The second volume of Charles Stross's thrill-a-minute saga of multiple worlds
Miriam, a hip tech journalist from Boston, discovered her alternate world relatives in The Family Trade, and with them an elite identity she didn't know was hers. Now, in order to avoid a slippery slope down to an unmarked grave, Miriam, known as Lady Helge to the Family, starts applying modern business practices and scientific knowledge to a trade dominated by mercantilists with unexpected consequences for three different timelines, including the quasi-Victorian one exploited by the hidden family. Charles Stross is one of the big new SF writers of the 21st century, and the saga of The Merchant Princes is his most ambitious work yet.
About the Author
Charles Stross is the author of the bestselling Merchant Princes series, the Laundry series, and several stand-alone novels including Glasshouse, Accelerando, and Saturn's Children. Born in Leeds, England, in 1964, Stross studied in London and Bradford, earning degrees in pharmacy and computer science. Over the next decade and a half he worked as a pharmacist, a technical writer, a software engineer, and eventually as a prolific journalist covering the IT industry. His short fiction began attracting wide attention in the late 1990s; his first novel, Singularity Sky, appeared in 2003. He has subsequently won the Hugo Award twice. He lives with his wife in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a flat that is slightly older than the state of Texas.
Read an Excerpt
THE HIDDEN FAMILY (Chapter One)Learned Counsel
The committee meeting was entering its third hour when the king sneezed, bringing matters to a head. His Excellency Sir Roderick was speaking at the time of the royal spasm. Standing at the far end of the table, before the red velvet curtains that sealed off the windows and the chill of the winter afternoon beyond, Sir Roderick leaned forward slightly, clutching his papers to his bony chest and wobbling back and forth as he recited. His colorless manners matched his startling lack of skin and hair pigmentation: He kept his eyes downcast as he regurgitated a seemingly endless stream of reports from the various heads of police, correspondents of intelligence, and freelance informers who kept his office abreast of news.
“I beg your pardon.” A valet flourished a clean linen handkerchief before the royal nose. John Frederick blinked, his expression pained. “Ah-choo!” Although not yet in middle age, the king’s florid complexion and burgeoning waistline were already giving rise to worries among his physiopaths and apothecaries.
Sir Roderick paused, awaiting the royal nod. The air in the room was heavy with the smell of beeswax furniture polish, and a faint oily overlay from the quietly fizzing gas lamps. “Sire?”
“A moment.” John Frederick, by grace of God king-emperor of New Britain and ruler of the territories and dependencies thereof, took a fresh handkerchief and waved off his equerry while anxious faces watched him from all sides. He breathed deeply, clearly battling to control the itching in his sinuses. “Ah. Where were we? Sir Roderick, you have held the floor long enough—take a seat, we will return to you shortly. Lord Douglass, this matter of indiscipline among the masses troubles me. If the effects of the poor grain harvest last year are not mitigated in the summer, as your honorable colleague forecasts”—a nod at Lord Scotia, minister for rural affairs—“then there will be fertile soil for the ranters and ravers to till next autumn. Is there any risk of a domestic upset?”
Lord Douglass ran a wrinkled hand across his thinning hair as he considered his reply. “As your majesty is doubtless aware—” He paused. “I had hoped to discuss this matter after hearing from Sir Roderick. If I may beg your indulgence?” At the royal nod, he leaned sideways. “Sir Roderick, may I ask you to rapidly summarize the domestic situation?”
“By your leave. Your majesty?” Sir Roderick cleared his throat, then addressed the room. “Your majesty, my right honorable friends, the domestic condition is currently under control, but there are an increasing number of reports of nonconformist ranters in the provinces. In the past month alone the royal police have apprehended no less than two cells of Levelers, and uncovered three illicit printers—one in Massachusetts, one in your majesty’s western New Provinces, and one in New London itself.” A whisper ran around the table: It was an open secret that the cellar press in the capital could print whatever they liked with only loose control, except for the most blatantly slanderous rumors and Leveler sedition. For there to be raids, the situation must be far worse than normal. “This ignores the usual rumbling in the colonies and dominions. Finally, police operations uncovered a plot to blow up the Western Summer Palace at Monterey—I would prefer not to discuss this in open cabinet until we have resolved the situation. Someone or something is stirring up Leveler activists, and there have been rumors of French livres greasing the wheels of treason. Certainly it takes money to run subversive presses or buy explosives, and it must be coming from somewhere.”
Sir Roderick sat down, and Lord Douglass rose. “Your majesty, I would say that if adventures are contemplated overseas, and if this should coincide with a rise in the price of bread, the introduction of new taxes and duties, and an outburst of Leveler ranting, I should not like to face the consequences without the continental reserves at Fort Victoria ready to entrain for either coast, not to mention securing the loyalty of the local regiments in each parliamentary district.”
“Well, then.” The king frowned, his forehead wrinkling as if to withstand another fit of sneezing: “We shall have to see to such measures, shall we not?” He leaned forward in his chair. “But I want to hear more on this matter of where the homegrown thorns in our crown are obtaining their finances. It seems to me that if we can snip this odious weed in the bud, as it were, and demonstrate to the satisfaction of our peers the meddling of the dauphin at work in our garden, then it will certainly serve our purposes. Lord Douglass?”
“By all means, your majesty.” The prime minister glanced at his minister for special affairs. “Sir Roderick, if you please, can you see to it?”
“Of course, my lord.” The minister inclined his head toward his monarch. “As soon as we have something more than rumor and suspicion I will place it before your majesty.”
“Now if we may return to the agenda?” The prime minister suggested.
“Certainly.” The king nodded his assent, and Lord Douglass cleared his throat, to continue with the next point on the afternoon-long agenda. The meeting continued, and in every way beside the sneezing fit it seemed a perfectly normal session of the Imperial Intelligence Oversight Committee, held before his imperial Majesty John the Fourth, king of New Britain and dominions, in the Brunswick Palace on Long Island in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Time would show otherwise…
On the other side of a flipped coin’s fall, in an office two hundred miles away in space and perhaps two thousand years away from the court of King John in terms of historical divergence, another meeting was taking place.
“A shoot-out.” The duke’s tone of voice, normally icily deliberate, rose slightly as he abandoned his chair and began to pace the confines of his office. With close-cropped graying hair, and wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, he might have been mistaken for an investment banker or a high-class undertaker—but appearances were very deceptive. The duke, as head of the Clan’s security apparat, was anything but harmless. He paused beneath a pair of steel broadswords mounted on the wall above a battered circular shield. “In the summer palace?” His tone hardened. “I find it hard to believe that this was allowed to happen.” He looked up at the swords. “Who was supposed to be in charge of her guard?”
The duke’s secretary—his keeper of secrets—cleared his throat. “Oliver, Baron Hjorth is of course responsible for the well-being of all beneath his roof. In accordance with your orders I requested that he see to Lady Helge’s security.” A moment’s pause to let the implication sink in. “Whether he complied with your orders bears investigation.”
The duke stopped pacing, standing in front of the broad picture windows that looked out across the valley below the castle. Heavily forested and seemingly empty of human habitation, the river valley ran all the way to the coast, marking the northern border of the sprawling kingdom of Gruinmarkt from the Nordmarkt neighbors to the north. “And the lady Olga?”
“She protests in the strongest terms, my lord.” The secretary shrugged slightly, his face expressionless. “I sent Roland to attend to her personally, to ensure she is adequately protected. For what it’s worth, there were no identifying marks on the bodies. No tattoos, no indications of who they were. Not Clan. But they had weapons and equipment from the other side and I am—startled—that Lady Olga, even with help from our runaway, survived the incident.”
“Our runaway is my niece, Matthias,” the duke reminded his secretary.
“A rather extraordinary woman.” His expression hardened. “I want tissue samples, photographs, anything you can come up with. For the hit squad. Get them processed on the other side, run them across the FBI most-wanted database, pull whatever strings you can find, but I want to know who they were and who they thought they were working for. And how they got there. The palace was supposed to be securely doppelgängered. Why wasn’t it?”
“Ah. I have already looked into that.” Matthias waited.
“Well then?” The duke clenched his hands.
“About three years ago, Baroness Hildegarde ordered our agents on the other side—via the usual shell company—to let out one side of the doppelgänger facility to a secondary Clan-owned shipping company she was setting up. It was all aboveboard and conducted in public at Beltaigne, approved in full committee, but the shipping company moved away a year later to more suitable purpose-built facilities, and they in turn sub-let the premises. It was walled off from the original bonded store and converted into short-lease storage, leaving it wide open. Purely coincidentally, it covered the New Tower, and parts of the west wing of the palace were left undoppelgängered. Helge wouldn’t have known enough to recognize this as unusual, but it left most of her suite wide open to attack by world-walkers from the other side.”
“And where was Oliver, Baron Hjorth while this was going on?” the duke asked, deceptively mildly. A failure to doppelgänger the palace correctly—to ensure that it was physically collated with secure territory in the other universe to which the world-walking and occasionally squabbling members of the Clan had access—was not a trivial oversight, not after the blood feud or civil war that had killed three out of every four members of the six families only a handful of decades ago.
“He was worrying about roofing costs, I imagine.” Matthias shrugged again, almost imperceptibly. “If he even knew about it. After all, what does security matter if the building caves in?”
“If.” The duke frowned. “That slime-weasel Oliver is in Baroness Hildegarde’s pocket, you mark my words. An unfortunate coincidence that they can both deny responsibility for, and Helge, Miriam as she calls herself, is left facing assassins? It’s almost insultingly convenient. She’s getting slack—we shall have to teach her a lesson in manners.”
“What are your orders regarding your niece, my lord? Since she appears to have run away, like her mother before her, she could be found in breach of the compact—”
“No, no need for that just yet.” The duke walked slowly back to his desk, his expression showing little sign of the stiffness in his joints. “Let her move freely for now.” He lowered himself into his chair and stared at Matthias. “I expect to hear about her movements by and by. Has she made any attempt to get in touch?”
“With us? I’ve heard no messages, my lord.” Matthias raised one hand, scratched an itch alongside his nose. “What do you think she’ll do?”
“What do I think?” The duke opened his mouth, as if about to laugh.
“She’s not a trained security professional, boy. She might do anything! But she is a trained investigative journalist, and if she’s true to her instincts, she’ll start digging.” He began to smile. “I really want to see what she uncovers.”
Meanwhile, in a city called Boston in a country called the United States:
“You know something?” asked Paulette. “When I told you to buy guns and drive fast I wasn’t, like, expecting you to actually do that.” She put her coffee cup down, half-drained. There were dark hollows under her eyes, but apart from that she was as tidy as ever, not a hair out of place. Which, Miriam reflected, left her looking a bit like a legal secretary: short, dark, Italianate subtype.
Miriam shook her head. I wish I could keep it together the way she does, she thought. “You said, and I quote from memory, ‘As your attorney I am advising you to buy guns and drive fast.’ Right?” She smiled tiredly at Paulette. Her own coffee cup was untouched. When she’d arrived at the other woman’s house with Brilliana d’Ost in tow, the release of tension had her throwing up in the bathroom toilet. Paulette’s wisecrack was in poor taste—Miriam had actually killed a man less than twenty-four hours ago in self-defense, and now things were starting to look really messy.
“What’s an attorney?” asked Brill, sitting up on the sofa, prim and attentive: nineteen or twenty, blond, and otherworldly in the terrifyingly literal way that only a Clan member could be.
“Not me, I’m a paralegal. Just in case you’d forgotten, Miriam. I’d have to study for another two years before I can sit for the bar exams.”
“You signed up for the course like I asked? That’s good.”
“Yeah, well.” Paulette put her empty mug down. “Do you want to go through it all again? Just so I know where I stand?”
“Not really, but…” Miriam glanced at Brill. “Look, here’s the high points. This young lady is Brilliana d’Ost. She’s kind of an illegal immigrant, no papers, no birth certificate, no background. She needs somewhere to stay while we sort things out back where she comes from. She isn’t self-sufficient here—she met her very first elevator yesterday evening, and her first train this morning.”
Paulette raised an eyebrow. “R-i-i-ght,” she drawled. “I think I can see how this might pose some difficulties.”
“I can read and write,” Brill volunteered. “And I speak English. I’ve seen Dynasty and Rob Roy, too.” Brightly: “And The Godfather, that was the duke’s favorite! I’ve seen that one three times.”
“Hmm.” Paulette looked her up and down then glanced at Miriam.
“This is a kind of what you see is what you get proposition, is it?”
“Yes,” Miriam said. “Oh, and her family wants her back. They might get violent if they find her, so she needs to be anonymous. All she’s got are the clothes on her back. And then there’s this.” She passed Paulette a piece of paper. Paulette glanced at it, then raised her other eyebrow and did a double take.
“This is valid?” She held up the check.
“No strings.” Miriam nodded. “At least, as long as Duke Angbard doesn’t cut off the line of credit he gave me. You’ve got the company paperwork together, ready to sign? Good. What we do is, we open a company bank account. I pay this into it and issue myself with shares to the tune of fifty grand. We write you up as an employee, you sign the contract, I issue you your first paycheck—eight thousand, covers your first month only—and a signing bonus of another ten thousand. You then write a check back to the company for that ten thousand, and I issue you the shares and make you company secretary. Got that?”
“You want me as a director?” Paulette watched her closely. “Are you sure about that?”
“I trust you,” Miriam said simply. “And I need someone on this side of the wall who’s got signing authority and can run things while I’m away. I wasn’t kidding when I told you to set this up, Paulie. It’s going to be big.”
Paulette stared at the banker’s draft for fifty thousand dollars dubiously. “Blood money.”
“Blood is thicker than water,” Brill commented. “Why don’t you want to take it?”
Paulette sighed. “Do I tell her?” she asked Miriam.
“Not yet.” Miriam looked thoughtful. “But I promised myself a few days back that anything I start up will be clean. That good enough for you?”
“Yeah.” Paulette turned toward the kitchen doorway, then paused.
“Brilliana? Is it okay if I call you Brill?”
“Surely!” The younger woman beamed at her.
“Oh. Well, uh, this is the kitchen. I was going to make some fresh coffee, but I figure if you’re staying here for a while I ought to start by showing you where things are and how not to—” She glanced at Miriam. “Do they have electricity?” she asked. Miriam shook her head minutely. “Oh sweet Jesus! Okay, Brill, the first thing you need to learn about the kitchen is how not to kill yourself. See, everything works by electricity. That’s kind of—”
Miriam picked up a bundle of official papers and a pen, and wandered out into the front hall. It’s going to be okay, she told herself. Paulie’s going to mother-hen her. Two days and she’ll know how to cross the road safely, use a flush toilet, and work the washing machine. Two weeks, and if Paulie didn’t kill her, she’d be coming home late from nightclubs with a hangover. If she didn’t just decide that the twenty-first century was too much for her, and hide under the spare bed. Which, as she’d grown up in a world that hadn’t got much past the late medieval, was a distinct possibility. Wouldn’t be a surprise; it’s too much for me at times, Miriam thought, contemplating the stack of forms for declaring the tax status of a limited liability company in Massachusetts with a sinking heart.
That evening, after Paulette and Miriam visited the bank to open a business account and deposit the checks, they holed up around Paulie’s kitchen table. A couple of bottles of red wine and a chicken casserole went a long way toward putting Brill at her ease. She even managed to get over the jittery fear of electricity that Paulie had talked into her in the afternoon to the extent of flipping light switches and fiddling with the heat on the electric stove. “It’s marvelous!” she told Miriam. “No need for coal, it stays just as hot as you want it, and it doesn’t get dirty! What do all the servants do for a living? Do they just laze around all day?”
“Um,” said Paulette. One glance told Miriam that she was suffering a worse dose of culture shock than the young transportee—her shoulders were shaking like jelly. “Like, that’s the drawback, Brill. Where would you have the servants sleep, in a house like this?”
“Why, if there were several in the bedchamber you so kindly loaned—oh. I’m to drudge for my keep?”
“No,” Miriam interrupted before Paulette could wind her up any further. “Brill, ordinary people don’t have servants in their homes here.”
“Ordinary? But surely this isn’t—” Brill’s eyes widened.
Paulette nodded at her. “That’s me, common as muck!” she said brightly. “Listen, the way it works in this household is, if you make a mess, you tidy it up yourself. You saw the dishwasher?” Brill nodded, enthused.
“There are other gadgets. A house this big doesn’t need servants. Tomorrow we’ll go get you some more clothes—” She glanced at Miriam for approval.”—then do next month’s food shopping, and I’ll show you where everything’s kept. Uh, Miriam, this is gonna slow everything up—”
“Doesn’t matter.” Miriam put her knife and fork down. She was, she decided, not only over-full but increasingly exhausted. “Take it easy. Brill needs to know how to function over here because if it all comes together the way I hope, she’s going to be over here regularly on business. She’ll be working with you, I hope.” She picked up her wineglass. “Tomorrow I’m going to go call on a relative. Then I think I’ve got a serious road trip ahead of me.”
“You’re going away?” asked Brill, carefully putting her glass down.
“Probably.” Miriam nodded. “But not immediately. Look, what I said earlier holds—you can go home whenever you want to, if it’s an emergency. All you have to do is catch a cab around to the nearest Clan safe house and hammer on the door. They’ll have to take you back. If you tell them I abducted you, they’ll probably believe it—I seem to be the subject of some wild rumors.” She smiled tiredly. “I’ll give you the address in the morning, alright?” The smile faded. “One thing. Don’t you dare bug out on Paulie without telling her first. They don’t know about her and they might do something about her if they learn…mightn’t they?”
Brill swallowed, then nodded. “I understand,” she said.
“I’m sure you do.” Miriam realized Paulette was watching her through narrowed eyes. “Brill has seen me nearly get my sorry ass shot to pieces. She knows the score.”
“Yeah, well. I was meaning to talk to you about that, too.” Paulette didn’t look pleased. “What the hell is happening over there?”
“It’s a mess.” Miriam shook her head. “First, Olga tried to kill me. Luckily she gave me a chance to talk my way out of it first—someone tried to set me up while I was visiting you, last time. Then the shit really hit the fan. Last night I figured out that my accommodation was insecure, the hard way, then parties unknown tried to rub out Olga and me, both. Multiple parties. There are at least two factions involved, and I don’t have a clue who this new bunch are, which is why I’m here and brought Brill—she’s seen too much.”
“A second gang? Jesus, Miriam, you’re sucking them up like a Hoover! What’s going on?”
“I wish I knew, believe me.” She drained her wineglass. “Hmm. This glass is defective. Better fix it.” Before she could reach for the bottle, Paulette picked it up and began to pour, her hand shaking slightly. “Had a devil of a time getting here, I can tell you. Nearly put my back out carrying Brill, then found some evil son of a bitch had booby-trapped the warehouse. Earlier I phoned Roland to come tidy up—someone murdered the site watchman—but instead someone put a bomb in it.”
“I told you that smoothie would turn out to be a weasel,” Paulette insisted. “It’s him, isn’t it?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Miriam shook her head. “Things are messy, very messy. We ran into one of Angbard’s couriers on the train over, so I gave him a message that should shake things loose if it’s anyone on his staff. And now…well.” She pulled out the two lockets from her left pocket. “Spot the difference.”
Paulette’s breath hissed out as she leaned forward to study them. “Shit. That one on the left, the tarnished one—that’s yours, isn’t it? But the other—”
“Have a cigar. I took it off the first hired gun last night. He won’t be needing it anymore.”
“Mind if I?…” Paulette picked the two lockets up and sprang the catch. She frowned as she stared at the contents, then snapped them closed. “The designs are different.”
“I guessed they would be.” Miriam closed her eyes.
Brill stared at the two small silver disks as if they were diamonds or jewels of incalculable value. Finally she asked, timidly, “How can they be different? All the Clan ones are the same, aren’t they?”
“Who says it’s a Clan one?” Miriam scooped them back into her pocket. “Look, firstly I am going to get a good night’s sleep. I suggest you guys do the same thing. In the morning, I’m going to hire a car. I’d like to be able to go home, just long enough to retrieve a disk, but—”
“No, don’t do that,” said Paulette.
Miriam looked at her. “I’m not stupid. I know they’re probably watching the house in case I show up. It’s just frustrating.” She shrugged.
“It’s not that bad,” Paulette volunteered pragmatically. “Either they got the disk the first time they black-bagged you—or they didn’t, in which case you know precisely where it is. Why not leave it there?”
“I guess so,” Miriam said tiredly. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s safe where it is.” She glanced at Brill, who mimed incomprehension until she was forced to smile. “Still. Tomorrow I’m going to spend some time in a museum. Then—” She glanced at Paulette.
“Oh no, you’re not going to do that again,” Paulie began.
“Oh yes, I am.” Miriam grinned humorlessly. “It’s the only way to crack the story wide open.” Her eyes went wide. “Shit! I’d completely forgotten! I’ve got a feature to file with Steve, for The Herald! The deadline’s got to be real soon! If I miss it there’s no way I’ll get the column—”
“Why are you still bothering about that?”
“I—” Miriam froze for a moment. “I guess I’m still thinking of going back to my old life,” she said slowly. “It’s something to hang onto.”
“Right.” Paulette nodded. “Now tell me. How much money is there on that platinum card?”
Pause. “About one point nine million dollars left.”
“As your legal advisor I am telling you to shut the fuck up and get a good night’s sleep. You can sort out whether you’re going to write the article tomorrow—but I’d advise you to drop it. Say you’ve got stomach flu or something. Then you can take an extra day over your preparations for the journey. Got it?”
“And another thing?”
“Drink your wine and shut your mouth, dear, you look like a fish.”
The next day, Miriam pulled out her notebook computer—which was now acquiring a few scratches—and settled down to pound the keyboard while Paulette took Brill shopping. It wasn’t hard work, and she already knew what she was going to write, and besides, it saved her having to think too hard about her future. The main headache was not having access to her Mac, or a broadband connection. Paulie, despite her brief foray into dot-com management, had never seen the point of spending money to receive spam at home. Finally she pulled out her mobile and dialed The Herald’s front desk. “Steve Blau, please,” she said, and waited.
“Steve. Who’s this?”
“Steve? It’s Miriam.” She took a deep breath. “About that feature.”
“Deadline’s this Thursday,” he rumbled. “You needing an extension?”
She breathed out abruptly, nearly coughing into the phone. “No, no, I’m ready to e-mail you a provisional draft, see if it fits what you were expecting. Uh, I’ve had a bit of an exciting life lately, got a new phone number for you.”
“Really?” She could almost hear his eyebrows rising.
“Yeah. Domestic incident, big-time.” She extemporized hastily. “I’m having to look after my mother. She’s had an incident. Broken hip. You want my new details?”
“Sure. Hang on a moment. Okay, fire away.”
Miriam gave him her new e-mail and phone numbers. “Listen, I’ll mail in the copy in about an hour’s time. Is there anything else you’re looking for?”
“Not right now.” He sounded amused. “They sprang a major reorg on us right after our last talk, followed by a guerilla page-plan redesign; looks like that slot for a new columnist I mentioned earlier is probably going to happen. Weekly, op-ed piece on medical/biotech investment and the VC scene, your sort of thing. Can I pencil you in for it?”
Miriam thought furiously. “I’m busier than I was right after I left The Weatherman, but I figure I can fit it in. Only thing is, I’ll need a month’s notice to start delivering, and I’d like to keep a couple of generic op-ed pieces in the can in case I’m called away. I’m going to be doing a lot of head-down stuff in the next year or so. It won’t stop me keeping up with the reading but it may get in the way of my hitting deadlines once in a blue moon. Could you live with that?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” he said. “I’m willing to make allowances. But you’re a pro. You’d give me some warning wherever possible, right?”
“Of course, Steve.”
“Okay. File that copy. Bye.”
She put the phone down for a moment, eyes misting over. I’ve still got a real life, she told herself. This shit hasn’t taken everything over. She thought of Brill, trapped by family expectations and upbringing. If I could unhook their claws, I could go back to being the real me. Really. Then she thought about the rest of them. About the room at the Marriott, and what had happened in it. About Roland, and her. Maybe.
She picked the phone up again. It was easier than thinking.
Iris answered almost immediately. “Miriam, dear? Where have you been?”
“Ma?” The full weight of her worries crashed down on her. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you! Listen, I’m onto a story. It’s—” She struggled for a suitable metaphor. “It’s as big as Watergate. Bigger, maybe. But there’s people involved who’re watching me. I’d like to spend some time with you, but I don’t know if it would be safe.”
“That’s interesting.” She could hear her adoptive mother’s mind crunching gears even on the end of a phone. “So you can’t come and visit me?”
“Remember what you told me about COINTELPRO, Ma?”
“Ah, those were the days! When I was a young firebrand, ah me.”
“Stuffing envelopes with Jan Six, before Commune Two imploded, picketings and sit-ins—did I tell you about the time the FBI bugged our phones? How we got around it?”
“Mom.” Miriam sighed. “Really! That student radical stuff is so old, you know?”
“Don’t you old me, young lady!” Iris put a condescending, amused tone in her voice. “Is your trouble federal, by any chance?”
“I wish it was.” Miriam sighed again.
“Well then. I’ll meet you at the playground after bridge, an hour before closing time.” Click.
She’d hung up, Miriam realized, staring at her phone. “Oh sweet Jesus,” she murmured. Never, ever, challenge a onetime SDS activist to throw a tail. She giggled quietly to herself, overcome by a bizarre combination of mirth and guilt—mirth at the idea of a late-fifties Jewish grandmother with multiple sclerosis giving the Clan’s surveillance agents the slip, and guilt, shocking guilt, at the thought of what she might have unintentionally involved Iris in. She almost picked up the phone to apologize, to tell Iris not to bother—but that would be waving a red rag at a bull. When Iris got it into her mind to do something, not even the FBI and the federal government stood much chance of stopping her. The playground. That’s what she’d called the museum, when she was small. “Can we go to the playground?” she’d asked, a second-grader already eating into her parents’ library cards, and Iris had smiled indulgently and taken her there, to run around the displays and generally annoy the old folks reading the signs under the exhibits until, energy exhausted, she’d flaked out in the dinosaur wing.
And bridge. Iris never played card games. That must mean…yes. The bridge over the Charles River. More confirmation that she meant the Science Museum, an hour before closing time. Right. Miriam grinned mirthlessly, remembering Iris’s bedtime stories about the hairy years under FBI surveillance, the times she and Morris had been pulled in for questioning—but never actually charged with anything. When she was older, Miriam realized that they’d been too sensible, had dropped out to work in a radical bookstore and help with a homeless shelter before the hard-core idiots began cooking up bombs and declaring war on the System, a System that had ultimately gotten tired of their posturing and rolled over in its sleep, obliterating them.
Miriam whistled tunelessly between her teeth and plugged her cellular modem card back into the notebook, ready to send in her feature article. Maybe Iris could teach her some useful techniques. The way things were going, she needed every edge.
A landscape of concrete and steel, damp and gray beneath a sky stained dirty orange. The glare of streetlamps reflected from clouds heavy with the promise of sleet or rain tomorrow. Miriam swung the rental car around into the parking lot, lowered her window to accept a ticket, then drove on in search of a space. It was damply cold outside, the temperature dropping with nightfall, but eventually she found a free place and parked. The car, she noted, was the precise same shade of silver-gray as Iris’s hair.
Miriam walked around the corner and down a couple of flights of stairs, then through the entrance to the museum. Warm light flooded out onto the sidewalk, lifting her gloom. Paulette had brought Brill home earlier that afternoon, shaking slightly. The color-and pattern-enhanced marketing strategies of modern retail had finally driven Brill into the attack of culture shock Miriam had been expecting. They’d left Brill hunched up in front of the Cartoon Network on cable, so Paulette could give Miriam a lift to the nearest Avis rental lot. And now—
Miriam pushed through the doors and looked around. Front desk, security gates, a huge human-powered sailplane hanging from the ceiling over the turnstiles, staff busy at their desks—and a little old lady in a powered wheelchair, whirring toward her. Not so little, or so old. “You’re late! That’s not like you,” Iris chided her. “Where have you been?”
“That’s new,” Miriam said, pointing to the chair.
“Yes, it is.” Iris grinned up at her, impishly. “Did you know it can outrun a two-year-old Dodge Charger? If you know the footpaths through the park and don’t give the bastards time to get out and follow you on foot.” She stopped grinning. “Miriam, you’re in trouble. What did I teach you about trouble?”
Miriam sighed. “Don’t get into it to begin with, especially don’t bring it home with you,” she recited, “never start a war on two fronts, and especially don’t start a land war in Asia. Yes, I know. The problem is, trouble came looking for me. Say, isn’t there a coffee shop in the food court, around the corner from the gift shop?”
“I think I could be persuaded—if you tell me what’s going on.”
Miriam followed her mother’s wheelchair along the echoing corridor, dodging the odd family group. It took them a few minutes, but finally Miriam got them both sorted out with drinks and a seat at a table well away from anyone else. “It was the shoe box,” Miriam confessed. Iris had given her a shoe box full of items relating to her enigmatic birth-mother, found stabbed in a park nearly a third of a century ago. After all those years gathering dust in the attic the locket still worked, dumping Miriam into a world drastically unlike her own. “If you hadn’t given it to me, they wouldn’t be staking out your house.”
“Who do you think they are?”
Miriam swallowed. “They call themselves the Clan. There are six families in the Clan, and they’re like this.” She knotted her fingers together, tugged experimentally. “Turns out I’m, uh, well, how to put this? I’m not a Jewish princess. I’m a—”
“She was important,” Iris interrupted. “Some kind of blue blood, right? Miriam, what does the Clan do that’s so secret you can’t talk but so important they need you alive?”
“They’re—” Miriam stopped. “If I told you, they might kill you.”
Iris raised an eyebrow. “I think you know better than that,” she said quietly.
“Stop trying to overprotect me!” Iris waved her attempted justification away. “You always hated it when I patronized you. So what is this, return-the-favor week? You’re still alive, so you have something on them, if I know you. So it follows that you can look after your old mother, right? Doesn’t it?”
“It’s not that simple.” Miriam looked at her mother and sighed. “If I knew you’d be safe…”
“Shut up and listen, girl.” Miriam shut up abruptly and stared at her. Iris was watching her with a peculiar intensity. “You are by damn going to tell me everything. Especially who’s after you, so that I know who to watch for. Because anyone who tries to get at you through me is going to get a very nasty surprise indeed, love.” For a moment, Iris’s eyes were icy-cold, as harsh as the assassin in the orangery at midnight, two days before. Then they softened. “You’re all I’ve got left,” she said quietly. “Humor your old ma, please? It’s been a long time since anything interesting happened to me—interesting in the sense of the Chinese proverb, anyway.”
“You always told me not to gossip,” Miriam accused.
“Gossip is as gossip does.” Iris cracked a smile. “Keep your powder dry and your allies briefed.”
“I’ll—” Miriam took a sip of her coffee. “Okay,” she said, licking her dry lips. “This is going to take a long time to tell, but basically what happened was, I took the shoe box home and didn’t do anything with it until that evening. Which probably wasn’t a good thing, because…”
She talked for a long time, and Iris listened, occasionally prompting her for more detail but mostly just staring at her face, intently, with an expression somewhere between longing and disgust.
Finally Miriam ran down. “That’s all, I guess,” she said. “I left Brill with Paulie, who’s looking after her. Tomorrow I’m going to take the second locket and, well, see if it works. Over here or over there.” She searched Iris’s face. “You believe me?” she asked, almost plaintively.
“Oh, I believe you, kid.” Iris reached out and covered her hand with her own: older, thinner, infinitely familiar. “I—” She paused. “I haven’t been entirely honest with you,” she admitted. “I had an idea this was going to get weird before I gave you the box, but not like this. It seemed like a good time to pass it on when you began sniffing around their turf. Large-scale money laundering is exactly the sort of thing the, this Clan, would be mixed up in, and I suspected—well. I expected you to come back and ask me about it sooner, rather than simply jumping in. Maybe I should have warned you.” She looked at Miriam, searchingly.
“It’s okay, Ma.” Miriam covered Iris’s hand with her other.
“No, it’s not okay,” Iris insisted. “What I did was wrong! I should have—”
“Ma, shut up.”
“If you insist.” Iris watched her with a curious half-smile. “This second knotwork design—I want to see that. Can you show me sometime?”
“Sure.” Miriam nodded. “Didn’t bring it with me, though.”
Her mother nodded. “What are you going to do next?”
“I’m—” Miriam sighed. “I warned Angbard that if anybody touched a hair on your head, he was dead meat. But now there’s a second bunch after me, and I don’t have a hotline to their boss. I don’t even know who their boss is.”
“Neither did Patricia,” murmured Iris.
“What did you say?”
“I’d have thought it was obvious,” Iris pointed out quickly. “If she’d known, they wouldn’t have gotten near her.” She shook her head. “A really bad business, that.” For a moment she looked angry, and determined—the same expression Miriam had glimpsed in a mirror recently. “And it hasn’t gone away.” She snorted. “Give me your secret phone number, girl.”
Iris grinned at her. “Okay, your dead-letter drop. So we can keep in touch when you go on your wanderings. You do want to keep your old mom informed of what the enemies of freedom and civilization are up to, don’t you?”
“Ma!” Miriam smiled right back. “Okay, here it is,” she said, scribbling her new, sanitized mobile number down on a piece of paper and sliding it over to Iris.
“Good.” Iris tucked it away quickly. “This locket you found—you think it goes somewhere else, don’t you?”
“Yes. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
“To another world, where everything will of course be completely different.” Iris shook her head. “As if two worlds wasn’t already one too many.”
“And mystery assassins. Don’t forget the mystery assassins.”
“I’m not,” said her mother. “From what you’ve been telling me…” She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t trust any of them. Not the Clan, not even the one you bedded. They’re all—they sound like—a bunch of vipers. They’ll screw you as soon as you think you’re safe.”
“Ma.” Miriam began to blush. “Oh, I don’t trust them. At least, not to do anything with my best interests at heart.”
“Then you’re smarter than I was at your age.” Iris pulled on her gloves.
“Give an old lady a lift home? Or at least, back to the woods? It’s a cold and scary night. Mind you, I may have forgotten to bring your red cloak, but any wolves who try to lay hands on this old granny will come off worse.”
THE HIDDEN FAMILY Copyright © 2005 by Charles Stross
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed the premise of this series, and the first book was even better than expected. This second installment appeared to be another winner until it came to an abrupt and disappointing end - almost as if the author ran out of time. I am hoping the third book will make the ending of the second seem to be just a bump in the road.