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Lone Wolf

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Watching the Nightingale deal with bureaucracy was like watching a tiger sip his afternoon tea from a Wedgewood cup: the sight is absurd but you're not going to laugh after you've seen the teeth and the claws. Varvara sat obediently in her assigned corner and watched him refrain from mauling or magically subduing the desk sergeant who was insisting that she should stay in the custody of the Essex police. She was almost considering making a little magical mayhem of her own, just to encourage the bureaucrats to let the Nightingale take her away. But the control she'd been stunned by in a magical opponent seemed equally strong as he responded point by patient point to the sergeant's arguments.

They were interrupted by a mobile's jaunty ringtone--some modern tune that Varvara didn't recognise. The Nightingale scowled around the room, then seemed to realise it was emanating from his own suit jacket. He excused himself from the sergeant and answered the call.

Varvara tensed defensively as she saw the Nightingale's posture change, some subtle shifting of weight telegraphing combat. The sergeant, street-seasoned, noticed too, and edged back towards the shelter of his desk. The Nightingale's face was grim. He cut off the call, stuck the phone back in his breast pocket and said, "This is finished. We're leaving now. You can catch up with the paperwork later."

The sergeant visibly considered arguing and then changed his mind. The Nightingale didn't wait for his response, turning to her. "We're going to London. Get in the car." His voice was like a whipcrack.

Varvara hurried to obey, but had to jog to keep up with his pace through the police station. He slapped the blue lights and siren on the roof of the car, and set off at a breakneck speed down the road, not waiting for her to fasten her seatbelt. She'd been in her share of fast cars, and had ridden a motorcycle under aerial bombardment during the war, but the way the Nightingale put his Jag through impossible gaps in the traffic was terrifying. She didn't dare speak until they came to an open stretch of motorway where they went well over 100mph.

"What's happening?" she asked.

"Your master," he snapped, "is attempting to blow up the tower. Peter is in the building. Lesley too, in all likelihood. And many civilians."

She remembered how carefully he'd shielded them during their duel. She'd never been trained by a master like that. Did those children have any idea how fortunate they were?

His mobile rang again just as he was negotiating the exit from the motorway. "Get it for me," he said to her sharply.

Reaching across to retrieve the phone from his blazer while they were taking a corner at sixty was not straightforward, but she managed to pull it out without jogging his arms, and set it on speaker.

"Nightingale here," he said in the same tone that he must have used for radio transmissions during a battle.

The woman at the other end identified herself as a Bronze commander from Wandsworth. "Your PC Grant has contacted us to inform us that he is being held hostage on the roof of the building by a Falcon-capable suspect," she said. "What's your ETA?"

The Nightingale wove through a junction against the light and slid the Jag into a gap between a lorry and a learner driver that Varvara swore was barely an inch wider than the car itself.

"Thirty minutes," he said.

"Understood," said the Wandsworth commander, and hung up.

Ten terrifying minutes later, it rang again, and Varvara put it on speaker again. "The building's gone," said the Wandsworth commander. "Constable Grant was on the roof at the time, as was the suspect."

The Nightingale didn't blink, didn't react. "And May?" he said, in a combat-steady voice.

"She wasn't on the roof. She was with ground control at the base of the tower. I have no information as to her current status."

They swerved around an apparently suicidal cyclist and slid down a one-way street the wrong way. Varvara found herself bracing her feet in the footwell. The Nightingale's hands were rock-steady on the wheel.

"If the suspect was on the roof," he said, "he will have had a way out. He's not the type to blow himself up by accident. Be alert. Track him, but do not attempt a confrontation until I arrive."

They screeched around a roundabout and this time Varvara was certain that a red London bus was going to bisect them, but the Nightingale did a manoeuvre she wouldn't have thought possible and they dodged around to a chorus of horns. Then they hit roadworks, and even the Nightingale had to slow to a crawl. His fingers tapped the steering wheel, the smooth tan leather of his driving gloves against the black leather of the wheel.

"It's too late now anyway," he muttered, and didn't attempt any death-defying manoeuvres to get past the contraflow. Varvara stole a glance at his face. It was stern, cold, as inhuman as if he'd borrowed Constable May's plastic mask. Only the glitter in his eyes betrayed him.

The phone rang again while they were still stationary, and this time the Nightingale picked it up himself. Varvara heard the caller speak.

"Sir? It's me."

She recognised the voice from hours of interrogation. Constable Grant had made a reasonably convincing good cop to the Nightingale's silent menace outside the door. He'd seemed like a nice kid, all in all. She would have shot him on the job, but that was the job. She didn't particularly want him dead.

"What the hell happened?" the Nightingale demanded into the phone, voice twanging like a cello string.

In the war, she'd seen a woman return to find her house demolished by a bomb, then discover an hour later that her children hadn't been inside it after all. She hadn't seen that expression again until today.

Grant's voice carried clearly. "I had him, sir, I had the Faceless Man. Had him bang to rights and Lesley tasered me." He sounded shaken and young, a boy running to his father for help.

The Nightingale didn't respond for a moment, as if he'd already used up his capacity to respond to shocks. "Lesley tasered you?" he finally said blankly.

"Yes, sir."

"To facilitate the suspect's escape?"

"Yes, sir."

The Nightingale looked at her then, and Varvara knew that she hadn't been in any true danger during their duel, but she was in grave danger now. She seriously considered leaping from the car and running for it. Then he focused his attention on the telephone. "Are you in any doubt about Lesley's participation?"

"No, sir." Grant's voice shook a little as he spoke, and that seemed to bring the Nightingale back into focus. His voice took on its previous combat-honed crispness, now the captain reassuring his men with his firmness and his calm.

"Peter, as your first priority you must secure the Folly and inform Molly that Lesley is off the guest list. You must do this now regardless of instructions from any other senior officer. Once you are there, contact me again. Was that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good lad. Get a move on."

The traffic finally started moving, slowly, and the Nightingale slid his mobile back into his blazer pocket. Then he looked sideways at her. "If I ever find," he said, "that you knew of this and said nothing, you will die." His voice rang with terrifying conviction.

It would have been easy, and true, to protest her innocence. If Constable May had been in the boss's pocket all along, he hadn't confided it to her. Though in hindsight, it explained the young woman's insistence that she contact him before giving the kill order. But the boy had heard all of that too, and if he hadn't drawn the inference it was hardly her fault she hadn't either. But she said nothing in response to the Nightingale's fury. It wouldn't help.

"Don't give me any cause for annoyance for the rest of the day," was his next warning. Not that she'd intended to. Do not piss off the extremely dangerous and extremely upset magicial practitioner: words to live by. Words to not die by, and the only real rule Varvara had for life was just that: don't die. So far she'd succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

When the boss found out that the Isaacs had taken her prisoner, she doubted he would be particularly perturbed. He certainly wouldn't come charging to her rescue the way the Nightingale had yesterday. And if she decided her best strategy for the future was to come to an agreement with the Isaacs, he'd order her killed, but even then, under his mask she knew he wouldn't show the betrayed agony she'd seen on the Nightingale's face and heard in Peter's voice.

The traffic slowed to a standstill through the roadworks, and the Nightingale put the handbrake on and turned away from her, staring blankly out the window at the neon-jacketed men operating their jackhammers. Varvara woke up to the possibilities: the heavy torch in the side pocket, the noise that would cover her movements, the back of the Nightingale's head exposed and vulnerable. The Nightingale was dangerous, but she'd escaped more dangerous captors with less of an opportunity than this.

She sat unmoving, aware that her inaction was a choice. But unlike the Nightingale and his apprentices, she was a mercenary, hired and paid to do a job. She'd done the job, she'd been paid, the failure of the boss's plans was not her fault or her problem. She wasn't hired to break the Nightingale's head, and it wasn't the sort of thing she'd do for fun. She left the heavy torch where it was, and the traffic started moving, and the moment was gone.

"Why?" the Nightingale muttered to himself as he drove through the roadworks and into the moving traffic. Then, with a glance at her he repeated himself. "Why would she do that? If it was you, why would you do that?"

"If it was me?" she said. "If I had what Lesley May had?" She looked at him square. "Nothing the boss has to offer could make me throw it away."