Look, it wasn't my fault, no matter what Guleed says. If anything, it was her fault, because she was the one who called me in in the first place.
It was a hot evening, like most of July that year, and I was working late. I'd already called Bev to tell her that I was going to spend the night at the Folly and I was dividing my time between memorising Latin conjugations and declensions, writing up a report on a not so small, but fortunately brief flood of the River Thames at Canary Wharf (it's not a good idea to piss off a river goddess, particularly not Mama Thames) and wishing that air conditioning was not an unheard-of luxury at the Folly—not to mention most of the rest of London.
"I've got one for you," Guleed said, without preamble, as soon as I answered her call.
"What makes you think it's one of ours?" I asked in reply. "Enchanted clock? Haunted riverboat? Evidence of another previously unknown civilisation in the sewers?"
"Nothing like any of that," she said. "It's a break-in."
"And you're not up to dealing with that yourselves?" I said, raising my eyebrows in mock horror, even though of course she couldn't see me down the phone.
"Stop that—and you can get that look off your face," she said, proving that at this point she knew me well enough that she didn't have to see me.
"I take it there's been a break-in and some sort of foul play," I said, "or else they wouldn't have called in the Homicide Assessment Team, but I still don't see why you need us." And yes, I used the plural, but really I meant me, since Nightingale was in Cambridge. He'd been called in to deal with, of all things, a cursed glass prism in the allegedly non-magical papers of the great Sir Isaac himself at the Cambridge University Library, or 'the other place', as the Folly's archivist—and Curator of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library—Professor Postmartin likes to call it. Nightingale had afterwards been invited to the Formal Hall dinner by the Master of Trinity College. He wouldn't be back until morning, which was why I was holding the fort at the Folly that night.
"Because the… suspect who broke in may still be there, and we're pretty sure they have wings," she said.
"Okay, yeah, sounds like one of ours," I had to agree. At least it was a chance to get out into the cool—or cooler—night air outside. "I'll be right over. What's the address?"
Guleed paused infinitesimally before replying, just long enough that I could tell she was going to enjoy this. "The Elizabeth Tower, Palace of Westminster, SW1."
The north tower of the Palace of Westminster, where you'll find the Houses of Parliament, has only been called the Elizabeth Tower since 2012, when it was renamed to commemorate the Queen's diamond jubilee—the perfect anniversary present for the monarch that has everything. Before that, its official name was the Clock Tower, but it's known throughout the world as Big Ben. Technically, of course, Big Ben is the nickname of the largest of the five bells that sit in the belfry above the clock faces, but 'Big Ben' has a better ring to it than 'clock tower'.
And yes, I did have to say that.
The clock tower was the last design of that great champion of the Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin, before he descended into madness in 1852—possibly the result of too many years obsessing over pointed arches, vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses, but more likely because of syphilis contracted from a prostitute in his youth.
That night, most of Pugin's grand vision was obscured by scaffolding courtesy of the extensive restoration works that had already been in progress for what seemed like forever. I parked the orange Asbo on the pavement amongst the sprinter vans, as unobtrusively as I could—which, admittedly, wasn't saying much, given that it was, well, orange, and right next to a world famous landmark. There was no sign of any media on the scene—so far—and stationed at the perimeter, keeping at bay curious, vaguely lost tourists and the occasional nosy Londoner, was a sandy-haired, pink-faced uniform who looked barely old enough to be allowed to cross the road by himself. He swallowed nervously as I approached, but he let me through once I flashed my warrant card his way. I ducked under the police tape, and found Guleed waiting for me at the base of the tower. Naturally, I wished her a cheery good evening.
"What's up?" I said, and then, taking in the noddy suit she was wearing and the white forensics tent lurking ominously close to the scaffolding behind her, added, "Or maybe that should have been 'what's down?'"
She squinted up at the top of the tower. "I was hoping that you could give me the answer to the first one, and as for the second…"
She led the way to where my own noddy suit awaited, and, once I'd struggled into it, continued on into the tent, where we found Dr Vaughan, poking at a body that had clearly suffered the sort of trauma that might be expected after falling from a great height.
I greeted Dr Vaughan, and asked where Dr Walid was.
"Tenerife," Dr Vaughan said darkly.
"He's the keynote speaker at a gastroenterology conference," Guleed explained just a touch quickly, which was enough to tell me that the subject had already been covered in some depth.
"The European Gastrointestinal Congress, in Tenerife," Dr Vaughan said again. "The last conference I attended was in Edinburgh."
The last conference I'd gone to, if you could dignify it with the name, was in sunny downtown Cardiff, but it probably wasn't the best idea to point out in present company that it has the highest average monthly rainfall of any city in the UK, so instead I asked about the corpse.
He had been a heavy-set, middle-aged white man, and it came as no surprise when Guleed told me he was the foreman of the construction team working on the tower.
"One of the construction workers was walking across Westminster Bridge with his girlfriend earlier this evening and happened to look up at the belfry. He swears that he saw someone—or something—large moving around up there, right at the top of the scaffolding, even though work on the tower was over for the day and the site had been locked up. So he called his boss, who came in to check..."
"And a short time later, landed rather precipitously right here," Dr Vaughan finished.
"He fell from the scaffolding?" I asked, but I was already getting a bad feeling about this.
"Not fell. He was thrown," Dr Vaughan said with quiet, Welsh-accented relish.
"You're positive about that?" I said, though I really didn't doubt her. I just wanted to be sure. I was already compiling a mental list of the sorts of people—and creatures—capable of that sort of strength, and none of them were the sort you'd care to meet alone in a dark alley—or at the top of a clock tower—late at night.
"He couldn't have achieved that trajectory by falling, or by jumping for that matter. It's clear he was propelled with some force. Also, there's these." She pointed one gloved finger at a set of four deep, parallel lacerations across one meaty bicep. "Claw marks, unless I miss my guess." Her tone said that she didn't miss it, and made a point of never missing it. "From an appendage somewhat larger than a human hand."
I turned to Guleed. "Did you know about this when you called me?"
"I thought it was best that you hear those sorts of details from the expert," Guleed said, shrugging. "Does it make any difference?"
And no, of course it didn't. I was still the one who was going to have to go up there. I opened my mouth to speak, but at that opportune moment, the tent flap was pulled back to reveal DI Stephanopoulos, wearing a noddy suit and a scowl.
She wished us a good evening "Not that I expect it will be, given where we're standing right now" and asked where Nightingale was.
"Cambridge," I told her.
"Sounds about right," she muttered, and looked around. "Don't you usually call Dr Walid in for this sort of thing? Where is he?"
"Tenerife," Guleed and Dr Vaughan chorused.
"He's in the Canary Islands," I said. "Conference." Stephanopoulos's eyebrows rose. "Nice work if you can get it," she observed, and then asked for Dr Vaughan's thoughts on how and why the body had ended up where it did.
Once that had been thrashed out all over again to Stephanopoulos's satisfaction, she turned to me. "So what are you waiting for?"
"I'll just get out of this"—I waved a paper-clad arm—"and find a hard hat, and then I'll start climbing."
"What are you talking about?" That was Guleed again.
"I need to get to the top of the tower, so I'm going to have to climb the scaffolding.”
She frowned at me even as Stephanopoulos shook her head and said, "Peter. Why not just use the stairs?"
There's a dingy little—well, not so little—spiral stairwell inside the Elizabeth Tower. In my defence, I did know that. I even knew that it was 334 steps from the ground up to the top. What I didn't know was that, right then, the stairwell was still accessible. Installing a lift was very much part of the restoration plans, but, as I discovered from Guleed once she stopped shaking her head at me, work hadn't yet started on the shaft. This part of the tower was still very much as it always had been, right down to the small wooden door—rather ordinary if not for the fact that it was set into a neo-Gothic pointed arch in the stonework—with "clock tower" emblazoned in gold lettering on the front of it.
Guleed accompanied me up the stairs, at Stephanopoulos's insistence.
"I know it's probably expecting you to act against your intrinsic nature," Stephanopoulos said, "but try not to do anything bloody stupid while you're up there."
"Yes, boss," I said. "Avoid anything bloody stupid. Got it."
That earned me a withering look from Stephanopoulos. Perhaps not very surprisingly, that was when she decided that Guleed should go too, to 'provide backup'.
I cast a wary eye upwards as I set my foot on the bottom step, but nothing lurked above. Nothing that I could see, anyway, which wasn't exactly the most comforting of thoughts. We made our way quickly up the first 150 or so steps before stopping briefly by the cloak room door about halfway up to discuss tactics—and to make sure we weren't hopelessly dizzy by the time we reached the top. Spiral staircases will do that to you if you tackle them at speed.
"When we get to the top, stay back," I told Guleed. "We just need to identify what's up there, if anything. I'll contain it if I can, but if not…"
"We regroup below and decide on our next move?" she suggested.
"Sounds like a plan," I said, because I didn't have a better one.
It didn't take us long to climb the rest of the stairs, and then we found ourselves facing a small door at the top.
"Stay here," I told Guleed. "I'm going in."
"We haven't reached the top yet," she said, and pushed the door open.
"Fuck," I said, screwing my eyes up at the sudden assault of brilliant, not to say blinding, light. I cracked one eye open and squinted through the doorway. A narrow, white-walled passageway stretched ahead of us. No, that wasn't quite right, I realised after a second. One wall was painted white, and fitted with the lights that were currently doing their very best to burn out my retinas, but the other was made up of several hundred white, opalescent glass shards, set in a huge circle—6.9 metres in diameter, to be precise.
We were directly behind one of the clock faces. I could see the shadow of the hands of the clock on the other side of the glass. There are very few good things about suddenly finding yourself inside such a bright, confined space, but numbered among those few is that there's nowhere for anyone—or anything—to hide.
"Nothing here," I said to Guleed. "Come on."
She muttered something that I decided not to hear, and I led the way around the corner to the next clock face. This one was currently hidden behind the scaffolding, and, fortunately, only the emergency lights were on. I blinked, letting my eyes adjust to the thankfully non-dazzling light, and continued on past the second clock face and then the third, until we reached the last clock face, after which we came to another, much shorter, flight of stairs, which took us up to the mechanism room.
A quick glance around, and the lack of any obvious vestigia, told us that there was nothing magical or alive—or magically alive—lurking here, either. Near the centre of the room was a very modern-looking electric motorised contraption that kept the hands on the single currently-visible clock face moving, even while Big Ben itself remained silent during the renovations. It was a substitute for the real clock mechanism that had stood there for over 150 years and was currently off being restored. The pieces were so heavy that when they'd dismantled it and taken it away they'd had to use a winch.
"It's a shame we didn't get to see the real thing in action," I said.
"I'm not so sure about that," Guleed said, and pointed to a sign on the wall, commemorating the day in August, 1976, when the chiming mechanism had fractured, succumbing to metal fatigue, and sent shrapnel flying across the room at high velocity.
"Who says clock maintenance people don't lead exciting lives?" I said.
"It happened in the early hours of the morning," Guleed said, still reading, "so no one was here at the time."
I cast another glance around the room. It was clear that no one was here now, either, apart from the two of us. "Our intruder must be in the belfry," I said.
"Most likely, if they're still here at all," Guleed said, following my mental leap without a blink. "The construction worker who called the foreman in said that whatever it was up there looked like it had wings. Maybe it's flown away."
"Something tells me it hasn't."
"Is your magic spidey-sense tingling?" she asked, sounding interested.
"That's not how it works," I said. "I can't sense living things in themselves. It's the vestigia I pick up, the magical imprints that they leave behind. The important thing is to be able to tell the difference between vestigia and the various random thoughts and general background noise in your brain."
Guleed had heard all of this before, of course, but she didn't object to undertaking an extremely cut down refresher course. Not audibly, anyway. Instead, she asked, "Anything so far?"
I shook my head. "Just the sort of background vestigia that's common to older buildings, particularly buildings made of stone." Stone is the best material for retaining vestigia, and I'd been aware of a dull but sonorous reverberation on the periphery of my senses since I entered the clock tower. It was about what I'd expected, and I was doing my best to ignore both it and some of the less than pleasant memories associated with my encounter with one of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's more recent creations.
We made our way up the final short flight of stairs to the belfry. Guleed waited out of sight, at the top of the stairs, and I opened the door—and was almost knocked flat by a wave of vestigia so strong that it was impossible to mistake it for anything else: the scent of rich, damp earth after rain, the clopping of horse's hooves on cobbles—and a twist of feeling, something strong and sharp and empty.
It was stranger than any other vestigia I'd ever experienced, and not just because of the strength of it. At first, it seemed to be coming from somewhere on the far side of the gigantic bell, Big Ben itself, that hung in solitary splendour right in the centre of the belfry, surrounded by a barrier of far less splendid, but practical, chain wire. Then, a couple of seconds later, the wave hit me again, the source of it somewhere closer now but further off to the right, in the shadows beyond one of the smaller quarter bells.
Vestigia aren't supposed to move. They're meant to be a memory, a magical aftertaste, tied to a specific location. If this one hadn't been so strong as to be almost off the scale—the Yap scale, that is—I would have been tempted to think that it was simply a figment of my imagination, one of those random, background thoughts I'd so recently mentioned to Guleed. Some sort of ghost seemed like the most likely culprit. But did a ghost have the power to throw a man off a building?
I was just about to call to Guleed to come and have a scout around while I did an Initial Vestigia Assessment—which for once wasn't going to be all that difficult—when the intruder came flying at me, literally flying, with what looked like stone wings outstretched as it hurtled over the top of the chain wire.
Don't blink! I thought frantically, but it kept coming anyway, its huge, misshapen lion's mouth open in a snarl as its massive, clawed feet swiped at me and missed in the split second after I ducked and rolled out of the way.
Whatever it was, it definitely wasn't a ghost. It didn't look much like an Angel, either, apart from the wings, but the jury was still out on that one for the moment.
I had my shield up by the time I was back on my feet. This thing had already tossed one person off the top of the tower tonight, and I didn't intend to be its second victim. It was out of sight again, but I could feel it, back on the other side of Big Ben, a wave of wet dirt and whinnying horses, and the pain of something that might have been loss or regret—not that it was showing any sign of regret at its most recent actions.
I readied myself for the next attack. There wasn't any question of subduing it, or containing it, as I'd half-planned on the way up, beyond getting the hell out of there and locking the door behind us. But before I did that, I needed to get a better look at it, so that I could be absolutely sure of what we were dealing with.
I took a step closer to the chain wire barrier and called softly, "Here, kitty, kitty."
It moved in the shadows, not so much with a rustle of feathers as a scrape of stone, which all but confirmed my suspicions. Stone is the best substance for retaining vestigia. I think I've mentioned that?
I took a step back, and then another, luring it out beyond the barrier, where the overhead lighting was brightest. Stephanopoulos's instruction to avoid doing anything bloody stupid briefly echoed in my head, but I kept moving and, after a long, tense moment, so did the creature, until it was standing directly under one of the bare lightbulbs.
It was a gargoyle. Old and weathered, lion-faced but with the body and wings of a bird, it was about as tall as me, and it was stalking around in the belfry instead of crouched on a roof or on the side of a tower or wherever the hell else it was supposed to be. Did it belong on this tower? It was the obvious answer to the question of where it had come from. I knew there were four gargoyles, one for each corner of the clock tower, sitting just below the belfry. I'd driven past them, even walked past, times beyond count, but could I remember exactly what they looked like? Of course I couldn't. The clock tower was as familiar to me as the furniture in my parents' flat, and just like the furniture in my parents' flat, I already knew it so well that I couldn't remember the last time I'd really looked at it.
If I were to look over the edge right now, would I find that one of the gargoyles was missing from its place behind the scaffolding?
The gargoyle lunged suddenly, and another wave of vestigia hit me, but I was ready for it this time, dropping my shield just long enough to loose a fireball in its direction before I rolled out of its way again. The fireball caught it square in the chest. It staggered, but only briefly, and roared, though it sounded more like annoyance than pain. It was acting more or less as if I'd thrown a tennis ball at it rather than a fireball.
Well, that answered any questions I might have had left about the wisdom of trying to subdue it—and now I had an angry gargoyle on my hands. Not that it had been noticeably sweet-tempered before I'd hit it with the fireball.
I ducked behind one of the steel beams that held the bell in place and into the shadows beyond. I'd identified the intruder, and now I needed to get out of there, fast. The only problem was, I'd lured the gargoyle out into the open, and now it was between me and the door. I'd have to go the long way, right around Big Ben, and try to duck back out of the door before the gargoyle realised what was going on.
I got about a quarter of the way around the circumference of the bell when I became aware of that damp earth smell again and heard the rattle of wooden carriage wheels on cobbles. The gargoyle's vestigia was as effective a warning to its potential prey—right now, yours truly—as a bell on a cat, only in this case it was a lion. A magical stone lion. With wings. And it was coming around the bell in the opposite direction.
I hastily retraced my footsteps and wound up where I'd started, back under the beam, and glanced about in desperate hope of inspiration. The belfry doesn't have solid walls. Instead it has a series of arches—pointed in the neo-Gothic style, naturally—around each of its sides, open to the air, so that the chimes of the bells ring straight out above the city streets. Usually, there's a chain wire safety barrier across each of the arches, but I could see that they'd been removed all along one side, presumably so that they could lower people down to work on the clock face below.
That must have been how the gargoyle got in.
It was a health and safety case waiting to happen, one that I most definitely didn't want to be the subject of, so I bolted for the door, but the gargoyle was quicker and, maybe, smarter than I'd given it credit for. It loomed out of the shadows in front of me.
"Alone," it uttered in a bass rumble. "Alone."
"You can talk?" I asked, and yes, probably stopping to chat right then wasn't the best decision I've ever made, but it's fair to say that it surprised me. I hadn't expected it to be capable of speech—but then until a few minutes earlier I hadn't expected that a gargoyle would be chasing me around the belfry of the Elizabeth Tower, either.
"Aloooone," it said again, though it wasn't so much speaking as growling the word. It also wasn't an answer to my question.
Limited vocabulary, basic intelligence, I thought, mentally filing those details away for later—and ducked as it took another swipe at me.
I turned, and ran.
There was only one way to go, so I made for the nearest safety-free archway. The gargoyle came after me, as I knew it would. It sailed over the top of me as I swerved sideways and threw myself down on the floor just short of the empty air.
At least, that was the plan.
I hit the floor, but momentum kept me going. I scrabbled for purchase and managed to wrap a hand around a long metal bar, bolted into the bottom of the archway—the bottom piece of the absent safety barrier—even as the rest of me kept going and going.
Stephanopoulos told me later that I was quite the sight, hanging down in front of the enormous, brightly-lit clock face, but at the time all of my attention was on not continuing to hang there. There were only two options: either I pulled myself back up into the belfry or… Well, I didn't want to think about the other option, and my fingers were already slipping against the metal, my hand and arm screaming with pain at having to take my full weight. And where the hell was the gargoyle? It couldn't be far. I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I managed to grab hold of a piece of decorative stonework detailing with my other hand, for the first time in my life thankful for the excesses of Gothic Revival architecture, but my legs still dangled uselessly below.
It was Guleed's voice, coming from somewhere just above me. I felt her hand close around my wrist, surprisingly strong as her other hand gripped my shoulder. She wasn't strong enough to pull me up, though. All she could do was hold on. For now. The formae that Caroline Linden-Limmer used in her flying escapades would have come in very useful right then, but magic is a precision sport. You need to know exactly what you're doing and have the forma clear in your mind, or else there can be all sorts of unintended consequences. Now was definitely not the time for experiments.
I glanced to my right and there was the gargoyle. Or, at least, there was a gargoyle. It jutted out from the corner of the tower just as it was supposed to. It wasn't the one I'd met in the belfry, though it did look very like it. Its features were better defined, though. Less eroded.
Then my hand slipped, and I forgot all about gargoyles and everything else apart from not falling.
You know the thing about analogue clocks? They have two hands, and right then it was about one minute before 10.00pm, which meant that the minute hand, the long hand, all 4.3 metres of it, was pointed towards the XII at the top of the clock face. I swung my legs, as hard as I could, and managed to lodge one foot on the top of the minute hand.
It might not have been the time for experiments, but right then an experiment and a clock hand—and Guleed—was pretty much all I had.
I steadied myself, and mentally lined up the formae, impello and aer and a couple of others, that were the best I could do after several mostly fruitless weeks of trying to crack the secret of whatever it was Caroline was doing with—or to— the laws of motion. Then I took a deep breath, spoke the formae, and pushed off and up with as much force as I could manage while Guleed strained above.
It didn't work. Not really. At least, I didn't actually fly, but the air around me whooshed upwards and I don't think I was completely imagining that it took me with it, buoying me just enough that, combined with our efforts, we managed to get me back up the side of the tower.
Below me, I felt the hands of the clock reverberate, the huge sound penetrating right down into my bones. At least, I thought that was all they did. Remember what I said about unintended consequences?
I didn't have time to wonder any more about the clock right then, though. The gargoyle—the original one—had been suspiciously absent during the hair-raising less-than-a-minute-but-felt-like-several-hours that I'd hung from the side of the tower, so it was no real surprise that it made an experimental dive bomb at me when I was halfway back in through the archway, head and chest lying against the floor while my legs still stuck out above the ground. There was the sudden whoosh of flapping wings, and the now familiar sense of wet earth and desolation. Still, I yelped, so loudly that I think Guleeed almost let go of me, as flying stone abraded my shin. Only for a moment, though. A second later she was pulling as hard as she could, and at last I scrambled the rest of the way back into the belfry.
I lay there, spent and heaving for breath, while Guleed gasped beside me.
"I think-" I began, when I could finally catch my breath, but Guleed jumped to her feet before I could say anything more.
I hauled myself up on my elbows to look, preparing to roll out of the way, yet again, if I had to.
The gargoyle was perched on the outside of the archway I'd fallen out of and climbed back in through. I could see two pairs of huge, bird-like claws digging into the stone as if it were cheddar cheese.
Guleed raised her arms—a bit flashy, but she hadn't been trained by Nightingale—and uttered a single word, to the sound of tearing silk—her signare. I don't know what the word was because it wasn't in English. Or Latin, or even Ancient Greek. It was Mandarin, at a guess, and whatever it meant it had an effect on the gargoyle: it growled, deep and low like thunder, but even as I scrambled to my feet, it leapt off the archway and plummeted like the stone it was before swooping back up to my eye level, and then off into the night.
"Quick!" Guleed said. "That won't repel it for long. We need to get out of here."
I wasn't about to stop and argue the point, or even stop and ask her about just what else Michael Cheung had been teaching her in addition to her Muslim ninja tricks. I turned and I got, with Guleed hard on my heels.
Stephanopoulos was, of course, ecstatic to see us when we made it to the bottom of the clock tower.
"I'd only just finished assuring the assembled media that this definitely wasn't a terrorist incident when you decided to do that little acrobatic display in front of the clock face, Peter," she said, once she saw that we were both still in one piece. "Didn't I tell you not to do anything stupid?"
"Bloody stupid, boss. I'm pretty sure that was it," I said.
She eyed me with something like weary resignation—except with a bit more underlying bite. "You just can't resist, can you?"
"I've got to call Nightingale," I told her hastily, which was true, even if it was also extremely convenient right at that moment.
Nightingale didn't sound exactly thrilled to have his postprandial brandy with the Master of Trinity interrupted, but he perked up noticeably when I mentioned the gargoyle, on the loose in the middle of London and currently up to god knew what.
"I don't believe it's a threat," he said.
"It attacked me. More than once," I pointed out as mildly as I could. "And it threw the foreman off the top of the scaffolding."
"Yes, that is certainly more serious. Perhaps I should have phrased that as 'I don't believe it's a threat to anyone not intruding on its domain'," he amended. "Gargoyles are intimately connected with particular buildings, by design. This one has almost certainly been designated the guardian of the clock tower, and so comes awake when it senses a potential threat, or at particular times, much like the lion statues at the northern entrance to the British Museum."
"They come to life?" I asked, again thinking uneasily of Weeping Angels. The lions were on the Russell Square side of the museum, a stone's throw away from the Folly.
"Only on certain nights of the year," he assured me, as if that made all the difference. "Though they usually just stretch their legs and drink some water—sometimes they let out a roar or two—before they return to their slumbers."
"So they're sort of like a Genius Loci?" I asked. Genii locorum are spirits of places, rivers being greatly favoured, with forests a distant runner up, but sometimes buildings and other manmade places have them, too—like the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, for instance, where I had once spent a rather memorable night.
"No, much less than that," Nightingale said. "As I said, they are designated guardians, enchanted objects that watch over specific places."
"Designated by who?"
"By whom," Nightingale corrected, "though that is otherwise an excellent question. See how much you can dig up on the history of the gargoyles of the clock tower after I get back."
And yeah, I walked right into that one. "You're coming back to London tonight?" I asked.
"Yes, I think that might be the prudent course. Make sure that everyone stays well back from the upper reaches of the tower in the meantime, and keep watch until I get there."
Nightingale telling me to stand watch while he drove back from Cambridge immediately didn't exactly equate to 'it's not a threat', but I'm sure he knew that as well as I did. "Yes, sir," I said.
"I presume you're sure it is one of the gargoyles from the clock tower?" he continued.
"It looks like one," I said. "I'm going to check which one—if any—is missing before I do anything else, though."
"Good idea," he said, and paused for a moment. "The clock tower was completed in 1859, if I remember correctly. The reports of Sir Henry Pittaway from that period in the mundane library may prove to be of some assistance."
"Henry Pittaway. Got it," I said.
"Good. I'll see you when I get back," Nightingale said by way of farewell, and ended the call.
Once I'd hunted down Stephanopoulos and relayed Nightingale's orders about not letting anyone go up the tower, and assured her that I was staying around to keep watch until the big guns—or gun—arrived, I made my way out past the police perimeter—now manned, or personned, by considerably more than one wet behind the ears Uniform—and squinted up at the nearest corner of the tower, just below the belfry. The gargoyle that I had noticed when I'd dangled in front of the clock face remained exactly where it had been. Nothing suspicious about that one. There was another, matching, gargoyle at the corner on the other side of the clock face. It was also doing exactly what it was supposed to—nothing—and looked about as innocuous as it's possible for something with a snarling lion's face to look. Checking out the two gargoyles at the corners on the other side of the tower presented more difficulty. Even if I walked partway across the bridge to view them from a better angle, it was going to be impossible to make out much apart from the skeleton of the scaffolding in front of them. They were too high up for me to cast a werelight, particularly not one strong enough to give off enough light to be of any use.
I walked out along the Westminster Bridge a little way, anyway, just to see if I could make out any lion-bird shapes beneath the scaffolding even without the aid of any proper lighting. I walked about twenty metres, and then turned and looked up at the clock tower.
A shape flitted in front of the scaffolding, like some huge bat, and swooped up to settle on the edge of the cast iron roof. I watched it carefully, but it didn't move again, seeming content to perch there for the moment. It was only then that it occurred to me: if it was one of the gargoyles from that side of the tower, it was too big to extricate itself from its usual location without causing some serious damage to the scaffolding. And yet the scaffolding was intact.
Wherever that gargoyle had come from, it wasn't the clock tower. And yet it looked like one of the clock tower gargoyles, and it clearly thought—as much as it was capable of thought—that the tower was where it should be.
Nightingale was right. I needed to research the history of the tower and its gargoyles, and I needed to do it now.
The good thing about researching a building as famous as the Elizabeth Tower is that you can find out quite a bit about it on the internet before you even have to think about going near the haphazardly arranged—to be kind about it—files to be found in the Folly's mundane library. And the good thing about using the internet in the 21st century is that you can do it on a device that will fit in your back pocket, with a capacity many times greater than the computer technology used in the moon landing. Though admittedly that's a bit like comparing the size of a nuclear bomb to the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they were tiny, so of course just about any subsequently developed nuclear weapon is going to be multiple times larger.
But anyway, the good thing about having a portable computer in your back pocket is that you can use it almost any time and anywhere, up to and including when you're keeping watch on an unexpectedly active gargoyle perching high on the Elizabeth Tower on a warm Summer night.
I found Guleed waiting for me not far from the forensics tent. There was a standing order from Nightingale for her not to tell me about whatever aspects of the Chinese magical tradition Michael was sharing with her, and another standing order for me not to ask—but her telling and me asking were both sort of moot now that she'd repelled a gargoyle right in front of me.
"Don't ask. You know I can't tell you," she said.
Or then again, maybe not so moot.
"Was that Mandarin?" I asked. "Surely I'm allowed to ask that much," I added in response to the look she gave me.
"You can ask," she said, in a way that said very clearly that I shouldn't.
I put up my hands in appeasement. "Yeah, yeah. Don't ask, don't tell. I get it," I said. Because that was a policy that had worked out so well in the past.
"What did Nightingale have to say?" she asked.
"He's on his way back," I said. "I'm keeping an eye on the gargoyle until he gets here, but he doesn't think it's going to do anything so long as no one tries to intrude on its territory—the top of the tower."
She nodded. "Stephanopoulos told me to go home and get some sleep if you don't need me here."
I almost told her to go home, that I could manage fine by myself, but then common sense asserted itself. I do have some on occasion, whatever anyone else may say. "I need to see what I can find out online about the history of the clock tower, but I can't do that and also keep my eyes on the gargoyle."
"Get out your phone. It's not like I had anything better to do," she said with a faint smile.
I got out my phone.
It took hardly any time at all to discover that Big Ben had first struck the hour on 11th July, 1859.
One hundred and fifty nine years ago today.
That had to be significant. I took out my notebook and made a note to check Sir Henry Pittaway's reports for July 1859, and then I ran a search for "big ben" and "gargoyles". At the top of the search results were images of the clock tower, and the clock face I'd dangled in front of less than half an hour ago. There were also images of gargoyles. They varied in design. Some of them belonged to the main part of the Palace of Westminster, but there were several pictures of all too familiar lion-headed gargoyles, jutting out from the corners, high on the clock tower.
But I didn't do much more than glance at the pictures, once I'd identified them, because my eye was caught by one of the search results further down the screen:
A Little Piece of London—The University of North Carolina ...
https://gradschool.unc.edu › weiss › landmarks › person
While visiting London in 1933, Mrs. Katherine Pendleton Arrington saw two gargoyle carvings being removed from the Big Ben clock tower. She…
The University of North Carolina?
I clicked on the link. It led me to a single paragraph of text, and an accompanying picture of what could only be the gargoyle I'd encountered in the belfry of the clock tower tonight. It had the exact same expression, the same weathered features, the same clawed feet and bat-like wings.
It turned out that the original gargoyles on the clock tower had been replaced in 1933 because they'd been badly eroded by the 'London weather'. (I huffed at that. Try 'London pollution,' I thought, before I read on.) Mrs Arrington, described as 'a generous patron of the arts in North Carolina', had purchased two of the gargoyles from the clock tower, along with a statue of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century. ("As one does," I muttered.) She had had all three statues shipped to Chapel Hill and presented to the university as a gift.
According to the website, the two gargoyles were now crouched on the south side of Person Hall on the university's Chapel Hill campus—but I was willing to bet that right now, right this moment, there was one missing.
The question was, how had it ended up back in London?
I made a note to check in the mundane library for reports of magical events in London in general, and Westminster in particular, in 1932-33, as well as 1859—and Guleed touched my elbow.
"Look," she said in a low voice, and I glanced up quickly, just in time to see the gargoyle perch on the outside of the belfry, before slipping in through one of the pointed arches and disappearing inside.
"Well, at least it's not out in the open where anyone can look up and see it," I said.
"Let's hope it stays there until Nightingale arrives," Guleed said.
"And let's hope he's not much longer—I really need to get back to the Folly and check a few things."
We both looked up at the belfry, but there was no sign of movement inside.
It's a good hour and twenty minutes from Cambridge to the middle of London, even if you take the M11 and even late at night, but I don't think it was even an hour after I talked to him that Nightingale arrived outside the tower. Nightingale drives with the same sort of skill and precision that he applies to his spells, and he can drive like the wind even in the middle of London traffic when he wants to, but he still must have really put his foot down to get back so soon.
I wondered all over again just how much of a 'not a threat' the gargoyle truly was, but Nightingale's expression as he greeted us was serious rather than grim, and I felt the weight of responsibility lighten a little on my shoulders.
I provided him with a quick rundown of what had happened since we spoke—not much—and what I'd discovered about the likely origin of the gargoyle—not quite as not much, but still more questions than answers.
"Interesting," Nightingale said when I'd finished.
"Do you remember anything about how they dealt with them in 1933?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No. I was in the Far East at that time. Siam, if I remember correctly, so I'm afraid my memories of that period are of little use in this case. You've discovered quite a lot in a short time"—he cast my phone a slightly jaundiced look—"but there remains one niggling question."
I nodded, and waited for him to continue.
"You've determined that this gargoyle is one of the two that was sent to North Carolina, but four gargoyles were replaced in 1933. So what happened to the other two?"
It was a very good question. "I haven't seen any mention of them," I said, but I hadn't really looked, once I'd found the picture of our gargoyle in North Carolina.
"Get back to the Folly and see what else you can find out about the events of 1933—and 1859. I'll keep an eye on things here." He tilted his head back and looked up at the clock tower.
"You're not planning to do anything more… active?" I asked.
"No," Nightingale said. "Not unless it launches an attack somewhere other than the top of the tower—but I don't think it will do that. All we need do is keep watch from a distance, and wait until the first rays of dawn touch it and it turns to stone again."
"Problem solved." I was more than a little relieved that we weren't going to have to find a way to destroy it. Not while it was awake, anyway. "But just as well it's not a troll—and none of us are dwarves," I muttered. From the look Nightingale gave me then, it was clear that he'd never read 'The Hobbit'. "I'll get back to the Folly and hit the books," I added.
"Good luck," he said.
In the near distance, I heard a bellow that might have had some words in it somewhere, the sort of sound that might have been emitted by some deeply irritated Mancunian bull.
It was definitely time to get out of there.
Nightingale smiled, very slightly. "I believe, with an unhappy gargoyle on the loose at the top of the clock tower and Alexander no doubt equally… put out below, we can do with all the good luck we can get."
After that, he thanked Guleed for her assistance with the gargoyle, and told her to go home and get some sleep if her presence was no longer required by Stephanopoulos.
I walked back with Guleed to where the vehicles were parked—we carefully skirted the area where the sounds of a less than happy Detective Chief Inspector on the rampage were still to be heard—and said good night, and then I headed for the Folly.
Searching through the holdings of the mundane library, or the magical library for that matter, is a task I would have cheerfully offloaded onto Abigail, if not for the fact that it was late plus, much more importantly, she was in the middle of her exams. I'd been forbidden to distract Abigail from her studies by Nightingale, Varvara, Abigail's mum and, scariest of all, my mum, until her exams were over, so that night I was the one who dug through the banks of card indexes and then ascended the ladder to retrieve a heavy, octavo-sized volume bound in red morocco leather, from the top shelf.
It wasn't quite a set of County Practitioner's reports. The title page proclaimed it to be the journal of Sir Henry Pittaway, Bart., DD, FSW, for anno domini 1859, but when I leafed through, I realised that an incident book, or at least a record of magical incidents in the City of London, was exactly what it was. I turned to the pages covering July, and yes, there was what I was looking for, written out in beautiful, legible copperplate. Sir Henry had been present at what he described as the dedication ceremony for the new clock tower, and he himself had cast the many layers of protection spells to keep it safe from 'fire, flood, attack and invasion'.
I wasn't surprised that fire was first on the list, given what had happened to the old Palace of Westminster in 1834, which was the whole reason why they'd had to build the new, neo-Gothic version at all, but it was that word 'invasion' that interested me most. I read on, and yes, there it was: the four gargoyles were designated guardians of the tower and the clock, and invested with the power to defend it in times of peril.
I wouldn't have called tonight a time of peril, but maybe the gargoyle didn't see it that way.
I made some notes and closed the journal. It was a piece of the puzzle. An important piece, but still only a piece. Sighing, I went back to ransack the card catalogue some more.
I found what I was looking for in a volume that was an actual incident book, this one from 1933. The entry was from July 12th. On the night of the 11th, all four gargoyles had 'roused to waking' and 'aggressively deterred anyone who had attempted to enter the upper parts of the clock tower'. I wondered if anybody had been hurled to the ground that time, too. It seemed all too likely. It had taken several members of the Folly, fully-fledged wizards all, to subdue the gargoyles. The incident book didn't say exactly what they'd done—why record useful information about a serious magical incident at the heart of our great democracy when you can be vague instead?—but obviously even that wasn't enough to keep the gargoyles fully under control, because they had been replaced by new ones before the end of that year. Presumably, the decision had been made not to lay any enchantments on the replacements.
Alone, the gargoyle had said tonight. It had repeated that several times, and now it was starting to make sense. It had been taken back to London somehow—I still didn't know how—and tonight, on the anniversary of the casting of those spells of protection, when their strength was greatest (Maybe? I was grasping at straws here, but I was reasonably sure that I was on the way to turning them into a full bale or whatever the hell you call a big pile of straw.) Anyway, tonight, when their strength was greatest, the gargoyle had awoken, and of course it had flown straight back to the tower that it was duty bound to protect. But it hadn't been designed to protect the tower alone. There had been four gargoyles originally, and there were four now.
But none of the current gargoyles would ever wake up.
It must have been like coming home after a long time away in a strange land, only to find the house still standing but all of your family gone— or worse, to find their bodies.
I swallowed, wishing I had time to call Bev, but instead I called the University of North Carolina.
I didn't get very far with them. It was early evening there, and most of the staff and faculty had gone home for the day—those that weren't already on summer vacation. The harassed-sounding admin person I talked to claimed not to know about the gargoyles, until I mentioned Person Hall, and then she said, "Oh, them. Yes, I've walked past those ugly things many times. Why would you want to know about them? And who did you say you were again?" I repeated that I was a detective constable with the Metropolitan Police in London, but I don't think she really took it in. She didn't know who was responsible for the gargoyles. "Probably maintenance, but they'll all be gone for the day."
Eventually, I thanked her for her help—I don't think she even noticed the sarcasm—and ended the call.
And then I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and called Agent Kimberley Reynolds, my contact at the FBI. Officially, she worked for the Office of Partnership Engagement. Unofficially, she was as close as it came to being my opposite number in American law enforcement.
After we'd exchanged the usual pleasantries, she asked, bluntly, "What's up?"
"Have you ever been to North Carolina?" I asked in return.
I could tell that my attempts at subtly directing the conversation towards the subject of gargoyles had already failed, because I'm sure I heard her gasp before she said, "Why?"
I got straight to the point. "Do you know anything about the gargoyles at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill?" I asked.
"What do you know about the gargoyles?" she said. And then she sighed. "Of course, they came from London in the first place."
"So you do know about them," I said.
She sighed again. "Let me tell you the story."
Reynolds then proceeded to give me a potted history of the gargoyles since they'd arrived at the university in the 1930s, and another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. She told me that the gargoyles had been coming to life on the night of the 11th of July every year. It must have been quite a surprise the first time—and I wondered if the government official in London who'd authorised their sale to Mrs Arrington had thought to warn her. But then, maybe that official hadn't known that they were any more than cast off pieces of statuary, destined for some dusty store room, or wherever it is that such things go if they're not broken up once they're surplus to requirements. It seemed likely that officials of the time would have kept the specifics of the gargoyles' natures as quiet as possible—and told anyone who had seen them moving about on the clock tower that they'd imagined it.
Maybe you could get away with that in 1933. I didn't know what Stephanopoulos and DCI Seawoll were going to tell the media about the gargoyle that was up there right now, but at least that part wasn't my problem. Not yet, anyway.
But anyway, to get back to what Reynolds told me, the authorities in North Carolina had got used to the once-a-year awakening of the gargoyles. Beyond cordoning off Person Hall 'for maintenance' every 11th of July, and keeping a few people like Reynolds on standby through the night 'just in case', they hadn't seen a need to do anything about them.
"So you're there now?" I interrupted.
"No," Reynolds said patiently, "because the gargoyles aren't there any more. Not since the big storm last winter. One of them was badly damaged by a fallen tree. The other was sent off for repairs."
"Exactly where was it sent for repairs?" I asked. "There can't be a lot of stone masons who specialise in the restoration of neo-Gothic gargoyles in North Carolina."
"I don't know," she admitted, "but I'll make some calls and find out. Let me get back to you on that."
When she got back to me a quarter of an hour later, I wasn't remotely surprised to hear that the gargoyle had been sent to London for conservation work—to the British Museum to be exact.
"Now tell me what this is all about," she said.
So I gave her a very brief rundown of my evening so far.
She listened in silence, and then said, "Life's never dull when you're around, Peter."
I was going to protest about that, because it wasn't my fault that the gargoyle was even in London, but before I could she added, "Good luck. Let me know how it all turns out."
"Thanks," I said, and meant it.
Once Reynolds rang off, I called up Charing Cross nick—I'd done my probation there, so I was known to them, for their sins—and found out that yes, there'd been a break-in in the Museum's conservation department tonight. It had just been called in.
I thanked the duty sergeant, before she could ask me how I already knew about it, and ended the call. A break-in, I'd called it, but I was pretty sure it had been a break-out.
Finding out the fate of the other two gargoyles turned out to be more challenging than my original search. The gargoyles at the University of North Carolina were reasonably well-documented, but the other pair seemed to have been taken down from the clock tower in 1933 and vanished into thin air. I was beginning to wonder if they'd simply been taken to a scrap yard and broken up, when I spotted a reference to 'two discarded gargoyles that had been removed from Big Ben' in a biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served three non-consecutive terms as prime minister of Canada between 1921 and 1948.
Like Mrs Arrington in North Carolina, King was both rich and keen on acquiring souvenirs from trips abroad. At first, he'd placed the gargoyles by the steps at the entrance to the house on his country estate, but had later removed them to the fake ruins—otherwise known as a folly—that he'd had constructed because he felt that the gargoyles marked the house with 'ill omens'. According to the book, he'd far preferred the stone angels he'd had shipped from England at the same time.
I hoped, for the sake of anyone who visited, that they didn't weep.
I turned off the computer and sat back in my chair. Gargoyles at the Folly. It was the last piece of the puzzle.
The police perimeter had expanded considerably by the time I arrived back at the base of Elizabeth Tower, as had the police presence. Westminster Bridge had been closed to traffic, which was no doubt causing nightmares for motorists for miles around, but Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Seawoll was, fortunately, not on the rampage at the base of the tower—but only because he was currently addressing the assembled media in the press room at Belgravia Nick.
"I believe he said something about the gargoyle's being a malfunctioning drone," Nightingale said, enunciating the last two words carefully and raising one eyebrow slightly in a silent question.
"It's not a bad explanation," I said, nodding. "At least they're more likely to buy that than the truth."
"Indeed," Nightingale said. He glanced up at the tower.
"Where is it?" I asked. I couldn't see it.
"It flew up to the top of the Ayrton Light and stayed there for a while, and came back down into the belfry a short time ago," said Nightingale, referring to the lantern-like structure right at the top of the tower.
"You're sure it will turn to stone again at dawn?" I asked. Not that I doubted him, but Nightingale hadn't known anything much about the magical properties of the gargoyle until I'd told him.
"All such enchanted stone guardians work that way. They're creatures of the night—or perhaps creatures of the moonlight. Sunlight breaks the spell."
"Really?" I asked, interested. "Do you know why?"
"No," he said. "Perhaps you should look into it. I'm sure you and Abdul could determine some suitably scientific term to describe the phenomenon."
"Once he gets back from Tenerife," I said, and then had to explain to Nightingale what Dr Walid was doing in the Canary Islands. I also told him what I'd discovered about the magical history of the tower, ending with what had happened to the other two gargoyles.
"Canada?" he said, and then, "It's no less than I would have expected of someone like King, though."
"I thought we might send the gargoyle there, once we've got it down from the clock tower," I said. "If the University of North Carolina doesn't mind."
"You want to reunite it with its fellows. Compassion, Peter?" Nightingale said. It wasn't a criticism, but a genuine question.
"It only said one word to me: 'alone'. Over and over. And its vestigia… There was a feeling there of what I thought was loss, but it could have been loneliness."
"Perhaps both, if its sole companion of more than eighty years has recently been destroyed," Nightingale said.
"Nothing deserves to be so totally alone, to think that it's the last of its kind. Not when it's intelligent enough to be aware of it."
"Aware enough to suffer," Nightingale said quietly.
"Yes," I said, and looked up at the clock face rather than at him. "We'll probably need that winch they used on the clock mechanism to get it down in the morning."
"Undoubtedly," Nightingale said.
"We'd better store it in the Magical Suppression Area at the Folly and make certain it won't suddenly come back to life unexpectedly before we ship it off to Canada," I said.
"I doubt it will rouse again before July next year," Nightingale said, "but it's always wise to take every precaution with such things." He looked up at the tower again. "And with that in mind, we should continue to keep an eye on it until morning."
I nodded. "I'll take first watch if you like."
Nightingale shook his head. "No, you go home and get some sleep. I'll stay here until the sun comes up."
I didn't argue but said good night. I hadn't really been aware of any tiredness, but suddenly it was all I could do to suppress a yawn.
Something made me stop on my way back to the car, that lizard brain sense of being watched that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. I glanced up at the tower, looking for any sign of movement in the belfry, but there was nothing. I was about to turn away and start walking again when I saw it: a dark shape, wings outstretched, high above the Ayrton Light, gliding in front of the yellow of the full moon.
Below, Nightingale still stood, also looking up. He cast a solitary figure amidst the officers working at the crime scene. Alone—but not lonely, I thought.
Not any more.
I made my way back to where I'd parked the Asbo, turned on the ignition and pointed the car in the direction of Beverley and the twins and home—and realised I was going to have to go the long way. I was about to join the long line of motorists cursing the Met as they made their slow way home.
It would be worth all the hassle when I got there, though. More than worth it.
"And it will be worth it when you get to your destination, too," I said softly, glancing up at the clock tower before I squeezed the Asbo off the pavement and turned left onto Bridge Street.
The gargoyle didn't reply. I couldn't even feel it watching me now.
I turned towards home and didn't look back.
Got the blues… Big Ben clock hands change colour overnight!
London: 12 July 2018
Londoners woke up to an unexpected sight this morning, with the hands on the clock face of the iconic Big Ben tower changed from their familiar black to a striking navy blue. UK parliament authorities claim that the clock hands and the numerals on the dial have simply been restored to their original colour after months of careful research and restoration work by conservators. However, they could not say how the change had been effected literally overnight. It occurred the same night that a mysterious, out of control police drone crashed into the scaffolding surrounding the tower, resulting in the tragic death of a construction worker. A spokesman for the Metropolitan…
Guleed: Do u know anything about this?
Me: I deny everything!
Me: You can't prove it was me
Guleed: Are u saying it was the gargoyle?
Me: I'm saying that I don't know
Guleed: Because I wouldn't have thought it was smart enough. Or dumb enough.
Guleed: OK. Try: not reckless enough.
Me: Are you implying that im reckless
Guleed: I wasn't the one who ended up hanging in front of the clock face right above one of those suddenly blue clock hands.
Me: Look, it's not my fault…