Hardison stares at the screen until it starts to fuzz out of focus. No matter how long he looks, it’s still definitely the Metropolitan Police’s HOLMES interface, and it still definitely has the word “magic” in it.
It’s times like these when Hardison just gives up and calls his Nana.
“Slow down, Alec!” Nana says. Her voice still cuts him down to, like, two feet tall, even over the phone, which is just not fair. “Why were you looking into Scotland Yard’s records in the first place? You been rereading Sherlock Holmes or something?”
It’s kind of cute, the way Nana says Alec was “looking into” it when she damn well knows it was hacking. Nana doesn’t mind crime so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, but she isn’t gonna call it crime, thank you very much. “We had a client,” Alec explains. “Came here from England ten years ago. She has a half-brother, troubled, you know, drug problem, but they stayed in touch. Until he stopped being in touch. She didn’t hear from him in months, and all his old friends back in London said he’d fallen off the radar too, so she came to us for help. He was working for this company, County Gard, so I went looking and… well, it had your kind of thing going on.”
“All right, I’m listening,” Nana says. “Now tell me who the officer on record is.”
“Constable Peter Grant,” Alec says, feeling himself slipping into presentation-for-the-team mode. “His boss is Inspector Thomas Nightingale. They’re based out of this weird old building in Russell Square and – ”
“Russell Square? You mean the Folly – those old sumbitches – my teacher told me they went down with World War Two!” She cusses long and hard enough to make Eliot’s soldier friends sound like kindergartners. “Get me their phone number, Alec. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this, you mark my words.”
It’s after ten o’clock, so Peter’s the one who gets to answer the phone. “Belgravia?” he asks Molly, putting a premature end to his Battlestar Galactica marathon. She shakes her head, and it’s vehement enough that Peter gets the distinct impression that it’s not from anyone in the Met at all – and it really should be doing his head in that he can read that much into Molly’s body language, but somehow it just feels somewhere dangerously close to domestic.
He takes the call off hold. “Constable Grant, Special Assessment Unit. How may I help you?”
“Theresa Washington, Hyde Park Knitting Circle,” says an elderly woman with a sharp American accent – city-dweller, black, not from the South, if American TV shows have made Peter any judge, so he’s fairly sure she means the neighborhood where Obama lives, not his Hyde Park – though for all he knows there could be a group of elderly Americans in London who enjoy knitting au plein air. “Is Special Assessment Unit what they’re calling the Folly these days?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Peter says slowly, buying his brain time to catch up. If there are any Americans who know about the Folly besides Agent Reynolds, Nightingale certainly isn’t aware of them.
“And they let you in on the forms and mysteries and all that fancy powdered-wig whatnot?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Peter says, because that’s what he says when an elderly black woman asks him a question. “How about you?”
“Etta taught the knitting circle impello, picked that one up back at UPenn, it’s damn useful. That’s a form or a mystery, ain’t it, with the Latin and all those strict shapes in the mind-twist? But no, son, our spells go back to slavery days. Don’t know where they came from before that. Some mix of West African witchcraft and whatever they picked up from the masters, I suppose.” A pensive silence settles on her end of the line. Peter’s manners win over his curiosity, and he lets it go on. His patience is rewarded when she finally says, “Constable Grant, what can you tell me about the witch you call the Faceless Man?”
“How do you know about him?” Peter says, thinking that he’s never heard anyone besides his mum refer to a practitioner as a witch before.
“Never mind that,” Ms. Washington says firmly. “Tell me about him.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t discuss active investigations with the public.”
“I’m not the public, son, I’m a magician.”
Peter sighs. She’s right. She’s part of the broader magical community, and she has a right to know at least the well-established facts. “He’s a very dangerous magical practitioner, wanted for murder and domestic terrorism, among other things.”
“How about kidnapping? That on his rap sheet?”
Peter thinks about Tiger Boy and the other chimeras in the Strip Club of Dr. Moreau. “He’s never gotten his mitts on anyone with enough family to report a kidnapping. But we have reason to believe he might. Do you have any information relating to his case?”
“My son Alec is a… consultant.” Private detective, Peter fills in mentally. “His client is an English woman living in the States whose brother back home’s gone missing. Alec’s client says her brother was working for a company called County Gard. Sound familiar?”
It does, of course, but that doesn’t explain how a private detective managed to get hold of the Folly’s unedited case files. It seems that Ms. Washington knows the answer to that question, but isn’t about to say, and Peter wants to continue this conversation, so he isn’t about to ask. Yet. “What’s the brother’s name and address?” Peter says, readying his pen and paper.
“The name is Raj Mukherjee,” Ms. Washington says. “And the address is…”
Alec gets a call back quicker than he expected. Usually Nana does things in her own sweet time. He’s glad she’s giving this her full attention. Preethi was awfully worried about her brother.
“County Gard’s a shell company owned by a witch,” Nana tells him matter-of-factly.
Alec chokes on his orange soda. He knows his Nana can do magic, he’s seen it with his own two eyes, but he’s never heard her call anyone a witch before. Does that mean Nana and her knitting circle are witches? He’s always just thought of them as a bunch of sharp old ladies with some extra tricks up their sleeves. “What does that mean?”
“It means he uses magic against what it’s meant for. To get himself more power. And I know you take your work seriously, Alec, but witches don’t play. The reason those magician cops at the Folly call him the Faceless Man, like you saw in that file, is ‘cause he makes you forget his face. You better watch yourself, son. If I were you I’d tell your client to let that Constable and his Inspector handle it.”
“Nana, I’m not gonna try to make this into a Harry Potter versus Voldemort throwdown,” Alec says. “We ain’t gonna slay the evil witch. We just wanna find out what happened to Raj after he started working for this faceless dude’s company. Taking down evil corporations is what we do.”
Nana clicks her tongue. “I know there’s no stopping you once you got an idea in your head. Just make sure those partners of yours know what you’re getting yourselves into. And make sure to call them Isaacs for backup if you need them.”
“Isaacs? You mean the magic cops? Why are they Isaacs?”
“‘Cause their fancy Latin magic was all worked out by Isaac Newton. He founded that old boys’ magic club in Russell Square.”
“Isaac – the Isaac Newton? As in Sir Isaac? He was a magician – did he write this stuff down somewhere? I need to see that!”
“Ask the Isaacs if you’re so damn keen,” Nana says. “I got no use for any magic where you need to go around mumbling shit in Latin.”
“She definitely said ‘knitting circle,’” Peter confirms, taking a fortifying swig of coffee.
“And her son,” Nightingale says. “Is he a practitioner as well?”
“No,” Peter says. He was relieved to hear that from Ms. Washington, to be honest. A private detective who’s also a wizard sounds far too much like something out of a bad novel. “But he is aware of the demi-monde, or whatever they call it in America.”
Nightingale looks down at his nearly-empty breakfast plate and sighs. “We know the Faceless Man kills his employees when they are no longer of use to him. Or uses them for his… experiments. All of his victims we’ve encountered so far had no one to take notice if they went missing. In this particular case, the Faceless Man must have missed the half-sister in America.”
“We don’t know he’s dead,” Peter points out. “This may be our chance to get one of the Faceless Man’s victims out before he’s killed.”
“I certainly hope so.” Nightingale looks at Peter, eyes sharp. “Let’s direct our efforts toward a search warrant for Raj Mukherjee’s last known address, shall we?”
Hardison tells Parker and Eliot over dinner, so they’ll know he’s being serious. Ever since Eliot taught Parker how to feel things through his cooking, she considers any dinner of Eliot’s food to be Feelings Time.
“Sorry it’s been taking me so long to give you the rundown on the mark,” Hardison says, taking a sip of the very nicely paired wine Eliot picked for the meal. “It’s just… there’s something I gotta tell you first.”
Parker swallows her mouthful of ratatouille. Eliot shifts from watching Parker enjoy her food to watching Hardison. Both of them pay attention so completely, to everything, but especially to him. Sometimes he feels like he’s about to melt with the blue heat of both those pairs of eyes on him. “My Nana’s a magician. Not stage magic. Real magic.”
Parker tilts her head and hums. “That makes sense.”
Eliot leans forward a little. “What kind of magic?”
Hardison does a double take. “You two are cool with this? Just like that? You don’t need proof or anything?” He waves his hands. “I had slides. I had lists of magical places in Portland – I was gonna – ”
“You can show us if you want to,” Parker interrupts. “It sounds cool. But you don’t have to. I met a river spirit once.”
“A river?” Eliot says. “Which?”
“The Bronx River,” Parker says. “Back when I was living in New York.” Living rough on the New York City streets, Hardison’s mind fills in, because Parker never lets her childhood sound as bad as it really was. “I was sitting in the park by the river when I saw a woman pop her head up out of the water. I hadn’t seen her come up for air before, and she was just wearing a dress even though it was winter. I asked her how she was doing that. She said if I went into the river with her, I’d find out.”
“Did you?” Eliot says.
Parker eats a piece of roasted potato thoughtfully. “I don’t think I’d be here right now if I did.”
Hardison tries very hard not to focus on that, just on the fierce gladness that she is here with them, against all odds. “What about you, Eliot? Don’t tell me you’re secretly a werewolf or something.”
“If I was a werewolf, you’d have worked it out and made me one of your calendar app things ages ago,” Eliot says dismissively. “I’ve just seen things I can’t explain unless there’s magic out there somewhere. Weird footprints in the desert no human or animal could’ve made. A woman who told my unit to leave her home in this heavy kind of voice and we just… did, no questions asked.” He hesitates, then adds, “Ghosts. Seen my share of those.”
Eliot lets go of his wine glass. His hand flexes open and shut on the table, and Hardison grips it and nods. His Nana’s shown him ghosts. He liked them. But he can tell that what Eliot saw was different. Eliot doesn’t return the grip, but Hardison sees his eyes focus on his face instead of the window over his shoulder.
“Turns out there’s a special branch of the London police that deals with magic,” Hardison says. “I found it when I hacked into their case files. I called Nana about it. She told me that the guy behind County Gard and all those other shell companies is a witch. The Aurors call him the Faceless Man. I’m pretty sure he’s above our pay grade. We can’t touch him. Not directly, anyway.”
Eliot makes a face when Hardison calls the magic cops Aurors, but Hardison made him and Parker watch the Harry Potter movies, so he knows he knows what it means.
“We don’t have to take him down alone,” Parker says, and Hardison is reminded, hard, of how different a mastermind Parker is from Nate. “We just have to find out what happened to Raj and help the magic police take down the Faceless Man. Like we did with Lieutenant Bonanno back in Boston.”
Hardison smiles. “I’ll book the tickets for London tomorrow morning.”
Peter stares at his computer screen and tries to think of another combination of words to put into HOLMES that will get him what he wants out of it.
Raj Mukherjee’s squat had clearly not been occupied in months. There was no laptop, tablet, or mobile to be found, though there were micro USB chargers, which suggested he’d had them once. It had been too long for there to be any vestigia, granted that any magic had been cast there in the first place, though he checked the wooden mantelpiece with its few battered photos of Raj Mukherjee’s sister, and the metal sink streaked over with grime. If there was anything useful there, it was for the forensics team to know and Peter to find out later. But there had to be other missing persons cases tied to the Faceless Man’s companies in some way, if only Peter could find them.
An email appears in Peter’s inbox, sender unknown, with the subject line “Faceless, but not exactly paperless.” Peter’s pulse jumps. The only emails he receives with no sender that pass his spam filter are from Lesley.
You might want to check out the finances of Telcol Ltd. They’ve been selling all kinds of weird plastics to County Watch and County System Co. off the books. I have no idea why a witch would want so much plastic, but hey, you’re the Aurors here, not me.
Friends of the Hyde Park Knitting Circle
Peter rubs his temples. He ought to have known the private detective would get involved. This is not a case that civilians should be anywhere near, but there’s nothing Peter can do except call the guy’s mother. In the meantime, he’s not going to drop a possible lead. For a moment he wonders whether the Faceless Man is trying to build an army of Autons or something. Then he remembers the results of his experiments with Toby. Certain types of plastic store vestigia better than just about anything else. The Faceless Man could be buying this plastic to store magic, just like he did in Skygarden Tower. Peter pulls up the spreadsheet with his results measured in milli-yaps, googles Telcol Ltd., and gets on with it.
Hardison is listening over comms when Parker and Eliot break into the warehouse where County System Co. keeps all the weird plastic on the down low. He hears only his partners’ breath, nearly silent but not shallow, sneaky the way only the best thieves can be.
Suddenly there’s a terrible growling groan. Parker gasps, and Eliot launches himself at whatever-it-is with a meaty sound of impact. There’s another deep animal groan, a sound of tearing cloth, and a thud. Parker screams wordlessly. Hardison hears the sound of crunching plastic – Parker’s Taser smashed out of her hand – and another thud. It all happens so fast Hardison doesn’t even get the chance to ask them what’s happening.
With shaking hands, he pulls up the number on his cell phone. For a moment he just stares at it. Nana told him the Folly was a bunch of stuffy old white dudes who wore powdered wigs and chanted in Latin, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But she also told him they were his best chance at backup if the magic got too hot for them to handle. He makes the call.
“Hello?” he says. “My name’s Alec. Theresa Washington’s son. I need to talk to Constable Grant or Inspector Nightingale. It’s urgent.” Nothing but silence on the other end, and Hardison wonders if the call went through. Then he hears neat, clicking footsteps as whoever picked up the phone walks away. Hardison stays on the line, because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do if someone doesn’t answer. Constable Grant, Inspector Nightingale. They even sound like Aurors. Maybe they just Apparated into the warehouse and they’re rescuing Parker and Eliot already. Then he hears heavier, blunter footsteps, and a young English voice saying, “Constable Grant speaking.”
“This is Alec. My Nana’s Theresa Washington. I need backup. My partners went into a warehouse owned by County System Co. and something attacked them. And I mean something, not someone. It was growling, and I don’t know if they’re – ”
“What’s your location, Alec?” Constable Grant says. “I’ll be there right away.”
Hardison tells him the address and hangs up. He gets out of his rented van and stands in the cold autumn drizzle waiting for the Aurors to show up. He doesn’t expect them to come out of a sweet vintage Jag. He waves his arms at them and points to the warehouse. They nod and gesture for him to stay back. Hardison doesn’t need to be told. Anything that can take down Parker and Eliot is going to leave him as nothing but a smear on the floor.
He retreats to the van to get out of the rain and watches them through the windshield. Inspector Nightingale looks like an extra from at atmospheric period piece out on the fens or whatever those grim British landscapes are called, all dramatically swooshing wool coat and silver-topped cane – which is just about what he expected from Nana’s description. Constable Grant, though, is a black man about Hardison’s age, covered pragmatically in a black raincoat, a police baton clipped to his belt; he takes out his cell phone, looks at it, and switches it off. Somehow Hardison is more reassured by Grant’s sensible precautions than Nightingale’s Hogwarts chic. He looks like a guy who gets the job done.
He doesn’t know exactly what he expected to happen when they went inside the warehouse, but he doesn’t get it. There’s no shouting in Latin or colored lights spilling from around the doorframe or explosions. Through Parker and Eliot’s comms, he hears the animal moan start up again. One of the Aurors says a word Hardison can’t make out, then the sound over the comms dissolves into static.
Hardison curses and gets out of the van. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but if everything’s gone wrong and Parker and Eliot are still trapped in there with that monster, he’s got to do something. But before he gets to the warehouse door, it opens. Constable Grant leans out and waves to a pair of beat cops down the street – Hardison was so worried he didn’t notice them – and shouts, “All clear!” Then he turns to Hardison. “They’ll be all right. The ambulance is on its way.”
“Let me see them,” Hardison demands.
“I’m sorry,” Grant says. “I can’t let you in. You’ll contaminate the crime scene. The ambulance will be here any minute, I promise.”
“Quite right,” Nightingale says, in an honest to God BBC posh accent. “Secure the scene, Constable. And be careful around the plastics – they’ve got strong vestigia, and Lord knows what the Faceless Man’s been doing with them. I’ll stay at the entrance with Mr. Washington until the medics arrive.”
That confuses Hardison for a second, until he realizes that Nightingale thinks he has the same last name as his Nana. No reason to correct the cops when they already have convenient preconceived notions about you, that’s what Sophie would say.
When he joins Hardison at the warehouse door, he realizes that Nightingale’s trailing footprints of magic – he’s the one who cast whatever spell took down the monster and fried Eliot and Parker’s comms. The footprints are sharp and slightly smoking, like a sword pulled fresh from a hot forge. Nightingale’s getup isn’t just cosplay. He’s a real magician, on Nana’s level, maybe even higher.
“You saved them,” Hardison says. “Thanks, man.”
Nightingale raises his eyebrows. “How did you know it was me?”
“Footprints,” Hardison says. “I’m no magician, but my Nana taught me how to see ‘em. You’re the one leaving the footprints, not him.”
Nightingale looks like he wants to say a whole lot more, but the ambulance’s cry pierces the air as it draws up in front of the warehouse. Hardison gets out of the paramedics’ way and thinks fast about whose husband he’s going to be for the purposes of this hospital visit. Probably Eliot’s, since he’s a much worse patient than Parker. When the two of them come out on their stretchers, limp and already bruising, his hunch is confirmed. Both of them are down for the count, but Eliot is bleeding from defensive wounds along his forearms. From freaking claw marks.
“I’m his husband,” Hardison says to the closest paramedic. “I’m James Rhodes, he’s Tony Rhodes – that’s his sister Natasha – please, let me go with them, I have to – ”
“You have to give us some room, Mr. Rhodes,” the paramedic says briskly. “We’ll make space for you in the ambulance as soon as we have them set up.”
Hardison breathes and takes a few steps back. When he looks around, he doesn’t see the Aurors, or whatever it was that attacked Parker and Eliot. But it’s only a matter of time before he gets some damn answers.
Peter finds Alec in his purported sister-in-law’s room, tapping away at a tablet at her bedside. Natasha can’t have been too seriously hurt, because the number of monitors set up around her bed is just about the minimum. Still, Alec’s flashy outfit in pinks and oranges is rumpled from sitting around in waiting rooms, and he looks a little hollow around the eyes. He looks up and sets aside the tablet when Peter comes in.
“You told them your name was James Rhodes,” Peter tells him. “And checked them in as Tony and Natasha Rhodes. Seriously? No one in this hospital watched the Iron Man movies?”
Alec smirks and shrugs a little. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But the IDs check out.”
Peter sighs through his nose. Alec is far too good at his job. He takes another hard plastic seat in the hospital room. Alec is watching Natasha’s chest rise and fall. Peter remembers how Alec’s voice shook on the phone when she and Tony were in danger, the way he demanded to be let into the warehouse to see them when they were hurt. “Do they work for you?”
“Nah,” Alec says. “We’re in this together. Three Musketeers.” He turns to look at Peter. “What was that thing? What did this to them?”
Alec and his partners, whoever they were, should never have been at the warehouse. They should have left it to Peter and Nightingale to investigate. But he can’t deny that they’ve done the Folly a favor. They’ve found one of the Faceless Man’s stockpiles of vestigia-storing plastics, and they’ve spared the bodyguard the Faceless Man left to defend it from who knows what awful fate. “I need your word that you won’t get involved in this case any further,” Peter says. “And that you’ll turn over all the information you’ve gathered so far. Your partners could have been killed.”
Alec looks at Parker. His eyelashes flutter. Peter wonders whether he’s really married to her rather than “Tony,” but without having seen the three of them interact while conscious, it’s hard to tell. Alec says, “Yeah. I got that. We’ll leave you to the Auror business.”
“We’re not Aurors, and there’s no Ministry of Magic,” Peter says, because far too many smart-arses at the Met have asked him that question and he’d rather nip it in the bud. “We report to the Commissioner, same as any other police officer. And we don’t have wands. Just batons.”
Alec looks at him. “Don’t play. Wands or no wands, you’re Aurors, and you know exactly how cool that is.”
“It is pretty cool,” Peter admits.
“But seriously?” Alec says, looking back at Parker. “You guys better find Raj. His sister’s torn up over him. If I – I wouldn’t be able to take it. If I didn’t know what happened to my family. No matter how much of a screw-up junkie he was.”
“We did find him,” Peter says gently. “That’s who attacked your partners.”
“No way,” Alec says. “The claw marks – the growling – oh my God, is he a werewolf?”
“He’s not a werewolf,” Peter says. “But the Faceless Man… modified him. With magic. He’s more of a werebadger.”
He regrets the words as soon as they fall out of his mouth. Alec’s eyes bug out. “Excuse me? A werebadger? Are my partners going to start turning into badgers on the full moon?”
“It’s not like that,” Peter hastens to add. “The Faceless Man used magic to give him badger characteristics. He can’t make anyone else like him, and he’s not a mindless monster. He attacked them because he was under orders from the Faceless Man to protect the warehouse.”
“You’re saying he experimented on Raj to turn him into some kind of badger super-soldier?”
“And to hone his medical magic skills, probably,” Peter says. He pauses. “This doesn’t mean he’s not got options.”
“Hell yeah he’s got options,” Alec says heatedly, surprising Peter. “My Nana’s knitting circle will take him in, no questions asked. They won’t bat an eyelash, and he can be with his sister again.”
“There are options here in the UK, too,” Peter hedges. “Mr. Mukherjee can’t exactly get on a plane in his condition.”
Alec waves a hand. “I’ll take care of that. Preethi’s built her life in the States, and she wants her brother safe with her. That’s where he belongs.”
After finding the suspect finances and the plastics warehouse, Peter somehow doesn’t doubt that Alec can get a badger-man into the United States – he’d half-suspect the man of being a River or the like if he weren’t totally devoid of vestigia. But he needs to know whether Raj Mukherjee will be in good hands. “You seem very certain that the Hyde Park Knitting Circle will help Mr. Mukherjee.”
“I call her my Nana, but she’s my foster mom,” Alec says, a smile softening his mouth. “One of my foster sisters, Mary, was… different. Don’t ask me exactly how. But she could make you not notice her even when she was standing right in front of you, though it never worked on Nana. And she could see in the dark as if it was day. My Nana can, too, but she’s gotta cast a spell first. Anyway. No one else in the foster system would take Mary in. But Nana did.”
Peter will have to interview Preethi Mukherjee, and Ms. Washington again, before Raj Mukherjee gets released. But he’s starting to let himself be convinced this is the right choice.
Alec is back to watching Natasha. “How is she?” Peter says, realizing with a jolt that he’s neglected to ask.
“Concussion, broken tailbone,” Alec says. “She’ll be all right. E – Tony has to get rabies shots, just in case. He’s already conscious, and spitting mad that they’re not letting him get up and visit Natasha. He’s got to be the worst patient I’ve ever seen.” He squeezes Natasha’s hand and gets up. “Which reminds me, I really should visit him and make sure he hasn’t made any of the nurses cry.”
Maybe Tony really is Alec’s husband after all. Peter’s starting to get a bit confused. The nice thing about being a police officer, though, is that he can indulge his curiosity. “Are you actually married to Tony? Or to her?”
Alec’s eyes sparkle. “No.” Which he knows isn’t a proper answer, the sneak. ‘Three Musketeers’ is not actually an informative description of the relationships between three people, at least not by police standards.
Peter rallies. “You do know we’re going to need statements from all three of you once you’re all out of hospital.”
Alec grins. “If you can find us, you’re welcome to bring us in for questioning.”
Peter stands and glowers at Alec. He’s a little shorter, though, and Alec won’t stop smiling. “Don’t you dare, James Rhodes. I’ve got statements from river goddesses and half-goblins and faerie changelings. Don’t think I won’t get a statement from you.”
Alec blinks. “You’re… not joking, are you.”
Peter just glares.
“Fine,” Alec says. “But you’re getting statements from James, Tony, and Natasha Rhodes. You’re gonna have to write those names in your little police notebook, and no background checks you run are gonna contradict that.”
Peter raises his eyebrows. “I’ve had to take notes in my ‘little police notebook’ about carnivorous drugged-up unicorns. I’m pretty sure my ego can handle writing the thrilling tale of Tony, Rhodey, and Natasha’s adventures in London.”
“Carnivorous junkie unicorns?” Alec says. “Now you really are just playing.”
“Not in the slightest,” Peter says, fighting to keep up his best Nightingale-style deadpan.
Alec’s eyes widen. “Oh my God, you’re not. I can tell when people are lying and you are not.” He backs toward the door. “I’m getting out of here. I’m gonna go visit Tony and think about nice friendly sparkly pink unicorns who definitely don’t put meat or drugs in their mouths.”
It’s only when Alec is well down the corridor that Peter lets himself have a good laugh.
“You don’t truly believe the accountant at Telcol Ltd. had a sudden change of heart and confessed his crimes to Mr., Mr., and Miss Rhodes,” Nightingale says, reading a printed copy of the statements.
“Those aren’t their real names,” Peter says. “Ms. Washington’s son Alec got them from the Iron Man comics.”
“Well, we’ve got to call them something, and you haven’t got this Alec’s surname,” Nightingale says. “They’re not in HOLMES, I gather?”
Peter shakes his head.
“And you picked up no vestigia from any of them,” Nightingale continues.
“Ms. Washington could be lying about her son not being a practitioner,” Nightingale says. “While you were securing the crime scene, he told me he could sense the vestigia from the spell I cast in the warehouse. He called it ‘footprints.’”
“Anyone can learn to sense vestigia, practitioner or no,” Peter points out, filing away that tidbit about footprints for later – there’s a lot he’d love to know about the type of magic practiced by the Hyde Park Knitting Circle. “Magic isn’t the only way they could have accomplished this. You’d be surprised what hackers can do these days.”
Nightingale looks through the printouts spread out on the table and shakes his head. “I don’t believe it. There’s something crucial missing from this picture. Not even a criminal mastermind could pull off something quite this elegant.”
“It wasn’t all that elegant, was it? Two of them ended up in hospital.”
“Only because they couldn’t have possibly accounted for the Faceless Man’s biological experiments,” Nightingale insists.
“Look on the bright side,” Peter says. “Fraud’s going to have a field day with the hidden accounts with Telcol Ltd. This is a serious blow against the Faceless Man’s finances. And we’ll find out the truth about the Rhodeses and the Hyde Park Knitting Circle one day. I’ve started a file.”
“Ah, well,” Nightingale says, smiling. “If you’ve started a file, then I’m certain you’ll find your way to the truth sooner or later.”
And the thing is, Peter reflects, turning the thought this way and that in his mind, that when Nightingale says that, he really means it.
Alec knocks on his Nana’s door, Parker and Eliot standing just behind him on either side. She opens the door and looks at the three of them over her spectacles. Behind her, he can hear the familiar sounds of old women gossiping and knitting needles clacking. Then Nana’s broad face creases into a grin. “Finally I get to meet those spouses of yours, Alec! Parker, Eliot, come on in.”
“Nana, we’re not married,” Alec says, trailing her into the apartment. “Three-way marriage ain’t legal.”
“As far as I’m concerned, my Patrick and I were married since 1961, never mind that it wasn’t legal until ’67,” Nana says, stopping to touch the frame of a picture of her with her husband, who died before Alec came along. “You said you three made a commitment. That ought to be good enough for anyone.” She turns to Parker and Eliot, and Alec is gratified to see that Eliot’s face is radiating as much heat as Alec’s own, staining his pale cheeks pink. “You two call me Nana, and come ‘round here whenever you like.”
“Thank you, Nana,” Eliot says in an undertone, so quiet you could almost miss it, which is how Alec knows just how much he means it. Parker just nods, but her eyes are very wide. Alec calculates she’s going to need alone time on the roof inside of ten minutes.
“Where are Preethi and Raj?” she says.
“In the den with the knitting circle,” Nana says. “You three hang up your coats right here in the closet and I’ll introduce you. Etta and Mildred made pecan pie.”
When they come into the den, Nana announces, “Girls! Alec’s here with his spouses. Say hello to Parker and Eliot.”
The den smells mouthwateringly of pecan pie. The curtains are drawn back, and the windows are cracked open to let in a cool autumn breeze. Alec can feel the fingerprints of the knitting circle’s magic over the windows so no one can look in and see Raj. Alec won’t lie, the sight of Raj freaks him out pretty bad. He’s covered in black and white fur, and he has honest to God claws on the ends of his fingers, and he can’t help but think about the deep scratches those claws left on Eliot’s arms, which are still bandaged up right now. But Alec is good at grifting, damnit, and he’ll fake it until he makes it, because he found his sister Mary scary at first but now he can’t imagine being afraid of her. And the knitting circle ladies definitely aren’t afraid of him, passing him cups of iced tea and slices of pecan pie, telling him he’s just skin and bones, the poor child.
When they catch sight of Alec, the knitting circle clutch at their chests and exclaim at how nice a young man he’s become, and damn what a fine man he’s got, and look at that sweet little smile on his girl, he’s done so well for himself. Eliot smiles at Nana’s friends and gets their names, Parker takes Alec’s hand, and his face feels like a furnace. Preethi launches herself at them, Raj a step behind, but they stop short.
Preethi looks at them, almost overcome, then flings her arms around Parker. “You got him back,” she says. “I thought I’d never see him again. You got him back.”
Parker blinks, smiles, hesitantly, and pats Preethi on the back, twice. “Yeah. I did. I knew you’d want your brother back.”
Raj takes a step forward too, then hesitates. Alec opens his arms. “Come on, man. You wanna hug it out? Let’s hug it out.” Eliot and Parker are right here, and they won’t let Raj scratch him up. He’ll be okay. When Alec sees Raj’s furry face break into a disbelieving smile, Alec knows he’s done the right thing. He hugs Alec. “Thank you. Thank you so much. I thought I’d have to live like a dog in that warehouse forever, and I… I…”
Alec doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just lets Raj hug it out. “Who’re you staying with?”
“Theresa didn’t tell you? Right here with your Nana. She says she could use a strapping young man to help around the house.”
Nana. Still a foster mom after all these years. He beams at her. He hears Parker say to Michelle, “Thanks for the pie.” Eliot is demanding the pie recipe from Etta. They’ll be okay without him. Right now, he needs to hug his Nana.
“I’m so happy they didn’t hurt him,” Nana says into Alec’s chest. “From what I heard about the Isaacs, they’d’ve just barged into that warehouse and killed anyone still standing. But they took him in, kept him out of trouble. Sent him to where ought to be. You must’ve talked them ‘round. My sweet boy.”
“I may have used my famous powers of persuasion,” Alec says, grinning. “But you know, they weren’t so bad. They cared about what happened to him, Nana. There’s a few good cops out there. In England, anyway.”
“Alec!” Etta says. “If you don’t get over here now, I’m gonna steal your man. He knows more baking tricks than I do, and I’ve got kitchen spells passed down from my Nana!”
“Teach me?” Eliot asks her, and he seems a little too eager for it just to be idle charm.
Alec reaches out a hand. “No way you get to learn magic before I do, E. C’mon. I bet Parker wants to go on the roof.”
Parker mouths thank you at him, turning her head so the knitting circle won’t see. Alec winks. She likes them, he can tell, but it’s all getting to be a little much for her.
Eliot takes his hand, and the knitting circle smiles. It feels good to be able to show the way he feels about his partners to people who really know him.
“That roof ain’t got guardrails!” Nana says. “Michelle, give me those hats you knit last week.” Michelle opens up her tote bag. “Mmm-hmm. Here we are,” Nana says, taking out three knit hats in red, blue, and green. “Go on and put these on. They’ll keep you grounded. Don’t you dare fall, you hear me?”
Alec puts the red hat on, feels the fingerprints of Michelle’s magic all over it. When Eliot puts on the blue hat, he narrows his eyes and looks thoughtful. Of course he’d start to feel fingerprints right away, when it took Alec years to learn. Alec shakes his head and takes Parker by the hand. “With Parker up there with us? We’re safe as houses, baby.” And with both of them in the warmth and magic of his childhood home, he feels as if Parker and Eliot, too, are as safe as they could ever be.