Part One: It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet
The world swam into view, and Declan wondered sluggishly what he'd done to glue his left eye shut. He swiped a clumsy hand over his face and it came away sticky and red: blood caked over his eyebrow. He could feel it now, pulsing warm and ticklish over the skin at his temple. He rested his thumping head against the floor and took stock of events.
He'd come to work, that was clear enough in his memory: logging into the Zoo system with his ID, joking with the other vets on the Large Ruminants team, checking the roster. Why, then, was he lying on the floor of the Reptile House with a head wound? Where the hell was everyone else?
Priya, he remembered suddenly. It was his day to stand in for Priya, home with the twins while her wife was in hospital for the last month of her pregnancy. Admin had been cagey about her parental leave, so the vet staff had mustered together on the quiet to stand in for her at the Reptile House.
He woke again with a start, sorry to discover that he wasn't at home under the duvet. You're concussed, he told himself. You're concussed and that's why your vision is blurry. Concussion didn't explain the stabbing pain in his thigh, which hurt like fuck. Slowly, though, as if fuelled by the realisation of his injury, the nausea began to settle and the heavy drowsiness thinned. Go adrenaline, he cheered silently to himself. A bit of fight or flight, that's what we need around here.
He looked around, ignoring the needles of pain in his leg. He could see what had knocked him to the ground: the largest of the incubators had toppled over, presumably clipping him on the head and shattering the observation window. The Komodo dragon eggs. Priya's great triumph. That shocked him enough to sit upright, despite the pain. If there were intact eggs, and if he could get them to a source of warmth now, some of them might be still be viable.
It was unfortunate, the way that moving his leg made him faint. Declan clawed his way back to consciousness, then gently felt down the length of his leg. The pain was startlingly bright, and each tiny movement of his body lit sparks behind his eyelids. It had to be an open fracture. His fingers sought out exposed bone and gaping flesh. Instead, they found scaled skin, sleek under his fingertips.
The Komodo dragons, he remembered, woozily. Priya. The incubator. He lifted his head slowly to see down the length of his body.
It was wrapped around his leg, jaws clamped blissfully onto his flesh. Declan eyed it blearily. "Didn't you get the memo, mate? You're not due to hatch for another month."
Something wasn't right here. All vet staff had been briefed when Sheila, the adult female had unexpectedly produced viable eggs. Declan knew what to expect: Komodo dragonets were shy, they hid in trees and ate large insects. They were less than a foot in length, dull green and stumpy.
The slender pink lizard on Declan's leg wrapped twenty inches of whip-thin, cerise-striped tail lovingly around his calf and nestled its fangs deeper into the meat of his thigh. This was not how it was supposed to go.
"Declan!" A voice hissed low at him from behind the incubator. It was one of the keepers - Leo? Worked with the crocodiles, anyway. "What the hell is that thing? It burst right through the incubator window."
"I don't know, mate," Declan croaked, mouth dry. "I think I hit my head."
"Hang on." Leo crept quietly towards him with a net and a noose.
Declan felt hopeful when the lizard raised its head and tugged long teeth out of his thigh to watch Leo curiously. Then it hissed, gape flashing scarlet, and spat a voluminous quantity of bright pink foam at Leo's face. Leo bolted, screaming and scrubbing at his eyes. Declan heard the emergency shower, and an unfamiliar voice speaking calmly but softly to Leo. Then came the hiss of the hydraulic door, the murmur of panicked voices, and Declan was alone again.
The lizard watched Declan beadily, but when he held completely still, it made a soft, purring noise of approval and sunk its teeth back into the wound on his leg. Long, jointed toes clung tight to the blood soaked denim of his jeans.
Every effort to remove the lizard only angered it more. It didn't spit at Declan, but snapped viciously at his questing fingers. It must have been all teeth in the egg: its mouth was big enough to take a digit clean off. Declan raised his hands in defeat. He'd already lost enough blood.
"You're doing the right thing." This time, the unfamiliar voice came from behind the tanks of rats and mice. "The hatchling won't attack unless her prey is threatened. I'd advise you keep as still as possible." It was a man, his accent clipped and neat.
"Her prey? That would be me, then," said Declan, dubiously. The creature regarded him with a beatific expression, blinking slowly as his blood ran out of the corners of her mouth.
"On hatching, the Waray monitor uses the last of its stored energy reserves to paralyse a large rodent, which serves as a food supply for the next twenty four hours. She's waiting for you to stop kicking, I'm afraid."
"A large rodent?" Perhaps it was the blood loss or the onset of shock, but Declan found that somewhat offensive.
"Needs must." The man appeared from around the side of the tanks, hands in pockets, moving with deliberate calm slowly across the floor. "I'm not sure how a Waray egg ended up in your Komodo clutch – that's a mystery I'll be investigating later – but we must get the hatchling restrained before she grows any larger. Or more dangerous." He was not tall, this mysterious man, but there was a quiet authority about him that helped settle Declan's thundering heartbeat. Someone knew what was going on.
The man made a noise of concern. "I've handed him onto your team. He should be on the way to hospital by now. I'm hopeful they'll save the left eye." He leaned a hip against a bench, looking down at Declan on the floor. "How are you feeling?"
"I've got a concussion, and there's a lizard clinging to my leg." Declan found himself calmly assessing his physical state, and wondered. "Why am I taking this so well? Who the hell are you?" He thrashed, suddenly panicked. The Waray monitor gave a warning chuckle, and wrapped her tail more tightly around his leg.
The man crouched down beside Declan's head, out of the lizard's view. "Quietly, now. The less you move, the easier it will be to detach her. As to why you're so calm? Opioids. Or an opioid-like protein secretion in the saliva. She's pumping you full of them right now, or as full as she can manage, which, thankfully for you, is enough to euthanize a very large rat. And I'm Doctor James Watson. I understand you're Declan MacRae."
"Doctor Watson, right. Bet you've heard all the jokes."
"Yes, by now there are few permutations on that theme that surprise me. Can you do something for me, Mr MacRae?"
Declan suppressed an hysterical laugh at the formality of the question, considering the situation. This guy was old school. "Anything, Doctor Watson. Please, you have only to ask."
"Thank you," Watson said, unironically. "Can you tell me if there's a series of stippled projections at the side of the creature's mouth? Small and pebbled, pink and raised. I'd look myself, but I don't want to get any closer than this for fear of upsetting her." He stood at the periphery of the benches, near enough to see Declan, not so close that the monitor took it as a challenge.
Declan leaned up slowly to check: the lizard had a large crest which drooped like a folded umbrella obscuring the sides of her head. He reached down with a hand, this time moving slowly and calmly. She watched him with jewelled eyes, her wide jaws clamped down firmly on his leg as he gently lifted the soft folds of skin until he could see the markings at the corners of her mouth.
"I see pebbles, but they're not pink. More a sort of pale green."
"Excellent," said Watson. He hefted a portable canister of carbon dioxide from the bracket on the wall. "The secondary venom sacs haven't primed yet. It's difficult to predict; we don't have a lot of data on the development of this species."
"Who's we?" asked Declan. Then he thought about what Watson had said first. "What if the pebbles were pink?"
Watson smiled grimly. "Then I'd be offering you a stiff drink and a little companionship."
"Right, then," Declan said weakly. "How long before those glands are good to go?"
"Hopefully that's something you'll never need to worry about," said Watson. He raised the gas canister and pointed the nozzle in the creature's direction.
Declan recoiled, and the lizard snarled at him. "Hang about, you can't just freeze the poor thing. It doesn't know any better."
Watson paused for a moment, with a strange expression on his face. "Compassion for a creature that's injured you, and possibly blinded your workmate? That's unexpected."
"I may be doped up on lizard spit, but I'm not an idiot," said Declan. "I don't blame an animal for trying to survive. Find another way."
"The Waray monitor is notoriously susceptible to cold, but the carbon dioxide will merely induce hibernation," said Watson. "Don't worry, Mr MacRae. I have my definitions very clear when it comes to monsters. I want to see her in a safe environment as much as you do."
Maybe it was the opioids, but there was no question that Watson was telling the truth. "All right." Declan leaned back against the floor, suddenly very tired. "Have at, then.
Watson nodded, and depressed the trigger on the canister of gas. Declan felt a wash of cold, then a brief piercing pain in his leg. For the last time that day, he passed out.
He woke up in A&E, with a nurse stitching his forehead, and a doctor clucking his tongue and dosing him up with naloxone.
"No more painkillers for you," the doctor said, and gave him a referral to a pain clinic.
"I haven't had any to begin with," Declan said, but the glare the nurse gave him convinced him that bearing the pain was probably easier than explaining about the natural opioids in Waray monitor spit.
At the hospital doors, sandwiched between smokers, Declan called his team manager. He had questions: what the hell had happened at the Reptile House? Who the hell called in that Watson bloke?
Cheryl, his supervisor, had little sympathy. "The incubator room is fucking trashed, Declan! Leo's still under sedation, and he'll be in rehab for weeks. The place is crawling with insurance auditors, and I'm trying to keep a lid on the fact that you were covering for Priya."
"But," said Declan. "There was this lizard, right? And..."
"I don't want to hear it. I heard enough when they were loading you into the ambulance. I'm not saying you were off your face at work. I'm not saying you caused the gas leak or the chemical spill. I'm just saying that coming in here and blabbing about pink lizards and Doctor fucking Watson isn't going to help your case."
Once Cheryl had hung up on him, Declan wondered if he had hallucinated the whole thing. His leg ached too much for it to be a nightmare. The local anaesthetic was wearing off and the stitches were starting to pull. It had to be real.
When he saw a familiar green Rover pull up in the drop-off loop, he had no energy left for questions or disbelief. He merely sagged into the passenger seat and eased the seatbelt around his waist.
"You really have to change your next of kin details," said Anders, as they pulled smoothly away from the hospital loop.
"Yeah," said Declan, leaning his head gently against the glass.
"I'm the best ex-boyfriend ever," said Anders.
"Yeah," said Declan, and shut his eyes.
"You're really sorry you dumped me now."
"Don't push your luck, mate," said Declan. There wasn't enough lizard spit in the world to sell that one.
Part Two: The Very Definition of a Fleet Street Rat
Declan was at Whipsnade, the Zoo's Bedfordshire park, when he next saw Watson. The man walked between the pens, as calm as you like despite the signs proclaiming this a restricted area. He watched as Declan wrestled an antelope down to the ground. Declan held it in place with a knee while he delivered an anti-parasitic drench down its throat, then let it spring away from him, shaking its head in outrage.
He walked to the fence line. "How'd you get in here?"
Watson laughed, and showed him an ID badge in a neat leather wallet. "Lifetime board member," he said.
"What do you have to do to be a lifetime board member, then?" Declan leaned on the fence, and watched the blackbucks mingle in their tiny pen.
"Oh, all manner of things," Watson said, easily. "What do you do to be relegated to drenching duty?"
Declan let out an exasperated snort. "You know perfectly well: you organised the cover-up. Nobody has said outright that I caused the 'accident' in the incubator room, but the only witness is still covered in bandages. I spoke to some herpetologists, by the way. They tell me the Waray monitor is extinct."
"Ah." Watson at least had the grace to look guilty. "That's probably for the best, I'm afraid. The problem with the Waray is that sooner or later, someone thinks about breeding them to market the salivary extract. There's a big difference between a field of poppies and a field of Waray Monitors."
"Who are you?" Declan said. Two weeks ago, he had no context for this kind of conversation. It was a disturbing development in his career.
"I am someone who appreciates the way you advocate for your patients," said Watson. "And if you're still being penalised for that, I would be happy to drop a good word in the right ears."
"Nah," said Declan. "I stand out enough already. I'd rather keep my head down. Someone's got to do the dirty work, and it may as well be me. They'll forget about me in a couple of weeks, probably when those Komodo eggs hatch. They saved a couple, did you hear?" It made sense that this man would be in on zoo keeper gossip. Someone knew to call him when the Waray monitor hatched.
"I did. That's very good news indeed. Here," he passed a folder over the fence. "I wanted to show you that the Waray came through her brief hibernation and is settling down well."
Declan flicked through the photos inside the file. The Waray monitor had grown in length and stature, and the pebbling at her jaw was now a vivid fuschia. He peered more closely: the walls behind the sandy floor of the enclosure were tiled, similar to images Declan had seen of old Victorian zoos.
"Private collector," said Watson. "Mr MacRae, I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to thank you for your help at the time, but I was impressed with your level-headedness and compassion under some very trying circumstances. I would like to be able to call upon your expertise, should I have need to do so." He took the folder and exchanged it for a business card. "If you're ever thinking of changing your line of work, I would be delighted to discuss the matter with you."
Declan turned the card over in his hands. The print was clean and simple, and the phone number was oddly short of digits. "Thanks, but I really love my job. As a general rule."
Watson nodded. "I understand. Please keep the card. I generally find that once you've taken note of the unusual, the unusual starts to take note of you." He raised his cane in a gesture of goodbye, and walked back down the narrow laneway between enclosures.
"God, I hope not," said Declan, under his breath. A single Waray monitor had been more than enough. Still, he tucked the card into his coverall, as he singled out the next blackbuck. It never hurt to make connections in this line of work.
A week later, his phone rang. Declan told himself it was just one job. After all, how often do you get invited to help trap a giant rat underneath the city? There was no turning down that kind of offer. In the sewers under Fleet Street, the reality was a little more intimidating.
"Wait a minute," Declan said, thumbing shells into his tranquiliser gun. "We use these on bison. How big do these things get, anyway?"
"Oh, quite big by now, I'd imagine." Watson donned a deerstalker and headed off down the brick-lined tunnel.
Declan had a moment of déjà vu. "I swear I've seen this before. Didn't this happen in Sherlock Holmes?"
Watson's wry smile was brief, and completely erased by the screeching further down the sewer. "Look sharp, now! And mind your footing. It's a little scummy here."
As an enormous hairy bulk rounded the bend, Declan felt his foot slip out from under him. He aimed and fired as he fell, then held his breath when he landed.
At least Watson shouted breakfast, at a cafeteria frequented by plumbers and bricklayers, where the waft of sewer filth was not at all noteworthy.
"You've been very helpful, Mr MacRae." Watson sipped his tea and unfolded the cafeteria's newspaper. "Again, may I reiterate my offer of work?"
"You may," said Declan, as he shovelled in great mouthfuls of egg. "Still going to say no, I'm afraid." He took a swig of hot tea, then mitigated his answer. "This is interesting stuff, it really is, but I've got a job, and it's a job I worked hard to get, you know? Lots of people would give an arm and a leg to work at the London Zoo."
Watson didn't seem offended. "I understand. The Zoo is an excellent and historical institution, and your dedication does you credit. But please, do bear my institution in mind also."
Declan loaded a piece of toast with fried tomato. "I assume you don't want anyone knowing about the giant rat living in the Fleet River canal?"
"Probably for the best," they both said at the same time.
Declan laughed and slugged down the rest of his tea.
Part Three: Lepidoptera Before Wicket
It took Declan longer to acclimatise himself to the idea of a secret force dedicated to protecting rare and dangerous animals than it did for the scars on his leg to fade.
"I had a job offer from a mystery man who works for a secret organisation," he said, half-joking over lunch with Anders. "What do you reckon? Should I take the next step?"
Anders forked up scallops from his linguine. "Depends," he said with his mouth full. "Is he hot?"
Declan laughed, and pushed his own pasta around the plate.
"I'm serious," said Anders. "Is he hot? What's his opinion on hot, currently single gay vets?"
"I don't know! That's not really on my list of criteria for a new boss." Declan was surprised to find that he had criteria for a new boss.
Anders swigged a mouthful of wine. "Should be." He swirled the glass and watched Declan with a meditative expression. "This mystery bloke doesn't know you're gay, does he?"
Declan made a face. "He's kind of old fashioned, Anders. It's not really something we've talked about."
"Then no. I don't think you need a job where you don't feel safe to be out." Anders pushed his empty plate away and pulled Declan's towards him. "The Zoo is bad enough: you've been backing slowly towards the closet since you started there. Have you considered that the reason you're still in the black books there is because the straight vets automatically get more leeway than you?"
"You always think the worst of people," said Declan. "I don't miss that at all." Still, the idea rankled. His phone buzzed and he picked it up thankfully, grinning at the abbreviated number on the screen. He thumbed the answer button. "Doctor Watson, what can I do for you?"
"Is that him?" Anders mouthed. "Tell him you're queer!"
Declan turned away so he didn't have to watch Anders miming frantically. "What was that? Sorry, you're breaking up."
Watson's voice was tinny, punctuated with the drop-outs of a poorly functioning sat-phone. "Mr MacRae, thank you for taking my call. What are your thoughts on tannin toxicity in Chengdu goat species?" In the background, Declan could hear hoarse bleating, low and miserable.
"We've had some luck with slaked lime to reduce liver damage. That was in Barbary sheep, but it should apply to goats," said Declan. "Probably best not to let them have any in the first place."
"Yes, well," said Watson. "He's been told more than once to stay away from the plantations." The bleating grew stronger and more strident, and Watson rattled out a sentence in Chinese before coming back to the phone conversation. "Slaked lime I can access, thank you. You've been very helpful. Good..." The connection dropped out with a terminal hiss. Declan put his phone down on the table.
Anders swiped a piece of bread around Declan's empty plate. "Sounds like you've taken the job already."
Thanks to Anders' offhand remarks about the Zoo administration, Declan spent the next few weeks with creeping paranoia. It was frustrating: he loved his job, and his workmates were good people even if they were a little careless with words occasionally.
In the end, he was glad to be called away by Watson, to join a large and eclectic group for an evening caterpillar hunt through St John's Wood. In Regent's Park, he stood between a man dressed for a Royal garden party, and someone buried so deep in a sheepskin jacket that Declan could only see their eyebrows. He grinned at them, and turned to listen to Watson's debrief.
Watson stood by the remains of something papery clinging to the entire underside of a children's slide. "There's no way to estimate time of hatching: we weren't aware of the egg-casing until it was brought to school for…" He tailed off, frowning, clearly reaching for unfamiliar words.
A middle-aged woman with a headscarf stepped forward. "Show and Tell, Doctor Watson," she said. "The young lady had been keeping it under her bed until today, Wednesday being Show and Tell day. Sofia says that she found it on Sunday afternoon, here, at the playground."
"Indeed," said Watson. "While the aspirations of junior entomologists are to be encouraged, and we are grateful for Mrs Hussain's sharp eyes in the classroom, that leaves well over seventy two hours for the larvae to relocate." He opened the cardboard box at his feet, and lifted out a pillowy bundle of fibrous green matter the size of a small sheep. "I've done a little hunting this afternoon, and I believe they've reached the pupal stage. That affords us the opportunity to round them up before they hatch."
Declan toed one of the wiggly furrows cut into the lawn. Whatever had chewed through the grass had mouthparts eight inches wide. There were at least a dozen trails leading away from the slide. Was it wrong to feel a little excited about the prospect of hunting giant grubs in green cocoons? If he had stayed at the Zoo this evening, he'd be ploughing through inches of paperwork.
"Are these things poisonous?" he asked.
"Not lethally so," said Watson, turning in his direction. "But the larvae themselves are covered in urticarious hairs, so if you find a grub that has yet to pupate, do not make physical contact with its body. The cocoons themselves are safe to touch."
"Oy, Watson," said the person in the sheepskin jacket. "Not saying much about what comes out of them cocoons, are you?"
Watson's expression was grim. "Let us simply say that if they had hatched, we would have already heard about it. In Tibet, this species of moth is known as the Moon Lion." He hefted the pale green cocoon in his arms thoughtfully, then tucked it into the cardboard box and closed the lid.
"Wonderful," the man next to Declan said through gritted teeth. He pulled a snub-nosed handgun from inside his morning coat and headed off through a bed of hydrangeas, disturbingly silent.
Declan was assigned the church gardens, with the sheepskin-clad person who introduced themself as Mags.
"This your first bug hunt for the Sanctuary?" Mags climbed easily to the top of a mausoleum, and scuffed along the marble roof, sending leaves fluttering down.
The Sanctuary? Declan checked around the cold marble urns at the doorway. "Shows, does it?"
"Yeah, a bit." Mags reached inside the voluminous coat for a torch and passed it down. "You came underprepared. Going to be dark in an hour or so."
Declan took it and flicked it on and off. "Thanks. Won't you need it, though?"
Mags leapt to the ground, landing on all fours. "Nah, I got good night vision. I only keep that for the duffers."
They worked smoothly as a team, moving across the small graveyard beside the church. While Declan crouched down to check under the rim of a concrete fountain, Mags stood on a bench and watched Watson at the garden gates, monitoring his search party.
"Look at 'im. That's his face when he's all reminiscing about the past. Once, we were chasing Carapace eels down a laneway in Belgravia, and he says 'I remember when this place was a mews. Oh, the elegance of the horse drawn carriage.' Mind you, while 'imself is all dreamy-like, bloody eel nearly takes off my hand. Nasty little bastard." Mags paused, head tilted to the side. "Good eating, though."
Declan opened his mouth to ask what that all meant, then closed it again. He doubted the answer would make much sense.
Mags dropped to the ground with a little thump, then bent, peering into Declan's face. "What the 'ell is a mews, then?" Mags' irises were deep orange, with black ovoid pupils.
"Uh," said Declan. "Well, it used to be a place to keep your birds of prey, you know, for falconing and so on. And then it sort of became a name for stables. When people started moving into the stables, they kept calling them a mews."
Mags snorted a laugh. "See why he brought you along, then. You got all the knowledge, and I got the keen senses."
They found their first cocoon plastered to the side of a garden shed, just as the light was starting to fade. Mags bolted off to fetch Watson. Meanwhile, Declan broke the lock on the shed to find tools, reasoning it was a small damage in comparison to a Moon Lion alighting on a Londoner and eating their face. When Mags returned with Watson, Declan was carefully snipping through the tin wall around the cocoon.
"Thought it was better than trying to dislodge it," said Declan, propping his shoulder against the green fibrous bulge as he scissored the tin-snips through the wall.
Watson put a gloved hand on the body of the cocoon to stabilise it while Declan made the last few cuts, then they both lowered it to the ground. "Well thought out, Mr MacRae."
"Mr MacRae," said Mags, mocking, then turned, whip fast. "Did you hear that?"
Watson looked up sharply. "What do you hear, Mags?"
Mags' hunched form had taken a lean, angular shape, ready to pounce. "Sounds like someone's pants splitting." A long arm pointed towards the vestry.
"Run," said Watson, and Declan was moving through the shadows to the church. He could hear something now, above the sound of his feet on the gravel path: a smooth, scything noise, as if the blades of a great fan were building up speed. Mags leapt ahead of him on all fours moving in great bounds, but not even that was fast enough.
Watson caught up with them just as the moth lifted away from the ivy-covered wall. The broad wings were silvery green against the darkening sky.
"Damn," said Watson, and leaned heavily on his cane. "We'll have the devil of a time isolating it now. And it will be hungry." He didn't have to elaborate. In the middle of London, a carnivorous moth would be spoiled for choice.
"It'll go for light. What's the moon at?" Declan should obviously take better notice of these things, if he was going to go on outings with Watson.
"Full moon, second night," Mags said promptly.
Declan gazed across the road longingly. "Lord's is that way, right? Pity we can't get those spotlights on. What we need is a bright source of light, brighter than the moon, brighter than the glow of the city."
Watson tapped his lip thoughtfully, then pulled out his phone and tapped in a number. Soon he was speaking into it with quiet authority.
Mags made a face at Declan, then bounced nervously on tiptoes. "See what I mean?"
"No, I really don't," said Declan. "But that's okay. I'm figuring it out." Despite the impending risk, he had a grin so wide it hurt his face. Finally he got it, what Watson was talking about. Thinking on your feet, preserving life, and doing it all in secret? It was a rush, and one that he was beginning to enjoy.
Mag nodded, understandingly. Orange eyes glinted at him in the darkness. "You're doing all right. For a beginner."
"Yes, I understand there are zoning regulations," Watson snapped into his phone. "I am on the MCC governing board and I was at that particular meeting, if you care to recall. I think, however, that there will be repercussions if you choose to ignore this warning. And I most certainly will not be stepping forward in your defence. Yes. Thank you." He tucked his phone inside his jacket and crossed his arms, staring towards the cricket ground with a grim smile. There was a noise, a low thwump of power. Above the pavilions, the spotlights above the cricket ground blazed alight.
"Wow," said Declan. Watson appeared justifiably smug as he ordered Mags and a couple of others from the search party to bring the truck around to the nearest access gate.
As he and Declan darted across Wellington Road, a shadow flew over their heads. Declan tilted his head up to watch: two silver-green sails the size of bedsheets, joined at a furry green body sailed over the road towards the lights. Declan caught a brief glance of the curving mandibles, long green tusk-like projections, then the two of them were through the entrance turnstiles weaving towards the main stand. Security had evidently been pre-warned, as they were waved past checkpoints and through doors held open.
"So, what do you have to do to get all-hours access to Lord's?" Declan asked, as they pattered down endless access tunnels onto the green. It was much longer than Declan would have guessed from seeing it on telly.
Watson stopped at the mouth of the tunnel to catch his breath. "Get in on the ground floor, more or less. Good, there's no greenskeepers about. That's a level of wrath I can do without."
"Yeah, we're chasing a carnivorous moth, but the real danger comes from the greenskeepers."
"I'd rather take on the moth, to be frank." Watson's expression was serious but his eyes were twinkling. He was enjoying the chase as much as Declan. The camaraderie was a little heady.
Declan shaded his eyes and squinted up at the lights. "There it is!"
The Moon Lion fluttered forlornly around the northern light tower, a lost handkerchief caught by the wind.
"Those lights generate far too much heat for a Himalayan species to be entirely comfortable," said Watson. Indeed, the moth was already pulling away from the lights. It spiralled lower, little by little, coming closer and closer to the smooth green turf.
Watson ducked back into the tunnel, out of sight. "Now all we need is a side of beef and a very large net."
"At Lord's Cricket Ground," said Declan.
Watson waved his hand airily, as six of his volunteers, including Mags, thundered past with half a beef carcass. "Yes, I've no idea why people say cricket is a dull game." He frowned, and stepped out to direct his team. "No! No! Stay away from the wicket! For heaven's sake, have a little respect. Put it out towards the boundary!"
Once the raw slab of meat was deposited on the grass – suitably distant from the pitch – the moth soon caught the scent. It landed lightly on the beef, antennae vibrating keenly, brushing the surface of the carcass. The moment that the wings stopped beating, Watson gave the signal and the net was launched. The moth barely noticed; it raked at the meat with its tusks, munching steadily.
"Poor thing," said Mags, licking long bloody fingers one by one. "Know how she feels, I do."
Declan suddenly clutched at Watson's arms, exhilaration completely overriding reserve and formality. "That was brilliant! Just amazing!" He let go, put his hands on his head and turned in a circle, taking it all in. Lord's. A giant carnivorous Tibetan moth. The feeling was euphoric.
Watson grinned uncharacteristically, caught up in Declan's enthusiasm. "It was rather good, wasn't it? That was some sharp thinking with the lights, by the way." He turned to look at the towering columns that threw great beams of clear light on the turf. "I'm not ashamed to be a traditionalist though. There's something not quite right about evening cricket."
Declan laughed, remembering his grandfather saying very nearly the same thing. His smile fell away. There was a reason he wasn't out to his grandparents. The euphoria dissolved.
Watson sensed the change in mood. "Is something wrong?"
"Nah," said Declan. He reached out to shake Watson's hand. "Tonight was fantastic. Thanks for calling me in." Then he turned and walked down the tunnel towards the street exit. He could feel Watson's eyes on his back the whole way, but if he turned around, he would blurt everything out, and then he'd never work for Watson again. Watson was obviously old school tie, and he was conservative enough that he flinched when someone dropped an aitch. Declan couldn't imagine telling Watson that he was gay.
On the bus home, sitting with people who had no idea there were flesh-eating giant moths in the city right now, Declan told himself that this wasn't cowardly. He shouldn't be feeling bad about this. He did, though, because as much as he told himself that the Zoo was the more prestigious job, he found he wanted to work for Watson's Sanctuary more.
Part Four: As Long as the Lion Doesn't Drop In
It was hard to say no when that phone number rang.
"I've sent a car to collect you," said Watson. "I'm going to have to ask you to move smartly, if you don't mind. We've a matter of some urgency."
Declan rubbed his eyes and kicked his legs free of the duvet as he fumbled with the phone. "Not a problem. Be downstairs in a jiffy."
Sleep-clumsy, he struggled into jeans and a vaguely clean shirt. He was telling the truth on the phone: he didn't mind being called in the middle of the night. As a vet, especially a large animal vet, this ability to roll out of bed and deal with emergencies was practically a job requirement. It puzzled Declan, though, that Watson called as often as he did. This was London, after all, and Declan couldn't be the only vet that Watson knew. He certainly wasn't the best trained or the most experienced. Declan could say that with complete confidence and no loss of pride, because at the Zoo, he worked with experts in many fields of practice. Watson never asked to be put in touch with experts. He asked for Declan's help.
After Lord's, Watson hadn't brought up the job offer again. Declan made a deal with himself: work the calls that come, don't ask for any more attention than that. It was less painful. He could enjoy the cases that came his way, and get on with the rest of his life without challenging anyone.
He had enough time to slurp down the dregs of a cold cup of coffee and fold a piece of pizza into his mouth before the intercom buzzed. At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped for a moment, startled by the elegant Bentley and the driver standing beside it. Sleek and black, it was dead like the ones you saw in parades. It had the little fixtures for the flags and everything, though they sat empty of any identification. He nodded to the driver and slid over the back seat, feeling slightly odd sitting on the soft leather in his grubby jeans and a misbuttoned flannelette shirt. He briefly considered making the Royal wave, then suppressed the idea. Watson would not approve.
He dozed a little in the car, despite the short ride, and came to at a security gate marked "Royal Fusiliers" and in bold red letters, "Private!" He took a moment to orient himself, disbelieving. Thames on the right. Tower Hill tube station on the left. Large building, looming stone walls. He leaned forward, tapped on the glass. "Mate! Are you… are you taking me to the Tower?"
The driver gave him a tight smile. "Don't worry, sir. These days we don't keep people long, as a general rule."
Declan had been to the Tower as a kid: he'd laughed at the Beefeaters, peered at the Crown Jewels and been suitably spooked by the idea of the ravens ever leaving. That kind of touristy fun seemed miles away as he followed the driver - who was clearly much more than a driver, from the gun at his belt and his earpiece - down miles of flagstone-paved hallways in the darkness. The two of them emerged out of the building, by now moving at a jog trot, and hurried over a low hill covered in velvety turf. A low wooden building stood before them, dimly lit with cast iron lanterns. Watson was waiting outside, and he held a stack of towels.
"No time for questions - I promise expansive explanations as soon as possible - but right now I need you to shower. Are you wearing any jewellery?"
"What?" said Declan, but Watson pushed him towards a camp-style shower and thumped him on the shoulder to indicate he should undress. "Bloody hell!" It was trust that made Declan pull off his shirt. Trust, rabid curiosity, and the fact that all things seemed possible in the middle of the night in the Tower of London.
"Fuck!" The water was icy, cold enough that shock made him forget he was standing naked in front of someone whom he assumed would expect a certain level of etiquette, especially here.
Watson gathered up Declan's discarded jeans and shirt and handed them to the guard. "Yes, I'm terribly sorry. The water needs to be heated by flame, and we've simply not had time to boil another lot." Watson was wearing pyjamas, or something similar: slubby cotton cut in simple shapes.
Scrubs, thought Declan, as he scrubbed with the tiny bar of lye soap and scowled at Watson. They were surgical scrubs made from hand-spun fabric.
Watson handed over towels and then a set of similar garments with businesslike detachment. "The twenty first century has its own problems," he said, as Declan struggled into the clothes which clung to his damp skin. "Non-natural fibres, perfumes and colognes, even highly processed food can be a problem."
Declan was used to these half-understood conversations. Watson never really gave out facts directly; he left you to pick up the details as you went. Nonetheless, he thought about the pizza he'd scarfed down before leaving, and gave his mouth a good sluice with the running water just in case. "Right. I'm scrubbed up. Who's the patient?"
Watson smiled suddenly, a rare and delighted expression. "A very special one." He pushed open the door and a pale yellow rectangle of light spilled out on the stones.
It took Declan more than a few minutes to realise what was standing in the straw bedding of the stable; after all, he'd been raised with certain cultural expectations. The creature was shaggy and dun, for one thing, and tiny - barely twelve hands. When she turned towards the newcomer, though, the candlelight of the lanterns gleamed against the horn protruding from her forehead. It twisted, as it was supposed to by legend, but the colours were mottled waxy brown and grey, much more like the horn of a cow or a goat. Her eyes were huge, a luminous golden brown, and though Declan had trained himself out of the habit of anthropomorphosis, he knew she was intelligent. She was afraid and in pain, and he could feel it in his own heart. If Watson hadn't been behind him, propping him up, he would have fallen to his knees.
"Steady," said Watson. "She's asking for your help. It can be a bit overwhelming when they first make contact."
The unicorn shifted her weight with a low moan, and Declan realised how low her belly hung. "She's foaling?"
"Calving, but yes," said Watson. "As best as we can determine - we're not able to bring any diagnostic equipment in here - the calf is breech."
"Who's we?" Declan held out his hand for the unicorn to smell. She whickered at his fingertips for a moment, then hung her head low.
Watson pointed at the rear wall of the stable, where a viewing window had been installed to keep the modern world at bay. The glass was bubbly and thick, but on the other side was a large screen and a webcam. A woman's face - dark hair, beautiful eyes - watched them by remote.
She waved a hand to Declan in greeting. "Mr MacRae, James has told me so much about you. I'm sorry we have to meet in such a hurried fashion. I'm Doctor Magnus. Let me give you a brief rundown of our interventions thus far."
Declan listened to the statistics as he started his examination. A tall blond groom, dressed in the same cotton tunic and pants, stroked the unicorn's forehead as Declan took her temperature and pulse.
"How long has she been labouring?" There were hollows above her eyes, and her gums were worryingly pale.
"Twenty eight hours," said Doctor Magnus. "She started at midnight last night. Typically, labour is twelve to fifteen hours."
"She's dehydrated and she's tired," said Declan, and passed the wooden stethoscope to Watson. "Foetal heart rate is good, though. Nice and clear, steady, assuming eighty beats is acceptable. Calf's not moving around too much, that's a good thing. Means it's not in distress yet."
Doctor Magnus waited a moment for Declan to come to the same conclusion she obviously had before Watson called him in.
"You want me to turn it? I don't recommend it. I don't know what I'm doing, and it's dangerous enough even when you are familiar with the animal. The risk of placental rupture, the chance that I'll tear the uterus - it's too great a risk. With breech births in smaller ruminants, generally the best thing to do is just pull the damn calf as fast as possible."
"Can you do it?" Watson's voice was urgent.
Declan thought about the implications. He had little idea of her internal anatomy, and there was no way to monitor what he was doing. Surgery was not going to be an option, though it was never optimal in hooved mammals, anyway. "I can't possibly be the best person for this job, surely you know someone more experienced than me?"
"He does, but I'm on the other side of the planet," said Magnus, shortly. "I can talk you through the anatomy. I've never delivered a breech birth, but I've pulled my share of unicorn calves."
Declan stepped closer to the window, and spoke softly. "Then you know the risks. There's another option - one that has a much better prognosis for the mother." Declan rubbed his eyes. He hated these kinds of decisions, but it was his responsibility to make them when necessary.
"No!" said the groom, suddenly understanding what Declan meant. "I forbid anything of the sort."
"Wills, be reasonable. Listen to Mr MacRae," said Magnus. "If we lose the calf, there's a chance we'll have another calf sooner or later. But to lose them both would be catastrophic, and you know why."
"No." The man crossed his arms. "Don't argue with me. You're not letting the calf die to save the mother. She won't allow it, and neither shall I."
Declan narrowed his eyes in sudden recognition. He supposed that he'd just heard some kind of Royal decree. Okay.
Magnus sighed, and gave a crisp nod. "Right then, Mr MacRae. James says you're a fast learner, so let's put that to the test. You've worked with antelopes, I believe? The breadth of the pelvis is comparable, so go easy. We're not dealing with an equine species, but the placental formation is diffuse, as it is with horses: don't expect a typical caprine system. The head will be folded right down under the chest, difficult to find even if the presentation is normal…"
In the end, the whole process was a matter of feeling his way and trusting his instincts, which was the thing he loved most about practical application of veterinary medicine anyway. There was a moment of hopeful elation as he manoeuvred the calf's hind leg into a position where he could grip it firmly. When he pinched the skin between the bifurcated hoof, the calf kicked in protest, and Declan laughed in delight at the vigour of the movement.
Eventually, as dawn crept between the cracks in the timbers of the dim little stable, a tiny folded body slipped to the ground with a gush. Declan crouched by the damp calf with a towel, clearing mouth and nostrils and scrubbing the calf's sides roughly until the fur stood up in cowlicks. The mother whickered, a soft, worried noise. There was a breathless moment. Then, as if he were terribly put out, the calf heaved a great sigh and whickered back. Declan would have cheered if he had the energy, but instead he staggered to the end of the stable, slid down the wall and collapsed in a heap in the straw.
Watson settled himself on an upturned wooden bucket beside him, and passed him a rough clay mug filled with hot black tea. "Here. If anyone's earned that, it's you."
"Well done, Declan." On the screen above them, Magnus appeared just as tired, even though the time difference meant it was early evening in her part of the world.
Declan wrapped his hands around the mug and drew his knees up to his chest. The Prince had not moved from the unicorn's side. Even now as she tended to her calf, he stood guard beside her, ready to fight off anyone who challenged them.
Declan gestured with his mug towards the scenario at the other end of the stable. "So, what's that about?"
"That?" said Watson, with appropriate gravitas. "That signifies that the Royal line will go on another generation. Direct succession and peace in the realm."
"I do love a Royal wedding," said Doctor Magnus, softly.
"Can I stay here and keep an eye on these two?" asked Declan. "The mother's doing fine, but I'd prefer to observe, make sure the calf is suckling properly. Reduces the risk of rejection, or it does in non-sentient species. I imagine the risk is similar here, same as us and the higher primates."
Doctor Magnus laughed softly. "I'm sorry, but you must stop turning down our job offers, Mr MacRae. You're too good at this not to work for the Sanctuary."
"Helen," said Watson. "Please don't badger Mr MacRae, not after he has been so kind as to give up his sleep to help us."
"I will badger him," said Doctor Magnus. "He's wasted on the Zoo. We need him more. Mr MacRae – Declan – I know working for the Zoo is a prestigious position, but can you honestly tell me that this isn't a thousand times more satisfying?"
Declan drank his tea miserably. Magnus was right: tonight had been astonishing, an experience he'd tell his grandchildren about, if grandchildren were something he'd planned on having.
Watson put a hand briefly on his arm. "Don't let her bully you. I'm very grateful for the help you've given us, and I hope you'll continue to do so in whatever capacity you feel comfortable."
Declan watched the two of them watching him: one beside him and the other on the opposite side of the world. There was a manner about them, something in the way they spoke, or their bearing, that was positively alien. They'd obviously been friends for a long time: they finished each other's sentences, and told each other off with the familiarity of old, old companions. Sometimes he thought he must have seriously misjudged their age. Older people were conservative people.
"I'm not your kind of people," Declan blurted out suddenly "Look at you both: you're on a first name basis with Royalty, you obviously have money and influence. I don't think I'm a good fit for that world."
"We know people, Declan." Magnus' voice was serious. "You're our kind of people, trust me. We've seen enough of your abilities to know that you'd be useful in our organisation. James has given me no reason to doubt your discretion. And you wouldn't have been able to set foot inside these walls if there was any question of your integrity."
Watson turned to face him, still sitting on the low stool, hands around his knees."Whatever is troubling you, it cannot be so bad that we will not understand."
Declan tried to imagine introducing his hypothetical partner to Doctor Watson, or talking casually about a weekend away with a friend, or even, perish the thought, wanting to get married someday. His mind drew a panicked blank. He pressed the mug against his forehead and shut his eyes.
"Or perhaps it's some failing on our part?" Watson ventured. Declan must have flinched, because Watson nodded in understanding. "Well, then. Please let me assure you that despite your perceptions, I am willing to adapt to peoples' needs. If you are willing to extend me the opportunity to do so, of course."
"I'm gay," said Declan. "I don't want to pretend I'm anything other than gay, not even for this job." He watched Watson's face carefully, seeking a reaction, but it came instead from the screen behind the window. Magnus' mouth twitched, twitched again, then abruptly she left the monitor. Through the microphone, Declan heard the sound of her heels then a door closing. He turned to Watson, confused. "Was she laughing at me?"
Watson's expression was sour. "Not at you, dear boy."
"What did you call me?" Declan's eyebrows couldn't climb any higher at this point, but no answer came. Doctor Magnus returned to the screen, face much calmer now, though laughter still danced about her eyes.
"I do apologise, Mr MacRae. Doctor Watson has brought this on himself. I told you to make an acceptance policy, James. In the eighties. You said it was political correctness gone horribly wrong."
"I still think it is." Watson's voice was prim. "I would never discriminate based on one's preference. I simply cannot understand how someone's private life has any relevance to their work."
"Tell me straight up that this is a safe place and that it will stay that way," Declan said, quickly, before Magnus could butt in. "You might not be judgmental, but what happens when you step down? What's going to keep the next boss in check?"
This was obviously a startling idea to both Watson and Magnus.
"Best to get your policies down on paper," said Declan. "You never know what's round the corner. Giant Tibetan moth, or a bloody bus, or old age. Nobody lives forever." He regretted that last bit the moment he said it. He was in a stable in the Tower of London watching a unicorn and her calf while he stood beside Doctor Watson, who remembered when Belgravia housed horses.
Watson gave a wry twist of the mouth at his sudden bewilderment. "If a policy is in order, then perhaps I could ask you to write it for us?"
"Does this kind of thing happen every day?" Declan waved his hand in the direction of Prince William and the unicorns.
Magnus finally laughed out loud. "Yes. Almost every day."
Declan laughed too, it was an infectious feeling, this. "Then I think I'll have to say yes."
Watson smiled at the two of them. "Welcome to the Sanctuary, Mr MacRae."