The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


5.00 pm, 10th July 1999

Glaring at Mahmoud, Ned pulls himself together and extracts the ringing telephone from his pocket. 'Yes?'

Vera can hear Ned yelling something, accompanied by the sound of screeching tires, a noisy automobile engine and what sounds like someone yelling through a bullhorn. She lies back on her suite's couch and tries yelling through the telephone, 'Christ Uncle Ned, WHAT THE HELL KIND OF HOTEL ARE YOU STAYING AT?'

Ned apparently shouts back into the telephone, 'Very funny. I'M RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A DAMN DEMONSTRATION!' However, as the last words are leaving his mouth, the telephone flies from Ned's grip as Mahmoud jerks the wheel around again and floors the accelerator while trying to avoid another wall of demonstrators joining the first lot from another direction.

Vera is unable to understand Ned properly, but she tries to respond just the same. 'CONSTIPATION?' she asks. 'WITH ALL THE COOKIES YOU EAT, YOU'RE LUCKY YOU'RE NOT SUFFERING PRECISELY THE REVERSE PROBLEM.'

Ned finally persuades Mahmoud to stop the car, by the simple expedient of pounding him over the back of the head, and describes what he is witnessing. As the threat to life and limb in Red Square grows Vera remembers something. 'Oh bugger! Ned, did Kris and Ulek get out?'

'I don't know - they could be still in there, I guess.'

They exchange updates on the events of the day so far. 'Vera, I'm surprised that Dyson doesn't already know where Lenin's body is,' says Ned thoughtfully. 'I would suggest that you tip her off if it begins to seem unlikely that we're going to be able to stop Botkin from shipping the thing out of the country.'

'What's that guy shouting through the bullhorn?'

Mahmoud translates for Ned. 'The usual,' he tells his niece. 'Anti-Western rhetoric, "give us back our old man!", down with capitalism… they seem to be mostly students.' Ned's mind is not really on the demonstration, though, he has a momentous decision to communicate to Vera. 'Dr. Ndofir confirmed to me basically what we suspected about these books. I'm going to try to see if I can use them to engage one of the entities. We need more information and I'm feeling frustrated. I don't think we're getting anywhere.' Ned turns to Mahmoud and covers the phone's receiver. 'Mahmoud, do you know anything about occult crap? I've got a couple of recipe books that I'd like to see if they work, and could use a little help if you're interested.'

Mahmoud's expression is a mixture of wariness and amusement. 'Now you are starting to talk like your uncle Jake, my friend. He was a great believer in the power of prayer. I will do what can to help you, of course, I am a good atheist and have no fear of hellfire.'

'That's all right then,' says Ned uncertainly. He hears Vera's tinny voice continuing to spill out of the telephone, and returns it to his ear. '… try and get in to you, Kris and Ulek.'

'… pictures?' Stuart chatters enthusiastically into his mobile phone. He has come into his element, ringing round the various foreign news agencies in Moscow with details of the demonstration, while at his instruction Rakim passes the same information on to local papers and TV. This is even easier and more fun than manipulating the British media: the experience of his studies, and of many animal rights and environmental demos, is proving very effective.

'It sounds rather noisy out there,' says Gottfried Ulek nervously. He glances through the door of the mausoleum, to see an angry crowd surrounding it. There is a roar of fury at the site of his marmoset-like faces peeping around the door. The soldiers who were formerly on guard at the door have come inside and vanished underground into the bowels of the complex.

Kris hastily pulls him back as bottle and eggs are hurled in his direction. 'Is there another way out of here?'

'Er, yes, of course, we can go out underground and through the Kremlin.' Ulek takes off his glasses and polishes them. 'But is it wise to leave the body?'

'If there's no third-level nexus here, it's hardly worth bothering about, is it?' points out Kris reasonably. She gestures dismissively at the waxy-looking body. 'You are going to build that detector, aren't you?'

'Yes, yes, of course,' says Ulek. He starts gathering equipment together. 'Can you help me carry these? I think we can best work on this at my hotel.'

On the way down from her room, Vera goes over SITU's mission goals in her mind. The third one sticks out in her mind this evening. 'Establish what you can about the nature of Lenin's corpse, genuine or fake, and about any N- or other rays it may or may not be emitting.' She gets the doorman to grab a taxi for her. As the vehicle approaches, Vera senses a disturbance. Sure enough, the two mountains disguised as soldiers have been left behind by Dyson / Gruzhkin and are now intent on following the American. Vera signals for the cab to wait while she turns and confronts the two behemoths. 'I don't suppose you guys just want to share a cab over to Red Square.'

The Russians, although they look rather Asian - they may be Tartars, Vera thinks - are clearly a little taken aback. Both glance reflexively one way, showing Vera precisely where their car, presumably driven by a more nimble-minded mountain, is parked. Vera attempts her best 'ah shucks, I'm just a little cutie' smile, something that requires a supreme effort from someone whose personality more closely resembles the soldiers she is confronting. However, the guards blush slightly and shrug their huge shoulders. One of them struggles to say, 'No English. Sorry.'

Vera turns and hops into her taxi. The driver is careful to drive slowly. Allowing the two mountains to enter their own vehicle and begin a pursuit.

Within a few minutes the taxi gets as close to Red Square as the demonstration will allow. Vera pays the driver, gets out and begins to walk. The sound of boots on the pavement prompts her to turn. There she sees the two soldiers now following her on foot. One is speaking into a mobile telephone.

Vera considers the situation for a moment and gestures for the two soldiers to come closer. The one holding the telephone ends his conversation. The two mountains shrug their shoulders again and walk within a few feet of Vera. She signals her intent to make her way to the front of the crowd and the two soldiers nod. As they begin to make their way through the crowd, people glare at the soldiers with distrust and scorn. However, the two soldiers are too big to confront, and since there are just two of them, the demonstrators seem to assume they are merely curious and not part of any official interference.

There is no way that Vera dares to approach the mausoleum. A couple of young people, significantly more animated than the rest of the demonstrators are hollering at the crowds through bullhorns from right in front of the building's door. At that moment, an army armoured car appears from behind the mausoleum and begins creeping across the square. The crowd is briefly silent in disbelief. Vera realizes that someone inside the stupid thing probably thinks they can get out by using it. The driver probably would have had more success by stripping off and running naked through the crowd. Before the armoured car travels 30 yards, the crowd is on it, rocking it back and forth until finally it tips over. Vera can not see if the driver has tried to escape. The long barrel of the 25-millimetre gun that was mounted on the armoured car's turret has been removed, and is being passed over the heads of the crowd.

There are about eight TV crews ranged around the edge of the square, each fronted by a reporter gabbling enthusiastically to camera.

On the edge of the crowd, Vera spots what she hopes is Ned's taxi and after a bit more struggle manages to approach. The driver turns out to be the familiar Mahmoud, who begins to gesture in a way suggesting he has run out of the cigarettes that she gave him the other night. Vera is carrying one pack, which she tosses to him. 'Uncle, I want to get in to the mausoleum to see Ulek.'

'If he's got any sense he's long out of there,' says Ned sagely.

Vera sees the two mysterious books peeping from his holdall, but decides that now is not a good time to raise their subject.

There is a mighty cheer as the door of the mausoleum is burst in, the gun barrel being used as a ram. Within about thirty seconds, the body of Lenin is visible, emerging through the door. Ned, holding his breath with excitement, notes that Mahmoud is extremely alert at this point, peering carefully at the faces of the demonstrators nearest the mausoleum door. The cheering and shouting swells to a crescendo, then the soldiers on top of the Kremlin wall, who have hitherto been utterly inactive, start to fire over the heads of the crowd.

There is pandemonium as the crowd swirls into chaos, fraying rapidly at the edges. The noise is terrible, the troops seem to have been ordered to create maximum panic. Ned cranes out of the window of the Lada to try and keep an eye on Lenin's body, but it has disappeared into the scrum. Frightened students stream past the taxi, rocking it on its wheels and Vera hastily clambers inside, scraping cookie bags off the back seats.

Mahmoud guns the engine - he has spotted the body, heading in a tight knot of students down alongside GUM towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. But pursuit is very difficult, across the flow of frenzied demonstrators. The taxi moves slowly forward, nudging people's hips, but by the time it emerges into relative space, the body and those who were carrying it have disappeared into the back streets. Mahmoud curses volubly in a language that is certainly not Russian.

Vera and Kris have finally managed to make contact by phone, and are at the Savoy with Ulek. They exchange information sotto voce, Kris telling Vera about Zukhov's link with the Trismegistus Club, Vera saying she believes Dyson / Gruzhkin will allow access to body if the team can provide Botkin. However, Vera does not want to do this until they know where Gino is, or if he is safe.

Ulek happily fiddles with his equipment, oblivious to all this, and Kris phones through to Andre Swahn. 'We need you to contact the Trismegistus Club, and get them to get Zukhov to cooperate with us.'

'Will do,' says Swahn tiredly.

'And we need a photo of Hannah Dyson from Cambridge - or a description from her professor. To see if this is the same woman.'

'I'll have it faxed through to Maximov.'

'Any chance you could get me an interview with this Mizoguchi?' slurs Gino. 'If he wants to buy JFK, or Elvis, I mean. We'd be happy to take on a job like that.'

Botkin looks a little wary, to the extent that Gino is able to focus on his face. 'I would like to help you, my friend, but I think we should complete this Lenin job first. It is rather delicate. Then we can make this contact for you.'

'Ekshellent…' Gino rises to his feet, taking several attempts to achieve verticality. 'Well, Mikhail my friend, time to bib… dib… bid you fare-thee-well, I think. 'Rivederc'. He clumsily embraces Botkin and staggers backwards from the table, goons politely moving out of his path.

'Safe journey my friend, and look out for the hut on chicken's legs,' says Botkin.

'Wh… eh? Hick… chickigs… ?'

'It is what we say in Russia. The witch Baba Yaga, she lives in a hut with big chicken's legs. She rides around at night, catching up drunken men as they walk home.'

'What does she do with them?' wonders Gino, carefully holding the top of his head in place with one hand.

'She grinds them up and makes them into soup.' Botkin laughs uproariously, joined obediently by the massed goons.

As Gino staggers out towards the door, bumping zig-zaggedly off the walls, he is unfortunate enough to stumble between two goons and topple over a large wicker basket in front of which they were standing. Somehow, as he falls, the basket lid comes open, and he topples inside it, on top of a rather hard, unpleasant-feeling object, partly covered by dirty clothing.

Botkin barks a command and the goons, suddenly galvanized into life, jerk Gino back out of the basket and stand him upright.

The mood in the room has suddenly become rather chill. 'You should have a stronger head, American,' says Botkin coldly. Gino thrusts his hands defensively into his jacket pockets and backs out of the room.

As he emerges from the bunker he totters past a sharply-dressed Japanese man, flanked by two large bodyguards, coming in, who regard him impassively. The bodyguards are both missing most of the little finger on their left hands, Gino notices.

About a hundred yards down the road, out of side of the guard-goons, Gino's walk suddenly straightens and he stops weaving his head about. Removing his left hand from his pocket, he carefully inspects its contents: a handful of navy serge, torn from the suit that Lenin's embalmed corpse is wearing.

The taxi drops Stuart at the end of Podgorny ulitsa, and he walks the half-mile to the Café Italia, dodging between crowds of pedestrians and nipping through a busy bakery with three exits. He is pretty sure that he has not been followed, although he muses that if Maximov's phone or his own is being monitored, the enemy would have had no need to track him.

The café is full of Muscovites in nondescript attire, sitting around talking quietly. A few stare at him as he enters, but he buys a cup of coffee and sits down in one corner, watching the room, and after a minute or two everyone returns to their conversations. Bebop oozes quietly from the speakers.

It is ten past eight before one of the customers at the bar comes over to join Stuart at his table. He is a thin, ferret-faced man, with a cowlick of black hair, hunched into a very large astrakhan overcoat. He introduces himself quietly as Shem Palaev, master sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment.

Over coffee he tells Stuart his strange story, in heavily-accented English. 'We were told nothing beforehand. It was just part of our garrison duty - guarding the Starost, the old man, Vladimir Ilyich. The guards are on a rota. When your number comes up for it you complain, you always complain of course - standing out in the open all night - especially in the winter. But I think that really no-one minds. Vladimir Ilyich, the greatest Russian there has ever been. The man of the century. I would happily stand over him and protect him - without him we would all still be slaves. So the men on duty that night, they were not expecting anything.'

Stuart orders two more coffees, gripped by Palaev's quiet voice.

'Then the mafiya scum arrived. Those bastards - they are what you get from the free market economy your Westerners have been so keen for us to adopt. Parasites, scum. Wherever they can make money, they will, the greedy pigs. So, I do not know who they were working for, but they killed my comrades. Three good honest troopers, sons of Russia.' He stirs soft, dark sugar into his coffee.

'Why did the 14th Infantry, the Dnieper Rifles, on the wall, not help your comrades?' asks Stuart.

Palaev sighs, his shoulder hunched forward. 'They must have been bought too - I do not know - they must have. How could soldiers allow their comrades, the men in the same uniforms, to die? I was in Afghanistan, you know. That was hell. My father, he was in the what you call World War II, in the Battle of Moscow and he said that was hell. But I was in Afghanistan and I know what hell is like now. A soldier would rather die himself than turn his back on a comrade in need. That is his honour. The Dnieper - they had much honour. Where has it gone? Have they sold it for dollars? I do not believe it, yet… what else are we to think? These are men whose fathers defended their motherland against the Nazis, whose grandfathers overthrew the Tsar. What has happened to them?'

Stuart leans back, glancing around. No-one appears to be paying attention, as Palaev starts to quietly weep. 'I guess you and your comrades would want revenge now.'

Palaev looks up sharply, baring his teeth. 'You are clever, for an Englishman. You know how we Russians think. After mourning, comes recompense. You are a man of honour, I think.'

'What about Captain Hannah Dyson, in your regiment? Is she a woman of honour?'

Palaev raises his eyebrows. 'So you know her. How much do you know about her?'

'I know she is not what she seems,' says Stuart carefully.

'You are right. She is strange, that one. I do not know who she is, or where she has come from, but I do not think she is really Hannah Dyson. She is reporting to someone, I think. Maybe she is someone's eye in our regiment. Maybe KGB. Maybe Boris Nikolayevich - the government.'

'What about maybe the Japanese? Do you know anything about a man named Taro Mizoguchi?' Gino had mentioned the name on his triumphant return from Botkin's hideout. Palaev looks blank. 'Well, maybe I can help you get your revenge,' says Stuart, not sure how much he can give away. Palaev seems open and honest, and he is a friend of Alexey's, but he clearly has his own agenda. 'And to get back Vladimir Ilyich?'

Palaev takes both Stuart's hands in his, which are very strong and wiry. 'If you can do this, Stuart, friend of my friend, you will have my help, and all of my comrades - right up to our high officers. All we know is that we have been betrayed and made fools of here, and the whole of the 23rd Infantry will do whatever it can to set that right.'

They leave separately, after Palaev has given Stuart a secure (apparently) phone number at the barracks where he can be contacted.

Katrina continues to watch, as the large wicker basket is transferred into the back of the stretched black Mitsubishi. She peers after it as it eases smoothly out of the alley, making a mental note of the numberplate.

Then she realizes that she has company. Two large mafiya goons are regarding her with suspicion. One of them says something to her in Russian: his hand is on the butt of his gun.

Katrina, feigning madness, babbles a string of nonsense syllables at him and drools revoltingly out of the side of her mouth.

The other goon, looking unimpressed, mutters to the other as though to say 'this one will probably do,' and approaches her warily, hands outstretched. She sees that there are more of them coming up behind. There is no point trying to resist, so she scrabbles in the heap of rags in which she is sat, as though trying to bury herself within them.

She feels big hands grab her and pull her out of the heap, then a cloth bag is put over her head as she is slung over a broad shoulder. But at least she has concealed her phone and gun within the pile of rags.

It is now Grace's turn to badger Andre Swahn. He has sent Alexey the picture of the Cambridge Dyson, who looks very much like a younger version of the current one: and he has asked Edward Lloyd of the Trismegistus Club to ask Father Zukhov to help the team.

'Be very careful with Dai-Mitsu,' he advises. 'We're absolutely certain that they're run by an Ylid, one named Inoshiro Yashimoto. He may be the leader of the organized Ylids. In fact, we're sending a team out to Japan next month, to tackle him at home. They've caused us trouble before, as well - Yashimoto was working against the plans of the rogue Norwegian Ylid Krillikhesh, you might remember from your debriefings.'

'What about this man Taro Mizoguchi - is there any history there we should know about?'

'He must be a trusted agent. I'll run a search on the name and come back to you. I guess he's come to Moscow to purchase the body on Yashimoto's behalf - what Yashimoto might intend with it I can't guess, but it can't be good. You must prioritize preventing that body falling into the Japanese's hands.'

Grace judges it best not to say that her team have already allowed this to happen. 'What sorts of holdings do Dai-Mitsu have in Russia - do they have large secret plants in the middle of nowhere to which they could whisk the body for use by Dr Evil… er, in secret experiments?'

There is a noise as of riffling through a large stack of paper. 'Yes, they've got a new plant they've just built in the forest, about ten miles north of Moscow - a village called Mytishchi's the nearest place. Agrochemical plant: the site used to belong to the farm workers' trade union, but Dai-Mitsu bought it off them in 97. And an office in Moscow, of course, at 477 Mineralniye ulitsa, in the business district. That's it.'

'It is finished!' cries Ulek exultantly, standing back from his hotel room desk, on which he has constructed a rather Heath-Robinsonish piece of apparatus - vaguely resembling a baroque metal detector, but with two projecting arms forming a V. 'With this we will find my lost nexus.'

'What sort of range does it have?' asks Kris, impressed with the German's speed if not his sense of design.

'About fifty metres.' Ulek looks apologetic. 'That is the best we can do with these equipments. If I was back in Stuttgart…'

Katrina struggles feebly but she is securely tied at wrists and ankles. The goons have not bothered to search her, and she still has the strange dagger, tucked inside her clothing. She feels herself being lifted again, muffled Russian male voices conferring, then she is dropped into an enclosed space, on top of a pile of smelly clothes. A creaky lid is closed on top of her. Feeling with her fingertips, she can just about make out that she is in some sort of large wicker linen basket. Apart from the clothes, she is alone.

Then she feels the basket lifted and loaded into the back of a van: the door is slammed, and the van drives off.

Kris, Grace, Stuart, Gino, Vera and Alexey gather in Vera's room for a council of war. Ulek is safely tucked up in his own room with his nexus-detector. Ned is back in his apartment, working on something private. Jeffery is still sulking back at the Novotel ('and if him and Fulk start quoting Bible verses at me…' says Kris), but there is no sign of Katrina.

'I've tried her phone, but it just rings and rings,' says Stuart worriedly. 'Last we knew she was lurking outside Botkin's place.'

'I could locate the phone,' says Alexey, 'with a little tracker I have.' He looks slightly embarrassed as the operatives glare accusingly at him. 'It is not that I have bugged your phones, no, just I thought it would be useful if we all knew where everyone was…' Sheepishly, he pulls a radio direction finder out of his pocket. 'With this we can find the phone.'

'Got it!' yelps Stuart with excitement, scribbling on a piece of paper. He hangs up the phone. 'Here we are - Taro Mizoguchi. Registered under his own name, the cocky sod. At the Moskva Hotel.'

'So,' says Kris, steepling her fingers. 'We have to find out whether the body is there, or at the Dai-Mistsu office, or whether it's on its way to this chemical plant.'

'Or on its way to Japan,' points out Gino.

'And it would be good to know what happened to the other body - the fake one,' says Stuart thoughtfully. The news has been full of the shocking events at the mausoleum, with the story basically being that hard-line Communist students stole Lenin's body as a protest at the planned demolition of the tomb.

Ned finishes off his second pizza and wipes his hands on his trousers before picking up the two books. He begins thumbing through the book Grace called a manual. He checks to make sure the doors are locked and turns up the volume on the television. Referring to the notes that he surreptitiously jotted down while Grace was busy reading the books earlier that day, he selects a series of words at random and begins chanting quietly.

As he does so, his consciousness seems to contract about him, restricting his attention to the books and the words. The unfamiliar sounds are thick in his mouth, and somehow have a metallic taste to them. His head is heavy, and blood is pounding muffledly in his ears. The room seems to have become very dark, with just a pool of yellowish light on the books. 'Azoth! Benaim! Miluctador!'

Suddenly the light and sound seem to vanish altogether, as though Ned has been plunged headlong into darkness. A vertiginous feeling grips him and he struggles with nausea. The pounding in his ears has grown to a roar, like a storm at sea. He feels uncomfortably hot, increasingly so, as though he is sitting in a kiln that is gradually heating up.

Suddenly there is a great wordless shout in his ears, deafeningly loud. He tries to clap his hands over the sides of his head, but he cannot move his arms at all - in fact, he has completely lost the sensation of his limbs and body. Dear God, have I had a stroke? he wonders panickedly.

Then the shout resolves into words, not in any spoken language but directly into his mind.

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