“I’m sorry, Bob,” says Dr. Armstrong, “but they asked for you specifically because Hello Kitty is a Londoner.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in May, and I’m making a futile attempt to get out of the most pointless waste of time and energy to land on my desk this year. I tried Mrs. MacDougal in HR first, but she just sneered at me and told me to man up. (Few people ever win a face-off with Emma; decades of disciplining idiots who send dick-pics from work—or ovipositor pics, in some cases—have turned her heart to granite.) So, after getting knocked back by HR, I went to lobby the Senior Auditor. He has a better grasp of what this kind of liaison job entails than HR—he’s been there himself, after all. But I’m getting an unexpectedly unsympathetic hearing.
“What part of ‘our eighth wedding anniversary’ isn’t getting through to you? Mo will assume I forgot, and blame me. You know that thing she does, when she turns so chilly that her sense of irony achieves superconductivity? I’m talking freezer burns. And that’s before we get into my four-month-deep to-do list of Severity One containment issues that need my official attention, stat, because—” I stop. My old boss, Angleton, isn’t here anymore, and I’m working my way through his backlog of jobs and it kind of sucks, but I’m not placing any blame on his shoulders. “I don’t need this right now,” I continue, and even to my own ears it comes out a little petulant.
“Bob.” Dr Armstrong gives me a long-suffering look. “You’re separated.”
“Not through choice! And in any case there are loads of high-priority jobs on our doorstep, stuff we’re officially tasked with locking down right here without buggering off on a foreign assistance junket. I still haven’t finished decontaminating Gruinard”—(the press think it’s anthrax spores: if they had any inkling what Churchill ordered tested there during the war it’d trigger a mass panic)—“and then there’s the thing in Shaft Ten at Dounreay, not to mention the anomalous readings near Malham Cove—”
“Enough!” Dr. Armstrong eyes me like a university professor sizing up a student who’s spending more time in the bar than the library. “They wouldn’t be asking for you without a very good reason. James was there in ’46, and again in ’77. They’re due another visit round about now anyway, you’re his direct successor, and it is our responsibility. Postwar UN occupation, residual cleanup per international treaty. You can’t let this slide, it’ll make us look shifty and unreliable. More shifty and unreliable,” he corrects himself, clearly thinking of our beloved coalition government and their attitude toward foreign aid (encouraged when it’s a fig leaf for defense industry exports; otherwise, not).
He straightens up and proceeds to hand down judgment. “You need to go to Japan to check the hit list of warded sites James left behind in case any of them are leaking. You need to look into this business in—where is it, Tama New Town?—that our colleagues from the Miyamoto Group are banging on about. Explain what happened to Dr. Angleton and introduce yourself as his successor, then bring them up to date on recent developments. While you’re at it you should read, digest, and apply the guidelines in chapters eight through eleven of the Civil Service Overseas Liaison Handbook while bearing in mind best practices for Foreign Office adjuncts on temporary posting overseas.”
“Crap.” I surrender to the inevitable as he opens a drawer in his desk and rummages furiously for a few seconds. “Can I just say—”
“Here you are! A local travel guide: James swore by it.” He pushes a dog-eared paperback at me—The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. “I think you might find it amusing. I’ll talk to Mrs. MacDougal about clearing your travel and expenses authorization in case it exceeds your discretionary budget cap—Land of the Rising Yen, ha ha—and see if she can sort out a diplomatic visa. You’ll need to be assigned a handler at the embassy, just in case of protocol breaches. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of work ahead, reviewing James’s records from the last two visits.” He flashes me a lightning grin. “You might as well take a week’s leave for sightseeing while you’re out there, once the job’s done. You can tell me how accurate the book is when you get home.”
* * *
Hello. My name is Bob Howard, and I do secret work for the government. Magic is a branch of applied computation, and ever since the invention of the digital computer coincided with the population bubble, the practice of magic has been getting easier. (Brains are computing devices, too, but you really don’t want to perform spells with your grey matter—not if you’re attached to it.) A big part of the agency’s job (we call it the Laundry, because it was headquartered above a Chinese laundry in Soho during the Second World War) is suppressing magical incursions of the “too many tentacles, not enough sanity” variety. And we’re losing the fight.
Currently I’m trying to fill the boots of my former superior. Dr. James Angleton (not his real name—true names have power) got himself killed a little over a year ago. He was a heavy hitter, due to not being entirely human: long ago he was turned into the mortal vessel of an ancient power called the Eater of Souls.
A couple of years ago, a bunch of maniacs who had stolen the recipe for summoning the Eater of Souls and binding it to service tried to install it on my wetware. The resulting mess left me spiritually entangled with my boss—a kind of deputy assistant understudy Eater of Souls—and now that Dr. Angleton isn’t around anymore, I’m the nearest thing the department has to a replacement. They’re not happy. Government bureaucracies rely on their public servants being functionally interchangeable, able to pick up one another’s briefs and wash away the stains left by their predecessors without any fuss. But my powers aren’t readily transferable, so I’m stuck with the job for the foreseeable future, and I’m not happy either.
Angleton’s main task was securing the wards locking down contaminated thaumaturgic waste sites—bloodstained eldritch temples, tombs of minor arcane horrors, music festival venues popular with the Azathoth pipe band set. Being ageless, he’d been at it since the 1930s. There are a lot of sites, and they need checking regularly. During the Allied occupation of Germany and Japan, Angleton was in much demand—you would not believe how many ghastly necromantic relics the Nazis left behind. Not to mention how many Shinto shrines up and down the spine of Honshu are haunted by the hungry ghosts of executed war criminals they still honor (very much a self-inflicted problem, that). I have an uneasy feeling he was mostly there to monitor them, rather than help: but it’s not as if I can ask him, is it?
And that brings me up to the present: spring, 2014.
According to Angleton’s very brief notes, most of the Japanese wartime sites are either dormant or actually certified extinct. But Angleton’s full workplace diaries aren’t online, either on our intranet or saved as microfiches in his office. When I checked his filing cabinets I found only a dog-eared index card saying he’d sent them down to Archives to save space. And when I dropped in to ask for them, it turned out they’d been misfiled. The Librarian is very helpful and promises to email me a scan as soon as possible—they’re old enough that their confidentiality level has decayed from TOP SECRET EYES ONLY to POLITICALLY INCORRECT/QUAINT CURIOSITY, so emailing them is permissible—but in the meantime I’m flying blind.
Which makes the question of why the Miyamoto Group is asking for the Eater of Souls a bit of a head-scratcher. Especially as they want Dr. Angleton to take a look at a site in Tama New Town—which didn’t even exist until the 1960s!
I have no idea what’s going on but I intend to find out, just as soon as I get over the boss-level jet lag and meet my liaison officer.
* * *
The flight from Heathrow to Tokyo is grim. Luckily I’ve racked up enough air miles in the past year to treat myself to an upgrade, but the time difference gets me all the same. I collect my bag, stumble through an immigration queue and customs, catch a train to Shinjuku, and emerge blinking into midmorning sunlight at what my body insists is 3:00 a.m. Long day ahead.
I have a smartphone. In fact, being sane and traveling on business, I have two. (One’s my personal phone, the other is a work-issued device. Guess which has the international roaming data plan?) There’s plenty of bandwidth, so I rely on the Google monster to get me out of the nightmarish maze that is Shinjuku station and onto the sidewalk. Ten minutes later—I get lost a couple of times en route, there’s a lot of GPS signal bounce due to the skyscrapers, and my app hates the underpasses and pedestrian skywalks—I find myself in the glass-and-marble lobby of the Keio Plaza Hotel, where my hosts have booked me a room.
The immaculately uniformed woman at the front desk gives me a worried smile when I hand her my passport. It takes her a while to find me in the reservations database under Capital Laundry Services, our usual open travel cover. “Ah, sir is entitled to use the Premier counter! Please, follow me?” I’m walked across an expanse of marble to another counter, this time with gold leaf trim, and a most peculiar feeling spills over me, as if I’m very politely being singled out to be the target of an elaborate joke. She passes me over to a fellow in a dark suit so stiffly formal that I wonder if I’m being introduced to my undertaker, and there is some bowing and scraping that my fatigued brain is too dizzy to take in. “Your room key, sir,” says the new clerk. “Please follow me?” It is made clear that my suitcase is the responsibility of the porter—white gloves, who the hell wears white gloves to load a baggage cart?—and we waltz off towards an express elevator in one roped-off corner of the lobby.
My room key is pink. And that’s all the warning I get before I am led along a hotel corridor that is also pink, to a door with a pink plastic bow above the peephole. “Welcome to the Princess Kitty Room!” says my escort. “We hope you enjoy your stay.” And he opens the door and bows silently, while I’m still flapping my mouth like a stunned koi.
I wordlessly enter the Princess Kitty Room, where the decor is camp going on kitsch: pink roses on cream wallpaper, mauve rose patterns on pink carpet, magenta bedding and frills and bows and furbelows on everything. Despite which, it is still just a room in an upmarket hotel in the middle of Tokyo, priced somewhere in the stratosphere—I am really glad that my hosts are paying for it, I would hate to have to explain this to the Auditors—and I turn around to thank the clerk just in time to see the door closing with an almost audible pop of soundproofing.
The instant I’m alone, my brain goes into power-saving mode. I try to fight it off, but I’m totally jet-lagged and the soporific pink noise of the air-conditioning is tickling my snore gland. So it takes me a couple of minutes of fumbling around, unpacking clothes and plugging in my tangle of low-voltage wall-warts, before I realize there’s a laptop sitting on the dressing table, waiting for me.
It’s a Sony Vaio laptop, with a mauve-and-pink two-tone shell, and it’s open and running a video chat session.
Under normal circumstances I would think twice before prodding somebody else’s computer. But I’m guessing this is here for a purpose, so I sit down. Right now it shows a frozen view of a cramped, windowless office. But just as I’m asking myself “what happens if I tweak this setting” the windowless office does a really weird rotate-and-dissolve and is replaced by the face of a young-ish Japanese woman in office-lady suit, her makeup so immaculate that it looks photoshopped. “Welcome, Dr. Angleton? I am happy to meet you!” she says, and twitches a pointed ear. She has a faint East Coast American accent. She drops her gaze, and I rack my brain for the correct etiquette for this situation. Both of us are outside our comfort zones: she was expecting Angleton, and I was expecting a human being. (Or at least someone more human than I am, these days.)
The ward I wear on a cord round my neck is definitely warm. Suspicion confirmed: the cat ears are real, although she probably wears a concealing glamour in public. They come to delicate tufted points, like a lynx’s. They’re set forward and high on the cranial dome; if she has regular human ears as well, they’re concealed beneath her glossy black hair.
“I’m pleased to meet you too,” I say, trying for non-committal, “but I regret that there seems to be a miscommunication: I’m not Dr. Angleton.”
Her smile becomes just slightly rigid. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I am Yoko Suzuki, and I was expecting to welcome Dr. Angleton back to Japan on behalf of the Miyamoto Group. May I ask your name?”
“I’m Bob Howard. I’m afraid Dr. Angleton is unavailable. I’m his replacement.” I stifle a jaw-cracking yawn. “He … well, I’m afraid his records of his previous visits here are incomplete, so anything you can tell me would be very helpful. I—” My battle against yawning fails. “Oh, I’m sorry. Long flight!”
Ms. Suzuki, whose expression has gone from one of respectful welcome to implying that I shot her kitten, blinks at me. “Ah, I see.” Her gaze slithers sideways, then she inclines her head. “Perhaps we should continue in the morning, in person? You should recover from your journey.”
I manage to hold back another cavernous yawn. “Absolutely.”
“May I ask when Dr. Angleton will be back at work? I hope all is well with him? I need to inform my superiors.…”
I steel myself. “Dr. Angleton was killed in the line of duty last year. He was my boss for seven years before that, so I should be able to duplicate his work.” I hope. “I inherited his abilities. Should I come to your offices tomorrow, or would you prefer to meet me here?”
She smiles with lips clenched tight, not revealing her fangs. Nevertheless I see a flash of steel behind the mask, quickly hidden: “I’ll meet you in the hotel lobby. Shall we say nine o’clock?”
It’s a date.
* * *
I’m Bob Howard, I do secret work for the government, and I wouldn’t normally be seen dead in a suit and tie. But Dr. Armstrong hinted strongly that I should suspend my normal office-casual policy while representing the agency to our Japanese opposite numbers, so I packed my funerals-and-courtroom-appearances suit, which normally lives at the back of the closet except when it’s needed for Men in Black cosplay parties. It still smells faintly of mothballs as I hang it in the hotel wardrobe. Then I set myself a four-hour timer and climb into the lilac-and-crimson bed for a jet-lag catch-up nap.
The next morning I am just about awake enough to think of all the questions I was too drunk on fatigue poisons to ask yesterday. Such as: Why am I in a luxury hotel room—booked via the Miyamoto Group’s liaison people—themed for a cartoon cat? Why wasn’t Ms. Suzuki told to expect me, instead of James? Why, for that matter, does my assigned interpreter have nekomimi ears? But first: breakfast.
I find my way back to the elevator, noting with approval that there aren’t any unmarked staff-only doors on my short route: portals into hotelspace are always bad news. Yes, you can sometimes find a shortcut from your Ibis Styles bedroom into your hotel’s dining room via a Kimpton laundry, but you’re equally likely to end up in a boarded-up railway hotel in Middlesbrough. So I avoid the ghost roads and stay within the bounds of architecture as I go in search of food.
There is a very neat and tidy hotel restaurant with a breakfast buffet. Three different breakfast buffets, in fact: a Japanese one, an Indian one, and a Western one. Which looks like absolutely no cooked English breakfast I’ve ever seen, but I give the scrambled egg and bacon-adjacent product baked into a Yorkshire pudding a chance to settle my stomach before I drown it in filter coffee.
Once fortified I head back to my room. I shower, shave, and dress in the monkey suit, it having been impressed upon me that Japanese workplace expectations are weirdly mired in the 1950s, then head down to the lobby.
I’m a couple of minutes early, but Ms. Suzuki is waiting for me, along with a skinny bloke with glasses and a small goatee which marks him out as a dangerous eccentric. They’re both wearing funereal black suits, more formal than bank managers back home. I try to remember what I was told about how and when to bow, but give up when Ms. Suzuki smiles and Mr. Goatee grabs my hand and pumps it vigorously, American style. She introduces him: “This is Dr. Hasakawa, from the Department of Apocryphal Organisms,” she explains.
“I am very pleased to meet you,” he says painfully.
“Likewise,” I say, and he looks blank. I’ve clearly overrun his high-school English, and Ms. Suzuki cuts in cleanly, with some sort of long-winded introduction. While she’s speaking I realize that I’m seeing things, or rather not seeing things: were the cat ears last night just a headband thing after all? Because they’re not in evidence today.
“I will interpret,” she says, “and introduce? Yes. Dr. Hasakawa is a specialist in the study and suppression of yokai infestations, such as the sites Dr. Angleton assisted us with previously.” I notice that her voice rises about an octave, into a higher register, when she addresses Mister—no, Doctor—Goatee in Japanese. “A car is waiting to take you to the first site! It is some distance away, so there is time to brief you en route.”
Before I quite figure out what’s going on I find myself in the back seat of an anonymous silver Toyota—all the cars here seem to be silver or white, except for a sprinkling of boxy taxis that look like they’ve fallen out of a sixties movie—across an armrest from Ms. Suzuki. Dr. Hasakawa is in the passenger seat up front, beside a driver who is wearing a peak-brimmed cap and white gloves, because obviously that’s the uniform chauffeurs wear. There are even lace doilies on the seat headrests.
Ms. Suzuki pulls out a yellowing sheaf of typed notes and presents them to me. “We have a busy itinerary this morning, but the director has requested the pleasure of your company for lunch—there is an excellent restaurant near our headquarters—and I thought you would like to review the notes for the secondary sites this afternoon before we begin work tomorrow. If you give me your nonsecure phone, I will add our contacts to it. Is that all right?” she adds, almost as an afterthought. I glance at the back of Doc Goatee’s head, then see from the rearview mirror that his eyes are closed and he’s snoring softly, like a puppet that’s been put down between acts.
“I’ll deal,” I say. Then, as we pull out into the dense stop-and-go traffic I add quietly, “What’s really going on here?”
Ms. Suzuki gives me an opaque look: “I don’t know what you mean,” she says, but one hand nervously smooths her skirt over her knees. “Is something wrong with the hotel?”
“Nothing is wrong with the hotel.” Nothing except that the decor in my room’s so sugary it sets my teeth on edge. “But delivering a briefing in a car, really? Are there no secure meeting rooms in your headquarters? Also”—I nod at the front passenger seat—“your beard is askew, Ms. Suzuki. Or should that be Dr. Suzuki?”
“Oh dear, he dozes off at the most inconvenient times.” She glares at Dr. Hasakawa, in a manner that makes it clear that all the western stereotypes about Japanese people being hard to read are as wide of the mark as sexist stereotypes about Japanese women. Yoko Suzuki is clearly pissed-off and working to control it. “Why don’t you tell me what you think is going on, Mr. Howard?” She makes a subtle gesture with her right hand and my ears pop. The windows dim and all sound beyond the bench seat we share is muted, even as our driver turns onto a slip road and grinds to a halt as he attempts to merge with a crowded stretch of urban motorway.
I think for a moment. “The Miyamoto Group is legendarily competent,” I begin, then stop.
Every Great Power established an occult operations agency between the world wars, but not all of them survived intact. Established—or rather, re-established—during the American occupation after the Second World War, the Miyamoto Group was initially monitored closely and required to model their institutional practices on their American counterparts. (Their 1931–45 predecessors were not considered to be a suitable role model, to say the least.)
“Back in the late forties my predecessors and the OPA”—the Operational Phenomenology Agency, the American occult agency also known as the Black Chamber (never call them the Nazgül where they might overhear you)—“worked together more closely than is now the case.” (Which is a massive understatement, but that’s another story.) “Even so, I can’t imagine anyone from the OPA or the Miyamoto Group was keen to request the assistance of the Eater of Souls. Or to be seen requesting it.”
“It’s bad for one’s promotion prospects,” she agrees. “Looks weak, doesn’t help justify increased budget requests.” I suddenly wonder just how much Angleton—or his understudy, that being me—is billed at per hour to sister agencies.
“Where did you study?” I ask.
“Computer Science at MIT, then Arkham, for my master’s. Tokyo for my PhD. Why? What gave me away?”
I very deliberately glance at the front seat. “Eh. Your English is perfect, but your interpreter act was a bit less polished. I’ve been traveling a lot this year and simultaneous translation is—well, you get to recognize the cadence. Why the beard?”
“He’s not just an assistant, he really does have a doctorate in alarmingly relevant folklore. But requesting the assistance of an English demon like the Eater of Souls isn’t the only thing that’s bad for one’s promotion prospects in my organization, Mr. Howard. Being female is another, and being born yokai is a third.” She nods at the puppet: “Ren will be fine: he just has asynchronous narcolepsy. I brought him along because it’s easier if he does the talking in certain situations.”
“So right now the job involves cleaning up something smelly that my predecessor left behind, and which needs to be kept at arm’s reach from the organization lest the smell annoy those with more sensitive nostrils?” I suspect the closest I’m going to get to HQ is doing lunch with a middle manager in a restaurant around the corner—assuming he’s not just another of Dr. Suzuki’s Bunraku puppets. A second thought strikes me. “Am I right in thinking Dr. Angleton didn’t make a good impression last time he was here?”
She smiles at me as if I’m a slow primary kid who has just mastered his first syllabary: “Correct, Mr. Howard! You were our third choice—regrettably, Beijing and Seoul both declined to help. But let me set your mind at ease: this is an excellent opportunity for you to redeem my superiors’ opinion of your organization. First, please familiarize yourself with the synopsis of the first site on our itinerary this morning. We will arrive in less than an hour and you need to be prepared.”
Copyright © 2021 by Charles Stross