It’s no walk in the bloody park, being a Drood—one of the family who has protected ordinary humanity from the things that go bump in the night for centuries. We’re not much liked—even by one another. Now our Matriarch is dead. Murdered. Maybe by one of us. Maybe not. It’s been left up to me, Eddie Drood, to figure out whodunit.
That’s not going to be easy. You see, opinion is divided evenly between two camps of thought: those who think the killer was Molly, my best girl, and those who think the killer was actually me. And I know for a fact that I didn’t do it.
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PREVIOUSLY IN THE SECRET HISTORIES . . .
The name’s Bond. Shaman Bond.
You can mention that name anywhere in the darker parts of London, and someone will smile ruefully, or nod knowingly. Shaman Bond is a well-known face—always turning up when things get dangerous or a little bit weird; always ready for action, intrigue and a little illegal fun. Always there on the edges, where the games get strange and the night people dance to their own peculiar piper. Everyone at work or at play in society’s shadows knows Shaman Bond.
Except, they don’t.
I’m Eddie Drood, and Shaman Bond is just my use name—a mask for me to wear in public, to hide who and what I really am.
I’m a field agent for the ancient and mighty Drood family. We stand between Humanity and all the dark forces that threaten. We defend you from aliens and elves, mad scientists and their monsters, secret organisations and ancient inhuman enemies. Ever since my Druid ancestors first made contact with an other-dimensional entity called the Heart, who made them the protectors of Humanity by granting them incredible golden armour.
It was only very recently that I discovered the awful price my family paid for that armour, and was still paying, centuries later. I destroyed the Heart, to save my family’s soul. Now we have new armour, provided by a new other-dimensional entity. Called Ethel. I really don’t want to talk about that.
I saved the family from itself, and for my sins they put me in charge, but I was never happy with that much responsibility. First chance I got I dumped it all on someone else, and went back to being just a field agent again. One of the best, if I do say so myself.
But—the Man from U.N.C.L.E. had to contend with agents of THRUSH. James Bond had SPECTRE. So it really shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me, that a family as ancient and powerful as mine might have its own very dark shadow . . .
The Return of Doctor Delirium
In the secret agent business, no one is necessarily who or what they say they are. It comes with the job, and the territory. Agents in the field collect names and identities the way normal people collect credit cards; and just like you, we all have to pay the cost when the bill comes due. Use names are common, if only to help us avoid the consequences of our actions. I’m Shaman Bond as often as I’m Eddie Drood. In fact, a lot of the time I think I prefer being Shaman; he doesn’t have the duties and responsibilities of being a Drood.
And it’s not just us poor bastards risking our lives out in the field—no organisation is ever what it appears to be, when seen from the outside. They all have levels within levels, inner circles and hidden agendas, and the left hand is never allowed to know who the right hand is killing. Like the onion, there are layers within layers within layers, and sometimes, just like the onion, we have no heart.
The Droods are a family, as well as an organisation. Anything for the family, we are taught to say, from a very early age. And if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?
It’s always hot as hell in Los Angeles, but that’s just one of the reasons why the natives call it Hell A. On the one side you’ve got Hollywood, where all your dreams can come true, including all the really disappointing ones; and on the other side you’ve got Disneyland, where dreams are up for sale, or at least rent. And in between . . . there’s all the sin and avarice in the world, just waiting for you to put a foot wrong. Everyone who matters turns up in LA eventually, because LA is a city that deals in temptation. Especially for the kind of people who like to think they’re above the laws and moral constraints that operate in the rest of the world. Las Vegas deals in money, New York deals in deals, but LA deals in sin.
Hollywood is the town where people will sell their soul for a three picture deal; or a sit down with a big name producer; or just for a walk-on in a popular sitcom. Hardly surprising, then, that the place is full of people ready to buy as well as sell. You can buy anything in LA, if you’re prepared to pay the price. Dreams come cheap in Hollywood, because there’s a glut on the market.
I arrived in Los Angeles on a commercial air flight, under the Shaman Bond name. Business class, so as not to draw attention. You have to keep up the character, as well as the name, and Shaman Bond had never gone first class in his life. Ordinarily, I would have simply activated the Merlin Glass, and stepped from the family Hall in England to my destination in Los Angeles, but apparently using a major magical item that powerful would set off all kinds of alarm bells, among all the wrong people. And since I was supposed to be operating under the radar on this one, I did it the hard way. And made a point of keeping all my receipts. The family’s been coming down really hard on expense claims recently; just because a few of us have been known to be a little . . . creative, on occasion.
And I am here to tell you, fourteen hours cooped up in a plane gives you a whole new insight into air rage.
To my surprise, Los Angeles turned out to look exactly like it does on all the television shows. Brilliant blue sky, towering palm trees, more fast-moving traffic than the mind can comfortably cope with, and a sun so hot it’s like stepping into a blast furnace. My bare skin actually smarted from contact with the sunlight, so I grabbed the nearest taxi and told the very laid-back driver to take me to the Magnificat Hotel in Anaheim.
The driver just grunted, took a long drag on his hand-rolled, and steered the taxi straight into the thundering traffic with a casual disregard for road safety, and indeed survival, that took my breath away. The driver was big and black and uncommunicative. He’d covered the inside of his cab with assorted voodoo charms, pictures of the saints, and a whole bunch of severed chicken feet. More feathers and fetishes dangled from the roof. I would have settled for one of those little green pine things. I wondered whether I should inform the driver that I knew for a fact more than half his collection was complete and utter bullshit. I decided against it.
I was going to Anaheim, not Hollywood. Anaheim is on the whole other side of town, as far as you can get from the glamour and the ballyhoo and still be in the same city. There was a Disneyland park, which I hoped to visit if I got the chance. If only to chat up Snow White. (Boyhood crushes are a terrible thing.) Still, despite all my best intentions, I was just a bit overawed at being in a city I knew only from films and television. We passed off-ramp signs, for places like Echo Beach and Mulholland Drive, names the whole world knew. It was like seeing road signs to Narnia and Oz.
I was in Los Angeles to meet up with the local field agent, Luther Drood. I didn’t know the man, but then, it’s a large family, and field agents by their very nature don’t come home much. In fact, it’s the reason why most of us become field agents. Luther had made Los Angeles his home for more than twenty years, and despite all the good work he’d done, there was always the chance he’d gone native. Nothing like being a big fish in a small pond to make you forget all about the sharks who operate in the larger world.
I was supposed to meet Luther at the Magnificat, the single biggest hotel in LA, opening tomorrow morning in a gala ceremony at nine a.m., sharp. But Luther and I had business to attend to in the Magnificat today, and how we got on would decide whether there would be any grand opening tomorrow. Whenever possible, I like to get in, do the job, and get out again without being noticed, but given the nature of the job, sometimes fire, general mayhem and extensive property damage are just unavoidable side effects.
The taxi driver fixed me in his rearview mirror with his calm, steady gaze. “So, man, are you an actor, or a writer?”
“Neither,” I said firmly.
There was a long pause, as he tried to get his head around such a novel concept. “Hell, man, everyone here is either an actor, or a writer. Or a producer. Everything else is just what you do to pay the bills, till the big break comes around. You’re a Brit, right? Love the accent. You guys make the best villains . . . So, are you a producer? Because I got this killer screenplay, guaranteed to do major business. All about this guy who can turn invisible, but only when he’s naked . . . You don’t like that one? Okay, how about this for high concept— James Bond meets Alien!”
“Been there, done that,” I said. “Just drive.”
And there must have been something in my voice, because he sniffed loudly, shut up, and fixed his gaze on the road ahead. He turned his music up loud, which seemed to consist mainly of bass beats, heavy grunts and extensive use of the word “ho.” I didn’t think it had anything to do with the song from Snow White. Unless one of the dwarves was called Shouty.
We hadn’t been driving long before we hit hard traffic. Every lane was full, in every direction, and everyone had ground to a halt. There was a lot of bad-tempered horn abuse, and even more harsh language. My driver just sat back in his seat and rolled up another fat one, quite content to sit there as long as it took, and watch his fare rise. I wasn’t. I had work to be about, and a deadline to meet. So I got out of the taxi, paid off the driver, (including a tip nicely calculated to spoil his whole day without inciting actual violence), and walked up the highway, strolling in and out of the parked cars. And no one saw me, because I had armoured up and invoked stealth mode.
The marvellous armour of the Droods flowed out of the golden torc around my throat, and covered me in a moment from head to toe, like a second skin. The awful heat was cut off in a moment, the unbreathable smog was filtered into air fresh as a spring morning, and I felt stronger, smarter, and fully alive for the first time. And, more importantly, I was pretty much invulnerable to anything the world could throw at me. (I say pretty much, because no one’s actually tested it against a nuclear blast, or a full-on faerie curse . . . but the family Armourer was working on that.) With the armour in stealth mode, I couldn’t be seen by anyone or anything, including all kinds of electronic surveillance. (I’ve never been too sure how that actually works; presumably the torc rewrites the signal, to edit me out. The Armourer did try to explain how the strange matter in my torc works, and I had to go and lie down in a darkened room for several hours.)
I strolled in and out of the parked cars, resisting the urge to strike down some of the louder and more obnoxious drivers with an invisible fist round the ear, and quickly decided it was in everyone’s best interests if I got out of there as fast as possible. So I broke into a run, moving faster and faster as the incredible strength of my armoured legs kicked in. The cars became just a blur as I got up to speed, shooting in and out of gaps in a split second, thanks to my speeded-up reflexes. I was laughing into my featureless golden mask now, arms pumping easily at my sides as I really hit my stride. The world was just a smear of colours, every sound dopplering down behind me, and I wasn’t even breathing hard. My family has the best toys in the world.
Soon enough I was past the pileup that had caused all the congestion, and was sprinting in and out of moving traffic. Cars and trucks and bikes roared along, filling all the lane space available, and I had to slow down or risk running right over them. Reflexes are great, but they’re no match for an idiot behind the wheel, of which Los Angeles has more than its fair share. I got fed up dodging drivers who changed lane with no warning and no signal, so I waited for a lengthy articulated to come along, raced along beside it to match speeds, and then jumped up onto its roof. My armoured legs sent me flying through the air, and then absorbed the impact on landing so completely the articulated’s driver never even knew I was there. I struck a heroic pose that no one could see, just because, and surfed the articulated all the way to Anaheim.
I got hit by an awful lot of insects, but the armour just absorbed them.
When we finally got to Anaheim, I switched from vehicle to vehicle, riding the roofs as I followed the street map I’d memorised, and jumped off a block short of the Magnificat. I found a quiet side street, and armoured down when no one was looking. And just like that, I was just another tourist, wandering happily down the street. The air was blisteringly hot again, and so thick with pollution you could practically chew the stuff, but that’s what you get for living in the real world. No one paid me any attention as I joined the throng in the main street, heading for the Magnificat. There’s nothing memorable in my appearance. I’ve gone to great pains to appear to be just another face in the crowd. Field agents are trained to blend in, and not be noticed. It’s a useful skill for a field agent, not looking like anyone in particular. The last thing you want in this business is to be noticed or remembered.
Even when I was still a long way off, I could see the Magnificat Hotel. It was the tallest building for miles, a massive steel and glass block that towered over everything else, effortlessly dominating the scene without a single trace of character or style in its appearance. The neon sign with the hotel’s name was almost brutally ugly. Everything about the building shouted that it was there to serve a purpose, nothing more. All very efficient, but a total pain in the arse to look at. Ugly buildings are like ugly women—you can’t help feeling someone should have made more of an effort. I said this to my girlfriend Molly once, and she hit me. I’ve got a lot more careful about what I say out loud since I acquired a girlfriend. I still think things, though. Sometimes very loudly.
Luther Drood was already there, waiting. He looked exactly like the photo in his file, except even more tanned, if that were possible. Luther was a tall, heavily built man in his late forties, wearing a baggy Hawaiian shirt over blindingly white shorts, and a pair of designer flip-flops. He had a broad, lined face, with close-cut grey hair and a bushy grey moustache. He was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at nothing, smoking a large cigar as though it was the most important thing in his world. But people just walked right past him, paying him no attention at all . . . because he had a mobile phone at his ear. Those things are a godsend to the modern agent—the perfect excuse for just standing around, doing nothing.
Luther saw me approaching, put his phone away, and nodded easily to me. As though he saw me every day of the week. Typical LA native: cool and calm and so laid back it was a wonder he didn’t fall over. I stopped before him, gave him my own very cool and collected nod, threw in a quick smile for good measure, and offered him my hand. He clasped my pale offering in his large bronzed hand, and gave it a quick meaningless LA shake.
“Hi,” he said, in a deep and apparently sincere voice. “Welcome to LA. I’m Philip Harlowe.”
I gave him a look. “Does that fool anyone?”
“Does Shaman Bond?” He allowed me a small tight smile. He still hadn’t removed his cigar from his mouth. “Everyone knows use names are fakes, but the kind of people we have to deal with are only ever comfortable with masques and illusions. So better a false ID you know is fake, than a seemingly real name you know you can’t trust.”
“But we’re family,” I said. “You’re Luther and I’m . . .”
“Please.” He stopped me with a raised hand. “Everyone in the family, and everyone in the field, knows Eddie Drood. Your reputation proceeds you—like an oncoming missile.” He took a map out of his back pocket, and unfolded it. “Look at this. It isn’t important or even relevant, but maps make excellent cover. No one pays any attention to two tourists studying a map.”
He had a point. I stood beside him, and looked at the Magnificat over the top of the map. Luther finally removed his cigar, just for a moment, and blew a perfect smoke ring. If my Molly had been there, she would have turned it into a perfect square, just to put him in his place. I settled for giving him a hard look.
“I thought tobacco was forbidden in this health conscious, zero tolerance paradise?”
“That’s cigarettes,” Luther said easily. “Cigars are different. Only important people smoke cigars, and no one bothers important people in LA. Even a complete health nazi will light your cigar for you, if they thought you could get them a meeting.”
“My worst fears are realised,” I said sadly. “You’ve gone native.”
He raised an eyebrow. I’d never seen so much work go into the creation of such a bitingly sardonic gesture. I felt like applauding.
“At least I still serve the family,” said Luther. “I’ve never tried to run it. Or run away from it.”
I sighed, plucked the cigar out of his mouth, dropped it on the ground and stamped on it. Luther made a shocked, pained sound, as though I’d just shot his dog. I gave him my very best hard glare.
“Do you have a problem with my being here, Luther?”