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Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Quantum of Nightmares

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Quantum of Nightmares

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Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Orbit, 2022
Tor.com Publishing, 2022
Series: The Laundry Files: Book 11
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy / Horror
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Synopsis

It's a brave new Britain under the New Management. The avuncular Prime Minister is an ancient eldritch god of unimaginable power. Crime is plummeting as almost every offense is punishable by death. And everywhere you look, there are people with strange powers, some of which they can control, and some, not so much.

Hyperorganized and formidable, Eve Starkey defeated her boss, the louche magical adept and billionaire Rupert de Montfort Bigge, in a supernatural duel to the death. Now she's in charge of the Bigge Corporation?just in time to discover the lethal trap Rupert set for her long ago.

Wendy Deere's transhuman abilities have gotten her through many a scrape. Now she's gainfully employed investigating unauthorized supernatural shenanigans. She swore to herself she wouldn't again get entangled with Eve Starkey's bohemian brother Imp and his crew of transhuman misfits. Yeah, right.

Mary Macandless has powers of her own. Right now she's pretending to be a nanny in order to kidnap the children of a pair of famous, Government-authorized superheroes. These children have powers of their own, and Mary Macandless is in way over her head.

Amanda Sullivan is the HR manager of a minor grocery chain, much oppressed by her glossy blonde boss?who is cooking up an appalling, extralegal scheme literally involving human flesh.

All of these stories will come together, with world-bending results...


Excerpt

1

GOING CUCKOO

Mary MacCandless came up from the underground station, turned left onto Bayswater Road, crossed the busy junction with Park Lane, and stopped to admire the glass and chrome skull rack on Tyburn.

It was a rainy day in mid-December, and a chilly breeze rattled the gibbet cages at each corner of the structure. The construction scaffolding had only just come down, revealing the gleaming tzompantli. It wrapped around Marble Arch, embraced and extending it in the instantly recognizable style of one of the most famous British architects of the twentieth century. Most of the niches on the rack were still empty, but several lonely heads stared eyelessly down from the top row.

"Read all abah't the crims 'oo went up last week!" shouted a street hawker, selling glossy, printed commemorative magazines wrapped in a plastic caul: "Read all abah't their evil deeds an' sad'n'pathetic last moments! Free DVD with every copy! Virtual reality view of every execution! Only twelve pounds fifty, collect 'em all!"

"Don't mind if I do." Mary smiled saucily and handed the fellow a dodgy twenty-pound note. He didn't check it before he made change: more fool him. "Cheery-bye!" she called as she stuffed the purchase in her messenger bag and sashayed off towards her job interview, richer by seven pounds fifty.

Central London was the stomping ground of nobs and toffs these days. Only the obscenely wealthy could afford to live here, much less own a house big enough to accommodate a live-in nanny. That, in Mary's opinion, made any such employers fair game. Admittedly the Mr. and Mrs. Richy McRichface she was here to fleece lived in a tied house that came with their job-share, but it was the principle that mattered. Anyway, they were both on the same pay scale as a Deputy Chief Constable, which meant they had to be loaded or at least well-insured. The Boss had given Mary a fat dossier on her targets, and Mary had done due diligence. Never take a job at face value without checking the Information was her watchword, and to date it had kept her from dancing the Tyburn tango. As far as she could tell the Boss's briefing was accurate. But then, he hadn't taken over London's supernatural underground by leaving anything to chance.

The wind had strengthened to something between a brisk breeze and an all-out blow by the time Mary opened the gate, marched up the short path to Number Seventeen, and rang the doorbell. She waited and waited, and waited some more: and while she waited she got herself into character. She was about to push the bell for a second time when the porch door opened.

"I've got it!" the big, red-faced bloke in sweatpants and polo shirt holding the door shouted over his shoulder. He turned to face Mary without really seeing her: "Just a mo!" he said, and pushed the inner door half-shut--"Need to get the rabble under control--"

A scream and a crash of breaking crockery echoed throughthe house, followed by a rising and falling wail of tantrum tears. "Right!" shouted a woman. "That's it! Robert, Lyssa, your father will--no dear, come here, Mummy's going to kiss it better, and you can just sit there in the naughty corner so I can keep an eye on you, young man no stop that--"

A Supermarine Spitfire the size of Mary's hand zoomed towards her face, buzzing like a rabid hornet. Without thinking, she plucked it out of the air. For a moment the buzzing rose to a febrile howl: tiny sparks erupted from its gun ports, stinging her palm. "Horrid thing!" She crushed it like a wasp, then brushed the smoking remains into her bag, ignoring the blood leaking from under the shattered cockpit canopy. Straightening up, she confronted Mr. Banks. "I can see I'm just in time! The agency were absolutely right to call me."

Mr. Banks opened the door a fraction wider. A harried eye scanned her up and down with a policeman's assessing gaze. "Who are you?"

"Mary Drop at your service!" She held out her hand. "From the nanny agency," she added, in case it wasn't entirely obvious that nannying was the name of her game. (It never paid to assume the mark was on the ball.) "I gather you have a number of small problems... ?"

"Yes, four of them." Mr. Banks's shoulders relaxed slightly as he pulled the door open: "Come in, come right in, you're just in the nick of time!"

Mary's experienced eye took in the four suitcases lined up inside the door, the carry-on with passports and boarding passes in an unzipped outer pocket, and the high-pitched wails emanating from the kitchen door. "You're going away right now?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Business conference," Mr. Banks said grimly. "Unfortunately Sylvia waited until this morning to inform us that she'd had enough of our shit and we were fired." His finger-quotes made clear his disbelief that a professional nanny could use such uncouth language in front of her charges. "She had her bag packed before I put the morning coffee on. Didn't even wait for breakfast. I'm so glad you were available at short notice--"

"Yes, well, they sent me because this sort of situation is exactly my speciality." Which was perfectly true, although the they in question weren't the nanny agency Mr. and Mrs. Banks used. "It's just lucky I'm available at short notice, isn't it?" Mary smirked. She recognized the Boss's hand at work in the sudden departure of her predecessor. "All's well that ends well, I always say, so if you'd show me inside and introduce me to your wife and the little ones I'll just get settled in, shall I?"

"Yes, indeed." Mr. Banks paused and looked at her messenger bag curiously. "Is that all you're bringing?"

"I left my suitcase with the Left Luggage company in Paddington. I can pick it up later, once you're on your way." She raised her hat and fanned her face with it. The house felt overheated after the chill of the pre-Christmas rain, and her coat was buttoned to her chin. "Going somewhere nice, I hope?"

"A conference in Hawaii--it's a business trip. Our flight leaves in four hours: we should be back a week on Wednesday." A shadow crossed Mr. Banks's face. "Trudy?"

"Coming, dear!" Mrs. Banks swayed into the hall, thrown off-balance by the toddler she was carrying on one hip. Mr. and Mrs. Banks were both in their early forties, tall and well-toned from the gym. Trudy Banks wore a worried expression, and the grooves worn in her forehead suggested it was a perpetual state of existence for her. The little girl's face was buried against the side of her neck like an infant vampire, but her quivering shoulders signalled manipulative sobbing rather than sanguinary suckling. Long blonde hair, party dress, mismatched socks: Mary could tell at a glance she was going to be a handful. "I take it Sylvia didn't dress them before she left?" Mary unslung her bag and offered her arms.

Trudy gratefully handed over her daughter. "This is Emily," she introduced. "Emily, this is--I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"

"I'm Mary Drop," said Mary. She addressed Emily directly: "And I'm going to take really good care of you while Mummy and Daddy are away!" Emily emitted an overblown thespian sob and met Mary's gaze with a coldly assessing stare. Mary smiled--not her real smile, the one that scared crocodiles, but the child-friendly version--and pulled Emily closer. "The usual agency terms and conditions apply," she told the little girl's parents out of the corner of her mouth. "But I'm definitely not going anywhere for at least two weeks. Hopefully longer." In her inside pocket, the charmed amulet the Boss had loaned her grew warm as it worked extra-hard to reinforce the Bankses' belief in her bona fides, pushing the message: no need for references, nothing to see here, move along now.

"We're sorted, then," said Trudy, her gratitude palpable. "I've left a to-do list with the Amazon and Waitrose delivery service passwords on the kitchen table, along with a spare set of keys. There's a folder labelled NANNY for you to read. Let me introduce you to Elissa--she answers to Lyssa--Ethan, and Robert--who doesn't answer to Bob--then we've really got to go, our Uber is on its way." She was already pulling on an overcoat better suited to a rainy winter in St John's Wood than an international summit meeting of state-licensed superheroes in Hawaii. "You'll call us if there are any problems, won't you? Any problems at all, any time of day or night. Oh, and Robert sleepwalks sometimes, just so you know." Mary smiled and nodded, her grin as fixed as any of the death masks fronting the skulls on the Marble Arch Tzompantli. Emily clung to her like grim death: the little girl had fallen silent, as though she realized that the bogeywoman was no longer hiding under the bed but had come out to play in broad daylight. "You have absolutely nothing to be concerned about!" she assured Nigel and Trudy Banks, Captain Colossal and the Blue Queen, senior line superheroes by appointment of the London Metropolitan Police Commissioner's office. "I'll take good care of them, you'll see!"

And because she told them no lies, Mr. and Mrs. Banks lapped it up.

Easy as stealing candy from a baby, Mary MacCandless told herself, and her smile was almost sincere.

* * *

Nearly a week had passed since Rupert's premature death had deprived Eve of one of her long-anticipated life goals--his murder. By stealing a cursed magical tome, her scumbag boss had discovered a new and entirely original way to commit suicide. Admittedly Eve had helped him along the way by not pointing out the consequences of his reckless greed and stupidity, but Rupert was, well, Rupert. If he hadn't been a self-entitled wanker who treated his employees as serfs and sex toys she might have made a token attempt to stop him: but then again, pigs might fly.

Meanwhile, the cuckoo clock in Rupert's office was striking thirteen, and Eve was thoroughly perturbed.

One benefit of having spent years planning his murder was that Eve knew exactly what to do afterwards. She was in theory employed as Rupert de Montfort Bigge's executive assistant. But within the organization, especially during his frequent unexplained absences, she spoke with his voice: everybody was used to seeing her hand on the tiller. It wasn't as if she was underqualified. She had degrees in business and economics, was licensed to trade on the London Stock Exchange, and had much the same responsibilities as a corporate vice president. She was also a highly competent sorceress. Only a man as arrogant and self-entitled as Rupert would dream of introducing her to his cronies as his secretary, much less impose on someone so dangerous for personal services of a degrading and humiliating nature.

Rupert was fabulously corrupt and equally fabulously wealthy, and the Bigge Organization was essentially a gigantic wealth management/private equity front he'd created to manage the fortunes he'd stolen. He still contributed to the bottom line by means of certain disgusting occult practices, but he was increasingly distant from the day-to-day running of his corporation these days, leaving it to Head Office to coordinate operations and manage his investments. Which, in practice, meant Eve.

While Rupert was out of the picture, Eve kept the Bigge Organization ticking over smoothly. And the week after his "departure" she cultivated the office grapevine even more assiduously than usual. There were the usual rumors about depraved parties in the castle on Skaro (a small channel island which he had purchased along with its feudal lordship), and Eve encouraged these. There was also discreet speculation about Rupe being in rehab again. Eve nodded sagaciously, then changed the subject in an implicitly confirmatory manner. Snooping on the coffee station at HQ--he'd taken personal control over Rupe's workplace spy cameras and microphones--she very carefully determined that there were no rumors about a missing concordance to the Necronomicon, a disappearing hitman, or the shenanigans of several second-tier supervillains. It appeared her veil of operational security was intact. So the morning after his demise she activated her coverup plan.

Eve reported his disappearance to the authorities. She'd been obliging but unhelpful to the officers from New Scotland Yard, giving them plenty of inconclusive leads to investigate. They were looking for bloated bodies off the coast of Guernsey: but also asking about new inpatients at a small and very exclusive clinic in Bulgaria, not to mention considering the possibility that a certain former US Navy SEAL turned mercenary had gone rogue and disposed of his boss. (The mercenary in question was known to have a James Bond fixation, going so far as to ape the fictional spy's taste in tailoring and borrow Rupe's Aston-Martin.) It was all quite perplexing, and the detectives had thanked her and gone on their way nursing the missing-billionaire-sized headaches she'd laid in their minds like the confabulated eggs of a parasitic wasp of the imagination.

As the executive assistant of a billionaire, Eve expected and got the kid-glove treatment. Nobody so much as hinted that she herself might be under suspicion. So, two days later, Eve set in motion the legal machinery to have Rupert declared missing; and today, at noon precisely, in custody of the access codes he'd left copies of in the Chief Legal Counsel's safe, she entered his office without an invitation for the very first time.

The cuckoo clock was getting on her nerves.

Rupert's den was deceptively airy and open in feel despite being part of a London town house. From the thick, hand-woven carpet to the polished oak of his eighteenth-century admiralty desk, everything about the room was coded for ostentatious luxury. Portraits of Messrs. and Ladies de Montfort and Bigge from centuries past adorned the walls--one of them, if Eve's eyes weren't deceiving her, was a John Singer Sargent. There was nothing so gauche as an in tray or a computer terminal on the desk. Rupe's sole concessions to modernity were his smartphone (lost in Neverland, along with its owner) and a 72-inch curved monitor bolted to the wall above a transplanted and entirely nonfunctional Adam fireplace, the better to spy on his minions.

All of which made the presence of a prime-number-tweeting Black Forest souvenir even more incongruous. Not only was it committing an offense against timekeeping, it was out of place in Rupert's personal space. Rupert's taste in decor was unrelentingly bad, but it wasn't that kind of bad. And Eve couldn't abide inconsistencies: they made her itch.

"Reception? Put me through to Facilities," she announced.

"You called, Miss?" Her bluetooth headset was all but surgically grafted to her ear: she wore it from rising to bed, and the rotating team of receptionists upstairs were trained to respond to her instantly.

"I'm in Rupert's office. There's a cuckoo clock in here. Email me its inventory record, please, I want to know where it came from." It was probably a present from one of his drinking buddies, but you never knew with Rupert. It might be evidence of some sort of ghastly crime, publicly displayed in mockery of the police. "That's all for now." She ended the call, then glanced at her watch. She had eight minutes until an upcoming conference call with Acquisitions and Mergers. She was due to take it in her own office, a small, austere cell buried in the subbasement beneath Rupert's expansive den. She glowered at the clock as she stalked towards the door. "I'll deal with you later," she warned it repressively as she gazed around the room, searching for overlooked hiding places. And a moment later, she forgot all about the clock.

One of Rupert's nastier hobbies was collecting documentary evidence of other people's misdeeds. They were papers so weighty that they bent light around them, like the gravity well of a black hole. They had to be somewhere, and knowing Rupe--no one knew him better than she--he'd have stashed them in a secret place only he could get at. But--again, knowing Rupert--they'd be close to hand. So Eve had wasted almost an entire hour of her incredibly valuable time hunting for the private safe she knew had to be somewhere in here.

It wasn't on any of the architectural drawings she had access to. She'd never seen it, never even been told as a certainty that it existed--she'd simply inferred its existence by the absence of certain files from the main office vault. Eve surmised that he'd hired an expert craftsman to install a hidden safe in his office, then, like a jealous Pharaoh guarding his inner tomb, murdered them to ensure they took the secret to their grave.

Rupert's personal safe was full of secrets, secrets that could kill. But Rupert had gone to his grave without telling Eve where it was, and she wouldn't be entirely happy until she had them under her own lock and key.

* * *

Amy from Human Resources started her Monday morning expecting the week ahead to be at least as bad as the curdled dregs at the bottom of the mug of coffee-like liquid beside her laptop. For one thing, she hated Monday mornings. For another, she worked in HR for the most aggressively downmarket regional supermarket chain in London, which a modern Dante might quite accurately characterize as the tenth circle of hell. And finally, she had a disciplinary hearing coming up in half an hour, and she hated disciplinaries with a passion.

Disciplinary proceedings invariably reminded Amy of the weakness of her own white-knuckle grip on the swaying rope ladder dangling below the zeppelin of corporate management, cruising high above the corpse-strewn wasteland of the economy. Amy was not under any illusions that she was suited to a high-flying career--but to lose her grip would doom her to a catastrophic fall into the hideous depths. Also, when she had these thoughts she got airsick, even though both her feet were planted on terra firma, and right now her stomach was roiling. (It was probably the bad break-room coffee.)

"Who is it, sweetie?" Jennifer, her boss--never a mere Jenny, much less a diminutive Jenn--leaned over the back of Amy's chair, startling her into a guilty pelvic floor spasm. Jennifer was pretty much Amy's antithesis, not to say her nemesis: a natural straight-haired blonde, ten centimeters taller in flats than Amy in heels, who wore her charcoal suit and cream silk blouse as if it was a fashion statement rather than a uniform. She was two years younger and skinnier than Amy, her jackets didn't gape, and when she wore a skirt it didn't ride up and wrinkle; her unpaid overtime hours and general glow of self-confidence bespoke the certainty that she was on her way to a seat in the FlavrsMart C-suite.

Unlike Amy, she didn't feel the need to assert her self-worth and individuality by dyeing her fringe green, pursuing unauthorized hobbies, or having a life beyond her job. Amy knew she was supposed to envy Jennifer: but the truth of the matter was that she would rather die than swap her life for her boss's. And this awareness of her own thoughtcrime made her feel worse than actual green-eyed envy ever could. It meant she was a loser, doomed to be ground to paste between the gears of the corporate machinery she was paid to maintain. It was only a matter of time before she lost her grip and fell to her doom.

Amy and Jennifer shared a cramped office in the management suite of Branch 322, a FlavrsMart supermarket--FlavrsMart, Where Everything Tastes Better!--deep in the wilderness of suburban northeast London. In theory they hot-desked with Tara, Kirsten, and Barry. But Kirsten was on maternity leave, Tara telecommuted from Branch 219 most of the time, and Barry haunted the front-line trenches down in Receiving because he was terrified of Jennifer--not because of anything she'd done, but because of what she might do. So for the time being they had the HR office to themselves.

"It's Adrian Hewitt in Textured Deli Goods again." Amy sighed noisily. "Looks like he didn't get the memo when I verballed him last week."

"Oh dear, I told him--" Jennifer peered over Amy's shoulder at her laptop screen. "I suppose you'd better show me what you've got."

Amy brought up the file that Security had forwarded to her--a compilation of video clips from the supermarket surveillance network. Candid Camera had gone on a blind date with Jeremy Bentham behind the meat counter: FlavrsMart employees all wore uniforms with name badges and RFID location transponders, so the store cameras knew exactly where to point, all the time. This was not a secret from the staff--quite the opposite--but it never ceased to amaze Amy how many of her fellow employees seemed to forget that everything they did on the shop floor was recorded.

To Amy's way of thinking, disciplinary hearings seldom achieved anything beyond highlighting what Jennifer called the Banality of Fuck-Uppery: the utter inability of petty workplace rebels to make their career-limiting moves count for something. Usually they were the result of a ploddingly mundane display of incompetence on the job, like an inability to stack shelves or operate a vacuum cleaner. Less frequently it was for harassment or disreputable conduct: a circulating photo of a set of sad-sack genitals might warrant a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger suggestion that their owner take it to the dole office, or maybe the department of urogenital medicine. Occasionally a customer would complain about a slight lack of obsequious servility, and once in a blue moon it turned out that they weren't entirely exaggerating: that was embarrassing, and FlavrsMart would be compelled to take action to protect its corporate reputation. Finally, petty pilfering would result in a blue-suiter escorting the perp from the premises, or even arresting them and taking them down to the local nick to await the tender mercies of the hanging magistrates.

But regardless of the cause, disciplinary cases generated stacks of paperwork and hours of camera footage that needed to be combed through and preserved, just to ensure that FlavrsMart was in no way exposed to litigation. And because Amy was the HR ugly duckling, forever trailing forlornly behind Jennifer's immaculate swan, the paperwork always landed on her shoulders.

Amy flicked through the video montage of butchers behaving badly until she got to the coup de disgrace: the sequence which had finally forced her to take action. Behind her, Jennifer watched intently. She didn't sound happy. "Look at that--bleep--thing. Artistic statement. Extrusion." (She actually said bleep.) "What is it?"

"Grounds for dismissal." Amy bit her tongue. Though this was the Human Resources department, they were no more immune to the gaze of the corporate panopticon than anyone on the shop floor. The verbal bleep was Jennifer's way of acknowledging this fact, with a tug of the forelock to the Company Code of Conduct (which forbade swearing or other expressions that might be offensive or intimidating). It was a placeholder that discreetly signified the possibility of less temperate language, circumstances permitting. Amy, however, while not bleeping, was veering dangerously close to irony, if not outright sarcasm.*

Jennifer winced. "Can you see an angle? Any way to constructively reframe it as something less offensive? Mr. Hewitt is in a high-skill role: replacing him will be difficult."

"I don't see what we can do about this. Other than the obvious, I mean?"

"Bleep. I suppose you're right: too late to sweep it under the rug. We're going to have to rightsize him. Bleep it."

It was unlike Jennifer to be so squeamish. Amy tried to reassure her: "I'll pull his job description, see if we've got any applicants on file who have matching experience."

Jennifer sighed again and stared at Amy's laptop. "Bleep. Bleep-bleepity bleep. Thank you, Ade, thanks for nothing."

Amy blinked. It sounded as if Jennifer was taking it personally. Did she have a relationship with the offensive Mr. Hewitt outside the workplace? That would be problematic.

"Boss." (It was clearly time to break out the soft soap.) "We can't keep him if he's in the habit of sexually abusing the printer during stock-taking hours. I mean, it's on video. How can I phrase this? No. Not if he's going to put stuff like this on the deli counter without taking precautions. At least using a condom."

"Cr--bleep." Jennifer rolled her eyes and huffed. "He was only using leftovers that were going in the recycling skip!" She'd moved from denial to irritation in seconds. Amy just had to hope she'd skip hostility completely and go straight to bargaining and acceptance: otherwise, Amy herself was in the firing line. "Bleep the video, why couldn't that camera be out of service?"

"Imagine what could have happened if he got called away and it was still there the next morning? Someone with delicate sensibilities might be offended. A wean might complain. Worse, they might Instagram it." (Instagram was the hot new photo-sharing app with the kids these days, wasn't it?)

"Sigh, you're right. It'd be all over the internet before you could snap your fingers. The Food Standards Agency would ram-raid us with an armored car full of inspectors. The New Management might take an interest." Jennifer invoked the government with the kind of uneasy, admiring relish usually associated with eyewitness accounts of public executions. (Which had become a Thing again, especially on Instagram, thanks to the New Management's firm approach to crime and punishment.)

"Okay." Amy relaxed infinitesimally, now that her boss was in agreement. "I'll take him to the interview room when he shows." A chime from her desk phone warned her that the miscreant was on his way up, escorted by his team leader. Amy rose, picked up her laptop and notepad, and gave Jennifer a pleading look. "Are you sure you don't want to handle this?" As he's your friend, she added silently, knowing better than to voice such a sentiment.

Jennifer smiled vindictively. "I know it sucks, sweetie, but this is your call. I'd have to self-disclose: I'm not impartial. Also, you've got to stop being so squeamish about this aspect of the job. Try and see it as a challenge, just for me? I want to see you step up and handle this yourself. You've got an appraisal coming up: I'll be watching."

Oh crap, Amy thought dismally. Why can't this just go away? But she'd maneuvered herself into a corner all on her own before she knew Jennifer had an interest, and now the spot directly between her shoulder blades was itching furiously.

A slim-fingered hand with nails painted the color of fresh blood squeezed Amy's arm: "We can discuss his replacement after lunch...."

* * *

Meanwhile, in a house on a deceptively posh street in Kensington:

"Fucksake, bro, give me that!"

Game Boy made an abortive jump for the cartridge Imp held out of reach. He squealed with frustration and landed heavily on Imp's toe. Imp stumbled: "Ouch! Hey, watch where you're--"

"Mine! My high score! Give that back, you brute!" Game Boy lunged and grabbed hold of Imp's arm, dragging him down by sheer weight. Not that Game Boy was particularly heavy--at one-fifty centimeters and fifty kilograms he was a skinny Southeast Asian kid, just under five feet tall in old units--but Imp, the Impresario, wasn't exactly ripped either. He was just tall, intense, and long-haired: like an adult Peter Pan who'd burned through a casual heroin habit and come out the other side barely intact.

Imp's arm drooped under Game Boy's weight until his feet touched the floor. He made a wild one-handed grab for the 3DS cartridge, which slipped through Imp's fingers and fell into his open palm. Game Boy fell back across the carnivorous sofa, glaring angrily and clutching the game with its precious high score to his chest.

"Dude, what the fuck are you playing at?"

Doc Depression glowered at Imp from the doorway. A shopping bag dangled from one hand. Tall and thin to the point of cadaverous, with a face that might have been fashionable on a racehorse, he wore a brown tweed suit whose previous owner had donated it to a charity store a couple of decades earlier: his version of hipster chic.

"We were just arseing around," Imp said defensively: "all in fun--"

"Asshole!" squeaked Game Boy. He whistled for breath again.

"But you're so cute when you beg--"

"The fuck." Doc shook his head in disgust, then looked around, taking in the living room anew. "You're arseing about while the place is a dump."

"This place is still a dump, you mean." They'd swept away the broken glass and gas grenades, boarded up the shattered windows, and repaired the worst of the damage inflicted when a crack team of Transnistrian mafia loss adjusters stormed the house in pursuit of Rupert de Montfort Bigge's pet assassin. (The mafiya hitmen had been followed in turn by Imp's terrifying elder sister Eve and her bodyguard, then Rupert himself, Eve's monstrous employer.) Having chucked the broken furniture out the back door and bought a new computer desk or three, the Lost Boys were working on repairing the bedrooms, including the top floor with its eldritch attic extension. Game Boy had even--reluctantly--reactivated the external CCTV system, once Wendy had assured them nobody ever watched it. "These things take time to fix," said Imp.

"When are we getting paid? I had to buy a new mattress after someone trashed the old one," Doc complained.

"Eve asked me to visit her tomorrow," Imp replied. "What's the big deal with that cartridge anyway, GeeBee?"

Game Boy kept his death grip on the game. "It may not look like much to you, but it's got my Final Fantasy Explorers save file." His handheld console had been another of the casualties on the night of the home invasion: it had taken a size thirteen army boot to the hinge. Luckily the cartridge had popped free and been kicked under the sofa. "A lot of work went into that!" He glared furiously at Imp. "Going to need a new 3DS," he grumped, "assuming it's not corrupted. I was trying to overflow the score table because there's supposed to be an Easter egg..."

"Here: catch." Doc had reached into his carrier bag and tossed a box towards the sofa. It tumbled in midair, twisted weirdly, and landed in Game Boy's open hand. Game Boy took one look at it and squealed loud enough to scratch glass. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" He leapt off the sofa, rushed up to Doc, and hugged him, cartridge in one hand and shiny new 3DS in the other.

"Aw, it's so cute." Imp was unable to suppress a smile.

"I paid for it fair and square. FlavrsMart were having a special on electronics: call it your replacement Christmas present. Hey, Boy, you can let go now," Doc told him. "Imp? About your sister--"

"--Yeah?"

"Have you run it past Del, yet? Or her girlfriend?" Del--the Deliverator--was a part-time cycle courier and their getaway driver. She'd been absent for most of the past week, spending time with her new girlfriend, Wendy. About whom the rest of the household were extremely conflicted, because Wendy was a semiprofessional thief-taker and the Lost Boys were semiprofessional thieves.

Imp rolled his eyes. "That's what tomorrow's about," he explained. "Invoice time." Eve owed him for services rendered, and he intended to collect. "Also to talk about the future."

Eve had bought out Wendy's contract for them. Unlike real cops, thief-takers worked for the highest bidder. Wendy's boss had been happy to blow off a cheapskate insurance underwriter when Eve dangled a juicy backhander under his nose, but now that the Boys' faces were on the radar, continuing in their previous line of work was inadvisable.

"I want to see if I can get her to put us on retainer. Not," he added, "for that kind of job. I'm talking about low-risk stuff. But there's got to be something we can do." Something that doesn't put us at risk of dangling from a gibbet.

"O-kaay."

Doc sounded unenthusiastic. But then, Doc always poured cold water on Imp's ideas, for no reason that Imp understood: they were good plans, none of his plans were remotely half-assed or impractical! "Just promise me you won't agree to rob any more banks, especially ones we did over the previous month."

Imp winced. "No banks, real or imaginary, are going to be robbed on my watch, going forward! Cross my heart and hope to die."

"Please don't," said Doc.

"You don't have a heart!" Game Boy commented snidely as he tiptoed out the door, clutching his new console to his chest. The Xbox, PS4, and his PCs had all taken a battering during the night of the stompy boots; replacing them was definitely going to have to wait until they got paid.

Imp flopped on the shapeless sofa and patted the seat. Doc settled companionably beside him. "Are you still mad at me?" Imp asked.

"I haven't decided yet." Doc's lanky frame overtopped Imp by a few centimeters. He looked down at his partner through luxuriant eyelashes. "Got a smoke?"

"Sure. I mean, I'm sure I have one somewhere." Imp patted his pockets, then pulled out a tobacco tin that bore the dents and scratches of tough love. "Thought I'd rolled one... yeah, I did." He pulled out a skinny joint, raised it to his lips, and inhaled: it sparked into life spontaneously.

"Neat trick."

"Runs in the family. Remind me to teach you how to do it." Imp filled his lungs, then passed the roll-up to Doc. Shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, they sat in peaceable silence for about ten minutes, passing the joint back and forth as smoke dragons coiled towards the ceiling. Eventually Imp stubbed it out on the lid of his tin. "Better," he said.

"Tell me about your sister," said Doc, rubbing up against him sleepily.

"Don't wanna."

"Tell me about your sister or no nookie."

"Don't--"

He stopped as Doc ran his thumb along Imp's lower lip--"mm-hmm."

"Tell me. What's so bad about her? I mean, beside the obvious, being Chief Minion to an evil hedge fund billionaire--"

"It's embarrassing."

"Oh, it's embarrassing is it, having an elder sister? Oh woe, oh misery--"

"Shut up." Running out of options, Imp turned to face Doc and kissed him deeply.

"Not gonna shut up."

"Stop your finger-wagging." Imp drew breath. "I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you, if I remembered afterwards. I dunno, I think I need to be drunk first. I mean, as well."

"Wait here," Doc said gently, then stood up and shuffled unsteadily out towards the kitchen. Imp waited somnolently until he returned, clutching two tumblers and a bottle of whiskey. "Lagavulin Sixteen."

"Hey, that's my personal stash!"

"Fell off the back of a lorry? Like I care, we're drinking it anyway." Doc sloshed liquid into a glass, then handed it to Imp, who took a reflective sip while Doc attended to his own tipple. "Now talk."

"I dunno. Like, I've seen more of Eve in the past month than in the previous five years, you know? Since Dad died and Mum got--ill. We used to be close when we were kids, but I was going through a bad patch. Then shit happened, and she got very distant after she took the Chief Minion job."

He took another sip of whiskey.

"And?"

Imp stared into his glass for almost a minute. Then, very quietly, he added, "I'm afraid I might have fucked things up for her."

*Which was a firing offense (Category: Gross misconduct; subcategory: Insolence towards the Dignity of the Enterprise).

Copyright © 2022 by Charles Stross


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