'Well, in the first place, you're exaggerating about the cat litter, damn it,' Leonora said, tapping, with exaggerated care, the ash of her cigarette into one of Michael's horrid pentagonal crystal ashtrays.
When you are having a row about basic attitudes to life with your lover of six weeks, it would be dumb to desecrate his snowy carpet any more than you can help In the general run of things. Particularly when you bummed the cigarette in the first place, knowing that you would need it as a prop in the row that had seemed to be brewing from the moment you walked in.
'I am not exaggerating at all,' Michael said in a hurt voice, turning from his desk chair to turn down that crappy Dire Straits album he insisted on playing all the time - supposed to be the Best Of, but how could they tell? - and posing himself against the window so as to appear to the best advantage against the sunset and the northern curve of the river.
'Yes, you are,' she said. 'You're always doing it, pushing things to extremes in order to put other people in the wrong.'
'Sometimes I wonder about you,' Michael said. 'You have this paranormal ability.'
'Leonora Norton,' he went on. 'Captain Conscience, the girl who almost makes men feel guilty.' In between embarrassment, irritation, and relief that he obviously knew nothing, she wondered whether he realized that, in order to get the full effect of his beauty, she was having to squint as she looked at him, and whether this was the object of the exercise, to make her the less devastating of the pair of them. Her eyes were her best feature, she had always thought, even through thick glasses, and not at their best, squinting.
'What's worse,' he said, 'is that you make people feel guilty for your faults, not theirs, so that they don't notice what a leech you are.'
Bum a cigarette, she thought, and the next thing is they complain about feeling drained, poor babies.
'It is not possible, in logic,' she said, 'that you can actually believe that somehow particles of cat litter adhere to my person for the whole of a working day, only to dislodge themselves the moment I get into your flat. Or is the theory that I bring them round specially, in a small paper bag, and spread them when you are fixing drinks, in order to cause you grief, or remind myself of home?'
There was no point, she thought, in pushing her luck and trying to reduce the real explanation to absurdity before it could occur to him.
'I don't talk about your faults,' she said, looking at his desk and the three monitors whose dead screens glared across the room at her. 'I mean, I know you love your silly old computers more than you love me.'
'I don't,' he said unconvincingly.
'Yes, you do,' she said. 'You talk baby-talk to them when you think I'm asleep.'
To her surprise, he blushed.
'It's just a way of encouraging them,' he said, 'a way of getting results. You don't mock people for talking to their house-plants.'
'I do,' she said. 'And you don't have any plants.'
She looked around the vast bare expanse of his living room. What is the point, she reflected, of having all this money if you don't spend it on any furniture worth having, or of living in a spacious apartment if you don't fill it up with things?
Mind you, he works so hard, poor lamb, that he's never free when furniture shops are open; and he lives out here, where there're probably no shops anyway except for garden centres. That probably explains why his chairs and sofa aspire to the conditions of raffia and wrought-iron respectively.
'I don't know how or why you bring all the mess into my flat,' Michael said. 'And I don't much care. It's disgusting, that's all. I do like you; but I can't bear the squalor you live in, and I can't bear the idea of your importing it into my space. What's the point of my not coming round to your flat and protecting our relationship from my natural distaste, if it's just going to mean that my flat inexorably turns into the kitchen midden you inhabit? It has got to stop now, and if it doesn't, we will.'
Leonora was starting to become mildly irritated. Why should she put up with this anal little twerp just because be had a niceish body and a slightly interesting mind and lots of money to spend in over-priced restaurants? How dare he think that gave him the right to lecture her on hygiene? She was so angry that she almost did not notice a sharp pain in her left buttock.
She jumped up, having noticed it.
'You can't bear the truth, can you?' he said.
'Truth is the one important thing in my life,' she said.
'Oh, no, it isn't,' he said. 'One reference to the appalling mess you have made of your life, and your flat, and your pathetic little articles on history, and you run screaming from the room.'
There was no point in explaining that she had merely stood up to get away from the jabbing of his rotten straw chairs, and so she headed for the door. The relationship was probably time-expired at this point, and there is such a thing as dignity.
'You know nothing about my life,' she said. 'Fucking is not expertise.'
As she walked towards the front door, pausing only to grab her bag and her coat, two large broken paper-clips and a torn-off piece of newspaper fell out of the bottom of the left leg of her Calvin Kleins.
'See,' Michael said, 'bloody see. You spread rubbish wherever you go. It just falls off you, like dandruff.'
She paused and picked up the rubbish, walked over, dumped it in the ashtray and continued to leave.
'Fuck off, pencil dick,' she said. There is no point in being verbally elegant at such moments.
There is a time when the important thing is just to leave. It is part of such times that you honour custom and slam the door; when she did so, something detached itself from the inside of the door frame and fell to earth with a gratifying set of clinks. He never did fix the security chain properly.
As Leonora turned from the door, she more or less collided with two men in grey suits, who stood outside poised, as if to knock. The younger man was Sharpe, an obnoxious young man from the Department of Paranormal Resources who, she remembered, thought he was cleverer than he was.
'I have nothing to say to you people,' she said. 'As you yourself said, Sharpe, last time we met, the Department generate enough crap of their own already, without needing me.'
'Hello, Miss Norton,' said the older of the two men, flashing a folder that contained a police warrant card, but that also identified him as working for the DPR. 'How convenient. We were going to have to come and see you later.'
'But I just said -' Leonora said.
'Later, I said,' the policeman continued, 'after we speak to Mr Sinden. Nothing you need worry about, Miss Norton; just one or two minor questions. It's Chummy we need to talk to. There's just a few facts I'd like clarified.'
'We have an interesting proposition to put to him,' Sharpe said.
'He's in trouble, then,' she said, reining her mild interest back from the point of tottering into glee.
'I really couldn't say, Miss Norton,' the elder said. 'That hasn't been established.'
'Tell me, miss,' he continued. 'Has he given you any very expensive presents lately? Or proposed extended stays in exotic locations?'
Leonora looked at him, baffled.
'I see,' he said.
'I don't,' she said. 'What's going on?'
'Oh,' he said. 'Nothing you need worry about. It's just one of those things that happen sometimes, in the City, that we and the Department get called in on. Nothing anyone need worry about.'
'Oh,' she said. 'You don't mean Michael is a paranormal to. You know, I'd never thought of there being paranormals in the City; one thinks of us as being either wonderfully useless or highly decorative, not as men in suits shouting into phones and staring into computer screens and boring themselves into hypnotic trances.'
'Well,' said Sharpe, 'actually, that doesn't seem to be the problem at all. Rather the reverse, actually.'
'Interesting case,' the older man said. 'Don't know whether he even knows he does it.'
'Gosh,' she said. 'He did say that it was like talking to plants to make them grow. Surely that's impossible, though. I mean, there has to be a mind for you to hypnotize, doesn't there?'
'Well, that's another thing,' Sharpe said.
'I can tell you this, Miss Norton,' the older man said, 'because you're practically family, as far as the Department is concerned. And you signed the Official Secrets Act back when you registered. Besides, you are his girl-friend.'
'I am afraid,' said Leonora, 'that you are under a misapprehension. Mr Sinden and I have parted company.'
'What was it?' Sharpe said. 'The state of your flat? Or those idiotic articles you write in History Today?'
Leonora looked at him.
'Shut up, Sharpe,' said the older man.
'Oh, don't worry,' she said. 'Sharpe came around to my flat in the old days, trying to sniff his way into the family mystique, and, if he has been there more recently, well, I take it for granted that people like you enter flats illegally as a matter of course. And I have nothing to hide.'
'Whatever government or the police do, miss,' said the older man, 'is no business of yours, and he has no business talking about it.'
'Well, I'm sorry,' Sharpe said. 'But you've never had to go in there. There's the stuff you get on your shoes - stains the leather, you never get it off. And those cats, they're feral. Or psychotic.'
'No,' Leonora said, 'they're just not very used to strange men.'
'Unlike their mistress,' Sharpe said.
'Good enough for you,' said Leonora. 'In your time. And what's wrong with my articles?'
'I think they're dead offensive, particularly that last review,' said Sharpe. 'Paranormals need their history - you of all people should know that.'
'My dear little man,' she said. 'I have no objection at all to our having as much history as we can possibly I just insist that it be real history, and not all this Horvendile stuff.'
'I had a poster of Guy de Horvendile on my wall, when I was a kid,' he said. 'He was a gallant knight, a crusader.'
'Nonsense,' she said, 'he was a colonialist, and probably a racist. But he wasn't a paranormal. If paranormal have to have their own history, it should not be all this heritage crap that they keep making up to pretty up a shameful history of exploitation and oppression.'
'But what about your grandparents?' Sharpe said.
'Classic case,' Leonora said. 'They practically bred them when they were at Ditchley - then Orpington sacrificed her on some hare-brained scheme and put my grandfather to work on horror weapons until he went completely dotty and blew himself to offal. No heroism there, Mr Sharpe, and only an idiot would call it glamour.'
'You only take that attitude because you're practically unTalented yourself,' he said. 'A systematic definition of Talent would leave you out altogether.'
'Define away as you please,' Leonora said. 'I prefer to consider myself impractically Talented. Which keeps me out of the grips of people like you.'
She stalked away. So Michael was a paranormal, was he? And if it were true about the computers, well, at the very least, he'd be in endless demand; work the little so-and-so even further into the ground than he is already. After all, we're all Europeans now. They'll probably make him move to Strasburg and sit in boring meetings, where they probably have even more uncomfortable chairs, and they serve stinking cabbage in all the wine bars. She called the lift and got into it. She was still angry, but there is a time for swearing and walking out, and there is a time for calm reflection; he hadn't asked her for his keys back, and that should be worth dinner at least by the time he has had to conquer his embarrassment about having to ask for them other than in the heat of the moment.
And she had had a chance to sneer back at the awful Sharpe; it wasn't her bloody fault she could never control her power.
Honestly, these flats really are not worth the money they make you pay to live in them - there were dust rolls all over the corridor, fluttering off the floor like clumsy birds. Or maybe they were hers.
When she got out of the lift, she had to stop and take an insole out of her shoe - there seemed to be an extra one. Funny how they manage to get two stuck together and then one peels off and comes loose and gets all crumpled and uncomfortable suddenly under your foot. As she stood up straight again, she nearly twisted her ankle on a half-brick she had not noticed on the pavement. Honestly, this great ugly pseudo-ziggurat of a building - no class, no style and falling to pieces already.
She looked up in an attempt to see whence it had fallen - she really did hope it had fallen - and noticed one of the two men on Michael's balcony, waving to her.
She waved back. No point in being totally rude; if they have seen the contents of your knicker drawer, well, like the man said, they're practically family.
When she got to the local station, she had to wait for the silly little bus they have when the trains aren't running, which would be too much to expect, of course. Still, at least you're safe from muggers, because they're too smart to be here; yupps like Michael drive everywhere - he'd drive to the toilet if they let him have a car indoors - so it is only discarded girlfriends that are ever waiting for the bus. Or presumably boyfriends, if there are women or gay yupps, which there must be, logically. All human life is here in Yupptown; just no bloody buses. She pulled up the collar of her coat against the and reached in her pocket for a scarf. Then she thought better of putting it on, and used it to wipe her glasses stead.
'Sorry to trouble you, Miss Norton.' It was the policeman. People always jump out at you when you're not looking.
'What is it now?' she asked, putting her glasses back on, decisively. 'Any chance of getting this over before I end up missing the bus?'
'Probably not, miss,' he said. 'It seems like you may have to help us with one or two inquiries of your own, after all. I'd wanted to speak to you, anyway - I knew your mother, you know, oh, years ago.'
He opened the, briefcase he was carrying and displayed its contents. There were, all carefully bagged and numbered, a half-brick, a crumpled insole, some dust-bunnies; a quantity of what appeared to be cat litter, two broken paper-clips and the corner of what appeared to be a page of the Guardian.
'Could you explain these, miss?' he said. 'I read your old file, when it became clear you were involved in the case. Sharpe said the matter was closed, but, from what the records say, you really do generate an awful lot of power for someone who is supposed to be completely useless. So I had a look around Chummy's apartment. And guess what I found.'
I've no idea, officer,' Leonora said. 'It is officer, isn't it?'
'Yes, miss,' he said. 'Inspector Smithers to you. Late chief forensic divvy of the Art Squad, currently on secondment to the Spoonbenders. What with the Cranston business and the Marcias and all.'
'How nice,' she said, 'and you fly as well. In your spare time?'
'No, miss,' he said. 'I can't fly. Line of sight teleportation, if I've got a head wind.'
'Anyway,' she said, 'what has all this to do with me? And why are you showing me all this perfectly ordinary rubbish? As your friend so politely pointed out, I've got plenty of that sort of thing at home. I'm famous for it. As you know. Presumably the story from the Sun is in my file.'
'Excuse me, miss,' Smithers said, with dignity and not at all apologetically. 'That was nothing to do with me. I wasn't at the DPR back then.'
'Sharpe was,' Leonora said. 'And Lord Orpington.'
'Yes,' Smithers said. 'But the story in the Sun had nothing to do with them either. Hackforth-Fford was running the PR campaign then, and they were giving him a free hand.'
'Oh, yes,' Leonora said. 'And that story was entirely his decision, of course. Improve the DPR's image by getting everyone to laugh at the comic lefty paranorm with her silly power, while, brackets, reminding everyone of her heroic grandparents and what they gave for the nation, close brackets. Don't tell me Hackforth-Fford went into all that without Orpington's approval.
'It's all very regrettable, in hindsight,' Smithers said, 'but he did a lot of far more unpleasant things to people he didn't like.'
'To women he didn't like,' Leonora said.
'Well, yes,' said Smithers. 'But you've lived it down, haven't you?'
'It has not helped me find academic jobs in the middle of a recession,' said Leonora, 'to be notorious as Captain Kipple, the paranormal garbage lady.'
'Anyway,' Smithers said. 'I know you're an historian, studied for years, but you are not, forgive me, an expert. Whereas I am an expert. Didn't have to study, of course, nice thing about being a divvy.'
She looked at him, and he took it as encouragement.
'I mean, ordinary household rubbish, I don't think so, pardon me. This brick - take that - that's not brick. Anyone can see that - rose marble, that is. And that insole - kid leather that is, seventeenth-century with gold thread in it. I mean, that's rare - they didn't hardly use insoles in the seventeenth century. And the hairs in those dust-bunnies - mammoth, those are."
'Awfully small for mammoth, wouldn't you
'Eyelashes, miss,' he said. 'See for yourselL.'
He closed the case so only a slit was open; grudgingly. Leonora was unable to ignore the extent to which the paper-clips glowed in the dark.
'And take the newspaper. Go on, look at it.'
She looked at it through its baggie for some time, and then realized that the typography was slightly different, and it was called Le Gradien, Gardien surely, and the date was the 7th of Fructidor.
'Very interesting Talent, you've got there, I'd say, miss, even if it is completely useless,' he said. 'Really sloppy of them to miss the implications. I really should have gone down to your flat with Sharpe. Of course, we've got you registered from last time, so just pop round. Any time.'
When she got home, her cats were sitting on the doorstep, looking depressed, and her flat was preternaturally empty, They'd left her furniture and her books, but the comfortable odds and ends that always seemed to accumulate there, no matter how often she cleaned up, were missing.
Her neighbour, the one who sometimes complained, said that men from the government had been round in a a van and taken everything away in bin-liners. Leonora sat around being annoyed for several minutes, and noticed, to her not especial surprise, that the flat was half-an-inch deep already. She picked up the cork that had appeared by her left foot and sniffed. Not a good year.
The good thing about having had the DPR runaround before was that you knew to bring a good book along.
'Interesting, is it?' said Marcia the receptionist. 'Gavin never leaves me alone for five minutes at home, so I don't do much reading myself.'
'I would have thought,' Leonora said, 'that you could probably manage the odd page or two at the office. When you're not filing your nails or talking to yourself.'
'I do not talk to myself,' said Marcia.
'Yes, you do,' Leonora said, 'I've been listening to you do it all morning.'
'I never did,' Marcia said.
'On the telephone.'
'That's different,' Marcia said. 'You'd talk to yourself a lot if there were a lot of you.'
'You know,' Leonora said reflectively, 'I don't think I would. I think you probably like yourself more than I do.'
'If you'll pardon my saying so, Miss Norton,' Marcia said, 'you might like yourself more if you could try being less of a stuck-up cow, Miss Norton.'
'What do you mean?' Leonora said.
'Well, honestly,' Marcia said. 'You've been sitting here all morning, and this is the first word I've heard out of you apart from saying you were here for an appointment. You used to come round all the time, back in Peckham; I thought we knew each other enough to have a natter. I was quite looking forward to it.'
'Sorry,' Leonora said. 'I didn't realize you were that Marcia. I thought you were some other Marcia.'
'It really annoys me,' Marcia said. 'Ever since all that got out, in that magazine, no one treats any of us properly any more. We're not numbers, you know. It's not fair, really it isn't. I don't even think we look that much like each other. I was saying so to Gavin only the other night when we were over there.' 'I thought Gavin was your husband,' Leonora said. 'No, silly, not my Gavin,' said Marcia. 'Marcia's Gavin, him that's the brother of Marcia's Nigel.'
'So you're not all married to men called Gavin?' Leonora said.
'No, of course not,' Marcia said. 'Like I said, we're individuals. Seven of us are married to men called Justin.'
'Makes all the difference,' Leonora said.
'But of course we talk to each other a bit,' Marcia wen on, genetically impervious to irony. 'I mean, wouldn't you? After what happened to Marcia, and to Marcia.'
'What happened to Marcia, and Marcia?' Leonora asked.
'That's just what we don't know,' Smithers said, as he came through into the reception area.
'Someone hit Marcia in Batley over the head,' Marcia said.
'And someone tried to throttle Marcia in the Chelmsford office,' Smithers said. 'And they're both lying in hospital beds, gibbering with fear. Both of them managed to scrape cheap chromium plating under their nails in the course of the struggle. You don't see that sort of chrome finish any more, thank God; went out with tail fins.'
'I don't understand it, really I don't,' Marcia said. '1 mean, who could want to try to kill Marcia, or Marcia?'
Leonora did not feel called upon to say anything.
'Yes, well,' Smithers said. 'To other matters, miss. We don't actually need to talk to you about Mr Sinden. He owned up to everything.'
'I'd been meaning to ask you about that,' said Leonora. 'How did you get on to him in the first place?'
'It's the old story, miss,' Smithers said. 'His Psion organizer got jealous of his Filofax, and she grassed him up.'
'Well,' Leonora said. 'If you don't need me, I'll be off, then.'
'Oh, no, miss,' Smithers said, 'I'm sorry, but we really need more from you than that. After all, you are registered, and you have been getting our allowance, and there are those implications.'
The chair in the lead-glass isolation chamber was fairly uncomfortable, and the sense of being watched and measured was oppressive. There were cameras, and thermometers, and barometers, and all sorts of sophisticated machines whose purpose she could not begin to imagine. Several of them appeared to have stopped working, however. A discussion was proceeding outside; it was not clear that they meant the internal speakers to be on.
'Very interesting,' said the scientific evaluator, Jenkins. 'Hard to know what it is, though.'
'I'd have thought it very simple,' said Fredericks of the Department. 'Whenever she is upset, she generates rubbish. But we knew that years ago.'
'Yes, yes,' said Jenkins. 'But you don't understand. Smithers was quite right to go over your head and call us in. That's the trouble when you let bureaucrats decide what is useful and what isn't; God knows what it will be like when Brussels starts telling us who is Talented and who is merely paranormal. Merely, I ask you?'
'Absolute chaos,' Fredericks said, 'particularly if the Germans get their way, or the Italians. Hard to know which would be worse. The Germans want to derecognize anyone whose Talents aren't useful, and the Italians want to include people who can wiggle their ears or memorize Dante.'
'I mean, take Norton here,' Jenkins said. 'She isn't useful, never leaps buildings or anything, but she's fascinating. Look at her.' Fredericks declined this invitation, so Leonora stuck out her tongue.
Jenkins went on. 'Is it rubbish she takes from places all over the planet, adjusting their inertia in the process, or is it rubbish she steals from alternate universes, proving that they exist, by the way, or does she actually create matter? I can tell you that, apart from the massive display of psychic force Sharpe and Hackforth-Fford mentioned, there is absolutely no visible energy loss or gain in the area.'
'Until your monitors went down,' Fredericks said. 'What about after that?'
'They went down,' said Jenkins, 'because they are dust-sensitive. And so dust had to be being produced before they went down. And if no energy was lost or produced before the dust reached a concentration such that they went down, it is not likely it suddenly came into play afterwards. Think logically, man.'
'Actually,' said Fredericks, 'I'm more worried about the effect on the budget. Some of those monitors come dear.'
'Listen,' Jenkins said. 'This is the big time. Unless she is just shifting stuff round the world, which seems unlikely given the bits of newspaper, but would be a space drive, properly harnessed, she proves either alternate universes or continuous creation. That should be worth a Nobel or two, in anyone's money. That girl is gold dust, cosmologically speaking.'
'That's all very well,' Fredericks said. 'But my masters need something practical to interest them.'
'I'11 tell you one thing,' Jenkins said. 'I wouldn't be at all surprised if this had something to do with the Cranston effect.'
'That's entirely different,' Fredericks said. 'You're only saying it because she's his granddaughter and because you got that memorandum about the thefts.'
'No, look,' Jenkins said. 'He made machines that couldn't possibly work in our universe but did anyway; she generates, as rubbish, artefacts that shouldn't exist in our history.' Leonora got out of the chair and pushed open the door of the isolation chamber.
'What's all this about Cranston, and thefts?' she said. The phone rang. Jenkins lifted it up, listened a second and handed it to Leonora.
'It's only bloody Marcia,' he said.
'Just putting you through, Miss Norton,' Marcia said.
'When they've finished, miss,' Smithers said, 'we'd like you to come back over here, At once.'
'At once', in DPR speak, did not, of course, oblige anyone to pay any attention to Leonora. And she had left her book back in the isolation chamber. There was always Marcia; better her than the Reader's Digest for October 1973.
'They really won't be a minute, Miss Norton,' Marcia said.
'Oh, call me Leonora.'
'Can I?' said Marcia. 'That'll be nice.'
A silence fell.
'Do you enjoy being a receptionist?' Leonora asked.
'Not much,' Marcia said. 'But it gets me out of the house, is what Gavin says. Besides, they went to all that trouble, sending us to school. And to secretarial college; only fair we should contribute, isn't it?'
Leonora didn't think it was fair at all, but who was she to spread social unrest?
'Tell me,' said Marcia, 'I don't mean to pry ...'
Anyone who says that, thought Leonora, always does mean to pry.
'But have you got any kiddies?'
'No,' Leonora said. 'Have you?'
'Well, no,' Marcia said. 'I'd quite like to. Gavin worried it might not be a good idea.'
'Do you always do what Gavin says?' Leonora asked.
'Yes,' Marcia said. 'I don't believe in all this feminism; Marcia down on the switchboard does, even since Gavin tried to set her straight. Stuck-up cow - not surprising she never married. Anyway, Gavin did suggest we think about adopting, but it's not the same is it?'
'But why shouldn't you have a child, if you want one?'
'When we got married,' Marcia said, 'Lord Orpington gave us away, each of us, and he had a little word with Gavin, or Nigel, or Justin. They just don't want to take any chances.'
'I think that's outrageous,' Leonora said. 'Why on earth shouldn't you have a child?'
'Well,' Marcia said. 'You never know how they'd turn out. Suppose there was something wrong with Her, and they're not telling me.'
'Her?' Leonora said. 'Who?'
'The one Mr Cranston started from,' Marcia said.
'You know,' Leonora said. 'Even though I'm his grand-daughter, I never thought of that. Obvious, really. He had to get the cells from somewhere.'
As she spoke, there were heavy footsteps in the corridor and a vague smell of motor-oil. The door o crack, and a chrome nozzle poked through it. It wavered momentarily towards Leonora, and then jerked decisively towards the receptionist's desk.
'Duck,' Leonora said.
Marcia hurled herself sideways from the chair, and a streak of energy, whose afterglare left lurid green patches floating in front of Leonora's eyes for the next five minutes, left a patch of char on the institutional paint behind Marcia's chair. Outside there was metallic clattering, and something vaguely gun-like, with lenses, sights and several kinds of trigger, fell through the half-open door-way to the floor, where it fizzed away in a wasp-swarm of sparks. As Leonora rushed across the room, to check that Marcia was, all right, she heard footsteps clunk limpingly away down the corridor.
'Help,' she said, on the general principle of the thing.
The door from the inner office opened and Sharpe came out. He glanced at Marcia, who was picking herself up; he kicked the gun out of his way, winced at the additional sparks that resulted, and then peered gingerly out into the corridor.
Almost at once Smithers entered, pushing past him. He was holding something that looked a bit like a dustbin lid with its handle on the wrong side.
'You two all right?' he said brusquely.
'Yes,' Marcia said.
'Did you catch him?' Leonora said.
'Chummy out there, you mean?' Smithers said. 'No, all I saw was a trilby hat and a trenchcoat and a noise as if he was carrying old iron along with him. And he seemed to be limping. You caught him nicely, miss.'
'I didn't do anything,' Leonora said, as everyone looked at her.
'I'm sorry, miss,' Smithers said. 'But this is obviously yours.'
'But it's a dustbin lid.'
'No, it isn't,' Smithers said. 'It's a Mycenean shield.'
'But I only generate rubbish,' said Leonora.
'I didn't say,' Smithers said, 'that it was a good Mycenean shield. Royal armourers have their off-days, same as anyone else.'
'Aren't you going to go after him?' Marcia said.
'He's probably miles away, by now,' Sharpe said.
'And I thought I'd better find out whether we were talking serious massacre,' said Smithers, 'or merely damage to the paintwork.'
'You could have looked out of the window,' Leonora said, 'and teleported out after him.'
'Ah,' said Smithers. 'I should have explained. Line of sight. Through open windows.'
'I think,' said Leonora, 'that you were scared of him, and that means you are not telling me everything. And I think that I will become very unhappy if you don't tell me everything very soon. I just want the truth. You wouldn't like it if I got very unhappy.'
As she spoke, slowly but surely, the institutional grey carpet started to disappear under wind-battered crisp packets, most of them Lark Tongues in Aspic flavour.
'Why is everyone in the DPR suddenly going on about my grandfather?' she said.
'Well,' said Sharpe. 'At first we thought it was ordinary criminals, because there were signs of a break-in.'
'Not the papers,' Leonora said. 'I told my great-aunt not to let you get your hands on the papers, but I was only the great man's bastard granddaughter, so she wasn't going to listen to me.'
'It wasn't the papers; they're still in the library,' Smithers said. 'It was the collection. From the Museum. You've seen that gun before, and you know as well as we do where it came from; and you probably noticed that Chummy clunked as he walked. I wasn't going to follow him by myself down a badly lit staircase.'
'You can't mean that ridiculous robot my grandfather made,' she said. 'The one with huge screws in the ball-joints. It never worked; I remember Mother telling me so when I was scared when I was little.'
'That's as may be, miss,' Smithers said, 'but it wasn't a break-in to the collection. It was a break-out.
'It feels very strange,' he went on, 'to have appreciated something for years as a classic piece of awful period design, and then have to worry about whether it is going to swivel on its chromium-plated sockets and try to kill you.'
'My God,' Marcia said. 'It went down the staircase. The switchboard is down there, and Marcia.'
Leonora and Smithers dashed down the corridor and the staircase. The door of the switchboard room was off its hinges, but a Marcia with rather short hair was standing in the doorway with a fire-extinguisher. Behind her the switchboard glowed and clicked and buzzed; it seemed unnecessarily bulky and complex, though what did Leonora know? All the ugly redundancy of superannuated high technology.
'Took your time, didn't you?' Marcia said.
'Did he come down here, miss?' Smithers said.
'Of course he did,' said Switchboard Marcia. 'Great ugly clanking thing; I heard footsteps so I shut the door and got the fire-extinguisher. And it said "Prepare to meet your doom" and I said "Make my day" and it whirred a bit and then it said "I'm going out now. I may be gone some time".'
Smithers stood around making fatherly consoling noises, and Leonora decided to make herself useful and made everyone a cup of tea. Marcia was grateful, though whether for the noises or the tea remained obscure.
The switchboard continued to make odd noises, even when no one was ringing in.
'That is a peculiarly horrible object,' Leonora said. 'I know the Department are broke, but can't they afford anything better?'
'I know,' Marcia said. 'I think it's horrible too; I don't know why every DPR branch in the country has reasonable equipment and I am stuck with this. It's so embarrassing when Marcia from Birmingham comes round - she's got a really lovely switchboard, with a computer and everything. But it's his Nibs upstairs, Lord Orpington, Won't hear of changing it. Says it feels like an old friend.'
'That reminds me, miss,' said Smithers. 'That's why I called you. His Nibs wants to talk to you; didn't say why.'
'Shocking business,' Lord Orpington said, getting up from his armchair to welcome her into his office. 'Would you like milk or lemon, Miss Norton? Or may I call you Leonora?'
'Oh, why not,' Leonora said. The office was a museum of late Empire - assegais, maps, Purdey shotguns and the glassily staring heads of beasts.
'After all,' Orpington said, 'I was your mother's god-father. And at Ditchley we were all in love with your grandmother. Makes us practically family, doesn't it?'
'You may call me by my first name,' Leonora said. 'But do not presume on that. You sent my grandmother to her death, all of you. And when my mother turned out not to be anything very special, none of you had any time for her at all. She died when I was seven, but I can remember standing in the rain by my great-aunt and there were none of you at her grave. Just Loric. And he wasn't even with the Department then.'
'I'm sorry about your mother,' Orpington said. 'But she didn't want anything to do with us, even when she was a child, after Cranston died.'
He was an immortal, or something like it, she knew, but he was clearly actually sorry, because he suddenly looked old.
'You can't get off the hook,' she said. 'Not with her, or with me. I've looked at my grandfather's journals, some of them, when I was little and my great-aunt still had them; even when I was little, I could tell that he was barking mad. And you used him.'
'It was different then,' Orpington said. 'There was an empire. And a war. We were making serious decisions then, about serious things.'
'And that,' Leonora said, 'is why you encouraged him to make ray-guns that shot fluorescent beams. And robots with exterior springs. Really serious things.'
'You don't understand,' Orpington said. 'I was hoping you would. The whole thing might have worked. I was hoping there would be some loyalty. You young people don't understand loyalty.'
'When I was doing my doctorate, in Berlin,' Leonora said, 'I got them to show me where my grandmother died. It was just an ordinary wall, round the back of a building, and the bullet holes were near the ground, because she could no longer stand up. I think I understand very well what you people mean by loyalty. All one needs to understand that is to be a fatherless girl with a Talent you people can't use.'
A janitor came into the office with a large black plastic bag, and quietly removed paper and fluff-balls from the carpet.
'You can leave that a second,' Orpington said. 'Miss Norton will be leaving. And I have to go to the House for the debate on the Definition.'
'I need some answers,' Leonora said. 'And my guess is that you know what the answers are. What did my grandfather make that robot for? And why have you stopped poor old Marcia having babies?'
'The robot was for a good and sufficient purpose,' Orpington said, 'and I shouldn't concern yourself with the Marcia girls. Hardly your preferred companions, I'd have thought.'
'Ghastly woman,' he added, enunciating unusually clearly and staring fixedly at his telephone.
'I want to know,' Leonora said. 'I'm a trained historian, and I smell a large rat. It has whiskers and a long tail, and little beady eyes, just like yours.'
'I couldn't possibly tell you,' Orpington said. 'There is no need for you to know, and no need for you to concern yourself with the matter. When I was younger, you could tell people that things were in the national interest and they would actually listen to you.'
'And that's how you got my grandparents to commit suicide, and why my mother died young.'
'Your grandmother died for her country,' Orpington said. 'Sometimes you have to put out a goat for the tiger. I know that sacrifice isn't fashionable nowadays. So did your grandfather, more or less. He made us the things we needed him to make, even though his sanity was tottering. I remember the day he went off to do the experiment that killed him - you know I think he had a premonition. He said, "Someday soon I will be able to say to myself 'now you can rest'."'
'And what about my mother?' Leonora said.
'Your mother killed herself,' Orpington said. 'She was mad. And no better than she should have been.'
'And whose fault was that?' Leonora said. 'At the end of the day? You drove my grandfather off the edge, and she followed after him. It wasn't fair. Whoever my father was, she had lost him for good. And my great-aunt would not even let me have a photograph of her - worried I'd be contaminated by immorality and madness. You know, I hardly even remember what she looked like; just the feel of the touch of her hand.'
When Leonora went to the Manuscript Reading Room, they told her that the Cranston papers were not currently available to readers.
'But my family donated them,' she said.
'I'm sorry,' the clerk at the desk said. 'But they came in a van and they took them away. I was here when he signed for them.'
'He,' she said. 'Not a tall gent with a limp and a trench-coat and a hat pulled down over his face?'
'Oh, no, miss,' the clerk said. 'No one like that. It was Lord Orpington. Are you Miss Norton?'
There was a note for her, on House of Lords stationery. It said
I told you to let the matter rest - O.
Leonora left hurriedly - no point in making the reading-room staff clear up after other people's behaviour.
But there were still the letters on display in the main gallery. Grandmother's last journal and letters had always stuck in Leonora's gullet - they were the sort of historical document earnest mistresses went on about fervently to the Fifth Form, a sort of cross between Anne Frank, Edith Cavell and Mrs Miniver. Cranston's letters, on the other hand ...
The last of them said, 'Honestly, Philip. just how much more do you want of me. First I make them, poor little things, because you say the country might need them, and then you ask me to make the other damn things. Just in case. And now there's the Egypt business, and you want me to put something cheap together for that; I can't go on, you know, old chap, I really can't. Not without Leonora.'
And then it tailed off in maunderings about his dead wife. Leonora wondered what had been in the collection apart from the robot, and whether it was a damned thing, or a poor little thing. She really must check it out in the biographies, not that any of them were much good.
When she got back to her flat, it was dark and raining, but the cats would not come in off the steps. They hissed and arched as if she had done something wrong.
'Suit yourself,' Leonora said, continuing to swig from the bottle of milk she had bought to pour out for them, and let herself into the building. Her flat door had a large hole in it and so she turned to tiptoe back to the front door and let herself out.
It was behind her, as such things usually are. It was tall, and it smelled slightly of motor-oil, and it had springs in tubes all the way up its legs and down its arms; the tubes were filled with some sort of gloop that bubbled gently as the thing walked ponderously towards her. It had placed its trenchcoat and its hat on the hat-stand in the hall; you can tell it as designed in the fifties, she thought, it has bourgeois manners.
It stood, looming shinily in the light of the forty-watt hall bulb; it had what might as well be called a head, which it put to one side, considering her. Leonora realized with some concern that she was too scared to be angry.
'Sorry to have troubled you,' it remarked conversation-ally. 'We all make mistakes.'
'What the bloody hell?' she said.
'No need for language,' it said. 'You are not the one. Sorry to have troubled you. Unavoidable confusion.'
It was the way it whirred between sentences, like a jukebox with rheumatism, that really irritated her. Quite suddenly a chaise longue, with one of its legs missing, but covered in some rather nice purple and gilt brocade, materialized six inches above its head and dropped neatly down on it, knocking it to its knees and leaving its head and torso poking through the horse-hair and torn fabric.
It looked at her with what was almost reproach, the needle of its speech centre stuck on the last phrase.
'Unavoidable confusion. Click. Unavoidable confusion.'
It pulled one of its hands free and tapped itself sharply on the side of the head.
'No need to take it like that,' it said, as Leonora turned and bolted for the back door.
When she came back with the police, there was nothing there except some bits of horse-hair.
Neither Sharpe nor Smithers was taking her calls. Marcia on the switchboard gave her a phone number for Hackforth-Fford, but it proved to be that of a very exclusive hospital for the well-connected deranged. Orpington, needless to say, had told his flunkeys to keep her out of his office, and his club; she checked in Hansard, and he only ever went to the Lords when they were discussing the Department.
'I think you should probably all flee the country,' she told Marcia in Sharpe's office over the phone. 'After all, the robot would never get itself through customs. It would make all their little bells go ding.'
'You're just being hysterical,' Marcia said. 'Your friend, Lord Orpington, sent us a memo and told us so. After all, the robot hasn't really hurt any of us; I was visiting Marcia and Marcia only the other day, and Marcia seemed to recognize me, and Marcia even ate three of the grapes.'
'Lord Orpington,' Leonora said, 'is no friend of mine. And no friend of yours either.'
'Lord Orpington,' Marcia said, 'gave me away at my wedding. He is practically one of the family.'
Finally, Leonora decided to humble herself and rang Michael Sinden; he had left his job in the City, and when she rang the flat, his answering machine said that it had never liked her and hung up on her. Luckily, she remembered that she had been very complimentary about his cellular phone once and rang him on that number instead - actually she had been being ironic, but even Michael was unlikely to have managed to endow a phone with much in the way of perceptiveness.
'I've got your keys,' she said. Having agreed to meet him on neutral territory, she arrived sufficiently late for him to have got the hint and bought her a drink.
'I've changed the locks,' he said unpromisingly.
'You didn't need to,' she said. 'I have some manners, after all. In the matter of going where I'm not wanted, at least.'
'Well, that's it, isn't it?' he said. 'You have been meddling, from what I hear. And not even very effectively. You really might show the Department a bit more loyalty, after all the crap they've put up with from you over the years.'
'It seems to me that loyalty is what it's all about,' she said. 'Poor old Marcia nearly got fried, and no one seems to take it seriously.'
'Ghastly women, Marcia,' Michael said. 'I'm sure none of them are in any real danger. Lord Orpington told me the whole story.'
'I doubt that very much indeed,' Leonora said. 'He may, however, have told you a selection of the facts, pleasingly arranged.'
'But that's all you do,' Michael said, 'and you call the result history.'
'No,' Leonora said, 'I arrange facts so that they will produce the truth, and I call that history, and I don't care whether it pleases anyone or not.'
'You never told me the truth,' Michael said. 'I could have done with your telling me that you were a paranormal; it would have made me feel less like a wally when I found out.'
'The thing is,' Leonora said, 'that I worry about whether I feel like a fool or not; this is an operation that takes too much time for me to worry all that much about people who have half the computers in London to boost their egos.'
'You don't understand,' Michael said, 'they aren't exactly company - just pleasantly babbling idiots, most of them.'
'But they don't answer back,' Leonora said.
'No,' said Michael, 'they don't.'
'Sounds ideal for you.'
'Honestly,' Michael said, 'he was right. There really is no point even talking to you once you've got annoyed with a chap.'
'Who said that? You've been discussing our relation-ship with Orpington?'
'No,' Michael said, 'of course not. No, I had a drink with Sharpe.'
'So that's all right, then; just two of my former boy-friends sitting around discussing how impossible I am.'
'No,' Michael said. 'Actually we'd just both been getting our expenses processed and we were discussing how impossible Marcia is. You just came in as a sort of after-thought.'
Sometimes there is just no point talking to boys, Leonora thought as she silently drained her glass, filled it again from the bottle, drained it again, and left Michael to cope with an irate manager and several leaking crates of past-the-use-by-date Persian caviare.
It was a long wet autumn. Leonora got on with an essay provisionally entitled 'Galton, Orpington and Himmler - Three Studies in Eugenics', but it never got very far before there was too much fluff in her typewriter to continue. Luckily, the Department were sending her a very generous cheque every month, just for going round to see Jenkins, and have him measure things for an hour or two.
'I forgot,' he said. 'You left your book.'
'So I did,' she said. 'Nothing like being shot at to make you forget things.'
'I wouldn't know,' he said. 'No one's ever shot at me.'
'Try it some time,' she said, and left.
Leonora did not usually travel on the Underground, except when she was feeling especially calm; it was quite grubby enough, without her adding to it. Still, today she was in a hurry. Inevitably her tube train was delayed outside Bank, and so she opened her book to avoid getting anxious. On the old envelope she had been using as a bookmark, someone had scrawled 'Alternate Tuesdays. 4.30 p.m. Parliament Hill Fields. Cricket pavilion if wet.'
It was Tuesday, and 3 p.m. and how do you know which Tuesday is the alternate unless you waste your time going both weeks? She changed at Bank and got on the train for Hampstead; Smithers was sitting directly opposite her in the carriage and trying to avoid her gaze. 'Either it's you,' she said, 'or you're following them. And if you're following them, you know where we're going. And if they're following you, they know you've been going there. And if they're following me, they're on to you already now.'
Smithers looked annoyed.
'There's no use your looking at me like that,' she said, holding up the envelope.
He nodded, reluctantly.
'Only,' she said, 'since it's you, we can get off at Camden. I don't see walking round the Heath in the rain, and I can go round Sainsbury's while you talk.'
Smithers got off with her, but he tried to stay ahead of her on the escalator; poor man had obviously done a course on being followed at some time. In Sainsbury's he insisted on getting a trolley of his own, even though Leonora had to lend him a pound to put in the lock, and wandered round after her, buying one pot of apricot yoghurt and a corned beef and coleslaw sandwich.
Once they got into the queue for the delicatessen, he grabbed her by the sleeve.
'We can talk now,' he said. 'Clear view from all sides.'
It's all very odd,' he continued. 'Chummy hasn't been seen since he came to your flat. No attacks. Nothing. Maybe you really hurt him.'
'I doubt it,' Leonora said. 'Grandfather's designs are not noted for their fragility. And it was a fairly flimsy chaise longue that fell on it.'
'Orpington's up to something,' Smithers went on. 'Keeps giving little pep talks to senior staff about rationalizations and cuts. And talking about the War. Don't you hate it when they go on about the War?'
'I hate it,' Leonora said, 'when people like Orpington go on about the weather, or the price of sprouts. There's always an agenda, whatever it is. But yes, when they start talking about the War, it usually means that there is something particularly smelly that they want to justify.'
'I mean,' Smithers said. 'I don't care very much about politics or science. But Marcia on the switchboard is a nice plucky girl; the others are all right, really, come to that. And someone tried to hurt them. I'm just an ordinary thief-taker, when it comes down to it, and I don't think that's right.'
'What else has been going on?' Leonora said. 'I used to be able to get hold of some of the gossip, if I wanted to, but Orpington's frozen me right out.'
'Nothing much,' Smithers said. 'Orpington pulled Sharpe off liaison with me; he's spending all his time at the EEC lobbying for the German Definition. All very boring. Your friend Sinden - well, he see to be well in; Orpington likes him. And otherwise nothing much; I've had nothing to do since the trail on Chummy went dead. I ended up volunteering to help with the Christmas party.'
Leonora turned from being served six ounces of black pitted olives, four ounces of thin-sliced pastrami and half a pound of particularly runny Brie.
'What Christmas party?' she said.
'Well,' Smithers said, moving his trolley out of the way of the queue behind them, 'they've always had a party at the DPR offices in London. And at some of the larger out-stations. Orpington says that he has to cut costs, and it makes more sense to have one big party, and bus people in for it. I don't see how it works, unless he has some deal with the coach people, but that's not my side of things.'
'My God,' Leonora said, as they wheeled to a confidential halt beside the soap powders, 'that old bastard.'
'No need for you to talk like that, miss,' Smithers said, 'Even if he is.'
'But don't you see,' Leonora said. 'Staff from all the out-stations. That means just about all of the Marcias. And they'll all be in one place at the same time.'
'Chummy,' Smithers breathed.
'He said that sometimes you have to put out a goat for the tiger,' Leonora said. 'He doesn't care about Marcia; just about getting the robot back. Some sort of crack-brained scheme to use it for defence or something. He's using them as bait.'
'The old bastard,' said Smithers.
'I've not been asked,' Leonora said. 'But I've got to be there. He's used up two generations of my family, one way or another, and I'm not letting him use anyone else.'
'I knew your mother, you know,' Smithers said. 'Long time ago - we'd just done A-levels. She was a lady, Albertine; she was really nice.'
'And,' Leonora said, 'she let them break her when she was half the age I am now. You must have known her then - where were you?'
'I was on National Service,' Smithers said. 'I had to go away. She sent my letters back, or her aunt did. I knew better than be where I wasn't wanted.'
'She went mad,' Leonora said, 'or maybe she was mad then. You'd know.'
'She never seemed mad to me,' Smithers said.
'And she killed herself,' Leonora said.
'I heard,' Smithers said. 'Years later. It was Loric. He thought I ought to know.'
'What about him?' Leonora said. 'Where would he stand on all this?'
'Dunno,' Smithers said. 'He's out of the country, anyway. Off in Brussels; has been for weeks. Same thing as Sharpe - this bloody EEC Definition thing. Nothing to do with all this.'
'How am I going to get into the party?' Leonora said.
'Well,' Smithers said, 'I appointed myself Father Christmas, being as Loric was in Brussels - he usually does it, way of keeping his finger on the pulse, common touch sort of thing, he says. I'll have loads of sacks, and I could get you in in one of those.'
'I refuse,' Leonora said, 'to crash a party and then spend the whole of it hiding in a sack, peering out in case something happens, getting irritated and having to share my sack with the expensive detritus of eternity, in imminent danger of having someone try Lucky Dip on me.'
'You know,' Smithers said, 'I wonder. Take off your glasses a second.'
'If you tell me I'm lovely,' Leonora said, 'I shall reach into your trolley, take yoghurt and pour it over your head.'
She took her glasses off.
'You know,' Smithers said, 'if you did your hair and wore different clothes, you'd look quite like her.'
'Who?' Leonora said. 'My mother?'
'No,' Smithers said. 'Not a bit like her. She was only a kid. No, like Marcia.'
'Nothing on earth,' Leonora said, 'would make me dye my hair blonde and have it cut like Princess Di. Nothing on earth would make me wear a Benetton jogging suit.'
'Orpington,' Smithers said. 'Chummy.'
Leonora looked stubborn.
'Finding out what's going on,' he continued. 'I thought you believed in the truth. I thought you wanted what was fair.'
It was very crowded and very smoky and very noisy. Parts of the floor, down at the other end of the hall, were already awash with spilled drink, and the buffet table had not lasted more than about fifteen minutes; a little man had decided that he liked the sausage rolls and then turned into a giant frog so that he could increase his capacity for them. Now he was leading a conga-line, splashing his way through the puddles of booze; paranormals are just as noisy as everyone else, except that they have more ways of making noise.
No one talked to Marcia at parties, Leonora discovered, and the Marcias, or should she think of them as the other Marcias, were all at the bar, getting in pints of real ale for their husbands and Camparis for themselves and each other, and groping Father Christmas. Leonora was carrying a Campari as cover, but was at no risk of getting drunk on anything that tasted that horrid; it was hard enough to see straight without her glasses, without getting rat-arsed.
She stood against a wall in a remote part of the room - Orpington had threatened to have the party in the Department itself, but the logistics had made that impossible, and Smithers had been able to get hold of a hall through chums in the police. Chums with funny handshakes, no doubt. It was years since she had been at a party - she always hated them, though they were one of the places where small amounts of rubbish were assumed to be part of the environment. People could always ensure you had a good time; less to clear up if they did.
'Told you it would work,' said Smithers from behind his beard.
'I wish you wouldn't do that,' Leonora said, removing, from under her jogging-suit top, two specimens of the Great Auk, imperfectly stuffed. 'You know what happens when people surprise or annoy me, and you persist in teleporting behind my back.'
'No, I don't,' Smithers said. 'I just got here, through the door, from the Gents, where I've been changing.'
'Well,' Leonora said, 'don't look now, but there is someone in a Father Christmas outfit making a fool of himself at the bar, going ho ho ho a lot.'
'You don't suppose?' Smithers said.
'It is a disguise, after all,' Leonora said. 'And I'm sure robots are not good actors, and no one expects Father Christmas to be convincing.'
They edged through the crowd towards the bar.
'Excuse me,' Smithers said, taking the other Father Christmas by the elbow and steering him towards a quiet patch of wall.
'Ho ho ho,' the other Father Christmas said, for the benefit of those around them, then turned and glared at Smithers once they had got away from the crowd.
'I thought I told you that you could go and change and enjoy the rest of the party. I always do this - moving among my people sort of thing.'
'Loric, sir,' Smithers said, slightly flustered. 'I thought you were in Brussels still, doing the Definition.'
'I already told you,' Loric said. 'I came back after lunch. A large lunch, with lots of toasts. They accepted the Italians' draft, worse luck - Orpington always thought they might, must settle my bet with him. Now go and change, you silly little man, like I told you. Can't have two Father Christmases, you know, spoils the mystery.'
'Loric,' Leonora said.
'Hello, Marcia,' Loric said in a tone that combined resignation with a vaguely drunken benevolence. 'Nice to see you all, sort of thing, but I'm busy right now. Private Father Christmas business, sort of thing.'
Leonora glared at him and a single strand of unravelled Bokhara carpet appeared in his beard.
'I say,' Loric said. 'It's Kipple. What're you doing dressed up as Marcia, Kipple? Not a fancy-dress party, you know, except for Father Christmases.'
'Leonora, to you,' Leonora said, putting her glasses back on, A pool of some sort of industrial effluent appeared under Loric's left boot.
'Calm down, miss,' Smithers said. 'Look, sir, it's the whole business with the robot.'
'Lot of nonsense,' Loric said. 'Thing never worked, wasn't good for anything. I told Philip Orpington so.'
'It works,' said Leonora, 'believe me.'
'Hang on,' she said, 'if you just got here, Smithers, who was it Loric told to go and change into civvies?'
'Don't know,' Loric said, 'but he did an awfully good ho ho ho. Then he said he was going out and would be gone some time.'
From the other end of the room there came a very loud, and indeed very effective ho ho ho and the double doors flew open and in came a very large Father Christmas that still limped slightly, dragging a very large sack that dragged along the floor.
'Ho ho ho,' said the Father Christmas, with a small whir between each ho.
The assorted bureaucrats and paranormals stepped back, except for a couple of children, who wandered over to the Father Christmas and looked up at him.
'Are you Father Christmas?' one of them said. 'Proper Father Christmas.'
'Not like him at the bar,' the other said. 'Proper Father Christmas doesn't smell of beer.'
'Yes, he does,' the first said. 'He does in Selfridges. And he does when he comes to our house.'
'That's your dad,' the second said.
'No, it's not. My dad's over there, with my mum. My dad makes lightning come out of the sky.'
'My dad can beat your dad.'
'I like children. Ho ho ho,' said Father Christmas, bending down to pat one of them on the head with a heavily mittened hand. The child promptly pulled at his beard, which twanged off its elastic.
The two children walked away.
'Snot Father Christmas,' one of them said. 'It's the Terminator.'
'It never is,' the other said. 'It's some other dopey robot.'
The robot creaked up to its full height, threw back its hood and elegantly eased off its mittens. No one spoke - it has the timing that goes with real star quality, Leonora thought to herself.
It looked round, confidently.
'I suppose you're wondering,' it said, 'why I've called you all here together.'
No one felt the need to interrupt.
'I was created to put an end to an experiment gone wrong,' it continued without any whirring and without the slight scratchiness that occurred in more commonly used sentences. 'An experiment that has become a menace to the United Nations, the Commonwealth and Her Majesty the Queen. I refer of course to the evil women known as -'
'Maggie Thatcher,' shouted someone in the crowd.
'Marcia,' said another voice from inside the sack.
'You are the best and brightest,' said the robot, 'but even you have been unable to deal with this menace. Luckily, the far-sighted genius, whose unfortunate mistake has caused you to bear such terrible consequences, created me and my companion to set things right.'
Out of the sack there crawled a thing which looked a little like a turtle and a lot more like the DPR Central Office telephone exchange, except that bits of it had folded out and bits of it had folded in.
'She is judged by the verdict of you all,' said the robot.
'What do you mean?' Smithers said, stepping out of the crowd. He had disposed of his Father Christmas outfit and was pointing at the robot a lethal-looking machine-pistol that he had had strapped to the pillow round his stomach. An arm came out of the second robot, the one on the floor, and took the pistol away from him with a precise force that left Smithers clutching his wrist.
'She is, judged by the verdict of you all,' the robot said with even mote emphasis. 'We have weighed her in the balance and found her wanting. I call the witnesses for the prosecution.'
From a hatch on top of the second robot there appeared a very ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder, with very large reels.
'Horrid woman ... ghastly woman ... absolute menace ..' it started, and continued with minor variations for what seemed like hours. Each phrase was in a different voice and each was full of what sounded like hatred; many of the people in the crowd recognized their own voices and some of them had the grace to blush.
After a while it stopped. The crowd looked embarrassed, and several of the Marcias were sobbing into their handkerchiefs or being poured restorative snifters from their Gavins' hip-flasks.
The robot reached beneath its robe and produced a terribly modern Minimi.
'Come and take your medicine, evil women,' it said. 'Justice must be served. Come and take your medicine.'
Leonora stepped forward and the robot raised its gun. Then it paused.
'You are not the one,' it said. 'Unavoidable confusion.'
'You know,' Leonora said, 'you really piss me off.'
A 1923 Hispano-Suiza and a 1963 Silver Ghost, their radiators and fenders inextricably entwined, and their internal upholstery horribly stained, appeared above the robots and smashed down on them. The small robot, with the tape recorder, was instantly reduced to scrap, but a blue glare appeared around the other and the cars just bounced off it. Leonora was knocked to the ground by a detached hub-cap.
Several of the paranormals present chose this moment to try and do something on their own account. Bolts of a variety of forces blazed against the blue glare and were effortlessly absorbed by it; one of the Gavins took a swing at the robot and jumped back with a stinging hand and his hair sticking out at right angles from his head.
One of the telekineticists, the one who worked in Virgin Records, up-ended all the ice-buckets in the room over the robot in an attempt to short out the force-field; all that happened was that the robot got soaking wet and glistened, menacingly. The nearest Marcia, the one from the former switchboard, who had been fussing over Smithers's wrist, eased through the crowd and reached down and helped Leonora to stand up.
Michael Sinden pushed his way through the crowd. He stared hard at the robot's skull. 'Itchy-titchy-coo,' he said. 'Diddums-want-hurt-Nice-Marcia. Bad Robot.'
The robot stared at him with the cybernetic equivalent of incredulity.
'It usually works,' Sinden said defensively.
'It doesn't have that kind of brain,' Orpington said smugly from the chair at the side of the room where he was sitting with a brandy and soda. 'Cranston never liked Turing, you know, and he based his robot on entirely different principles.'
'You're behind this,' Leonora said, still clinging like grim death to Marcia's hand.
'And why on earth would I have anything to do with it?' Orpington said. 'Blame your grandfather, if you must blame someone. Poor mad fool. Since there is nothing to be done, I suggest you let well alone. It is expedient that the Marcias die for the common good.'
'Shut up,' Leonora said. 'I'm trying to think things out.'
'Prepare to meet your doom,' said the robot, pointing its gun at Marcia from the switchboard.
'I'm trying to think,' shrieked Leonora. 'Bloody shut up.'
Inside the blue glare there suddenly appeared a myriad of tiny squares of paper, which settled on the robot like adhesive butterflies; layer after layer of them, building outwards. The robot tried to move forward, but they were in all its joints, bandaging it like a papier mache mummy. Everyone stared in fascination as it became ever more encased - the layer of paper thickened until it reached the boundary of the force-field, which promptly winked out.
Smithers reached down and picked up a loose one. 'Penny black,' he said. 'With three misprints.'
Leonora looked down at her hand, holding Marcia's, and a long, slow smile crept over her face. She walked towards Orpington and the few people who had been sycophantically hovering around him drew back.
'You old bastard,' she said. 'I remember now. The feel of the touch of her hand, I said, didn't I? And you looked as smug as you do now. But that's it, isn't it? That's who he used, wasn't it? His daughter, his only daughter.'
'I hardly think so,' Orpington said. 'Your mother, like your grandmother and even yourself, was, after all, a lady. The Marcia sluts are just middle-class nobodies with vulgar manners.'
'And who picked their school and oversaw their upbringing?' Leonora said. 'You hated my grandfather because my grandmother preferred him. And you sent her off to her death for it; and you worried him into his grave; and you hated my mother because she was their child. You got Grandfather to produce the Marcias because you assumed the daughter of two powerful paranorms would be so powerful you could rule the world with two hundred of them. You sent them to some mediocre little dame school so that they would be passive and obedient. But mother wasn't paranormal, and neither are they. And my Talent is wild and inexplicable, so you didn't want any of them to have children, in case there were hundreds of children you couldn't control.'
'Such a clever girl,' breathed Marcia from just behind her, and Leonora looked round to face four hundred proudly maternal eyes.
'This is all a nonsense,' Orpington said. 'Loric, old chap, you can't possibly believe all this. I knew the girl was unstable, runs in the family, poor thing. Unhinged neurotic paranoid fantasy.'
'I can believe it, Philip,' Loric said. He had sobered up entirely. 'I most certainly can believe it. You had access to the Museum and you were the last person Cranston talked to. Who else could have woken the damn thing up, and who kept the other thing buzzing away in place over at the DPR when everyone else wanted to modernize it - we all thought it was sentimentality and let you get away with it. Cranston's oldest friend and all that. Who could have persuaded him the Marcia girls might be a threat one day and who but an immortal could he guarantee to be around to wake the thing up when necessary?'
'This is the real world,' Orpington said. 'People don't do such things, not over a woman who died fifty years ago.'
'No,' Loric said. 'They do them for money.'
Michael Sinden said, 'I used to handle Lord Orpington's money - there really isn't anything fishy about him, you know, Leonora. His finances are perfectly straightforward - his inheritance, his rents, his shares, his salary, his trust fund.'
'What trust fund is that?' Loric said. 'Who on earth would set up a trust fund for an immortal? Bloody silly idea, if you ask me.'
'Only a madman,' Leonora said. 'Only a man mad enough to trust his best friend with the money to bring up his daughters, and give them a proper education, all of them, all two hundred and one of them.'
'That's plausible,' Loric said, 'up to a point. But what was enough: to send even two hundred and one girls to public school in the 1950s would hardly be enough for a man like Orpington to kill over?'
Sharpe looked a good deal more hungover and travel-worn than Loric, as he joined the crowd that was standing accusingly round Orpington.
'It's the Italian Definition, I think,' he said. 'And the rest of the new regulations. The ones making all monies disbursed to paranormals working for the government retrospectively a matter of public record; they were worried about all the paranormals in the Eastern Bloc. There were paranormals in the Securitate, after all.'
'But Marcia isn't a paranormal,' Leonora said.
'According to the Italian Definition,' Sharpe said, 'paranormal includes anyone with any Talent, active or latent, or any other unusual genetic capability considered to be of public use by the government concerned. I think a clone would be included in that, particularly one we hired for being a clone.'
Leonora looked on both him and Michael with a degree more benevolence; she was almost not sorry to have slept with them.
'Besides,' Fredericks said, joining them, 'I've never seen what the fuss was about. We accepted the idea back in the seventies, when the Italians first raised it - part of the idea of hiring Marcia in the first place was to give them all a regular gratuity, encourage them to stay. Provide continuity.'
'What regular gratuity?' shouted all the Marcias in genuine indignation.
'The one the Department pays into your trust fund,' Fredericks said.
'What trust fund?'
Marcia from the switchboard walked up and threw her Campari in Orpington's face.
'Oh, Philip,' Loric said, 'I really did think of you as better than a common embezzler, fiddling the petty cash and worried about people asking to see the books.'
>From the almost forgotten robot there came ominous creakings - the stamps had dried into a hard brittle shell, which started to crackle and shift.
'Prepare to meet your doom,' it said muffledly.
'At least I have some satisfaction,' Orpington said. 'It'll get them, you know. The thing is unstoppable.'
'My grandfather was mad,' Leonora said, 'but he was not completely stupid. There has to be some way of turning the damn thing off.'
'It's usually a code word,' Loric said. 'Don't know why. I suppose people who build things like this subconsciously think that they're golems. I'm an expert on golems, you know. It's usually a code word.'
'Death, Sleep, Lie Down, Fall Over,' he added sternly and inconsequentially as the robot continued to creak its way out of the shell. 'It's all in the tone of voice. Show it who's master. Die for your country, boy.'
'Rumpelstiltskin,' someone added unhelpfully.
'It is a password, of course,' Orpington said. 'But I'll never tell you. And my mind block is much too good for those of you who are telepaths, so there.'
'But you did tell me,' Leonora said. 'Honestly, you are so smug and so infantile. You told me what my grand-father said, just before he managed to kill himself.'
She turned to the robot. 'You can rest now,' she said. 'You really must get out of the habit, Orpington, of thinking other people are entirely stupid.'
The robot was free of its case and striding forward across the room, but suddenly it froze.
'I can rest,' it said.
'Yes,' said Leonora.
It lay down on the ground and the lights on its face dimmed. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Then it sat up again.
'I sleep,' it said, 'for now, but I shall return. In our country's hour of greatest need. Farewell.'
Then it slumped to the ground with a particularly final clang.
Two hundred Marcias converged on Orpington.
'We want our money,' they said. Two hundred people saying the same thing very quietly is very loud.
'Arrest me, Smithers,' Orpington said. 'It is, as they say, a fair cop. And before you think you're so clever, Miss Norton, remember that your family is dead, and you're still the garbage lady.'
'Don't see the point, really,' Smithers said, turning to Leonora and to Marcia from the switchboard. 'He'll get off with six months in some open prison - I don't think you can conspire with a machine, and he knows all the judges. Bet you he's back at the DPR in a decade or two. People like him always get a second chance.'
'Oh, go on,' Leonora said. 'You might as well. Just for the record. Go on, dad, book him.' Smithers smiled at her shyly.
'What do you think?' he asked Marcia.
'Arrest him, Mr Smithers,' Marcia said.
'Oh, Marcia,' he said, 'don't call me Mr Smithers. Call me Gavin.'
'Oh,' she said. 'Oh, yes, Gavin. I will. But, Gavin.' 'Yes, Marcia,' Smithers said. 'We'll have to wait until after I've been to university. I'm not going to run a switchboard all my life, you know.'
Leonora looked at them, and smiled. All over the room Marcias were explaining to Gavins and Justins and Nigels that the extra money wouldn't be going on the car, that they were going to need it for themselves.
Sometimes a second chance is not a bad thing.
Quite suddenly it rained bits of wrapping paper and oranges and nuts and squeakers and cracker mottos and slightly misshapen liqueur chocolates.
A child tugged on Leonora's elbow and said, 'Now that's what I call proper Father Christmas.'
Leonora went back to her flat that night, late and slightly drunk. The cats glowered at her, and she showered them with fish-heads. The cat litter stank, and the room was full of odds and ends of stuff, and so she shut one eye and stared at it really hard with the other, and then suddenly it went away, most of it.
'Ha,' she said. 'Take that, Orpington. Revenge of the garbage lady.'
She was feeling altogether cheerful as she took the cover off her typewriter and, just to get herself committed, typed a little page.
'Leonora Hughes, Thomas Cranston and Albertine and Marcia Hughes-Cranston - A Paranormal Family and the British State 1940-1992, by Leonora Cranston-Smithers.'
And then she smiled.