The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Eater of the Dead
Chapter 2

6pm, 23rd December 2000

All the blinds in Karyn Hart’s flat are closed, the last of the sunlight straining to penetrate the dullness inside. Karyn herself idly taps at her computer keyboard with one hand, the other propping her head up. She’s been staring at this thing for what seems like days (though in reality only hours) and is still no further forward. ‘I’m not giving up on you, Michael’ she whispers as if he could hear her. ‘I’m not gonna lose you too.’

The phone rings, and she jumps. She lets it go, but after a dozen rings realizes that whoever it is isn’t going to give up that easily either. Slowly she picks up the receiver.

‘Hello, Miss Hart?’

‘Yeah?’ Karyn doesn’t recognize the voice.

‘It’s Geoff Blaize.’

Blaize? Oh yeah… SITU! she thinks sluggishly. Christ, they haven’t contacted me for months. What the hell do they want from me now?

‘We’ve got a team down in Warwickshire investigating a murder and a kidnapping, we’d like you to join them’ Blaize continues.

‘Blaize, I’ve got other things on my mind right now.’

‘Yes, your mother. I’m… sorry to hear about her untimely demise. It must be a distressing time for you, but –’

Karyn closes her eyes as he mentions her mother. She can feel all the hurt and rage bubbling to the surface again. ‘DISTRESSING?’ she shouts, interrupting Blaize in mid-sentence. ‘YOU REALLY HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA DO YOU!’

‘Miss Hart… Karyn…. please, this is –’

‘Oh, just piss off!’ she says in disgust and slams the phone down. Moments later it starts ringing again. Karyn rips the wire out of the wall-socket and buries her head in her hands. One thing she didn’t need right now, on top of everything else, was to be reminded of her mother. Tears stream down her cheeks…

‘You’re sure it’s in this field here?’ The Finnish UN envoy speaks very good English, and his face speaks it even better. He is suspicious.

The IRA quartermaster, just a young fellow, glances uneasily at Sean for confirmation. Sean nods firmly, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. It was quite a time ago the weapons were dumped here, but he doesn’t forget that sort of thing. They had buried them here, and in however many other fields and woods this side of the border, thinking that one day there’d be a war. Now it seems there’s going to be peace, and peace with honour. It seems difficult to believe, somehow unreal. But here he is, fifteen years on, telling a team of Gardai where to dig, so that the guns can be cut to pieces and never used.

‘How can you be so sure?’ Jesus, the man was suspicious.

‘Look, I remember, OK?’ says Sean wearily. He gazes out over the black sod.

Just at that point there is a cry of excitement from one of the police. His spade has struck something hard.


As the UN envoy scampers across the field, Sean’s mobile phone rings in his pocket. He pulls it out, ignoring the quartermaster who regards him inquiringly, and listens, his expression betraying nothing.

With a final ‘Right, then,’ he puts the phone away and turns, without comment, starting to walk back towards the farmhouse and the road.

‘Where are you off to? Bad news?’

‘Just business,’ Sean replies, his mind working quickly. This story stinks.

He grins a twisted grin, thinking about what is in the boot of his hire car. This afternoon he remembered clearly where the arms cache was, yes. But last night, when he’d come out here himself with a shovel and a torch, he’d spent half the night hunting for it. He’d found it just in time to liberate a few choice items and cover back up again before dawn came. Thank the Lord it was December, with its late mornings. His impulse might just come in handy.

Rachel Hart had been jetting to England to visit her daughter when the plane she was on developed a problem in one of the engines. The jet crashed into the Atlantic just off the Irish coast, its port engine on fire. Over three-quarters of the passengers had thankfully survived, but Rachel Hart wasn’t one of them.

Karyn had hocked a lot of her equipment in order to get the fare back to America for the memorial service. Initially trepidacious about stepping foot on a plane after what happened, she’d buried her fears. And after all, air was still the safest form of travel.

After a few weeks in the company of her father and other relatives, she felt obligated to return to the UK. She’d recently accepted a fancy new job at Granada Television, but she knew her employers wouldn’t keep the position open for her forever.

Reluctantly she had returned, but barely days later she received news that her best friend (and unknowing object of her affections) since their teenage years, Michael Williamson, had disappeared without trace. The last point of contact was with friend and colleague Andy Trudeau whom he worked with at After Dark records. Michael had been off on one of his ‘extra-curricular’ investigations for the previous fortnight, but promised he’d be back to his ‘proper’ job by the day after next.

Since then though, nothing… and that was ten days ago. On the same day he contacted Andy, Karyn had found an e-mail from him on her system. The message seemed scrambled, but it was obvious Michael was using some form of encryption on it. Try as she might though, Karyn had been unable to decode the message.

And now what… SITU wants her back to go off into the middle of flippin’ nowhere again? Well, Warwickshire wasn’t exactly nowhere, but it might as well have been. Karyn sniffs and looks back up at the screen again, the e-mail still stumping her best efforts. Michael worked for SITU too, though, she thinks once she’s composed herself. Maybe they’d recognise the encryption.

Karyn hesitates, then plugs the phone back and taps in a number she thought she’d long since forgotten…

Initially, George, John and Donald have little to say to each other, each in his own private thoughts. Breaking the silence, John says, ‘Donald. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare handgun in that bag of tricks you carry around would you? I couldn’t think of a way to get mine on the plane, and had to leave it.’

Donald nods slowly. ‘Yeah, sure, mate.’ He digs in the bag and pulls out an automatic pistol. ‘Sorry, I didn’t bring anything larger. I figured we didn’t want to be waving Uzis around.’ He gives a small grin.

As John examines the gun’s workings, the bedroom door opens and Rupert comes out. He is very pale, but there is a very determined look on his face.

‘Are you sure you should be…’ starts George.

‘Hello, chaps,’ cuts in Rupert. His voice is tired, but clear. ‘I’d like to thank you all for coming along.’

He pauses, aware that the other three are looking to him for leadership – a most unusual sensation. Perhaps at another time he might have dwelt on the irony, or defused the tension with a wry comment. Instead he sits down, and calmly lays out his thoughts.

‘I’ve thought a bit about this, and I have a few ideas. I don’t know if anyone else has had them too, but I’ll run them past you anyway.’ He glances around, and receives approving nods from the others. ‘First. All this seems just too convenient an excuse for Nefertiti’s followers. I don’t buy the simple revenge scenario. We’re nearing the real Millennium, and it’s obviously connected.

‘Secondly, I think there may be a specific reason why they chose Arabella. She is pregnant, and the unborn child may well be important to them. I can’t get out of my head films like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Having read sections of the Book of Revelation, there’s references to a pregnant woman, whom ‘the dragon’ tries to kill, because she is to bear the ‘king of kings’. Is that relevant? Who knows?

‘Thirdly, all this is getting pretty personal. They have deliberately taken my girlfriend, who is pregnant with my child. I don’t believe that Jo would have been killed if she hadn’t tried to defend Arabella. All this alone might not be so significant, but in my last correspondence with my father two years ago he hinted that someone was pressurizing him to cut me off. At the time it meant very little, but with these events I am suddenly very worried. Someone may well be targeting my family, for purposes unknown. As it is, with Arabella missing I need to see my father anyway, to ask him to help in any way he can to fund attempts to locate her. After all it is his grandchild as well.’

‘Do you think he’ll want to help?’ asks Donald slightly doubtfully. From all that Rupert has said about his father, he does not seem the caring type.

‘Well, we’ll have to see. My first suggestion is that I, and anyone else who wants to come, visit the estate, to speak to my father. And any of the family who are there.’ He looks around again. ‘Ideally I’ll need someone who can handle themselves in a fight, and someone who can break into rooms. I have no idea who or what might be in the house, and you can’t be too careful. Anyone disagree?’

There is silence.

‘Good. You lot aren’t very talkative tonight! Now a couple of other things. Van Heuvelen – should we spring him from rehab? He seems to have had a real connection with what was going on in the last adventure, and a very comprehensive knowledge of the possible links to the Book of Revelation. If this link is still relevant, he could be very useful.’

‘I guess, if you think so,’ says John. He is privately thinking that van Heuvelen is a bit of a loon, and his obsession with the hallucinatory visions of St John the Divine more often melodramatic than helpful. But if Rupert thinks it will help, perhaps he is right.

‘The other thing is the beast. The one that left the footprints in Arabella’s flat, I mean. What kind of creature was it? Is there an Egyptian connection? Or is it the Book of Revelation again?’ Rupert’s voice is rising in excitement now. ‘It could be a lion, a bear, something with something else’s head, who knows. A dragon even! There’s so many different beasts in that book, it could be any of them. What have the police said about the fur, and the footprints? We really need to get a look at their records. Perhaps someone should break in over the Christmas break. Or perhaps SITU can find it out.’

‘I’ll give them a call,’ says Donald, heading for the balcony to improve his mobile reception. Before phoning Blaize, though, he calls his neighbour who is looking after Mahmoud. The lad is safely tucked up in bed, much to his disgust, although in this cold weather even he sees some of the benefits of housing.

‘Blaize? Donald Swathe here. What the bloody hell do you expect of us this time then? This is a right sodding mess.’

‘I know, Donald… it’s come right out of the blue. And at the same time as all this other stuff…’ Blaize sounds tired, unusually for him.

‘Are these guys referring to the obelisk? I figured you had that – or are have you lost that just like you lost the bloody grail after our efforts to get the damn thing for you?’

‘No, not the obelisk I don’t think, they mean the spaceship. That John found under the Sphinx. It must be that: they could make another obelisk easily enough. You’re welcome to have that obelisk, by the way, if you think it’ll help – we can send it to you.’

‘Maybe,’ says Donald, personally unsure whether it will be much use. Arabella was the one who knew how to tap its power – her and Michael, who seemed to have disappeared completely.

‘Oh, Donald, as well as Martin Keyes who’s on his way to you, I’m attaching a couple more operatives to your team. Karyn Hart – George and Rupert will probably remember her, from Mexico. And Sean.’

Donald has heard the name before. ‘Right,’ he says quietly.

‘He’s coming over from Ireland, shall I send him to Heathrow?’

‘No, he may as well meet us – we’re off to the de Montfort estate, in Buckinghamshire. And can you get us the police report?’

‘Good thinking! It’ll be with you in the morning.’

While this is going on, John has retreated into the bedroom to meditate. ‘Give us a shout if anything happens.’

Rupert has drawn George aside for a quiet word. ‘Look, old fellow, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, and I certainly don’t want to be nasty, but have you thought about Daphne?’

George reddens sharply, but Rupert ploughs on. ‘She comes into your life from nowhere, is around when I visit so she knows when Arabella is alone. She approached you, remember, and she does seem to be very clued in on what you want out of life. It may be nothing, but –’

George can stand it no longer and bursts out. ‘So you think she’s Nefertiti, is that it? Just because she looks like a goddess, it doesn’t mean that she is. Or that she works for one.’ He clenches his fists, glowering. ‘You can’t imagine that an old git like me can have anything that could impress a woman of your age. You’re just jealous.’

Before Rupert can respond, he turns and stomps out of the room

If you want to take revenge and kill some SITU agents, you do it, as Sean sees it. There were four in easy reach. The whole kidnap thing doesn’t really make that much sense. The note about not wanting anything was bizarre. Just makes you wonder what they’re really after!

He peers up at the house as he drives by. Police tape still up, lights on on the first floor, squad car outside. So they’re camped out waiting for the postman to start delivering bits of Arabella…

He parks around the corner and climbs over the back wall to enter the garden. The moon emerges fitfully between the clouds – it is very cold. He hugs his big coat around him, sucking his teeth as he tries the window frame. Easy enough. Within a minute he is inside the ground-floor flat – Jo’s.

The thing that bothers him is the fact that Jo’s flat was turned over. What were they looking for? Arabella’s flat was intact, there was no sign of entry to Rupert’s.

He slips on a pair of night-vision goggles, and the world turns a pale orange. Apart from the police, the flat may still be under observation – by the enemy. He picks his way carefully through the debris of Jo’s life.

The flat has been pretty thoroughly searched, by someone who knew what they were doing. Sean sees, scattered by the wardrobe, Jo’s old kitbag and fatigues. Not as if he ever got on that well with the woman, but it’s odd to think of her snuffed out like this. This tin box, now – army issue, about eighteen by twenty-four inches. Maybe an old first-aid box. The padlock was broken, the box empty. What might Jo have kept in here? A pretty solid padlock. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. He bends to sniff at the box – a musty smell, like damp cloth or paper that’s been shut up. And some sand, fine, grey-gold. Turning to examine the room from this lower perspective, he sees a faint glint under the bed. A photograph – it must have skidded there, maybe when the box was turned out. He pulls out his pencil torch, and removes the goggles. Desert – sky so blue it hurts to look at. This must be Jo’s unit, then – healthy, happy young men and women, gathered in front of a transport draped with camo netting. A rather younger Jo is to one edge of the group, but Sean barely recognizes her at first. Her face has none of the tense, withdrawn look that he knew. This looks like a girl who liked a bit of fun. What the hell happened to her?

He does not bother to clear up the trail of cigarette butts, as he leaves the flat.

John sits in the corner of the room with his back to a wall and starts clearing his thoughts. These last few months in America with the tribal spirit walkers have helped him in a number of ways. He slips into the trance in a matter of seconds.

He leaves the dimly-lit cave, and walks easily through the rock-strewn gully to stand by the lake in the moonlight. He smiles slightly to himself, remembering how at times he hasn’t wanted to leave this place and head back to the chaos of the world. ‘Hello’ he says, as the owl flaps onto the branch of a nearby tree, ‘It is good to be here again, even if these are not the best of circumstances. A friend of mine recently passed over and I would like to speak with her spirit if I still can. Could you help me to find Jo Wilton? She died on the orders of that which we still fight. We hope that she may be able to provide some information that can help us in our struggle.’

‘She is here,’ comes the calm voice of the owl in his mind. ‘She comes.’

John squats to wait, hugging his knees. The presence comes gradually at first, just an awareness of a movement in the air, then a hint of a shape, a face, in the thin mist against the stars.

At once John’s chest knots with rage and woe – not his own, but the spirit’s. He feels dizzy, and has to put his hands to the ground. ‘Jo?’

He is answered with an inarticulate wail of fury, which seems to pour right through him. The night spins around him, the moon bobbing crazily about. He has to squeeze his eyes shut to avoid plunging into the heart of the misery. Terrified, he tries to use the rituals he has been taught, to avoid one’s spirit being overcome by a dangerous ghost. But the words and thoughts come sluggishly, fighting their way into his mind through a torrent of emotion beating on him.

Suddenly the owl is with him, supporting him, its wings folding about him, protecting him from the ghost. ‘You should return to the world of men.’

‘What? – why is she like this?’ John is hurt, confused. The owl is slowly drawing him back to the cave, enfolded in its wings, the ghost continuing to rage on the lake shore.

‘She was not at peace in life, and she never found herself. She had no bonds to this world. When you come to this world yourself, when you die, you will be like me, in harmony with it. But those who know nothing of here in life are voiceless when they arrive – all they can express is their emotion. And in her, because of the way she died and the woman she was, the emotion is very strong.’

Safe now in the cave, John is close to tears, of mingled relief and misery. ‘But I had all sorts of questions I wanted to ask her…’

The owl makes no comment.

Martin Keyes’s taxi pulls up outside a Heathrow airport hotel. He is not at all happy about this job, because it’s too likely to end up a blood-soaked episode in revenge – not his style. The elevator takes him up to the fourth floor. He knocks on the room door, and is invited in by some men he has never seen before. They are not in a very jolly mood.

‘You must be Martin? How do you do,’ Rupert says politely, offering his hand. ‘This is Donald – John’s in the bedroom, George… has gone for a bit of a walk.’

Marty shakes it carefully, while Donald regards him rather suspiciously from across the room. Rupert is tall, thinnish, drawn-looking – not surprisingly. His voice is firmly aristocratic. Donald on the other hand has one of those instantly forgettable faces – as Marty himself does. A fellow professional, clearly.

Rupert goes over the background again, in flat, dispassionate tones. About halfway through, George returns – a middle-aged man, with a military bearing, he sidles into the room rather shamefacedly and avoids meeting Rupert’s eye.

‘I hear we’re expecting Sean as well?’ Marty says.

‘You know him?’

‘Yeah, from Mexico. He’s quite a character, eh? I can see why he’s been assigned – this is right up his shooting gallery.’ Marty is less clear as to why he himself is here, though. ‘None of us can act shocked that the bad guys might be inclined to take a shot at us.’ He thinks back to the attack on the coffee shop in Cambridge. ‘And, isn’t it also quite likely that the only reason we can hope Rupert’s friend still lives, is that the bad guys are counting on us showing up?’

‘I think you’re right,’ grates Donald. This stranger seems to have his head on the right way, at least. No more flakes and fruitcakes, please God. ‘A setup – but for what? They could have picked us off one by one, if killing us was all they wanted to achieve.’

Marty nods. ‘Under the circumstances, there’s no reason they have to connect me with the rest of you right from the start. I’d like to go in as a dealer in say, rare coins? I can probably scrape a few together that Egyptian dealers in antiquities should be interested in. Of course, I’m relying on SITU to make sure I have no trouble with any ownership questions here or in Egypt.’

Something about his rather smug manner annoys Rupert. ‘You seem to be forgetting that this is a rather serious investigation! We’ve got important things we need to achieve here – it’s not just an excuse for you to help yourself to some valuables at SITU’s expense!’

‘I’m shocked,’ Marty pauses to light a cigarette, ‘that you think the master thief who stole those coins would need anyone else’s help. You blokes, on the other hand, could probably use some help from another bloke who could make inquiries without automatically being nobbled as being from SITU.’

‘He’s right,’ says George quietly.

‘OK, let’s keep it arms’-length for now, then,’ says Donald briskly. ‘We’re planning to head up to Buckinghamshire to meet with Rupert’s dad – why don’t you stay here for the time being, work out how you plan to get involved.’

‘You might ask SITU about the beast, too,’ suggests Rupert. ‘I’ve got a vague memory of some sort of creature that was involved in ancient Egyptian myth, to do with opening up the chest of the dead so their heart can be weighed.’

Donald stands up. ‘Right then, people – let’s get moving. This is already pretty late to be paying social calls!’

As they are walking out to the car, John rather subdued and pensive, George takes the opportunity to talk quietly to Rupert. ‘Er, I’m sorry, old chap. I had no intention of belittling your relationship with ’Bella, you can be sure of that. In fact, nothing you said about Daphne’s loyalties had not already crossed through my own mind.’

‘Oh, well, I suppose I might have been a little tactless,’ acknowledges Rupert graciously.

‘I cannot believe that Daphne could be in league with the Devil, but there are apparent coincidences that must be investigated.’

Rupert nods encouragingly, not sure quite what George has in mind. His fingers are itching. A small voice inside him is saying ‘Go on – just one. You know it’ll help – calm you down, clear your head. Help you deal with all this better. It can’t do you any harm, can it? You deserve it, after what you’ve been through this last day.’

Donald parks the Landrover Discovery on the edge of deMontfort village, a little way from the western wall of the estate. The four men get out, and a shadow detaches itself from a nearby group of trees.

‘Hey,’ Karyn says, tiredly. She hugs the surprised Rupert tightly. ‘You holding up OK?’ She looks up into his face. ‘We’ll get this sorted out.’

George introduces her to Donald and John. ‘Karyn was in Mexico with us, with Sean, Arabella and Jo.’

‘I was sorry to hear about Jo,’ Karyn says, although to be honest, after her own bereavement, she is not all that bothered about ‘soldier-gal’, especially considering their spats on their last adventure.

‘So, what brings you back to the bosom of SITU?’ asks Rupert, able to breathe again now Karyn has released him.

‘I was hoping they could help me find my friend Michael,’ she says, pensively. ‘He’s off on some sort of secret trip – by himself. He sent me a message, but it was encrypted. They couldn’t open it either – Swahn said that Michael was pretty much off on his own. They’d asked him to investigate the possibility of a security leak within SITU, but he hadn’t come back with any results, just disappeared.’

‘I’m sure he’ll turn up,’ says Rupert reassuringly. He can smell dope on Karyn’s hair – she must have been smoking a joint while waiting. He swallows, hard.

‘Well, this is quite the reunion, isn’t it?’ comes a dry voice from the darkness. ‘Just like old times.’

Donald’s hand moves to his gun, as into the circle of light steps a middle-sized man, chunky, with sandy hair, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He steps up behind Karyn and rather forcefully squeezes her rear. ‘Hmm, that feels familiar! But feels like you’ve put on a few pounds, though. I’d be happy to help you work off a few calories later…’

Karyn, jumping as though she has been stung, spins round and smacks him hard across the face, sending the cigarette spinning into the darkness.

Sean rubs his jaw carefully, and lights up another. ‘No need to be so touchy about your weight, girlie.’

‘You try that again, and I’ll castrate you. Literally,’ spits Karyn.

‘Oh, fuck!’ cries Rupert, in tones of genuine pain. ‘If things weren’t bad enough already, they send you! You psychotic moron! How many innocent civilians have you killed today, then? And how’s Lalina? – dead, I presume? Did you shoot her, or blow her up? Bloody happy release for the poor woman, having you pining over her…’

Sean does not look as though he can move all that quickly, but somehow he is in front of Rupert, with a gun pointed at Rupert’s face. ‘So, little man, why have you suddenly become so important? Why are you still alive?’

He breaks off, because Donald’s gun is now jammed up against his temple. ‘They’ve warned me about you. Rupert should know better than to start pissing people off this early on, but I’ve got news for you, sunshine. Mess with me, or any of us and you WILL regret it.’

Sean slowly takes the gun out of Rupert’s face and, pointing it upwards, pulls the trigger. There is a click, and flame comes out of the muzzle – it is a cigarette lighter. He lights another cigarette.

‘Just shut up and do what you’re told during this adventure,’ says Rupert, straightening his shoulders. ‘I’m in no mood to listen to your feeble macho stories and posturing.’

Donald steps back. ‘Sorry, Sean, we’re not getting off to a good start are we? I’ve just managed to get some semblance of a life only to find that one of my friends is dead and another is in deep shit – well, you get the idea, don’t you?’

Sean nods. ‘Let’s get to work. There might be a threat to Rupert’s family, or they might be involved some way. Old English aristos and all that – probably have a connection with Egypt somewhere in the past perhaps? Maybe some old fart helped himself to some relics?’

‘The fourth Viscount was out in Egypt,’ says Rupert rather reluctantly. ‘In the colonial administration… I don’t know much more about it than that.’

‘Well, let’s get inside and find out, eh?’ says George cheerily, trying to smooth the situation.

‘Who’s this?’ Sean indicates John, who has remained silent. Cropped hair, stocky, fit, alert – looks like a Forces type.

‘I’m John Hamilton,’ says John, offering his hand. He has just remembered where he has seen Sean’s face before – in a military intelligence report. Quite a while ago, when his unit was in Northern Ireland.

Martin Keyes, sitting on his hotel bed, checks his luggage. Most of the coins from the heist were disposed of long before the police questioned him. Unfortunately, rare coins are not worth anything like their collectable value on the black market. A particular buyer was willing to pay full price for a couple. Most of the rest went for a few thousand pounds, to people trying to keep their investments away from the tax man.

All but one of the half-dozen remaining coins date from the times of Julius Caesar and slightly older. All are Roman, and come much later in the timeline than the famous Queen Nefertiti. Still, anything that could have been used in Egypt should attract attention from some folks. If Nefertiti had been around in the 4th Dynasty under the name of Khentkaus and in the 18th under her own name, perhaps she’d been around in Greco-Roman Egypt too, under another identity?

The last coin is a mystery to Martin. It was inside a hidden door within the firm’s vault. It’s almost three inches wide and has hieroglyphics and pictures of animals on both sides. Later, he could find no reference anywhere to help him determine what type of coin it is, or even if it is a coin for certain. With no way to determine its value he chose not to try and just flog it.

There’s probably people in Egypt who could help identify it, but it doesn’t look as though the others have plans to travel there. Not that that need stop him going himself. Or there would be people at the British Museum, a bit more conveniently located. He rings SITU, and arranges for provenance documentation for the coins to be prepared: it should be with him the next evening. That would make life a little easier – the Egyptian border authorities took a rather dim view of antiquities moving out of the country, and bribing them to look the other way was getting to be an expensive business. You just couldn’t get the service any more.

He takes out his phone and types in a Cambridge number. ‘Hi, Trish? It’s Marty here. Yes, I know it’s late, sorry, you don’t mind, do you?’ Some chance of that – Patricia Wright has had the hots for him since he started working at the Fitz. Occupational hazard of being a male librarian – unwanted attentions. But perhaps it could be useful… Trish is quite a bookworm. He explains Rupert’s suggestion to her.

‘Oh yes, that would be Ammit – she’s a demigoddess, a sort of assistant to Anubis, the Judge of the dead. The idea is that the heart of the dead is weighted against the feather of Ma’at, goddess of justice, to see whether they’ve been good or not. If it balances perfectly, they’re OK, they get to live on in heaven. If not, they get devoured by Ammit – she’s also called ‘The Eater of the Dead’. She’s a funny-looking creature, with the head of a crocodile, the upper body of a lioness, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus.’

‘Weird! OK, cheers for that, Trish…’

Before he can bid her goodnight, she cuts back in. ‘It’s very interesting, isn’t it? – this ancient myth? And that the Eater should be female. Because the deceased were all male, of course, in this story – it was only pharaohs who got to have their hearts weighed and so on. Maybe the Ammit legend shows their fear of the fundamental feminine principle that their patriarchal society repressed – the devouring womb. So Ammit was the personification of their guilty castration complex.’

‘Er, yes, probably, that’s very interesting,’ says Martin uneasily.

‘Listen, Marty, are you doing anything for Christmas? – I know most of us single people go to their families, but you and me, well, we’re both orphans… what about spending it together? I could cook, you could bring a bottle of whisky or something – we could just curl up by the fire together. My landlady’s away, so we’d have the place to ourselves. You could come down on Christmas Eve, tomorrow I mean – we could go out for a drink…’

‘Oo, blimey, there’s someone at the door,’ says Martin hurriedly. ‘Got to go – I’ll call you back, eh?’

He closes the phone abruptly, shuddering slightly.

‘I know a way into the grounds without having to climb the walls,’ explains Rupert, as the others eye the twelve-foot barbed-wire-and-broken-glass-topped wall uneasily. He leads them round to a patch of woodland. ‘There’s all sorts of sensors and things, but I used to be able to slip out of the grounds as a teenager, to join my friends in assorted debauchery in the village. Ah, here it is!’

Donald looks rather doubtfully back towards the village – it does not look as though it contains much in the way of fleshpots – as Rupert stoops to clear away ivy from the foot of the wall, behind a thick bush. A hole is revealed, and one by one the operatives crawl through, getting masonry dust on their clothes.

‘What’s wrong with the front gate?’ asks Karyn. ‘They might be pleased to hear from you, after all this time.’

Rupert takes a deep breath, and speaks rather stiffly. ‘I have no idea what has happened to my father, or the rest of my family. For the last two years, any attempts I made to get back in touch were stopped. They probably don’t want to see me or speak to me. That aside, who knows who else is in there? If someone nasty from the Ylids is there, they wouldn’t let me in anyway. No, better to make my own way in and surprise them.’

‘As long as your old man isn’t the type who sleeps with a shotgun under his pillow,’ murmurs Sean. ‘He might not like surprises all that much.’

They are tiptoeing across the intermittently moonlit lawn, when there is the sound of barking, and running paws. ‘Jesus, you didn’t say there were dogs!’ exclaims Donald, whipping out his gun.

Rupert merely laughs, dropping to his knees as three huge Doberman Pinschers leap on him, slobbering and yapping excitedly. The more nervous members of the party cautiously return from where they had fled. ‘Good boy Napoleon! How are you, Loretta? Caught any burglars, Quincy?’ The scene is either touching or revolting, depending on your taste.

The dogs accompany Rupert towards the great house, running around his legs and tripping people up. ‘Where’s Sam when you need a good burglar?’ mutters Donald as he pries carefully at the window of the room Rupert has indicated as the library.

‘Here, let me help,’ whispers Sean, pulling out a set of small tools. Donald glances at him with the respect of one professional for another.

‘Why don’t you two head up to the third floor, third door on the left – that’s my father’s study, where he keeps his correspondence and papers. That could illuminate something of what’s been going on over the last two years. George, John, Karyn, you come with me.’

Rupert leads his three chosen companions up to the first floor, along the right-hand corridor and towards his father’s bedroom. ‘My parents keep separate bedrooms,’ he explains in a whisper. ‘Step where I step – some of the floorboards are creaky.’

He turns the door handle slowly and carefully, and eases the door open, slipping his hand through to find the lightswitch.

The door is jerked open fully, and a bright torch shines full in his face, dazzling him. ‘I warn you, I have a gun… My God! Rupert?’

‘Good morning, father,’ says Rupert rather weakly. This is not how he had imagined it.

‘So, now you’ve sunk to burgling from your own family, eh? And who are these reprobates – fellow low-lifes, criminals from the gutters of the East End, eh?’ Viscount de Montfort glances disparagingly around at John, Karyn and George. He is a tall man, even taller than Rupert, and thin, with an erect bearing and a way of looking down his nose. Even in pyjamas and a silk dressing-gown, he cuts an imposing figure, partly aided no doubt by the revolver he carries in his right hand. He is towards the far end of middle age, and must have been well into his forties when Rupert was born.

Rupert bites down the instinct to expostulate, to try and defend himself. He knows from bitter experience that excuses only make his father angrier. ‘It’s not like that at all, sir. I came to try and speak to you. I haven’t seen you for two years – things have happened to me since then, good and bad things. And it’s the bad that brings me here. I need answers, and I also need help.’

‘Hah! Then why this hole-and-corner sneaking about the place by night, eh? The last I heard from you, young man, you claimed to have mended your unruly ways. This doesn’t look much like it, I must say.’ At least the gun is now lowered.

‘Look, I can’t expect you to jump at helping me, but perhaps someone else can. Yesterday my girlfriend, the woman I kind of love, was kidnapped. The kidnappers promised that they would kill her slowly, sending me the bits in the post. But most importantly, father, she carries my unborn child within her.’

At this the viscount frowns, his tufted snowy eyebrows meshing in the middle.

‘This is your flesh and blood, your unborn grandchild. I need your help, now more so than ever. If you do nothing for me ever again, let this be it.’

‘Well! – harrumph! I see. This is a serious matter, my boy. Hmm. Well, you should come in and sit down, I suppose.’

‘The last contact I had with you, you hinted that someone or something was pressurizing you to cut me off. That on its own meant little to me at the time. Now, with what I see as a personal attack on me, I see a personal aspect to this. Someone or some group are deliberately targeting me and my close family. I need to know what is happening.’

Rupert’s father’s frown deepens yet further. ‘Pressure? Don’t know what you’re talking about, young man.’

Rupert folds his arms across his chest, impatiently. ‘Look, father. What is going on here? Who, if anyone, did you feel was pressurizing you? Did they have anything to do with Egypt, or with any strange cults?’

‘Egypt? Cults? You’re raving, boy! I most certainly never hinted any such thing. The very idea is quite absurd. I can only assume that all these drugs have rotted your brain as well as your body – not that it ever was up to very much! The Lord knows what a disappointment you’ve been to me, Rupert, but this really caps it all. I’m very sorry about what’s happened to your young lady friend, and I’ll help all I can, of course, but this arrant nonsense has got to stop. Making a spectacle of yourself in this way is simply heaping more shame upon the family name.’

Rupert erupts in fury. ‘I really hoped for once you might behave like a normal human being! I really hoped that years of fucked-up generations of our family might still produce a man who could work out the priorities of life! You’re so obsessed by your upbringing, your history, your money, that you have totally lost sight of your family. My girlfriend is missing, about to arrive in the post in little pieces! You’re just a totally selfish bastard, you know!’

Just at that point, the door is pushed open roughly, and a man is shoved into the room, Donald’s pistol at his head. He looks like a somewhat older version of Rupert, only with less chin, covered by a wispy attempt at a beard. He has a large contusion above his right eye. Sean follows behind. ‘Look what we found, trying to sneak up on us,’ he observes.

‘Ah, Charlie,’ says Rupert. ‘Er, everyone, this is my brother Charles. Glad to see you after so long… I think.’

‘I might have guessed you’d be behind all this,’ snarls Charles. ‘I heard a noise upstairs, went to investigate, and found these two ruffians rifling through your study, Father. When I challenged them, they set upon me. And now it turns out they’re friends of Rupert’s. It all makes sense, now.’

‘Bit of a misunderstanding, I’m afraid,’ says Rupert breezily. ‘Listen, Charlie, I’m in a bit of a fix and I have a feeling Father is too.’

‘Pah!’ comes an interjection from Viscount de Montfort.

‘Can you get through to him to try and listen? As a family, if we don’t stick together through troubles we might as well forget each other.’

‘I thought you had already forgotten us, Rupert.’

‘Me? It was you who forgot me, not the other way round! Or Father did, at least. I can only guess at what your role in the decision was.’ Rupert’s resentment of his brother, always the favourite, comes bubbling to the surface. ‘For God’s sake, what is it with this family! We are so up shit creek it’s not true. What is wrong with you? Do you have absolutely no feeling for family at all? I didn’t choose to be cut off for two years! Yes, I had problems, but I always considered my family to be important. Now I’m going through real difficulties, none of you seem to give a shit! Well, I just suppose Nefertiti and all the other Ylids will have to be wiped out. Along with all the scum who follow them!’

As Rupert pants for breath, the viscount says icily ‘I think you’d better leave, young man. Kindly don’t return until you’ve bridled your temper. I have already told you that I will help you, but I will not stand for this impertinence. If you wish to speak with me again, kindly visit during the day, and telephone first. You can only count yourself fortunate that all this commotion has not woken your dear mother. Charles, will you please escort your brother and his acquaintances out of the house?’

‘But Father!’ Charles beings to exclaim, but he is quelled by a glare from the viscount. Sullenly he motions at Rupert with his head. ‘Come on, then.’

The others troop along behind, not really able to marvel at the long sequence of ancestral portraits that adorns the gallery, such is the pace at which Charles is striding along, Rupert close behind him.

As they reach the front door, outside which the dogs are eagerly waiting, Charles glances around himself cautiously and then leans close to Rupert. ‘Listen, old fellow, I don’t know what you said to put the old man in such a bate. You really should be more careful, you know. His tricky ticker – the sawbones says to avoid stress.’

‘As if I could care about that!’ exclaims Rupert.

‘No, listen, Rupert, for once, instead of just sounding off. He’s been talking about you a lot lately, since you wrote that letter – he was very pleased to read it, thinking you were back on the straight and narrow at last. You must have really hit on a nerve just now. What was all that about Nefertiti? Some sort of Greek queen, wasn’t she?’

‘Egyptian,’ says Rupert impatiently. ‘Listen, Charlie, I know we’ve never got on as well as we might, but please – has anything strange happened with him over the last couple of years? Strange people visiting the house, that sort of thing?’

‘Not really. He’s been doing a lot of work with the Government recently, I suppose you know that. He’s some sort of special adviser to the Ministry of Defence now, off the back of his war experience in Palestine. Advising them on Israeli–Arab relations. You wouldn’t think a Labour government would appoint someone like him, would you? But apart from that, life has pretty much gone on as normal. Anyway, don’t worry, old fellow, I’ll put in a word for you when he calms down. But if you do want his help, you’re going to have to stay off topics which are likely to annoy him – see what I mean?’

As the operatives move away through the grounds, Rupert is lost in his own thoughts. ‘Did you find anything in the study?’ John quietly asks Donald. Donald indicates the digital camera slung around Sean’s neck.

Next Marty calls his own home, to check his answering machine. To his surprise, there is a message. ‘Marty, this is Eric Alnes. Sorry to bother you, but I need some information about the Tri Club. Anything you know about them at all – names, addresses. Anything you can think of will be useful. This is rather urgent so might I impose on you to call me back as soon as you possibly can. Many thanks.’

Dr Alnes! – hadn’t expected to hear from him again. And asking questions about the Trismegistus Club. Marty’s face twists. That’s a name he’d be happy never to hear again…

The operatives huddle in the Discovery, peering at the screen as Sean downloads the pictures into his portable PC. There is a great volume of correspondence, some of it on very official-looking paper. There are a number of deeds, wills, charters, and other such documents.

‘This is going to take some time looking through,’ says George. ‘Nothing really leaps out as suspicious. No big hieroglyphs of Nefertiti, or anything like that.’

‘I got this as well,’ says Sean, reaching into his coat and pulling out a bundle of manuscript. ‘Seems like your old man’s quite the author, on the side.’

The manuscript is entitled ‘A History of the de Montfort Family, from the Eleventh Century to the Present Day, by Percival de Montfort’. Rupert grabs for it impatiently and starts flicking through. ‘Norman, Norman, medieval, Wars of the Roses… God, this stuff is dull. Ha, here we go. The fourth Viscount, Anthony de Montfort. Governor of Egypt 1848–52. Oh… this is where the manuscript ends. How odd. Nothing about the last hundred and fifty years?’

‘Let’s have a look,’ says Karyn. She has lit up a joint, ignoring disapproving looks from George, and is puffing away. ‘Here – you have a go on this.’ She offers it to Rupert, who automatically takes it and raises it to his lips, before suddenly dropping it as though it were a poisonous snake and crushing it out quickly. Karyn, not noticing, reads ‘“It was to a province in tumult, then, that the fourth Viscount arrived, in September 1848. Egypt, only recently liberated from the scourge of Napoleon, was a backward land, its natives lazy and feckless, but it was one riddled with secret societies, political organizations, interest groups, and odd cults. Small wonder that, despite his many natural gifts, his rule was plagued with insurrection and disquiet, culminating in the revolution of 1852 in which the British were driven out.” That’s how the manuscript ends, and it’s dated September 1998.’

‘When was it your father wrote to you cutting you off?’ asks George.

‘October 98,’ replies Rupert rather emptily.

‘Listen, Rupert, I’ve been wondering – how does your mother fit into all of this?’ asks Karyn. A thought strikes her. ‘Er, she is still alive, isn’t she?’

‘Yes, yes. But she only does what Father tells her to,’ says Rupert. He seems to come back to himself a little. ‘Come on, chaps, not much more to be gained sitting out here in the cold and dark. We might as well be getting some sleep.’

‘We’d better head back to Heathrow, then, it’s too late to look for somewhere round here.’

‘I’ll stay here,’ says Sean. ‘I’ve got my van, and it might be better if I’m not seen with you too much.’

‘You can say that again,’ mutters Karyn.

Sean looks at her. ‘What about you, girlie, got somewhere to stay for the night? Plenty of room in my cab, we could keep each other warm, eh?’

Karyn shoots him a look of pure venom. ‘I’ll come back with you, Rupert, if that’s OK.’

‘What? Oh, yes, sure, fine. Righto then, let’s get moving. You give us a copy of those pictures, Sean, and we’ll give you a call around breakfast time, when we’ve hopefully got the police report and we’ve had a chance to talk to Martin, all right?’

‘No, I’ll call you,’ says Sean, and with that he melts away into the cold night.

‘What is that fellow’s problem?’ George asks himself, as the Discovery starts to bump its way back to the main road. But more on his mind is the question of Daphne. One for the morning to think about, as so many other things.

(cut to) 9 am, 24th December 2000
Sean in deMontfort village, Everyone else at Heathrow Airport

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