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CRIMES AGAINST MARKETING
Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop.
“Now that’s not something you see every day,” Doc drawled shakily. His fake bravado didn’t fool anyone.
Game Boy shook his head and blew a scummy pink bubble. When the alfär executioner held his heavy-duty electric screwdriver against Santa’s wrist, the screams were audible over the rumble of passing buses. Game Boy’s gum bubble burst; blood dripped from Santa’s polyester sleeve. Numb-faced police officers blocked the pavement to either side, directing the flood of Christmas shoppers across the street, holding up the traffic.
This was the second public execution they’d run across this week, but it still had the power to shock. “What’s this one in aid of?” Imp asked wearily, as Game Boy slurped his gum back in and gave him a guilty, sidelong glance: “That’s disgusting, kid. Show some respect.”
“Hold on, I’m reading.” Doc squinted at one of the execution notices taped to the lamp posts. “Huh. He’s an unregistered transhuman.” Superpowered, in other words. Like us went without saying. “Identifies as, well, Santa. Guilty of breaking and entering, animal cruelty, flying under the influence, violating controlled airspace—” his eyebrows rose steadily—“human trafficking, slave labor, shoplifting toys, breaking rabies quarantine with reindeer.” Which explained why he was being scragged outside the world’s biggest toy shop. Under the old regime the worst he’d have gotten would have been a couple of years in the slammer, but the New Management had brought back the eighteenth-century Bloody Code, so named because it prescribed capital punishment for just about everything.
“Fuck.” Deliverator turned her back on the scene, shoulders hunched—from anger, not fear, Imp figured.
Imp shook himself. “C’mon, guys.” As their self-appointed leader, it was up to him to keep them moving. He detoured around the execution site and marched smartly into the toy shop. Game Boy drifted in his wake, followed (in his usual desultory manner) by Doc and, finally, Del, shivering and averting her eyes.
The New Management had taken over the British government some nine months ago, and Del wasn’t handling the changes they’d wrought very well. Admittedly, life with an Elder God for Prime Minister was harsh, especially for the fringes of society. But to Imp’s way of thinking, Del’s perpetually seething low-key state of rage was a potentially lethal weakness. Imp expended considerable emotional labor on a daily basis, keeping his more vulnerable housemates from losing their shit, then they stumbled on something like this on their way to a job.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured her, “it’s probably not real—a seasonal marketing stunt or something.” He sent her a tiny mental push to solidify the supposition in her head, soothing the raw edges of her outrage. It was his talent: with a little mental muscle, he could convince anyone of absolutely anything by force of will alone—but only for a short while, and only face to face. Normally he tried not to use it on his friends, but prior consent be damned if it kept Del from making a scene and bringing the Black Pharaoh’s wrath down on their heads. “By the time we’ve finished, Santa will be taking a tea break, yucking it up with his pointy-eared homies.”
Doc was about to contradict him, but Game Boy elbowed him in the ribs sharply and gave him a wide-eyed look, and Doc held his tongue. Time for a distraction, Imp thought. He spread his arms as if in benediction and turned in place, in the glittering lobby of the largest and oldest toy shop in the world. “Behold!” he cried. “The place where dreams are made!” He nudged Del and added, “And by dreams, I mean supervillains.”
The ground floor of Hamleys was decked out in green baize carpet and bleached pine. A gigantic Christmas tree loomed over elaborate Lego and Playmobil displays on every side. Imp led them towards a bank of escalators, passing between dueling toy franchises—a line of Disney Princess demonstrators facing off against a My Little Police Unicorn cavalry charge. The magic staircase lofted them into childhood heaven: model railways and Sylvanian Families, party costumes and wishes granted. A seasonal frosting of spray-on snow dusted every display surface like the icing sugar on a diabetic nightmare.
“What are we looking for again?” Doc asked.
“Three motorized turnouts, a bunch of track segments, an’ a kicking second locomotive,” said Game Boy.
Imp sighed. Game Boy was single-minded. “Priorities, kid: you’ve got to get your ducks in a row. We need the costumes first. Your model railroad will have to wait for another time.”
“But, but, shiny!” Game Boy’s face was pressed up against a display cabinet almost as high as the top of his flaming orange crop-top, nostrils flaring twin plumes of condensation on the glass in front of a halogen-spotlit Class 23 Baby Deltic in 1970s British Rail livery.
“Homie.” Del laid a warning hand on Game Boy’s scrawny upper arm.
“It’s, like, only three hundred quid…”
“Dude. You can’t afford it right now. Add it to your Amazon wish list and move on.”
But Game Boy was in love. “If I was to, uh, make it fall into your messenger bag you could—”
Imp spoke out of the corner of his mouth: “Camera, ceiling, ten o’clock, range three meters. Camera, ceiling, your six o’clock, range eight meters. Store detective, my three o’clock, other side of the floor. And we still haven’t got the costumes. Are you feeling lucky?”
The giant toy store’s interior had been carefully designed by retail psychologists to engage the imagination. More recently, management had brought in a sorcerer to amplify it: everything felt bright and colorful and hyperreal, popping like the onset of an acid trip. But Imp instinctively knew that any trip he did here would go bad fast. Even the normally ebullient Game Boy was cowed by the possible consequences of what they were about to do. Imp, as ringleader, felt a sick sense of dread—like an apprehension of gangrene in toyland—that he was at pains to conceal from his crew.
The New Management had reintroduced the Bloody Code (the old eighteenth-century penal system that prescribed the death penalty for pretty much everything above the level of a parking ticket) during the Queen’s Speech at the state opening of Parliament earlier this year. Sensible shoplifters were reconsidering their life choices. Not that shoplifting was ever a sensible career choice, but hanging was a brutally disproportionate response. Imp, despite his other character flaws, didn’t want to see any of his crew executed. “Are you feeling lucky?” he repeated, backing it up with a gentle morale-boosting push.
Game Boy’s shoulders slumped. “Pervert suits first,” he mumbled.
“I’m a professional, I’ve got a store card and I know how to work it,” Imp reminded them. “DeeDee, are you ready to motivate?”
Doc Depression could pass for a store detective himself, in his seedy Oxfam charity-case suit and skinny tie. “If necessary.”
“Let’s go, then.”
Party costumes were on the third floor, and once they ran the gauntlet of pink tulle princess gowns and alfär warrior armor they came to an aisle of reasonably priced outfits for adult party hosts: clowns, mostly, but also pirates, princesses (subtype: grown-up), bank robbers (in questionable taste), escaped convicts (ditto), highwaymen (Imp wasn’t going anywhere near that gibbet, thank you very much), and, finally, transhumans. Fictional cops like Judge Dredd and Judge Death (very edgy, very of the moment) vied with the Marvel and DC Comics franchises, then real-life capes like Officer Friendly, White Mask, and the other Home Office supes.
“You are not putting me in a dress!” Game Boy shrilled as Del menaced him with a frilly black and white maid’s uniform.
“But you look better in a frock than I do—” Del pitched her tone low, trying for sultry and missing by a mile.
“Fuck off!” Game Boy recoiled as Del leaned over him, propping herself against a clothes rail.
“Children!” Imp stepped between them, a bundle of adult cape-and-mask outfits draped over his arm. “Store detective, two o’clock, closing.” He tipped Doc a nod and wink. “Showtime.” To Del, he added, “Stop triggering Game Boy, asshole.”
“Aw, you’re no fun.” Deliverator punched him lightly on the shoulder, then slid the maid’s uniform back on the rail, defusing Game Boy’s impending panic attack.
The store detective loomed over Imp like an overly polite brick wall. “Can I help you gentlemen and lady?” he asked, clearly winding up to eject them from the store.
“Yes, you absolutely can!” Imp smiled and pushed. “My sister just told me I’m hosting a surprise birthday party for my nephew, the theme is Capes and Villains, we’re really short on time, and we all need grown-up costumes! Can you point me at the changing rooms?” He held up his zeroed-out John Lewis store card. “Amex Black,” he added, and pushed again.
A minute later they were inside the changing room area. “Here, try this one,” Imp said, handing Game Boy an outfit: Robin, from Wes Craven’s Arkham Asylum remake. Game Boy’s gasps were slowing, the nervous whoops coming under control. “Robin’s about your build, isn’t he? You won’t have to femme up.”
“Fuuu—thanks.” Game Boy swallowed and ducked into a cubicle, limp with gratitude.
Imp turned to Del. “Just for that you’re playing Princess Shuri.” He shoved a bagged-up costume at her. “Serves you right for gaslighting the boy: you can be the odd one out in this rodeo.”
“I’m more than my skin color, bitch.” She lowered her brows and glared. For a moment Imp thought she was going to punch him, but then the tension left her shoulders and she chuckled darkly. “I’d rather be Harley Quinn. I could hit people with a baseball bat.”
“Payback for GeeBee.” He turned to Doc. “You’re the Bat.”
Doc’s mouth turned down. “Gloomy and introspective, what kind of disguise do you call that?” He blinked at Imp. “Hey, who are you going to be?”
Imp took a step back in the direction of his own changing room. “I’m the Joker, of course!” he declared, beaming at Doc. “I’ve got a scheme, a crazy scheme, to take over Gotham City! But to bankroll it we’ve got to start by robbing a strong room. Suit up, everyone, Showtime starts in five.”
* * *
While Santa’s public execution was taking place on Regent Street, Evelyn Starkey was taking an hour-long break from work to browse the most exclusive kitchenware store in Mayfair. As Imp was declaring his nefarious goals, she was staring intently at a gleaming display of microplane graters.
“Beautiful,” she murmured, visions of their uses dancing in her mind’s eye. “Guard!”
“Miss?” Her new bodyguard, two meters of steroid-enhanced gammon in a black Hugo Boss suit, was unprepared. He clearly hadn’t bothered to read the checklist Human Resources always included in the briefing pack for her new minions. “What is it, Miss?” He glanced around dimly, nostrils flaring as he searched for threats.
“Take a memo,” she drawled. “Re: Rupert’s request for possible performance improvement incentives. HR to investigate the use of microplane technology for epidermal degloving as a possible alternative to current Yakuza protocol. A/B testing to be applied after the next stack-ranking identifies suitable candidates for downsizing who need remedial motivation.”
Rupert, her boss, had tasked Eve with finding a modern replacement for the Bigge Organization’s use of the Yakuza protocol for motivating underachievers; after all, pinkie fingers could be surgically reattached. But she hadn’t expected to find a likely candidate in a kitchenware store. Her gaze slid along the aisle to a fetching display of long-handled Perspex and chrome grinders loaded with pink Himalayan rock salt. “Fetch me two of those, if you please. And one of every kind of microplane grater that’s available from stock.”
“Are yer buyin’ a new kitchen, Miss?” asked the Gammon, grinning like a self-satisfied Rottweiler who didn’t quite understand that his mistress required him to return the postman’s hand to its owner without further ado. “I’ve got a mate in Logistics at IKEA ’oo can fix you up wiv—”
Copyright © 2020 by Charles Stross