Read a sample from DREADFUL COMPANY by Vivian Shaw

Prepare to be swept off your feet by the spectacular sequel to Strange Practice, a novel of mystery and medicine featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.

New to the series? Read an excerpt from book one. Veterans can skip ahead to the third chapter of Dreadful Company.

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Chapter 1

There was a monster in Greta Helsing’s hotel bathroom sink.

She stared at it, hands on hips, and it stared back at her. After a few moments it apparently decided she wasn’t an immediate threat, gave a froggy glup sound, and settled down in the marble basin for what looked like an extended lurk.

“What on earth are you doing out of a well?” she inquired of it. “You ought to be guarding treasure, not preventing me from brushing my teeth.”

It blinked at her—its eyes were large, also froglike, with a coppery iridescence to the irises—and then shifted a little to reveal that it was in fact guarding something: Greta’s amethyst earrings, which had been sitting beside the sink and were now clutched tightly in a clammy grey-green hand.

She sighed. “I need those, they were a present. If I get you something else pretty to hang on to, can I have them back?”

Another slow coppery blink. She went back out to the bedroom and returned in a few minutes with the watch she had been meaning to have repaired for several months now and which had not benefited from rattling around in the bottom of her handbag for the duration. It was at least still fairly shiny, even if it didn’t work, and when she held it out to the wellmonster, it reached for the watch right away, grabbing at it with both little hands, her earrings forgotten. Before it could change its mind, she reached into the sink and rescued them.

“Which still doesn’t explain what you’re doing in my bathroom,” she told it, putting the earrings on: they were only a little damp, not slimy at all. “I don’t think that was on the hotel prospectus, even for a suite this well appointed. How did you even get in here?”

It wasn’t very big, either: the size of a half-grown kitten, small enough to fit easily into the basin. The European wellmonster, Puteus incolens incolens, seldom got larger than a human toddler—and unlike the New World species, P. incolens brasiliensis, which was equipped with large pointy teeth, had few dangerous characteristics. This one looked to be in reasonably good shape, if entirely inexplicable: how had it found its way into a fourth-floor hotel bathroom without anyone noticing?

Glup, it said, and wrapped itself tighter around her broken Bulova. Greta sighed again, and reached out to stroke it gently. “All right,” she said, “you can keep that safe for me. Depositum custodi.”

The monster licked her hand.

* * *

I don’t know,” she said that evening, looking into the same bathroom mirror as Edmund Ruthven pinned up her hair. “It was gone when I got back from the first session of the conference, taking my watch with it, I might add, and leaving no trace as to how the hell it got here in the first place—Ow.”

“If you would hold still,” said Ruthven, “this wouldn’t hurt and would also take up far less time and energy. And I will buy you a new watch, as I have been threatening to do for months; I know perfectly well you were simply never going to get around to having that one repaired.”

Greta made a face at him. She was wearing a black velvet dress she personally would not have picked out, but which she had to admit did quite remarkably nice things for both the bits of her it concealed and those it exposed. There was a certain Madame X air to the whole thing, especially when Ruthven finished with the pins and hairspray: her neck and shoulders were very white against the rich blackness, and he had somehow managed to get the majority of her hair into an elegant loose knot with several art-directed wisps escaping here and there.

The makeup was . . . effective. Ruthven had gone to quite a lot of trouble, and she looked not just dressed up, but something closer to transformed. He had used a whole variety of brushes to apply various things to her cheeks and eyelids, and then brought out an eyelash curler; despite her protestations that it looked like a torture instrument, she had to agree that it made something of a difference.

“I look like a high-priced courtesan,” she said, meeting his eyes in the mirror. She and Ruthven were just about the same height, and Greta knew perfectly well nobody was going to look at her when he was present: he was much prettier than she was, delicate features, black hair, and big shiny white-silver eyes with dramatic dark rings around the iris. He rolled them now and glowered back at her, almost offensively perfect in a bespoke tuxedo with tiny ruby studs winking from the starched shirtfront.

“You look,” he said, “like a very expensively soigné young woman. Which, all right, I’ll admit there is some thematic overlap. Stop making faces and put your jewelry on, we haven’t got much time, and remind me where the damn wellmonsters come from in the first place.”

“They get summoned,” she said, turning to get a look at the back of her head in the hand mirror. “By people who happen to need guardians for various shiny objects. It’s what they’re for: they protect treasure that’s been entrusted to them. They do breed, but very rarely; mostly you have to muck about with chanting and runes and cobwebs and frog’s blood to summon one, instead of capturing a wild specimen. The magic’s not actually difficult once you’ve got the ingredients together.”

“Cobwebs are easily come by,” Ruthven agreed, “but frog phlebotomy strikes me as a lot of effort. So somebody summoned that creature?”

“Presumably. No way of knowing who or why, or how it got in here.” The silly dress came with an even sillier purse, a tiny slip of a thing, and Greta eyed it dubiously before stuffing her wallet and phone and compact inside. She felt ridiculously naked despite the snug velvet and the matching wrap Ruthven offered her; she was used to hauling around a handbag the dimensions of a good-sized mop bucket and just about as elegant, stuffed full of everything from journal articles to mummy-bone-replacement castings, and not having that comforting weight on her shoulder was unsettling.

At least they’ ll mostly be looking at him, she told herself again, fastening the ruby drops Francis Varney had given her into each earlobe. That’s pressure off me. And it’s Don Giovanni, I’ve always wanted to see that, and at the Palais Garnier. Greta scowled at herself in the mirror. So bloody well lighten up and have a nice time, Helsing, you deserve it for presenting a halfway decent supernatural-​medicine conference paper on three days’ notice.

Ruthven straightened his tie in the mirror and offered her his arm. “ ‘Madam, will you walk?’ ” he quoted, and she had to smile. It was something of a relief to have Ruthven here with her: not only was he good company, but he also spoke flawless French, and hers was somewhat more in the le singe est sur la branche stage.

He’d been at loose ends just recently, having completed some home repairs that had taken months to finish, and had begun to develop the signs Greta associated with profound and pathological boredom; he didn’t go in for your standard-variety vampire angst, but he was prone to a kind of ennui that, if unchecked, was capable of developing into depression. When he’d volunteered to accompany her on this last-minute conference trip, wanting a change from London, she had accepted with alacrity.

“Yes,” she said, quoting the song, “yes, sir, I will walk, I will talk, I will walk and talk with you.”

Together they left the suite, and it was a good twenty minutes before something very hairy clambered in through the half-open window and went to hide under her bed.

* * *

The Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier should have been an overwhelming, chaotic jumble of color and texture and shape. Every surface in the vast five-story atrium was either painted, gilded, inlaid, carved, or some combination thereof. Huge spiked candelabra jutted out from the four walls of the atrium and were thrust aloft by semi-nude bronze women posing on the newel posts of the staircase itself; the balustrades were dark red and green marble, the columns and pilasters of the atrium walls carved from two separate kinds of complicated veiny butter-colored stone, with layers of wrought-iron lacework forming balconies between them. High above, the ceiling was painted with dramatic scenes of allegories in saturated color. It should have been a cacophonous mess of design elements, and instead—somehow—it all worked. The over-the-top opulence offered the same kind of uninhibited, glittering cheer as a polished drag queen’s performance.

It was at its best when thronged with people. In the golden light each surface glowed with rich warmth, polished stone and dark bronze providing a thoroughly complementary setting for the herd of humanity passing through. Glittering jewels, bare shoulders, snowy shirtfronts brilliant against black: a moving kaleidoscope of color, accompanied by the clamor of a great many people talking all at once, being seen in the act of seeing.

From the vantage point of a fifth-floor balcony, the people on the staircase were doll-size, inconsequential. Easily blocked out by the tip of a thumb held at arm’s length.

Corvin leaned on the brass balcony railing, following the progress of two heads through the throng: one dark, one fair. The dark head was glossy, sleekly combed, with a part in it that might have been drawn with a ruler. He closed one eye a little, squinting, and gave his outstretched thumb a vicious little twist: the gesture of a man squashing some small and importunate insect.

The object of this pantomime paused for a moment on the landing, glancing around, as if Corvin’s attention had somehow registered on his senses. He was short, very pale, impeccably dressed, and even from here, Corvin could see red fire wink from his ruby shirt studs, see the pale eyes flash as he looked around. They were remarkably pale, those eyes, almost silver-white. Corvin knew them very well.

The man’s companion, a blonde in a black velvet number, had continued a few steps; now she turned to look back at him: What’s the matter?

Corvin watched as the man shook his head, dismissing whatever had caught his attention, and offered the woman his arm once more. They passed on up the staircase out of sight, and Corvin was about to detach himself from the balcony and go to find his own seat when the man and woman reappeared on a second-floor balcony across the atrium, this time holding drinks.

They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Corvin’s fingers tightened on the railing, and there was a faint squealing sound as metal bent under his grip. Not tonight. Not tonight, but he was going to get his chance to talk to Edmund Ruthven very close up indeed

“Ooo,” said someone directly to his left. “Varda the omi palone.”

Corvin jerked involuntarily in surprise, and swung around to glare at his lieutenant, who had silently appeared beside him, leaning on the parapet. He hated it when Grisaille did the silent-sneaking‑up bit. He’d said so, multiple times. He also hated the stupid goddamn Polari gay slang, which Grisaille could turn on and off at will: not only did it sound dumb, it was four decades out of date, and it implied that he, Corvin, was also extremely gay.

“What the fuck are you doing up here?” he demanded. “You’re supposed to be back at headquarters.”

“Isn’t he pretty, though,” Grisaille said, nodding to the distant figure of Ruthven. “I can see why you want to pull his head off. It’s a nice head.”

Grisaille,” said Corvin.

“Devout and humblest apologies, dear leader.” Grisaille sketched him a little salute. “Bad news, I’m afraid: it’s Lilith, she is throwing yet another massive wobbler for reason or reasons unknown, and I’ve been sent to fetch you home to sort it out.” He shrugged, returning his attention to Ruthven and the unknown woman on his arm. “Who’s the dolly-bird with Mistress Bona?”

Corvin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Goddamnit,” he said. “I told Lilith to lay off the junkies. And I don’t know. Some human whore.”

“Oh, not just some human whore. She must be special. Look, he’s all into her, all solicitous and caring, such a gentleman. It’s touching. In a barbaric sort of way.” He paused, as if waiting for some particular response, and then sighed. “I don’t suppose you saw what I did there.”

Corvin ignored this. “You think she’s important?”

“Could be, could be.” Grisaille seesawed a hand in the air. “Shall I make inquiry?”

“Yeah. Do that, and—keep an eye on them, damn it. I suppose I have to go and see what’s wrong with Lilith this time; I’m getting pretty tired of this shit.”

“As you wish,” said Grisaille with another little salute. “Don’t worry, you’re not missing much with this opera—spoiler warning, he ends up going to Hell at the end.”

Corvin straightened up, ignoring the dents his fingers had left in the brass railing. “So do we all, Grisaille,” he said. “So do we all.”

* * *

When the curtain fell on the first act of Don Giovanni, Greta let out a breath she hadn’t actually been aware of holding, and sat back in her chair. She’d spent most of the past hour leaning on the box’s red velvet balcony edge, totally spellbound.

Ruthven was watching her, amused, a little smile curving his mouth. “Having a nice time?” he asked.

“Almost every single person in this opera,” said Greta, “is behaving like a complete idiot, and I love it. Can I have more champagne?”

“The majority of opera plots would fall to bits if any one individual suddenly decided to act sensibly,” said Ruthven, getting up. “Yes, of course. I’ll be back in a minute. Amuse yourself by working out which one of the boxes belongs to the phantom.”

“The what?” she asked, and then made a face. “Is there a phantom?”

“Very probably,” he said, and patted her shoulder. “You’re going to get ghosts in a place like this; it’s like having rats, it’s unavoidable. I shouldn’t worry, though: nobody’s disappeared through a trapdoor recently, and the chandelier appears to be secure.”

She turned back to the hot, glittering open space of the auditorium, like a gilded cave—very aware of the huge brass-and-crystal wedding cake of a chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling—and tried to remember the book. She’d read it, of course, along with all the other classic horror novels, for research purposes—not that it was necessarily true. The account of Ruthven’s own activities as portrayed by John Polidori were, as Ruthven was fond of pointing out, about ninety percent pure libel, and half of what was in Rymer and Prest’s Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood was completely inaccurate. Nevertheless there were crumbs of truth in most of the classics, enough to make them worth the bother of reading, and Greta dredged up distant memories of paging through Leroux. It was First-Tier Box 5, wasn’t it, that the ghost had required for his personal use?

Ruthven had secured Second-Tier Box 30 for them—the whole thing, at great expense; they weren’t sharing the space with any other spectators, which she appreciated. They were facing almost directly across at the huge stone-and-gold columns flanking the boxes next to the stage on the left side. There was no one in the really stupendously over-the-top box with curtains, nor the one next to it; but she saw a flicker of movement in the next one along.

Whoever was in there had a carved stone column to their left, but was separated from the next box to the right only by the normal red brocade-and-velvet dividing wall.

Greta thought she could remember something about the column—someone hiding inside it, perhaps—and it certainly looked big enough to contain a person, if it happened to be hollow. That was it. That was First-Tier Box 5.

There was the flicker of movement again, and a man came into view, settling lazily into a chair at the front of the box. He wasn’t wearing evening dress, like most of the patrons: his jacket was charcoal velvet and his shirt a deep blood-red.

Also, unlike most of the patrons, he had narrow silvering dreadlocks falling over his shoulders and halfway down his back. Greta decided that was why she was staring: that was some hair, all right, by Jove—

—but it wasn’t just the man’s hair that had caught her eye; and just as the thought crossed her mind, he turned, looked directly at Greta, eyes large and very bright in his dark face, and winked.

It was very quick. He returned his attention to the closed curtain, to the people moving in the auditorium below, but for a fraction of a moment he had looked right at her as if he knew she would be there.

Also, he was definitely a vampire. She couldn’t tell the color of his eyes from this distance, but she hadn’t needed to. The instant of eye contact had given her a familiar kind of mental tingle that Greta had long ago learned to recognize, a feeling like being momentarily and pleasantly drunk. It wasn’t exactly thrall, but it said very clearly that the person looking at her was capable of thrall, should they choose to use it.

Encountering another classic draculine wasn’t in itself all that surprising—it was a big city, there were bound to be some of them about, and attending the opera was such a vampire thing to do—but it felt somehow unsettling nonetheless.

Ruthven came back with two glasses of champagne, and frowned at her, sitting down. “What’s the matter?”

“I think I know which box it is,” she said, and pointed. “The one with the long-haired guy wearing a velvet jacket.”

He followed her pointing finger, and for a moment he stiffened, as if unpleasantly surprised—the way he had earlier, on the staircase. Only for a moment.

“Spot on,” he said. “The one containing a vampire. How very apt.”

“He looked at me,” said Greta, and took a swig of champagne. “Right at me, and winked. Do you know him?”

“Never seen him before in my life,” Ruthven said, shrugging. “Remember you are being extremely beautiful at the moment, and thus should expect to have men winking at you; unfortunately we are no longer in a century where it is acceptable to assault them with your fan in response.”

“ ‘La, sir,’ ” Greta deadpanned at him, and he grinned.

“Just so. Shh, they’re getting ready to start again.”

Greta leaned her shoulder against his, watching as the conductor reappeared and a hush began to spread over the auditorium. She was focusing her attention directly on the stage as the house lights faded to black—but couldn’t quite stop herself glancing over to the darkened Box 5.

She was not entirely surprised to find there were two red pinpoints of light looking back at her, steadily, just for a moment—and then they vanished as he, too, turned to look at the stage.

* * *

“I thought the demons were very good,” Greta said later in the hotel, “although I expect Fastitocalon would go on at length about stereotyping and the importance of remembering that not every demon actually possesses horns and leathery bat wings and a tail. How many pins did you put in here?”

She had taken off the Madame X gown, which had left pink marks all over her where various bones or seams had pressed, and was standing in her dressing gown undoing Ruthven’s careful work on her hair.

“A sufficiency,” said Ruthven, leaning in the bathroom doorway, still pristine in evening dress. “And yes, Fass would absolutely feel the need to lecture, which is why I wouldn’t in a million years dream of taking him to an opera such as this one. I don’t know if demons even like opera. Do they have them in Hell?”

“You know, I could make so many arts-and-culture jokes based on that question? Yes, there’s an opera house in Dis, apparently, although he’s never told me much about it. I hope he’s having a nice time down there, even if being stuck at the health spa must be rather dull.”

Fastitocalon was an old friend of Greta’s family who happened to be mostly a demon, much the same way Ruthven was a friend who just happened to be a vampire, and had taken it upon himself to watch over Greta after her father’s death. Banished from Hell in the sixteenth century due to a complex management shakeup in the infernal civil service, he had spent several hundred years in exile on Earth as a metaphysically defective creature—and in chronic ill-health, due to the banishment having stripped away much of his power and strength. However, an official rapprochement between Fastitocalon and Hell had been achieved the previous winter, and Greta had finally convinced him to stop being stubbornly self-destructive and bloody well take himself Below to the Lake Avernus spa and get himself properly all the way fixed. It had been difficult to adjust to not having the constant faint mental presence of Fass hanging around in the back of her mind, but at least she knew his absence was simply a function of being out of range. He’d scared her badly once by vanishing abruptly, and while she missed him, it was a small comfort to know he wasn’t permanently gone.

“He’s probably lying around doing algebraic geometry for fun,” Ruthven said. “Or something equally impossible. All those multivalent polynomials and things. No one should be that good at math, even if they are a fiend from Hell.”

“You’re just bitter because you have to have somebody else do your taxes for you,” Greta said mildly, finishing with the pins and beginning to brush the hairspray out. “Fass can’t do latte art or use an eyelash curler worth a damn; let him keep the realm of truly alarming mathematics.”

“I suppose,” said Ruthven, and yawned ever so slightly ostentatiously. Greta got a good look at his teeth, and had to smile: yes, those were some impressive, if neat and proportionate, fangs.

Her hair was more or less back to normal; now she began to take off her makeup, which was rather a relief. With the hair down and without the foundation and contouring, she was beginning to look like herself again in the mirror, rather than the strange if undeniably beautiful other-self Ruthven had created.

He really did know makeup to a somewhat alarming degree. Greta wasn’t completely ignorant of the art; she had to wear mascara to make her pale eyelashes visible, maybe a bit of shadow, concealer—more concealer if the sleep debt was really beginning to show—but that was about the extent of her experience. Ruthven, however, was good. She’d agreed to let him do this little mini-makeover for the evening, partly because he so clearly wanted to get a chance to play, and partly because she’d been kind of curious as to what he could actually achieve with the various specialized substances in his large black bag—but it was nice to get back to being herself.

It was almost midnight and she had to be at the Sorbonne at eight in the morning, awake and functional and caffeinated and dressed appropriately, and the extent to which Greta did not wish to do this was both significant and profound. This wasn’t one of the conferences she had planned on attending—she hadn’t even gone to this particular event in the past three years, and there were a hell of a lot of things at home she’d rather be doing than listening to her colleagues arguing about nomenclature. But there hadn’t been anybody else around who could fill in for her friend on his conference panel on short notice, so here she was: preparing to give her own paper on osteoarthritis in the barrow-wight in place of the ailing Dr. Richard Byrne’s.

Because I’m nice, she thought sourly, not at all pleased to find that the mascara was the waterproof kind and stubbornly resisted her attempts to remove it. At least she was only on the one panel, first thing in the morning; after that, all she had to do was pick and choose which of her colleagues’ presentations she wanted to attend, which she might even enjoy, and do the obligatory round of professional social activities that were part and parcel of any conference, which she would not.

She’d have the hotel suite all to herself for two more nights; Ruthven was leaving for Scotland in the morning, to sort out something tiresome to do with the ancestral pile. He’d planned to stay throughout the conference, enjoying a nice little weekend holiday in Paris, but apparently another part of Huntingtower’s roof had taken this particular moment to collapse and the agents had summoned him to come and deal with it.

“You need the oil-based remover for that, not the ordinary sort,” Ruthven said after she’d spent several moments struggling with the recalcitrant mascara.

He sounded odd. Greta turned from the mirror to look at him, one eye partially denuded. “Great, now you tell me . . . look, are you all right? You were acting a bit strange earlier.”

“Of course I wasn’t,” he said. There was a faint line of worry between his long inkstroke eyebrows.

“You were. On the stairs, when we got there, you just stopped dead for a moment and looked all faraway and preoccupied, like you’d just remembered you’d left the oven on or something, and then when we saw that other vampire with the long hair—are you sure you didn’t recognize him?”

“Extremely sure. I would have remembered that one.” There was a flicker of wry admiration in his voice. “I don’t know, Greta. Something doesn’t feel right here. It’s not just the completely inexplicable monster in the sink, or the sense that I had on the stairs of being watched, or the handsome stranger winking at you. I can’t put my finger on it and I do so hate to claim vague forebodings but I’m afraid that’s what I’ve got just now . . .”

He paused, straightening up, and came into the bathroom. “Stand still and let me do that; you’ll poke your eye out.”

Greta gladly abandoned her attempts and shut her eyes for him; it felt kind of nice having someone else do it, little careful touches on her eyelids, the sense of someone’s face close to her own. “You’ve had vague forebodings a lot recently, though,” she said after a moment, picking up the thread of the conversation, eyes still shut. “And they almost never turn out to be justified. There was the time a month ago when you kept worrying about Things Happening to Cranswell for no reason, and the only Thing that actually Happened was he got a parking ticket, remember?”

“Vividly,” said Ruthven. “There, you’re done; wash your face and no trace will remain of the night’s adventures. And—okay, fine, I admit you’re probably right and it’s nothing. I just hate to leave you alone here, Greta. Are you sure you have to do the rest of it?”

“Yes,” she said, and bent over the basin. It took a minute or two for her to wash the oil from her face, and all the time she was conscious of Ruthven looking at her, silver eyes under black eyebrows, with that little worry-line that should not be there at all. When she straightened up again, she turned to him, leaning against the marble counter. “It’s not that I’m super chuffed about spending the rest of the weekend doing this, either. I wasn’t planning on coming to this thing at all, I’ve got so much going on at work, but now that I am here, I have to do what’s expected of me. Richard absolutely owes me a drink, though.”

She remembered how apologetic Richard had been on the phone, even though she could tell from his tone that he was in fact in quite a lot of pain. Diagnosis of appendicitis: surgery required at once; recovery period measured in weeks. Chance that patient would be traveling to, and presenting a paper at, an international conference in three days’ time: nil. It hadn’t been Richard’s fault, but he still owed her one, and he’d been lucky she was available: there weren’t all that many clinicians working with barrow-wights at all, let alone ones who could present on the topic.

“He does indeed,” said Ruthven. “Many drinks. Just call me, will you, when you get a chance to? I will fret much less with reassurances.”

“I will call you, and tell you enthusiastically in graphic detail about all the gruesome content of the papers being given, okay? I promise. And I’ve already told Varney I’d ring him up when I am not likely to be disturbed by people asking me for my opinion on lunar affective disorder in were-hedgehogs.”

“Good lord,” said Ruthven, but he was smiling a little. “I had no idea you were considered an expert in that particular specialization.”

“World-class authority,” Greta told him, straight-faced, and that got an actual laugh. “Written several pounds of literature on the subject, don’t you know. Look, it’s okay, Ruthven. I’m going to be just fine. I can take care of myself in the big scary foreign city for a couple of days without supervision.”

“I didn’t—that’s—damn. Not what I meant. I know you can, you’re perfectly capable, even if your French isn’t exactly what one might call idiomatic. It’s just my forebodings, that’s all. I’ll get over myself,” said Ruthven, faintly flushed high on his cheekbones. “Sorry if—I’m being overbearing, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re being fretful and mother-hennish,” Greta told him, and impulsively reached out to wrap her arms around him, pull him into a hug. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be in touch when I can, and I’ll call you if anything goes wrong and I turn out to require assistance.”

He hugged her back after a moment, and she could feel some of the tension in his shoulders relax. “And with that I shall be content,” he said, and sighed, but the faint line of worry between his eyebrows had smoothed out a little. “I think I’ll go out to eat. Leave the sitting room windows open a little for me when you go to bed, in case mine blow shut again?”

“Of course,” she said. His bedroom was on the other side of the luxuriously appointed sitting room from her own. “I don’t suppose you’d let me see you do the bat thing—”


“Worth a try,” said Greta, smiling at him. “Good night, Ruthven. Have a nice dinner—and thank you, for tonight. For everything. I had a lovely time.”

“So did I,” he told her, and smiled back.

* * *

She’d taken her phone out of the silly clutch purse and returned it to her proper handbag when they got back, pleased with herself for remembering to do so, but had not remembered to get it out again and put it within easy reach for alarm clock purposes.

When it rang a little past two in the morning, it woke her out of a sound sleep—but for a moment she couldn’t work out why it was ringing on the floor, disoriented in the dark.

You left it in your bag, idiot, she thought, and sighed, rolling over to reach out an arm. Her fingers had just brushed the worn leather when something warm and solid covered in hair nudged itself firmly under her hand: something very like a head.

Greta’s scream hit, and sustained, high C.