You Do What You Can for People. But It’s Never Going to Be Enough.

I went down to the Armoury. The family keeps it safely tucked away in a great stone cavern carved out of the bedrock deep under the Hall’s West Wing. So that when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, usually in a loud, messy, and horribly destructive way, the damage it does to the Hall above can be strictly limited. The Armourer, along with his merry crew of highly intelligent and only slightly disturbed lab assistants, is responsible for researching and producing all the weapons, gadgets, sneaky items, and mean tricks that make it possible for those of us out in the field to do our job. The family armour is good; hell, the armour’s amazing . . . but it can’t do everything.

The Armoury is one of the few places in the Hall that actually feels like home to me. Everywhere else just reminds me of the harsh discipline, brutal schooling, and endless authority of Drood family life. Everything I ran away from, first chance I got. The Armoury, on the other hand, is where I used to hide out when I was supposed to be properly busy somewhere else; hanging out with the only member of the family who really had time for me. The Armourer—my uncle Jack.

When I finally passed through the heavy blast-proof doors and emerged into the long series of connected stone chambers that make up the Armoury, I was immediately struck by how unusually quiet and well organized everything seemed, compared to the barely controlled chaos I was used to encountering. Sudden lights still flared brightly, and chemical stinks hung heavily on the air. Lightning crawled across one wall like sparking ivy, and black smoke drifted quietly over what remained of a workstation after the latest unfortunate incident. But no one was paying me any attention. I could usually rely on the odd smile and nod, and even a cheerful wave or two, from the lab assistants in their charred and chemical-stained lab coats. They approved of me, mostly, seeing in me the same rebellious attitude they all cultivated as a matter of pride. But today, no one even looked up as I passed them by, all of them conspicuously intent on their work. There was none of the usual standing around in groups, discussing things at the top of their voices and inevitably coming to blows, none of the usual trying things out on each other. It was all very . . . calm, and disciplined. I hardly recognised the place.

Of course there are always going to be a few rogue elements. Two assistants were having a Drood-off, standing facing each other in their armour and trying to outdo each other as they shaped and reshaped their golden strange matter through an effort of will. Experimenting beyond the usual basic humanoid form, seeing just how extreme and grotesque they could become while still holding things together. Golden demons became gleaming angels, switching quickly from horrible propensities to amazing proportions, rocking back and forth as they added extra limbs or shaped exotic weapons out of their armour. But the new shapes inevitably faltered and fell apart, as the wearer’s concentration wavered. The more outré the form, the harder it was for the occupant to hold all the various elements in his mind at one time. One assistant became suddenly top-heavy and fell over. I left them to it.

Farther in, a small group of lab assistants was forming a search party to locate another assistant who’d finally perfected his new invisibility field but had suddenly stopped answering their questions. They moved through the Armoury with outstretched arms, trying to find him. Of course, there was always the possibility that he’d just sneaked out of the Armoury and was hiding somewhere else, giggling a lot. It was what I would have done.

Two female assistants were fighting it out in the battle circle, with depleted-uranium knuckle-dusters, and shimmering force shields on their arms, while a small group of onlookers took careful notes and made a series of quiet bets. Not far away, two young male assistants were playing sock-me-rock-me with two giant stone golems. I’m almost sure there was a practical purpose in there somewhere.

And down at the firing range, one assistant had armoured up and transformed one golden arm into something very like a bazooka. While everyone else hid behind things, he aimed carefully and fired off a strange matter projectile. The far end of the firing range disappeared in smoke and fire, while the recoil blasted the assistant right off his feet and sent him flying backwards half the length of the Armoury, crashing through a whole bunch of things along the way. Some people just won’t be told. There was general merriment from those watching, and some applause.

I found my uncle Jack sitting slumped in his favourite chair, before his usual work-bench. Which seemed a lot less crowded than usual, though his computer was still wrapped in long strings of mistletoe and garlic, for no obvious reason. The back of the Armourer’s chair bore the legend Sudden Experiments Make God Jump. He didn’t seem to be working on anything in particular, which was unusual for him. The Armourer lived for his work. But now Uncle Jack was just sitting there, staring at nothing, his gaze far away. I said his name a few times, and he slowly turned his head to look at me. He seemed older, tired. A stick-thin man with a pronounced stoop, a bald head, and harsh features. The bushy white eyebrows were still the same, but his normally steely grey eyes seemed oddly vague. His lab coat was sparkling clean and freshly starched, without any of the chemical burns or bullet holes that he usually wore as badges of honour. He looked at me for a long moment, and then seemed suddenly to recognise me. He smiled broadly, his gaze snapping into focus as his head came up, and just like that he wasn’t some tired old man any more. He looked like my uncle Jack again.

He shook my hand firmly, mine almost disappearing inside his oversized engineer’s hand, and he sat up straight in his chair. He was wearing a blank white T-shirt under his coat, with none of his usual disturbing messages on it, and that worried me, obscurely. The Armourer liked his T-shirts to make a statement, usually something offensive and wildly inappropriate. His own small rebellion against authority. I sat down on the edge of his work-bench, because I knew that always annoyed him. I waited for him to tell me off, and when he didn’t, I was so shocked that I immediately got up again. I found a spare chair and pulled it over so I could sit opposite him, while wondering how I could tactfully ask what the hell was the matter with him.

“Welcome back, Eddie,” said the Armourer. “Good to see you again. You don’t come home nearly often enough. This is your home, you know. You belong here. Not gallivanting about with well-meaning second-raters like the Department of Uncanny. Yes, yes, I know, your grandfather did good work there. But they were only ever a Government Department. We Droods have the whole world as our responsibility. More and more, it seems you only ever come home when you want something from us. Why are you here now, boy? What do you want from me this time?”

“Didn’t the Matriarch tell you?” I said carefully.

“What? Oh yes . . .” He leaned forward and scrabbled through a few desk drawers, before finally coming up with a packet of assorted papers that he thrust carelessly into my waiting hand. He settled back in his chair and smiled easily at me.

“There you go, boy. Standard all-purpose legend; all the paperwork and IDs you’ll need to properly impress everyone at the Big Ear. Just fill in whatever username you decide to go with in all the appropriate places, and add whatever authorizing signatures you feel necessary. Just scrawl something—they never check. All pretty generic stuff. Just flash it around and glare at people a lot, and you’ll be fine.”

A really loud bang echoed from the far end of the Armoury. The multicoloured spaghetti of tacked-up electrical wiring danced on the walls, the lights flickered, and the floor shook. No one looked up. In the Armoury, explosions and worryingly loud noises were just business as usual. So I was genuinely surprised, and actually a bit worried, to see the Armourer jump and flinch, just a little.

I retrieved the Merlin Glass from my pocket dimension and handed it to the Armourer; he just took it from me absently and put it on his work-bench without even looking at it.

“That’s the Merlin Glass, Uncle Jack!” I said.

“I know!” he said. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“The damned thing’s been acting up so much recently, I’m not sure I trust it any more,” I said. “It seems to be developing a mind of its own. Which is never a good thing in a device you need to depend on in the field. I thought you might be able to do . . . something with it.”

“I’ll look into it,” he said solemnly, and then raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “I have to say, I’m surprised you’re handing it over so casually, after you made such a fuss about not giving it up the last time you were here.”

“I’m giving it to you,” I said. “Not to the family. I trust you.”

“Well,” said the Armourer, “that’s nice . . .”

I looked at him thoughtfully. “Uncle Jack. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Merlin Glass’ origins just recently. The last time I saw the Independent Agent, Alexander King, he said he gave you the Merlin Glass. In return for a device he could use to turn off Drood armour by remote control.”

The Armourer snorted loudly. “As if I’d ever give him anything he could use against the family. King lied. He did that a lot.”

“So where did you get the Merlin Glass?”

“From the London Knights.”

“Well, where did they get it from? How did they get their hands on something given to our family by Merlin Satanspawn himself? And why did they give it back to you?”

The Armourer smiled briefly. “You should ask them. Ah! Look who’s here! Good boy . . .”

There was a loud clattering of steel paws on the hard stone floor as a large metal dog came padding forward to join us. A good five feet tall at the shoulder, it was all gleaming Art Deco steel curves, with a sculpted metal hound’s face and glowing red eyes. It looked sleek and powerful, and strong enough to crash through any wall that had the nerve to get in its way. I’d seen something very like it before; in fact, I’d destroyed the original. Back when it was a robot attack dog, defending Area 52 in the Antarctic. I’d brought the pieces home as a present for Uncle Jack. I knew he liked jigsaws. It seemed he’d finally found time to put the dog back together again; along with his own improvements. The Armourer did so love to tinker. He made a fuss of the robot dog as it sat down heavily before him, its long steel tail hammering loudly against the stone floor as it raised its metal head to be scratched. I wasn’t sure which of them was humouring which. The Armourer grinned at me.

“Eddie, this is Scraps.2. Much better than a real dog. I haven’t been able to have a real pet for years and years. Not since the first Scraps exploded. It’s not safe down here for real animals. For any number of reasons. Scraps.2 is much more . . . hard-wearing.” He grinned nastily. “He gives the assistants a good run for their money and helps keep them on their toes. Don’t you, boy? Eh? Who’s a good dog!”

Scraps.2 was looking at me thoughtfully. He appeared to have a great many sharp metal teeth set into his powerful jaws, and a definite sense of barely restrained menace about him. I sat very still.

“Don’t worry,” the Armourer said cheerfully. “I scrubbed his memory cells really thoroughly before I rebooted his AI. Just in case.”

“Then why is he looking at me like that?” I said. “If he doesn’t remember what happened to the old him?”

“I don’t know,” said the Armourer. “Instinct?”

“What does he do here, exactly?”

“He keeps me company! He’s very intelligent . . . though for a first-class robot dog AI, he does seem to be having remarkable difficulty with the simple concept of Fetch!

“Perhaps he’s just too smart to,” I said.

The sound of loudly disagreeing lab assistants rose suddenly in the background. Followed almost immediately by the sound of energy weapons discharging, followed by explosions, muffled screams, and really bad language. Scraps.2 lurched abruptly to his feet, his eyes glowing brightly as his metal ears pricked up, and then he padded determinedly off to investigate.

“That’s right, boy!” said the Armourer. “Off you go! You sort them out! Don’t take any nonsense from them . . .”

“So!” I said. “What are you working on at the moment, Uncle Jack?”

“Oh, nothing much,” he said. “Just sitting here. Thinking . . .”

“But you’re always working on something!”

“I’ve been making a list,” said the Armourer, looking vaguely at the papers scattered across his work-bench. “Of all the things I created for this family, down through the years. How many have become standard, useful items—like the Colt Repeater, or the portable door. And how many just worked for a while, then developed problems. And how many turned out to be something that just seemed like a good idea at the time. And you know what, Eddie? In the end . . . I don’t think any of them really mattered. A well-trained agent is what makes all the difference out in the field. The man, not the weapons.”

“I couldn’t do the job without your help, Armourer,” I said. And I meant it.

And then I got distracted, as a large eyeball fitted out with membranous batwings went fluttering past, pursued by a determined-looking young woman with a large butterfly net. Everyone else ignored them.

“Why do you encourage your assistants to work on such weird stuff, Uncle Jack?” I said.

“Because you never know what might come in handy someday,” said the Armourer. “And it encourages them to think outside the box. Some of them are so far outside the box they can’t even see the box from where they are.” He stopped, and looked at me for a long moment. “They’re a good bunch, Eddie. They do good work. But I’m still worried because I haven’t been able to find a suitable replacement among them. Someone to take over from me, so I can retire. The assistants come and go, all the good boys and girls . . . excellent minds, but never anyone special. They mean well, and they turn out impressive work, sometimes, but . . . none of them seem to have that special spark.”

He gestured with an only slightly shaky hand at two figures standing really close together, leafing through a thick file of reports. I recognised them immediately. Maxwell and Victoria, the Armourer’s two most impressive and most irritating students. First-class scientific minds, and so in love with each other they couldn’t help but get on everyone else’s nerves. They would insist on sharing their happiness with the whole world, whether the world wanted to know or not. They were both almost indecently young for such senior assistants—barely into their twenties. The Armourer sighed loudly.

“Look at them! Love’s young dream, and masters of mass destruction. Brilliant weaponeers, when they can stop cooing at each other. And they’re the best I’ve got. I brought them in to help carry the load. To keep things running, while I’m . . . busy, thinking. I’m feeling old, Eddie. I get tired. I take naps. Maxwell and Victoria are good organizers—but have they got that special something that makes them Armourer material? They’d better have. There’s no one else . . .”

“You’ve never complained of feeling old before,” I said.

“Yes, I have. You just didn’t want to hear it. Like everyone else in this family. Oh, the Armourer’s good for a few more years yet, so let’s pile on even more work, and more responsibilities . . . But I think I’ve done enough. It’s time for me to put down the load and walk away. Well past time, in fact. My best years are behind me, Eddie; that gets clearer every day. It’s . . . difficult, to look back at the kind of work I used to be capable of and know I’m just not up to it any longer. I can repair things, even improve on them sometimes. Like Scraps. But I can’t innovate any more. I don’t have the spark these days . . . But I can’t stand down, can’t let the family down, until I’m sure I’ve found a suitable replacement.”

“Come on, Uncle Jack,” I said uncomfortably, struggling to find the right thing to say. He was scaring me now, talking like that, but I didn’t want him to see how worried I was. “You’ve got years of good work in you yet.”

“Not many,” said the Armourer. His large engineer’s hands came together in his lap and held on to each other, as though for comfort. “I’m older than I look, Eddie. I’m wearing out, at last. Worn thin . . .”

He looked slowly round the Armoury, at his quietly hardworking assistants. “I used to know every inch of this place. Had a hand in everything that was going on. Knew who everyone was and what they were working on. Who needed encouraging and who’d profit most from a good kick in the arse . . . Now, I don’t even recognise half of them. All the assistants from my generation are gone. And most of the generations in between. Which is as it should be; no one is ever supposed to stay a lab assistant. One way or another, they move on, hopefully to better things, in the family. You need to be young just to stand the pace here. I can’t help feeling . . . I’ve outstayed my welcome.”

I decided it was well past time to change the subject. Before he depressed the shit out of both of us.

“So!” I said brightly. “What new toys have you got for me this time, Armourer? What new guns and gadgets to help me brown-trouser the enemy?”

“Nothing,” he said flatly. “If you really feel you need something, go talk with Maxwell and Victoria. They handle all that sort of thing these days. But you don’t need my toys, Eddie. You never did, really.” He broke off and gave me a long, careful look. “I heard what you said in your little talk with the Matriarch.”

“You were listening in?” I said.

“Always. It’s a matter of self-defence in this family. Forewarned is forearmed in the Droods. So I have to ask what’s happened, Eddie. Something must have happened for you to decide so suddenly and so definitely that you’re not going to kill again out in the field. To be just an agent, never an assassin. So what was it? What happened to change your mind? You’ve always known the ultimate sanction is always going to be part of the job.”

“It shouldn’t have to be,” I said.

The Armourer nodded slowly. “Killing does take its toll. No matter how good the reason, or how great the cause. The ghosts . . . mount up. That was one of the reasons I retired from fieldwork, back in the day. Talk to me, Eddie. What changed your mind?”

His gaze seemed sharp and fully focused for the first time, as he gave me all his attention.

“You might say I was made to see things differently,” I replied. “A sudden insight into what I do, and why I do it. And I didn’t like what I saw.”

The Armourer considered this. “I killed my fair share and more when I was a field agent. Rushing around Eastern Europe, trying to hold things together in that coldest of Cold Wars. All of them people who needed killing . . . There’s no doubt in my mind that the world is a better, safer place for them being gone. But I never did it as often as your uncle James. The legendary Grey Fox . . . some say the greatest field agent we ever had. He always was more of an assassin than an agent. By his own choice. It seemed to come so easily to him. It never came easily to me. I did what I had to, when I thought it necessary, but I was never so . . . casual about it. James never gave it a second thought. But then, he never was one for looking back.

“Which is probably why he left so many bastards scattered across the world. Half the up-and-comers in secret organisations and hidden bunkers have his eyes, or his smile. I keep thinking we should do more for them. Bring them in, bring them home, into the family fold. Not leave them out in the cold. I do try to keep in touch with as many of them as I can.”

He didn’t mention his only son, Timothy. Who went rogue and became Tiger Tim. I ended up having to kill him. So I didn’t mention him either.

“Was Uncle James . . . always like that?” I said. “A natural-born killer for the Drood family?”

“No,” said the Armourer. “Not always. But after he lost his one true love, Melanie Blaze . . . well, he was never the same after that. She was a marvellous woman. A great adventurer in her own right. Lost in the subtle realms, on some very secret mission I never did get to the bottom of. I sometimes think, when he lost her . . . the best part of your uncle James was lost too. All he cared about after that was getting the job done.”

“Did the family never try to find Melanie Blaze?” I asked.

“Not hard enough,” said the Armourer. “Now talk to me, Eddie. Tell me what has happened.”

“Molly and I paid a visit to the Department of Uncanny,” I said. “Just to pay our respects, to the place where my grandfather fell. Along with so many other good people.”

I told my uncle Jack the story of what happened there. A story I could never tell anyone else.

*   *   *

The hidden entrance to Uncanny lies in the shadow of Big Ben. Two armed policemen stood guard outside that very inconspicuous door, and I was a little surprised at how many of the everyday people passing by seemed completely unmoved by the presence of armed police on a London street. That’s still pretty rare in Britain. But I suppose it’s just a sign of the times. I headed straight for them, with Molly striding happily along beside me, and the police officers moved calmly but firmly together, blocking the way to Uncanny’s hidden door. They weren’t actually pointing their guns at us just yet. Which, given Molly’s short fuse, was just as well. And then they clearly recognised us and ostentatiously lowered their guns. The one on the left actually saluted.

“Eddie Drood and Molly Metcalf, good morning to you both, sir and madam,” he said respectfully. “We were advised you might turn up, and we have been given orders to allow you to pass.”

“How very fortunate,” murmured Molly, smiling sweetly.

“You know who we are?” I said, to the policemen.

“Not as such,” he said quickly. “We were shown your photos and told to get the hell out of your way. It has been made very clear to us that we don’t need to know anything about the door behind us or any of the people who might want to go through it.”

“We don’t want to know,” said the other officer. “Some of us like to sleep at night.”

“Very wise,” said Molly. “If you knew what we know about what happened here you’d never sleep again.”

“Don’t mind her,” I said. “She’s just being herself. Has anyone else tried to go in today?”

“Not today, sir,” said the first officer. “It’s my understanding that the whole building has been very thoroughly emptied out and cleaned up over the last few weeks. All important resources cleared away, all bodies removed. You don’t need to worry about disturbing anything. The forensic people have been and gone. We’re just here to keep any poor innocent souls from wandering inside. You take as long as you like, sir and madam. We’ll see you’re not interrupted.”

“Did you know any of the people who worked there?” said the other officer.

“Yes,” I said. “My grandfather used to run the Department. He was killed there, along with everyone else.”

“Sorry for your loss, sir,” said the first officer. And give the man credit; he tried to say it like he meant it.

And then both officers stepped carefully back, out of our way. I headed for the entrance, and Molly hurried to catch up with me. I was a little disappointed that no one else had shown an interest. I had been hoping my father and mother might show up, once they heard the Regent of Shadows was dead. But apparently not.

I made a point of going in first, and Molly made a point of shouldering past me. Just to make it clear she was quite capable of protecting herself. I let her, since the entrance lobby was quite clearly deserted. The first time Molly and I had been there, it had seemed a cheerful enough setting, with flowers in vases, and restful colours, and nice paintings on the walls. Now everything was smashed and broken. The paintings had been ripped off the walls and torn to pieces. The comfortable furnishings had been reduced to wreckage and kindling. It had the feel of vindictiveness and spite, as much as vandalism. Dark bloodstains everywhere—old blood, long dried. Soaked into the thick carpet and splashed across the walls. No one had cleaned up; it was still a crime scene.

“I wonder what they did with the bodies?” said Molly, peering quickly about her, entirely unmoved and unaffected. She didn’t believe in being sentimental about people she barely knew. “I hope they’ve been buried properly. The last thing this place needs is the unquiet dead wandering around, disturbing the peace.”

“Heroes lie in anonymous graves,” I said. “Comes with the job, and the territory. But not the Regent. Grandfather’s body was recovered by the Droods. He was still one of us, after all. So the Matriarch sent in a special team to retrieve the body and take it back to the Hall.”

“That was good of them,” said Molly.

“Not really,” I said. “They were just being practical. Drood DNA contains far too many secrets and mysteries to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Or even the hands of people who might become our enemies at some future time. My family always thinks ahead. That’s how we’ve survived so long. At least Grandfather Arthur got to go home at last. That’s something, I suppose.”

Molly frowned. “I don’t remember receiving any invitation to his funeral.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one,” I said. “No ceremony, no get-together. It was all taken care of very quietly, very quickly. Because Arthur had dared to walk away from the family. And to make things even worse, he had become fairly successful on his own terms, without Drood help. So the family just did what was necessary to put him to rest. I didn’t even know it had happened until it was over. Or I would have been there. Which is probably why they didn’t tell me. Or you.”

“Your family . . . ,” said Molly.

“Trust me,” I said. “I know.”

We walked on, through empty corridors and open rooms. It was all very quiet, since we were the only living things left to make any noise. It was like walking through a battlefield after the opposing forces had clashed and moved on. Signs of violence everywhere: broken floorboards, kicked-in doors, smashed-in walls. The sight of blood and the smell of death. The Drood from Cell 13 and his vicious clone army had made a slaughterhouse out of the Department of Uncanny.

“What about special weapons, and objects of power?” said Molly quite casually. “All the sensitive information in the computers?”

“All of it gone,” I said. “Transferred to safe locations. Just in case anyone had any ideas about looting . . .”

“Oh, perish the thought,” said Molly, grinning. “I wouldn’t dream of such a thing. No. Not while there was anybody watching . . . Where do you suppose it’s all gone?”

I gave her a look, and she shrugged prettily.

“The Government will only lock it away, Eddie. You know that. They won’t appreciate what they’ve got. Not like I would.”

“My family removed all the heavy-duty stuff, while they were here,” I said. “Things we felt the Government couldn’t be trusted with. Or isn’t supposed to know even exist. There are special protocols in place, even for disasters like this. In fact, probably especially for disasters like this. I’m sure everything else has been locked up in the usual secret depositories. Until it can be shared out, among the other secret organisations. They’ll all be struggling to fill the gap with Uncanny gone, and they’ll need all the help they can get. This is just an empty place now. Waiting for new occupants. A new identity and a new purpose.”

“Do you think they’re going to rebuild the Department of Uncanny?” said Molly.

“Probably not,” I said. “It failed.”

And then we both stopped abruptly and looked around, as we heard someone moving about. Quiet, furtive sounds. The police officers had been quite certain that no one else should be here. We were supposed to have the place to ourselves. So whoever was in the building with us had no right to be there. I looked at Molly, and she smiled brightly.

“Maybe someone didn’t know there’s nothing left to loot . . .”

She concentrated, and invoked a quick-and-dirty tracking spell. A glowing green arrow appeared, floating on the air before us, pointing the way to the intruder. Molly set off briskly, and the arrow moved on ahead of her. I hurried to catch up. As far as I was concerned, barging in here uninvited was like desecrating a grave. Good people died here. The Department should have been left in peace. If there were ghouls or vultures rooting around here, I would make them suffer for their temerity. We followed the glowing arrow as it led us through empty corridors and past empty rooms, into the heart of Uncanny.

“Who could have got in here without being noticed?” I murmured to Molly. “There’s only the one entrance, and that’s been continuously guarded.”

“All it takes is a moment’s distraction,” said Molly, just as quietly. “And may I remind you, you are listening to the voice of experience here.”

“But they must know there’s nothing left worth the taking,” I said. “People have been in and out, carrying stuff off, for weeks.”

“Hope springs eternal in the heart of the burglar,” said Molly. “There’s always the chance they missed something. Perhaps something very secret and very important that wasn’t officially here . . .”

“Unless . . . this is one of the unquiet dead,” I said. “Some very powerful individuals died here. If the forensic people missed something—if they didn’t follow all the proper procedures—there could still be someone moving around. Some remnant or revenant, stumbling around and wondering where everyone else went. Not realising they should have moved on . . .”

“You and your imagination,” said Molly. “Far more likely it’s a burglar.”

The arrow finally came to a halt outside the closed door to my grandfather’s office. Where he was murdered. The arrow flickered, then disappeared. It had taken us as far as it could. A slow chill crawled up my back. I knew the Regent wasn’t in there. My family said he’d been put to rest, and I believed them. But still . . . of all the places the arrow could have brought us . . . Molly moved in close to the door, and listened, and then beckoned urgently for me to come and join her. I leaned in close beside Molly, and listened. There was definitely someone moving around inside the room.

My grandfather was dead. I’d seen the body. With the great bloody hole in his chest, where that ancient and powerful jewel Kayleigh’s Eye had been torn out by brute force. The only way it could be taken. I knew there was no way the Regent could be in his office. But a part of me still hoped, because it just didn’t seem right that such a good man could be gone and not leave something of himself behind. For those who loved him.

Molly straightened up, gestured sharply at the door, and it sprang open, flying all the way back to slam against the inner wall. I charged into the office, with Molly beside me. And there, frozen in place by shock and surprise, caught searching through the drawers of the Regent’s desk, was an entirely unremarkable young man. He gaped at me and Molly, and then straightened up quickly, backing away from the desk with both hands raised to show they were empty. He was wearing a cheap, ill-fitting suit, without a trace of character in it. It went with his face.

“I know you!” he said suddenly, in a harsh, cracked voice. “Oh yes. I should have known, should have expected . . . Eddie Drood! And Molly Metcalf! The runaway Drood and the wicked witch of the woods! I’ve read your files. Did you know they had files on you here? Not that there was much in them, of course. And what there was, was pretty contradictory. But then, that’s Droods for you. And witches. But you don’t know who I am, do you?”

“No,” I said. “Who are you, and what the hell are you doing here? If you do know me and Molly, then you know better than to hold out on us.”

He drew himself up and sneered haughtily. “I used to be a Shadow. One of the Regent’s old Shadows, from the organisation he used to run before they lured him away to Uncanny. He took most of the Shadows with him when he moved; but he didn’t take me.”

“What are you doing here?” I said. And although I could hear how cold my voice was, he didn’t flinch one bit.

“What are you doing here, Drood?” he said, lowering his hands so he could stuff them in his pockets and slouch defiantly before me. “You have no business being here. You went away and left him, left the Regent and all his people here to die . . . at the hands of your own kind.”

“That’s not what happened,” I said. He drew himself up haughtily.

“What are you doing in the Regent’s office?” said Molly. “Bearing in mind that I am getting very tired of this, and am only moments away from turning you into something small and squishy, with your testicles floating on the top, and then Riverdancing on them.”

He sneered at her, too. “I didn’t come back to avenge the fallen Regent. Or mourn his death. No, I just needed to be sure he really was dead. For my own peace of mind. He was a great man, you know. Everyone said so. Including him . . . But not always. No, not to everyone. Not to those he considered unworthy . . . I didn’t let him down! Not really. But he still wouldn’t take me with him to Uncanny. In fact, he told me to stay away. Gave orders that I was to be turned away from his door if I did show up! Not that I would have. I have my pride . . . He should have cut me some slack! I tried so hard. Really hard. But he was just so old-fashioned in his thinking. He didn’t understand . . . that you can’t be strong all the time . . .”

I looked at Molly. “Are you following any of this?”

“So far, it just seems to be whine whine whine,” said Molly.

I glared at the young man behind the Regent’s desk. “Who are you?”

“I’m Marcus Turner,” he said. “And you’ve never heard of me. It’s not fair. It’s not fair! I was going to be someone; everyone said so. Including him! The Regent of Shadows told everyone I was going to be someone important someday! But he betrayed me. Offered me the world, and then snatched it away again.”

“Why?” I said. “Why would he do that?”

“Because I dared to disagree with him! Because he was old, and limited in his thinking! He couldn’t see the big picture . . . Not like me. I made him the Regent of Shadows, you know. I made that possible. I was the one who found Kayleigh’s Eye for him. And you don’t even want to know how far I had to go to find the awful thing and bring it back. All the things I had to do . . . all the blood on my hands . . . Mine! Not his! I was entitled to something for myself. I was! For everything I went through, for him . . . I said to him, I said, we should break the Eye up, shatter the stone into a thousand pieces, so we could all have a shard. So all the Shadows could be untouchable, and unstoppable. We could have changed the world . . . But he said no! He said he’d seen where that led, with the Droods. He lied. He just wanted the Eye for himself. Old fool! We could have been greater than the Droods!”

“I am starting to follow this,” I said. “But I really don’t think I like where it’s going.”

“He let us down,” said Marcus. “He let us all down. So I tried to take the Eye back, for myself. Who had a better right? But he stopped me, kept the Eye for himself, and had them throw me out. Out into the cold.” He shuddered suddenly, and wrapped his arms around himself, as though to hold himself together. “But I fixed him. I fixed him . . . oh yes! I got the word out. On the one way the Eye could be taken from him, after he’d fused it to his chest. He thought he was untouchable, but I knew better!” He giggled suddenly—a high, nervous, disturbing sound. “I had my revenge! On him, and his whole precious Department! The life he built without me . . . That should have been mine. I wish I could have been here to see it when they came for him. When they all came crashing in, and it all came crashing down.” He glared at me suddenly. “He did die, didn’t he? Tell me the Regent died! I need to hear you say it. Tell me I didn’t make all of this happen for nothing . . .”

“You’re responsible for all this destruction?” I said.

He shrugged quickly. “I got the word out. To the Drood they don’t like to talk about. And he did what I couldn’t.”

“Hundreds of good men and women died here!” I said.

He shrugged again. “If you can’t hurt the one you hate, hurt the ones you can reach. Did he die with the others? Did the Regent die? Talk to me! I need to know!”

“The Regent was my grandfather,” I said. “I found his dead body, right here in this office. He was a great man!”

“To you, maybe.” Marcus was breathing hard now, his eyes wild. “But then, you’re just as bad as he was. Eddie Drood . . . I’ve read your file. All the lives you destroyed to get your own way. To serve your nasty little family. And you dare look down your nose at me? He probably gave you all the breaks I never had. The breaks that should have been mine!”

“Why?” said Molly. “Why should the Regent have given you all these breaks?”

“Because he was my grandfather too!” shouted Marcus, his face crimson. “Oh yes! The Grey Fox wasn’t the only one who left a trail of bastards behind him. I . . . am a bastard’s bastard. Never good enough for a torc, only a quarter Drood . . . And never good enough for dear old Grandpa. But I showed him . . .”

“You’re really claiming you’re responsible for the Regent’s death?” said Molly. “For everything that happened here? Why would you say that when you must know people will be lining up to kill you for it?”

“Because I want the world to know! I want them to know what he was really like, to his own grandson! I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m not afraid of you! Screw you! I fixed him, and I’ll fix you too! I didn’t just find Kayleigh’s Eye; I went back and found another Eye!” He ripped open his shirt, to reveal a glowing gem fused to his bare chest. “See? You can’t touch me!”

Molly looked at the gem thoughtfully, then snapped her fingers loudly. The gem stopped glowing, and fell away from Marcus’ chest. It hit the floor with a dull thud.

“Fake,” she said. “Not even a little bit convincing.”

Marcus stumbled back a step, snarling and clawing at his chest. His eyes were wide and unblinking.

“How did you get in here?” I said. “Past the policemen on duty?”

“I have my ways!” said Marcus. “Special ways! Secret ways! You can’t stop me!”

Molly ignored him, looking at me. “What are we going to do with him? Slap him down, drag him out of here, and hand him over to the authorities?”

“I suppose so,” I said. “Even if he really did do everything he claims, he’s just too pathetic for anything else.”

“I am not pathetic!” shouted Marcus, actually stamping one foot in his rage. “I am a Shadow! And I came here armed!”

His right hand came forward, suddenly full of a heavy, glowing blade. It burned with a sick yellow flame. He swept the blade back and forth before him, grinning widely as it left crackling trails of unnatural energy on the air behind it. He laughed breathily.

“This is the Devil’s Dagger! I found it! It can cut through anything, penetrate any defence. Even your amazing armour, Drood. I was going to use it on the Regent if he had survived . . . but you’ll do. Or your bitch!”

He lunged forward, the glowing blade aimed right at Molly’s heart. I armoured up and put myself between him and Molly. And as the glowing blade shot forward, I punched my armoured fist through his chest, and out his back. He stopped dead, looked down, and made a small sound. And then all the light went out of his eyes, and he just hung there, dead, transfixed on my golden arm. I pulled it back, and he fell limply to the floor. Blood dripped thickly from my fist. The Devil’s Dagger was still in his hand, but it wasn’t glowing any longer. It didn’t look like much. Molly leaned over for a quick look.

“Another fake,” she said. “No real threat, after all. Don’t feel bad, Eddie. You did what he wanted. He wanted to die.”

“I know,” I said.

*   *   *

I looked at the Armourer, sitting opposite me. “And that is why I’m so determined never to kill again, Uncle Jack. Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what he might or might not have been responsible for. I wanted to kill him. I was looking for some excuse to kill the man who killed the Regent of Shadows before I even had the chance to get to know my grandfather properly. I killed Marcus Turner because I could. Because I wanted to. And I don’t think . . . I should be able to do that.”

“Eddie . . .”

“How’s Maggie settling in as the new Matriarch?” I said. Because although I was ready to talk to the Armourer about what I’d done, I wasn’t ready to hear him talk about it. He saw the look in my eyes, and went along with the change in subject.

“She’s doing surprisingly well. I suppose bullying all those gardeners for years was actually special training for running the family. She’s showing a real aptitude for getting people to work together. Something about the position always seems to sober the person who assumes it. Much like your grandmother, Eddie. I’m told she was quite the bright young thing in her day. Always dancing and drinking and laughing . . . Yes, I know. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? The position, its duties and responsibilities, does take its toll.”

“Being a Drood takes its toll,” I said.

“Yes. It does,” said the Armourer. “But I still wouldn’t swap it for anything. No one else gets to lead the kind of life we do.”

“Which is sometimes good, and sometimes bad,” I said.

“But always glorious,” said the Armourer.

We shared a smile.

“Maxwell and Victoria, Uncle Jack?” I said. “Really? They’re your best bet for replacing you as Armourer?”

“They both have first-class minds,” the Armourer said firmly. “Underneath . . . And they’re certainly a lot better at organising this place than I ever was. Look around you! We haven’t had a major fire or an unfortunate transformation in weeks . . . And at least they’ve got each other. That’s important. They won’t end up married to the place, and the job. Like I did.”

“You’ve had a life, outside the Armoury,” I said. “Even though you weren’t supposed to. I know all about your little trips to the Nightside and what you got up to there.”

“No, you don’t,” said the Armourer. “Or you wouldn’t be talking about it so casually. But, yes, I did get around . . . for all the good it did me.”

He looked away from me, and his gaze fell upon a piece of discarded tech, lying on his work-bench. He scowled fiercely at it.

“There! You see? Look at that! That’s what I’m talking about! Do you know what that is? Neither do I . . . I know I put the damned thing there, but I don’t have a single clue as to what it is or what it’s for. I must have known what it was when I put it there to work on, but now . . . I can’t remember. There’s so much I don’t remember these days . . . And I just can’t seem to give a damn any longer. When the family Armourer doesn’t care, Eddie, it is definitely time to find a new Armourer.”

“You’ve got years in you yet, Uncle Jack,” I said.

“Perhaps. But not as Armourer. I’ve stretched myself too thin, boy, gone on too long. Extended my working life through questionable choices . . . There’s always a price to be paid for such decisions. And the longer you put off paying it . . .”

I decided to change the subject again. If only because the Armourer looked seriously close to feeling sorry for himself.

“There’s something important we need to talk about, Uncle Jack.”

“Oh dear,” said the Armourer, fixing me with a steady gaze from under his bushy white eyebrows. “That sounds serious. Did I forget your birthday again? I’m sorry, but I’m not good with birthdays. I don’t even remember my own. Of course, at my age you don’t celebrate birthdays—you survive them.”

I waited patiently for him to run down, and then pressed on. “This isn’t about me. It’s about Molly, and her parents, and what happened to them. We need to talk about what you know, Uncle Jack. About the family’s really secret agents. The ones who take on the kinds of missions the family can’t officially acknowledge. Because we might be ashamed of them.”

“Sometimes that kind of thing can be necessary,” the Armourer said steadily. “I learned that the hard way, during the Cold War. You have to be prepared to make the hard, necessary choices. You do the things your enemy can’t or won’t do. It’s the only way you can stay ahead of them, and maintain the upper hand. And then, afterwards, you live with it. We’ve all made all kinds of sacrifices for the family. And the very secret agents . . . are a necessary evil. Your uncle James used to run them. After he died, I inherited them. They trusted me, inasmuch as they trust anyone. I only know what they want me to know. They pretty much run themselves, following basic policy set down . . . long ago. So the rest of us don’t have to know what they do in our name.”

“Not even the Matriarch?”

“Especially not the Matriarch. She can’t know what they do. She can’t ever know. So that if necessary, she can plausibly deny it. These agents are . . . a family within the family. I don’t even know how many of them there are. I’m just the contact point. They only put up with me because I supply them with what they need.”

“The point is,” I said, “would they know about the Regent’s execution of Molly’s parents? Would they have been the ones who gave the Regent his orders?”

The Armourer considered this for a long moment, and then shrugged tiredly.

“You know as well as I do, Eddie . . . this family has secrets like a dog has fleas. Nothing personal, Scraps. Scraps? Where has that dog got to? I’ll see what I can do, Eddie. Ask a few questions . . .”

“You don’t know anything yourself?”

The Armourer glared at me. “Don’t you think I would have made it my business to know who made my father a murderer? I never knew anything about it—until you came back from Trammell Island and told me.”

“You could ask them!”

“It’s not as simple as that! There are departments within departments, and people who don’t even talk to themselves about what they know. All I can do is see if some of them will talk to me.”

“If what they do is so shameful,” I said, “we shouldn’t be doing it. The last great secret I uncovered, about how the Heart made our old armour, almost destroyed the family.”

“Exactly,” said the Armourer. “I’m not sure we could survive another upset like that. Some things have to stay secret. Because some things that may be necessary can never be forgiven.”

I waited, but he had nothing more to say. In the end, I just nodded and got ready to go.

“Take the Bentley,” he said suddenly. “You always loved that old car. She’s yours.”

“What?” I said. “You mean your Bentley? That classic old car?”

“I never get the chance to take her out these days,” said the Armourer. “And she should be out in the world. She wasn’t made to sit around in a garage. She needs to be enjoyed, appreciated . . . But mind you, take good care of her! And then she’ll take good care of you.”

“Well,” I said, “she’s got to be easier on the nerves than the Scarlet Lady. You know, the car the Regent gave me?”

“Oh yes,” said the Armourer, “I know all about the Scarlet Lady. Including a few things she doesn’t know I know. You wouldn’t get me behind her wheel on a bet.”

“Where did the Regent get her, anyway?”

“Not sure anyone really knows. Way I heard it, she just turned up at Uncanny one day, they took her in and gave her a saucer of milk, and then found they couldn’t get rid of her.”

“They adopted her?”

“More like she adopted them.” The Armourer sat up straight suddenly, and glared at the piece of tech on his work-bench. “Yes! I remember now! Just a few touches, a bit of fine-tuning, and you’ll be ready to rock! Off you go, boy; I’ve got work to be getting on with . . .”

I nodded good-bye and made to leave. Without looking up from what he was doing with the piece of tech, the Armourer raised his voice.

“Remember, Eddie. Anything for the family. Because the family goes on, when we can’t.”

*   *   *

I was heading for the exit when Maxwell and Victoria emerged from a side aisle to intercept me. They both still seemed impossibly young, but something in the way they looked and the way they held themselves now put years on them. We moved quietly to one side, out of the Armourer’s line of sight, so we could talk together. Max was tall and dark and handsome, Vikki was tall and blonde and beautiful. Their lab coats were a pristine white. They looked like they should be starring in a Harlequin Romance. They nodded and smiled to me, diffidently. They hadn’t assumed the authority of the Armourer yet.

“I gather he’s told you,” said Maxwell. “We’re going to be the Armourer.”

“Both of us!” said Victoria. “We’re awfully proud, of course.”

“Equals, working together,” said Maxwell. “Though Vikki’s the real genius, truth be told.”

“Oh hush, Max! You’re putting yourself down again, and I won’t have it.”

I couldn’t help noticing they were holding hands. Though they did seem unusually solemn, for them.

“How did your uncle Jack seem to you?” Maxwell said carefully.

“Did he . . . make sense?” said Victoria. “Most of the time?”

“Why shouldn’t he?” I said.

They looked unhappily at each other.

“Well,” said Maxwell, “he isn’t always himself these days.”

“He has good days, and bad days,” said Victoria. “Sometimes on the same day.”

“How long has this been going on?” I said.

“Oh, not long!” said Victoria. “It was all very sudden, wasn’t it, Max?”

“Very sudden,” said Maxwell. “It was like . . . the last of his strength just ran out. And he’s been running on fumes ever since.”

“Look after him,” I said.

“Of course, of course!” said Maxwell.

“As much as he’ll let us,” said Victoria.

“There must be something you can do for him!” I said, more loudly than I’d intended.

“If there was anything to do, we’d already be doing it,” Maxwell said steadily. “But there’s a limit to how often you can patch something . . .”

“Your uncle has already done an awful lot to himself,” said Victoria.

“And since he won’t talk about that, we can’t help,” said Maxwell. “If there was anything left to do, I think he’d already have done it.”

“And in the end,” said Victoria, “we’re Armourers, not miracle-workers.”

“When did all this start?” I said. “The . . . deterioration? He seemed fine just a few months ago!”

Maxwell and Victoria looked at each other again, choosing their words carefully.

“We’re pretty sure he’s been hiding it for a while now,” said Maxwell.

“But he’s been having off days for some time,” said Victoria.

“You just weren’t here to see them,” said Maxwell. “That’s why he asked us in. To carry some of the weight for him. His condition has deteriorated surprisingly quickly.”

“It’s worse when he gets confused,” said Victoria, “and doesn’t realise how bad he’s got.”

“He forgets who the Matriarch is,” said Maxwell. “Or he’ll ask for a lab assistant who hasn’t worked down here in years.”

“Just the other day,” Victoria said quietly, “he asked for your uncle James . . .”

“It’s always sad when the mind goes first,” said Maxwell. “When the man outlives the legend . . . And he is quite a lot older than he appears.”

“He should have retired long ago,” said Victoria. “But he did things to himself so he could keep going. Out of a sense of duty.”

“If he could be persuaded to retire . . . ,” I said, “do you think he might improve?”

Maxwell and Victoria didn’t need to look at each other. They both looked at me with kind but implacable eyes.

“Without knowing what he’s done to himself,” said Maxwell, “we can’t know how fast he’ll run down.”

“But he can’t have long,” said Victoria. “I think he’s happier here. Keeping himself busy.”

“We’re ready to take over,” said Maxwell. “If he could just . . . learn to trust us, I think that might take some of the pressure off him.”

“But . . . his mother, Martha, was sharp as a tack, right up to the end!” I said.

“She was a most remarkable lady,” said Maxwell.

“Aren’t you both just a little young to be the Armourer?” I said.

“How old were you?” said Victoria. “When you left Drood Hall to be a field agent?”

I looked around the Armoury—the quiet, well-organized, mostly smooth-running operation that had replaced everything I knew and remembered.

“This place won’t be the same without him,” I said.

“It will be different,” said Maxwell.

“It will be better,” said Victoria. “But we’ll do our best to keep the old man occupied, and useful, for as long as we can.”

“He still has much to contribute,” said Maxwell. “If only he’d stop hitting his computer with that hammer . . .”

“Has he seen a doctor?” I said.

“He wouldn’t go,” said Maxwell. “So we sneaked one in, and he scanned your uncle Jack from a distance. Unfortunately, after everything the Armourer has done to himself, the readings didn’t make any sense.”

“Even the very best clockwork winds down eventually,” said Victoria.

“The old order changes,” said Maxwell, “but the family goes on.”

*   *   *

I was on my way out of the Hall, actually headed for the front door and the grounds, when the Serjeant-at-Arms appeared suddenly out of nowhere, to block my way. I stopped, reluctantly, and glared at him.

“Really not in the mood, Cedric,” I said.

“You rarely are. But the family comes first. Always.”

“What do you want?”

“The Matriarch has decided on a new official policy for all field agents,” said the Serjeant. “And you are back with us, as a field agent, are you not?”

“For now,” I said darkly.

“From now on, all agents operating in the field must keep in regular contact with the family, through an individual designated handler. That means regular updates, a steady flow of two-way information, and readiness to obey new orders and instructions as necessary.”

“I don’t need a handler!”

“It has been decided,” said the Serjeant. “All agents in the field. No exceptions.”

“I used to have a handler,” I said. “Penny. She was murdered by Mister Stab.”

“After you brought him into the Hall,” said the Serjeant.

“Don’t push your luck, Cedric,” I said. “Really. Don’t.”

“Your new handler is Kate,” said the Serjeant. “She’s on line now, waiting to talk to you.”

“Hi!” said a bright and cheerful young voice, through my torc. “I’m Kate! I’m right here! Think of me as your backup and support, Eddie. I’m here to see that you have whatever you need. I can provide information, weapons, and tech, and even have the cavalry ready to ride in at a moment’s notice. But you need to keep me updated on everything that’s happening, Eddie, so I can learn to anticipate your needs. Oh, I just know we’re going to have such fun, working together!”

“Oh, this can only go well,” I said.