The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

When Christ And His Saints Slept

11pm, Thursday 27th August 1998

Vera, somewhat shaken by the sounds of her parents' voices, starts to turn Isobelle Kingston round towards her and raises her other hand towards the hapless medium's throat.

At this point, Belle-Marie, her face pale and set, jumps in and coldly and precisely headbutts Kingston just above the bridge of the nose.

Kingston groans mildly and instantly slumps to unconsciousness, prevented only by Vera's grip on her arm from measuring her length in the puddles.

'What the hell was that for?' yells the perturbed Vera.

'Hey, I didn't spend months working on the docks and not get any benefit,' snaps Belle-Marie. 'Everyone keeps looking at me as if I'm some little frail thing... it was the best way of stopping this spirit.'

Kingston's eyes are now back to normal, and presumably Aiwass, if it was he / it, has gone.

Vera opens and shuts her mouth, looking back and forth from the Irish girl to the unconscious medium; but, realizing that eyes are starting to turn in her direction, she has nothing to say.

Cosmo Landesman is now recovering, clutching his head in pain, and Belle-Marie goes over to help him to his feet. 'Good Lord above, that was a nasty one,' he winces.

Isobelle Kingston starts to stir, a red contusion forming on her forehead, and Vera releases her.

'Wh... what happened?' she asks weakly.

Vera begins to turn away then swings back, glaring at the older woman. 'You blacked out during a some sort of impromptu trance. I caught you. By your neck. Sorry,' she says without sincerity.

Kingston rather feebly brushes herself down. 'I think I seem to have had a visitation, my dear. I really do feel quite bad. I dope it wasn't too disturbing to witness?'

'Try not to go into any more trances, old girl,' Vera advises. 'Don't even go to sleep. You are not in control of yourself. We'll talk again but I need to find what kind of help is at hand.'

Mary Gration comes over. 'How are you feeling, honey?' she asks Vera concernedly, reaching towards her face.

Vera recoils from her gentle touch as though from a serpent's fang. Mary, looking rather hurt, retreats into the group.

'What did you see?' Belle-Marie hisses at Landesman as the tour, its mood now rather broken, moves off again under Ian Williamson's guidance.

He shudders. 'A blackness I hope never to see again. The blackness of Hell, my girl. Dreadful cold, and foul.'

'And here was me thinking it was a place of fire and brimstone,' says Belle-Marie, hoping to make him laugh.

Instead he just turns a hollow gaze on her. 'That's what they teach you in the schools, yes. But the truth of it's far worse. If you were told the truth of it - the dreadful foul cold darkness - you wouldn't be able to bear the thought of it. Not even for five minutes.'

'Where... what exactly did you see, then? Who was...?'

'Mrs Kingston - she was suddenly overwhelmed by the spirit bursting through her. It was powered from below, you may bet your life on that. There was something there below, in Hell, or someone, pushing it through her. To talk to that American girl... but why?'

'Do you see anything odd about her, the American girl?' asks Belle-Marie.

Landesman frowns. 'Not so very unusual. She's very closed-off - I'd guess she doesn't let people close to her. And there's an odd thread going through her. A sparkling thread. Not sure what that might be - some sort of occult connection, perhaps? It goes back a long way, right to her birth. Maybe her parents were occultists, or something.'

Meanwhile, Vera is striding on with the tour, towards Beaufort and journey's end. She is conscious that she still looks rather odd, with her bare feet, but she is impatient.

Eric frowns. Margaret Saunders, in her incongruous widow's evening dress and bedraggled ribbons, with those hollow cheeks, could be a latter-day Miss Havisham. He realizes that this woman could be on the brink of insanity, or beyond it, but he also knows that if she is near to insanity that this may be the last chance to get her to tell some of the things that she knows.

'The police think that there was a murder, Margaret, but they may not be looking for the right kind of motives. Even the kind of accident you describe might be created by magic.'

Margaret laughs nervously, fingering her glass. 'Doctor, I don't know a very great deal about police methods, but I should think that magic is almost never very high up on their list of suspected murder weapons.'

Eric, nodding, continues 'While Michael was studying agriculture here, he became friends with Bernard Jackley, who became a famous conjuror. While the two of them remained friends, along with you and the Master, crop circles started appearing in the local countryside. Soon, the Stanton Harcourt burial was found, all before the time that Bernard left the university. Martin Thane wrote about it all, and went on to become a noted writer on the occult. Jackley leaves the university mysteriously, and exactly two dozen years later returns to hold the largest psychic conference ever, here at Beaufort College again. During that very conference Michael dies under circumstances that the police deem suspicious. That's a very large set of coincidences, Margaret. If there's anything more to all this than that, you probably know it. If you know that there's nothing to all of this than coincidence - if you know it for sure - tell me. But I don't think that you can.'

'Didn't Jung say that there was no such thing as coincidence, Doctor? 'Synchonicity', he called it - the human desire to see patterns in random events.' Her tone reminds Eric that she is not just some bored housewife, but studied at Oxford herself. 'I'm sure you could build up a similar edifice of possibilities on any set of premises you chose, but it wouldn't prove anything, would it? At best it would only be circumstantial.'

Eric, realizing that she is not in a mood to be receptive to his theory, changes the subject. 'Going back to your dream, your vision - you said that 'we were living in Silchester' and that you asked your husband about it - does that mean that you were married to Michael already by the time that you had this vision?'

'Yes, that's right. It was the first place we lived after leaving here. Michael had a job at the agricultural college there, lecturing. Goodness, we were as poor as church mice.'

'In my own instance, I was asked to choose between a spear and a cup - two symbols which can obviously be identified with the separate sexes, and I chose the cup, of course. In your case, though, you were presented with the spear and the fasces, two inherently male symbols. I had the impression from your first description of this meeting that you did not make a choice between them. Am I correct about this?'

'That's right. Really, I backed away from the decision. Even at the time I thought 'this is all so silly, really'. The phallic symbolism, I mean. And a Roman soldier - how very macho. Perhaps it was my unconscious telling me I wasn't getting enough sex. Or penis envy, or something.' She laughs, rather dryly.

Eric is cognizant that Margaret is in an odd state: she is talking with more assertion and force than in any previous conversation they have had. Could this be the 'real' her, perhaps suppressed by her dominant husband for so long? 'It might almost be seen as a choice between two men, though,' he says carefully. 'Women often have to make such choices.'

Margaret flushes. 'Maybe so. Well, Doctor, if you've done any homework on me I'm sure you know that Michael's not the only man I've ever been involved with. Bernard and I had quite a fling when we were younger.'

'Was it very serious?'

'Serious enough.' She lights a cigarette with quick, hard movements. 'About as serious as it could be - for me, anyway. I wanted to marry him, but he wasn't quite so keen. Of course, we were little more than children then. Michael was very protective of me. It's not surprising he and Bernard had such a dreadful row when Michael found out.'

'Found out you and Bernard were involved?' asks Eric delicately.

'No, no, of course not, that was public knowledge. And it had started long before I knew Michael had any interest in me. He wasn't really one to show it, even then. No, found out that I was... that Bernard wouldn't... Well, there was going to be a baby, you see. That's the size of it.' She stabs the cigarette out, barely half smoked. 'And Bernard got scared and backed off. He didn't want to be tied down by some squealing brat, not Bernard. And Michael and he had a fight over it, and then Bernard was sent down of course. I went away and had the baby, and... then I was damaged goods, you see. That's the way we thought back then. Michael offered and I accepted, even though I wasn't that madly stuck on him. I might not get another offer, I thought then. So - there you go. That's what happened. And Michael regretted that moment of pity for the rest of his life.' Her voice is suddenly bitter.

'What... what became of the baby?'

Margaret stares fiercely at him. 'I suppose you think I should have aborted it - 'terminated' it - do you? That's what most girls would have done, I suppose. Much more convenient. Well, no, I had the baby. And put it up for adoption. That's what.'

Eric glances around the room, his gaze falling on the photographs of the young Margaret and Bernard. Neither look very much like either Martin Keyes or Richard Chambers, or for that matter like Vera or Belle-Marie. Both have brown hair, which is true of none of the four potential suspects.

'Who did you give it up to? And was it a boy or a girl?'

Margaret stands up, slightly unsteadily at first. 'To be honest with you I've got no idea, Doctor. I never even saw it properly. I handed it over to the nuns, and that was it. Simple, swift, painless. Now -' she puts Eric's coat into his arms '- if you'll be so kind as to excuse me, I think that's enough ancient history for one night.'

'Of course, officers,' T.R. smiles casually, 'I'll be happy to cooperate.' Inwardly, he sighs in mild annoyance. Warren, you idiot. You should have known this place would be crawling with cops after Saunders died. You were asking for trouble by skulking around here.

Keeping his attention on the officers, not looking anywhere near Steven - at least the computer nerd can go back and let the others know what happened - he walks forward towards Inspector Seymour.

The two suspects' reactions to his sudden appearance from the shadows are mixed. Martin Dirkheim stares at him in horror and dread: 'Brian' with a kind of arrogant insouciance.

'It was all his fault, officer - that man!' cries Dirkheim, pointing at Brian. 'He put me up to it!'

'Are you sure about that, sir?' asks Seymour. 'That's a very serious allegation. We're talking about murder here.'

Dirkheim wails, aghast, 'No! - my God, no! Theft, yes, I stole his manuscript, but, my God, you've got to believe me, I didn't kill him! - I'd never have dreamed of it!' Now he looks at Brian almost impolringly, as though for confirmation.

The other man is unresponsive, though. 'I'll give my solicitor a call when we reach the station, but I don't think I have anything to say prior to that, officer,' he says calmly, folding his arms.

As Sergeant Harris takes down his details, T.R. considers what he will say when he arrives at the station. He intends to be fairly honest with the police (though he won't mention SITU, of course), so he doubts there will be any trouble. The most the officers will do is question him and release him.

And this is England, so I should be treated decently. Not like the last time I was in jail, in...

He stops short, as the memory of his previous incarceration comes back to him with an odd sense of déja vu. The last time he was thrown in jail, he had accompanied the ill-fated Terrero expedition to Copal. He remembers far too well the strange events that happened to his friends while he was stuck inside the jail cell. Although he has no reason to believe anything like that would happened again - and especially not in England - the situation is too close a parallel for his comfort.

'Officer,' he says quickly to Chief Inspector Seymour. While before he had affected the casual arrogance of a reporter who knows the police can't touch him, now his expression goes serious and he runs a hand through his hair uncomfortably. 'Would it possible for you to question me here rather than at the station? Unless you're planning to arrest me, you have no need to bring me in - I'll be happy to answer your questions. I'm telling you the truth - I'm a free-lance reporter pursuing a story. I feel that important events are going to happen here tonight. I'd like to be here to see them. I'd rather not lose all the time driving to and from the police station.'

He starts to pull out his cellphone to confirm the story, but Seymour is having none of it. 'This investigation isn't arranged for your convenience, sir,' he snaps. The 'sir' is once more heavily ironic. 'You may already have prejudiced our inquiries with your snooping. Now will you accompany us voluntarily, or do I have to ask my sergeant to place you under arrest?'

Taylor waits a while to make sure Jackley seems to be deep into sleep, before quietly beginning to explore his room. She realizes that he is of course a guest here, and so most of what is in the room does not belong to him, but the briefcase on the desk seems a good starting-point. Being careful to keep things in order, she leafs quietly through the papers. There is a good deal of mundane correspondence to do with booking rooms, flights and so on, and accounting details, none of which are of any great interest. The only thing which stands out as unusual is a small photograph, in his wallet. It shows the young Margaret Saunders, head and shoulders, dressed as a flapper for what must have been some costume party. The photo is very battered and looks as though it has been in Jackley's wallet pretty solidly for the twenty-odd years since it was taken.

Taylor does her best to conceal the fact of her search, then climbs back into bed and snuggles up, carefully, to the snoring conjuror, to get a few hours of sleep for herself.

Oxford central police station is none too busy at this time of night: a handful of drunks and a placid-looking desk sergeant. T.R. attempts to phone Taylor, but is told by the hotel that she has not yet returned to her room. He leaves a message that he is at the police station for questioning and give the address, with no further information.

T.R.'s police interview is a rather dull and predictable one. He tells Sergeant Harris that he is a free lance reporter who came to England to do a story on the ICIP in hopes of selling it to a newspaper or magazine back home. He had attended the first day of the conference and overheard some talk about Saunders having an affair with a girl named Claire. The Congress was turning out to be rather boring, so he decided to look in on the Farming Conference. He heard there about the controversy over Saunders's minority report, and then learned about Saunders's death shortly thereafter. Deciding that he had a story, he decided to sneak around Beaufort that night to see if he could pick up any clues - obviously he did too good a job of it.

Harris smiles at him ruefully. 'Sorry about bringing you in like this, sir. The old man... he can get a bit testy at times over the way the press act. When we was watching you listening at the door, we was having kittens. He was worried you were going to alert the suspects and spoil the arrest.'

Harris seems none too interested in T.R.'s other doings. He asks him to repeat the fragments of conversation he overheard between Dirkheim and Brian, but that is all. 'And you've not had any contact with Mr Dirkheim or the other gentleman before, sir, is that right?'

'Not at all,' says T.R. honestly.

'Well, in that case, I think you can go now, sir. If you could just make a point of staying in the area for the next day or so, please, we may want to ask you a couple more questions.'

'And would you mind if I continue wandering around the upper floors of Beaufort College? I promise not to disturb any evidence...'

'We'd very much rather you didn't, sir,' says Harris firmly. 'I'm sure we could arrange to keep you here overnight, if you're dead set on not going straight back to sleep in your bed.' He smiles again.

'Worth trying,' says T.R. cheerfully. 'Is there anything you're willing to tell me about the investigation so far? I'm planning to do a story on Saunders' death, you see.'

'Well, sir, I think we've made something of a breakthrough tonight. It may be that we'll be able to wrap the case up quite quickly now - at least, that's what the Chief Inspector thinks.'

At that point there is a bellow of 'Harris!' from out in the corridor, and the sergeant leaps guiltily to his feet.

'Well then, sir, I dare say we'll be making an announcement at some point soon.'

Looking out through the window as the rain cascades down the outside of the glass in the dining-hall at Beaufort, Ned reflects on the unusual events at the Turf Tavern.

He's mostly surprised at the turn of events, with Blyth and Lloyd announcing themselves part of some kind of bogus magical-alchemical puppetmasters' club. Rohinder and 'Culo' or whatever wasn't as big a shock, but the amount of knowledge they had obtained about SITU concerned him greatly. It also worried him that the bogus boys seemed to affect Dr Alnes in an unusual way.

The whole evening started out oddly, with those braziers flaming in the spattering rain outside the Turf Tavern. Ned recalls that the low beams and dark interior gave him an uncomfortable feeling. And those oddball students in the corner, obviously playacting in some kind of silly game while sitting at their table drinking pints. 'I'm the Great Dalmuti now' - what kind of talk was that for adults? 'Geez, what a bunch of weirdos,' Ned mumbles to himself.

It's clear to him that the pivotal event of the week will occur tomorrow, during Rohinder's experiment. Ned begins pacing back and forth, as his frustration and anxiety mount. 'I must do something tonight!' he says, in a low, determined voice. 'I've got to shake things up, somehow. Dig deeper. Get at the problem before tomorrow. I just can't let the experiment go forward without knowing more.'

Steven sidles into the room, looking distinctly edgy, and updates Ned on events upstairs. 'And then, just as I was coming down, this arrived.' He shows Ned a printed email message.

Subject: Investigation of ICIP and Tehuti

Sent: 09/27/98 23:24

Received: 09/27/98 23:53

From: Isobel Blyth <DMCGames@aol.com>

To: Steven Smith <jlj@san.rr.com>

Dear Mr. Smith,

It was certainly a shock to receive your enquiry about my husband and guardian. I had no idea they were involved in Tehuti. I am afraid I will not be able to give you any information about this. However, I would be very grateful if you would keep me updated regarding your investigations.

I met Isobelle Kingston in Egypt. We were only together for a short amount of time, but in that time I came to view her as someone I could trust. There is no other information about her that I can give you that you do not already know.

I am sorry that I cannot be much help. I doubt very much whether I will be able to find out more about Tehuti as it is something that my husband and guardian have chosen to keep hidden from me. I do feel it wise for me to start asking too many questions of them at this stage, but any information which I feel to be relevant to your investigation will be passed on.

Yours sincerely,

Isobel Blyth.

As Ned is digesting it, the tour party returns, drenched and subdued. Vera is still steering Isobelle Kingston by the arm, Belle-Marie is walking with Landesman. The dishevelled students of psychic phenomena start to help themselves to the coffee and tea which the college has thoughtfully provided.

'Uncle Ned, did my lawyer in Washington call you back yet?' Vera demands.

'I've not checked my messages at the hotel just lately,' says Ned. 'But, look, Vera, my leg's better!'

Vera resists the urge to kick his kneecap; she wants to break something or someone.

Before heading back to town to meet the others, Eric stops at the Hawkwell House and places a call to Mike Burgin of SITU. It sounds like Burgin has just got out of bed. Eric tersely informs him that the party's cover has been broken, and by whom.

'What? Shit! What? Hold on... stay there, Doctor, I'll have to put someone more senior on. Shit! What are you people playing at down there?'

Eric starts to explain, but Burgin is transferring him to another number. There is a pause of ten seconds or so, then a deep, firm male voice says 'Doctor Alnes? Geoff Blaize here. Mike tells me that the Trismegistus Club've rumbled you - is that right?'

'Yes,' says Eric, 'and I can tell you that the following are linked:

'a) Abdel Essawi's involvement with both The Keepers at Branston Hall and the affair of the destruction of the Pyramid of Khentkaus;

'b) The fact that Isobel Blyth made a connection to Isobelle Kingston in Egypt;

'c) One mask of the Trismegistus Club, Tehuti, took over sponsorship of the congress, with help from another mask, Emerald Tablet, while a third, the Alexandria Trust, is sponsoring the Keepers in their new home. The Club is greatly concerned with Rohinder's Rhine Card demo tomorrow, and has some great plan for it, whether as benign as they claim (he explains the plan), or for some more sinister purpose;

'd) The similarity of the names Aiwass and Essawi, and the Hermetic connotations of the name Aiwass (which cannot have escaped SITU) which strongly suggests a possible connection between Aiwass and the Trismegistus Club; and

'e) The suggestion that Isobel Blyth might have been possessed by Khentkaus or something similar while in Egypt.'

Blaize seems to assimilate this barrage of theory without blinking. 'Very impressive, Doctor. You clearly have a well-ordered mind. Just the sort of chap that SITU needs! I approved your application myself, you know. Thought you'd turn out to be a valuable asset, with your background.'

Eric is not diverted by this flattery. 'So for these reasons I am very worried that the Trismegistus Club may well be the foe, not SITU's friend. By revealing the presence of an ancient enemy to mankind, they may have tried to derail we greenhorn SITU agents for just a few crucial hours, hoping that we will cast about elsewhere when in fact they themselves represent that enemy.'

Blaize hems. 'Not an unreasonable fear, Dr Alnes, not an unreasonable fear at all. But I believe that such activity would be rather out of character with what we know of this body. We have known of their existence for some time, although not of their name. I can assure you that they are not our enemy. Our enemy are quite different. We and the Trismegistus Club may have our differences of approach, indeed, differences of objective, but they are very, very different to our enemy.'

'So there truly is an ancient enemy to mankind?' asks Eric worriedly.

'Hm. Yes, there is. You'd have been told this at the conclusion of this investigation, in any case. We're having to be a bit more flexible these days, as you'll find. Needs must when the, etcetera. Yes, there is, and we of SITU make it our business to oppose it. That's the whole reason for our foundation. The Trismegistus Club aren't quite so public-spirited - they're merely a self-indulgent power-trip group - but I suppose they're feeling the threat as much as everybody else is.' He laughs, a short, humourless bark. 'They've got things that can help us, certainly. We welcome this contact.'

'Well, if this 'ancient enemy' is present at the congress, how can I and the others guard against it? Is it connected with Khentkaus, the sorceress who was mentioned in the Egyptian investigation? Might she be here, in disguise as one of the delegates?' Rohinder and Gration and even Gulo are all possibilities, he thinks.

'I doubt very much whether she'd appear in personal form, Dr Alnes, and if she did you'd certainly know about it. As would we - alarm bells would be ringing. We have this country fairly well policed, only one of them is here -the Watcher, and we know about him. That's why they send such a lot of agents here. That and our density of lines of power.' Seeming to suddenly become aware that Eric is listening fascinatedly but baffledly, he moves on. 'As for Aiwass and Essawi, that sounds to me like something of a red herring. We know of Aiwass of old, it's a spirit that used to work with Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist, at one time. Its reputation is of being eager to channel and pass on messages. Perhaps it just likes the chance of partial incarnation in the medium every now and then. Anyway, Abdel Essawi is an ordinary flesh-and-blood man like you or I. Well, he's a very powerful mage, so not exactly like you or I, but he's not a supernatural entity. No, I think you can probably take Aiwass at face value.' Blaize taps the phone at his end with a pen or something, producing a sharp rapping noise. 'Anyway, I'd like you to follow up this Trismegistus Club lead. Be friendly, welcome their overtures. Say we're keen to cooperate. As for this experiment, I don't see how it can do any harm. They're very cautious, the Club.'

As Eric hangs up, a sense of unreality overwhelms him. Has he truly just been having that conversation? Is he being asked to believe that he is placing himself on the frontline of a struggle between good and evil? He sighs, memories coursing through him, suddenly looking his age. Can any choice in life really be that simple? He knows the answer to that one.

'So why exactly d'you think you're a target?' asks Belle-Marie.

Vera is too strung out to argue. She feels as though she has had six large cups of coffee. 'That voice... it told me so. Cursed me.'

'Did it? I thought it sounded more like a warning,' says Belle-Marie thoughtfully. 'Warning you that someone else had cursed you already. Perhaps your parents had asked it to warn you.'

'Ha! We'll see about that!' says Vera, looking meaningly over at where Isobelle Kingston is blankly sipping tea.

Eric arrives in the hall, and heads concernedly over to the little group. No sooner has he been updated than T.R. too appears out of the rain.

'Well, that's all of us, except Taylor,' says Belle-Marie. 'It's been some time since we've all sat down together, and I want to see if anyone else has any idea as to what's going on.' She is much firmer and more assertive in her body language than she has been in recent days. It is as though the intensification of the crisis has brought out an inner strength in her.

'If possible,' puts in Ned, 'I think everyone should either be matched up with a partner tonight or at least inform others of their plans and likely locations. Events are beginning to move so quickly, that I think it's important that the group tries to remain in communication with one another as much as possible, sharing information as it presents itself to us. And tomorrow morning, we should try to meet again as a group and decide whether to let Rohinder move forward with her experiment, or to stop it. We should also strive to get more information from SITU, both about the Trismegistus Club and why we weren't better informed.'

'I don't think we're using SITU enough,' agrees Belle-Marie. 'They're meant to help us, yet we never seem to go to them for information. Surely they must keep records on people like Jackley. Why aren't we given any of this stuff? Doesn't make sense to me.'

'Well, Mr Blaize was very helpful to me earlier this evening,' says Eric mildly, and he outlines the course of the conversation.

'What do you think about Thames Valley's finest's theory of the murder, T.R.?' asks Ned. 'Are these guys Brian and Dirkheim the killers? Whoever Brian is.'

'Yes, we need to learn who Brian is and what connection he might have to the Rowney Commission,' insists Eric.

'How?' asks Steven perplexedly. 'I had an idea about it. He looked like a farmer to me. Outdoorsman type. So I had a quick search through the delegate list at the farming conference down the road. But there are eighteen different Brians attending.'

Eric ignores this protest and continues 'Perhaps Michael Saunders' last resistance to Brian and his fellow land-rapists can still have its impact - and if so, probably in a way that gains far more attention, given the circumstances surrounding Saunders' death.'

He turns to Vera. 'How are you feeling now?' he asks concernedly. He examines the scratch, and peers into her pupils with an ophthalmoscope. All seems fairly normal, and there is no evidence of poison, even of a strange alchemical kind. Perhaps it would be as well to call Edward Lloyd of the Trismegistus Club anyway, just in case: he would be likely to be the expert in removing such malign effects. But really that decision would have to be up to Vera: she might trust Lloyd even less than she does the 'enemy'.

Turning back to the others, he adds 'And somebody must talk to Claire Boothroyd! Ned?'

'Eh?' says a startled Ned, fountaining crumbs. 'These porter guys are pretty fierce, you know. They won't give out students' addresses to members of the public.'

'Perhaps you could pretend to be a fellow-student, then, and get the address that way,' says Eric to Belle-Marie. 'That should seem innocent enough.'

'Oh yes, I can be very innocent when I put my mind to it,' agrees the Irish girl.

'Vera, can you let me borrow that commando knife of yours? Thanks,' says Ned, concealing his niece's weapon in his jacket.

Vera is still very edgy. 'I still don't believe I have a soul for Aiwass to threaten,' she explains, 'but perhaps my parents believed they had, and could, and, jeez... you can pick your friends, you can pick your enemies, but you can't pick your bloody family. Oh, sorry about that, Uncle, I didn't mean you.' The lack of sincerity in her voice does little to endear her to her uncle.

'Come on, everyone, let's get back to the hotel and get some sleep before the trials of the morning,' suggests Eric.

'Not me, I'm planning to pull and all-nighter,' replies Ned.

'Let's move!' says Vera sharply to Isobelle Kingston, clapping her hands. 'You're coming to stay with me tonight!' The other woman looks startled but complies.

'Mind if I tag along?' inquires Ned.

Vera turns a basilisk glare on him. 'We'll be busy,' she says meaningly.

'How do you think poor Cosmo is?' asks Isobelle as Vera leads her back towards Bath Place.

'That village idiot!' is Vera's only response.

Isobelle regards her nervously as she turns down the two beds. 'Er, what exactly do you have panned, my dear?'

Vera turns, hands on hips, and repeats to her what the voice said. 'Did you know that your 'thing' sometimes threatens people?'

'Oh, dear me, that does sound rather bad, doesn't it?'

'I was hoping to ask my parents something about it, but there was a fault on the line.'

'Oh dear... you poor thing. How dreadfully worried you must be. Would you like me to try and open a channel again? I'm rather tired, but...'

'Maybe in the morning,' says Vera matter-of-factly. 'Listen, Isobelle, tell me, is there is any more to your presence at the conference than you've already revealed?'

'No, honestly, my dear, I attend all these things. I thought it might be rather interesting.'

'It has ben,' agrees Vera. She then explains what little she knows about SITU, and repeats what she has heard about Rohinder's plan.

Isobelle Kingston listens wide-eyed. 'Well! I must say! I'd thought there must be something going on behind the scenes, but I'd never guessed all this! The Trismegistus Club, you say? And you're a member of this SITU thing? Is your uncle one, too?'

'Never mind about him! How do you see the situation now - is the evil enemy the same people who cursed me? And what about my parents? Is your friend Aiwass working for them?'

'Oh, dear me, I don't think so - I hope not. That would be rather unlike him. Normally he just passes on messages. I don't think he'd want to actively serve evil any more than he would good. No, my dear, my guess is that your parents were mixed up in this struggle between these ancient forces, and what's happened to you is because of what happened to them. Whatever that was. Who might they have been working for, do you know, dear?'

Vera is coming down off her adrenalin high now, and shakes her head annoyedly, trying to clear it. 'I need to find out... hell, let's sleep on it. Talk about it in the morning, all right?'

Ned takes to the streets, first touring the hotels of the city to try and find where Blyth and Lloyd are staying. He has no luck, though, and reflects that they might be in one of the colleges, or staying privately with friends.

Nothing daunted, he continuies his pilgrimage. He needs to answer what is for him a vital question: 'Should we stop Rohinder?'

The next stop is to look for the room of the mysterious Gulo. Ned lets himself into the accommodation office and runs his finger down the list of guests. Rohinder is there, but no Gulo, or anything like it. In fact, looking at the documentation, it looks like Rohinder booked just one single room. Sighing, he heads in that direction.

The door is opened, to Ned's surprise, by none other than Gulo, clad in a long silk kimono with dragons on. Behind him can be seen Rohinder, sitting up in a single bed. There is no other bed, but there is a large open case, like a sarcophagus, on the floor, two-thirds filled with a colourless liquid. Smiling, Ned asks if he can speak with Rohinder about the evening's events and about her session tomorrow.

'Come in,' she says tiredly, gesturing towards a chair by the bed.

To Ned's amazement, Gulo shuts the door behind him, and then clambers into the sarcophagus, ending up lying on his back, totally immersed in the liquid, some inches below the surface, completely stationary. No bubbles of breath break the surface.

The conversation is brief and none too illuminating. Rohinder repeats the details she has already given about the experiment. She does sound genuinely enthused about it, to Ned's practised ear, but he cannot help his gaze stealing back every now and then to the prone figure in the tank. After ten minutes or so of this Rohinder sighs and says 'To satisfy your curiosity, Mr Numenor, Gulo is a homunculus.'

'I thought they were supposed to be small,' is all Ned can think of to say.

'Not necessarily,' says Rohinder. 'He has been given to me to guard and protect me. The Trismegistus Club made him for me.'

'Ah, I see,' says Ned, who doesn't.

'Well, if that's all, I'll bid you goodnight. I've got a big morning tomorrow, and I'd rather like to get some sleep, if you don't mind.'

Ned, thrusting his hands back into his pockets, heads off to the lecture theatre, where he plans to spend the night curled up behind the stage.

The next morning Taylor bids her dozing paramour a temporary and early farewell, explaining that she needs to get back to her hotel and change before the day's events, but that she looks forward to seeing him there. They kiss goodbye affectionately.

At the hotel she discovers a succession of messages from the others, and also finds that they have risen early for breakfast.

A frenzy of updating takes place. 'I don't trust Rohinder and her cohorts as far as I can throw them,' alludes Taylor darkly, her golden chain earrings glinting in the fresh sun. 'I think Ned should continue to try to play up to them and see if he can get a glimmering of what they are up to. It's just possible that Rohinder herself may be on the up-and-up, but that the others are playing at something she is not aware of. In any case, we must be poised, somehow, to disrupt whatever they try to do if it appears to be dangerous.' She sips at her fruit juice. 'And at this point, my connection with Jackley -' she has the grace to blush slightly under Belle-Marie's inquisitive look '- may be most useful for one thing: if we can be sure that Rohinder's experiment has a nefarious purpose, I may be able to persuade Jackley to simply cancel it.'

'Well, we'll have to make a decision on that quickly,' says Eric calmly. 'Dr Rohinder starts talking at nine, and the experiment's scheduled for eleven.'

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