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Dr. Franz Egg,

The effect of SpecOps work on the human psyche, its possible ramifications to a healthy life and comments upon needlessly long titles to academic reports

Dr. Chumley was turned away from me when I entered and seemed to be leaning on the filing cabinet for support while his back moved in that way it does when people are silently sobbing.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Never better,” he replied, his voice with a forced quietness— like you reset when someone steps on your toe with a baby asleep nearby. “Are you here to talk about issues regarding your work as a serving SpecOps officer?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m here for a psychiatric evaluation at Commander Braxton Hicks’s behest.”

“Thank God for that,” he said with obvious relief. “I thought I’d have to listen to the crazy antics of some deranged operative who should have been straitjacketed long ago.”

He paused for a second. “I just said that out loud, didn’t I?” “I’m afraid so.”

Damn. I’m Dr. Newton Chumley by the way.”

“Detective Thursday Next,” I said, shaking his hand.

He placed a file in the cabinet, then took out a manila folder. It was big, and Dr. Chumley heaved it to the desk with a thump. He was a young man, probably recently graduated, but the work was already having an affect. His eyes were red, and he had a noticeable tremor.

“You have no idea what I have to go through,” he said, offering me a seat before sitting himself. “It’s intolerable, I tell you, intolerable.”

He rested his face in his hands.

“Early this morning,” he said quietly through his fingers, “I had someone who had killed a zombie with a sharpened spade.”

“That would be Spike,” I replied brightly, having joined him on a few of these expeditions myself.

“And doesn’t anything about that seem remotely unusual to you?”

I reflected for a moment. “Not really . . . Wait—”

“Yes?”

“Spike usually favors a semiauto twelve-gauge. He must have been out of cartridges and used whatever was at hand. It’s one of his many talents. Adaptability.

“Very . . . laudable,” murmured Dr. Chumley, lapsing once more into quiet despondency.

“Actually,” I added in order to fill the silence, “technically speaking, zombies are already dead, so you can’t kill them—just disable the diseased part of the cortex that gives them locomotion and an insatiable thirst for human flesh.”

“I so didn’t want to know that,” said Chumley, staring at me, “and will now have to do my very best to forget it. But I have a feeling the thought will remain and fester in my subconscious until it bubbles to the surface as a fullyfledged neurosis a dozen years from now, when I begin to have an inexplicable aversion to buttons and hedgehogs.”

He took a deep breath, calmed himself, and then opened the bulging file, which I noted had my name on the cover. I’d forgotten how much stuff I’d done.

He indicated the closed door. “Do you know Officer Stiggins?”

“Yes, very well.”

“He uses ‘we’ when he means ‘I.’ Is that an affectation?”

“Neanderthals are hardwired Marxist,” I told him, “and have no concept of the first-person singular pronoun. He would die tomorrow without fear or worry if he felt it would better serve his community.”

“Are you saying Karl Marx was a neanderthal?”

“He was exceptionally hairy,” I said reflectively, “but no, I don’t think so.”

“You know what’s really strange?”

“You could once buy lion cubs at Harrods?” I replied helpfully. “That’s pretty strange.”

“Not as strange as this: Of everyone I’ve interviewed, Officer Stiggins is the most normal. Sensible, thoughtful and utterly without ego. That’s strange, given that he’s the only one who’s not human.”

“Have you met Officer Simpkin?” I asked.

“Yes—charming lady.”

“She’s not human.”

He frowned. “What is she, then?”

“Perhaps it’s better you don’t know,” I replied, considering Chumley’s delicate mental state.

“In that you are correct, and I thank you for it.”

He looked at my file for a moment, read the good-conduct report and then the summary. He stopped after a minute or two and grimaced. “Did you really kill Acheron Hades with a silver mullet?”

“I think you’ll find it says ‘bullet.’ ”

“Oh, yes,” he said, peering closer. “That makes a lot more sense.”

“Acheron’s sister wasn’t best pleased that I did,” I said. “In fact—”

“Can I stop you there?” said Chumley abruptly. “I’d be happier not knowing who Acheron’s sister is. My job is to give Commander Hicks an appraisal of your psychological well-being. Now, do you have any delusions, hallucinations, unresolved and deep-seated personal issues, inexplicable phobias or any other related aberrations that might negatively affect your working efficiency?”

“I don’t . . . think so.”

“Thank heavens,” he said with a contented sigh as he produced a small book of certificates. “I’m going to mark you NUT-1 on the internationally recognized but tactlessly named scale of psychological normality: ‘disgustingly healthy and levelheaded.’ There, that was easy. I can have a break until my twelve-o’clock—she had to kill a man with her thumb and now can’t tie her shoelaces or change her mind without losing her temper. Well, nice meeting you. Close the door on your way out. Cheerio.”

But I didn’t get up. No one I knew in SpecOps had been given a clear bill of mental health for decades. In fact, it struck me now that it was possibly a disadvantage. After all, who would ever do the stuff we did without being a little bit nuts? Victor Analogy had run SO-27 for twenty-six years and was never ranked higher than a NUT-4: “prone to strange and sustained delusional outbursts but otherwise normal in all respects.” I had respected Analogy a great deal, but even I felt slightly ill at ease when he confided in me with all seriousness that he was pregnant with an elephant, foisted on him by an overamorous server at Arby’s.

“Actually,” I began, “I think someone might be trying to kill me.”

Chumley stopped what he was doing and stared at me over the top of his spectacles. “Oh, no,” he said, “I’m not falling for that. First you say you’re fine, then you say your not. We call it Hamlet syndrome—an attempt to get your own way by feigning insanity, generally by saying what comes into your head and talking a lot. Mind you,” he added thoughtfully, “it works a lot better if you’re a prince.”

“I’m not kidding,” I replied. “Goliath is out to cause me harm.”

I stared at him earnestly, and he narrowed his eyes. It was true, too. The Goliath Corporation and I had not seen eye to eye over the past two decades. They no longer controlled SpecOps but had run the police force ever since the entire service had been privatized.

“In my experience that’s hardly evidence of delusion,” he said. “Goliath is out to get lots of people. Being wary of multinationals shouldn’t be paranoia, and more a case of standard operating procedure.”

Goliath wasn’t universally loved, but since it employed almost a fifth of England’s workforce, no one was keen to rock the boat. Few ever dared to speak out against the behemoth.

“I see,” Chumley said, pen poised above the “signature” part of the certificate. “And what form does this harm take? Assassination?”

“I’m too valuable to assassinate,” I told him. “They’re more interested in attempting to access information by impersonation. There are people who might talk only to me about information that Goliath is after.”