It’s All About the Give-and-Take. You Give and I Take.

It was a surprisingly pleasant day. Bright summer sunshine, a cloudless blue sky over sweeping grassy lawns, the cries of peacocks and gryphons loud and clear on the still air. Along with the quiet putt-putt of a steam-powered autogyro chugging by overhead. Just another day at Drood Hall, ancestral home of my long-established family, and training ground for those who would protect the world. I stood outside the main entrance door with my lady love at my side. Molly Metcalf—wild witch of the woods, supernatural terrorist, Hawkwind fan . . . and the only one I trust to always have my back. We looked at each other and grinned.

“Ready?” I said.

“Always,” said Molly.

“Once we start,” I said, “we don’t stop. For anything. Until we get to where we’re going.”

“Got it,” said Molly. “We keep going, no matter what.” She looked at me carefully. “Are we really going to do this? Take on the most powerful family in the world, on their own home ground?”

“Isn’t that what you always wanted?” I said.

“Hell yes! But are you sure this is what you want?”

“Hell yes,” I said.

Her grin widened. “Your family isn’t going to know what’s hit them.”

“Let’s do it,” I said.

“Love to,” said Molly.

I subvocalised my activating Words, and golden armour flowed out from the torc around my neck, covering me in a moment from head to toe in unbreakable, unstoppable strange matter. My family’s greatest secret weapon. I felt strong and fast and fully alive, as though I’d just woken up from the long doze of ordinary living. Molly struck a sorcerous pose and was immediately surrounded by coruscating wild magics, spitting and sparking as they discharged on the air. The knight in armour and the wicked witch, determined not to be denied any longer. I raised a golden foot, kicked in the entrance doors, and the two of us slammed into Drood Hall.

Alarms and bells and sirens broke out everywhere all at once, and men and women froze in place along the whole length of the entrance hall, caught off guard. No one ever invades Drood Hall, home to the most feared and respected family in the world. It just doesn’t happen. So they simply stood and stared, like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, while Molly and I strode on. Two unstoppable forces for the price of one. A few of my family started forward to try to intercept us; some ran away; but most just stood and stared blankly, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

A handful of security guards finally appeared, charging down the hallway, yelling for everyone else to get out of their way, and armouring up as they came. I didn’t slow down, just hit them head on. Some I shouldered aside; others I knocked down and walked right over. They might have been armoured like me, but I was the one with the field training and experience. More armoured guards burst out of side doors. Molly called up vicious storm winds, and they blasted up and down the long entrance hall, picking Droods up and throwing them this way and that. Most of the family either grabbed for something secure to hold on to or ran for their lives. They didn’t armour up or reach for weapons. I was seriously unimpressed. It was clear to me that the family needed to run more practise drills so everyone would know what to do when the impossible happened right in front of them. If this had been a real invasion, by outside forces, we would have been in serious trouble.

An armoured Drood blocked my way, reaching for me with golden hands. I hit him hard, slamming my shoulder into his chest. There was a loud clang of colliding metals as he was thrown backwards. I back-elbowed another in the side of the head, and swept the feet out from under a third. And kept going. I wasn’t worried about hurting them while they were in their armour, but hopefully I’d knocked the breath out of them and bought us some time. Molly danced happily along at my side, throwing fireworks and concussion spells in all directions, just to keep everyone on their toes.

“Has anyone ever got this far inside before?” she asked.

“It has happened,” I replied. “But we don’t like to talk about it. Might give people ideas.”

Molly was still sending Droods tumbling this way and that with her roaring storm winds. And perhaps enjoying herself just a little too much. Not everyone was armoured. I shot her a hard look from behind my featureless golden mask, realised that wasn’t going to help much, and raised my voice to be heard clearly over the howling sirens and alarm bells.

“Take it easy, Molly! These people are family!”

“I know,” said Molly.

“My family!”

“Not mine.”

“They could be,” I said. “One day.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing.”

“Molly . . .”

“Sometimes you want too much, Eddie,” said Molly. Not even looking at me. We pressed on, into the heart of Drood Hall.

*   *   *

The Serjeant-at-Arms appeared suddenly before us, wearing his traditional formal outfit of stark black and white. He would have looked very like a traditional old-fashioned butler if it hadn’t been for the two extremely nasty-looking guns in his hands. The Serjeant is the first hard line of defence against any hostile intruders, and I was pleasantly surprised that we’d got this far before he turned up to stop us. He immediately recognised both Molly and me, but the guns he had trained on us didn’t waver at all. I knew he’d have no hesitation in shooting if he thought it necessary. But I also knew he was so confident in his own abilities, it would never even occur to him that he needed to armour up to protect himself.

So I gave the nod to Molly, and she jabbed a specially prepared aboriginal pointing bone at the Serjeant. And just like that, he was gone. Teleported right out of the Hall and onto the grounds outside. Quite a long way off, to be exact—on the far side of the ornamental lake. By the time he could make his way back to the Hall, this should all be over. One way or another. Molly looked at the pointing bone in her hand. The sheer strain of what it had been asked to do had charred and cracked it from end to end. It’s not easy, making a Drood go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. Molly shrugged, tossed the bone aside, and we moved on.

We strode quickly through open halls and wide corridors, blasting our way through what little opposition there was. They say you can’t go home again, but you can if you carry a big enough stick. The alarms and bells and sirens were deafeningly loud, yet I could still hear armoured feet hammering on polished wooden floors as people headed towards us from all directions. But so far we were still keeping well ahead of them.

The Hall’s interior security systems kicked in automatically once we passed a certain point, and all the doors ahead and around us slammed shut and locked themselves to try to contain the problem. With anyone else, that might actually have worked. Molly snapped her fingers at each door we came to, and it leapt open to let us pass. Until the anti-magic protocols activated and that stopped working. So instead I just lowered my armoured shoulder again and hit each closed door like a battering ram, smashing my way through. The heavy wood cracked and broke apart; sometimes the entire door was thrown right off its hinges. The world can be a very fragile place when you’re wearing Drood armour.

Concealed trap-doors suddenly fell away in the floor before us, revealing dark, bottomless depths. I knew where they were, so I just stepped around them. Molly walked straight forward across the open spaces, not even deigning to look down, defying gravity as she defied everything else that argued with her. The trap-doors closed behind us with quiet, defeated sounds.

“I have to say, I was expecting your family to put up more of a showing,” said Molly. “Something more impressive, like energy weapons or force shields . . . high explosives. That sort of thing.”

“My family will be very reluctant to use anything that destructive inside the Hall,” I said. “For fear of damaging all the expensive paintings and sculptures we’ve accumulated down the centuries. Tribute from a grateful and rather scared world. That’s what I was counting on. Luckily I don’t have that problem. I’ve never liked the Hall.”

“Even though it’s where you were brought up?”

“Especially because it’s where I was brought up.”

I said that very loudly, for the benefit of anyone who might be listening and still planning on stopping us. I wanted them to believe I didn’t care how much damage I did. And to be fair, Molly probably really didn’t. But I was being careful to do no more damage than I had to—to the Hall, and to my family. Because while I might be mad at them right now, I still had to live with them afterwards. I’d put a lot of thought into this particular home invasion, and it was all about the shock and awe, and moving too quickly for any serious confrontations.

Half a dozen armoured Droods turned up with at least some idea of how to fight and a willingness to get stuck in. Good for them. But I was a trained field agent, with many years of hard experience and all kinds of nasty tricks tucked up my armoured sleeves. I knocked them down and kicked them around, and Molly hit them with eldritch lightnings if they tried to get up. They ended up scattered the length of the corridor, wondering what hit them and whether it was ever going to stop. Poor bastards. They never stood a chance. Which was just as well. Because I would have damaged them if I’d had to. No one was going to stop me this time.

*   *   *

The farther into the Hall Molly and I penetrated, the faster we moved. By the time we approached the centre of the Hall and its hidden core, the Sanctity, we were both running at full pelt. I wanted to leave my family well behind, so there wouldn’t be any . . . accidents. I was trying to make it clear to everyone that I was here for a purpose, and determined to get to where I was going. That I had no intention of being stopped . . . and that it really would be better for everyone if they just got the hell out of my way and let me get on with it.

Finally, we rounded a corner and there was the Sanctity, straight ahead of us. At the far end of a long stone corridor. The heart of the Hall, where all the decisions that matter are made. I slowed my pace to a determined stroll, and Molly drifted dangerously along beside me. No more smiles. This was serious business. I felt a sudden harsh tingling in my throat. I’d been expecting that. It was a standard defence, designed to deal with any Droods who went mad or rogue, by taking their armour away from them and pushing it back into their torc.

“Ethel?” I said, subvocalising so only she could hear me.

The warm and friendly voice of the Droods’ very own other-dimensional patron and protector came clearly to me, inside my head.

“You know, I really should just shut you down, Eddie. That’s what everyone else is shouting at me to do and I do wish they wouldn’t. Tell me you have a really good reason for causing this much commotion.”

“I have a really good reason.”

“Really? Cross your heart?”

“Trust me.”

“You know I do. But you don’t make it easy.”

“I know,” I said. “But I do make it fun.”

“Yes, you do. I’m looking forward to hearing what this is all about. Hint, hint.”

“You’ll enjoy it,” I said.

“I’d better.”

The tingling around my throat went away, and I relaxed, just a little. I’d been fairly confident I could convince Ethel—but it’s hard to be sure of anything when you’re dealing with an other-dimensional entity.

The way to the great double doors that were the only access to the Sanctity was blocked by two very large armoured guards who stood their ground. They showed no intention of moving or of being moved. I slowed to a casual stroll, with Molly close at my side. She gestured impressively at them, trying to teleport them away, as she had with the Serjeant-at-Arms. But without the pointing bone she hadn’t a hope of moving two Droods in their armour. She scowled, and stuck out her lower lip sulkily.

“Come on,” I said. “That was never going to work.”

“It might have!” she said. “I put hours into researching that spell.”

“You didn’t really think you could overcome Drood armour all on your own, did you?”

Molly smiled dazzlingly. “A girl can dream, can’t she?”

The two guards stepped forward, long golden sword blades extending from their armoured hands. I was glad to see they’d been practising. Drood armour can be reshaped by the will of its occupant, but it takes a lot of concentration to hold the new shape. It was clear from the way the guards stood that they knew what they were doing. They looked practised and prepared, and properly dangerous. Everything a Drood should be. Good for them. I reached through the golden armour at my hip, into the pocket dimension I keep there, and brought out the Merlin Glass. One of the guards had just enough time to say, “Oh shit,” before I shook the Glass out to Door size and clapped it quickly over each guard in turn, sending them through the Glass and out into the Drood grounds. Where they could probably have a very interesting conversation with the Serjeant-at-Arms. I shook the Merlin Glass back down to hand-mirror size and put it away again.

“So,” said Molly. “That thing has decided to start working again, has it?”

“When it feels like it,” I said.

“What would you have done if the Glass hadn’t worked?”

“Improvised,” I said. “Suddenly and violently and all over the place.”

“Always works for me,” said Molly. She stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “Okay, why did the Glass work against the armoured Droods, when my magic wouldn’t?”

“It’s the Merlin Glass,” I said. “Can’t help feeling the clue is in the name.”

We stood together before the closed Sanctity doors. One last barrier, standing between me . . . and what I’d come for. The alarms and bells and sirens were still giving it their all, and I could also hear a great many feet heading in our direction, but for the moment we had the corridor to ourselves. I looked at Molly.

“You ready to do this?”

“Of course,” said Molly. “Looking forward to it.”

I tried the door handle, and as I suspected, the door was locked. I raised my voice.

“Ethel! Open the doors, please. If you wouldn’t mind. I’d hate to have to seriously damage anything.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Molly.

I felt as much as heard a quiet, resigned sigh, and then the doors unlocked themselves, swinging slowly open before us.

I strode into the Sanctity with my head held high, Molly moving proudly at my side. The massive open space of the old wood-panelled chamber was almost completely deserted, and suffused with a rose-red glow that emanated from no obvious source. The only physical manifestation of Ethel’s presence. Under normal circumstances the rose- red light was soothing and calming to the troubled soul, but I was so full of anger and a deep sense of injustice that I barely felt it. I don’t think Molly has ever felt it. She’s not a calm person. She stopped just inside the entrance, as the doors slowly closed themselves, so she could block the way against anyone who might come in after us. I walked slowly forward, and there, waiting for me, was the family’s new Matriarch. Margaret.

She stood alone, staring defiantly back at me, unsupported by any member of her advisory Council, unprotected by any guards. Margaret was a short, stocky blonde, with hair so close-cropped it was almost military. She wore a battered bomber jacket over seriously distressed jeans, and much-worn work boots with trailing laces. She might have been taken away from her beloved grounds and gardens, and forced to run the family as the next in line; but no one was ever going to make her like it. Or look the part. Margaret had a firm mouth, fierce eyes, and a general air of barely suppressed fury.

“All right!” she said sharply. “You’ve got my attention. Now what is so important you had to force your way into the Hall and insist on seeing me, even though I already told you I was far too busy? Have you come back to take my position as head of the family by force, Eddie? Like you threatened to, the last time you were here? Because if you want it, you can have it. And I can go back to my gardens. I’m sure they miss me.”

“I don’t want to run the family,” I said, very firmly. I armoured down, so she could see my face and see that I meant it. She relaxed, just a little.

“I hate being the Matriarch,” said the woman who not that long ago used to be called Capability Maggie. When all she had to worry about was maintaining the Hall’s extensive grounds and gardens. “Far too much responsibility, no time to myself, hardly ever a free minute to stroll round the flower beds and see how the new seedlings are coming along. I’d quit in a minute if they’d let me.”

“Hell,” Molly said calmly, “I’ll take the position, if no one else wants it. Just think what I could do to an unsuspecting world with a whole army of Droods to back me up.”

The Matriarch and I both looked at Molly, thought about it, and winced pretty much simultaneously.

“That . . . is a truly disturbing thought,” I said.

“You could never take charge of the Droods,” the Matriarch said coldly to Molly. “You’re not family. Even if you should eventually marry Eddie, which a whole lot of us doubt, that still wouldn’t make you one of us. Only a pure-blooded Drood can be Matriarch.”

“Yeah,” said Molly. “Because that’s always worked out so well in the past.”

“If we could just tiptoe back into the realms of reality,” I said. “We have something important to discuss, Matriarch. I came here to talk to you about something specific, and I will not be stopped or diverted.”

“You’ve made that clear enough,” said the Matriarch. “I can’t believe you’ve done this to us, Eddie. Untold damage, injured family members, and chaos everywhere. All because you couldn’t be bothered to make a proper appointment, like reasonable people.”

“There’s no point in being reasonable with this family,” I said. “I have tried it, and it never works. Because it takes two to be reasonable.”

“What do you want, Eddie?” said the Matriarch, meeting my gaze unflinchingly.

“You know what I want! You promised me the family would use all its resources to track down my missing parents! It’s been months since they vanished from the Casino Infernale in France, and you haven’t come up with a single damned lead!”

“We’ve been busy!” said the Matriarch. “The world doesn’t just stand still because you’ve got a problem! We have to hold Humanity’s hand and blow its nose, and protect it from a thousand different threats it doesn’t even know exist, all day and every night, with never a break. And there are, after all, very real limits to this family’s time and budget. We deal with the most important matters first. Everything else . . . has to take its place in the queue. Charles and Emily aren’t even officially members of the family any more. Like you, Eddie. You walked out on us, remember? Turned your back on family duty and responsibilities so you could run off to work with your precious grandfather in the Department of Uncanny. Who, let us face it, have never been more than second-raters in the secret organisation stakes. And you think you have a right to demand full access to the family’s limited time and resources?”

“After everything I’ve done for this family?” I said. “Damn right I do.”

Even I could hear the dangerous chill in my voice. The Matriarch looked away, unable to meet my gaze.

“The general feeling is,” she said finally, “that if Charles and Emily are still missing it’s because they want to be.”

“Don’t give me that,” I said. “This family can find anyone, if they want to. Ethel!”

“Yes, Eddie!” said the warm, comforting voice, from everywhere at once. “Welcome home! Always good to have you around. You do liven things up so. Did you bring me a present? You know I love presents.”

“Yes,” I said. “But you’re very difficult to buy for. What do you get the other-dimensional entity who is everything? Come on, Ethel. Why can’t you just See where my parents are? I thought you said you could See anything, anywhere.”

“I can! I can See everything that exists, and a good many things that shouldn’t. I can See things you humans don’t even have concepts for. But your parents remain . . . stubbornly elusive. They don’t have torcs, so I can’t track them that way; and when I try to look for them . . . wherever I look, they aren’t there. So I can only assume they’re no longer in this world.”

A cold hand clutched at my heart. “Are you saying . . . they’re dead?”

“I didn’t say that. There are, after all, all kinds of realities. Some so distanced from this one, or so carefully concealed, that even I can’t look into them. My abilities are very limited by my current circumstances. You have no idea what I’ve given up to take care of you Droods.”

“If you want all of our resources turned loose on your private problem, Eddie,” said the Matriarch, refusing to be left out of the conversation, “if you want to ask a personal favour from the family, you’re going to have to do a favour for the family.”

I looked at her slowly, consideringly, and to her credit she didn’t flinch.

“I just knew that was coming,” said Molly. “Didn’t you just know that was coming?”

“A favour?” I said. “Like what?”

The Matriarch stirred uncomfortably, at something she heard in my voice. She chose her words carefully.

“We do have a case pending that the family needs to deal with but that we would prefer to keep at arm’s length. Essentially straight forward, but ripe with pitfalls for the unwary. A case that could quite definitely benefit from your . . . special touch.”

“Hold it,” said Molly. “I’ve just remembered something I wanted to ask! Do you know what’s happening with the Department of Uncanny? Have you heard who’s going to be put in charge?”

The Matriarch looked at her. She would have liked to be impatient, but everyone knew there was no point in trying to push past Molly when she had something on her mind. She had a tendency to throw things. Often large jaggedy pointy things. The Matriarch did allow herself a loud sigh, just on general principles.

“As far as I know,” she said, “the Government hasn’t decided whether they’re going to keep Uncanny going, as a separate Department. It was almost completely destroyed, and most of its people killed. The Government might just fold what’s left into MI 13, or replace it with something new. I understand Black Heir is very keen to take on Uncanny’s responsibilities, and expand their area of influence in the hidden world.”

Molly snorted loudly. “Black Heir? That bunch of vultures? Picking over the technological trash aliens leave behind when they have to get the hell out of Dodge in a hurry. They’re just looking to increase their power base.”

“Well, yes,” said the Matriarch. “That’s what Government Departments do. I understand there’s a lot of interdepartmental jousting going on right now, as everyone fights it out for promotion. There are careers waiting to be made out of situations like this.” She looked at me steadily. “Do you still consider yourself part of Uncanny, Eddie?”

“No,” I said. “I only went along to be close to my grandfather. Now the Regent of Shadows is gone . . .”

“So who are you with now?” said the Matriarch.

“Remains to be seen,” I said, not giving an inch. “Doesn’t it?”

“You’re family, Eddie,” said the Matriarch. “You can always come home.” She paused to glare coldly at Molly. “Even if you do bring some baggage with you.”

Molly’s head came up immediately. “Eddie! Tell me she did not just call me a baggage!”

“She did not just call you a baggage,” I said.

“Yes, she did! I heard her!”

“Then why did you ask me?” I said.

“To give you a chance to say the right thing!”

“Now, you know very well I’m never any good at that,” I said. “Can’t we all just agree that everyone must have misheard and move on?”

Molly was still pouting dangerously, so it was probably just as well that the Sanctity doors burst open and the Serjeant-at-Arms launched himself into the Sanctity, armoured up and guns in hand, ready for action. And then he stopped, and looked around, as he realised there was no obvious trouble going on. He saw I wasn’t wearing my armour any more, and immediately armoured down himself, rather than be outdone by me in the calm-and-controlled stakes. The guns in his hands remained pointed at me and Molly. We both made a point of appearing conspicuously unimpressed, while being careful to make no sudden moves. They were very big and very impressive guns.

“Stand down, Serjeant!” the Matriarch said loudly. “I am perfectly safe, and completely in control of the situation!”

The Serjeant didn’t look like he believed a word of that, but he nodded reluctantly, and the guns disappeared from his hands. He drew himself up to his full height, looking more than ever like the world’s most dangerous butler, and glowered coldly at me and Molly. We glared right back at him. Never show a moment of weakness to anyone in my family. They’ll only take advantage.

“If it was up to me, I’d have you shot on sight,” the Serjeant said flatly. “Every time you come home, Eddie, you bring trouble with you. When you aren’t starting it yourself. I demand to know what has happened to the black box the previous Matriarch left you in her will! The contents of which could supposedly put you in complete control of this family, against all opposition!”

“Oh, that box,” I said. “It’s around somewhere. I’m sure I could put my hand on it if I felt I needed to.”

“It belongs with the family!” said the Serjeant-at-Arms.

“But it was left to me,” I said. “If my grandmother had wanted you to know about it I’m sure she would have told you.”

“You must know you can’t be allowed to keep it,” he said. “It’s an open threat to the family! What if someone else got their hands on it?”

“Who’s going to take it from me?” I said.

“You can go now, Serjeant,” said the Matriarch in her most commanding voice. “I need to speak privately with Eddie. And Molly. You need to go calm the family down and check out the security situation. Make sure no one tries to take advantage and sneak in while we’re all . . . distracted. And for God’s sake shut those bloody alarms off! Can’t hear myself think!”

The Serjeant made a quick gesture with one hand, and all the alarms and bells and sirens shut down. The sudden peace and quiet was an almost physical relief. The Serjeant scowled at me, and then at the Matriarch.

“He broke into the Hall! Threw the whole family into confusion, did all kinds of property damage, and made a joke of our defences! Are you really going to let him get away with that?”

The Matriarch stood her ground and stared him down. “Yes. I am. Because if you hadn’t let internal security become so slack, this would never have happened. He should never have been able to get this far! I’d say we owe him our thanks, for demonstrating so clearly all the shortcomings in our current defences. It’s high time we ran more practise drills.”

“I thought that!” I said.

“I know,” said Ethel. “I heard you.”

The Serjeant-at-Arms stared at the Matriarch with a look of betrayal, then abruptly turned around and stomped out of the Sanctity. Not quite slamming the door behind him.

“That man desperately needs more fibre in his diet,” said Ethel. Just a bit unexpectedly.

“Can we please now return to the subject at hand?” said the Matriarch. “Because the case I was talking about is just the tiniest bit urgent.”

“All right,” I said. “What is this new mission that I’m so perfectly suited for?”

“And if it’s so straightforward,” said Molly, “why does it have to be Eddie?”

“Because there are . . . complications,” said the Matriarch.

“Of course,” I said. “Aren’t there always? What kind of complications are we talking about? Things or people?”

“Let’s just say I could use a Drood who isn’t really a Drood,” said the Matriarch.

“Ah,” I said. “Are we talking plausible deniability?”

“Possibly,” said the Matriarch. “If this should go wrong, suddenly and horribly and embarrassingly wrong, I don’t want the repercussions coming anywhere near this family. It doesn’t matter if you do something to upset the Government, they already hate and loathe you, with good reason. But I have to work with these people. The days when we could just tell Governments what to do are, unfortunately, behind us. Thanks to you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“You took away our authority! You neutered the family!”

“I saved our soul!” I said, not backing down an inch. “We were only ever meant to be Humanity’s shepherds, not their owners! I did what was necessary to prevent us from becoming worse than the things we fight. Now, what kind of case are we talking about, exactly? Bearing in mind I still haven’t committed myself to anything yet.”

“Just a simple infiltration and information-gathering assignment,” said the Matriarch. A little too smoothly for my liking.

“Good,” I said. “Because there’s something important I need to tell you first.”

The Matriarch looked quickly from me to Molly, and back again. “This isn’t going to be anything good, is it?”

“I have decided,” I said, “that from now on . . . I’m not going to kill anyone. I have had to do that too many times. I am a field agent, not an assassin.”

The Matriarch looked at me searchingly, not sure where this had come from or where it was going. “Has something happened, Eddie? You’ve killed your fair share in the service of this family and never said anything before.”

“More than my fair share,” I said. “More than enough.”

The Matriarch looked at Molly.

“Don’t look at me,” said Molly. “I haven’t changed my mind. He’s the moral one here.”

“This case calls for an agent’s skills,” the Matriarch said carefully. “Nothing more.”

“All right,” I said. “Give me the details.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

“Give me the details.”

“The Prime Minister made contact with the family, earlier this morning,” said the Matriarch. “Begging for our help. World leaders might like to boast to each other that they’re free from Drood influence these days, but they still know who to run to when it all goes pear-shaped. Ethel, be so good as to play back the recording of my conversation with the Prime Minister.”

“Hold everything,” I said. “Ethel, since when have you been recording conversations inside Drood Hall?”

“Welcome back, Eddie! I knew it had to be you, once I heard all the alarms. This place is always so much more fun when you’re around. Run the question by me again. I must have missed something. Why shouldn’t I be recording conversations?”

“You’ve been recording everything?” I said pointedly.

“Well, not everything. Just the important things, that the Matriarch wanted an official record of, for the family files. I have eyes and ears everywhere, after all, and infinite capacity, so . . .”

“We are only talking about things that take place in a public setting,” said the Matriarch.

“I haven’t forgotten all those long, boring lectures of yours, about respecting people’s privacy, Eddie. Even if no one has properly explained the concept to me yet. Or what it’s for.”

“Show me the recording,” I said. “But we will be talking more about this later.”

“Oh joy. Wildly looking forward to it. I’ll bring popcorn.”

A vision appeared, floating on the air before us like a disembodied monitor screen. I didn’t ask Ethel how she was doing it. On the few occasions when I have been unwise enough to ask questions like that, I’ve rarely understood the answer. And when I have, I’ve usually ended up wishing I hadn’t. She is an other-dimensional entity, after all, a Power from Beyond. That’s all I need to know. Though I would quite like to understand exactly why Ethel has chosen to stick around here, in our limited reality, just to be near my family.

One side of the vision showed the Matriarch sitting calmly behind her desk, in her office, while the other showed the Prime Minister sitting at his desk in his office. She seemed entirely relaxed; he didn’t. The Prime Minister was trying hard to look like a man of High Office and a World Leader, but he couldn’t seem to meet the Matriarch’s steady gaze for more than a few moments at a time. I got the feeling he was more distressed about the situation he was in than about having to beg the Droods for help. Something had seriously upset the man. And not just because he must know that if we did agree to help him out, he was going to have to pay a high price for it in the future. The Prime Minister started speaking, and I listened carefully.

“You have to do something!” said the Prime Minister. “Important secret information is being leaked from our most secure listening centre.”

“I take it we’re talking about one of those places where the Government spies on people who’d be very upset if they ever found out they were being listened to,” said the Matriarch.

“Well, quite,” said the Prime Minister. “The majority of the information being leaked from this particular station is of a highly sensitive nature, and it seems clear that only a very important person could be doing it. Because only that sort of person would have access to this level of classified data. We need a Drood agent to go in undercover, find out what’s going on, and put an immediate stop to it.”

The Matriarch smiled, briefly. “I think we can arrange that. Which particular listening centre are we talking about?”

“The very latest, and most important,” the Prime Minister said quickly. “The most up-to-date establishment in the country. We spent a great deal of money on Lark Hill. We can’t afford for it to fail so soon. It’s our most wide-ranging eavesdropping operation, unofficially called the Big Ear. Their purpose is to monitor all forms of communication. They have a new extremely powerful and most secret device that allows them to listen in on absolutely everything without being detected. Phones, e-mails, computers—everything! Nothing is safe from this new device. The Big Ear is officially tasked and licensed to listen to everyone. Public and private, no exceptions. Including, of course, the most secret and secure information from every kind of source.”

“No wonder you came to us,” said the Matriarch. “If the people of this country find out that you’ve been spying on them . . .”

“It’s for their own good,” said the Prime Minister. “For their own protection.”

“They might not see it that way.”

“Which is why they must never know.” The Prime Minister tried a knowing smile, but quickly let it drop when he realised it wasn’t working. “We need a Drood field agent to go in and investigate the situation inside the Big Ear, because we can’t trust anyone inside the centre and we can’t call on anyone from the usual security organisations. Because they’re not supposed to know the Big Ear even exists. We need to know if someone inside Lark Hill is selling secrets for money, or politics, or for what they think is a higher morality. The last thing we need is for this kind of information to show up on WikiLeaks! God save us from well-meaning people . . .”

“And,” said the Matriarch, “you’re worried about this new device of yours.”

“Of course we’re worried about the new device!” said the Prime Minister. “Sorry! Sorry . . . Didn’t mean to raise my voice, but I’m really very concerned. If some disaffected person has gained access to it . . .”

“If we agree to do this,” said the Matriarch, cutting firmly across his carefully rehearsed speech, “you will agree to owe us. I will tell you what and I will tell you when. And you don’t get to whine about it.”

The Prime Minister nodded immediately, trying his knowing smile again. “Of course! Understood. Yes. I’ll leave it to you to sort out the details, shall I . . .”

The Matriarch cut off the connection; and the vision disappeared from the rose-red air.

“He expects this to go wrong,” I said. “He wants someone from outside in the frame, to lay the blame on.”

“Of course,” said the Matriarch. “He’s a politician. But I need you to do this, Eddie. Partly because we need the present administration to owe us a favour, something we can hold over them in the future—and partly because I want to know more about this new eavesdropping device they have that can do so much. They shouldn’t have access to anything that powerful.”

“Why do you want me specifically?” I said.

“Because you are not officially part of this family at present. Everyone knows you’re affiliated with the Department of Uncanny. Which should make it just that little bit harder for the mud to stick, if it starts flying. If . . .”

“If what?” said Molly.

“If I knew that, I could send one of my own people,” said the Matriarch. “There’s clearly something going on at the Big Ear that the Prime Minister isn’t telling us, so . . . go in and sort it out, Eddie. Do whatever you have to, to get to the heart of things and put this right. While doing your very best to keep the family out of the line of fire. I’ve already made arrangements with the Armourer to sort you out a suitable cover identity with all the proper paperwork. You can go in as a security consultant from some real but minor organisation that won’t even know its identity has been hijacked until it’s too late. Do this favour for the family, Eddie . . . and you’ll get what you want.”

Molly looked at her suspiciously. “You couldn’t have known Eddie was going to turn up here today. What would you have done if he hadn’t been available?”

“I do have other off-the-books field agents,” said the Matriarch. “Any number of them could handle an assignment like this. But . . . none with your experience, Eddie. Just in case it becomes necessary for you to do something . . . drastic. And, Eddie, you have to do this on your own. You can’t take Molly with you. The Prime Minister would have a shit-fit if he even thought the notorious Wild Witch was anywhere near his precious new listening centre.”

Molly sniggered loudly. “They’ve probably got special security in place just to detect my presence. Lots of places have. All right, I get it. You’re on your own, Eddie. But you will tell me all about it afterwards, won’t you? If you know what’s good for you.”

“Ah, the joys of a continuing relationship,” I said. “So, I can go in as an expert supplied by British Security. A term vague enough to cover a multitude of sins, while still being sufficiently impressive and intimidating. As long as I appear to have all the proper clearances, and the implied authority that goes with them, no one at Lark Hill will challenge me. The Prime Minister will have informed them by now to expect someone. I’ll just tell them I’m there to check their internal and external security measures, make sure they’re up to regulations. There’s always someone checking something.”

“Remember, no one at the Big Ear is to even suspect we’re interested,” said the Matriarch. “We don’t want the leak to take fright and run before we know how much damage they’ve done, and who they’ve talked to.”

“Teach your grandmother to juggle eggs,” I said. “Now, what did the Prime Minister tell you that you’re not telling me? What makes the Big Ear so important to us, that we need to get involved?”

The Matriarch chose her words carefully. “Officially, the Big Ear was created to spy on terrorists, but really it’s there to spy on people. All the people, all the time. So the Government can know what they’re doing, what they’re talking about, and what they’re planning . . . so those in power can stop any trouble before it can get started.”

“Trouble?” said Molly, frowning darkly.

“Anything that might make trouble for the Government,” said the Matriarch.

“Listening to everyone, public and private?” I said. “Is that even legal?”

“If the Government does it, it must be legal,” said the Matriarch. “They make the laws.”

“And we don’t like Governments that get above themselves,” I said.

“No,” said the Matriarch. “We don’t. But I’m more interested in this marvellous new device they have that allows them to listen in on absolutely everything. Even we don’t have anything that wide-ranging. I need to know what this device is, Eddie, and where they got it. In case we decide they can’t be trusted with it. At the very least, I expect you to come back with a full set of plans so the Armourer can duplicate it.”

I looked at her thoughtfully. “This new Prime Minister is a bit frisky, isn’t he? Contacting you directly out of the blue and asking for a favour? There used to be whole layers of protocol for people like that to go through before they got to you.”

“In the old days, he wouldn’t have dared,” the Matriarch agreed. “But things have changed. You changed them. As long as he’s still sufficiently respectful, and scared, I’ll settle for that.”

“What,” I said carefully, “are my instructions for this mission? Exactly?”

“Find out the source of the problem,” said the Matriarch, just as carefully. “And then do whatever you feel necessary to bring the situation to a close.”

“Ah, good,” I said. “Nothing at all ambiguous there. But remember, I won’t kill.”

“I’m not asking you to kill,” said the Matriarch. “Just asking you to spy.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll take the case. As a favour to you. But this is conditional on your agreeing that the family will use all its resources to locate my mother and father.”

The Matriarch nodded quickly. “Agreed. We will find them, Eddie. Wherever they are. After all, no one can hide from us.”

“Charles and Emily have managed pretty well so far,” said Molly.

“Only because we didn’t really care,” said the Matriarch. “But I have a condition of my own, Eddie. And I’m afraid I’m not in a position to negotiate about this. Before you leave on your mission you must hand over the Merlin Glass, into the family’s keeping.”

“Of course,” I said.

The Matriarch looked at me. “What?”

“I’d already decided to give the Glass to the Armourer,” I said. “The damned thing’s been acting up so much recently, it’s no use to me any more.”

“You’re being very reasonable,” said the Matriarch, clearly looking for the catch, and disturbed because she couldn’t see it.

“I am being reasonable,” I said, “so that you will be reasonable. Don’t give me reason to regret it.”

Molly came forward to stand before me. She planted both fists on her hips and glared right into my face. “That’s it? After all we went through to break you free from your family so we could make a life together? You’re ready to go back and work for them again?”

“Only because I have to,” I said. “To get what I want.”

“Give me time and I’ll find your parents!” said Molly. “I have resources your family never even dreamed of. People will talk to me who would never talk to them!”

“I’m not sure my mother and father have time,” I said. “They’ve been gone too long. No arguments, Molly. I’ve made up my mind.”

She sniffed loudly. “That’s what you think. There will be words, later.”

“I’m sure there will,” I said.

The Matriarch started to say something. Molly and I both looked at her, and she thought better of it.

“I’ll go see the Armourer,” I said. “You can ask me one more question before I go, Matriarch. Because I’m feeling generous.”

“You do still have the black box, don’t you?” said the Matriarch.

“I know where it is,” I said.

“What’s inside the box?” said the Matriarch.

“Sorry,” I said. “That’s two questions.”

“You’re keeping the box so you can always come back and take control of the family,” said the Matriarch. “If you ever decide you disapprove of what we’re doing.”

“I’d rather not,” I said. “Been there, done that, and hated every moment of it. I don’t ever want to be Patriarch again—unless you make me.”

“So I only get to be in charge as long as I keep making decisions you agree with?” said the Matriarch.

“Think of me as your conscience,” I said. “With a really big stick. Because, God knows, this family needs one.”

“Who gave you the right to sit in judgement on us?” said the Matriarch.

“Ask my parents,” I said. “Or Molly’s.”

*   *   *

I left the Sanctity, with Molly at my side. Ethel called out a cheerful good-bye and closed the doors firmly behind us. I looked quickly down the corridor, but it was still empty. Molly and I both let out a long sigh of relief, grinned at each other, and strolled off arm-in-arm.

“I thought that went rather well,” said Molly. “I told you that you’d have to make some kind of agreement with the Matriarch to get what you wanted. In fact, I think you got off lightly.”

“Just the one case, and a simple investigation at that?” I said. “Very lightly.”

“I don’t think I approve of this Big Ear listening centre,” said Molly.

“You’re right,” I said. “Only Droods can be trusted with that kind of power. Because we don’t care what people think. It’s probably for the best that I’m taking this case; I’ll be able to find out what’s really going on in there. And shut the whole place down, if necessary, just on general principles.”

“What kind of amazing new device could they have that could do so much?” said Molly. “I mean, listen in on everyone, simultaneously?”

“Could be recovered alien tech,” I said. “Black Heir has a long history of cleaning up things left behind after unauthorized close encounters. There’s always the possibility they made a present to the Prime Minister of something they shouldn’t have so they could get first shot at taking over the Department of Uncanny.”

“Vultures,” said Molly.

“It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to clean up the trash,” I said. “Still, you’re not wrong; there’s a limit to just how much reverse-engineered alien tech we can allow out in the world. Which could be just the excuse I need to pull the plug on Lark Hill.”

“If you don’t, I will,” said Molly. “I will go there myself and hit the Big Ear with shaped curses, high explosives, and general insurrection.”

“For you subtlety is just something other people do, isn’t it?” I said.

“I’m really not keen on you working this case alone,” said Molly. “You need me with you, to watch your back and keep you grounded. Especially in morally dubious places like the Big Ear. You know they always design that kind of building in a circle, so everyone can stab each other in the back at the same time. Watch yourself, Eddie. They’ll all have something to hide, and really good excuses to keep you away from what you need to see, in the name of protecting their own territory.”

“I did spend several quite successful years working as the Drood field agent in London,” I said. “Long before I ever teamed up with you. I think I can manage just the one case on my own.”

“Those were the good days, back then,” said Molly.

“When we weren’t trying to kill each other,” I said. “For being on a whole bunch of different sides.”

“Ah yes,” said Molly. “Spies and secrets and lashings of violence. Happy times.”

We shared a smile.

“So,” I said, “what will you be doing while I’m gone? And please tell me it won’t involve shaped curses, high explosives, and general insurrection.”

“I’m sure I can keep busy,” Molly said innocently. “I might go visit with my sisters. Isabella and Louisa are off on vacation together at the moment. I do need to talk to them. You’re not the only one with unfinished family business, you know.”

“Where are they?” I said. “Or shouldn’t I ask, because the answer would only upset me?”

“It’s usually best not to when the two of them get together,” Molly conceded. “They always do so much more damage when they’re together. But just now they’re relaxing, on a grand tour of darkest Africa: holidaying in a hidden world packed with dinosaurs and weird shit; visiting with the fabled Lord of the Crater.”

“I met him once,” I said. “Years ago, when he came to London in hot pursuit of one of his dinosaurs that had been kidnapped. A charming fellow, I thought—for a heavily armed barbarian in a loincloth.” I stopped abruptly, and Molly stopped with me. We looked at each other for a long moment. “Molly, have you told Isabella and Louisa that your parents were killed by my grandfather, the Regent of Shadows? On orders from somewhere inside the Drood family?”

“Yes,” said Molly. “We don’t keep secrets from each other, like you do. Well, yes, of course we do; we’re sisters. But not the things that really matter. So, yes, they know, but we haven’t had time to sit down and discuss it properly as yet.”

“The Regent is dead,” I said. “And the chances of finding out whoever gave my grandfather his orders . . . are remote. It was a long time ago, Molly. Let the past stay in the past.”

“How can I,” said Molly, “when it will insist on intruding into the present?”