The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


8.30 am,11th July 1999

'Stop feeling sorry for yourself, uncle,' Vera says, not too convincingly.

Ned looks up slightly, waves his bandaged hands at her and says, 'Hello! Notice anything different about me lately?'

Vera pauses briefly. 'Well, this means… uh… that you can only use the books four more times, not counting your toes!'

Her attempt at humour falls flat, and her uncle's normally nondescript features now resemble those of a sad looking bloodhound. 'Well, somebody said something about transplanting your pinkies over to where your thumbs were so that you can function better. And who's to say we can't get them… back… or something.'

Ned has scraped a coin from the side table onto one of his bandaged hands and is pretending to flip it into the air in the traditional manner, except of course he does not have use of his thumbs to flip the coin. 'Ned, can you at least tell me how this all happened?' she asks.

Ned relays the sorry tale of his bargain with Celebrax, Prince of Blades. He also tells her what the demon revealed in exchange for his digits.

Vera purses her lips. 'Despite your vision, uncle, I can't bring myself to trust the T-Club. I'm going to conduct a small test later today. In the meantime I have an appointment with some Japanese people.'

Grace pulls out her mobile phone and, as the service lift descends once more, phones Stuart, to get some backup - his Army friends - to come in and do an assault on the room, in civvies. Stuart responds by telling her the news from the TV - that the 'Lenin's body' taken by the students has been destroyed by fire - and that Katrina's mobile phone is still outside Botkin's HQ.

It is unfortunate that Grace's rudimentary psychic powers are insufficient to inform her of Gino's and Vera's plans, or she might have been able to warn them of the intended assault. As it is she is blissfully unaware that other operatives may be at risk.

Kris and Ulek meanwhile have cornered one of the cleaners and, Ulek translating with his rather broken Russian, Kris is persuading her to loan her trolley, headscarf and housecoat, in exchange for a moderate number of dollars.

The deal struck, she retires into the cleaning cupboard to change, and emerges to a stifled chortle from Ulek. She silences him with a glare, but it is fortunate for her that there is no mirror close by.

She gets back into the lift, takes it up to the 23rd floor, and trundles the trolley down to 2304. Knocking on the door, she hears an annoyed voice asking something in accented Russian. She mumbles unintelligibly in response, and, after a minute or so, the door is opened by a thin Japanese man, with small round-lensed glasses and very short hair. He looks to be in his forties, and is wearing a polo shirt and mustard-coloured slacks.

The man runs his hand through his hair irritably, and speaks in Russian again. Kris feigns idiocy, and mimes a sweeping motion with her hands. He says something else, and then, exasperatedly giving up, stands aside to let her push her trolley into the room.

Vera goes back into the suite's sitting room and picks up the telephone. After a few rings Father Zukhov answers. He sounds distracted until he realizes it is Vera.

'Father Zukhov, how important to your people is the return of the real corpse of Lenin?' Vera asks. 'I don't mean the T-Club, I mean the Russian people.' There is a long pause on the other end of the telephone.

'I am being quiet, Vera Good-Child, because I do not know the whole truth of this,' the priest eventually says. 'And you know how we priests do not like to seem ignorant. And, by the way, this is doubly true for priests who are Children of Hermes - who serve the Trismegistus Club.'

There is a reverence in the way he says the words, which makes Vera wonder momentarily whether he is thinking of the same bunch of stuck-up incompetents that she knows and detests. 'Well, Father, why don't you swallow that pride and tell me what you do know, then. They do say that mortification is good for the soul. If you have one, that is.'

Zukhov chuckles, but without humour. 'I will tell you, then, and you can believe me or not, as it pleases you. You know what the Baba Yaga is? The witch of the forests? She lives in a hut on chicken's legs, or sometimes she rides around in a mortar and pestle. She is what the Russian people do with their spiritual power, their orgone as that rather clever man Wilhelm Reich called it. In England they have druids, fairies, King Arthur, nice things. Here we have dark, dangerous things. You can see where Vladimir Ilyich fits in. We are scared of him, yet we revere him. He is a perfect channel for the Russian power of belief. Not like a ley line - this land is too large, too sparse of people, to have ley lines. Instead the belief concentrates in these totems. When he is in Red Square, the Government are using the power that all those people feed into him. When he is gone, what will the people do? Watch TV instead? And then what will the government do? So you can see it is very important to have him returned. I am sure they are working on a substitute now - but nothing else would be as good.'

Vera nods, taking this all in. 'Well, Father, I believe I have something that might be worth the old fart's corpse to the people who have stolen it. But, I need you to tell them why what I have is important. And then we'll all know.'

Zukhov sounds interested. 'And what is it that you have?'

'Come over here, and you'll find out.'

Kris, industriously pushing the antiquated vacuum cleaner about the room, notes that there are two large wicker laundry baskets pushed up against one wall. Each is held shut with a wooden hasp and a padlock. Mizoguchi, assuming it is he, visibly tenses when she is close to these baskets, then relaxes when she potters away to the other side of the room. There is no-one else present in the suite, which consists of a large parlour with a bedroom and bathroom opening off it. It is all rather luxurious in an old-fashioned way. Scattered over the tables are various documents, printed ones in Russian and Japanese and hand-written ones in Japanese. Nothing that looks to be in the Ylid language. There is also a rather beautiful bonsai cherry tree, which Mizoguchi carefully moves to one side as she menaces it with her duster. Most of the time, though, he is working on a small silver laptop computer, only occasionally glancing up at her incuriously.

After fifteen minutes she feels that she has done all the cleaning she reasonably can, and departs to confer with Grace and Stuart.

Before Father Zukhov arrives, Vera picks one of two the books at random: she thinks it is the one containing the spells, as opposed to its companion that seems to serve as a guide / how to / index / appendix / whatever. The supposed spell book she slides under the mattress where the depressed Ned now is sleeping.

Within a few minutes the priest is knocking on the door. He still has his movie star presence, but clearly there is a greater distance between the two than at their last meeting. All at once, Zukhov spies the book, still carrying its scent of sulphur, on the coffee table. 'Do you have the other volume with you?' he asks immediately.

Vera responds 'Yes, it's resting comfortably. What can you tell me about this book, and what do you assume the other book is?'

Zukhov sits down and begins to leaf through the tome. Vera sits opposite him, her umbrella close at hand. Finally he nods and makes a rather fleshy moue. 'It has been used recently. By your uncle? Yes. This belonged to the Trismegistus Club, yes? I believe it is one of the pair taken from The Master, in Heidelberg some time in the seventeenth century. The other book should be a grimoire of spells, yes? Enchantments, conjurations.' He shuts it firmly. 'To try and use such powers is very foolish, Miss Vera. To know them, to understand them, is one thing, is wise, but to use them? No, that is most dangerous. Does your uncle feel that what he gained was worth what he lost? You know, the Club had these books for three hundred years before two rash people tried to use them, with very mixed results. And now a third rash person has tried.'

Vera grinds her teeth at what she assumes is a reference to her parentage. 'Were you aware my uncle and I work for SITU? Have you always known?'

'Not always, no. When I first met you I did not know. But I reported your arrival in Moscow back to my chiefs, as I do all interesting people who arrive here. They told me who you were. And now they are telling me I should cooperate with you, so, like a good agent, here I am. But I will tell you that you would be better without these books. They will always be a temptation while you still have them: if not to you, to your uncle. He has something of the 'holy fool', who is protected from his mistakes by God. But your uncle is not yet holy enough, I think.' He sighs, and makes a blessing over Ned's recumbent form. 'But I am digressing. You want me to help you with these Japanese: here I am to help.'

'You must also know why I find it impossible to absolutely trust you, no matter what the rest of SITU does,' Vera adds.

Zukhov smiles a little. 'Then why should I trust you? I understand that I have much more to fear from your person, small though you may appear, than you from me.'

Vera takes a drink of tea and answers. 'I don't fear anything, except possibly for my uncle's safety. I need your help now, right now. If you benefit from that, so be it.'

She tells him her plan. Initially she had hoped to convince the Japanese that the corpse is a fake, but she will have to confess to that lie as having simply been an attempt to get them to delay their departure. She will let them examine the first book. Zukhov should praise its value or power. She promises to return with the second book to complete some sort of deal if the Japanese will allow her to bring an expert to check out the corpse. Zukhov also should ask them what they believe the corpse is, and even suggest they could have both the corpse and the books if they offer the right deal. The goal is to get them to reveal as much information as possible.

'Father, I mean to leave their lair with this book. If I have to destroy it and the corpse I will, rather than let them leave Moscow.'

The priest nods, heavily. 'It has many merits, as a plan. It is of course vital that they get neither the corpse nor the books. But you know that. They will probably know who and what I am, so my word in support of yours may be of value to them. They will probably not know exactly who and what you are, although if they suspect you are SITU they will probably try to kill you.'

Vera smiles slightly. 'I'm aware of that.'

'… so here's the phone, but no Katrina,' finishes Stuart, who has just described how he and Alexey went to seek their hapless comrade but found just her mobile lying in a heap of rags.

'Well, we've got no idea where she is, then, and no way of getting hold of her,' says Kris practically. 'We may as well just continue with our plan.' She glances at Master Sergeant Shem Palaev, of the 23rd Infantry, who even in civvies has a bellicose air about him. His platoon are lounging about the outer room of Alexey's apartment, smoking and talking quietly.

Palaev himself is studying the sketch she made of the suite on emerging from it. 'I don't like the way he was the only man there,' he says. 'Such a man would not travel alone. And he has the whole staff of the Moscow office of Dai-Mitsu at his hand. We will have to think that people might come to join him. But this is not a problem. We set sentries.'

Stuart nods enthusiastically, eyes agleam. This is even better than the raid on the Newbury Bypass site he took part in, when he and his friends sprayed 'MORE TREES, LESS ROADS' on the side of a mechanical digger, and were chased away by police dogs.

Gino walks up to the reception desk, but before he can ask for a call to be made up to Mr Mizoguchi's room, he finds himself flanked by two very solid Japanese men, in dark suits. Both are missing the upper part of the little finger on their left hands. They silently escort him over to the lift.

In the lift, Gino adjusts his tie slightly in the mirror, and allows one of the men to search him and remove his gun. He is used to this sort of protocol: they would be suspicious if he had arrived without a gun, he would be suspicious if they did not search him for it.

He steps out of the lift feeling only a little nervous, and enters the suite to find (did he only but know) it rather tidier than at Kris's earlier visit, although the two baskets are still there.

He shakes hands, then at Mizoguchi's invitation sits down at the low table. He flips open his briefcase and pulls out a glossy 10 by 8 of Elvis. 'Now, this is our top-of-the-range item - very much sought after, I'm sure you can imagine. There's plenty of people will tell you they can have a try at getting hold of it - but can they deliver? I think not. But the di Scarlatto family can.'

Mizoguchi examines the picture carefully, humming the first few bars of 'Love Me Tender'. He hands it back. 'Very interesting. You mentioned also President Kennedy.'

'Yes, indeed.' Gino pulls out a photo of JFK. 'Now this one has a higher price tag, I'm afraid. The military security, you know. That Arlington cemetery… you wouldn't believe how hard it is to get people on the inside there.' He catches the other man's eye. 'Or perhaps you would.'

'I think I probably would,' says Mizoguchi, rather smugly. 'I am sure you have heard from your "opposite numbers" here in Moscow that I have recently purchased an item in this same line, a very fine piece. You will have to do well to match the standards of service Mr Botkin has managed.'

'These Russkies may be picking up the basics of the cut-and-thrust global economy pretty quickly, but I reckon good old Italian-American know-how will always come out on top,' declares Gino stoutly. 'Might I have a look at the item?'

'Why not?' smiles Mizoguchi, and he leads Gino over towards the left-hand wicker basket. 'Here - look.' He opens it wide and pulls back the top layer of dirty clothing, to reveal the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Gino raises his eyebrows as if surprised, then tuts mildly. He points to the torn left-hand pocket of the jacket. 'Look at that - shoddy, very shoddy.'

Mizoguchi peers too, and emits what Gino assumes to be a mild curse in Japanese.

It is at this point that Katrina erupts out of the adjacent basket, dagger in hand.

Six Russian soldiers have disposed themselves about the hotel front yard and lobby, after a quiet word between Palaev and the majordomo. 'He was in Afghanistan too,' Palaev explains to Stuart. The remainder of the platoon have crowded into the service lift, together with Kris and Stuart. Grace and Ulek are waiting down in the lobby, Ulek not really clear what is going on but sure it is exciting. Alexey is out in the street, keeping an eye on the traffic.

Palaev and two of his men stand across the door to 2304. Two have machine-pistols ready, the other a grenade launcher. 'Tear gas,' explains Palaev, handing out respirators. 'None of you are asthmatic, or tubercular, I hope.' Kris is not sure if he is joking or not.

Katrina knows exactly where Mizoguchi is, from his voice, and as she comes to full stretch the dagger is slashing at his chest. But, quicker than she can follow, he has twisted to one side and jerked the hapless Gino between them.

The blade bites into Gino's upper left arm, and blood wells out heavily - the dagger is razor sharp. To Gino's horror, as he staggers back, he sees that his blood is not running down the blade, or dripping off it. Instead, it seems to be soaking in, and the dagger is glowing red, with writhing black markings on its blade. Katrina is watching it with almost equal horror.

The two yakuza, clearly not chosen for their speed of uptake, gape for a moment before drawing their guns. In that moment, Gino, weaponless, dives into the basket containing Lenin's body, and Katrina darts towards Mizoguchi again, this time feeling that the dagger is drawing her hand.

She feels a bullet pluck at the back of her rags, drawing a hot line across her shoulder, as she flattens and stretches and the dagger catches Mizoguchi's leg, despite his graceful swift pirouette. He looks almost more surprised than hurt.

At that point the door bursts inwards, there is a rattle of fire into the ceiling - causing plaster dust to rain down - and a grenade launcher coughs. Within a second the room is full of choking gas. The launcher coughs again.

Vera picks up a matchbook and takes two small bottles of vodka out of the mini-bar. She leaves a note next to her uncle. 'Dear Uncle Ned, What you are sleeping on is explosive enough. Be careful what you order for dinner. Vera.' Finally she takes the book and her umbrella and leaves with Zhukov to go see the Japanese.

'Father, what do you make of Uncle Ned's vision, or whatever it was?' She has recounted the details to him.

The priest makes a sign of blessing. 'These demons are very real, and these spells will contact them, that much is certain. It is no hallucination. His thumbs were taken. Are you familiar with Heinrich Hoffmann, the German fantasist? His "Struwwelpeter" - Shock-headed Peter. One of the poems in that collection concerns a child called Conrad, whose thumbs are cut off by a red-legged scissorman who comes out of nowhere. This is to stop Conrad sucking his thumbs, in the poem, you understand. As to whether the demon was telling your uncle the truth, I would think so. They do not lie, in general - not about matters of the human realm. They may lie to make their bargains, but they think all human matters are of supreme unimportance, not worth lying about. And, of course, they would not get so many people seeking to contact them, if it was known that they lied. As to what happened to this Aiwass, I know a little about that. It was the spirit guide of Isabelle Kingston, a British medium. It was sent to ask questions of the dead, but it was caught by a demon and consumed. This is a risky business, even for experienced spirits like Aiwass.' He looks round as the taxi suddenly slows, but Vera's attention is not with him - she is staring out at the Moskva Hotel, from an upper window of which a ball of flame has just billowed. It takes a second for the noise, then several seconds for the glass and debris to fall towards the street, and by this time the infantrymen on the street have drawn their weapons and are curtly motioning bystanders against the wall.

It is very difficult to make out what is happening in the room: all Kris is certain of is that the second grenade was not tear gas, but incendiary. The large window has blown out, and both wicker baskets are now blazing fiercely.

Gino clambers out of the basket and rolls across the floor, trying to stay under the gas - and comes up against a body. He blesses his luck as he finds it to be the yakuza who took his gun. Retrieving it, he starts to crawl towards where he believes the bathroom to be.

Katrina is deafened, as well as choking and weeping. But the dagger in her hand is dragging her along the floor, questing, seeking for more blood. She finds another crawling person, and the dagger takes their life. Then it lets go of her, and she slumps into a faint.

Palaev barks a command, desperate tension in his voice, and the soldiers move into the room. The other yakuza is down, but where is Mizoguchi? As the gas starts to billow out through the gaping window, and thin, there is no sign of him. And Lenin's body is no longer in the basket.

Vera, down on the street and being covered by Kalashnikov-toting soldiers, peers upwards, to see the window next to the blown-out one come open. A man's figure is silhouetted briefly in it, holding something bulky.

There is a gasp of horror from the crowd, as it has now become, as the man leaps out of the window, the bulky object - which looks like another, rather stiff body - clutched under one arm.

Then the gasp of horror turns to one of astonishment, as from the falling man's other hand unfolds - there is no other word for it - a gigantic white swan. It must have a good twenty foot wingspan. It twists downwards in the air, and then the man is sitting on its back, his burden across his lap. Wings beating strongly, it climbs up, stretching its neck to call mournfully. It circles the Moskva Hotel, then heads off northwards, still honking.

Only Vera sees the small scrap of white fluttering down towards the street. She puts out her hand, curiously, and plucks it out of the air. It is a beautiful origami swan, a couple of inches long, so carefully made that it almost breathes.

The soldiers have sealed off the whole floor now, and the operatives are picking through what was left in the suite. Two dead yakuza, one unconscious Katrina, one slightly wounded Gino receiving treatment from a Russian soldier, one dead infantryman - killed by Katrina's dagger, although no-one is mentioning this. Gottfried Ulek is disconsolate at losing his lovely third-level nexus once more: Mizoguchi and Lenin are both gone, and so is Mizoguchi's laptop, although his bonsai cherry is still here - albeit rather singed.

Palaev is examining the grenade casings puzzledly. 'Here,' he beckons Stuart over. 'This one - tear gas, as it was meant. This one - incendiary, we saw.'

Stuart looks at them carefully. 'They look the same to me,' he says uncertainly.

Palaev nods. 'They are the same. This was incendiary grenade in tear gas canister. Now how could that be? This is not something that can be by accident. This is sabotage.' From the fierce looks he exchanges with his platoon, it is clear he does not hold any of them responsible.

Vera, who is not best pleased at having her plan pre-empted in this way, and Zukhov have managed to parlay their way up to join the others by this stage, and all compare notes on what they saw.

'We must follow and retrieve the body,' says Zukhov solemnly.

Grace meanwhile is searching through the documentation. She does not understand any of it, and to her disappointment there is nothing in the Ylid language. But there are several sets of plans of what looks like a big chemical works, headed by the Russian word 'Mytishchi'.

'We should probably pick up Ned, if we're leaving the city,' says Stuart. 'I guess he's ready to be up and about by now.'

'So am I,' says Katrina's voice weakly. She works herself into a sitting position.

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