“Unicorns never were that bright,” I said. “That’s why they’re the only kind to stab their own entire species into extinction.”
“Not quite the entire species,” Callum said.
When a man from Callum’s past turns up at our door claiming to have lost both the last herd of unicorns in England and his sister, I knew it should be a hard pass. The past has teeth.
But old debts plus a damsel in distress means Callum just can’t say no. G&C London, Private Investigators, are plunging deep into the magical underbelly of Leeds, and we’re going to have our work cut out for us.
Never mind the criminal dynasties, cross-dressing trolls, trained attack lizards, and philosophical donkeys – we need to find the sister and get out before the Watch get involved.
Why? Well, they’ve killed me three times already.
Yeah. I preferred extinct unicorns.
Firstly, I’ll apologise in advance for ruining anyone’s fond assumptions regarding the character of unicorns.
Look, I could be wrong. Maybe they really are … rainbows, and stuff.
Gobbelino London, however, holds very clear views on the matter. As always.
And that said, I’ll get out of the way and let you read the first chapter of Gobbelino London & a Complication of Unicorns, which doesn’t actually contain unicorns. Ahem. They come in later chapters.
Edit: Obviously, as this is an older post, Gobbelino London & a Complication of Unicorns is already out and waiting for you at your favourite retailer. So happy reading!
Gobbelino London & a Complication of Unicorns
Chapter One – A Small Imp-osition
I have faced creatures from the void – well, a couple of different voids, actually – furious sorcerers, very small dragons, dentists, cats of the Watch who give the feline kind their bad reputation, humans who do the same for their kind, and, most recently, the ravenous undead, a mad mortician, zombie-fied chickens, and a cake-wielding reaper. None of it by choice, but these sorts of situations do seem to find me, and I’d go so far as to say I’m not too shabby at handling them.
Which is just to give some context to my current decision to take cover in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.
“Gobs!” Callum yelled at me. “Get out here and help me!”
I lifted my nose just enough that I could peer over the edge of the drawer, my ears back. “You look like you’ve got a handle on things,” I said, which seemed like a good thing to say, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate.
The human half of G & C London, Private Investigators, was crouched on the desk, brandishing an old newspaper in one hand and a can of squirty cream in the other. He opened his mouth to say something that was almost certainly guaranteed to be unlikely to motivate me, and something small, fast, and a rather delightful shade of bright blue shot out from under the desk and bit the hand clutching the newspaper. Callum yelped and tried to blast the scrap of blue with the squirty cream, which was about as effective as you’d imagine. I mean, it’s designed for use on custard and the occasional sardine, not for hand-to-hand combat.
“Hey,” I called. “Go easy with that stuff. I want some for my tea.”
Callum gave me a look that suggested I’d be lucky to get any tea, let alone tea with cream, and went back to trying to squirt his attacker, who was an imp of the more volatile variety. I mean, they all are, but this one seemed particularly difficult. The canister spluttered enthusiastically, spitting all over Callum’s boots and the desk until he finally managed to get it close enough to the imp gnawing on his other hand. It gave a shriek of fury as aerated cream gummed its wings together and crowned it with a tasty white hat, but instead of letting go it bit Callum harder. Callum howled, and our upstairs neighbour, who seemed to only be able to connect with her inner woo when she had outer peace, pounded violently on the floor with something that sounded like a Tongan war club. A tiny but furious blue platoon of imps erupted from under the desk, all screaming as if the sky was falling, and I ducked a little deeper into the drawer. Discretion is the better part of value, or whatever.
Callum flailed desperately at his attackers with the newspaper, the imp still clinging on grimly and splattering cream and blood all over the desk as it was flung about wildly, and the other imps dodged and dived, screaming insults in their tiny, shrill voices and making hand gestures that are rude in pretty much any language. Bloody imps. Any one of them could have fit comfortably in Callum’s mug, if it hadn’t been smashed on the floor. They’re like mosquitoes. Far more troublesome than their size would suggest.
“Gobs!” Callum yelled, taking a wild swing at the imps and almost falling off the desk. “Get off your furry bum and help me!”
“What do you want me to do?” I demanded. “Throw more dairy products at them?”
He managed to catch an imp a solid blow as it dived at his head, sending the little creature tumbling and screeching across our tiny office/living room/bedroom/everything else. It slammed into the wall hard enough to make my ears twitch, and slid to the floor head first.
“Oh, God,” Callum said, looking faintly ill. Although that might have been to do with the imp still chewing on his hand. He was bleeding quite a lot now.
Then the imp that had hit the wall leaped to its feet, shook out its wings, and came tearing back to the fight, chittering so hysterically even I couldn’t understand it.
“Gobs!” Callum was doing some sort of panicked semaphore as he tried to keep the imps at bay.
“Well, what d’you expect me to do?”
“This is just your sort of thing,” he snapped, dropping the spluttering cream can and grabbing a tatty book off the desk as the imps regrouped. “You know, attacking small flying creatures mercilessly.”
“Stereotyping,” I said. “Plus I prefer my prey to be less bite-y.”
Callum opened his mouth to say something, and the imps rushed him, screaming very tiny battle cries. One of them battened onto his ear as he laid about wildly with the book and newspaper, and he howled with pain. “Goddammit Gobbelino if you don’t help me right bloody now I swear I’ll throw you in the bath!”
“We don’t have a bath,” I pointed out, hooking my paws over the top of the drawer and standing up so I could see a bit better. A second imp had latched onto his other ear, giving him a matching set, the cream-covered one on his hand was still attempting to chew his thumb off, and a fourth had somehow got tangled in his overlong hair and was rolling about on top of his head screeching in alarm. The rest were dive-bombing his face furiously, and the way he was staggering about the place he was going to be lucky not to do a header out the window.
“Okay, okay.” I jumped my hind legs up to meet my front paws, wobbled on the edge of the drawer for a moment, then dropped to the floor lightly. Immediately one of the imps pointed at me and screamed. It threw itself into a teeth-gnashing dive toward me, waving its tiny fists in an unmistakably threatening manner, and two more rushed after it with shrieks of outrage. I yelped and bolted under the desk with the imps tearing after me in a buzz of wings and pretty unsavoury imp-language. I shot out the other side, onto the back of Callum’s overturned chair, and leaped for the top of the desk with my ears back and teeth bared. As I landed, something grabbed my tail and hauled me backward while I scrabbled for grip on the scarred old wood.
“You’re meant to be helping,” Callum shouted, batting away a couple of imps who were apparently trying to remove his eyes with tiny but exceptionally sharp-looking tridents.
“Oh, kiss my dangling dewclaws,” I hissed, giving up the fight to stay on the desk. I rolled through the short fall instead, twisting back on myself to grab two of my attackers as I landed. I trapped them to the floor with one paw on each of their skinny chests, getting my teeth up close and personal with their furry blue faces.
“Hey,” I hissed at them. “You want to be cat food? This is how you end up cat food.”
They chittered at me, pulling at the short fur of my toes.
“Ow. Stop that. Look, we did the job. We— ow!” Someone had just stuck what felt an awful lot like a toothpick in my ear, and I jumped away, releasing my captives. They went straight for my nose, teeth and tridents and nasty little talons all sharp and grabby and so close I didn’t even have space to knock them away.
For one moment I thought I was going to have to bite someone’s head off – possibly multiple someones – which is something I’m against as a general philosophy. And it seemed particularly bad form to bite a client’s head off, even if it was fair to say they started it. Then a bucket slammed down on top of all three imps, barely missing my nose and sending the critters into a frenzy of screaming and scratching on the hard plastic. I looked up at Callum. He still had an imp swinging by its teeth from each ear, like enraged earrings, and the one on his hand was more red than blue now. Other imps were screaming abuse and attacking his legs and arms, while the one in his hair seemed to have given up and was just lying there panting.
“I was on it,” I said.
“Sure,” he said, keeping the bucket trapped down with his imp-less hand. “Now can you please explain to them that we did the job we were hired to do?”
I sighed. Imps are about as reasonable as sugar-crazed hippos. We’d have been better off locking them all in the filing cabinet and fleeing the country, but we’d just got the money together to buy a new armchair/bed thing, and it seemed a shame to leave it. I eyed the imp in Callum’s hair. As well as looking calmer than the others, it had three prongs on its tail and a full head of bumblebee tattoos. I’m no expert in imp rank, but considering all the others had only one prong and just a couple of small, regular bee tattoos, it seemed like a good start.
“Hey, imp,” I said, and it pushed some of Callum’s hair aside to peer down at me. “Call off the gang so we can talk.”
The imp frowned at me, then screamed a high-pitched order. The other imps shouted back, waving their tiny arms and evidently arguing, but they did at least stop attacking Callum, even if the ones attached to him decided not to let go.
“Cheers,” I said. “Look, the job’s finished. You wanted to know who was creeping on your rubbish bins by the pub, and we found out. That’s all you hired us for.”
The imp frowned, then chittered, a squeaky, rapid-fire dialect with too many vowels and a lot of exclamation marks. I squinted, trying to make a thread of sense out of the cursing. Imps are seriously foul-mouthed. They use it like punctuation.
“They say we obviously misunderstood,” I told Callum. “They say what’s the point of knowing pixies are stealing all the good whisky dregs if we don’t do anything about it?”
Callum tried pulling the imp off his hand, winced, and gave up. “Tell them—”
“They also say your mother must’ve mated with a woolly giraffe.”
He scowled at me, and I shrugged. “Hey, I’m just the messenger.”
“I’m sure. And what the hell’s a woolly giraffe, anyway? Don’t ask them that,” he added, as I opened my mouth.
The imp chittered.
“They say it’s like a woolly mammoth but skinny and blotchy and with too many legs.”
“Great. That’s good to know. They can understand me, then?”
I listened to the imp for a second. “They say you talk more slowly than a drunk troll three weeks into hibernation with a mouthful of muddy swamp-hare, but—”
“Gobs. I don’t need all the details.”
“Hey, you should hear the uncensored version.”
He shook his head. “Whatever. Look, please make sure our clients understand we’ve fulfilled our side of the deal, and this is just …” He trailed off, looking around our devastated office. “God. Call it harassment.”
The imp on his head squawked and grabbed two tiny fistfuls of hair, hauling on it wildly.
Callum winced. “And can he stop that, please?”
I listened for a moment. “They say we may have fulfilled the letter of the contract but not the spirit, so they refuse to accept the job is done. And to please use the correct pronouns when addressing them.”
“Right. Sorry. Look, removing a nest of pixies is an entirely other thing. We can’t just kick them out of their homes. And it’s nothing to do—”
He was cut off by the imp on his head saying very clearly, “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh?” Callum said. “What’s uh-oh?”
“Hairballs,” I said, as a shrill buzzing rose from outside.
Callum said something stronger, and the imp said some things that were illegal or impossible, or maybe both. A platoon of pixies rose into view beyond the window, motorised rotors strapped to their backs and stripes painted across their faces in dark grease. Some of them had tiny cutlasses grasped in their hands, and a few were carrying what looked a lot like harpoons, complete with exploding heads. One of the rotors coughed and stalled, and a pixie plunged out of sight with a wail, but the rest kept coming, heading for the gap where Callum had propped the window open with a can of baked beans.
“Close it!” I yelled at him, and he abandoned the bucket, lunging for the window. The imps surged out from under the bucket and headed straight for the oncoming pixies, and the imp on Callum’s head stood up and shrieked, waving its trident furiously as it tried to extricate itself from Callum’s hair. The imps on Callum’s ears let go, as did the one on his hand, and they swarmed past him like enraged, oversized blue bees to meet the pixies. Callum snatched the can of beans away, but the sash window had stuck, jammed firmly in the frame, because of course it had. He tried to force it down as the pixies charged in, and one of them took aim at him with a harpoon. He yelped, jumping away from the window, and the tiny missile tore through the side of his T-shirt to embed itself in the desk, where it exploded and left a little burnt crater behind.
The imps surged forward in rough formation, shrieking dire threats. The pixies opened fire with crossbows and harpoons as the imps dodged and dived, faster with their fine wings than the pixies were in their machines. The imps shoved pencils and pens into the pixies’ rotors to send them crashing to the ground, and the pixies unstrapped themselves from the wreckage and dived into battle, except for a couple of survivors who wheeled and spun across the room, firing indiscriminately at anything even remotely blue. Furry imps and pixies in army camouflage grappled on the desk and rolled across the floor, leaving blue imp dust smudges behind them, and there was a fierce battle raging in the sink of the tiny kitchenette, where half a dozen imps had taken cover and were being dive-bombed by the remaining rotor-wearing pixies.
I looked up at Callum. “Lunch?”
He looked around the room. “What about this lot?”
“Let them fight it out among themselves,” I said, as there was a crash from the kitchenette (which was really just a sink and a wheezy old fridge in an alcove barely big enough to qualify as a cupboard).
“Dammit,” Callum said, and ducked as an imp tumbled past his head. It smashed into the window and slid to the sill, then sat up and flew off again, a little unsteadily. “Why do people always have to break our stuff?”
“You’re the one who insisted we had to take the imps on as clients. You said it was species-ist if we didn’t.”
“Well, it would’ve been,” he said, without much conviction. A pixie and an imp had got tangled up in a T-shirt he’d left hanging over the back of a chair and were rolling across the floor with the sound of ripping cloth.
“Yeah, well, this sort of thing is why I said not to.”
“Can’t you chase them all out?” he asked. “Do a scary cat thing?”
I gave him a disdainful look. “No, I can’t do a scary cat thing. They’re imps and pixies, not shrews.”
“Fat lot of good you are.”
“Yes, because you’re doing really well with the whole situation.”
He sighed, snagged his T-shirt off the floor and held it up. Even given Callum’s charity shop chic it was beyond saving. The fighters had shredded it as they fought to untangle themselves, so he just ripped a bit off and wrapped it around his mauled hand. “Well. Lunch, then.”
“Finally,” I said. “And we can get some more cream on the way back. I was looking forward to that.”
“Obviously the most important aspect of the whole situation,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over a crash of falling pans in the kitchenette. “Your stomach.”
I shrugged, and followed him as he grabbed his tatty old long coat from the hook on the wall and opened the door. Then he took a step back, his face suddenly pale, his injured hand cradled against his chest as if he were afraid that someone was about to grab it. I looked from him to the man on our doorstep, his own hand raised to knock.
“Callum,” the stranger said, and Callum kicked the door closed.
Edit: Obviously, as this is an older post, Gobbelino London & a Complication of Unicorns is actually out at all your favourite retailers – so you can head over and discover the truth about unicorns now!
And pop back next Wednesday for Chapter Two!
Now tell me, lovely people – what’s your favourite magical creature? Are you a unicorn fan? Let me know below!
If you’d like to get your pre-order in, you can grab A Complication of Unicorns from your favourite retailer right now, and it’ll be delivered by the nicer sorts of magic to your e-reader on the 28th!