The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Eater of the Dead
9 am, 24th December 2000
Martin Keyes returns Alnes’ call first thing in the morning, only to get the American physician’s answering machine. Keyes explains that his first and only job for the Trismegistus Club was during the Oxford disaster. He was hired to perform mundane tasks during the conference, and to report everything he heard or saw to Edward Lloyd and Henry Blyth. Both are now deceased, and they were his only contacts with the club.
And now the tough part, Keyes thinks to himself. ‘You see, doctor, you knew about my status as a ‘failed’ experiment of the T-Club before I did,’ he says, almost without bitterness. Keyes remembers how he learned about the likely fate of his parents, plus the differences between him the seemingly superhuman Vera Goodchild. It all was spelled out in SITU e-mail, as if it were routine. He’d stopped hating the Goodchilds’ daughter when he admitted to himself the anger was driven mostly by envy. He never forgave the Trismegistus Club.
‘When I went to work for SITU in Mexico, Lloyd stopped returning my calls, Dr. Alnes,’ Keyes says. ‘As a matter of fact, he never even picked up the phone. I’ll never know if they killed my parents over their involvement with Goodchild’s family, but their actions were those of people with something to hide.’
Rupert is rather brisk at breakfast – it appears that he is now rather more comfortable with the idea of being the prime mover and shaker in the group. ‘After all, in Egypt I was telling them what to do, with Essawi and van Heuvelen – to some extent,’ he reminds himself.
‘Right, chaps, just a few things before we make a start on the days investigations. I’m going to try to make contact with my father again. If he allows me to see him then I’ll need someone to come along with me, for protection. Ideally one of you two,’ he looks at John and Donald. ‘I don’t trust Sean as far as I can throw him.’
‘I’ll tag along,’ says Donald calmly.
‘I think the obvious lead is the 4th Viscount, Anthony de Montfort. It seems clear that my father started research on the family history, got to Anthony with every intention of continuing to the present day, but was caught. Either he uncovered something that trapped him, or he drew attention to himself from unwanted areas. Either way, he is clearly involved somehow in the Nefertiti business. His reaction when I deliberately attacked Nefertiti made that clear.’
‘How can we tackle that?’ asks Karyn, rather distractedly. Rupert has picked up her hand from on the table next to him, and is squeezing it, apparently subconsciously.
‘I think we should start by finding out as much as we can about Anthony de Montfort. There may be a clue in his background, when he was Governor of Egypt. Since the libraries won’t be open, we’ll have to rely on the Internet.’
‘I can help out with that,’ says John. ‘I’ve played around with family tree software before now.’
Rupert looks at him surprisedly, but nods. ‘As for the photos that Sean has, well, we’ll have to rely on his largesse. So we could die of old age before he deigns to give us copies. It’s just a shame he kept the photos – I think we should be a little more forceful in the future. All information should be kept communally, not for one moron to keep on his own. We should lay down some guidelines. Anyone in the group called Sean has to do what they’re told, or they have their testicles removed. That sounds fair, don’t you think?’
George clears his throat. ‘Er, listen, everyone, I’d like to invite you all to Christmas dinner tomorrow, at my house in Oxford. It really would be a great pleasure. But everyone must be presentable, and on their best behaviour, is that clear?’ He glances at Rupert. ‘Turn up at seven.’
‘Will Daphne be there?’ asks Rupert.
George nods firmly.
‘Is it OK if I bring Mahmoud?’ asks Donald. ‘I don’t suppose he knows too much about what Christmas really means, and all that stuff, but I don’t want the kid to be spending Christmas by himself.’
‘As long as he uses proper table manners,’ says George slightly doubtfully.
Marty meanwhile has been listening impatiently, waiting to make an announcement of his own. He lays on the table a clear plastic case containing the gigantic copper coin, or medal. ‘Rupert, I’d like to approach your father about identifying this. I suppose it could be a coincidence, that I, uh… came into possession of this little token. But it must have belonged to somebody else before it… belonged to me. Perhaps your old man could identify it, beyond the description I already have.’
‘Er, possibly,’ says Rupert, surprisedly. ‘He certainly knows a fair amount about old knick-knacks.’ He examines the coin himself, curiously. The symbols and figures on it are not hieroglyphs – he notes to his relief that the cartouche of Nefertiti is not present – but they are of the same sort of level of abstraction, hinting at what they represent rather than showing it plainly. ‘Where did you get it from?’
‘Well, let me stop beating about the bush,’ Marty says in a bit of a whisper. ‘SITU delivered documentation to me this morning that will allow me to prove I ‘own’ this thing legally. The fact is, it was stolen. But the former owners never put in a claim for it with their insurer, according to the papers I received from SITU. All of this could have nothing to do with out case. It shouldn’t, at least.’
‘Who were the former owners?’
‘That I don’t know. It was in a numbered deposit-box at the shop… and there were no records of any kind on the premises. Not that I could find, anyway. And I looked.’ Marty looks around again, but they are unobserved – the other hotel guests are mostly business people intent on munching their way through a Full English before boarding their flights. ‘I planned on taking it to your father late this afternoon,’ he continues. ‘I thought I would take it to an expert here in London this morning. The Egyptian embassy always has an expert in antiquities stationed in the UK, in hopes of claiming little items like this and returning them home. I thought I might try my luck there first. Then, I thought I could meet up with Sean before approaching your father.’
‘With Sean? I don’t suppose that’ll be much use,’ says Karyn dismissively.
Marty tilts his head slightly but makes no comment. He is no great admirer of Sean himself, but he does not feel that the group’s chance of success will exactly aided by open enmity. ‘Oh yeah, and here’s a fax from SITU – the police report. I picked it up at the desk just now.’
He spreads it out on the table, and everyone cranes round. It seems that the break-in was a simple one: the flimsy front door was kicked in, with few neighbours and a quiet street meaning little fear of interruption. The intruders were two men – footprints have been found – and an animal of unidentified type, possibly a lion. There are a few question marks over this. The pawprints and fur sample suggest a big cat, but there are also some smudged pawprints of another much larger animal. Reminiscent of a hippopotamus, but there is no way one of those could have fitted in through the door. The police are seeking further expert advice from London Zoo.
‘That reminds me,’ says Marty. He recounts what he was told about the demigoddess Ammit, the Eater of Souls.
‘Mm, I had a chat with Mahmoud this morning, he said the same sort of thing,’ says Donald. The lad had been OK, although frustrated at the stern TV discipline imposed by his neighbours Mary and Clive.
‘Ha!’ exclaims Rupert. ‘Then this must have been her!’
‘Let’s not leap to conclusions,’ says John cautiously. He continues to read. Jo was killed by the animal, although not before engaging in a martial arts battle with at least one of the human assailants. Arabella does not seem to have put up any struggle at all, and it is possible that she was incapacitated by a chemical agent of some sort – traces of chemicals were found in various places around the scene, and are currently being analysed. Results not expected before the 27th. Police have been questioning the locals, and a picture seems to be emerging of a black car parked across the road from the house, possibly with two men in it, although it could not have also contained a lion. Not much was taken from either flat: Jo’s service souvenirs, and a selection of Arabella’s clothing and toiletries.
‘Very decent of them,’ opines Karyn. ‘She wouldn’t want to be without her makeup, would she?’ She shakes her head in bafflement. ‘What the hell kind of ruthless murdering kidnappers are these?’
‘Look old fellow, sorry for hurting your feelings about Daphne. You know that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I’m just concerned for us all, you included. I hope you’ve given it some thought and have decided to look into the possibilities yourself.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ says George embarrassedly. In fact it has been difficult to keep the matter from the front of his mind. He called Daphne earlier to warn her about the forthcoming dinner – ‘the biggest turkey you can find, with all the trimmings!’ – and was a little surprised to find her not resistant to the idea of a huge gang of reprobates descending on them. He had been prepared to have to convince her, but instead she seemed to positively welcome the idea. ‘It’ll be lovely to meet your friends, George dear. The little Egyptian boy, I don’t suppose he’ll eat pork, will he, so no sausages and bacon for him. Are any of them vegetarians? I could do up a nice nut roast alongside the turkey.’
‘Hi, it’s John Hamilton. Season’s greetings to you as well. I’ve called about a subject you seem to have been a bit reluctant to talk about up to now. It’s the star charts we grabbed in Germany. SITU’s had quite a while to study them by now so what have you managed to find out? It’s just that I think they may be relevant to this investigation. Possible providing a location where some ceremony is to take place.’
There is a pause at the other end of the line. Then Blaize says ‘No, I don’t think so, John. We’ve got a pretty good idea what those star charts were for now, after a lot of study.’
There s another pause, so John prompts ‘… and that is?’
‘They’re tracking the movement of a particular sector of space, or rather its relative movement in Earth’s night sky. Not an especially interesting region, no bright stars in it or anything like that. In the constellation Aquila.’
‘And why might they be interested in that region?’
‘That’s the question, isn’t it?’
‘He sounded friendly enough on the phone,’ confides Rupert, as he and Donald approach the estate once more. ‘Accepted my apology.’
Donald is leaning forward. ‘Do you reckon that’s Sean’s van?’ He indicates a white Transit parked under some trees. ‘Not exactly difficult to spot. I thought he was supposed to be good at this sort of stuff.’ Donald nods to himself. ‘You know, I think there’s more to him than just his lack of personality. When I was… well, you know what I was doing… there were several ‘missions’ to Belfast. I’m sure I’ve seen him around when I was after some of the IRA leaders. Mmmm, perhaps it’s nothing.’
Sean meanwhile is lying on his back in the de Montfort garage, underneath the Viscount’s Bentley, fixing a bug. There is something strange about that guy, he has been thinking to himself. Firstly he was carrying a gun. That’s illegal. If one has security clearance and there is a threat then maybe, but then there should be police guards etc. So he is a naughty boy! Then there is his reaction to Rupert, telling him to go away and come back when he’d made an appointment!
‘Is he really the father, or a shape shifter?’ he whispers to himself. ‘Or just under the influence of a powerful Ylid?’ He slides over to under the next car – there are five in all. No telling which one the fellow might take it into his head to drive today.
John has been busily constructing a recent family tree of the de Montforts. Burke’s Peerage and Debrett’s have been very helpful. Since the 4th Viscount Anthony, there has been an unbroken succession of sons attaining to the title. None, as far as he can ascertain, has spent significant periods of time in Egypt since. Anthony himself seems to have been a curious character. The historians’ assessment of his term as Governor is not so generous as Rupert’s father’s – words like ‘grotesque incompetence’, ‘craven cowardice’ and ‘drug-crazed stupefaction’ are used with some freedom. It seems that the Viscount on arrival in the province fairly rapidly fell victim to an opium addiction, and came under the baleful influence of natives involved in the trade. It was even rumoured that he had a native mistress, a woman named Shareena el-Ahmar. His rule was characterized by lawlessness and insurrection, and ended in open rebellion, British withdrawal, and annexation by the Ottoman Empire.
Since then the de Montfort family has been relatively undistinguished, viscounts tending their estates and occasionally serving in minor governmental roles. There is plenty of information about these later rather dull but worthy aristocrats, but it seems likely that more detail on the 4th Viscount will have to be sought either in Egypt, in the family’s private records, or in the archives of the Foreign and Commonwealth (formerly Colonial) Office in London.
‘So, father, how are you this morning?’
‘Very well, thank you, Rupert. None the worse for a disturbed night.’ The greetings have been rather stiff, and the morning-room is very cold, furnished in a rather Spartan style.
‘Good, good. This is Donald, a friend of mine. You might have seen him last night. He’s helping me to search for Arabella. Don’t mind him, he’s a good friend.’
Donald nods politely as the Viscount eyes him, presumably wondering whether he is actually capable of speech on his own behalf.
Rupert explains the situation. ‘Father, it went like this. I came back to our flat that we were sharing together. Arabella was missing, our friend Jo was dead, and there was this sign on the ceiling.’ He draws the cartouche of Nefertiti.
Donald, gazing intently at the Viscount’s face, sees a shadow pass across it, swiftly dismissed, at the sight of the symbol. ‘Harrumph! Looks Egyptian.’
‘Yes, indeed. It spells the name Nefertiti. There was a note left by the kidnappers that said they would send her back to me in pieces, and that this was revenge for our taking an item of their whilst in Egypt. The note also had the same symbol on it.’
‘And did you take this item of theirs? There’s a lesson here, my boy – thievery will always find you out in the end.’
Rupert stifles a yelp of annoyance. ‘Yes, very likely, Father. However that’s all in the past now. Can you help me at all? What can we do to get her back? Remember, she is pregnant, carrying my child and your grandchild.’
‘Hmm, yes. Well, I shall certainly use what influence I have with the police, to encourage them to expedite the affair. The Chief Constable of West Midlands is an acquaintance.’
‘Anything else you can do?’
‘Such as what, m’boy?’
Rupert does not really see how he can say ‘Such as asking your evil occult friends, or possibly enemies, to let her go,’ although that is what he is thinking. But hopefully his father has got the message. ‘So, how have you and the family been? Have you been doing anything interesting for the last two years?’
‘Yes, indeed.’ The Viscount warms considerably at this change of subject. ‘I have something of a new career, as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Working with the Minister, a bumptious young puppy named Theo Twitchin. They seem to regard me as something of a Middle East expert.’
‘Have you had to travel a great deal?’ hazards Rupert.
‘Oh, yes, indeed. Visits all over the region. Israel, Egypt, Syria… you name it. It’s many years since I was in service out there, during the war, of course, but the old chaps who run these places still have a bit of fellow-feeling for a veteran officer, you know.’
John is disappointed to find that there is nothing on the Net that suggests a significance to the coming Millennium n Egyptian mythology. The Egyptians used a completely different calendar, and of course their civilization had declined long before the birth of Christ which the current year commemorates. However this has not stopped any number of wacky neo-Egyptian groups and cults hijacking the Millennium for mystic purposes of their own. Flicking through their home pages, he thinks it unlikely that any of them can be linked to the Nefertiti conspiracy, which has so far been characterized by efficiency and discretion. However, he knows enough about Ylid parapsychology to be aware that these beings draw their power from channelling the strength of human mystical belief. If the populace as a whole is credulous of the Millennium as a potent mystical moment, Nefertiti and her kin would certainly not shy from taking advantage of that to forward their own ends, no matter how little meaning the event has to their direct followers.
But the overall verdict is that there is nothing that leaps to the eye as being of particular significance.
George, armed with a list of SITU’s current Egyptian contacts, is busy on the phone. It is a short list, comprising Imam Mustafa Hosseini, the black magician Wafic Said, a professor of archaeology at the University of Cairo named Ibrahim Qawun, and the Alexandria deputy police chief, Petros Ghayaal. F these, the Imam promises to turn up what he can about the 4th Viscount’s tenure, while Ghayaal is happy to prepare a report on what the current Viscount has been getting up to in the region.
He takes a break to pop out and get Daphne a Christmas present – a bottle of Chanel No 5. ‘Something that I can take back if she turns out to be an alien agent,’ he mutters mordantly.
Rupert’s mother, a slender, pale woman, rather younger than her husband, with a permanently worried expression, has joined them, and when Rupert’s father leaves to look for his brother Charles, Rupert leans forward urgently. ‘Mother, this is very important. My girlfriend has been kidnapped, and she is pregnant with my child. The people who have kidnapped her have said that they will send her to me in bits.’
The Viscountess gasps in horror, her hand to her mouth.
‘No I know for a fact that father knows something about this.’
‘Surely not,’ she says rather weakly.
‘It is all to do with Egypt, the old Egyptian goddess Nefertiti has a strange cult that follows her. Please, can you help me. You are closer in the family to Father, close than anyone else. Just what has happened since I last saw you? The last letter I got, two years ago, Father suggested that someone was putting pressure on him to cut me off. Is that true, and if so, why? What is going on?’
By now Rupert’s mother appears near to tears. She presses her lips together tightly, and glances up terrifiedly as the Viscount re-enters the room. ‘No sign of young Charles, I’m afraid, Rupert.’
Rupert, frustrated, swiftly changes tack. ‘Ah, old Charlie, absent as ever. Why, that reminds me of the time I was expelled from Winchester, at the age of 14, for being caught drinking in the locker room.’
Rupert’s father frowns in puzzlement. ‘Winchester? What are you talking about, boy? No de Montfort was ever a Wykehamist! Have those drugs rotted your brain? It was Eton you were expelled from, and you were 16, not 14.’
‘Ah, yes, of course, so it was,’ laughs Rupert merrily, not sure whether he is relieved or perturbed to confirm that this is genuinely his father and not an impostor. ‘Now, would you mind if I were to use the library for a little while? There’s some research I’d like to carry out.’
‘Research? Books? That sounds most unlike you, Rupert. But I suppose I should encourage it. Yes, indeed, make yourself free with it. But no smoking in there, young man, is that clear?’
Sean watches with interest as the Bentley reverses out of the garage and sets off down the drive, the Viscount sitting ramrod-straight in the rear as the chauffeur expertly pilots it through the gates. The bug’s tracker is bleeping redly in his lap. After a suitable pause, he puts the Transit into gear.
He’s seen plenty of outbuildings and such – stables, sheds, summerhouses, follies – on the estate. Any number of women could be kept here, and no-one would be the wiser. It would be a full day’s work to search them all, and a team of people would be better. But there seem to be a dozen or so workers who traipse around the place during the day, so it would be difficult to be unobserved.
The Bentley is heading south-eastwards, towards London.
Rupert is leafing impatiently through the library catalogue when his mother appears at the door. She has a finger to her lips. ‘Rupert, dear, I couldn’t say earlier, but yes, I have been worried about your father. These past two years… he’s changed somehow. I’m sure there’s something preying on his mind.’
‘What sort of something?’ Rupert solicitously sits her down and pours her a cup of tea.
‘I don’t know for sure, but I think it was to do with his book. He stopped writing it, and he burnt all the remaining notes – this was just after he’d been to Egypt on a research trip. He came back looking very worried, but he wouldn’t say why.’
‘Do you know who he saw out there?’
‘No, not at all – he wouldn’t talk about it. But as I say he burnt the notes and stopped it there. And it was shortly after that he started this new work, for the government. I swear, dear, after every trip out to Egypt he seems more worried.’
‘He was there in the war, as well, wasn’t he, Mother?’
‘Yes, although that was before I knew him of course. He was in the Eighth Army under Montgomery, and fought at el-Alamein.’
‘That’s just a way west of Cairo, isn’t it?’ asks Donald – the first words he has spoken all morning.
‘Yes, that’s right.’ Rupert’s mother glances at him nervously. ‘Near the coast.’
‘And Jo was in the Gulf,’ Donald says to himself.
‘Well, Mother, this is very worrying news – thank you for telling me. I do appreciate your putting your trust in me like this,’ says Rupert. ‘Does Charlie know all this?’
‘No, well, you know Charles – he does rather tend to go through life noticing only what directly affects him.’ She smiles wistfully.
‘Has anyone Egyptian ever come to the house?’
‘No, although I believe he has met with some at work, of course. At the Ministry.’ She pauses. ‘Oh, no, hold on – I’m wrong. There was one Egyptian gentleman, yes, of course. A Mr Assewi, or something like that. He was staying at Branston Hall, not far from here – you know, near High Wycombe. That was a little earlier, though, I suppose it would have been in the summer of 1997. Branston Hall burnt down not long after that, which I thought was a great shame.’
‘Essawi came here?’ asks Rupert in amazement.
‘Yes, Essawi, that’s right. A charming gentleman from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. He and your father had quite a long private chat.’
Karyn has been filling her morning making sketches – a large box seems to be involved. She has also been on the phone to the Post Office, inquiring about overseas shipping rates. There is a gleam in her eye.
As Rupert and Donald are returning to the hotel, there is a call from Sean. ‘Has your family got any property in London?’
‘Well, yes, there’s the house in Bruton Street,’ says Rupert.
‘No warehouses? Nothing on the river?’
‘Not that I know of, no.’
‘I’m in Whitehall now. Your old man’s inside the Ministry of Defence – maybe paying a visit to his bosses, eh?’ Sean had been hoping that the Viscount might lead him straight to where Arabella was being held, but on reflection it seemed unlikely that an aristocrat would get his own hands quite so dirty. He probably had people for that sort of thing.
‘Have you found anything useful in those documents you photographed? We could really use those here, you know.’ Rupert feels he is being very restrained.
‘Not a great deal of juicy material yet, no. I’ll have a good look through it now, while I’m waiting.’
Martin Keyes has to wait until almost noon to meet with the Egyptian government’s London expert; a surprisingly young man with an American accent, named Mohammed Doudi. He explains that he is Moroccan by birth, that he was educated primarily in the US, but received a PhD from the University of Paris; all courtesy of the his father’s employer, the Egyptian diplomatic corps.
Finally, Keyes shows Doudi the medal, and the man’s face almost appears to age before the Englishman’s eyes. ‘You do not own this, Mr Keyes,’ Doudi says, almost with venom.
‘Uh, what are you saying, guv?’ Marty responds, only half surprised that the expert is questioning his claim to the medal. ‘Is it the Egyptian government’s property?’
Surprisingly, Doudi shakes his head. ‘No, I can not say this is the property of the government, since I do not know how it left Egypt or even if it is real, although it probably is. I have never seen one of these before. I have only heard them described.’
‘You have, eh? What is it, then?’
‘It is a cult item – a prayer disc, from Punt – the ancient land we now call Ethiopia. One of these was brought into Egypt during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, by a Punt delegation. The only thing we know about it is a picture of it, carved on the wall of the Temple of Luxor, surrounded by Puntish priests venerating it. I had not thought I would ever see it in real life.’
‘Was there more than one?’
‘We do not know. Only one was known to the Egyptians.’
‘What do the symbols mean?’
‘That we do not know either – the African priests refused to tell Hatshepsut. But it provided some form of protection to them, that much is clear.’
Marty nods. ‘How would I find its owner?’
Doudi smiles. ‘Mr Keyes, this disc has been missing for more than three thousand years. Its owner is the man, or woman, who can hold onto it. Myself, I would not own it for worlds.’
‘When the priests would not tell Hatshepsut its purpose, she had them tortured. They put a curse on it, so that whoever owned it would suffer as they had, betrayed by those he trusted.’
‘What happened to Hatshepsut?’
‘She was rebelled against by her stepson and ward, Tuthmosis III. Her statues were destroyed, and her name blighted to eternity.’
‘Now this is interesting,’ mutters Sean to himself. He has been systematically working through the stack of receipts, contracts and other documents he photographed in the Viscount’s study. Most of it is very dull. He has pieced together a picture of the visits to Egypt – five in the past two years, the first in September of 1998. There is a great deal of material to do with an Eighth Army veterans group, which the Viscount is President of. But most intriguingly, as well as documentation to do with the house in Bruton Street, there are details of another property – a flat, in Queen’s Gate Place, in Knightsbridge, which seems to have been purchased in October 1998. Not exactly the sort of locale you would conceal a kidnap victim, though.
He picks up the phone and calls Rupert, filling him in on what he has learnt. ‘It sounds like your old fellow’s been having a bit of rumpy-pumpy on the side, man. Flat in Knightsbridge. Deliveries of flowers, chocolates, champagne. Services of a ladies’ maid. Not consistently throughout the period – looks like about one week in four the place has been being used.’
He looks up suddenly, at the sound of a bleep from his bug tracker. The Bentley is just nosing out of the MoD car park.
December 24th 2000, 1pm
Marty – the Egyptian embassy
Sean – outside the Ministry of Defence
Rupert, George, John, Donald, Karyn – Heathrow