A unique blend of espionage thrills and Lovecraftian horror, Hugo Award–winning author Charles Stross's Laundry Files continues with Quantum of Nightmares.
It’s a brave new Britain under the New Management. The avuncular Prime Minister is an ancient eldritch god of unimaginable power. Crime is plummeting as almost every offense is punishable by death. And everywhere you look, there are
people with strange powers, some of which they can control, and some, not so much.
Hyperorganized and formidable, Eve Starkey defeated her boss, the louche magical adept and billionaire Rupert de Montfort Bigge, in a supernatural duel to the death. Now she’s in charge of the Bigge Corporation—just in time to discover the lethal trap Rupert set for her long ago.
Wendy Deere’s transhuman abilities have gotten her through many a scrape. Now she’s gainfully employed investigating unauthorized supernatural shenanigans. She swore to herself she wouldn’t again get entangled with Eve Starkey’s
bohemian brother Imp and his crew of transhuman misfits. Yeah, right.
Mary Macandless has powers of her own. Right now she’s pretending to be a nanny in order to kidnap the children of a pair of famous, Government-authorized superheroes. These children have powers of their own, and Mary Macandless is in way over her head.
Amanda Sullivan is the HR manager of a minor grocery chain, much oppressed by her glossy blonde boss—who is cooking up an appalling, extralegal scheme literally involving human flesh.
All of these stories will come together, with world-bending results …
Release date: January 11, 2022
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 384
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Quantum of Nightmares
Mary MacCandless came up from the underground station, turned left onto Bayswater Road, crossed the busy junction with Park Lane, and stopped to admire the glass and chrome skull rack on Tyburn.
It was a rainy day in mid-December, and a chilly breeze rattled the gibbet cages at each corner of the structure. The construction scaffolding had only just come down, revealing the gleaming tzompantli. It wrapped around Marble Arch, embraced and extending it in the instantly recognizable style of one of the most famous British architects of the twentieth century. Most of the niches on the rack were still empty, but several lonely heads stared eyelessly down from the top row.
“Read all abah’t the crims ’oo went up last week!” shouted a street hawker, selling glossy, printed commemorative magazines wrapped in a plastic caul: “Read all abah’t their evil deeds an’ sad’n’pathetic last moments! Free DVD with every copy! Virtual reality view of every execution! Only twelve pounds fifty, collect ’em all!”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Mary smiled saucily and handed the fellow a dodgy twenty-pound note. He didn’t check it before he made change: more fool him. “Cheery-bye!” she called as she stuffed the purchase in her messenger bag and sashayed off towards her job interview, richer by seven pounds fifty.
Central London was the stomping ground of nobs and toffs these days. Only the obscenely wealthy could afford to live here, much less own a house big enough to accommodate a live-in nanny. That, in Mary’s opinion, made any such employers fair game. Admittedly the Mr. and Mrs. Richy McRichface she was here to fleece lived in a tied house that came with their job-share, but it was the principle that mattered. Anyway, they were both on the same pay scale as a Deputy Chief Constable, which meant they had to be loaded or at least well-insured. The Boss had given Mary a fat dossier on her targets, and Mary had done due diligence. Never take a job at face value without checking the Information was her watchword, and to date it had kept her from dancing the Tyburn tango. As far as she could tell the Boss’s briefing was accurate. But then, he hadn’t taken over London’s supernatural underground by leaving anything to chance.
The wind had strengthened to something between a brisk breeze and an all-out blow by the time Mary opened the gate, marched up the short path to Number Seventeen, and rang the doorbell. She waited and waited, and waited some more: and while she waited she got herself into character. She was about to push the bell for a second time when the porch door opened.
“I’ve got it!” the big, red-faced bloke in sweatpants and polo shirt holding the door shouted over his shoulder. He turned to face Mary without really seeing her: “Just a mo!” he said, and pushed the inner door half-shut—“Need to get the rabble under control—”
A scream and a crash of breaking crockery echoed through the house, followed by a rising and falling wail of tantrum tears. “Right!” shouted a woman. “That’s it! Robert, Lyssa, your father will—no dear, come here, Mummy’s going to kiss it better, and you can just sit there in the naughty corner so I can keep an eye on you, young man no stop that—”
A Supermarine Spitfire the size of Mary’s hand zoomed towards her face, buzzing like a rabid hornet. Without thinking, she plucked it out of the air. For a moment the buzzing rose to a febrile howl: tiny sparks erupted from its gun ports, stinging her palm. “Horrid thing!” She crushed it like a wasp, then brushed the smoking remains into her bag, ignoring the blood leaking from under the shattered cockpit canopy. Straightening up, she confronted Mr. Banks. “I can see I’m just in time! The agency were absolutely right to call me.”
Mr. Banks opened the door a fraction wider. A harried eye scanned her up and down with a policeman’s assessing gaze. “Who are you?”
“Mary Drop at your service!” She held out her hand. “From the nanny agency,” she added, in case it wasn’t entirely obvious that nannying was the name of her game. (It never paid to assume the mark was on the ball.) “I gather you have a number of small problems…?”
“Yes, four of them.” Mr. Banks’s shoulders relaxed slightly as he pulled the door open: “Come in, come right in, you’re just in the nick of time!”
Mary’s experienced eye took in the four suitcases lined up inside the door, the carry-on with passports and boarding passes in an unzipped outer pocket, and the high-pitched wails emanating from the kitchen door. “You’re going away right now?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Business conference,” Mr. Banks said grimly. “Unfortunately Sylvia waited until this morning to inform us that she’d had enough of our shit and we were fired.” His finger-quotes made clear his disbelief that a professional nanny could use such uncouth language in front of her charges. “She had her bag packed before I put the morning coffee on. Didn’t even wait for breakfast. I’m so glad you were available at short notice—”
“Yes, well, they sent me because this sort of situation is exactly my speciality.” Which was perfectly true, although the they in question weren’t the nanny agency Mr. and Mrs. Banks used. “It’s just lucky I’m available at short notice, isn’t it?” Mary smirked. She recognized the Boss’s hand at work in the sudden departure of her predecessor. “All’s well that ends well, I always say, so if you’d show me inside and introduce me to your wife and the little ones I’ll just get settled in, shall I?”
“Yes, indeed.” Mr. Banks paused and looked at her messenger bag curiously. “Is that all you’re bringing?”
“I left my suitcase with the Left Luggage company in Paddington. I can pick it up later, once you’re on your way.” She raised her hat and fanned her face with it. The house felt overheated after the chill of the pre-Christmas rain, and her coat was buttoned to her chin. “Going somewhere nice, I hope?”
“A conference in Hawaii—it’s a business trip. Our flight leaves in four hours: we should be back a week on Wednesday.” A shadow crossed Mr. Banks’s face. “Trudy?”
“Coming, dear!” Mrs. Banks swayed into the hall, thrown off-balance by the toddler she was carrying on one hip. Mr. and Mrs. Banks were both in their early forties, tall and well-toned from the gym. Trudy Banks wore a worried expression, and the grooves worn in her forehead suggested it was a perpetual state of existence for her. The little girl’s face was buried against the side of her neck like an infant vampire, but her quivering shoulders signalled manipulative sobbing rather than sanguinary suckling. Long blonde hair, party dress, mismatched socks: Mary could tell at a glance she was going to be a handful. “I take it Sylvia didn’t dress them before she left?” Mary unslung her bag and offered her arms.
Trudy gratefully handed over her daughter. “This is Emily,” she introduced. “Emily, this is—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
“I’m Mary Drop,” said Mary. She addressed Emily directly: “And I’m going to take really good care of you while Mummy and Daddy are away!” Emily emitted an overblown thespian sob and met Mary’s gaze with a coldly assessing stare. Mary smiled—not her real smile, the one that scared crocodiles, but the child-friendly version—and pulled Emily closer. “The usual agency terms and conditions apply,” she told the little girl’s parents out of the corner of her mouth. “But I’m definitely not going anywhere for at least two weeks. Hopefully longer.” In her inside pocket, the charmed amulet the Boss had loaned her grew warm as it worked extra-hard to reinforce the Bankses’ belief in her bona fides, pushing the message: no need for references, nothing to see here, move along now.
“We’re sorted, then,” said Trudy, her gratitude palpable. “I’ve left a to-do list with the Amazon and Waitrose delivery service passwords on the kitchen table, along with a spare set of keys. There’s a folder labelled NANNY for you to read. Let me introduce you to Elissa—she answers to Lyssa—Ethan, and Robert—who doesn’t answer to Bob—then we’ve really got to go, our Uber is on its way.” She was already pulling on an overcoat better suited to a rainy winter in St John’s Wood than an international summit meeting of state-licensed superheroes in Hawaii. “You’ll call us if there are any problems, won’t you? Any problems at all, any time of day or night. Oh, and Robert sleepwalks sometimes, just so you know.”
Mary smiled and nodded, her grin as fixed as any of the death masks fronting the skulls on the Marble Arch Tzompantli. Emily clung to her like grim death: the little girl had fallen silent, as though she realized that the bogeywoman was no longer hiding under the bed but had come out to play in broad daylight. “You have absolutely nothing to be concerned about!” she assured Nigel and Trudy Banks, Captain Colossal and the Blue Queen, senior line superheroes by appointment of the London Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s office. “I’ll take good care of them, you’ll see!”
And because she told them no lies, Mr. and Mrs. Banks lapped it up.
Easy as stealing candy from a baby, Mary MacCandless told herself, and her smile was almost sincere.
* * *
Nearly a week had passed since Rupert’s premature death had deprived Eve of one of her long-anticipated life goals—his murder. By stealing a cursed magical tome, her scumbag boss had discovered a new and entirely original way to commit suicide. Admittedly Eve had helped him along the way by not pointing out the consequences of his reckless greed and stupidity, but Rupert was, well, Rupert. If he hadn’t been a self-entitled wanker who treated his employees as serfs and sex toys she might have made a token attempt to stop him: but then again, pigs might fly.
Meanwhile, the cuckoo clock in Rupert’s office was striking thirteen, and Eve was thoroughly perturbed.
One benefit of having spent years planning his murder was that Eve knew exactly what to do afterwards. She was in theory employed as Rupert de Montfort Bigge’s executive assistant. But within the organization, especially during his frequent unexplained absences, she spoke with his voice: everybody was used to seeing her hand on the tiller. It wasn’t as if she was underqualified. She had degrees in business and economics, was licensed to trade on the London Stock Exchange, and had much the same responsibilities as a corporate vice president. She was also a highly competent sorceress. Only a man as arrogant and self-entitled as Rupert would dream of introducing her to his cronies as his secretary, much less impose on someone so dangerous for personal services of a degrading and humiliating nature.
Rupert was fabulously corrupt and equally fabulously wealthy, and the Bigge Organization was essentially a gigantic wealth management/private equity front he’d created to manage the fortunes he’d stolen. He still contributed to the bottom line by means of certain disgusting occult practices, but he was increasingly distant from the day-to-day running of his corporation these days, leaving it to Head Office to coordinate operations and manage his investments. Which, in practice, meant Eve.
While Rupert was out of the picture, Eve kept the Bigge Organization ticking over smoothly. And the week after his “departure” she cultivated the office grapevine even more assiduously than usual. There were the usual rumors about depraved parties in the castle on Skaro (a small channel island which he had purchased along with its feudal lordship), and Eve encouraged these. There was also discreet speculation about Rupe being in rehab again. Eve nodded sagaciously, then changed the subject in an implicitly confirmatory manner. Snooping on the coffee station at HQ—she’d taken personal control over Rupe’s workplace spy cameras and microphones—she very carefully determined that there were no rumors about a missing concordance to the Necronomicon, a disappearing hitman, or the shenanigans of several second-tier supervillains. It appeared her veil of operational security was intact. So the morning after his demise she activated her coverup plan.
Eve reported his disappearance to the authorities. She’d been obliging but unhelpful to the officers from New Scotland Yard, giving them plenty of inconclusive leads to investigate. They were looking for bloated bodies off the coast of Guernsey: but also asking about new inpatients at a small and very exclusive clinic in Bulgaria, not to mention considering the possibility that a certain former US Navy SEAL turned mercenary had gone rogue and disposed of his boss. (The mercenary in question was known to have a James Bond fixation, going so far as to ape the fictional spy’s taste in tailoring and borrow Rupe’s Aston-Martin.) It was all quite perplexing, and the detectives had thanked her and gone on their way nursing the missing-billionaire-sized headaches she’d laid in their minds like the confabulated eggs of a parasitic wasp of the imagination.
As the executive assistant of a billionaire, Eve expected and got the kid-glove treatment. Nobody so much as hinted that she herself might be under suspicion. So, two days later, Eve set in motion the legal machinery to have Rupert declared missing; and today, at noon precisely, in custody of the access codes he’d left copies of in the Chief Legal Counsel’s safe, she entered his office without an invitation for the very first time.
The cuckoo clock was getting on her nerves.
Rupert’s den was deceptively airy and open in feel despite being part of a London town house. From the thick, hand-woven carpet to the polished oak of his eighteenth-century admiralty desk, everything about the room was coded for ostentatious luxury. Portraits of Messrs. and Ladies de Montfort and Bigge from centuries past adorned the walls—one of them, if Eve’s eyes weren’t deceiving her, was a John Singer Sargent. There was nothing so gauche as an in tray or a computer terminal on the desk. Rupe’s sole concessions to modernity were his smartphone (lost in Neverland, along with its owner) and a 72-inch curved monitor bolted to the wall above a transplanted and entirely nonfunctional Adam fireplace, the better to spy on his minions.
All of which made the presence of a prime-number-tweeting Black Forest souvenir even more incongruous. Not only was it committing an offense against timekeeping, it was out of place in Rupert’s personal space. Rupert’s taste in decor was unrelentingly bad, but it wasn’t that kind of bad. And Eve couldn’t abide inconsistencies: they made her itch.
“Reception? Put me through to Facilities,” she announced.
“You called, Miss?” Her bluetooth headset was all but surgically grafted to her ear: she wore it from rising to bed, and the rotating team of receptionists upstairs were trained to respond to her instantly.
“I’m in Rupert’s office. There’s a cuckoo clock in here. Email me its inventory record, please, I want to know where it came from.” It was probably a present from one of his drinking buddies, but you never knew with Rupert. It might be evidence of some sort of ghastly crime, publicly displayed in mockery of the police. “That’s all for now.” She ended the call, then glanced at her watch. She had eight minutes until an upcoming conference call with Acquisitions and Mergers. She was due to take it in her own office, a small, austere cell buried in the subbasement beneath Rupert’s expansive den. She glowered at the clock as she stalked towards the door. “I’ll deal with you later,” she warned it repressively as she gazed around the room, searching for overlooked hiding places. And a moment later, she forgot all about the clock.
One of Rupert’s nastier hobbies was collecting documentary evidence of other people’s misdeeds. They were papers so weighty that they bent light around them, like the gravity well of a black hole. They had to be somewhere, and knowing Rupe—no one knew him better than she—he’d have stashed them in a secret place only he could get at. But—again, knowing Rupert—they’d be close to hand. So Eve had wasted almost an entire hour of her incredibly valuable time hunting for the private safe she knew had to be somewhere in here.
It wasn’t on any of the architectural drawings she had access to. She’d never seen it, never even been told as a certainty that it existed—she’d simply inferred its existence by the absence of certain files from the main office vault. Eve surmised that he’d hired an expert craftsman to install a hidden safe in his office, then, like a jealous Pharaoh guarding his inner tomb, murdered them to ensure they took the secret to their grave.
Rupert’s personal safe was full of secrets, secrets that could kill. But Rupert had gone to his grave without telling Eve where it was, and she wouldn’t be entirely happy until she had them under her own lock and key.
Copyright © 2021 by Charles Stross
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