“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.
Did you catch the first chapter of Gobbelino London & a Complication of Unicorns in last week’s blog? If not, you might want to head over there now and read that one first!
The book itself is out this Friday – not that I’m excited or anything. No, I mean this is my seventh book. It’s not like it’s still exciting every single time I see a book go live.
Yeah, I’m absolutely lying. I’m ridiculously excited and fully intend to celebrate with copious quantities of cake and bad writer dancing.
But until then – enjoy chapter two, and don’t forget to pick up your pre-order at your favourite retailer!
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 Two – No Imps or Pixies. Werewolves by Negotiation.
I blinked at Callum. “You know, even for a cat, that was pretty rude.”
Callum stared around the room as if looking for another way out, then hurried across to the window and hauled it up as far as it’d go.
“Hey, hang about,” I said. “I might be able to get out that way on a good day, but you can’t. Second floor, Callum.”
“I know,” he snapped, peering outside.
“So who was that?” I asked. “Jealous boyfriend? Spurned lover? Ooh – secret love child?”
He finally looked at me. “What?”
“Well, he’s obviously someone.”
The someone in question knocked on the door, a hesitant little double tap. “Callum?” he called.
“I’m not letting Mrs Smith give us any more of her old magazines,” Callum told me. “They’re obviously a bad influence on you.”
“Yeah, but I’m not the one trying to climb out a second-storey window to get away from a visitor.”
He muttered something, and gave the door a despairing look as the knock came again. “Gobs, tell him to go. Please.”
“Hmm. No.” I ducked as an imp struggled past me caked in sugar, wings barely moving fast enough to keep it aloft. “Although, interesting, asking me to talk to him. He knows about Folk, then.”
Callum scowled at me. Folk – that’s the magical kinds of the world, like the imps and pixies currently tearing our little apartment apart – tend to inhabit the world very differently to the way humans do. Not many humans know Folk exist, and they have no idea that many of what they’d call dumb animals are a hell of a lot brighter than they are. Humans stopped seeing Folk and hearing animals about the same time they swapped magic for illusion (not science. Science and magic aren’t mutually exclusive. Magic and illusion, however, are, because magic is real and illusion is smoke and mirrors and telling people what they want to hear, rather than what is).
Humans are pretty good at not seeing anything they don’t believe in, so they take care of most of their selective vision themselves. But there’s also the Watch, the cat council that enforces the divide and makes sure Folk don’t draw attention to themselves – and cats like me keep our mouths shut unless we’re around Watch-approved humans (like cat ladies). There’s not meant to be any crossover, but no system is perfect, not even one run by cats. So things seep through here and there, and some humans are less blind than others, but for the most part Folk keep to themselves and humans keep human-ing on in blissful ignorance. Which meant that the human outside our door was most unusual.
But then, as human as he was, Callum was very unusual, and recently I’d been starting to get the idea that he knew more unusual people than I’d realised. And right now he was swiping his trusty cricket bat from behind the desk.
“Right!” he shouted. “Everyone out!”
The imps and pixies looked at each other, then formed a united front against the human daring to tell them what to do. I ducked behind the armchair, and a plaintive little voice from the door said, “Callum? Please can we talk?”
“I am done,” Callum said to our tiny invaders. “I don’t have time for this, and not only did we do the job you asked, you’ve caused more damage than the fee’s going to cover.”
“That’s not hard,” I said. “They paid us in foil flowers and out of date crisps, Callum. Foil flowers.”
The lead imp chittered.
“They say,” I started, and Callum spoke over me.
“I don’t care. Get out!” And he waved the cricket bat at them rather threateningly, which I’m fairly sure would be in the handbook of Things Not to Do When Meeting Enraged Imps & Homicidal Pixies. There was an absolute explosion of shrieks and shrill shouting and a lot of swearing, and the imps and pixies turned their combined forces on Callum. He tried a couple of sweeps with the bat then said something that impressed even the imps and threw himself into the tiny bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The critters attacked it in a fury, scoring the thin wood with talons and blades and sharp little teeth, and I wondered if I should beat a strategic retreat out the window myself.
Then the door to the hallway opened, and the stranger put his head in. He spotted me behind the armchair. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just … well, it’s sort of urgent, and—”
“Dude,” I said. “You any good at moving things on?” I nodded at the bathroom door, and he blinked at the imps and pixies, who’d already started fighting each other again.
“Oh,” he said. “Um. Well.”
“Oh, good. That clears things up, then.” I slipped out into the room, wondering if going away and coming back later was a fair game plan. I mean, it wasn’t as if Callum was in any danger in the bathroom. Then a new voice piped up behind our visitor.
“Excuse me, young man, what’s going on in there?”
The visitor was pulled rather firmly back into the hall, and a new face appeared, this one crowned with a flower-bedecked beehive of white hair. She gave the man a stern look, then smiled at me.
“Hello, Gobbelino, dear.”
I just blinked at her. Mrs Smith, our neighbour across the hall, had ended up at the centre of a reality storm last year, and had almost been eaten alive by a book of power. As memorable as that might sound, things had been arranged so that she didn’t recall any of it, which meant that a talking cat was a bit much for a Wednesday afternoon.
“I heard a commotion,” she said, examining the room. “Oh, dear! What has been happening here?”
I followed her gaze. The seat cushion from the brand new (well, second-hand, but brand new to us) armchair was lying on the floor looking like a tiger had been using it as a plaything, and there were ancient, coverless books scattered all over the place, spilling loose pages like they’d been disembowelled. A glass had joined Callum’s mug on the floor, as had our mobile phone, all the pens in the place, half a bag of bread, two crushed apples, and the washing up liquid, which had been squirted all over the walls, mixed liberally with imp dust. I sighed. Occupational hazard, sure, but foil flowers weren’t going to fix it up.
Mrs Smith rounded on our visitor. “How dare you?” she asked, reaching up to shake a finger in his face. “How dare you! Callum’s an officer of the law, you know!”
The man took a step back. “I didn’t—”
“He works terribly hard! And you come in here and just destroy his place! Look at all his poor books! Look at them!”
The man gave a howl as she grabbed his ear and dragged him into the room. “I didn’t do it!” he wailed. “I didn’t! I just arrived!”
Mrs Smith twisted his ear harder, and he dropped into a crouch as he tried to relieve the pressure. “You’ll clean it up,” she told him. “Right now!”
I looked around, suddenly aware that the imps and pixies had vanished from the bathroom door. I spotted them at the window, differences forgotten as they helped each other over the sill and into the summer day beyond, scrambling down the wall or taking to the skies if they weren’t too caked in washing up liquid and melting squirty cream. The imp leader gave Mrs Smith a fearful look then chittered at me before they swung themself over the sill and were gone. We were even.
Not even magical Folk mess with ladies of a certain age.
Callum emerged cautiously from the bathroom with the cricket bat, looking slightly embarrassed, but Mrs Smith didn’t seem to feel it changed his hero status at all. She just set him picking up books, and stood over our unwelcome visitor with her hands on her hips, pointing out spots he’d missed as he scrubbed unhappily at blue smudges and bloodstains. To be fair, I think some of those were older than today. It’s that kind of business.
“Mrs Smith, it’s really very nice of you to help out like this,” Callum started, and she waved him off impatiently.
“I was just going to see if you and Gobbelino had had any lunch, because I’ve made far too much pasta salad,” she said. “Then I saw this ruffian hanging around outside your door, and heard all the commotion. It’s disgusting the way people behave these days.” She glared at the sorry-looking ruffian, and I wondered if having her memories of last year’s events removed had also removed a few other things, considering he’d been outside and all the commotion had been going on inside.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Callum said. “It was a previous client. He’s actually an old … acquaintance.”
The acquaintance rocked back on his heels and shot Callum an injured look.
Mrs Smith looked unconvinced. “Well, there’s no point him standing around when there’s work to be done, either way. I’ll get the pasta salad. And some tuna for you, of course, Gobbelino.”
“That’s absolutely lovely of you,” Callum said, “but do you think you could maybe bring it by later? I need to talk to Art.”
Art. Not a name I’d heard him mention before. But then, we didn’t talk about the past much. We both had plenty of it, but it didn’t mean we wanted to spend time back there. The past has teeth.
More importantly right now, so did I, and Mrs Smith always bought the top shelf tuna, which was a luxury we could rarely afford. I mewled.
“Oh, someone’s hungry,” Mrs Smith said, and scritched my head. “It won’t take me a minute to bring it over.”
“It’s only early,” Callum said. “We’ll get some later.”
Mrs Smith looked doubtful, and I gave my most pitiful squeak. “Oh, Gobbelino—”
“Has plenty of biscuits,” Callum said, guiding our neighbour to the door. “Thank you so much for the help. But I won’t be able to relax until we’ve cleaned up anyway.”
She smiled up at him brightly. “If you’re sure. I’ll pop it in the fridge for you, so just come by any time. We can’t have you fading away!” She gave his lanky frame a friendly little poke that made him wince.
“No chance of that, Mrs Smith,” he said, and managed to close the door on her. He turned the lock, peeled his coat off and threw it on the tattered armchair, then crossed the room in two quick strides, grabbed the front of Art’s tie-dyed T-shirt and hauled him to his feet.
“Hey!” Art protested. “Callum, what’re you—”
“Shut up. What’re you doing here? Who told you how to find me?” Callum punctuated each question with a brisk, almost business-like shake. He wasn’t much taller than Art, and he was skinnier, but Art had his hands raised in front of him as if he thought Callum was about to go all Nosferatu on his neck, and he’d pulled back as far as his shirt would let him.
“Callum, please. I wouldn’t have come unless it was an emergency.”
“Who told you?” Callum didn’t raise his voice, but there was a hard, ugly edge to it that lifted the fur on my tail. I jumped to the top of the desk, slipped on a slick of washing up liquid, and shot straight back off the edge too quickly to right myself. I landed on my side with a curse, and looked up at the two men. They were both staring at me.
“What?” I snapped. “Gods-damned imps. Why in the realms you took that case, Callum – listen to me next time, alright?”
“We took a gnome case last week,” he said. “We couldn’t just not take an imp one.”
“Yeah, and they paid us in fungus,” I said. “Fungus.” I shook a soggy paw out and licked it, then spluttered. Lemon fresh my furry tail.
“Mushrooms,” Callum said, finally letting go of Art and stepping back. “I like mushrooms.”
“Still fungus,” I said, eyeing Art. He hadn’t bothered smoothing down his stretched shirt, just stood there with his hands twisted together in front of him. His dark hair was even more overgrown than Callum’s and he had a straggly sort of beard to go with it. He smelled of hippie soap and rich earth and fresh bread and fear. Lots and lots of fear, and I didn’t think it was down to Callum giving him a shakedown. I had the feeling he’d expected that. It was in the apologetic lines of his shoulders.
Callum looked at Art as if seeing him for the first time, then said, “Tea?”
“Please,” Art said.
I looked at my paws and sighed. Humans and their tea.
While Callum put the kettle on (the plastic lid had been broken off, but it still worked) and tried to find two mostly whole mugs, Art crouched next to me on the floor and offered me a cloth. I looked at it.
“For your paws.”
I gave him a suspicious look, then tried wiping my paws on the cloth. It didn’t really do much, so Art picked up one of my paws and sponged it gently. I let him, examining him curiously. He didn’t smell of magic. He had the quietly lost scent Callum and those other humans that lived in the edges, between the Folk and human worlds, always carried. They were the unseen, the ones regular humans ignored deliberately or casually (or sometimes both), the ones who passed unnoticed, who fell through the cracks in the world. They were the humans who saw Folk, but not all Folk welcomed it. The cats of the Watch discouraged it, and not too many Folk will go against cats. We have certain things in common with imps and mosquitoes, and we can do more than bite.
Callum set two mugs on the desk and righted the chairs, giving them a dubious shake. “Should hold,” he observed.
“I’m starting to think we shouldn’t have opened the books to Folk cases,” I said, jumping cautiously onto the desk. “I know we need the money, but I thought there’d be less trashing of our office involved.”
“Well, we’ll make it a policy not to take any more imp cases,” Callum said, putting a bowl of cat biscuits on the table. I stared at it morosely and thought of my squirty cream, wasted on an imp.
“No pixies either,” I said.
“Well, we’ve never had a pixie case,” he started, and I talked over him.
“You saw what happened! Besides, everyone knows pixies are trouble.”
“That’s true,” Art said. “They really are.”
Callum sighed. “Alright. No imps or pixies.”
“Or werewolves,” I said.
Art frowned at me. “They can be pretty good sorts, werewolves.”
“They stink,” I pointed out. “Like wet dogs and sweaty humans. It’s gross.”
“So are you when you’ve been eating custard,” Callum said, and fished a packet of off-brand chocolate digestives out of the desk drawer. He popped them on the desk, found his cigarettes and lit one, then held the pack out to Art. Art shook his head, picking up the biscuits instead. A small green snake emerged from the desk drawer and looked around warily, and for a moment there was silence, broken only by a car alarm going off in the distance and a few people shouting in that way that makes it hard to tell if they’re fighting or celebrating.
“So?” Callum said finally. His injured hand was tucked under his opposite armpit, cigarette smouldering in the other hand. “How did you find me, Art? And what do you want?”
Art stared at his biscuit for a moment, then looked at Callum with his face suddenly raw and vulnerable. Despite the beard, he seemed much younger than he had before, a child in men’s clothing given a life he didn’t understand.
“It’s my sister,” he said, the words slow.
“Kara.” Callum’s voice was softer than it had been. “What’s happened?”
Art put the biscuit down, looking suddenly revolted. “She’s been … taken.”
“By who?” I demanded. “And why? Where?”
Callum glanced at me. “I expect if he knew all that he wouldn’t be here, Gobs.”
I subsided and tried a cat biscuit. They were okay, but would’ve been better with cream.
“I …” Art took a deep breath. “Well, I do know, in a way. Not who or where, but maybe why.”
We both stared at him. There was an unpleasant sort of realisation dawning on Callum’s face, and I decided not to say anything. The past was hanging heavy and hungry on the edges of the room, making its presence felt.
“If you know that already,” Callum said, those hard tones back in his voice, “why can’t you just call the police? Why do you need us?”
Art took a deep breath. “Because the unicorns are missing,” he said.
I very nearly fell off the desk. Green Snake did, although that might’ve been the washing up liquid.
And that is all for now, so over to you, lovely people – have you ever run into an old friend somewhere you didn’t expect to? Let me know where and how 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!