Acquisitions - a Marshall, Carter & Dark Tale Act III
rating: +135+x

Chapter Six: "Rainy in London"

In the morning's watery light, he sat for a few minutes while the events of the previous evening caught up with him. You fucking idiot, he thought to himself. He had forgotten the comb! There was no way if it remained on the person of Lady Penelope that he could call the police, if they were even willing to investigate. Besides, something within him told him that the noise her skull had made when it hit the floor had been very, very bad. He would have to go back, confront what had happened and try to get the comb if he had any realistic prospect of accessing MC&D's acquisitions warehouse and recovering the codex.

He bought a warm Danish and a coke from a street vendor and sat in his car, considering his options, when his mobile vibrated to indicate a new text message. He picked it up and checked it, apprehensively.

meet me @pimlico fresh 10mins death

Unless the hygiene level of Pimlico Fresh's frappucino had really gone downhill, this was presumably a message from the Four Horsemen. He checked his watch. While he didn't have time to spare they might have some way out of this insanity. He dried his runny nose with a tissue—the night in the car had reactivated his flu, it seemed.

As he entered the coffee shop he saw kid Death and his silly hairdo, sitting on a stool and swinging his legs. Beside him was a blackhead-smattered older teen who he presumed was Pestilence.

"The harbingers of the apocalypse, I presume," said Edward tiredly, adjusting his tie and ruffling his hair in the café window.

"Yes. You got another little mission from Marshall, didn't you?" Death seemed tetchy; maybe he'd chipped his nail polish.

"So what if I did?" Edward challenged. "I need to set some things right and I can't do that unless I find out where Marshall's keeping … something I stole from someone close to me. Do you have a problem with that?"

"No, look, that's OK. Fine, actually, it's what we hoped for. It's the comb, isn't it?" said Pestilence, excitedly, grabbing a shoebox off the floor.

"Yes it is. First of all, how exactly did you…"

"Never mind about that," started Death.

"Actually, I want to tell him. It's been requested by Saad bin Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman Al Saud."


"One of MC&D's Saudi clients. Something's up with the comb and Lady Penelope—it keeps being given to different people and ending up in her possession—haven't quite gotten on top of that yet—but it's an 11th century liturgical comb. I mean, it's worth something, but why is it being treated like the Holy Grail? We think there's something else going on—whether it's being used to smuggle government secrets, or whether it's some sort of Dan Brown puzzle. That's why we want you to bring it to us. At the very least we'd have something MC&D wants."

"What? Did you not just hear…"

"Yes," said Death, cutting in. "That's why War went and had this made." He signalled to Pestilence, who opened the box to reveal a yellowed ivory comb, identical-looking to the one he'd seen in the document given to him by Jeremy Marshall. "You give this to Marshall and return the real one to us."

Edward took the comb from the box, turned it over in his hands. It was small, no more than six inches across, with fine ivory teeth in two different widths.

"So, you guys are with the police, or…?"

Death harrumphed. "Yeah, sure, I'm Officer Steve McDeath, you're all under arrest. Book 'em, Pestilence. Seriously, do we look like cops?"

"No idea, but if you end up with something Marshall wants you'd better know what you're doing. Right now all I'm seeing are two kids in way out of your depth."

"Please," said Death, "I've been screwing with powerful people longer than you've been a stock trader. We know what we're doing. You haven't met Famine yet, have you?"

"Okay," said Edward, and finished his hot chocolate.

"Good," Death said, wandering over to the window and looking out in both directions. "Pestilence, this idiot has a tendency to attract tails. One of them followed me half-way through London after our last meeting before I ditched him on the Tube."

"MC&D?" asked Pestilence.

"Not as far as I can tell. Crypto-governmental, looked like."

"Well, looks like you're on your own," said Pestilence to Edward, leaving a five pound tip and disappearing into the back of the shop. When Edward looked around Death had similarly made his egress.

Some pros, thought Edward. I give Marshall the fake—and what happens when you get in touch to ransom the real thing? Either you didn't think that part of the plan out or you don't care if I get myself killed either. No, he'd have to find something else to appease the Horsemen.

Lady Penelope's mansion was as he'd left it—glass strewn over the porch on the right hand side of the house, increasingly soggy Goethe sinking into the drain. He cautiously moved into the summer-house.

"Alexandra?" he called. "Alexandra? Are you OK?"

No response. The creeping decay he had noticed before seemed suddenly more profound, ceilings sagging noticeably, the stairs feeling rotten and unsteady as he ascended to the first floor. The smell hit him as he pushed open the door to the master bedroom—nauseating, hideous.

Lady Penelope lay on the floor—where she had fallen? He couldn't be sure. Her body had already caved in on itself, a putrefying mass he had to try and keep his breakfast down to approach. What could have done this? Her skin was taut over her skull, eyes like burst egg yolks. The comb was still in her hair.

He knelt down, one arm up over his face, burying his nose in his elbow and breathing in the smell of Huntsman's proprietary fabric softeners. They did little to mask the stench. His other hand, trembling, reached out for the comb. He half expected the horrific thing to sit up and try to stop him. It came away, chunks of her blonde hair following, with little chunks of rotten flesh at their tips. He brushed the hair away in morbid fascination.

The comb was in his hand. The replica, in his pocket. He knew he could not give the real comb to the Horsemen, and briefly toyed with the idea of returning them their own fake. No, still too risky. Not only would they likely have integrated some flaw to point out to Marshall to convince him that what he held was indeed fake, he still couldn't risk anyone telling Marshall he had been given a forgery, even if it wasn't true. And I don't like what one more theft will make me, he thought.

On a whim, he went over to the oak writing table and saw the little key in the lock of the drawer. He turned it, put the real comb inside and locked it, and put the key in his other pocket.

Edward drove to the main London chapterhouse and knocked on the door, holding his glass member's pass, which had somehow survived the night in his pocket. The bag-eyed porter opened his peephole and glared out, before crinkling in amusement.

"Mr Gradley—you're expected! Straight through; Mr Marshall and Mr Carter are in the office towards the back."

Edward didn't feel like facing either man again, but nodded and walked through into the ballroom, which was being prepared for some great theatrical display.

"Excuse me, can you tell me where…" The staff ignored him, continuing their actions as though they hadn't heard or seen him at all. Brainwashed, he thought.

Far from 'straight through', the offices required navigation of the labyrinthine system of back rooms; many were locked and he heard voices raised in pleasure and pain. Eventually he emerged into a lavish Elizabethan parlour where Messrs Marshall and Carter sat taking tea from a pot in the shape of a screaming human head. It seemed to be a hit.

"The body, Mr Carter!" Jeremy Marshall was enthusing wildly when Edward entered. "Ah, Mr Gradley. Does the young hero return triumphant?"

Edward held up the comb, which he had wrapped in tissue, fearful that its teeth might break, before sneezing volcanically.

"The dowager's comb, Mr Carter—back in the hands of its rightful owners."

"Not for long, Mr Marshall," chuckled Carter, the growth on his back groaning with him. "Just make sure its new owner knows what precautions to take. Give Mr Gradley some Peramivir before he goes."

Marshall smiled thinly. "Indeed. Now, Mr Gradley, the item?" He extended his hand.

"I said I wanted to see where the acquisitions are stored," he insisted.

Marshall scowled. "Oh, very well. Mr Gradley insists on aggregating a double reward to himself, Mr Carter."

"A—man after my own heart—Mr Marshall. Good to see old Bernard's Nordic blood not wholly diluted, yes?"

"Then you shall see what lies beneath, Mr Gradley. But be advised—this is not a shopping trip. If you wish us to help you salvage your career, then you will be content to look and not touch, at least for now."

Again with the blindfold! A velvety cloth was tied over his eyes and he was escorted quietly and efficiently into a car, which he later learned was a black limousine. He held the comb—the fake, of course—clutched tightly in his hands the whole way, fully expecting Jeremy to renege on his promise the second he had it in his possession. Mr Marshall sat somewhere to his right, doing something that made a disquietening scritch-scratch that seemed alarmingly close to his ear—possibly filing his nails, possibly not.

The ride seemed to take hours, and Edward became increasingly nervous. It occurred to him that he had no real exit strategy—assuming he somehow got free of Marshall and gained free run of the warehouse, and assuming he found and was able to get out with the codex, what would he do? He had no car, no means of transport, and would surely be run down and returned to Marshall's tender ministrations within minutes. He resolved to take events as they came. For a while he tried to focus on the sound of the limo's wheels on the road, but, of course, he had no training in identifying a surface from the sound it made. For what it was worth the ride seemed smooth, so they probably hadn't gone offroad. Was that a good thing?

At length the vehicle purred to a halt and Edward was bundled out, the blindfold removed. The blank-faced young men and women in formal serving attire had given way to seedy-looking private security with a paramilitary flavour; he saw at the hip of one the stock of a semi-automatic rifle. Before them was a vast rectangular concrete monstrosity, surrounded by two barbed-wire fences and angled subterranean roller shutters which as he watched retracted to admit an armoured truck. It looked less like a warehouse than some despot's compound.

"This is where it all comes, Mr Gradley," gestured Marshall, as they entered on foot via a checkpoint—the guards immediately found something fascinating to look at on the wall or ceiling as Jeremy Marshall passed and the barriers were raised before they got within ten paces of them. Good to know, thought Edward; they're terrified of him. Any time something or someone behaves in a predictable way they can be exploited—stocks and shares 101.

Edward had expected some vast space inside the warehouse—instead, they entered a serpentine mess of stacks and shelves, the aisles not straight but turning and twisting like a labyrinth. The only clue to the area's size could be seen in the height of the ceiling, rising far above the three and four shelf units. Watery naked bulbs hung like Christmas ornaments from the walkways above, criss-crossing the space and casting a green-grey pallor on everything. The area nearest to the door appeared to be outgoing objects—guards packaging five foot tall Easter Island heads in bubblewrap and loading them onto pallets. He scanned the items lined up for shipping but couldn't see the codex.

"Stay close to me," warned Marshall, "we wouldn't anything happening to you, would we? And speaking of which…" he clicked his fingers and held his hand out occasionally. Edward grudgingly surrendered the comb, which Marshall spun between his fingers with glee, watching the play of light on its twisted little engraved figures.

"A singular find, this. Such a shame that we have to give it away again so soon—and for such petty pleasures! Still, it always manages to return to us eventually." He withdrew a white silk handkerchief from his pocket, monogrammed with the club cartouche, and wrapped the comb before sliding it into his breast pocket.

"So," he said, striding purposefully deeper into the warehouse, "this is the kingdom. Our little gallery. Well, one of them."

Edward hadn't expected the noise. When they had first entered it had been almost too soft to hear—a distant susurration like the sound of a jungle. But as they pressed deeper into the bowels of MC&D's treasurehouse it rose sharply and horrifically; screams bird, animal, human, and things besides which sounded like none of them, and on top of them all the sounds of scraping iron and sawing.

"Mind your step, Mr Gradley. I have business at the corner office—I need to see a man about a set of teeth. His, in fact."

Marshall skipped lightly over an industrial cable running through sawdust and dark brown, flaking stains Edward hoped were creosote. Nearer the door the objects on either side had been relatively mundane; stacks of yellowed papers, covered canvases stacked in rows; a metal shelf with a row of antique fountain pens under a jeweller's light. Now they grew progressively stranger—a 1960s Dust Devil vacuum cleaner, a locked fishtank containing a Pez dispenser with a blackface minstrel's head and sealed with hazard warning tape, a firehose packed in flame-retardant foam. None of it looked valuable, unless it was supposed to be modern art. Marshall's face was turned away as he navigated a teetering mass of bulging cardboard boxes containing something pink that was slowly leaking out onto the floor. Edward held his breath and took a left at a shattered Exidy Sorceror home computer from the 1970s, which for reasons known to themselves someone had hooked up to an HD monitor. A moment, then:

"Mr Gradley?"

Edward ran, his only purpose to create as much distance between himself and Marshall as possible. He tripped over a wind-up monkey that had been left in the middle of an aisle—labelled '7H' on a disintegrating tag around its neck. He flung it disgustedly away and was about to rise to his feet again when he realised it had been a blessing in disguise. A guard was slowly patrolling the walkway above the next aisle; if he had remained upright for another moment he would have been seen running through the warehouse and alarms would have been raised. Instead he crawled on hands and knees in his suit, engine oil and packing dust staining his cuffs and trousers.

Now what? He couldn't even try to get his bearing among the stacks—he moved, bereft of direction, and the cacaphony grew ever louder around him. Inanimate objects had given way to a parade of living horrors—fleshy, snakelike things with chimpanzee faces hammering themselves against perspex, a squirrel with blood-crusted eyes screaming at him from inside a cage inches away from his face, something like an owl constantly everting itself and turning right-side out again with a sickening pop. He fixed his eyes on the next corner and continued crawling. When the worst of it seemed to be over he stopped, breathing heavily. Where he was now was dark—overshadowed by a portion of the catwalk and a great glass container filled with sand which seemed to be a giant antfarm, except the tunnels nearest the glass were five times wider than any ant had a right to be. He would sit here for a minute, take stock. Face it, Edward, he thought, this was not your brightest idea. You're trapped in a warehouse of things that came out of a nightmare and you have absolutely no idea how to go about finding the codex, if it's even here.

"Sunny in Mogadishu," said a voice close behind him. He flinched, spinning around to face the cage he had been resting against. His eyes couldn't make anything out in the enclosure, eclipsed by the towering pile of bric-a-brac dumped on top of it.

"Hello?" he said. "Is there someone in there?"

"Drizzle in Los Angeles"—the voice was mournful, the words mumbled as though by someone who had learned the sound of the phrases but not their meaning. Edward felt the hairs on the backs of his hands pricking.

"I mean, are you a prisoner here? I'm sorry … I'm not sure if I can help you. Get you out, I mean." The cage had been secured by a hefty combination padlock. In the nearest corner he could see a bowl of water. "I don't know how to get out myself."

"Tornado in Rio de Janeiro," it said. "A mild depression moving eastwards towards Astrakhan."

"Please," said Edward, hoping against hope that whoever it was in the cage could even understand him. "I need to find a book. It looks like an iron box. It would be where they keep the latest acquisitions."

"Rainy in London," said the voice, a note of utter despair entering its voice. "Rainy in London."

Edward tugged at the lock but it was solid. He considered trying to pry it open, but he couldn't see anything long or solid enough.

"I'm sorry," he said, and began to move away.

"Storm coming in over Gradley," it said. "Bring your umbrellas."

Edward paused. "Did you say my name?" Squinting, he made out a shadow at the far side of the cage—a couple of glints which could be eyes. It was the wrong shape to be human.

"Snow right around the corner," it said, miserably. "Then for the next four days straight. Wrap up warm."

Edward thought about it for a moment. Well, it wasn't the most insane thing he'd done today.

"Thank you," he said.

"Always rainy in London," he heard the voice say from behind him.

He turned right on the mummified alligator pinned to a board with copper wire. He counted as he ducked between each stack, counting them off as he passed gravity wheels and Archimedes screws, rotating slowly and quietly. One.

Rows of surgical equipment, some gleaming, some corroded and damp. As he passed they vibrated, chattering in their constraints. Two.

Television monitors, seemingly fused together into a spreading tree. Three.

A human fetus in a jar. The jar was taller than Edward. So was the fetus. Four.

And there it was—a clearing in the wilderness, a square area surrounded with shelving and dominated by a thick wooden table, which might have been lacquered once but had been stripped down to the raw by scrapes, scratches, and what looked like acid burns. In the middle, a sign had been scrawled in permanent marker on a piece of corrugated card and propped against a tin filled with stationery. 'NEW ARRIVALS'. The shelves were littered with debris—a metal slinky toy, an astronaut's helmet with a crack running the full length of the visor, a pair of high heels. No codex. He clawed at the items, threw them to the floor, angry with himself for having made such a stupid gambit. Then, tucked between a table clamp stained with blood and other matter and a curiously elderly and overweight Action Man still in its packaging and dressed in the outfit of a four-star general, his eye picked out the shape of the metal box with 'Gervais' scratched on its spine. He grabbed it, held it close to his chest.

"Hey!" he heard from somewhere above him. He dropped to his knees, crawled back into the shadow of the stacks. He maybe had a few minutes before the guard came looking for him; or maybe he goes and finds Marshall first. Yes, that would fit. He'll go and ask Marshall what to do. He guessed he might have a little longer.

There was something glittering by his shoe, half-hidden under the box of a mouldering board game protruding from the shelving—a shard of glass, he realised, though the light caught it oddly. For a second he thought that his MC&D member's pass might have slipped out of his pocket and shattered, and something about that chilled him even though he knew he never intended to return to the chapterhouse. Had he dreamed something about it? But no, it was intact in his pocket.

He slid his hand under the shelves and retrieved the shard, cold and sharp between his fingers, no more than five centimetres across. Up close he could see what had puzzled him—it wasn't transparent at all but opaque; he couldn't see his fingers through it at all. Instead—he looked closer at the small reflection. He jolted out of his reverie and jerked around—nothing but a burlap sack, filled with coal, upon which someone had written 'D-5067'. He looked back and saw it again—the glass shard reflected not his own face but the head of an English bulldog, mottled brown and black with a white stripe on its forehead, occasionally blinking or turning this way or that. It looked out at him, slightly cock-eyed, and licked its nose. Edward waved his hand in front of the glass. Unsurprisingly the animal showed no indication that it could see him, instead opting to pursue the exciting taste of its own nostrils.

This wasn't possible was it?, he thought, turning the shard over—the exact same canine reflection. No power source, no apparent means of projecting the image. It seemed to be part of a larger whole, but looking about he could see nowhere it might have come from. At the very least, he thought, this represented a good century's advancement in materials science. Just my luck, the stock-trader thought, I get the piece without the manufacturer's name. He tucked it into his pocket and continued moving, this time away from the screaming.

"Hold on," said the square-jawed guard at the entrance, stubbing out his cigarette on the arm of the traffic barrier and swaggering over, ball of his palm over the holster of his weapon. "Nothing and no-one comes in or out without Mr Marshall's say-so." He eyed the metal case under Edward's arm.

"He's said so," Edward replied, as haughtily as he could. "I've chosen my reward and now I'm on the clock. I need to be on the road asap."

"What you need don't come into it," the security officer said. "You're gonna wait until Mr Marshall gets here to let you out."

Edward tried not to sweat. Right now, he thought, Marshall was being disabused of any notions he might have that Edward had just got turned around amidst the debris of MC&D's empire. He eyed the walkie-talkie at the man's chest. Soon a call would come in on that and he'd be dead.

"By that time it'll be a little late. I've been dispatched on Mr Marshall's orders. Any delays will be severely punished." He saw the guard swallow, look around shiftily as if hoping the blond man might appear to resolve his dilemma. Edward mused—Marshall considers his underlings a less competent substitute for himself; he can't be everywhere, so they're here to fill in. They aren't trusted to think for themselves, which means eventually they don't think at all, they just follow orders. And that means in the end they do and say whatever they think you want, whether you like it or not; the idea of you being angry with them is more powerful than what you actually want. And you're trapped in a universe of reflections.

"I don't know," said the guard. Edward heard the buzz of a radio from within the office. Soon, one of the other guards—perhaps the big one with the stubble tossing a coin over his knuckles by the freight entrance—would go over to see what was happening.

"Listen," said Edward, trying to perfect the Marshall sneer. "if I'm not in that limousine -" he nodded at the vehicle outside "- and headed back to Whitehall in the next fifteen seconds…"

It was the most ludicrous, stupid thing he'd ever said, a piece of nonsense that he cursed even as it came out of his mouth. What kind of a threat is that, he thought, that's pathetic. He had just plucked an image out of the air, paired it with the most senior person he could think of in MC&D's hierarchy, that terrible old man, and it had become mixed up in his mind with that horrible, moving thing under the cloth…

"…I'll feed you to Carter's chair."

The guard went grey, all at once. His eyes started watering. He was trying to speak, but nothing was coming out. Shaking like a newborn foal he thumbed the controls to disengage the pedestrian door and Edward strode forcefully past as behind him he heard the first faint yells. No point trying to bluff the limousine driver—as soon as his feet met pavement he started running. That had worked better than expected, he thought.

Edward had feared that when he got out he would find himself in the middle of nowhere, nothing but fields for miles around. Instead, he found to his amazement that after only a few paces he emerged on the thoroughfare of Pall Mall, city traffic buzzing around, deafening yet reassuring in its mundanity. They must have driven the limo around in circles to try and disorientate him, he reasoned, until he remembered the way the sounds of the city had fallen behind to be replaced by silence and the occasional note of birdsong. He pushed onto the pavement and mingled with the crush of pedestrians, becoming invisible under their umbrellas.

"You let him out." It was not a question. Matt Berkeley, four O-levels, army dropout, felt like a rotten oak in a storm. Every day for the last three years he had prayed—"Don't let him see me. The pay's good, it's easy money, if he just doesn't see me. Let me go another day without him noticing anything I do. Let him take it out on someone else today, please, just not me." He had perfected the art of seeming engaged in reviewing security logs or approving access papers whenever anyone more senior happened by, then joined in wholeheartedly with the poker and the prank calls to Paki shopkeepers and the furtively exchanged dirty mags. Inside he was hollow—he knew he deserved no praise and had spent every day hoping he would never be found out.

"He said you'd approved it," said Berkeley, in barely more than a whisper.

"And you believed him?"

"Yes sir," Berkeley's head dropped onto his chest, waiting. He had seen what happened to men who screwed up in the employ of Marshall, Carter & Dark. And afterwards he had put the bits into bags and dropped them in front of trains. He looked around. Would Mikkelsen be the one lugging Berkeley's bin liner down in front of the five-o-five to Reading? Maybe 'Hammers' Rogan. Or perhaps there wouldn't be enough left of him to bother.

Marshall's long fingers dipped into his breast pocket and withdrew something in a silky white handkerchief, unwrapping it delicately. Some sort of comb, he saw—intricately carved but warped and yellowed.

"Hold still, idiot." He took Berkeley's head with one hand and delicately inserted the comb into the still-thick clump of hair behind his ear. Sweat dripped from the man's forehead as he waited to turn inside out or his teeth to come alive or his soft tissues to melt. The other guards looked on with morbid fascination.

After an excruciating minute Berkeley looked up and said "Is something supposed to happen, or…"

The guards turned their attention to Marshall, who stood back bowed, leaning against a concrete pillar. He was taking great sucking gasps of air, his teeth bared. They exchanged brief glances, faces pale. They had never, ever seen Mr Marshall like this.

"Wake him up," he said, voice like polished bone.

"Sir?" asked Berkeley, but he already knew what was coming.

"You heard me. Wake up the Bagman."

Chapter Seven: "Codex"

"Look at you," she had said. "Every time you come to me these days it is in such a state."

Maria had accepted the codex silently, looking at him with an unreadable expression in those brown eyes. She had sat him down, his clothes stained and rent, on a chair in the kitchen, and brought him a hot cocoa. Later, she found him one of her father's dressing gowns and put him up in the house's master bedroom.

"Marshall will be looking for me," he croaked. "If he guesses I've brought the codex back to you…"

"Sssh," she said. She looked at the tired dark rings under his blue eyes and ruffled his hair with her fingers. "You'll stay here tonight," she said.

They sat up together in bed, reading the codex. The Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians was written in densely packed cursive; designed for economy of parchment, not ease of reading. But Edward had read the extracts that had once been published in a 1754 chapbook as A Journey to the End of the World, and was able to fill in the blanks where the manuscript became illegible.

"It starts like one of the Arthurian legends," he explained. "A wandering knight is taken into the home of a nobleman, and during the feasting they are attacked by a knight with the head of a stag, or a stag with the head of a knight, it changes from chapter to chapter. He challenges them to seek out the Rose Chapel, a stained-glass church built where Maura of Troyes shed a river of miraculous tears. So far, so Green Knight. They gird themselves up and take to the saddle, and follow the trail of the stag knight, righting wrongs as they go. Then they approach a shadowy canyon. The stag knight flies out of it—presumably in human-head, stag-body form—and shouts for them to give up their quest; even he's terrified by whatever lies within. Being your average Arthurian meatheads they swear an oath to brave the dangers of the canyon."

"What happens?" she said, craning her neck.

"Nothing. That's the thing. There's just -" he turned the yellow parchment—"a blank page." It was black from top to bottom, saturated with ink. "It's unbelievably literary for the time; makes Chaucer look like a second-rater. Some commentaries on A Journey just treat it as a misprint—it ends the first fragment—but here it is, in the original manuscript."

"What does it mean?" asked Maria. "Just that it was dark?"

"Not exactly … it's more like Gervase sees the darkness as swallowing up any mention of what happened. We're never told what happens in the canyon—it's like the text has been redacted. But when we pick up with them something has changed. Most of the knights are dead—the chap we've been following goes home but his castle's ruined and his family slain. There's a long digression here -" he turned the pages—"very long, actually. It's one of the fragments, so I'll cut it short; he meets the stag knight and they have a lengthy debate on the nature of heaven, hell and reality; except all the concepts were far too advanced for the time, as though the writer were channeling post-Reformation thinkers."

"No wonder Gervase got written out of history."

"Most commentaries assume it was a later addition, something that couldn't have been in the original text. Another strike for the critics. Then things get weird."

"Weirder than they already are, you mean?"

"Definitely. The knight goes back to South-Cadbyri Palis, Gervase's Camelot-in-all-but-name, and they sally out and fight monsters, except it's written in the most bizarre, repetitive way. Look here—this was in the chapbook; it's an honest-to-god itemised list of all the giants, demons and goblins they kill or capture. The dragon's new, though."

"It isn't a good Arthurian legend without a dragon-slaying," Maria said, nuzzling his arm.

"This one is slightly unconventional. It doesn't breathe fire, well most of the time. It still eats people, though. The thing is, they slay it again, and again, and again. They chop off its head, they put it in a cauldron to boil its flesh off its bones, they crush it under a boulder… And the next chapter it's back and they have to do it all over again."

"Sounds like it represents something."

"Too right. What, I don't know. Look, each chapter starts with an illustrated letter of them trying to kill the dragon." It was a weirdly scrawny, beaked thing with a long mane in the heraldric tradition that looked thoroughly disgusted by the knights' attempts at dispatching it—here it was, being impaled on a dozen glaives. It was probably intended to be wild with pain, though Edward thought it looked like it was just rolling its eyes.

"The knight has a son and grows old, and his son becomes a knight too—and then one day, while he's making merry in the hall, the stag knight comes in and challenges them to seek the Chapel. It's unclear whether it's warning the knights they haven't yet completed their quest, or whether time has somehow looped."

"The son becomes his father," observed Maria.

"This time the knight succeeds in his quest—he finds the chapel. But it's ruined, broken. The spring of healing tears is dry. And then the writing goes mad. Our hero hunts down the stag knight and eats him, then tries to disembowel himself, but is resurrected by some kind of angel, it's not really clear—people die and reappear without rhyme or reason. There are these huge battles out of nowhere, like the world's tearing itself apart. The sky starts raining blood. The knight volunteers for one last mission to try and set things right—to sail to Hyperboria, the land beyond the wind."

"The mythical land of the Cimmerians."

"Yes. There's a whole sequence here about his voyage on a raft, travelling into the icy north. But it's not very convincing—he recycles the Sirens and Charybdis from The Odyssey, even the island of the Lotus Eaters. It's like he's trying to put the voyage into words his listeners will understand. Things get interesting when he finally drifts ashore. Gervais wrote Cimmeria as this desolate wasteland where it's twilight all the time; the knight finds a frozen body of a woman in a ditch. The people are all half-starved; they've nearly forgotten language and live in these half-collapsed huts, living on root croops and herding a few skinny sheep. It's obviously a metaphor; Edward Forsyth -"


"The man who printed the fragments of the Viage as A Journey to the End of the World."

"He has your name," said Maria, sleepily.

"He obviously believed Cimmeria was England after the apocalypse. It's a valid interpretation—there's a whole section where the knight loses his way on the ocean due to mist and can't be sure whether he's progressing or regressing."

"You bastards, you blew it up," she said, not quite accurately. It was the first time he had heard her swear.

"Exactly; but 800 years before Heston. Other commentators just take the knight's doubts as a religious analogy, feeling unsure about your faith, et cetera. There's a sort of compromise position—Cimmeria represents Gervais' own view of the world around him, seemingly falling to bits after the knightly golden age. Remember, this was back when Geoffrey of Monmouth was considered a reliable non-fiction writer. King Arthur was seen as a historical figure."

"How does it end?"

Edward narrowed his eyes, concentrating on the spidery writing. "He finds the Rose Chapel, intact, the miraculous spring flowing again."

"That doesn't make sense."

"You bet. He goes in and prays, and he knows—this is really odd for the time, there should be some thundering voice from heaven or an angel or something to tell him—that his own land is safe, but that he can never leave Cimmeria for the rest of his life."

"It is a horrible book and it ends sadly," decided Maria. "Why do you think Marshall wanted it?"

"Well, it's an important manuscript—some of the things Gervase does here rewrite our understanding of the development of English literature. It must be quite valuable. I'd love to see what a medievalist would make of the dragon." Except that'll never happen now, he said to himself, because of you. He turned the last page and closed the iron cover. Maria drew up the covers and he slept.

He was awakened by a thin pale light shining through the window, illuminating Maria's arm draped over his chest. He looked at the bedside carriage clock—it was already nine o'clock.

"I have to go," he said, gently moving Maria's arm. "You're in danger if Marshall finds me here."

Maria, stirred, looked up at him with her brown eyes. "You think I'm fragile, that I need to be protected. Don't forget I'm a Beaumont. We can take care of ourselves."

"I don't want you to suffer for my mistakes. Take the codex; I'm sorry but you mustn't let anyone see it. No-one can know you have it back."

"Don't worry. It's not going to be on my coffee table. And you mustn't go out in those," she said, as Edward picked at his ruined trousers. "You're too tall for Daddy's clothes, but maybe Grandfather's will work."

Thus outfitted with a dead man's suit—the fit not quite up to Huntsman's or Stathopoulos's standards but still comfortable—and a big black umbrella like the wings of a bat, he kissed her, and left the Beaumont house for the last time.

Fingering the shard of glass he had removed from the pocket of his last suit, Edward stopped under the porch of St Martin-in-the-Fields and, finding Death's last text, selected 'Answer by phone'.

"Hello, is that Death? … Well, I don't know his name, is he your son? Just put him on, please, this is urgent … Yes, it's Edward. Of course I'm still alive. … No, forget the comb, I … No, I don't have the replica … I can imagine. Expensive. … I'm sure it didn't come out of your pocket money, was that your mother? Oh. You start early these days, don't you? Look, I've got something way better if you like conspiracies. You show this to any news agency and … No, meet me at O'Reilly's in half an hour. … Well, this isn't a movie, and I don't intend to die before showing it to you. … Better make it an hour and a half then, Jesus. Make sure you bring enough change for the fare. Or get War to give you a lift, I presume at least he's passed his test."

Edward stashed the phone in his other pocket and leaned against the pillar. It was faint, now, but it was coming back to him; he could see the pieces in movement. Not six moves ahead, not yet, but four, or three. Enough. Now he just had to stay alive long enough to reach the endgame.

This time Edward stood across the street and watched them arrive, one at a time, taking their seats by the window as they ordered milkshakes, Coke, a pint of beer: Death the kid; the spotty young man who rejoiced in the name Pestilence; War, waddling in playing a game on his iPhone; and a grim-faced man in his late twenties or early thirties with prematurely greying hair and military surplus togs he presumed must be Famine. He checked his watch—fashionably late for only the second time in his life. He strolled over the crossing and approached, slowing as he did so until he was close enough to see the on-rails FPS on War's mobile. Death looked up and caught his eye.

The men in black paramilitary jumpers and dog tags around their neck approached him from behind, clapped a hand over his mouth with casual ease, grabbed his arms and pushed him sideways into the rear of the waiting van.

Death punched War's arm and shouted something, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled off their seats to take cover under the table with long-practiced grace. No-one else on the street or in the bar even noticed Edward's disappearance.

Edward was getting used to journeys where he couldn't see where he was going. No blindfold at first, just a windowless van and handcuffs. Then, for a few minutes, light again; clean, clinical walls and stairs edged with crisp yellow safety tape. Making a sudden and jarring appearance, the grey sky, still resolutely spitting down at the earth. Now the blindfold, as the roaring in front of him rose like a dragon.

My first helicopter ride, he thought. He had envisioned it going rather more glamorously.

"Mobile Task Force Epsilon-Seven 'Santa's Little Regifters' reporting in," someone said into a radio close to him. "Package acquired."

He was reasonably sure—indeed was counting on—the fact that the men around him were not in the employ of Marshall, Carter & Dark. Exactly who they were working for was a matter he'd have to clear up as he went.

The helicopter's drone descended, stabilised, then petered away.

After being unloaded like a sack of potatoes, Edward was led through several hydraulic-sounding doors before the gift of sight was finally, gloriously returned. He stood blinking in the glaringly bright white corridors, the dark balaclava'd men who had abducted him filling out various forms he was sure pertained to him before handing him into the custody of less militarised but equally alert men with blue hard hats and truncheons. There would be no bluffing these men, he was sure—he got the impression they were trusted to do their job well.

"Don't I get at least the courtesy of an introduction?" he asked cheerily. "You did just snatch me off the street, after all."

"You're here to answer some questions for us," retorted one of the men, "and then we might end up letting you go. Don't count on being able to remember anything we say."

He was led down through level after level of brightly lit concrete, punctuated by small safety glass windows through which he caught glimpses of men in laboratory coats at work, though the experiments in progress seemed to verge on the lunatic. White coats watching from a distance as a man in an orange jumpsuit painted a door clamped horizontally to a pair of workbenches. Examining a horse, hanging in a set of medical stirrups from the ceiling, as though it were some kind of alien creature. Pouring a popular brand of detergent on clothes within a fumigation tank via a robotic arm.

The plaque on the office door read "Professor J Gelding DPhil DEng"—when the door was opened Edward saw a large desk. The man sat behind it was small with shiny round glasses which obscured his eyes and a close-cropped horseshoe of grey hair. The room was outfitted like a doctor's surgery, with a medical cabinet, reclining bed covered in green construction paper and a small chair in front of the desk.

"Close the door, please, Agent Howard," he said to the hard-hatted man, who complied. "Please ensure the subject is searched prior to interview."

Edward submitted to the indignity of search by Howard, who turned out his pockets, patted down Grandfather Beaumont's suit and shone a bright light in his mouth. His car keys, wallet and phone were taken and put in a tray near the door—hopefully to be returned, he thought. His glass MC&D membership pass was held up and passed to the Professor, who turned it over thoughtfully.

"Please take a seat." Edward settled in the uncomfortable plastic chair across from the little bald man. Agent Howard stood a respectful distance away, watching.

"This is an interview, not an interrogation, Mr Gradley. Having said, that, we make use of applied pressure techniques and will employ them if we feel you are being untruthful. We are not law enforcement personnel, which means you are not under caution. That also means we are not obliged to offer you legal counsel. As you may have already surmised from the manner you were brought in, you are also not subject to the protections of the law."

"I understand."

"What is the nature of your relation with Marshall, Carter & Dark?"

"I think you know that," said Edward, calmly. "I'm a stock trader with Cooper Drake. I was introduced to the club by the late David Went and was recruited to handle fine art acquisitions for Mr Marshall on a part-time basis."

"Have you been exposed to any of the objects they ask you to acquire?"

"I'm not sure I follow you. I've touched them, sure."

Professor Gelding furrowed his brow. "Have you been experiencing any…" his voice suddenly changed into a machine-gun staccato "…lost time, hallucinations, sudden mood shifts, encounters with anomalous entities, rashes or illness, loss of energy, trouble sleeping, strange or disturbing dreams, perceptions of reality or history out of sync with others around you, emotional or cognitive difficulties?"

Edward shook his head. "No. Not really. I mean, I had a terrible case of the flu recently, if that helps." The Professor shook his head. "There was something at the clubhouse—like an illusion. You closed your eyes and you were somewhere else."

"You know the location of their clubhouses?" The glasses glittered, sharply.

"One or two of them. If you want to know where they are, there's a map on that membership card."

The Professor took a lingering glance at the card, then chuckled and looked at Agent Howard. "You know, that gets me every time. I always look for it. Mr Gradley, I'm afraid there's nothing on this 'card' besides Marshall, Carter & Dark's logo in one corner."

"No," said Edward, "look, it's engraved on the glass, I can see it from here…"

"Only visible for the person it's assigned to, I'm afraid. And if you were to draw it out it wouldn't lead anywhere. Same with the 'switchboard number'—not sure if you noticed but it's different every time you call it. We've gone through this whole rigmarole before. You can't contact them in our presence or lead us to them."

"That's impossible."

"I think you would have a keen idea of just what is and what isn't possible for Mr Marshall and his partners, Mr Gradley. Now, in your recent phone conversation with the individual who goes by the epithet 'Death' you mention something you wanted to show them. What was that, exactly?"

Edward thought for a moment before responding. "Marshall took me to the warehouse where they keep the acquisitions. Some of the things there—I don't know. Secret organisations, warehouses of monsters … that's the sort of stuff conspiracy theorists go in for, isn't it?"

"Interesting. Where is this warehouse?"

"It's in London. Just off Pall Mall." The little man in the glasses began scribbling excitedly. "There's something strange about it, though—the closer you get to it, the less you can hear the city around it. I thought I'd been taken out into the country."

Just like when you brought me here, thought Edward. The Professor's face fell.

"I see … What do you know about the comb?"

"Nothing," said Edward, very nearly truthfully. "It was something Death wanted me to look into."

"Do you know who currently owns the comb, or what it looks like?"

"No," said Edward, without guile. It was a truthful answer to the first question, after all. If what he suspected about the comb was right, he couldn't even say for sure who had owned it last.

"Okay," said the Professor, taking off those full-moon glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. That was probably a bad sign, Edward thought. Any moment he's going to ask Mr Howard to apply some of those wonderful pressure techniques, just to make absolutely sure what it is I don't know. The guard in the corner stood up slightly straighter.

The intercom buzzed and the Professor thumbed it irritably. "Ms Cairnes, I am in interview. This had better be scintillating."

"Sir, we have a problem. Five-three-eight and one-seven-two-nine…"

At that moment a klaxon blared into life above them, as a recorded voice began to intone, "Containment breach alert. We are experiencing multiple Euclid-level containment breaches. Please stand by for further instructions."

Professor Gelding stood up. "Mr Gradley, I think that concludes our discussion. I am now going to administer you a Class-A amnestic. Once it has taken effect you will no longer remember me or the events of this afternoon. You may feel some disorientation; this is normal."

Agent Howard took Edward's arm firmly and pulled down his sleeve, turning it to expose the underside of his arm to Dr Gelding, who selected a small jet injector from his cabinet and inserted a crisp white ampoule.

"This shouldn't hurt."

That was a lie—it felt like someone punched his forearm hard with a chisel.

Edward didn't think he'd forgotten anything—though how could you tell? For all he knew Agent Howard had made him give the Professor a striptease—but after a few minutes he did begin to feel very, drowsy and out of it. Agent Howard had escorted him at a brisk pace back through the facility, and at some point Edward's legs had given out under him. He just barely caught the edge of the man's words to the researchers suddenly running through the corridors as he drifted in and out of consciousness: "…sual side-effects. He shouldn't…". But then Edward was gone.

He woke up back in London, neatly propped up in the alleyway across from O'Reilly's Bar and Grill. Everything ached, radiating from the pain in his arm. Someone had thoughtfully placed a bowl in front of him and he had already accumulated several pounds. "Please help," he muttered, trying to order his muscles to move but receiving only a declaration of independence. "Please. Call an ambulance." The people stepping over him didn't even pause. Just another City hopeful down on his luck—or out of his mind on booze or cocaine.

After a few minutes the bulky, ponytailed shape of War hover into view, apparently strolling nonchalantly down the road opposite O'Reilly's. He glanced right, glanced left.

"There you are," he grumbled. "It's not like I booked the whole day off, you know?" He picked up Edward with appalling ease and carried him into the Bar and Grill, where the bartender tucked him up on one of the corner seats with a blanket and a mug of something vile-tasting but ultimately reviving, as though it were something he did every day. After half an hour or so Edward began to regain some semblance of alertness, together with the feeling in his extremities. The Four Horsemen were sitting around him tucking into half-rump steaks at various grades of overdone. Death was perched up on the chair back, watching him.

"Feeling better?"


"I can sympathise. We've had run-ins with those guys before. Never seen them rough up someone this bad, though."

"Fortunately," said War between mouthfuls, "they always bring the guy back to where they picked him up. Let me guess, the Ess-See-Pee lot?"

"I don't think they ever mentioned," said Edward, faintly.

"It'll be them," said Death vehemently. "Unmarked van, the works. Wish I'd got it on my phone. Broad daylight abduction."

"Who are they?" asked Edward. "MI5 or something like that?"

"You wish. Seriously, didn't you read our blog? They're one of the biggest crypto-governmental agencies out there. The SCP Foundation. It sounds like a not-for-profit. Like the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It's actually a private army and shadow government that national armed forces actually defer to. Even the Russians roll over and play dead when they want something these days."

"What does the name mean?"

"Pseudo-fascist bullshit. 'Secure, Contain, Protect'. The totalitarian mantra throughout history. You need to be 'secured', and 'contained'. We-know-best stuff. The whole freemasonry, Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove theorists are totally off-track—these are the guys they should have been watching out for, and they failed, big time. Now they're everywhere."

"Moriah Conquering Wind's for real," interjected the serious man Edward thought of as Famine, taking a pause from wolfing down his second steak. "But the Foundation, they're the real pros. They're the ones covering up the alien tech."

Edward saw Death clap a black-manicured hand over his eyes. "Seriously? You're still on that kick? I thought I proved pretty conclusively that the Veil Protocol is only about protecting public knowledge of the Foundation's existence."

Famine scowled, mouth full. "It's the technology, too. Seriously, any time you intercept any communications from these guys it's all about 'the objects'. Alien technology. The Sagittarians keep trying to send it down. It would make everything better—free energy, anti-pollution, nanotech. A second Industrial Revolution. The Foundation don't want it to get out because it would mean them losing control of us. You remember Star Signals?"

Edward realised he was being addressed. "Erm, it rings a bell. Was it some kind of self-help book?"

"Yes, like The Secret or the The Prayer of Jabez, except it really worked. It was all over the chat shows, but no-one mentions it anymore. It was the Foundation. They wiped a fortnight of pop culture from history. You remember that episode of American Idol? The one where Cowell started breathing smoke?"

"Ahhh…" Edward felt a tinge of a headache coming on.

"See that?" Famine turned to Death. "That's the face they all make. They didn't even need to put drugs in the water supply. They just put lots of similar scenes into programmes like Doctor Who and Lost, so people couldn't tell if what they'd seen was real, or not. The Sagittarians wrote the book to help us heal the world, but the Foundation confiscated almost every copy."

Pestilence turned to Edward and whispered softly, "For what it's worth, we think he's a bit crazy. But he knows his way around a firearm and he's got a bunker out in the New Forest if things get really bad."

"Death said you mentioned you got something from Marshall, Carter & Dark. Something big," said Famine, eyes pleading. "I don't suppose you…"

Edward shook his head. "Your crypto-fascists took it," he lied. "Sorry."

The Horsemen looked glum. "Don't worry," said Death. "We're used to this crap."

"Look," said Edward, "I'd better go. People are probably wondering where I am." He got up unsteadily and hobbled to the door.

"You should get that limp checked out," advised War. "Looks nasty."

Edward got a few hundred paces from the bar before the pain became too much. Stooping as though to tie up his shoelaces, he slid his fingers into the side of the now-shredded Testoni leather and eased out the shard of glass. The bulldog seemed none the worse for its experience, grinning as traces of Edward's blood dried on the glass's surface. It was enjoying a bowlful of juicy-looking chunks as a pair of hands in medical gloves checked its fur and ears for mites. I should have stayed for the steak, thought Edward, his stomach rumbling. Seems everyone but me's eaten today.

Chapter Eight: "Castle"

"Edward? Is that you?" Liz's voice sounded curious but not concerned. "Where the hell have you been? Your phone's been off. MacIntyre's been ready to send out the search party."

"Tell him that my flu didn't clear up. Tell him I'm in bed with some chicken soup."

"You don't sound sick."

"No, I don't. I know you don't like me. You don't have to. But right now you're just about the only person at CD I can trust."

"I didn't stand up for you in the review."

"I know. You did the right thing. I think I can rely on you to do that. That's why I called you."

"Edward, have you had some kind of breakdown? You sound –"

"Crazy? I'm beginning to wonder."

"Okay, I'll bite. What are you trying to pull this time?"

"I'm just trying to set things right."

"Like getting the office idiot fired, you mean? Peter was a loser, but he was our loser."

"I wish I could say I felt bad for that, Liz. I don't. I do feel sorry that I misled you. But yes, if I pull off the track I'm on, there'll be some more changes at Cooper Drake."

"Jesus Christ, Edward. Why do you think I'm going to help you?"

"Because … because you're not evil. If you figured me out I'm pretty sure you've figured out MacIntyre too. How long have you been keeping his secrets?"

"… Damn you."

"MacIntyre's got a couple of days left, then I'm coming for him. You should start thinking about yourself. He really isn't worth your loyalty."

There was a long pause. In the background he heard the real world; the world which had become real for him—the clamour as a hundred and fifty men scrabbled for shares in AAPL or short-sold Romanian seven-year bonds.

"Get well soon, Edward," said Liz, loudly, and rang off. Edward smiled and wondered how on earth he was going to follow through on his promises.

Edward paid for the Travelodge room with his credit card. To think some people thought it was expensive—it cost significantly less than his last business lunch. He wondered vaguely if Marshall, Carter & Dark had enough pull in the police force to trace such transactions, but the other options were equally dangerous right now. The room was small and functional with the incessant hum of a radiator through the floor. He spent an hour scribbling on the back of a Little Chef menu someone had left on the coffee table. His twelve-year-old self could probably think of a way out of this, a flawless game that kept all his pieces safe, but right now he couldn't find a path through that didn't require him to sacrifice someone. Then he thought—you've been assuming you're the king, haven't you? What if you're the rook, or the bishop, or the white knight? And he saw it, just for an instant, traced out beautifully between the Hunters Chicken and the pancakes with maple syrup. It wasn't perfect. But it only required him to sacrifice one piece. He'd been carrying it around with him for all his life, and only now it occurred to him that he didn't have to keep it alive to win.

He tried to sleep, but the ideas churning in his head, the snoring of the man next door and the thin, hard mattress meant all he was able to manage were brief, hypnopompic episodes of walking along that unearthly beach he had seen before with his eyes closed, or else sitting at his desk at Cooper Drake looking down at the world.

A noise broke his stupor, a careless rustling and tearing like a cat or fox going through a rubbish bag. And again, closer to his window. He got up, cautiously, and walked across the floor, bare feet picking up little particles of lint from the over-vacuumed carpet as he went. He twitched aside the diaphanous orange curtain and looked down.

The Travelodge took the form of two buildings connected by a bridge on the second floor—the gap between them was used for refuse collection, deliveries and the like, and Edward's room had a commanding view of this little alleyway. What he saw now in the glaring security spotlights was the form of a gigantic man, more than seven feet tall, crouching in the refuse skip a storey beneath the window. The man was entirely nude, massive corded muscles covering his form, and something in that nakedness made him seem less than human—an animal given human shape. It looked up, and he saw that over its head was a tattered hessian bag, stained dark about a third of the way down. It might once have been fastened around his neck with a drawstring, but it had torn so the cord lay around his neck like a necklace and the bag hung loose around his jaw. There was no way he could see through it but Edward knew as surely as anything he had experienced in his life that he had been seen, and recognised. His hands had become clumsy and he batted at the curtains, trying to close them. The bedside drawers were affixed to the bed, which proved beyond the efforts of Edward's lean frame to move. In the end he settled for walking the wardrobe across the room and allowing it to fall horizontally across the door with a satisfyingly solid thud.

"Keep it down!" shouted the man in the next room. "Some of us are trying to sleep."

Edward scoured the room for anything that might be used as a weapon, finding precious little that could actually be detached from the walls or tables. In the end he smashed the bathroom mirror with the toilet plunger, found a large triangular piece that looked like it would hold up relatively well, and tested the edge, before wrapping half of it in a flannel. He sat on the bed with his silver dagger, watching the door.

There was no transition—from Edward's perspective, one moment he was sitting up, engaged in his vigil, and the next he was flat on the bed, eyes closed. Had he fallen asleep? He opened his eyes and angled himself upwards, momentarily startled by the face-shape looming out of the strangely deepened darkess in the unfamiliar room. He waited for the waking pareidolia to subside, for the face to resolve itself into the edge of a lampshade or his coat hanging on the chair. It didn't.

"Well done, Mr Gradley," it said. Edward jerked upright, hands searching for the piece of mirror and finding nothing.

"I think the Bagman's losing his touch," Marshall continued, "I gave him your spoor from the fake comb but you managed to shake him somehow. Like you'd dropped off the face of the earth. It took him a full day to pick your scent up again."

As his eyes readjusted to the darkness, Edward saw to his horror that the massive man was there, kneeling behind Marshall with its hessian forehead almost touching the floor in an attitude of prostration. The wardrobe had been flung aside like a toothpick, and now rested across the window, blocking the light from the street.

"Now, Mr Gradley. You have some things that belong to me. I'd like you to return them now." Marshall's voice was like a universe of knives behind a silk curtain.

"What things would those be, exactly?" Edward said, groggily. With any luck Marshall thought he was just being insolent.

"A certain codex, Mr Gradley. And a certain antique comb. One stolen from my premises, the other still owed to me after you delivered a clumsy forgery. You have quite a way of repaying my trust."

"I ran into someone who was very interested in you," Edward said—"I wonder if you've heard of them. They call themselves," he struggled to remember what Death had said, "the SCP Foundation." He was gratified by the look of recognition, rage and was that?—yes!—the minutest trace of fear, in Marshall's expression.

"Really," he said, taking a step back and placing his hand on the monstrous man's head—reassuring, Edward realised, but also seeking reassurance himself in the creature's strength. "What did they say, I wonder?"

"Well," said Edward, carefully, "I seem to have given them the impression that I've deserted MC&D and am going to deliver them the items you mention. Sorry for the stunt with the codex; I had to take it so they would see you trying to find me and think I was on the level."

"What's this?" Marshall seemed startled.

"I'll get them back to you, just as soon as I can go back to where I'm keeping them."

"And where is that, exactly? I'm sure our friend here is more than a match for any agents," he spat the word as though it was hateful to him—"of the Foundation who might be watching it."

"And then they would know that it was a hoax and I never intended to hand them over. No, just give me a couple of days to work this out. I'll be in the confidence of the Foundation and you'll have your things back."

"And I would have a man in Cooper Drake and the Foundation," mused Marshall, hungrily. "I suppose this is an attempt to make yourself indispensable?"

"I know what you did to David. What you had Alexandra do," said Edward, allowing a tendril of anger to shine through.

Marshall scoffed: "I barely hinted at it. Your friend filled in all the blanks herself. She—if I can use the word—was quite eager at the prospect. I presume from the commotion around her residence that you evened the score in your acquisition of the comb." Edward's heart sank.

"I know MacIntyre's your man. He outlasted David—I'm not about to let him outlast me. If you kill me, you lose the codex, and the comb, and an inside track on the Foundation."

Marshall scowled, and snapped his fingers. The Bagman rose to his full height, arms thicker than Marshall's torso. Edward closed his eyes.

"You have two days to do what you need to do. At the end of that time I expect my property returned to me—genuine, undamaged. Do you understand?"

When he opened his eyes Marshall and the creature were gone. The door hung on one hinge, the lock torn from its moorings. Edward looked at the collapsing wardrobe, tiny fragments of mirrordust coating the bed and floor. Travelodge weren't going to be happy.

Edward had hoped that he had misunderstood Marshall when he had mentioned Lady Penelope's house. He had ridden over to Swindon on the bus—Carter's stay of execution apparently not extending to the return of the Porsche—half-expecting to see the Four Horsemen sitting in the seats. When he got there he saw the whole house had been taped off—two police cars had drawn up at the front together with a dark, understated vehicle he assumed belonged to the coroner.

"What's going on?" he asked the stony-faced policeman at the front gate. "Is Alexandra okay?" He had some vague thought that he might be invited inside, but the policeman just shook his head.

"Do you know the Lady Penelope, sir?" he asked. Edward stammered out an affirmative. "Think you'd better go home, sir. You'll probably read about it soon enough."

There would be no hope of gaining access and retrieving the comb, Edward realised, and he cursed himself for not having had the guts to take it and keep it somewhere safer. He turned on his heel and left, just as another policeman said:

"Hold on, wasn't you at the Went suicide? Here, Travers, get his number."

But another bus had already drawn up at the stop and Edward moved as swiftly has he could towards it, not caring much which direction it took him. By the time the police had decided he was a person of interest the driver had already pulled away and they made no attempt to halt it.

He was almost out of trump cards, he thought. Almost. He got out his phone. One bar of charge left. He made two calls; the first to Death, the second to Maria. Both started the same way:

"I'm sorry. I need one more favour."

The one to Maria Beaumont ended "I love you. Goodbye."

Edward took the elevator up to the trading floor at Cooper Drake. The security staff and the pretty secretary with glasses had looked askance at him; Maria's grandfather's suit was fine enough but he had slept in it two nights running and he had been expelled from the Travelodge without even the luxury of a shower. He caught a glimpse of himself in the glass ceiling as he rose through it—hollow-eyed and unshaven, his mother's dark brown, almost black hair contrasting with his father's Yorkshire complexion, giving him the appearance of a week's worth of beard. He didn't look like he belonged here anymore. When he reached the top floor his team caught sight of him and hollered enthusiastically, one shouting that Oxford Fullerene had gone up almost twenty percent in value since Edward bought in. It all seemed like distant memories—a lifetime ago. Liz's eyes went wide when she saw him and she started walking in the opposite direction. As she passed him, she said "Seven years." and he nodded.

MacIntyre came out of his office to see what was happening and strode over, bristling.

"Where the hell have you been, Gradley? Part of having responsibility for a team means being here to oversee them. As it is they've been running your bloody portfolio. Partners at Cooper Drake are held to a higher standard!"

Edward leaned in, smiled. "Like making millions off stock tips from an international money launderer. Or having people underneath you murdered so no-one gets too big for their boots." He had the satisfaction of seeing MacIntyre wilt; someone had left him in the dryer too long and the starched fabric he was made out of had gone limp. Edward continued, in a louder tone. "I'm going to make myself a cup of coffee and then I'm going to have a sit down. You can wait for the main event."

He didn't have to wait long. Edward didn't even bother to turn on his computer, instead sitting with his shredded boots up on the desk while he sipped his first cup of coffee in days that didn't taste like something had died in it. His team had realised something was about to happen and had quietened down. Myers and Reagan, it seemed, sensed what was coming better than MacIntyre and had made hurried excuses and left the building.

"Gradley." The voice was at normal modulation but somehow filled the air, deafening the admittedly somewhat muted buzz of the floor. Edward swivelled his chair and saw the tall blond man enter, wearing a red and black evening jacket and with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles balanced on his nose. In the doorway behind him he could see a massive, dark shape.

"Jesus Christ Edward," said MacIntyre, rising from the table at which he had been sitting head bowed and fingers tapping. "You brought him here. You fucking brought Marshall here. What the fuck have you done?"

"I'm here to get what's mine, Mr Gradley," said Marshall, gliding over the floor. The other stockbrokers looked on, bemused by the apparent reckoning taking place.

"You're going to be disappointed then, Jeremy," shrugged Edward. "I don't have either the codex or the comb anymore. Nor would I be inclined to return them to you if I did."

Marshall's mouth twitched upwards but his composure remained intact. "I thought so. You're a thief, Gradley. At least your father paid his way. Who did you sell them to? The Foundation? The Global Occult Coalition? GRU? Or am I going to hear that you gave my property to those ragbag conspiracy theorists? Oh yes, I know about them. They're flies, Mr Gradley."

"None of the above," said Edward, and he saw Marshall detect the sincerity in his voice.


"You heard me. I'm not going to enlighten you—you're the only Saturday morning cartoon villain in the room, you can handle the monologues."

"Do you actually think you can walk away?" challenged Marshall. "How far up does this go, Mr MacIntyre? Did you sanction this betrayal?" MacIntyre blanched even further, shaking his head and sinking to his knees.

"I do. I'm going to walk out of this building and disappear. Somewhere you'll never find me." Edward was fighting every instinct he had to put his hand in his pocket. Don't give him the satisfaction of knowing.

"We can follow you anywhere."

"You know that's not true."

Marshall shook his head. "I'll have everyone close to you taken and brought to me. Your mother, Beatrycze Wozny—perhaps you thought I didn't know where she lives. And the Beaumont woman—ah, I see that touches a nerve. Is it love?" Edward remembered the turn of phrase and looked at MacIntyre, still kneeling aghast on the floor. You're his creature, Edward thought, bought and paid for. You even think like him. You didn't go to the clubhouse, maybe didn't even care about the objects. You just wanted the secrets to allow you to keep rolling your life up into that one big futile bet. And now you can see it coming apart. Marshall can't, not yet, but you can.

Edward answered, calmly. "The best protection I can give those I care for is to tell you right now—I'll never come back. I don't even think I would be told if something happened to them. But even if I were, I wouldn't come back."

"A selfish little bastard to the end, then," said Marshall, still sneering, but some of the wind knocked out of his sails. "You think you wouldn't return for my blood if I captured and killed your mother? You have no idea about the human psyche, do you, you little ape? Men aren't in control of their drives, they are controlled by them. The success of Marshall, Carter & Dark is testimony to the fact that choices make men, not the other way around. If I were to take lovely Maria and have her despoiled…"

"You know what I think?" said Edward. "I think you don't kill, or despoil, or maim, or kidnap—unless it profits you. The fact of the matter is, if I don't care what you do to my mother, to Maria, they are safe. So go ahead—except you can't, because it would mean nothing. I tried to explain to David—the ideal of capitalism. Everyone working in their self-interest—and only in their self-interest—is the optimum solution to the societal puzzle. I still believe that; I've just learned to expand my definition of self-interest." He raised his voice. "I won't help you launder drugs and arms dealers' money. I won't help you steal antiques and sell them to dictators. I won't do those things because it is in my self-interest to live in a stable, lawful society, where I can trade in fair competition with others." Edward's team had risen to their feet and began to slink away; other traders similarly moved towards the door, where the shadow moved and vanished.

"No-one's going to believe anything you say," stammered MacIntyre. "Remember Went," he said, in a pleading voice. "He died with his reputation ruined; even his family think of him as a disgrace. Nothing could be traced to other members."

"You're finished," added Marshall, with gleeful finality.

"Yes, I am."

"W-what?" It was MacIntyre's turn to look bewildered.

"Oh, what the hell. There's nothing you can do to stop it now. As we speak, police have been called to the scene of an apparent suicide in the toilets of a small diner on Farringdon High Street. The body will be identified from documentation in its pockets as Edward Gradley. Sound familiar? There'll even be a note in the pocket. Just like David Went. Except it'll say something like:

I am writing this letter because I suspect I will not live to see tomorrow. I have uncovered a massive insider trading ring within investment banking firm Cooper Drake originating in the gentleman's club Marshall, Carter & Dark, which I believe to be a front for the fencing of stolen goods and liaison with organised crime. I have found letters from my colleague and friend David Went indicating that he discovered the same criminal activity—I now believe he was killed to prevent him blowing the whistle on this activity and evidence of personal ethical violations planted to discredit him. I have been followed by men I believe to be in the employ of MC&D; I fear I am to be subject to the same treatment as David. I have left documentation detailing Cooper Drake's involvement with Marshall, Carter & Dark with a close friend—should anything happen to me, these documents will be released to the police.

"That's not an empty bluff, by the way. All the trades in Mr Marshall's book have been conscientiously documented; I just took the liberty of replacing my name with yours, Raymond. I'm sure Marshall, Carter & Dark can buy immunity from prosecution, but I wonder if that extends to Cooper Drake? I rather doubt anyone is going to believe your version of events after they see the quite impeccably forged emails from David Went to me dated from before his suicide detailing the death threats you made to him. Seems to me that your usefulness to Mr Marshall here is at an end."

MacIntyre put his hands over his face. "Get out," he whispered to the last traders gathered in a thin circle around the three.

"You're abandoning your life," said Marshall, nonplussed.

"Yes. Don't worry," said Edward, "I've lined up a new one."

"Where are you going to run?" Marshall was twitching now, something in his eyes that spoke of incipient madness. "There's no-one on Earth who can protect you. You've got nothing left to trade!"

"Not quite."

Marshall stood for a moment, still erect next to the pitiful figure of Raymond MacIntyre, who had curled up on the floor, ridiculous gelled hair cracking as he pushed it against Marshall's slim, glossy brown shoes. Marshall looked down and his face twisted into a mask of disgust before kicking MacIntyre, hard.

"You still think I'm going to explain, don't you?"

Edward met the blond man's gaze and held it until Jeremy Marshall at last rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and screamed:

"Run, then! See what good it does you!"

Edward turned and walked down the fire escape. With almost boyish glee he pushed hard on the door bar until the glass beam shattered and the sound of the fire alarm filled the building, and continued down.

Marshall left the wreck that had been Raymond MacIntyre on the trading floor and paced over to the fire escape. He wanted to call the Bagman, tell him to kill everyone in the building, but he knew it would be a pointless and expensive act of pique. There was nowhere the Gradley boy could go—as soon as he left the building the Bagman would pick up his scent. Whether it was at Heathrow, or Grand Cayman, or the highest mountain of the Andes, there was nowhere he could hide.

And yet, in the dark, non-Euclidean corners of his mind, there was doubt—some part of him saw the black pawn take the white knight, revealing the final check, the black king exposed to attack from … what was it? A rook? A castle.

The call came a couple of minutes too late.

"Erm, sir? I'm not sure how to tell you this…"

Document 1552-12

Re: Sagittarius-cruft (maybe)
Death_4H ██ Jan 20██, ██:██ GMT

If anyone wants to see a piece of glass containing by preternatural means live footage of a dog (English bulldog) you should be at the Cooper Drake offices, 48 Gray's Inn Road, around midday today. You'll want to speak to Edward Gradley, who can also tell you some interesting things about what certain ex-BBC news presenters got up to in the Bahamas.

Oh, and by the way, if you're listening in, Professor Gelding, he remembers everything. You might want to look into that.

Reply | Options


Re: Sagittarius-cruft (maybe)
War_4H ██ Jan 20██, ██:██ GMT

Just incredible, really.
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Re: Sagittarius-cruft (maybe)
Pestilence_4H ██ Jan 20██, ██:██ GMT
> Just incredible, really.

I wish to state for the record that none of us have actually seen this thing.
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Re: Sagittarius-cruft (definitely)
Famine_4H ██ Jan 20██, ██:██ GMT
> Just incredible, really.

I've seen it. The Sagittarians sent me photos of it inside a dream.
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Re: Sagittarius-cruft (just no)
Death_4H ██ Jan 20██, ██:██ GMT

> I've seen it. The Sagittarians sent me photos of it inside a dream.

OK, now you're just [EXPLETIVE REDACTED] with us.

Reply | Options

Edward Gradley walked out of the offices of Cooper Drake just as the clouds cracked open, casting direct sunlight on the ground for the first time in months. The shadow watched from the lobby as he strolled through the carpark. He took his phone out of his pocket and threw it into the landscaped edging, followed by his wallet.

The unmarked van had been waiting for him in the overflow area and pulled up. The dark-jumpered man who got out opened the back of the van and looked at him. Edward reached into his pocket and withdrew something small, shining in the light.

"You can see this?" he asked, a final note of apprehension entering his voice. "You can see the dog?"

The agent nodded, swallowing, then averted his eyes, flipping over a small lockbox. "Yessir I can see it. Please put it into the box. I've seen what happens when people look at that stuff too long."

Edward carefully placed the glass shard at the bottom of the box, where the bulldog panted enthusiastically and looked hopeful, though that might have been because someone had entered the room behind it with a bright pink chewtoy. He shut the lid.

"We investigated the Pall Mall lead," he said. "Your information led to the capture of numerous MC&D assets and the near-total disruption of their UK distribution network. They moved most of the items, but that's par for the course. How do you feel about the idea of saving the world on a regular basis?"

"I think," said Edward, "that sounds like it's something that would fall within the scope of my enlightened self-interest. Plus, I've got nothing else to do. I'm about to become legally dead."

"Join the club," said the agent. The shadow watched as Edward hopped up on the running board and Mobile Task Force Epsilon-Nine ''The Nation's Job Creators" rolled away.

Edward Gradley disappeared from the world on a sunny January afternoon. The coroner called to O'Reilly's Grill and Diner pronounced him dead at twelve fifty-eight, and his remaining family was notified, though his mother seemed less upset than one might have expected.

The coroner transported his body to the morgue at St Pancras and was vaguely surprised to find one more free tray than he remembered. Indeed, something about Edward's face seemed awfully familiar, though he could be certain he wasn't one of his previous guests—all the bodies were accounted for on their online admin area. If he had bothered to look, he would have found absolutely no trace of remote access, though the nurse might have remembered the serious-looking young man with the gray hair who had flashed an official-looking Special Branch badge and taken a body awaiting post-mortem for 'priority forensic analysis'.

The following morning Maria Beaumont brought a stack of documents into Camden Police Station and Edward's death was officially announced as a murder investigation. It took the lawyer in the black suit three weeks at five thousand and fifty pounds an hour to secure the dismissal of all charges against Marshall, Carter & Dark and the re-expungement of all mention of the club from Scotland Yard's records.

Raymond MacIntyre and several other partners were arrested and charged with Market Abuse under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, money laundering under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. David Went was posthumously cleared of all charges.

Elizabeth Keating, as the most senior partner not under investigation, was made acting principal in an extraordinary meeting of the board of directors.

The trial continues.

« Act II - "You are invited" | HUB | Act III - "Rainy in London" »

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