One of the problems with the Folly’s raised profile among the Met of late – as Nightingale likes to complain occasionally, not that he’d cop to it being complaining if I pointed it out – is the number of times we get called out to check crimes which are not only not of a supernatural nature, they’re so ordinary they’re practically supranatural. I don’t know why Nightingale complains about it, though, because I’m the poor sod who gets called out on a Sunday to tramp around a muddy construction site in order to determine that some other poor sod has had their head bashed in without any magical, mystical, or otherwise weird aid whatsoever.
That particular Sunday wasn’t just a waste of my time; I’d been escorted to the crime scene by Sahra Guleed. The case was connected to an ongoing investigation run by the Murder Team at Belgravia, and Stephanopoulos clearly wanted to make sure I didn’t embarrass them too horrifically. The Folly is totally different from Belgravia, organizationally speaking, but we work with them often enough that people get confused, and interdepartmental politics in the Met can be a strange, strange thing. All Guleed had gotten out of it was even more mud on her than I had, courtesy of a stray plank that had leaped out of hiding to trip her. (In a strictly metaphorical, rather than magical sense.)
“Where to?” I asked once we got back to the Asbo. “Belgravia?”
“The faster I write up the report, the faster I get home,” said Guleed. "No need to take me all the way through the weekend traffic – just go back to your nick and I can walk. Might dry some of the mud off.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I said. “How about you come in? I can promise a cup of tea, and if we ask Molly nicely she might even clean your shoes off for you. That way you don’t incur the wrath of the Belgravia cleaning staff.”
Guleed looked skeptical – there were stories about the Folly, I was pretty sure, not that any of them got told to me – but agreed. “As long as you make it coffee.”
“We can do that,” I said, and started the car. Guleed was right, the weekend traffic was horrific. I spared her the history of the period when the Folly was a floating coffee-house on the Thames, because I had to concentrate. She’d probably be grateful if she’d known.
Guleed wasn’t the only visitor in the Folly that day. It was one of Abigail’s Sunday visits, and I’d had to leave her with Nightingale while I scarpered off to do the other half of my job. I half-expected to find him drilling her on Latin vocab when I got back, but she was teaching him the rules of Old Maid, or at least he was letting her think she was. He had been getting desperate, even if he was doing a good impression of looking like he was enjoying himself. Possibly it was giving him flashbacks to fond childhood memories – I’m sure Edwardian childhood included a lot of card games. I was never going to know, though, because he never really talked about his family and I never had the guts to ask.
Fortunately Guleed didn’t get the chance to ask why my governor was spending his Sunday afternoon playing cards with my teenage cousin, because she was too busy being unnerved by Molly, who stole our muddy shoes and provided a pot of coffee and a plate of biscuits in record time. (If it had been just me I’d have had to sort out the coffee myself, but Guleed was a guest.)
We were making slightly awkward conversation when I felt it. Magic isn’t always obvious, but this was a wave of vestigia not unlike the times I’d felt demon traps go off – not the same semi-rotten, awful feeling to it, but the same sense of something snapping. I managed, through great dexterity, not to drop my coffee, although the custard cream was a lost cause.
Guleed just frowned at me. “What?”
It always surprises me, these days, when people don’t notice magic.
“Is there a draft in here?” she went on. “Felt like it, just now.”
Or maybe not. “Not sure,” I said. “I’ve just got to…I’ll be back. Excuse me.”
I didn’t think it was anything too serious, because there had been a lack of screaming and/or yelling from either Nightingale, Abigail, or Molly, but – if it was serious enough, there wouldn’t be. So I moved quickly. So quickly, in fact, that when I rounded the corner and saw Nightingale standing next to the back door with a put-out look upon his face, my attempt to bring myself to a halt just caused my sock-clad feet to slide on the thirties-era linoleum that the servants had rated the last time anybody updated the décor of the Folly’s back entrance. It wasn’t anything serious, but I skidded to a halt just past Nightingale, in the doorway. I saw the look of alarm on his face, and he made a grab for my arm, but all he managed to do was swing me round so my right arm and leg went through the doorway, not my face.
In retrospect, he probably saved me a broken nose, but all I registered at the time was a second, stronger wave of magic – this one with the sense of steel bars and slamming doors, the scent of oak – and the pain of my limbs smacking sharply into an invisible barrier that hadn’t been there fifteen minutes ago when Guleed and I had walked in.
“Peter,” said Nightingale in some exasperation, although he used his grip on my arm to steady me, so I didn’t just fall backwards; I did appreciate that.
"What the fuck?” I said, eloquently.
“Language,” said Abigail; I hadn’t noticed her popping up.
I didn’t rise to that bait, just glowered at the placidly empty – but inexplicably barred – doorway. “Seriously – what was that?”
“I’m afraid,” said Nightingale, “the protections have been triggered. We’re not going to be able to leave for a while.”
“The protections are working all the time, I thought. What do you mean, triggered?”
“By your unfortunate piece of acrobatics, right now.”
“Well, I won’t come running quite so fast the next time I’m drinking coffee in the reading room and I feel serious magic happening,” I said, and I know it’s not the most diplomatic way I could have phrased it, but I did feel he was being unreasonably short about the whole thing. Then I saw Guleed, walking towards us, and added “Sir.”
Nightingale turned and saw her. “Ah. Constable Guleed. I’m afraid you won’t be making it back to Belgravia this afternoon.”
“Why not, sir?” asked Guleed, totally baffled – but the squint of her eyes said she knew an explanation involving magic was about to rear its head, and she didn’t like it. It was just that she couldn’t say so to a DCI.
“Does that mean I’m going to miss school?” asked Abigail.
“What did you mean, triggered?” I asked again.
It turned out that the wards on the Folly – sorry, the protections – could, in some circumstances, become actual physical barriers separating the Folly from the outside world. (Nightingale wasn’t specific about which circumstances; I was too focused then on the not able to leave for a while part – I’d been meaning to spend the night at Beverley’s – to inquire further. My mistake, as it turned out.)
“Okay, but how is that working?” I wanted to know. “The water’s still running, and the lights are still on, so it’s not just sealing the place off totally -”
“The details are not terribly relevant at this stage,” said Nightingale, “and besides I don’t know; it’s never happened while I’ve lived here.”
Guleed still looked dubious. "Can I ask how long it’s going to take to, er…unseal?”
“Under the circumstances,” said Nightingale, “about a week.”
The gist of things – once all the disbelief had died down a little, my own included – was that the protections had been set up so that they could be made to cut off the place physically. This wasn’t a straightforward process; it involved first a magical trigger, and then someone attempting to physically exit or enter the premises. As I had unintentionally done. After that, everything was locked down for a week. Or, if someone unlocked it from the outside, two days.
“Can’t you get someone to do that?” asked Guleed, now sounding a bit desperate.
“There isn’t anyone,” I said. “If it needs to be a practitioner…?”
Nightingale nodded. Well, that canned it; the ex-wizard grapevine hadn’t done magic for forty or fifty years, if not sixty, in all the cases I knew of, and that just left people we couldn’t trust. Lesley, say. Wherever she was, right now. Or Varvara Tamonina, in prison – I could just imagine how that would play out.
“Huh,” I said. “In that case, there’s a few people we need to call. Starting with Abigail’s dad.” Who was not going to be best-pleased about all this – he’d only really agreed to the whole Junior Wizard programme in the first place because my mum had made it clear she found it respectable. Abigail taking an unscheduled week off school to stay at the Folly was not the way this was supposed to work.
Guleed had already pulled out her phone. “Hang on a minute. My phone’s not turning on. Is this –”
“Magic,” I sighed. “Yeah, probably. The wards must have been drawing off it.”
The Folly is, of necessity, an electronics-free zone – most of the time. That’s not because it’s so inherently magical that it fries all electronics you bring in. It’s because we who inhabit it are only human – well, I’m only human – and are thus prone to human fuck-ups. It’s much harder to kill phones on a regular basis, or tablets and laptops, if I just keep them turned off when I’m in the building. Also, there’s the bit where we can’t run any sort of new cabling into it. These days, with the Faceless Man running around doing who knows what, I’m not sorry about the protections. But I hadn’t turned my phone off when I’d come in with Guleed, and neither had she. Nor had Nightingale, or Abigail, because nobody expected any magic to be going on, at least nothing serious. That meant that all our phones were well and truly dead, as well as Nightingale’s digital radio; that was all the electronics we’d had in the place. The only working connection we had to the outside world was the landline that dated back to the 1940s, or, if we got desperate, semaphore out the front windows. We probably had semaphore flags in the attic somewhere, come to that. And the water pipes and sewerage, but that wasn’t really helpful, except insomuch as it meant we weren’t going to die of thirst or not be able to use the toilets.
Food was something of a problem, too. Molly had just gotten a delivery, so we weren’t going to starve, but she didn’t ask Tesco’s to send her meat from the halal section, either – Dr Walid didn’t usually come by for dinner. With Guleed here, she was really going to have to work on her vegetarian repertoire, which was far from extensive. Abigail was, of course, going to miss school. I would have been ecstatic at her age, but it just made her grumpy. Of course, a week off school with nothing more for entertainment than whatever the Folly library could provide, two radios, four adults, and perhaps the odd deck of cards, wasn’t likely to thrill anybody.
“Look at it this way,” I said. “We can really brush up on your Latin. You want to get that GCSE, right?”
I’d promised to teach her magic if she got her Latin GCSE. I still wasn’t sure if Nightingale was going to let me go through with it, or whether he’d just teach her in my stead, or postpone the whole idea.
“For how long?” Abigail demanded. “All week?”
A fair point.
Nightingale got first shot at the phone, of course, to call whoever he thought needed to know we were all going to be trapped in the Folly for a week. Lucky for us we didn’t have any major cases running, and I could only pray nothing Falcon-related reared its head in the next seven days. Especially with Guleed stuck here as well; in the normal scheme of things she’d have been my next call to handle whatever it was. I took unashamed advantage of my status as the other verbal resident of the Folly to get hold of the phone as soon as Nightingale was done, and called Beverley.
“Honestly,” she said. “Wizards.”
“Don’t blame me. This was set up before my parents were born.” I’d decided not to get into the fine detail about me triggering it. Beverley would find out sometime without me volunteering it. I had my suspicions about her sources for what went on in the Folly, and all of them wore mob caps and moved silently.
“It wasn’t before the Nightingale’s watch, though,” Beverley retorted.
“I suspect he was gallivanting around India or wherever at the time.”
This won me confused looks from the rest of the queue for the phone, and an eyebrow raise from Nightingale, who had paused to make some notes on the pad next to the phone; he didn’t need Beverley’s half of the conversation to know he was the topic. I waved a hand in a way meant to indicate that it wasn’t anything he needed to worry about, and he went back to his note-taking. Guleed’s frown only got deeper.
“A whole week, though?” Beverley said, returning to the topic at hand.
“It’s supposed to be a fail-safe. They didn’t think…”
They hadn’t thought there’d ever be only two wizards in Britain, and one of those an apprentice, to get trapped; they’d thought there’d always be someone to come down from Oxford or wherever and unlock it from the outside.
“They never did, from what I hear,” said Beverley. “So if I want to get hold of you, it’s this phone or nothing?”
“I think we might have a short-wave radio or two around the place. God knows if they work.”
“Mmm, I’ll pass. Still, not so bad – you’ve got the phone in your bedroom, don’t you?”
I considered both the implications of this and a variety of responses, all of them tempered by the fact that I had an increasingly short-tempered audience – excluding Nightingale, who’d wandered off. But including my fourteen-year-old cousin.
“I’ve really got to let everyone else call people,” I said. “Abigail was here, and her dad’s probably expecting her home by now.”
Beverley laughed. “We’ll talk later.”
I had a funny suspicion my ears might have gone a bit red, the way Guleed was looking at me when I hung up the phone.
The first day went reasonably fast. All things considered. I did some paperwork that didn’t require a computer, practiced in the firing range, tried to keep track of Abigail. The Folly is a big place, and everybody kept out of each other’s way for most of the day. I don’t even know what Guleed did with herself. By the time we gathered for dinner we still had stuff to talk about. Molly had even sorted out a litterbox-type arrangement for Toby, who took it with considerably more grace than I would have expected.
I went to sleep thinking that the week might not be that bad. This was a mistake.
By day two Abigail had embarked upon a cellar-to-attic survey of the building. Thank god we’d emptied the armoury earlier this year. When I realised that was what she was doing, I made her take Toby with her – it was the nearest thing we had to taking him for a walk. Guleed had found a radio in the reading room and was trying to coax it into playing a channel she wanted to listen to without sliding into static five minutes after she’d taken her hand off the dial. I thought about pointing her to one of the more functional ones we had around the place, but it was keeping her entertained – or at least occupied – so I decided to save that for later.
Nightingale had decided that, if we were going to be trapped in the Folly all week, we might as well get on with lessons, although what with the effect of magic on the brain we couldn’t just do magic all day to keep busy. Come to that, I’d been due for a MRI this week to check on the ongoing potential deterioration of my grey matter; that was going to have to be postponed, and Dr Walid had been cross about it. You’d think I’d trapped us all in the Folly on purpose.
I thought an extra lesson or two might pass our time more usefully, but even magic dragged. Abigail hung around for a little while watching, but by the third day she’d realised that all she was going to get to see was me trying – and failing – to freeze apples. It was actually a good thing I was failing, since we had a limited supply of apples. Nightingale, however, did not appreciate this view of things.
“We’ve had twice as much time as we normally would have,” he said, “and you’ve only succeeded with the form once. I don’t think that’s anything to be pleased about.”
“Right,” I said, and tried to control my expression. Nightingale isn’t a born teacher, but he’s a patient one, usually. And I’m not that bad. Usually. It was just harder, somehow, to focus on the forma; my mind kept slipping off to other places, outside the Folly.
“Again,” he said, and this time I just got a faceful of cold apple pulp. A few more like that and I’d have to start on oranges, or potatoes, or give up for the week altogether. Nightingale was standing well back, of course, but his expression was very close to exasperation.
“Perhaps we’d better…find something else to do,” he said.
I pulled off my safety goggles and wiped at the apple on my face. It had a strange, crystalline texture. “Yeah.”
I crossed paths with Guleed on my way to clean myself up. She must have given up on the radio.
“What happened to you?” she wanted to know.
“Magic practice,” I said, because while I’m always willing to provide people with euphemisms that make their lives easier, we were in the Folly. You didn’t get a lot more magical than that.
“With…” she squinted at me. “Apples?”
“If they explode, it’s just messy, not dangerous.”
Guleed shook her head. “Changed my mind; I don’t want to know after all.”
By the third day, the strain was clearly telling on Molly. You’d think it wouldn’t have, seeing as she hadn’t left the Folly in about a century, but she was dusting everything three times a day and I kept finding her staring out the back windows at the coach house. I knew why that was, but I still didn’t know what she was doing with the computer in there – let alone who’d taught her to use a computer in the first place, as there hadn’t been one here before I’d taken up the wizardly life. I could ask, but she wasn’t going to tell me. Not only because she never spoke.
Guleed clearly found the fact that our nick had a live-in housekeeper exceptionally weird, even before you got to Molly’s Gothic Edwardian maid dress and demeanour.
“I’m surprised they don’t make you sell off this place,” she said. “Budget cuts and all. We could put you in offices at our nick.”
“And let us kill every computer you’ve got?” I said. “Imagine what that’d do to the budget. Besides, one support staff member to two officers – that’s not a bad ratio.”
“Why the maid’s outfit, though?”
“You’d have to ask Molly. You can’t imagine we get to tell her what to wear.” I’d never actually seen her in anything except her maid’s uniform, and I couldn’t begin to imagine what else she’d wear – the mind boggled at the image of her in jeans.
Guleed smirked. “No.”
That evening, we broke out the card games. All the good ones I owned were unfortunately in the tech cave, but Nightingale nobly offered to teach Guleed and me whist; Abigail had missed out by disappearing somewhere in the depths of the building.
(“Should we find her?” Nightingale asked.
“Is there anything actually dangerous she might find?”
“Not unless she’s picked up Greek or Aramaic without telling us,” he said.)
That meant we had to grab Molly for a fourth, which turned the first game into a total rout. Whist is one of those card games where memorization and practice are just as important as luck, and Nightingale and Molly had a lot more practice than us two newbies. Guleed insisted we switch up partners for the second round, and it worked for her; she and Molly beat us soundly. I think we might have taken it if we’d gone for a third game, but by then it was late enough for bed. It’s amazing how much more tired you get in the evening with nothing to keep you up but the radio. When it works.
“There’s always tomorrow,” said Nightingale as we put the cards away, and I realized that the most exciting thing I had to look forward to for the next three days was the prospect of maybe - maybe – beating Guleed and Molly at a Victorian card game.
“I’m going to go stark raving mad,” I told Beverley over the phone, before I went to sleep.
“Come up with an experiment,” she suggested. “Teach Guleed magic. Teach Abigail magic – that’s what she hangs around for, isn’t it?”
“I don’t have any experiments I can do without leaving the Folly. And as for teaching – there’s no way Nightingale’s going to go for it, and anyway I don’t think Guleed would be interested. Plus Abigail still hasn’t got her GCSE.”
“Well, if it was a bargain,” Beverley said, in that serious way that sometimes creeps me out just a little; not because of Bev, but because of how seriously the magical world takes promises, and how easy it is to make them without thinking. (Case in point: Abigail.) “Just try to keep yourself occupied.”
“I don’t know what it is you think I’m going to do.”
“Go stark raving mad?”
“Too late,” I said gloomily. Beverley laughed. I think it was sympathetic.
You'd think you wouldn’t feel that trapped in a building the size of the Folly – if my mum was in charge she would have fitted about fifty families in, and it had housed up to a couple of hundred active wizards, back in the day, with every amenity from library to underground firing range – but by the fifth day I was beginning to have a great deal of sympathy with everyone I’d ever helped put in prison.
That’s the thing about prison, see: people act like it the experience of being there should be a punishment, like if you’re not doing hard labour there’s nothing upsetting about being sent away for years at a time. But just the knowledge that you can’t leave – that’s a punishment all on its own. I didn’t even have anybody telling me what to do, unless you count Nightingale being my boss, which is really not the same thing, and I still kept finding myself standing in the windows overlooking Russell Square, itching to get out there. By that point everybody was keeping to themselves outside of meals; we’d run out of things to say to each other. Abigail was spending a lot of time in the mundane library, and probably I should have been monitoring what she was reading, but she was old enough to traumatise herself. Or avoid it. I didn’t know what Guleed did for fun when she wasn’t trapped in the Folly, but she’d played so many games of Patience she must be making a serious assault on the probability tree.
Nightingale was going over old reports – to find a way to get us out early? I’d tried asking, but all he’d said was that they were old reports, and I knew if he’d wanted to tell me more he would have. That was when he wasn’t supervising me practicing, of course, getting less and less patient with each session. But he wasn’t very good at idleness, Nightingale, perhaps having had so much of it over the last seventy years, and my more and more specific hints that maybe we should just take a day off were ignored.
On the other hand, I’d frozen every last apple we had in the place and the last five hadn’t exploded – at least not until Toby knocked them off the bench – which meant the week wasn’t a total waste of our time. Quite.
It was about lunchtime on day four that I started checking the back door. Not in any serious, magical way – just opening it and trying to stick a foot out. I had checked with Nightingale first that it wasn’t going to do me, or the Folly, any harm. I’m not actually an idiot, despite what certain people may tell you.
It was still firmly barred, of course – as solid an invisible wall as any I could put up. Probably more solid. So I came back and checked it a couple of hours later. And then after dinner, and then just before I went to bed, and it was when I ran into Nightingale at five a.m. on the fifth day, when I nipped over to check again before I hit the gym and went a few rounds with the punching bag that I realised I might be getting a bit obsessive about it.
I was in a t-shirt and jogging bottoms, because it was five a.m. and I might have to dress for breakfast but I ruled out dressing for pre-breakfast exercise, and Nightingale was actually wearing a dressing gown and slippers. Of course, this was Nightingale, so it was a sedate grey tartan he probably could have worn out on the street and only gotten a few turned heads – it had a pocket square and everything, and besides. It was Nightingale. But it was still unusual to see him in anything that…casual, that soft around the edges, especially with guests staying. I figured out, after the fact, that he’d probably been checking it as well; but he didn’t admit that the time.
“Peter, what are you doing?”
“Just checking,” I said. “You never know. It’s been seventy years since they were renewed.”
“If the protections start failing we’ll have a very serious problem indeed on our hands,” Nightingale said. “There’s really no point poking at them.”
“Right,” I said, and then we sort of looked at each other – waiting for what, I don’t know – before I mumbled something about exercise and made my escape to the gym.
I checked again, though, after breakfast and before lunch and around afternoon teatime. And that was where it got unexpectedly difficult, because as I was closing the back door after establishing, yet again, that we were stuck in this fucking place – I might have given the invisible barrier a bit of a kick, except it’s not very satisfying kicking something invisible – I realised there was someone standing behind me.
“No, Abigail, we’re not getting out of here this afternoon,” I said.
“I believe she’s still in the library,” said Nightingale.
I may or may not have frozen, very slightly; he’d all but told me to give up checking, and while he was perfectly capable of making it a direct instruction if he wanted, I still felt a bit like I’d been caught out in something. I suppose I had.
"Clearly you need something better to occupy you,” Nightingale said, and so we ended up in the gym for a magic boxing session that lasted twice as long as normal and left both of us sweaty and feeling a bit silly; or that last might just have been me. I started out poorly, and got landed on my back by a feint with Impello.
Nightingale gave me a hand up. “There’s no point in this if you’re not paying attention.”
“I know,” I said, and we squared off again. The next five minutes were just rote and tedious, but gradually I started to lose myself in it, in the unpredictable rhythm. Jab, shield up, duck, Impello, hook. It was too fast for me to concentrate on anything but the bout, unless I didn’t mind getting whacked in the face a few times, and today Nightingale was making that unpleasant enough that it wasn’t worth risking.
By the end, it could have just been cathartic – I was too tired to think hard, and I’d gotten a couple of good hits in, which was genuine improvement, and what’s more Nightingale had said as much – except for feeling a prickle on the back of my neck and realising we had an audience. Seeing Molly, that wasn’t that unusual; she did quite like watching magic. Abigail was eyeing us like she was trying to figure out how she’d fight either of us.
“Right,” said Nightingale, only breathing a little hard. “I think that’s enough for the day.”
I was suddenly very aware of the sweat trickling down my back and the stretching feeling of muscles that had had their share of use; we’d been going longer than we normally would have. “Fine by me.”
Molly wandered off, since we weren’t going to provide any more entertainment.
“Am I going to have to learn to box?” asked Abigail.
“Not until you get that GCSE,” I said, to save Nightingale the trouble of coming up with a response; she just rolled her eyes and left as well.
Nightingale watched her go consideringly. “Do you think she’d join the force?”
“If that was the deal for getting to learn magic,” I said. “But I think she’d call foul if we made it a condition.”
"We’re not going to be able to go on with just the two of us forever,” he said, and it was the first time he’d ever said anything like, after Lesley. “Not if our caseload keeps expanding. So it could be quite helpful.”
“Oh, you don’t have to convince me,” I said. “More people to do legwork, I’d have more time to figure out what’s actually going on with half the stuff we come across. Like this whole thing with being trapped here -”
“No,” Nightingale said quite sharply. “The protections on the Folly are integral to our responsibilities and even if it were possible for you to alter them on your own, you -”
“Not now,” I said, a bit stung. “If I ever get properly trained, if there’s ever other people, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even know where to start right now, I know that, you keep telling me -”
“I’m glad you remember it,” he said, and left. I stared after him. That was so un-Nightingale-like it was –
“We need to get out of here,” I said to the empty air. “We really, really do.”
It got to the flashpoint on day six. I held out until after breakfast, but I’d woken up from a dream that I was at Beverley’s house, the sound of her river audible through an open window, Beverley in the bed beside me; the disappointment when I broke through to consciousness and realised I was at home instead was so intense I could almost taste it. I’ve gone a lot longer without seeing her since we started dating, let alone the nine months between when I kissed her after she flooded Covent Garden and she got back to London. But it’s like anything you want and can’t have, instead of choosing not to have; it eats at you a little.
I think that was why I walked quietly through the atrium – I’m not going to call it sneaking – out through the lobby with the empty box for a doorman we didn’t have, to the front door. I went to the front because we never used it. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t know what Nightingale’s opinion would be of me checking again. But – he could have told me not to, and he hadn’t.
The front door opens inwards, and it opened as smoothly as always, but the same invisible barrier lay between me and the steps outside – I could tap my foot against it, put my hand up against it, but there was no give or gaps. It didn’t feel like anything; it was just a point in the air I couldn’t move past, no matter how I tried. It didn’t stop the breeze, or the smells from the street, or the weak warmth of October sunlight on my skin. Just me, trying to get through.
Thirty more hours, or thereabouts. According to Nightingale. I believed him, but – there had to be something we could do.
He was standing behind me when I shut the door and turned around, of course; I’d pretty much expected it. His arms were folded and the set of his mouth was disappointed. I hate disappointing Nightingale. I really, really hate it. I know I manage to confuse and exasperate and worry him – usually not all at the same time unless I’m doing something really genius like being buried alive in Oxford Circus – but I usually manage to avoid disappointment. And yet here we were.
“Peter,” he said. “I know we’ve been stuck here for days. I know you can’t stand to not have anything to do. But I need you to trust me.”
“I don’t - it's not that,” I said. “It’s been years, this has never happened when you’ve been here, you said that. It just stops me- stops me going totally off my rocker. And besides, what if they’ve degraded or something since it’s been so long -”
“They haven’t, it doesn’t work that way -”
“It’s not like you know everything about how magic works,” I said, and I regretted it the instant it was out of my mouth.
“I’ve never claimed to,” he shot back, and yeah, I’d just crossed the line, “but you barely know more than I did when I was thirteen, and I can’t stop to explain everything to you, we haven’t the time!”
“I’m not asking you to explain everything, but sometimes you think things aren’t important and they are and what if this is some sort of trap, what if – what if it’s the Faceless Man or something and he’s getting away with something while we’re stuck here, but you’re so used to hiding away in the Folly you haven’t even thought about that -”
I’d been wrong before, when I said I’d crossed the line; this was the line. And I won’t say I was yelling, or he was, but I could hear a dim echo of our words in the atrium beyond us. I wasn’t sure how we’d gotten here from me checking the wards one more time but – here we were, and I could feel my ears burning, and Nightingale had gone very pale and still hadn’t said another word.
I should have stayed in bed this morning and tried to fall back into that dream about being at Beverley’s house. I should have.
In the deathly quiet as we stared at each other and tried to figure out what the hell to do or say next and whether we’d just irretrievably fucked up – okay, that last one was probably just me – there was a faint noise from the atrium and I experienced the dawning horror of knowing that not only had I just had a loud verbal argument with Nightingale, at least one other person in the building had probably heard most of it.
“I,” I said, “I have to,” and Nightingale let me walk past him without saying anything at all.
The problem with magic is this: you can’t do it when you’re angry. Or upset, or sick to your stomach, or just feeling kind of numb, or tired or hungry or afraid it’s going to rain before you can get the washing in. So it’s fuck-all use for working off emotion. The emotion is what gets in the way.
Things that are good for this include exercise, and video games, and for me personally that one time I beat up a tree, but we were still trapped in the Folly and none of those were options. I knew I needed to go back and apologise but I didn’t even know where to start. I compromised by aggressively tidying the lab. I even dug some sandpaper out and started on one of the burn marks I’d left in a bench two months ago; it saved me from having to think.
Abigail appeared before I’d been there five minutes. “Were you fighting with Nightingale?”
“No,” I said. “Weren’t you reading?”
“I’m bored,” she said.
“There’s a whole lot of lab left to clean,” I said.
She snorted. “No.”
“Fine, then,” I said. “Be bored.”
She was silent for a few seconds; when I looked up she was biting her lip, but instead of saying anything, she left.
I fully expected Molly to come and give me the full disapproving stare – or try to drink my blood again, I don’t know – but instead I got Guleed. She did have a good disapproving stare going, folded arms and everything. By that point I’d run out of things to clean, and was trying to think of something else equally mindless to do. lI thought I just might be calm enough to do my practice. A lesson didn’t seem likely today.
“You know, I’ve heard about cabin fever,” she said without preamble, “but are you actually going mad?”
"It's a hypothesis," I said. "I’m trying to come up with a suitable apology.”
“Look, everyone thinks your unit is weird,” Guleed said. “Because you are. But after what happened to Lesley -”
What Lesley did, I wanted to say, but that was – that wasn’t public knowledge, not in detail.
“- it’s got to be tough, having just you and your governor and – whatever Molly is.”
“This hasn’t got anything to do with Lesley,” I said, “it’s got to do with us having been trapped in this bloody building for a week and me not knowing when to shut my mouth.”
“Of course it does,” she said, “my point is – it’s not going to get easier if you hold off, just go and grovel a bit and get it done with. When there’s only two of you, you’ve got to get on, it’s not like you can just avoid him.”
“Right, but remind me again why you care?”
“Because I’m stuck in the same building as your presumably angry boss for the next twenty-four hours and I’d like to survive it,” said Guleed, putting her hands on her hips. “Also, once we get out of here, we’re going back into a world that’s still got possessed cars and murderous cat-people and all we’ve got to deal with it is the pair of you, so get your act together.”
“Thank you for those words of wisdom,” I said.
“Well,” said Guleed. “Look at it this way: imagine what you’d be facing if you’d gone off like that at my governor.”
“Do I look suicidal to you?” I asked.
“I did hear some stories about you and Skygarden Tower.”
“Nah,” I said. “That was way safer than yelling at Stephanopoulos could ever be.”
I found Nightingale with last week’s newspaper and a cup of tea in the kitchen. Molly pointedly took the teapot away when I showed up.
“Thought you’d already done that crossword,” I said.
“I’m trying the sudoku,” he replied. “It’s not normally worth it, but under the circumstances...”
“Right,” I said, and looked across at the bench; Molly’s plans for dinner appeared to involve a curious amount of what looked like purple broccoli. Must be the Jamie Oliver cookbook again. I shoved my hands in my pockets, to ward off fidgeting. “I just – look. Sorry. Won’t happen again.”
“I assume you’re about to tell me you didn’t mean any of it?”
There was another chair, but I thought I’d better stay standing for this one. It would absolutely be the sensible thing to tell him I hadn’t, but it also wouldn’t be true, and this – also didn’t feel like the moment for expedient mistruths. “I – had my brain to mouth filter temporarily turned off. Thinking things isn’t the same as needing to say them.”
Nightingale nodded, slowly, and I thought I’d gotten that one right. “It has been rather a stressful week.”
“It’s practically been a holiday,” I said. “Compared to other weeks we’ve had around this place.”
“Waiting is always the worst part.” I supposed Nightingale knew all about waiting. “Will you sit down, Peter?”
I did, since he’d asked, but I almost wished he hadn’t.
“You still haven’t asked me,” he went on, “exactly why we got trapped in here in the first place.”
“You said it’d happened before,” I said slowly. “The wards getting – triggered, or whatever. I did mean to ask you, but I got distracted, and if it was immediately dangerous you’d’ve said. Should I have asked?”
“I triggered them,” Nightingale said, and I thought I must have misheard him, but I didn’t even have to say anything – he read my expression. “Not on purpose, Peter.”
“Right, of course not,” I said, but then it occurred that by accident wasn’t a lot more comforting. “Uh…how?”
“Abigail was asking about them. She kept using the words force-field and shields, for some reason.”
That might or might not have to do with the latest Star Trek movie having just come out on DVD, but I decided that was a detail not relevant to the conversation.
“And…” Nightingale was distinctly failing to look at me; or I think so, because I wasn’t exactly making an effort to look at him. “Anyway. I was attempting to demonstrate exactly how inaccurate her ideas of their function were – at least in the normal scheme of things – and I…well. I’d forgotten that particular aspect. It’s been so long since I’ve done anything about them, even as little as looking at the set-up; when I can’t reconstruct them on my own, it hasn’t been safe to. It would have been fixable if – but you know the rest.”
The rest meaning the way I’d come crashing in. I didn’t even know what to say to that – any of it. I know Nightingale isn’t infallible or all-knowing and I know he knows I know that, but I usually expect him to – he tells me when he’s forgotten things. That’s why I trust him. And we’d been stuck here six days, and he hadn’t – I wanted to say why didn’t you just say that, but it wasn’t the right thing.
“At least that’s…something that won’t happen again,” I said, which wasn’t actually any better. “Just a pain and a waste of all our time, not dangerous.”
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to get into a long conversation about the details of how they worked when I couldn’t get away from it,” Nightingale said bluntly. “You’ve probably got twenty questions at least.”
I was biting back about fifty, but it wasn’t like I still hadn’t fucked up.
“You’re absolutely sure we’ll get out tomorrow,” I said instead.
“Completely,” and it sounded confident. “And, seeing as we’re all at our wits’ end, I’ll even give you the write-up on how they work to look at; I’ve been spending a lot of time with it, and it might keep you occupied until then.”
“It’s in Latin, isn’t it.”
“The entire thing.”
“Why is this stuff always in Latin?” I asked, mostly rhetorically, finally daring to look at him properly.
“To stop the wrong people reading it, of course,” he said, and I must have made a face, because his lips twitched. It was going to be all right, then.
“Of course,” I said. “And…sorry. Again.”
“You know,” he said, “I’ll say this for you: you rarely make errors unaware.”
“We don’t really have a lot of room for me to make any errors,” I said. “So – trying not to.”
“I don’t expect we’ll need to revisit this conversation,” said Nightingale, which was his way of saying so we’ll all pretend this never happened.
“No, sir.” I hesitated. “It’s not that – I do trust you.”
I didn't want to say it because it sounded – it sounded stupid, but sometimes you have to say these things no matter how stupid it makes you feel. Getting it out there in words is part of the penance.
"I know you do,” said Nightingale. “It’s not something I worry about. Sometimes the opposite.”
“Well?” asked Guleed, when I found her and Abigail in the reading room. “How bad was it?”
“Not so bad,” I said, and then realized, from her expression, that I hadn't sounded nearly as penitent as she'd expected. “It’s a good thing there’s only me in the unit,” I added hastily. “There’s no more scut-work to give me.”
Guleed snorted. “I’m sure you’ll be paying for it one way or another.”
“I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“You know it.”
Abigail, who’d been not-so-casually eavesdropping on us from another armchair – she hadn’t turned a page in minutes, and I knew how fast she could read – looked happier. You’d think that would make me happy, but it didn’t. It was bad enough being responsible for Abigail’s continued exposure to magic. Being responsible for her emotional well-being was right out. Any kid who’d had a parent walk out – and she had - was going to be on edge when adults in her life started yelling at each other. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be an adult in her life. Right now I wasn’t managing being an adult in my own life very well.
Molly still served me dinner cold, but I’d expected that. No questions about whose side she was on.
Nightingale glanced sideways at my plate, and its tell-tale lack of steam. “I could…”
I shrugged. “She’ll be over it by breakfast. And if not, I’m perfectly capable of rustling up hot toast.” Small price to pay, all things considered.
“You’ll have to get in the kitchen first,” he said, with a small smile.
“Not a problem if Toby manages to get into something he shouldn’t.”
Nightingale shook his head, but that was a proper smile now, and I figured that was all right.
“The first thing I’m doing when I get out of here,” said Guleed, eying her vegetarian pasta in a resigned way, “is having a nice halal kebab from the closest kebab place. Anything as long as it’s meat.”
“First thing I’m doing is watching TV,” said Abigail.
“First thing you’re doing is getting dropped off to your dad,” I said firmly.
Abigail rolled her eyes. “After that.”
I still wanted to check the wards after dinner, and I could have snuck off and done it at a side-door, or my bedroom window, come to that. Nightingale still hadn’t told me not to, after all, and it wasn’t dangerous or damaging. But.
I was just trying to decide whether I was going to devote the evening to Greek translation or – more dangerous – challenge everyone to a game of poker, when Nightingale came into the room.
“I’ve got some good news,” he said without preamble. “It appears the protections have re-set themselves. We’re free to leave.”
He hadn’t even stopped speaking before Abigail dashed out of the room, pelting down the main stairs into the atrium with a cry of glee, I presume to run around the courtyard ten times or something like that. Or maybe turn on the TV in the tech cave. Good luck to her with that; the door was locked.
“How did you know when they came down?” I asked. “I didn’t feel anything.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to feel.” A brief pause. “I checked them, just now.”
I thought about all the things I could say to that, and settled for “Thanks.”
Guleed made her goodbyes promptly – I didn’t blame them. I swung by the coach house to get my spare phone, and texted Beverley; I got an answer immediately, so she wasn’t on river patrol.
“I thought I could drop Abigail off,” I told Nightingale, “and then I’m off to Putney. Unless there’s anything that needs doing, now we’re out?”
He took a moment to think about it. “No, I don’t believe there’s anything urgent – and I suppose your chances of a hot breakfast are rather higher there, too.”
“Only if I want to make it myself.” Nightingale tries, but he does occasionally revert to older-fashioned views of how heterosexual relationships are supposed to work. Beverley doesn’t really believe in hot breakfasts – not unless somebody else is making them, or at least helping. I find this an entirely reasonable stance.
“I can drop Abigail off,” he offered. “If you’d rather head straight over.”
“No, really – I don’t mind.”
“Well, then,” he said. “I won’t detain you further.”
We looked at our feet, so as to prop up the façade of reserved British masculinity. It needs a lot of propping up some days.
“What are you going to do?” I couldn’t help asking. After seven days of being crowded in here together, it suddenly seemed wrong to just walk out and leave him alone. I was going to do it, don’t get me wrong. But – just to check.
“Me?” Nightingale looked towards the back door. “No need to worry about me. I do believe I’m going to take Toby for a nice long walk.”