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The Precautionary Principle

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The visitors’ lounge still smelled of new paint, even though as far was Thomas was aware they hadn’t actually done any painting – just installed the whiteboard that now loomed over one entire wall, and the blinds, and what he privately thought of as the newfangled strip lighting, the kind that didn’t produce heat.

None of the renovations made Alexander Seawoll look any more comfortable about being in enemy territory, to wit the main building of the Folly, although he’d accepted coffee and biscuits readily enough. Miriam Stephanopoulos didn’t look perturbed but then she rarely did, Sahra had of course been here a number of times in her liaison role, and David Carey was clearly more concerned about the concentration of senior officers in the room than his precise location. Peter was improbably bright-eyed, given how long this meeting had already run on.

“Before we move on,” Peter said, “I want to talk about Lesley.”

Thomas, who had been keeping half his mind on the meeting and half on running through his memory of Chorley’s traps, trying to predict which ones he might lay next time, found himself paying attention.

What about Lesley?” Alexander demanded.

“I think,” Peter said, pushing forward a stack of paperwork he’d produced from somewhere while Thomas hadn’t been looking, “we should try and turn her. I think she could be a source. And – when we get Chorley – a witness.”

This pronouncement was – not entirely unexpected, if you knew Peter, but greeted with uncertain silence nevertheless. Thomas decided to see what the others had to say. Peter wasn’t meeting his gaze.

“I think you’re bonkers,” Miriam said flatly. “She’s done everything but put an ad in the paper announcing her newfound apprenticeship as a supervillain. What makes you think she’s going to turn triple agent?”

“Fair enough,” Peter said. “But hear me out.” He looked at Thomas, finally; Thomas gestured for him to continue. Alexander harrumphed, Miriam narrowed her eyes, and Sahra drummed a pen on the table. David Carey continued to look from Alexander to Miriam to Thomas, and said nothing.

“We know why she agreed to work for Chorley,” Peter went on, pulling out a folder. “Her face. Modern medicine couldn’t do anything for her, magic couldn’t – well – ethical magic couldn’t. Chorley wouldn’t know ethics if you dropped a philosophy library on his head.”

“That’s all very well,” said Alexander, “but she’s had it back for what – a year now, we think? If she wanted to turn him in, time enough.”

“I know Lesley better than any of you. I worked with her for three years.” Peter leaned forward. “She thinks in black and white. Right now she won’t see a path back – she said as much to me when she called me in Herefordshire last year, she thought she’d made her choice and she had to live with it. She thinks we’re all against her, she thinks her life’s over so she might as well make the most of it. But she wanted to be a police officer – she was a police officer, and a bloody good one. You know that.”

Alexander nodded, grudgingly. Miriam didn’t.

“So if we offer her a road back – properly, not just me saying things…” Peter flipped open the folder to a form Thomas didn’t recognise, which meant it could be very nearly any of the thousands of forms the Met produced. He could only presume it was relevant; certainly Sahra’s eyebrows went up when she saw it. “I think she’ll take it. And think about what she knows. The whole point of Operation Jennifer is that Chorley is dangerous enough we need to take him down at any cost. She could be the key to that.”

He met everybody’s eyes in turn, upright, serious, earnest in a way that was all Peter’s own. Thomas wanted to be convinced, even though he should be immune to Peter’s charm by now, surely.

“Oh, right,” Miriam said, heavy with sarcasm. “We’ll just walk up to her and wave the form at her. Is that the plan?”

“It wasn’t just her face,” Peter said, more quietly. “It was her career. Have any of you thought about that? I have. She still cares about that, or she wouldn’t be giving me guff about how I do the job. She can’t have it back, but if she thinks – if she can get our respect back, your respect…” He trailed off, looking Alexander dead in the eye.  

Carey shrugged uncomfortably; he’d barely met Lesley, if Thomas recalled correctly. Sahra was still eyeing Peter, lips pursed.

“Let’s be clear on this,” Seawoll said, dangerously soft. “Lesley May might get my pity, and depending on what happens there’s a shot at sympathy, but I don’t respect people who Taser their fellow officers. There’s things you don’t do. She was failed – I don’t deny it – “ he shot a glowering look at Thomas “- but she failed herself, too.”

“I agree,” Thomas made himself say. Peter was getting too worked up over this; time to end it. “It’s a risky proposition, with low reward.”

Peter looked positively injured, but before he could say anything, Sahra spoke.

“You could have died,” she said, her mouth twisting. “Have you thought about that, Peter? Really thought about it? Sure, not a high risk, you’re fit and young -”

“Sahra, I had no idea you felt that way,” Peter said. Sahra jabbed him with her pen and went on. “But maybe you had a hidden heart defect, maybe you were unlucky – she didn’t know. When you use a Taser on someone you’re accepting the risk you’re going to kill them. It’s in the training. Which she did, along with you. She knew.”

Peter’s jaw tightened. “Yeah. I know. And it was me she did it to, so isn’t it for me to forgive? If I want?” He looked back at Thomas. “She was an apprentice here. That goes both ways.”

Before Thomas could respond to that jab, Peter pulled out another folder. “Let’s think about the precedents…”

Peter could be impressive when he got going; he steamrollered right over Alexander and Miriam’s attempts to speak, eyes bright with tension, fingers flickering through the evidence of the thought he’d already put into this.

It reminded Thomas of something, he couldn’t think what, and then he could – a meeting here, in the Folly, though not in this room. David, frantic with the news of Ettersberg, making the plea to go in on the ground.

“There are the prisoners,” he’d said. He’d had folders too, ones he’d put together. “Not just the Free French who’ve disappeared – Jews who didn’t make it out, Belgians, Poles. They’re not doing this willingly. Dr Niemczyk, he visited Oxford before the war – I knew him; he wouldn’t, not demon traps, not if he had a choice. We can get the research out, and the people, too.”

Someone had shaken their head. Thomas forgot who. “It’s going to be difficult enough to come up with the gliders for our men, and the papers, when we get them. Prisoners as well -”

“If we do it this way we’ll take casualties,” David pointed out, his jaw set. “We all know that. There’ll be room. If we mean to do this at all, we’re obliged to try.”

“You want to trade British lives for the chance of rescuing men who let themselves be used for atrocities?”

“Send volunteers only, then,” David had said. “I’ll be the first. It’s my life to risk.”

It had’t worked out that way, in the end. But David had wanted so badly to try.  

In the present, under the cool light of the new lamps, with the taste of real coffee on his tongue, Peter was winding up.

“Look,” he was saying. “It’s not like this will be easy for her, if we make it work. We’ll have to think very hard about where she goes, a regular prison won’t work, but we have to figure that out anyway for when we put the cuffs on Chorley. If we can get cooperation from Lesley, it’s all a thousand times easier – it worked with Varvara.” He looked around the room again. “Think of it this way. Do we want her backed into a corner? Or do we want her not sure what her best option is? Let’s make the case for it. There’s a lot of steps from here, none of us can make the final call. But let’s make the case.”

“You make a good point about Varvara,” Thomas said, and ignored Alexander openly scowling at him. Sahra looked rather thoughtful. “And it occurs that it would be a shame if you ended up making this case in your rather limited spare time.”

Peter laughed. “I don’t have spare time, I have Greek homework.” It didn’t quite reach his eyes, and then he sobered anyway. “It doesn’t matter what I do in my spare time anyway, if none of you are willing to push it up the chain.”

Thomas nodded, after a second. He didn’t need to say more, and didn’t know what he’d say. Peter squared his shoulders and started stacking his files.

“Your funeral,” Carey muttered, shaking his head. Peter ignored him.

“It’s still a hell of a risk,” Alexander growled.

“Of course,” Thomas said, “We will proceed with caution. If we end up proceeding at all.”

He heard what Peter wasn’t saying, or maybe he was hearing David say it all those years ago, mixed up in his head.

It’s mine to risk.


Miriam and Alexander stayed back afterwards; they all looked towards the door as it shut behind the three junior officers.

“You know what it reminds me of,” Miriam said. “I did family violence for a while. It’s like the ones who wouldn’t leave their husbands. They thought there was something they could fix. They thought it was worth taking it themselves if it could keep their kids safe.” She shook her head. “It never did. But this is a job, and we’re his senior officers, and we can stop him.”

“The trouble is,” Thomas told her, “I don’t think we can.”

 “Listen,” Alexander said, holding up a hand, and turning to Thomas. “What happened to Lesley, that’s on you.” Thomas knew better than to bristle, but Alexander waved his objections away before they could be voiced. “What she chose to do afterwards – that’s not. I talked to her when she joined your command, you know. She said things – that you were all Victorian, didn’t want to take on teaching a woman, didn’t want her there –”

“Edwardian, really,” Thomas interjected, for the sake of provocation, but Alexander didn’t bite. “Shut the fuck up for a second. She said those things because she thought I wanted to hear them, knew what I thought of you, but they weren’t true. You went to the Commissioner to barrack for that cousin of Peter’s getting to learn magic, I heard about that, Sahra thinks you’re not bad, and Miriam here’s the same -”

“I can speak for myself, thanks,” said Miriam. She nodded at Thomas. “He’s right, though.”

“Bloody hell, will the pair of you let me finish. She lied to me about something that was bleedingly obvious if you took five minutes to think it through, and she did it to put you in a bad spot, and that was well before the bloody Taser. She was rotten then and I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to.” Alexander sighed. “You can’t fix that, and Peter’s far too good an officer to let him throw himself off a cliff trying to fix it. We need him a lot more than we need whatever Lesley could tell us.”

“I agree,” Thomas said, for the second time that afternoon. “And I’ll take responsibility for it. The alternatives for dealing with her are worse, if she’s committed to working with Chorley. She’s very close to the stage of shoot first and ask questions later. You know this.” He met Alexander and Miriam’s eyes by turn. “If we can avoid that decision having to be taken, we should.”

“We’d lose Peter, if he had to make that call,” Miriam said.

“Yes,” said Thomas. “And in other circumstances…I would hate to disappoint him.”

“Alright,” Alexander said, after a long moment. “Alright. Fucking hell.”

“Cheer up,” said Miriam. There wasn’t any humor in her smile. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Thomas thought about Peter, and cliffs, and kept his mouth shut. But he knew that Alexander was wrong. Peter wasn’t running towards a cliff, when it came to Lesley; he’d jumped, maybe when he’d jumped off Skygarden, maybe when he’d shown her a werelight in Brightlingsea, years ago. He’d jumped, and he was falling.

The only thing any of the rest of them were going to be able to do was stop him breaking his neck on the landing.