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Act 1, Barn Elms Wildlife Park

It is sometimes said that the past is always with us, but in England the past has a habit of lurking in dark corners and jumping out at you at unexpected moments with a cynical grin on its face. In Alice Harding's case, the dark corner that history lurked in was a wildlife park, on the south bank of the River Thames, in the early hours of the morning.

The clatter of falling equipment was bad enough but Hammond had to compound it by shrieking like a girly.

"Oh hell, oh bloody hell, my knee," he said, writhing in pain.

"For God's sake shut up," Alice hissed at him. "What part of the phrase 'covert operation' don't you understand?"

"It's all right for you Alice," he said, huffily. "I have to hump all the equipment. Just a torch, that's all I wanted. Would it have hurt you to carry one little iddy-biddy electric torch?"

Hammond wasn't being completely unreasonable. The night-lights of London, reflecting off the rippling surface of the Thames and the lakes, cast just enough shifting illumination to drown the park in pools of shadow. He had disappeared into one of those pools.

"Where are you?" Alice asked, wearily.

"Down here." A head popped out of the ground at her feet. "I'm in a trench. What sort of bloody fools leave unmarked trenches lying around?"

"Archaeologists?" she said, with heavy sarcasm, "this being an archaeological site."

"Don't get cute with me, Alice, or you will be carrying out your own survey."

"Sorry, Hammond. I'm a bit on edge." Alice regretted snapping at him as soon as she had done it. Hammond was only here as a favour to her personally and he had turned out at a couple of hour's notice. He was a geek, not a field agent.

"Here, cop hold of this." Hammond's face appeared over the lip of the trench closely followed by his geophysics pack. Alice took the equipment off him and he disappeared again.

"What's the matter now?" she asked.

He replied, but at that moment the pilot of an Airbus, lining up for the descent into Heathrow Airport, advanced the throttles to power wheels down. Anything Hammond had said disappeared into the howl of Rolls Royce turbines.

"What?" she mouthed pointlessly into the darkness.

"I'VE LOST MY GLASSES," he shouted back into sudden silence as the plane retarded throttles and disappeared over the West London suburbs. A flock of wildfowl, startled by his yell, erupted from the water's surface and followed the jet.

"Tell you what, Hammond. Next time, why don't we just send out circulars? 'Dear residents of South London, please excuse the unusually loud noises in the middle of the night but the Commission is running a secret, covert operation.'

"Sorry, Alice."

"Never mind. Move over and I'll help you look."

She jumped down into the trench, landing on her hands and knees.



"Why didn't you tell me the trench was waterlogged?" she asked.

"You never asked," he replied, distractedly. "It's okay, I've found them."

He held his spectacles up, triumphantly. "Look, they were still on the chain round my neck the whole time."

Alice resisted the urge to strangle him. Her jeans were wet through and something squishy had got under her fingernails. Hammond trotted off none the worse for his adventure and she followed carefully. He threaded his way into the centre of the dig without further mishap.

Alice ducked as a ghostly, underlit, white shadow flew over her head. I must be getting jumpy, she thought, to be spooked by a barn owl. A barn owl at Barn Elms, she chuckled to herself. Who would have thought it?

"Alice, I've found them. The cellars are here." Hammond peered down at a hole in the ground.

"Stand still, I'm coming. For heaven's sake don't fall in."

Hammond kept a dignified silence.

"Can we get down?" she asked. The hole looked vertical and steep-sided from where she was standing.

"I think so. They've started putting up scaffolding and we can climb down. It doesn't look too safe, though."

Hammond handed her the equipment and disappeared. She lowered it down to him then followed on. The scaffolding creaked and wobbled, causing her heart to jump, but she made it to the bottom. Once they were safely belowground, she took out the torch that he thought she had not brought, and put it on the "diffuse light" setting. He didn't seem to notice and continued to set up the gear.

He extended the two probes on the geophysics analyser and connected up the laptop slung round his neck. Hammond flicked a switch backwards and forwards, looking at the machine like a midwife looking at a recalcitrant womb.

"What's the matter?" Alice enquired.

"It won't boot up." He stabbed buttons seemingly at random. "I think I may have jarred something loose when I fell on it."

"Oh great. Do something."

He took a deep breath then struck the delicate equipment sharply. It made a chukka chukka noise and sprang to life, lights blinking. Hammond grinned at her. "The trick is in knowing where to hit it."

Hammond was like a lot of geeks. Socially inept, he came alive when there was a task requiring his beloved gear.

"So how does this thing work?" Actually, she couldn't give a damn but, in her experience, men liked to talk about their equipment.

"You just push the electrical probes into the target and pass an electrical charge between them. The analyser measures resistance across the gap. Even you could do it, Alice." He grinned at her.

"I am bowled over by your superior technical knowledge," she said, with wasted sarcasm.

Alice decided that geophysics analysis was never going to be a major spectator sport, not when watching ink fade in the sun was an available alternative. Hammond plonked the probes against the floor, took a reading, moved the probes twelve inches, took another reading, and moved on. Alice positioned herself on the scaffolding and wriggled, trying to find a comfortable position. There was an interesting smell hanging around the cellar suggesting that one of the TV crew had a dog.



"Why am I geophysing an old cellar in Barn Elms Wildlife Park?"

"That's a long story, Hammond. But we are hardly pushed for time. You will recall that Barn Elms was the home of Sir Francis Walsingham," she said.


"Well, it was . . ."

"And Walsingham was?" His voice trailed off.

She saw he was going to need the full picture. She mentally rotated through her lecture notes and settled on the one she gave to second-year Politics undergrads.

"Walsingham is remembered mostly as Queen Elizabeth I's great spymaster. He is credited as being the father of the English Secret Service. The Commission files record him as also controlling demon hunters. So they took an unhealthy interest when The History Show announced Barn Elms as the site of their next televised dig. If the television company 'had only three days' for their excavation, the Commission had only twenty-four panic-stricken hours to check through their records to see what the TV crew might turn up," she said.

"That doesn't seem a good enough reason for us to be here," Hammond said.

"Not on its own, no. But the Commission despatched me up to Oxford to check through the Dee records at the Ashmolean Museum. It's all the fault of a Robert Jones who lived at the sign of the Plough in London's Lombard Street in the seventeenth century."

"I knew I would regret asking," Hammond said. Actually, he didn't really mind. He was not paying much attention to what she was saying so much as how she said it. Alice was the most exciting and "alive" person that he knew. It was going to be difficult to give her up.

She was in full lecture mode now. Never ask an academic a question about their subject. "One day, Mr. Jones was moved to buy a wondrous cedar wood chest from a carpentry shop in Addle Street. It took him two decades to find the papers and other objects hidden in a secret compartment in the base. Clearly, Mr. Jones had all the investigative skills of my old professor."

"I remember your old professor," Hammond said, with an unbecoming smirk.

She was not to be deflected. "Half the papers were lost when the kitchen maid discovered that they were just the right size to fit her baking tray, but the remainder survived Mr. Jones' death and the Great Fire of London to be sold to the collector Elias Ashmole. He recognised the records as the lost work of Doctor John Dee. He was Queen Elizabeth's court magician, and the man who, according to Lovecraft, first translated the Necronomicon into English. Dee was also a brilliant code-breaker working for Walsingham's spy network."

"No offence, Alice, but why you? You're a history lecturer for London University, not Emma Peel."

"I wish I was back at Royal Holloway College right now," Alice said, with feeling. When she was not attempting to drum knowledge into sprawled ranks of hungover undergraduates, she spent her quality time in the university library researching her next book.

"So why aren't you?" asked Hammond.

"I have generally found it politic to obey smartly when the Commission makes a polite request. Otherwise, my research funds could suddenly dry up and I might find myself assigned to teaching Media Studies students how to use joined-up writing." She wasn't going to tell Hammond, but the Commission knew too much about Doctor Alice Harding. So she found herself clambering around an archaeological dig at the dead of night.

Ironically, Alice hated archaeology. It was true that she had wanted to be an archaeologist once, but that dream had died in the mud of her first summer dig. "Student volunteer" turned out to be another name for unpaid labourer. She shifted more earth that summer than a royal engineer at the Battle of the Somme. She ruined her nails and tangled her hair into something that Alexander the Great would have taken a sword to. Then there were the lice. Even now the words "archaeological investigation" made her want to scratch.

As she was a romantic young fool, she also fell for the dubious charms of her professor only to have him snub her in the college corridors the following term. She thought that he loved her but found out that he had an unsavoury reputation as the college swordsman. To add insult to injury, the swine only gave her a C minus for her summer project report. If that was not taking advantage of a girl, then she did not know what was. He soon raised it to an A when she threatened to add in details of certain nocturnal investigations that he had undertaken, and to send his wife a copy. She had earned her A, the hard way. Her only regret was that she wished she knew who had dobbed her in to the Commission. The organisation had maintained a hold over her ever since.

"The Commission didn't really expect me to find anything in Oxford or they would have sent one of their top torpedoes. Even when decoded, Dee's papers make less sense than Bob Dylan's lyrics. They include his fabled Liber Mysteriorum and never was a work better named. Thank God the museum has scanned them into digital records. At least I could run a computer search for any reference to 'Walsingham' or 'Barn Elms.' "

"Presumably you found something," Hammond said, distractedly. Every so often he stopped and checked the downloaded data on his laptop. The first few times he did this, Alice caught his eye enquiringly but he always shrugged and shook his head.

"A number of the works were diaries so there were various references of the sort 'Had supper with Sir Francis Walsingham. The man is a frightening bastard of the first order.' "

Hammond laughed. "He wrote that?"

"I paraphrase but that was the gist of it. What he actually said were things like 'Sir Francis did question me about the summoning. He did'th make my bowels clench like a virgin on her wedding night.' "

Alice readjusted herself on the scaffolding to transfer the dull ache to another part of her bum.

"I struck pay dirt right at the end of the diaries. This was an unhappy period in Dee's life. He returned to England from his years at Prague to find Queen Elizabeth's court changed out of all recognition. Most of her old advisors had died and a new generation was running things. Dee must have seemed to them like an antiquated fossil returned from the grave. The extract in the diaries read 'Good Sir Francis is near death.'"

"Good Sir Francis? Walsingham must have lent Dee money." Hammond laughed again. At least someone was having a good time. Alice felt more than a little guilty. She tended to turn up in Hammond's life at irregular intervals and demand favours, but he always seemed pleased to see her and happily acquiesced in her requests, or at least he had in the past. She made a mental note not to trade on his, undoubted, affection for her quite so ruthlessly in future.

"Or maybe it was an old man's nostalgia for past times. Anyway the quote continues, 'I have entrusted him with certain items of power concerning Lilith. Sir Francis assures me that all is safely hidden below.' "

"That could mean anything, Alice."

"Yeah, well, the next day The History Show proudly broadcast the discovery of unknown cellars below the ruins of Walsingham's old house at Barn Elms and the Commission had a collective fit."

The silent white shadow flew over the top of the cellars, attracting Alice's attention. It clutched something small and furry in its claws. The something wriggled and squeaked, desperately. The bird must have a nest nearby. Alice decided to take it as a good-luck omen. The average Londoner might never see a wild owl in their whole lives and she had seen one twice tonight.

Alice wedged herself back into the scaffolding, closed her eyes, and prepared for a long night. She wished that she had worn something warmer. The night air was turning decidedly chilly. She must have dozed off, because the next thing she remembered was Hammond shaking her.

"Alice, Alice look at this."

He shoved the laptop under her nose. On the screen was a sort of diagram filled with dots of varying intensity.

"That close cluster of dots in the top right of the screen. Is that some sort of hole?" she asked.

Hammond looked shifty. "Well, actually, um, close dots usually indicate a region of superdense material." He shrugged. "Maybe the gear is playing up."

"Maybe." She tried to sound convinced but the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. This was usually a sign that her body was spooked even if her brain was still in a state of denial. "Show me where you took those readings."

The entrenching tool bit into the cellar wall. The bricks were old and the steel was new so it was an unequal contest. She went at the wall like Schliemann went into Troy.

"Ouch." She put her finger in her mouth before remembering the squishy stuff.

"Are you okay?" Hammond asked, concerned.

"I broke a nail," she said, finger stinging.

The wall collapsed to reveal a cavity. Hammond flicked the torch onto "direct beam." An old steel-bound wooden chest stood illuminated in the shaft of light.

"I found it, Alice. I told you that if something was there I would find it." He hopped from foot to foot like Pooh Bear around a honeypot.

"Yeah, you found it, Hammond. You're a star." Impulsively, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Now give me a hand getting it out."

She danced like she was on the surface of the moon. Every small movement of her legs kicked her body high off the ground. She wore a long dress that swirled around her legs as she jumped. Someone threw her a large knife, a dagger. The weapon spun glittering towards her in slow motion but she was quicker than fire. She snatched the blade from out of the air, the hilt smacking firmly against her hand. Things loomed in front of her, things monstrous and evil. She wanted to run but her body disobeyed and stood its ground. Her body attacked despite her fear, slicing the things in ribbons of gore. Great claws raked at her.

Alice screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

"It's okay Alice, okay, you are just having a dream." Hammond held her tight in the dark until she stopped shaking. He stroked her face, which he knew she loved. She stroked him back, which he always seemed to like. When they had finished with all that stroking, it was dawn.

Hammond, hmm, she had not exactly intended this but he had helped her carry the chest home and it was true that she could not have found it without him. She invited him in for a drink to celebrate and, well, Hammond was kinda cute for a geek. Every time she returned to London, she vowed that she would treat him purely as a colleague but then he'd look at her with those come-to-bed eyes and her resolve melted with her knees.

He also made one of the best breakfasts in England and that was up against some pretty stiff competition. As Hercule Poirot had once said, "Dinner in England is generally execrable but the English are without peer when it comes to breakfast."

Pulling on some clothes after a quick shower, she found the man happily pottering in the kitchen. The chest sat innocuously on the kitchen table, just where she had placed it the night before.

Obviously, the Commission had forbidden her to poke around in anything she found. So she told herself that she had only squirted penetrating oil into the lock last night just to help the Commission. She had absolutely no intention of opening it herself, honest.

"How many eggs do you want?" Hammond asked.

"Only two please as I'm on a diet."

"Whatever are you dieting for, Alice? You are perfect as you are," he said.

She knew there was a reason she liked Hammond so much. He was always good for her morale.

Alice sat and looked at the chest and it sat back and did nothing. Somehow, it seemed to call to her, nonetheless. A crunch of breaking crockery announced that Hammond had breakfast underway. Hammond was a great cook but he tended to leave a trail of devastation behind him in the kitchen. The delicious smell of frying bacon filled her flat.

She rationalised that it would be embarrassing to deliver an empty box to the Commission. Better to have a little peek, just to make sure there was something in it. After all, a little peek could not hurt, could it?

Alice inserted a pick in the old lock and levered. It was rusted in but the oil had done its magic and the catch ground reluctantly over. She opened the chest with the proper reverence due to something that had been shut away for half a millennium. Inside were a bunch of musty papers, and something wrapped in a rag and a bulky, yellowed, linen bag. She briefly glanced at the papers but they were in cipher so she turned her attention to the other items.

The oiled rag unwrapped to reveal an Elizabethan dagger. It was a workmanlike tool, rather than a gentleman's prop. Arcane astrological symbols marked the blade, such as the glyphs for Mars, now used as the scientific sign for male, and Venus, the scientific sign for female. The central glyph, around which the others were placed, was complex. It looked like the Venus glyph, a circle with a cross coming out of the bottom, but two arches were placed at the bottom of the cross. In the centre of the circle, which was bisected by an upside-down arch, was a dot.

Alice's mouth went dry with excitement. This glyph was the symbol invented by Doctor John Dee to summarise the Monas Hieroglyphica, his mathematical and magical treatise. Doctor Dee had given a copy to Queen Elizabeth and he had taught the Queen math so that she could understand the work. This was not just a dagger; it was an athame, an astrologer's knife associated with the element of fire, which was used in magic ritual.

Behind her Hammond tuned in the radio to the local breakfast news. "A tanker has spilt acid on the westbound M25 motorway south of Heathrow Airport. The queue now stretches for fifteen miles."

Alice reluctantly set the dagger to one side. Inside the linen bag was a large polished crystal, the size of a cricket ball, set on a black iron frame chased with silver. Four arms crossed over the top of the crystal to support a silver cross. Stamped in the silver was the monad glyph.

The newsreader on the radio finished the transport update and moved on to the human interest story. British news reports tended to be on the heavy side so they liked to end with a light, uplifting piece, preferably involving a cute animal. This was known in the trade as the "skateboarding-duck slot" after a story of especially revolting sentimentality.

Obviously no ducks were skateboarding today, as they closed the news report with "Vandals attacked The History Show's archaeological dig by the Thames last night. Presenter Rupert FitzHenry described the damage as a wound in the flesh of Olde Englande."

Alice filtered the drivel out. The object in front of her was wonderful, literally invaluable. She knew what it was. She had seen a drawing of this artefact in the British Museum penned by Dee's own hand. The curators at the BM would sell their souls to get their hands on this for their collections. This was Dee's skrying stone, the crystal ball with which he talked to angels to learn the secrets of the universe. Alice ran a hand over the smooth surface. It looked as if Dee had packed it away only yesterday.

A ray of light from the rising sun slid slyly through a gap in the clouds. It thrust through the kitchen window and illuminated the translucent mineral. The stone glowed from within with a fierce flickering aquamarine intensity. An image coalesced into life like an old TV locking onto a distant signal.

A woman looked at Alice through the crystal. She had fair skin with vaguely Asian eyes, and cheekbones like Kate Moss. Her jet-black hair was cut short at the front and sides but curled long onto her neck at the back. Her face was young but her green eyes were old peoples' eyes that knew too much.

The woman wasn't just an image; she looked at Alice directly. The historian was making eye contact with a face in a crystal ball. Alice tried to jerk back but couldn't move. She tried to scream but her mouth wouldn't open. She tried to close her eyes but her eyelids were frozen. Alice drowned in the crystal and her mind unravelled like the thread of a cheap dress.

"My, my, Alice. You have been a naughty girly, haven't you?" The woman chuckled, admiringly.

"Who are you? What are you?" Alice asked.

"You can call me Lilith. I'm the Queen's demon." The woman laughed out loud. The title obviously amused her.

"How can I talk to you without speaking?" Alice asked.

"I'm in your head, Alice. I have been having a look around. It always amazes me how you humans manage to cram so much into such a small space."

"Why hasn't Hammond noticed that I'm frozen?" Alice was more puzzled than scared. She should have been frightened but she had experienced too many strange events in her short life to be unduly worried by a demon in a magic ball.

"Our conversation takes a microslice of time. Your friend will notice nothing," replied the woman. "I know all about you so I will tell you something about me. Look deeper into the crystal, Alice. Deeper."

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