond said.
Radium’s voice took on a strange, echoing quality. “By 1999, most homes in the United Kingdom contained at least one personal computer, and the portable computer had gained popularity amongst the general populace. The internet became a central part of the computer experience, and forty percent of adults used it regularly to check emails, research hobbies, and access news. 1999 also saw the introduction of wireless internet.” Daisy was left shaken and eyeing the window in the office. It looked like it might open enough for her to climb out. If she ran, could she get away before they noticed she was gone?
Radium’s voice returned to normal. “Remember the job in Norfolk? How it got into the phone line? We’ll need his help again.”
Daisy crept toward the window, listening for the sound of footsteps.
Diamond said, “It won’t do for a clean-up team to call in a technician twice.”
“Nor will it do for the break to remain open any longer than it already has. Can you imagine what could get through? What might have already got through? We have to seal it, Diamond. We have to stop them.”
Daisy tried the window, but the latch wouldn’t budge. She made her way back to the door and looked through. They were staring at one another, not moving, as a minute stretched between them. They were mad. They had to be, or worse. She’d heard all sorts of things about Y2K; maybe they were part of that mess. Maybe they were robots.
Then they were moving again, Diamond frowning and turning away from Radium. “I’ll call him in now,” she said.
Radium waved her on and leaned back against the reception desk. His arms were crossed, and none of his skin touched any part of the hospital. Diamond’s eyes burned with a white light, but Daisy had half-expected something like that. Definitely Y2K robots.
And then, behind Diamond, a man appeared out of thin air. He was younger, perhaps in his thirties, with wavy ginger hair, a gray suit in a fashionable cut, a metallic silver waistcoat, and a tie of deep blue. Daisy covered her mouth with one hand. Even robots couldn’t appear out of thin air. She had no idea what they were, but they were going to try to kill her. She had to make a run for it.
But she was frozen, unable to look away. The man took Diamond’s hand and brought it to his lips. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Diamond,” he said. “You’re as lovely as ever.”
“Silver,” she said, cool as snow.
Silver released her hand a bit too quickly, his smile strained, and then he turned to Radium. He said, “Your taste and sartorial elegance never fails to astound.” They shook hands. Silver shivered under Radium’s grip. He stepped back, his confidence clearly wobbling, and said, “I’d forgotten what a charge you carry.”
“Terribly sorry,” Radium said, but he wasn’t. Daisy could see it in his eyes.
Silver looked away from Radium, and avoided Diamond’s gaze as well. He was nervous, maybe even afraid. His voice was steady, but it was a false sort of steady when he said, “Well, this is a surprise. I don’t usually get called in by such … specialized teams. Not twice in the same century, at least. Clean-up not going as planned?”
“There are computers,” Diamond said. “Before we close the break, we must be certain nothing has escaped the hospital.”
“Dear oh dear,” Silver said. “You have arrived during the Internet age, haven’t you?” Diamond didn’t respond, and Radium’s easy smile was no more comforting. Silver retreated around the reception desk, and seated himself before Daisy’s computer terminal. “Let’s see what ghosts this system is willing to give up.”
Daisy watched as his hands hovered over her keyboard, and data in binary began to stream across the screen. He wasn’t touching anything. “Do you know,” he said, “you might as well ask the woman in the office to come out. She can’t be getting a very good view from that doorjamb.”
Daisy stumbled back, tripped over the chair, and went down. She looked up to see Diamond coming through the door.
And then, from a door that had never been there on the other side of the office, something else started to come in as well: a darkness that fingered its way into the room. There was something behind it, huge and moving and terrible. She couldn't make it out, but she knew that she had to get away from it.
Then a single beam of light spilled out from the center of the darkness, finding Daisy. A voice that wasn’t and could never be human sang, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do …”
Daisy started to scream. Diamond charged the impossible door, her whole body glowing white as she slammed into it. The door shivered under the force, but didn’t close. “Radium!” she shouted.
Radium dodged around Daisy as gracefully as a gazelle, briefly caught in the light. He hissed, and Daisy gasped as a film of ash covered him where the light had been. Then he was out of it, the ash flaking off as he hit the door with the force of a freight train. Diamond’s light enveloped him, and it took on a greenish tinge. Daisy stumbled to her feet, knowing this would be her only opportunity to run. She ducked out of the office and around the desk, where Silver now stood, facing the open door. The computer’s mouse was in his hand, and appeared to be dissolving even as she looked at it.
She ran to the front doors and slammed against them, only to find that they wouldn’t budge. They weren’t locked, but they wouldn’t open. She threw a look over her shoulder. Silver was backing his way around the desk, a ball of what looked like stars sparkling around him. Beyond him, in the office, the light moved toward the open door to the lobby.
Daisy ran. If she could reach the south stairs, she could get to the roof and the fire escape there. Not the easiest way out, but probably the most direct barring the front door.
She got to the stairwell, but the light was there at the top too. She couldn’t believe it had moved so quickly. She turned sharply away and ducked through the first door she found. It was one of the two stairwells leading to the lower ground floor. She could use the other to find an alternative way to the roof.
She clattered down the stairs, hurrying past the mortuary and its glowing keypad. And then she stopped.
The old vault on the lower ground floor had always scared her, out of place as it was. It looked like something that belonged in a bank; not the lower ground floor of a working hospital. And yet it had always been there, since before the oldest staff member could remember. It had probably been put in when the foundation was laid, back in the mid-1800s. She'd heard that the entire vault was lined in metal and that it would be impossible to remove barring the demolition of the entire building. Daisy believed it. The vault had always seemed oddly still, oddly permanent, no matter how often everything else was changed and repaired. It had been shut ages ago and left to rot, until the door was so rusted it wouldn't open even if anyone had wanted to try.
But it was open now, and light was pouring out of it, reaching for her. Daisy felt as though she had been punched in the chest. She couldn’t breathe. Her lungs were burning, her heart pounding. She felt the sensation of falling, suffocating, clawing …
oOo oOo The Middle oOo oOo
“This is not a garden.”
Sapphire cocked her head and regarded the sterile white hallway. The dust had settled in layers on all surfaces, but was not so deep as to imply years of abandonment. The hem of her blue gown stirred it, raising a slight cloud. The neglect of this hall was recent, if quite complete, and the wake of her skirt was the only evidence of disturbance. “No,” she said. “I think we’ve arrived in a hospital.”
Steel frowned. His long gray peacoat had likely been selected to fit in with the winter they were meant to have found upon their arrival in a garden in 1900. Sapphire’s white fur muff certainly had been. She banished it easily, allowing her dress to change to fit her surroundings. The end of the 1970s, from her initial scan.
Steel’s voice echoed in her mind even though his lips didn’t move. ‘This is not the matter we were called to look into, Sapphire.’
Her lips quirked. ‘No indeed,’ she thought. ‘I imagine we were diverted.’
“But for what reason?” he asked aloud. “Can you sense anything here?”
She focused out beyond her own body. There was Steel, solid and timeless as ever. There was the building crumbling in inches all around them, but it was due to the usual effects of time rather than some accelerated aberration. No, that wasn't quite right. There was something wrong all around her, and yet there wasn't. It niggled at the borders of her perception, contradictory and irritating, as though there was another layer beneath these recognizable surroundings that she couldn’t sense with any clarity.
“There is … something,” she said, hesitant to elaborate further. Steel wouldn’t want speculation without supporting evidence. “A break, perhaps, but that isn’t quite right. More like the echo of a break.”
“The echo of a break? Do you mean it’s already been closed?”
“Yes … no.” Sapphire shook her head. “I can’t be that specific. I’m approximating sensations.”
“Try,” he said, impatient as ever.
“I can’t,” she insisted. “It’s too faint. Too distorted. Everything around us is slightly wrong, but in so subtle a way, I can’t pinpoint it.”
Steel paced ahead of her, scanning the darkened hall. It was 8:18 in the evening. Late, but not so late that there shouldn’t still be employees and patients. Hospitals of this time period didn’t shut for the night.
Steel asked, “You’ve never felt anything like this before?”
“Not precisely, no.”
“It’s becoming far too common for us to be sent into an assignment with either incomplete or incorrect information. I don’t like it, Sapphire. It speaks to unpleasant things in high places.” He was quiet for a moment, contemplating the hall and its implications. “Have we at least arrived in the correct era?”
Sapphire smiled. Steel had never quite mastered an understanding of fashion. “No,” she said. “It feels far more like the late 1970s. 1979, I believe.”
“You’re not certain.”
“Somewhere this hospital exists in 1979, but there are also fragments that are not of that era.”
“And yet this doesn’t feel like a break.” Steel shook his head, and his peacoat shivered and shifted into his customary gray suit. When he was settled in his new outfit, he made his way down the hall. His gray eyes flickered over every surface. Sapphire could hear him note down details in his mind. The walls were covered in white tiles, and there were no pieces of equipment that could be used to pinpoint the era through conventional means.
‘We need to find an administrative hub,’ he thought. ‘Physical records are necessary for more accurate information.’
Sapphire's lips had that casually superior curl meant to tell him she had already considered such necessities. Steel was clever and determined, but sometimes she needed to remind him not to treat her as though she was new to this game. He had worked in the field longer than she, but only just.
“Come along then,” she said, and slipped around him to lead the way.
As they walked, Sapphire felt the nagging sense of a break persisting. Everything she looked at was white and blank, but when she allowed her vision to relax she thought she saw bricks and tall wooden cabinets.
‘Do you see them? The brick walls?’ she thought. ‘They’re there, but they give off no sensation. I can’t analyze them.’
‘I can’t see them,’ Steel thought. ‘Are you quite certain this isn’t a time break?’
‘I’m not certain, no. I’m merely certain that it feels like no break I’ve encountered before.’
He growled in frustration. “Show me.”
Really, that was too far. “Steel,” she admonished.
His frustration overtook him for a moment of mental tumult that surrounded them both. Steel was good at a great many things, but his only expertise was in strategy. Having to rely on any source of information outside himself, even upon her, ran counter to his instincts and affronted his sense of self-sufficiency.
He calmed as rationality won out over his need for perfect control. “Of course I trust you, Sapphire.”
She allowed herself a genuine smile. “Let’s go to the lobby, then. There should be a directory there that can lead us to the administrative wing.”
“You know where the lobby is?”
Steel snorted something approximating a laugh, but followed her. They continued on down the corridor, Sapphire trying to hold a sense of the building’s layout in her head. Normally that was not a difficult task, but she found that it would continually shift as they walked, the dimensions of rooms and the position of walls changing ever so slightly with each step. She wasn’t joking about finding the lobby: she was going to have to rely on probability far more than she was wont to.
Their footsteps echoed. There was no sound of air conditioning, fans, or other electronic devices. The fittings in the ceiling were electric, but dark. The entire area was dark enough that, she imagined, a human would not have been able to navigate without a light.
“Hospitals of this time period didn’t close at night,” Steel said, echoing her observations.
“Perhaps the facility has been shut down, or this wing is undergoing renovations,” Sapphire said. “It’s difficult to tell.”
“You can sense no recent human activity in this area of the building?”
Again, a more difficult question than it ought to have been. “I don’t think so, no,” she said.
Steel didn’t demand more precision after that, but he did draw even with her, tension radiating off him in a slight chill.
They continued on, Sapphire navigating as well as she could. After a time she realized that Steel was giving her a strange look.
She asked, “What is it?”
“I never knew you to hum,” he said.
“Just then. You were humming.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Yes you were.”
Sapphire narrowed her eyes and looked hard at Steel. The memory was projected between them, as crisp and precise as any of Steel’s memories: Sapphire, abstracted, humming to herself as she walked.
“I don’t hum,” she said, not denying the veracity of his recall, but confused as to how she could have done such a thing without noticing.
“What’s the tune?” Steel asked.
Sapphire concentrated for a second before she could dredge up the information. “Daisy Bell, composed by Harry Dacre in 1892 and made popular in London music halls. Lyrics refer to a marriage proposal for a woman named Daisy. Mr. Dacre had heard of the recent invention of the tandem bicycle and found it charming enough to compose an entire song so he could mention the concept.” She blinked and added, “It’s a well-known children’s song at this point in time.”
“Were you aware of it before that moment?”
“Peripherally,” she said, as aware of that song as she was any of the stray information contained in dust and abandoned objects and human bodies. Everything had a memory, even the hospital, mad as that memory seemed to be, and Sapphire could read it. “Perhaps the hospital reminded me of it,” she said.
“Perhaps,” Steel said, sounding unconvinced. Sapphire took the lead again, keeping her pace steady and her awareness now directed both externally and internally. If the hospital was projecting the song powerfully enough to influence her subconsciously, she should be able to sense its origin. Such anomalies ought to be investigated.
But there was no return of the song, so cheerful in all records, but so melancholy in Steel’s memory; her humming had sounded quite hollow as it echoed in the lonely halls.
Steel was walking beside her, standing close. Perhaps he thought he could perceive the source of the tune when she couldn’t. If it existed in the physical world, he might even be right. Few operators possessed Steel’s ability to notice and synthesize seemingly meaningless details.
So it was no great surprise when he halted, holding up a hand. Sapphire knew she hadn’t been humming again, and she wasn’t certain what he had noticed that had caused them to stop.
Then she heard it, thin and distant: a whistling rendition of Daisy Bell, echoing toward them down the long dark hall. Sapphire cast her mind out, trying to locate the source. Instead of a human, what she encountered was a roiling, disjointed sense of loss and fury. It splintered time as it rippled toward them.
Sapphire gasped, her eyes going wide and illuminating the darkness around them in blue light. Steel was calling her name, but she knew that in his present state he could do very little against something like that.
She needed to pull them back through time, so they could avoid this threat until they had better information. She tried to focus, but the splintering made it hard to grasp her current time, never mind casting backwards for a safer temporal location. Steel’s hands were vises around her arms, their temperature plummeting as he tried to bring up his defenses. She needed to tell him, to explain what was happening. There was no time …
And then there was. The presence, whatever it had been, was gone as soon as it had come. She would have fallen after that sudden decrease in mental pressure, but Steel still held her arms and took her weight with ease. She let her eyes dim.
“It was a break,” she said, her face tipped up toward the ceiling. “It was definitely a break, but not here. Not now.”
In this case, she was more than willing to do so, rather than trying to verbalize what she had felt. She raised a shaking hand and placed it against the side of his face. Steel stood stiffly under the flash of memory, then looked out toward the darkness.
“Is it a directed threat?” he asked. “Is it aware?”
Sapphire angled her face down and looked at him. “I can’t tell. It’s bound in emotions, but I can’t say whether the presence preceded the emotions or whether the emotions preceded the presence.”
“Was it aware of us?”
“I don’t know.”
There was a fear hanging between them, unspoken but mutually acknowledged: a Transient Being. Something so alien and misplaced in their linear time stream that it splintered all the time it passed through. Steel had encountered one early in his work, and still held an apprehension regarding them that, in any other being, would seem like terror.
Sapphire tapped into those memories, but there was no direct correlation between the Transient that Steel had faced and the presence Sapphire had sensed. She shook her head.
Steel regarded her for a few seconds before his thoughts were in her head. ‘You hummed the same tune it whistled. Did it breach your defenses?’
‘It must have,’ Sapphire thought. She was aware that her ego should be bruised by the implication, but she had never had time for such mundanities.
‘Is there any way you could still be compromised?’
‘Not that I can feel,’ Sapphire thought.
‘That’s not the definitive answer I had hoped for.’
‘It’s not the definitive answer I had hoped for either.’
The tiniest smile touched his face, there and gone in an instant, and he let go of her arms. Sapphire straightened her clothing while she took stock of herself. Her limbs were steady, and her mind felt clear. They needed to move forward, in order to unravel the mystery they had found. They had been up against worse. They had faced far stranger. They simply needed to get on with things.
Sapphire spent the rest of the walk listening to Steel’s mental catalogue of every sound he heard, and the flicker of light up around a far corner that even she saw, but which vanished upon their arrival, leaving a sense of displacement behind it.
oOo oOo And Again oOo oOo
Daisy Shennings stood behind the reception desk of the Howard Street Hospital for the last time. When she left, she’d be the last employee ever to shut the doors. She’d turn out the last lights and put the cover on the last typewriter. Then the whole building would molder until the Regional Health Authority decided what to do with it.
It was a sad thought. She’d worked there for going on ten years. She knew the hospital had seen better days, and that the staff had been steadily leaving since the NHS had opened a new hospital in her area that didn’t have mold on the walls and electrics that only worked some of the time. But to Daisy the hospital simply had personality. It had become a bit like a second home to her: she knew all its rooms and corridors by heart. Sometimes she even joked with her coworkers that she was as much a part of the hospital as the doorknobs.
But tomorrow she’d be gone and only the doorknobs would remain. Then she’d be living off her severance package until she decided if she wanted to work at that new monstrosity, or whether she wanted to pack it in and get a different job entirely. Neither option seemed appealing, but life did have to go on without the Howard Street Hospital.
She put the cover over her typewriter. It was mostly there for show these days. They had admitted their last patient two days prior, after the poor soul had cut himself falling down his stairs. The last doctor had patched him up and sent him on his way. After that, it was just a succession of staff moving their personal belongings out, and removals men coming for all the NHS property, save that final typewriter. Someone was supposed to pick that up while the scrap metal lads collected the last valuable bits and bobs from the once-great hospital.
She heard a rustle, and when she turned she was surprised to see the typewriter cover folded neatly next to the machine. Was that Freddy the night watchman having a bit of a laugh at her expense? He was always doing things like that to annoy her. He had to have been the one to turn off all the lights in the building after the last doctor left. He was the only one still there with her. It had taken her almost an hour to go from room to room turning them all back on, and he’d just stared at her while she had done it. Didn’t even offer to help.
Daisy heard footsteps and looked up from the typewriter, expecting Freddy and his fat face. She opened her mouth to give that lousy git a piece of her mind, only to fall silent when she saw a man and a woman standing before the desk. They were a striking couple. They were both some indeterminate age between twenty-five and forty, and both blonde. The man wore a gray suit and a gray tie. Even his eyes were gray. The woman next to him wore a stunning blue gown that matched her eyes. Her hair was curled gently about her face. They were posh in a strange way, the sort Daisy didn’t want to breathe too hard at.
“I’m sorry,” Daisy said, feeling a bit defensive and at the same time very self-conscious, “but A&E isn’t open.”
The two people turned to each other, their expressions a study in blankness as they regarded one another. Then the man said, “We were sent to inspect the building.” He had a surprisingly deep voice for such a small fellow.
“I didn’t hear anything about building inspectors,” Daisy said.
Another glance was exchanged between them, and then the woman came forward. Her blankness broke as she offered Daisy a close-mouthed smile that was simultaneously warm and very, very cold; a smile that never reached her eyes.
“And I didn’t hear anything about a receptionist being here so late, Miss …”
“Shennings. Daisy Shennings. And you should have rung ahead. Then you’d know that I volunteered to stay until the lads collecting the scrap metal came through. Someone has to lock up once they’ve gone.”
“So you’re alone here?” the man asked.
Was this about following safety regulations? Seemed an odd time to be doing it. “No. Freddy, the night watchman, is somewhere about. He’ll leave with the rest of us.”
“Why isn’t he here with you, waiting?”
“Because he has to walk the halls, doesn’t he? Make certain no one is breaking in.”
“But there wouldn’t be much to steal, if they did,” the woman said.
“Maybe, but that’s his job, and that’s what he’s doing. Don’t you doubt he’ll be along shortly once he hears you.”
“We’d be glad to speak to both of you, if he does,” the woman said. “I do apologize for our suspicions, and for the lateness of the hour. We had hoped to assess the structure of the building, and that’s most easily done after it’s entirely empty. We didn’t expect you to be here, and so we felt we had no reason to ring ahead. We don’t want to be a bother, but we need to look at your records.”
“Our records got moved to St. Christopher’s,” Daisy said. “Try there.”
“All of them?” the man asked. He sounded angry. Daisy hated it when people got angry about things she couldn’t control.
“I think so. There may be a folder or two in the office,” she said, and nodded toward the door behind her. There was a table and chair in there, and a box in one corner that Daisy hadn’t looked through. It could contain records, but she thought it more likely to contain loose paper and pens.
She turned to go in and make sure, but the woman’s hand on her arm stopped her. Daisy wondered how she had got around the desk so fast. “Don’t go in there quite yet,” the woman said.
“What is it?” the man asked.
“There’s something behind the door. An echo in reverse. Can’t you feel it?”
Daisy started to worry; that sounded more than a bit mad to her ears. The man cocked his head and listened as though it was all quite normal. Daisy looked between them, but they’d fallen silent, staring at the door like they were transfixed. It had to be carbon monoxide. Daisy should get out before she was affected too.
The woman shook her head. “It’s gone now.”
“Should I check our records now?” Daisy asked, eager to put at least the office door between them.
The man looked at the woman, and for a second they were transfixed again, but it was shorter this time. When they broke, he was the one to speak. “My name is Steel, and this is Sapphire. These records in your office. Are they recent?”
“Within the year, probably.”
“To clarify,” Miss Sapphire said, “which exact years would be covered?”
“Just 1979, like I said.” Daisy began to wonder if maybe they weren’t mad or carbon-monoxide addled. Maybe they were just a bit thick, and liked to use jargon. It was the sort of thing the doctors did all the time, to make sure people like her didn’t understand what they were talking about.
Mr. Steel frowned. “We’re looking for something older.”
Daisy wracked her brain. The sooner she could find them what they were after, the sooner she’d be shot of them. “How much older? There are probably quite a lot of very old records down in the vault. But no one’s opened that up since before the turn of the century, from what I've heard. It’s all rusted over; you’d need a crew to pry it open,” she said. “And records that old? I can’t imagine you’d find anything there that would be useful.”
They stared at one another again. They did that far more than made Daisy comfortable. “Actually,” Miss Sapphire said, “I think we would find those records very useful indeed. Could you take us there?”
“Keys won’t be necessary,” Mr. Steel said.
“Well, that’s good,” Daisy said, “because it’s a combination lock. And no one knows the combination.”
She led the way out into the east hall and turned on the lights. Freddy had definitely been mucking about again, turning them off. Now she'd have to check on all of them again, instead of waiting for the scrap metal lads like she was supposed to. It made her hopes for getting out early enough put the kettle on at home even more unlikely. And she had been so looking forward to the new episode of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Her footfalls echoed on the tiles. It was disconcerting how much more noise her sensible shoes made than the silly heels Miss Sapphire had on. Both she and Mr. Steel were painfully quiet as they walked, as a matter of fact.
The vault was on the lower ground floor, next to the mortuary. Daisy never went down there if she could avoid it. The sharp, sickly tang of blood and bile tinged the air even when there weren’t bodies in the fridge.
Mr. Steel’s voice surprised Daisy out of her thoughts, making her start. “Does he carry a torch?”
“Who?” she asked, still thinking of bodies.
“Mr. Tomms, the night watchman. Does he carry a torch?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Have you spoken with him tonight?”
“No. I don’t usually see him, to be honest. He comes in through another door, and usually leaves through the same. Tonight’s going to be the first time we leave through the same door since he started working here.”
“He doesn’t patrol near your desk?”
“Sometimes, when he wants something. But not usually.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Actually saw him? I don’t know … two weeks ago maybe? But I’ve seen the light from his torch down the halls nearly every night. Sometimes I even hear him whistling.”
Mr. Steel began whistling, sharp and clear. That silly Daisy song, just like Freddy whistled to her.
“How did you know?” she asked.
Mr. Steel continued to whistle, and didn’t answer. Miss Sapphire said, “We heard him too.”
“His voice must have carried, for you to hear him outside.”
Miss Sapphire smiled that smile again. “Yes,” she agreed.
They reached the lower ground floor with Mr. Steel still whistling and echoing off the walls. It was a damp, unpleasant place down there, where the white tiles of the public halls gave way to whitewashed brick. The smells of the mortuary lingered, despite having been emptied over a week before. Daisy supposed that once enough dead people were stuck in one place, that place would always smell of death. Neither Miss Sapphire nor Mr. Steel objected, though, so she didn’t comment.
The vault door was gigantic and round, like something that ought to be in a bank rather than a hospital. Everyone agreed that it hadn’t been opened in at least eighty years. Daisy had always tried to imagine what it might look like inside, with its old metal cabinets half-fallen apart, and moldering papers scattered all over the floor. Maybe there were bars of gold in there. That would be nice.
Mr. Steel stepped up to the door and ran his hands across its surface. When he drew back, Daisy wasn’t surprised that the rust had flaked off on his palms. He frowned at it, and Miss Sapphire handed him a handkerchief. Daisy wasn’t certain where she had been keeping it. She didn’t look like she had pockets in her gown.
“Do you see?” Daisy asked. “No one’s been in there in ages. Even if the records you want are in there, you’d need to take the entire door off its hinges before you could look at them. And even then, they aren’t our records. Not properly, anyway.”
“What does that mean?” Mr. Steel asked.
“Don’t you know the history of this place?” Daisy asked. “What sort of building inspectors are you?”
“The sort that aren’t historians,” Mr. Steel said. He turned to her and she felt mutinous, getting that accusing look from him. She hadn’t asked them to come, had she? She didn’t deserve to be treated like the problem. If anyone was the problem, it was Mr. Steel.
“Please,” Miss Sapphire said, light and charming, “don’t mind him. I’m always having to apologize for his behavior.”
“He could do with a bit of tact.”
Mr. Steel snorted.
“I’m afraid our specialty is more structural than historical, although the two do intersect often,” Miss Sapphire went on. “Could you tell us what this place used to be?”
“Well, it was still a hospital,” Daisy said, giving Mr. Steel a final glare before she turned her attention to Miss Sapphire, “but it got shut down ages ago. The late 1800s, I think. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the last time anyone opened this door.”
“And was the hospital remodeled?” Miss Sapphire asked.
“A bit,” Daisy said. “Though most things in here are old enough that they look like got left alone if they weren’t completely broken. Anyway, I say it’s not this hospital properly because it stood empty for about ten years before it was set up for patients again. So it’s not the same hospital as it was back then. New management, new styles, new tiles and all.”
“And now it’s being shut down again,” Mr. Steel said. He was staring at the door.
“Yeah, well, it’s a ruin, isn’t it? Anything that the public didn’t see was often broken and never fixed: peeling paint, chipped tiles, funny smells, creaks and groans and terrible wiring; that sort of thing. The NHS built that new hospital, rather than trying to mend nearly a century’s worth of damage.”
“No one has opened the vault since the first hospital shut?” Mr. Steel asked.
“Far as I know, they haven’t,” Daisy said. “How could they? It’s rusted over, and the combination has long since been lost. And no one could knock into it from the sides. I’ve seen the wall through the maintenance cupboard next to it. It’s solid metal all the way round. They could have used it as an air raid shelter during the war. I’m a bit surprised they didn’t, come to think of it.”
“An untouched room,” Mr. Steel said.
“I know,” Miss Sapphire responded, and Daisy wondered if she had somehow missed a part of this conversation.
Mr. Steel pressed his hand to the door again, but he closed his eyes this time. Daisy watched him, nonplussed. Was he having some sort of fit? Had he fallen asleep?
“Daisy,” Miss Sapphire said, and laid a hand on her arm. Daisy nearly jumped out of her skin. “I was wondering if you could tell me more about your own experiences here.”
“But Mr. Steel—”
“Prefers to work on his own.” Miss Sapphire drew Daisy away from Mr. Steel and the door. “Let’s leave him to it while you and I talk.”
Daisy didn’t mind getting away from Mr. Steel. Even if she was certain Miss Sapphire wasn’t any kinder, at least she played at being congenial.
There was nowhere to sit but the stairs, so they settled themselves there. Daisy wondered if Miss Sapphire was worried about that frock of hers. It was gauzy enough it should have snagged on anything. Beyond her, Daisy could see Mr. Steel running his hands over the door, fiddling with the handle and bolts, and generally not doing any discernible work. These were the two strangest building inspectors Daisy had ever met.
Miss Sapphire asked, “How long have you been working here?” and Daisy told her, still half-distracted by Mr. Steel. She couldn’t say that her ten years of employment had been terribly interesting. She only stayed at first because it was so close to her flat. And after a while she couldn’t imagine anything else.
Miss Sapphire seemed genuinely engrossed, and after a while Daisy found herself paying less attention to Mr. Steel going over the hinges for the fifth time, and more attention to Miss Sapphire’s gentle smile. Daisy told her about some of the doctors she knew—those she liked and those she didn’t—and about the nurses and all their gossip. She told her about the security guards, and how she had liked Mr. Sutliff because he sometimes brought in desserts his wife made.
“And then there’s Mr. Tomms,” Miss Sapphire said. “How do you get on with him?”
Daisy shrugged. “To be honest, he gives me a bit of a chill. He’s never nasty or anything. He’s just … odd. Whenever he looks at me, it’s like he’s looking right through me. Like there’s something standing behind me, and he’s talking to it and not to me at all.” She blushed and looked away. “That sounds silly.”
“On the contrary,” Miss Sapphire said, “it sounds very worrisome. Have you reported him to any of your supervisors?”
“For what? Being strange isn’t a crime.”
“And you haven’t seen him for two weeks?” Miss Sapphire asked.
“Nothing but his torchlight.”
Miss Sapphire’s smile slipped just a little, her eyes hardened, and she asked, “Are you certain he’s still here?”
Daisy stared at her. “Of course he’s still here. I hear him whistling that damn song, don’t I? I see his light. How would those things happen if he wasn’t knocking about?”
As if on cue, the faint, off-key sound of whistling broke the stillness.
“There,” Daisy said. “You hear that? That’s Freddy.” She raised her voice to shout, “Come up with a new song, Freddy! That stopped being funny the second day you worked here!”
Her voice echoed off down the hall, but Freddy didn’t even waver. He just kept whistling.
Daisy turned to see what Miss Sapphire had to say about that, but she was already on her feet, staring up at the ceiling about where the sound was coming from. Mr. Steel was doing the same.
“There are no footsteps,” Mr. Steel said.
“Of course there are,” Daisy said. “Freddy’s just light on his feet is all. Same as you.”
Mr. Steel brushed past her before she realized he was moving. “Then let’s meet him.”