When Sahra Guleed was six, she wanted, more than anything, to be a zebra. Or maybe a fish. She liked swimming the best, after all. When she was eight, she wanted to be a rock star, and practised with her hairbrush as a microphone and her doll and teddy as an adoring audience.
When Sahra turned ten, however, she knew beyond a doubt what she wanted to be when she grew up, and (the day after her birthday) sidled up to her father as he sat on the sofa after work with the paper while her little brothers and sister were watching the Simpsons on telly.
“Dad,” she said, snuggling into his side as he absentmindedly lifted an arm for her. “I know what I want to do when I’m older.”
“Hmm?” he murmured, sunk deep in long, wordy articles about politics and finance and some woman who had shaved a cat.
“Dad,” Sahra poked at him, and he put down his paper. Hadid Guleed was a quiet man – hardworking and almost dour at times. But he loved his eldest daughter and always listened to her.
“What would you like to do when you are older?” he asked, “which will not be for many years yet.”
“A policewoman!” she said, beaming and so proud.
He looked at her, and saw that she was serious, and hugged her tight. “It will not be easy,” her dad said. “And you will have to work very hard to show them that you are the best.”
“I know,” she said, and his heart ached a little at how grown up she suddenly sounded. “I want to solve crimes and help people.”
Her father blinked down at her, and bent to press a kiss to her forehead.
“And this is why I love you, my little Sahra,” he said. “Because you are so very good.”
Before Beverley became... Beverley, she was all too mortal, all too human and she had been terrified of any body of water bigger than a bath. Hadn’t ever dared get in the pool for swimming lessons, even, and screamed herself hysterical until her PE teacher gave up.
She hasn’t told Peter the full story of how she came to be the goddess – the genius loci, as Peter and the Nightingale call her and her lot – of a small, almost forgotten river in London. Doesn’t like to think about it much. There was the water – and it had been so cold, until it wasn’t. Until it was clear and warm and as familiar to her as her own reflection. Mama had come to her then, and gathered her up in her great big arms and held her while Beverley had sobbed and she had offered Beverley one chance to become... more.
Now she was a goddess, a whole new world opening up for her, full of goddesses and spirits and creatures the human part of her had though only existed in stories. And what could a goddess - a river goddess even - possibly fear about water?
Peter, Abigail sometimes thought, was an idiot.
Not that that was news, of course. But still.
Sometimes she thought she might get Molly to help her put a big shiny red bow around Mr Nightingale and push him at Peter. Mr Nightingale was scary, sometimes, and acted like a proper grown up most of the time (except when Peter was doing his ‘magic experiments’ and then Mr Nightingale looked like a kid at Christmas – Abigail might only be fifteen, but she wasn’t stupid) but Molly was cool and Abigail was, like, proper sneaky and stuff and she was fairly certain between the two of them they could manage it.
Only Peter would probably think it was a spell gone wrong, or something, and would waste the opportunity doing research on a non-existent spell.
Peter was definitely an idiot.
He’d been with Beverley, for whatever grade of ‘with’ that meant. And before that, before Lesley got her evil villain on and wandered off or whatever to go darkside, Abigail was pretty certain there might have been a thing at some point. Or almost a thing, at any rate. Lesley had been cool, and hadn’t talked down at Abigail like pretty much all stupid adults did and actually explained things to her instead of fobbing her off with some rubbish whatever.
Beverley, though. Beverley was the best. Beverley was probably the coolest adult Abigail knew. For all that, technically, Abigail wasn’t supposed to be learning much about magic and stuff until she was older, or at least had taken her Latin GCSE, and for all that, once she had taken her Latin GCSE, she was pretty sure that Mr Nightingale was supposed to be the one to teach her stuff, or maybe Peter, Abigail had still learned an awful lot from Beverley.
More politics of certain situations, true, and less about actual Harry Potter spell shit, but it was interesting. Abigail’s teachers at school said that she soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Besides, Abigail was fairly certain Mr Nightingale was too busy worrying about things Abigail Wasn’t Supposed To Know About, like Lesley going all Darth Vader and apparently Peter had nearly been gored by a unicorn or something?
Peter’s life was seriously weird.
Beverley had been waiting at Abigail’s school gates for her after the bell on a Wednesday, barely two weeks before Christmas, and bundled her off on the Tube to the West End area.
“Where we goin’?” Abigail asked, trying her very best to look disaffected like anthropomorphic personifications of London rivers picked her up after school every day.
Beverley gave her a cheeky smile. “Adventuring.”
They stopped in at a place called Bubbledogs, just off Tottenham Court Road. Nice food, Abigail thought, for a hot dog, but not exactly adventuring. And a good thing Beverley was paying because Abigail would never pay that much for a hot dog, even if they did taste alright. And Beverley wouldn’t even let her have a cocktail, when Abigail was pretty much already grown up, really. Rude.
“We’re waiting,” Beverley told her, “for the third member of our party.”
The third member of their party was someone Abigail had seen once in passing when she’d tried to sneak into a crime scene (well, she hadn’t had much homework that day, and Geography was boring, besides). A tall Somali woman in a dark red hijab and a leather jacket came forward with a smile, winding her way through the pre-Christmas shopping crowd gracefully despite her three inch heels.
“Abigail, right?” she asked, “I’m Sahra.”
“You a copper?” Abigail asked. She wasn’t sure what she thought about the police. Oh, most of them were probably okay, and Peter was alright, for a complete geek. But she’d been chased off enough by bored patrolling coppers before.
“An’ you work with Peter, right?”
Beverley laughed and swayed to nudge Abigail a little. “Sahra’s alright,” she said. “You hungry?”
“Nah – we’re going to be late if we don’t get a move on,” Sahra said, looking at her phone.
“Late for what?” Abigail grumbled, but quietly. She didn’t want to get sent home before anything adventure-y happened.
The three of them walked along the back streets, trying to stay away from the wandering tourists and the determined Christmas shoppers. Up Charlotte Street and west through to Great Portland Street and then into Devonshire Street. Abigail was beginning to get impatient when Beverley ducked into a dark and narrow mews, the tarmac replaced after a couple of steps with cobbles, from what Abigail could see. Sahra followed and Abigail only hung back for a second before ducking in after both of them.
“Peter says you’re inquisitive,” Beverley said as the three of them made their way down the mews. There were Christmas lights up in a few of the windows, but most of them had been switched off already.
“He did?” Abigail was a little surprised. “Doesn’t sound like what Peter’d say.” Sahra grinned at her and slung a friendly arm around her shoulders, steering her after Beverley.
“Well,” Beverley drew the word out, “what he actually said was that you need someone taking you in hand before you get into even more trouble and you’re not likely to listen to him and if I let you run into traffic, he’d find some way to feed me to your dad. But if you find anything like your under-the-tunnel ghostie, you’re still to take it to him, like a proper case or something.”
Abigail thought about it, and shrugged. “Yeah, sounds about right. Peter’s always been scared of my dad. And he’s been going on about me joining the police when I’m older. And doing all the boring stuff like reports. Urgh,” she pulled a face, then darted a guilty look up at Sahra. “Uh, no offense.”
“None taken – paperwork is boring.”
“And then the Nightingale said maybe you might benefit from a field trip or two to ‘familiarise yourself with the world you may find yourself encountering on a more regular basis’.” It was a pretty spot-on imitation of Mr Nightingale, Abigail had to admit. Beverley did the voice and everything.
“So why’s she here then?”
Sahra rolled her eyes as they stopped about halfway down the narrow mews and removed her arm from Abigail’s shoulders so she could take off her gloves.
“Because someone decided that a couple of run-ins with the Folly meant that I’m in an ‘ideal position to facilitate an upwardly mobile communication loop between the main bulk of the Met and any satellite departments whose roles fall outside of the more common aims of the Met as a whole’.”
Even Beverley had to blink at that.
“Wow. So you’re, like, the Folly’s babysitter, right?” Abigail asked, and Sahra snorted.
“Yeah, something like that.”
They were outside a garage door with a stencilled sign saying ‘Institute of Physics Deliveries’ with an arrow underneath pointing to the right. Just to the left was a black painted gate and it was this that Beverley moved towards. Abigail was about to say something like ‘how’re we going to get in’, but the gate swung open under Beverley’s hand, the electronic lock switched off.
“Come on,” Beverley grinned, “we’re expected.”
“Oh, and that doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Sahra muttered, and Abigail slid a little closer and caught at the end of Sahra’s sleeve as they passed through from the dimly lit mews to the darker alley. Not that she was scared, of course. Just… Sahra might have been scared.
A security light flickered on as they passed under, and then died a little too quickly. Abigail shuddered, and Sahra twisted her arm until she held Abigail’s hand.
“Nothing to be worried about,” Beverley chirped, leading the way up some concrete steps and in through another unlocked door. The corridor inside was painted a dingy white, but at least the lights were working. “Come on!”
They went further in, past administration offices and down a corridor with a shabby looking office carpet and towards what Abigail thought might be the front of the building.
“Couldn’t we have come in the proper way?” she asked.
“Nah – this is more fun. Besides, even if we’re expected… we’re not, technically, supposed to be here.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Sahra said. “Bev, I’m a police officer. I’m not supposed to be trespassing!”
“Trespassing is just a boring word for adventuring,” Beverley scoffed, and led them into a nicer, less utilitarian area with a plush red carpet and past a big wooden door that looked like the main entrance. “The Institute of Physics has been around for a while, but it’s only been called that since 1970. Before that, it was two separate things, and before that…” She said as they climbed a wide flight of stairs, also lined with the same plush carpet.
“Before that, my dear, there was me.”
Abigail, no matter what Beverley teased later, did not scream. Not even a little bit. Neither, she was prepared to generously allow, did Sahra. Although Abigail might have jumped a little.
Standing at the top of the first flight of stairs was a man. Abigail couldn’t see much in the dim light, but she was fairly certain he was dressed like something out of one of those period dramas, like Bleak House. They’d been watching the 1985 series at school, and Abigail was pretty certain the main guy had been dressed a bit like this one.
“Alright Johnny?” Beverley asked, arriving at the landing.
“Miss Brook,” the man nodded, a faint smile on his otherwise stern face. “Oh, don’t look so scared, my dear ladies! The Physical Society has always welcomed the fairer members of our society into our midst.”
“That’s…” Sahra started.
“A ghost,” Abigail filled in as Beverley and the man moved off down the corridor side by side. She glanced at Sahra out of the corner of her eye. “You met a ghost before?”
“No,” Sahra said, still staring after the other two.
Abigail felt herself puff up a little. “I have. They’re not scary,” she said, just in case Sahra was worried. “They’re mostly just sad, like shadows, or summat. Poor things,” she added, feeling very grown up and sophisticated all of a sudden. After all, she’d seen a ghost before. She’d spoken to a ghost before. Well, spoken at, anyway. Not like there’d been that much of a two-way conversation going on.
“Right. Ghosts. Why not?” Sahra said, almost to herself, and then squared her shoulders and sort of marched off after Beverley and the man. Ghost. Person.
Abigail looked back down the stairs into the shadowy hall at the bottom, and hurried after her.
They found Beverley curled up in a huge leather armchair in a sort of sitting room place that could be an internal library, given the surroundings. The ghost was standing with his back to the fireplace – a fireplace that Abigail was certain should be out, given the fact that she was sure the three of them were the only living people in the building. It was flickering, though – and although the fire looked warm, Abigail could also see the cold grate behind it, and there was no warmth coming off of it at all.
“Sit down, please do!” the gentleman said, and there was that faint smile again, like maybe he hadn’t smiled a lot when he’d been alive.
They sat, feeling a little dwarfed by the chairs.
“This,” Beverley said, almost proudly, “is Mr John Hall Gladstone.”
“The first president of the Physical Society of London,” he said proudly, fingers curled around his lapels.
“Pleasure,” Sahra murmured, still looking slightly shell-shocked.
“Johnny’s been a huge resource for the Folly over the years,” Beverley went on. “And for us… other people.”
“Hidebound imbeciles, the lot of them, all holed up in their precious Folly,” Gladstone snorted, and Abigail saw Beverley hide a grin.
“They’re different now, Johnny, we keep telling you.”
“Say what you like, my dear,” Gladstone said graciously. “I prefer to keep Folly nonsense out of my Society.”
Abigail stayed quiet. Gladstone acted like a person, but Mr Nightingale and Peter had both warned her about ghosts. Still, she was with Beverley, right? And Sahra seemed like she could seriously mess someone up. So it was probably okay.
“But Bev said you were a resource for them,” Sahra asked.
“Oh, I’ll talk to them,” Gladstone said airily, “and they are more than welcome to utilise the resources the Society – your pardon, the Institute – has to offer. But I simply will not put up with their incessant traipsing around after their little mysteries and lost sirens and wandering imps.”
Abigail’s eyes widened. Imps? Sirens? Well, that sounded much more interesting than going by the Folly every so often with her notebook. Things like running around after sirens seemed much more grown up.
“Getting specific there, Johnny,” Beverley said, one eyebrow raised. Sahra just rolled her eyes but Abigail sat forward eagerly.
The ghost looked shifty. “I didn’t want to trouble anyone,” he hesitated. “But perhaps... yes, I think I might need a hand after all. At least,” there was a small quirk to the corner of his mouth again, “a more material hand than mine.”
“Oh, Johnny,” Beverley sighed, standing.
“It’s on the top floor,” he said, and straightened his jacket, “what used to be the garrets, once upon a time, for the servants. Oh, only those who lived in, that is. A long time ago, of course, and what time and human necessity haven’t changed, the Blitz did. We had to put a new roof on after 1940, don’t you know?”
“What’s on the top floor, Mr Gladstone?” Sahra asked, with what Abigail recognised was a similar tone to Peter’s ‘you want to help the police with their enquiries, don’t you sir? Because you don’t want me to get my cuffs out, do you?’ voice. Maybe all police learned it when they went through police school. Here’s your walkie-talkie, here’s your taser and here’s how you do The Voice.
“It’s... well, I think perhaps you had best come and see for yourselves.” The ghost, if possible for someone who had been dead for more than a century, looked sheepish.
They followed him out and up the stairs to the fourth floor. He paused outside a door.
“One of the lesser libraries on site. Of course, everything is supposed to be put on your mechanical storage devices, now. Computers, I believe they’re called. Functional, I suppose, but no substitute for the feel of real paper under your fingers. Still, there are some members of the Institute who still prefer the older ways of doing things. And it has been playing merry havoc with the older volumes, I’m afraid.”
‘It?’ Abigail mouthed, but pushed forward with the other two.
The room wasn’t quite as big as the library they’d been sitting in downstairs – a lower ceiling and functional strip lighting instead of the lamps that had lit the other room. But the books were the same – shelf upon shelf of them. Abigail took a second to think that Peter would probably really geek out in this place. Probably Mr Nightingale as well.
The mess was new – piles of torn pages scattered about, and books tipped off their shelves.
There was a rustling from behind one of the book shelves and even Beverley looked a little uncertain.
“Are you sure we don’t need the Nightingale for this?” she said. “I mean, we’re not exactly powerless, but...”
“Oh no,” Gladstone said, “quite benign, I assure you. Messy, though,” he sighed, looking around at the torn pages. “Very messy.”
Beside Abigail, Sahra straightened and stepped forward.
“Mr Gladstone, what exactly are we dealing with here?”
“A mess and a torment to my sanity and peaceful afterlife,” he said, with what Abigail could have sworn was a pout.
There was a high-pitched yip, and they looked down to see a...
“Is that a hellhound?” Beverley managed. Abigail fell to her knees with a squeak of delight, already reaching for it. About the size of a spaniel, it wagged its tail furiously and tried to lick every inch of Abigail’s face with all three of its tongues at once.
“It’s so cute!” she said, giggling.
“A menace,” Gladstone said darkly.
“I thought you just wanted to meet Sahra and the Nightingale’s newest apprentice,” Beverley said, but Abigail was too caught up in the slobbering puppy to pay attention. (She remembered, later, what Beverley had said, and wondered if maybe Mr Nightingale had said something, if maybe, one day, she might finally, properly learn magic...)
“Oh, I did, I did. And a great pleasure, of course. But if you could maybe find it in your heart, my dear and beautiful lady, to rid me of this pest? No one here can see it, apparently. The cleaners think it’s the students, and the students never come up here. It needs more to consume than knowledge – the occasional soul, I believe.” He floated a little closer to Abigail. “And the mess is decidedly a point against it.”
“Wait, are you saying it’s invisible?” Sahra asked. “But I can see it. It's literally right there.”
“Cos you’ve been exposed to all the weirdness already, haven’t you?” Beverley grinned.
“Brilliant. Invisible dogs. What are we supposed to do with it?”
“I’m keeping it,” Abigail said, blissfully petting it. There was silence, and she looked up to see the three adults staring down at her. “What?”
“It’s a hellhound,” Beverley said. “Not exactly a normal puppy.”
“It’s sweet,” Abigail pointed out, and had her finger caught and gently gnawed at by one of the heads. “And we can’t leave it here.”
“Nightingale’s going to kill me,” Sahra moaned. “Wait, forget that, Seawoll’s going to kill me. We can’t just take a hellhound out into bloody London!”
“It can’t stay here,” the ghost said. “Most assuredly not, indeed. The beast must go. I believe I am owed a few favours by now, from both the Folly and the good Lady Thames. Not to mention the things I, ah, haven’t. Mentioned, that is.”
“Johnny,” Beverley said, grinning at him, “are you blackmailing me?” She sounded absolutely delighted by the idea.
“Well, needs must, and all that. For the good of the books, my dear girl!”
“But what are we going to do with it?” Sahra said, staring at the dog. One head stared back, while the other two tried to bite at each others’ ears.
“I’m keeping it,” Abigail said again.
“Can’t keep it at home,” Beverley pointed out. “Invisible dog on the estate, roaming around and eating books?”
Sahra sighed. “I already regret taking this job,” she said, “but what about the Folly?”
“Yeah, I mean, they’ve already got one dog, right?”
Beverley narrowed her eyes at the dog. “It could work, and at least then you could visit, Abigail.”
Abigail thought about it, and then stood up, holding the dog in her arms.
“Fine,” she said, “but I get to name him.”