My first thought when I saw the white guy in the good suit lurking at the back of my tour group was that he was just another hanger-on. You get those with any semi-decent walking tour, and I like to think the ones I run are more than decent. It’s only worth drawing attention to if they look like they’re going to try and blend in when you move on. Most people aren’t that shameless, and anyway, a bloke in a three-piece suit carrying an honest-to-God silver-headed cane was going to stand out in this party of mostly German and Australian tourists like the proverbial sore thumb. He was already getting sideways glances from a couple of the women at the back.
He clearly wasn’t shameless, because those glances made him pull back. He didn’t leave the church, though. It was the last stop on this particular tour, a tiny medieval church that had survived the Great Fire, the Blitz, and – barely – the Bishopsgate IRA bombing when I was a kid. Practically the only interior item that had made it past the Irish Republicans was a nineteenth-century font notable for having one of the longest known Greek palindromes. I explained this to my audience, who were still paying attention. That’s not always a given on the last stop of a tour.
“What does it mean?” asked one of the Germans, an older man who looked like he might have come from Turkey when he was young, or maybe his parents had.
“Clean your sins as well as your face,” I said. “I bet they were very proud of that one.”
There were chuckles. The man in the suit smiled as well. They could have read that on Wikipedia – I had, I can’t read a word of Greek – but I’d read it first in a history of the church, when I was doing the research for this tour. I just like to know what my tour groups might know, as well. So I check the Wikipedia articles about my stops every now and again. It lets me get ahead of questions.
I wound things up and ushered the group out. Outside it was starting to drizzle, so none of them hung around for long. That was alright by me – for the tours ending in the late afternoon there’s usually someone who thinks we’re mates now because I’ve spent three hours showing them around London and wants to go for a drink. Occasionally I'm amenable, but I do this every day, so most of the time all I want is to go home. Today's group went off in their pairs and threes and fours chattering about all the sights they’d seen, so job well done.
I ducked back into the church to make sure nobody had dropped anything – phones, wallets, bits of food or rubbish, that’s a quick way to get churches to ask you politely but firmly to take them off your tour list. I found a metal water bottle that I thought I remembered one of the Australian women carrying, what had her name been – Mai, that was it. Better grab it in case she called to ask about it; it didn't look cheap or disposable. I was sure she and her friend had said they were going to be in London for another couple of days. If she didn’t, I could find some use for it.
The man in the suit was still there, standing and looking at the font, tapping his cane gently on the ground. He started when I got closer to the altar end of the church, obviously not having expected me to come back in. It occurred to me, belatedly, he might be there for reasons of actual religion.
“Sorry,” I said. “We’re off now, you’ll have the place to yourself.”
“Not to worry,” he said. “Group tour?”
“Lesser-known historical sights of London, groups of less than ten,” I said. “I’ve got a brochure if you’re interested.” You never know – his accent was English and old-fashioned posh to boot, but there’s plenty of people who’ve moved here for work and don’t know the city at all. I get a few of them a week.
“Do you bring groups here often?” he asked, as if a thought had occurred to him. I had his attention now, for some reason.
“About three times a week, unless there’s something on,” I said. “Look, I’m sorry, I’ve really got to get going.” He’d given me a once-over when he’d first come in – I know when people are looking at me – and while I don’t usually get propositioned by strange men in churches, with this job, it wouldn’t even be the first time. He was a lot better-looking than the other guy, but aside from having some standards about talking to people first, I really did want to get home. The morning tour had run over and I hadn’t had much of a lunch.
“I don’t intend to keep you long, but I’m afraid I have a couple of questions.” He pulled something out of his pocket and showed it to me; my eyebrows were still up when I realised it was a warrant card.
“Can I?” I asked politely, and he handed it to me.
Most people don’t know what real warrant cards look like but I do. For one thing I have a neighbour who’s a copper, and she showed me hers the last time she got promoted. For another, when your business is wandering around the nooks and crannies of tourist London and you’re a mixed-race bloke in his late twenties like me, you get stopped, and not always by uniformed officers. I like to ask to look at their warrant cards because it’s not how they expect things are going to go. Sometimes you take the small victories. Once it was a fake, and the man took off - I've always wondered what he was trying to pull.
This one was real, and it said my friend in the good suit’s name was Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale.
“Alright, Inspector Nightingale,” I said. “What dastardly crimes are going on in St Ethelburga’s that you think a tour guide can help you with?”
“What do you know about ghosts in this church?”
I gave myself a second to be sure I’d heard him properly; he was looking at me with a perfectly normal expression.
“I...can't say I've heard anything about them,” I said, slowly. “Like, actual ghosts, or people who shouldn’t be here who might be mistaken for ghosts if I was the sort of person who saw ghosts?”
“I take it you’re not.”
“Well, I haven’t yet, not even the two years I was running a ghost tour, but I’m always open to new evidence,” I said.
“There’s been some reports of suspicious activity,” he said, so smoothly I almost bought it. “So anything strange you might have seen, anything unusual...”
“And that requires a Chief Inspector.”
“I’m afraid I can’t give you further details at present.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you about any suspicious behaviour.” I reviewed that and decided, if I wanted to get my dinner any time soon, it was probably wise to lower the sarcasm level. A tad. “Look, I’m in here three times a week sheperding excited tourists, I’m usually paying attention to them. There hasn’t been anything out of the usual lately.”
“Hmmm. Well, thank you anyway,” he said. “For what it’s worth, you gave a very engaging presentation.”
“I like my job,” I said. “Glad you enjoyed it.”
He followed me out of the church – to make sure I left, obviously – and I wondered what was really going on. Probably drugs. I made a note to check with the vicar about what was going on – if the church was closed to the public unexpectedly I’d want to know about it before I brought another group here. That’s just unprofessional, if you don’t know in advance. And it leads to terrible Tripadvisor reviews.
Outside it was really starting to bucket down. I pulled my rainjacket out of my small backpack of essentials.
“Pity about the porch,” said Inspector Nightingale, looking up into the rain that was falling directly on both of us. That was what he got for carrying a cane and not an umbrella. “I haven’t been back here for some time. I suppose it must have gone in the bombing. Good luck staying dry on your way home, Mr -”
I stopped, and turned to look at him. “Hold on. The porch got taken down in 1932 when they widened the road.”
“Oh,” he said, and for just a second his mouth stayed open, like he’d forgotten what he was going to say next. “That...I must have got it confused with somewhere else; I’m sure you know the history of the place very well.”
Now, the thing is, I have taken absolutely screeds of posh white blokes who think they must know more about London’s history than me on tours (usually booked by their spouses or romantic partners, almost always female ones). I know what it sounds like when they think they know more than me but have decided they don’t want to argue. I also know what it sounds like when they’ve genuinely been caught out grandstanding about things they don’t know.
This wasn’t either. He sounded like he'd been caught out with a secret.
Oh, whatever; he was probably just sure he was right and I was wrong, no matter how sincere he’d sounded on you must know the history of the place.
“Enough medieval churches left in London that it's hard to keep them straight, even these days,” I said. “Good luck with whatever it is you’re looking for that isn’t ghosts.”
“Thank you,” he said, and went back in. I got fifty metres down the road before remembering I’d left the water bottle behind. With a groan, I turned around. It was really pelting now; the sky had got dark and the sun was going down.
I clattered back into the church, dripping and unimpressed with both myself and the weather. Inside, it was darker than I expected – a lot darker. The only source of light, in fact, was Inspector Nightingale, holding some sort of glowing ball in the air above the font.
Wait – no. He wasn’t holding it. It was just...floating over his hand. But, to be honest, my attention was less on the glowy-ball-thing and more on the ghost that was gradually apparating out of thin air on the other side of the font.
Yes, I knew it was a ghost right away; it was transparent and pale and person-shaped, a woman with a pinned ‘40s hairdo and a pantsuit. She looked right at me. The light above the font was getting duller and redder.
“Excuse me, madam -“ Inspector Nightingale addressed the ghost at exactly the same time as I said, very loudly, “What the fuck?”
He didn’t start this time, but he did turn, very sharply, to look at me. We stared at each other for a long moment. The ghost stared too. Her attention was on the glowy-ball-thing, though. She was reaching out for it.
Inspector Nightingale made an impatient noise, and the ball vanished. All of a sudden it was dark – not actual full dark but only the dim light outside coming in through small medieval windows – and I blinked against the afterglow.
“Mr -,” he said again. “Will you tell me your name?”
“You never asked,” I said, walking forward and fumbling my keys with their small pen-sized LED torch out of my pocket. “It’s Peter Grant. Are you doing some sort of...exorcism? I’m not so sure that warrant card wasn’t fake after all. Does the vicar know you’re here?”
“Mr Grant,” he said. “I am not performing any sort of exorcism – well, I’m not sure if it’s necessary – and my warrant card is quite real, and the vicar is aware of my presence, and I’m really going to have to ask you to leave now.”
“Firstly, I need this,” I said, scooping up maybe-Mai’s lost water bottle. “Secondly, that was a ghost. Do you know who she is?”
“No,” he said, the lines of his face much sharper in the light of my torch than it had been in the light of day. It would have been a bit creepy if I hadn’t been too consumed by curiosity to be bothered with creepy.
“Then I should stick around,” I said. “I know more about the history of this place than you do. Apparently you haven’t been here since 1932, and that was definitely a forties hairdo on the lady.”
“It was nineteen twenty-eight,” he said, like that was a normal and sensible thing to say, but then again – there’d been a ghost. “Er – are you sure – you seem to be taking this very calmly.”
“I told you ten minutes ago, I was open to new evidence,” I said. “So go on, bring her back. She was coming for the light or whatever, wasn’t she?”
“Mr Grant,” said Inspector Nightingale, beginning to smile the smile of a man who isn’t quite sure what’s going on but has decided he’d rather be amused by it than bewildered. His face didn’t look creepy at all, with that expression. “If that’s what you’d like, would you mind turning off that torch?”
“I think I can manage that.” I turned it off. We were in darkness again, or close enough.
Inspector Nightingale held out his hand over the font. I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought I heard him whisper a word under his breath.
And there was light.