THE ROAD TO BEDLAM, by Mike Shevdon Book 2 of the Courts of the Feyre
Kayleigh was running out of places to look. It wasn't like Alex to skip lessons like this. Well okay, just that once, but they'd done it together, scaring each other with the prospect of getting caught in town when they should be at school. This was different. They had arranged to meet before Geography so that they could swap ideas on the homework, so where was she?
She went through the outer doors, peeping around the wall in case a teacher lurked there. The playground was empty; no teachers and no Alex. She was about to go back into the building when she heard a noise from the gym block. It was more of a yell than a scream and it wasn't Alex's voice, but there shouldn't be anyone in the gym block at this time.
She checked the playground again and ran across the tarmac, praying that the teachers in the rooms facing the playground were now engaged with their mid-morning classes and too busy to be looking out the windows. She reached the side door to the gym and slipped through, breathing hard. The echo from her school shoes on the wooden floor where outdoor footwear wasn't allowed made her walk around the edge rather than crossing the open space. She stopped and listened. There were voices in the girl's changing room.
She tiptoed quickly down the passage and stopped. The voices were louder. She leaned on the door, pushing it open slightly and recognised Tracy Welham's voice and the unmistakable smell of cigarettes. She was about to ease the door closed again and leave them to coat their lungs with tar when she heard Alex.
"I won't tell anyone, honest, but you have to let me past."
"Have to, do I?" challenged Tracy. She was in the year above them and had a bad reputation.
"You'd better let me go now," Alex asserted, "or something bad is going to happen."
"Yeah," Tracy said, "Something bad is going to happen. Grab her."
It was the sound of the scuffle that made Kayleigh push into the changing rooms. Two other girls, mates of Tracy's, were holding Alex, pushing her into one of the cubicles. At the sound of the door, Tracy turned to face Kayleigh.
"You'd better let her go or I'm gonna get the teachers." Kayleigh raised her voice, keen to make sure the others heard her.
"Get out of here now, horse-face," said Tracy, "or you're getting the same."
They crowded Alex into the cubicle and she could hear the grunts and shoves as Alex struggled against the two older girls.
Tracy tossed the cigarette into one of the sinks and made a grab for Kayleigh's long hair.
Kayleigh evaded her, slipping back past the changing room door and pulling it closed behind her. Tracy's arm came around the gap and Kayleigh trapped it in the door.
"You little sod!" Tracy's hand grasped for Kayleigh. "I'm gonna rip your hair out."
"Kayleigh!" Alex's voice sounded hollow in the tiled room. "Tell them to stop, tell them I can't hold it. It's getting free. I can't hold it!"
Kayleigh's mind raced. "You have to let her go," she shouted through the door at Tracy. "She's not herself. You don't understand. She's really going to lose it."
"Yeah, we're really scared about that." Tracy shouted to her mates, "Drown the little bitch." She pulled her arm back and slammed the door closed on Kayleigh.
Kayleigh pushed at the door, her shoes sliding on the smooth floor as she pushed against Tracy holding it shut from the other side.
"You don't understand. You have to let her go!"
From behind the door came the sound of burbling and then coughing and retching.
"Drown the bitch!" Tracy urged them.
The sound of burbling resumed, but underlined by another gurgling sound. Kayleigh hammered on the door, screaming for them to stop. The gurgling deepened to a low rumble, the sound vibrating in Kayleigh bones, making her teeth ache. The temperature dropped suddenly, the chill sending goose bumps down Kayleigh's arms.
There was a moment of silence.
Then the rumbling returned, building to a crescendo until everything burst at once behind the door. Kayleigh hammered on the door, screaming for them to open it before it was too late, pleading with Tracy. Water started streaming out from under the door, pooling around Kayleigh's feet. Suddenly the pressure on the door reversed and it was Tracy trying to pull it open.
Water crashed into the gap, the weight of it against the door pressing it shut. Tracy was screaming for her to push, her hands were white against the edge of the door as water and sewage from the drains pressed the gap closed. Kayleigh tried to wedge her foot in it but the flow was too strong, it was pushing her aside. The door slammed shut on Tracy's fingers. Kayleigh heard her yank them free with a bone-popping wrench.
The screams turned to hammering as the changing room rapidly filled with foul-smelling water. Kayleigh could hear them, shouting and yelling as the water swirled around them. Water streamed under the door, spraying round the edges as the pressure built. She could see the door handle rattle and then jerk as hands were dragged away, screams gulped-off as they lost their footing and were swept under. Their cries echoed, rising and fading as the water began to turn, the screams turning to gasps as they tried to swim against the swirling current. Her imagination conjured the vortex, tugging at their clothes, pulling them into the centre, dragging them under.
Kayleigh turned and ran down the passage and out through the gym screaming for someone, anyone, to come and help. She ran across the playground, tears streaming down her face, shouting until her voice cracked, knowing it was already too late.
The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.
The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.
It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.
I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.
This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I'd given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.
A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.
"Too slow," chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.
I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker's balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker's midriff.
There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.
"Good. You remembered," This was the voice of my tutor and I smiled at the rare praise. It was he who had taught me that both ends of a sword were a weapon.
I circled slowly, regaining my position at the centre. This would not end until someone went down. The fight wasn't over until it was won or lost, another maxim from my lessons.
I barely saw the next attack. The figure emerged at my left flank, almost casually. He cut downwards in one clean strike, my ears registering the whistle of the blade even as I stepped sideways to avoid it, no time for a deflecting blow. It glanced painfully off my shoulder, but I used the angular momentum to launch a horizontal slice that would part his head from his shoulders.
My slice whirred through empty space as I felt something hook behind my ankle. It was whipped upwards and I sailed over backwards landing with a crunch on my shoulders. The air was driven from my lungs in a great whoosh, my blade bouncing out of my hand across the floor.
A point pressed against my throat, just hard enough to make breathing difficult.
"How many times have I told you not to let go of your weapon?" Garvin paused, literally pressing home his point, and then withdrawing it, allowing me to respond.
"I couldn't hold it."
"No wonder. You went down like a sack of gravel."
His form blended and shifted from the indistinct shadowy figure that had decked me into a lean wiry man in a charcoal jacket and turtle-neck shirt. The style was austere and it suited him.
The fluorescent lights flickered on and the circle vanished in their glare.
I lay on my back, trying to catch my breath. Amber was by the door, switching the lights back on. She showed no indication of being winded after the punch in the midriff, her quiet eyes observing me as she observed everything.
Tate, the other assailant, grinned at me in the harsh light. Garvin collected my weapon from the floor and then walked across the tiles to the wall-mounted rack where the weapons were stored. He checked down the length of each blade carefully before stowing his sword and mine in their appointed places.
Then he took another practice blade from the rack and paced back towards me. I recognised it immediately and sagged at what the heavier, longer blade meant.
"Two hundred," he instructed me.
I sat up and took it from him. What he meant was that I had to do two hundred practice cuts against the car-tyre that hung at chest height from a chain in the corner before I could leave for the evening. I sighed deeply, knowing that I could tell him no, but that if I did, he would instruct me no further.
I nodded and he turned and walked away towards the door. Tate stood, leaning on the end of his sword, his grin widening at my misfortune.
"It's a sword, not a walking stick, Tate," Garvin reminded him as he came to the door. "Clean and check the weapons."
The smile vanished from Tate's lips and he lifted the end of the sword from the floor, saluting in acceptance of the rebuke and of the chore that went with it. Though I rated Tate as a fighter, I also knew that he would do whatever Garvin told him, almost without question. It was a matter of leadership. Garvin led and Tate followed.
I pulled myself to my feet, careful not to use the practice-sword for support in case that earned me a further two hundred cuts. A glance towards the door showed that Garvin had left, Amber in tow.
"He had you clean there, Niall." Tate's rumbling chuckle made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
"That's true," I admitted, "but a few weeks ago he would never have had the opportunity because either you or Amber would have got there first."
His smile widened. "You're coming along, sure enough," he nodded, acknowledging the progress I had made, "but I could still take you in an even fight."
I let the wooden sword swing gently back and forth in my hand and looked him over. He was taller than me and heavier. His dark brown hair fell in long waves to his shoulders, adding to the impression of bulk. He was certainly stronger than me and I knew that for all his muscled bulk he could move like quicksilver when he wanted to.
"With one of these, maybe," I indicated the heavier practice sword, "but with something lighter? I'm not sure that's true any more, Tate."
It wasn't a challenge. A challenge implied ego and that had been knocked out of me, at least as far as swords were concerned. But part of mastering a weapon was knowing how good you were, who you could take and who you couldn't. A month ago I wouldn't have speculated, but now? I really didn't know who would win.
"Some other time, huh? I've the weapons to check over."
It was my turn to grin. Maybe he didn't know either.
He nodded and turned to the weapons racks to carry out his chore. I knew that he would inspect every blade carefully, rather than have Garvin find one later with a chip out of it or a crack along the grain. Garvin had told him to check them and he would, because that was what Garvin expected.
I walked over to the tyre hanging from its chain. I knew that cutting at the heavy reinforced rubber built strength and stamina and that in a real fight it wouldn't matter if I was tired, bruised and sore. But this wasn't a real fight.
My first two cuts set the pace and after that I let my body take over, varying the cuts each time as I had been laboriously taught. Overhead down, left side, inside left, slide and cut, turn and slice. My body followed the rhythm of it, the heavy thwack of the sword against the rubber punctuating the turns and twists, my brain counting down the cuts to zero.
After fifty strokes I broke the rhythm, preventing my imaginary opponent from guessing the timing. The whistle and thwack of the blade accelerated and slowed, doubled and paused. I tailored my movements, becoming sharp then smooth, elaborate then direct, pushing myself to find new ways of hammering the swinging rubber.
I missed the time on one, sending shock waves vibrating up my wrist, and reacted by turning and sliding the blade through the centre in a long thrust designed to impale before spinning around, letting the blade whistle out in a flat blur that whacked the tyre into a spin. I spun back to intercept and then let it spin.
I had reached two hundred.
While the tyre wound down I went through a series of stretches and stances, letting my muscles recover slowly, using the effort to ease the tension between my shoulders and the tingling in my wrist.
Tate had waited for me and took the practice sword with a grin, wiping it over with a cloth and then inspecting it for damage before returning it to its place on the rack. We walked in companionable silence through to the changing rooms. I stripped off gingerly, inspecting the livid bruises I had accumulated through the day. My fey genes meant that they would be gone by tomorrow, only to be replaced by a new set.
Tate shed his clothes and was already in the shower by the time I had my towel ready, his gravelly voice singing a song I didn't recognise about a fair maid who he was trying to tempt with a variety of unlikely and sometimes grizzly gifts.
"Did you make that up?" I asked him, stepping under the cascade of hot water.
He stopped singing. "Mostly not, though some of the verses are mine."
"It's an unlikely courtship," I suggested. "What kind of girl wants a severed head as a betrothal gift?"
"It's the head of her enemy, so I suppose it has its attractions," he shrugged.
"Still, it doesn't seem like much like a love token."
"She's a fey lass, so who knows what she wants?" Tate stepped past me, grinning, and grabbed his towel, wrapping it around his waist.
I had to admit, he had a point.
I stayed under the hot water, letting the percussion and warmth ease my muscles while Tate went back into the changing room to get dry. After a few moments, his deeply resonant tone resumed the song.
I thought of my own fey lass, waiting for me. I didn't think that she would welcome a severed head as a gift, but then she wasn't truly fey any more than I was. The true fey were altogether more strange.
Not for the first time I shook my head at the turn my life had taken in the last few months. My first encounter with the Feyre had been only the previous September when, having had a heart attack on the underground, I had been rescued by an old lady who had woken the fey magic within me to heal my failing heart.
I shook my head and smiled. The old lady had turned out to be a lot older than she looked, though she had changed now so that now she appeared to be in her mid-twenties. She had become my guide, my mentor and eventually my lover and I had gambled my life in a trial by ordeal for her safety and that of my daughter.
My daughter, Alex, had taken to Blackbird. I had hoped that they would get on well enough to bear each other's company, but I had found myself prodded into jealousy by the way they bonded. They would sit on the sofa, heads together, whispering to each other, and when challenged would tell me that it was nothing to concern me.
When I asked Blackbird what they were talking about, I'd been told to mind my own business.
"She's my daughter." I had protested.
"All the more reason that you shouldn't ask."
"Have you told her about me being fey?" I asked her.
"No. You're her father. When the time is right, you should tell her."
Blackbird left me with that thought. I'd held off telling Alex about the gifts I'd inherited from our unknown fey ancestor or the possibility that she would also inherit them. I reasoned that it was partly because I didn't really know whether it would happen or not, and partly because I dreaded what it might mean if it did.
My own gifts came from my affinity with the void, an element that the Feyre believed was what separated one thing from another, preventing matter from collapsing in on itself. If Alex had inherited that from me then she would inherit the female form of the gift, an ability to become incorporeal, a ghostly shadow of herself, invulnerable to physical harm. She would also inherit darkspore, a corruption which she would be able to spread at will, allowing her to consume other beings and feed on their flesh.
It wasn't the best news a father could give his daughter. I imagined her reaction, the curling of her lip in that peculiar way while she elongated the word 'gross' into a whine. I smiled at the thought, but it had kept me from telling her.
It wasn't certain, though. I had also been told that humanity had introduced a random factor into the inheritance. The Feyre had long had problems with fertility. When they did have children they bred true, each to their element, their forms reflecting their differing affinities. When they discovered that the union between fey and human was fertile it caused a rift between those that believed that the union would save the Feyre from extinction and those that saw human-fey hybrids as an abomination, a corruption of their purity. What neither the pure-bred Untainted nor the remaining factions of the Seven Courts had realised was that the human DNA somehow altered the mechanism of inheritance, meaning that there was no way to be sure what fey traits would be inherited. My hope was that maybe Alex would inherit some other gift, possibly fire and air like Blackbird rather than the grisly gifts of the void.
In any case there was no way to tell. She would either find herself one day gifted with uncanny power, or she wouldn't. If she did, she would live an unnaturally long life. If she didn't, she would live a human lifespan and age and die long before I did, assuming that no-one broke my neck with a wooden sword first.
I dried myself and pulled on my jeans and T-shirt. I was not allowed the charcoal uniform of the warders. Garvin would decide when I could wear grey and he would make sure that I would not disgrace the reputation of the warders before he would allow that. His decision was final.
I looked forward to that day with a degree of trepidation. It would mean that he thought I was worthy of it, which was a huge complement, but it would also mean that I was available for duty. Being a warder meant being ready twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The Lords and Ladies could request our assistance or assign us duties whenever they felt like it. That was the job.
In practice, it wasn't an onerous schedule. Mostly the courts kept to themselves, dealing with their own internal issues. It was only when something affected all of them that the warders were involved. Then the warders would be called upon to carry out the will of the Seven Courts of the Feyre, which could be anything from delivering a message to carrying out an execution. The will of the courts was absolute, and the warders were there to ensure it was enacted. I had heard that a job rarely took more than three of them.
There were six of them and me, one from each of the seven courts. I had bargained for my life by threatening to expose their weakness. Their solution had been to make me a warder, ensuring my loyalty and my silence, sworn under an oath bound by magic far more powerful than my own. But I wasn't an active warder until Garvin said I was. It was his call.
I clipped my phone to my belt. Amber called it my boy-toy and had told me to drop it down a well. She spurned all the trappings of technology and connected with no-one outside the warders as far as I knew. Even then it was a cold relationship. My phone was my connection with my human life and the means by which other people, human people, could contact me. In truth it had its limitations. If I called power with it near me then the battery would drain, sometimes beyond recharging. It had been through five batteries in its short life, even through I carried it only when I needed it. It wasn't allowed in the practice hall where it could distract me from my training but it meant I could check for messages when lessons were done for the day.
It beeped twice as I turned it on. That would be Blackbird wanting to know what time I would be home. She had only partially settled into domestic life and felt vulnerable without the magic that her pregnancy denied her. I was assured it was quite natural and that it was to protect the baby from the raw power of fey magic. She accepted it, but she wasn't happy about it. It was the first time she had been without magic for hundreds of years and she felt the loss keenly.
I grabbed my bag. The phone beeped again. What was the matter now? She knew I couldn't be contacted until the session ended, so what was the point of sending me multiple messages? Or was it simply that she wanted me to get some milk on the way home?
I unclipped my phone from my belt and pressed the button to read the messages. The phone beeped again as I held it. What was the matter with it?
The first message was from voice-mail saying that there was a voice message for me. The second message was from Blackbird. It said, "Call me, URGENTLY." The third message was from voice-mail again. Another message beeped as I dialled Blackbird. What was going on?
The number rang twice, then picked up.
"It's me. You wanted me to call."
"Thanks goodness Niall, I've been trying to reach you all afternoon. Katherine rang. There's been an accident."
"What kind of accident?"
"It's Alex. She's in hospital."
My stomach clenched at her words. "What happened. Is she okay?"
"I don't know. There was some sort of accident at school. They called Katherine. She called me when she couldn't reach you. She said they were going to the hospital."
"Is Alex all right?"
"I don't know, Niall. She said to meet her there."
"Give me the name of the hospital."
Blackbird read out the address of a London hospital and gave me directions.
"If Katherine calls, tell her I'm on my way."
"I'll tell her."
"Are you okay?" I asked her.
"Yes." I could hear the lie clear down the phone line. Blackbird had once told me that magic was too close to truth for the Feyre to be able to lie convincingly.
"I'm fine." She must have known I'd hear the lie. "Go see to your daughter. She needs you. Call me when you have news."
"I will." I ended the call and headed for the basement.
It was a two-hour drive to London, but I had no intention of driving. The house had another exit for those that could use it. A line of elemental power ran under it, one of the Ways, used by the Feyre to travel from place to place. It would get me into central London quicker than any vehicle. I went down into the basement and stood on the place where the line ran underneath. Reaching down with my power, I called to it and the Way swelled up to meet me. I took a step forward and it swept me into the stream, bearing me through a depth of blue-black night, swirled with streaks of unearthly light. On other occasions I would have exhilarated in the power of it, but now I only wanted it to carry me to my daughter. I shimmered into being in another basement, miles away, stepping off the line and mounting the steps to the ground floor two at a time.
My training made me leave the house cloaked in magic. This was one of the few places that connected with the High Court of the Feyre and Garvin would not thank me for revealing its secrets. I wrapped myself in power, cloaking myself with misdirection before unsealing the wards of protection holding the front door and exiting to the street. I walked away from the square where the house stood, without looking back. Only when I was clear did I let the misdirection fall away and start hailing black cabs.
The driver knew where the hospital was. I asked him to hurry, but with the evening traffic the progress was frustratingly slow. My impatience must have shown because he turned in his seat and leaned back to speak to me.
"Do you want me to try another route? It'll be longer and cost a bit more, but it might be quicker."
He waited until the traffic moved forward, then turned sharply into the other lane. He reversed and then completed the U turn to go back the way we had come. Shortly after, he turned into a narrow alley, taking us down the access roads between the backs of buildings, swerving around wheelie bins and badly parked cars. Where we came to other main roads, he pulled straight across, halting only to wait for a gap so that he could drive over to the next back alley. We navigated up and down one way streets, taking odd turns and driving right around squares to get to rat-runs that crossed the main routes. I held on to the grab-handle to stop myself being thrown around in the back of the cab as we swerved around obstacles. Finally we juddered to a halt.
"The hospital is down there, about fifty yards or so. I can't get any closer because of this bastard." He nodded at a huge truck parked in the middle of the road. "It'll be another twenty minutes if I take you round the one-way to the door."
"That's great," I told him. "I'm really grateful." I payed him, adding a substantial tip.
"Ta muchly," he grinned.
I got out of the cab and the driver began backing down the street away from me. I could see the problem now. Someone had parked one of those enormous trucks that you usually only see in Europe in the middle of the road and left all the lights on. It looked new, the paint-work bright and clean. On the back there was a row of hazard warnings, the familiar sign for radiation, one for biological and another two that I didn't recognise.
As I walked past it I felt something I almost didn't recognise. There was faint emanation from the truck, something that was only familiar because of what had happened the previous autumn. It wasn't strong, but it was the unmistakable taint of cold iron.
Cold iron was anathema to fey magic and having it close set my teeth on edge, but this was only a trace, an echo of that sensation. There was no sign-writing or logo down the side of the truck to identify it. If I had more time I would have investigated, but I needed to get to the hospital.
As I passed, I noted the driver sitting inside the truck reading a newspaper. He looked settled, as if he'd been there some while. It struck me as odd because he was blocking the entire street and the police would normally insist that something like that was moved to clear the access, especially this close to a hospital.
At the end of the street was the Accident and Emergency, just as the cab driver had promised. I trotted past the entrance where ambulances were parked, their crews waiting on stand-by, to the public entrance and went straight to the information desk.
"I'm looking for my daughter, Alexandra Dobson?" Alex had taken to using her mother's maiden name instead of my surname when I had left Katherine. It made sense, but somehow it still hurt.
The man consulted his computer. "You'll need to go through that door and take a left. Head right down to the end and then take the lift up to the sixth floor. She's in the Tesla Wing. Ask at the nursing station when you get up there."
I thanked him and followed his directions. I had to wait for the lift and nearly went for the stairs instead. It was six floors but I was a lot fitter than I used to be. The lift doors opened just as I had decided to take the stairs.
On the sixth floor, I followed the signs to the Tesla wing and went straight to the nursing station. As I started to speak, I spotted Barry, my ex-wife's new husband.
"Never mind," I told the nurse. "I can see them."
I went to walk past, but she stepped into my way.
"I'm sorry, sir. You can't go down there."
"I'm Niall Petersen. I'm Alex Dobson's father."
"I was told her father was already here," she said.
"He's not her father." I told her. "He's her step-father."
"I see." Her attitude was brittle. "You may come with me then."
She walked ahead of me down the corridor to where Barry was waiting. His expression was grim. My stomach clenched when he didn't smile.
As we came near, Katherine, my ex-wife appeared. The nurse was about to speak when Katherine ran forward and threw herself at me, hugging me close. Barry looked on, embarrassed.
"Oh Niall, thank God you're here. We've been trying to get hold of you all afternoon."
The nurse looked non-plussed and then turned and walked back to the station, apparently happy that I was indeed Alex's father.
"Where is she? What's happened?"
Katherine took a deep breath, stepping back. "There's been a terrible accident."
"Is she okay?"
"They're treating her now."
"Can I see her?"
"No-one is allowed in. They won't even let me in."
"She was at school. No-one knows what went wrong. We were told an hour ago that three girls are dead."
"They were found in a changing room. Kayleigh, Alex's friend, raised the alarm. There was some sort of biological contamination. Everyone who had any contact with it has been brought here."
"What in hell happened?"
"They've quarantined the school, no-one is allowed on site. Some sort of specialist unit has been brought in to deal with it all. The doctor came by half an hour ago and told us that they were doing everything they can to save Alex, but it's touch and go."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know, Niall. That's all they would say. The doctor said they were specialists, the best in the country, and they were doing everything they could."
I held my hand up, then went back to the nurses' station.
"Excuse me. I would like to see my daughter, please?"
"It's Mr. Petersen. Is that right?"
"Yes." She knew perfectly well who I was.
"I've asked the consultant to come and see you. He asked me to notify him when you had arrived."
"Fine. I'd like to see my daughter."
"I'm afraid that's not possible at the moment, Mr. Petersen."
"I don't know if you're aware, but this is a specialist isolation unit. We treat everything here from the ebola virus to smallpox. We have very strict protocols which must be followed absolutely to the letter for public health reasons. I'm afraid you will only be able to see your daughter when the consultant gives the all-clear. I'm really sorry, I know this must be hard for you, but that is the way it has to be."
"I want to see a senior doctor."
"The consultant is on his way."
I turned away, angry at being thwarted but anxious not to show my anger. It would get me nowhere in this environment. I walked slowly back to where Katherine and Barry waited. They were holding hands, but dropped them guiltily as I turned towards them. In a moment of clarity I could see that the only reason Katherine wasn't throwing herself at the walls was because Barry was being her rock.
I went to stand with them.
"They won't let me see her either; it was worth a try, I suppose. Barry, I can't tell you how much I appreciate you being with us. I know Alex would want you here." I offered my hand and he took it, pressing it long and slow.
"I couldn't bear to be anywhere else. You know she means a lot to me."
I nodded, conscious of the relief on Katherine's face.
"It's the same for all of us," I lied, and pressed Barry's hand into mine offering what little comfort I could, knowing that his pain was so much less than my own.
"What else do we know?" I asked him.
"A consultant came to see us, but he wanted you to be here."
"So we wait?"
Katherine went back into the waiting room, sitting on the edge of the vinyl covered armchair biting her nails. Barry and I sat in the corridor, watching the hallway for signs of movement. It occurred to me that I could break into the area where Alex was, if I wanted to, but that I had no idea what awaited me there. This was unknown territory for me and my training had taught me caution.
We didn't have long to wait. A man in a dark suit appeared at the nursing station. He glanced at us and then turned away, speaking at length with the nurse in quiet assured tones. Then he nodded to her and came to meet us. I stood, as did Barry. Katherine appeared, warned by our movement.
She spoke first. "Is there any news?"
"I'm Mr. Philips," he offered his hand to me and answered Katherine's question. "No, I'm afraid there's no change."
"I'm Alex's father," I told him.
"I'm glad you're here. I need to explain what's happening and obtain your consent."
I noticed then the sheaf of papers in his hand. The close, tight printing spoke of indemnity clauses.
"Consent for what?" Katherine beat me to the question.
"I'll explain it all. Shall we sit in here?" He glanced at Barry. "I...ah...only need Alexandra's genetic parent's consent."
"Barry is staying with me." Katherine caught his hand as he turned away and drew him into the room with us.
The doctor caught my eye.
"It's okay," I told him. "Barry should hear this too."
"As long as you're comfortable with that."
We sat on unsuitable chairs around a table that was too low.
The consultant adopted an official tone, presumably reserved for moments like this. "Your daughter has been involved in an incident at her school, as you know. This type of incident is very unusual, but fortunately we have protocols in place that can be applied. There has been some degree of biological contamination..."
"What does that mean?" I interrupted him. "What is biological contamination?"
"It's a term used to describe a range of incidents, but in this case it means that your daughter has been affected by a dangerous pathological contaminant. I don't want to get too technical, but you must understand that this is a most serious situation. We were unable to save three of the girls involved and I have had the unpleasant duty of informing their families earlier. Your daughter's condition is...uncertain at best. In cases like this we have been most successful when we have intervened, but we need your consent to do that."
There was something in his tone. My Fey senses told me that he was telling the truth as he saw it, but there were undercurrents in his words that left me uneasy.
"Why won't you tell us what's wrong with her?" I asked him outright.
"Mr Petersen, I have a duty to your daughter and to some extent also to you. I also have a duty to the public not to cause unnecessary panic. We have the situation contained and there is no cause for public concern, but I am unwilling to divulge the exact nature of the contamination as it might draw unnecessary and unwanted attention. It is difficult enough for the families concerned without the press becoming involved. Believe me, there is nothing worse at a time like this than having reporters camped out on your lawn. So far, the nationals have been satisfied with the press release. They have been offered an explanation that there was a hazardous build-up of pressure in the sewers and that the resulting explosion caused the fatalities. This isn't the whole truth, but it is sufficient for their purposes. They are concentrating on the human interest aspects of the story."
"Is this the school's fault?" I asked him. "Did they do the proper maintenance?"
"I can assure you, Mr Petersen, that there will be a formal investigation but that our initial findings indicate that there is no way that the school could have prevented what happened. Thankfully, this is a highly unusual occurrence involving a rare form of biological contamination and quite beyond their capacity to prevent or predict."
"But you won't tell us what."
"You understand my position. My priority is with your daughter."
"Just give us the damn forms." Katherine's voice cut across us both.
Mr. Phillips spread the forms out on the coffee table. The print was tiny and I guessed that even if we were legally trained we would be there until dawn if we truly wanted to understand the implications of what we were signing.
"Where do we sign?" I asked him.
"Let me explain firstly that you are giving your consent for us to take whatever action we deem necessary to save your daughter. I am not asking for this lightly. Once we intervene things could move quite quickly and we can't keep running back to you to ask if it's okay to proceed. I am asking for this in the knowledge that we were unable to save the other three girls."
He paused, letting the words sink in. I nodded, accepting his case.
"If you would sign this general release here and here and initial it there," he marked the points with an x of biro, "and these specific releases here and here." He offered me his biro.
I took the pen and signed the forms. Katherine waited until I had signed all of them and then took the biro from me and signed them too.
"Please do everything you can," she told the doctor. "Bring me back my girl."
He stood and we rose to our feet around him. He offered his hand to me and to Katherine and then also to Barry. "We will do everything in our power," he said, his words ringing with certainty for once, and then turned and walked out. I listened to his footsteps fade down the corridor.
I sighed and collapsed back into the chair. I felt so helpless. I had consigned my daughter into the hands of the professionals in the blind hope that they knew what they were doing. My fears were reflected in Katherine's eyes as she hugged Barry's chest close to her, all the while watching me over his shoulder. We had both made our decision but neither of us was sure we had done the right thing.
The next few hours were torture. Initially I went to the nurses' station and asked for news every ten minutes. It was a discipline for me to wait the full ten minutes before I went to ask her again. Eventually the nurse asked me to as gently as she could to stop pestering her. She promised to come and find us all as soon as there was any news.
I drank coffee. I tried to focus on the ancient newspapers and tatty magazines that were spread around the waiting room but I found myself reading the same sentence again and again without comprehension.
"I'm going outside to phone Blackbird," I told Katherine. "She'll be worried too."
"If anything happens, Barry will come and get you straight away, won't you Barry?" Barry nodded his agreement.
I stopped at the nurses' station and told her where I was going. She promised to send someone for me if anything changed.
I went back to the lift and descended to ground floor level, walking through reception out into the heavy night air. It was cooler, the sort of night when the light haloed around the street lamps. I used the speed dial on my mobile to call Blackbird. She picked up on the first ring.
"Hello?" her voice sounding thin and reedy.
"It's me. Were you asleep?"
"No. What's happening?"
"I don't know. They're treating her now. The waiting is driving me crazy."
"It was on the six o'clock news. They're saying that it was a sewer gas explosion."
"It's more complicated than that. They say there's been some sort of contamination. They're being very closed mouthed about it. They're trying to keep it from the press. Whatever it is, it sounds serious."
"Did they say she was going to be okay?"
"No, just that they would do their best."
"That's all you can ask for, Niall."
"How's Katherine holding up?"
"She's okay. Same as me really. She has Barry with her."
There was a pause.
"I'll come if you want me to, Niall."
"No, it's okay. You'll never get a train at this time of night and a taxi would cost the earth."
One of the things I had discovered about Blackbird was that she had never learned to drive. With her magic she had never needed to, but now that she was pregnant and her magic had failed her, she found herself marooned by lack of transport.
"I'll call you as soon as we have news." I assured her.
"Do, please." She sounded small, but the depth of feeling came through, despite the tinny line.
"I'd better get back in case there's news."
"Okay, give Katherine a hug for me."
"I will. Take care."
"You too. Bye."
I clicked the phone off and took a deep breath and walked back into the fluorescent brightness, making my way back up to the isolation unit.
As soon as I appeared, the nurse said, "No news."
I smiled weakly and went back to join Katherine and Barry.
They roused themselves as soon as I appeared, then fell back into their chairs as they realised that it was only me. I returned to the armchair, the vinyl cushions wheezing as I sank into it. We sat apart, each with our private thoughts. I suspected that like me, they were each thinking of the things they would have done differently had they known it would come to this.
When the man appeared in the doorway we all started. None of us had heard him approach. It wasn't Mr. Philips, the consultant, but another man, grey bearded and wearing a shabby jacket over a grey sweater.
"Mr and Mrs. Dobson?" He glanced at the three of us.
"Yes?" Katherine answered.
I stood up. "I'm Niall Petersen. I'm Alex's father."
"And you are?" he said gently to Barry.
"I'm her step-father. They're divorced." He nodded to Katherine and I. It sounded vaguely like an accusation.
"Have you heard?"
"Did it work?"
"Is she okay?"
Our three questions clashed as we searched his face for answers.
He came in and sat down between us.
"My name is David Beetham. I'm not a doctor. I'm a grief counsellor."
He watched us process that information.
"There's no easy way to say this, but I'm afraid I have to tell you that your daughter died a short time ago."