“Does my butt look big in this?” Robin hissed through tightly pursed lips.
“Your cape covers your ass: I don’t see what you’re so up-set about,” grumped the Bat. “Look at me, I look like a latex fetish show model.”
He stumbled badly, catching his heel on the hem of his cape – it trailed along the floor behind him – and the store detective caught his elbow just in time to save him from a nasty tumble.
“Easy does it, sir.”
“Thanks.” The Bat drew himself up to his full one-eighty centimeters and draped the cape over one arm with exaggerated dignity, like a dowager managing the unwieldy train of her gown. “I’ll take it from here.”
Once behind the magic curtain they entered the wondrous water-stained world of retail management. Toys and color gave way to faded gray carpet tiles, noticeboards on white partition walls, and battered staff lockers.
Retail real estate on Regent Street was among the most expensive in Europe, far too costly to waste on stockrooms and non-essential offices that could be moved off-site. But some functions were business-critical and had to be housed above the sales floor. Among these was the strong room where locked cash drawers were taken and checked, then
prepared for bank transfer via armored car.
Over 90 percent of the store’s receipts came by electronic payment these days, but that still left a million pounds in cash to process over the pre-Christmas season. On a busy Saturday like today, the strong room might have up to a hundred thousand pounds in notes and coin on hand by close of business – and soon, if Imp had his way, some of it would be in his hands. A fine joke, he thought.
“Who’s in charge of the strong room?” he asked the store detective, giving just a little extra push to loosen his tongue.
“One of the audit team leaders,” their escort blabbed happily. “Probably Bob or Alice, but it’s the weekend so it’s any-
body’s guess who’s on. They’ll be watched by an assistant manager and two security guards as they count each trolley in, and the trolley team has two shop staff and two guards
whenever they’re out on the floor. It’s quite labor-intensive, you can see why they’re so eager to go fully contactless, it’ll make my job easier, too...”
“Can you get past the guards if I shut down the managers?” the Bat asked Robin, hanging back behind Imp and his hapless victim.
“Sure, if I’ve got enough space to work in.” Game Boy glowered at the Black Panther: “You up for a home run, Princess?”
“Absolutely,” Del sneered back at him.
“Welp. Whatever I can grab, I grab, then it’s over to you.”
The Bat’s frown deepened. “I thought the plan was for Dear Leader to sweet-talk us all the way down...”
“Yes, but you know what they say about plans: Always have a backup, right? And that goes double for one of Imp’s capers.”
They were out of time. Ahead of them, the store detective stopped at an almost aggressively anonymous door, distinguished from the others on this corridor by the presence of a mirrored glass window, a suspiciously robust frame, and another keypad. Their escort pressed a discreet buzzer, then paused.
“Who are you again?” he asked, looking mildly puzzled.
“We’re the cash collection team you were expecting from HiveCo,” Imp said smoothly.
“Oh, right. It’s cash collection,” the detective spoke into an entryphone. “They’re early today.”
“We thought you might be near to your floor capacity,” Imp explained.
A buzzer sounded and the reinforced door of the strong room swung open.
The room was fronted by a battered desk. One wall was covered by a row of filing cabinets, and at the back of the room stood an enormous safe. Camera bubbles protruded from every corner of the ceiling, electronic mushrooms dripping the mold spores of money. The air was heavy with the stale smell of recirculated bank notes battling it out with
a nostril-stinging brew of cleaning fluids. A tired-looking woman sat at the front desk, feeding bundles of loose £20 notes through a counting and binding machine. She looked up. “Hey, Ralph, what’s with the fancy dress...”
“I’m not sure, Amy, they didn’t...”
Imp flourished a corner-clipped Albanian passport at Amy: “We’re your scheduled cash escort from HiveCo, ma’am.”
He pushed hard, radiating an oppressive aura of beneficence and sincerity. “We’re dressed like members of staff from the DC and Marvel tie-in concessions instead of being in uni-
form because we had a tip-off. A gang are reported to be planning a robbery between here and the van, so we’re using a new stealthy transport protocol.”
To the store detective: “You’ve done an excellent job! But you’re overdue for your coffee break. Why don’t you go and put your feet up for a while? You’ve certainly earned it!”
“Gosh.” Amy, the audit manager, wilted visibly under the strain of reconciling Imp’s narrative with her expectations.
“Nobody told me... but I suppose...”
Her assistant’s head nodded like a lucky cat, but the guard to the left of the vault began to stand. Unlike the others, he had some resistance to Imp’s mind manipulation.
Tomorrow: Super Powers To The Rescue
Dead Lies Dreaming. by Charles Stross, is published by Orbit in Hardback, priced £18.99