'All this worry is very bad for my mental state. Now I can't decide which gin to drink.' Mixt seemed perplexed as she stood in front of the drinks cabinet, an antique piece of furniture which may have been valuable had it not, like most of her furniture, been ruined by neglect over the years.
She looked over towards Nakishdan. 'Why aren't you helping?'
'Helping with what?'
'I don't know which gin to drink.'
'I didn't realise it was a serious problem.'
Nakishdan joined her in front of the drinks cabinet. Inside the cabinet were four bottles of gin, all low-cost brands from the supermarket.
'London Gin, Plymouth Gin, Sloe Gin and this gin which is a funny blue colour. Why didn't you stop me from buying so many? You know I have problems making decisions.'
'It's only four different types,' said Nakishdan. 'That's not such a big choice.'
'I don't want to go to fairyland.'
Nakishdan and Mixt were perturbed by the department's recent instructions that they were to visit the Fairy Kingdom of Mercia, once home to the now-renegade fairy Rainith the Red.
'Is it a real place? Can you just walk in? Or do you have to get there a special way, like by magic or something?'
Nakishdan shrugged. So far, the Department hadn't given them any instructions. 'Maybe you can just walk in the same as anywhere else?'
'But how could that be?' Mixt wrinkled her brow. 'It can't just exist like normal, or people would be blundering about there all the time. We'd have heard about it. It would be in the newspapers. Man finds fairy kingdom. Has there ever been a newspaper report about a man finding a fairy kingdom?'
'No. Well not in a reputable newspaper anyway. Maybe it's just really well hidden?'
'This is all Rainith's fault. We wouldn't have to go there if she hadn't gone missing. Now I'm confused and I don't know which gin to drink. Why did I buy that blue gin? Why is it blue?'
'Aromatic herbs and spices?' Nakishdan read the lable. His phone beeped in his pocket. He took it out to read the message.
'47 Jeng would like to meet you.'
Nakishdan and Mixt looked at each other, both troubled.
'That sounds disturbingly like 102 Woo. And we already know we don't like them.'
'Should I reply?'
'Definitely not. Pretend it didn't happen.'
Nakishdan phone beeped again. He read his new message.
'We are the enemies of 102 Woo.'
Nakishdan looked at his phone, suspiciously. 'Well, they say that. But they could be lying. How did they get my number anyway? What'll we do about this?'
Mixt wasn't listening. The unexpected contact had yanked her out of her indecision. She pouted herself a large glass from the bottle of blue gin.
'Very aromatic,' she muttered. 'Just what's required at a time like this.
'We don't want to visit fairyland because it sounds difficult and probably dangerous and anyway some strange new organisation contacted us and it's all getting bit much. Just because I'm 4000 years old doesn't mean I can cope with anything. I mean, one can manage a certain amount of excitement but there are limits. I've reached mine.'
Glade, unshaven, with a mug of tea and a plate of toast cooling in front of him, was not at his sharpest. Before he could reply, Nakishdan pitched in.
'Mixt's right. It's all getting a bit much. How are we expected to get on with our lives when we can't do anything without encountering some new secret organisation? Or semi-secret organisation. I suppose they can't be all that secret if they're sending me text messages. The point is moot. Anyway, what are you going to do about it?'
'What is this new organisation?'
'47 Jeng,' said Mixt. 'I'm sure we told you already. They want to meet us. We're not keen, obviously. They're probably more ninja enemies like 102 Woo. Also, 47 is one of my least favourite numbers. Maybe not least favourite. But I don't like it.'
An expression of mild alarm flickered over Glade's face as he faced the possibility of Mixt launching into an extended diatribe about her peculiar obsessions with numbers. He was saved by a slight tinkling from the bell at the door as Ms Darben arrived in the cafe. She sat next to them.
'I received you messages. All eighteen of them.'
Mixt and Nakishdan looked moderately embarrassed.
'We wanted to make sure you got them. Terrible things are happening.'
'There are new secret organisations and you want us to got to fairyland.'
'We blame Rainith.'
'Probably she's done something really stupid in the past and now everything is going wrong.'
Ms Darben nodded. 'There might be something in that. It is intolerable that one of our operatives has chosen to remain in the past. There's no telling what might become of it.'
With that, she looked accusingly at Glade, whom she was holding responsible for the unfortunate occurrence. It was his job to keep Search Unit Sigma under control. Glade was annoyed, and didn't see why he should be blamed.
'So Rainith disobeyed orders? Hardly my fault. She hasn't obeyed an order since you hired her. If the Department wants to employ extremely unreliable fairies shouldn't you be taking responsibility?'
Ms Darben, eying Glade's appearance, and correctly surmising that he had been drinking recently, was on the point making an acerbic reply when the cafe door opened again and Rainith walked in. She dragged a chair from a nearby empty table and joined them.
'You have to send us back to see Dr Feelgood.'
'What's the idea of disappearing into the past?' demanded Glade.
'I didn't disappear into the past. I just went gathering information. Using my initiative. Something the Department is always going on about. So, Dr Feelgood. They were a pub rock band with a great reputation. Played a lot around 1975. If we go there, we're bound to meet Geeda Lala.'
'This is troubling.' Ms Darben sat with Agent Duluth and Glade in a hastily convened emergency meeting in Duluth's car, still some way from their headquarters. 'The first troubling part is Rainith's apparent ability to use our pathway through time on her own. How did she get back here from 1978?'
It was puzzling. No journey was meant to be possibly without the assistance of the Kesh.
'Does this mean she can travel backwards in time as well?' Duluth was worried. The notion of Rainith meandering back and forward though history on her own volition seemed to invite disaster.
'I'd say not. That's why she's lying to us now.'
'How is she lying? Didn't she meet Geed Lala?'
'She did. But now she needs us to send her back again. That's why she brought new information about gigs where Geeda might be.'
Rainith the Red had arrived in the cafe with a previously unsuspected enthusiasm for pub rock, and a list of four gigs in London in 1975 where, she assured them, Geeda was bound to be.
'Because Geeda liked Dr Feelgood,' the fairy had told them. 'They were energetic in comparison to other bands at the time. You know, before punk rock came along.'
'It's obvious why Rainith wants us to send her to 1975,' Ms Darben continued.
Duluth looked interested. Glade looked bored, and also a little unwell. He was keen to go home, something Ms Darben had noted with exasperation. If he kept on like this, the Department would have to discharge him, no matter how awkward that made life for Search Unit Sigma.
'Rainith wants to see the first Sex Pistols gig. Which, according to the extremely comprehensive guide to seventies music our research department recently provided, happened on 6 November 1975. If we send Rainith back to any date before then, she won't return. Not till she's seen the Sex Pistols anyway.'
Ms Darben turned in her seat so that she faced Glade. 'Do you have any suggestions for controlling her?'
Glade shrugged. He'd always been of the opinion that Rainith was too unreliable to work with, and didn't feel like repeating himself.
'What about this new group who contacted Mixt and Nakishdan?' asked Duluth.
Ms Darben, who was not known for being emotional, almost scowled, though she controlled it quickly. '47 Jeng? Who knows. We'll have to ask the Kesh about them. How is it that every renegade organisation connected to this affair finds it so easy to contact any agent they feel like? And why is it our people can never trace any of these contacts? Tracing mysterious phone calls should be easy. Apparently these calls come from nowhere.'
'Would it necessarily be a disaster to let Rainith go back and see the Sex Pistols?' said Agent Duluth. 'Maybe no harm would come of it, and she could start concentrating on the mission.'
Ms Darben studied her subordinate. She knew that Duluth was attracted to Rainith. It was never easy to tell if he was completely impartial when talking about her.
Nakishdan and Mixt walked home from the cafe.
'You don't normally like walking outside.'
'True. But I used to. I've walked over a lot of Europe. And Asia.' Mext felt a touch of sadness, remembering some of her past existence, times when she'd been extremely active.
'I walked all over the lower slopes of the Himalayas when I was studying Naginata. A long way through Japan too, disguised as a monk. I didn't used to be so anxious about walking round, and touching things.'
'Do you think you got these symptoms because of this business with the Kesh?'
'It came on before that. But it all got worse when this started. Maybe it was always going to happen if I lived so long.'
'Do you think the Kesh have anything to do with us living so long?'
They didn't know. It seemed possible. They'd never found any other explanation. Vauxhall was pleasantly sunny. They stopped to buy chocolate and milk at a garage.
'Now we have some new organisation trying to contact us.'
'It's enough to make anyone stressed.'
'We'll fight them off,' said Nakishdan. Mixt smiled. They walked on, temporarily leaving the pavement where workers were digging up the tarmac to repair pipes below, and walking for some yards rather carefully in the face of oncoming traffic.
'What do you make of Rainith? Why's she disappearing and coming back and talking about Dr Feelgood gigs?'
'I don't know. Maybe she has some plan.'
'I don't know. At least we don't have to visit fairyland now she's back.'
They opened their gate and walked up the long path that led up to Mixt's inner-city mansion. A short way from the ancient porch and front door, they halted. There was a girl standing there wearing an unusual wooly hat, with earflaps, and a coat printed with designs that looked as if they might be ancient tribal markings.
'My name is Fourteen Trees. I'm from 47 Jeng. I'm here to help you.'
Mixt and Nakishdan stared at her suspiciously.
'Fourteen Trees?' said Mixt. 'You people are really fond of numbers.'