“This weather, you know?”
The cab’s wipers squeaked through the powder-soft shapes spreading on the windshield. Fifty miles away, there was a peak on the point that was, officially, known as the place with the worst weather in the country. That was good, it meant here in the closed in, cow-arsed streets, there was no competition about who had the worst weather, and so each drifting locale in the bitter winter snows could get about the business of really fine-tuning and hand-crafting the snowdrifts and the black ice and the slurry and flurry, while children mashed refresh buttons on local public school websites in the hopes of a snow day.
“I mean, sure, it’s not up at the Point, but, jesus, the weather.”
“Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” Demi said, yanked back into the taxicab’s back seat. Chestnut-brown hair in her eyes, she squirmed up into a more upright sitting position. The cab was small – as they all were – but thanks to the bags she’d scrunched into the back-seat, Demi’s knees and elbows were pretty much all pressed against something designed to make travel convenient. “I mean, I’ve been on a plane since Oklahoma City,” she laughed, leaning back as best she could.
“Oh yeah? It’s pretty cold there right now?”
“Plenty cold, plenty,” Demi said, grinning into the mirror at her driver. Nice girl. Blonde, pulled up under an apple cap, and most everything else was hidden under layers of coat and scarf. Ahead of them was a line of traffic inching along six lanes towards what Demi had to assume was a hotel. Maybe New England’s cities were just all interconnecting tissue, like some big ball of yarn. There was no there, there, that sort of thing.
“Sorry, just,” the driver shrugged, resting both hands atop the wheel. “Kinda not much I can do here, waiting like this. So why you all the way over here with the Massholes? Coming to study at –” she cut off, mid-sentence, when the lights on the car in front of her lit up, edging forwards.
“Is it always like this?”
“Well, only when it snows.”
“When, uhm.” Demi scrunched forwards in her seat, to lean over the back of the driver’s seat and peer forward through the glass. “When doesn’t it snow?”
Her driver shrugged again, though with that many layers of fabric, it was more like she dipped her head down below her shoulders to disappear momentarily. “Well, there’s construction season.”
A shared laugh, and then the lights lit up in front again. The cab crawled a little further.
“God, is this – I mean, I don’t mean to be rude,” Demi said, pointing forward. “Just, how long are we going to be… well, doing this?”
“See that side-street?” the driver asked, pointing barely two car lengths ahead. “Down thattaway, I can weave by the main road and should be able to get past this block up front here. Just gotta get there, and we should get moving a bit faster then.”
Demi slumped back in her chair. “Aw, bless.”
The car in front lit up again, but the cab didn’t move. Shaking herself from the pattern, Demi leant forward again, feeling red probably-not-really-leather squeak underneath her butt, hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Something up?”
“Ugh,” she groaned, pointing forwards, fingerless gloves wagging near the glass. The car in front had its hazard lights blinking, on-off, on-off, flickering with the steady pulse that told everyone behind to prepare for a long, annoying tour around – in a place that was already locked up tight. “Probably just stalled and over-reacting, I mean, we—”
The door opened, and out of the car, in thick boots. Black coat, black track-pants that bulged like they wrapped two layers of other pants, and a black hood, all leading up to a figure wearing a black balaclava and with a smartphone in their hand.
Trotting through the snow, back to the car, Demi didn’t think anything of it when they rapped on the window.
“Shit, he probably needs a jump,” the driver grumbled, as she leant over, winding the window down halfway. “Yeah, buddy?”
“Excuse me, ma’am, don’t mean to be a bother. We’ll make this nice and quick. Would you and your passenger mind dreadfully opening up your pockets?”
Demi looked up sharply. “What the-”
“This is a robbery,” the figure said, still holding the phone – which clearly displayed an ongoing call. “Let’s not do anything rash. I have an associate, you see,”
“…Yes?” The driver asked, her tone completely even.
“And he has quite a high-powered sniper rifle trained on the car.”
A tiny red dot slithered across the dashboard – barely fast enough for Demi to really see it, even as she very, very clearly recognised what it was.
“Are you serious?” the driver asked, drawing her breath slower, the dryness in her voice belying the fear she radiated.
“Now then.” The figure with a phone said, leaning in. ”This is just a bit of common theft, so if you don’t mind?”
First things first, wake up. Get up out of bed, push the covers back with the left hand, grip the edge with right. Swing weight over the side, to make the longer wood bear the larger weight. Hook foot under the edge to provide leverage, hold ankle stiff. Stand – straight up. Don’t stay prone. Immediately discard clothing, into the hamper, and, in the long room of the servants’ quarters with four bunk beds to a wall and exactly one person, Jude reached to the bedside closet and pulled out his clothes for the day.
Shower, clothes over his arm. Pass the cat, on one of the other bunks – up or down, varied from day to day – and shower.
Short shower, maybe five minutes. Give the body a shock, something against the cold. The floor was cold, but numb toes and feet were easily ignored.
Bare naked in the group showers, he pulled a towel through his hair and breathed deep, inspecting himself in one of the two mirrors over the sinks by the lockers. A mirror that was, he remarked many times, designed for a homekeeping staff a bit shorter than himself.
It was himself, cut off from the waist to the chin. Flexing his forearms, he stretched out fully and put his hands on either side of the mirror, just to feel the tingle of heat and cold opposite in his fingertips and palms. The two Ms burned into the back of his left hand disappeared as his hand pressed to the cool glass, and for a moment, he closed his eyes. Then, hot water into the sink. Shave, quick, smooth. Test the razor afterwards, and note to buy more if necessary.
A minute later, his hair was dry – enough – and he made his way back to dress. White shirt, dark grey pants, socks, shoes, and by then, the cat was awake.
“Good morning, Terra,” Jude murmured, as he checked himself, all the bits of the uniform. The look. The way he had to be. Upstairs, there wasn’t so much as a creak – even at this late hour. Thanks to the cold staining the high windows on the sublevel quarters, he could tell he’d need to head to the furnace and double check that it was okay. It would be, of course, because everything in this house was so new and so perfect it gleamed, but if the question was asked – have you looked at the furnace – there was only one answer he wanted to give.
Footsteps scuttled past the window. Folk weren’t on their ways to work, now, and in the grinding cold who would walk if they could avoid it? Those were the footsteps of couriers and workers, people clearing sidewalks because, well, they were supposed to. People who must spend their daily lives fantasising about wielding a flamethrower. Jude wasn’t going to correct them on their fantasy, but he also wouldn’t share it.
Then up a few steps, to the kitchen. There, the floor wasn’t heated, but the oven ran. Two bread rolls, in the oven. The boiler, for the tea. Bacon, nuts, a little bit of cheese – all pulled from a pinned list, written weeks ago. Dice, mix, grill, plate. Onto the tray.
A little bit of tuna in a bowl, down on the floor for the cat – the cat that wouldn’t go upstairs. It knew better than to intrude on another predator’s territory.
Then, off with the apron and back to the quarters. The long-sleeved shirt. No stains on his undershirt to take care of, just get into collar and tie. Then waistcoat, then jacket.
The whole ritual, from wake to tray to ready, took maybe an hour.
He’d woken up at nine thirty AM.
Now it was time to get to work, to some extent.
Taking the tray in both his hands, Jude walked up the stairs, into the ground level of the house – and the tastefully expensive space that was Mycroft Manor.
One of the great myths of security – and really, of all reality – was familiarity. Jude saw, every single day now, for many months, the Mycroft estate, with its precision-wide doorways and its minimal closed doors. Its carpet that in some cases ran to the corner of a doorframe and in other cases did not. Its windows all deliberately positioned to only warm some parts of the house and the floors where the furnace did the rest. The way everything that was worth touching was never higher than Jude’s collarbones, and everything he was expected to dust was higher still.
If you saw a thing every day, you assumed it was the way it was supposed to be. Familiarity did not breed contempt, but it did erode appreciation for detail. And a job like Jude’s was very much all about details.
Details were very important.
“Good morning, Jude,” came the voice from the other room, with its arch, old-England accent, as it did, most mornings, when he put his foot on that one board.
It wasn’t a sound trigger. He’d tested. He’d checked.
“Good morning, Ms Mycroft,” Jude said, as he stepped through to the room, through a doorway without a door, carrying deep-brown tea over to the deep-brown desk at which sat the one and only deep-brown Ms Mycroft.
Jude was aware of things about Ms Mycroft, like the way she was built and the way she sat, and the way she never seemed to open her eyes all the way, forever regarding the world in an eyeshadowed expression of mild disdain. Ash-blonde hair, which sat in two easily-parted waves, rolled down to her shoulders, the back done up in a tired ponytail. White bathrobe sat around her shoulders, but underneath that she wore some straps and trails that showed a person who had started the process of getting dressed and just deemed it not worth the bother at this precise juncture.
Still had makeup on, though.
In one hand, she held a branded tablet of some variety, and in the other, the newspaper. Despite seemingly not paying direct attention to either, she periodically noted something on one, and slid her finger across the other.
Jude silently spooned out the sugar into the tea – four – and set it on the saucer by her, near enough to reach, not too close to bump. Then he set out the rest of the breakfast, picking up the tray afterwards. “Will there be anything else this morning, Ms Mycroft?”
Sitting back in her chair, the woman set down the tablet and newspaper, letting the latter wilt in her hand slightly, no longer supported by the way she gripped it. First, she drew a long breath, which her bathrobe struggled against, then she exhaled heavily and sunk back into the chair.
“Is that a no?” he asked.
“No, it is not a no; it was a moment of contemplation, of consideration of what use I can put you to today.” She shot back with a full quip ready. “Mostly, today is stocks. There’s nothing interesting going on.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure that I can –” Jude murmured, stepping back towards the door.
She leant forwards, picking up her tea and sipping it, focusing her attention on the newspaper with seemingly eternally angry eyebrows. “And—hm.”
“Hm?” He stopped in the doorway.
“That’s… a fourth. A pattern.” She murred, turning the newspaper over.
There wasn’t any reason, at least in Jude’s mind, to actually explain these things. After all, Ms Mycroft was a woman given to such leaps of perception that he fully believed some sorcery was involved at the best of times. It wouldn’t make sense until she told him how, after all.
“A carjacking. Small robbery in the city. Masked man reports that he’s supported by a sniper, the car’s occupants are then robbed by someone not holding a gun. Must make it reasonably cost-effective to…”
Jude waited thirty seconds before he spoke. “To…?”
Mycroft sat up, and gestured at him, like she could turn him around on his axis. “Jude, you’ll need your camera for this. I think I’d like some observation done.”
Oh dear. “Of…?”
“Traffic.” The blonde sat forwards, and gestured again, one arm folded across her middle, while she waved to the doorway. “Go on. It’s quite a good wearable camera, you know this.”
“So you tell me.”
“It’s an investment.”
“It’s… strange. I’m not used to turning it on.”
“You’re not a police officer, Jude. When you’re wearing a camera, I expect it to work, without excuses. Now, you’ll need a driver—”
“I’ll catch a cab.” He gestured to the doorway.
“You’ll do no such thing,” she said, sliding fingertip over the tablet in her hand. “Taxi cabs are the point of vulnerability.”
“In each case it happened on a public road with someone who was arriving in town for the first time. In each case, there were two victims, with one mentioning a driver. Police aren’t releasing many details to the press, and haven’t seen connection between them. Small thefts, it’s being described as ‘a rash of carjackings’ in the most recent story. Journalists aren’t getting much information, so police aren’t gathering much information.”
“And that means cabs?”
“Can you think of someone the city cares less about than cab drivers?”
“Lots of people. Women voters. The homeless. Runaway teenagers.”
“… Alright,” Mycroft shook her hair out and sat back with a flare of her nostrils and a wave of her hand. “But of the people journalists acknowledge existing, who do you imagine is the lowest run on a long ladder of privilege?”
Jude shrugged at that.
“Very good. No, you’ll have a driver. I’ll pay the fee – do you still have Suzume’s phone number? Use him.”
“Use Sparrow?” Jude tilted his head. “Sure, I can do that. Yes.”
“Yes, Ms Mycroft.”
“Good boy. You may go.”