The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Eater of the Dead
December 27th, 11pm
Rupert is welcomed into the family townhouse in Mayfair with open arms. The two elderly retainers who tend the place, tidying it for those rare occasions when the late Viscount stayed there overnight, either do not know that he is supposed to have been cut off, or have decided in the wake of the recent tragedy that de Montfort blood is thicker than water. After a slap-up meal, despite the late hour, he is able to put his feet up in the parlour, ‘Levelling the Land’ blasting gently away on the hi-fi, a glass of fine burgundy in one hand, a box of truffles on his knee, and the telephone cradled against the side of his head. ‘Hello Blaize old chap. How are things your end?’
Blaize sounds confused and tired, as usual. ‘Rupert? You should make me one of your Friends and Family, you’re calling so often. What is it now?’
‘Look, I have rung you to clarify a few things, if you don’t mind. Is it just me, or are you withholding information from us all?’
A sigh. ‘Not this again. Look, just tell me what you want to know, and I’ll answer it, OK? I don’t have the energy for an argument.’
Rupert is a little suspicious, although his jovial voice, which has a slight edge to it, does not show it. ‘Right, well the answers I want are these. Firstly, do you know exactly what the “servitors” plan for New Years Eve?’
‘New Year’s Eve? Um, I don’t think they’ve got anything special planned. At least, not that I know about.’ Blaize sounds genuinely surprised. ‘It’s more that they’re – we’re – going to be thwarting whatever schemes the Ylids have planned. New Year – especially a new millennium – is a big time for the Ylids. Lots of raw belief energy flowing around. Apart from Nefertiti, we think The Watcher has some big ceremony planned, and there’s something going on down in Australia too.’
‘OK – tell me this, then. Where is Nefertiti’s spaceship kept?’
Blaize is briefly silent. ‘Why do you want to know that? Did she tell you to ask me? Have you done a deal with her?’
‘You’re very suspicious today! I thought I was supposed to be the one asking the questions. Okay, have it your own way old chap. I’ll just have to put my phone, one of those really modern ones, on automatic redial for your number. You’ll receive a call every… what… five minutes. For the next say six hours. I’m sure you’ll love that, and you don’t really want to get any sleep anyway, do you?’
‘If you do that, Rupert, I’ll just unplug it. Then it’ll just be the other investigative teams you’re harming – when they try and call me, they won’t be able to get through.’
‘Believe it or not, I’m not really all that bothered about them. Well, I’ll be speaking to you soon, and I want some direct answers to my questions. Also, about Swahn. He’s obviously working for the other side. If I find him his testicles will be hanging from the nearest lamppost. Not something that would worry you of course, since I already have yours in my hand right now. Alarmingly small and atrophied they are too. Well, speak soon. Byeee! ‘
Rupert waits twenty minutes, drinking another glass of wine, and then rings Blaize again, still in a jovial mood with an edge. ‘Listen, Blaize, I’ll leave you alone if you just tell me what I want to know. Where’s the ship?’
‘Jesus Christ! Right, that does it. I’m unplugging the phone.’ And with that, the line goes dead.
George has taken the opportunity to spend a little ‘quality time’ with Daphne – only their second night together since the start of this painful episode – and it is initially a surprise when she calls him to the phone to speak to Rupert. He had almost been able to forget, just for a brief while, with Daphne her usual loving self – perhaps tinged with an even greater hint of admiration – that he was in the middle of a mission. Daphne seems a little uncomfortable as she hands the receiver over.
‘I asked Daphers if you were tired out from an “active night”,’ Rupert explains. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink! say no more… you know the sort of thing. So, Georgie Porgie old boy.’
‘You sound in good spirits,’ says George. He means ‘drunk’.
‘Yes, I’ve had a chance to relax a bit here. So anyway, are you coming to the family funeral? It’ll be a blast. Old duffers all over the place. Dregs of the aristocracy in one small, stained and poor-quality bucket. So much possibility for havoc to be caused, but just a shame that it had to be for my father’s death really. I’d have loved to met them all one last time in better circumstances when I was high as a kite. Just imagine the fun I’d have had. As it is I can’t really wind them up too much. Not only will it be in bad taste, but I fear I might even be overcome by the occasion. Unlike me I know, but strange circumstances bring out strange behaviour in all of us. So, will you come? I’d love you to, but have you got something more important you think needs doing?’
‘Not at all, it’d be a pleasure,’ says George affably. ‘The opportunity to question this Twitchin fellow must be taken.’ And Rupert might well need a steadying hand, he thinks to himself. In case it all gets too emotional. ‘I’ll pick you up from Mayfair if you like: we can travel and arrive together. Mutual support, don’t you know?’
‘Hi, it’s John. Hi Sean. Yeah sure, on my way.’
John is relieved to hear of the opportunity for some action that will make a difference. As he packs his kit together to head to London, he thinks over what Sarah St John has told him.
In the car he dials her number. ‘Hi Sarah. Yeah, I know it’s late. Listen, I’ve been called away rather suddenly but I should be back for a meeting with you tomorrow. Yes, it’s to do with the ship. Anyway, I’ve got a small favour to ask. I’m trying to track down some info…’
‘I think we’d better follow these guys for a while,’ Donald turns to Marty. ‘I want to find out what they’re up to. Come on!’ He hails a passing taxi and gets in. ‘Follow that car! the buggers are shagging my mate’s wife.’
‘Bloody hell! Right you are, guv,’ exclaims the cabbie, and floors the accelerator.
‘Sorry, couldn’t think of anything better,’ Donald mumbles to the outraged Marty.
The journey is a slow one, into central London. It is not until Horse Guards Avenue that the two large black-clad men get out: they walk into the Ministry of Defence.
‘Well, we can’t really follow them in there,’ says Marty reasonably, as he pays off the cab.
Donald balls his fists frustratedly. ‘OK, phone call time.’ He pulls out his mobile. ‘John, it’s Donald. I’ve got a load of info, I’m heading to Walthamstow soon, I need you to join me there. I’ll text you directions on the mobile in a minute or two.’
‘Already on my way,’ says John. He does not sound in a good mood.
‘OK… bring some hardware if you can.’
‘I don’t have access to much, but Sean’s providing. See you soon.’
Donald frowns, ends the call, and dials Sean. ‘Sean, it’s Donald – are you up for a bit of recce?’
‘I’m in the middle of some now – warehouse in Walthamstow. Just followed Nefertiti here.’
Donald is somewhat put out. ‘Oh, right then… well done. Arabella’s there too, it looks like. Can you perhaps have an initial look around, just get an idea of entrances, exits, people coming and going that sort of thing. Oh have you got any explosives handy, we’ll need a fair bit I think. If you haven’t then get some.’
‘All under control,’ says Sean reassuringly.
‘I need to get some bits and pieces as well. Don’t be a hero and go in on your own, I’ve a feeling there’s a small army waiting in there, oh and a monster. Besides if we blow Arabella up then Rupert will not be pleased. I think we’d lose him altogether if we killed her. Just get an idea of layout, numbers, we’ll start a shooting match later on. My best plan is get the girl out and then blow the crap out of the place and run like buggery… pretty much worked in Egypt.’
‘Rupert, got news, I know where Arabella is.’
‘You do?’ Rupert makes an effort to snap out of brandy-induced somnolence. He is relieved to see the servants have silently tidied up his mess of the night.
‘Yes, we’re going there now,’ comes Donald’s crackly voice. ‘No, I can’t kill everything there… Yes, I know I owe you… Alright, I’ll try… Well, remember the crocodile hippo monster thing, that’s there too.’
Rupert hangs up, shaking his head. It seems a pity not to be involved in Arabella’s rescue himself, but he has other duties.
Donald meanwhile has one more call to make before heading for Walthamstow. From a phone box, with a jamming device.
‘Hi Mickey, it’s Donald. I need some more stuff.’
‘Croydon? – no, never been there.’
‘Jehovah’s Witnesses? – not my style, mate. I’d pose as Avon if it was me.’
‘I need some Woodys, and to be safe I need the rest of the cast of Toy Story.’
‘Yes I am serious, I’m in some pretty heavy shit here.’
‘I’ll need it in about 2–3 hours time. I’ll text you the address soon.’
‘When you come round, don’t send Mr Whippy – it’s in an industrial estate, be discreet.’
‘So, you’re off, are you, bitch?’ murmurs Sean to himself as he sees Nefertiti’s Rover pull out of the compound and start off northwards. Probably a good thing, with an attack planning. Bound to be easier with her out of the way. But where might she be headed now?
He has asked the others to see if they can scout up blueprints of the building, and Martin has gone off to the Borough Council offices to investigate.
The rest of the time he has spent in reconnaissance of the whole area, and in preparing the rather exotic assortment of weaponry he has to hand. Those IRA quartermasters who laid down their armaments against a future rising had known how to take care of the bits and pieces they had bought, stolen or been given by sympathetic regimes in Africa and Eastern Europe. They had probably never envisaged quite the sort of use that they were going to be put to now.
By the time George arrives in Mayfair, Rupert is already the worse for a bottle of 12-year-old malt. ‘George old chap. Good to see you! This won’t be much fun, but maybe a really intel… inte… clever chap like you will be able to get something out of it. I’m planning to be out of it myself, a bit. Sort of protection. Won’t do much good though.’ He seems a little upset already.
‘Have you finished with my pistol, old chap?’ asks George as he starts the car. ‘I might have a use for it later on.’
Rupert distractedly hands it over. ‘The others are rescuing Arabella,’ he mutters.
‘Mm, that should certainly be top priority,’ George responds soothingly, pulling out into traffic on Park Lane. ‘We can’t trust Nefertiti to give her back safe and sound, whatever we do for her. And even if we are to have an Ylid as Queen, you’ll be happier with ’Bella with you.’ He glances across at Rupert’s poached-looking face. ‘Some chaps are very attached to their women, and any indignity must be reciprocated. You agree?’
‘Mm, abs’lutely.’ Rupert nods wisely, an effect somewhat spoilt by being seemingly unable to stop. ‘We could grab some suspect, if we find one at the funeral. You know, a little of the old “questioning”. You can apply pain to his or her vulnerable extremities. You probably have experience of that sort of stuff with Daphne.’
‘And then arrange a liaison with the others,’ continues George manfully.
Rupert is in a vein, though. ‘We can hopefully get some information from at least one of these idiots. By fair means or foul. In your case George fairly foul. But maybe a little applied pressure? We need information, and yesterday.’
‘We certainly do…’
The funeral itself is all George might have been dreading. Rupert’s relatives have a strong family resemblance, and it is not a wholly flattering one. The importation of reasonably-good-looking outside blood at each generation does not seem to have had all that much effect.
The general mood is one of relief, oddly. It seems that the late Viscount did not confine his tyranny to his immediate family. All the same, relatives are eager to commiserate with Rupert on his loss, and George winces at the venom with which his friend repulses their advances. ‘This is Uncle Edward, a totally mindless and thick fascist git. I get on really well with him as you can imagine.’
‘I say! That’s a bit…’
‘And Aunt Agatha… she’s just a malicious old trout.’
‘Rupert! How could you!’
George smiles nervously and shepherds Rupert away to a quiet corner, but he continues to ramble malevolently. ‘Over there’s my cousin Jeffrey, another inbred idiot, and his trophy wife, who looks vacant most of the time. That isn’t important of course ‘cause she has very big… eyes.’
‘Why don’t you have some coffee, old chap?’ tries George. He is nervously aware that newspaper journalists are present.
Rupert ignores him. ‘And Dad’s best friend Arthur Coleville-Huntley. Boring pillock.’
As the minister leads the way over to the family mausoleum, Rupert leans close to George and mutters ‘As you can see, George, my family are a lovely bunch of people. Now you know why I took drugs.’
When Donald arrives at the warehouse, he quickly locates Sean. Sean nods companionably at him. ‘You sure it was totally called-for to kill that guy Lovell?’
‘We’ve denied him to the other side,’ says Donald. ‘Those two guys in black from the MoD were pretty disappointed to find him dead. They hadn’t come round just to have a cup of tea, I shouldn’t think.’
From the back of the van, Donald sees a sandwich van drives around the corner into the industrial estate. He looks at Sean. ‘Stay there – back in a mo.’
He hops out of the van and strolls over to the sandwich van: a large blue holdall is thrust into his hands, as well as a cheese and onion sandwich. No words are exchanged, and Donald strolls back to the van.
‘What have you got there?’ asks Sean, looking at the bulging holdall
‘A cheese and onion sarnie,’ replies Donald, taking a bite hungrily.
‘Charlie, how the hell are you? I’m feeling pretty crap myself at the moment.’
‘Yes, poor old pater, eh? I do miss the dear old chap.’
‘That’s not quite what I meant, but… Look Charles, do you have any plans for New Year’s Eve?’
‘Eh? Er, yes, do actually as a matter of fact.’ Charles looks smug. ‘Invitation came in the post this morning. Buck House! – meal with HM and family. Not bad, eh? Seems like it was going to be Father initially, and then they decided that yours truly would do just as well. Family name, and all that.’
‘Ah, yes, the Palace,’ Rupert says airily. ‘Do you know what’s happening there. Seems an odd bunch to be there. Why our idiotic family should be invited I don’t know. I spoke to Shareena myself. She wants me to be there too.’
‘Shareena?’ Charles looks blank. ‘Is that one of the other guests? I didn’t really read the list properly. Ministry colleagues of Dad’s, and Egyptians, I thought.’ What Rupert has said catches up with him. ‘You’re going to be there? Good Lord! Why on earth?’ He looks distinctly put out.
‘Sorry. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.’ Rupert turns to face the interment party. ‘Now keep quiet, Charlie. The minister’s about to start the service.’
It is getting late by the time Martin reappears with a photocopy of the building’s plans. ‘I had to sweet-talk the archivist,’ he explains nonchalantly, spreading them out in the back of the van. He watches with some amusement as John, Sean and Donald go into a huddle, comparing features on the plans with those they have observed visually during reconnaissance. They seem to have got over the mild urge to compete with each other in display of competence and experience: it is clear that all three of them know what they are doing.
Donald opens his holdall and present them with an impressive array of weaponry. ‘Take your pick,’ he says. ‘This isn’t going to be as easy as it was in Egypt, John. That nearly went wrong as well. If we’re going in we’re going in armed to the teeth: Arabella’s in there somewhere, there’s a monster which could needs downing, and so is Nefertiti’s army by all accounts.’
Sean pulls out his own stock of weapons, now cleaned and prepped after their long sojourn underground. ‘Well, looks like we could start a small war if we needed to, between us!’
George is not surprised to feel Rupert’s weight clinging to his arm as the lengthy service wears on – the alcohol is beginning to affect his balance – but he is when he hears a snuffling, blubbing sound, and turns to see Rupert wiping his nose and eyes on the cuff of his jacket. Rupert glares fiercely when he sees George has noticed this emotional outburst.
‘Right then,’ says Sean eventually, rubbing his eyes and sitting back, ‘this is the plan. I put charges here, here, here and here.’ He taps the map.
‘Enough to damage the walls, not enough to make the building fall down. Not while Arabella’s still in there,’ says John.
‘You, John, keep me covered with the sniper rifle, from the bushes here.’ Donald is the better marksman, but Sean feels more comfortable with a soldier watching his back, rather than a ruthless assassin. He smiles wryly as he reflects that not so long ago, back in Northern Ireland, John would have happily put a bullet into the back of his head if he’d seen him laying explosives. ‘Drop the patrolling guards, the dogs’ll be taken out by the poisoned meat. On the word, I set off the charges, and Donald, you’ve got the RPG, you send a half-dozen smoke grenades into the building. Then lay down a field of fire across the front.’
‘I can do that,’ grins Donald.
‘Marty –’ Martin looks up, startled to hear his name ‘– you sneak in the back here, into this ventilation space, through the hole the explosive’s left. This, here, is the room they’re most likely to be keeping Arabella in – no external windows. You should be able to make your way to above it inside sixty seconds, with a mask on for the smoke. By this point John’s moved up to the electricity substation, just thirty yards from this corner of the warehouse, and he’s covering your entry from there, also masked up. If you have any trouble, hit the signal button, and he’ll come in after you. Meanwhile, Donald and me are engaging from the front, keeping moving about. Switching between picking them off and laying down a field of fire. Unless they’ve got IR equipment, they’ll think there’s a few of us. We’ve not seen more than ten of them today. Should be no trouble. Now that Nefertiti’s gone.’
‘What about Ammit, though?’ asks Marty. ‘That monster that made such a mess of your friend Jo.’ He shudders: he does not like his part in this at all, it seems to be insanely risky. But as far as the others are concerned, he’s the party’s ‘thief’: that’s his job.
‘If we come across her, all bets are off. Hit her with what we’ve got – if it takes her down, good, if not, back to the van and we go,’ says Donald.
‘Reassembly points here for Marty and John, here for me and you, back here at the van for all four of us. Diversion provided by this last charge I set off over here, at the gates of the next building.’ Sean glances round the intent faces. ‘Everyone got it?’
Donald is busily strapping a pistol to each leg. He picks out a shotgun and his leather attaché case, pocketing some ammo and attaching some smoke grenades to his belt. ‘Got it.’ He catches John’s eye. ‘I know this sort of operation isn’t exactly your cup of tea, you’re an army man – but bad guys is bad guys.’
John nods. He has been notably quiet all day, with a very set, almost brooding, expression. It is not a mood that can readily be explained by what he has related of his meeting in Bristol.
After the service, Rupert shambles over towards Theo Twitchin, the Defence Secretary of Her Majesty’s Government, his late father’s boss. Twitchin is surrounded by a screen of Ministry drones: he is a slightly tubby, self-important man of around 40. They are the only people present who are neither family nor friends. In particular, George notes as he hurries to accompany Rupert, Nefertiti is conspicuous by her absence.
‘Hello old chap,’ Rupert greets the Minister. ‘You knew my father I understand?’
Twitchin regards him suspiciously at first, but unbends slightly when he realizes this is a grieving relative. His flunkies move away slightly to allow Rupert to shake his hand; not that Rupert makes any move to do so. Instead he wags a finger under Twitchin’s nose. ‘You were also involved with all that Shareena el-Ahmar stuff, along with Peter Lovell, were you?’
Twitchin goggles slightly. ‘Er, I don’t know quite what you mean, Mr de Montfort. I do have the pleasure of knowing Ms el-Ahmar, yes, thanks to your late father. And Mr Lovell works in my department, I believe. Yes, in Air Staff 2A.’
‘So if I told you I’d met dearest Shareena at my father’s secret house in London, and she has told me about her plans for New Year’s Eve, and what moves she has made to force our friend The Watcher out of your section and to seize control of it herself?’
Now the Minister looks distinctly worried, and backs away slightly. ‘Control of my section? The Watcher? I don’t know what you mean.’ He minders close up around him once more. Rupert is not sure: if the man is covering up deep cunning and conspiratorial knowledge, he is doing it very convincingly. ‘No-one controls my section apart from me, Mr de Montfort, I assure you of that. And the Prime Minister, of course. No Egyptian national, however great a friend to this country, can exercise any influence over my staff.’
George warily tugs on Rupert’s sleeve, as the minders eye him up and down menacingly.
As he is dragged away, Rupert blows a long and wet raspberry. ‘Well stuff you then. Father said you were anally retentive. Given your favourite pastime with sheep I think that was quite appropriate really.’ He puts two fingers up at Twitchin and, shrugging off George’s restraining arm, turns away – putting on a very bad Austrian accent and saying, ‘I’ll be back. Hasta La Vista, you big baby.’
To begin with, everything goes smoothly.
Darkness falls and thickens. At 6 pm, Sean tosses over two big chunks of strychnined steak, and as each dog in turn bends to gobble it up, John drops the two patrolling guards with a single bullet each, squinting through his image-intensifier.
‘Nice shootin’,’ breathes Sean as he clambers over the fence and ghosts towards the edge of the building. For a man who is frankly neither in the first flush of youth nor in good physical shape, he manages to summon up a remarkable power of concentration.
‘It’s been a while since ye tried this sort o’thing, eh?’ whispers a voice in his ear.
‘You hush now, Shamus,’ mutters Sean. He had been wondering where the little fellow had gone, but now is not the best time for him to reappear.
He moves cautiously and swiftly around the warehouse, stubby fingers expertly readying the radio detonators.
All remains quiet and peaceful as Sean moves back away from the building, the gibbous moon riding low above thin, scudding clouds.
Donald signals that he is in position with the grenade-launcher, and Sean gets the thumbs-up from John and Martin, both ready to move on his word.
He presses the first button.
Simultaneously, at four points on the warehouse’s perimeter, explosions echo out across the deserted concrete apron.
At once the air is filled with an eerie piping sound, at the same time thin and penetrating, screeking out across the dying rumbles of tumbling masonry.
Donald, sighting on the high windows above the main entrance, calmly places three smoke grenades into the building. He then moves to one corner and sends another three in through the hole made by Sean’s explosive charge.
From within, there is the stutter of automatic fire, but it does not seem to be directed at any of the team – chips of concrete fly from a part of the apron between Donald and Sean.
Martin worms his way across towards the back of the warehouse, feeling dreadfully exposed. He is just clambering up towards the crawlway when he hears an excited voice jabbering in Arabic down to his left. It is suddenly silenced with a soft thud and clatter, as the man drops his gun, clutching at his blood-welling throat, and slumps to the ground. Martin just about has time to notice the man’s desert-khaki battledress before he hauls himself into the relative seclusion of the ventilation shaft. His own breath sounds harsh in his ears, through the clumsy smoke mask.
John is in a zone of heightened senses, not noticing the mask at all. He seemed to see the Egyptian as clear as day and as large as life, and it was as though some force guided his sight onto the man’s neck. One clean shot, as though he were hunting. Another part of his mind is trying to feel, in some hazy way, as though these killings are in vengeance for the men of Iain Blayne’s old company. Although how that can be, how the scales of justice are going to share around all this blame, he does not know. He is striking some sort of blow, but is it an effective one?
‘What a stuck up bore! Just the sort of stuffed shirt Father hung around with.’
‘I think he genuinely didn’t know anything,’ says George assessingly. ‘Probably too dim for them to take into their confidence.’ He nods. ‘Both the Watcher and Nefertiti could operate in his office behind his back without him realizing it: he’d be good camouflage for them.’
‘Well, we haven’t learnt much yet,’ says Rupert, writhing around unsteadily. He collars the minister as he attempts to leave the wake. ‘ I’ll be at Buckingham Palace on New Year’s Eve you know, with Sharrie-baby. It’ll be such fun. To see her fly off in a space ship and watch the world end. You should try it some time. Or maybe you were going to anyway.’ He breathes alcoholic fumes into the man’s face, then collapses weeping again.
‘Er, bless you, my son,’ says the vicar, gently disengaging himself.
Rupert’s mother, even more pale, thin and anxious than when George saw her last, approaches them. ‘Oh dear – is Rupert quite well?’
‘At least those chaps from the popular press have gone now,’ George reassures her.
Rupert hugs her as vigorously as he is able. ‘Mother. I’m sorry. If I’d only taken more drugs and remained a hippy then maybe none of this would have happened. I feel so guilty about Father’s death.’
‘Oh, you shouldn’t, dear,’ says the Viscountess muffledly. ‘One might almost feel he brought it on himself, really.’
‘What?’ exclaims George, surprise getting the better of his manners for once.
‘His lifestyle, I mean, Major Hardy. He had a good deal of stress in his life.’
‘And he made damn sure everyone else got a share of it,’ snuffles Rupert.
His mother takes him by the shoulders. ‘Listen, dear boy, I’m planning to leave this great big place for Charlie to rattle around in, and get myself a little cottage somewhere in the country. Perhaps somewhere not too far from where you’re living, so we can see more of each other.’
Rupert blinks in astonishment. The idea of his mother leaving the ancestral home has never occurred to him. Or, really, the idea of her having an independent life away from his father; but her next statement is even more shocking.
‘… and I’m going to go away on holiday after New Year. Just a week or so, to Florence. By myself. A change of scene will do me good.’
Donald has switched to the submachinegun, this time without the silencer: the idea is to give the impression of a lot of people. He hoses the front of the building generously. Return fire is now coming out towards his position, and he drops back to change magazine as Sean jogs up, popping off two snapshots at the warehouse’s service door as he comes past it. ‘What if they just hole up in there?’
‘Fine by me if they do,’ pants Sean. ‘I’ve got no great wish to tackle these guys hand-to hand.’ You big girl, Shamus scolds him.
‘That means we’re relying on Martin to rescue Arabella, though,’ points out Donald. His expression says all it needs to on the subject of the young librarian’s reliability.
‘Fair enough. OK, we’d better advance, then. You cover me to that corner there.’ And Sean is off, weaving across the concrete, while Donald leans out sideways and fills the air with chattering metal.
Martin looks out from the ventilation shaft, and realizes that something has gone wrong. The room he is looking into bears no relation to what the plan showed as being here. Rather than a small rectangular storeroom, he sees a large, arched space, lit by blazing torches around its walls. A trick of the lighting makes the high ceiling seem to recede into an infinity of blackness. The space is filled with a murmurous hum and mumble, being generated by two shaven-headed men who sit cross-legged on either side of a gigantic double-headed drum: as they chant, they strum its ends with wooden sticks. Each man wears a leopard-skin sash, and has a pigtail of black hair at the back of his head.
Martin is already disoriented by the room’s strange dimensions. He lowers himself silently to the floor, keeping away from the entranced drummers, skirting around to an arch from which bluish-purple flickering light is emerging. Peering through the arch, he sees the prone form of a young woman he assumes to be Arabella, lying still on her back in the middle of a circle of red ochre drawn on the concrete floor. Standing over her is…
By the end of the wake Rupert can barely stand upright. He throws the remaining food from one of the long tables, and lies down on the white damask cloth to have a rest. As the servants fuss around clearing up the mess, he mutter ‘Can’t a bereaved chap get some peace and quiet to rest round here?’ He beckons George over. ‘George. Dear old thingy. Look around here and search the house for yourself. I hereby give you free rein. Arise Sir George, Earl of Daphne and all who sail in her.’ His eyes close, and he at once starts snoring stertorously.
The alarm in John’s pocket buzzes sharply against his hipbone, and his conscious mind jerks from its reverie. Shit – time to go in.
As he starts across the concrete he becomes aware of a powerful, foul smell, like the stench of the manure of a thousand years, wafting strongly towards him from the building. He tightens the smoke mask across his face.
Donald and Sean feel their buzzers too, and glance at each other. They are on opposite sides of the service door. Donald holds up three fingers, and counts them down one by one. As he finishes, Sean jerks the door open, smoke spilling out, and Donald fires one-handed blindly around the jamb. There are cries of surprise, fear and pain, in that order. Sean dives in, rolling across the floor to avoid the answering fire, and fires off three shots as he comes up.
Donald steps quietly inside the door, scanning the scene via the IR-intensifying faceplate of his mask. There is the clang of a metal door ‘They’ve fallen back to the next room.’ He looks around. ‘Five dead guys in here. With the two guards and the one John tagged, I make that two left.’ He had been expecting that he would be used primarily as a sniper, but this open combat is certainly getting his blood up. ‘This room is pretty much the front half of the building, like we expected. Can you blow that door? Should be just the corridor behind, then the room we reckoned Arabella’s in off that.’
Sean is already pushing the detonator into a lump of Semtex.
John comes into the mouth of the crawlway just as the two remaining soldiers fall back into the arched chamber. Before even taking in his surroundings, he pumps two shots from his handgun into each of their backs. Then he sees the mangled mess in the archway. Martin’s head, torso and arms are undamaged, and he lies as though trying to claw himself panickedly away from whatever lies through the arch. But the lower part of his body is missing – where his waist should be is a chewed stump. All around lie bloody rags of flesh and clothing, splinters of white bone pointing through them. It is as though he has been picked up and worried like a rag doll, until he simply came apart.
Screaming, John puts the rest of his magazine into the two shaven-headed drummers, and the drum itself. But the noise continues, getting louder and louder, pounding inside his skull.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Sean hears the scream. He can feel Shamus’s hands clinging to his left ear. The leprechaun seems scared: his teeth occasionally chatter. That cannot be a good sign. And there are no side doors off the corridor, as there should be. It seems to be too long, as well.
Donald fires the last grenade the length of the corridor, blowing the door open. Changing to sawn-off shotgun and charging up behind it, he emerges into the arched room, directly opposite the entry through which the bluish-purple flame beckons. In a blink he takes in Martin’s remains, the aghast John, and through the archway Arabella and the monster Ammit, the Eater of the Dead.
In the flesh, assuming it is actually made of flesh, it has an unearthly horror about it that’s not even hinted at by the bizarre assembly of animal parts that make it up. In glimpses it has a flash of all three animals, but above all of that is the terrifying divinity of it, as though those are just physical constraints that it has been temporarily bounded into. It is also very much female, although how he knows this he cannot say. It stands about twelve feet tall at the shoulder, and its forepaws are planted solidly to either side of the body of Arabella, over which the bluish-purple flame is playing. It lowers its head, eyes flashing like stars.
‘Jesus!’ exclaims Sean. Assessing the situation quickly, he runs over to John. ‘Come on, man. Snap out of it.’
Donald stands staring at Ammit, feelings almost powerless against her. Paralysed with fear, he can’t move his arms to start shooting at the beast.
Far away in his mind he hears the familiar call of the Grail-Maiden. ‘Lancelot, there is still so much for you to do. This is not your time; save yourself.’
Donald looks down at his shotgun and grimaces. ‘This is going to be messy,’ he thinks to himself. Now staring Ammit dead-on, he gives a deep scream and starts shooting.
The pellets splatter against Ammit’s hide like rain, seemingly affecting her not one iota. At least she doesn’t advance, though.
‘Careful there, you’ll hit Arabella,’ advises Sean. ‘It looks like she’s guarding her.’
John is returning to his senses. ‘How about you distract her while I grab the girl?’
‘That’s probably what Marty tried to do,’ says Sean.
Donald too calms down slightly. ‘Christ, we can’t just give up now.’ He is trying to hang on to the thread of contact from the Maiden.
Sean feels another tug at his ear. ‘You see the way she’s stood in that red circle?’ whispers Shamus.
Sean stares, not understanding what the leprechaun means, while John looks at him in puzzlement. Then he notices the hieroglyphic symbols traced around the edge of the circle. ‘It must be a summoning circle. Drawing it brought her here. We could get rid of her by breaking it!’
‘Or else free her by breaking it,’ suggests Donald.
‘Well, in that case, back to Plan B – we run for it.’ Sean readies his machinegun. ‘You nip in and grab her, John, once I’ve broken it. Come on, what’s the worst thing that can happen.’
As he opens fire, chipping away the concrete at the side of where the ochre circle is drawn, Ammit rears up and roars, a primal sound which curdles the blood. Her form becomes sparkling and tenuous, as John darts in and, unnoticed by the raging monster, snatches up Arabella’s slight form. He dodges to one side as a mighty foot crashes down by him, reverberating through the entire chamber. Great granite blocks start to fall from the top of the arch. ‘Fuck, let’s get out of here!’
‘Pretty bloody stupid of Nefertiti, eh? – leaving her guarded just by a creature that couldn’t step out of its circle.’ Donald is buzzing like after a successful hit, sitting next to Sean as he floors the accelerator, barrelling the van out of the service road.
‘Maybe not so stupid,’ says John carefully from the back. He lifts Arabella’s hand; it flops down as limply as a strand of spaghetti. Underneath closed lids, her eyes are sightless and glassy, darting about as if in a vivid dream. She periodically emits small whimpers and mutterings, although not in any language John understands.
‘We’d better call Rupert,’ says Donald soberly.
Sean passes him a phone. ‘What are you going to tell him? “We rescued your girlfriend… but she’s a bit broken”?’
December 29th, 7pm
Rupert and George: at the de Montfort estate
Donald, John and Sean: in the van, in Walthamstow
John: Sarah taps her teeth while pondering your request. ‘I know the project you’re talking about. It’s a bit… Well, OK, I guess I can give you this, as you’re helping us out on the other thing. There aren’t any of them left now. We – my organization – tracked them down one by one and questioned them – well, not exactly “questioned”. My principal has ways of extracting information. The thing they saw wasn’t anything like Nefertiti’s ship, it was a genuine alien craft – and he tries to… get whatever he can from anyone who really sees one of those. Putting it together to get the big picture, you know. I don’t know what specific new things he learnt from those TA grunts, but it was well worth having, I know that.’
‘What happened to the guys themselves?’ you ask, a tightness at your throat. ‘We were hoping we could talk with one of them maybe.’
Sarah laughs dryly. ‘No way, I’m afraid. We disposed of each one after we’d finished with him. Safely, you know – picked off the last two earlier on this week. There was only one we didn’t manage to get to, and he died in a plane crash a couple of years back.’