The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Eater of the Dead
Chapter 5

December 24th, 8 pm

Rupert frowns, staring at the painting. ‘George, old chap. Can you give us a hand in bringing down this crusty old portrait of old Tony de Montfort? I’d like to see the source of all our problems in greater detail.’

‘Are you sure it’s all right to move it?’ asks George slightly nervously. He feels more as though he is in a museum than a home.

‘Don’t worry, old fellow.’ Rupert steps up and seizes the gilt frame. ‘If they get all hot under the collar, just blame me. They won’t be at all surprised. I’ve done much worse in the past – I remember an ancient family ring that I flushed down the toilet after an argument with my father.’ He grunts, taking the strain of the weight of the picture. ‘Best place for it, if you ask me.’

Together, they wrestle the huge portrait down, and lay it across a hall table. Rupert at once fishes out a knife from his pocket and starts slitting around the back of the canvas.

‘I say, Rupes old bean, Father’ll get dreadfully shirty when he sees you’ve done that,’ says Charles, who has wandered through at the sound of tearing.

‘I’m more interested in the present than the past,’ says Rupert through gritted teeth as he saws, ‘and this picture could be vital in saving a few lives. Forget about this heap of junk! It’s not important.’

‘But I think Father is rather proud of it,’ Charles says warily.

Rupert straightens up, leaving George to catch the painting as it starts to slide off. ‘For Christ’s sake! What is wrong with you, Charles? This is past. Gone! This moron of an ancestor did something that has landed our family in more crap than you can imagine! If he were here now, I’d kick him in the balls! The next best thing seems to be to mutilate his picture.’

‘Well, if it makes you feel better, I suppose…’ Charles sounds doubtful.

‘Look, despite what you may think I’m not just a mindless vandal. Well, only on weekdays. But, anyway, this is very important. I have very good reasons for searching this picture. It is all linked to the kidnapping of Arabella and father’s dealings in Egypt. Now if you try to stop me I’ll cause havoc, and you know how good I am at that, don’t you? The little time spent at home in the holidays from boarding school are testament to what damage I can cause if I’m not happy. Now just leave me alone to do what I need to.’

Charles backs away silently, to be replaced by the Viscountess, whose lips are pressed tightly together as she watches Rupert cut the last of the canvas away from the frame. ‘Mother, can you help me at all?’ Rupert indicates the medal. ‘Have you ever seen a coin like this around the house? Or being worn by anyone?’

His mother considers. ‘No, dear, I don’t think so.’

‘Are you sure? Think! This is very important!’

‘Please don’t bully, Rupert.’ She looks again at the picture. ‘Oh, maybe… yes, I think so now, it does look a little familiar. I think your father may have had it. It wouldn’t have been something he wore, or kept on display, but I have a faint memory of him bringing it back from Coutts, with some of the other heirlooms, a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen it recently, though.’

‘Was that before or after Essawi came? And I was cut off?’

‘I really don’t know, dear. It was around that time, certainly. But please don’t think you were cut off, I’m sure your father would have forgiven you…’

Rupert grinds his teeth with frustration. ‘Very well. Can I have the key to the safe, please, mother?’ He knows that his father keeps the family’s valuables in an old-fashioned but solid wall-safe in his bedroom – those which are not on deposit at Coutts & Co in London.

‘I don’t have it, dear, I’m afraid – your father always carries it with him. The spare one disappeared years ago.’

Donald takes out his gun and pulls back the slide, checking it’s loaded. ‘Just to be safe.’ He looks alertly out to either side as Sean bends over the doorlock and, after a minute or so’s persuasion, eases back the latch.

‘OK, now we want to know when people arrive, and what they say to each other,’ says Sean, delving in his bag as John quietly closes the door behind them. ‘One up here above the door, one for the telephone, one for the bedroom, one for the living-room.’

‘There’s a balcony out the back here,’ calls Donald, who is snapping away eagerly with his new digital camera.

‘It’s pretty cold weather for standing outside, but you never know,’ says Sean sagely. ‘One out there too.’

John makes himself useful installing the devices. ‘I don’t know what the range of these things are, but I’m just gonna spend Christmas Day crashed out in my hotel room, so I could monitor things from there.’

‘You’re not coming to George’s?’ asks Donald surprisedly.

‘No,’ says John. His expression does not invite further questions.

Rupert and George, after a fruitless search of the house, have decided to stay the night. ‘If you’re worried about attacks, we can share my old room,’ suggests Rupert. ‘Only I’ll make sure my back’s to the wall. I know they get up to strange things in the Army.’

George pauses mid-callisthenic. ‘So, you’ve heard what some of the hotbloods used to do to hippies in barracks? Not the sort of thing that gets out, that. Sure you didn’t ever enlist? You might have enjoyed the attention, you know.’ He winks and clambers into bed.

‘The moustache would tickle too much,’ mutters Rupert, half to himself.

‘Any good pictures yet?’ inquires Sean, having secured the last bug.

Donald comes over and replays his findings on the camera’s LCD screen. ‘Nothing much really. No documents or anything like that. These clothes, and the woman’s jewellery – look very Egyptian, don’t they. And here’s a photo of Rupert’s dad in Egyptian dress – looks a bit like that big portrait on the stairs at the mansion, the picture of Anthony de Montfort.’

‘So what have we got?’ says John, counting on his fingers. ‘Rupert’s dad keeps this flat on to house a woman, probably Egyptian. Who visits occasionally at irregular intervals. She likes him in Egpytian dress. Maybe met him out there, but we don’t know if it was in the war or recently. That means we don’t know if he knows her through Essawi, or if he knew Essawi through her. Not important right now, anyway, we’ll learn more about her from these bugs.’

‘And she’s turning up tomorrow I guess, if the maid’s staying over tonight,’ says Donald. The maid’s tiny room contains only a rather sad collection of basic living necessities, and some spare uniforms. Her name is Adele Travis, and she comes from Tooting.

‘Speaking of which, she’ll be back from the shops before long,’ says Sean. ‘We’d better be on our way.’

‘I’m sorry, Mother, but I won’t be staying for Christmas dinner. I really have so much to do in my search for Arabella that even an important holiday like this pales into insignificance.’

Although Lady de Montfort says nothing, it is clear from her expression that she is disappointed.

‘Give my love to everyone. If you see Father, tell him this… tell him that I will stop at nothing to erase Anthony de Montfort’s legacy from the family. If he wants to speak to me and tell me the truth, he had better hurry, or it will soon be too late.’ He pauses on the doorstep. ‘Also… tell him to have a happy New Year, New Millennium and New Age.’

‘Hold on a sec, old fellow,’ says Charles, bustling up just as Rupert is about to descend the steps to join George. ‘Got a little present for you. Short notice and all, you know… bit feeble I’m afraid… but there you go.’

He hands over a bundle tied in brown paper and string. Rupert tears it open rather suspiciously, remembering some of the ‘presents’ his brother gave him as a child. But he is delighted to see that it contains a fine engraved silver cigarette-case.

‘This’ll come in handy for storing my monster spliffs! Thank you very much, Charlie, I really do appreciate it.’ He slips the case into his jacket pocket while Charles blushes bashfully.

‘Thanks for the offer, George, but I think I’d like to spend a bit of time on my own right now. You know, Christmas and all that.’ says John, over the phone. ‘It’s a bad time of year… and it gets me thinking about the sacrifices all this SITU and Ylid shit has involved. You’ll be able to get me on the mobile if you need me. Wish Daphne a Merry Christmas for me.’

Despite Rupert’s long legs, he has trouble keeping up with George, who has set off at a very brisk pace. ‘Nothing like a morning constitutional, eh?’ A light frost is still on the grass, and the air is cold and clear. The occasional bark of a pheasant can be heard from the woods.

It takes about two hours to tour the outbuildings, and although George makes a careful note of those which have seen recent activity, Rupert does not believe any of it is out of the ordinary. ‘They’re not going to hide a screaming woman in the keeper’s cottage – that’s in constant use at this time of year. And the Dutch haybarn is where the stockman’s feeding the cattle from at the moment.’ Seeing him stride around, George is reminded that his friend really is to the manor born. ‘No, the places I thought were worth checking were the abandoned buildings – the old millhouse, Hob’s Hut, the orangery – and they’re all still as deserted as they ever were.’ He shrugs. ‘Well, it’s not surprising really. I can’t see Father being prepared to let them store kidnap victims on the estate. What would people think?’

‘I wonder if it is significant that the latest note was handed in to an Oxford office?’ muses George. ‘Could this mean that Arabella is being held in Oxford, or that the enemy is actively engaged in some activity there? Perhaps, they are observing Daphne, thinking that she may be one of our agents.’

‘Perhaps.’ Rupert glances at George.

The major’s attention has been caught, though, by a glint of light among the rhododendrons. ‘I say! Look at this – wiring!’

He seizes up the flex, which snakes off through the longish grass towards the house. Then, just as suddenly, he drops it, drawing Rupert aside by the elbow. Behind his hand, he whispers ‘ Look, old chap, since the enemy seems to know what we are up to, it stands to reason that either someone is informing on us or we are being observed wherever we go. Also, if Daddy is being coerced, they could well have him under surveillance, and us with him.’

Rupert nods bemusedly.

‘So, let’s be off back to Oxford, shall we?’ says George cheerily, out loud, for the benefit of the microphones.

At the hotel, by himself in his room, John takes out his laptop and loads up mIRC. For a little while he just sits there, watching the server connection messages flow by. It is only with some effort of will that he starts to type.

> /join #scandal

#scandal is one of Vouko’s favourite chatrooms, patronized by expat Scandinavian techies exchanging news and gossip about back home.

John sits back to watch the flow of traffic. Lots of Christmas greetings. He quickly sees the nicknames of a couple of Vouko’s friends. He himself is using the new nickname Einherjar: no-one will recognize it.

‘Listen, old fellow, how do you feel about all this business? How apprehensive are you about what we may discover about Daphne?’ Rupert is not the sort of man to keep quiet for long when he has something on his mind: the car has barely left the village.

George nods consideringly. ‘I have to admit that I am somewhat concerned,’ he says judiciously. ‘But I think that she is “clean”.’

‘How can you be sure?’

‘I have to trust my judgment. It has yet to fail me.’ Although there is always a first time for everything, he thinks to himself.

Rupert stares out of the window for a moment, before turning to his friend earnestly. ‘I’m sure the chances are that she is the lovely, caring woman you think she is. But we’ve been through so much strangeness and lies from all sides that I’m getting to the stage where I think anything could be true. Just be assured that whatever happens I’ll be there to support you, OK?’

George nods assent in a manly fashion. Surely it can only be a trick of the watery Christmas sunlight which seems to make his eyes gleam damply.

Sean and Donald travel up to Oxford together after a brief phone call with George, leaving John to make his own way to Heathrow, and the Irishman takes the opportunity to expound a few of his theories. ‘That other guy, Culver, said there were two Ylid females on the loose, right? And we’ve got one SITU group up against each. Maybe one’s UK-based and the other one’s muscling in from Egypt, hey? Time will tell.’

‘It seems like the Egyptian one, Nefertiti, has quite a power base built up here, though, even if it’s not her turf,’ says Donald. ‘A Government Minister, a peer of the realm… and that old cult that Essawi used to run…’

‘I’m a bit puzzled about her relationship with the pothead’s old man, you know. Why’s the family home bugged? Is it to keep tabs on the old guy? Or in preparation for a visit by somebody?’

‘Or maybe they were expecting us to pay a visit.’

‘Mm. Better watch what we say in there. And that coin thing – the same as what Keyes has. Or as near as damnit. George said the painting wasn’t clear enough to see if it was the exact same one, or just one like it.’

‘If it’s some weird ancient artefact thing then there probably isn’t more than one. Did they find anything else interesting at the house?’

‘No, not really. The question in my mind is, if it is the same coin, how did it get to Keyes? But I guess it would be worth searching their safe, or deposit box or whatever they’ve got.’

‘It’s going to be difficult to do anything in that house without being observed,’ says Donald.

Sean thinks for a moment. ‘Well, maybe we can use that to our advantage. We say something, show the coin, pretend we know more than we do, and try to flush someone up into the open? Use the coin as bait, or just appear to be ready to beat the truth out of Pothead’s dad? Wait for the thugs and big fight to appear?’ He sounds almost gleefully expectant.

Donald glances sideways at him. ‘I bet you’d enjoy that bit, wouldn’t you?’ He smiles, without much humour. ‘Not a bad plan though. Might be worth trying.’

‘Next thing is find the location of whoever’s doing the monitoring – is there a relay point in a building on the estate? What happens if some of the cameras or bugs malfunction? Someone will arrive to repair them.’ Sean glances at Donald to be sure he is making his point clear. ‘It would be easy to have a rat chew through some wires and follow the repair man back to base…’

‘Good thinking,’ Donald nods. Despite his prejudice against Sean, he has to admit to himself that the guy’s sharp, and effective. Not the most tactful of individuals, but then Donald himself hasn’t always been as polite as he might have. It’s not that kind of job.

It is three hours before Vouko herself appears, still using her old nickname Freya. She sends a couple of brief greetings messages to the group, and is welcomed enthusiastically.

John sets his teeth, steeling himself, then types

> Freya, meet you in #goteborg?

> Do I know you, Einherjar?

> You might do. Or you might like to.

> OK…

A couple of minutes later, she joins him in a private room. Göteborg was where they first met, not that she’s likely to think anything of that.

> How are things?

> Not too bad. Not too wonderful either. If you know me, you’ll know that.

> I know. Especially at this time of year.

> Life goes on, though, nej?

> Life goes on.

> God Jul, and I hope you are spending it with someone who cares about you.

> In my heart I am. Merry Christmas to you, too, Freya. Remember, nothing lasts for ever, not even the worst things.

> You’re wrong, Einherjar. There’s one thing which does last forever. When you lose a part of yourself… the memory may fade with time, but the loss is always with you. Death – bereavement – that’s a permanent thing. If you don’t know that, you’ve been lucky.

John’s – Iain’s – eyes are too blurred to type any more, but Vouko has logged out.

George greets Daphne with his customary hug and warm embrace, then introduces Rupert, who has an ingratiating grin plastered across his face.

Daphne seems a little perturbed as Rupert steps forward and hugs her in turn, but says politely ‘It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Rupert, after all the wonderful things George has said about you.’

‘Likewise, I’m sure,’ says Rupert, bowing slightly, and seizing the opportunity to cast a sidelong glance at Daphne’s rear as she turns to lead him into the living room. He is relieved to see no overtly hippopotamoid qualities.

‘Sorry we’re so late, dear. We lost track of time.’ George makes busy with a corkscrew, a little flustered. Was Daphne warm enough towards Rupert? Was she holding back out of nervousness, or modesty, or… ‘We stayed overnight with Rupert’s family.’

‘Not to worry – the turkey’s in the oven, and I’m just making a start on the vegetables. Why don’t you put some carols on when you’ve opened that, George dear?’

With a pop, George starts dispensing ‘the good stuff’.

‘I’ll just sit in here and stay out of your way, shall I?’ suggests Rupert, his hand straying towards the TV remote.

Daphne starts to politely agree, but George interrupts with ‘Now, now, can’t have you feeling left out of things, Rupert. Here –’ and he plonks a chopping board across Rupert’s knees, a bin at his feet, a knife in his hand and a big bag of brussels sprouts to his side. ‘Just trim off the end, and the outer leaves, and make a cross in the bottom – see? Like that. We’ll need plenty of them, everyone likes sprouts.’

‘My favourite, how did you guess?’ says Rupert slightly listlessly.

‘Now if you’ll excuse me a moment, dear, I’ll just nip upstairs to put a few finishing touches to…’ George disappears.

John is startled out of his miserable reverie by the voice-activated recording equipment suddenly kicking into life. He grabs the headphones and puts them on.

For a time there is just the sound of the maid bustling round the flat, whistling ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ tunelessly to herself as she tidies. Around eleven, the doorbell goes: the maid admits a woman, exotic-sounding, with whom she is clearly familiar. There is talk of the flight from Cairo. The woman says she is in a hurry, as she has to change for lunch at Buckingham Palace: Viscount de Montfort will be picking her up shortly. Her manner is more haughty than friendly, and the maid is very deferential. It is a voice accustomed to command.

There is then a protracted series of sounds indicating washing, dressing and the like.

At about midday the door goes again: this time it is Rupert’s father. He greets the woman with the familiarity of old friends, and they kiss on both cheeks, although his manner too is rather deferential. They leave the flat, and the maid lets out a big sigh of relief and starts to prepare her own lonely Christmas lunch.

George reappears, notes with a frown that Rupert has only got halfway through the sprouts, wanders into the kitchen and hands over a small but expensive-looking package to Daphne as she straightens up from the oven.

‘Oh! Georgie! Is this for me?’ She sheds her rubber gloves and eagerly tears at the wrapping paper. ‘Perfume! Chanel No 5! Oh, dear, you shouldn’t have!’

‘Nothing is too good for the woman I love,’ proclaims George grandly, gazing raptly at her face.

‘George, darling, you’re staring.’

‘Eh? – ah, just caught up in wonderment at your beauty, my dear.’ George snaps out of his trance and kisses her gently on the forehead, which he is relieved to confirm has no traces of witch-sign. ‘Still can’t quite believe you’re actually here with me…’

‘You old sweetie!’

Rupert, out in the living room, hears the prolonged sound of kissing, and shudders heavily. He swiftly tips the untrimmed remainder of the sprouts into the bin. ‘Nasty things!’

Martin has left the de Montfort estate, which Rupert and George seem to have picked pretty clean. Getting into the safe, while tempting, is not really a daytime activity. He is currently in a lay-by on the A40 on the way to Oxford, near West Wycombe, turning the Punt disc over and over in his hand. The carvings on its surface, although he has no idea of their meaning, have a compelling power about them. And the detail is extremely fine considering the piece’s age. It must have been very well looked after. The vault he removed it from had no record of its ownership – it was well enough hidden that even the majority of the staff probably didn’t know it was there. These London firms are used by all sorts of people – from the British aristocracy to wealthy foreigners. People with secrets to keep.

He glances out of the window at the nearby church, which looks rather odd, with an immense globe halfway up the spire. People are filing out after morning service, shaking hands with the vicar and chatting cheerily. None pay any attention to the small neo-Classical mausoleum that stands in the graveyard, the urn which once held Sir Francis Dashwood’s heart in its embrasure visible through the arched entranceway. Marty shakes his head and whistles – he had not realized where he was. This is one of the Trismegistus Club’s properties, of course – Medmenham Abbey on the hill above, with the famous limestone caves where the Hellfire Club used to meet. Not that he is very well up on the history of the eighteenth century, but Edward Lloyd used to think it was an important site. ‘Fay ce que voudra’ was Dashwood’s motto – Do What You Will, the precept of Rabelais’s Abbey of Thelema. That would suit the T Club, all right.

Suddenly he is aware of an odd smell in the car. Burning! The passenger seat, on which he placed the Punt disk, is smouldering, and as he stares aghast he sees that the coin is glowing red-hot. The cushion bursts into flames, emitting choking fumes, and Marty leaps out of his own door.

Anxious churchgoers scurry over to dust him down and drag him away from the car, which is now blazing merrily. Marty can do nothing more than watch from a safe distance as the fuel tank catches and it explodes, showering hot shards of metal all around.

Donald and Sean make their appearance just before mid-day, closely followed by Martin. Donald has Mahmoud in tow, looking very uncomfortable in a shirt and tie with his hair slicked back. Daphne raises an eyebrow at the sight of this, and at Sean who has not bothered to shave, but makes them all welcome, offering drinks to all and sundry. She makes no comment about the large bulge visible under Donald’s jacket.

George, watching, thinks that Daphne definitely seems a little nervous. She is drinking faster than usual, too. But perhaps that can be ascribed to the stresses of having to deal with her man’s weird friends. He muses sadly that at least they seem to be arguing less now that Arabella and Jo are no longer around. Does it take tragedy to enforce good behaviour?

‘Do you know where Karyn is?’ he asks Donald. ‘I was expecting her, too. John’s already made his excuses. And what about Martin?’

‘I don’t know… last I heard Karyn was still at the hotel. No idea about Keyes.’

George shrugs, as Daphne emerges bearing the turkey. ‘Happy Christmas everybody! Grab a cracker!’

There is a brief moment of embarrassment as Mahmoud shrieks in terror and dives under the table at the sound of the crackers’ explosion, but Donald fishes him back out and comforts him with a hug, glaring around the table as thought challenging the others to comment. Sean has found the bottle of vintage champagne cognac George has been keeping for a special occasion, and pours himself a generous measure. ‘Here’s to absent friends, eh?’

‘Absent friends,’ echoes Daphne, taking up the carving knife (Donald’s hand inches towards his armpit). ‘Why don’t you carve, dear?’

The police find Marty in the vicarage, drinking tea and munching on a slice of Christmas cake. ‘It’s a write-off, I’m afraid, sir.’

‘Not to worry, eh?’ says Marty cheerfully. He is just glad he got out.

‘Nothing much in the wreckage, either, apart from this.’ The constable hands over a small bag. ‘Don’t know how it survived the heat, I must say.’

Marty opens it gingerly.

Inside is the Punt disk, completely undamaged. It is as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened to it at all.

As Daphne clears away the bowls and the remainder of the pudding, and George pours a round of brandies (after prising the bottle away from Sean), Donald takes him aside. He is looking visibly more relaxed, although he has not touched any alcohol. ‘Sorry old chap, for acting like an arsehole through dinner… but we all suspected her to be some fat ass bitch with pointy teeth and claws.’

‘Er, yes…’

‘She’s actually a very nice woman.’ Donald nods firmly, patting George on the arm.

George feels vindicated, but cannot help but wonder nervously what Donald might have done had he not been convinced by Daphne’s virtue.

At that point the telephone rings, and Daphne passes it to Rupert. ‘It’s the police, I’m afraid, dear.’

‘On Christmas Day? Maybe they’ve got some news about Arabella…’

‘Mr de Montfort? Chief Inspector Seymour here, Thames Valley Police.’

‘De Montfort here. You’re not watching the Queen’s Speech, then, Chief Inspector?’

‘I don’t celebrate Christmas, sir.’ Seymour, a man in late middle age Rupert guesses, sounds embittered. ‘We’ve got a lead in the case of your friend – we’re working with West Midlands on this.’

‘Ah, right.’ Rupert makes hushing motions to the rest of the room with his left hand. ‘Fire away.’

‘Talking to the courier firm – we’ve got a security camera picture of the man who handed the note in. Are you anywhere near a fax machine?’

Rupert covers the receiver and asks George. ‘He can fax it to my computer,’ Daphne suggests brightly.

There is a minor commotion while the study is opened, the computer is booted up, and George is given an opportunity to marvel at Daphne’s mousing skills.

After a little cursing by Inspector Seymour – it seems that the police clerical staff are on holiday, even if the detectives are not – the fax comes through and a greyish likeness inches down the screen.

Rupert elbows George out of the way to peer at it, and is relieved to see it is not his father – instead a rather younger man, in a light-coloured suit, hair thin on top.

‘Looks harmless enough,’ says George disappointedly. It is no-one he recognizes.

Daphne stands up from the keyboard and gazes thoughtfully at the face herself. ‘Ooh! I think I might know him!’ She pauses, holding her chin, while Rupert twitches frustratedly. ‘He looks just like someone I used to work with, when I was at the Civil Service. A man named Peter Lovell.’

‘I didn’t know you were in the Civil Service?’ says George inquiringly.

‘Oh, it was just a secondment, dear, a few years ago. I was helping them deal with some litigation work.’

‘Which department?’ asks Rupert.

‘The Ministry of Defence. Peter was in an office called Air Staff 2A. He was quite a joker, I can tell you!’ She titters, and – or is it George’s imagination? – he could almost swear she blushes slightly.

Rupert’s eyes are elsewhere, though, and he has seized the mouse and is magnifying part of the image. ‘Look!’ he points at the screen, which is showing the man’s forehead. Squinting and using a little imagination, it is just about possible to make out the cartouche of Nefertiti, in a faint, dull, silver.

There is a knock at the door, and John hastily stuffs the headset out of sight. The tape is still rolling, so if anything else of note happens it will not be missed.

It is Karyn. ‘Hi! I thought you were at George’s with the others.’ John pauses, slightly uncertain. Karyn looks despondent. ‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeah… just a bit miserable. Family time of year… you know.’ She sits down on the edge of the bed.

‘Oh… mm, your mum.’

‘Yeah.’ She nods. ‘D’you fancy hitting the minibar? Drown our sorrows?’

John is not desperately keen to drink, but he agrees out of politeness as much as anything.

A couple of drinks later, Karyn stands up on slightly wobbly legs and goes to the window. ‘Cold out there.’ Her voice is wistful. ‘Not much sign of the sun.’

‘Mm.’ John leans back on the edge of the bed. He himself rather likes the winter’s crisp, clean air.

When Karyn turns back to face him, he is taken entirely by surprise. She is now completely steady, and in both hands before her, aimed at his chest, is a silenced automatic. ‘Don’t move a muscle,’ she warns him, her voice firm and calm.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ John, amazed, starts to sit up, but there is a chunk! noise and the mattress just beside his head erupts in a  puff of stuffing. ‘Jesus!’

‘The next one’ll be closer,’ warns Karyn. She walks carefully round the edge of the bed, taking care to stay clear of his feet. ‘You shouldn’t have left me on my own for so long, you know. I was the only one here when Nefertiti came calling. She landed here this morning, you know.’

‘And you went over to her side?’ John is stunned. He does not know Karyn very well, but he could never have imagined she could be a traitor.

‘She was very… persuasive.’ Karyn’s mouth twists, followed by the rest of her face, which writhes as if she is trying to get rid of a particularly troublesome insect without using her hands. She coughs, then swallows. ‘Anyway! This can be quick and simple, or slow and painful. It’s up to you All I want is my ship back, and you can all go free. I’ll even return that stupid girl, in due course.’

‘I don’t know where the ship is,’ says John, honestly.

‘Well, you know how to find the people who have it.’ Karyn’s face writhes again, and she forces a rather sickening smile onto it. ‘There could be certain… rewards… in it for you. You’ve been lonely, haven’t you, Iain, recently? Your woman doesn’t even know you’re still alive. If you do a favour for me, I can do one for you… a very special one. Do you know how Isis brought Osiris back to life, in the legend? I could show you how I started that legend, if you want to be brought back to life as Iain, and be with your woman again…’

December 25th, 4 pm
Rupert, George, Donald, Sean – Daphne’s house in Oxford
Martin – West Wycombe
John, Karyn – Heathrow

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