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all our plans are useless indeed

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Thomas learnt to shave without a mirror back in the war, and he’s never really fallen out of the habit: he finds no profit in looking at himself.

But there are trickier bits—the delicate skin by the nostrils, the oddness of letting a blade stroke across one’s throat. For those he allows himself glimpses, just enough to remember that it’s his hand holding the knife, shakier than it once was but still steady enough.

It’s 1974. There are three new brown hairs in amongst the white, and Thomas doesn’t know what’s happening.

*

When he was young, the world was full of magic. His parents had sent him off to Casterbrook twelve days after his eleventh birthday, his father driving him there in the new family Rover 12 at what seemed then like excessively adventurous speeds. Uncle Stanley had gone, of course, and Great-Uncle Jonathan and Cousin Matthew before him; Thomas had been looking forward to it for months, having japes with the other boys and getting one over the Masters.

The first time he was shown a werelight was a revelation, and after that there was no stopping him. By the time he was sixteen, Thomas was the acknowledged leader of his year, ahead of everyone in almost everything: he couldn’t beat Mellenby in the sciences and didn’t have Turner’s hand with the Modern Greats, but that didn’t matter when he could blow his werelight through half a foot of solid pine.

It was a blow, of course, when Uncle George was killed at Ypres, but school went on regardless even though the Christmas hols were a little subdued that year and, after all, this was the war to end all wars. He amused his sisters on Boxing Day showing them the variation of impello Mellenby had invented just in time to terrify their Greek Master by bouncing pumpkins around the room on All Hallow’s Eve, and went back to school after New Year’s ready to excel for the rest of the Lower Sixth.

*

It wasn’t that Thomas had been afraid to clear out all the old rooms, exactly: he knew there was nothing to be afraid of up there. There just hadn’t seemed to be any point clearing out the detritus of a dozen dead men, not when there was nobody to replace them.

But the times are changing, and Molly and Peter have taken it upon themselves to get a few of the old spots ready for what Peter swears will be an influx of sensible young men and women prepared to swear to protect Queen and country and also, incidentally, to learn some magic.

One day, not long after this exercise has officially begun with the arrival of a white van belonging to Mrs Grant’s second cousin, the innards of which had expelled three industrial vacuum cleaners and a mop Mrs Grant had passed instantly to Peter, there is a phonograph in the upper sitting room, right next to a sturdy armchair which holds the rather frail figure of Mr Grant, flipping through a pile of jazz records.

“Where did you get those?” Thomas inquires. It takes a moment, but he recognises the sigil drawn on the top right corner of each album cover as being the work of James Turner, an avid jazz fan when it was still playing in the fastest clubs.

Mr Grant barely looks up. “These are mint,” he says. “The needle on the player’s in good nick, too; I’ve given it a good clean.”

“They belonged to a friend of mine,” Thomas finds himself replying. “He was—devoted to them, until they went missing.”

“Peter found them in one of the wardrobes upstairs,” Mr Grant says. “Underneath old blankets, he said.”

Thomas wonders which room, exactly, and then realises that it can’t possibly matter, ninety years later—and, worse, he can’t quite remember who used to live where—an unsolvable mystery. He sits down in another armchair, lately reupholstered by yet another relative of Peter’s, and gestures until Mr Grant hands over his pile.

*

The years straight after the war—that first decade, really—can only be described as awful. For a long time it feels like magic is seeping out of the world, through the cracks brought into it by Ettersberg; instead of the dawning wonder of his youth, there is just the inevitable slide through middle age towards death and oblivion.

If any of his friends had survived the war, he wouldn’t be this melodramatic; Thomas can almost hear David Mellenby, telling him to stop bloody worrying and have another drink. But the only people who come to the Folly these days are old soldiers coming to turn in their staves, reluctant but resolute, and the odd member of the demi-monde, knocking on the kitchen door to speak with Molly.

She still won’t go outdoors, and she’s closed up the top two floors, ordering in some monumental amount of heavy canvas to throw over everything. Thomas’s life is contained in the libraries, one of the smaller sitting rooms, his bedroom, and the dining room Molly insists on serving meals in. He still has his work, of course, though less and less of it these days—and with nobody to assist, and no signs of trouble apart from the odd schoolboy cantrip of the sort that used to see Casterbrook students sent down from Oxford, Thomas finds himself with rather too much time on his hands.

London is changing. The London of his boyhood is, of course, long gone, and has been since Franz Ferdinand got shot and an entire generation of young men were sent off to die. Thomas was out of the country through its final death knells, travelling through Europe’s version of the Great Depression, hearing of people starving in foreign lands while back home they were restricting working hours for children and trying to clear the worst of the slums.

Now the London of his youth is almost gone too. It’s not just the death of almost everyone Thomas worked with, and the removal to the country of all the rest; it’s that jazz itself is changing. It used to be the rattle of the trains and the whisper of skirts over nylons, the music of nightclubs and dancing, raucous and alive. Now it seems to have declined into the music of intellectuals, sober young men sitting in smoky clubs, wearing berets and nodding approvingly at the slow, mournful notes of a trumpet. Thomas has never worn a beret in his life.

In the winter of 1952, Thomas leaves London, along with everyone else who possibly can, and when he comes back there’s an odd feeling in the air, like the bottom note of a song Thomas hasn’t heard yet. As always, the Thames is moody-grey with brown streaks when Thomas walks past it; he doesn’t blame the Old Man for moving upstream, even if some of the Masters at school had claimed his leaving made the city colder, a little less alive.

Scotland Yard has nothing doing; the hints of certain German books coming onto the open market are, according to the relevant authorities, a civil matter unless Thomas can provide evidence that the goods were stolen in a jurisdiction other than post-War West Germany. In decades past, the Folly wouldn’t have been in the least concerned about the official line in determining whether to investigate a magical matter, but things are different now. They send him off to look at what turns out to be a nest of vampires in Twickenham, and turn a blind eye to his very brief and patently false excuse involving newly-installed gas lines and sad tragedies all around, though a Superintendent does mention that he might want to find some allies in the London Fire Brigade, in case of future need.

Thomas does make a friend, of sorts, in a Chief Superintendant named Carleton who had an uncle who went to Casterbrook. Thomas doesn’t have any distinct memories of the man, beyond his terrified face walking through the corridors of a German facility and, later, a shot of rum after his death, but it’s enough of a connection that Thomas feels confident that a suitable arrangement has been made that should see the Folly through the next few years.

*

The last time Thomas dances is in a West End hall with the younger sister of Charles Daventry. Daventry is a member of the Folly’s latest batch of recruits, and Thomas had ended up in a West End dance hall at the age of 41 only because nobody had trusted their bunch of young handsome wizards with the somewhat heady combination of wine, women, and song. Isadora had snuck out, she confessed, quite without Mother’s knowledge or approval, and would be in dreadful trouble if she got caught, but she’d so wanted to catch up with Charlie—she’d heard he was going overseas soon.

Thomas, in his dress uniform and gazing down at a peerless example of 19-year-old English beauty, wonders if young Charles has been speaking out of turn. It must show on his face, because Isadora raises one of her perfectly-arched eyebrows. “We are at war, Captain.”

“It’s a dreadful thing,” Thomas replies—many men would have tried for something more sophisticated, but Thomas has never been one for the ladies, and he rather suspects it comes out faintly patronising instead.

She gazes up at him, considering. “It is, isn’t it? Shall we talk of nicer things?”

They do, until the music gets fast and loud enough that there’s no room for talking in amongst the swirling skirts and stomping feet; Isadora does manage to tell him that he’s a lovely dancer, though, just before he hands her over to a young and faintly spotty sailor.

The imminent threat of an air raid warning casts less of a pall on the event than anyone would have suspected just three years ago, but familiarity breeds contempt after all, and it’s a lively crowd of young wizards who follow Thomas out of the hall when the music stops.

Isadora wasn’t wrong: they head over the Channel nine days later, and young Charlie Daventry is dead by spring.

*

In 1957, the dam breaks, and a wave of spice and enthusiasm slides up the estuary, filtering through the streets along with the new waves of music coming from across the Atlantic and the new fashion for ladies’ trousers. Thomas is acutely aware that it is the sole responsibility of the head of the Folly to introduce himself to any new major powers that might make their way to London, and equally aware that, in a more just world, he never would have held that role.

He drives over on a sunny afternoon to introduce himself, bottle of London Dry and bouquet of carnations beside him in the Rover, and leaves some five hours later convinced that, if nothing else, Mama Thames is at least as passionate about the fate of the city as any other being Thomas knows.

“A strong-willed, determined lady,” he describes her to Hugh two days later. “I rather like her, I think.”

*

1985 is, in some distinctly odd ways, very similar to Thomas’s memories of the forties. The women are all wearing suits just as sharp-cornered as the men, and everybody strides around London with a sense of purpose, even if now it’s more about making money and less about impending, terrifying occupation and death. Equally, men have gone back to being terrified to fuck each other—the news from America is dreadful—and if they’re more open about that than they ever were in Thomas’s day, who can blame them? Thomas has seen a hundred truly terrible deaths and thousands of unpleasant ones, and he’s never thought that who you like to fuck should play the smallest of parts in that.

If he were a younger man, perhaps this would have happened to him too, or maybe not: the sexual revolutions of the past two decades have permitted many things not contemplated by Captain Majoribanks, who had yelled at his unit for some twenty minutes each month about the virtues inherent in wearing French letters inside at all times. At any rate, he envies the young men their openness, if not their anguish, and at the same time feels far too old for it all.

Mama Thames’ oldest is up at Oxford now, competing with young men of the sort Thomas once was. He wishes her well: she’s a strong young woman.

In the autumn Thomas feels a certain stirring he hasn’t felt in almost twenty years, and in the morning he sets fire to his sheets in an embarrassing and unreasonable fit of distemper caused by the thought of Molly discovering the stains. It is a small comfort that the Folly has never installed smoke alarms.

*

The Folly doesn’t get many unscheduled phone calls, which is why it is a surprise on a grey, windy morning in the March of 1959 when Molly fetches him from the breakfast table and shepherds him to the telephone.

There’s a young sergeant stuttering on the line. Thomas does not usually entertain phone conversations with young sergeants: he is, despite everything, rather too far up the chain of command for that.

But, as it turns out, anyone senior enough to know of the Folly is busy with other things, and it is a group of young constables and the stuttering sergeant who greet Thomas at the door of a block of late-Victorian artists’ studios that have been recently converted into flats. “There’s something in the cellars,” the sergeant explains.

“How did you know how to contact me?” Thomas asks. He’s genuinely curious: the Metropolitan Police’s policy of keeping the inhabitants of London unaware of magic, magical policing, the demi monde, genii locorum, and the Folly is firm, strong, and absolute, and goes far enough to include the vast majority of uniformed officers. These young people should have no idea who he is.

A young WPC flushes. “My uncle used to—er—he died in the War,” she says, somewhat incoherently, and he realises he recognises the sweep of her jaw. “Frank Wilmington?” he asks.

She nods, and a fragment of old memory comes to the forefront of Thomas’s mind. “You’re Stephen’s daughter?”

“I’m Grace,” she says, nodding again. “Uncle Frank used to tell me stories, when I was very small, and I thought—there are noises down there, and we can’t work out where they’re coming from.”

“I’ll take a look,” Thomas says. He’s not expecting much: young people are inclined to melodrama, in Thomas’s experience.

As it turns out, Grace was not wrong. There are a range of sounds emanating from the walls of the cellars: the creak of timber and the tumbling, nasal rhythm of a fairground organ, the bark of dogs, and the roar of a bear. The vestigia is the strongest Thomas has felt in some time, a cacophony of light and sound, with an undercurrent of animal faeces and the pounding of children’s bare feet running through it all.

Thomas goes upstairs. The constables and sergeant are waiting, looking fairly bored. “What exactly did you get called here for?” he asks.

“Reports of a disturbance,” the sergeant says. “Mrs Duncan—she lives on the first floor—has been hearing noises all week, and she thought it might be squatters.”

“It’s not squatters,” Thomas says with conviction. “This is a matter for my unit.”

The sergeant blanches, and Thomas wonders what Grace Wilmington has been telling her colleagues, exactly. “We’re ready to give any assistance,” he says.

“That won’t be necessary,” Thomas says. “This may take some time, and is rather specialist in nature. If you have any notes from your interviews with residents, you may forward them to the Belgravia station.”

Two of the constables give audibly relieved sighs. “We’ll be off, then,” the sergeant says, and they head off towards their motorcar.

Thomas squares his shoulders and walks back towards the building.

The ghost of a circusman named Paul Martin is waiting for him. “Alright there, gov?” he asks, stepping out of the brickwork in worn trousers and a moth-eaten shirt.

“What brings you here?” Thomas asks.

Martin shrugs. “My bear,” he says, which is no explanation at all until, with a loud roar and the rattling of chains, a rather scrawny and underfed black bear falls out of the wall behind Thomas and pins him against a beam in a gust of rancid breath and the stab of phantom claws.

“Bear-baiting is illegal within London,” Thomas finds himself saying faintly, and Jones shrugs again with the unconcern many Londoners possess when not distinctly outnumbered by members of law enforcement.

“What are you going to do about it, then?”

*

Peter’s first two thousand nights in the Folly come with a lot of changes to Thomas’s routine, not least of which is that Thomas finds himself sometimes, reluctantly, travelling in Peter’s terrible orange vehicle, which spends the rest of the time sitting in the garage next to the Jaguar like a wart upon the face of the earth.

Thomas has never considered himself to be mechanically-minded, and although he freely admits to preferring beauty when he can find it, he’s never before stopped to think about just how uncomfortable he finds most modes of transportation. The Jaguar is both pleasing to look at and delightfully comfortable, not just during ordinary travel around London but also on longer trips to the Home Counties. Peter’s vehicle has none of those attributes.

“I hate this car,” Thomas says, as firmly as he can, while a bloody remix of Fred Astaire plays on the radio. He’s stuffed in the back seat, bleeding from at least a dozen places and feeling as though his head has been tenderly placed in a vice which was then tightened at great speed and without the smallest regard for comfort.

“I’m driving as fast as I can!” Peter says. “Come on, mate,” he shouts at a man in a white van, and then reaches over to haul the temporary blue lights out of the dashboard compartment and, one-handed, affix them to the roof of the car while approaching a roundabout at great speed. Thomas squawks, and Peter must press his foot to the floor because, impossibly, they get faster and manage to squeeze in between an 8-axle lorry and someone’s bright blue Mini, which tilts alarmingly to let them through and then settles back down with a thump.

“A novel use of impello,” Thomas says, and then faints.

*

In the spring of 1918, two things happen: Thomas finishes school and starts preparing for Oxford, and Cousin Matthew returns home from the infirmary after Passchendaele. Thomas had been looking forward to seeing Matthew—8 years older, he’d always been very kind to his younger cousins, and had even told Thomas some of the Casterbrook secrets before Thomas had gone away to school, in open defiance of long-standing protocol.

It’s not nearly as fun as Thomas had expected, though. He’d known, of course, that Matthew had returned to England with torn-up legs and suffering from shell-shock: his mother had written to him at school to tell him so. He’d known, also, that Matthew had been dreadfully upset to see his staff when Great-Uncle Jonathan had taken it to him at the hospital. But it was still a shock to see Matthew limping along with a cane someone had fetched down from the attics, looking horribly thin and not even laughing at the antics of Jester, the family’s elderly poodle.

Matthew has with him a man from his unit named Jones, who was not at all the sort of person anyone of good family would have dreamed of associating with before the war. Thomas doesn’t think of himself as a snob, but this Jones fellow is terribly gauche, barely knowing to stand at dinner for the ladies, and utterly ignorant of the normal order of things in a country house.

Matthew seems devoted to him, though, and for that alone Aunt Alice is willing to forgive any number of faux pas at table; besides, Jones only has one leg, now, the other according to him left to rot in a Belgian field. Great-Aunt Gladys had gasped and fainted when he’d said so, right as they were taking afternoon tea, but Jones hadn’t so much as blushed and Matthew had snapped, “Stephen’s right, it’s useless to pretend the war wasn’t bloody and vicious.”

The argument that breaks out is so loud and upsetting that Thomas sneaks out and upstairs to the nursery, feeling terribly, terribly young.

*

Thomas’s back and knees creak alarmingly when he gets out of bed these days. He’s still an early riser, up with the birds, but it’s getting more and more tempting to stay in bed where it’s warm and comfortable, to perhaps hint to Molly that she could bring him breakfast on a tray and he could rise afterwards, perhaps even start work at a later hour.

He doesn’t. He is the last wizard of London and he doesn’t know what will happen when he dies.

Belgravia Station has become over the decades a familiar place, with familiar faces, even if the constables seem almost in their infancy and the sergeants barely old enough for school. He’s there today in his favourite tweed suit, cut in a decidedly-unfashionable straight leg that is at odds with the dress trousers worn by all the detectives, trying to explain to an unimpressed WPC that it is in no way a good idea for her to accompany him to the docks to talk to the suspects.

“And why not?” she demands, glaring up at him under a crown of tight red curls. “I’m as good as anyone else here!”

The problem with being the last wizard of London, and almost in his dotage to boot, is that the institutional knowledge of his unit has been largely lost as the decades have passed, and the institutional line from the Chief Superintendent himself, no less, is that magical persons and their criminally enforceable actions exist on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Thus Thomas is unable to explain to Caroline Trombley, lately of Belfast, why she should stay at Belgravia Station, where she is only in danger from ordinary criminals and their occasional bombs, rather than come with him to the Isle of Dogs to chase down what Thomas very much suspects is a kind of lupine creature of the deep. “I don’t even know why you’re going there,” she adds. “It’s not in our area.”

“I work across the city,” Thomas explains. “I’m only based here due to long-standing tradition and convenience.”

PC Trombley shakes her head. “That makes no sense.”

“I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you,” Thomas retorts, not sounding even remotely sincere, before putting his hat back on and leaving. One of the only joys of this decade is his car, and it’s getting slightly uncomfortable to fold himself into it.

*

In November of 1944, Thomas finds himself riding his BMW R-71 motorcycle through the forest south of Frankfurt. It’s cold and supplies have been scarce for some time now; Thomas’s last pair of socks developed a hole in the heel a week ago, and the convoy with the food is running several hours behind schedule.

They’ve been camping rough in the main, just throwing up bivouacs with magic and hope rather than attempting to find enough flat ground for one of the proper tents. The only thing Thomas has insisted upon each night is finding a safe place for the lav, away from any possible contamination of the water supply.

They stop an hour before dusk, to give themselves time to set up for the night before full darkness. There are no signs of German soldiers anywhere they’ve been, or at least not recently, just the odd remnant of long-dead fires and a few corpses scattered around in various stages of decay. Thomas and David are the only Folly members travelling in this particular group, made up otherwise of magicians from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, plus 4 members of the ordinary British Army who have been read into this mission after impressing the Home Office somehow.

“Time to stop for the night,” David shouts. The forest here is strange and forbidding, with very little undergrowth and tall, tall trees that loom. It’s made camping much more difficult but at least kept their lines of sight clear, and Thomas thinks it could be worse—or better—or he could be anywhere but here, but that is not a thought to confess to anyone until this damnable war ends, and perhaps not even then.

“Agreed,” Thomas yells back, his voice knocking off branches and fading, and he drives on for only a hundred or so yards before turning off the engine and propping the motorcycle against an ancient pine.

The others are all stopped or in the process of stopping, unstrapping various bags from their heavily-laden bikes and unrolling strips of oilskin to begin putting up shelter for the night. They’ll all sleep head-to-toe in a row, huddled together against winter in their heavy jackets and the few blankets they’re managing to travel with. It’s too dangerous to light a fire for long, even if it were easy to find suitable wood amongst the snow, but Thomas is a wizard and they have other ways.

Thomas and David had yelled at each other for forty minutes solid six nights ago, when they’d first entered the forest and David had suggested they put up one of the big canvas tents and block the passage of air through the walls and roof for the night. The fight had ended, forty minutes later, when Thomas had stated acidly that, despite David’s many and varied noble experiments back in London, he did not quite feel up to suffocating to death on this night. David had been unable to reply.

What they ended up doing on that night, and every night since, is clearing a patch of ground down to the bare dirt, laying down canvas, pinning up makeshift walls and a roof, and then making the lot impervious to gas - but carefully leaving enough gaps to promote air circulation and thus ensure survival. Thomas calls a bunch of stones up from the ground and heats them as a source of warmth, and the whole lot of them pile in to eat cold beans from the tin and maybe play a game of cards or two if it’s quiet enough to risk lighting a lantern.

Thomas has gotten to a point where he can sleep almost anywhere, having even managed once in July to sleep underneath his motorcycle following three days and two nights of constant travel. In the morning, they manage rough ablutions and put together the last of the coffee with some hastily-boiled water—another one of David’s wartime innovations—before heading off deeper into the forest. It seems like it will last forever, these short, cold days and colder nights without sign of other living humans, but Thomas knows it won’t; and he suspects that what they’ll find as they move across Germany is worse, going by all recent intel.

*

Miriam Stephanopoulos enters the London Metropolitan police force, people say, as a way of getting revenge for the way she was treated when protesting alongside the miners as a young teenager. She’s openly lesbian, refuses to wear skirts even as part of her dress uniform, and has close-cropped hair worn flat on the top.

Thomas likes her from the moment they meet. She reminds him of a dear friend of his, long-dead: an Italian woman named Giovanna Bruno who took him to certain nightclubs for people of their persuasion, and who had died in 1943 in a knifefight on the streets of Rome, after alleging that the local soldiers were all the results of their mothers copulating with mountain goats.

PC Stephanopoulos is young and brash, the kind of brashness that speaks of having spent her entire life thus far fighting to get where she wants to be. Thomas can’t relate, and doesn’t even try, but is careful to treat her the way he would have treated a senior apprentice, back before the war.

“What the fuck is this?” she demands, staring down at the corpse. It has a gash on its abdomen, consistent with large claws, and has been dead for several days. More concerningly, it is obviously non-human—and, yet, dressed in acidwashed jeans and a printed tee-shirt, with a wallet full of banknotes and several reward cards for various coffeeshop chains.

“Some sort of prosthetic makeup, I suspect,” says Thomas, lying through his teeth. “I think, however, that certain features of this case fall within the remit of my unit, which means that I shall escort the body back to our specialist personnel.”

Stephanopoulos purses her mouth. “That doesn’t look like any prosthetics I’ve seen,” she says.

“Well, you know, modern technology is moving at a very fast rate,” Thomas replies.

She glares at him. “With respect, sir, that’s bullshit,” she says—and that fire in her eyes, that passion, is what the Masters always said they looked for in an apprentice before anything else.

He looks between her and the unfortunate John Doe. “Do you want to know?” he asks, careful.

She goes still. “No,” she says eventually, and if she regrets it later he never finds out.

*

It’s not until he’s been at Harewood for over a fortnight that Thomas is ready to listen to how David died. He’s thus far refused to talk to any of the Army psychologists about his walk through Germany back to the English Army, and he cannot, of course, speak to them of Ettersberg itself, even if he wanted to. Some things are best left to scream inside his mind.

Harewood is perfectly pleasant, as far as convalescent hospitals go, located just north of Leeds in the middle of cultivated woodland and a man-made fish pond of ancient provenance. The other patients are, to a man, perfectly pleasant, though some of them cry out in the night and there are an unsettling number of deaths. The doctors and nurses are all perfectly pleasant and, since the wounds on his feet have healed, he has very little to do with them aside from instructions on how not to abuse his lithium prescription.

It is almost midsummer, and the doctors say Thomas will be ready to return home by the time the leaves start falling. He doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be returning to: his sisters are long-since married and his older brother has had the house for almost a decade, having managed to produce four hopeful sons and an equal number of pretty daughters. London has been his home, as much as he has a home, for a very long time; and before that, it was school. But the school will have to close, that much is obvious: all of the current Masters are dead, and the few remaining old men living in rural idyll aren’t up to teaching any more, having retired for good reason.

Thomas is finding it very difficult to leave his bed. The young nurses are all very pretty and good at cajoling wounded soldiers to sit outside in the sunlit ornamental gardens, now planted with kitchen vegetables and the occasional nasturtium to keep away the slugs. It’s unfortunate that Thomas has never been very responsive to pretty young women, not in the way that other men are, and after a few days spent sulking in his own sweat he lets them persuade him outside. It is there that a psychologist sits down beside him and carefully explains how David had managed to escape on the ninth night, how he’d stolen a car and driven back to London to lock himself in his lab with a service revolver. Thomas turns his head and refuses to hear any more.

The house has rather strong vestigia, string music and female laughter, with a forward note of a sick man moaning. It’s not odd, considering that the house was where several of the older Folly wizards had spent several months during the Great War, and that’s the first comfort Thomas finds back on English soil, the knowledge that there is no mystery to solve, no crime to investigate, only ghosts to put to rest: and that’s long been his specialty.

After nearly two months, Thomas finds it in himself to put on sturdy walking shoes and a pair of his pre-war trousers sent to him by his sister Gladys, now slightly too loose but comfortable all the same, and walk over to the Wharfe. He’s greeted there by an old man in a good woollen suit of a style not fashionable since Thomas’s grandfather’s day.

“Good day, young wizard,” Wharfe says.

Thomas bows slightly. “Good day to you, sir.”

“You’re not from these parts,” Wharfe adds. “I’d know you, otherwise.”

Thomas nods agreeably. “I’ve been travelling for a long time, but mostly I live in London.”

“It’s very good of you to come and pay your respects,” Wharfe says. “I haven’t seen many of your kind lately.”

Thomas finds himself unable to speak.

“Of course, there have been many sad losses, I hear,” Wharfe continues. “But fear not, young man, you’ll recover given enough time—you always have.”

Thomas leaves the river with a whittling knife and a length of willow given to him by Wharfe himself, and it feels good to be following the instructions of the medical staff to the letter for once, to find a hobby so as to keep away the malaise that too many former soldiers find themselves immersed in.

*

The phonograph disappears from the upper sitting room in the summer of 1929. Turner’s the only one truly distressed by it: his Beiderbecke collection has gone walkabouts with it. The rest of the chaps are entirely sick of “I’m Coming, Virginia” and would just as rather never hear “Davenport Blues” again, though there’s no telling that to Turner, who has a girl who loves to dance, and who practices his steps in the corridors, tap tap tap, when walking upstairs to dress for dinner.

Thomas is nearly 30 and, aside from a few furtive fucks with handsome and charming actors in the backstages of the West End, it’s been nothing but work for him: Thursday meetings at the Yard surrounded by men all of whom would almost certainly arrest him if they knew of his proclivities. Thomas keeps thinking of his Cousin Matthew, who had come back from the war solemn as anything and incredibly devoted to a one-legged bombardier named Jones. Cousin Matthew had acquired a cottage in Kent and moved there with Jones in 1921; Thomas goes down there for a fortnight each year in April. Matthew had, before the war, been Thomas’s very favourite cousin—10 years older and handsome enough for the pictures—but since then he only really speaks when spoken to. Jones is the only person, as far as Thomas knows, who’s been able to get Matthew to do so much as smile.

But it’s July in London, as hot as anything in the Folly even with the windows thrown wide open and Thomas without his shirt collar and necktie, and the upper sitting room is silent except for the rustling of papers and the rhythmic tick of the clock.

And Turner, of course, in something of a minor rage. “Which bloody one of it was you?” he demands, irate in spats and waistcoat. “I left my latest Bechet recording right next to it, and I promised Mary I’d play it for her when next she visited.”

There’s a cough from behind yesterday’s copy of the Times. “May I remind you gentlemen that ladies are only permitted in this establishment from the hours of 2 until 4 in the afternoon?” Of course it’s old Dalrymple, as ancient as London itself and starched as anything.

“Er, of course,” Turner replies. “But, er, I’d hoped to familiarise myself with the recording before I played it for Miss Greaves, sir.”

“Hmmph,” Dalrymple says. “You’d be better off finishing your paperwork for the Holyhead matter.”

“Yes, sir,” Turner agrees, and the missing phonograph is quite forgotten.

*

Thomas wakes up in hospital to find Peter slumped in a chair, fast asleep and faintly snoring. The apprentices are there too, all five of them, and from the table comes the distinctly pleasing scent of Mrs Grant’s cooking. “Sir! You’re awake!” Ryu says, and Peter lets out a loud huff and opens his eyes.”

Thomas manages to raise an eyebrow in inquiry. “It’s been three days,” Peter explains. “Abdul had expected you to wake up yesterday. He’s at the morgue today with Jennifer.”

“You found them, then?” Thomas asks.

Peter nods. “In a warehouse near the Isle of Dogs. More of them than we expected, to be honest, but Ted managed a really decent fireball and that got most of their attention long enough for us to go in with the arsenal.”

“Good work,” Thomas says, nodding at Constable Wilmington, a fresh-faced young man just out of Hendon. Wilmington is their latest apprentice, the only one of the batch to have any familial history of English magic, and is shaping up to be a very solid wizard, if uninventive. Thomas has rather grown accustomed to Peter’s style of magic, both in terms of learning and teaching others; he can’t imagine going back to the style of Casterbrook Masters, a room full of boys all shouting in Latin at once.

“Thanks, sir,” Wilmington says, flushing. “I’m glad you’re awake.” The others nod and murmur similar good wishes, and Peter stands up.

“Right, you lot,” Peter says. “Head back to the Folly and work on your Latin for the rest of the day; you can spend half an hour down in the training rooms, but no longer. The Inspector and I need to talk.”

Their footsteps are still fading down the hallway when Peter leans over him, face just inches away. “You almost died this time, Thomas,” he says.

Thomas isn’t surprised to hear it. “It was close,” he concedes.

“You need to be more careful,” Peter demands. “I’m not ready to train the kids alone.”

Thomas is surprised into a laugh. It doesn’t even make his ribs hurt excessively, which lifts his spirits enough to lean up a little and kiss Peter.

Peter kisses back, familiar and solid, just for long enough to count and then stands up, sighing. “I really do need to talk to you. Some of the things down there—it’s definitely Leslie’s work, but there was signare I didn’t recognise.”

“Well, I’m sure I’ll be back on my feet very shortly, and she does keep leaving hints about.”

“Yeah, I don’t like that either,” Peter says grimly.

Thomas quite agrees, but despite Leslie May and her errant adventures with unethical magic, Thomas’s 40s are turning out to be substantially better the second time around.