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When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers — -and the bureaucratic finesse — -to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries:
The Checquy — -the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural threats, and…
The Grafters — -a centuries-old supernatural threat.
But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war.
Stiletto is a novel of preternatural diplomacy, paranoia, and snide remarks, from an author who “adroitly straddles the thin line between fantasy, thriller, and spoof “(Booklist).
Table of Contents
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To Felicity Jane Clements, Pawn of the Checquy Group and ward of HM Government:
You are herewith called forth by the authority of the Lord and Lady, in accordance with your obligations and your oaths, to give service, in secret, for the protection and security of the Monarch, the People, and the soil of the British Isles.
On this day, you are to proceed with all haste into the London borough of Northam, to the location commanded. There, you will bend the abilities instilled within you to the task ordered.
To ensure that you remain unknown and that none remark upon your presence, you will be given clothing to blend in among the populace.
To discourage civilians from approaching you, you will be sprayed with urine.
Bring milk and chocolate biscuits.
The woman was crouched in an alley, her back against the wall and her hands pressed awkwardly to the bricks behind her.
She was not an appetizing sight. A tangle of dirty dirty-blond hair hung down over her grubby face. Behind it, her eyes were open a slit, showing white. A string of drool dangled from her mouth. Apart from her ragged breathing, she was utterly still. She was dressed in several layers of filthy clothing and a pair of trainers whose mesh sides had rotted away almost completely and whose soles were peeling off as if trying to escape.
She was also not an appetizing smell. There was a pungent odor coming off her, one that suggested an ongoing lack of access to bathing facilities. And laundry facilities. And toilet facilities. She was actually pretty enough behind the dirt, but to discover that would require several minutes' concerted attention with a damp sponge and, possibly, a trowel. As she was, she fit into her surroundings perfectly.
The alley was terribly narrow, more of an incidental gap between two sets of row houses. Hypodermic needles, feces of unspecified provenance, improperly disposed-of prophylactics, and general domestic rubbish were the primary topographical features.
For a few minutes, rain drizzled in and soaked her, but still she did not move.
A rat scurried between the rubbish, presumably on its way to somewhere more salubrious.
Finally, she moved her hands away from the wall behind her and opened her eyes wide. She took a deep breath that would have been cleansing had she been in a place that was slightly less vile. She licked her lips, felt the drool that had dripped down her chin, and moved to wipe her face with her sleeve before realizing how disgusting her sleeve was. She sighed and, still crouching, swung her arms about stiffly. Then she looked up blearily at the sound of someone approaching down the alley.
That someone was a tall redheaded man with lily-white skin and freckles that had cornered the real estate market on his face. Behind him was another someone who looked much the same except that he was bigger and had shaved his head so there was only a corona of orange fuzz. Both of them were dressed in clothes that did not look at all out of place in the alleyway.
"Oh, hello," said the first man. The woman squinted up at him and grunted. "Look at this, Petey," he remarked to his associate. "We're looking for something to do, and here something is."
"What?" she said.
"Shut up," said the man easily. Then, just as easily, he punched her in the face. Her head slammed back against the wall, and she fell onto her bottom.
"The fuck?" she spat, pressing her hand against her jaw.
"I told you to shut up," said the man mildly. "Now, me and my mate are gonna have a bit of fun right here, and you're not going to give us any trouble unless you want another fist to the face."
"And that'd be just for starters," said the other man, Petey.
Rather than being terrified by the prospect of a vicious assault upon her person, however, the woman seemed unperturbed and somewhat incredulous.
"Are you serious?" she said. Her accent was not one you would have expected to come out of the mouth of a person in those environs. It bespoke an expensive education. "You actually want to do this? To someone who looks like me?" She glanced down at herself and then around at the refuse that filled the alley. "Here?" They didn't answer her, but apparently for these men, a blond woman was a blond woman, even if she smelled like carrion left out in the sun. The first man, the hitter, put his hands to his belt. "Such a mistake you're making," she said.
Then she reached out and grasped the man's ankle. The smirk didn't have time to leave his face before she'd yanked on his shin and kicked him, in dizzyingly quick succession, in the testicles, the stomach, the chest. He toppled backward into his colleague's startled arms, and she drew herself up. Moments before, her posture had been hunched and defensive, but now she held herself in the classic boxer's stance.
"Bitch, you've got to be kid—" began Petey, but his assertion was cut off as the woman stepped forward and briskly broke Petey's companion's nose with a smart right jab. The companion's wail of pain broke off as she punched him in the stomach and drove the air out of him. He sounded like a set of bagpipes that had just been stabbed. His knees buckled, and Petey staggered to keep him upright. The woman took a few steps back, sized them up, and was lunging forward when the toe of one of her shoes landed in something vile and squishy. Denied any purchase, her leg shot out from under her, and she lurched violently to the side.
"Bugger!" She bounced off a wall, fell against a pair of rubbish bins that were, ironically, completely empty, and ended up sprawled on her back on the ground. Then the breath rushed out of her as Petey, who had apparently jettisoned his friend in favor of subduing her, dived onto her and pressed her into the pavement.
The man who had hit her seemed to have righted himself.
"Stupid bitch," said the hitter in a sort of wheezy falsetto as he came down the alley to them. "It'll be bloody now. So much worse now."
"Yeah," said Petey. He was lying across her, his weight holding her down, and he pressed his face into her vile hair. "You know," he said, "under all that hair and muck, you're not bad-looking. But you will be when me and Joe are done with you." She struggled, but he had her well and truly pinned. She sighed and looked up. Joe was staring down at her, and the expression on his face was terrible to behold.
"I really didn't want to do this," she remarked. "Pawn Cheng?" The men exchanged confused looks.
"Uh… I got your porn right here, slut," said Joe, grabbing his crotch.
"I'm not talking to you," she said coldly.
Then Joe clapped his hands to his head and seemed to fling himself backward. As Petey and the woman watched in fascination, he fell onto the ground, revealing a petite Asian woman. She was wearing a black yoga outfit and a grim expression. On her feet, somewhat incongruously, was a pair of heavy boots that looked suitable for undertaking construction work or possibly some sort of hate crime. It appeared that to pull Joe down, she had simply buried both her hands in his thick red hair and yanked with all her strength. There had been no sign of her a minute before.
"Joe!" exclaimed Petey.
Then Joe was up again, and he was roaring with rage. He flung himself at his diminutive assailant. There was so little room in the alley that there was simply no way she could dodge a man that big. He charged toward her, his shoulder dropped to slam into her.
It was almost as if the Asian woman burst under his bulk. Streamers and strands of black material erupted from the point of impact, spreading out and then fading away completely. Joe kept barreling forward until he collided with the wall, hitting it so hard that he bounced off it a little.
Petey, at this point, actually held tighter to the woman splayed out underneath him.
"What the fuck?" he whispered. "What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck is going on? What is that?"
"That's my colleague," the woman he was lying across said pleasantly, and then she initiated a wrestling maneuver referred to by some as "the dump truck." From beneath him, she crooked one arm around his neck and the other around his torso, then she arched her whole body high, rolled him up and over her head, and dumped his arse firmly on the ground before snapping to her feet.
Joe, meanwhile, had been so absorbed by the Curious Incident of the Sporadically Vaporous Asian Woman in the Alleyway that he'd missed his friend's discommoding behind him. Before his eyes, the air in the center of the alley roiled, and the aforementioned Asian woman suddenly reappeared. However, she didn't seem in the least bit interested in him.
"Felicity, did you need me for anything else?" she asked in a thick Birmingham accent.
"Nah, I'm fine, thanks," said the other woman. His heart thundering with anger and bewilderment, Joe reached into his pocket and drew out a knife, which he flicked open. His hands low, he lunged forward again, but the short woman was already evaporating away with an unimpressed look on her face. He turned around and saw Petey getting painfully to his feet. The blond bitch was tying her hair back from her face. She gave him a look that said he had gotten himself into this situation and really had only himself to blame.
"You—you…" Words failed him. This was not how it was supposed to go.
"Hey, I'm right here," she said, and the complete lack of concern in her voice ignited something in him. He barreled toward her, his knife clutched in his fist, shoving past Petey. She swayed to the side, then turned, stepped back against his chest, and caught his knife arm. Before he could think, she had flipped him over her shoulder. He went down on the ground, the knife clattering from his hand, and seemed disinclined to get back up.
Petey came a little more cautiously, but as he moved toward her, she snapped into swift, dizzying motion. She swung her leg with mechanical precision and kicked out at the side of his knee. Under the combined force of her strength and her complete lack of hesitation or mercy, his leg simply crumpled. He fell into the mud and the rubbish, shouting and clutching at his leg. She stepped carefully over the trash and delivered a meticulous kick to the jaw that left him facedown and unconscious in the remnants of a pizza that someone hadn't wanted anymore. The alley was quiet except for the sound of Pawn Cheng condensing out of the air.
"Well, that was nicely done," said Pawn Cheng. "You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," said Felicity sourly. She dusted off her clothing, which did not make an appreciable difference to its appearance.
"Honestly, I can't believe you needed me to step in to help you with two chavs."
"Give me a break, Andrea," said Felicity. "I just spent three and a bit hours squatting against a wall. Plus, I'm wearing these ridiculous leper shoes." She looked down at the men on the ground. At any other time it would have given her profound satisfaction to break every bone in their bodies, or at least to put the boot in a couple of times. But there was the danger here that she might attract unwanted attention, not least from the house she'd been observing.
However… she mused.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Andrea. "Are you robbing them?"
"I'm not going to keep it," said Felicity reasonably. "But I think that losing their mobile phones and their wallets will teach them a valuable lesson about… um… you know… respecting the homeless."
"You don't think they learned that by having the crap beaten out of them by a homeless woman?" asked Andrea. "To say nothing of a chick who can turn into oxygen?"
"You know what would make this lesson extra-special?" said Felicity after a moment. "We should take their shoes as well."
The Asian Pawn shook her head disapprovingly, then shrugged.
"Yeah, all right."
Two minutes later, Felicity was humming cheerfully as she sauntered out of the alley.
God, I love this job.
Wake up and get out of the bathtub. If you're late for this cocktail party, the British will take us all out to the parking lot and shoot us in the back of the head. Plus, we need to get the slime out of the tub before the hotel maids come in for the turndown service."
The voice came thundering into Odette Leliefeld's sleeping brain by way of the waterproof headphones that were clamped to her sleeping ears. She was jolted awake, and opened her eyes. The light at the bottom of the bathtub was dim and lavender, and it really was tempting just to snuggle down in the warmth and return to a nice therapeutic stasis. But then Alessio's voice came back into her ears. "Room service will be here in seven minutes, so hurry up."
Odette grimaced and set about speeding up her heart rate from its restful one-beat-every-three-hours tempo. She pushed herself up out of the depths of the ridiculously large tub. The designers of the bathroom had apparently thought the hotel guests would be either engaging in group bathing or traveling with their exotic pets, because there seemed to be enough room in the tub for a party of six good friends, seven extremely good friends, or fifteen pedigree jellyfish. Instead of a bijou orgy or some purebred Olindias formosa, however, it currently contained Odette and about fourteen hundred liters of thick, viscous slime.
She surfaced with a little difficulty, the sludge holding on to her, and sat up, taking her first breath in five hours.
"I hate sleeping in a swimsuit," she remarked weakly to the world as she wiped the gunk out of her eyes.
"If I have to come wake you up all the time," said her younger brother, "then you are not sleeping naked in the tub." She felt the headphones get plucked off her head as he bustled by, presumably tidying up the clothes that were still scattered on the floor.
"Did you order coffee?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, his voice cracking a little. "Although you're not supposed to have hot beverages or caffeine until all your new organs have settled."
"You know what? Don't lecture me until your larynx has settled," she retorted.
"Oh, would you like me to cancel the coffee?" asked Alessio.
"No, I'm sorry," said Odette hurriedly.
"Don't step on the floor yet," he instructed. "Otherwise you'll just get it everywhere. Here's the strigil." He handed her a curved rubber blade and then hurried out to the sitting room. She smiled at the retreating back of her thirteen-year-old brother as he closed the door behind him, then stood up and looked around.
"If any British government official is watching me," she said out loud, "I really don't care if you see me naked, but it's very tacky on your part."
No answer was forthcoming.
"Well, all right, then," she said to herself. She peeled off her bathing suit and set about scraping the slime off her body and back into the tub.
Once she'd transferred herself, mostly slime-free, to the shower, Odette carefully examined her legs, limbs, and torso. Coming along nicely, she thought. The scars along her limbs were now only faint lines, and a few more nights spent in a bathtub of goop would get rid of them completely. The Y-shaped scar tissue that ran down her chest to below her navel was taking longer to heal and was still a little itchy, but she stopped herself from rubbing at it. She held out her arm, her hand bent back, and flexed. A sculpted bone spur the size of her index finger slid out from the underside of her wrist. Okay, good. She tensed another set of muscles, and a drop of amber liquid appeared on the end of the spur. And good.
Then she turned on the water and set about the laborious process of getting the slime out of her hair.
So, what do you think of the place so far?" she asked Alessio as she sipped her coffee and swallowed one of her pills.
"What's to think?" he asked without looking up from his tablet computer.
"Well, the view out the window is nice," she said, taking two more pills.
"It's a very gray, cloudy kind of place," said Alessio.
"We're right opposite Hyde Park, and I just saw one of those red double-decker buses go by. I expect we'll get some time off from the negotiations. We can do London things. The Tate. Trafalgar Square. Harrods. And we could go to Buckingham Palace." Her brother looked at her skeptically over his computer. "I'm not saying that I want to meet a prince or anything, but it would be cool to see the changing of the guard." He shrugged. "And the hotel is very posh."
"Every room on this floor is probably bugged," Alessio said grimly, a little frown line appearing between his eyebrows. "And everyone we meet is probably from the Checquy. That woman who just brought up the food was looking around like she thought we'd have entrails on the floor for her to tidy up along with the wastepaper bins."
"She was probably aghast that a twenty-three-year-old woman has to share a suite with her thirteen-year-old brother," said Odette, swallowing another two pills.
"I'm aghast at that as well," said her brother. Odette made a little snorting sound as she looked at him thoughtfully. They both had the same heart-shaped face and the same dark brown hair, but Alessio's hair was dead straight whereas hers had a tendency to go curly unless she was concentrating. Thankfully, she was still a good deal taller than him, but people in their family often went through a growth spurt late in their teens, and she had no doubt that he would eventually be the one resting drinks on her head.
However, at the moment, he looked very vulnerable. There were still traces of puppy fat on his face, and in his little suit and carefully tied tie, he reminded her of a boy going to a funeral, forced to face adult things too soon.
"I really am sorry about all this," she said to him, and he looked up at her. "You shouldn't have to be acting as a diplomatic representative, you should be…" She trailed off.
"What?" he asked. "At home in Roeselare with my tutors, working on my surgical skills like a regular teenager?" He rolled his eyes. "Grootvader Ernst wanted me to come. He wanted both of us to come. He said it would help."
"Yes, but I'm actually going to be engaged in negotiations, albeit in some unspecified capacity," said Odette, pausing a moment to swallow four more pills. "You're going to be, what? Standing around looking harmless, showing them that we're not all monsters that have been so heavily modified that we're no longer human."
"Only because I'm not fifteen yet," said her brother. "At least you have some weapons inside you."
"Not enough," said Odette darkly. She popped three more pills in her mouth and slammed them down with the last of the coffee. "Now, how long do I have before the meeting to finalize the strategy for the cocktail party?"
"Half an hour," said her brother.
"All right, I'm going to go do my injections and get ready."
In the bathroom, Odette eyed herself closely in the mirror. I need to look businesslike, professional, and normal, she thought. Not overly attractive or unusual. Not threatening in any way. She concentrated, and her lips flushed slightly. Good. Not too red, not too dark. Her eyelids darkened subtly, and she dilated her pupils a bit, flinching in the suddenly brighter light.
"Going for the belladonna look?" said Alessio as he came into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
"Well, we have to make a good impression, and people are attracted to dilated pupils," Odette said defensively. But she constricted them a little. "You're just lucky you don't have to go to this thing tonight."
She watched in the mirror as Alessio carefully rolled up his sleeve, slid his arm into the slime-filled bathtub, and fished around. He finally located the plug and yanked it out. A little dimple appeared on the surface of the liquid, but the slime did not seem to be in any hurry to vanish down the plug hole. They both stared at it in chagrin.
A couple hundred gallons of eldritch ooze probably aren't going to make a very good impression, Odette thought. Even if it is nectarine-scented.
"Try adding some hot water," she suggested finally. "And the shampoo from the shower breaks it down a little."
"I may simply have to try flushing it down the toilet," said Alessio. "I can use the rubbish bin as a bailer." Odette could all too easily imagine something horrible happening to the toilet as a result. A bathtub of evil somehow seemed much less embarrassing than a toilet of evil. With a toilet, people might think the evil had come out of her.
"Better not," she said hastily. "I think we should just leave it. And since you think the maids are with the Checquy, they aren't going to bat an eyelash at a slowly draining bathtub full of biochemical soup."
"Well, I'm not positive they're with the Checquy," said her brother, the little line appearing between his eyes again. "You could help me with this, you know."
"This thing I'm doing right here? It requires a fair amount of close attention," said Odette. She pursed her lips in concentration and watched in satisfaction as her cheekbones shifted under her skin, moving up and out a little.
Five hours before her pied-à-tête with Joe and Petey, Felicity had been sitting in an office in the Hammerstrom Building, dressed in a suit and very definitely not covered in filth. The Hammerstrom Building, despite being the most boring-looking building in the City of London (it appeared to have been designed by a committee of depressive Puritans), was in fact one of the facilities belonging to the Checquy Group, the secret government department that employed the supernatural to protect the populace from the supernatural.
The Hammerstrom Building was the headquarters for all domestic operations of the Checquy, overseen by two executives known as the Rooks. As a result, it was affectionately referred to as the Rookery. It was where government strategists made the arrangements to acquire every child born in the British Isles with unexplainable abilities. It was where the course of those children's lives, including their rigorous education at the remote and heavily fortified boarding school known as the Estate, was planned. It was where the supernaturally gifted operatives, once grown up—the Pawns—received their assignments to stations across the country. It was the place to which intelligence was funneled from a thousand different sources. It was the place from whence elite soldiers sallied forth to combat the unnatural.
It was also where Felicity had arrived early that morning in an effort to catch up on paperwork. She had been sipping an inferior coffee and waiting for her computer to boot up when a courier trotted over and handed her the envelope containing the summons. The last part of the official message—the caution about the urine—had given Felicity a moment's pause, but then she'd shrugged. Service in the Checquy called for all sorts of unorthodox duties. Those duties tended to be especially unorthodox when one was a member of an urban assault team.
And if you want to climb higher, she told herself, you don't ever complain. You just show that you're ready and eager for any challenge.
The location to which she had been commanded turned out to be a house. It was not a particularly pleasant house, being both abandoned and in disrepair, but as a result it blended in perfectly with the surrounding area. It was in Northam, the least convenient district of the Greater London conurbation, too far from the city's center or any public transport for even the most optimistic of gentrificators, and too far from the edge of the metropolis for people to delude themselves that they were enjoying country living. Evelyn Waugh had once described it as "the perineum of the Empire."
Felicity had found the chief of her team, Pawn Millicent Odgers, tucked away in the kitchen at the back of the house sifting through the contents of some hard plastic cases. A plump woman in her midsixties, Odgers spoke with a pure Glaswegian accent. From the shoulders up, with her gray hair in a tight bun and her glasses on a chain around her neck, she looked as if she should be checking out books in a country library. However, the rest of her was swathed in a formidable coverall of dense black material that appeared to be several sizes too large for her. She was shod in boots that looked as though they could kick in a door or a rib cage with equal facility.
"Good morning, Chief."
"Morning, Clements. Did you bring the biscuits and the milk?"
"Yes, sir," said Felicity, holding up her shopping bag.
"Good. Buchanan is bringing the thermoses with coffee and tea."
"So where's the rest of the team?"
"They'll be trickling in. The sudden arrival of a horde of healthy people will draw attention in this neighborhood. Hopefully, they've all shown the same sense you have and dressed down a bit." Felicity, having noted the tenor of the area, had taken the precaution of changing out of her suit and into a pair of jeans and a rather grubby fleece. "Meanwhile, are you ready for work?"
"Grand to hear. I'll brief you after you've put on the clothes in that bag over there."
Felicity cautiously opened the bag and saw that it was filled with garments for which the most charitable description was "vagrant camouflage." She sighed. It wasn't the worst ensemble she'd ever been compelled to wear in the name of duty (one mission had called for her to put on a gillie suit composed entirely of well-manured poison ivy), but the clothes were all covered in filth and grease, and there was a pungent odor coming off them.
Gritting her teeth and controlling her gag reflex, she changed into the vestments of the damned. The shirt had several collars sewn in, so it looked like she was wearing multiple layers of old T-shirts and rugby jumpers. The jeans adhered to her legs in various places. She took a seat.
An Amazon pick for "Best Books of June 2016" and "Best Books of 2016 So Far: Science Fiction & Fantasy"
Year's Best in "Fantasy" -- The Reading List Council Awards
"I just loved this book. If you think Daniel O'Malley couldn't top The Rook, you were wrong. STILETTO is as satisfying and spellbinding as his first book, with a new cast of magic-wielding humans called the Grafters. Myfanwy Thomas, the Rook, is trying to broker a truce between the Grafters and her own Checquy, but a third party is trying to prevent this truce by any means possible...including Myfanwy's assassination."
- "Daniel O'Malley raises the action, monsters and witticisms to new levels in this sequel to The Rook....a devilishly funny follow-up....This ambitious romp reads like X-Men meets Supernatural as narrated by Jasper Fforde, only funnier....O'Malley reaches new heights of grotesquery in the best possible way."—Jaclyn Fulwood, Shelf Awareness
"O'Malley strikes a skillful balance between irreverent humor and adventure. His narratives move back and forth, providing detail but without becoming cumbersome. This X-Men meets X-Files-style adventure will appeal to fans of superhero comics and adventure novels."
—Vicki Briner, Library Journal
"There are writers who craft intricate plots, writers who breathe life into incredible characters, and writers who pen lines you want to quote all day long. O'Malley is one of the rare finds who regularly manages all three....It took Daniel O'Malley four long years to write this sequel. That time paid off."
—Jeff Somers, B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
- "Much-anticipated....Stiletto is less office politics and Cthulhu and more X-Men and Dungeons & Dragons."—Andrew Liptak, i09, "All The Books You Desperately Need to Add to Your 'To Read' Pile This Summer"
- "An excellent sequel.... O'Malley works his magic in adroit new ways, recalling all the legerdemain that delighted us the first time around [in The Rook]. STILETTO is laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally bawdy and paced like a spy thriller replete with chases, betrayals and tragedies...Fear not, dear reader: Daniel O'Malley is in charge."—Joyce Saenz Harris, Dallas Morning News
"My favorite book of 2016....STILETTO is a light-hearted romp through a world that's both familiar and strange."
—Ellen Zielinski, Louisiana Advocate
"Thank goodness I didn't find out about O'Malley's first book, 2012's The Rook, until this year; there's no way I could have waited four years for the sequel."
—Alex Lent, Millis Public Library, Literary Hub
- On Sale
- Jun 14, 2016
- Page Count
- 592 pages
- Little, Brown and Company