Hellraiser

Simon R Green has just hit middle age, and middle age is hitting back. He's written thirty-eight novels, all of them different. The best known series are Hawk and Fisher (Hill Street Blue style cops in a fantasy setting,) Deathstalker, a trilogy in eight parts, (Star Wars style science fiction but with a plot that makes sense,) Nightside (a private eye in the Twilight Zone, solving cases of the weird and uncanny,) and most recently, the Secret Histories, (The name's Bond, Shaman Bond; the very secret agent.)

He lives in a small town in the south west of England, the last Celtic town to fall to the invading Saxons in 504 AD. He has a BA and an MA, and a hell of lot of use they ever were in getting him a job. Before becoming a full time author, he was worked as a shop assistant, bicycle repair mechanic, journalist, actor, shop assistant again, and mail order bride. He still acts, mostly open air Shakespeare these days. He's about to write a screenplay for a low budget horror movie, to be shot in England in the Summer of 2010.

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You don’t have to be afraid of the dark.

I mean; yes, it is full of monsters… and vampires and werewolves and aliens and mad scientists… and everything else that’s ever put the fear of God into you. Plus a whole bunch of people who are stranger and scarier than any mere monster could ever be. But my family exists to stand between you and them; every day, and all through the night. The Drood family has protected you and all Humanity from the forces of darkness for some two thousand years now; and we’re very good at it. My name is Drood; Eddie Drood. Also known as Shaman Bond, the very secret agent.

I face down the monsters, so you don’t have to.

But don’t expect a knight in shining armour. I do my best, but sometimes… the night can be very dark indeed.

CHAPTER ONE

THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY

 

In the early hours, when it seems like the dark will go on forever and the dawn will never come, the night people come out to play. They swarm through the empty London streets, trailing long multi-coloured streamers and brandishing champagne bottles, howling with laughter and singing the bits they remember from popular songs. They always wear the very best, even if it is stained with booze and food and dusted with various powders; and they all look like film stars or supermodels or personalities… It’s only when you get right up close you can see the bloodied and worn-down feet, the haunted eyes and the desperate smiles, and hear the lost lonely strain in their laughter. For the night people, parties go on forever. There are all kinds of Hell…

I had just left the Leicester Square tube station and was heading unhurriedly into Covent Garden. I was just Shaman Bond that night, my easy going, relatively harmless cover identity. Dressed well but casually, with nothing to distinguish me from a hundred other late night revellers. I’ve been trained not to stand out, to blend into any crowd, to have a face that no-one will remember ten minutes later. An agent’s face. I come and I go and do what I have to, and no-one ever knows. If I’ve done my job right.

It was an early morning in late September, a pleasant enough night to be out and about. The moon was full, the stars were out, and the street lamps glowed like tarnished gold. Long black limousines cruised past, transporting high class hookers with silver hair and artificial smiles to expensive rendezvous at the best hotels. Black leather couriers on powerful motorbikes carried important secrets back and forth, from embassy to embassy, or industry to industry. And a gang of knobbly-looking kobolds in Westminster Council uniforms were chatting and swearing cheerfully as they hauled dead trolls out of an open manhole, and dumped the distorted bodies into the back of a waiting refuse truck. There’s a lot goes on in London streets at night that most Londoners are better off not knowing about.

The kobolds nodded easily to me as I passed, and I smiled easily back. Night people can always recognise their own kind. Kobolds perform necessary repairs, clean up the night’s various messes, and deal very sternly with the various unnatural vermin that thrive deep down under the streets of London. Trolls, albino alligators, intelligent rat colonies, the inhuman spawn of slumming alien deities; that sort of thing.

You wouldn’t be able to see them, because you don’t have the Sight; the practiced ability to See the world as it really is, in all its awful glory. Even I can’t bear to See it for long. The Sight is one of the advantages of being a Drood. It comes from the golden collar I wear around my throat; a torc, in the old language. The torc is the secret weapon of the Droods. It makes us strong enough to go head to head with monsters and demons, and kick their nasty arses.

Further down the street, two large bottle-green Reptiloids were having a slapping match over the unformed soul they’d ripped out of some squashed piece of roadkill. They’d clearly fallen on hard times, and actually backed away when they saw me coming. I left them to it. Eddie Drood might have felt obliged to do something about them, but I was just Shaman Bond that night, and I didn’t want to break cover. Cover identities are very important for a Drood field agent. I’ve spent years building up my public face, my public life, one careful step at a time. Droods come and go, but no-one ever sees our faces. We protect the world, but we’re not dumb enough to expect it to be grateful.

I’m only Eddie Drood when I’m at home, with the family. Or when I’m in action. Anywhen else, I’m Shaman Bond, so I can walk through the world just like you. Drood field agents are ninety-nine per cent urban myth, and we like it that way. Makes it so much scarier when we do choose to show ourselves.

So who is Shaman Bond? I’m glad you asked. He’s an easy going, vaguely feckless, borderline criminal man about town. Always a part of the scene, but never tied to anyone or anything. Everybody sort of knows him, even if they’re not too sure what he actually does to hold body and soul together. If anyone should ask, he’ll just wink and smile, and change the subject. There are a lot of people like that, in the long reaches of the night. Shaman knows his way around, is on nodding acquaintance with a surprisingly large number of the people who matter, and is always ready to consider some dodgy venture or clandestine scheme; particularly if his funds are running low. The perfect cover for just turning up anywhere, and listening to gossip.

I think mostly I prefer being Shaman Bond. No duties or responsibilities, no pressure… and Shaman’s a nice guy. Eddie Drood doesn’t always have that option.

Half a dozen Grey aliens were clustered around a strange piece of non-human technology, that shimmered and sparkled under the heavy light of the street lamps. The Greys were all wearing designer sunglasses; presumably so they wouldn’t be recognised. Otherwise they were entirely naked, dull grey skin slipping and sliding over their inhuman bone structure as though it wasn’t properly attached. I made a mental note to check with my family that the Greys’ permits were all in order, and just what that particular bunch were up to.

There had almost certainly been a memo about it, but I’m always at least a month behind. You wouldn’t believe how much paperwork is involved in being a very secret agent. And don’t even get me started about claiming expenses…

I headed deeper into Covent Garden, and before and behind and all around me, blazed layer upon layer of ghosts. Of people and places, buildings and events, all of them trapped in repeating loops of Time. Reminders and remainders, recordings of the Past, piled on top of each other like the layers of an onion… Because no matter how many layers you peel away there’s always one more underneath. London is very old, and absolutely littered with things that won’t stay dead. Even if you hit them with a really big stick.

No-one paid me any attention. One of the first things they teach you as a field agent is how to walk unseen in plain sight. To be average and anonymous, just another face in the crowd. You could walk right past me in the street, and not even notice I was there. It’s all in the training. You too could give the appearance of being nobody in particular, not worth a second glance, if you were prepared to put in the work.

My current mission was important, but frustratingly vague. The safety of all England hung in the balance, but no-one could tell me why. Something important was being planned by foreign elements, some dark and dangerous scheme aimed at the very heart of London; but no-one could tell me what or who or when. And of course foreign could mean just that, or it could mean elves or aliens or unnatural forces from Outside our reality. The family precogs are always right, but they see the future through a glass darkly, and they’re always vague when it comes to useful details. Some warnings have been so obscure they only became clear in hindsight.

The Tower of London, they said. Our greatest treasure is at risk. England endangered. The crime of the century…

Vague, or what?

But the family takes all this stuff very seriously, so I was sent to investigate. London is my territory. London, also known as the Smoke; and everyone knows there’s no smoke without fire. So there I was, Shaman Bond again, out and about to talk to people in the know, and hopefully discover what the hell was going on and put a stop to it. I couldn’t just call up the golden armour from my torc and go crashing into places as Eddie Drood, field agent, protector of the innocent and brown-trouserer of the ungodly. They’d all just scatter and head for the hills. But people would talk to Shaman Bond. They like him.

I’ve gone to great pains to make him likable.

 

You get to London’s infamous Hiring Hall by walking down a side street that isn’t always there, knowing the right passWords to say in the right places so the guard dogs won’t turn into hellhounds and rip the soul right out of you, and finally by going through a left-handed door that will only open if it likes the look of your face.

You’ll soon know if you’ve been black-listed; the door handle will bite your hand off. And no; you don’t get to complain. No-one asked you to come.

The Hiring Hall’s been around since the time of Elizabeth I; indeed, supposedly the first stalls were set out on the frozen surface of the River Thames in 1589. They had real winters in those days. Like all successful businesses, the Hall has grown tremendously down the centuries, and though the jobs and services on offer in the Hiring Hall may have changed some since those early days, they haven’t changed in principle. It’s still all about money and power and influence. Love and hate and especially sex. At the infamous and just a bit scary Hiring Hall, jobs are available, services and skills are on offer, deals are made and people are screwed over on a regular basis.

The Hiring Hall has been owned by the same family since Shakespearean times. No-one ever says the name out loud, but here’s a clue. The company is called Pound Of Flesh Inc, and their motto is We always take our cut.

I walked down the side street, said all the right Words, (including good doggy,) and pushed open the nicely anonymous door. The handle recognised Shaman Bond and remained just a handle. Inside the Hall it was all noise and chaos, and the raucous clamour of business being done. The Hiring Hall is long and large and contains wonders, and everyone who is anyone has had a stall there at one time or another. The stalls are packed tightly together, constantly jostling for those extra few inches, lining all four walls for as far as the eye can see and just a bit further. The great open space in the middle was packed with a deafening, jostling mob of the unnatural and the ungodly, the criminal and the rogue and the defiantly free-thinking, all looking for temporary gainful employment, certain very select and secret services, and the chance to do somebody else down. The din was appalling, the smell not much better, and the sheer spectacle of both people and prospects more than enough to overwhelm the unseasoned visitor.

Want to hire a murderer, or arrange your own death? Sell your soul, or someone else’s? Do you have a plan to steal fabulous items, or an urgent need to dispose of them? Then you’ve come to the right place. But watch your back, always read the small print, and count your testicles afterwards.

All around me there were ghosts looking for suitable houses to haunt, werewolves offering to track down the missing or gone to ground, vampires hidden behind romantic glamours offering themselves as gigolos or assassins or means of assisted suicide; and the usual cluster of ghouls, amiable as always, ready to clean up natural disasters or chemical spills. (Ghouls can stomach anything.) Shaman Bond has been known to pick up the odd job here, so no-one was particularly surprised to see me. Shaman specialises in supplying secrets and unusual information, for an only slightly extortionate fee. The family research department tells me what I need to know, I pass it on to my customers, and everybody’s happy. And if the family occasionally wants to distribute some false information or black propaganda where it’ll do the most damage, well, everyone knows you take your chances when you come to Hiring Hall. Shaman Bond has a better reputation than most, and that’s all that matters.

I eased my way through the milling crowd, nodding and smiling to familiar faces, showing my best face to friends and enemies. The Hiring Hall is neutral ground to one and all, strictly enforced by the dozen or so animated brass golems standing round the walls. (And by other, less obvious but quite spectacularly nasty devices hidden away in unexpected places.) It doesn’t matter whether it’s blood feuds, tribal hatreds, centuries-long vendettas or dogmatic diversity; they all get left at the door if you want to do business in Hiring Hall.

I allowed the currents in the crowd to take me where they wanted, while I took a good look around. It seemed like everybody had a stall out today; governments and religions, independent contractors and middle men, service providers and every kind of bad business you could think of. Including some Very Big Names you’d almost certainly recognise. There were even a few stalls representing the smaller countries in the world, offering specialised services and opportunities… desperate for a chance to play with the big boys.

And, of course, there were stalls for every spy and intelligence agency in the world. Not the Droods, of course. We’re urban legends, remember?

But the CIA was there, and the KGB (or whatever initials they’re hiding behind these days,) Vril Power Inc, the Vatican (represented by a big butch nun from the Salvation Army Sisterhood,) the Tracey Brothers, Druid Nation, ( Let’s put the fear back into Halloween!) and a rather familiar face manning the MI 13 booth. I wandered over and smiled easily at the balding, middle-aged figure of Philip MacAlpine, once one of England’s top spies. He saw me coming, and if anything looked even more put open. I came to a halt before him, and he actually sighed loudly.

“Hello Phil,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question,” he growled. “I take it you are here as Shaman Bond, and not…”

“Quite,” I said. “Please don’t mention the name on the tip of your tongue, or I will be obliged to rip out that tongue, throw it on the ground and stamp on it.”

He sniffed loudly. “That’s right. Kick a man when he’s down. This is all your fault, you know. I had a perfectly good position at MI 5, with seniority, and tenure. I had my own office; with a window! And then they sent me after you…”

“And I kicked your arse all over the place,” I said pleasantly. “I remember.”

He glared at me. “You killed over a hundred of my people. Good men and women, just doing their job.”

“They were trying to kill me at the time,” I said. “I’ve always taken that very personally.”

He sniffed again. “Thanks to you, and the failure of that mission, I got promoted sideways, into MI 13. No seniority, no tenure and I have to share an office with three other operatives and a rubber plant. Overseeing all the weird shit that none of the other MI offices want to deal with. You know what they’ve got me doing here? Public relations. Handing out leaflets and badges and application forms. Shoot me now, you bastard.”

“Don’t tempt me,” I said.

“I had a career! I did important things! I couldn’t tell anybody about them, but still… It’s not fair.”

“I let you live, didn’t I?” I said reasonably. “What’s MI 13 up to these days? Anything interesting?”

He shrugged. “Same old same old. Watching the aliens watching us, making sure they play nice and don’t stray outside the negotiated limits. There’s word of a Mothmen breakout down in Cornwall… I think they’re attracted to the lighthouses. When I’m finished here, I’m supposed to be putting together a team to go down to reason with them and/or kick their heads in. Don’t suppose you’d be interested…”

“I’m spoken for,” I said. “Don’t suppose you’ve heard of any current threats to the Tower of London, have you?”

“Nothing recent.” MacAlpine studied me thoughtfully. “Is this something I should be concerned about?”

“Of course not,” I said, smiling. “I’m on the case.”

I could tell he was about to say something indiscreet, so I nodded goodbye and let the currents of the crowd carry me away. I don’t like to spend too much time with any of the intelligence agencies when I’m being Shaman. Part of his usefulness as a cover identity is that Shaman never allies himself with any cause or faction for long, and therefore is welcome anywhere. Shaman Bond is a chancer, a hustler, a useful extra hand and a reliable backup. Always on the scene, but never aspiring to be a Major Player. A man who knows things, and people, but can be relied on to keep his mouth shut. And… just a bit dull and boring, when necessary, so no-one ever wants to get too close.

The usual faces were making themselves known. I bumped into one of the scene’s main fixers; the infamous Middle Man. Tall and elegant, wearing a bright green kaftan and smoking a slim black cigarillo in a long ivory holder. Handsome enough, in a ravaged-by-time sort of way, with flat black hair and more than a hint of mascara. His fingernails had been painted jet green. He was accompanied by two Thai teenagers in bright red leathers, who might have been brother and sister or something even closer. The Middle Man knew me as Shaman Bond, and as Eddie Drood, but didn’t know they were the same person. I know a lot of people like that. It would probably complicate things, if I were a complicated person.

“Shaman!” said the Middle Man, gesturing lazily with one long languid hand. “How nice! On the prowl for Madam Opportunity, are we? The creditors pressing close again? How very tiresome for you.”

“You know how it is,” I said. “It’s an expensive world, for those of us who just want a little fun out of life.”

“Oh, I know, I know, dear boy. I swear the money just evaporates out of my pockets when I’m not looking.”

“Particularly when you gamble as much as you do,” I said. “And so badly.”

The Middle Man glared at his Thai boy. “Have you been telling tales out of school again, Maurice? I shall have to be very strict with you later. You know you like that…”

We chatted a while, but when he didn’t so much as raise an elegantly painted eyebrow when I mentioned the Tower of London, I made my excuses and moved on. The next familiar face made a point of bumping into me. Leo Morn might be good company but he’s always on the prowl and on the scrounge. I swear he came out of the womb trying to cadge a cigarette off the midwife. Leo is tall, slight, long haired, pale and interesting, and looks like he ought to be starring in a particularly gloomy Tim Burton film. Dressed all in black, he looked so frail you half expected one good breeze would carry him away. But, as with so many of the people I know, appearances can be deceptive. Leo Morn has hidden strengths, and a heart of solid granite.

He was looking for tracking work.

“Still playing bass with that punk folk band?” I said, and he grinned wolfishly.

“Of course! Got some really good gigs lined up.”

“Are you still having to change the name of the band regularly, so clubs will hire you twice?” I said innocently.

He scowled. “We are ahead of our time! We’re currently called Angel’s Son; got a sweet gig at Moles, in Bath, end of the month. Drop in, if you’re in the area. Catch us while you can. I doubt we’ll be there long…”

“No offence, Leo,” I said, “But on the whole I think I’d rather stick skewers in my ears.”

“For someone who didn’t want to give offence, I’d have to say you came pretty damned close there,” said Leo.

I wished him luck and he stalked off. People got out of his way; they could smell the wolf on him.

Next up was Harry Fabulous; handsome, charming, deeply fashionable, and all of it as fake as his constant smile. Harry showed no interest at all in the stalls, moving instead from one potential customer to another like a shark in good fishing waters. Harry would steal the shirt off your back, but do it so charmingly you’d end up apologising to him that it wasn’t of better quality. Harry Fabulous; con man, thief, grifter, and your Go To man for absolutely everything that was bad for you.

“Shaman! Dear fellow!” said Harry, showing me all his teeth in his most professional smile. “Good to see you out and about again. Haven’t seen you since… ah well, not in public, eh? What have you been up to?”

“You’d never believe me,” I said solemnly. “How about yourself, Harry? How’s business?”

“Oh, busy, as always.” His smile faltered for a moment, his eyes briefly far away. “Had a bit of bad business with an angel in the Nightside, and now I find it necessary to do good works, for the sake of my soul… You know how it is. Could I interest you in something just a bit special, for an entirely reasonable price? I can get my hands on some very tasty smoked black centipede meat, or some full strength Hyde, or even some prime Martian red weed; a very cool smoke… No? How about some Yeti’s Tears? Kirlian boost? Deep Speed, from the House of Blue Lights?”

“Think I’ll pass,” I said firmly.

“Then I must be off,” he said briskly. “You know how it is, old boy. Things to see, people to do… I think I spot a tourist over there, just begging to be relieved of everything he owns.”

And off he went, sliding so smoothly through the crowd he hardly made a ripple, a smile on his lips and honest larceny in his heart.

Standing alone, apparently lost in thought in the middle of his own personal and very private space, was the Notional Man. Everyone was giving him plenty of room, because no-one in their right mind wanted to get too close to him. He might notice them. The Notional Man was a human being reduced (or perhaps evolved) to its most abstract form. You see him most clearly out of the corner of your eye, but even then more as an impression than any definite shape. I don’t know what he uses for a body these days, but it sure as hell isn’t flesh any more. He’s a projection, an idea of a man… immortal, invulnerable and capable of thinking round corners you didn’t even know were there. Some say he lost a bet, with God or the Devil, and some say he did it to himself and now can’t undo it. Either way, the Notional Man comes and goes as he pleases, and no-one knows how or why. A tragedy or a triumph, and quite possibly both. The only thing that everyone can agree on is that he’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, so we’re all very polite to him.

I’d never seen him in Hiring Hall before.

He turned his abstract head in my direction, and I felt the impact of his gaze. He knew who I really was. He knew everything he wanted to know. He didn’t walk towards me, he was just suddenly there, right in front of me. I did my best not to jump, or flinch away. Up close, he was even more disturbing. It hurt my eyes to look at him directly; everything about him was wrong. Like a circle with straight lines, or a room with too many angles. He had height and breadth and depth and other things too. I could feel myself shaking.

His voice exploded inside my head, and I cried out. He was sound and colours and deafening images. The Notional Man had moved beyond speech, into something that might have been the other side of telepathy. All I could tell was that he was looking for something, or someone, but he couldn’t make me understand what. Blood spurted from my nostrils, and welled up from under my eyelids. And then, just like that, he was back where he had been before, and the only person inside my head was me.

A passing Man In Black offered me a paper tissue, and I nodded gratefully, mopping at the blood on my cheeks and pressing the tissue against my throbbing nose.

All in all, a fairly typical encounter with the Notional Man. The Droods have received several requests to terminate his existence with more than usual extreme prejudice, on the grounds that he’s just too damned worrying; and we’re seriously considering it, if only for the challenge. The trouble with the Notional Man is that he’s pure and potent, as much a concept as anything else, and totally beyond any human capacity to understand or manipulate. And who wants a god you can’t understand or appease, and doesn’t give a damn whether you worship him or not?

I checked the paper tissue. There was no blood on it. Neither, when I checked, was there any blood on my cheeks, around my eyes or drying inside my nostrils. Typical.

I strolled on through the crowd. Exchanged words, shook hands, kissed cheeks. I like being Shaman Bond. All right, he’s not really real, as such, but I feel so much more comfortable being him than I do being Eddie Drood. Shaman can be strong or silly, wise or foolish, just as he chooses, and it doesn’t matter a damn whether he screws up. He doesn’t have the fate of Humanity resting on his shoulders.

He has friends. A Drood only has family, and enemies.

Shaman Bond is more than just the mask I hide behind in public. He’s the man I might have been, if my life had been my own.

The CIA had their own stall, as always, and very big and bright and colourful it looked, complete with flat screen images, all the latest gadgets and gizmos, an American flag standing tall and proud, and a real eagle squatting on a perch, glaring suspiciously at passersby. The CIA would recruit anyone who showed an interest, and did a thriving trade in souvenirs and memorabilia, and there was never any shortage of cash in hand for information and gossip… but really they were just there to establish their presence. To remind us they were always watching. I recognised another familiar face behind the table, and wandered over.

Nickie Carter is old school CIA, fourth or maybe even fifth generation in the spy game. A pleasant-looking brunette in her early twenties, Nickie wore a smart powder blue business suit and a professional smile, and looked more like the successful product of some famous business school. She also knew fifty-seven ways to kill you with a single finger, and some quite disgusting things she could do with her mouth. We once spent a lost weekend in Helsinki together, on the trail of someone who turned out not to exist, as such. The job’s like that, sometimes.

She only knows me as Shaman Bond. Which is just as well, or she’d probably feel obliged to try and kill me.

Nickie smiled sweetly at me. “Shaman, honey; looking good! Sorry about that enforced rendition attempt last year; some damned fool higher up the food chain got it into his head that you were a player in the Manifest Destiny group. I tried to tell them, but no-one ever listens to a mere field agent any more. It’s all computers these days, all trends and predictions. Damn bean-counters… “ She looked at me thoughtfully. “How did you manage to avoid us, Shaman?”

“Nice to see you again, Nickie,” I said solemnly. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

Nickie smiled fondly at the elderly gentleman sitting beside her, staring off into the distance. “Of course. This is a colleague of mine, Shaman. May I present to you one of the living legends of the CIA, Stephen Victor, on his farewell tour of Europe.”

I knew the name. A definite Major Player back in the Seventies, with a quite extraordinary way with the ladies. A one man honey trap, by all accounts; women from all sides of the Cold War couldn’t wait to jump in bed with him and tell him every secret they knew. He couldn’t be that far into his Sixties, but he looked twenty years older. He had a great noble head, just a bit gaunt, with a mane of silver grey hair, but though his mouth was firm enough, his eyes were vague and far away. He had that slightly rumpled look of a man who’d been dressed by someone else. He smiled easily in my direction when Nickie cued him with my name, and he shook my hand with a firm manly grip, but there was no-one home behind his eyes. Just a shell of the man he’d once been, trotted out for public consumption. He let go of my hand and went back to staring at nothing again.

“He’s here to visit some old haunts, meet a few old friends and enemies,” said Nickie. “In the hope he can squeeze some last few secrets out before he’s retired. Poor old thing. Can’t even put him out to stud. Don’t worry, Shaman, we can say what we like. He’s deaf as a post.”

“I suppose it comes to all of us, in the end,” I said.

“Not if I can help it,” Nickie said firmly. “The moment I start forgetting how many beans make four, I firmly intend to take up bungee-jumping over live volcanoes; go out with a little style, while I’m still me. Look at the state of him… doesn’t know whether it’s Tuesday or Belgium. I’m his nurse as much as his bodyguard. The last time he was in London, our Ambassador introduced him to the Queen. And he propositioned her.”

“Really?” I said. “What did Her Majesty say?”

“No-one knows,” Nickie said darkly. “But Prince Philip had a hell of a lot to say afterwards…”

I grinned, excused myself and wandered off again. Stephen Victor, the great seducer of his generation, reduced to a bag of bones in a crumpled suit. Was that all I had to look forward to? Was that my future, if I lived that long? A relic of the past, all my triumphs and achievements faded into some vague respectful legend… Just another prematurely-aged agent, lost in memories of the past? No. The odds were I’d die young and die bloody, like most field agents.

I looked thoughtfully around me. The CIA weren’t the only foreign intelligence agency showing their flag in Hiring Hall today. All the major countries and powers were represented, with agents buying and selling information and influence, and probably discussing a little discreet murder and sabotage on the side. Unusual to see so many out at once… not that anyone would say anything. The Hiring Hall doesn’t care who or what you were, as long as you pay the rent on your stall on time.

On the whole, the Big Boys don’t bother much with Shaman Bond. He’s too small time to interest them. Occasionally someone will decide they want to know what he knows, and turn the dogs loose on me… but somehow Shaman always seems to know about these things in advance, and sidesteps their traps and blandishments with equal ease. Sometimes the Big Boys like to order him about, just to remind everyone who’s in charge, and I usually go along. It’s amazing what you can learn just by keeping your eyes and ears open. When you’re nothing but small fry, hired help, the important people will often speak quite openly in front of you, as though you’re not even there.

I spent the best part of two hours cruising through Hiring Hall and walking up and down in it, talking with everyone and politely avoiding murmured offers of employment in secret jobs and dubious schemes… and at the end of it all I was no wiser. It wasn’t as though I had much to go on; all the family precogs had was a threat to the Tower of London, and a general sense of danger and urgency. I’ve always felt that most precogs would benefit greatly from a good slap round the head.

I mentioned the Tower of London to all the better connected rogues and scumbags in Hiring Hall, but all I got in return was vague words and vaguer promises to let me know if they heard anything. Something was in the air, some big job; but no-one knew anything, for sure. No-one had a name, or a even a direction to point in.

I had been hinting, as broadly as possible, that I was in the market for a bit of action, no risk too great… I’d even let it be known I was quite definitely up for a bash at any symbols of Authority; but while there was no shortage of offers, none of them sounded right. I owe some people, I would say. People not known for their patience or understanding. And familiar faces would nod and smile, and say they quite understood, and suggest all kind of interesting opportunities, (some of which I made a mental note to deal with later,) but none of them what I was there for.

Until finally it was all dropped in my lap, through an anonymous tip. Now, it’s not easy to be anonymous around a Drood; we can See right through most glamours and disguises, and we’re almost impossible to sneak up on. Nevertheless, this quiet voice whispered in my ear, soft as a dove’s fart; If you’re interested in the Tower of London job, you need to speak to Big Oz. Over there, by the Universal Exports stall.

“Who is this?” I said quietly, careful not to look around. “Why are you telling me this?”

A breath of laughter, warm on my ear. Perhaps because even the most unrepentant villain can, much to his own surprise, turn out to be a patriot.

I waited, but there was nothing more. I looked around, but there was only the crowd, shoving and jostling and shouting each other down, doing business. I considered the situation. Big Oz? Really? If the Emerald City was mounting an operation in London, I should have been informed. Unless it was in one of those damned memos I hadn’t got around to yet…

But no; it turned out the man I’d been pointed at was Big Aus; a fanatical republican Australian. I introduced myself, and he crushed my hand in a big meaty fist. He was a large man, broad in the shoulder and wide in the belly, wearing a suit that looked like he’d ordered it from a photograph. He had a broad cheerful face, with sharp piercing eyes and a ready smile. He knew my name and reputation, and said he was very pleased to see me.

“Call me Bazza,” he said. “Everyone does. And you are a sight for sore eyes, Shaman. I’m a man short for a really sweet scheme, and you fit the part perfectly. Dame Luck must be smiling on me today. You want in? You’re in!”

“Hold it,” I said quickly. “It’s nice to be wanted, Bazza, but I’m not agreeing to be a part of anything, until I know just what it is I’m getting into. And what the money’s like.”

“Of course! Of course! Wouldn’t want a fella who was willing to just dive in blind! We can’t talk here. You come along with me, to this nice little watering hole I know round the corner. The rest of the gang’s already there, just waiting for me to fill the last gap with the right man. You’ll love them; they’re all real characters, just like you. Come with me, Shaman, and I will tell you how we’re going to make ourselves really bloody wealthy, and stick it to the whole bloody British Monarchy. We are going to pull off the crime of the century, and help make God’s Own Country of Australia the republic she was always meant to be!”

 

Bazza took me firmly by the arm and escorted me to a tacky little theme eatery just a few streets away from the Hiring Hall. An almost unbearably twee faux-Irish chain called the L’il Leprechaun. I knew of the chain, but had never thought I’d actually be required to eat in one. The L’il Leprechauns have about as much in common with real Irish cuisine and culture as a plastic shamrock, and even less dignity. If the real Little People ever find out what’s being perpetrated in their name, they’ll declare a fatwah on the whole damned chain.

The eatery was decked out in loud primary colours, the tables were shaped like great flattened off mushrooms, and there were pots of gold in which to stub out your herbal cigarettes. Cartoon leprechauns gambolled cheerfully across the walls and ceiling, and even peeped playfully out from behind the big stand-up menus. Most of the food, and even some of the drinks, came in shades of green. I made a mental note to steer well clear of the beefburgers. A sulky waitress done up as a Bunny Colleen, complete with sprayed-on freckles, tottered over on high heels and led Bazza and I to a table at the back, where three other people were already sitting.

I knew them, and they knew me. Big Aus had heard of me, in the way most people have heard of Shaman Bond, but these three were very familiar faces. I don’t know that I’d call them friends, exactly, but we’d all worked together in the past, at one time or another, to our mutual profit, and we all moved in the same social circles. I pulled up a plastic chair so I could sit with my back to the wall, while Big Aus dropped his great weight onto a plastic chair with such impact that it actually shuddered beneath him.

As always, Coffin Jobe looked like he’d just been dug up out his grave and then hit over the head with the shovel. He was a tall, thin sad affair, wrapped in a long grimy coat with food stains down the front, topped with a thick scarf to keep the cold out. He wore heavy old-fashioned spectacles, with the kind of thick lenses normally employed to fry ants with the help of the sun, behind which his gaunt face had the kind of pallor usually only found on things that live at the bottom of the sea. Coffin Jobe was cursed with an unusual affliction. Like narcoleptics, who have a tendency to fall suddenly asleep and then wake up again, Coffin Jobe is a necropleptic. He has the tendency to suddenly fall down dead, and then get over it. A serial resurrector, as it were. He’s been dying and coming back to life again on a regular basis for some years now, and no-one knows why; least of all him. (Though there are those who say he’s doing it in order to get used to being dead, so he can develop an immunity.) However; as a direct result of his many assignations with the Other Side, Coffin Jobe can See the world with more than usual clarity. This has made him very useful on many a criminal endeavour, as there’s no-one better at spotting hidden traps and unexpected dangers.

He’s also as crazy as a sewer rat on amphetamines, but you have to expect that. People make allowances.

I’ve always suspected that Coffin Jobe can See the torc around my throat, and therefore knows I’m really a Drood; but he’s never said anything. He’d never betray a friend and a confidant. Not unless there was really serious money involved.

The Dancing Fool, on the other hand, would sell his own granny for the promise of a bent penny. He was the fastest fighter in the world, and made sure that everyone knew it. He could move so fast you didn’t even know you’d been hit until the ground jumped up to slap you in the face. All the best martial arts are based on dances; he claimed his was based on an old Scottish sword dance. He practiced the deadly martial art of knowing exactly what an opponent is going to do before they do it. He called it deja fu. He liked to style himself as an international assassin, but really he was just hired muscle. He was talented enough, but not all that bright, and was cursed with a terrible temper. When the red mist descended he was a danger to anyone around him, including his own allies. A broad, bluff Scottish type, he wore Clan colours I knew for a fact he wasn’t entitled to, and affected a lilting Highlands accent.

He also had no sense of humour. You could tell that from his clothes.

And finally, there was Strange Chloe. A disturbing young lady, with a permanent scowl and a stuck out lower lip. A Goth, of course. In fact, a Goth’s Goth. Dressed in black, complete with fishnet stockings and a black velvet bow holding back long jet black hair, her stark white face was dominated with dark makeup and stylings she’d actually had tattooed in place. The eyelids in particular must really have hurt. Strange Chloe had a mad on for the entire world; so much so that when she really concentrated, the world actually crumbled under the force of her gaze. She could make walls fall down, rivers evaporate, and people crumble into dust; and she did. Fortunately, she lacked the energy to get into any real trouble, and hadn’t the ambition necessary to make herself a Major Player; for which the rest of us were very grateful. She did just enough to get by, and spent most of her time sulking in bed.

I couldn’t help feeling that the quality of her life would improve greatly if she just got her ashes hauled on a regular basis. But it would be a brave man who tried.

So; a man who could See traps, a thug for hire and a woman who could make things go away just by looking at them. Not a bad crew.

Strange Chloe fixed me with a thoughtful glower. “What are you doing here, Shaman?”

“Shaman knows secrets about the Tower of London, Chloe,” Big Aus said smoothly.

“Such as?” said the Dancing Fool. He did his best to sound tough, but if he was really tough he’d never have put up with his nickname.

“I know more than most people,” I said easily. “Including a whole bunch of stuff that no-one but the Tower staff are supposed to know.”

“How?” said Coffin Jobe, trying hard to sound like he cared. He doesn’t really have any social skills any more, but he does try.

“Because I’m Shaman Bond,” I said easily. “I know things. So, what is this caper all about, oh my brothers? Are we after the Crown Jewels?”

“Hardly,” said Big Aus. “It would take more than our combined talents to get anywhere near them. Only one man ever got his hands on the Crown Jewels, and that was one Colonel Blood, back in 1671. The guards caught up with him before he even made it to the main gate. Word is he died slowly and very nastily, for his pains. No; we’re after something just as important, but not nearly as well defended.”

“Should we be talking this openly, in public?” murmured Coffin Jobe, staring sadly around him through his over-sized lenses.

“Relax,” said Big Aus. “No-one who matters would be seen dead in a dump like this. And listen to the racket! With so many people coming and going, ordering meals and chatting together, and that bloody awful piped Riverdance music, we could discuss kidnapping the Queen and selling her organs on ebay, and no-one would hear us. The safest place to conspire has always been in public places. It’s the secret meetings in out of the way places that always attract the authorities’ attention.”

“What are we after?” I said.

Strange Chloe grinned suddenly. It didn’t suit her. “The ravens, Shaman. We’re going to murderise the Tower ravens.”

I frowned, looking back and forth to make sure they were serious. “Are we talking about the old legend, that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, England will suffer a great disaster?”

“Got it in one!” Big Aus said cheerfully. “But it’s more than just a legend, sport. I’ve done the research. Buck House takes the threat so seriously that for many years now, all ravens in and around the Tower have to have their wing feathers clipped, on a regular basis, just to make sure they can’t fly away.”

 “How very practical, and indeed British,” murmured Coffin Jobe. “Does anyone else feel that draught?”

“We’re going to use our various abilities to get us close to the Tower, take care of the guards, and then kill all the ravens,” said Big Aus.

“Aye!” said the Dancing Fool. “A powerful blow against the treacherous English!”

“Pardon me if I’m being a bit slow here,” I said. “But where’s the profit in this? The hard cash, the old champagne coupons? Kidnapping the ravens for ransom, yes, I can see that; but just… killing them?”

“I’m providing the backing for this little venture,” Bid Aus said sharply. “Myself and a small consortium of like-minded Australian patriots. We’re going to strike a blow against England in general and the Monarchy in particular. Humiliate Parliament and the bloody Queen, all at the same time! That’s worth ten times what we’re fronting, in the name of the republican cause.”

Strange Chloe sniffed airily. “It’s something to do. Could be fun. Will I get to kill lots of people?”

“Almost certainly,” Big Aus assured her. He reached out to pat her hand, and then reconsidered and pulled his hand back again.

“Burgle the Bloody Tower, and make the English establishment look like idiots,” said the Dancing Fool. “A plan with no drawbacks.”

“I like it when lots of people die suddenly,” Coffin Jobe said wistfully. “I don’t feel so alone then.”

The Dancing Fool glared at him. “Why don’t you go and haunt a house somewhere?”

“Because I frighten the ghosts,” said Coffin Jobe.

He might have been joking, or he might not. It’s hard to tell, with Coffin Jobe.

As it happened, I knew for a fact there was no truth to the legend about the ravens. If there was, the Droods would have their own guard on the ravens. My family has a long history of knowing what’s really dangerous, and what isn’t. The whole raven thing is just a story made up to give the tourists a bit of a thrill. But this little caper still needed stopping. Big Aus was right about one thing; if the ravens were killed, those popular symbols of Queen and Country, right in the heart of London, it would make everyone look bad. Very definitely including the Droods, for letting it happen on their watch. Might give other people the idea we didn’t have our eye on the ball; and we can’t have that.

Still; the situation was… complicated. Big Aus I didn’t know from Adam, except he was slightly better dressed. The other three, however, while not exactly friends, were still people Shaman Bond knew. We had history together, some good, some bad. I couldn’t warn them off, without raising everyone’s suspicions; as far as they were concerned, this was easy money. So on top of putting a stop to the scheme, and taking down Big Aus, I also had to find a way of doing it that wouldn’t involve seriously hurting my associates, or revealing I was really a Drood.

Great. Wonderful. Terrific.

And… I wasn’t entirely convinced by Big Aus. The more time I spent with him, the more convinced I became that the man was playing a role. He might well be the bluff Australian republican he claimed to be, but I couldn’t help feeling there was more to the man than that. And much more to this caper than just killing ravens… So I’d let things run as long as possible, to see what would happen… and then rely on my skills and abilities to slam the brakes down hard the moment things looked like getting out of hand.

I was authorised to kill Big Aus, if necessary. And the others. I try very hard not to kill, on any of my missions. I’m an agent, not an assassin. But sometimes… it’s the job.

Big Aus leaned forward across the table, and looked at each of us steadily in turn. “Does anyone have any problems they’d like to discuss? If so, speak up now, or forever hold your peace. Because once you’re in, you’re in all the way.”

“I find I don’t care much about anything but hard cash, since I started dying on a regular basis,” Coffin Jobe said sadly. “At least with enough money I can be miserable in comfort.”

“The hell with bloody England!” said the Dancing Fool. “Let it all fall down!”

“And I don’t give a toss,” said Strange Chloe. “Go for it.”

And then they all looked at me. I smiled easily. “You know I only ever ask one question; how much does the job pay?”

Big Aus told me, and I didn’t have to fake my interest. He was offering serious money, far more than the caper warranted. Which probably meant he didn’t expect us to be around afterwards, to collect our pay. Which was… interesting. I gave him my best smile.

“I’m in. The game is on. Shall we order now?”

“You must be joking,” said Big Aus. “I wouldn’t even use the toilet in a place like this.”

He had a point.

 

The Big Plan, as outlined by Big Aus, turned out to be refreshingly simple and straight forward. My job was to provide information about the hidden and deadly protections set in place outside and inside the Tower, and then Coffin Jobe would use his more than mortal gaze to walk us past and through them. He said he could actually See the shut-down Words implicit in any magical protections, and I hoped he was right. The Dancing Fool would use his deja fu to deal with any human guards we ran into. And Strange Chloe would look harshly upon the ravens. And then we would all leg it for the nearest horizon. Big Aus, it seemed, was just along for the ride.

“I’m paying for this,” he said flatly. “And part of what I’m paying for is a ringside seat.”

I sat back in my chair, apparently lost in thought, and surreptitiously studied the others as they told each other how easy it was all going to be, and how much fun, and the great reputations they’d make for themselves. The usual stuff. Sometimes I swear they’re just a bunch of big kids. I took the time to review all the information about the Tower of London that the family had supplied me with earlier. The Drood researchers know all there is to know about… pretty much anything, really. And enough to fake it about everything else. That’s their job. By the time Big Aus had calmed the others down and turned back to me, I was ready to sound like an expert and blind them with details.

“The best time to approach the Tower will be in the early hours of the morning,” I said confidently. “When the human guards are at their lowest spirits. Also; no tourists, to get in the way. Nothing like innocent bystanders to screw up the most well-laid of plans.”

“”Right,” growled the Dancing Fool. “The less uncontrollable factors, the better. Go on, Shaman.”

“Thank you,” I said dryly. “First off, you should know there isn’t just one Tower of London. There’s a whole bunch of them. Over a dozen, in fact, set together inside a high stone wall, like a veritable castle. And we are talking seriously thick stone walls, baptised with human blood by their builders to give them strength, and with executed criminals buried down in the foundations so the dead will hold them up, forever. Builders took pride in their work, in those days.

“The original Tower of London was the White Tower, built on the orders of William the Conqueror, back in the Eleventh Century. The one most people think of when they say Tower of London is actually the Bloody Tower, dating from Tudor times. That’s where traitors to the realm were kept, before execution. But there’s also Flint Tower, St Thomas’ Tower, (which contains the Traitors’ Gate entrance,) and Whitechapel Tower, which holds the Crown Jewels. Each of these Towers stand host to secrets and treasures undreamt of by the everyday public; and they are very heavily defended.”

“You’re just showing off now,” said the Dancing Fool. “Stick with what matters, Shaman.”

“My feet are cold,” Coffin Jobe said wistfully.

“You want research, you get research,” I said. “The ravens have their own lodging house, inside the castle complex, for shelter during particularly inclement weather. Which means if we want to be sure of getting them all, we’re going to have to get inside the castle. Which will mean getting past the human guards, the Yeomen Warders. Never call them beefeaters, by the way; apparently that started out as an old French insult, and the Warders are still very sensitive about it.”

“Well Hell,” said Strange Chloe. “We wouldn’t want to upset them…”

“No we wouldn’t,” I said sternly. “Our best bet lies in sneaking in and out, without anyone ever knowing we were there, until it’s too late. The Yeomen Warders are all military men, including ex-SAS and combat sorcerers. They don’t choose just anybody to guard England’s treasures. And then there are the magical protections, the proximity mines and the shaped curses. Are you still with us, Jobe, or are you dead?”

“Just resting my eyes,” said Coffin Jobe. “I hope someone is writing all this down. I’ll never remember it all.”

“Nothing on paper!” Big Aus said quickly. “Carry on, Shaman. You’re doing fine.”

“It’s the ghosts we have to worry about,” I said. That got their attention. “These aren’t the usual memories recorded in Time, played back to haunt the present. I’m talking about actual spirits, lost souls, damned and bound to this world by terrible magics. All the executed traitors, condemned to defend the Towers of London for all eternity, for their crimes. To serve and protect England as they failed to do in life, until Judgement Day itself, if need be. Some of these ghosts have been around a really long time, and they have grown strange and awful. Nothing like centuries of accumulated guilt and grievance to make you ready to take it out on someone else…”

“I can See ghosts,” Coffin Jobe offered quietly. “But that’s all.”

“And I can only fight what I can touch,” said the Dancing Fool, scowling. “No-one said anything about ghosts…”

“And I can only affect the world of the living,” said Strange Chloe. “That’s it. Game over. The caper is off.”

“Wait, wait,” said Big Aus, flapping his big hands about. “Shaman; tell me you have a suggestion.”

“Of course,” I said. “That’s what you’re paying me for.” I had to be careful here. I was skirting territory and information that Shaman Bond shouldn’t really have access to. “Traitors weren’t executed in the Bloody Tower; they were all killed on Tower Hill, well outside the castle complex. Executions were public matters in those says; public entertainments. The source of power, to control the ghosts, will be buried deep inside the Hill. Probably something very old, and very nasty. Nothing we’re equipped to deal with… So, if you want to avoid being detected by the ghosts, they best way is… not to be there.” I grinned at their confused faces. “I’m pretty sure I can get my hands on a certain very useful item, that will hide us all from the ghosts’ view. For a while, anyway. Long enough for us to sneak in, do the dreadful deed, and then get the hell out of there.”

Of course, I didn’t actually need such a device. My torc made me invisible to anyone or anything I wanted to be invisible to, and I was pretty sure I could extend that protection over the others, for a while. Or until I found it necessary to drop it…

“How long will it take you, to acquire this device?” said Big Aus.

“I can have it by tomorrow morning.”

“I just know this is going to cost extra,” said Big Aus. “How much, Shaman?”

I told him, and he winced. It had to be big enough, to make sure he’d take the device seriously.

“All right,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work, I’ll take it out of your hide!”

“If it doesn’t work, we’ll all be dead,” I said easily.

“We’ll hit the ravens tomorrow,” Big Aus said forcefully, rubbing his big hands together. “We go in early, like Shaman said. Five am. Straight in, do the necessary, and straight out. No messing. And don’t be late getting there, any of you, or we’ll start without you.”

And just like that, we were committed to the crime of the century.

 

I got there first, of course. To check out the lay of the land, and make sure no-one else was planning any surprises. You can’t be too careful, in this game. So I was there on the open causeway by Traitor’s Gate at three am, two good hours in advance. I stood alone on the great grey flagstones, hidden behind my torc’s glamour, invisible to all. Hopefully including the ghosts. You can never tell with the dead; they follow their own rules. I hunched my shoulders inside my long duster coat, and folded my arms tightly to keep out the cold wind blowing steadily off the River Thames.

It was only a short walk from Tower Hill tube station, through mostly empty streets. No-one about but the usual revellers, old gods, and self-made monsters on their way to the next party. Things flapping high up in the sky, and voices declaiming long-forgotten languages in ancient tunnels deep under the earth. The usual. I looked the Towers over carefully with my Sight, and the whole place blazed with dazzling arcane energies. Layer upon layer of old magics and deadly protections, proximity mines floating unseen in mid air, just waiting to hit you with all kinds of nasty medicine if you were dumb enough to approach the Towers with bad thoughts in mind. The shaped curses under the flagstones were harder to spot, lying in wait like trapdoor spiders. The huge old walls containing the Towers were solid in more than three dimensions, and the Towers themselves were half buried under spells, like so much crawling ivy. There were bright lights and terrible sounds, and the whole place stank of blood and horror and despair.

That was the ghosts, of course. I couldn’t See them without dropping more of my defences that I was comfortable with, but I could feel them, the same way fish know when there’s a shark in the water.

I turned my back on the castle complex, and stood looking out over the Thames. Old river, dark river, with its own sad secrets. Boats came and went, not meant for everyday eyes. Undines ploughed through choppy waters, darting in and out of dim memories of all the vessels that had travelled up and down the mighty Thames in their day. Everything from Roman triremes to a flower-bedecked barge bearing a young Queen Elizabeth I. She looked over at the Bloody Tower, where she’d spent so much of her youth, and I swear for a moment she looked right at me. I bowed to her anyway, just in case, and when I looked up she was smiling at me. A young woman with all her life ahead of her. Dust and less than dust, for centuries now. And then she looked away, and was lost in the past again.

There were mists on the water, and lights in buildings like beacons against the dark, and always the sound of distant traffic. I could see Tower Bridge, that so many tourists confuse with London Bridge, and the lights of planes flying low above the city. It was three o’clock in the morning, the hour that tries men’s souls, and I still had two hours to kill. I stamped my feet to drive out the cold, and did the Times’ crossword in my head. Cheating just a bit when necessary.

I watched the sun come up over the city, long strands of crimson bleeding across the dull grey lowering sky. I thought about the ravens. They might not be as important as Big Aus thought, but I couldn’t let anything happen to them. So how far should I let this caper go, before I interfered? Pretty far; no way was this just about ravens. Big Aus was planning something more, had to be. Raving republican or not, no-one fronts this kind of money just to kill a few birds and embarrass England and the Monarchy.

So what was Big Aus up to? There were all kinds of treasures, objects of power and dangerous secrets, tucked safely away in all of the Towers; but they were all very well guarded. Including the Crown Jewels. No-one steals what is England’s. Least of all poor old Colonel Blood, who took a long hard time dying, only to find that death was no release after all. His spirit was still here, damned to guard the very treasure he tried to steal. Never a good idea of piss off English royalty. They have a nasty sense of humour.

I stuck my hands deep into my coat pockets, and let my fingers close over the useful devices the family Armourer had rushed to me, just for this operation. I’m a great believer in having a few Aces hidden away in useful places. The best defence against other people’s surprises is to have some of your own ready to go at a moment’s notice.

As five o’clock drew nearer, one by one the others appeared out of the early morning mists to join me as I lowered my torc’s invisibility. Coffin Jobe, peering about him with his sad, pre-occupied eyes. The Dancing Fool, big and scowling. Strange Chloe, glaring about her as though the morning cold and gloom was a personal insult. And Big Aus, wearing a very expensive overcoat, and grinning broadly.

“It’s cold and damp and dark and bloody cold,” said Strange Chloe, glaring at me like it was all my fault. “I hate being up this early. It’s not natural.”

“Savour your anger, Chloe,” said Big Aus, rubbing his big hands together briskly. “Nurse it in your heart, and hold it ready for when it’s needed. I want to see feathers flying in every direction. Are we all ready to go?”

“Why did we have to be here so early?” said the Dancing Fool, his hairy legs shaking visibly beneath his kilt. “Tourists won’t be around for hours yet.”

“Because it’s so much more dramatic!” said Big Aus, still grinning. “If you’re going to commit the crime of the century, you have to do it with style! History expects it of us! Great affairs must be conducted in a great manner. Some day this could all be a major motion picture… Besides; ghosts are always at their weakest around the dawn, when the night is busy becoming day. Everyone knows that.”

“I didn’t know that,” said the Dancing Fool. He looked at me. “Did you know that, Shaman?”

“Of course,” I said. “But then, I know everything. Unfortunately…”

“I just knew he was going to say that,” Coffin Jobe said quietly. “Didn’t you all know he was going to say that?”

“Unfortunately, this is the Tower of London,” I said. “And these are not your everyday ghosts.” I looked at Big Aus. “Great affairs? Hollywood? Crime of the century? What’s so great about killing a few birds?”

Before anybody could say anything, Coffin Jobe dropped down dead. No warning. His eyes just rolled up in his head, he stopped breathing, and he collapsed; his long body folding up with practiced ease so that he hardly made a sound when he hit the flagstones.

“You prick!” said Strange Chloe.

“He does pick his moments,” the Dancing Fool agreed.

We all gathered round the dead body, and looked at each other. The first aid manual doesn’t cover situations like this. I did wonder whether we should try slapping his cheeks, or calling his name, or pounding on his chest with a fist, but you only had to look at Coffin Jobe to know he was dead, and beyond all such encouragements. I’ve buried people who looked less dead than he did. And then Coffin Jobe sucked in a harsh rattling breath, his long arms and legs twitched spasmodically, and his eyes snapped open. He sat up cautiously, shook his head a few times just a bit gingerly, as though he half expected something to rattle, and then he rose to his feet, avoiding all offers of help.

“Wow,” he said, smiling gently. “What a rush…”

“You get off on being dead!” said Strange Chloe. “Oh please, Jobe; teach me how to do that!”

“It isn’t the dying,” he said. “It’s the coming back to life. Oh yes!” He realised we were all watching him, and smiled just a little shame-facedly. “Ah. Sorry about that. So embarrassing.”

“Are you going to do that again?” said Big Aus.

“Almost certainly.”

“I meant; during the job!”

“Oh no; I shouldn’t think so. I think it’s all based on stress… Are we ready to start now? I’m ready to start.”

“Damn right,” said the Dancing Fool, scowling unhappily about him. “I feel naked, standing out here in public. I prefer to work from the shadows. I am one with the shadows, and the dark.”

“Never knew an assassin who wasn’t,” I said. “Relax, everyone. You’ve all been covered by my newly-acquired device since you got here. No-one can see us any more; not the living, the dead, or the Towers’ defences. We should be able to walk right through them.”

“ Should?” said Strange Chloe. “I really don’t think I am at all comfortable with that word, under the circumstances. I want to hear you being a lot more confident about this before I take one step close to Traitor’s Gate.”

“We learn by doing,” I said cheerfully.

“And if you’re wrong about this?” said the Dancing Fool.

“Then you get to say I told you so in the few seconds before we are all killed suddenly and horribly in violent ways.”

“I’ve never liked your sense of humour, Shaman,” said Coffin Jobe.

“You wound me,” I said. “Come along, children. Destiny awaits. Maybe they’ll get Johnny Depp to play me. The ravens are all inside, tucked up snugly in their lodging house. The Yeomen Wardens are on their rounds, and at this point are as far from the lodging house as they ever get. Jobe; front and centre. You’re on. Can you See the ghosts?”

He looked mournfully at Traitor’s Gate, his eyes very big behind the heavy lenses. His gaze moved slowly along the great stone wall rising up before us, he started to say something, and then he suddenly fell down dead again. The Dancing Fool swore loudly, Big Aus made a frustrated sound, and Strange Chloe kicked Coffin Jobe in the ribs.

“I don’t believe it!” she said. “He’s done it again!”

“Stop kicking the dead man, Chloe,” said Big Aus. “Major bad karma. It isn’t really his fault, after all.”

Strange Chloe sniffed. “Makes me feel better.”

We gathered around Coffin Jobe’s body again, and waited and waited, but he didn’t come back. We finally did kneel down beside him, and tried slapping his cheeks and calling his name, but there was no response. All the colour had dropped out of his face, and his open eyes were fixed and staring. Finally everyone looked at me; because I’m supposed to be the one with all the answers. So, very reluctantly, I pushed my Sight all the way open; and Saw ghosts.

They were everywhere, hundreds of them, men and women and even children, walking on the ground and in the air, stumbling and gliding out of Traitor’s Gate, most still carrying the memories of their death wounds on their insubstantial bodies. Some had heads, some didn’t. The horrible trauma of their violent deaths had carried over into how they thought of their bodies. Some were still bleeding from wounds that would never heal, while others bore the torture marks of rack and wheel and fire. Traitors all, condemned to suffer long after their deaths.

They were screaming and howling and crying out, ghostly voices from far away, thick with rage and despair and horror at what had been done to them. And some wept, never to be comforted, troubled forever by their crimes and betrayals. They burst out of the high stone wall like maggots from a wound, and crawled headfirst down the cracked grey stone like shimmering lizards.

Half a dozen of them had grabbed hold of Coffin Jobe’s soul, and were preventing it from returning to his body. Jobe looked quite different in spirit; a large, even muscular form. The man he remembered being, before his affliction ate away at him. He fought the ghosts fiercely, his soul blazing brightly on the night, stronger than it had any right to be; but still he was no match for the ghostly defenders of the Towers of London. They seemed more like beasts than men, tearing at his soul with hands like claws. And more ghosts were coming. Coffin Jobe looked right at me, and cried out for help; and then the ghosts Saw me too.

A great astral shout went up as the ghosts all looked in my direction, and Saw me Seeing them. The closest ones surged right for me, mouthing ancient curses, though their voices seemed to echo from miles or years away. Their eyes burned with more than human hatred and misery, their horrid forms radiating menace. I stood my ground, and reached into my coat pocket for the weapon the Armourer had provided, just for such a situation. I took the jade amulet out and showed it to the ghosts, and another great shout went up. They knew what it was.

I said the activating Word in a loud carrying voice, and the mellow bomb detonated in my hand. And for fifty feet straight ahead of me, the world was full of happy thoughts, good intentions and positive emotions. Enforced mellowness, saturating the night. I was immune, of course, but it hit the ghosts like a hurricane, driving them back. They just couldn’t stand the happiness. They fled, shrieking horribly. Some were crying. Even the ones holding onto Coffin Jobe fled back to the safety of the Towers, and he looked at me, smiled briefly, and then dropped back into his body. I shut down my Sight, slamming all my mental barriers back into place. I’d Seen enough for one night.

I bent down over Coffin Jobe as he started breathing again, and surreptitiously hit him with a nerve pinch. He’d sleep for a good hour or more now. I smiled inwardly. One down, more or less unhurt. Three to go. I shut down the mellow bomb, and slipped it back into my coat pocket.

“Well at least he’s breathing again,” said the Dancing Fool, just a bit dubiously. “I suppose that’s an improvement.”

“What, rather than not being even a little bit alive?” said Strange Chloe. “Yes, I’d say so. But he’s no use to us like that. Maybe I should…”

“No you shouldn’t,” Big Aus said quickly. “Kicking the hell out of him does not help.”

“It helps me.”

“I didn’t hear that,” Big Aus said determinedly.

“I said, It helps me!”

“Can we hold back on the whole shouting thing?” I said. “My device is keeping us unseen and unheard, but only as long as you don’t push it. There’s no need to panic; just leave him here. I can See well enough to get us inside.”

The Dancing Fool looked at me suspiciously. “And you never mentioned this before, because?”

“Because we had Coffin Jobe,” I said. “And you know I don’t like to reveal my secrets unless I have to.”

Big Aus looked down at the unconscious Coffin Jobe. “I’m not sure I like the idea of just leaving him here…”

“We can pick him up again on the way out,” I said. “And besides; what’s the worse that could happen to him? Someone might kill him? I think he’s pretty used to that by now. So; are we going in, or not?”

“We go in,” said Big Aus. “No way are we giving up, not when we’re so close. Show us the way, Shaman.”

I led them towards Traitor’s Gate, indicating which flagstones they should avoid treading on. We had to approach the Gate by a slow, indirect route to avoid the protective magics floating unseen in the air. I made the others hop on one foot, crouch down and rise up, and even walk backwards. Mostly for my own amusement, but occasionally because there were real traps to be avoided. Coffin Jobe would never have been able to get them in. There were wards present that would have fried his mind just for looking at them, and places where only knowledge of the right passWords kept us all alive. But eventually we came to Traitor’s Gate, and I led the way through the great stone maw that was the only entrance into the castle complex. A gateway into horror, death and worse than death for all too many people. I kept my Sight strictly focused, so I wouldn’t have to See things I didn’t want to, but even so my skin crawled all the way. It’s not easy walking through a place you know can kill you horribly, in a hundred ways, if you let your concentration drop.

I could still feel the screams, even if I couldn’t hear them.

Once through the Gate and into the enclosed cobbled courtyard, it was all calm and quiet. The ghosts were outside, the Yeomen Warder patrols couldn’t see or hear us, and all that stood between us and the ravens was the locked door of their lodging house. I froze as I heard approaching footsteps, and gestured urgently for the others to stand still, and silent. Half a dozen Yeomen Warders came walking out of the shadows, chatting quietly. I cursed them silently. Dealing with the ghosts had taken longer than I’d thought, and the patrol had come round again. The bright red and gold uniforms looked quaintly old-fashioned, but the men inside them looked hard and competent and experienced. One of them had a raven perched on his shoulder, and was feeding it grapes that looked very much like eyeballs.

“That’s a raven?” Strange Chloe said quietly. “That’s it? I was expecting something a bit more special. Not just an over-sized crow!”

“Don’t show your ignorance,” I said firmly. “Ravens are the Rolls Royce of the crow family.”

“Are you sure they can’t see or hear us?” said the Dancing Fool, shifting uncertainly from foot to foot.

“Are they rushing towards us, yelling terrible oaths and shooting at us with great big shooty things?” I said. “Then no, they can’t see or hear us.”

“Let the Yeomen open the lodging house for us,” said Big Aus. “And then we kill them all.”

“Ravens, or Yeomen Warders?” said the Dancing Fool.

“Just the ravens,” I said quickly. “Spill human blood in this place, and you’ll set off every alarm they’ve got.”

“No,” Big Aus said flatly. “Kill them all, ravens and men, and anyone else who gets in our way.”

I decided that this had gone far enough. I would have liked more time to take care of my friends before I had to take down Big Aus, but the secret of a field agent is to be flexible. So I pulled my concealing glamour back into my torc, and let the others suddenly appear in the courtyard. The Yeomen Warders reacted immediately, producing really big guns out of nowhere and yelling for us to surrender. The Dancing Fool howled an ancient Scottish battle cry and charged the guards, moving so quickly I could barely follow him. He was in and among them in a moment, somehow never where their guns were pointing. With deja fu, he could actually dodge bullets. I’d seen him do it.

At close combat, the Yeomen Warders never stood a chance. They couldn’t lay a hand on the Dancing Fool, for all their skill. He knew what they were going to do almost before the thought had entered their heads, and he moved like the trained dancer he was; every move calculated and graceful, fast and brutal. But the sounds of combat brought more Yeomen Warders running into the courtyard, charging forward to join the fray.

The Dancing Fool really was one of the best fighters I’d ever seen, but in the end he never stood a chance. Out-numbered and surrounded, the only futures left for him to see were the ones where the Yeomen Warders inevitably beat the shit out of him. He went down still fighting, but he went down, and did not rise again. Battered and bruised, the Yeomen Warders stood over his unconscious body, breathing hard.

Strange Chloe might have saved him. With her anger raised, her terrible scorching stare could have raked through the massed guards like a machine-gun. But of course, I couldn’t allow that. So I just moved in behind her while her whole attention was fixed on the fight, and then showed her the same nerve pinch I’d shown Coffin Jobe. Strange Chloe sighed once, her knees buckled, and I caught her and lowered her carefully to the cobbled ground. I didn’t want her hurting herself. I straightened up, feeling rather pleased with myself. All three of my colleagues safely taken out of the game, with none of them realising it was down to me.

I could probably have taken the Dancing Fool down too, before he got to the Yeomen Warders; but I never liked him much.

It was only then that I looked around for Big Aus, and the smile froze on my lips as I discovered he was nowhere to be seen. I raced over to the ravens’ lodging house, but the door was still firmly locked. The ravens were safe. But Big Aus wasn’t there. Well of course he wasn’t there; he’d never really been interested in the ravens. Everything he’d said, everything he’d done, had just been cover for something else.

His crime of the century.

I glared quickly about me, and caught a glimpse of a dark figure slipping silently into the stone passageway that led to Whitechapel Tower. Immediately I was off and running after him, knowing for sure now what it was he was after. And I’d made it possible, through my involvement. I got us in here, past the ghosts and the traps. I gave the Dancing Fool to the Yeomen Warders, thus holding their attention. But even so… I still couldn’t believe Big Aus thought he could get away with this.

I subvocalised my activating Words, and the golden armour held inside my torc shot out to cover my whole body in a moment. To the Yeomen Warders I must have seemed to appear out of nowhere, as I dropped the no-see-me glamour. A golden statue of a man, smooth and seamless, glowing in the night as I raced through the stone passageway faster than any normal man could have managed. When I wear the Drood armour I am supernaturally fast, and strong, and impervious to harm. The great secret weapon of the Drood family, whereby we are able to take on gods and monsters and beat the living crap out of them, until they remember their place.

More human guards appeared before me, crying out startled orders to halt and be recognised, but I was through and past them before they could even react. Combat sorcerers waved their arms and shouted harsh Words, but their magics shattered harmlessly against my golden armour. An automatic weapon opened fire from an upper window, but my armour just absorbed the bullets, or let them pock-mark the old stone wall behind me. Half a dozen guards came together to block the entrance to Whitechapel Tower, determined to keep me out, and I didn’t have the time to stop and reason with them. They didn’t know the Australian fox was already in the hen-house. So I ploughed right through them, throwing them aside with my armour’s more than human strength, hoping I didn’t hurt them too badly.

They really should have known better than to try and stop a Drood about his duty.

I pounded up the stone steps two at a time to the great chamber at the top of Whitechapel Tower, but by the time I got there Big Aus had already entered the Jewel House, and was smiling happily at the Crown Jewels laid out behind the enclosing iron bars. He looked round as I lurched into the Jewel House, took in my golden armour, and laughed breathlessly. I stood very still, just inside the doorway, peering about me through the featureless golden mask that covered my face. (I could have put eyeholes in the mask, but I never did. I could see perfectly well through the mask, and besides… a featureless face mask spooks the hell out of the bad guys. Mostly.) Big Aus gestured grandly for me to enter, and I did so, my golden feet thudding loudly on the bare stone floor. Big Aus backed away, putting the Crown Jewels between us. The crowns and the diadems, the diamonds and rubies, the glorious regalia of centuries past.

Enough wealth to make any man a King.

Big Aus grinned at me, his dark eyes full of mockery. “So; Shaman Bond is a Drood. Didn’t see that one coming. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve planned this all so very carefully, you see, that not even a Drood field agent can stop me now. I chose my team so very carefully; greedy enough to go where even angels would be too sensible to tread, and dumb enough to swallow all that nonsense about the ravens. After all, the Tower could always get more ravens… I talked enough about my plans, in all the right places, that I just knew one of my team would turn out to be a Drood in disguise. After all, I was the one who sent your family the anonymous tip in the first place, just to make sure you’d get involved… Didn’t think it would be you, though, Shaman. No offence; but you never struck me as smart enough…”

I didn’t say anything. Just kept moving around the great circular display, so he had to keep retreating before me.

“I needed a Drood, you see,” said Big Aus. “I knew I’d never get past all the defences here without a Drood’s help. I really thought the Dancing Fool was the Drood. He was a fighter, after all, and surely no-one could really be that dumb and that arrogant… Anyway; you played your part wonderfully. Got me past the defences, drew off all the human guards, and bought me enough time to get to the Crown Jewels. I’m obliged to you. Really.”

“The Jewels are defended,” I said. I couldn’t stand the smugness in his voice any more. “And while you might have got in, you’ll never get out.”

“Of course I will,” said Big Aus. “You can’t stop me. I am prepared. Even for a Drood.”

And suddenly there in his hand was an aboriginal pointing bone. A small discoloured human bone, baptised in blood and murder magic. An aboriginal shaman who knew what he was doing could point it at things that shouldn’t be in this world, and make them disappear. Big Aus stabbed the pointing bone at me, and something slammed against my armoured chest like a cannonball. The sound echoed through the Jewel House, as though someone had just struck a great golden bell; but I didn’t move. I felt no impact, inside my marvellous armour. I advanced slowly on Big Aus as he stabbed the bone at me again and again, and every time the impact and the sound was less.

Big Aus shrugged quickly, stuffed the pointing bone back into his pocket, and gabbled something in a language I didn’t understand. Which worried me just a bit, because my torc was supposed to translate every language I heard, or at the very least supply best-guess sub-titles. These words were so old, so ancient and separate, that they pre-dated the Druids who eventually became the Droods. Big Aus really had done his homework.

I was almost within arm’s reach of him. I showed him a golden fist, with spikes rising up from the golden knuckles. He wasn’t smiling any more, his voice strained by the uncivilised words, his broad red face shining with sweat. He back-pedalled so fast he was almost running, but he still stayed close the Crown Jewels, refusing to be driven away. And then he spat out the last few words, and a Snake big as all the world appeared out of nowhere and wrapped itself around me.

It was huge beyond bearing, its coils big as tube trains, superimposed on the Jewel House but no less real for that, twisting slowly as the coils tightened around me. It wasn’t a real snake, of course. This was the spirit of a Snake, an ancient ur-spirit in Snake form, called back out of the Dreaming by Words that should never have been spoken. I couldn’t believe any aboriginal shaman would have willingly surrendered these Words to Big Aus. No matter what he was promised. Spirits like this should never be summoned back into our limited physical world; they always have their own agenda.

Big Aus was chanting more Words now, at the iron bars surrounding the Crown Jewels. Protective spells sparked and sputtered and went out, and the metal bars dropped and ran away like melting candle-wax. I could See it all through the coils of the Snake, and I had had enough. It might be a ancient spirit made flesh, perhaps even an elder god let back into the world from which it had been driven long ago; but it was still just a snake, and I was a Drood. Through the golden mask I could See its life-force, flowing through the massive coils like a river of burning light. I thrust my armoured hand deep into the unnatural snake-flesh, closed my golden fist around the life-force, and squeezed. The Snake screamed once, and then vanished, disappearing back into the safety of the Dreamtime.

And I was left alone in the Tower with Big Aus.

He looked at the Crown Jewels, defenceless before him, and then at me. “You can’t stop me,” he said defiantly. “I’ve prepared too long for this. I have weapons and devices enough to stop even a Drood in his tracks, and a teleport spell already set up to take me and the Jewels right out of here.”

“You might have the weapons,” I said. “But I know the right Words.”

And I spoke aloud the Words the family Armourer had sent me, written in his own hand on a one-time-only sheet of parchment. Words that disappeared even as I memorised them, because they were too dangerous to be read by anyone who wasn’t family, and protected. Old Words, powerful Words. I’d really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them, because they were a Summoning to forces best left undisturbed. And the first principle of magic is, do not call up what you cannot as easily put down.

But needs must, when the Devil drives. I spoke the Words, and one by one they came; the old Kings and Queens of England. Their spirits bound by their own will to answer the call, in this place, to serve England again in her time of need. Kings from Athelstan to Canute, Henries and Richards, Queens Mary and Elizabeth and even poor Anne of the Thousand Days. They stood tall and proud in their crowns and regal robes, surrounding Big Aus. He looked from face to pititless face, mumbling his useless words of power, and then they closed in on him, and he screamed. And just like that, I was alone in the Jewel Room.

The Kings and Queens of England had returned to their rest, with one new ghost condemned to defend the Towers of London, for all eternity.

I went back down the curving stone stairs, back through the stone passageways and across the open courtyard, and then out through Traitor’s Gate. No-one tried to stop me, or ask questions. If a Drood field agent was leaving, then the trouble was over, and that was enough. Outside on the causeway, the sun was up and morning had come. It looked like being a good day, for England.

 

(C) Simon R. Green, 2009

Further information about Simon, please visit the Orion site here. More information about The Spy Who Haunted Me can be found here.  Information about the U.S. edition of the book can be found on Ace's site here.

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.