James Bond meets H. P. Lovecraft in the latest occult thriller from Hugo Award winner Charles Stross, in a series where British spies take on the supernatural
OH I DO LIKE TO BE BESIDE THE SEASIDE
A vampire is haunting Whitby; it’s traditional.
It’s an hour after dusk on a Saturday evening four weeks before the spring gothic festival. Alex the Vampire strolls along the sea front, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his tweed jacket. There’s a chill breeze blowing onshore, and he has the pavement to himself as he walks, eyes downcast and chin tucked into his chest, lost in thought. What profound insight does the creature of the night contemplate as he paces along the North Promenade beside the beach, opposite a row of moonlit houses? What ancient wisdom, what hideous secrets haunt the conscience of the undying?
Let’s take a look inside his head:
Alex is fretting about his Form P.764 Employee Travel and Subsistence Claim, which he will have to fill out once he returns to his cramped room in a local bed and breakfast. The form looms as large and sinister in his mind’s eye as a vision of his own lichen-stained gravestone. Nevertheless, it provides a welcome distraction from the eldritch undead horror that is his Student Loan Company statement.* And that, in turn, pales into insignificance compared to the worst dread of all: how he is going to explain everything that has happened in the past few months to his parents. Or at least those bits that aren’t classified government secrets.
(Alex hasn’t been a vampire for very long, and he isn’t very good at it yet. But at least he’s still alive—if that’s the right word for his condition—unlike several other members of his brood.)
The tides are coming in, along with the clouds. The wind is chilly on his skin, so Alex turns and begins to retrace his path towards the steps up to the high street, striding past the Pavilion and the whalebone arch, past shuttered cafes and the museum. He walks towards the cliffside, wondering if he’s made a mistake. He’s not sure, if he’s honest with himself, that coming to Whitby was the right thing to do. He’s supposed to be in Leeds, where he’ll be working for the next few weeks. Someone in Travel had booked him a seat on a Friday afternoon train, the better to enable him to make it to the office at nine o’clock sharp on Monday. They obviously hadn’t got the memo about flexitime hours and Persons of Hemophagy.
Spending the weekend in Whitby was entirely his own idea. He’s never visited the small coastal village before: indeed, he only knows about it for two reasons. Whitby is famous from the novel Dracula (as the harbor where the ghost ship Demeter comes aground) and, more recently, it plays host to a number of goth festivals—themselves attracted to the village because of its famous fang-infested foreshore. Why Whitby, if not because of the obvious cliché? (For Alex is not a goth.) Well, Whitby has one other advantage. It’s not close enough to his home city that there’s any risk of him running into his parents or younger sister by accident.
Whitby is Alex’s excuse for not being in Leeds while he’s not working, and not being in Leeds is his excuse for not visiting his family, and not visiting his family makes it a whole lot easier not to tell them about the V-word, which is an awkwardness he’s been grappling with in ever-increasing discomfort for months now.
The season for goths and their steampunk siblings may not have arrived, but Whitby isn’t entirely devoid of the flagrantly ahistorical. There’s a group of drama students staying in one of the B&Bs on the high street, and as he’s passing it the front door bursts open. Alex suddenly finds himself adrift in a sea of Mina Harkers and Abraham Van Helsings, with a trio of diaphanously clad Brides of Dracula eddying around him. They giggle and laugh at some private joke as they swish past, bringing a flush to Alex’s cheeks. (He has a bad case of wandering male gaze, a side effect of his monastic upbringing. He is mature enough to find this mortifying, but not sufficiently strong-willed to suppress it in the presence of so much well-displayed cleavage.)
“I say!” Alex skids to a stop just in time to avoid colliding with a fellow in white tie and tails, a red satin-lined opera cape draped across his shoulders. “I say, old man!” The fellow doffs his top hat with white gloves that glimmer theatrically in the darkness. Obnoxiously dedicated to staying in character, he exudes a passive-aggressive politeness and assured self-confidence that suggests it is Alex, and not he, who is an intruder from the wrong century. Alex fights hard not to take an instant dislike to him as he continues: “I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Who are you supposed to be?”
Alex does a double-take. He’s not wearing a costume, but in the darkness his tweed jacket and open-necked white shirt (with a scarf worn cravat-style against the late March chill) could be mistaken for a period costume. An imp of the mildly perverse whispers in his ear: “Quincey Morris,” he tells the amateur Dracula, feeling slightly smug about knowing his Stoker (although in truth he just skimmed the Wikipedia plot synopsis on the train over).
“Capital!” chortles the fellow: “And I am Sir Arthur Holmwood, so I suppose that makes us rivals in love for the hand of the delectable Lucy”—a twitch of his chiseled chin indicates a robustly athletic student doing her best to portray a consumptive Victorian beauty—“at least until the fiend snatches her away, ha ha!”
“Come! There’s no time to lose! We received a report by telegraph,” he adds confidingly, “that the fiend has been sighted up by the graveyard! We’d better head straight there—”
“Is Jeremy always this much of a ham?” the first Bride of Dracula (verdigris hair and a copper nose-ring, shivering in a strapless, pin-striped bustle dress) whispers in the direction of the second (straight-haired blonde: also shivering, in crimson corset and yards of tulle). It’s not meant to carry, but Alex can’t help overhearing.
“Not usually, but he was hitting the Red Bull and vodka pretty hard,” Bride Two observes sotto voce. She grimaces and adjusts her plastic fangs. “He uthually mellowth out oneth he getth hith groove on.”
“Follow me!” declares the bumptious Arthur Holmwood, gesturing theatrically as he strides up the cliff-side path.
“Are you coming?” Bride One asks Alex brightly.
“I suppose—” Alex checks his priorities and rapidly realizes that the alternative is a torrid date with his Form P.764. “Yes, of course.”
“Then would you lend me your jacket? I’m freezing!”
As they sashay towards the cliff Alex confesses, even as he hands her his outer layer, “I’m not a LARPer: I hope you don’t mind.”
“Nah, that’s cool. Tonight’s the dress rehearsal.” The green-haired girl pulls his tweed jacket on over her bare shoulders. Alex remembers he’s supposed to extend his elbow, and feels a rare spasm of gratitude to his sister Sarah for having hijacked the living room telly for one too many Regency costume dramas in years gone by. She takes a firm grip on his arm: “I’m Cassie! Who are you?”
“Alex.” Alex feels himself carried along, out of control, as if he has indeed been abducted by the Count’s alien and seductive brides. He’s not totally unsocialized, but he’s the product of a single-sex schooling followed by graduate and postgraduate studies in a field with institutional gender bias. When you subject a statistically significant sample size of otherworldly male nerds to this treatment what you end up with is a certain proportion of twenty-four-year-old virgins. Also, all the female vampires he knows in real life (that’s both of them) terrify him. He therefore takes a moment to remember that most people would deal with the current situation by making friendly conversation rather than wigging out or freezing. “You’re rehearsing a performance of Dracula? For the festival?” he manages eventually.
“YesYes! It’s a strolling play.” Cassie leans close as they pick their way up the steepening incline. “Me, Veronica, and Louise are the Brides.” Her hand is warm, but behind the burbly front she sounds slightly distant, as if she’s translating every sentence from a foreign language before she speaks. “There’s a confrontation in the park, a fight scene in the graveyard, then we pursue the Count to the ruins of the Abbey for the big climax! It’s the whole vampire thing, very dramatic, very sexy . . . What brings you to town?” Alex spots her studying him sidelong, and his guts clench as he realizes she’s close enough to see that he isn’t in steampunk drag or here for the goth weekend experience: he’s just woefully unfashionable.
“I’m”—Alex’s brain freezes as he remembers the fearful oath the smiling man in the blue uniform made him swear as he signed the Official Secrets Act, using a calligraphy pen loaded with his own blood—“a mathematician. I work for the government.” Nerd out, fool, his socially adept superego swears despairingly.
“That’s funny.” Cassie stares at him: “You’re too short to be Alan Turing!” She means Benedict Cumberbatch, in the movie. “You mean for GCHQ, right? The, the spooks?” Again, that subtle pause in her speech, as if she’s reading from an internal script.
“Not GCHQ,” Alex says hastily, mortified. “No, it’s much more boring than that—” Which is what he has to say to the smoking hot girl on his arm, because if he tells her the truth his new superiors will be extremely disappointed with him. (The geas attached to the oath of office forces most Laundry employees to act in accordance with their perception of the organization’s best interests. As a vampire Alex is partially immune to such compulsions, but he is disinclined to explore the consequences of disobedience, for various reasons.) “No, really. I’m just here for the weekend, getting away from Leeds because that’s where work sent me.” A thought strikes him. “Do you really think I look like Alan Turing?”
They’ve reached the top of the hill and are nearly at the park as he asks, and Cassie releases his arm. “Hey, Ronnie, they’re already here! We’re late!” Veronica mumbles something inaudible around her choppers. Cassie turns back to him: “I’m really sorry but we’re on in sixty seconds and I’ve got to get in character and I don’t have time—” She slides out of his jacket and hands it to him, and while he’s fumbling it on she opens a tiny clutch and pulls out a pair of plastic fangs. “Thorry about thith, thtick around for the afterparty?”
“Oh yes—” says Alex. Cassie nods, but she’s already turning away from him. She and the other two Brides of Dracula raise their arms and proceed to writhe languorously—for Jeremy is not the only ham here—towards a small clump of mostly black-clad onlookers in the middle of the park’s neatly manicured lawn. He watches Cassie’s enchanting back recede, and manages to stare, moon-struck, for all of thirty seconds before his phone begins to play the Ritt der Walküren.
What the— Alex pulls out his phone and sees a most unwelcome caller ID. It’s the head office. “Hello, Alex speaking, I mean, uh, Dr. Schwartz here. Who is this?”
There is a brief pause. “Please hold.” Another voice comes on the line: male, older, weary. “Dr. Schwartz, this is the DM speaking.”
Oh hell, what does the DM want with me? Alex has heard of the semi-legendary, reclusive Dungeon Master. He was covered in one of the Friday miscellanea sessions last month. These are briefings someone in External Assets has arranged to bring the surviving members of the vampire Scrum up to speed on their new co-workers. Alex racks his brain desperately, trying to remember what it is that the DM does for the Laundry. (Something to do with directing teams of agents in the field in realtime. Or was it running the world’s weirdest Turingcomplete variant Dungeons & Dragons campaign using a rule set isomorphic with first-order transdimensional summoning algebra— Alex squelches the thought before it trails off into the mists of memory. “What can I do for you?” he asks.
“According to the Duty Officer you’re in Whitby. Are you in Whitby, Dr. Schwartz? If so, what are you doing there?”
“I was just”—chatting up the Brides of Dracula seems like the wrong thing to say, not to mention being an over-optimistic interpretation of the situation, so he settles for—“taking an evening stroll. What can I do for you?” “Whitby.” The DM pronounces the name of the seaside village in a doom-laden tone that Alex feels demands a more ominous payload: something like The Third Reich, or Mordor. “You just happen to be taking an evening stroll in Whitby. Tell me, have you noticed anything out of the ordinary on your perambulations?”
Across the park the Brides of Dracula are running for their lives, pursued in circles by a squad of fearless vampire hunters brandishing stakes that look suspiciously like out-of-season cricket stumps. “No, why?”
“Did you see anything along the sea front?”
Behind him, the audience claps appreciatively: one out. “I mostly saw the sea. What were you expecting, mermaids?”
A pause. “Quite possibly: I’m led to believe that a BLUE HADES with a class three glamour can pass for a mermaid, yes. But that’s not quite what I was asking about.”
“Well I didn’t see anything.” Alex hunches his shoulders instinctively. “Well, apart from the usual: an out-of-season tourist sea front and a troupe of actors rehearsing an outdoor performance of Dracula for the goth festival.”
“Did you even read your briefing pack?” The DM’s tone is waspish.
“What briefing pack?” Alex is perplexed.
“What—please hold.” The phone goes silent for perhaps half a minute. Alex makes his way along the side of the park, watching a Van Helsing rescue a sleepwalking Mina Murray from the clutches of an undead Lucy Westenra. There is no sign of Cassie while he waits for the DM to resume the call. Finally, a tinny throat-clearing sound emerges from the speaker. “Dr. Schwartz, please accept my apologies. I’m monitoring an operational scenario in your vicinity and naturally assumed from your presence in the grid that you were part of it.”
An operation? Alex shakes his head. “I was sent to Leeds for next week. I’m working regular office hours, so I’m sightseeing right now.”
“Why are you not in Leeds?” the DM demands, as if Alex’s delinquency (on his time off) is something he finds personally offensive.
“Have you ever seen Leeds on a Saturday night?” It may not be the real reason for his absence, but it’s a perfectly serviceable excuse. The nightlife in the city center is raucous, even when there isn’t a big match on.
“Well then.” The DM seems to come to some sort of conclusion. “Would you like to make yourself useful, Dr. Schwartz? The field team is short-handed—there’s a stomach bug going round—and I have a little job for you . . .”
* The SLC seem remarkably unwilling to countenance the possibility that in moving from his last job in software development at a Merchant Bank to a career in the Civil Service he might have taken a 70 percent pay cut, and their demands are becoming increasingly unreasonable and threatening.