Fortunately, the situation was interrupted by screams and loud grinding noises from the street. Diners dropped their knives and forks to turn towards the doorway. A couple of men leaped to their feet, wineglasses still in their hands.
Kai managed an infinitesimal blink at Irene, then turned to Vale. ‘Do you think we should investigate, sir?’
‘Of course!’ Vale exclaimed, rising. He picked up his swordstick, balancing it casually in his left hand. ‘Madam, kindly stay here. Mr Strongrock, if you would accompany me – ’ He strode towards the door.
‘What do I do?’ Kai hissed at Irene.
‘Stay with him,’ Irene whispered. ‘I’ll hold back. Find out what’s going on. Be careful, he’s a detective.’
‘I’d worked that bit out,’ Kai muttered. But he displayed a wild enthusiasm as he raced after Vale, an eagerness for action.
Irene glanced around as the two men raced off. Nobody creeping out of the shadows to try to abduct her while their attention was elsewhere. Good. She picked up her bag and walked after them.
The restaurant’s reception area had large glass windows which provided a convenient view of the street outside. The place was in total chaos. A giant mechanical centipede – well, some sort of segmented insect with multiple legs, Irene was hardly going to stand there and count them all – was wreaking havoc in the narrow alleyway outside. She spotted a badly damaged cart and several broken windows. There was barely room for it to navigate, let alone turn around, and it was dancing a few steps forward and then a few steps back as its front feelers seemed to quest for something or someone. Oil oozed from its crevices, while steam puffed from its head-segment and mingled with the ambient fog. She noticed that a couple of people had already been hurt and bystanders were screaming and running in all directions. Then of course pausing, at a theoretically safe distance, to watch what it did next.
Kai and Vale were standing in the doorway, assessing it. At least, Vale looked as if he was assessing it. Kai just looked stunned.
‘How the hell did that thing get through the streets?’ Kai asked.
Vale sniffed. ‘It probably came up from the sewers. The recent renovation programme has been a godsend to criminals across London.’
‘Vale!’ The creature’s echoing voice boomed down the street. ‘Prepare to face your doom!’
‘Ah,’ Vale said cheerfully, ‘it’s for me.’
Kai looked hurt. ‘It might have got us confused,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it’s for me.’
‘No, no, I assure you it’s for me,’ Vale said. ‘But would you mind watching the rear end while I distract the front? Sometimes they have high-emission scintillotherms located there.’
‘Of course,’ Kai said. ‘Not a problem.’
Irene leaned against the wall and tried not to sigh. Perhaps Vale was an ethical person, if his enemy was happy to risk innocent lives to hunt him down. Assuming that he hadn’t staged the entire thing of course – but it was also just one more distraction. How on earth was she supposed to manage an investigation with these constant interruptions?
The two men ran out into the street: Vale to the right, towards the creature’s head, and Kai to the left, towards its rear. Irene debated which one to follow. Kai was under her protection, but following Vale could be far more informative.
The question was settled for her as the centipede threw itself into rapid reverse, metal claws scraping on the pavement as it danced backwards. Its head came into view: a monstrous steel model of mandibles and huge faceted glass eyes, large enough for a man to sit in, with steam jetting out in thick squealing bursts on either side. Vale stood before it, his sword unsheathed from its cane and blazing with electricity. Each time that the centipede lowered its head to try to bite at him, he parried, and sparks flew to sizzle against pavement and walls.
With a dazzling burst of speed, he darted forward between the gnashing mandibles, and leapt up onto the main part of the centipede’s head, balancing there for a moment. He raised his blade, and brought it down into one of the creature’s eyes.
Electricity blazed up in a great sparking column. The centipede gave a hissing scream, and thrashed all along its length, one segment jolting into the next, with steam gushing out from all the apertures. A hatch dropped open beneath the creature, and a man in a greasy black boiler suit came rolling out of it, coughing and spitting.
Vale leapt down from the head, landing in a billow of coat-tails. He pointed his sword at the man. ‘Talk, sir, or—’
At that point Irene’s attention was distracted by someone attempting to tug her bag out from under her arm. She turned to see one of the waiters – no, it wasn’t one of the waiters. It was a man in evening dress, with a napkin hastily thrown over one arm, posing as a waiter. His watch was far too expensive to be a waiter’s, his grey moustache too well groomed. And his right hand, she noted in the clarity of the moment, had thin electrical burnlines running from knuckles to wrist.
He tugged again. Irene released the bag, keeping hold of the strap, letting him tug at it. She dropped into a semi-squat, balancing on her left heel, then brought her right leg out in a straight wide pivot. It caught him off-balance and he fell to the ground with a curse.
She straightened again smoothly, pulling her bag back against her body, and picked up one of the flimsy restaurant chairs. It was of dubious quality and, as her antagonist tried to get up, it broke very thoroughly when it slammed into his body.