The Council building didn't hold many good memories for Ned. He'd been there twice before, once for an interrogation and once for imprisonment and a trial; the fact that he'd been released shortly afterwards in both cases couldn't quite reconcile him to the place. So he forgave himself the knot in his stomach as he prepared to enter the building again, this time not as a suspect but as a student. It didn't help that he'd come to the building to learn magic when he'd always been content to leave it well enough alone--but there was no escaping that now.
He took a steadying breath and walked through the front door. Crispin had promised to meet him and show him about before Ned's meeting with Mrs. Gold...and there he was already, standing in conversation with Janossi.
Ned paused, unsure if he ought to interrupt them or wait. The two of them spotted him just then, however, and they approached Ned together. "Good morning, Mr. Hall," Janossi said with a perfunctory smile. "Are you ready for your first official job as a justiciar?"
Ned blinked. That was a lot faster than he'd expected. He sincerely hoped that his first official job involved fewer dead people than his previous run-ins with magic. "Good morning. I'm scheduled to meet with Mrs. Gold in half an hour," he said, rather than give an (untruthful) yes or a (cowardly) no.
"She's the one who gave us this assignment. It shouldn't take long. We just have to persuade the police to release Mr. Johnson, the rag and bottle man accused of strangling his wife. The two of you are coming mostly so that you can be introduced to the Chief Inspector as our new junior justiciars."
Crispin gave Ned a quick grin, looking half-proud and half-nervous at their errand. Ned wished for a moment that they were home so he could give Crispin a hug and a reassuring word. But they weren't, so Ned let his eyes do the talking for him, before giving Janossi a nod and an "All right."
Janossi hailed a hackney for the three of them and proceeded to spend the entire ride detailing the Council's current ill relationship with the police. Ned had already been inclined to unease at being introduced to the peelers as the Council's only black justiciar. Knowing that the peelers were disposed at the moment to hate all justiciars was not a comfort.
"We're doing what we can to mend fences," Janossi concluded as they drew up in front of the Metropolitan police station. "But we're not quite there yet. Let's all do our best, shall we?"
"Of course," Crispin said, echoed quickly by Ned.
After that encouraging introduction, the meeting went...better than Ned had expected. It didn't go what he would call well. But it wasn't a flaming disaster, either.
Chief Inspector Bennett shook hands politely enough when Janossi presented Crispin and Ned to him; he listened in increasingly wooden silence as Janossi explained the truth of Mrs. Johnson's death; and he wrote out Johnson's release immediately, on the grounds that the real murderer had been discovered and subsequently killed committing an almost identical crime. All true as far as it went, so long as you didn't concern yourself with the fact that there had been two murderers, and one of them had been dead already when Crispin destroyed him for good.
Then he fixed Janossi with a steely eye. "I've changed my mind. I want two of my men on each of your teams."
Janossi shook his head. "I wasn't aware we'd even agreed to half that number. To my understanding, the Council has approved your sending a single liaison officer--as a semi-permanent and fully trained attachment to the justiciary this time rather than as the occasional police backup--who would alternate which team he was assigned to."
"That was the proposal," Bennett said. "But it won't work. I can't just trust to blind faith when it comes to letting suspected murderers go."
Ned thought, but didn't dream of saying, that Bennett had been awfully quick to release Johnson if that was how he felt. A glance at Crispin's face suggested that Crispin was thinking the same thing.
But Bennett continued, "This case never sat right by me. We'd never have been called in at all if Johnson himself hadn't demanded the police investigate his wife's death. She wasn't scratched or bruised about the throat or mouth as you might expect. The only sign of what killed her was some hemorrhaging in her eyes that the coroner spotted with a magnifying glass, when we asked him to check the body thoroughly.
"So I'm happy enough to hear that Johnson is innocent, but that doesn't mean you can just run rough-shod over any murder investigation you please and dictate your terms. Two policemen on each of your teams. If they can't compel you to follow law and order, at least they can report back to me faithfully."
This time, Ned didn't even chance a look at Crispin. Assigning two peelers to each justiciary team meant nothing when their memories could be stolen anytime the Council chose. But perhaps they wouldn't. Crispin could be trusted, and Ned couldn't do magic at all, and Mrs. Gold was terrifying but in a very upright sort of way. Perhaps the policemen would be treated right. Though Ned planned to keep his own eyes and ears open, regardless, and slip the Chief Inspector a quiet word if events proved otherwise. Ned hadn't an overburden of love for the police, but he liked the idea of memory-stealing magic even less.
"I'll pass your request on to the Council," Janossi said, which seemed to signal an end to the meeting. Bennett stood up, there was another quick round of handshakes, and Janossi led Ned and Crispin out.
They were silent until they reached the street, and then Janossi let out a deep sigh. "Well. That'll make a hard job even harder, if the Council accepts his proposal: each team having to watch over two non-practitioners in the field. There's no denying he has the moral high ground after recent events, though." He shook his head. "In any case, well done, both of you." Which was a bit much, considering the sum total of their efforts had been to sit, stand, and shake hands on command. "You'll be almost on time for your meeting after all, Mr. Hall."
"Hold up," Ned said. "What about Mrs. Reed?"
Crispin's eyes widened and he gave a quick nod. Janossi frowned and asked, "Who's Mrs. Reed?" and Ned shoved down his automatic sense of frustration. The justiciary might be a mess, but at least now it was part his to clean up.
"The widow of the rag'n'bottler who choked on dirt. She deserves to be told, too. The coppers tried to make her think that the poor man had killed himself!"
Janossi's eyes lit with understanding, but he said in a reasonable tone, "Are you certain she'd rather know that her husband was brutally murdered instead? The woman was never under any suspicion for his death, after all. It may be kinder to her not to dredge things up again."
It wasn't the most uncaring suggestion in the world, Ned told himself. Still, he recalled Mrs. Reed's angry, bewildered grief and shook his head. "I'm certain. She'd want to know."
"All right. In that case, this will be your first unsupervised job as justiciars." Janossi glanced at his pocketwatch. "I'll let Mrs. Gold know to expect you after lunch, Mr. Hall."
And with a brief exchange of pleasantries, and another cab for Janossi, who apparently had lost the use of his legs, Crispin and Ned were on their own.
"Do you remember where Mrs. Reed lives?" Crispin asked.
Ned nodded. "She's on Bedfordbury." He took a moment to orient himself and then said, "This way. Come along."
He made them stop along the way to buy some hot meat pies--both because Crispin was always hungry and because Ned didn't know how much of an appetite he'd have after talking to Mrs. Reed--and they chatted lightly as they walked about anything and everything so long as it didn't involve widowed spouses, dead murderers, or magic.
Mrs. Reed recognized Ned the moment he stepped into her shop, he could see by her eyes, and she drew herself up more tightly. She suspected he had news for her, and under the circumstances, all news was bad news.
There was no point in putting it off. The faster he told her, the faster she could start coming to terms with it. "Mrs. Reed, I don't know if you remember my name. I'm Ned Hall, and this is my friend Crispin Tredarloe. We wanted to tell you something about your husband."
She bit her lip and nodded, then said, "Go ahead and latch the door. Anyone needing to buy something can wait a bit."
There was the necessary ritual of tea-making, and when they'd all sat down together, Ned said, "You already told me as how your husband couldn't have killed himself, and you're right. The truth is--and I'm so sorry to tell you this, missus--but your husband was murdered."
"Murdered?" Mrs. Reed's face trembled with emotion. "But the door was locked and bolted."
"It was, I know. But there was yet another rag'n'bottler who came to harm, not the friend I mentioned last time. A Mrs. Johnson on Paternoster Street; did you hear of that?"
Mrs. Reed shook her head.
"Well, her door was locked, too. The peelers thought at first that her husband had strangled her, but then they discovered it was another man entirely. They caught him in the act a couple days ago, and in the ruckus he was killed."
"Caught him in the act? So he was trying to kill a fourth rag'n'bottler? Why on earth would anyone do such a thing? Was he mad?"
"Very likely, missus," Ned said evasively, wishing now that he and Crispin had talked a little more about Mrs. Reed during their walk. He'd gathered that Crispin had revealed far more than he ought to about the Council and magic on their first meeting, but he still wasn't sure what was safe to say now and what wasn't.
A glance at Crispin was no help; he only looked somewhat desperately back at Ned. His fingers twitched next to his pocket, where Ned knew he carried a pencil and paper.
"And how did he get into my house?" There was a note of hysteria in her voice, and Ned couldn't blame her. He wouldn't be resting too easy himself if he thought a madman had waltzed past a bolted door to murder his husband and then waltzed back out without leaving a trace.
Apparently Crispin agreed. He took out his pencil and paper and said, "It's not as bad as you think, ma'am. Here, let me show you."
Mrs. Reed leaned in, her forehead wrinkling in confusion as Crispin's pencil danced over the paper in strange patterns, and then Crispin put down the pencil and took her hand. "Listen to me. The door was locked but unbolted when you went downstairs the morning after your husband was killed. The murderer must've used lockpicks to let himself in, and then locked the door behind himself to throw the police off his trail. You've nothing to fear as long as you keep bolting your door at night just as you've always done."
He let go of Mrs. Reed's hand, and she blinked dazedly for a few moments. Then she said, "And he's dead now? The murderer, I mean."
"Yes, missus," Ned said, suppressing a shudder at the memory of Dr. Sweet drowning on dry land. "He's quite dead."
Quiet tears started leaking from Mrs. Reed's eyes, but all she said was, "I knew George wouldn't leave me like that. Not without telling me."
Ned and Crispin nodded respectful agreement. The three of them drank their tea in silence, and Mrs. Reed thanked them for stopping by, and they left.
"I think that may have been a harder job than killing John Kibble's ghost," Crispin said, his eyes shinier than usual.
Ned squeezed his shoulder and said, "Well, talking to Mrs. Reed wasn't likely to end with either of us dead or possessed. But I know what you mean."
"Still, it was a good job, wasn't it? I mean, it felt like the right thing to do."
"Be better if you hadn't had to use your what-do-you-call-it, fluence, to reassure her that she wasn't about to be murdered in her bed," Ned pointed out, and Crispin wilted visibly. Ned relented. "Though truthfully, Freckles, I don't see how else we could've explained it that wouldn't have been worse, and at least she knows more of the truth now than she did before we talked to her. Not bad for a pair of junior justiciars, I'd say."
Ned still wasn't wholly reconciled to the justiciary--much less to the Council or in fact to magic in general--but if hard work and determination could improve it, then he was ready and willing to do his part.