The windows shook as the storm moved overhead. Sheets of water were falling from the sky, and the trees in the garden leaned heavily in the strengthening wind. I'd seen storms like this before in London, and they often led to flooding and the closure of the tube lines. This one seemed particularly ferocious.
'The storm came straight out of the Atlantic Vortex,' said Lana. She emptied her glass and laughed. 'Isn't it exciting?'
I prised the glass from her hand and placed it on the windowsill. 'Perhaps you should sit down, Miss Golding.'
Another fork of lighting arched across the sky. Lana gripped my arm and squeezed. It hurt more than it should have done. My arm was strangely tender.
'It's as though the world is trying to kill us,' whispered Lana.
I looked across at her, but she seemed entranced by the storm. I thought I should leave her in her thoughts, but a gentle tap on my shoulder and a cough brought me face to face with a stern faced man with slick black hair and round-rimmed spectacles.
'Ashley, glad to see you're enjoying our hospitality,' said the stranger simply. 'You already know Miss Golding I see.'
Lana turned awkwardly and stumbled against me. 'Mr Harcourt.' Her smile turned to embarrassment.
'Mr Ashley and I need to talk, Lana,' said Harcourt curtly. He waved a hand and a waiter appeared. 'Be a dear and go with Burroughs. I'm sure Mr Ashley will find you later.'
Lana tripped into the arms of the waiter without a word and cast off my hat angrily. I picked it off the floor in the awkward silence that followed.
Before Lana and Burroughs could leave, Harcourt caught the waiter's arm with a sharp tug. 'No more drinks for Miss Golding, she's had enough tonight already.'
I watched Lana head up the stairs and into the corridor where I had begun the evening. It looked like she was crying.
'I'm sorry you had to see that,' said Harcourt conversationally. 'Miss Golding is one of our finest field agents, but also one of our longest serving.' He fixed me with a stare. 'Unfortunately, long service here comes at some considerable cost to the soul.'
I looked up at the balcony where Lana had gone. 'Longest serving?' I queried. 'She can only be twenty-'
'-our work here is dangerous,' interrupted Harcourt. He glanced across the room at the assembled throng. 'The world has changed, Ashley; changed in ways we are only beginning to understand.'
Harcourt reached into his jacket and pulled out a cigarette case. I waved off his offer of a smoke and waited for him to light up. 'In case you're wondering why we drugged you, we operate in the shadows, and that includes this location.' He discarded his match and continued. 'We brought you here because we need the best people, and you come highly recommended. I need someone who can follow a trail, dig up clues, and track people down.'
'When you say recommendation, I assume you mean Templeton?' I said the words with more anger than I intended. 'He's got me into a lot of trouble.'
'Templeton is a politician of sorts, he deals with the government, the prime minister; Washington if necessary.' Harcourt drew on his cigarette for a moment. 'He's too far away from our work to care about your welfare, Lana's, or anyone else. I'm in operational command here, so if I'm putting you in danger, there will be no secrets. I'll tell you.'
Harcourt gestured towards two vacant seats and we sat down together.
I found Lana's card in my jacket pocket and laid it out on the table between us. 'So what is your work?' I pointed at the silver lettering. 'What is MIRANDA?'
'We are the Ministry for the Investigation, Retrieval, Analysis, Neutralisation and Disposal of Anachronisms. We used to be part of the War Office in the late thirties, but now we are entirely autonomous.'
'Lana showed me photographs and news cuttings about things that never happened.' I leaned back in my chair. 'Is that what you mean by anachronisms?'
Harcourt nodded, but said nothing.
'I wouldn't call them anachronisms,' I said smiling. 'I'd call them fakes.'
'What did you see in the stairwell of your office, Ashley?' asked Harcourt tersely. 'A man who had already been shot square in the chest by Miss Golding, but then took another four shots before you hit him in the head. It's inhuman, it's unnatural.'
I shivered as I remembered the animal menace that had crawled towards me in the darkness. 'That can happen in war, the body forgets the pain and instinct takes over.'
Harcourt shrugged. 'I can see how you might think that. Perhaps something more concrete might convince you.' He stubbed out his cigarette and paused for a moment. 'I'm sure it didn't escape your notice that Lana shot all but the last agent in the head. Believe me when I say that if Lana was any less a shot, you would both be dead.'
I nodded in agreement. 'She packs quite a piece.'
'Your file says you spent time in the police force.' Harcourt fished out another cigarette and lit it. 'What sort of gun would you say it was?'
'I've never seen anything like it. At least a forty four, but slim enough to fit in her handbag.'
Harcourt reached into his jacket and fished out a revolver just like Lana's. 'Take a close look and tell me what you see.'
The weight of the gun felt wrong immediately. The barrel was mounted low instead of along the top, and the cylinder was much more compact. Distinctive exhaust ports decorated the end of its short barrel.
'What is this metal?' I said, hefting the weapon in my hand. 'It can't be Aluminium.'
'It's mostly Titanium.' Harcourt pointed at the gun. 'A little over fifteen years ago, that metal didn't exist outside of the laboratory. Even now, it's a devil to make.' Harcourt paused to enjoy his cigarette. 'Easy to fake would you say?'
I shook my head. Harcourt reached back into his jacket and tossed over a bullet. It was huge. Instead of a brass metal cartridge, it sported tiny ports at the rear.'
'It's a rocket?' I blurted incredulously.
Harcourt nodded. 'It's also explosive.' He fixed me with a searching stare. 'It took our colleagues at Smith and Wesson five years to replicate that gun and its ammunition; at incredible expense I might add. Five years of long hard work, and only because they had three guns and a box of ammunition to work with. They think we could begin mass producing them very soon.'
I handed the gun and bullet back to Harcourt. 'Where did it come from?'
'You're asking the wrong question, Ashley.' Harcourt smiled slightly. 'Here at MIRANDA we ask; when did it come from?'
Cinema 4D, Poser, and Photoshop