It was almost midnight, but the construction site was lit up bright as midday. Jimmy slipped round the back, into the shadow of a half-built concrete wall, and ducked under the caution tape. He was sporting his fleece jacket, his biggest camera, and a badge he’d printed out and laminated himself, proclaiming him a Citizen Journalist.
He’d caught word of this operation on his scanner. Jimmy had already snapped a few shots of the bomb disposal unit on their way into the site, all geared up. If he could just get a decent picture of them working on the bomb itself, that would really make his blog take off.
Jimmy fiddled with his radio, trying to find the right frequency. It crackled to life. ‘– certain this is from WWII, Corporal? It’s smaller than the UXB’s we’ve dealt with before.’
‘The writing on its German, sir,’ answered a woman with a lovely soprano voice who sounded like she could be a news reader. Jimmy wondered if she looked as pretty as she sounded. He definitely needed a shot of her. ‘We could take a picture, or try to find a serial number, report back to HQ, see what they think?’ she continued.
There was a short pause.
‘No, I’ve never seen a dog respond so strongly to a suspect device. We have to assume that it’s live, and leaving a UXB exposed in a heavily trafficked area like this one is just asking for trouble. We’ll follow full explosive and chemical protections protocols, just in case, and go for a controlled detonation.’
Jimmy began edging closer to the pit where the army team was working, trying to get a decent view. Perhaps if he climbed up the scaffolding?
Every light on the block flickered, then went out. Jimmy was unzipping his pocket to pull out his phone to use as a torch when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Jimmy heard a hoarse scream from the construction pit, suddenly cut-off. He turned to run, certain it was too late.
I was in the magic library, doggedly translating an essay on the habits of the fae from Ecclesiastical Latin into English despite my growing certainty that I was learning more about the pervy sex fantasies of the author than fae culture, when I shivered with a sudden, formless dread. I swallowed as if to clear my ears during a flight. A year ago I would have ignored the sensation and gone back to work; now, I went looking for Nightingale.
I found him in the hallway, on the landline.
“Thank you, Mother Thames,” he said with a grim look on his face, “It would have taken me some time to track down the exact location.” He listened for a moment longer, eyes following me, and then hung up the phone.
“There’s been an explosion in Wapping,” he said quickly. “Judging by that pulse of vestigia, I expect casualties.”
“Give me a moment to grab my coat.”
Nightingale shook his head. “No, I shan’t need you for this one. Do try to get a good night’s sleep, Peter. You’ll want to be fresh for follow-up interviews in the morning.”
I nodded. A minute later I heard the purr of the Jaguar’s engine as it emerged from the garage.
The next morning I found Nightingale in the dining room working his way through what, even by Molly’s standards, was a massive English breakfast. He was still wearing the suit I’d seen him in last night; he looked tired and slightly disheveled in a way that seemed completely out of character for my DCI.
“Alright, sir?” I asked him as I sat down.
Nightingale nodded, mouth full of sausage, eyes on the morning paper. I could tell, whatever had happened last night, he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Was it a demon trap?” I asked, helping myself to some eggs, bacon, and tomato.
Nightingale sighed and set aside the Telegraph. “No. It was an unexploded Albtraum bomb, left over from the war. The Germans dropped a handful of them on London during the Blitz, but luckily never managed to mass-produce them. They’re rather insidious anti-personnel devices.”
“So will you need me to conduct any interviews today?” I asked around a mouthful of food.
Nightingale winced, but failed to comment on my table manners. “No, no interviews. None of the army unit who tried to disarm the bomb survived,” he said tightly, “which made it easier to contain the effects.”
Nightingale stood up and began to pace stiffly around the table. Since we were in the formal dining room, there was plenty of room for a good pace. He’d made it around the table three times before he stopped directly across from me. “They fought for Queen and Country in Afghanistan and came back whole, only to be killed on our patch. One, of them, the Corporal, was a woman!”
I nodded sympathetically. My governor had slowly, painfully, grown accustomed to police women like Lesley being injured in the line of duty but apparently a female soldier was still a step beyond for him.
“This disaster was entirely preventable, had they any idea what they were dealing with,” Nightingale continued. “The Met has procedures to deal with magical dangers, but the military side of the arrangement, apart from my relationship with the Fourth battalion, hasn’t been reviewed for over sixty years. That’s what I need you working on today, Peter. I’ll fetch the file on Albtraum bombs, and a few other nasty magical devices the army would need our assistance to disarm, before I turn in. You’ve a knack for writing these things in a way that can be understood by the uninitiated. I’ve asked Caffrey to drop by around seven this evening. You’ll work with him on a briefing memo for the army.”
I considered reminding Nightingale that my GCSE level German probably wasn’t up to the task, and then decided against it. I was certain I’d seen a German-English dictionary in the Folly, and it would be worth translating word-by-word to get a glimpse of a file brought up from the Black Library.
According to the dictionary, when I scrounged one up and paged through it with one hand while continuing to shovel food into my mouth with the other, an Albtraum was a nightmare, or more accurately an elf-dream. I wondered, uneasily, if actual fae were somehow trapped inside the bombs. If so, had an elf been trapped in that bomb, buried underground, ever since World War II?
When Nightingale brought me a single manila folder with five single-spaced typed sheets in English, I couldn’t quite decide whether I was relieved or disappointed. The summaries had been written by David Mellenby. He had a style different from any other report I’d read in the Folly; one that wouldn’t seem out of place in a modern scientific journal.
Although the reports were pointedly lacking in any information about how demon traps, how Plage devices or Albtraum bombs were created, they contained brief descriptions of how they could be recognized, contained and dissipated. According to David, the Albtraum caused ‘a dangerous alteration of the psyche that spread from those directly affected by the device to others like a contagion’. Weirdly, the counter to the effect was a complex ritual variation on seducere.
Given the ethical issues inherent in practicing glamours or any form of mind control, Nightingale hadn’t even introduced me to the set of forma needed to produce a seducere, but I had plenty of experience at resisting them. Would that help against an Albtraum bomb?
I considered how it had felt when Ty had controlled me, Mother Thames’s majesty, Beverly’s luscious glamour, Punch’s rage. There was a knack to resisting them, a type of white noise or anti-wave. As I did my best to recall and reproduce the exact shape of it, Molly appeared in the doorway and hissed angrily at me. I quickly dropped the unauthorised spell I’d been building and concentrated on a nice bright werelight instead, which I offered her in the palm of my hand. With a disgusted look, she turned and swept out of the library.
Shaking my head, I decided to focus back on my assignment - how to take Mellenby’s notes and turn them into something that a bomb disposal unit, with no ability to sense vestigia, could use to determine whether a device was Falcon-related. The bomb disposal teams used canines, didn’t they? Perhaps there was a way to standardise the yap-unit. I started jotting notes on a legal pad.
Sometime later, I was interrupted by my ringtone. I noticed I’d taken several pages of notes. Mind still half on Mellenby’s suggestion that the Albtraum bomb’s effects might be inhibited by electromagnetic countermeasures, I saw it was an unknown 020 number.
“PC Grant speaking,” I answered absently.
“Grant, this is Guleed. I’m out at the Royal London,” she said. “I’ve got a potential homicide witness here insisting she needs to speak to a wizard.”
“I’ll be right there,” I told her, glad for any excuse to move.
The Royal London hospital’s design had been controversial. I was a fan, personally. HOK’s bold 17 storey tall blue glass towers counter-balanced the Gherkin in London’s skyscape; together they seemed to promise some brilliant, public-facing science-fiction future. I much preferred it to the design of the UCH, where I’d sat waiting to see whether first Nightingale, then Lesley, would live or die.
I found my way up to the short-term geriatric ward where Guleed’s witness had been admitted. It was a large, bright and airy room holding six beds. I wasn’t certain if the whiff of pain, industrial cleanser and urine was olfactory or vestigium. Guleed, dressed professionally in a black pantsuit and red hijab, was sitting in a chair beside one of the beds with open curtains. She patted the hand of the elderly IC1 woman sitting up in the bed and said, rather loudly, “I’ll go fetch some tea from the canteen for the two of you. Three sugars, right?”
As she passed by, Guleed took a moment to brief me. “Sharp as a tack, some hearing loss. There’ve been four deaths in the past twelve hours at St Bartholomew’s that are currently under review. Sister Margaret here called New Scotland Yard, offering up some information on the killings at Barts, but she won’t talk to me. If we’ve got an Angel of Death killer at that hospital, or something worse that’s Falcon-related, we need to know ASAP. Call my mobile as soon as you’re done interviewing her.”
The witness was a cheerful woman in her 90’s with her white hair permed into curly submission, skin gone thin over sharp cheekbones.
“Sister Margaret? I’m PC Grant.” I said loudly as I sat down, taking out my notebook. “Are you from a Catholic order, or Anglican?” I asked her. It seemed a safe opening, given the rosary on her side table.
She looked perplexed for a moment, then the light dawned. “Oh, I’m no nun, my dear. I was a nurse at Barts for forty-seven years, and a ward sister for thirty of them. So everyone calls me ‘Sister Mary Margaret’.”
I nodded. “My friends call me Police Constable Peter Grant,” I told her.
She chuckled. “You seem a lovely young man, as was PC Guleed, but I really must insist on speaking to,” she glanced around for a moment and then whispered, “a wizard. From that Folly place.”
“You are,” I said blandly, jotting down her name, the date and location of the interview in my notebook, along with a note in that she knew The Folly by name. Incidentally, that gave her the time white Londoners sometimes needed to process that there really was a policeman (or wizard) with ancestry below the 45th parallel speaking to them.
I looked up to find her eyeing me suspiciously. “In that case,” she said, “you wouldn’t mind showing an old woman a bit of magic?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” I said. “I can’t, not in hospital. It would blow out my mobile and probably half the electronic devices on the ward.”
“Would it really?” she said, looking intrigued. I had to appreciate someone else who found the interactions between modern technology and magic as interesting as I did. “Hmm. Well, if you could show me something simple, what would it be?”
“A werelight,” I answered immediately, holding out my palm to show her where the globe of light would appear if I allowed the forma to take shape in my mind.
“Hah,” she said eagerly, “that’s the ticket. You really are one of that lot. Sorry, the ones I met during the war were all … well, very posh, and I had to be sure. Bad enough I broke my hip falling over the neighbor’s cat, of all ridiculous things. If I start going on about magic to the staff, I’d end up stuck in a long-term OAP ward, and that’s as good as a death sentence at my age.”
“I understand. Now, you told PC Guleed that you know something about some deaths at St Bartholomew’s Hospital?”
“So there have been some,” she said, proving that she had far less information than we’d hoped. Still, even if she’d just heard someone making threats, it was still worth investigating. “The ambulance crew brought me into A&E last night, sometime around eleven. I’d been waiting for over an hour when they brought in this young man who was unconscious. He was left next to me for a few minutes, and the air near him had this, this taste. Well, not a taste exactly –”
“Vestigium,” I said, sitting upright and noting down her description. “Are you a practitioner?”
“What? No, I don’t imagine so, whatever you mean by that. But I’ve always had a touch of the second sight, and this taste, it was familiar, like milk just starting to curdle but … hungry. Dangerous. I recognised it, from the war, you see. I asked around, once they admitted me, and I found out the young man, Jimmy Brickman was his name, had been sent on to the neurosurgical ward at St Barts. So of course I knew there’d be deaths this morning.”
She seemed to consider that the end of her story. I finished noting down what he had said in my journal, sat back in my chair, and looked at her.
She looked back. “Didn’t they teach you about what happened at St Barts during the war?”
“No, ma’am, I’m afraid not.” I had an unpleasant suspicion that Nightingale’s Albtraum UXB might not be as contained as he’d hoped. But I had no idea if she was going to tell me anything like that, and I’d spent enough time in interrogations with Seawoll by now to hear his voice yelling at me that the witness was the one meant to be giving up the information, not the constable.
She sighed. “Well, the War Ministry always did like its secrets. At the time we weren’t meant to mention anything, for fear of a panic, but I don’t see why …” She grumbled to a stop, shifting awkwardly in the bed. I helped rearrange her pillows and got her a cup of water. She sipped at it and then continued.
“We were six weeks into the Blitz. Our boys had won the Battle of Britain and the Germans were resorting to night raids. Every night, you understand. The hospital had only taken one direct hit so far, but every window had been blown out and we were overwhelmed with injuries from the bombings. Burns, crushing injuries, broken bones – they’d evacuated a million children, but London was still going strong, and so were we. Then, somehow, things started going wrong. We were taking in about the same number of casualties, but the number of fatalities, once they reached the hospital, was ticking up, day by day. Strong, healthy young men and women who should have made it were dying on our wards. Mistakes in surgery, misdiagnoses, overdoses of medication, missed observations … and that stench, that nasty curdled milk stench, was all over everything, growing stronger by the day. I’d complained about it to half the nurses on the floor before one of them told me what it was all about. She was from some posh family that studied magic. She’d called in all your people, the wizards from Folly, and within a few weeks they sorted it out. Good thing, too. Things got bad by the end of October. Morale, you know. People make fun of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ but that was all we had. I don’t think we’d have made it through the firestorm with that rot eating away at us.” She’d gone pale.
“Would you like me to call a nurse for you?” I asked her.
“Yes, please,” she said, eyes downcast, long bony hands plucking at the covers. “I believe my painkillers are wearing off.”
I gestured to the nurse sitting at the desk at the end of the room. The two of them had a brief, technical discussion about Sister Margaret’s meds while I gathered my things. I left my card on her side table and was just about to leave when she spoke up.
“Wait. There’s one more thing.” She looked up at me and said, “St Bartholomew’s has a ghost.”
“A ghost?” I asked.
“Well, several, but there’s one in particular you need to know about.”
“Is it dangerous?” I asked.
Sister Mary Margaret seemed oddly offended. “No, she was a new nurse. She made a mistake, a patient lost their life, and she hanged herself. She’s helpful. If you’re ever working nights and are about to make a mistake, a dangerous one that could harm a patient, you’ll hear her voice whispering in your ear. ‘Check it again.’”
I considered. “Have you ever seen her?”
“Several times,” she admitted. “And I think, if you gave her a chance, she could help you find whatever it is that’s hurting patients in the hospital.”
I got the sense she was holding something back. Then again, if I’d seen a ghost that worked to prevent massive cock-ups ‘several times’, I might not want to go into too much detail, either.
“Do you know her name?” I asked. “I have a ritual that should be able to summon her, if I have her full name.”
“Eileen,” she said immediately, then paused for thought. “She was engaged, but they decided to hold off on the marriage until after the war, so that she could keep nursing. I believe she was buried under the name Eileen Whidbey.”
“Thank you, you’ve been tremendously helpful.” I told her, wondering how many Whidbeys had their names carved on the wall of Ambrose House.
Once I’d exited the hospital, I called and updated Guleed. Seawoll was taking the potential threat seriously; he had four Murder Investigation team members assigned to St Barts, and one more surfing current staff’s social media for any hint of serial killer leanings. I asked Guleed to check if Jimmy Brickman had been anywhere near an explosion in Wapping last night.
Next, I tried Nightingale’s mobile, but wasn’t surprised to find it went straight to voice mail. He only remembered to turn it on when he wanted to make a call, and chances were he was still dead asleep. I left a message for him to call me and tried the Folly’s landline. It picked up after a few rings.
“Molly?” I guessed. There was a sniff in response. “This is Peter,” I told her. “When Nightingale wakes up, could you please ask him to call me? I think I’ve got a lead on that Albtraum bomb case of his, at St Barts.” She hung up the phone, which hopefully meant she would.
Five minutes later my latest dull blue Ford Asbos was deeply embedded in City of London bus traffic, when my phone rang with the air raid siren I’d programmed for the Folly ringtone. I fumbled to answer it.
“Peter,” I heard my governor mumble. “Is something wrong? Molly was insistent that I call.”
I wondered how she managed that, beyond staring at him creepily until he woke up like she did me, but didn’t ask. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t think she’d wake you,” I said. “I was just at the Royal London, interviewing a Sister Mary Margaret –” I merged into the left lane.
“Oh, Mary Margaret’s made sister now?” he said groggily. “How is she?”
“Retired and in her 90’s?” I said awkwardly, reminded that the Blitz wasn’t a history lesson for my governor, and that maybe I ought to change my ringtone. “But very sharp, and in good spirits.”
“Ah. Of course,” he said, sounding more awake. “As I recall, she had a keen nose for vestigia. What did she have to say?”
“She told me that a young man named Jimmy Brickman was brought into the Royal London A&E last night sometime after midnight, stinking of a nasty vestigium she remembered from the war. He was sent on to the neurosurgical ward at St Barts.”
The line was silent for a few seconds. “That’s unfortunate,” Nightingale said eventually. “I’ll need to contact the Minister of Health immediately.”
“The Minister? Why?”
“Hospitals Emergency Plan A, as outlined in the Determination of Needs Act of 1941. I don’t think you understand the magnitude of the threat here, Peter. London lost about twenty-eight thousand civilians during the Blitz. Mellenby later estimated that over a thousand of them were due to that single Albtraum bomb that got away from us at Barts.”
According to Sister Mary Margaret it took all the wizards of the Folly weeks to dissipate that bomb.
“The Minister will be declaring an emergency drill, likely for some type of terrorist attack, that will bring in additional medical professionals from other London hospitals and agencies to assist at Barts.”
“If this is a contagion, shouldn’t we be quarantining Barts, rather than pulling in more emergency responders?” I asked, queasily reminding myself I’d signed up for the police specifically to walk into all the dangerous situations sensible people run away from.
“No. At first Mellenby compared it to a virus, but he later determined it was more like a, I believe he called it a field effect? If we allow it to grow more powerful it will expand to cover more and more of London. Really, that it’s begun at Barts is the best we could have hoped for.”
“How so?” I asked, inching towards the Barbican parking lot slowly enough to admire the purity of its Brutalist design.
“Have you visited St Bartholomew’s since you began your training?” he asked, then continued without waiting for an answer. “It’s quite unique. What’s more, there’s a permanent ritual circle inscribed around the edge of the property. All I’ll need to do, to dissipate the Albtraum, is to empower it with the appropriate ritual.”
“Were you part of the ritual in 1940?” I asked him.
“I was,” he confirmed.
Your lot, the Sister had said. All your people, the wizards from Folly. “How many other wizards empowered it with you?”
“It must have been either eight or twelve others, depending on the configuration. I’ll check the file once I’ve contacted the Minister of Health.”
I swallowed. ‘The Nightingale’ strode like a colossus across London. The Met, the Demi-monde, the Rivers, they all seemed to believe he was invincible. I did, too, most of the time. But I’d seen him shot in the back, near-death in a hospital bed. I’d seen the price he paid for wielding the most powerful magic. “Will you be able to empower it by yourself?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I?” he answered, then, hearing how it sounded out loud, amended his statement. “I’ve a fully charged staff. Aut viam inveniam aut faciam.”
Find a way or make one, my arse. “I’ll help,” I told him, waving my warrant card at the parking attendant as I drove past his kiosk and pulled into a space in the parking garage, sighing as the engine ground to a whining stop. Well, at least I didn’t need to worry about someone nicking it.
“No, I need you in the hospital to prevent further causalities,” Nightingale ordered as I hopped out of the car and followed the signs through the concrete towards Barts.
“Sir, I’m all for protecting lives, but you said the Albtraum killed over a thousand people, and that was with the entire Folly working to contain it. I can’t let you take this on solo. I know I haven’t practiced seducere, but I’ve plenty of experience resisting it, and I think I’ve figured out the shape –”
“Peter,” Nightingale interrupted me. “You misunderstand me,” he said, pronouncing every syllable precisely and forcefully. “The only reason this ritual is within my capabilities is because the Albtraum is still weak and unformed. With every death, it will grow stronger. Apparently I need to explain its nature more clearly to you. This ... force does not directly target the patients. It affects nurses and doctors. As it is still weak, it will prey on those who are tired, inexperienced, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It will make them careless, impair their judgement. And when their mistakes lead to deaths, it will feed both on the life energy of those it has killed and on the anguish of the healers responsible for those deaths.”
“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” I blurted out.
“I wish I could say the same,” he replied crisply. “Now, I need you to get to work within the hospital as quickly as possible. Extra personnel should start arriving within two hours. You won’t be able to prevent all fatalities. Do your best to keep them to a minimum,” he snapped.
“Yes sir,” I agreed dumbly, and heard the dial tone as he rang off.
As I walked through the evening Smithfield market crowd towards the hospital I sensed a building pressure. Once I stepped through the arch into the courtyard of Barts proper, it surged over me like a stadium full of screaming football fans. I staggered towards the wall, put out my hand to catch myself, and was lost in it.
Air raid sirens blared as doctors performed surgery by oil lamp, nurses throwing themselves across the patients who couldn’t be moved when the bombs fell. Surgeons treated the poore of Farringdon, arguing over blood-letting and humours of the body. Amputees pitched in to help, fighting the pain of their wounds and the trauma of shell shock to help care for wards full of those dying from influenza. The Black Death swept over the city; the college’s physicians and apothecaries remained, smoking tobacco as a prophylactic and treating the infected as the plague crested, ebbed, crested once more, and drained away to nothing. Young men dissected the corpses provided by resurrection-men and studied their anatomy. Young women turned up to the nursing school; Mrs Bedford Fenwick’s lessons on cleanliness, nutrition, and professionalism allowed them to save wounded soldiers. Sulfa drugs burst onto the scene, then antibiotics, man-made miracles that turned deadly infections into treatable conditions. Centuries of fierce determination to cure the sick, heal the wounded, and fight against death with every tool available to the human mind, body and spirit rose up in me, dizzying and unconquerable. At last, a final whisper of vestigium – should death be inevitable, Barts promised comfort in my final moments.
I slumped against the wall trying to slow my breathing before I hyper-ventilated, and read the plaque on the wall. St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded in 1123. No wonder. It was by far the most powerful vestigium I’d ever encountered. Enough to supply an army of ghosts. Hopefully, enough to empower a ritual that would send an Albtraum straight back to Hell.
Guleed confirmed that Jimmy Brickman had been found unconscious outside of the construction site in Wapping where the UXB had detonated the night before, and that his was also one of the deaths under review at St Bartholomew’s.
I had to show my warrant card to the woman at the Information Desk before she would give me directions to the mortuary. She seemed to think my request was in poor taste – then again, if I spent forty hours a week immersed in Barts’ vestigium, I might feel like anyone dying was letting the side down, as well.
The lift was massive, fluorescent-lit, and painted an institutional orange. I took it down to the lowest level, stepped out into a long concrete hallway that looked like the set to a horror film, and followed the directions the woman had sketched out on my pamphlet map of the hospital to the mortuary. The room was cool as I stepped through the door. I felt ill-at-ease, an instinctive reaction to a low-yap vestigium. The scrubs-garbed man inside, once convinced that I wasn’t interested in any of the three culturally appropriate viewing rooms, pulled out the drawer holding Jimmy Brickman’s corpse. I leaned back, away from the unpleasant sensation of tin foil between my teeth, with a hint of rust and patient, watchful malice. I waved to the doctor to close the drawer. That eye-watering vestigium was distinctive enough to track across the hospital.
The mortician, Doctor Cohen, was full of sympathy for my weak stomach, eager to chat, and happy to point out a nearby conference room on my map where I could set-up some communications gear without interfering with any delicate hospital electronics.
I keep an emergency ghost-hunting kit with a dozen cheap calculators in the trunk of my car, right next to my stab vest. It never hurts to be well-prepared, and I certainly wouldn’t want to drive through city traffic or pay Rymans prices for calculators in a crisis.
I dragged the table and chairs against the wall, pulled the sack of charcoal dust out of my rucksack, and with a silent apology to the cleaners began drawing a pentagram on the faintly musty carpet. I placed calculators at each point of the pentagram, glow sticks for candles in between, and I was ready for the summoning ritual. I resolutely removed the battery from my phone and tucked it away in my pocket before casting a werelight and floating it into the centre of the pentagram.
“Eileen Whidbey,” I called. “Hear my voice, accept my gifts, rise and converse.”
The werelight gradually red-shifted and dimmed, and as it did I got a hint of vestigia, rubbing alcohol and tears. I waited, but no spirit appeared inside the pentagram. I was considering trying again when my London-honed instincts informed me there was someone standing rather too close behind me. I took a long step sideways and turned to find myself facing the ghost of a dead woman dressed in a traditional nurse’s cap and uniform. Her head was at an odd angle, and I could see an oblique ligature mark at her neck, consistent with suicide by hanging. I could tell she’d been perhaps 5’3 with a slim build, fine boned features, blue eyes, and light brown hair. She looked familiar – I wondered if perhaps I’d seen her face in one of the dozens of yellowed photographs of nursing and medical students that decorated the halls down here.
She carried an old-fashioned syringe and was fascinated by my werelight. She bent closer, nose nearly touching the pentagram, and the werelight blinked out. She seemed disappointed, and turned to me.
“Check it again?” she suggested, gesturing to the pentagram.
“Maybe later,” I told her. “I need your help, Eileen. There was something very bad that came to the hospital during the Blitz, and I think it’s come back again, to hurt the nurses and patients. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
She nodded solemnly.
“I’m trying to stop it. Do you think you can find where it is, where it’s trying to hurt people?”
I flattened my St Bartholomew’s map on the table for her. She closed her eyes, tilted her head an impossible inch farther and listened intently. Her eyes flew open and she drifted across the room to point out the QEII ward on the far side of the map – the neurosurgical ward where Jimmy had died. I snatched up my supplies and ran, hoping I wasn’t too late. I arrived, panting, at the lift and was reaching for the call button when I heard Eileen.
“Check it again,” she called out, beckoning me towards a large, unmarked door at the far end of the corridor. I realised that the passages must run under the whole complex. The ghost was right; it would be much faster to make my way through these tunnels than through the public spaces of the hospital. I jogged after Eileen, becoming helplessly lost as she flickered ahead of me through five turns and several closed doors, until she came to a stop by a lift.
If you could call it that. It was a tiny, open birdcage style lift popular in the early 20th century. I had a moment to wonder at the bloody-minded tenacity of the Barts NHS Trust in maintaining this relic rather than replacing it with something modern before the lift slid down into view. There was an ominously cheerful ding, and the manually operated lift door creaked itself open. Eileen gestured at me to get inside, held up four fingers, and disappeared. Right then.
I stepped into the lift and as I did, I felt a prickle of vestigia. Terror, claustrophobia, an echoing scream. There was more than one ghost active tonight at Barts. I breathed through my nose and waited for it to fade into my background awareness. “Thank you for calling the lift for me,” I said politely as I wrestled the metal door closed and pressed the button for the fourth floor. The floors slid by slowly, one after another, as I rehearsed what Nightingale had told me about the Albtraum in my head. It arrived at the fourth floor with another ding. I was fumbling with the catch to open the lift door when it opened itself and folded to the side. “Thanks again,” I mumbled and stepped outside.
I could sense the Albtraum here, a faintly malicious, metallic one-yap tingle. I pulled my suit jacket straight and set off in a random direction with a purposeful stride that announced I belonged here and knew exactly where I was going. There was definitely a gradient, the vestigium becoming more intense as I headed to the left across the floor. I passed several open wards bustling with activity and a cluster of private rooms before I caught sight of Eileen. She was whispering urgently to a tall, gawky young man in a blue and white striped uniform who was seated at a nurse’s station, drawing on a notepad and completely unaware of her presence. As I stepped up to the station I could sense the vestigium congealed around him, thick and ugly.
“Excuse me,” I said, and he startled. His name badge, shiny and new, proclaimed that he was Staff Nurse John Thomas.
“Oh, uh, I’m sorry, only immediate family is allowed to visit, sir,” he said, glancing back down at his pad where I saw an excellent sketch of a WWII German bomber. Was that part of the Albtraum’s influence?
“I’m not visiting. I’m with the Met,” I told him, flashing my warrant card. “We’re here setting up for the emergency drill,” I told him.
“Emergency drill?” he said with alarm, sitting straight and starting to tidy up the station.
“It’s very hush-hush, but you’ll hear all about it soon,” I said, trying to figure out what the Albtraum was doing to him. “I was just wondering – do you have the time?”
“Yes, it’s, um,” he looked down at the fob watch pinned to his uniform. “8:40?!?” He stood up. “Excuse me, sir, I need to get caught up on my obs,” he said, and hurried into the nearest private room.
Eileen smiled at me and faded away. Hah. Flush with triumph, I paced the rest of the neurosurgical ward. The vestigium was still there, but it didn’t seem to be focused on any particular doctor or nurse. I avoided both the antique, haunted lift in the corner and the main lift in favour of walking down the stairs. There was a whiff of cigarette smoke, whether actual or vestigium, and an odd feeling that the Albtraum was flowing down the stairs towards the rest of the hospital.
It was lighter on the third floor, but the ward seemed oddly deserted. I passed a deserted nurses’ station with three call lights blinking. There was a wreath of cigarette smoke and dense blot of vestigium congealed around a door marked Staff Room. I opened the door.
Even though it was well-lit, it felt like a dark cloud had settled over the room. There was a small tele droning in the corner. Seven staff members in uniform packed the small space, listlessly scattered across the furniture. Two were smoking, using a coffee mug as an ashtray. An exhausted-looking older woman in a navy uniform lifted her head to mutter, ‘Staff only.’
I stepped inside and said brightly, “Sorry to interrupt. I’m PC Grant. Are you ready for tonight’s emergency drill?”
The staff reacted like I’d just pulled the pin on a grenade.
“Drill? What drill?” demanded the older woman as she jumped to her feet.
“Something about a terrorist attack?” I ventured, deciding I needed to call Nightingale and get the details ASAP.
“But that doesn’t make any sense. We haven’t even got an A&E!” a younger nurse protested, which … was an excellent point.
I shrugged. “I’m not the one who planned the drill. But the City’s always going to be a target, isn’t it?”
“Keep Calm and Carry On,” murmured the woman in charge, and I could feel her tapping into Barts’ vestigium to shake off the Albtraum’s influence. “What are you lot doing in here? Who’s on the ward?” she demanded, reminding me of the sergeants at Hendon. They raced off with steel in their spines.
I made my way to the canteen, sniffing for the Albtraum on the way. It was hours too late for a hot meal, but I bought a sandwich, a packet of crisps, and a cup of coffee from the various machines. Not even Molly’s breakfasts were enough to last me over twelve hours.
I found a private spot to replace my phone battery and call my governor. For once he actually answered.
“Peter, good, I was hoping you’d call. I’ve arrived on-site and I’m inspecting the perimeter ritual circle. Have you identified the Albtraum’s vestigium yet?”
“Yes sir. Brickman’s corpse held a detectable amount. It’s started spreading through the hospital from the neurosurgical ward where he died. I’ve detected and interrupted two potential attacks.”
“Quick work,” he complimented me.
I grinned and gulped my coffee. “I’ve got an informant helping me, sir.”
“An informant?” he said warily. “Are they aware of the actual threat?”
“Yes, it’s one of the Barts ghosts, sir.”
“Well,” he said, and I could hear the amusement in his voice, “It seems your unique approach to Community Policing has proven useful once again, Peter.”
I asked about the emergency drill and he was able to fill me in on the details, a simulated chemical and EMP attack.
“Did you get that idea from me?” I asked, chuffed that my off-the-cuff cover story had made it all the way to the Ministry.
“I did indeed. It’s an excellent explanation for any electrical disturbances either the Albtraum or our efforts might entail, and the hardened gear might survive a pulse of strong magic. The drill personnel should be arriving any time now.” He continued more seriously. “I’ll put the battery back in my phone, between the preparatory workings. Keep me updated. The ritual circle appears to be intact, so I’ll start walking it shortly. Once I begin I won’t be able to enter the circle; you’ll need to rely upon your own resources and judgment.”
There was a thoughtful silence.
“I’ll try to not inflict too much property damage, sir,” I volunteered.
“I have every confidence in you,” Nightingale said. “I should be able to empower the circle at dawn – that’s the best time for this type of ritual. Hold the line until then, Peter.”
“Will do, sir.”
I was headed back towards the neurosurgical ward and had just entered the East Wing when I felt the tingle of malicious vestigium snap and intensify as the lights flickered. Damn.
I found the latest casualty on the third floor. A knot of staff were holding a quiet, intense discussion outside an open ward room. I glanced past them to see all of the bed-curtains drawn, a single light burning at the nurse’s station as they loaded the body onto what looked oddly like a linen cart. The Albtraum’s vestigium darkened the entire corridor, but I felt a pulse of more intense energy from down the hall. I followed it to the staff toilets where I heard a woman sobbing. I tried knocking, but there was no answer.
Having gobbled up one death, the Albtraum was enjoying the distraught nurse (or doctor, Beverly’s voice reminded me firmly) for dessert. Crying women were utterly outside my area of expertise. I considered calling in a Family Liaison Officer, but remembering the nurse upstairs calling on Barts’ vestigium made me think perhaps the hospital itself could help her. Oh, of course! I consulted my map.
A five-minute jog down the stairs, out a side door and across the dimly-lit, cold courtyard to the Henry the VIII gate brought me to the door of St Bartholomew the Less. The Barts’ vestigium was different here, a hint of incense and hymns, offering peace and healing to those suffering from pain, fear, or grief. I opened the door and startled a short East African clergyman with a tidy salt-and-pepper beard who was standing just inside, putting on a coat.
“Oh, hello,” he said pleasantly. “Can I help you, my son? I was just on my way to assist with the emergency drill.”
“I hope so, chaplain. There’s been an incident on 3 East, the oncology ward. A patient’s passed away, and one of the staff involved has locked herself in the toilet. She seems very upset.”
He studied me, forehead creased. “Is this a part of the drill, or…”
“No, sir. It’s a real patient death, and a real woman who needs your care.”
He nodded decisively. “I’ll do what I can, of course.” I could see the chaplain drawing on his own faith and Barts’ vestigium as he zipped up his coat and strode into the night with purpose, a man on a mission.
I noticed he had left the door open, so I stepped inside the warm church. There was definitely no life-saving technology in here, so it should be safe to summon Eileen. The sight of the cross gave me a moment’s pause, but Nightingale hadn’t mentioned the CoE having any issue with magic, and I assumed God would approve of our efforts to save lives.
I settled into one of the front pews, pulled out my phone, and removed the battery. I cast a powerful werelight, one that I hoped would feed Eileen enough energy to stay active through the night. I squinted in the brilliant light, wondered if it was too much, and decided not to worry about it. If anyone saw the light through the windows, they would probably assume it was part of the drill.
“Eileen,” I called her, a little short of breath. “Eileen Whidbey!” She appeared before me, entranced by the bright werelight. She knelt down, cupped it in her hands, leaned forward and inhaled the light and magic, bit by bit, like she was sipping hot chocolate on a cold day. By the time the werelight was gone I felt shaky, but Eileen looked pink-cheeked and solid. If you put her in a modern outfit and threw an infinity scarf around that neck, she could walk down the high street and no one would look twice.
“Ready?” I asked her. She nodded eagerly, and I pulled out my map.
Four hours later I was resting, head in my hands, in a chair outside the Outpatient Department. It was a nice, central location. With two more deaths, the Albtraum had reached the North and West Wings of hospital. Eileen and I had intercepted another dozen attacks, but it was getting more difficult. Eileen had warned me away from all the regular lifts, and I’d climbed up and down over a hundred flights of stairs while patrolling the hospital. I’d left two messages for Nightingale updating him on the Albtraum’s progress, but he hadn’t got back to me yet.
I have too much imagination. Everyone’s always told me that, from my mum and my A-level chemistry teacher to Inspector Neblett and Lesley. The Albtraum was getting stronger, and I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if it expanded past Barts, into the city. A van, driven with murderous intent, was a credible terror threat. What would we do with a thousand involuntary manslaughter cases? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A drunk student shoves a friend into the path of a lorry driver who dozed off at just the wrong time, the Albtraum gorging on the aftermath. A distracted father lets go of his son’s hand as the kid catches sight of a doggy on the far side of the street. My own father, one of the only prescription heroin users in London, injects a little too much. My Mum turns round, kitchen knife in hand, to yell at my little nephew for running in the kitchen.
I jarred awake to find Eileen tapping the map I’d dropped on the floor. “Check it again,” she said urgently.
I had to go to my knees to see what she was pointing out. The neonatal intensive care unit. Oh Christ. I snatched up the map and started to run.
The vestigium grew thicker and darker; it was like pushing through treacle as I approached the NICU ward. I slammed my warrant card into the viewing window. The single nurse on duty stared at me blankly for moment over her yellow face mask, then said loudly, “This unit’s not participating in the drill,” and turned away. I could see several babies in there, each enclosed in a see-through plastic crib with all the machinery keeping them alive.
I pounded on the window. She turned back to me, looking annoyed, which seemed an improvement over the blankness I’d seen in her eyes a moment earlier. I pointed frantically at the door.
She stomped over and activated the speaker under the window. “I have six wee little patients in here that need their rest and are sensitive to both infection risk and emotional upsets,” she hissed at me, “and I’m to care for them all by myself because of your bloody drill. So whatever it is you need, I’m certain someone else can help you.” The metallic tang of the Albtraum was thick in the ward, vicious and viscous.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, frantically trying to think of what to say to break the Albtraum’s hold over her. “Do you have the time?”
Without needing to check, she answered. “Its 3:20 in the morning, and in sixty seconds it will be 3:21, and that is a minute of my life you’ll have wasted.”
Eileen was in the NICU room, running her hands over each of the babies in turn. She stopped by one in a pink hat near the far wall, and pointed it out to me with a frantic, “Check it again!”
“I just had one quick question,” I said. “My niece, she’s uh, she’s interested in nursing, and I was wondering, how do you determine the safe dosage for a tiny baby like that one?” I asked, pointing out the one Eileen said was in danger.
The woman sighed, obviously aggravated, but decided that humouring me was the easiest way to get rid of me. “It’s very simple,” she said, approaching the infant’s enclosure. “The computer shows each patient’s prescription,” she explained, pointing out the screen in question, “so all I have to do is–” She froze, then swooped forward and made a tiny adjustment on the touchscreen. She pressed a hand to her mask, over her mouth, took several careful breaths, then swung around and picked up the phone receiver on the wall. She dialed rapidly.
“I need to report a medication error, and request a relief nurse in the NICU, please,” I heard her say, voice shaking. "No, no, she'll be fine, but if I hadn't caught it in time ..."
The Albtraum’s vestigium on the ward hadn’t lightened at all. It was thick around that poor nurse, just trying to do her job, owning up to her mistake the moment she’d made it, and around every one of those vulnerable babies. She, they, were helpless – but I wasn’t. I could break a glamour, and this was nearly the same thing. I’d been steeped in the Albtraum’s filth all night, and I knew the shape of it off by heart. Point and counter-point, wave and anti-wave, I constructed the forma in my mind. It was going to be powerful, I could tell, higher-order than any spell I’d ever cast, and it was going to be perfect.
My concentration shattered as Eileen hurled herself at me, shrieking, “Check it again!” I staggered back against the far wall and stared in horror through the window at the six babies kept alive by dozens of delicate pieces of modern technology I’d nearly destroyed with a single spell. I stood up and walked – away, definitely away. I couldn’t tell if there was any vestigium about. Couldn’t have told you if the halls were empty or full of people. I found myself in a bland, windowless waiting room and collapsed, ice cold and shaking, into a chair.
I tasted blood and metal. I’d bit my lip at some point. Eileen was in front of me, trying to say something. Probably, ‘Check it again.’ That’s all she ever said, and really, if you were going to be stuck with one catch-phrase for all eternity, that was a good choice. I vaguely recalled the NICU nurse calling her superior to report her mistake. I should do that. That was the professional thing to do.
I fumbled my phone out of my suit jacket pocket, checked the battery was in, and called my DCI to confess my sins.
“Yes, Peter,” he answered, sounding distracted. I tried to clear my throat and choked on air. “Peter?” he said sharply.
“I nearly killed them. Oh Christ, they were only babies, and I almost killed them all,” flooded out of me.
“What’s happened?” he said.
“It’s, I, the Albtraum, it got into the neonatal intensive care unit,” I told him, struggling to pronounce the words. “And I stopped the nurse, but it was still there, all over them, so I tried to, to get rid of it. I had the forma in my head when the ghost, she yelled at me, and I realised, all the equipment in there, the babies need it to live …” I trailed off, not sure what more to say.
“So you did not perform any magic near the infants, and you did not harm them in any way,” Nightingale clarified.
“Good. That’s good, Peter. But if you had, it still wouldn’t be your fault. It would be entirely the fault of the Albtraum. Where are you?”
I looked around, but there weren’t any helpful signs in view. “Not sure,” I said. “A waiting room. North Wing, I think?”
“Right,” he said briskly. “Wait there. I’m coming to get you.”
“No,” I protested, trying to stand up and somehow ending up on the floor. “You can’t enter the ritual circle.”
Nightingale made a wordless sound of frustration. “I can restart the ritual tomorrow night.”
“No, it will be too strong by then.” I reached out to touch the wall and felt, under my hand, the pulse of Barts fighting back against the dark vestigium that was all around me.
“Possibly. I’ll contact Seawoll. Any of his men can find you and pull you out of Barts, Peter. “
“Yeah, but none of them can do the job I’m doing,” I said, finding it a little easier to think now. “None of them can see the ghost. None of them can sense the Albtraum’s vestigium and stop it from killing people.”
What I didn’t mention was that none of them could destroy an entire NICU in a moment’s righteous rage. Nightingale knew that. Wizards are dangerous, and not only to our enemies. That’s why he’d made me study the armed constable guidelines for use of force.
There was a good ten seconds of silence on the line before Nightingale sighed. “Peter, I can tell from the way you’re slurring your words that you are exhausted. You are young, you are inexperienced, and you care far too much. You could not fit the Albtraum’s victim profile more precisely if we kitted you out in a first warder’s hat, belt and stockings.”
“There are male nurses now,” I complained, mind rather stuck on the image. “They’d give me epaulets.”
“Quite correct, Peter, and yet completely beside the point. I sent you into Barts, in full knowledge of the risks, because I felt I had no choice. But I find I am not willing to sacrifice you to keep the Queen’s Peace.”
“I didn’t sign on to keep myself safe, sir,” I told him. We sat in silence for a moment. Nightingale was only a few hundred metres away, but it seemed so far. “I’m … tired,” I said slowly.
“Yes, we’ve established that,” he said drily.
“No, I mean, I’m tired. That’s why the Albtraum was able to get to me. But I can fix that. I’ll have a kip, then I won’t be tired anymore.”
Another pause. “Yes, that could work,” Nightingale decided. “It should take no more than ten minutes to find the nearest on-call room and lie down for a nap. I imagine you’ll be asleep the moment your head hits the pillow, but you’re to sleep no more than twenty minutes, is that clear? Set your alarm, right now, for 4:20 a.m.” I agreed, fingers clumsily pulling up my clock app. It was 03:49.
“The Albtraum is particularly dangerous to people in a dream-state, so you mustn’t sleep long enough to dream,” Nightingale explained. I wished Mellenby’s report had included that detail. “When you wake up you will head to the nearest nurse’s station, drink a builder’s tea, and call me. I will expect your call by 4:30 at the latest, is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” I answered, head swimming with exhaustion and the string of orders.
“And do you know what I will do if I haven’t heard from you by 4:30?” he asked. Was I imagining the hint of menace in his voice?
“Uh, you’ll have me cited for disobeying a direct order?”
“No, Peter. If I haven’t heard from you by 4:30, I will call you, on that mobile phone that you carry everywhere you go, and I will remind you to get back to work,” he said. I recognized the faint unevenness as laughter, bubbling under the surface. Good. Laughter was the best medicine, they said, and it should be just as good against the Albtraum.
“Understood, sir,” I answered before he rang off. I clambered to my feet and went in search of an on-call room.
One nap, two hours, four phone calls, and six interrupted Albtraum attacks later Eileen studied my new Barts map, looking puzzled. I’d stopped counting the ones we missed, on Nightingale’s advice; the flickering lights and expanding, intensifying vestigium were an inevitable part of the night. It was nearly dawn now, and Nightingale had said the ritual circle would be empowered with the first rays of the sun.
The ghost’s pale fingers hovered uncertainly over the West Wing and then tapped on Giltspur Street, just outside Barts main entrance. I trotted that direction, wondering what the Albtraum could be up to. Its vestigium felt stretched tight, out here, but more vicious than ever, like a dog choking itself at the end of its leash to get its teeth into you.
There was a bright yellow ambulance, part of the emergency drill, pulled up on the sidewalk. As I exited the building I saw an ambulance driver shuffle through the grey pre-dawn light towards the cab, get behind the wheel, and turn the key. The engine grumbled to a start. As the headlights turned on they caught a flash of silver in the middle of the street – Nightingale’s cane, as he raised it above his head to complete the ritual.
The first dead body I ever saw was a cycle courier who had his head knocked off by a transit van.
I sprinted towards the ambulance. Ignoring the stitch in my side, I refused to slow down, slamming into the driver’s side door just as he started pulling onto the road. “Oi,” I yelled at the paramedic, “Out of the vehicle.”
The driver shifted into park, turned off the engine, and rolled down his window. “What’s this about? The drill’s finished; I just need to get her back to the barn before the next shift starts.”
“We, uh, we need the ambulance for the follow-up session this morning. My governor already filled out the paper work,” I lied glibly, hoping that the ambulance services hadn’t circulated pictures of me after that unfortunate ambulance hijacking. “Why don’t you catch a cab home. You look knackered.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, yawning. “Yeah, that’s a good idea, thanks, constable.”
He headed back inside, and as he did I felt the sun rise. There was a burst of vestigium, powerful, clean, fucking fantastic vestigium: first the opening with Nightingale’s signare of wet pine, wood smoke, and canvas, then a shock of energy, like opening a window to get that first breath of cold, fresh air off the Thames, like bright sunshine and running as fast as you can for the pure joy of it. The Albtraum was gone, washed away like a bad dream.
I laughed out loud. Eileen, standing beside me, threw her arms into the air and twirled.
“Good morning, sir!” I yelled to Nightingale. He caught sight of me and walked over with a touch of swagger, swinging his cane.
“Peter,” he greeted me with a grin as he approached. “And who’s -” the smile slid off his face.
“Thomas,” Eileen said with a sweet smile. “You look tired, big brother.”
“I am,” he said hoarsely.
Whidbey must have been her married name. I’d spent the whole night with Nightingale’s dead sister. The ritual’s vestigium still surged around us, frothing with Barts drive to save lives and the nearby church’s promise to heal wounded hearts and souls. Eileen was facing east, towards where the sun would rise over the roof of St Barts in a moment.
“Eileen,” I said abruptly, “you saved a lot of lives tonight.”
Nightingale shot me a look full of sudden, desperate hope. Two long steps put him at my side, and he threw an arm around my shoulders in a clumsy, sideways hug. “You saved a lot of lives, but more than that, you saved Peter. Peter’s important to me, Eileen, and you saved him.”
She bounced on her toes with the beat of that brilliant vestigium. “I did, didn’t I,” she said proudly as the first rays of the sun caught her hair. With a whoop she turned and ran east, hurling herself into the air, and was gone.
Nightingale sat down heavily on the sidewalk.
“Is that – did she –”
“I believe so,” he answered quietly.
“Oh.” I sat down next to him and leaned my shoulder against his. He allowed it, but turned his face away.
Nightingale eventually cleared his throat. “You should take the weekend off,” he said, voice rough and low. “Perhaps visit your family.”
“Nah,” I said. “One of my cousins and her kids are up from Brighton for the weekend, it’d be a madhouse. I’d rather stay home. At the Folly,” I added, in case that wasn’t clear. “Besides, didn’t Molly order ten pounds of prawns for dinner tonight? What is she going to do with them all?”
“I’m rather terrified to find out,” Nightingale said, wiping his face with his handkerchief, and sounded almost normal.
“There, you see, it’s settled. I couldn’t leave you to face that alone,” I told him.
“As you say,” he commented. He neatly tucked the handkerchief away in his pocket and stood up, dusting off the seat of his trousers and pulling his suit jacket straight.
“Give us a hand up,” I said, and enjoyed being pulled efficiently to my feet. “Right, I’m too tired to drive. Want to share a cab?”
“I am never too tired to drive,” Nightingale said. “Come along. Oh, excuse me; I need to assure the Minister of Health and Police Commissioner that the crisis has been resolved.” He pulled his phone out and popped the battery back in.
I groaned, realising that my phone’s battery had still been in when Nightingale finished the ritual. That much power, at that close a range, meant I’d need to order another phone. Someday there would be an audit of our unit’s expenses, and the fact we bought enough mobiles to provide online banking services for a small African nation would land us in trouble. I listened as Nightingale reassured some of the most powerful men in the country that London was safe, perfectly steady as if he hadn’t just said good-bye to his sister.
If you want to help, Nightingale had once told me, study harder, learn faster. Do the job.
Well, I’d been studying, and I’d been learning. I was doing the job last night when he tried to pull me off it, to keep me safe. Someday I’d get to the point where I wasn’t his apprentice anymore. When I was strong enough for him to lean on me, the way we all leaned on him. And on that day, I’d find out just how important I was to Thomas Nightingale.