The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Eater of the Dead
Chapter 1

Message received by all operatives in April 2000

“Dear friends,

After our tremendous successes of 1999, I think we can be justified in congratulating ourselves on having broken the power of the Ylids. With the destruction of Yashimoto and The Master, our two most capable adversaries, we have ensured that never again can these monstrous beings present a coordinated threat to the happiness of humanity. Of course, we must not be too complacent. A little pride in a task well done is no doubt appropriate, but we must bear in mind that there are still a number of Ylids left alive, and being spiteful creatures they will probably continue to attempt to make life difficult for SITU operatives. But we will gradually dispose of them: we are now, effectively, moving into what can be considered a mopping-up phase. Each of you can expect odd missions here and there as one Ylid or another decides to cause trouble: but now that we have the upper hand, you may be sure that none of them will do so more than once! In the meantime, enjoy some well-earned free time.

Geoff Blaize”

‘Hello – my name’s Daphne.’ The woman is neat, small and smartly dressed. ‘It looks like we’re partners for tonight.’

‘Ah – er – excellent,’ says George, beaming. He has been angling for an excuse to speak to her. As the foxtrot class begins, he says ‘I’m George – George Hardy.’

‘I know who you are – you’re quite a local celebrity, George. Winning all those quizzes! You should be on Mastermind.’

Her eyes are warm and friendly. Some women like an older man, George tells himself – someone with a bit of experience. Which is certainly true of him. Someone who knows the score.

Donald glances about himself cautiously as he enters the darkened room. Three men, to either side and behind him. All armed. He has had to surrender his own gun, but what he is carrying under his arm is a more dangerous weapon.

‘This is very brave of you, Mr Swathe,’ says the man behind the desk – his tones cultured, slightly foreign, and calm. ‘To come here like this. As you know, we would be glad to be rid of you. A bad servant is a burden, and a treacherous one, who has forsaken his loyalty, is a blight.’

Donald smiles thinly. He is not going to be thrown by insults, not this time. ‘I don’t really think I owe you bastards any loyalty, do I? I never got the choice if I wanted to work for you. And you turned that boy I was into a monster.’

‘Desperate times call for desperate measures. Can you honestly say you did not enjoy your work? You excelled at it – you are the best assassin we have ever employed.’ The man – light is behind his head, so Donald cannot see his face – nods slowly. ‘That is why we have so far been unable to kill you. But it is not too late for you to rejoin us. We are the only family you have ever had, Donald.’ His voice is soft.

Donald shakes his head, a ball of tightness inside him. ‘Not true any more, mate. I’ve done better than that for myself now. I’ve built up my own family, and friends – real friends. And now I want you lot off my back, and I don’t want to hear from you ever again – understand?’ He steps forward and with quick, precise movements spreads the dossier out on the desk.

The man reads it silently.

‘I think you’ll find there’s enough there to put you away for quite a stretch,’ says Donald. ‘And plenty of your friends, too.’

‘How did you get this information?’ The voice is tight, tense.

‘I told you, I’ve got strong connections now. People to find things out for me. And they’ve got copies of all of this, in case you were thinking about knocking me off here and now.’

A sigh. ‘Well, Donald – Mr Swathe – it seems you are in a strong position. I always thought you had potential. What exactly do you want from us.’

‘I told you – I don’t want anything. All I want is for you to forget about me completely – delete my file. To you, I never existed. Got it?’

The man leans forward across the desk. ‘I think we understand what you are saying, Mr… I am afraid I cannot recall your name.’

Donald relaxes, nodding. This is going to be all right.

‘So this is the flat?’ Rupert inspects the outside of the building dubiously. It is not in an especially nice part of Warwick.

‘It’s much nicer inside,’ Arabella assures him. She is amazed at how different he looks after three months in rehab – stronger, standing straighter, his face filled out and his skin clear, his hair cut and combed – he’s not such a bad-looking fellow, she thinks to herself slightly smugly. ‘You’ve got the top floor, I’m in the middle, and Jo is in the downstairs flat – we’ve each got our own front door, look.’

‘The Wicked Witch of the West,’ Rupert mutters, trying to peer in through Jo’s window. He turns back to Arabella. ‘Old Van Heuvelen should be coming out in a few months’ time, too. I was planning to move him in with me.’ His gaze is challenging.

Arabella swallows. ‘Erm, OK, if that’s what you want. He should be a lot better by then, I suppose.’

‘He certainly will be, back to his full strength and capability I shouldn’t wonder,’ Rupert assures her. ‘You never know, Jo might be glad of being given first refusal on his body, when she sees him. But you do understand that I’ve got to stick by him, don’t you? – the poor chap doesn’t have anyone else, and he doesn’t have a job or anything like that.’

Arabella embraces him. ‘You know, that’s one of the best things about you – your loyalty.’

Rupert returns the kiss enthusiastically, breaking off only to say ‘My word, it’s extraordinary what effect a warm female body pressed up against one can have, after three months of nothing but big nurses to look at!’ He sweeps Arabella up into his arms, and rather clumsily staggers towards the doorway.

‘John Hamilton’ sits by the telephone, his hand stealing out towards it, then pulling back sharply. Since receiving Blaize’s message, he has been in an agony of indecision.

How safe is safe?

Iain Blayne is thought dead, crashed over the Himalayas. Yashimoto, the Ylid who wanted Iain Blayne dead, is now destroyed. Does that mean it would now be safe for Iain to reappear?

In Oslo there’s a woman in mourning – mourning for her lost fiancé, for nearly two years now. Or is she still? Maybe she’s started her life over again. ‘Vouko, Vouko,’ he mutters to himself. He stayed in this false identity to protect her, more than to protect himself. He has seen what happens to the loved ones of those who have powerful enemies. The last contact he had with his former Royal Marine Reserve colleagues, just before getting on the plane which crashed, Andy Warren had just left London to avoid a pursuer, had gone to Brighton to stay with his father. A bit of hunting around when he came back from Egypt told the story of what had happened. The terraced house burnt out, two male bodies found, no survivors. That left only three – himself, Craig Hill and Tony Adamson. And as far as Craig and Tony know, they are the only two, because Iain Blayne is dead. He feels like shit for abandoning them. And worse than shit for abandoning Vouko, even if it was for her own good. Can he ever go back?

 ‘Yes, it was quite a while ago now that Rose passed over, but… you know. It didn’t feel right going out and having fun by myself.’ George nurses the whisky glass between his hands.

‘I understand,’ says Daphne, putting her small hand on his large one. ‘But, you know, I’m sure she would have wanted you to get on with life – not just pine for her. From what you’ve said about her, she must have been a wonderful woman.’

‘That’s exactly what I thought,’ says George admiringly. ‘You really are a marvel, Daphne, you understand me so well…’

There is a brief clumsy moment as their lips meet for the first time.

‘What… I don’t understand… what would a bright, pretty young woman like you want with a dried-up old fossil like me?’

Daphne lays a finger across his lips. ‘You’re all the man I want, George. Now just be quiet…’

Cambridge Librarian Coin Heist Suspect Released (The Times)

The Metropolitan Police today announced that they were no longer holding Martin Keyes, 25, of the Fitzwilliam Library in Cambridge, in connection with the theft of £250,000 worth of rare coins from Dunn & Co, coin and stamp dealers of Bond Street. Three days of questioning produced no useful evidence, and Keyes is now free to return to his job without a stain on his character.

‘One day we’ll put away the man responsible for this robbery,’ said Inspector Coltrane Roberts, leading the inquiry, who has recently transferred from the Thames Valley force. Asked if detectives had any other suspects, he said they did not.

‘We knew all along Marty was innocent,’ said Patricia Wright, a co-worker at the library.

“Dear Father,

“I have now done as you asked, and am ‘sorted out’. I have dealt with my addiction to drugs, and have started to do some occasional work, to try and earn my way. All the things you wished of me I have done. Further I have got a very intelligent girlfriend, who needs a little personality work – but don’t we all.

“Having done all this however I find that I no longer need your acceptance. I am no longer dependent on you and do not any longer have the de Montfort attitude to money that you so carefully instilled in us.

“In short, I now find that this separation is very much an advantage. If I am cut off without a penny, so be it, it is your choice. I will no longer be ruled y those considerations. If you want to make contact you can, but I now consider things to be at point zero as far as our relationship is concerned. In a way I should thank you for allowing me to wake up, but I doubt if this was your real motive.

“In your last contact to me two years ago you suggested that forces outside of the family were pressurizing you to cut me off. I have no idea who these might be, only that my current life may produce powerful and sadistic enemies. I hope these ‘forcers’ no longer exist, and that all is well with you. If they do still exert some control over you, let me assure you that this will not last much longer. The end is nigh, so to speak.

“I will now say farewell, and if I ever hear from you maybe we can try to rebuild bridges. If not I will not be weeping floods of tears.

“Yours sincerely,

“Your son,

“Rupert de Montfort”

‘It reads rather charmingly, does it not? – the mixture of assertion and petulance. I think we should allow this to be delivered to the Lord Montfort as normal. It will make the pain all the more intense.’

‘You are all-wise, as ever, mistress’. The man makes a deep obeisance, which looks rather out of place coming from a high-rank civil servant in his own oak-panelled office. But the woman to whom he is making it looks rather out of place too.

Chicago feels quiet, and that can’t be right. Walking the dark streets, chasing down delinquent husbands, dodging the gangs, earning a crust, keeping whiskey on the table – there’s not much of a buzz in it these days. Perhaps he’s getting too old for this job, Sean thinks to himself. ‘And perhaps ye’re not old enough for it,’ comments the leprechaun, perched on his shoulder.

Sean regards it without humour. ‘You could really cheese a guy off, you know that? With your smart-alec remarks.’ It will be Christmas in two days, and here he is drinking again. Maybe next year he’ll cut down a little. Or maybe not.

‘That’s me job,’ the leprechaun confides. ‘Ye didn’t think ye could get away with all those antics, did ye? Clearly ye haven’t got any conscience. So here I am to help out.’ It chuckles.

‘Morning, Donald! Express and twenty Rothmans, please.’

Donald, grinning amiably, reaches behind him for the cigarettes. ‘Four pounds twenty-five, please, Mary.’ Since taking the job at the local newsagents he has been making an effort to learn the names of his neighbours. No longer is he ‘that strange guy who lives by himself and never talks to anyone’.

‘Paul tells me that your little Mahmoud’s started at the school, in his class.’

‘Yes, that’s right. His English is probably up to it by now. He’s a couple of years old for the class, but he’s got a lot of catching up to do.’

‘He seems like a bright lad, though. Have you got him sleeping indoors now?’

‘Mostly…’ In truth Mahmoud prefers to sleep in the yard, under a piece of corrugated iron, except when it’s raining.

‘How did he like Disneyland? What was his favourite ride?’

‘He loved all of it! – oh, I think maybe the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table one.’ Or maybe that had just been Donald’s own favourite. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows, is the Grail Maiden, and she is looking out for him, helping him stay on the straight and narrow.

‘Are you going off to visit George again? It seems like it was only the other day…’ Arabella is trying to conceal her disappointment, but failing.

Rupert sighs. ‘There’s only so much uninterrupted female company a fellow can take, you know, old thing. What with you and Jo on either side of me, the raging hormones just get to be altogether too much after a while! Don’t worry, I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.’

Arabella’s gaze is downcast. ‘Well, I’ll get on with some work, I suppose.’

‘Or you could help me see to that rotten windowsill,’ Jo suggests. She is starting to get slightly annoyed at the way neither of the other two seems to see the importance of keeping the house in shape.

As Rupert strolls off down the street, Arabella turns to her friend, looking worried. ‘I wish he wasn’t going… I’ve got a funny feeling, you know, Jo.’

‘What sort of funny feeling?’

‘Oh… I don’t know… a sort of boding. Being watched, but not by anyone in particular. Have you ever had that?’

‘I suppose so,’ says Jo. She remembers the feeling of being on patrol, knowing that a sniper could be anywhere nearby. She too has been feeling a little uneasy lately. It’s been peaceful for too long. But she hasn’t seen anyone, or heard anything out of the ordinary. ‘It’s probably nothing, but we’ll keep our eyes open, OK? Now come on, let’s get busy.’

Arabella stays on the doorstep a moment longer, gazing out at the street.

Puzzle of Café Shootings (The Independent on Sunday)

Police are still baffled as to the motivation behind the firing of 12 rounds from a high-velocity rifle into the Amicus Café, on Cambridge’s Trinity Street. It has been revealed that two Northern Irish politicians were in the café, but the shots passed nowhere near them. The only casualty was Peter Grimes, journalist with The Guardian, who died while calling the story in. He will be greatly missed by press colleagues. The injured included several staff of the Fitzwilliam Library, who were lunching at the Amicus. ‘It was like the bullets tracked us across the café wherever we hid, even behind overturned tables,’ said one understandably distraught librarian.

The attacker was not apprehended, and there are no clues as to his or her identity.

‘You old devil! How young is she?’ whispers a scandalized Rupert, with Daphne off in the kitchen making coffee.

‘She’s a year or so younger than you, actually,’ says George, greatly enjoying his friend’s discomfiture. ‘But she has a very mature view of life.’

Rupert mops his brow. ‘When I met her the other time, I thought it was just a fling or something. But she’s moved in now? Does that mean you’re…’ The image is too much to bear.

‘What’s so odd about that? Just because she isn’t in support hosiery?’

‘Well, yes, frankly,’ says Rupert, although he is quickly adjusting to the idea. ‘It’s not as if you ever act your age, old chum.’ He can see great vistas of scope for teasing and humour opening up.

‘We’re in love,’ George confides, leaning close. ‘It’s very different than with Rose, but… that sort of thing only comes along once. She was ‘the other half of my orange’, as the Orientals say. But this is good in a different way.’

‘We should have a proper reunion some time,’ says Rupert, as he embraces George farewell. These few days in Oxford have been a nice break – not that he is finding life with Arabella and Jo all that unbearable, but a chap does need a chance to spend some time with other chaps every now and then. Van Heuvelen was due for release soon, that would even things up a bit. ‘Get the whole gang together, and reminisce about old times in Egypt.’

His warm and happy mood lasts all the way back to Warwick, and the fifteen-minute walk through the brisk wind from the station to his street. Then an odd feeling grips him, a clenching in the stomach. Something is not quite right – an odd smell, an odd breeze, something wrong. There are people standing in the end of the street, and far off, but coming closer, he can hear a siren.

He quickens his step and turns into the mouth of the street, seeing a crowd of people standing down by where the flats are, their faces blank and pale. Nausea seizes him. As he runs towards the building, his neighbours part, one of them muttering nervously ‘It’s the boyfriend.’

Clyde from next door is by the steps of the flats, guarding them – he looks pale under his dark skin. ‘Rupert, man. Don’t go in! – believe me, man, you don’t want to, the police’ll be here any minute, leave it to them, man.’ He is almost babbling, clutching at Rupert.

Rupert brushes him aside and takes the steps at a bound, a ringing in his ears. The door of Jo’s flat is swinging open – glancing in, there is no-one there, it’s been turned upside down. He can smell the hot metallic smell of blood.

Upstairs, and Arabella’s door is kicked in, blood on the wall by it. Inside the door lies Jo, on her back, her chest ripped open as though by a giant claw, one leg broken underneath her, her eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Painted there above her, in her own blood, is the cartouche of Nefertiti. There are footprints in blood all around her, shoes but also the prints of some huge animal. Her fingers clutch a shred of matted hair.

Clyde has followed Rupert up, and holds him as he heaves his guts up over the floor. ‘Where’s Arabella?’ Rupert demands, as soon as his breath returns to him, clutching at Clyde.

‘I don’t know, man… she’s not here, but she was here this morning, I saw her. And her car’s still here…’

Rupert stands, dizzily, groping his way towards the bathroom to rinse his face. Clyde arranges a blanket over Jo’s mauled body.

It takes Rupert a moment of staring at his own reflection before he sees the note.

“We have your girlfriend.

“This is not a random note. We will not return her if you pay us, or if you offer us information, or if you return the item you stole from beneath the Sphinx. You have nothing we want. We want revenge.

“She will be returned to you gradually, in pieces. This is not a melodramatic threat, but a statement of fact. We anticipate it should be possible to keep her alive for some weeks.”

The note is signed with the cartouche of Nefertiti’s name, again drawn in blood, although the rest of it is laser-printed. It is resting on the top of the lavatory cistern, weighted down by a small bottle which it takes Rupert a moment to recognize. It is a pregnancy test kit. The liquid inside it is coloured red – positive.

The world spins about Rupert, but he has the strength of will to force himself over to the telephone. He makes two calls. The first is to George. The second is to SITU.

Before the end of the day, Donald and John are meeting George at a rented suite at Heathrow. Rupert is under sedation in the bedroom. Geoff Blaize has told them that he is augmenting their numbers with Sean and Martin Keyes, who will be with them before midnight.

Donald’s face is harder than George has ever seen it. George himself is utterly bleak. John speaks for them all, saying ‘So, what the hell do we do now, then?’

10pm, 23rd December 2000
Heathrow Airport

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