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THE PRODIGAL’S RETURN
It’s twenty past ten at night and I’m being escorted through the glass-fronted atrium of a certain office building in central London. I’m surrounded by a knot of soberly dressed civil servants who are marching shoulder to shoulder in lockstep to keep me from being recognized, or maybe to prevent me making a run for it if I lose my nerve. We are waved past nodding receptionists and security guards who hold the turnstiles open for me as if I am expected—because I am indeed expected. Unfortunately.
This afternoon my minders took me to a barber. They said I was overdue for a trim; protests about my male pattern baldness fell on deaf but determined ears. (I still think closing the shop, kicking everyone else out, and stationing guards inside the door was a bit excessive, though: who ever heard of a top secret haircut?) I’m wearing my funeral suit and tie, and my shoes are dazzlingly polished. (Just pretend you’re acting a role, she said, straightening my collar; concentrate and remember your talking points.) I look twenty years older than I feel, and I feel ten years older than usual—mostly due to jet lag. They emailed me a set of notes just before I caught my flight home, and I did my best to memorize them on the plane from Kansai. But right now I feel like it’s seven in the morning, and I’m yawning because I’m waking up, not going to sleep.
Minder number three—Boris, a tech-side middle management guy I used to do the odd job for; until today I hadn’t seen him in years—hits the button for the sixth floor. The glass-walled lift slides silently up into the lofty heights of Broadcasting House, rising past open-plan offices full of serious-faced journalists and program managers peering into computer screens. As we pass a coat of arms saying “Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation,” I go over points seventeen to twenty-two again, mumbling under my breath. Then I rub my sweaty palms on my woolen suit jacket.
I have got the Fear. Why the fuck couldn’t they find somebody else to do this?
I imagine Lockhart or the SA or some other drop-in authority figure explaining it to me calmly. “You know why it’s got to be you, Bob: it’s because of the scaling laws.” The threats the agency exists to deal with grow exponentially, doubling in scale on an eighteen-month cycle, like a nightmarish version of Moore’s Law. But our cohort of qualified senior staff only grows linearly. The clusterfuck at the New Annex a year ago killed a bunch of senior officers, and the disaster in Leeds has put so many others on paid leave pending hearings that everyone in the field is currently operating above their pay grade. We’re all taking on tasks we’re not trained for, often without backup or oversight.
As for this job, we’re a secret government agency: we don’t even have a public relations department. Which is why we’re scrambling to improvise tonight. When the order came down from on high that someone was to come here and do this thing, it ended up on my desk simply because I was senior enough, and available. (At least that’s the official explanation. Part of me can’t help thinking that a more rational explanation is that God or Management hates me and wants me to suffer.)
My handler clears her throat just behind my left shoulder, and I jump. “Try not to sweat so much, Bob, the makeup guy will want to redo everything.” I hate it when Mhari sneaks up on me like that. She makes me really uncomfortable: about 10 percent of it is knowing that she’s actually a vampire, and the rest of it is down to our uncomfortable personal history. The only consolation is knowing that having to work with me makes her even more uncomfortable, and only about 10 percent of it is because I’m a necromancer. At least we’re both trying to be professional about it, and we’re mostly succeeding. She reaches out briskly and brushes lint from my lapel, and I try not to flinch again.
When they went looking for someone to represent the agency in public and picked me, they weren’t just scraping the bottom of the barrel, they were fracking for oil in the basement. My biggest qualification for this job is that I haven’t stepped in any operational dog turds lately. I’m Mr. Clean: nobody’s going to blame me for the disaster in Leeds, I was out of the country at the time. So they briefed me and gave me talking points to memorize, and sent me videos of the Great Man toying with his prey, to watch as in-flight entertainment on the way home. Which, in hindsight, was probably a bad idea: I’m so keyed up I need the toilet again and I’m due on-air in about ten minutes.
“Remember, he only really takes the gloves off when he’s interviewing policy makers,” Mhari reassures me. “You’re a line manager, not an executive, so by sending you out like a sacrificial goat with a sign taped to your arse saying KICK ME we’re calling his bluff. He can’t crucify you on-air for setting policy without looking like a bully, so he’ll have to settle for asking you lots of hard questions to which you are expected to plead ignorance or pass the buck. He can’t even badger you until you change your story—remember the Iraqi WMD scandal and the way Dr. Kelly committed suicide when the press turned on him? So you’ll be fine. Just remember it’s not personal: he’s not interviewing you, he’s interviewing the organization.” She bares one delicately curved canine, ivory outlined against crimson lip gloss while I boggle at her appalling mixed metaphor. “I’m buying the drinks afterwards. Everyone okay? Boris?”
Boris nods lugubriously. “Am understanding there are good club late license around corner,” he slurs. (Boris has permanent damage to his speech center from one too many run-ins with the brain parasites that cause K syndrome.)
A couple of harried technicians glare at us for blocking the lift doors until Mhari smiles at them and sharply knuckles my spine to get me moving again. “Where are we going?” I ask. The level we’re on features lots of floor-to-ceiling beech and invisible recessed handles on doors that curve to match the walls. The carpet is eerily sound-deadening, but I can sense the murmur of many minds all around us, whispering and intensely focused.
“Studio A. Which is right … here…”
Boris and the other guy (a blue-suiter in civvies, fooling no one: he stinks of cop) wait outside while Mhari pushes me through the door into the production suite and follows me inside to stop me escaping. I turn and frown at her. She’s far better at looking professional than I am. With her mercilessly coiffured blonde hair, tailored black suit, watered silk blouse, and sky-high heels, she looks like Taylor Swift in boardroom drag—a version of TayTay that runs on type O negative and has a severe sunlight allergy. “Can’t you do this?” I ask plaintively, one last time. “Take one for the team?”
She spares me a brazenly unapologetic grin as she points a finger at the ceiling: “See the bright lights, sweetie? I’d go up in flames.”
I’m about to tell her that they use LED spotlights these days and they’re not powerful enough to set fire to her PHANG-sensitive skin when I spot the producer. He’s half-risen from his seat, clearly fascinated by this exchange. He leans forward and peers at our ID badges. “Ah, you must be Mr. Howard and Ms. Murphy from the, er, Ministry of Magic?”
That makes even Mhari twitch. “Special Operations Executive, Ministry of Defense,” she says sharply. “There is no ‘Ministry of Magic.’” She holds out her hand for him to shake. Her nails are the same color as her lips; they look dipped in fresh blood.
“Can we take any questions arising from this interview to the Defense Secretary?” he asks hopefully.
Mhari looks at me. I look at her. “No comment,” we chorus in unison. Then I add, “We’re just the performing monkeys; if you want a policy statement you’ll need to send the organ-grinder a memo.” Mhari manages to keep a straight face. Drinks on me indeed.
“Well then, assuming you’re not going to offer me a last-minute substitution I’ve got you down to go live six minutes into the program, off at twenty—the Big Man’s in the studio already, running through the warm-up highlights.” Just the biggest news interviewer in the country, the chief presenter on Newsnight, waiting for me. “You haven’t done this before, have you?” He shows me all the kindly concern of a hangman sizing up a client. “Really, it’ll all be over before you know it and it won’t hurt at all. Let’s get you hooked up…”
There’s a glass door fronting a surprisingly cramped office with a plain gray backdrop, brilliantly illuminated by camera fill-in LEDs. Through the door I see a famous silhouette: the barely tamed hair and fiercely hooked nose. He was scheduled to retire last month but I gather he decided to stay in the saddle a bit longer just for us. I may be the Eater of Souls, but this guy is the Consumer of Cabinet Ministers. And now he’s beckoning to me! “Go on in and take the chair to his left,” says the producer; “when it’s time to go live the camera will give you a red light, and when the red light goes off I’ll cue you to slide the chair back and leave. Just try not to run the next guest over.”
The green light over the door begins blinking. The producer starts making urgent shooing motions at me, and Mhari mouths break a leg. So I go through the door and I sit down in the hot seat, wishing it was electrified so I could get this over with faster. I wipe my fingers carefully along the underside of the seat frame, then peel back a tab of adhesive film, leaving a coin-sized self-adhesive disc behind. My pulse spikes. The chair is wheeled, rolling on a track: “Move eighty centimeters to your left—perfect!” The producer’s voice comes in through the bud in my right ear. It’s not the only wire I’m wearing: there’s a lapel mike too, and I half-suspect it doubles as a polygraph so they can tell when I’m lying. “You’re going to be on camera three. Jeremy will lead in to your item in about ten seconds. Okay, I’m shutting up now.”
Then the red light comes on above the camera, and I’m live on a Monday evening special crisis edition of Newsnight.
* * *
Hi. My name is Bob Howard, and I do secret work for the government.
This is my workplace diary. People in my line—anyone with “active duty” flagged on their personnel file—are required to keep one. It’s a precaution against loss of institutional knowledge. If you’re reading this, either you’re in an Oversight position (probably an Auditor or a magistrate of the Black Assizes tasked with investigating my activities) or, more likely, I’m dead and the powers that be want you up to speed on my job toot sweet.
Side-splitting stuff, eh?
Let me tell you a bit about myself. As I said, I’m Bob Howard, age 39, position: DSS Grade 1, that’s short for Detached Senior Scientist or Deeply Scary Sorcerer or something, nobody really cares (in the Laundry they’re more or less the same thing), and my life sucks right now.
I got into this gig because when I was working on my master’s thesis in image processing in the late nineties I almost summoned up a manifestation of outer chaos by accident. This led to the Laundry making me a job offer I wasn’t allowed to refuse. (Apparently you’re only allowed to demolish Wolverhampton if you’re a property developer like Donald Trump. Crawling eldritch horrors don’t get planning permission unless they’re Trump’s hairpiece.)
That was about fifteen years ago, in more innocent, less embattled days. So I spent a couple of years in tech support hell before getting bored, stupidly volunteering for operational duties, and ending up as Dr. Angleton’s understudy. Dr. Angleton really was a Deeply Scary Sorcerer, and when he got himself lethally entangled with a monstrously powerful vampire elder I inherited all of his duties, some of his powers (I’m still learning how much), and very little of his seventy-plus years of wisdom and experience …
Although I’ve been learning. Boy, have I been learning! I’ve spent most of the past year scurrying around clearing up the messes he left behind. He clearly wasn’t planning on dying any time soon, so not only did I have to pick up the slack on his more recondite duties, I also had to check the padlocks he’d left on a lot of metaphorical closets with skeletons in them. Angleton did not keep one of these diaries, oh no: he kept his notes on a magically warded electromechanical data store built during the late 1940s, and a lot of those notes said things like, demon bound under rear quadrant of supermarket car park with level six ward, half-life eighteen years, check back early next century. So I’ve spent the past nine months trotting around the globe, pacifying the unquiet dead with extreme prejudice, and inadvertently being out of the country when all hell cut loose in Yorkshire.
But I digress. Nearly a decade ago I married a fellow employee, Dr. Dominique O’Brien.1 You might have heard of her. Mo used to be a troubleshooter: whenever the organization had a spot of trouble she shot it until it stopped twitching. When that got too much for her they reassigned her to the Home Office for a while. Now she’s back in-house as a freshly minted Auditor, which means she holds people like me accountable for our work with the power of life or death. For many years Mo carried an occult instrument, the White Violin, as her main operational tool. The trouble with occult instruments is that they sometimes have their own agendas; it wasn’t too keen on sharing her, so eventually it tried to eat me. She managed to get rid of it somehow, but now she’s afraid that as Angleton’s heir I might absentmindedly eat her in my sleep. As we keep undergoing the kind of personal growth experiences that involve new and exciting magical abilities—like an interesting tendency to absentmindedly mumble death spells while waking up—I have to concede that she’s got a point. This has been a time of changes for both of us and we have about a decade of unexamined marital baggage to rethink, and consequently we’re currently living apart.
Did I mention that my life sucks?
Speaking of which: let’s have a round of applause for management responsibility! Because, after years of dodging it at every opportunity, I have had management responsibility forced upon me, whether I want it or not. And if I find the joker who nominated me for the role of Departmental Public Relations Officer I will—
No, I won’t eat them. That would be unprofessional.
(I won’t even put the frighteners on them. I might remonstrate with them politely. I could explain the errors of their ways and suggest, more in sorrow than in anger, that although I have been promoted into a very senior dead man’s shoes I don’t look good in a suit, I don’t suffer fools gladly, and if they really want a spokesman they ought to hire someone who’s trained for it, rather than being better qualified for fighting off a zombie invasion or fixing a broken firewall.)
Because I’m management now, I have to face facts. Hiring a real PR person would involve approving a budget, going through the HR recruitment and candidate selection cycle, managing the new employee’s enhanced security background check and in-processing, then bringing them up to speed on what exactly we do in the agency. (Which involves working around people with titles like Senior Staff Necromancer, Applied Computational Demonologist, or Combat Poet. Lots of newbies flee screaming at that point: our first month attrition rate is sky-high.)
So let me sum up the ways in which my life sucks right now: I’ve had a bunch of extra responsibilities dumped on me for no extra pay, I’ve had to move out of my home because my wife’s violin tried to murder me, morale is in the shitter because of the disaster in Leeds, and for the pièce de résistance, they made me wear a suit and sent me out to be grilled live on TV, because we don’t have the budget for a public relations fixer!
Yeah, it all sucks, but I suppose it could be worse. At least this time my line manager isn’t trying to sacrifice me to an elder god. But it’s still only May, so I suppose there’s time for that to change …
* * *
Jeremy smiles his trademark smile at me, simultaneously sympathetic and pitying, like a headmaster carpeting an unruly schoolboy. “Some would say that the truth is out there: well, tonight we’re going to see about that. My next interviewee is Mr. Howard, from the Ministry of Defense’s hitherto extremely secret agency for dealing with the sort of thing you expect to meet in an episode of The X-Files—alien abductions, supervillains, UFOs, and”—he pauses momentarily, as if he’s just tasted something lip-wrinklingly bitter—“magic.” Skepticism boils off him in waves so thick it makes the air around his head shimmer.
I smile, nod, and avert my eyes from my own image in the screen on the opposite wall. Jesus, I look like a life insurance salesman. “Yes, Jeremy,” I hear myself saying, “although we prefer to call it applied computational thaumaturgy. There’s a lot of mathematics involved.”
“So rather than smoke and mirrors you use clouds and servers?” The grizzled eyebrow creaks upwards towards the receding hairline. That’s a good pun: obviously scripted in advance. I nod again.
“Yes. It turns out that mathematics has side effects in the real world. This agency, SOE, has been investigating this effect ever since Alan Turing did pioneering work on it in the 1940s at Bletchley Park. Computers are tools that do much more than share cute cat photos, and they can be lethally dangerous in the wrong hands.”
So far so good. I’m on the approved message track, regurgitating talking points acknowledging stuff that’s already out there in public. My brief is to make the Laundry sound boring; encryption bad, hacking bad, misusing computers bad, Home Office rah, National Security rah, War on Tentacular Terror, rah. But in the back of my head I am uncomfortably aware of all the tasty minds crowded around me in this building, fuzzy shadows of warmth and sustenance in the studio control room and the offices beyond. I can taste the focus of the producer, feel the chilly (and inedible) ramparts of Mhari’s vampire shell, the armored fortress of solitude sitting across the table from me—
Paxo smiles at me like a kindly uncle, or maybe a crocodile with a gold tooth, as he says: “It has been alleged”—Oh shit, I think—“that the disaster in Leeds was the result of an SOE operation that went wrong, that your people invited the attack that killed over nine thousand innocent people and shot down three airliners and two fighter jets. Is that true, Mr. Howard?”
Fuck! The fucker’s wearing a heavy-duty ward! Which means I can’t read him or trivially control him—the small leather bag he’s wearing on a cord around his neck, under his shirt, is the thaumaturgic equivalent of a bulletproof vest.
I wipe the smile and do my best impersonation of a granite cliff. “Absolutely not.” I take a breath. “SOE does not recklessly endanger national security or put lives at risk.” I think I can see where this line of questioning is going, and it’s nowhere good. “We were invaded without warning by a hitherto theoretical threat. We responded immediately and alerted the police and the army in accordance with our standing orders. The handling and outcome of the conflict are a matter for the Commons Select Committee to investigate and the Public Enquiry to report on, and I can’t comment further.” Phew.
The Crocodile nods and he’s dropped his smile, which is a bad sign: the gloves are coming off and I wonder, horrified, How the fuck did the BBC get their hands on a level six defensive ward? as I realize this is a setup and meanwhile he’s leaning forward, closing in for the kill—
“Perhaps you could explain to the viewers why the surviving invaders are being treated as asylum seekers, Mr. Howard? Wouldn’t terrorism charges be more appropriate? Or a war crimes investigation?”
Shit! That’s not supposed to be public knowledge. Which means there is a leak somewhere. As the scriptwriters on Yes, Minister observed, the ship of state is unique in that it’s the only vessel that leaks from the top down. Our oath of office should prevent anyone inside the tent from pissing out … which means someone in the government is briefing against us, probably at cabinet level. We are totally off the talking points now: nobody briefed me for this. Fuck! Time to pass the blame.
“The … survivors … of the attacking force include a number of slaves and other victims who were there unwillingly. The Home Office has conceded that in some cases there is a case for them to claim refuge from persecution.” Pass the blame. “I’d like to remind you that the enemy military made extensive use of human sacrifice and other forms of necromancy to power their attack.” All of which is entirely true, but—
“I’m not talking about the slaves, Mr. Howard. Why is the All-Highest, their leader, claiming asylum? Can you explain?”
Fuck. Fuck fuckityfuck fucksticks really bad swear words.
“Let me emphasize this: what came through the gate in Malham Cove was the last surviving military force of a nation that had just lost the magical equivalent of a nuclear war. Also their dependents. And slaves. They can’t go back; sending them back means sending them to their certain deaths. The enemy All-Highest who ordered the attack is dead. The current All-Highest was not in charge of the attack, and on inheriting the position immediately ordered the unconditional surrender of the, ah, attacking force.” That is, the Host of Air and Darkness: the surviving armored cavalry forces of the Morningstar Empire. Don’t say elves, there’s nothing terribly Tolkienesque about this bunch and the good PR would just make them harder to handle. “Accommodating their unwilling victims was a precondition of the surrender. In return, the current All-Highest is actively cooperating with us in restraining their military forces. None of them are able to, ah, go back. The world they came from is—it’s been overrun by alien horrors.”
Not to mention that sending them back would risk drawing the attention of the undead nightmares they were fleeing, who might well pick up the trail in our direction and decide not to stop at eating just one civilization—but I can’t say that on live TV news, people might complain to Ofcom about the nightmare fuel.
“But—asylum, Mr. Howard?” The eyebrow is at full extension. Time to shut this down.
“I’m sorry, it’s not my job to set policy. That question is better directed to the minister responsible.”
Paxo is indignant. “A minister responsible for a department that didn’t officially exist until the week before last? That’s simply not good enough, Mr. Howard!” Bastard. “I’m sure we’ll get some better answers when we have a cabinet minister in charge. But one final question for you: can you explain to the viewers why you are reportedly known to other members of your agency as the ‘Eater of Souls’?”
For a moment I see red: blood splattered all up and down the blue-screen back wall of the studio. But no, that would be bad, and worse, it would be unprofessional. Also, the ward he’s wearing under his shirt collar is powerful enough that I could break it, but I’d probably set fire to his hair in the process. It would look bad on camera. And also-also—I suddenly realize this is the wrap-up question: I get the last word in so I can select what to give him.
I summon up a sheepish smirk: “When I was junior, I used to put my foot in my mouth rather a lot. The nickname stuck.”
And the light on the camera goes out.
* * *
The government’s occult secret service goes back further than most people realize.
Our oldest handwritten records were left behind by Dr. John Dee, the noted mathematician, alchemist, and astrologer who worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster. Back in his day, everything ran on a nod-and-a-wink basis. It was part of the Crown Service and established by Royal Prerogative, which basically means Lizzie Tudor wrote a letter saying “make it so” and appointed Frankie the Fixer to run it. The Invisible College (as it later became known) operated as an informal gentleman-dabbler’s club until the Second World War. Then wartime expansion and the systematization provided by the Turing Theorems led to the incorporation of the Laundry as a division inside the Special Operations Executive, when Winston Churchill wrote an “action this day” memo using the authority vested in him by His Kingliness George the Umpty …
(You get the picture.)
Now, back in the day the Invisible College ran entirely on ritual magic. But ritual magic doesn’t work reliably, because ritual magicians tend to succumb to Krantzberg syndrome, a very nasty spongiform dementia caused by microscopic extradimensional feeders (parasites attracted by magical manifestations of information processing). Over time they nibble the practitioner’s cerebral cortex into lace, which tends to bring the practitioner’s career staggering to a palsied conclusion. And that’s assuming they don’t inadvertently succumb to the greater feeders, such as feeders in the night: predators that make themselves at home in neural networks like, oh, the human cerebral cortex, and take over the body to go in search of more brains to chow down on. (Thereby leading to myths, legends, and Shaun of the Dead.)
There are a handful of cognitive infections that grant ritual practitioners a degree of immunity to eaters—PHANG syndrome (vampirism) is one of them, and the for-want-of-a-better-word elven invaders seem to have come up with some kind of occult vaccine. And then there’s little old me. (I’m … let’s say “unique” and tiptoe away from the subject.) But all these mitigating techniques have severe drawbacks, and as a result there are old ritual magicians, and there are bold ritual magicians, but there are no old, bold magicians. They don’t survive, and they tend to have unique skill sets, thereby defeating the first principle of bureaucracy: that nobody is indispensable.
In contrast, computational magic does work reliably, for pretty much anyone who can punch a keyboard and follow a checklist, because eaters don’t seem to have a taste for silicon or germanium, which is why it’s the go-to discipline for organizations.
Mahogany Row, the successor to the Invisible College, continues to this day to keep track of and provide a framework for the high-level unique practitioners. However, the rest of the Laundry is an ant farm full of computational demonologists and IT managers. Indeed most staff, to the extent that they’re aware of Mahogany Row, think it’s just a senior management stratum—even though the organization as a whole exists to support it. Because a big chunk of the Laundry’s postwar mission was to keep the lid on the mere existence of algorithmic thaumaturgy, we ended up with a bloated head count—we’d spent decades giving everybody who stumbled on the truth a job where we could keep an eye on them. (Or, more accurately, where they could keep an eye on each other.) The iron law of bureaucracy doesn’t help: everybody working to ensure that the organization continues to pay them a salary, rather than necessarily achieving its objectives. So it has become progressively harder to keep the ball rolling, with the result that we finally and unambiguously lost the plot in Leeds.
You can hush up a massacre in an office park or a hideous manifestation at the Albert Hall with DA-Notices and dark muttering about terrorist attacks and hallucinogenic gas. But it’s impossible to cover up airliners being shot down, an invading army rampaging through the suburbs of a major city, and a traffic jam of main battle tanks on the nation’s motorways. Once the situation escalated to COBRA, the Cabinet Office emergency committee, and the government invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (calling for support from NATO forces following an attack on a member nation), the mess in Leeds became the number one global rolling news headline and still hasn’t died down. It even beat out an eighty-meter-tall daikaiju that invaded the Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise theme park and duked it out with the Japanese Self-Defense Agency, as a result of the incursion at Puroland that I was sent to help deal with—
Nope, the events in Leeds aren’t going back in the closet any time soon.
Nor has the aftermath gone unnoticed. There are smoking craters all over Yorkshire, an anime convention full of collateral damage in pointy ears, and the remains of a heavy cavalry brigade mounted on unicorns (shudder) corralled behind razor wire on Dartmoor, eating their heads off under the guns of half the army’s remaining Challenger MBTs. (And don’t ask me about the, ahem, “dragons.”) They’re arranging a snap summit meeting of all the heads of NATO member states later this month, and that’s something that simply does not happen. A large segment of the press and public are baying for blood, calling on the government to nuke the bastards, convene a war crimes tribunal, or arrest them for terrorism. Only the inconvenient fact that the current All-Highest is pleading for asylum from something even worse is giving anybody pause for concern.
* * *
I come out of the Newsnight studio feeling like SpongeBob SquarePants after a trip through the dishwasher: wrung out but still somewhat moist. Mhari and Boris are waiting for me. “Am being impressed,” Boris rumbles once we’re out of the glass doors and into the passage leading to the lifts. “Jeremy are not eated despite copious provocation.”
“This way,” Mhari says tensely. Her heels click as she walks into the lift and holds the door for us. “That could have gone worse.”
I lean against the wall and close my eyes as the floor sinks beneath me. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“No! I mean it.” I open my eyes as she shrugs. Her jacket shoulder pads rise and fall stiffly. “You spend time in the piranha tank, you’ve got to expect to get bitten.”
“Piranhas am not biting fishes; reputation undeserved,” Boris says pedantically.
“Doesn’t matter.” Mhari raises a finger. “But I’m calling it a qualified success. For starters, Bob managed to avoid looking rumpled for almost fifteen minutes. I think that’s a personal best.” My hand unconsciously moves to loosen the knot of my tie and she bats it away; we’re still in Broadcasting House, there must be a dress code or something. Another finger rises. “Two, he went five rounds with the Newsnight rottweiler without wetting himself, babbling state secrets, or losing his temper and eating Paxo’s soul.”
I frown. “I wouldn’t have done that; it’s far too stringy and bitter.”
Mhari raises a third finger. “Three: now we know for sure that someone’s briefing against us. Which means—”
“Wait,” I interrupt, “you thought someone was briefing against us earlier? And didn’t warn me?”
Mhari gives me a look. “In the current clusterfuck, who the hell knows?” she asks. I have to admit she’s got a point: in the past four weeks there have been three ministerial resignations and a vote of confidence in the Commons that the government barely won by the skin of its teeth, there’s been one mini-cabinet reshuffle already (with rumors of more to come), and the Scottish Independence referendum has been postponed until next year. In other words, politics has gone nonlinear and nobody seems to know what’s happening anymore. “But now the Auditors have reasonable cause to start investigating,” she concludes. “So that’s something.”
Her expression wavers somewhere between uncertainty and fear: nobody likes being carpeted by the Auditors, even if they’re not under suspicion themselves. But before she can continue the lift hits bottom, and she stops talking because there’s no telling who might overhear us in the BBC headquarters’ lobby.
“Drinks am on you,” Boris reminds her as we head towards the doors at the front of the atrium. I don’t dignify this with a reply and neither does Mhari. We’re both gloomily silent. I can’t speak for her, but I’m keeping my thoughts to myself because I’m brooding and irritable. I’m coming down from the adrenaline high of being grilled live on the nation’s flagship TV news program, and the crash is something special.
It’s spitting with rain, so Boris valiantly steps forward to flag down a taxi while we wait on the plaza out front. Finally, I glance at Mhari. “Babbling state secrets?”
She stares into the nighttime London traffic, eyebrows lowered in a minute frown, as if trying to decipher messages encoded in the flicker of passing headlights. “There’s a ten-second delay on the live broadcast loop. That’s why I was there: to hit the red button if you fucked up, and cover for you if they spotted you planting the bug.”
“Thank you for that vote of confidence.”
“You didn’t need me.” She hugs herself against the after-dark chill: she seems to be shaking. In front of us, in the rain, Boris has lowered his head and is speaking through a cab’s open side-window. Mhari’s cheek twitches slightly as an ivory fang’s sharp point pushes against her plumped lower lip. “Eater of soles. Heh. Well done!” After a moment I realize she’s laughing silently.
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
* * *
It’s close to midnight when the taxi drops us off at the Hilton Olympia. Hiltons are reliable and terminally un-hip, so the bar is blessedly free of the hipster crowd who swarm the lobbies of boutique hotels from Hoxton to Hampstead these days. In fact it’s empty except for us, and a couple of international men of mystery busy downloading internet porn on their phones as they try to medicate their jet lag with vodka martinis.
(Welcome to my life these days.)
Boris grabs us a booth at one end of the bar. A waitress materializes as Mhari slithers onto the bench seat opposite us. We order: a whisky soda for Boris, a Bud (the Czech kind) for me, and a Bloody Mary for Mhari, because she’s not totally humorless about her condition. My beer evaporates slowly as Mhari and Boris dissect my interview in painstaking detail. I wave for another just as Mhari gets around to asking the question I’ve been avoiding for the past hour. “Do you suppose it’s on iPlayer yet, Bob? Do you want to watch it? Your very own fifteen minutes of fame?”
“How about we don’t go there?” I raise my new beer. Glug. “I’d like to sleep tonight, thanks. Watching me make an arse of myself on TV will not help. Beer will help.”
“You didn’t make an arse of yourself—” Mhari cocks her head to one side and looks pitying, which irritates the hell out of me. “That’s not a good place to go, Bob.”
“Yes, well, I don’t normally go places where I get laughed at by four million people, do I?” I shrug, then put my bottle down, loosen my strangulation device, and unbutton my collar. This time she doesn’t try to stop me: okay, so apparently I’m off duty at last. “It was a total clusterfuck, he was wearing a class six ward. Who ordered that?”
Mhari looks at me sharply. “You’re sure? Class six?”
“Yeah. Someone got to him, in addition to briefing against us. Can you—”
She jerks her chin sideways. “Boris?”
“Am on it,” he says without looking up as he thumb-types away. “Am emailing the SA nows.”
“Any other surprises?” she asks me, and I shake my head.
“No, but that one was bad enough as it is. It threw me badly.” I scan our surroundings again. You can never be too sure, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to us. “What was the sticky about, anyway?” The gizmo they wanted me to plant on the underside of the interviewee’s chair.
Boris is inspecting his glass in obsessive detail.
“Nobody briefed me on why, just on what,” Mhari says calmly. “You did your job, I did mine, that’s all.”
“But it’s a really bad idea to play that kind of game,” I complain. “What if it was—”
She looks at me impatiently. “You did just fine. What you don’t know they can’t get out of you if they put you under oath and start asking questions. Anyway, they had three victims in that chair yesterday and another scheduled to go on fifteen minutes after you left. If you did it right it’s sterile.”
“Who do I raise it with? Through proper channels?” I add sarcastic emphasis. I’m not a goddamn errand boy these days and if they want someone to do a plumbing job we’ve got an entire department for that. Burning your shiny new PR guy’s cover by handing him a gray task on his first time out is really not how we’re supposed to operate, unless you’re planning on firing him the very next day. Although on second thought, we’re so shorthanded right now—
“Send a memo upstream; am will forward it,” Boris offers. I stare at him. Okay, so that’s why they sent you along, is it? I nod.
“Beer,” I say grumpily, and take a long pull from my bottle. “If I’m going to make a fool of myself in public, at least I deserve a beer afterwards.”
“You didn’t make a fool of yourself; I think you did quite well,” Mhari says. “Now can we please change the subject?”
“Make that two beers, and I’ll just stand in the corner in my jester’s cap.” I really hope she’s trying to keep my morale up; the last thing I want is a permanent public relations assignment.
“You should talk to Mo,” Mhari suggests unexpectedly.
Stung, my mouth runs ahead of my brain: “I don’t need your that’s a good idea actually…” I get as far as pulling out my phone before a glance at the screen tells me it’s a bad idea: it’s six minutes past midnight already. I might be living in Beer Standard Time, but Mo has just spent last week off-grid in a cottage down at the Village, getting away from it all. She’s back at work this week, and I’m certain she’ll be burning the candle at both ends catching up with the backlog. She won’t thank me for waking her up in the middle of the night for a drunken chat. “Tomorrow, maybe.”
“Definitely tomorrow.” To my surprise Mhari reaches across the table and grabs onto my fingertips. “This isn’t good for either of you. You should talk to her.”
I pull back, but her grip tightens. After a moment I stop. “Why the sudden concern?”
She hesitates momentarily. “I like Mo and I have to work with you. She’s been in a bad place recently and you weren’t there for her, and now you’re heading for a bad place too, and”—she lets go of my hand and shrugs again, her shoulder pads miming a vampire princess’s bat wings—“I’m just concerned.”
I can’t hold back a slightly bitter smile. “So, no hidden agenda.”
“No, Bob, no hidden agenda.” Her answering smile is full of history. Hers, and mine (we were an item for a while, back before I met my wife). “As I get older I find friendship gets ever more precious.” She’s my age, but she could pass for late twenties. She used to be pretty but when she got PHANG syndrome she turned supermodel glamorous: it’s as if she’s aging backwards, living along some sort of femme fatale eigenvector that’s iteratively converging on Big Sleep–era Lauren Bacall. “I can see where we’re going more clearly these days. I don’t want to hit eighty on my own.”
“To friends.” I raise my drink to cover my confusion. The beer’s running low so I wave my hand for a third (and final) bottle. Mhari has always been better than me at people skills. It’s taken me this long to appreciate her for what she is, now that we’re not going at each other like a pair of cats with their tails tied together.
“Absent friends,” grunts Boris, surfacing from his whisky. He waves for another.
“Friends dead, alive, and undead.” Her eyes glance sidelong around the bar, scanning. When she’s sure it’s safe, she continues: “You realize this isn’t over, don’t you?”
I put the empty bottle down. Can’t get away from it, can I? “Yes.” The waitress is on her way: either it’s a quiet night or my Obtain Bar Service feat just leveled up alarmingly. When she departs I continue. “Someone in the Cabinet Office will have seen it for sure. Questions will be asked, it’ll be on the PM’s morning briefing, and I’ll be up before the beak, won’t I?” Boris chuckles and Mhari giggles. “So I assume we’ll be debriefing first…” Then, right on cue, Mhari’s phone buzzes.
“Yup: looks like we have a meeting scheduled for nine hundred hours, Room 406, chaired by the Senior Auditor.” Mhari frowns. I wince slightly at the specter of the SA. He’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. I must look aghast because she adds: “Mo is on the invite list, so I’m pretty sure this is not about you.”
“Trust me, if the Auditors were planning a Bob roast they wouldn’t invite your wife to the barbecue.” Then Mhari glances up from her smartphone screen, and despite the reassuring words she looks troubled: “He’s booked half the Audit Committee, plus Vik Choudhury and a couple of heavy hitters from the Executive Committee. It’s all very Mahogany Row; I can’t figure it out. But they wouldn’t roll the Senior Auditor out to chair it if this was anything less than critical, don’t you think?”
“Well fuck.” I pick up my third (and, I remind myself, final) beer. “You know what this means.”
Boris looks at me, then Mhari looks at me, and we chorus: “The reward for a job not fucked up is another job.”
* * *
I finish my beer and dutifully stagger off to my hotel room, while Mhari returns to the office—she works the night shift these days—and Boris heads home. I assume he has a home. Right now, I don’t. I live out of a suitcase pretty much constantly. I’m traveling so much that Accounts doesn’t even blink at my subsistence claims any more. I’m in London so little that it’s cheaper to pay for the odd hotel night using loyalty points than to find a permanent room somewhere, and I’m still hoping to patch things up enough to go home.
But in the here and now, I am coming to hate liminal spaces like airport terminals and hotel rooms.
Sleep takes a while to arrive. I can dimly sense the minds and dreams of the other hotel guests around me: walls and floor and ceiling are no barrier to souls. It’s kind of soothing. Some insomniacs count sheep. I keep separate tallies of shaggers, porn channel junkies, and insomniacs. Eventually I manage to tune my brain to the slumber channel and drift off for a few hours, untroubled by the usual nightmares.
Morning arrives much too soon in the shape of a bleeping hotel alarm clock and a DJ on Capital Radio yattering excitedly about somebody’s new album, and how the London stock exchange is reopening and sterling seems to have arrested its slide because the Chancellor is pointing a fire hose of Treasury money at the smoking wreckage of West Yorkshire. It is still unclear whether the Secretary of State for Defense is going to fall on his sword; he seems to be trying to hang on, but the Prime Minister has just said that he “has complete confidence” in him, and you know what that means. I turn the radio off and shamble in the direction of the shower cubicle.
This is an office day rather than a public speaking gig, so I throw the suit in the suit carrier, pull on combat pants, tee shirt, and hoodie, and check my email and calendar schedule over a full cooked hotel breakfast. I’m still yawning as I check out and catch a bus to the office, and I’m nearly there when I realize I’ve forgotten to shave and my shaver is in the bottom of the suitcase left in the left-luggage room back at the hotel. Great.
Our temporary headquarters is the New Annex, which we moved into for six months just over five years ago. It’s still in use even though Facilities has been unable to get the bloodstains out of the walls and its security is terminally compromised. The first HQ redevelopment stalled due to site contamination, then the fallback plan—a new headquarters up the M1 in Leeds—was trashed less than two weeks ago, along with the rest of Leeds city center. London property prices are so nosebleedingly insane that we can’t even find temporary quarters in the capital, so we’re stuck with the New Annex even though it’s unfit for purpose and should be demolished.
But the past weeks have brought changes, some of them externally visible. We didn’t have armed police standing by the entrance before, making it obvious that we are something more important than a fly-by-night call center operation. Now we’ve got two of them, and they’re not your regular SO19 bods, either: they’re wearing matte black Imperial Stormtrooper gear with Metropolitan Police badges, full face helmets, and really scary-looking guns instead of the usual assault rifles. They check me for tentacles and I show them my warrant card, then they let me in. Security, we haz it: rah. Only I fumble and drop my card, bend to pick it up, and realize I showed them my driving license by mistake.
The main staircase is closed off above the ground floor so I have to take the indoor fire escape up to the fourth floor to get to the designated meeting room. It’s a steep climb so when I reach the second-floor landing I pause to dump my suit carrier and messenger bag in my office, then grab a mug of what passes for coffee from the kitchenette next door to the number three briefing room.
“Hey, Mr. Howard! Have you got a minute?”
I manage not to spill my coffee. It’s one of the new guys, from Facilities: young (was I ever that young?), eager (was I ever that enthusiastic?), and unaware that it is a really bad idea to startle a DSS before he’s had his morning coffee. “Yes?” I demand, my pulse slowing, quite proud of myself for neither grunting nor snarling.
“Um, hi, I’m Jon, and I’m supposed to be auditing the network cable runs for the Ops offices in this wing because there’s this overdue requirement for a structured cabling refresh, and I need to get access to your office so I can inspect the junction box and make sure it’s properly terminated?”
Jon has a hipster beard and wears thick-rimmed glasses and a checked shirt with a button-down collar that doesn’t quite conceal his tattoos, but in every other respect it’s eerily like looking at myself in a time-shifted mirror set to fifteen years ago. I find it oddly depressing. He seems eager to please, and killing him would result in altogether too much paperwork of an excruciatingly dull variety, so I just shake my head. “I’ve got a meeting in five minutes, but I can fit you in afterwards—knock on my office door around eleven thirty?”
“Sure!” He nods happily.
A thought strikes me. “By the way, if I’m not in my office you mustn’t try to gain entry without me. I keep hazardous materials there. Stuff that might scramble your mind if you get too close.” Actually it’s all in a secure document safe full of catatonia-inducing memos, protected by wards that will set fire to the contents if anyone meddles with them, causing the badly maintained sprinklers to go off, but there’s no need to tell him that. “Also, if you need to gain access to Mr. Angleton’s room—down J Corridor and along, it’s at the bottom of the stairwell next to the chained-up fire exit—fetch me. Same warning applies, except he used nukes while I make do with hand grenades.”
It’s not until I’m back on the fire escape, trudging upstairs to my meeting with the SA and other members of the Mahogany Row Oversight board, that I realize the kid’s got my old job.
* * *
Mahogany Row refers both to the furnishings on the executive floor of our original HQ building2 and to the folks who use those offices: senior management, Auditors, external assets, Deeply Scary Sorcerers, and other questionable types. I’m technically one of them these days, although I’m fucked if I know why. The main qualifications seem to be exhibiting an aptitude for ritual magic or executive leadership, and not dying on the job. At least that’s how the organization got started, back when it was the Invisible College and nobody really knew how this stuff worked. The Laundry as it now exists sprang up during a wartime emergency and was subsequently repurposed to provide backup for the Deeply Scary Sorcerers. Anyway, I have never felt at ease in the thick-pile carpeted corridors and offices full of antique furniture and paintings from the Government Art Collection. It feels like a very exclusive gentlemen’s club, and I’m the kind of oik who would be blackballed if he wasn’t useful to have around.
I make it to Room 406 on the spot of nine. Dr. Armstrong is already sitting at the front, calmly sipping tea from a fine china cup. There’s a big TV screen and DVD player on a stand in one corner, presumably so we can all have a good laugh at me making a fool of myself. As I hunt for a seat that doesn’t make me feel uneasily exposed the door opens again. This time it’s Persephone’s turn to do a double take, which doesn’t give me any kind of happy fun feeling. Persephone Hazard likes to dress like a mafia heiress from Marseilles, living la dolce vita with a Beretta in her handbag—which just goes to show that appearances are deceptive: she’s the most powerful witch in London. (Also, I happen to know that she carries an FN Five-seveN with an AAC sound suppressor and a 20-round magazine full of microengraved banishment rounds. Berettas are for amateurs.) She nods in my direction, then engages Dr. Armstrong directly. “Did you see the news this morning?”
The SA smiles his saintly smile—the one he rolls out just before he brains you with a sledgehammer—and says, “I must confess I never turn on the television before the sun’s over the yardarm.”
“It wasn’t me!” I protest, before I realize that given a twenty-four-hour news cycle it might very well have been me.
But I’m in luck. “No, it wasn’t,”’Seph agrees. “Your performance on Newsnight would have been a vast improvement over this morning’s headlines.” Her fine nostrils flare. “What is the world coming to?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” Dr. Armstrong says placidly. “Help yourself to tea and biscuits, dear. We may be some time.”
I force myself to sit down. ’Seph is really rattled, but it’s not my fault. She’s one of our heavy hitters, a deniable external asset who generally tackles the kind of assignment that on old reruns of Mission: Impossible is tagged with “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
* * *
“I thought this was the postmortem for the media outreach event,” I say as the door opens again and Vik Choudhury slides in. “That’s what’s down in my calendar.”
’Seph rolls her eyes as Dr. Armstrong shakes his head, more in sorrow than in anger. “Oh dear, no! I’m afraid we’ve been pre-empted by events.”
That does not sound good. “Was it something I did?”
“Your drop went just fine,” Vikram assures me. To ’Seph, and the other attendees: “Mhari delivered her payload to the edit suite and Bob successfully bugged the underside of the studio’s number two visitor chair. And now we’ve got six SPIN DIAMOND grids transmitting from the newsroom, thanks to your masterful distraction.”
“I don’t see why you couldn’t just substitute the contract cleaners—”
“It’s a newsroom, Bob,” Persephone sniffs. “They weren’t born yesterday. Security vetting the cleaners goes with the territory.”
“Well. I hope it was worth it. That kind of op usually ends in tears, in my experience—too much chance of blowback—”
“Too late to worry about spilt milk, Mr. Howard.” Dr. Armstrong stares at the ceiling, steepling his fingertips. “This meeting is starting late,” he adds, “so we are not yet on the official record. But can I request a change of subject?”
Gulp. Even ’Seph has the decency to look bashful. “Sure,” I say.
The door opens again, this time to admit a stranger. “Bob, this is Chris Womack from Administration and Policy.” She’s a tall woman, midfifties at a guess, a no-nonsense senior civil service type. I stand, and we shake hands. “Chris, Bob is Dr. Angleton’s replacement. You can trust him implicitly, subject to keyword clearance.” Which tells me in turn that the Senior Auditor trusts her implicitly.
“I saw you on Newsnight last night,” she says, smiling guardedly, which makes me feel so much better.
“What can I say?” I shrug. “Opportunities to make a fool of myself in front of such a large audience only come along once in a lifetime.”
“Bob enjoys playing the departmental jester,” says Persephone. She smiles. “Don’t worry, Bob, you get to do this again.” Ouch.
“Absolutely.” Ms. Womack’s smile widens. “You did quite well,” she adds, “for a first-timer. Let me know if you ever feel the urge to go into public relations full-time.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” Shortly after a squadron of pigs are observed taking off from Heathrow Airport.
The door opens again and this time my brain freezes as eyes meet across a crowded conference room. The late arrival also freezes as the SA smoothly takes over: “Chris, this is Dr. O’Brien, Dominique, this is Chris Womack, our Chief Counsel. Mo is the newest member of the Audit Committee—” My wife raises an eyebrow at me and I nod, then pull the seat beside me back from the table to make room for her. My pulse is running too fast. Mhari was right, I realize. But there’s too much to say, it’s forming a pileup behind my tongue, and anyway Dr. Armstrong is still speaking. “—time to call this meeting to order now we’re all here—”
She sits down next to me and leans sideways to whisper in my ear. “Your office, after we’re finished here?”
I nod. The SA is continuing: “Crisis containment and management in the wake of this month’s events have broken down. The usual mass observation protocol simply doesn’t work for an incursion on this scale. Also, the activation of PLAN RED RABBIT and the subsequent need to brief the Cabinet Office emergency committee and bring the full civil contingencies apparatus up to speed means that awareness of the agency’s existence is now widespread.” That’s an understatement and a half: the crisis hasn’t been out of the headlines for weeks. “Pointed questions are being raised in the House of Commons, there have been ministerial resignations and a vote of confidence that narrowly failed to bring down the government, another reshuffle is planned, and it doesn’t stop there. Maneuvering by various factions in the cabinet suggests that a leadership coup within the leading party in the coalition is likely if the Prime Minister isn’t seen to clean house rapidly. Chris is here to brief us on the past week’s political developments, our position in terms to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—which is anomalous—and the likely implications for the organization.”
Ms. Womack stands up. “Thank you, Mike.” (Mike? I boggle at the familiarity.) “Well, folks, this is what we’ve been afraid would happen all along: an intrusion on such a large scale that local assets were unable to contain it, resulting in widespread loss of civilian life, exposure of the agency to public scrutiny, and extreme pressure on the government to be seen to be doing something about the crisis.” She actually smiles, a slightly embarrassed expression, and it’s at this point that I know for a fact that we’re screwed. Mo takes my hand under the table and squeezes it; I squeeze right back. At least we’re in this together.
Chris continues: “It’s been glaringly obvious that this day would come, sooner or later—hopefully later—for the past half century, so we have a backgrounder on the likely course of events to hand, regularly updated, and a fallback plan to execute. Here it is, if you’d all care to sign for it.” She slides a clipboard onto the table. It’s one of those briefings you have to sign in at. As the clipboard circulates, she continues: “In the immediate future, there’ll be a lot of media interest and a whiff of scandal and prurient curiosity over a hitherto-secret security agency coming to light. Expect digging and doxxing of any identifiable faces associated with the organization. I’m afraid that means Mr. Howard is particularly exposed, although that masterful display on Newsnight might just convince the uglier elements of the press that he’s not worth bothering with. But the personal attention should—we hope—die down within another week or so, at least until the Defense Select Committee starts holding hearings.”
A murmur runs around the table. Then the clipboard gets to me. I sign with numb fingers then slide it in front of Mo.
“That’s not the real problem I’m here to talk about today. The big short-term issue is what the government is going to do with us—about the Laundry, I mean. Historically we were founded under the Royal Prerogative, as was the rest of the Civil Service or Crown Service, as variously defined. CRAG (2010), the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, put most of the Civil Service on a sound constitutional footing and defined their obligations to uphold the law, and more importantly, laid out the exceptional circumstances under which civil servants might be licensed to take extrajudicial actions—for example the armed forces and our sister agencies, MI5, SIS, and GCHQ. As a rather peculiar unadmitted Crown entity, the Laundry exists in something of a gray area.
“The historic lack of oversight has given us a degree of autonomy unavailable to our sister agencies, but all that’s about to come to an abrupt end. At a minimum, we can expect the Committee to recommend that we be brought under the oversight of the Joint Intelligence Committee with defined limitations like the other security services. We can also expect primary legislation to regulate computational thaumaturgy and related fields and bring in criminal penalties for misuse. The Consumer Protection Regulations that superseded the Fraudulent Mediums Act and the Witchcraft Act (1735) in 2008 don’t really cover us, I’m afraid. But if the Cabinet is paying attention—and unfortunately we know for a fact that the Cabinet is paying attention—we’re about to become a political football.”
The clipboard makes its way back to Ms. Womack and she briefly checks that we’ve all signed the form. Then she opens up her briefcase and pulls out a stack of document wallets. “One copy each, please. Read and return to this room no later than five o’clock this afternoon; you’ll need to sign them back in. They’re warded, eyes-only.” Which is to say that really bad things will happen to any eyeballs that belong to people who haven’t signed on that clipboard and who even glance at the table of contents.
“What exactly is this?” Persephone asks, tapping her secure document wallet suspiciously.
“It’s a legal analysis of our organizational position, going forward.” Chris frowns at her. “In it you’ll find our worst-case analyses of how the government can fuck us over. The bad news is, one likely outcome of the current situation—if they try to cram us into the existing CRAG framework—is that our core mission becomes irrecoverably compromised. But the good news is, we have a contingency plan. It’s called PLAN TITANIC. And you’ll find a synopsis at the end of this file.”
“What’s the elevator pitch?”’Seph pushes.
Chris counters with another question. “What’s the most important part of the organization, from an operational standpoint?”
“It would be—” Persephone’s eyes widen. “Mahogany Row?”
Mo sits up. “You’re talking about a lifeboat, aren’t you,” she says. Chris is silent, but her face speaks for her.
’Seph fans herself with the TOP SECRET file. “You’re talking about abandoning the sinking ship…”
* * *
It’s a busy morning at the general aviation terminal at Stansted Airport, and another Falcon 7X executive jet arriving from Denver draws no unusual attention. Neither does the small convoy of vehicles waiting for it on the apron. There’s a stretched black BMW limo with darkened windows for the VIPs, a pair of black BMW SUVs with equally blacked-out rear windows for security, and a car in airport service livery for the immigration and customs concierge service that the jet’s owner is paying for.
The immigration officer is waiting alongside as the air stairs drop. She spends less than a minute scanning passports. The visitor holds a diplomatic visa and you don’t want to keep people like that waiting; they generally have friends in high places who will make your boss yell at you if you hold them up. Her counterpart from Customs is equally efficient: entry forms are collected, “Are you carrying anything illegal? Any drugs, endangered species, or plant material?” is asked, and the all-clear is given immediately. The officers are long gone by the time the Reverend Raymond Schiller sets foot on English soil again for the first time in nearly two years, and leads his staff in offering up a pro forma prayer of thanksgiving.
Outwardly, Schiller is the very image of a successful televangelist. He’s tall but trim, early sixties but spry, his silver hair immaculately coiffed. He wears a conservatively cut charcoal suit and a navy blue tie, a small lapel-pin cross the only obvious adornment. His smile is kindly; his blue eyes twinkle so brightly that it is almost impossible to imagine the damned soul screaming behind them.
As Schiller slides into the backseat of the limousine and straps himself in, his personal assistant Anneka takes her position opposite. A prim ice-blonde in a gray skirt-suit and white silk blouse, she sits with her knees clamped as tightly as her lips. She could pass for a lawyer or a corporate marketing director on the way up, but in the curious parlance of Schiller’s sect she is a handmaid, chosen by God to be Schiller’s helpmeet and cell phone carrier. Schiller has certain requirements that his handmaids must meet, and Anneka is a paragon. The personal protection officers and other staff—accountant, paralegal, personal chef, and poison taster—take their seats in the SUVs behind. Schiller watches as the jet’s other passenger, a representative of the government agency he subcontracts for, nods affably, then walks away towards the embassy car that’s waiting for him. Finally, satisfied that all is well, Anneka locks the heavy armored door and secures the briefcase.
There’s a brief crackle of static from the intercom, then the driver says, “We’re ready to move when you are, sir.”
Anneka glances at Schiller: he nods minutely, and she touches the intercom button. “Proceed in convoy as planned. Please notify us when we are fifteen minutes out from the apartment, or in event of unforeseen delays.” As the heavy bulletproof limousine begins to move she pushes a switch beside the intercom button, disconnecting the microphone. A faint, jaw-tensing buzz of white noise begins to leak from the windows all around, and Schiller relaxes infinitesimally.
She raises her briefcase and opens it. Its contents would be of considerable interest to the Customs officer, if performing his official duties was not actively discouraged when admitting a certain class of visitor. It’s not just the Glock 17 clipped inside the lid—civilian possession of which carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence in the UK—but the MilSpec electronics in the lower half. Anneka plugs the case into the cigarette lighter socket, then conducts a thorough and exhaustive scan of the limousine’s interior for wireless surveillance devices as the convoy queues up at the exit gate from the General Aviation area. This takes some time, and they are on the approach road to the M11 motorway by the time she unplugs the case, closes it, and ducks her head at Schiller. “We are alone, Father.”
Schiller smiles almost wryly. “We are never alone, Daughter.” It’s his little joke and she delivers an appreciative smile on cue. “Are there any new messages?”
Anneka’s BlackBerry chimes and she raises it to eye level. “No high-priority messages in the past hour,” she recites. The bizjet carries a satellite picocell to keep its passengers in touch over the ocean, but even Schiller’s wealth can’t insulate him from the leasing company’s tiresome requirement to shut down all passenger electronics during final approach and landing. “The Secretary of State sends his very general best wishes, of course, but nothing confidential. There’s an update from Alison: she’s working to confirm that all designated attendees will be present at your briefings tomorrow. Bernadette McGuigan would like to bring you up to speed on the current state of targeted operations at your earliest convenience. And there is a personal greeting from Mr. Michaels’s secretary.” She pauses momentarily, pupils dilating slightly. “Requesting the pleasure of your company at a garden party on Saturday, RSVP. At an address somewhere in Buckinghamshire.” She lowers the smartphone, looks quizzical. “Father?”
Schiller nods thoughtfully. “Let the Prime Minister know I’d be delighted to attend. Reschedule any conflicting engagements.”
Anneka nods dutifully and begins to thumb-type rapidly. She doesn’t notice Schiller’s smile sharpen slightly, sliding briefly into a predatory mask. Jeremy Michaels is a very astute player: he does not issue social invitations to just anyone. If he has realized what is going on and decided to acquiesce to Schiller’s plan, then that is very good indeed, and the acquisition Schiller has come to the UK to facilitate will run much more smoothly. Takeovers are always easier if the people at the top of the target establishment are willing collaborators.
Some invasions barely warrant the name.
Copyright © 2017 by Charles Stross