Dead Lies Dreaming, by Charles Stross, Part Three: Introducing Evelyn Starkey

While Santa’s public execution was taking place on Regent Street, Evelyn Starkey was taking an hour-long break from work to browse the most exclusive kitchenware store in Mayfair. As Imp was declaring his nefarious goals, she was staring intently at a gleaming display of microplane graters.

Dead Lies Dreaming
Dead Lies Dreaming

“Beautiful,” she murmured, visions of their uses dancing in her mind’s eye. “Guard!”

“Miss?” Her new bodyguard, two meters of steroid-enhanced gammon in a black Hugo Boss suit, was unprepared. He clearly hadn’t bothered to read the checklist Human Resources always included in the briefing pack for her new minions.

“What is it, Miss?” He glanced around dimly, nostrils flaring as he searched for threats.

Charles Stross

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“Take a memo,” she drawled. “Re: Rupert’s request for possible performance improvement incentives. HR to investigate the use of microplane technology for epidermal degloving as a possible alternative to current Yakuza protocol. A/B testing to be applied after the next stack-ranking identifies suitable candidates for downsizing who need remedial motivation.”

Rupert, her boss, had tasked Eve with finding a modern replacement for the Bigge Organization’s use of the Yakuza protocol for motivating underachievers; after all, pinkie fingers could be surgically reattached. But she hadn’t expected to find a likely candidate in a kitchenware store. Her gaze slid along the aisle to a fetching display of long-handled Perspex and chrome grinders loaded with pink Himalayan rock salt.

“Fetch me two of those, if you please. And one of every kind of microplane grater that’s available from stock.”

“Are yer buyin’ a new kitchen, Miss?” asked the Gammon, grinning like a self-satisfied Rottweiler who didn’t quite understand that his mistress required him to return the

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postman’s hand to its owner without further ado.

“I’ve got a mate in Logistics at IKEA ’oo can fix you up wiv...”

“You can stop talking now.” She smiled sweetly up at the guard – he over-topped her in spite of her five-inch heels – until the color drained from his face. Then she showed him her teeth.

“That’s better. You will speak to me only when I address you directly, or to warn me of an immediate threat. Otherwise, company regulations require me to have your larynx surgically inerted. You would find that unpleasant, don’t you agree?”

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He nodded frantically: obviously he’d at least listened to that part of his induction interview. The Bigge Organization paid astoundingly well, but its approach to discipline was draconian.

“Jolly good! Remember, I want one of everything available from this display, and two of those absolutely delightful salt grinders.”

She let the threat hang in the air as she turned away from the assorted graters, zesters, and shavers, then strolled towards a display of meat tenderizers. Perhaps the Gammon suspected she was bluffing, but he wasn’t stupid enough to test her: he simply trailed in her wake, silently cringing. Gutless, she thought. That would never do.

Eve’s lunch hour was about to be interrupted. Being on duty 24/7 had certain drawbacks, and the switchboard chose just that moment to redirect a priority caller to her personal phone. Her only warning was a double-beep from her ear-

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piece.

She answered instantly: “Mr. Bigge’s secretary, how may I help you?”

(That Eve was actually an executive assistant, had a degree in Business and Accountancy with an MBA on top, and was stock exchange certified and licensed to trade in her own right meant nothing to Rupert, who insisted she answer his calls this way.)

“Eve?” The privileged Home Counties drawl was tantalizingly familiar, but it took her a second to work out precisely which member of Rupert’s inner circle was speaking. They all did their utmost to sound identically bored, rich, and disdainful, as if in the grip of some collective phobia of being seen to be busy, poor, and desperate.

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“James! How delightful to hear from you. What can I do for you today?”

James Wall was one of Rupert’s fund managers.

“I’m well, how are you, I’m trying to get hold of Rupert to give him a sitrep on the Macao transfer and the funding call for the Dubai venture but he’s not picking up his phone or

answering his messages - is something wrong?”

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It came out as a torrent of finely tuned dealer desk bulls**** and none of it had anything to do with the real reason for his call, but Evelyn knew exactly what it was about all the same.

James was effective at his job, but high maintenance – something Rupert tolerated only because they’d been at Eton together, and the boss had a soft spot for his old school friend.

As long as James continued to show a six percent or greater annual return on the £600M fund he managed, Rupert would keep him in Krug, Maseratis, and hookers – this was Eve’s understanding.

But James needed to hear his master’s voice at least once a week or he got anxious, and Rupert had been busy with more important matters of late. Matters like pursuing good relations with the New Management.

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“Why isn’t he answering his private number? Is everything all right?” James asked anxiously.

“I’m sure everything is going swimmingly,” Evelyn gushed, “But I tell you what, James, I’ll make a note to have Rupert call you specially, just to set your mind at ease, as soon as he’s out of his meeting with” – she lowered her voice confidingly – “Number 11.”

11 Downing Street was the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the minister in charge of the British government’s finances. As the old saying had it, if you owe the bank ten thousand pounds, you have a problem; if you owe the bank ten million pounds, the bank has a problem; and if you owe the bank ten billion pounds, the Chancellor has a problem.

The New Management took a drastic approach to dealing with problems – they simply went away, as did the skeletons of the people who created them – so Rupert was always at pains to keep Number Eleven briefed, ideally well in advance, about his more adventurous money-making initiatives.

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“It’s on the down-low, so please keep it to yourself,” she purred.

“Oh, oh! Of course!” James sounded ecstatic.

Pants on fire, she thought to herself. She’d just thrown him a juicy piece of gossip, of course he’d share it with the boys in the back room at his gentleman’s club. She’d also implied that he had been trumped in Rupe’s affections only by a Very Important Person Indeed, namely the Black Pharaoh’s personal treasurer.

James’s ego duly stroked Eve maneuvered him into hanging up.

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Now her gaze fell upon a chromed-steel rack that dangled from the ceiling on a pulley-and-chain arrangement. It was currently festooned with tinsel and saucepans, but it was clearly destined for a higher purpose – one that involved overly needy merchant bankers who failed to live up to Rupert’s exacting requirements.

“I’ll have one of those, too,” she declared. “And as many meat hooks as it’ll take.”

Tomorrow: Three Heroes and a Famous Fool

Dead Lies Dreaming. by Charles Stross, is published by Orbit in Hardback, priced £18.99

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