The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


7th July 1999

'I really don't want to go to Moscow,' Vera keeps repeating to herself. However, if the old man is going then she is too. Uncle Ned's joining SITU had seemed an exciting way to spend a vacation when the adventure in Oxford began. Despite the events in Oxford, Vera knows Ned can take care of himself: she just believes she can do it better than him.

How to pack for Moscow in July? Cash. US dollars. Sterling. Russian roubles. Credit cards, yes, lots of plastic. Personal Amex in one bag. Corporate card in a pocket. Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, everything in a different place so hopefully something won't be stolen by the Russian customs or police officials. A minimum of fancy clothes and shoes. Lots of 'personal care' items.

Now what arrangements have SITU made for her travel? Vera changes them. Getting a first class seat on British Airways flights is always easy. No rational person pays those prices out of their own pocket normally, so there is even a choice of aisle or window positions. Hotels are trickier. Everything is 'boooked,' she is told in heavily-accented English when she telephones Russian hotels directly. Getting a room in one of the better hotels requires the intervention of her lawyer in Washington. His law firm does some business by opening letters of credit for fertilizer shipments from the Former Soviet Union to the US. If you do business with nitrogen suppliers out of Yuzhnyy, then you eventually come into contact with Gazprom. And if you are smart, then you do business with Gazprom. No shady business, her lawyer says. You just find some reason to send them a check. In this case, they are asked to handle a transaction between her publishing company in New York and the Russian Institute of Metahistory. In exchange for a donation from her publishing company (quietly provided in gold), the Institute agrees to let Ned observe its workings from the inside.

'SITU can fire me in Moscow,' she had told Ned when he had suggested she leave SITU's travel arrangements alone. 'Besides, it's not like I plan on making you change rooms, or that middle-of-the-row seat on that long flight. You just need to know my plans.' Through Gazprom she gets a room in the Savoy, which is not far from the Lubyanka - convenient should the authorities decide to chat with her.

The indecipherable books from her late parents are a different problem. She is inclined to leave them in a safety deposit box, but Ned is eager to take them with him in hopes of finding someone within SITU who might shed some light on what their contents mean.

The service had gone rather well, reflected Jeffrey, the parishioners of St Mungo's-in-the-Jewry interested to hear about the differences between the Russian faith and their own. The special parade of ikons from St Vasiliev's Church, carried by the churchwardens, had been particularly popular.

And this Sunday School afterwards is proving an even bigger hit. 'Very good, Timmy! That really is a lovely big red beetroot. Now in Russia, what do they do with beetroots? That's right - they eat them. And they eat them in a special kind of soup, called Borshchtschtch.' Or something like that, anyway. 'With cabbage, and sour cream.'

As little Timmy proudly carries away his beetroot, Jeffrey calls out 'Now how is that poster of life at St Mungo's coming along, Jane? Remember, you should try and put in everything you can think of. When I'm in Moscow, at our new twin church St Vasiliev's, I want to be able to show them every little thing that we get up to over here. It'll all be new and exciting to them!'

Not half as new and exciting as it had been to the Bishop, who had been surprisingly keen to grant Jeffrey yet more leave. This ecumenical visit provided a pretext: but it turned out that the diocese already had a curate on standby to take over 'for when you next go off on one of your jaunts, Jeffrey.' And there was something about the Reverend Macdiarmid that made Jeffrey a little reluctant to abandon his parishioners to the man: perhaps it was the steely glint of his glasses.

'What's this here, Amanda, is this one of the gargoyles?' Jeffrey points to a grey gaping face in one corner of the poster.

'That's Mr Fulk,' pronounces Amanda carefully, her tongue sticking sideways out of her mouth as she adds extra shading to the hollow cheeks. Jeremiah, busily reading the parish register in the corner, glances up incuriously at the mention of his name.

Sighing, Jeffrey walks over to where little Johnny is busily on the parish iMac - a recent purchase, whose shape had reminded Jeffrey pleasingly of a motorcycle helmet. 'Have you found any good Interweb sights, Johnny?'

'They're mostly in Russian,' says Johnny, peering at the screen. 'But here's something - look. About that mausmolemium thing. Some university students are trying to buy it, to stop it being knocked down.'

Stuart, as he rides the coach to Heathrow, is playing a compilation of songs by the Moscow band 'Narodny' on his Walkman, which his friend Jack has made up for him. It sounds dreadfully dated, like Einstürzende Neubauten meets Nine Inch Nails, but it probably comes across pretty well live, he guesses. Primal industrial racket is what the disaffected youth of Moscow go for, apparently - that and country & western bands, but there was no way he was going to put any of that on his Walkman.

Other contacts in Southampton had been less helpful. His friends in the Physics department had still not let him forget about when he asked them if it was possible to travel in time, and they were equally scathing about his interest in N-rays. Apparently there is no physical basis for them at all, and they are believed in only by cranks and the hopelessly unscientific. Well, thinks Stuart to himself, they were wrong about the time travel, weren't they? He had asked some of his alternative friends as well, and a witch named Thelema had told him that they were used by dowsers, and that they were generated profusely along ley lines but also by other 'living' flows, such as underground streams.

He has also learnt that the political situation in Russia is still highly unstable. President Yeltsin is little more than a figurehead now, and underneath him the various factions of the reform bloc are desperately struggling with each other for the succession. If between them they let the ball drop, though, then the Communists will be back in power, as their popularity is steadily growing among people harking back to the 'good old days'. Gennady Zhyuganov, the Communist leader, has modernized the party line considerably in economic matters, but when it comes to foreign policy and the strength of government he is still very much singing from the same hymnsheet as his predecessors.

While Stuart listens to the music, he leafs alternately through a biography of Lenin - apparently the future leader's early politics were shaped by the execution of his older brother for plotting rebellion against Tsar Alexander II - and a Russian phrasebook. He well remembers how useful the Hungarian one was when he and his comrades were investigating matters Transylvanian.

Grace and Kris meet at Heathrow in good time for the flight, although none of their companions are in evidence. They compare the equipment they have gathered together, sotto voce.

'I've bought a digital camera, and borrowed a laptop with a GSM phone and a modem,' says Kris rather proudly, patting the black travelling-case it comes in. 'No Ferdinand this time to look after that end of things…'

'Snap,' says Grace, patting the identical case beside her. She also has a digital camera. 'And I've brought all the software I think we might need.'

'This is a bit more esoteric,' says Kris, producing from inside her flight bag a small leather case. She opens it to reveal a Geiger counter.

Grace in response reveals a large wodge of dollars, and a box of 400 Marlboro.

'And this is secret - Maximov isn't to know.' Kris pulls out another black box.

'What is it?' Grace peers at it.

'I got it from the Spymaster shop on Park Lane. It detects bugs.'

'Hallo, you two!' calls Stuart, waving cheerily at them. He looks exactly as normal, in scruffy combats, his hair in unkempt dreadlocks. He is carrying a battered canvas kitbag. Around his neck is an SLR camera, and sticking out of his pocket is the Rough Guide to Russia. He approvingly takes in the heap of electronic equipment sitting on the table between the two women.

After they have greeted each other and Kris has ordered another round of coffee, Stuart says 'This is what I've asked for from Maximov: a mobile phone each in order to stay in contact; a safe location we can run to if it all goes horribly wrong; and some appropriate local clothes - looking like a western tourist might be a real easy way to get mugged in modern Russia. And an email connection. That ought to be easy enough! I think when we get there we should probably go round in pairs rather than all split up completely. That way we may be safer from mugging, and we may be able to make better use of any local guides.'

'Given that no-one else has even turned up here, that may be a bit hopeful,' says Kris mordantly. 'I think that we shouldn't all make the rendezvous with Maximov - we don't know if we can trust him. I'm volunteering to watch his house for a while to make sure.'

'By yourself?' asks Stuart doubtfully.

'With Grace - if that's OK with you.' Kris turns to the other woman.

Grace is studying a Russian grammar. 'Mm? Oh - yes, if you think so.'

'Have you picked up enough of that to work out what that page on the Web site says? The one titled 'Young scientists and the latest Marxist investigations'? It sounds fascinating,' says Kris. 'But unfortunately it's in Russian.'

'Couldn't you run it through one of the translation sites?' suggests Grace.

'I'll leave it for when we get there,' sighs Kris.

'Oh, and I asked SITU to make sure Maximov gets us some calcium sulfide, an aluminium prism, chloroform, ether, and some dowsing rods. And some easy-to-use weaponry for you and me - tazer, mace, whatever. And I've booked an additional twin room, in the Verushka Hotel, which I'm going to register at with my Kenyan passport.'

Stuart raises his eyebrows somewhat. 'What's the chloroform and ether for? Are you going to be pulling people's teeth out?'

'That's the way you treat metal to stop it emitting N-rays, apparently.'

'Did either of you get anything useful out of your university contacts?'

Kris says 'Not really. The physicists added a little to what was in that dossier. Apparently the Germans call them E-rays, for Erdestrahlen - earth rays. I guess they didn't like the idea of Nancy-rays. Not sure I do either… But anyway the Karl-Heim-Institut is pretty well thought of in its field. They've been looking into whether E-rays cause cancer. I asked if there was any way of telling a waxwork from a corpse through glass at a distance, and someone suggested using some sort of electric field imaging technique. Also,' she fishes in her bag once more, 'take a look at this.'

She pulls out a photograph of a man dressed for the early years of this century, with a neat, spade-like beard, the planes of his face flat, his forehead high and bare.

'Lenin, right?' says Stuart.

'Almost,' says Kris. She turns over the photo to reveal the caption: Rene Prosper Blondlot. Beside it she tosses another, very similar photo, which really is Lenin. 'Separated at birth, or what?'

'Now hold tightly to this, Jeremiah, and don't give it to anyone unless they are wearing uniform.' The fake passport looks just like the real thing, thinks Jeffrey. What a talent his parishioner Ted Avery has, and what a shame that it is generally directed along illegal paths. But he has a prick of conscience at the thought that he has now not only encouraged Avery in that trade, but even paid him a considerable sum for his services. 'God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform,' he mutters to himself.

Jeremiah is impervious, gazing out entranced at the great metal birds parked across the apron. He occasionally glances up at where a flight of swifts are taking flies on the wing, and his brow is furrowed. 'Master Fanlight, I can rightly see how one might take to the air if one had wings, as these creatures of God demonstrate most clearly. Or perchance one might ride one, as a horse, with saddle and bit. Although I would imagine the wind of passage to be rather greater, and these birds tumble and turn in the air, so one needs must grip firmly with the knees. But these silvery objects I see before me are not birds. They have windows, see - they are long houses.'

'But look at that one up there,' says Jeffrey, pointing to a plane that has just taken off, its shape still visible as it climbs. 'In a little longer, it will be indistinguishable from a bird, when it's got high enough.'

Jeremiah squints up at the plane as it climbs into the sun. 'Surely it must now be at an exceeding height! Will not its wings melt and fall off, as happened to vain Icarus?'

'We know now that the sun is millions of miles away, Jeremiah,' says Jeffrey patiently. 'And the higher you get into space, it gets colder, not hotter.'

While Fulk is chewing this over, Jeffrey takes his arm and hustles him towards the terminal bar. 'Let's have a little drink, eh? - and then we can talk some more about riding the giant birds, when you're more relaxed.'

He has caught a glimpse of Kris, Grace and Stuart, in one of the cafés, but he is avoiding them for the time being. He still has not forgiven them for winking Clive Stokes out of existence - and is still wrestling with the theological ramifications of such an act.

For the flight, Vera has changed from her normal T shirt and jeans to a short, red dress likely to attract attention and encourage better service from airline personnel. She is also carrying her special umbrella, despite the blazing (by English standards) sun: of medium length, it has an extremely strong stainless steel shaft attached to a wooden and iron handle best described as a small medieval mace.

Vera has settled into her seat at the window and is enjoying a quick glass of Coke when the passenger holding the adjacent seat sweeps onto the aircraft and drops with into his place like a king into a throne after a long day visiting his vassals.

'I am Father Georgi Zukhov,' he announces. Father Zukhov is obviously a Russian Orthodox priest. He is in his late forties with a moderate beard, large eyes behind (Vera can hardly believe) rose tinted granny-style glasses and surprisingly good teeth for an older European. He wears the obligatory dark robe and a large silver crucifix. Despite the clothes his image is more movie star than man of the cloth. When he turns to Vera, he does not hide his appreciation of her… form. 'I am pleased to be next to you my very lovely child!' he almost bellows.

Vera is not amused. The idea of a flight from Heathrow to Moscow next to a horny priest was not what she had in mind. She turns on the ice.

Despite Vera's frosty glare, Zukhov leans slightly closer and whispers, 'Why do you think they call priests 'Father,' my child?' Vera's eyes cannot help but get a little wider. The creep certainly can read her face, if not her mind. 'I am just pulling your legs,' the man says quietly, only to laugh loudly again, and Vera is forced to surrender a small smile of amusement. 'See, I am now fastening my safety belt. You will be able to flee, at least to the coach section, should you fear for your… eh, you know!' he says, smiling. The priest is content to harass the flight attendants with self-depreciating humour and religious double-entendres during the takeoff routine, but eventually he returns to Vera. 'You are making your first trip to Mother Russia?'

'Yes, although I will be meeting my uncle who also is travelling there.'

'Are you on vacation or are you one of these new capitalists coming to Russia looking for quick profits?' he asks, suddenly more stern.

'We are travelling for our own interests, not commercial interests,' she says, reluctant to suggest anything on this mission will be for pleasure. 'Besides, business in Russia today is mostly a way to make quick losses.'

The Russian sneers. 'Ha. Greedy pigs, with dreams of living in Paris or Rome rather than helping their fellow man, overrun Russia. Capitalists have destroyed our nation. People say they want to do business in a free market, but it's a lie. They want to do business where they are not encumbered by rule of law.'

'I see, so you are a supporter of the socialists or perhaps an anarchist?' Vera asks.

'The socialists were pigs too,' he says. 'They just redistributed wealth from everyone else to themselves and their allies and squashed anyone who tried to exercise a little freedom. And western socialists, PAH! Just a bunch of intellectuals trying to explain why they should make up everyone else's mind for them without benefit of elections. They don't even have the balls to pick up a gun. Who would not prefer anarchy to those choices? Yes, I am an anarchist,' he says proudly. He pauses, and then adds with a smile, 'In truth, much of my family were in the military and some were party members in the old days, so I grew up not knowing the truth of my country. This also enabled me to join the Church and even travel without much interference. Today, my aunt is one of those capitalists I am complaining about. She lives in a very expensive house in New York in the U.S. of A. and sends me enough pocket money so that I can travel first class when the Church sends me abroad. So I am a big anarchist and a small hypocrite.' He closes his mini-autobiography with a wink. 'My business is the Church, which receives some support from Russian communities in the U.S. of A. and Europe. I visit them to beg money and to assure them at least some of it is being spent on worthwhile causes. Since the Soviets fell, we can't claim it all goes in the fight against godless communism. A great pity! Now, tell me about your trip. Where are you going?'

'Well, I plan to visit Lenin's tomb. It remains the centre of a sort of cult of Lenin, doesn't it?' Vera says.

'Yes. Of course Stalin realized the people needed religion even while he worked hard trying to stamp it out. So, when Lenin died and Stalin was gaining control, he made sure Lenin's body was preserved and displayed. People worshipped Lenin as the man who promised them heaven on earth, so Stalin made sure he controlled the people's hero. All other heroes he simply killed. Some members of my own family worshipped Lenin like a god. I saw them myself, kneeling and praying before his body for help! They said they drew strength from him. Ha!'

'So you believe that is Lenin's corpse, not a dummy?' Vera asks.

'Yes, I suppose I do. I know some people, they say it is a fake, but I believe it is real,' he says, his speech becoming slower and more thoughtful. 'I have seen it. And I must admit, I have felt its power, psychologically. Seeing such a historic figure, who could not be impressed? Yes, I have felt something from that corpse. But it is not of God.'

Now the priest seems to age slightly. Gone is the movie-star twinkle in his eye replaced by something else. 'That cult you speak of, my child. It is a strange mix. Some are old people who were looking for religion when times demanded faith, even a false one. Others are political acolytes who cherish the dead man the way an American patriot might defend to the death the original copy of the Constitution, even though it is just paper and ink. But there are others, some Russian and some foreign, who have found new faith in it. They have been free to see the truth, yet they see something in that soulless lump of flesh. There are even some of my brothers and brothers of other faiths among that group. The holy church denies it, but I know it is true.' Zukhov's voice trails off.

'Stewardess! Might we have another one of those little bags, please?' inquires Jeffrey politely, but with a note of desperation creeping in. 'This one seems to be full now, I'm afraid.'

'Oh dear, poor Mr Fulk doesn't seem to be taking very well to flying, does he?' says the stewardess sympathetically.

Jeremiah heaves into the new sickbag.

'I think perhaps I let him have rather too much to drink before we took off,' says Jeffrey. 'I thought it might help steady his nerves, you see. Oh! - dear me, I am sorry about that. Do please try and keep it in the bag, Jeremiah.'

'Not to worry, it'll wash off easily enough,' says the stewardess brightly.

The hazy airport pulses with people and smoke. Amidst the sea of European and Asian faces, the cell-phone yammering nouveaux capitalists and age-old babushkas, a man moves quietly through the grim, dirty, bustling kaleidoscope that is Moscow's Sheremetyevo International airport.

Ned Numenor is of about average height and weight, though he's soft in the middle from too many cookies and a general aversion to exercise. An aquamarine-coloured baseball cap sits on a thinning bed of curly brown hair. Thin, wire-rimmed glasses soften sharp, grey eyes that take in more than seems apparent. Though not unattractive, Ned has a face that fades easily from memory. He's dressed in khakis mostly, though he wears a vest zipped up to his neck. Several bags and cases are hooked around his shoulders, or are dragged alongside.

At the airport, there are people, it seems, from all fifteen ex-Soviet republics. Men slump, smoking cigarettes. Women in colourful kerchiefs clutch children and shopping bags stuffed with belongings, part of the clutter on grimy floors. They seem to live in these smoke-plagued filthy corridors, though blue-clad women drag soggy mops across the floors. It seems, to Ned, more like a Third World train station than the transportation hub of a superpower.

Nearing the airport exits, Ned is engulfed in an overwhelming crush of people, of thick coats and grim faces, that ubiquitous colour grey, the dust of neglect and chaos. So much moving and shouting. Harried commuters, old ladies, biznesmeni, thugs, drunks, gangsters with handguns bulging, maf molls in micro minis. The airport is like a scene from Dostoyevsky as interpreted by Fellini, thinks Ned.

A short, young man separates from the maddening crowd with a hand-lettered sign, reading simply 'Numenor.' He eyes Ned appraisingly, a cigarette dangling rakishly from his lower lip. 'I am from the Institute,' he says in sharply accented staccato English. 'Do not talk. The khooligani are everywhere. My name is Marevich Ahrgabad Moudlyakov. My friends call me Mahmoud.' He stoops and takes the heaviest gear. 'Come with me.'

By the time the aircraft lands, Zukhov is his old self and makes loud jokes with the flight crew and embraces most of them with mock-religious reverence for having landed the aircraft safely. As they exit the aircraft the priest walks with Vera. 'My child, we must meet again while you are here. Tell me where you are staying and perhaps this evening or tomorrow night you will buy me an expensive meal, but you must allow me to pick the restaurant!'

Vera consents, writing her name and the number for the Savoy on a note for the Russian. Zukhov then offers to shake hands in parting. 'Despite that dress and those heels, I do not think you are a hugging kind of person, Miss Good-child,' he says. 'Tell me, is your curiosity about Lenin just a passing fling of fancy?'

'It is more than a fling, but I am reluctant to say more,' she answers.

The priest nods, hands her a telephone number to contact him and silently escorts her through customs and to a taxi. As she enters the taxi, he says, 'Go see the body, Miss Good-child. Then we will both say more.'

Jeffrey, leading a pale and dazed Jeremiah by the arm, cannot postpone meeting the others any longer, but his manner is rather formal and stiff. 'I suppose Mr Ferrocco must be here somewhere.'

'Gino? I dare say he's found something to do,' says Kris. 'But what about these new people - Numenor, Goodchild and Darken? No sign of them yet.' She tutted at initial sight of Fulk, but has made no other comment on his presence.

'Well, they had the same briefing we did, I suppose they'll make contact with Alexander Maximov and we'll meet up through him,' says Stuart.

'For now, let's get to the hotel,' says Grace. She looks at Jeffrey, her expression guarded. 'Are you staying with us, Jeffrey? - you and Jeremiah?'

'We are,' admits Jeffrey. He is rather disappointed that Mr Numenor is not present. As a dabbler in journalism himself, he had been really rather impressed to meet a genuine reporter. He has even brought along copies of the parish magazine, so that he can elicit his new colleague's opinions and suggestions.

'You speak English? Americanski?'

'Sure thing, buddy!' exclaims the flabby man propping up the end of the bar. 'You are American?' He takes in Gino's sharp suit and sharper cheekbones, and his manner becomes more respectful. 'I tell you anything you need to know, yes? I know the right people. You need special medicines, military-surplus hardware, exchange currency, sell your goods, Boris Yefimovich will tell you the right people.'

The barman snorts and continues to polish glasses.

'I don't need any of that stuff,' says Gino. 'Just here for a bit of tourism.'

'You want Macdonalds? I show you the way.'

'No, I'm interested in the Lenin mausoleum.' Gino gestures out through the bar door in the direction of nearby Red Square.

'That old thing! No-one goes there any more. You mean you want to see St Basil's Cathedral, or the Armoury Museum! The treasures of the Kremlin!'

'No - the mausoleum. Anything strange been going on there lately?'


'I'm a student, see,' says Gino earnestly. 'I'm researching the way that old relics influence the atmosphere and our petty lives. What effect is the mausoleum having on those around it?'

Boris Yefimovich considers. 'Not much. There are some mad Germans there now studying it - they have scientific equipment. And there are the guards, of course. But they are just doing their duty.'

Vera is pleased to find the hotel is extremely luxurious. She changes into her more traditional jeans, T shirt and tennis shoes, adding a light jacket. Gazprom has delivered flowers and a bottle of vodka to her room. Perhaps the priest will enjoy the vodka, she thinks. Vera takes the elevator back to the lobby and approaches the concierge. 'I would like to visit the tomb of Lenin, what is the best way for someone who does not speak Russian?'

'You can be guided by our hotel tour guide, madam,' smiles the smart young woman. 'All speak good English. There is a tour of Red Square every day if you wish, it includes also the Cathedral of St Basil, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and GUM stores. And there is another tour of the Kremlin itself. The Red Square tour is at ten o'clock in the morning. The Kremlin tour is at two o'clock in the afternoon.' She looks sad. 'They have both now finished today, I am sorry. But there is always tomorrow.'

Mahmoud leads Ned to an ancient, matchbox-like Lada. On the roof, there are crates full of fresh navel oranges and there's a cage full of chickens in the partly-opened trunk. Both men struggle to stow Ned's gear. The American wedges himself in the back seat. The Lada careens through darkened streets. The roads are full of potholes like Cambodian minefields and Ned's surprised to see bloodied accident victims at several points along the route, sprawled on the side of the road apparently waiting for ambulances… or the city's morgue. Ned's not sure which.

'Where are we going?' Ned says, his voice rising to be heard over the rush of air, the screaming pedestrians, the noise of the Lada's horn which doesn't seem to stop, the occasional burst of gunfire, and the chickens cackling hysterically in the back.

Mahmoud, to Ned's horror, turns full around in the seat to reply, taking a corner at top speed while doing so. 'Everything's been arranged through the Institute of Metahistory. You'll be working on the medieval Moscow Project in Manezh Square, next to Red Square and Lenin's Tomb.' Mahmoud speeds through another red light and turns into a one-way street, against the traffic.

Ned, clutching the seat and his eyes staring in fear through the windscreen, is unsure he hears everything Mahmoud says. Drivers are a key part of the Moscow experience, where mostly only men drive and machismo rules the road. 'Where, where are we going and for godsakes lookitdarooooad!' Ned screams out the words, giddy from fear and nausea.

Mahmoud turns in time to miss hitting a Mercedes parked by the road, with dark-suited mafiya leaping out of the way. He leaves them struggling to pull out guns amidst flying chicken feathers. 'Pah! Petty henchmen and opportunists. Anarchy rules, my friend!' After a few more blocks, the Lada screeches to a halt outside a tall series of dark buildings near Red Square and the elegant, if dilapidated yellow-and-white buildings of the old Moscow University. The National Hotel and the drab grey Moskva Hotel are nearby. 'Here is your apartment. We cannot park in the garages, as they are in use by the mafiya - ex-Soviet organized crime groups - and house their Mercedes and mobile rocket launchers.' Ned sees bulky Russians hidden behind aviator glasses and toting AK-47s, leaning casually against luxury cars. 'But, enough, the Institute is protected from such hoodlums.'

Again, Mahmoud picks up the heaviest gear and takes a quick lead. The apartment is up two flights of darkened stairs. The lights and elevator do not seem to work. Eyes peer from cracked-open doors as Mahmoud, with Ned stumbling behind, arrives at a steel door with several serious-looking locks. Mahmoud spends some moments opening the door, and ushers in Ned with a wave of his hand.

The apartment has one large bedroom, with an adjoining study and small living room. All the walls are crammed with shelves bending under the weight of thickly stacked books. The kitchen is spacious though antiquated to Ned's Western eyes. The cupboards are crammed with imported foods: bottled drinks, tinned everything - including cookies! Ned's eyes widen happily. The single bathroom is clean, Ned's relieved to see. The apartment was built in the 1960s and is considered new, which means the water and phone lines work and it's usually roach-and-rodent free. The wallpaper is atrocious. Pink and lime green in one room, faded mauve in another. Mahmoud waits until Ned finishes looking.

'This apartment would have housed an entire family at one time. Now, only one man lives here.' Ned is unsure, but Mahmoud sounds disapproving. 'His name is Viatcheslav Koudriavtsev. He is a member of the Russian Geographical Society and the director of the Institute. He is in the West for four months. He permits you to stay here until his return.' There is no mention of how much of Vera's money was used to permit this hospitality. Ned is aware that Muscovites wait months for miserable little one-room apartments and many people in Moscow would sell their souls for a flat such as this. 'If you damage anything, you will pay for it. Understand?'

'Yes, of course.'

'Good. Everything you need to know about the project or the Institute is in a folder on the desk. Call the number listed on the cover if you need transportation. It is my duty to provide this. Also I can assist with black market purchases, for you, at a very low price,' he says, rubbing his middle finger and thumb together. 'So low, I should cut my own throat, but for the Institute, anything.'

Mahmoud drops the keys on a table and walks to the door. 'Lock this door as soon as I leave. Poká.'

Ned sighs, takes off his beige camp jacket and unzips his tan-coloured vest. Though only five pounds, the Kevlar body armour is beginning to wear heavily on him. He begins going through his gear, setting aside his special ops equipment and gear that his Uncle Jake managed to provide him with. He also sets aside a small case with two large, odoriferous books inside. They're somehow connected to the murder of Vera's parents, and he intends to examine them carefully.

Ned then checks the file that Mahmoud mentioned. It includes background information on the Institute, the archaeological project, his duties, and various reports on the area's connection to Atlantis. Ned begins dialling the phone number of SITU's local agent, Alexander Maximov, just as the sound of a sharp, urgent rapping begins on the steel door leading from his apartment.

Ned freezes monetarily, puts down the phone, then creeps toward the door, laying his ear up against it. He can hear stertorous breathing outside, then a man's deep voice says a short phrase annoyedly in Russian.

'Er… Father Zukhov?'

The big, black-bearded priest looks up in surprise. 'Yes? Who is it?'

'My name's Jeffrey Fanlight, how do you do.' Jeffrey offers his hand, which Zukhov takes in puzzlement. 'From St Mungo's-in-the-Jewry. In London. Your twin church, do you remember?' he adds helpfully. He has found a place to hire a Harley-Davidson, and is now fulfilling his ecumenical duty.

Suddenly Zukhov's brow clears. 'Ah! Saint Mungo! Of course!' He envelops Jeffrey in a bearhug. 'You must forgive me - I am a little, ho do you say, jetlagged. Welcome, welcome, my English friend! Come, drink, we must have vodka!'

He leads Jeffrey down the aisle of the small church, its walls gilded and slathered with ikons in what Jeffrey still finds that curious flat-faced Eastern style. Zukhov unlocks the pyx and pulls out an unlabelled bottle of colourless liquid, a loaf of black bread, and a jar of pickled cucumbers. 'Eat, drink, break bread! This is how we make you welcome in Russia.'

Jeremiah, his mouth open in wonderment at the ornamented style of the church, mutters ''Tis no wonder that Master Cromwell ordered such fripperies destroyed, for surely they must distract from the business of worship.'

Zukhov must have sharp ears, for he retorts 'For you Westerners, perhaps, but we of Russia are more simple folk. Our ikons bring God and the saints closer to us.' He presses a lump of bread and a pickle into the hand of each, then a small glass of vodka. ''Zdrastvityie!'

'What happened to Grace?'

'I don't know, I think she must have got lost at the airport,' replies Kris.

'No, here I am,' says Grace, striding into the hotel lounge. 'I thought it better to take a different taxi.'

'Right, good. I checked at the desk, and Gino is here - he's out in the town, apparently. No sign of the other three. Jeffrey's gone out with Fulk. Anyway, this is what we need to do - watch Maximov's house for a day or two, to see whether all is well; visit the tomb, and take some pictures; look at the guards outside the tomb, see if they look ill. And when we find a Russian native we can trust, we need to find out whether there is any increased incidence of cancer among those who have guarded the tomb; research the competition to design the mausoleum - why was this particular design chosen, are there pictures of any of the others? - and see if there any notable incidents around the time of the building of this iteration of the mausoleum? I guess this will be a matter of looking through back issues of Pravda,' says Kris, counting on her fingers.

'Delaying meeting up with Maximov is going to slow us down a bit, though, especially as he's probably the way we can meet up with the others,' says Stuart doubtfully. 'And are you two sure you'll be OK to skulk about in the Moscow suburbs? This is a dangerous place. And you won't have your armaments until you've met with Maximov, either.'

'That's true,' says Grace. 'But the other operatives can find us here at the hotel, if they want to.'

It is still light as Gino walks out into Red Square, and there are small flocks of tourists wandering about it. Some are gathered around a juggler, others at the little stalls that sell memorabilia: models, posters, books and military regalia of the Soviet days. Lenin's tomb looks rather small against the bulk of the Kremlin wall that forms one long side of the square, with the great multi-coloured onion domes of St Basil's at one end and the Moscow City Museum at the other. Its red-and-black solidity speaks volumes about the designers intent for it to last: it is the kind of structure, low and blocky, that would withstand direct bombardment to still be poking out of the snow after the end of civilization in some sci-fi movie. Or at least that's what Kyle would have said, he thinks, wondering where the acerbic Scotsman is now, and why he decided to leave SITU.

There are no guards visible outside the tomb, and no German scientists, either. Gino glances up to where the Russian flags on top of the Kremlin wall are flapping out strongly, despite the complete absence of wind, and shivers. He heads back to the hotel to meet the others.

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