The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Eater of the Dead
Chapter 8

December 27th, 1 am

‘Hello, sunshine! – has Auntie Daphne been looking after you OK?’

‘She combed my hair,’ mutters Mahmoud resentfully, clinging to Donald’s legs.

Donald, laughing, tousles the glossy black locks vigorously. ‘There you go, that’s better.’ He winks at Daphne. ‘Boys will be boys, eh?’

Daphne smiles weakly.

Donald moves forward into the doorway. ‘I know this is a bit rude, but I could murder a cup of tea.’

As Daphne potters in the kitchen, Donald sits Mahmoud down close by him on the chintz sofa. ‘Er, lovely place you’ve got here, Daphne.’

‘Thanks! I’ve been here for a couple of years now. It’s a nice little neighbourhood.’ Daphne comes back in bearing the tea things, and Donald sips at his china cup, while Mahmoud squirms impatiently alongside him.

Donald smiles ingratiatingly. ‘Well this is very nice isn’t it. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed the company of a good woman.’

Daphne raises a quizzical eyebrow before laughing nervously.

Realising what he has just said, Donald starts getting flustered, ‘Wwwwhat I mean is it’s been a while since I’ve sat down and had a good gossip.’ He gulps at his tea, scalding his mouth. ‘Come on then, Daphne, dish the dirt about George. What’s he like in the sack then? We all reckon the old boy’s still got a bit of life in him finding someone like yourself – because, if you don’t mind me saying, you are top totty.’

Daphne’s smile is now rather forced, and she stiffly offers Donald a plate of biscuits. ‘Hob-nob?’

Donald, flushing, excuses himself and flees to the toilet. Here he lights a quick cigarette and mutters ‘Top totty, Jesus Christ, you arsehole, what are you trying to do to the woman, chat her up or piss her off? She’s George’s bird and it just isn’t on – have your tea, eat your biscuits and be nice, try and dig some info out on her… She has got a great pair though. George’ll never know…’ He stubs out the cigarette and heads back downstairs.

‘Sorry Daphne, I’ve had a real bitch of a day. Sometimes I just say the first thing that comes into my head. To come direct to the point, so far you’ve been very kind to me and Mahmoud, offering us a bed for the night. After some of the stuff we’ve seen recently I’ve come to trust nothing and nobody, that include girlfriends, so I think you need to get out a couple of bottles of wine, we’ll get drunk and you tell me everything about yourself. Mahmoud I think it’s time for you to go to bed. Come on Daph the night is young, get them bottles open.’

Daphne hesitates, glancing towards the door as though weighing up her chances of making a dash for it, but in the end a genuine smile breaks through her mask of politeness. ‘Well, you’re right, it is probably time we got to know each other a bit better. I do like to feel I can share some of George’s interests.’ She heads back out to the kitchen. ‘George has some Chianti here, I think he was keeping it for New Year but I’m sure he won’t mind us cracking it early.’

Donald relaxes back onto the sofa, legs apart. This is the life. He sees Mahmoud still hovering puzzledly near the door. ‘Go on, hop it, you heard what she said.’

Rupert is far from being a stranger to police stations, having had various run-ins for smoking pot, and other substances, since he was around 14. Not to mention the instances where his father called the police when he had broken pottery, and other family heirlooms. His experiences have not left him with an exaggerated respect for the men in blue.

‘Well, what do I call you? Is it PC Plod, or Dimbleby?’ He sits back in a leisurely fashion, folding his arms insolently.

Chief Inspector Seymour grits his teeth. ‘We can do this the easy way or the difficult way, Mr de Montfort, but one way or another, you’re going to tell us everything you know about these killings and kidnap.’

Rupert shrugs. ‘Ok, I’ll tell you the truth, because that will screw up your investigations. Besides, I’ll make sure I use words of less than one syllable. I don’t want to confuse you. … Oh, sorry, “syllable”. That must have really got you puzzled. Three syllables. Well, I’ll have to do better next time.’

Seymour steps swiftly round the table and delivers Rupert a hefty belt upside the head, catching him across his damaged ear. ‘Ow!’

Sergeant Harris, over in the corner of the interview room, leaps up and grabs his superior. ‘Sir! You can’t do that!’ He gestures expressively towards the tape recorder turning away quietly on the table.

‘If this little shit thinks he can make a fool out of me, he’s got another think coming,’ mutters Seymour, returning to his own side of the table while Rupert massages his sore ear resentfully. ‘Just because your ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, don’t think that gives you any special privileges in here, de Montfort. We’re all equals under the law, despite your types’ attempts to act like it doesn’t apply to them. Now get talking, and it’d better be good.’ He leans on his knuckles on the edge of the desk.

Rupert glares back at him, in no way cowed. ‘Well, if you must know, I came down to visit my father. As you may have heard, we don’t get on well, and never have done. We got into an argument, as usual. He hit me and threw me out of his room, using his sword-cane. He then slammed the door on me. That’s the last time I saw him alive.’

‘In that case,’ says Seymour smoothly, ‘how do you explain these?’ He spreads the address book and keys across the table in front of Rupert. Next to them he places the gun.

 ‘Well, I sat in the car with my companion Donald and talked over what to do. Apart from having a bloody ear I was hurt and upset about his reaction. We’ve had real flare-ups before, but never like that. I thought about it being Christmas, and decided to make my way back in to try and talk to him again.

‘Donald told me he would take a walk and think about how to solve the problem. He got out of the car, to give me some space, and he took a walk around the estate. When he returned we agreed to go back in, with Donald coming along as a bit of moral support. When we got into the house I learnt that Father was dead, and I was incredibly shocked. My last contact with my father was a disaster.’ Rupert, despite maintaining his smirk, is genuinely upset. ‘When Charles left the room I was just filled with anger and guilt. First my girlfriend goes missing, then my father dies. What was fate doing to me? I saw a gun in my father’s study, and decided that if this was happening to people around me then I would have to protect myself. I know it’s stupid, but on the spur of the moment, after learning my father had died I acted rashly. Unfortunately not a crime, even if it should be.’

‘The address book, the keys?’

‘I saw the book in his pocket. I wanted to contact all his friends, all the people he knew. To tell them, and to find out what was going on in my father’s life.’

‘What do you mean?’ says Seymour, sitting down. ‘What did you think might be going on?’

‘Well, he had been very secretive recently, according to my mother and Charles. Ask them, they’ll tell you the same thing they told me. My father had bought a secret flat in London, that neither my mother or brother knew about –those are the keys to it. Furthermore I found wires and equipment all around the estate that suggests that someone was keeping the whole family under surveillance. I have no idea what was going on, and when I saw my father there I just lost it. I decided that I would find out who was doing what to my father, and why. I was just fed up. If you want proof of what I am saying, I can give you the proof. Check the flat –  it’s now owned by my father. God knows why he bought it and when. There’s also the obvious proof of surveillance around the estate. Check the hedge by the north wall. Big cables, as thick as your wrist.’

‘We’ve already found those,’ puts in Harris, nodding encouragingly.

Seymour frowns at him. ‘Just because some aspects of his story fit the facts of the case, it doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth!’

‘I am, you know,’ says Rupert earnestly. ‘I would have no reason to lie, would I. And if you find out who is doing surveillance of the estate and how extensive it is, you’ll find out I am not guilty. Because if it’s under surveillance there’s proof on either tape or video that I left my father after an argument and alive. I wouldn’t put you onto this if it showed I was guilty would I?’

Seymour churns this line of reasoning through in his mind. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the recordings. You could have set them up yourself, knowing we wouldn’t be able to get hold of them, just as a blind to make yourself appear innocent.’ Before Rupert has a chance to respond to this tortuous charge, he stands again. ‘Tell me about this “Donald” character. Who is he?’

‘He’s called Donald Swathe,’ Rupert says calmly. ‘I hired him as a bodyguard after Arabella was kidnapped. He’s about five foot ten, brown hair, brown eyes, no really exciting distinguishing marks. Again, my family can also give a description. They saw him as well. I don’t know much about him, but then do we really know much about anyone.’ He is pretty confident that as Donald’s identity does not officially exist, he will be impossible to find, although he does not care too greatly if he does get the former hitman into trouble: this is all his fault, after all. ‘I got him through a small ad in the paper. It was a PO box number, not a real address.’

‘Right, perhaps we’re getting somewhere now,’ says Seymour. He carefully lights a small cigar, then looks up at Rupert. ‘Now perhaps you’d care to cast your mind back to the disappearance of Arabella Robyns…’

It does not take long for the alcohol to start affecting the normally abstemious Donald. He is feeling increasingly dizzy, as Daphne refills his and her own glass. She has been chattering away about her rather dull childhood in Hastings, but he has a hazy recollection that there is something he needs to ask her. He is also finding her increasingly good-looking the slosheder she gets. ‘Did you know, I’m not that drunk,’ he slurs. ‘No, I’m trained to withstand all forms of drugs.’ With that he puts his glass down and promptly falls off his chair. ‘This is my act, I get people just how I want them and then POW, I’m in like Flint. I’m unshtoppable.’

‘So, you’ve got me just how you want me now, have you?’ inquires Daphne roguishly. She reaches over to straighten his tie. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Anyways, you were telling me about the people you’ve worked for, they sound like arseholes,’ he blurts out.’ ‘In fact. I’m probably going to kill them at some point cos I’m the baddest there is.’

‘Oh dear, I don’t think you should do that,’ she says concernedly. ‘I mean, they were a bit mean to me. Well, Sarah was really. But the whole lot of them. It was like they were always going off to talk in corners about important things: I was never really let in on what was going on. Sarah and Peter especially. And then Sarah went off to Scotland, and there was a big scandal when all those people died, and that was the end of her, she just got sacked. After that Peter was much nicer. But it doesn’t surprise me that he might be mixed up in this kidnap business. He was never really what you’d call trustworthy.’

‘I know the type,’ nods Donald. ‘You got an address for him?’

‘Well, he used to live in Croydon. But that was a couple of years ago. Near East Croydon station.’

Donald nods again, digesting this, feeling that curious disconnected feeling at the back of his neck. Daphne swims doubly in his vision, each version lovelier than the other. It has been a long time. ‘I will kill him, you know. No-one should be allowed to treat you like that.’

‘Oh dear, Donald, you can’t just go around killing people, you know. That never solved anybody’s problems.’

Donald is not sure whether Daphne is taking him seriously. ‘It’s solved my problems all right,’ he says stoutly. But, thinking about it, is that true? Maybe it has caused as many problems as it has solved. He starts to cry.

‘Oh dear, you poor thing, come here.’ Daphne hugs Donald to her, his snivelling face against her shapely bosom. ‘There, there, don’t fret.’

‘I love you, I think you’re really wonderful,’ mutters Donald muffledly, trying to wrap his arms around Daphne’s back.

‘So are you, it’s all right, pet.’

‘Can we have sex now please?’

Daphne freezes and emits a small gasp of surprise.

‘We should discuss our plans for the woman staying at the Viscount’s flat,’ says George firmly, to the other operatives gathered in his hotel room. ‘Are we certain that it is Nefertiti? It might just be someone closely connected with her.’

‘Maybe,’ says Marty doubtfully.

‘If the former, then I would much rather be very far indeed away from her but, if the latter, we need to get in there and have it out with her.’

‘We should be even keener to have it out with her if it is Nefertiti!’ says Karyn enthusiastically.

‘I can’t work out why you’re so keen to underestimate the opposition,’ drawls Sean, lighting up another one of his extra strong special reserves. Have they all been gotten to? Have their minds been clouded by the enemies deceptions? The Ylid do have the power to control minds. It’s a possibility. ‘But I’ll go along with this crazy maid idea I guess. We can snatch her as she turns up for work in the morning.’

‘We should have heard from Rupert by then, once he’s persuaded Inspector Dimbleby and his rozzers that they can’t pin anything on him,’ says Geroge hopefully.

‘Don’t hold your breath,’ says Marty. ‘They’ll hang onto him as long as they can get away with.’ He too lights a cigarette, cupping the end in his hand against an imaginary wind.

‘The police radio said the pothead was armed,’ Sean reveals. ‘I don’t like the sound of that. It’s crazy!’ He remembers what happened in Mexico the second time round: everyone turning on him for his plans to use violence, but didn’t they go shooting at everything that moved every bloody time he wanted to try something intelligent like talk to the opposition? If it didn’t work, then you shot the gits! ‘The guy’s a loose cannon at the best of times.’

Despite George’s natural urge to defend Rupert against Sean’s attack, he has to admit that it does seem to have been a rash decision on Donald’s part.

‘But more of a question is why did they send an armed response unit? How did they know he was armed? At worst, he and his dad had a fight and the old guy had a heart attack… so why the high speed chase? Rupert is a known pothead, a plonker of the highest order, but not a dangerous criminal. Armed police are called in when they suspect armed resistance. There was no sign of a weapon being used on his father.’ Sean stubs out his butt and lights another without looking at it, holding the gazes of the others. ‘Maybe they were picking up the bugs on the estate, overheard the whole scene in the office? Doesn’t anyone else think all this bugging, maybe even TV cameras, is a bit strange?’ This whole situation is setting his nerves on end. He feels like a prone target. He suspects their every move is being watched and he don’t like that at all. ‘Or maybe the police were tipped off by someone? Maybe SITU?’

‘Why would they do that?’ asks John curiously. The workings of Sean’s paranoid mind fascinate him.

‘They might have arranged for him to be slowed down so he didn’t do anything silly whilst being upset. Or, here’s another theory. Charles is the next Viscount, he gets to take his late father’s place at that bash at the palace. Strange timing as far as he is concerned. Could Charles be a plant?’

‘Well, we think his father was working for Nefertiti, so who could Charles be a plant for?’

‘For her again, in case the father got removed from the picture. Or maybe for one of the others?’ He does not mention it, but he remembers the woman Daphne spoke to, Sarah St John, being talked about in an earlier SITU briefing as a likely agent of The Watcher. ‘Anyways, I reckon we should follow up on Peter Lovell, the guy on the video. He’s our softest lead.’

‘Right then, first thing in the morning,’ says George briskly, as everyone else goes quiet.

As the group breaks up and heads to its rooms, John draws Sean quietly aside. ‘I noticed that van of yours has some very suspect antennae that I recognize as not being what you’d call “normal”. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that you’d placed the odd bug or two yourself. So have you heard anything useful?’ He studies Sean’s tired face appraisingly. ‘I thought I saw you give George a funny look just back then. Have you found something out about Daphne?’

Sean nods John out of the corridor into his own room. ‘OK, man, I guess I can trust you. I have bugged her, yes. We still don’t know whether she’s an agent for the other side, so… legitimate target.’

‘I understand. What have you got?’

Sean relates the phone call, and his subsequent thoughts, and John frowns, trying to take it in. A quick call to SITU confirms the main facts. ‘It sounds as though Sarah St John thinks that the Viscount, and that means I guess Nefertiti, has taken over the Ministry from her own group – which from what SITU know must be The Watcher. And this guy Lovell was tied in with St John before she got sacked over the Clachantyre business. And now he’s gone over to Nefertiti, or else been subverted to her.’

Sean nods. ‘In that case Nefertiti must surely have deliberately chosen to reveal Lovell to us – she must have known that we’d see his forehead mark.’

‘But did she know that Daphne would recognize him, and contact Sarah?’

‘Eh… maybe… if she knows about Daphne’s background…’ Sean furrows his own brow. This is too much like a shell game. ‘Maybe that was even a thought implanted by Nefertiti. To draw us onto Sarah.’

‘I’m going to meet up with Sarah. OK, she might not be too pleased with SITU, she’s definitely anti-Nefertiti. Somewhere very public, but where we can talk without being overheard.’

‘I can wire you up if you like,’ offers Sean.

‘Good idea. And maybe you can give me a bug sweeper to check her out too.’

Sean calls SITU again to get addresses for Peter Lovell and Sarah St John. ‘And can you tell me now, was it you who set the police up to catch Rupert?’

‘No, not us,’ says Geoff Blaize reassuringly. ‘That must have been Thames Valley’s finest operating at peak paranoia level. Perhaps Rupert’s family told them he was armed, or perhaps they thought they’d be picking up Donald as well.’

‘Or maybe there’s a bug on Rupert apart from those at the house,’ guesses Sean. He is keen to have a look at the silver cigarette case.

Blaize yawns. ‘You’re keeping late nights, eh?’ says Sean sympathetically. He feels the lack of sleep himself. And, more worryingly, the lack of his little friend Shamus. Is the leprechaun being blocked by hostile influence? It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

‘Things are getting a bit tense here, with the Millennium approaching,’ admits Blaize. ‘The other groups – I guess you’re in touch with them directly – have turned up some pretty scary stuff. And Andre’s been… not quite the pillar of strength he usually is, let’s put it that way. He’s taking all this pretty badly. You know he thinks of the operatives as like his nephews and nieces, he hates it when they get brutally murdered, their babies kidnapped and sacrificed, that sort of thing.’ He chuckles, humourlessly. ‘But I guess it’ll all come out in the wash. It’s got to, eh? – or else humanity as we know it will cease to exist.’ Sean hears a gulp of liquid. ‘But don’t let me worry you. Get some sleep, eh?’

‘Easier said than done,’ murmurs Sean as he replaces the receiver. Dawn is already not too far away.

‘Good morning, Mr de Montfort. I trust you slept well?’ Seymour is all smiles.

‘Oh, yes, marvellously thank you. Just like the Ritz,’ replies Rupert cheerily. In fact he spent most f the night in conversation with his cellmate, ‘Slasher’ McNair, about the best way to kill a man with your bare hands. (Rip his larynx out.)

‘Now I just want to go over your statement of yesterday about the Robyns–Wilton case. You left your flat at approximately 10am, and walked to the station. Both women were alive then. You visited this Hardy chap, spent the day there, and returned home in the afternoon of the following day. You walked home, and the crowd wa already gathered outside the flat.’

‘That’s right,’ says Rupert impatiently. ‘Sorry, but I don’t know where you’re coming from here. The whole place was a mess, and covered in blood in gore. You know full well that there is nothing at all linking me to his. To pursue it seems bloody ridiculous, if you’ll pardon my French. But that’s the police for you.’

‘We have our methods, Mr de Montfort, we have our methods.’ Seymour chuckles, as though he is concealing a joke at Rupert’s expense.

‘Besides, haven’t you got the wrong man? I’m not black, or homosexual, and I’m not illiterate and therefore unable to write a complaint. There must be some mistake by your officers. Clearly getting confused.’

‘Maybe, maybe.’ Seymour chuckles again.

‘Look, there is no evidence linking me to the murder of Jo Wilton, and you know it. That was just someone, probably you, being over-zealous and trying to tie up a murder and kidnapping together in one neat bundle. My father’s death was a tragic example of a man with a heart problem. Nothing more. So will you please let me go home now?’

‘I don’t think so.’ Seymour makes some notes on his pad. ‘You’ll be pleased to hear your committal hearing is in an hour’s time. We expect you to be remanded in custody. Now –’ he turns the piece of paper round so that Rupert can see the name of Nefertiti he has drawn ‘– what does this symbol, found on the ceiling at the Wilton flat, mean to you?’

‘I did a bit of research. It’s a symbol for some long dead Egyptian cult of the Queen of Egypt, Nefertiti. God knows what it has to do with anything. I’m just confused and fed up. I have been through enough over the past week, without you lot making matters worse.’ Rupert sits back and folds his arms truculently. ‘Why aren’t you out there catching the real killers, for God’s sake?’

Donald wakes up on the floor beside Mahmoud’s bed, cramped and queasy. The Egyptian lad is happily ignoring him, playing with the model dinosaurs he was given by Daphne for Christmas.

Donald runs straight to the bathroom to be sick.

When he eventually descends, wearing sunglasses and distinctly green, Daphne is very polite to him. ‘Toast?’

‘Er, yes please… can I use the phone, too, please?’

He dials George and, listening to it ring, turns the receiver over in his other hand, quickly spotting a bug. He tuts sadly and removes it. Eventually George’s answering machine kicks in.

Donald hangs up and calls Rupert, but his mobile too rings and rings before diverting to voicemail.

Finally he manages to get hold of Marty, who explains the situation. ‘Righto, I’ll be down there in a couple of hours then,’ Donald says, munching toast, his face turned away from Daphne. He has only the haziest idea of what happened at the end of last night, but he is pretty sure it involved her poking him in the eye at some point.

He carefully fits the bug back into the phone once Daphne has returned to the kitchen. ‘Right, I’ll be off now,’ he calls down the hall, and without waiting for a response he steps out into the painfully bright midwinter sunlight.

Adele Travis has no sooner turned into the mews than she is grabbed, a bag pulled over her head, and she is bundled into the back so Sean’s van, with no time to emit more than a muffled squawk.

Sean is rather disappointed to see that Adele is not yet in her uniform – she is carrying it in a bag – so he is not going to witness Karyn and she changing clothes. ‘OK then girlie, best of Irish luck – you’ll need it!’

Karyn nods, slips out of the van, and walks nervously down towards the flat. It is not yet properly light overhead as she lets herself in at the upper door. All is silent in the flat: she peers quickly into each room, seeing that everything is still pretty much as it was yesterday, with the exception of the main bedroom which is occupied by a snoring Egyptian lady.

Rather than raise suspicion straight away, Karyn sets about her maidly duties, which are helpfully detailed in obsessively neat handwriting in a small notebook in the kitchen.

Rupert is as surprised as everyone else in the magistrates’ court when he is released on bail of ten thousand pounds, but this is as nothing compared to the fury of DCI Seymour. He hustles over to Rupert as he is led down from the stand, snarling ‘I’ll get you if it takes as long as I live, you little –’

Sergeant Harris wrestles him away, smiling apologetically at Rupert.

Rupert adjusts his lapels. ‘Who put up the bail?’ he asks the clerk of the court.

‘It was posted anonymously,’ that worthy replies, rather disapprovingly. ‘Most irregular.’

Rupert shrugs. Whether it was his family or SITU, it doesn’t really matter. The main thing is that he is free to resume his trail of investigation.

A brief phone call to the mansion clears up one question: Charles has no idea who posted the bail. ‘I would have, of course, old fellow, but..’ He sounds rather evasive.

‘What did you say to them to make them arrest me?’ asks Rupert suspiciously.

‘Well, it was all a bit of a misunderstanding I think. I was more talking about that fellow you had with you.’


‘Yes – one of the maids said she’d seen him snooping around Father’s study after we thought you’d gone. And he looked such a frightful blighter. But the bobbies seem to have got rather the wrong end of the stick. Frankly I didn’t care greatly for that fellow Seymour’s attitude. I mentioned that I have several friends in the Masons, and he looked at me as though I’d put poison in his tea.’ Charles chuckles weakly.

‘It’s all farcical. Of course they have nothing on me,’ Rupert reassures him. ‘So, when’s the funeral set for?’

‘Friday morning, at the village church – he’ll be laid in the family tomb. I’m not expecting a great turnout – just relatives, and the estate people of course. Food back here afterwards. I assume you’ll be here?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it,’ says Rupert. ‘Are you OK yourself, Charles? Let people know, have you? Anyone interesting. Any unusual responses? Father mixed with some odd sorts, but then again I can’t talk.’

‘No, indeed. I do hope you’re not planning to bring any of your disreputable friends to the funeral! There might be some from the Ministry, I suppose, maybe even the Minister himself, Theo Twitchin.’

Down in the van, George, Marty and Sean listen in over the bugging equipment. ‘Sounds like she’s making coffee,’ says Marty. ‘Gripping stuff!’ He wanders outside to smoke a cigarette.

‘Er, Sean,’ says George, ‘what are we going to do with her?’ He indicates the prone and trussed figure of Adele, now too terrified to even struggle. ‘I mean, in the service of a greater good and all that, but I can’t imagine she’s enjoying it. And we can’t keep her like this much longer. She’ll need food and so on.’

Sean knows more than a little about the practicalities of dealing with hostages, but he doubts if much of it will be appropriate in this case. ‘At least she hasn’t seen any of us.’

‘I really need to get back to Oxford and talk to Daphne,’ mutters George fretfully. ‘She may hold the key to reaching Lovell.’

‘No need for that old son, got his address right here.’ Sean pats his pocket.

John meanwhile is on his way to Bristol, talking on his phone as he drives. ‘Ms St John? John Hamilton here. I’d like to talk with you, about a mater of mutual interest. Let’s just say that we might have an adversary in common. It’s about the new boss at Air Staff 2A – right, yes, you’ve got it. OK, where can we get together? Sooner the better.’

It is no more than an hour later when he finds himself sat across from her in a small pavement café in Whiteladies Road. Sarah St John is a small, self-possessed woman with bobbed blonde and very firm blue eyes. She is power-dressed in a pinstripe suit and carries a ThinkPad. She makes no objection to John sweeping her for bugs: there are none.

She listens intently, tapping her pen on her computer, while John explains quietly and carefully why she should believe he is who he says he is. It turns out she has known of SITU’s existence for some time. ‘Your actions do not greatly concern my superior,’ she says rather disdainfully. ‘He is above the squabbles of his brothers and sisters.’

‘But Nefertiti taking over the Ministry of Defence does concern him?’

‘You should not say her name. It gives her power.’ She frowns at John. ‘I do not understand what you have to offer. Our power is immeasurably greater than yours. We have our own objectives, which do not interact with yours. What are you putting on the table, Mr Hamilton?’

Marty is surprised to see Rupert turn into the end of the mews, having hotfooted it down from Oxford on the coach. ‘Hey! Thought you were in the slammer.’

‘I got out. Time off for good behaviour,’ says Rupert tersely. He knocks on the van, is slightly surprised to see the tied-up Adele inside, and takes the dubhium serum from Sean. ‘The police weren’t kind enough to give me back my unlicensed firearm, so I’d be grateful for another one.’

Sean looks contemptuously blank, so George somewhat against his better judgement fishes out his own handgun and hands it to Rupert. ‘What’s the plan?’ he asks. ‘You create a diversion, we go in at the back?’

‘I want a word with her by myself first,’ says Rupert grimly. ‘You fellows stand by in case of emergency.’

‘What’s the signal?’ asks Marty.

‘Probably a blood-curdling scream of agony,’ says Rupert, and he strides off without saying whether it will be his own or Shareena’s.

He bounds up the stairs, and as soon as the maid opens the door he puts the gun to her head. ‘Show me to that bitch Shareena el-Ahmar. Now!’

Karyn feels genuinely menaced by his ferocious mien. She is also made uneasy by the shakiness of his gun hand, so it is no great feat of acting to appear terrified as she beckons him into the flat.

‘Hi, guys,’ mutters Donald, as he too enters the mews.

‘Are you OK? You look like shit warmed up,’ says Marty tactlessly. Not having the disk on his person makes him feel uneasy, as though the sun’s rays are about to crisp him at any moment.

‘Touch of flu. Be OK in a day or so.’ Donald sits down on the kerb.

‘You fancy a drink of tea there, Donald?’ calls George jovially from the cab. Donald grimaces and ignores him, head in hands.

‘Here, you’d better have these,’ he says eventually, handing to Marty the documents he took from Rupert’s father’s study. ‘Just don’t let Sean take them away.’

Marty scans them briefly: they look like notes on the preparation of the Viscount’s book on his family history. They are crabbed, illegible in places, and extremely unstructured. He sighs. ‘Fun job for somebody, trying to get anything useful out of this lot.’

‘You’re the librarian, aren’t you?’ says Sean unsympathetically. ‘Now keep your noise down, I’m trying to hear what’s going on in there.’

‘Ah, the great Shareena el-Ahmar. Mistress to my ancestor Anthony de Montfort. Maybe I ought to introduce myself to you. I am Rupert de Montfort, now next in line to be Viscount. My father is dead you know.’

The woman to whom Rupert is speaking doesn’t look like any kind of goddess. She is around forty, tall for a Middle Easterner, slim and with a slightly faded beauty that Rupert can see appealing to an older man. She is dressed in silk pyjamas and housecoat, but still has a certain presence. It is only the warm pulsing of the sun disk, inside the cigarette case in his pocket, which makes the encounter unusual.

Karyn has backed away into a corner. Now that the woman is awake, she can sense that this is the same presence that polluted her before. But Nefertiti has all her attention focussed on Rupert, and has not yet recognized Karyn.

‘I know he is dead,’ Shareena says, in a deep, warm voice, heavily accented. She studies Rupert appraisingly. ‘I had not thought you would be so ruthless as to kill him.’

‘It was an accident!’ Rupert exclaims, before catching himself. Why is he making excuses to this monster? ‘Now, I want some answers and I want them now. I have no idea what you want from me or my family, but I do know that you are playing games with my life. Tell me now exactly what you want with me. Why, where and when, or I will do my utmost to stop you. At least if you tell me there’s a chance that I might decide to help you. You never know, stranger things have happened.’

Shareena imperiously makes her way to a sofa and sits, her back erect.

 ‘This is a gun, in case you hadn’t realised,’ blusters Rupert, brandishing it. ‘If you make one move to attack me, mentally or physically, there will be rather a lot of dead Egyptian woman spattered all over the walls.’

‘I do not think so,’ says Shareena quietly.

‘If you knew anything of me and my current mood you would know that I’m not farting around here! I’m quite prepared to use this!’

‘I do not doubt it. But you should know that it will have no effect on me.’ She smiles, revealing very white, even teeth. ‘You may as well sit down and make yourself comfortable.’

Rupert sees the sense of this, and perches opposite her, keeping the gun trained, just in case. ‘Your father was a friend of mine,’ Shareena says. ‘I mourn his death, whether you believe it or not. And I wish you no harm, or anyone else of your family.’

‘Then why did your man Essawi tell my father to disown me?’

‘Because I became aware that you were in a group hostile to me.’ She sighs and looks downcast. ‘I should have guessed that such action would drive you to great lengths, that you would not just give up. You truly are your father’s son. He too was a very stubborn man.’

Rupert feels more than a little flattered. But wait! – is this some subtle emotional attack? ‘Where is Arabella, and why has she been kidnapped?’

‘She is safe, far from here. She was kidnapped to exchange or my ship, which you and your friends stole from beneath the Sphinx. As the note that was left for you said. I do not lie about such things.’

Rupert nods, not fully satisfied with this answer. But there are many things he wishes to know. ‘What exactly did Anthony de Montfort do to get us into this mess?’

Shareena laughs, a gorgeous golden sound. ‘Nothing so terrible. He fell in love, that is all.’

‘With you?’ Rupert can definitely see how his ancestor might have been captivated.

‘With me, with Egypt, with our history… with everything. He had led a very different life to you, or to your father. His mind had not been opened up to other experiences.’

‘All right then, what do you want from me?’

‘As I said – the return of my ship. You will receive your friend back safe and unharmed.’

‘I thought you were going to cut off her fingers,’ Rupert reminds her.

‘I am too soft-hearted for that,’ Shareena informs him modestly. ‘Her fingers are so pretty. Such pale skin, like a doll.’

‘So how does all this tie in with whatever it is you’ve got planned for New Year’s Eve?’

‘It does not.’ Shareena looks him full in the eyes. ‘You need not concern yourself about that: it will not affect you, or any of those whom your hold dear.’

Rupert frowns, trying to work out what she may be up to, and she continues. ‘When I met you first in Egypt, Rupert, in your dreams, I tried to persuade you to join me, to work against your friends. That was foolish, I know now. I underestimated you – your strength, your loyalty. Perhaps I had believed your father a little too much. But now I feel I know more about you, and I will not patronize you. I told you then that I am not as my brothers and sisters who war against you and you friends. If your friends had not carried the battle to me, I would never have done any of you harm. Now, with the exchange of the pieces we hold, we can make an end to this conflict: I will go back to my life, you will go back to yours, you and Arabella happy together.’

Rupert chews his lip. ‘This is not something I can say yes to just like that…’

December 27th, 2pm
Rupert and Karyn – inside the flat
George, Donald, Marty, Sean – outside it
John – in Bristol

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