“I could swear you told me mythological creatures didn’t exist,” Sahra said, flattening herself against the side of the house out of sheer habit. She felt something fibrous and sticky crush under the sole of her shoe, distinctly different from the soft soil of the flower bed, and winced when she realised it was the stem of a now-decapitated tulip. The boss was very proud of her tulips.
“Define mythological,” said Peter, who was keeping a wary eye on the thing – she could only presume – around the corner. “None of the really weird stuff – no dragons. That anybody’s written down. Well, they did write it down, but they were still shaking out some of the medieval bestiary stuff back then, they didn’t have any evidence.”
“But unicorns,” Sahra pointed out; Beverley had told her all about that one, and then Dom Croft had told her all over again when he’d been in town for a conference and Peter had introduced them, with some truly hilarious illustrative gestures. “And now this.”
“We haven’t actually figured out what this is yet,” he said. “Let’s not presume without evidence.”
“It’s a basilisk, Peter!”
“It’s a cockatrice, we talked about this –”
“You can tell me again later,” she said, cutting him off; Peter’s enthusiasm to share interesting facts wasn’t fatally overpowering, but sometimes it got too close for comfort. “How are we going to fix it now?”
“Honestly,” he said, “the only time I’ve ever had to fight a cockatrice was playing – um, in a game. Because, you know, mythological.”
Sahra found it mildly baffling that someone who was an actual real-life wizard was embarrassed to admit to having spent his adolescence playing D&D, but some youthful habits were hard to break. She glanced behind her at the gate leading to the street. “Retreat and regroup?”
“You read my mind.”
It had started at the party at Bev’s place when Peter had passed his detective exams. He’d invited Sahra and Miriam – actually Bev had, but close enough – and Miriam had brought Rebecca, who had been more curious than she really should have been to meet the weirder set of Miriam’s colleagues.
“Boss,” Sahra had said in an undertone, “does she know about, you know…”
“She knows there’s something funny and she reads too much Terry Pratchett to not have ideas,” Miriam had said, “but not exactly.” She frowned. “There’s enough of this nonsense at work without bringing it home.”
“Fingers crossed everybody’s on their best behaviour then,” Sahra had said.
“Sahra!” Bev said, opening the door and giving her a hug. “And Inspector Stephanopoulos and your lovely wife.”
“This is Rebecca,” said Miriam, smiling; Rebecca had the entranced look people got when they first met Beverley or one of her sisters. Sahra remembered the feeling and wasn’t sure when it had stopped (more or less) happening to her; it probably helped that Peter had told her about the Rivers before she’d ever met any of them. She hadn’t believed him, exactly, and she still wouldn’t call them goddesses, but they could call themselves what they liked, and they were certainly…something. But Bev was a friend now, anyway.
“Beverley Brook,” said Bev, shaking Rebecca’s hand politely. “Come on in, we’re out the back; Peter’s taken over the barbeque and I couldn’t get him away with a crowbar.”
“It’s his party, I suppose he can do what he wants,” said Sahra, following Bev through the house.
“Beverley Brook?” said Rebecca. “Like the river?”
“I’m the goddess of Beverley Brook,” said Bev over her shoulder. “Didn’t anybody mention that?”
“Er. No,” said Rebecca, shooting Miriam some sort of look; Sahra ducked her head so the edge and folds of her hijab hid her own expression. “That sounds interesting.”
“Oh, it is,” said Bev cheerfully. Sahra could see Miriam carefully suppressing the urge to smack her own forehead in exasperation.
That – and the twenty minutes Rebecca, who taught science at a comprehensive, had spent talking to Peter’s cousin Abigail – was probably why, later in the day, she’d brought up the thing with the chickens to Peter.
“Your girlfriend told me she was the goddess of that river,” Rebecca said, pointing to the end of the garden where Beverley Brook flowed, apparently placidly.
“She did?” Peter glanced, slightly nervously, across to where Miriam was talking to his boss; good instincts. “I mean – yeah, that’s right.”
“Hmmmm,” said Rebecca, with a thoughtful frown. “So – what else?”
“What – oh,” said Peter. “It’s…complicated.”
“Is it classified?”
“No,” Peter and Sahra said at the same time.
“Has it ever been, though?” Sahra asked Peter, suddenly curious.
“Stuff,” he said. “During the War.” That was a habit he’d picked up from his boss, Sahra had noticed – the silent capital W. “But not, like, in general.”
“Oh, good,” said Rebecca, settling back into her chair; the party had stretched Bev’s outdoor furniture resources, clearly, because they’d brought all the dining chairs outside and Sahra was currently sitting in a camping chair that wobbled suspiciously if she leaned back on it. “Because I’ve got a question.”
“I’ve got a lot of questions,” said Peter, dryly, “but I’ll do my best on the answer part.”
Peter waited a beat. “That’s the question?”
“Yes or no answer, I would have thought.”
“Well, yeah, but you were talking to Abigail.”
“She was telling me about ghosts.”
“Seems unusually circumspect of her,” said Sahra.
“Abigail’s all about circumspect,” said Peter. “I think it comes from living in a two-bedroom flat with four family members. But yeah. Magic. Is there a reason you’re asking?”
“One of our hens is growing wattles and a comb,” said Rebecca. “And spurs. I wondered if magic was a reasonable alternative explanation.”
“I thought you taught science,” said Peter, side-eyeing her with what seemed to Sahra to be an unreasonable degree of offence at this suggestion.”
“I did a physics degree,” Rebecca said, unbothered. “Not biology. Probably not, then?”
“Probably not,” Peter agreed. “Probably hormones or something. Like fish. And frogs.”
“Well, it works in humans,” Sahra said, since that was the only contribution she could make to the conversation. “Anyway, magic doesn’t just…happen like that. Or Peter would have a lot more work.”
“We would have a lot more work.” Peter grinned at her. “Third-most qualified officer in the Met, remember?”
Sahra groaned. “I remember, I just don’t remember signing up for it.”
“You didn’t,” he agreed, “but you said you had to do it anyway.”
It was a warm spring evening and the air still smelt of charcoal and very lightly singed meat combined with the green scent of grass and the river, but suddenly Sahra could feel an October fog chill on her shoulders, taste smoke in the back of her throat. One Hyde Park almost loomed up out of the trees by Beverley’s river. Almost. “I did, didn’t I?”
Rebecca was looking between them, obviously aware there was something under the surface; Sahra forced herself to smile and relax her shoulders, nothing to see. It was Peter’s party; not the time for that sort of thing.
Peter had caught what she was thinking, by the way he was looking, but he didn’t say anything. He did know how to keep his mouth shut when it counted. Sahra had always liked that about him.
Miriam came over to her desk at three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. “Can I ask a favour?”
“Always, boss,” Sahra said, flexing her fingers; she’d been writing yet another mealy-mouthed Falcon report, we had reason to believe the suspect was armed, Peter actually enjoyed being clever with his wording but Sahra just found it tedious. It was only fun if you were doing it in the moment, out loud to a witness or suspect; then there was some art to it.
“It’s not on the job, exactly,” Miriam said, and Sahra looked up at her sharply. “It’s just – oh, fuck it. There’s some weird bollocks going on in our back garden and I’m not dragging Peter Grant out there to look at it, he’ll have opinions the whole way, and I’m damn well not petitioning Thomas unless I know it’s real, so –”
“Third most qualified officer in the Met,” Sahra said, remembering. “Are you sure it’s that sort of weird bollocks?”
“I’m sure I’ll regret it if it is and I don’t get the right kind of help.”
“Alright,” said Sahra. “When do you want me to check it out?”
“Whenever you’ve got time,” said Miriam.
Sahra made a face at her report. It wasn’t due until next week, anyway. “That’d be now.”
Miriam tsked. “Alex and I have a meeting. Alright if I give you the keys, have you check it out? You'll only need to get through the side-gate.”
Sahra almost said doesn’t sound like anything dangerous, but swallowed it back at the last second and held her hand out for the keys; she remembered the mould.
There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when she let herself in the side-gate, just the dustbin and blue recycling bin and a narrow bed of tulips nodding heavy-headed right against the side of the house. Sahra had been to Miriam and Rebecca’s once or twice for dinner and once sat on the patio at the back, but she’d never come around the side. There continued to be nothing around the ordinary as she came – cautiously – around the corner. She listened, but there was nothing to be heard but the faint noises of suburban London; traffic, wind, the occasional barking dog, something you could persuade yourself was birdsong. There was the patio, and the admirably well-kempt patch of lawn, and the slightly faded garden furniture, and the henhouse, and –
Sahra got her baton out, for something to do with her hands if nothing else, and approached the grey patch in the corner of the garden, next to the low bushes, as silently as she knew how. Which she fancied was pretty silent; she’d seen Nightingale do better, or rather not heard it, but that was magic and didn’t count.
When she prodded the grey patch with her baton – her eyes told her it was concrete, but the shapes were all wrong – it crackled and broke to reveal the green grass underneath. She crouched and ran the baton through it, and it powdered into dust.
“What the fuck,” Sahra said out loud. There was a rustle in the bushes; she looked up, but it was just one of the hens, stalking around the edge of the weird grey – fine, alright, the patch of grass that had been superficially turned to stone, stabbing its beak at the grass occasionally, seemingly unconcerned by her.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Sahra asked it. It was a hen, so it didn’t answer. “Of course you don’t.”
Talking to it, however, was what saved her from – well, probably not death, but certainly some unpleasantness. First there was an unearthly screech far too close to her right ear; then the right side of her head – and her arm – felt suddenly scratchy, like the cloth of her hijab and jacket had frozen stiff without cold or water. The hen that didn’t know what was going on reared back, making angry noises and flapping its wings. There was another screech, and a rustling of bushes.
“Shit!” Sahra said, and legged it back around the side of the house.
She hadn’t been wearing her good leather jacket, small mercies, but this one was a total loss; the surface of the right sleeve and side were grey and stiff and cracked and flaked away when she took it off, revealing a fresh, much thinner layer of leather, and at some points the lining. Her hijab was the same, but she had to wait until she could dig her spare out of the glovebox to take it off. Peter arrived as she was pinning the last fold into place.
“Sorry!” He said, turning on his heel as if to go back through the gate.
“You’re all right,” Sahra told him. “I’m done. Shut that – we don’t want to let the hens out.”
“We want to be able to make a quick getaway, too, it sounds like,” said Peter, but he latched the gate shut. “Are you sure…”
“Here,” she said, and handed him her jacket. It wasn’t that warm today, spring taking a break, and the wind was cold through her cotton blouse. She should have got the spare jacket out of the car as well. “It…”
“Yeah,” Peter said, turning it over and powdering some of the stone between two fingers. “Wow. Did you get a look at – nah, of course you didn’t.”
Sahra grimaced. “Imagine what would have happened if I had.”
Peter grimaced, too. “Ugh. Let’s take a look, shall we?”
“How?” Sahra asked, raising her eyebrows. “I mean – this is a basilisk or something, isn’t it?”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Peter. “We don’t really run into mythological creatures much. At all, honestly. Anyway, I was thinking remote surveillance. Should be enough of a distance.”
“You’re not using my phone,” said Sahra immediately, translating that from Peter-speak.
“I’ve got a spare,” said Peter, long-sufferingly willing to sacrifice for science. “Can I borrow that jacket, though? Since it looks like a loss.”
“Sure,” said Sahra. ”It can’t get much worse.”
Peter wrapped his arm in the jacket and angled his phone around the corner of the house; Sahra had to lean over his shoulder to see the screen, and there was some fiddling with the zoom, but then they didn’t see anything unusual anyway.
“Somewhere in that corner,” Sahra pointed. Peter tilted the phone.
“The chickens don’t look bothered.”
“Maybe they’re immune,” Sahra said, gloomily.
“It’s a working theory. Wait – there’s something in the corner.”
“That…” Sahra said “is not a chicken.”
Peter just sighed. “I hate mythology.”
The creature lashed its smooth, reptilian tail from side to side, hissed at one of the chickens – which squawked back angrily - then looked up, right at the camera, and screeched. There was a weird crackling noise, and the screen went dead.
“Fuck!” Peter snatched his arm back.
After retreating and regrouping – the jacket really was a total loss now – Peter decided to take the sensible first step of calling his boss. He did Sahra the favour of putting him on speaker, so she got to hear in Nightingale’s own words that he “had never heard of this sort of thing” and “would have to do some research”.
“Is this another one of those things where there was a big rugby match the week you learned about it?” Peter asked.
“Either that or I’ve just forgotten,” his boss returned with much more cheer than Peter really deserved. “But it certainly wasn’t a commonplace problem.”
“Can’t you just throw a fireball at it?” Sahra asked once Peter had hung up. “It worked on that duck.”
“That was an accident,” said Peter, which was not the defence he thought it was. “And I want to keep it intact.”
“You want it alive? It turns things to stone when it looks at them!”
“Intact! Not alive. It won’t be very intact if I toss a fireball at it. It’ll be charcoal.”
“Abdul and Jennifer will want to have a crack at it.” Peter paused. “I’d like them to have a crack at it.”
“Exactly.” Peter grinned.
Sahra looked at him sideways and said “Fine, but you’re the one risking yourself.”
“Sounds fair,” said Peter.
They performed a maneuver that Peter chose to describe as “breaking into a senior officer’s house” – for values of “breaking in” that involved Miriam having given Sahra a key – and “requisitioned” (also Peter’s description) a towel from the linen cupboard and a mirror from the wall of the guest bedroom.
“How do you know the mirror’s going to work?” Sahra had to ask.
“It worked for Perseus,” said Peter.
“You told me the mythological stuff was mostly bullshit.”
“Look,” he said. “Did we or did we not agree you’d trust me with things beyond the realm of the explicable?”
Sahra rolled her eyes, mostly for effect. “I suppose we did.” She lifted the mirror all the same.
The basilisk or cockatrice or mutant chicken or whatever it was had gone to ground in the bushes at the back of the garden, and Sahra tried very hard not to think about what the pair of them must have looked like creeping across the lawn.
“It’s getting really close,” Peter said in a low voice, the kind people used when they were closing in on a suspect even if there was no way the suspect could actually hear them.
Sahra felt an itch between her shoulderblades as she stared into the reflected bushes, but it was totally psychological, since the thing stuck its head out from the bushes, gobbling for all the world like a normal chicken would. Or at least one of Miriam’s chickens, Sahra hadn’t spent a lot of time around any others.
What followed was an embarrassing period of leaping and screeching and scratching (leaping – Peter, screeching and scratching – the mutant chicken) and then the realization that neither of them had any really good ideas about how to kill it short of one of Peter’s trusty balls of flaming death.
“Aren’t you supposed to wring their necks?” Sahra suggested, taking a second to put the mirror down where they weren’t going to break it. She felt that on a case like this they shouldn’t be putting any other folkloric sayings to the test.
“I think so,” Peter gritted out, hissing as it got a good scratch in with a foot. “Fuck! But I don’t know how.”
“Right,” Sahra said grimly, and knelt down, feeling for the thing’s neck. It tried to bite her through the towel but couldn’t get any purchase. There was surprisingly little resistance, and blood began to seep through the towel.
“Oh, fuck,” Peter sighed, just irritated now; it had shat on his trouser leg. “That’s just wonderful.”
Sahra wiped her hands on the towel, feeling queasy. “I think it’s one of those days.”
“This is going to be a fun report to write up.” Peter was scrubbing at his leg with a handkerchief, but gave up after a second or two. “You reckon it’s safe to look at it?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Might be better.”
“Oh, well,” said Peter, and pulled back the towel, keeping it firmly over the head.
It did look like a chicken, mostly, except for the extremely un-chicken-like tail, big and thick and covered in scales. Peter looked at her nervously, and then they revealed the head, twisted almost off the neck; Sahra had to put a hand over her mouth but so did Peter, so that was all right.
“You’re right,” Sahra said. “This is going to be a fun report. ‘Pursued suspect chicken to rear of garden, wrung its neck’.”
“There we go,” Peter said. “Doesn’t even mention magic.”
“Jennifer and Abdul better appreciate this.”
“I’ll make sure they do.” Peter sat back on his heels.
Miriam was grateful, if nothing else, and passed on thanks from Rebecca as well.
“What happened to the first chicken?” Peter asked her. “The one that grew a comb.”
“We ate it,” Miriam said. “What did it have to do with this?”
“Hatched it, I think,” Peter said. “So it’s well-eaten.”
Miriam made a face. “Why the fuck was this happening in my back garden?”
“I don’t know,” said Peter. “I wish I did.”
He stayed at Belgravia to write up the report, and told Sahra about cockatrices as he did it. She listened with half an ear and nodded in the right places; they had other cases on the go and she’d lost an afternoon on this one.
“But that’s all bunk, probably,” he finished up. “Except when it isn’t. And I know you think it is, because you haven’t been listening to me for at least five minutes.”
Sahra gave him a look, then relented. “Sorry. Trying to catch up. It’s just – it’s done, I don’t have to deal with it any more, and how likely is it that I’m going to run into another one of those?”
“About as likely as me running into one,” said Peter. “You could have handled that if I wasn’t here and Nightingale wasn’t available either, you know.”
“Third most qualified officer in the Met for Falcon incidents,” agreed Sahra. She paused. “What if I don’t want to be?”
“I guess we’d have to get someone else. Reckon David wants in?”
“No,” Sahra snorted. She looked up at Peter. He was watching her, trying for casual and maybe making it if you didn’t know him very well. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
Sahra couldn’t say there’d been a single point where she’d learned for a fact that magic existed, or ghosts, or any of the rest of it. There’d been some weird rumours, that spring when Mr Punch had been running wild around London and corpses with their faces fallen off had been underfoot like weeds, but Sahra hadn’t been assigned to the case. Awareness had seeped in slowly, starting with that club in Soho – things she hadn’t known how to understand the first time she’d seen them, shapes that were much worse in memory than they’d been in the moment – until Lesley May had Tasered Peter in the back and she’d been asked to help Peter out when his cases crossed paths with theirs at Belgravia (or, as Miriam had put it, ‘stop him embarrassing us completely’.) Then, she had to admit, what with the haunted BMWs and ghost witches – or ghost accused witches, Peter had been weirdly emphatic on that point and Sahra supposed there wasn’t a good way to tell however many hundred years later – the existence of magic and…other things…had become largely un-ignorable. However much Seawoll wanted it to be ignored.
None of which explained why a white DS with a sweaty forehead and a moustache that wasn’t doing him any favours had asked her to come and talk to a ghost.
“You’ve got the wrong number,” Sahra told him, trying not the eye the door of the house out of the corner of her eye too obviously. “You want the Folly – DCI Nightingale or DC Grant -”
“They’re out of town,” said the sergeant. “Inspector Nightingale said you’d, and I’m quoting him here, ‘be able to conduct a preliminary assessment and forward any more esoteric actions to us’.
“Are you sure Nightingale said that?”
“You want to call and ask him?” said the sergeant, frowning at her in a way that suggested he felt Sahra had called him a liar.
“No,” Sahra said, because it wasn’t that she didn’t think someone had said that, it just sounded much more like Peter. On the other hand, for all that Seawoll liked to mutter about what prolonged exposure to Thomas bloody Nightingale was doing to an otherwise perfectly fine young officer, Sahra was pretty sure prolonged exposure to Peter Grant was also working in the other direction. “Let’s be seeing your ghost, then.”
“How about you go in and I’ll just make sure you’re not disturbed?” said the sergeant, and that was when Sahra realized the sweating was something other than the remnants of exertion.
“Alright then.” She got out her baton, not because it was going to do anything useful but it did make her feel better to have it in hand. The sergeant eyed it with surprise.
Sahra gave him a cheery smile and went in.
There turned out to be barely anything to the ghost; it was what Peter and his cousin Abigail liked to call a looper, one of the ones that just did the same thing over and over again. A woman in a floral top and faded jeans, opening the door and exclaiming in surprise. Sahra waited until she’d seen it twice, sitting on the stairs facing the front door in the dark, passing cars lighting up the scene tape over the kitchen door in flashes. Then she turned on her phone and called Peter.
He didn’t answer, so she typed up an email instead. Then she gave it another five minutes and checked her inbox, to make sure the sergeant outside felt like he’d got his money’s worth.
“It’s harmless,” she told him. “Grant’ll swing by when he’s back and check it out, but it’s nothing to worry about.” She’d skimmed the case file before she’d driven over. Single mum, dead in the home, very recent ex-boyfriend; ghosts were terrible witnesses, Peter had taught her, and nobody listened to that kind of victim when they were alive, let alone when they were dead.
Waste of time, maybe, except the sergeant’s face lightened when she said it, and Sahra wondered how much of Peter’s time got taken up with these things, and also how much of her time was going to start getting taken up with it, now.
She wasn’t a wizard, but – apparently prolonged exposure to them had an effect on her, too.
“Can you hear that?” Peter asked, tilting his head slightly to the left, eyes going half-lidded like he was listening intently to something.
“No,” Sahra said, the word echoing in the brick archway above them, and then “Yes, maybe.” There was something – a string instrument, a faint tune that didn’t cohere into a style she recognized, but when she turned her head it didn’t get any louder.
“Huh,” said Peter. “We should work on that.”
“Is that your…” Sahra thought about pretending she didn’t know the word, and decided not to bother. “Vestigia?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Just background, I think, not what we’re looking for, but it’s pretty strong.”
“That’s what you’re for,” Sahra pointed out, stepping around some discarded newspaper that likely covered something worse. “Sensing magic. I don’t want to be a wizard, Peter.”
“You don’t have to be a wizard to sense it,” he said. “It’s not like learning magic. It’s not a spell. It’s just…paying attention.”
“What’re you learning all those spells for, then?”
“Who else is going to set things on fire for you?”
Sahra shook her head, but she was grinning when she did. “Not when we’re in an enclosed space, please.”
“Seriously, though,” Peter said. “It’d help if you were trying properly.”
“I’m not sure it would,” said Sahra, but the music wouldn’t go away; it was still there, on the edge of hearing.
“Not a wizard,” said Beverley, sliding into the seat across from Sahra. The Caffè Nero was crowded and Sahra had gotten at least three dirty looks from people taking up a whole table by herself. “Where’s Peter?”
“He had to go outside to take a call,” Sahra said. “Are you sure, though?”
Beverley rolled her eyes, and reached a hand out to take the latte which had appeared in front of her almost as soon as she’d sat down. Sahra hadn’t seen her order, but drinks tended to appear in front of Beverley when she wanted them, Sahra had noticed. Not the worst power to have. “I’m sure. I’ve met enough of them by now. Makes your job easier, anyway.”
“Not really,” said Sahra. “Means there’s someone else involved in it, and maybe…”
“Maybe,” Beverley agreed, grimacing; they both knew who they meant, and cases where Lesley or Chorley were involved, Sahra had noticed, left Peter tense and hard-shelled for weeks, everything the same at first glance but all his defenses high.
“Could I learn to tell if someone’s a wizard?” Sahra asked, prompted by – she didn’t know what.
“Nope,” Beverley said cheerfully. “Sorry. Don’t you think Peter would have nagged me about that, if he could have?”
“Doesn’t mean you would’ve told him,” Sahra pointed out. “Never mind. I just wondered.”
Beverley leaned back in her chair and narrowed her eyes. “Is Peter trying to get you to learn magic?”
“No,” said Sahra. “Maybe. He’s hinting.” She paused. “Do you think it’d actually help?”
“I think you have to want it,” said Beverley. “All the wizards I’ve ever met – they do it because they couldn’t not do it, you know? It’s not something they are, it’s not like me and my family. It’s something they choose.”
“It’s not something I’d choose,” Sahra said, and felt the words heavy on her tongue. “I want – a lot of things, but it seems like…it’s a lot of faffing around and what does it get you, really? Except maybe a stroke.”
“Hmmm,” said Beverley, a little too much like Peter might; they’d been together too long, Sahra decided. “That wasn’t what I thought you were going to say.”
“I,” Sahra said, and then Peter showed up, so she let it drop, and so did Beverley.
When she got back to the station, Seawoll called her over and said “Good, you’re back, time to work on a real case.”
She had to go look at a corpse that had turned up in a churchyard out on the eastern side of the City, hemmed in by towering skyscrapers. The gravestones smelled of cinnamon and pepper and salt. It wasn’t real; almost every time she’d gone somewhere with Peter, lately, he’d said do you smell that, hear that, taste that, and Sahra hadn’t known she’d learned how to tell the difference between magic’s imprint and her senses in the now until she had.
“DS Guleed,” said the SIO. “Aren’t you with…that lot? In Russell Square?”
“Belgravia,” Sahra told her, and it almost felt like the truth.
Sahra was used to people asking her why she was a police officer, and the legally roughing people up line did well enough for most of them, except some of her older relatives, who weren’t going to understand it no matter what she says, so it didn’t matter. But it was something you had to have straight in your own head, no matter what you told people. You had to know why you were there, for the moments when it was tedious, or terrifying, or made you sick to your stomach. Sahra’s had a few of those and she knows there’ll be more.
What Sahra knew – really knew – was that you had to do things yourself if you wanted to do them right. She remembered so well the feeling of trying and trying and accomplishing nothing more than screaming into a void. But with a few adjustments to how people saw you – the effect was amazing. You put on a leather jacket, you show a warrant card, and suddenly your voice had purchase on the air. Not with everybody, not everywhere; it wasn’t unlimited power, and it was like the old story she told Peter about her father’s fall from grace. Things came and things could be taken away.
But while it lasted, the power was real.
She remembered working with Lesley May, or – someone she thought was Lesley May, maybe, the first few months of 2012. She’d never found the courage to ask Peter that question – not when he got the look on his face he did whenever they had to deal with another thing Lesley had done – and Beverley had just shrugged and said she didn’t know; not her sort of magic.
“But if I had to guess,” she’d said, “more Lesley than not. When I saw her after, you know – she wasn’t a totally different person. Peter would have noticed that, he’s not an idiot, they were mates. And people can be, you know, two things at once. I think mostly Lesley.”
“What’s her problem, then?” Sahra had asked, more in despair than anger. “She acted all upset when I maced her – like she and her new boss weren’t trying to take us out! Does she think we’re still friends, or something?”
Beverley shrugged again, more elaborately. At some point in the last five minutes a pint and a soda with lime had appeared in front of her; Sahra took the soda, since it seemed the logical assumption. Beverley took a long pull on her pint. “Peter thinks they’re still friends, sort of.”
“Yeah, but blokes,” said Sahra.
“I know,” said Beverley. “Look, I tried – she put on a good show in front of Peter but she didn’t want to be friends. So it’s no good asking me.”
“I think she still thinks she’s a cop, somewhere,” said Sahra. “They’re some of the worst on the job, you know that? The ones who’ve retired or left, and you show up and they fall right back into acting like they’re still part of the team. Even when they’re the suspects.” She decided to revise that. “Especially when they’re the suspects.”
“Lesley’s graduated beyond suspect.”
“Not legally speaking. Legally speaking that’s what she is until we bring charges.”
“Oh god, you sound like Ty,” said Beverley. “Whatever. You know what she is.”
“When she came in,” Sahra said slowly, remembering, “Miriam – Stephanopoulos, she said that Seawoll had his eye on her, thought she was the best of the new bunch. She wouldn’t have got assigned to our team otherwise; they don’t do that with people fresh out of probation. And she was good, no question.”
“I don’t think she was as good as he thought she was.” Sahra sipped at her soda water, to buy time for the right words. “You can be a good detective, and she was that, and nick suspects and all the rest of it, but you have to know why you’re doing it. If she knew that – really knew it – she couldn’t have chucked it all in like she did.”
Beverley gave her a long, considering look.
“What?” Sahra asked.
“You sound a lot like Peter sometimes.”
“Peter still thinks Lesley was a better copper than he is.” Sahra smiled, sharply. “I know that’s not true.”
“Yeah, well,” Beverley said again. “Blokes.”
This time Nightingale was out of town but Peter was just stuck in Heathrow traffic – Kim Reynolds was flying back in for this one – so Sahra went to see Walid and Vaughan at the morgue less because nobody else was going to be available, and more because it was already after eight on a Sunday and both the good doctors had indicated that they’d prefer not to wait around all evening if it could be helped.
Which meant Sahra got the joy of putting on the eye protectors and gloves and gown and leaning in nice and close to sense what was, to her, the sharp-sweet scent of rot and fish and tang of salt on her tongue, things that had nothing to do with this too-fresh corpse, found quite dry – unless you counted the blood – in a flat in Southwark.
“You’re getting that, aren’t you?” Dr Walid said, sounding a little surprised. “It’s faint – I wasn’t sure of it.”
“No, there’s something magic here.” Sahra straightened. “But I don’t know what.”
“I didn’t know you were learning,” said Dr Vaughan.
“I’m not,” Sahra said, stripping off her gloves. Then, like someone else had taken over, the words “Do you think it would help?” emerged from her mouth. She’d asked Beverley that once; once should have been enough.
“D’you want to?” Dr Walid asked her in return, in a tone of mild curiousity, like she’d said nothing out of the ordinary.
“I don’t know if I want to,” Sahra said. “I’m starting to feel like I might have to. In self-defence.”
Dr Vaughan snorted.
“Yes, I know that feeling,” said Dr Walid.
“You’re all into figuring out how magic works,” Sahra said. “With Peter, and all those experiments you two cook up. Did you never want to learn how to actually do it – do your own experiments?”
“A long time ago,” said Dr Walid. “But I never asked and Thomas never offered – it was a different time and place. I don’t think he’d have said yes if I had, anyhow, and I had enough study to be going on with.”
“I wouldn’t mind but I just got out of medical school, I need a decade off,” sighed Dr Vaughan. “Also, I like my brain without holes in it.”
“So do I,” said Sahra, with feeling; she hadn’t got the patented So You’re A Wizard talk from the two of them, but she’d seen enough case files with those awful cauliflower-like brain sections for one lifetime.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to make you, if it helps,” said Dr Walid, stripping the gloves off his hands and dropping them in the bin. “I think it’s the opposite; you’d have to ask them, and want it badly enough.”
“People keep saying I’m the third most qualified Falcon officer in London,” said Sahra. “I keep saying it to people, more fool me. And I’m starting to think they’re right, and if – if Peter and Nightingale get hit by a bus, or Martin Chorley gets clever, then London is totally fucked.”
“There’s always young Abigail,” said Dr Vaughan, her mouth twitching. “Or Ms Tamonina, or Lady Caroline –”
“My point exactly,” said Sahra.
“In that case,” said Dr Walid, “I suggest you talk to Thomas.”
Sahra didn’t. Nightingale was alright as senior officers went but if he shut her down that’d be the end of it, and she knew as well as anybody the value of backup. So she talked to Peter instead.
Once she’d convinced him she was, in point of fact, fucking serious, Peter said, not seriously at all – of course – that he hoped she understood she’d have to learn Latin.
“And Greek,” he added. “Which is worse. A lot worse.”
“I speak three languages,” said Sahra. “It’ll be fine.”
“You’re only saying that because nobody’s made you read Cicero yet,” Peter said, darkly. “But – the other thing is –”
“How do you know I’m not planning to Taser you in the back as well?” Sahra asked, because of course she’d had the thought; how could you not.
“Are you insulted?”
“No, I get it.” Sahra looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry you have to think about it that way.”
“Me too.” Peter smiled when he said it, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “But what I’m saying is: I don’t make any of the decisions here, and if Nightingale or the Commissioner says no – and I think the Commissioner’s still feeling dubious about the whole thing with Abigail, which is fair enough really – they might not be wrong.”
“If you don’t want me in,” Sahra said, “I don’t want in. It hasn’t stopped me so far.”
Peter looked away for a long moment, and Sahra crossed her arms and stared at the statue of Isaac Newton, his blank marble face overseeing the atrium, and tried not to hope.
“You wouldn’t need to know magic to do what Lesley did,” Peter said eventually. “That’s how I see it. Also, someone else needs to keep an eye on Caroline Linden-Limmer, and I think she likes you.”
“Agreed,” said Sahra. “That someone needs to keep an eye on her. Not to mention her mum.”
“Then let’s go find Nightingale, and we’ll see.” Peter gestured. “I think he’s in the library.”
“One last thing,” Sahra said. “I’m not moving in here.”
“Oh, come on,” Peter said. “You could have a whole bathroom to yourself, and Molly would love the extra company.”
“I’m not moving in here,” Sahra said again, firmly. “Take that or leave it.”
“We’re a forward-thinking, modern institution these days.” Peter grinned. “I think we can take it.”
I don’t make any of the decisions here, Sahra thought. Hah.
Peter opened the library door for her and stood aside, an unusual gesture of chivalry from him in the normal scheme of things, and she held up her head and went through.