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Millon de Floss,

The Thursday Next Chronicles

The offices had survived almost completely unchanged since most of the Special Operations Network was disbanded thirteen years before. The building was of a sensible design from the forties, and the worn wood and eroded stonework contained more memories than any other place in my life, with the possible exception of the Jurisfiction offices at Norland Park. I pushed open the heavy doors and walked into the lobby. High above me a glazed ceiling let in a directionless gray light and, by the look of it, some rainwater. The paint was peeling, and there was the ever-present smell of damp carpets and boiled cabbage—or, if you prefer, boiled carpets and damp cabbage.

The lobby had a few officers milling about, which reflected the fact that the Special Operations Network had not been completely disbanded. There were six SpecOps divisions remaining out of the thirty or so that once worked here. SO-6 and SO-9 had been merged and looked after national security and diplomatic protection. SO-1 policed the network itself, and SO-5 was a superjudiciary search-and-destroy unit—I’d worked for them myself when we’d hunted down Acheron Hades. The tax office was SO-28, and the Cheese Enforcement Agency was SO-31.

This left only SO-3, which we had called the “Odd Squad.” They looked after dimensional travel issues, which were so disagreeably complex and mind-bogglingly strange that we were all glad to have nothing to do with them. Suffice it to say there were a shade over six thousand entirely separate dimensions within the League of Alternative Realities—a tiny fraction of the total, but you didn’t get to join the league until you’d figured out how to move across, something that now seemed so blindingly obvious it’s astonishing we couldn’t see it before. Our own dimension was coded ID-11 and was the only league member with diphtheria, David Hasselhoff, and the French, which amused the rest of the multiverse no end. It wasn’t all bad news, as we were also the only one with bicycles, dogs and music, which put us in a robust trading position. SO-3 mostly dealt with trade issues like this; early trades were Brompton folding bicycles to HC-110 in return for escalators and Dalmatians to X-TOL for fax machines. A more recent deal was the complete works of Bartok in exchange for a chain of grocery stores peculiar to D-76, which featured cheaper groceries. The chain was called Aldi, which explained the low cost and why you can’t ever recognize the brands.

As I stood there for a moment, lost in thought, three operatives in civvies walked past. I could tell they were Odd Squad because they all wore their thumb on the wrong side of their left hand. No one knew quite why, but we suspected that it was similar to a hazing or a rite of passage, like my bout with Basher Dwight. The story goes that newbies at SO-3 are sent to mirror dimension E-6 to get partially reversed, but they had to be careful—stay a second too long and you’d have your ears on backward or genitals in the small of your back. Mind you, it was less permanent than a tattoo—stay for just the right length of time in E-6 and you’d go all the way round and revert to normal. None ever did. You carried two right hands for life as a badge of honor and solidarity.

By way of comparison, hazing in the now-defunct time-traveling elite known as the ChronoGuard was just as frightening but a lot more spectacular: a 65-million-year backjump to ground zero during the K-T extinction event. The losers jumped out as the meteor struck, but the bold and proud waited for the shock wave. If you returned with grit in your hair and the smell of terrified hadrosaur about you . . . well, you’d not be buying the first round for a while.

I made my way across the lobby to the main desk. A woman had her back to me as I approached, but she turned as soon as I limped up to the desk.

“Detective Next?” she said, giving me a broad smile and holding out her hand. “It’s a huge honor.”

She was taller than me by a few inches, slender and attractive. Her long dark hair was unflecked by gray and tied in a loose ponytail. She had fine features and smiled with easy confidence. She was also young—barely thirty—and I’d heard that she spoke three languages and had graduated with a double first in English literature from Oxford. I also knew that she’d been a cop since graduation, made detective in only three years and been awarded Swindon’s highest award for bravery, the Dorcan Star. It was well deserved: She took a bullet through the ear defending the mayor against Elgin separatists. This was Phoebe Smalls.

“Detective Smalls,” I said, shaking the proffered hand, “you’ve been making quite a name for yourself.”

“I looked to your career for inspiration,” she said. “Everything I’ve ever done was because you did it first.”

“I never lost an ear on the mayor’s account,” I told her, indicating the ragged thing on the side of her head.

“Pardon?”

“I said, ‘I never lost—’ ”

“Just kidding. I can hear perfectly.” She looked down at my walking stick. “I heard you took all this in pursuit of the law,” she said. “I only tackled the separatists because I knew you would. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like Thursday Next—only more so.”

She gave me the steely gaze of the supremely ambitious, and my hackles, which had already risen, rose further.

“Like me only more so? How’s that meant to work?”

“Go further, achieve more, fail less.”

“Oh, yes?” I replied. “And how’s that working out for you so far?”

“I’m already taller.”

“But not older.”

“I’m working on that daily. I think you should be flattered— someone who wants to be a better version of you. I think we should schedule a longer meeting,” she added, “to have a chat. Find out the areas in which there could be improvement.”

“That’s the point about failure,” I said. “It’s an intrinsic part of success. You win some, then you lose some. But with experience and luck, you learn to lose less as the years go on.”

Smalls nodded in agreement. “Like in sports,” she said. “It all boils down to lose/save ratios. I’ve been studying your stats, Thursday. You’ve got a career lives lost/saved ratio of thirty-two to one over one hundred and eighty-six encounters and a solve ratio of sixty-two percent. That places you at number twenty-eight in the global tables.”

“Is that a fact?” I said.

“Yes,” she replied eagerly. “It’s all very scientific.”

“There’s nothing scientific in tackling a crazed lunatic coming at you with an ax,” I said. “How did you do in the league table?”

“Okay so far. But if I’m to improve my ratio, I need to know where you failed and how I might do better. In that way I can make your mistakes the mistakes I would have made but now won’t. It’s for the good of the citizenry we protect, Miss Next. I’m not in this for the glory, as I’m sure neither were you.”

“Neither was I?”

“Sorry,” she said, “I wasn’t suggesting that your career was effectively over.”

But she just had. I sighed. I didn’t want to fight her. She was good, it was undeniable. Just a bit . . . well, intense—and obsessed with figures.

There was a pause.

“So,” I said, “would you like to be my second-in-command when Braxton offers me the SO-27 job?”

“Generous, if a little misguided,” she replied with a smile. “As far as I can see, I’m the only viable candidate.”

“Not quite correct,” I replied with a smile. “Braxton values experience above all.”