The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


11.00 am, 10th July 1999

Ned finishes his bag of cookies and hops out of the car, shouldering his bag full of books. He rushes over to Grace Ndofir. He clearly is forcing himself to talk to the women. He seems reluctant and hopeful. 'Dr. Ndofir, please, I know this is probably a bad time, but could you spare a couple of hours to review these books a bit more closely? I'd like to accompany you, if you don't mind, while you study them.'

Grace looks a little doubtful at this stipulation, but accedes. 'I'd be happy to review them in more depth. If your apartment is close to here, perhaps we should go there now.'

Katrina glances idly around as the others discuss phone tapping and ley lines. Clearly these people are a little disturbed. When she came on this gig to avoid the heat in London, she hadn't realized it was going to be even more dangerous. As her gaze runs over the Square, she notices two figures closing in on the group from different angles. The first is a man whose clothing literally screams 'goodfella', as does the barely perceptible bulge in his jacket: this must be the much-mentioned but never-seen Gino. The other figure is more of an enigma, an attractive, well-dressed woman with an umbrella. Kat wonders if she knows something about Russian weather, and glances at the clear sky: she does not, so probably she has just as tenuous a grasp on reality as the rest of these guys.

Vera spots Gino a few yards away. 'So, you're Gino Ferrocco. Nice to meet you.' She extends a hand, which Gino reflexively kisses, eyeing her appreciatively. 'I'm Vera Goodchild.'

Together they glance at the huddle of the other operatives, Katrina standing slightly back from them with her hand on the automatic in her pocket. 'I thought now might be the time for us to get to know each other,' Vera says slowly.

Gino raises his eyebrows quizzically as she concisely fills him in on what Ned has told her about the theft. As they confer, the others filter over one by one and each contributes their meed of information. 'Father Zhukov said it was likely that someone made up their mind to steal the corpse once Ulek had established it had some sort of power,' says Vera. Although she is talking more freely than anyone has so far seen, her icy exterior does not really thaw.

'Who exactly is this Zhukov?' asks Kris. 'We should find out who's financing him. Perhaps you could keep pumping him, Vera. And what's his connection with Captain Belushevsky?'

'We should ask Zhukov about Belushevsky, and Belushevsky about Zhukov,' says Grace. 'Jeffrey seems to have made something of a hit with the police captain.' She glances around, but Jeffrey is nowhere to be seen.

'And Botkin,' says Kris.

'I have a plan for getting closer to him,' says Gino, with an air of mystery.

'I'd like to get Dr Ulek to try to prove that the body now present in the tomb is not the original one,' says Grace. 'Although this will doubtless require some prodding in the right direction. He seems a little clueless.'

'Why?' asks Stuart puzzledly. 'We already know it's not.'

'To force that realization on him, I mean - to get him on our side. Because we also want him to try to construct us some kind of third-level-nexus triangulating device so that we can detect when the body is moved; since we know where the body is at the moment, we can calibrate it if necessary.'

'I'll introduce you to him' volunteers Vera. 'On another note, Ned told me Captain Dyson is not who she says she is. Nevertheless, given what has happened, that may not be a reason to dismiss her as hostile to our mission.'

Kris nods. 'We should take her into our confidence, since she appears to be attached to the regiment that was shooting back last night, rather than the ones who had been bought out.'

Grace puts in 'She's probably working for a different set of enemies - but never mind… The enemy of my enemy, and all that…'

'I'm inclined to try and find her and chat with her again,' continues Vera. 'She all but threatened my uncle's life. Perhaps she is feeling a little more humility today.'

'Me too,' puts in Stuart eagerly. 'She knows a lot more than she's telling.'

Ned has been glancing from face to face, growing more tense by the moment. Suddenly he bursts in. 'We need to act! We have to destroy, or abduct, the Lenin corpse! That's the way I see it, at least,' he finishes weakly as everybody stares at him.

Vera waits for the pause to develop then says, 'I guess I was wondering that too. Should we set our minds now to destroy the body rather than risk losing it? You know, this is not the first time I've found myself nearby when something significant has occurred while I'm supposed to be observing for SITU. The first time we all just kept asking questions and a lot of people got hurt, at least in part because our group did not take the bull by the horns and intervene when we still had the element of surprise.'

She makes sure she has everyone's attention. 'If it has power, we already have reason the new owners might be the army, the national espionage service, the church or a foreign academic, and that's assuming the thieves are acting only as contractors. I believe our best chance to obtain or destroy the body is while it is at Botkin's. Assuming what Gino saw is the basket containing the "real" Lenin.'

The group breaks up, Stuart heading off to find his student friends, Vera and Kris going to talk to Ulek, Ned and Grace going to his room, Gino seeking out Botkin, Alexey heading back to his house to follow up the leads he has been asked to track down. 'Kris,' asks Stuart as he walks away, 'when we first got here you asked if I could translate a piece of Russian for you - what was it? Have you still got it?'

Katrina meanwhile has decided to go back to the hotel and seek out Jeffrey and his strange friend. Mr Fulk is kinda cute, in a strange way.

She finds him deep in prayer, in his hotel room, looking rather annoyed. She smiles and tilts her head on one side disarmingly. 'I was wondering why, having come all this way, you were so eager to leave now, Jeffrey.'

'"And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give hm a place, that he shall dwell among them",' says Jeremiah quietly.

'Joshua 20:4,' says Jeffrey absently. 'Er, well, Miss Darken, I've… not completely decided yet. I still have some parish business to conduct with Father Zukhov. But I would rather have not come here in the first place, if I had had the choice.'

'"For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts",' says Jeremiah.

'Malachi 2:7,' says Jeffrey despairingly. '"Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him".'

'Proverbs 29:20' replies Jeremiah smugly. Katrina glances in bafflement from one to the other.

'Botkin is not such a big man,' says Rakim boldly as he pours a strong-sweet coffee for Stuart. The flat he shares with Shakila is disgracefully untidy, so Stuart feels quite at home. 'I have been asking about him. He is hoping to be up and coming, you know? But now, not so big.'

'I suppose he has rivals, then,' says Stuart thoughtfully.

'Other mafiya, yes. But they would want to be paid before they would act against him. The biggest is Yuri Djorkaev, so people say, he has the biggest gang in Moscow. But how you would see him I do not know. He is based in the north of the city, he has bars and strip clubs and these places like that. Botkin just has his headquarters at a warehouse. But he has all the streets around it filled with his men. Not a rat moves in those streets without him knowing.'

'Does he have any serious connections?'

'Maybe, but I have not heard. Not with the Army or with the HGB - the FSB. Maybe with Japan.'

Stuart looks at him inquiringly.

Rakim looks slightly embarrassed. 'It is just what people have said. That Japanese people have been seeing him. Here in Moscow there are not many foreigners, and people like me, who are not European, we stand out, and we help each other. But my friend Hassan he spoke to one of these Japanese men, saying hello, welcome to Moscow - he saw him near to where Botkin's warehouse is - and the Japanese man was very rude and told Hassan to go away and mind his business.'

Stuart nods, filing the information away, sipping his coffee. 'Now I want you and your friends to do me another favour, Rakim. Nothing difficult or dangerous,' he adds hastily. ' I'd like you to let the story of the shoot out which they saw at the Mausoleum spread - especially amongst the students who are campaigning to save Lenin's tomb. I want them all to know about it.'

Rakim ands intelligently, although it is clear that he has no idea what Stuart is driving at.

'The ideal result would be for a student mob to march to Red Square, demanding that the authorities prove that Lenin's body is genuine,' Stuart explains patiently.

'Ah!' Light dawns on Rakim's face.

'This seems to be a grimoire,' says Grace, with some satisfaction. 'A collection of spells,' she adds, peering at Ned over her glasses.

He nods encouragingly. 'What's the other one?'

'A manual of demonology. The two would be used in conjunction: the sorcerer would choose a particular demon to supplicate, then use the appropriate ritual to entreat its aid in achieving the magical effect desired,' says Grace crisply. 'Quite common in medieval Europe, where these two volumes were produced - in Germany, I think, perhaps around the year 1280 I would guess on stylistic grounds, although detailed analysis of the leather would reveal more. They're by the same author, written at the same time, and effectively they form one work in two volumes.'

She does not add that she believes the original writer of the text of these two books to have been contemporary with the material she found in Transylvania - once more, the purity of language and usage is far older than the composition of the books. In fact, there are many stylistic similarities, suggesting that the two writers were from close social backgrounds, and may even have been the same person. The later interpolations are by other hands, and date throughout the Middle Ages, some more modern still. It appears that the writer produced the text and it then went through a succession of owners, some of whose understanding of the language seems to have been rather limited. 'Fascinating, Mr Numenor.'

'Isn't it?' breathes Ned, his eyes alight. 'What sort of spells are they?'

'Oh, the usual sorts of things,' says Grace dismissively. 'How to confound your enemies, accumulate riches, gain the love of beautiful women… the Faustian bargain. Anyone who used one of them would be placing at least part of their soul in the hands of the facilitating demon, of course. If you believe in that sort of thing, that is, which medieval sorcerers certainly did.'

'I shall try to undertake an examination,' says Dr Gottfried Ulek doubtfully. He seemed rather wary as Vera introduced him to Kris, who appears equally as formidable as her colleague, but the librarian's matter-of-fact demeanour has put him slightly more at ease - although he continues to dart apprehensive glances at Vera. 'But I have pulled all the strings I can, you see. These soldiers, they say no, they have orders. And they are a different regiment than before. I do not know their commander.' He sighs. 'But my lovely third-level nexus is gone, so why am I standing here talking?'

'So even if we can't check the body, your nexus has gone somewhere,' says Kris thoughtfully. 'Is there any way you could find it? There can't be that many of them in Moscow, I shouldn't think. Not if you're using Langmeyer's approximation.'

Ulek beams in delight at this suggestion. 'Excellent! I shall start constructing a locator at once. Maybe it has drained away down one of the conduits. The sewerage system here is very ancient, it would not surprise me at all.'

'Before you do that, though, another question,' says Kris, laying a restraining hand on his arm as he prepares to dash off. 'Do you know of any ley line survey of this area?'

Ulek frowns. 'No, there is none. We searched for this most carefully before we arrived here. It would have made our work much easier. But no, "Soviet science" did not allow for such studies.'

Gino is making himself comfortable back at Botkin's, unaware that both Katrina and Stuart are independently scoping the area out. 'These people who stole Lenin's body - must have been some weird kind of commission, huh? I know you won't talk about your clients, that's good business. But sheesh - I thought only us Americans went in for that kind of crazy shit.'

Botkin laughs uproariously, pouring more generous measures of vodka. Gino's head is feeling a little swimmy. Upside down, on Botkin's desk, he can see a sheaf of papers, each headed with what looks like a company crest in Japanese. The main body of the writing is in Russian, though. 'Crazy Americans - yes! But in this case it was another kind of crazy foreigner. The people who think that eating the meat of whales can make you big and strong - yes?'

'Must be good money, retrieving unique items like that. My Uncle Sammy would be interested in that business,' muses Gino. 'He had a client once who paid a fortune for the body of the last thylacine wolf. An Australian animal,' he explains. 'Extinct now. And we had to create a fake one to replace in the museum. That cost a penny or two, I can tell you - it was real craftsmanship. Those Aussies still don't know it's a fake.'

'We are on very big money here,' says Botkin, who Gino guesses probably still has no very clear idea of what a thylacine might be, or have been. 'But behind our clients is one of the biggest companies in their country - in the world. A household name.' He sips, reflectively.

'Maybe we could, say, steal Elvis! I reckon there'd be plenty of demand for him.' Gino tips back his chair appreciatively, and raises his glass for a toast. 'You Russian guys are pretty smart, huh? Saw a new market and went for it. Clever! How much would it cost us to buy Lenin?'

'I do not think even your Uncle Sammy could afford it, Gino,' says Botkin. 'But maybe we cold find you a client here for your Elvis. I do not know why these people wanted Vladimir Ilyich, but they were powerful enough to buy an infantry regiment's silence.'

'C'mon Mikhail - who are we talking about here?' urges Gino, refilling the glasses.

Botkin glances cautiously around, then taps his pocked nose heavily. 'Do you know of a man named Taro Mizoguchi? He is a big man in the Dai-Mitsu conglomerate. They own Mitsubishi, and many other companies. He is my contact.'

'Dai-Mitsu?' replies Gino hazily. He is vaguely aware that most of the familiar Japanese company names are operating arms for large, privately-owned conglomerates, but he has no real familiarity with them. 'I'd heard they were buying up a whole heap of Post-Impressionist masterpieces, but embalmed Communist leaders seems a bit of a departure.'

'Ours not to reason why, Gino, ours not to reason why,' says Botkin, who has reached an almost mystical stage of drunkenness. Gino glances around, but the goons who line the walls are still impassively regarding him, and have not been drinking at all.

'I have a meeting for you, with my friend from the 23rd Infantry,' says Alexey to Stuart, who is trying to look inconspicuous as he talks into his mobile phone. He has found a god vantage for overlooking Botkin's base, but he is uneasily aware that there are lots of goons about, and they seem to be patrolling the area, so it may not be as covert as he would like. 'As you said, they must be wondering where their comrades have gone. You will meet him tonight, at the Café Italia on Podgorny ulitsa. At eight.'

'Just me?' asks Stuart.

'Maybe one other. He is a very nervous man. And make sure you are not followed - not by anyone. And do not take a taxi.'

Stuart notes the details down. 'What about the 14th Infantry - the Dnieper Rifles? Have you found anything out about them?'

'They are an old regiment originally from Kiev, as you would tell from their name. But now based at Voronezh. They are part of the Western Army Group, of course. They are here in Moscow on a six-month rotation: at the end of the year they are replaced by the 8th Infantry. They are in barracks on the Leninsky Prospekt, just beyond Gorkiy Park. I think their officers will be there, but there would be an echelon at the Ministry of Defence here in the centre. The same sort of structure for the 23rd, their town barracks is out at Kuntsevo.'

'Excellent, thanks,' says Stuart, still scribbling away. 'And one other thing - did you find out what Hannah Dyson did at Cambridge?'

'She studied classics, under Dr Roger Harrabin. But whether that was the same Hannah Dyson as this one we have here, who is really Valentina Gruzhkin, I do not know.'

Vera meanwhile is not waiting on events, but has gone back to the Savoy and asked the hotel operator to put her through to the barracks of the 23rd infantry division. After being passed through several non-English speakers, Vera reaches a man, very young by the sound of his voice, who speaks English. 'I am trying to reach Captain Dyson,' Vera almost shouts into the telephone. The Russian puts her on hold and there follows a long series of clicks and beeps and other sounds Vera figures are as likely to be the general background noise of the local telephone service as the sounds of eavesdropping devices. Suddenly a very clear connection is made and a familiar voice comes to the telephone. 'Dyson speaking.'

Vera collects herself. 'Given what has transpired at the tomb, it would appear you were concerned about the wrong person. I was saddened to learn of so many new deaths over what is in the final analysis, just dead flesh. Neither my uncle nor I appear to be in as much danger as those close to the tomb, including your comrades. I believe you could make use of someone like me, someone not connected with your, er… regiment or other paramilitary organizations. Meet me for a late lunch or an early dinner. Please. Tell me what questions you would like answered and perhaps we can work out who to ask?'

There is a pause on the other end of the telephone. 'May I speak now, Miss Goodchild? I was wondering if you were going to stop talking!'

Vera is a little embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, uh, I just was concerned you would not take me seriously.'

'I don't know if I take you seriously, Ms Goodchild,' Dyson says. 'But I will meet you. Where are you staying?'

'Uh-huh. Right. So does that mean that we can work with him? We're supposed to be allied now, aren't we?' Kris has just been told by Andre Swahn that SITU believes Father Zukhov to be funded by a New York arm of the Trismegistus Club.

'That rather depends on what they have told him,' says Swahn. Kris strains to hear: she is at a public callbox, which demands roubles at quite a rate. 'They are a rather secretive organization and I doubt very much whether they would inform a semi-detached employee of SITU's existence, let alone of any alliance.'

'So how do we play this?'

'If you like I can speak to the Trismegistus Club's people here - or you can do so yourself - our liaison is a men named Edward Lloyd, here's his number - and ask them to brief Zukhov to help you. But we have no idea how well he is trusted by them.'

'What does he do for them?'

'Collect information on occult happenings in Russia. They have agents like him all over Europe.'

Vera wonders about the group and how eager they are acquire all sorts of electronic toys and to meet and to communicate. But we seem to have just one direct course of action available; going after Botkin, she thinks. She is so lost in thought that she does not see Dyson / Gruzhkin enter the hotel lobby. The Russian is in uniform. So are two huge non-commissioned types standing two paces behind her. Vera decides to remain seated until she is 'invited' to do otherwise. 'If I ask to speak with you again, will I need to buy lunch your entire battalion?' Vera asks.

'For them, this is a training programme,' the Russian says, with a smile that could fillet three or four canaries. 'Where they come from in the countryside, they do not often get to travel to such a nice hotel.'

'I would think the infantry get even fewer opportunities to storm one,' Vera says, before she can stop the words escaping.

Dyson's smile gets a little larger. 'I suggest we meet in your room. For as long as it takes, these gentlemen will wait here.'

Vera decides against suggesting an alternative. The two soldiers appear to be carved from granite and she will be just as happy to be out of their arms' reach, although she has no doubt they are just a beeper signal away from Dyson at all times.

Entering Vera's suite, the officer promptly looks out of the window. 'I enjoy a good view of Moscow, and this is a fine one,' she says.

Vera puts the telephone down after ordering afternoon tea for two and takes a seat on the couch by the coffee table. 'Pardon me if I resort to first names, but we appear to be doing this informally,' Vera begins. 'Hannah, what the hell happened at the tomb? Based on what Dr. Ulek is saying now, it would appear someone has either removed the body that was there earlier, or they have tampered with things extensively. Which is it?'

Dyson nods. 'It has been taken. We do not know where, or who by.'

'Are you concerned about restoring things to the way they were, or would you be satisfied if any power, including this third level whatchahoogie uncovered by Ulek's findings, could be neutralized?'

'Vera, that is a Russian name, did you know this? A very good old name. My grandmother was called Vera. Verushka to her family. Would you like me to call you Verushka?' She gazes out of the window.

Vera stares at her, willing her to answer, and eventually the Russian sighs. 'I am working for our country, and we need that body here, to be strong. Neutralized would not be "a result", for us. It must be returned.'

'If you were unconstrained? If you didn't have to be concerned with protocol and were free to conduct this investigation without concern for your position in the army, what would you do? Where, outside of the government, would you look for help? And who would you NOT trust, if… say, you were me?'

'If I were you I would not trust a Russian Army officer who might not be what she seemed,' says Dyson with what sounds like pity in her voice. 'You should stay out of this, Verushka. Some bad people have stolen our Vladimir Ilyich - our Starost, the Old Man, that is what we call him. We are going to get him back, no matter what it takes. Anyone who is in the middle will probably regret it.'

Finally the tea arrives, Dyson drinks one cup out of politeness and then excuses herself to leave. Vera decides to telephone her uncle. If Ned is planning anything this evening, perhaps she will accompany him. Moscow is getting more dangerous, Vera thinks.

'Listen, Mahmoud my old friend, I want to talk to you,' says Ned seriously, clambering into the taxi across a small heap of pizza boxes.

'What about?' inquires the laconic driver, adjusting his rear mirror. The Lada at least has all new glass in its windows now.

'All sorts of things! How do you know so much about what's going on? If you knew my Uncle Jake from the special forces, how come you're driving a cab now?'

'What is he doing now?'

'Er, well, he's in hospital right now… he's not so well, actually,' says Ned evasively. The lengths SITU had gone to to hush up Jake's psychotic episode, in which he had shot the chief executive of Harvest plc dead, had been considerable.

'Well, maybe driving a cab is better than that, eh?' Mahmoud continues to regard Ned in the mirror.

At that point Ned's phone rings, but he is still fumbling it out of his pocket when Mahmoud throws the car into gear and flings him back in his seat. In Red Square, up ahead, a crowd of at least a couple of hundred angry-looking students, carrying an assortment of Communist and hand-made banners, is advancing across towards the Mausoleum, ignoring the attempts of the police to restrain them.

Katrina has by now pretty much got used to the vile smell of the clothes she bought from a nearby down-and-out. She has been hunched in them for several hours, and has gained a few kopecks, as well as a few kicks and a half-eaten apple. Huddled in the doorway across from Botkin's warehouse, she has seen goons come and go, and she has seen Gino leave to head back into the centre, but this is something different. A large Mitsubishi has pulled up, tinted windows all round, and from it is emerging a sharply-dressed Japanese man, flanked by two large bodyguards. He is greeted respectively by the nearest goons, and seems about to enter the warehouse.

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