It was Nightingale’s idea to discharge himself from hospital before the date the doctors deemed medically wise. I say that as though there were someone else whose idea it would have been – patently untrue. Even yours truly objected, and I’m the one waking up alone in the building to the sight of a Molly-shaped silhouette standing in his doorway every morning. If it weren’t so silent, I would without doubt be hearing a death rattle in the depths of the Folly. God help me if I ever watch another Japanese horror movie.
They made him ride home in a medical transport van, door-to-door stretcher service, although he was in fact in a wheel chair. Dr Abdul Walid accompanied the merry little party comprised of myself, my semi-conscious superior and the van attendants. Nightingale was still on the good drugs, although Dr Walid informed me today was the first day of the rest of his life – or the rest of it without morphine, at least.
We got him up the stone steps of the Folly carrying the wheelchair between us; at the top the doors slid soundlessly open and we entered, squinting into the dimness. Molly was already waiting for us, one shadow among many; she stepped forward with eyes only for Nightingale, although she stopped several feet from him. Her mouth was pinched closed, eyes sad and sober.
It occurred to me, having crossed the Rubicon of hospital discharge, that as far as I know there’s no lift in the Folly. And there was no way any kind of makeshift ramp built up the towering staircases would be anything other than a Death Slide.
“Um,” I said, eloquently, but Molly was already leading the way at a slow glide down the hall to the left of the western staircase. I followed beside Nightingale, Dr Walid pushing the wheelchair.
“We may not have the modern conveniences, but in my day wizardry was for life. That tends to bring with it a multitude of infirmities,” Nightingale informed us in a thin voice. Despite the fact that he was to spend an estimated 30 seconds in the outdoors on the trip here, the hospital had wrapped him up in a jumper, tweed jacket and heavy woollen coat, as well as a warm fleecy scarf. I’m sure the nurses would have added a bobble hat, if one had been available and if the prospect of it wouldn’t have given their patient a coronary to go with his punctured lung.
Molly showed us along a corridor paneled in dark wood that shone under the butter-coloured light seeping down by the wall sconces – walnut probably, and the approximate value of my parents’ entire flat. At the end a heavy wooden door stood open, leading into a large bedroom furnished in the classic Victorian style of overlarge furniture standing stranded and alone in a sprawling empty space. There was a bed with posts, a huge wardrobe, a dressing table and a little writing desk with matching chair. The exterior wall held a large set of windows currently covered in ancient tapestry drapes, while set in the far wall was another door, probably to an ensuite, and a large stone fireplace complete with crackling fire – this, miraculously, not converted to gas. The walls and ceiling were white, interior decorating not being something all-male institutions excel at; the floor and the furniture were all the same dark walnut, gobsmackingly expensive and also pretty damn depressing.
We all three of us stopped and stared in the doorway – or rather me and Dr Walid did, and Nightingale was forced to wait for us.
The bed had already been turned down and a bedside table that didn’t match the rest of the furniture had been slotted into place to hold a metal water jug and cup, some books, and a tiny rotating pendulum clock in its glass case. All the comforts of home.
Dr Walid helped Nightingale into the bed, Molly being sent to fetch tea while the two of us helped him off with the several superfluous layers he was wearing. There were a pair of flannel pyjamas under the pillow, new and fluffy while at the same time severely ironed; I left the doctor to help Nightingale with the rest of the undressing and redressing and went over to poke uselessly at the fire. It had a wrought-iron stand set firmly in front of it to prevent the sparks from spitting out onto the wood, so in fact I just stood there uselessly doing nothing instead.
It seemed a violation of Nightingale’s privacy to be there while he was lifted and sat in bed, undressed and redressed like a doll while it was all he could do to focus on continuing to breathe. There was a hitch in the rhythm, the simple effort of being moved from one bed to another taking a very physical toll on him.
But there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, and anyway he was my governor, and a new one at that. Not a time when a man wants his constable to see him at his worst. And if I’m honest, given what I’d seen magic do in the short time I’d been aware of it, not a time a junior apprentice wants to see his mentor at his worst either. In the past three weeks I’d already seen more than enough of that in any case: Nightingale’s red blood on my hands; his aquiline face pale and drawn under the oxygen line; his long fingers twisted in the covers while Dr Walid shaved him.
So I let the fire burn flickering images across my retinas until I heard the sound of Nightingale shuffling down between the sheets. I returned to find Molly back already, having slipped in silently while my back was turned, setting a cup of tea near to the edge of the table and taking up Nightingale’s clothes to fold them.
Dr Walid took the opportunity to liberate a little carrier bag from the back of the wheelchair, and from it produced two bottles full of pills. One had a white lid, the other a red. He turned to Molly as he set them down on the table. “This one he takes one three times a day with meals. Antibiotics.” he said, pointing to the white one. He then indicated the red cap. “This one, two at eight in the morning, two in the afternoon, and eight at night. Painkillers. He’s not to drink alcohol, use magic, or get out of bed for anything more strenuous than trips to the bathroom until I approve it. Alright?”
Molly nodded demurely, hands momentarily stilled.
“Excellent. You can start him on those this evening; he should have everything out of his system by then.”
“I am right here, you know,” muttered Nightingale, peevishly. Dr Walid glanced at him.
“Yes, you are. And you’d have been far better off back in hospital, Thomas, so take your medicine and rest or I’ll rescind on my benevolence.”
For a moment I thought Nightingale might argue, but his eyes slipped shut and he sighed, dropping down heavily into the pillows. He really was exhausted, dark smears under his eyes and his face drawn. Not that he’d looked much different for the past three weeks.
Dr Walid moved the wheelchair off to sit by the far wall. “I’ll be off then. Call me if there are any complications. Any complications,” he repeated sternly, and then allowed himself to be ushered out by Molly.
I was about to pad out as well when Nightingale opened one eye, then the other and breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally. Abdul means well, but one of these days…” his threat went unfinished as his considering eye caught mine. “You’d better bring me your homework; I need to see how far you’ve gotten.”
“Don’t you think you should rest?” I asked, helpfully. He gave me a look which made it abundantly clear that my helpfulness was not required. I retreated meekly upstairs to fetch my workbook; no use provoking him.
When I returned he was lying with his head resting to one side, eyes closed. They didn’t flicker when I let my feet fall more heavily than necessary, not even when I spoke quietly: “Sir?”
I pulled the door to, open just enough that he could call if he needed something, and slipped back upstairs.
Me and Toby ate alone that night, as we had every other night for the past three weeks. Molly apparently didn’t feel like waiting on me, and I was completely and totally fine with that approach. I’m pretty sure she was in with Nightingale, feeding him beef tea or chicken broth or some similarly homey and easily digestible meal.
It was only when I had finished roughly enough food for myself plus guest, valiantly aided by Toby, that she reappeared in the doorway, staring.
Molly has a multitude of stares, and one day if I’m very unlucky I may come to know them all. These days, all I know is that she wants me to do something, or to stop doing something, or occasionally to disappear myself from the planet.
“Is something wrong?” I dropped my fork, wincing as it clattered on the edge of the plate. Molly’s eyes flashed to it in irritation at the mistreatment of her prized dinnerware, then back steadily to me. There wasn’t any fear there, so I downgraded my question. “Does he need something?”
Molly inclined her head slightly, and I stood. Toby gave a disappointed whine, but stayed where he was while I ventured forth to follow Molly.
It was warm in Nightingale’s room, far warmer than anywhere else in the draughty, unmodernised Folly. The fire was no longer blazing up but had banked and was all glowing logs giving off silent, steady heat. Nightingale was watching it when I came in, but he turned to me as I crossed the floor. He looked better than he had that afternoon; more relaxed and less pained. Molly, presumably, had provided him with a bevy of well-fluffed pillows and he sat up against them with a book on his lap.
“Peter,” he greeted, with a little smile. “I apologize for nodding off earlier. If you bring your books down now, I will look at them.”
As it happens, I had them out in the general library – handy for everywhere, and with a neat gas fireplace to keep the temperature somewhat regulated. I fetched them in and handed them over; he took them with a hand that only trembled slightly under their weight.
His brows raised slightly as he followed my progress by my notes, and by the exercise book I kept with scrawled repetition of vocab and conjugations. “You could pay your studies a little more attention, I see,” he said dryly.
“It’s been rather busy with you gone, sir.” Spending a fair portion of my days visiting two invalids hadn’t helped, either.
“Yes, I imagine the mess is still being mopped up.” He didn’t say your mess, which I found at that moment surprisingly endearing. Of course, no official blame had fallen on me for the Inaugural Covent Gardens All-Comers Riot, but unofficially anyone senior enough to know my job knew what part I’d played, and was happy to give me the eye for it.
He finished flipping through my work and sighed. “Very well; three more pages of exercises, and try to do another of Newton. Translating with an inadequate grasp of the language is, I fear, part of our work.” He handed the books back to me.
“More work on your forma tomorrow; but for now send Molly in if you would. I believe I shall turn in for the night.”
I turned around, glancing at my watch as I did so; it was just gone eight. When I looked up it was to find Molly standing directly in front of me. I bit back a scream, and scuttled hastily around her. She slid by, ignoring me entirely, and I beat a hasty retreat from voiceless women with too many teeth and the possibility of even more Latin vocab.
I went to bed that night at half nine, a disgrace which I hold Nightingale indirectly responsible for. The combined stress of cleaning up the mess, waiting to see in what condition Lesley and Nightingale would be spat out of the NHS, and being the sole sailor on HMS Uncanny as it charted the unknown waters of Weird Bollocks, was rapidly turning me into an old man.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking up – consciousness struck me like the Heathrow Express. I startled up and found myself in a cold sweat, blankets cocooned around me.
There was a Molly-shaped hole in the shadows of the doorway. Heart in my throat, I switched on the light with fumbling hands to find her staring down at me. I bit down the first, second and third exclamations which flew to mind, and instead managed, “What is it?”
Molly inclined her head downwards.
“Nightingale?” I pushed off the blankets, She blinked. “Is something wrong?”
She inclined her head again, this time more forcefully. I swung my legs out of bed and stood. A t-shirt and shorts was hardly the best outfit to combat the Folly’s eccentric central heating in, but I didn’t waste time searching out something warmer. I ran downstairs, Molly ghosting along behind.
On the main level, I grabbed the bannister and took the corner hard, swinging around like a tetherball and shooting down the corridor to Nightingale’s room. The corridor which, very suddenly, became a forest.
Now, growing up with an addict has taught me that the last thing I ever want to be is a user – I’ve come this far in life clean, if not always sober. So I’m not in the habit of having the world around me replaced seamlessly with another, much weirder one. I give this as the explanation for why I immediately fell flat on my arse in the snow.
It was a full-on evergreen forest in the winter, all drooping snow-covered boughs and the damp smell of pine. The snow came halfway up my shins, hard on top but soft and shifting underneath – recently frozen. The air was pricklingly cold, the forest shockingly silent – no birds, no rustling leaves, just an endless cathedral hush.
I picked myself up and dusted off the snow, while my feet began the surprisingly quick process of freezing. I looked back over my shoulder: trees and snow as far as the eye could see. Which wasn’t very far; dusk was falling.
The fact that I found myself missing Molly’s company will tell you how freaked out I was. But I was still a copper, and one of our unofficial mottos (right after Not Putting the Boot In, No, Definitely Not) was Coppers Don’t Panic. They may flock to the pub after everything’s gone pear-shaped like roosting starlings, but that’s After. So I straightened up, locked my jaw against the shivering, and started forwards.
It was only a few steps until I saw the blood. Bright scarlet on the snow beside a stumbling trail of footprints. I’m no tracker, but even I can recognize the tracks of an injured man. I considered my options briefly, then followed it. If it were Nightingale…
“Sir?” I asked quietly, the heavy blanket of snow muffling my voice.
There was no answer from the silence. I pushed through a set of dense branches, snow falling down my back in an icy stream. “Fuck, that –”
I didn’t finish; as I emerged from the trees I saw a figure standing on the other side facing me with his arm raised towards me, palm out.
He was wearing a brown WWII-era military uniform, sans cap, a captain’s pips on his epaulettes. There was snow on his shoulders and in his uncombed hair, and a dark stain on the right-hand side of his chest above the high waist of his serge jacket, large enough to suggest major trauma. His face was ashen, a long red line running from ear to cheekbone, paper thin.
He didn’t once falter. Just stood, immovable as Stonehenge, staring at me.
“Sir – you’re dreaming – or something… This isn’t real, and I –” I’d like to get off the bus.
His hand turned, just slightly, as though he were adjusting his sights. I felt the beginnings of an unfamiliar forma building in his mind. “Leave,” he croaked, eyes steady. “Forget what you’ve seen and disappear.” Or I’ll disappear you. The threat was plain enough. I shrank, but didn’t move.
“Inspector, please – it’s not real. We’re in the Folly, you’re home, you’re safe.”
“That’s a very poor lie,” he said coldly, and I felt the forma solidifying.
Behind him off in the distance someone screamed as an explosion echoed through the forest. His eyes flickered for a moment and I dropped to my knees, hands up. Wherever – whenever – this way, Nightingale surely wouldn’t harm a surrendering opponent.
“My name is Peter Grant, sir – your apprentice. I swore an oath to serve, and obey. I’m here to help you – please.”
Nightingale’s face contorts to give him a half-mad look of incredulity. “Impossible,” he said, and for a moment I felt the sharp twist of anger as I saw him raking his eyes over me, over my skin. But then he continued, “How could I have an apprentice?”
Kneeling brought the snow up to an uncomfortable height; I shifted awkwardly.
“Go,” hissed Nightingale through his teeth, hand starting to shake. And then a moment later his eyes slid shut and he started to fall. I leapt forward, tripping over my own frozen feet, but he hung suspended, head lolling bonelessly to the side.
Around us the forest faded away like a drop of ink dispersing in water, revealing the dark walnut-paneled hallway. And, at the end of it, Molly holding Nightingale in her arms. I hurried forward but she lifted him as easily as if he’d been a toddler, carrying him back to his room.
I glanced down at my feet; they felt cold but there was none of frostbite’s reddening touch. I shook my head and followed Molly.
By the time I got into Nightingale’s room, Molly had settled the inspector back into his bed and was tucking the covers firmly around him fussily. The fire was still burning steadily – Molly had obviously been tending it in the night.
I pulled the chair from the writing desk around and plunked it down near the foot of the bed. If Nightingale woke again, there was no way I was letting him out of bed.
I woke the next morning with a crick in my neck and a thin woolen blanket draped over me. My eyes flashed to Nightingale – asleep and still tucked in tightly as if straightjacketed. I pulled the blanket around my shoulders as I stood; Molly’s work, apparently. It felt almost like sympathy, until I imagined her sliding in to loom over me while I slept.
I went back upstairs, showered, shaved and changed. It was nearly eight by my watch, a cheap analogue. When I came down it was to hear Nightingale protesting in a rough voice. “No. No, I will not. Put it away.”
I knocked quietly and entered to find Molly standing at Nightingale’s bedside with a glass of water in one hand and some small white tablets in the other. She looked mildly irked; Nightingale looked furious. When he saw me, though, the anger bled away, leaving him drawn and wan and, I thought, afraid. Well, hell.
“Peter,” he said, in a low voice. And then, a little more strongly, “Last night… I must apologize, I –”
“It’s alright, sir. You weren’t yourself.” I was damn sure I didn’t want to know the bloke he had been, the one who had looked right through me as though I were nothing, as though loss of life wouldn’t prey on his conscience for a second.
“It’s not alright,” he said, forcefully. And then, looking to Molly, “It’s these damned pills of Abdul’s. Never would’ve taken them, if I’d been thinking.”
“You need them – they only just started stepping you down,” I protested.
“Pain is not a problem,” said Nightingale stiffly. “I can assure you, I’ve had worse.”
I thought back to last night, to the dripping wound in his side. “That’s not the question, sir.”
“And if I had hurt you? Or – God forbid – killed you?” Nightingale stared me down solemnly, for all that he looked like death warmed over.
Nightingale’s face tightened. “Not now, no. But then… War changes us, Peter, and rarely for the better.” He rubbed absently at his chest – the corresponding point to the hole in his back. His shoulders drooped a little crookedly, and he leant back against the heap of pillows. “You can tell Abdul he’s to stop the opiates, or you leave the Folly until I’m well.”
Neither was an appealing choice. “What about Molly?” I asked, stalling.
“Molly can take care of herself,” he said, glancing at her, gaze softening. “My magic has little effect on her when she’d rather it didn’t.”
Well, that was cryptic as fuck. Although she certainly hadn’t been there with me in the woods last night. In Nightingale’s drug-addled vision of the woods, that is.
I sighed. “I’ll talk to Dr Walid about options. But I don’t think you can do without pain relief – or should,” I amended, seeing his look. “And I don’t think you should be left alone in here either. Even with Molly – she’s not exactly going to ring up if you need help, is she?”
Molly gave me an unimpressed look.
Although I’m sure in the usual course of events a report of Weird Shit going down at the Folly wouldn’t have caused Dr Walid to crack an eyelid open, the report of Nightingale bringing back the 1940s got him out of bed on a Saturday morning. He was over at the Folly in half an hour, dressed in casual slacks and an open-collared shirt.
“And you say you were brought back in time?” asked Walid, having cornered me prior to seeing Nightingale.
“I think it was more like a glamour – though it didn’t feel anything like the one Mama Thames and Lady Ty tried. He changed the way the world looked, but not to influence me into doing anything.”
“He didn’t mean to do it at all; I think he was half-dreaming, or having some sort of PTSD event, or something.” I’d had some time to think about it, but even so my summary was hardly brilliant. “He blames it on the new painkillers. I think he lost control of himself, and it terrified him. Didn’t do me much good either, if I’m honest.”
“But he didn’t hurt you.”
“No,” I confirmed, holding back on the fact that he at least was convinced he easily could have.
“Alright. I’ll speak to him. There are several different options for pain control; we can find one that doesn’t have such an effect on him.”
I shrugged; it was his job to convince Nightingale of that, not mine.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of keeping my lodgings, I stayed out of Nightingale’s way after the doctor departed, working away at the homework he had set me in the general library from a chair set up against the fireplace.
The day passed slowly – Latin isn’t known to be one of the more exciting areas of study. Lesley, when I told her I was learning it, had regaled me with a rhyme from her parents’ day:
Latin is a dead language, it’s plain enough to see
It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me
Which pretty aptly described it. But it was still better than facing the Covent Garden mess, or, at this moment, Nightingale.
I’ve never almost accidentally killed someone – except maybe from poor hand hygiene when I was working as a kitchen assistant after school – and I couldn’t really imagine what he was thinking. I didn’t want to, either. It’s plain enough that whatever Nightingale has locked up in that sleek head of his is nightmarish, and I’ve seen enough nightmares recently. And, more to the point, if he saw me and kicked me out of the Folly, it would be back to my parents and after an afternoon with them I remember all the reasons the police dormitories seemed like abject paradise.
I avoided him neatly through dinner, finished the evening back in the library reading a cheap novel I’d picked up from a used book store, and slipped up to bed for a nice quiet sleep hopefully not interrupted by any living-colour war flash-backs.
In the morning I woke, as always, with Molly hovering forebodingly in the doorway. This time though, after my obligatory start and suppressed curse, she failed to disappear. Stood, staring at me as if I was a speck of dirt on her nice clean kitchen counter.
“Do you need something?” I asked, foolishly – as though she would. She didn’t blink, so I pressed on. “Is it Nightingale?”
She pursed her lips, dangerous for someone with teeth as sharp as hers.
“Does he need something?”
She inclined her head.
She just stared. Then she turned and glided away, apparently bored with the conversation.
I got up, pulled on some clothes, and hurried downstairs. It was already past eight; having no official duties was starting to breed bad habits.
I bypassed the dining room, the smell of sausages and bacon wafting from the open door, and on into the back corridor of the Folly. Nightingale’s door was open.
The fire was still blazing away, and the temperature was a little oppressive – Molly was clearly outdoing herself. I saw that Nightingale was sitting up in bed with his covers pushed down to his lap, wearing a thin silk pyjama top that could almost have been a proper shirt, albeit only one owned by the one percent. He had more books on his bed stand now, as well as the Times, but none of them were on his bed. He was watching the fire, flames flickering in his pale grey eyes, and he didn’t turn as I entered.
“Sir?” I said, quietly, to make sure he knew I was there. He didn’t look.
“There was a time, you know, when I never thought I would be warm again.” He folded his hands over his lap, long fingers woven neatly together. The nurses had rubbed cream into them in hospital, worried about his dry skin cracking. “Sometimes it can be hard in the moment to see the future, or even a future.”
“You said you couldn’t have an apprentice,” I ventured slowly, unsure if he was talking about the other night.
“Did I?” He let his breath out in a long slow sigh. “I imagine I did feel that way – I don’t remember, specifically. Mostly, I just remember the horror. At what my art had done, and at what had been done to us.” He turned, face very grave. “Yes, I can see how I would have said that, Peter. Even with the magic fading, there was much to do, especially at first – an apprentice would have been a help. But for a time, a long time, magic seemed much more of a curse than a gift. Perhaps it still is – perhaps you think so, now?”
“It’s like any tool – or any weapon, surely? No moral qualities in and of itself, only what we use it for.”
“And if we did not pass on the skill, then there would be no one hurt by it.”
“But then you have to know no one else is passing it on – or that no one would learn it again, invent a way to use it like Newton. Surely it’s the deterrence theory.”
Nightingale frowned sadly. “When I was a boy, magic was not considered a weapon; it was an avenue to many things, and violence was among them, but certainly not chief.”
“And now?” I asked.
“Now I am a policeman; it’s my job to deal with violence, that’s what I see. And of the Newtonians, I’m the only one left – what use I put to my magic is what use there is for it.” He closed his eyes, sinking back into the pillows. “And if I used that magic to harm you – to ever harm anyone in my charge,” he began, wearily.
“We both know it was an accident,” I cut in. “Not your fault. It won’t happen again.”
Nightingale opened his eyes. Leaning back against the pillows, weary and wan, he suddenly looked much older than he appeared. Closer to his real age in the eyes at least; they stared back at me with a brittle hollowness.
“Perhaps it would be better if I had died, and the magic with me. If I take it to my grave, now.”
“You can’t,” I burst out with sudden, unexpected intensely. Then, more calmly, “You can’t just open this new world to me, then slam the door in my face. And think of what would have happened without anyone to stop Punch, or the vampires,” I added, trying to be aware that there was more to the world than just me me me.
“Oh, they’ll always be men like Frank Caffrey to take care of the monsters who go bump in the night. I –”
“You don’t have to be alone, sir,” I broke in suddenly, on impulse. “And you don’t deserve to be, either.” It was out of order, and also full of embarrassingly unnecessary sap. In a minute, if our Englishness didn’t come to the rescue, we’d be holding hands. I put mine in my pocket as a precautionary measure.
But Nightingale seemed surprised by my outburst and, I thought, a little touched. “Thank you,” he said, with a stiffness that I took to be embarrassment – God, I was embarrassing both of us. I had a sudden urge to slip out into the general library and bury myself under a mound of books on legislative changes from 1882. “I can understand that you wouldn’t want to give this up,” he began, slowly.
“Then don’t ask me to. Please. You can’t want to be the only one left, surely.”
Nightingale looked away, towards the fire. The light pained a delicate shadow under the prominent line of his cheekbone and jaw. “No,” he said at last, voice slightly choked. “No.”
“Then I’ll stay. Simple.”
Nightingale took a long, shaky breath. “Very well.” He drew in a second, easier breath and repeated himself, voice stronger. “Very well.” When he looked back to me, there was no longer any uncertainty in his gaze, just a hint of lingering sadness.
“You never said, sir. The forest – the war. You were injured. What happened?”
Nightingale stared back at me evenly and I broke first, looking away from that steely gaze. When I glanced back, Nightingale was tilting his head back into the embrace of his pillows, his grey eyes staring off into the distance. Or, perhaps, the past.
“Ask me that some other time, Peter. Some other time.”