The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


10.00 pm, 10th July 1999

After a room service waiter leaves a selection of sandwiches, the group snaps up most of them along with cups of tea Vera has ordered. Most pause for a moment to admire the view from her window, and for the first time Vera notices the city's skyline at night. She thinks about Zhukov. Part of her is angry that the group has jumped at the opportunity to work with the Trismegistus Club. She also is embarrassed that Zhukov will know that Vera was at the least deceptive in not revealing herself more honestly to the priest.

Vera has never questioned her last decision during the Oxford disaster, and she has no doubt about what her actions would be if Lloyd were within her grasp. Why is she hesitating when it comes to Zhukov?

Reinvigorated by the sandwiches and the tea, the group begins chatting again, admiring the scrap of serge from Lenin's suit that Gino is proudly displaying. Eventually Vera asks, 'Why don't we just give Botkin and Mizoguchi up to Dyson / Gruzhkin?'

'I think that might be rash until we find the body,' says Kris doubtfully. 'We still don't really know what the risks are. Or who Dyson is working for. Bad as it probably is for the Japanese to have the body, it might be even worse for Dyson to.'

'But I don't see how we can find that out - who she's working for,' objects Stuart. 'And I don't see how it could possibly be worse. We know that Yashimoto is the leader of the organized Ylids, and if SITU are telling the truth that means he's the biggest enemy of humanity going.'

Vera picks up the phone and dials Ned's apartment, while the others continue to talk.

'We have three possible addresses to check out,' says Grace. 'The hotel, the Moscow office and the agrochemical plant. On our side we have Dr Ulek's nifty detector with its somewhat limited range. Hopefully we can fairly easily get within fifty metres of any part of the hotel or the office, by bribing security staff, cleaners etcetera, to let us in to areas that they would not consider sensitive - laundries, kitchens, corridors -'

'He's not there,' Vera blurts out, interrupting Grace. 'Or he's not answering the telephone.'

Grace glances up, surprised. 'Who, pray?'

'My uncle. You know, the fellow who thought you could tell him something useful about those books of my parents,' Vera sneers.

Everyone looks at her.

'Those of you who wish to crash here, feel free to do so.' Vera walks out of the sitting area and closes the door to her bedroom behind her. There is the umbrella on the nightstand, next to the telephone. It is almost 2 am. Nevertheless, Vera picks up the telephone and places another call to her uncle, with equally little response.

Ned mentally sags, waiting for the storm of heat to wash over him. He feels very small, alone and defenceless. He is conscious of flickerings and motions within it, as though a sort of life is coursing through it, but he cannot distinguish the medium from the message - it is all tied up with the roaring in his head.

He gains a series of impressions, as he tries to gather his thoughts. The images of the five Zener symbols, each outlined in flames, dance before his vision, exploding into fire. There is no sense of malice or purpose to it, just a fire growing beyond control. Perhaps it was arrogant to attempt to channel such power, and that was the human folly.

He feels comfort in the notion of SITU, curiously. Out here, wherever his consciousness is, it is a rock to cling to. Not entirely human, but not Ylid either. Blaize and Swahn seem like small, weak humans in comparison to these forces: he can see them now, arguing furiously with each other. There is nothing about them that speaks of betrayal, save of each other. They think they are doing their best. So does the Trismegistus Club, that selfish body, its members too arrogant to serve another force, and so never achieving anything worthwhile. But they are close to their White Alchemist now, he feels it. A woman's face, slim, composed, with dark brown bobbed hair: sad. An Englishwoman she looks: he does not know her, but she has something to do with it.

Then the end of Aiwass, and the roaring voice speaks clearly now. I KILLED HIM, MORTAL, FOR HE WANTED INFORMATION AND HE HAD NOTHING TO OFFER ME. The fire now sounds like the kiss of blades against each other. The great, long, red-legged scissor-man!

Ned feels a sharp agony in his hands, and passes out.

Grace knocks on Vera's bedroom door. 'Er, Vera, I…' Vera is lying flat on the bed staring upwards, but she does not look at all relaxed. She looks across at Grace but says nothing.

'I thought perhaps we should go and see if your uncle's well… I tried to call him at the apartment again, and his mobile, but there was no answer.' Grace pauses. 'I've called that taxi-driver, Mahmoud, to take us over there. He'll be here in a few minutes.'

Vera levers herself out of bed into a standing position, swiftly and with no visible effort. 'Probably choked on a cookie,' she says sharply, but she starts putting her boots back on.

While bumping around in the back of what feels like a smallish van, Katrina has been working the dagger up between her lashed wrists. Sweat standing on her brow, she presses it into the corner of the basket, and gingerly rubs her bonds against its blade. There is a faint smell of bitter citrus, cutting through the sweaty odour of the old clothes. She curses as the van goes over a bump, and the blade cuts into her wrist. Fortunately it is not very sharp, and the rope parts soon after. By the time the van stops, she has freed her ankles too, and rearranged the rope tied loosely so that it appears still secure.

The basket is carried out of the van, and put onto a trolley, then wheeled down what seems like an endless series of corridors. Katrina can see fluorescent strip lights passing overhead, through the gaps in the wicker of the basket. Then it is trundled into a lift, which starts to ascend.

Mahmoud, cursing, shoulder-charges the door again, with redoubled ferocity. Quite why he was so galvanized at the news that Ned might be in trouble, Kris has no idea. She is also unclear about how, when the neighbours came out onto the landing to complain about the noise, Mahmoud was able to dismiss them with a curtly-barked sentence of Russian and a flash of his taxi license.

Eventually, with Vera kicking the lock at the same time as Mahmoud charges, the wood of the frame gives way, and the swarthy driver staggers through into Ned's borrowed apartment.

The first thing is the smell, of blood, metallic and clogging.

'Insh'allah!' breathes Mahmoud sharply, and he darts over to where Ned lies, unconscious in a pool of blood. There seems to be far more than can have come from his only wounds - both his thumbs have been cleanly cut off.

Stuart cradles Ned's head, searching him for other injuries - there are none - while Mahmoud swiftly and efficiently applies two tourniquets.

Vera, her face set in fierce lines, picks up the two books, which are lying - one open, the other closed - on the desk before which Ned is slumped, and tucks them under her arm, regarding Grace challengingly.

Ned's breathing is quick, but once the flow of blood has been staunched, it slows and deepens.

Mahmoud holds out a small, empty plastic bag he has produced from an inner pocket. 'This will need stitching. Put them in here, and get some ice from the kitchen.'

'Put what in there?' asks Kris slowly, a chill in her voice.

'The thumbs!' Mahmoud exclaims impatiently. Then he sees what she means. Ned's thumbs are nowhere to be seen.

Back in Vera's room, Ned is propped up in bed, his hands bandaged. No-one seems to think it is a good idea to take him to hospital.

Vera paces up and down, watching him. Eventually she picks up the telephone, and calls the barracks again. This time she eventually is connected to an obviously tired Dyson. 'What, at… oh no, 2:15 in the morning… Vera do you want.'

Vera hesitates, but then says, 'Botkin. The person you are looking for is Botkin. Do you know who I mean? And the Japanese, a man called Mizoguchi.'

'If you mean the gangster, yes Vera. I read the newspapers. And we… I assumed Botkin was involved. And the Japanese have too much influence for me to raid without a great deal more than the word of a tourist,' Dyson continues.

Vera jumps in. 'Look, Hannah, I'll drop part of the pretence if you will. I'm supposed to be helping my uncle investigate the body.'

Dyson pauses, 'Really, I thought you were here in Moscow to buy expensive dinners for slightly mad priests?'


'I fond of you also, Vera,' says Dyson, who begins to laugh. But it is barely disguised anger. 'What can I tell you that you don't already know about me? I have a job to do here, you know.'

'If you want me to do more, then I'm afraid you're going to have to stop hinting and bloody well tell me who to talk to? I'm willing to do the dirty work, if you're afraid of the Japanese and the mob. But you have to give me more than I've got now?'

There is a long pause on the other end of the telephone.

'Not afraid, Verushka, not afraid. Waiting. But why do you think I want you to do more? You want to help your uncle, very good. You want to help me, maybe. But my job, part of it, is to stop people like you and your uncle interfering in these things.' She sighs, and Vera can picture her passing her squarish hand across her face. 'You have probably guessed, I expect, I am not just an infantry officer. I have an intelligence role as well, yes? We, the government of Russia, we have an interest in these strange things that happen in our country. In the Gottfried Uleks of this world. And in the Zukhovs as well.'

'So what does that mean?' Vera's voice is sharp and hard now. 'You watch them steal Lenin's corpse? Maybe that's not just the Russian government's business. You could wait a long time - waiting for orders from above? What sort of orders were given to that other regiment, the Dnieper Rifles or whatever they're called?'

'Verushka, you are a sweet child, and I accept this insolence from you calmly, which I would not from anyone else, because I know you are concerned for your uncle. But we do not need your help, and you do not have anything to offer us. As far as I know. So, please, just stay out of these affairs. You and your uncle too. Affairs of states are not for private people to be involved in. And now, please, I need sleep for my beauty, even if you do not.' There is a series of clicks, as she hangs up, followed by the buggers or the antiquated exchange, whichever it is.

'Goddamnit!' Vera throws the phone across the room, and it smashes to pieces against the wall, mysterious components falling out and rolling about the floor.

At the crash, Ned's eyes jerk open, and he looks wildly about, before focussing on his niece.

The basket opens, and indoor light floods in. Katrina lies still. Two voices speak in Russian, out of her vision, then another answers them, in Japanese-accented English. 'She is a little… scrawny, no?'

'We were told, a young homeless woman,' says one of the Russians sulkily. 'We were not told to find a fat one. There are no fat women living on the streets of Moscow.'

'Well, she will have to do. It is the amount of life that is important.' Footsteps approach.

'What… what do you need her for?' asks the Russian, worriedly.

'You do not need to know that.' The sounds of banknotes being counted from a roll. Then a besuited arm comes across and shuts the lid of the basket again, and a padlock clicks shut at its catch. Katrina, holding her breath, touches the knife, concealed at the small of her back, ready for use.

'… so I thought maybe I could make a bargain with it.'

'Like that bastard Lloyd said my parents did?' Vera grimaces. 'Well, I guess you made some sort of bargain all right. You learned something, and you paid for it.'

Ned still has not adjusted to the loss of his thumbs. The thought that he will never be able to tie his shoelaces again keeps trying to creep into his mind. He has always thought of himself as a fortunate person. What might Celebrax, Prince of Blades, if that was what it was, have taken if the encounter had gone badly? 'I wasn't going to offer my soul. Maybe I might have offered Dr Alnes's…'

'It doesn't sound to me like it waited for you to offer,' says Vera. 'It took what it wanted. If my parents did bargain with it, they must have known what they were doing a hell of a lot better than you did.' And they still got caught in the end, she adds mentally.

Mahmoud comes in from the other room, hearing voices. 'Ah, my friend, you are awake.' He looks greatly relieved.

Vera regards him curiously. She is beginning to suspect that he is no ordinary taxi-driver.

'Mahmoud, old fellow, you and I need to have a talk,' says Ned, calmly in the circumstances. 'But first, I need some cookies.'

'Here it is,' says Alexey tersely, pointing to a flashing dot on the screen of the computer, to which he has connected the radio direction finder. It is a surprisingly modern piece of kit, considering the antique electronica that festoons the rest of his apartment. 'Katrina's telephone.'

Stuart peers intelligently at it. 'Whereabouts is that, then?'

Alexey presses a few keys, and the display is overlaid with a street plan of Moscow. 'Here - ah! This is just outside the headquarters of Mikhail Botkin and his people.'

'Let's get down there straight away,' says Stuart, standing up. Then his ear is caught by the excited tone of the newscaster on the television, which has hitherto been burbling away quietly to itself.

A mixture of speaking slowly and loudly and handing out occasional five-dollar bills has got Kris, Grace and Ulek up into the service lift of the Moskva Hotel. Ulek fusses over his device, tweaking knobs and adjusting the bend of the prongs, while Kris stops the lift at each floor, much to the annoyance (readily relieved with cash) of the occasional cleaners they pass.

'Aha!' cries Botkin sharply. A diode is glowing, and the two prongs are emitting a faint humming that makes Kris feel quite queasy. 'Here - on this floor. A beautiful third-level nexus.' He looks smug.

'The twenty-third,' notes Grace. 'That's where the porter said Mizoguchi was: suite 2304. Well, we've found it: what do we do now?' She had thought that perhaps Stuart's new Army friends might relish the chance to get back at those responsible for the deaths of their comrades. She cannot see them being keen to storm a luxury hotel, though.

Ulek looks blankly back at her.

'Mr Mizoguchi? My name's Gino Ferrocco. You might have heard of my uncle, Mr di Scarlatto - Sammy. Yes, that's right. Of New York, yes. We're a family that's well known in the procurement trade. Of… unusual items. All sorts. Well, I heard you might be in the market for such things. Yes? That'd be delightful. Nine o'clock? Well, that's… yes, of course. I'll be there. Suite 2304? No problem. I'll be alone, yes, of course.' Gino hangs up.

'Cough it up, Mahmoud. If not for me, then for whatever friendship or duty you shared with my Uncle Jake!'

Mahmoud looks uneasy. 'Well, Ned, I have a duty, you know this. I cannot just tell you everything.'

'Well, tell me this, then. I've seen you unusually interested in a number of things that seem odd. Why were you so interested in the rally in Lenin Square? Why did you become so upset when you lost track of the vehicle we were pursuing?'

'I am a servant of Russia, as we all should be. But your uncle Jake will tell you that is not always easy. My duty is just to watch and observe, but all the same if I feel the need to stop something terrible happening…' he shrugs. 'Who it was who stole that body, I do not know. But it cannot be good for Russia.'

'What's the deal with Yashimoto or Krillikhesh?' Mahmoud looks blank. 'Have you ever heard of Mizoguchi? What about the Trismegistus Club? Spill it, Mahmoud. I'm on the mean side of a sugar high and I'm not taking any shit from you today. Okay?'

A sigh. 'Ned, you have been through a lot, and it is not finished yet. Can you believe me when I say that I have a job to do here? Father Zukhov, he watches Moscow for a British group, an international group really - I hear that it is this Trismegistus Club. What they want I do not know, but they are occult. That woman Hannah Dyson, not her real name - she is Valentina Gruzhkin - she watches for the government. And I, I watch for my principal.'

'Your principal? Who the hell is that?'

'Who she is really, I do not know. But she is important. Many of us who were in the war in Vietnam, we were contacted. Many of us in the security services, which is where I work when I am not driving a Lada. I think maybe it is time you meet with her. But first I think it is time you tell me who you are working for, you and your friends. Are you the enemy? I do not think so, but I have been wrong before. These questions are not easy - ask your uncle.'

Vera has not been able to get hold of Ulek, but she has got through to the Moskva Hotel. 'Mr Mizoguchi, I believe you have just bought a forgery, and believe it or not I'm willing to buy it from you.'

There is a pause. 'Interesting.' The voice is Japanese-accented, cultured and light. 'Yes, we should meet. Be here at 9.30 this morning, Miss Goodchild. Suite 2304.'

'What the…?' Stuart regards the television, his mouth open.

Alexey is translating as fast as he can. '… delinquent elements in the student body… shocking disrespect for their country… abominable atrocity… six arrests… nation in shock… President is pressing for the most severe charges to be brought…'

The screen is showing uniformed policemen, in the grounds of what looks like a student hostel, poking disconsolately through the ash of a bonfire. The caption is easy enough for his Russian. 'LENIN'S BODY BURNT BY STUDENT THIEVES'.

'They say it has been utterly destroyed, just the teeth and some bones left,' finishes Alexey. 'No-one saw it happen, apart from the six students they have accused, and no-one has seen them since - they were taken to the Lubyanka.'

'Did they say anything about there being any wax, or anything like that, left when the body was burnt?' muses Stuart.

'No, not at all,' replies Alexey.

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