The knocking on the door is quiet and respectful, but it's still distracting enough that I drop the cufflink. "Shit," I mutter, picking it up off the rug, before calling back, "Come in!"
Nightingale slips in quietly. "Laura's downstairs with Molly and Foxglove," he reassures me, before automatically starting to tidy the toys my daughter has scattered all across the floor in her late-night rampage of delight at getting to sleep over at the Folly again. It had taken ages to get her to fall asleep.
"Good," I say distractedly. "Hope you're prepared for her to start campaigning to live here full-time."
Nightingale has the smile on his face that he always has when his favorite goddaughter comes up in conversation. "You say that as though it would be a hardship," he replies. "The real trouble will be convincing Molly and Foxglove to let her leave."
I snort in acknowledgement. "Isn't that the truth--damn." The cufflink's slipped free again and falls to the floor. "Fucking--"
"Allow me," Nightingale says quickly, coming forward to pick it up before I can reach down myself for it. I flex my hands, willing the anxiety-induced clumsiness to go away. But it doesn't matter because Nightingale smoothly takes my wrist and starts fitting the cufflink to my sleeve easily, with the grace of a man who has been managing his own cufflinks for decades.
"Thanks," I say quietly, looking down at my shoes. New (but not too new-looking) smart shoes, carefully selected to pass without comment, as is the rest of my wardrobe, dark gray suit, black tie, trim and neat and boring.
Not that I think it matters what I wear. I could walk into the inquiry today wearing a neon Hawaiian shirt and jean shorts and it would be the last thing anyone would care about. (Well, maybe not, but the larger point stands.) But our new “media consultants” are very emphatic; every part of my public appearances that they can control, they will.
See, Britain? Magic is real and the police have secret wizards, but at least this bloke’s tie doesn’t clash with his suit!
Once Nightingale’s finished with my cuffs, he turns and picks up my suit jacket from the bed. “Didn’t realize the Met assigned you to be my valet,” I joke, and Nightingale rolls his eyes in amusement but gestures for me to turn around, and I follow his instructions, holding out my arms as Nightingale helps me into my jacket, his hands firm as they smooth down the line of the jacket along my shoulders.
“All right, do I pass muster?” I ask, buttoning up the top button.
Nightingale’s mouth quirks. “You’ll do,” he says.
I look him over as well--he looks tired, but as well put together as he always does, even if the modern cut of his new suit is jarring. “Has Molly locked away your usual wardrobe from the consultants?”
Nightingale smiles briefly. “I’m not sure where my suits are, but I’m confident they’re being well guarded,” he says.
“Think you’ll be allowed to wear them publicly?” I ask, doubtful. The head publicist, Julian, who looks the most likely to stay on permanently--God help us all--has openly stated his goal is to keep Nightingale as far back in the background as humanly possible, complaining openly about “fucking weirdo old-time cosplay”--at least until he’d caught sight of Molly’s glare, and then had quickly shut up, at least for a while.
“Hope springs eternal,” Nightingale says, but rather gloomily.
Before I can follow up on that, I hear soft footsteps rapidly approaching, and then the door creaks open, and my daughter comes in, announcing herself by singing, “Hi, hi, hi--”
“Hello, peanut,” I say, smiling without thought. "Did you finish your breakfast?"
"Uh huh," Laura confirms as she enthusiastically throws her tiny arms around my legs. She turns her round face up to meet my gaze, and politely demands, "Up, please."
"Oh, you want me to pick you up?" I tease. Next to me, Nightingale is beaming fondly at Laura.
Laura nods vigorously and starts chanting, bouncing on her heels as she does, "Up, up, up--"
I crouch down and lift her up into my arms, Laura's yell of victory temporarily deafening me in my left ear. Bit of a risk picking her up in a new suit, as her default stage of being at this age is "mysteriously sticky", but I'll risk it. Especially when Laura's been so clingy lately, poor kid. Practically every waking moment I have has been dedicated to dealing with the Verdon Inquiry and the fallout from The Revelation (tm the Guardian/New York Times/Daily Mail, etc etc). Bev's not much better with things from the demimonde side of it, which has left precious little time for our family life. Bev and I deal with it as best we can, but it's hard explaining to a three year-old that the reason Daddy and Mummy are hardly ever home is because the world's gone fucking mad.
So last night at Mama Thames' (where both sides of our family are now safely sequestered from the press and public) I'd been about to head over to the Folly for another fucking debrief and rehearsal for my morning testimony, but Laura had thrown a tantrum, and I'd just caved and brought her along with me. Julian and his associates had grumbled a little, but it had been a relief for all of us to have Laura here. Anything for a distraction.
Just like it's a relief and a distraction to hold her now, the familiar warm weight of her balanced in my arms, the smell of the coconut oil I'd used on her hair the night before. I'm getting really good with braids and twists now--Bev likes to tease that if I ever decide to leave the Folly, I have my second career as a hair stylist already waiting for me in the wings.
I glance over to my right, and Nightingale's still watching us fondly. "Want to say hi to Uncle Thomas?" I ask my daughter.
Laura promptly says, "Hi," but in a rare occurrence for her, stays firmly put in my arms rather then go to her godfather for an extra helping of cuddles and affection.
Nightingale doesn't make a fuss over it, just solemnly reaches out and boops her on the nose, a long-standing tradition with them. As Laura giggles, I ask him in a low voice, "Think we can just skive off and play blocks with Laura all day?"
Nightingale actually pauses to consider it, before shaking his head. "They'd track us down within hours," he says, but with regret.
There's a knock on the door before it opens, and my dad pokes his head in. He and my mum were both offered sanctuary at Mama Thames' compound from the hoards of paparazzi and gawkers currently laying siege to their flat, but Foxglove is working on a series of paintings of my dad, and took up the chance to have him around full-time as a life model.
"Sorry to interrupt," he says, "--but those posh twats downstairs are getting restless."
He pulls a face as he says it. My dad, impossible though it might seem, has an even lower opinion of Julian and his associates than anyone else I know. But then, he's been more livid than anyone about the press attention--not for their focus on his decades of drug addiction, but on the racism and xenophobia directed at me and Mum, and is not impressed with Julian’s insistence that, deplorable though it might be, we as an organization have bigger fish to fry at the moment.
(Two weeks later, he'll grab hold of the Twitter account that the Irregulars manage for him to accuse the British press of being, quote, "run by a wild pack of racist cunts'. He won't be wrong, but it'll still cause a firestorm.)
“All right,” I say, and even though I know this has been coming, my stomach somehow sinks even lower. “We should get going, then.”
I move to put Laura back down on her feet, but she grabs at my lapel and whimpers, “No!”
Maybe it’s coddling, but I don’t resist, sweeping her back up and heading out the door with her still balanced on my lap, Nightingale and my dad following.
Julian and his associates are waiting for us in the atrium, Julian pacing back and forth, hands jammed in the pockets of his Burberry suit. Molly and Foxglove are waiting for us as well, stone-faced. At least they’re no longer flinging buckets of icewater out the windows at the paparazzi.
Julian glares up at us from beneath one of his thick, impeccably groomed eyebrows and growls in his clipped Scottish burr, “You lot finally ready to go, then?” I suppose I have Laura’s presence to thank for the lack of profanities, a small blessing.
(We’ve been assured by everyone, the Commissioner, the Home Office, Lady Ty and Fleet, that Julian Patel is the publicist you need when you’re in the thick of a media firestorm. So far they haven’t been proven wrong, but that doesn’t take into account the man’s personality. “Who the hell dug up the real-life South Asian Malcolm Tucker?” I’d wondered after our first meeting, and then had to explain the Thick of It reference to Nightingale.)
“Yeah, we’re ready,” I say with a nod, and turn to my dad. “Dad, can you--”
“Yeah, of course,” my dad assures me, and takes a protesting Laura out of my arms. “Come on now, my love--”
Laura starts wailing in earnest now, and my heart clenches as I hear my dad doing his best to soothe her, her cries turning into hiccuping sobs, growing fainter as we leave.
Julian, thank fuck, doesn’t say anything as we get into the car. But once we’re safely inside the SUV and behind the tinted, bulletproof windows, he asks me, “Are you ready?”
I’m too tired and worn-down to restrain myself. “If I’m not, it’s a little late to do anything about it.”
“Very fucking funny,” Julian snaps back, and Nightingale shifts restlessly against me.
“Is there a point to this question, Mr. Patel?” he asks coolly.
Julian gives us both a mirthless smile, leaning in close. “My point,” he says heavily, “Is that Sergeant Grant here is our best chance of getting out of this disaster. Verdon’s been eating every witness from the Establishment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Home Secretary was the worst of it so far--”
Both Nightingale and I grimace. That had been a mess.
“--but I’ll bet you anything there’s worse yet to come. It doesn’t matter that Verdon himself is posher than the Royal Family, he’s got a grip on the public mood and so he’s going to be interrogating you like a Communist facing down Jeffrey Bezos.”
I rub my temples. “Right, and what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Tell him a story,” Julian says. “Make yourself human. Make all of this--magic bullshit something that ordinary people can understand.” He leans back in his seat and gestures at me. “It’ll be easier for you than anyone else, after all. You’re young, charming, mixed-race and working-class…you’ve got a shot. But don’t be glib,” he adds quickly.
“Heaven forbid there be glibness,” Nightingale says, very dryly. But just for a second, his shoulder presses against mine, firm and reassuring.
The Royal Courts of Justice are, as the tourist guides and Wikipedia will tell you, an excellent example of classic Victorian Gothic architecture. Any other time in my life, I'd happily spend a few moments looking over the facade and idly picturing a gargoyle or two lurking in the corners, or what it would look like on the moors in a thunderstorm, perhaps with a vampire lurking in the basement and your requisite heroine wandering outside in a thin nightgown and flowing, historically inaccurate locks of hair.
Any other time in my life, and I wouldn't need a police escort and an armored car to just get to the entrance, flashes from the paparazzi cameras appearing as fireworks around me and the roar of bystanders like a wall of sound as we arrive, even from behind the relative safety of the tinted windows.
Even Nightingale looks astonished at the scene in front of us--the scene we're about to walk right into. "Good Lord," he mutters. "The crowds haven't been nearly so bad before--"
"Yeah, well, they didn't have an actual wizard showing up to testify before today, did they?" Julian points out. He glances out the window himself and shakes his head. "Jesus." He looks at me, and says, in the moderately calm way that passes for sympathy with him, "You ready there, Grant?"
"We can take a moment first," Nightingale says, but I shake my head.
"It's not going to get better if we wait," I say, and reach for the door handle, but Nightingale stops me, unbuckling his seatbelt. "No, let me go out first," he urges, and I'm not inclined to argue.
The second that the door opens, the crowd somehow gets even louder, the sound swelling up like a wave, but there's no time to think, I just have to put one foot out and then the other, stepping out into a brick wall of noise and yelling and camera flashes blinding my sight.
(I don't look scared in the photographs of that day, which is a small mercy. Just rather blank-faced, my eyes a little wider than usual. At least my suit photographed well, which is nice, given that it's going to be in the history books long after I'm dead.)
I do spare a thought for the poor officers assigned to crowd control here, today of all days. Easier to think about that than to try and make out what's being yelled at my head, either from the bystanders or the photographers. But really, nearly all of my concentration is focused on not tripping over my feet, keeping my face blank and my gait even, all the while aware that if anything does go wrong, Nightingale is right here next to me.
Besides, this isn't the real test. That's still waiting for me inside.
I don't actually curse under my breath once I'm safely (hah) inside the building, but I do let my shoulders slump for a moment. We’re all crammed together in a small alcove that at least has the benefit of a thick stone wall at our backs, meaning the odds of eavesdroppers are relatively low.
“All right,” Julian says with a thump of his hand between my shoulderblades. “Easy part’s over with.”
I look over at him, ruffled and not trying to hide it anymore. “You’re not very comforting, you know that?” I mutter under my breath, and hear Nightingale snort quietly in agreement.
“You want comfort, go to your mother,” Julian retorts. “You want someone who will properly represent you--”
“Oh for God’s sake, Julian, relax already,” Catherine Poole says as she approaches. A middle-aged white woman who wears Chanel suits constantly, she, like Julian, had come very highly recommended for legal counsel. She’s the one that will be sitting next to me during the inquiry, offering advice when needed and intervening only if absolutely needed.
“You’ll be fine, Peter,” she tells me, just like everyone else has said, from Lady Ty to Julian to Seawoll to the bloody Commissioner of the Met. I will be absolutely fine, regardless of whatever the results of the inquiry are, because somewhere along the way I have become nearly as irreplaceable as Nightingale. I don’t know how to explain that I’m not worried about being fine, I’m worried about doing more good than harm, I’m worried about the constant state of hysteria outside the Folly’s walls and what will emerge from it, I just want--
“Peter?” Nightingale asks, cutting into my thoughts, I blink as I snap out of it, noticing three journalists doing their best to inch closer to us without making it clear that’s what they’re doing. For professional journalists they are quite bad at it.
Just then, my phone buzzes in my pocket, and Julian says in alarm, "Oi, I thought I had your phone--"
"You have one of my phones," I correct. "This one is for emergencies." As Julian starts to protest, I say, pulling it out of my pocket, "Don't worry, only a handful of people have this number--" And then I glance down and add, "Well, and the FBI, apparently."
Julian and Catherine gape at me, and Nightingale lets out the quiet cough that signals he's just holding back laughter. "Oh my God, smash that phone right this second," Julian hisses.
We're all punchy and half-mad from nerves, plus it's only a polite--if slightly inflammatory under the circumstances--good-luck text from Kim Reynolds. And to be fair, I may be still holding a grudge from the time that Julian, Catherine, and their assorted minions debated whether I should dial up my Multicultural London English accent for the cameras or dial it back.
So I make a show of tapping out a reply instead, and Julian actually has to be restrained from snatching the phone right out of my hands. "Julian, control yourself," Catherine says, with a warning glance at the journalists nearby, all of them fruitlessly craning their necks to get a better view of Julian being restrained by Nightingale's grip on his wrist.
As Julian stews and curses, I quickly text back, Thanks, any chance you'll point out the lurking CIA spooks in the gallery?
No dice, Peter.
Can't blame a man for trying. Dear NSA agent intercepting this text, hello from London!
Text already sent, I show my phone screen to Julian, Catherine, and Nightingale. "Oh my days," Catherine breathes out, while Nightingale snorts, lips pressed tightly together.
Julian glares at me balefully, eyes bloodshot and face thunderous, and I just ask with a smile, "Too glib?"
(The Guardian's live-blog will include a report from one of its journalists about overhearing Julian Patel calling someone "a little shit", but no one can quite agree who he was referring to.)
For all of the last-minute tension releasing shenanigans, by the time we are all seated in front of Lord Justice Alistair Verdon, I'm deathly serious again.
Verdon's partly to do with that, along with the microphone carefully placed right in front of me, ready to pick up so much as a sneeze. The international viewers of today's proceedings (Kim Reynolds among them, somewhere in the good old US of A) will be dimly surprised at the lack of bright red judicial robes and antique wig, but it just makes Verdon more intimidating rather than less, with the greying goatee and the receding fair hair shining under the lights, a faintly sardonic look on his face that says he's not exactly playing to the cameras, but he won't stop a witness from making themselves look like a fool either.
A fate that rather a lot of people have spent a great deal of time working to make sure that I avoid.
As Verdon starts to open the proceedings, a strange sensation comes over me. I've never longed to be a performer like my dad. As a kid, I was too easily distracted from my dad's half-hearted piano lessons, and I can't sing. Moreover, I've never felt that overwhelming compulsion to be the center of attention, the main event on a stage.
But on that day--and in the days of testimony that follow--some strange alchemy happens, an odd configuration of luck and weeks of preparation, and the silent urging of the Folly's associates all urging me on--I feel the tension leave my body, I feel my mind clearing itself, so that I’m both incredibly alert and calm, all at the same time.
“Sergeant Grant,” Verdon says, glancing at me over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses, “It’s a pleasure to have you here--finally.”
I ignore the not-so-subtle dig at the delaying tactics of the Met and Home Office, and say politely, “It’s an honor to be here, Mr. Chairman.” I can still sense something clicking into place, gears falling into alignment somewhere in the back of my head.
“I would like to begin today by discussing your introduction into the Special Assessment Unit, also known as the Folly, beginning in...January 2012, I understand.”
“Yes, sir,” I confirm, and that strange instinct clicking away in the back of my head pushes me on to add, “I found myself interviewing a witness at Covent Garden who turned out to be a ghost.”
A ripple of astonished laughter goes through the crowd behind me, and as I see Verdon’s mouth momentarily twitch before he gains control of himself, I think, Yeah, I’ve got you.
All of the drilling from Julian and his minions comes to the forefront now, as Verdon continues to grill me over the details of how I joined the Folly, how Nightingale brought me in, as well as the basic rules of proper magical education.
“Now, I understand that, ah, your type of magic comes with certain health risks and hazards.”
“That’s correct,” I say. “Careful management can limit the risks, but there is always a chance of permanent brain damage. The Folly’s been documenting the long-term health risks for years, and our medical staff have made several new breakthroughs, but there is an increased risk of stroke, sudden death…” I trail off because Verdon’s eyebrows are going up a little, and finish a little lamely with, “Or...other health problems.”
“Were you aware of the risks before signing on?”
“Yes,” I say firmly. “Inspector Nightingale and Dr. Walid were both very clear on that. There were,” I clear my throat, “Some very educational tours. And my health is monitored regularly, to catch anything before it becomes more serious.”
“Still, though,” Verdon says thoughtfully. “All those risks, and you still signed on--why?”
It’s not as though I didn’t know the question was coming. “Honestly, at the time, I couldn’t think of doing anything else. I still can’t imagine doing anything else. What I sawn in those few weeks...it was like I’d spent my entire life with bad eyesight, and someone offered me a pair of glasses. And I was needed--there was a place for me at the Folly, a job that needed doing. So I said yes.”
There’s a beat of relative silence while Verdon looks me over, clearly weighing my answer. He doesn’t reply, just drops his gaze and moves on to the next question, one about how exactly the Folly mitigates the risks of brain damage in its recruits.
Of course it’s impossible for me not to be aware of the crowd stationed behind me when I’m testifying. I’m doing a relatively good job of not thinking about the TV cameras catching my every twitch, but the living, breathing beings behind me--they’re a lot harder to ignore. Every muffled cough, every low murmur, every rustle of clothing--they’re all background noise, yes, but they’re still there.
Just like Beverley and Nightingale are there, just a few seats behind me. But I can’t think about them, just like I can’t think about everyone watching back at the Folly, our apprentices all crammed together in the tech cave, Molly and Foxglove in the back following it all on Twitter. Or my mother watching from the safety of Mama Thames’s court, lips pressed tightly together even as she pretends not to be worried. All of them have to fade into the background, no matter how important they are, no matter what happens to them if I fail today.
So I keep my focus where it has to be, on the poker-faced man in front of me, on the crowd responding to my every sentence, and as I keep going, I can feel my focus splitting. Part of me is dedicated to crafting my responses to Verdon’s questions, making sure that I sound forthright and trustworthy, and that I’m not somehow tossing Nightingale or the Met under the bus. Oh, and all the while I have to follow Julian’s edict of sounding “human enough,” whatever the fuck that means.
But all the while, a silent plea is forming in the back of my mind, for understanding, for faith, a plea that forms itself into a constant, silent refrain: please understand. Trust me.
It feels like a vain hope, at a time when public faith in politicians is at such lows, when the point of this inquiry is to find out just how long every institution of note in the UK has been lying to the general public.
But I have to have hope anyway, otherwise what’s the point?
(Later, Bev will ask me if I could feel what I was doing that day, what I was in the process of becoming. “I didn’t know--” I start, and she just hushes me.
“Of course I’m not asking if you knew. I’m asking if you could feel it.”
I take a moment before replying. “Yeah. I felt it.”
Bev nods in understanding.)
I can’t quite gauge yet how successful my testimony is, even though it’s already gone on long enough that I have to break and go for the pitcher of ice water stationed near my left hand on the table, pouring myself a glass and downing half of it in one go, despite Julian’s dire warnings about giving the impression of nerves if I take a water break. (In my defense, Verdon’s questioned me for so long about my vestigia-awareness seminars that my voice is starting to crack, it’s so hoarse.)
As I’m finishing my glass, Verdon says, “I’d like to move the timeline forward somewhat, to April 2013 and the destruction of Skygarden Tower.”
My hand pauses in mid-air, still holding the glass. I pull myself back together after half a second, but not in enough time to keep Verdon from noticing. Or the TV cameras.
Despite the water break, my throat still feels scratchy when I answer, “Of course, sir.”
But it doesn’t start that badly, not at first. Verdon begins slowly, going over the Patrick Mulkern and Richard Lewis murders and how it led us to the Skygarden estate. I make myself fall into the rhythm of going over the narrative, going on auto-pilot as I go over the details of the case.
That is, until we get to the architect Erik Stromberg and the Stadtkrone cylinder of magic he’d encased in the heart of Skygarden Tower.
There’s several large screens set up to the right of Verdon’s bench. For most of the inquiry so far it’s been set on screensaver mode, the royal coat of arms against a grey background, but once the conversation switches to the Skygarden incident, it switches over to old photographs of the tower, a series of building plans showing the cylinder and bulb at the top of the building.
I keep my gaze to the right, looking at the blueprints. It’s easier to focus that way, I reason, which is where I make my first tiny slip, showing my enthusiasm as I explain Stromberg’s style of architecture, his links to the Weimar Academy, his lifelong goal of using Skygarden Tower to harvest ambient magic and bring society into a new, utopian age.
“You seem very knowledgeable about architecture, Sergeant,” Verdon observes, which is when I blink and realize that I might have been nattering on just a bit longer than I needed to.
“Bit of a hobby of mine,” I say. But my attention still isn’t on Verdon, as my gaze slips, despite myself, to the photographs of a building that no longer exist, which is how I slip again and add, absently, “I wanted to be an architect as a kid.”
I don’t know why people always pay attention to this bit of my backstory, I really don’t. But it catches Verdon’s attention, as he asks curiously, “Really? Why didn’t you pursue it?”
“Turns out I can’t draw.”
Verdon pauses at this and looks me over. “So instead of becoming an architect, you became a police officer...and then a wizard.” He shakes his head a little. “Mysterious ways.”
He moves on from this, using the remote control to change the image on the screen from the plans of Skygarden to a professional photo of Martin Chorley, the deceased fucker.
I realize that I’m tapping two of my fingers against the surface of the table, and make myself stop.
“So it was your knowledge of architecture that led you to examine the building more closely, on the day of...April 25th, and that was when you discovered the explosive devices that Martin Chorley and his associates had planted at the base of Skygarden Tower, correct?”
“Yes,” I say.
The light catches the rim of Verdon’s glasses as he says, “Can you go into more detail on that, please?”
“Of course,” I say, though it takes an effort. You’d think it wouldn’t, it’s been years since Skygarden, but if the job has taught me anything, it’s that some things stay with you, horrors sinking down all the way into your bones. I still dream of it some nights, falling through a sky filled with dust, always waking just before I hit the ground.
“I found the incendiary device, the bomb,” I start to say. “He’d added, or had someone add, a little Post-It note to it as well. It read something like, ‘This device has been fitted with counter measures. Please do not tamper, as being blown up often offends.’”
Verdon’s mouth curls in distaste, and a low murmur goes through the crowd. I can see it now, honestly--in five years, Chorley’s infamy will reach the heights of Crippden, or Jack the Ripper.
“How brazen of him,” Verdon observes.
“It was his usual style,” I concur. “As soon as I saw the IED, I called it in. The theory that I had--later proven correct--was that he’d planted multiple IEDs throughout, in order to bring the whole building down.”
Verdon makes a quick note, and then asks me, “You were advised to leave immediately, were you not?”
“Yes,” I confirm.
“Not only by the operator you spoke to by phone, but it is standard Met procedure that the first officer on scene not get,” and here Verdon consults a piece of paper to get the wording right, “and I quote, ‘personally involved in rescue work’.”
Verdon looks at me. “And yet you stayed in the building, a building you’ve just admitted you knew was about to be detonated at any time.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Did you think you would find Chorley on the site?”
I shake my head. “No, not at first. I knew the first responders would be on the scene somewhere between two to five minutes, I knew their first priority would be to evacuate, but they’d be starting from the ground floor of the building and working their way up--I was already on the twenty-first floor, and there were another eight floors above me, filled with residents. I was already on the scene, it was my--my duty to assist in the evacuation, at least that’s how I saw it.”
My throat is dry again. I remember the pounding of my footsteps as I’d climbed what felt like a never-ending flight of stairs, how the constant refrain of how long, how long had pulsed in my head along with the rhythm of my heartbeat.
“I went from door to door,” I say to Verdon, but I’m not seeing him now, not really. I’m seeing those endless stairs, each floor of flats looking the same as the next, an eternity of doors to go through. “Some of the flats had been cleared by County Gard, but the others—I had to check them one by one. If they were occupied, I had to explain what was happening, tell them to leave, escort them to the stairs. If no one answered, I had to break the lock anyway, just to check…and once I was done clearing one floor, I had to run up two flights of stairs, and start the process again. And again.”
How long, how long?
“I was able to help the residents evacuate--with assistance from one of the residents, Betsy Tankridge, and her two sons. Eventually, all of the floors from the twenty-first to the twenty-ninth were cleared. The only place left was the roof.”
For a room that’s so packed, for all the cameras clicking madly away--it’s incredible how quiet it is.
“And on the roof you found Martin Chorley waiting,” Verdon says.
“We didn’t know his identity then,” I explain. “He had the mask on. When I first saw him, I thought it might be a good sign he was there--I hoped that if he was on the roof of the building, then he wouldn’t try to blow it up right then and there. More fool me, I suppose.” I pause briefly before adding next, “Chorley indicated he had the remote detonator on him, and told me to call in to Walworth station to check that the building had been evacuated.”
Verdon pauses before saying next, “I have a recording here of your call into the Walworth station on that day that I will now play, and have entered into the record.”
It’s always strange to hear your recorded voice played back to you--it’s a funny trick that the way you hear your own voice is never how other people hear you--people always think their voice is deeper than it really is, it’s all to do with vibrations in the skull.
But that’s not why the recording is so jarring for me to listen to. I sound so...so young. Young and scared witless by the growing realization that Chorley really will blow the building up right then and there, that Nightingale won’t be able to rescue me.
There’s a brief sound of static, and then my recorded voice states, “He says you have five minutes to evacuate any personnel before he detonates the IEDs; if he sees or hears India 99 or a helicopter he will detonate immediately.”
And then the Walworth duty inspector: “Are you free to speak?”
“Is there anything you can do?”
“No. I’m totally buggered.”
And then the recording ends.
“That was the end of the call,” Verdon explains for the murmuring crowd behind me.
I should get on with the rest of my testimony. Talk about breaking apart the Stadtkrone so that Chorley couldn’t get at the decades’ worth of stored magic in it, talk about falling from the rooftop with Chorley and nearly catching him before Lesley and her taser came in to set all my plans awry.
But I’m caught in that moment, falling from Skygarden Tower, the ground rushing up to meet me as dust blooms everywhere, an endless loop of dust and impending death.
“DS Grant,” Verdon says loudly, cutting in--and I come back to myself, feeling Catherine’s fingers pressing into my forearm as she discreetly tries to get my attention.
“Sorry,” I say, and my voice sounds hoarse to my own ears. I cough in an attempt to regain composure, my stomach cramping unpleasantly.
When I look up at Verdon’s face again I see something that he hasn’t shown throughout this inquiry to date so far--pity.
“We can take a brief recess if needed, Sergeant,” he tells me gently.
I shake my head. “No, I’m all right, I’d like to continue.” Please God, let me get through at least this part of it today.
“If you’re sure,” Verdon says, and waits for my determined nod before continuing on. “Before the detonation of the tower, it’s my understanding that you spoke to Chorley, attempted to determine his plans.”
“Yes,” I say, nodding. “The plan was simple enough, but it was built around the idea that the only way to get at the stored magic inside the building was to detonate Skygarden, drive it down into the specially made containers so he could drive off with it in the aftermath. He didn’t know about the cylinder that Stromberg had built.”
“Not an architecture buff, then,” Verdon says, smiling, and I chuckle at that, harder than the joke really deserves, but it’s a kind gesture.
“And that was when I realized how to stop him. I used impello as a feint-”-there is a not-so-brief digression of what impello was and how it can be used, “--and I cracked the very top of the Stadtkrone.”
I swallow. “He hit the detonator.”
“With both of you still on the rooftop.”
I can feel Skygarden swaying beneath my feet. “Yes.” I clear my throat, because they all want details, and details I shall provide. “I could hear people screaming from the ground. At first the building was just...swaying, but it got worse and worse--and then finally the Stadtkrone broke into pieces, just like I thought it would. Decades of pent-up magic just...dissipating into the air, slipping right out of Martin Chorley’s grasp.” I smile, grimly. “He was livid.”
But my smile fades as I remember what came next. “And then the roof started to buckle beneath our feet, the floor dropping away…and Chorley jumped off the edge. And I followed him over.”
Behind me, I hear low gasps from the crowd, murmurs of horrified dismay.
Verdon is staring at me as though he’s speaking to a lunatic. Which, given that I’ve just confessed to jumping off the roof of a building, is fair enough. “Did you have any sort of plan of how to get off that roof alive?”
“No. But I knew Chorley did.”
I square my shoulders. “Because the sort of man who makes a point of waiting on the roof of a building he’s about to destroy, wearing a cravat and pocket square, is not the sort of man who doesn’t have an escape plan at the ready. Chorley was a showoff, not a martyr.”
Verdon quirks his eyebrow in acknowledgement.
“And I was right,” I say. “Chorley was using a variation on a spell to slow down his fall, like...an invisible hanglider, or a parachute. But with me on top of him, he couldn’t control it as well as he’d planned. "So we both fell together, and hit the ground at about the same time--at the edge of the garden. The landing was hard, I remember that. And then this enormous cloud of dust rolled over us..."
I'm back there again, half-blinded by dust, the thick chalky taste of it on my tongue, the world a brown haze in front of me, knowing I have one chance to get this right or I'm dead.
"There was a struggle," I say slowly. "I was quicker--I had him down on the ground, I cuffed him. Behind me I heard Lesley May--PC May--calling for me, I called back to let her know where I was. I thought she was coming to help."
"But she wasn't," Verdon states, prodding me.
"No. My back was to her, I'd pulled him--Chorley--up to his knees to keep him from choking on the dust, it was everywhere. Then he started talking about how this was 'the moment of decision'. I had no idea what he was talking about and I said so. I was just about to pull off his mask, and then he said, 'I wasn't talking to you.'"
No one speaks. It feels as though everyone in the room is holding their breaths. Catherine's squeezing my hand in support--I'm not sure when she started touching me again, but I don't mind. I'm rather grateful, if I'm honest.
"And then," I say, heavily, the weight of that old betrayal sitting like a stone in my stomach, despite all the time that's passed, and despite the fact that Lesley's done far worse to me since then. "My best friend tasered me in the back, twice, and she let Chorley escape."
There's one perfect beat of silence, and then the noise from the crowd starts to rise up, and up, and up. I close my eyes briefly, waiting for it to subside, waiting for Verdon's next response, waiting for--whatever comes next in this long, slow, torturous ordeal.
When Verdon chooses that moment to call a recess, I don’t do anything so obvious as slump in relief, or even take a deep breath. I just flex my stiff fingers, which have been clenched in a fist underneath the table all this time.
Getting through that crowd to a quiet empty room is an experience I hope never to repeat again.
It’s not that the crowd is disrespectful. It’s not that anyone even shouts my name, or reaches out to grab me. It’s the weight of their eyes all watching, the fear and awe and bafflement like a physical weight on my head.
Julian and Catherine usher me out of the gallery as fast as humanly possible, arms around me as they push me through the aisle, too fast for me to do anything but share a glance with Beverley, her hand resting on her still-swelling stomach, Nightingale standing next to her like a guard.
“Where are we going?” I ask in a low mutter as we escape, chased by a near silent army of camera-wielding journalists.
“Some place without cameras,” Julian mutters back in my ear, and before I can quite know what’s happening, I’m hustled into a tiny room without windows, where there’s a tiny round table and a cluster of chairs around it.
It’s perfect. “Oh, thank God,” I mutter, shrugging out of my suit jacket and sinking into the chair. I close my eyes for a moment, feeling utterly drained, only opening my eyes again when I hear the squeak of a chair being pulled out next to me. Julian’s sitting next to me, arms folded on the table as he looks me over, but for once he’s totally silent.
I raise an eyebrow at him, waiting for the rapid-fire deconstruction of my testimony, the list of all the things I did wrong, the longer list of what I’ll need to do next. “What?”
Julian shakes his head a little, an odd look on his face. His mouth works silently for a moment, and then he blurts out, “Nine floors?”
It takes me a minute to piece together what Julian’s talking about. “You already knew about what happened at Skygarden, Julian.”
“Yeah,” Julian says, nearly spluttering. “But you--you’ve never made it sound like that before.”
“Like what?” I ask, genuinely confused.
“Like--” Julian’s hand moves through the air as he gropes for words, finally stammering out, “I--when you were talking now, it was like I was there with you, lungs burning as you raced up the stairs, hands shaking as you kept ushering the residents down the stairs, all the while wondering how long you had left until the building caved in…” He trails off, his expression distant, before he turns to look at me. “You made it real today.”
There’s something in his face that I can’t figure out. “You told me to tell a story that would make them all understand.” I say.
Julian huffs out a low laugh, finally looking away. “Trust you to go above and beyond when you finally start listening to me.”
I glance around, wanting to change the subject, and blink as I realize who’s not there. “Where did Catherine go?”
“Went off to find your wife and boss, I expect,” Julian says, thankfully sounding more like his old self. And sure enough, less than a minute later, Catherine’s ushering both Beverley and Nightingale inside, calling over her shoulder, “--some privacy, please, thank you!”
But I only have eyes for Beverley, from the minute she comes in. Now, I find Beverley beautiful no matter the occasion, but she’s dressed to be particularly impressive today, an expensive trench coat over her wrap dress, with an empire-waist to accommodate her six-months’ pregnant belly.
(We’re having a boy, according to the doctors. As the chaos kept ramping up, Beverley started making more and more comments about just taking me and Laura and the three of us disappearing on an island somewhere until the baby’s born. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could take her up on it.)
It takes just a second for Bev to reach me, the heels of her shoes clicking on the floor--and then she’s leaning down to kiss me, her cool hands cupping my face, and for one blissful moment, she’s the only thing I can focus on.
“How are you?” I ask quietly when she finally pulls back.
“I think that should be my question, babes,” Beverley replies, settling herself down on my lap, arms around my neck and shoulders. “But no, I’m fine. Had to turn off my phone off, though, Chelsea and Olympia keep blowing it up with texts.”
Nightingale is still by the door, looking less ruffled than he was this morning. “You all right?” I ask him next, which just gets me a quirked eyebrow. “It’s been...illuminating,” is all Nightingale says, and I’ll have to grill him over that later.
I have the strange sensation of my attention being pulled in too many directions--I need to debrief with Nightingale, I need to talk to Bev, I probably should check in with Julian and Catherine, and at some point in all of this, I need to eat something.
Beverley is watching my face closely, and as if she’s reading my mind, she turns to a still-fidgeting Julian and asks, sweetly, “Julian, do you think you could go and find someone to bring Peter some food? I know he didn’t eat well this morning, and I’m worried about him being light-headed…”
The Julian I’ve learned to tolerate would bristle at even the suggestion of sending him out for an errand, but this Julian just casts a quick look at me that I can’t read, and then he agrees, ushering a baffled-looking Catherine Poole out with him.
“Huh,” I say as the door closes behind him. “Julian’s acting weird.”
I mean it as an idle observation, but Beverley’s attention is caught by this. “Is he?”
At my nod, she looks at me silently for a moment, then turns back to look at the closed door with a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Beverley?” Nightingale asks, noticing it as well.
Beverley shakes her head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” As I open my mouth to protest, she kisses me firmly on the mouth and says, “I promise you, it’s nothing to worry about now.”
I could press her on it. From the look on his face, Nightingale’s wondering the same thing. But I know Bev--if she thought it was urgent, she’d say something. “Talk about it later?” I ask.
Beverley’s expression is calm, but oddly serious. “Definitely.”
“All right,” I say, sighing. “How do you think it’s going out there?”
“Good,” Beverley says, adjusting the collar of my shirt. At my skeptical look, she rolls her eyes. “Babes, you have got to learn how to take a compliment. I’m telling you, it’s going well. You’ve got everyone out there in the palm of your hand.”
(Later, when I replay this sentence of hers, I’ll always remember that Beverley said it with an odd note in her voice. Benefit of hindsight, I guess.)
“Well, that’s something,” I say, leaning back in my seat with a groan. Beverley frowns at me, her fingers pressing into a knot at the back of my neck.
“Have you been doing those stretches I told you to do?” she asks me.
I offer her a sheepish smile. “I meant to?” In truth, my shoulders and back have been a mess of stress-caused tension knots for months now, and I haven’t had a backrub in ages.
Beverley just rolls her eyes. “Thomas, come over here.”
I blink at her, and Nightingale blinks at the pair of us, but he obediently comes over. Beverley gracefully gets up and resettles herself in the chair next to me, gesturing at me as she says, “I need you to pound those knots out of Peter’s back for me.”
“Bev,” I hiss, but she just rolls her eyes again.
“Look, he needs something productive to do, and you are a mess of tension right now. I’d do it but Chelsea will throw a fit if I break these nails right after she did them for me last night,” she points out, waving her polished acrylic nails in my direction.
“You don’t have to,” I tell Nightingale, because even if Beverley and Nightingale’s friendship over the past few years has progressed to the point where she feels comfortable bossing him about and he feels comfortable obeying, I still feel the need occasionally to keep some sort of boundaries in place.
“I don’t mind,” Nightingale says, looking amused, as he goes to stand behind me.
And truthfully, once he gets started, neither do I. I have the idea that this will be futile, that I won’t be able to relax enough to get any benefits, but that all goes away the second that Nightingale’s fingers press into the side of my neck, as I let out a low groan of mingled pain and relief. “Oh, God.”
“What on earth have you been doing?” Nightingale asks me in disapproval, his hands starting to knead at my shoulders in earnest. “Working in a quarry?”
“You know what I’ve been doing,” I mumble, dropping my head down to give him better access. “To the right a little--no, down--oh God, yes, that’s it--”
“What I can’t figure out is what Verdon’s trying to get at,” Beverley says, ignoring the frankly pornographic noises coming out of my mouth. (In my defense, Bev knows what I get like when I get a good backrub, and this was her idea.) “Peter’s been doing well, I know, and he’s coming off well, but Verdon’s been jumping from topic to topic and I can’t figure out where he’s trying to lead to.”
Nightingale’s fingers momentarily tighten on my shoulders before easing. “Lack of institutional support,” he says, grimly.
My attention is caught, and I lift my head back up. Nightingale stills his hands but doesn’t move them away, and for a moment, all I can feel is the warm firm weight of them through the thin material of my shirt. “Shit,” I say, because now that he’s said it, it’s fucking obvious and I can’t believe I didn’t realize it sooner.
I’d been so caught up in trying to explain, in trying to make myself understood, that I’d failed to notice the iceberg lurking for me, right there in open water.
And where was Inspector Nightingale when you were on the roof of a building that was about to explode? Where was your backup in Herefordshire when you were investigating that kidnapping? Who exactly can you call upon when--
“Peter, this isn’t your concern,” Nightingale points out. “Your job isn’t to defend me--”
“Don’t be stupid, of course it is,” I say heatedly, without thinking.
“Not when the criticisms have merit,” Nightingale says, very neutrally.
“In your defense,” Beverley says, “A lot of people were also fucking up right there alongside you.” Her words have the intended effect, as Nightingale chuckles and the tension breaks, just a little. Just enough for me to breathe, and move past it.
“Maybe you can go out and take over the testimony,” I say, joking. “Just point out who exactly fucked up, and when, and how much better you’d have done in their position.”
Beverley just grins at us wickedly, a hand resting on her stomach as she lounges in her seat. “Don’t tempt me.” But she reaches out with her free hand to hold onto mine, squeezing my fingers in comfort.
Nightingale’s hands finally start to move again, pressing down, the pressure against my skin brutal and exactly what I need. As I close my eyes and relax into it, Nightingale says, very quietly, so quietly that I could almost miss it, “You’re doing very well out there. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
I swallow, hard, before finally managing a rough, “Thanks.”
Thank Christ, Nightingale doesn’t say anything else, and neither does Beverley--although I’m sure she has opinions on emotionally repressed wizards and what it takes for us to actually have an emotional moment together.
Nightingale just gets back to working the knots out of my back, and Beverley holds my hand in the silence, her thumb gliding back and forth across the knuckles of my hand.
I’m not sure what Julian was expecting when he came back, salad and can of Fanta in hand, but what he got is definitely not it, as he gapes at us, eyebrows raised high and mouth open, before he asks, in something approaching his usual acerbic tones, “I’m sorry, am I interrupting?”
“Not at all,” Beverley says, again in that sweet tone of hers, and instead of grilling us further, Julian visibly decides to let it go, instead moving on to the behavior of the press and how we’re likely to see stories in the Sun about me being a vegetarian or something, all based on this salad.
As he’s unpacking the food, I mutter in a low voice to Bev, “Stop glamouring our publicist.”
“Babes, I couldn’t glamour him even if I tried,” Beverley mutters right back to me.
But before I can dive into that, Julian slides the salad in front of me with a command to eat up before I pass out in the middle of my testimony, thus generating an entire press-cycle worth of stories about my ill health. “Also that ghoul you’ve got managing your kitchens will eat me alive if you get ill on my watch,” Julian adds as an aside, and I get distracted explaining (yet again) that Molly isn’t a ghoul from Harry Potter, an explanation that only ends when Julian pesters me to finish my damn salad already, or else he’ll have wasted that nine quid on nothing.
(It really does take me too long to figure out what’s happened to Julian. In my defense, though, I’ve never had a follower before. Or been the sort of being to draw followers to me without even meaning to.)
As I’m finishing up the last bites of the salad and chicken, Julian’s phone buzzes, and he glances down at it and says, “Time’s up, we need to get back in there.” As he gets up, buttoning his suit jacket, he looks down at me, forehead creased with what, even at the time, I recognize as concern. “Are you ready, Peter?”
My shoulders feel loose and relaxed, and I can still smell Beverley’s perfume on my clothes. “Yeah,” I say, getting to my feet. “I am.”
(“Did you know?” I’ll end up asking Beverley, later, once everything comes out. “Did you know what would happen when I started testifying?”
“These things are impossible to predict,” Beverley tells me. Her hand is warm on my cheek as she leans in. “I knew the world was going to shift on its axis when you started to speak, but babes--I had no idea how much.”
I’m staring down at my hands, flexing my fingers, watching the tendons ripple beneath my skin. I should feel different, more powerful, more...something. But I feel mostly the same as I always have. It’s the difference in other people that I notice, not the difference in myself. Julian was just the first of them, the first to look at me with that dazzled, worshipful gaze.
“I don’t know how to do this,” I tell her. “They don’t give out manuals for this at Hendon. And I know the Folly’s libraries don’t have anything on this either.” As Beverley starts to make soothing noises, I say, voice rising, “I mean, for fuck’s sake, I don’t even know what I’ve become a god of.”
“Well,” Beverley says thoughtfully, “If I had to make an educated guess...I would say the god of justice and order sounds about right to me.”
It does sound right, that’s the awful thing about it. I close my eyes and groan and Beverley just drops a kiss against my cheek. “It’ll all work out, I promise. And besides, Peter Grant, god of justice has a nice ring to it,” she points out.
I still can’t agree, not yet and probably not ever, but I leave that to one side to say, “No one is allowed to tell my mother of this, okay? No one.”
Beverley, very kindly, doesn’t point out that my mother is sure to notice eventually. “Of course not.”)
But all that comes later. Now is for the inquiry, for the day where I walk back into the room under Verdon’s eagle-eyed gaze, at the center of all that upheaval and chaos, and try in the moment to pull something coherent out of the mess, all the time unaware that as I’m changing the narrative into something people can understand and be comforted by, that same narrative is changing me as well, transforming me into something new, right before the eyes of the entire world.
“Good afternoon, Sergeant Grant,” Verdon says as I take my seat at the table before him. “Are you ready to begin?”
I square my shoulders, letting the sound of cameras clicking recede into the background. “Yes, sir, I am.”