The word came from the Murder Team at Belgravia, through Detective Constable Guleed, who appeared to have struck up a firm working relationship with Peter. All to the good; she had struck Thomas as a most sensible young woman. With their increased activity level these days, every relationship with the wider Metropolitan Police Service was worth cultivating.
“It looked like another suicide, but she thought it was our shout,” Peter told him over breakfast. “Definitely magical. I had them send the body to Dr Walid – I have a funny feeling he’s going to be adding another brain to his collection.” He yawned, and gulped at his coffee. One of the smaller but inexpressibly wonderful benefits of having an apprentice, Thomas reflected, was being the second person called in the early hours of the morning when a magically-connected crime occurred, or seemed to have occurred.
“If he gets permission from the family,” Peter continued, apparently having consumed sufficient caffeine for the conversation to continue. “Does he get permission from the families?”
“I can only presume Abdul follows the relevant ethical guidelines,” Thomas told him. “What are the wider circumstances of this case, again?”
Apparently one particular block of council flats in North London had been suffering from a particularly high rate of suicides. Peculiarly, all had looked like murders at first blush, but emerged – on all the forensic evidence – as self-inflicted. At this latest and fifth, the local service had requested the Belgravia Murder Team’s specialist assistance, on the chance that this was the work of some serial killer whose cunning was outwitting the local coppers.
“Not that they said that exactly, but you get the idea,” Peter continued. “Anyway, they called Belgravia, and Stephanopoulos sent out Guleed, and Guleed thought, and I quote, it ‘felt weird’, and called me at four bloody am this morning, and there we go. You should come take a look at it, sir, it’s…there’s something off about it.”
“Not –“ Thomas began, but Peter was already shaking his head. “No, not a sniff of his signare, nor…well, I don’t know that I ever felt Lesley’s, but…if I had to put a wager on this it’d be something else, you know. Not a Newtonian practitioner. Or human wizardry at all.”
“Mmmm.” Thomas took a bite of toast while he thought about this. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“It feels a bit like Punch,” Peter said, frowning. “Not that it was - I think he’s still pinned to London Bridge. For however much longer. But – a ghost, maybe? A revenant?”
Thomas nodded, slowly. It was difficult, sometimes, to redirect his attention to this sort of case – however relevant their expertise was – when the larger problem loomed over it, his forsaken apprentice and her new master and whatever thing was going to ‘kick off’ in the coming year. But this was, undeniably, their business, and if they did not go about their business, what were they for?
“Very well; shall we go directly after breakfast?”
“Sounds good, sir.” Peter bounced up, a piece of toast in hand, draining the last of his coffee. “I’m going to go look a couple of things up in the tech cave, see if there’s some obvious history there. With any luck someone miserable offed himself within the historical record and we can dig his bones up before lunchtime. See you in the garage?”
Thomas considered his still half-eaten breakfast – how Peter managed to talk through it and eat faster was a puzzle he had yet to solve. “Half an hour?”
“Mmmmhmmm,” said Peter, mouth full of toast, and loped out of the room. Toby, who could tell when food was no longer forthcoming, ignored his exit and trotted over to sit next to Thomas’s chair with a hopeful whine.
“You embarrass yourself,” Thomas told the dog sternly, and checked quickly to see if Molly had arrived for Peter’s plate yet before dropping Toby a sausage.
The vestigium associated with this latest death, and the lingering remnants at the sites of the two prior, caused Thomas to agree entirely with Peter’s assessment. This revenant was inducing its victims to suicide. Its identity, however, remained a mystery.
“No-one’s died here who seems even remotely likely,” Peter told him glumly. “I mean, plenty of people have died here, it’s council housing, but they were mostly old or sick. In fact, statistically, it’s almost anomalously low on suicides before this latest rush, although I emailed Walid and he says it’s within the standard error, so not actually anomalously low.”
“Then we shall have to observe the location until our ghost reveals itself,” Thomas said. “Molly’s not going to be pleased with us.”
“What – you mean move in?” Peter eyed him sceptically. They were eating lunch in a pub a few streets away from the building in question. “Both of us?”
“If you go on your own, and the ghost possesses you…” Thomas didn’t need to finish the sentence; Peter winced.
“All right, but, sir – I mean, it’s on the up as this area goes, but you…” Peter made a gesture that Thomas understood to indicate his dress, manner, and general inability to blend in with the local population.
“I can’t say we won’t attract some attention, but this doesn’t appear to be the sort of organized endeavour Punch and Pyke perpetrated, nor are we hunting humans – very likely, this ghost may not even realize what it’s doing. And I don’t imagine we’ll need to be here for longer than a week. As soon as we detect the ghost, we should be able to gain enough information to identify and destroy it.”
Peter was making his sceptical face, or he was if you knew what you were looking for. “Fine, fine. You’re right – Molly isn’t going to be happy. It’s just a pity all the furniture at Skygarden got blown up.”
“If we coordinate through the local borough command, we may be able to find something furnished,” Thomas suggested. “In the worst case, I believe we still have bedrolls and sleeping bags stored somewhere in the Folly.”
It’s not as if either of us still sleeps that well, he didn’t say.
Peter didn’t look impressed by this. It was sad, really. When Thomas was Peter’s age he would have enjoyed the chance to camp out, even in a council flat.
Well, maybe he wouldn’t have, but he probably should have. He couldn’t say he looked forward to the prospect these days, but that did happen after a bullet wound or two to the torso.
They still had their general routines to carry out, which prevented them looking too terribly suspicious to the other residents of the street – and, indeed, the flat below them. Thomas had meant what he’d said; it was mostly a matter of waiting. It would be good practice for Peter in sensing magical activity. It was likely, of course, that the ghost would be drawn to one of them – being a practitioner had its hazards that way – but that would speed things up considerably. What he hadn’t counted on was the multitude of small oddities that came from sharing a house, a real house, not the spreading, faded grandeur of the Folly, with Peter.
Peter, it turned out, had an almost embarrassingly low opinion of Thomas’s ability to take care of himself, or, indeed, their shared accommodation. This manifested itself on the first evening, when Thomas announced – rather mundanely, he thought – that he was going to put the kettle on, and would Peter care for a cup of tea?
Peter eyed him with some confusion. “I…can do that, if you’d like?”
“No, it’s quite all right.” They had remembered to purchase teabags, thankfully, as well as milk. Thomas was quite prepared to admit that he had not in fact used an electric kettle before, but they weren’t the most complicated of devices. Rather quicker and easier than the stove-top kettles he was used to, such as Molly still used, although she was the unquestioned mistress of the Folly’s domestic affairs and could use whatever method she preferred to heat water, of course. He knew perfectly well how Peter took his tea, after nearly two years of close proximity, but Peter’s expression as he handed him the mug was still a cross between suspicion and uncertainty.
“Is something wrong?” Thomas asked, trying not to sound plaintive.
“No?” Peter said, failing to keep the word a statement. He took a sip. “Um. Thanks.”
Thomas retreated to his own mug of tea and this morning’s crossword. Peter was intent upon his laptop computer, in a way that suggested actual work was taking place; Thomas had noticed it was quite common for Peter to engage in research late into the evening. It was occurring to him that he might have to ask Peter to help him learn to use a computer, one of these days. In general the pace of technological change since the war had taught him that most of these things eventually passed one by, but these days, so many of the people they dealt with interacted ‘online’, as Peter put it. He should probably familiarize himself with it. If only to better understand what Peter was talking about.
He still didn’t know what was so peculiar about making tea, though.
“What happened to the dishes?” Peter called from the kitchen, sounding bewildered.
“I did them,” Thomas replied. Peter had gone out to check on another case, but he’d been stuck here doing paperwork; it had been an excuse to not do paperwork. Besides, he wasn’t sure several mugs even qualified as dishes, precisely.
Peter sounded even more confused. “You. Did the dishes.”
“Is there a problem, Peter?” Thomas asked, perhaps a little testily.
“Um,” Peter said, entering the living room. “I have to…take Toby for his walk.” He fumbled around for the leash. Toby, sensing this, began to yap and jump in small circles around Peter’s legs. “Uh. Thanks.”
Thomas was beginning to suspect that Peter thought him entirely unable to take care of himself.
It was mildly insulting, but, if Thomas was honest, it was also affording him a great deal of amusement. Peter made great efforts to never seem disconcerted, even in the most unusual of situations – confronting the Quiet People, for example, or parleying with the Rivers. It wasn’t that he wanted Peter to be uncomfortable, but a little uncertainty wouldn’t hurt him.
Speaking of the dog - Thomas wouldn’t have chosen to bring Toby into the Folly if he had been working the Punch case on his own, but once Peter had done so, he’d grown quite fond of the little beast. And even had Peter managed to get himself killed in one of the many scrapes he was so able at falling into, God forbid, or perhaps worse, left the Folly of his own accord, Molly was certainly never going to let him get rid of Toby. Thomas did wonder, sometimes, how lonely it must be for her; he was very fond of Molly but their friendship, while longstanding, had never been particularly close. There were things about Molly that were utter mysteries to him, and probably always would be. So it pleased him that she took such evident enjoyment in having a pet.
Peter’s various experiments with Toby were more of a problem. It wasn’t even that Thomas thought he was going about it the wrong way, but there was so much for Thomas to teach him, and so little time for him to do it in, without those sort of distractions. And it reminded him, of course, of David; he wondered if he would ever find the courage to tell Peter exactly why all the experiments and theories and ideas bothered him so. Not anytime soon, unless it became necessary. Peter had already heard enough from Hugh Oswald, out in Herefordshire.
It was usual for Peter to walk Toby, except on occasions like the Christmas before last, when Peter had got himself buried in Oxford Circus – the kind of crisis only Peter could manage to stumble into. Today, it seemed, was going to be another of those exceptions. Their putative revenant having failed to appear in the four days they’d already been operating out of this flat, they’d stayed awake most of the last night in the hopes of attracting it. Thomas found he didn’t need a great deal of sleep these days, one of the few holdovers from that twenty or thirty-year period when he’d been old in body as well as mind. Peter was still young, and Thomas knew that unless he woke him deliberately – and there really wasn’t any reason to do that – he’d be dead to the world for a few hours yet.
The door of the bedroom Peter was using was half-open, and Thomas poked his head in to check. Peter was sprawled face-down on the single bed, long limbs outrunning its confines; his face was turned to the door, and in the light from the living room he looked peaceful, although the circles under his eyes were still visible. Neither of them had been getting as much sleep as they should, since Lesley had – gone.
Thomas closed the door quietly, to keep the morning sunlight out when it deigned to emerge, and went to fetch Toby’s lead. Toby became very excited at this and ran in small circles, yapping. Thomas frowned at him.
“Hush. Peter’s still sleeping.”
He managed to get Toby out the door with a minimum of further noise. Halfway down the stairs it occurred to him that Peter would have no idea where they had gone, but the modern world was so much more convenient in some regards; he could send a message to Peter’s phone as they walked.
It was a chilly, dark February morning, and the footpath was slippery with patches of ice – he had to step carefully. Toby skidded more than once in his eagerness. Thomas saw few other people out at this hour; well, it was Saturday.
The sky gradually lightened as they turned back to the flat, and when he came to the corner of the street they were staying on, the small café was open, as well as the newsstand next to it. Thomas purchased the Saturday edition of the paper, then went in and ordered a coffee to take with him, and, as an afterthought, one for Peter. Peter was much fonder of coffee than Thomas was, having grown up with it in a way that Thomas hadn’t, but on this sort of morning, after that sort of late night, tea just wasn’t a sufficient stimulant. And they hadn’t bought any coffee, not even the freeze-dried instant stuff. Thomas had been introduced to it as a necessity of war, and wasn’t sure why anyone would voluntarily consume it in circumstances that didn’t involve rationing.
Peter was awake when he got back. Toby trotted inside the flat with a satisfied whuf, and, leash removed, jumped up on the couch to sleep off the exercise.
“You didn’t have to do that, sir,” Peter said as Thomas closed the door behind him. “I don’t mind walking him.”
“You were clearly going to sleep for some time longer, and Toby was rather impatient,” Thomas told him. “Coffee?”
Peter’s eyes lit up. “You didn’t have to do that, either, but thanks.” He downed what looked like half the cup at one go.
“Pity it didn’t work, though,” he said when he paused for breath. “Staying up.”
“We will have to think on another method to draw our ghost out,” Thomas said. “I think a trip to the Folly’s library is in order later today. And I believe you were going to go look up the local records?”
Peter grimaced. “Not sure how much I can find on a Saturday, but yes, that’s the plan.” He tossed down the rest of the coffee. “That’s better. Mind if I jump in the shower?”
“Not at all,” Thomas said, and sat down to read the newspaper.
Thomas wasn’t quite sure how the two of them were managing to generate as much mess as they were, but all the takeaways they were eating probably had something to do with it. That, and the size of the place – he’d stayed in all sorts of accommodations during the war, and sometimes his work over the seventy years since had taken him to some very rural areas of the country indeed, but these flats were barely more than shoeboxes. It was bad enough with just him and Peter; he couldn’t imagine how entire families folded themselves into them. The kitchen, for instance – he’d seen kitchens on actual submarines, of the era when submarines themselves were barely viable, with more space.
On the other hand, they were very quick to tidy. Peter was out getting milk - one of the disagreeable aspects of living outside the Folly was this concept of running out of things. Thomas went around and grabbed all the various takeaway containers littering the flat, and sorted them into their respective bins; it was incredible how finely divided rubbish was these days, almost like it had been during the war, when things like rubber and metal and fabric had to be conserved and remade. A different kind of battle, this one, Thomas supposed.
“Now I can’t say I grew up frolicking in country gardens like you probably did,” said Peter, having returned, milk and Toby in hand. “But my god, it’s barren around here. And I know it’s February, but it’s concrete from horizon to horizon.”
“Thinking fondly of Skygarden?” Thomas asked.
Peter barked a laugh, moving towards the refrigerator. “Hah. Not really. This place has Skygarden beat all around, to be honest.”
“How so?” Thomas couldn’t imagine that he was a more congenial flatmate than Lesley had been.
“Well, for one, we have a very clear idea of what we’re doing here. Even if we haven’t done it yet. For another, the whole place isn’t wired with explosives, which is definitely on my list of requirements for a living space, or it is ever since Skygarden. For a third, it’s a bit terrifying how I never get a chance to clean anything – I noticed you picked up, thank you. Which Lesley never was very good at, not that I should be throwing stones. And for a fourth, I haven't had to listen to -”
Peter cut off abruptly as he closed the refrigerator door, and continued as he turned “to...Toby making a racket because I'm the only one who'll walk him. At least when we're at home it's just Molly he bothers, since he sleeps in the kitchen.”
The dog in question yapped at this mention of his name in combination with the word “walk”, then, perhaps recalling that he had already been granted such privilege before dinner, settled back into his basket.
Thomas wondered whatever Lesley could have gotten up to, noise-wise, that would discommode Peter to such an extent. The Folly was, of course, a large residence to share with three other people, but between meals and practice and use of the libraries and coach house and kitchen they all saw – had seen – a fair deal of each other. He didn’t recall Lesley exhibiting any particularly obnoxious habits, beyond the general carelessness that Peter and she shared. And even that wasn’t, if he was to be honest, significantly greater than that of his own generation at their age. Or so he tried to remind himself every time he entered the coach house to find takeaway containers on the table and the couch at some odd angle.
Peter glanced around the tiny living space. “Also, we’re not going to come back and find the place full of Quiet People sleeping off their hangovers.”
Thomas wondered what on earth the Quiet People had been doing at Skygarden, and then remembered their association with Zachary Palmer, which rather neatly answered what Peter had been avoiding saying about Lesley. Peter overestimated his prudishness considerably, but it was true that accommodations that afforded you clear earshot of your friends’ nightly recreational activities did not generally create fond memories. Thomas had had more than his share of those during the war, and, if he was being completely honest, possibly been the guilty party a time or two, which he rather thought Peter really didn’t want to know.
“With any luck we’re not going to be here long enough for anyone to be sleeping off a hangover,” he said, and was rewarded with a relieved grin from Peter.
“Seriously, though, sir,” Peter added, “you’re definitely the best flatmate I’ve had to date.”
“Why, thank you, Peter,” Thomas said before he could think better of it, and Peter’s smile at that was truer. It produced an odd twist in Thomas’ chest he didn’t care to examine too closely, some combination of the genuine affection and the reminder of Peter’s youth. The last time he’d spent so much time with men Peter’s age had been during the war, when he had been in truth the age he now appeared. And they had died, so many of them, died or broken, and here was Thomas, still, hunting ghosts in a council flat with a boy to whom the war, Thomas’s war, was the stuff more of fiction than reality.
The world was a strange place, after all, and every time Thomas thought he’d seen its strangeness in full, at last, it threw up something more.
Of course they weren’t expecting anything in the post, not officially being resident in the flat, but to Thomas’s surprise there was something later that day – various advertisements, when he checked, and one bill from British Telecom to someone who was presumably no longer living there. He added the advertisements to the paper recycling bin and set the letter aside – it had been a very, very long time since they’d received any misdirected letters at the Folly, and he wasn’t sure what the procedure was for returning it these days. He would have to ask Peter.
“Wait, we got something in the post?” Peter frowned. “Oh – former resident. Doesn’t look important. We can probably just chuck it.”
“Presumably this letter is of some importance, Peter,” Thomas scolded him. “It’s from a utilities provider. It may contain information the addressee needs to know.”
Peter picked up the letter, held it up to the kitchen light, and squinted at it. “Mmmm…maybe. It’s not the right weight for a bill, and definitely not for one that’s gone to collections. If they wanted BT to know where they were, it’s not that hard to change their address. It’s probably just junk disguised as something important – besides, nobody gets their bills in the post these days. Well, nobody under forty. Or maybe fifty.”
Peter was good at making him feel old, sometimes. “Nevertheless, Peter. It’s only considerate.”
Peter shrugged. “Okay. I’ll drop it in the one down the corner when I take Toby for his walk.” He put the letter down. “Have you decided whether we’re going to go for it tonight?”
Thomas nodded. “We’ve tried waiting it out – we need to be decisive.”
Peter pulled a face. “Yeah…I remember what happened the last time we tried ghost-summoning.”
“You’re far further along in your training than you were then. Assuming the proper precautions, it should be safe enough.”
Peter knocked on the kitchen bench – not wood, or any substance Thomas really recognized, but the gesture was unmistakable. “I hope you’re right.”
The ghost-summoning having proven unexpectedly exciting but not actually fatal – thankfully – Thomas was very glad to be back at the Folly. One final domestic chore, however, was confronting him without resolution. He did try to tidy up after himself when he used the coach house – Molly refused to clean it, probably remembering the sorts of parties that had gone on in here back in the twenties and thirties – but the current mess was beyond him. He’d taken a mug of tea and two biscuits over, but then managed to not only drop a biscuit on the floor but step on it and track crumbs around. He knew Peter kept a small hoover for tidying the place, but he wasn’t really sure where it was, nor how to use it. Such things had only slowly been making their way into the Folly before the war, and afterwards Molly had made do without, he supposed. Certainly she had never asked for one. He wondered if she would like one, or turn her nose up at it, as she so often did with modern conveniences.
He thought it might be down the other end, with all the dust-covered boxes and paintings stored up here. He tried not to go poking around in those things. Many of them weren’t his, exactly, and the rest were…best left buried. But trying to pick up the biscuit remnants had only made it worse, and he didn’t want to ask for help with such a trivial thing.
He did manage to locate the device, but it came with a range of options that was, frankly, baffling. The floor of the coach house was carpeted, but what was a brush roll? What were all these attachments? Which one would be best? And how did you turn the damn thing on? The on/off switch on the side appeared to have no effect, even when the device was plugged in and the wall socket turned on. He even went out to check that Peter’s master switch was enabled, but of course it was, because the television was working. Most confusing.
Peter found him kneeling over it. “Sir – do you need a hand there?”
Thomas tried not to sigh in frustration, and failed as abjectly as he had with the hoover. “I just needed to clean something up, and I can’t get this to turn on.”
“Oh,” Peter said, frowning, and, “oh, yeah, you have to switch it on then set the suction rate with that dial – look, what was it, anyway?”
Thomas indicated the crushed biscuit, and Peter grabbed the hoover away from him before he could say anything else. “No, I’ve got it.” He had it moving and whirring within a few seconds, vacuuming up the crumbs with brisk efficiency before Thomas could even stand. “There we go.”
“You really didn’t have to,” Thomas protested, and Peter just shrugged. “No problem – you’ve never used this, have you? Mum used to have me along on cleaning jobs all the time, as a kid. I know what I’m doing.”
Thomas tried to imagine that, spending time as a child working to clean the houses and workplaces of other people. It was yet another of those great gulfs of experience between him and Peter – not just of age and race and time, but of class and background, that were invisible from some angles and then opened up, deep and bottomless, when you turned a corner or asked the wrong question.
“I’m sure you do,” he said. “And I would appreciate it – very much – if you would show me how this works, exactly, so I needn’t bother you again in future.”
“But,” Peter said, “aren’t you here to watch the game?” He gestured at the telly.
“It can’t be that complicated,” Thomas said. “Unless you’re busy, of course.”
Peter looked at him, then at the hoover, with a puzzled expression. And then it cleared, for some reason Thomas didn’t understand, and he knelt down again. “No. No – not at all. It goes like this.”