by John Lambshead
"Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
—Shakespeare (Henry VI, pt III)
Concussion slammed Gaston, easily penetrating the ear protectors he wore like a pair of hi-fi headphones. His chest thumped in sympathy with each explosion, and the acrid smell of burnt chemicals stung his nose.—
He held the gun in two hands at a low chest height using the fast “double tap” pistol technique developed by the SOE, Churchill’s Special Operations Executive. Urban encounters with the SS proved speed and firepower more useful than target-shooting accuracy. Holographic targets flicked in and out around him as he moved through the battle range, an exercise area rigged out like an office suite. The targets weren’t exactly human but he didn’t really look at them. This was a free-fire exercise where everything that moved was hostile.
It kept coming. He looked at this one, a moving bush whose branches were long tentacles tipped with blades.
It winked out, and a bell chimed.
“Exercise over, make your weapon safe,” said the disembodied voice of the range master.
Gaston turned off the pistol. There were no holes in the furniture because the gun shot blanks. They were supposed to sound and feel like the real thing. They didn’t, of course. The holograms weren’t anything like the real gut wrenching terrors that Gaston hunted. Some people were hell on wheels on a gun range but froze in real combat. Speed and aggression, not theoretical target shooting skills, kept you alive at the sharp end.
“You’re slowing down, Sergeant. That last one almost had you,” said an English upper class voice behind him.
“If you say so, Major.”
Gaston turned to look at Major Jameson leaning casually against the frame of the open door, a man no longer young but not yet old either with the aristocratic Anglo-Norman features that peered down from innumerable portraits of the great and the powerful throughout English history. People like Jameson had come over to England with old Duke William to win their fortune. Hell, Jameson was probably descended from some of them. Gaston’s ancestry traced straight to the West Indies and a complex mix of slaves, sailors and slave owners. They had both been soldiers in the British Army, but Jameson had been in the Guards, Gaston the Paras.
Jameson and Gaston now worked for The Commission, an organization that had more in common with the security services, good old MI5 and MI6, than the army, but old habits die hard. NCOs didn’t argue with “Ruperts” officers even when said Ruperts were in jocular mood. There was no percentage in it.
Jameson detached himself from the frame and walked into the range. Where Jameson went also went his pet monster. The Dark Lady slid in behind him. She bounced lightly across the floor like a tigress and for much the same reason: a muscle power to weight ratio that was way too high for a human being. She looked human, petite even, with jet black hair the same shade as her leather motorbike suit. She was beautiful, but Gaston felt not the slightest attraction. He would have soon as bedded a cobra. Her green eyes gave her away. They turned into metallic emerald chips when she was provoked. She was easily provoked.
“Karla,” Gaston said inclining his head.
She smiled at him showing small white teeth. She didn’t fool him for a millisecond. It was the smile on the face of the tiger. He’d led the team that captured her, and he’d lost a trooper doing it.
“I’d like you to do me a favor if it’s not too much trouble,” Jameson said.
“Of course not, sir,” Gaston replied, inwardly groaning. It was Friday afternoon and he had plans for the weekend.
“Shouldn’t take long. I just want you to drop something off at the British Museum on your way home.”
Gaston relaxed. That was no problem. He would leave a little early and still get home in time.
Jameson handed over a slim little parcel the size of a packet of twenty king-size fags.
“Give this to Professor Fairbold personally at the Black Museum.”
Bloody, sodding Jameson! He should have known there would be more to the favor than appeared. He had envisioned leaving a package at the Museum’s reception but no such luck. The Black Museum was an offshoot of the more familiar British Museum but was a little trickier to access.
Sir Hans Sloane started his collection of curiosities that became the National Collection of the British Museum while serving as the personal doctor of the Duke of Albemarle, the Governor of Jamaica. One of the curiosities he brought back and introduced to Europe was chocolate, but Jamaica is the home of Obeah so there were other artifacts of a darker nature.
This hidden collection swelled when the British army expelled the French and took control of Egypt, the center of occidental magic. As Sir Antonio Panizzi, Principal Librarian of the British Museum in the 1860s, put it: “People of weak minds such as children, servants, women and the lower orders generally must not be exposed to dangerous concepts.”
“They are expecting me?” Gaston asked.
It was not an idle question. The Commission and the Museum fought a long bureaucratic turf war over the last four centuries and their relationship could best be described as a hostile armistice. The Black Museum was enemy territory for a Commission operative. Contacts between the two organizations were about as common as exchanges across Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War.
“Rang them myself. I’ve arranged with Fairbold for you to go in through the back entrance via the old British Museum tube station. That should bypass all the usual rigmarole.”
That, Gaston thought, was some consolation.
“I’ve never been there. What does the door look like?”
“Oh, the usual thing, just show the receptionist your ID. There’s a special Central Line train passing through Mile End station at eighteen seventeen hours. You should just make it if you get a move on. You need the last carriage.”
Jameson also presented Gaston with a small sprig of heather.
“Just put this in your buttonhole, Sergeant, and it will get you through the Museum’s aversion spells. One of our Wicca’s from The Coven made it specially.”
Jameson grinned at Gaston’s expression.
“Don’t worry about the buttonhole spoiling your manly image, Sergeant. You’ll be fine provided you don’t get off at the Museum of Performing Arts by mistake.” Jameson chortled at his own wit.
“No, sir,” said Gaston, who saw nothing funny in the business.
“Have a good weekend and see you Monday.”
He left with a half wave. Karla gave Gaston a smirk before following, like she knew something he didn’t.
Gaston caught a Docklands Light Railway train heading north away from The River. The short robot trains ran on an overhead track, giving a good view of East London’s Temples of Mammon, glass concrete towers housing the world’s largest financial center. You can’t serve God and Mammon, as the Bible would have it. The City of London had long since given up any attempt to try. God didn’t stand a chance in competition with the banking bonus culture.
Bow Church Station let Gaston out onto the Mile End Road at Street level. It was unusually straight, betraying its origins as the Roman Road from London to Colchester. When the legions built a road it went as the crow flies and the Britunculi, the “ghastly little Brits” could stuff their property rights. There was a small deviation circumnavigating what had been the Celtic Chieftain Badvoc’s brothel at Chelmsford but that hadn’t appeared on any official map sent back to Rome for reasons that the Imperial Governor was reticent about.
A crow scarfing the remains of a takeaway kebab at the kerbside glared at him suspiciously in case he wanted some for himself.
Once or twice he got the feeling of being watched. It was so pervasive that he pulled the dropped key ring stunt to look behind him and even circumnavigated a block but no one followed him so he decided he was just getting jumpy. By then Gaston was running late so he broke into a jog trot, weaving through the pedestrians.
“Yay, go boy,” yelled a pretty girl with pink hair and purple leggings who may as well have had “university student” tattooed on her forehead.
Gaston grinned and waved back, half tempted to stop and try to chat her up but sanity prevailed. He was really pushed. He reached the Mile End Station at six fifteen to be greeted by queues waiting to get through the automatic ticket gates. Without breaking stride he jumped the queue and flashed a Metropolitan Police Warrant Card at the inspector on the luggage point. He vaulted the barrier before the man could open it.
The warrant card looked completely genuine. It should. The Commission sourced them from the same place at the Met. It’s just that Gaston wasn’t a policeman.
He pushed his way down holding the ID card held high in the air. People parted to let him through faster than the proverbial fool is separated from his money. Getting in the way of plainclothes London policemen running through the tube is definitely frowned upon by life insurance companies. The Met’s armed units were inclined to shoot first and consider their options when it came to the press release.
He made the end of the platform by six sixteen. The bloody train was late of course. The damn things were always late, provided you were on time. It was one of the subclauses in Sod’s Law or something.
The train came. They usually did in the end. It looked fairly packed but not impossible to squeeze into. The platform at the end cleared as people rushed up the line of carriages hoping to find an empty seat, or at least a comfortable place to lean. The end carriage was empty but no one except Gaston moved towards it. When the doors opened he felt a pressure wave at the entrance like invisible surf pushing at him. Then he smelt heather and was through.
The carriage wasn’t completely empty. A lean figure sat in the far corner. It wore black, black jeans and a black hoodie top pulled over its head. The passenger hunched forward so that its face was lost in shadow. Gaston had a sense of a long nose. Black pointed slip-on shoes completed the Goth image. He ignored him, or her, or whatever – it was hard to tell which pronoun applied.
The tube filled up as it ground into the center of London. People had to force their way past the sliding doors against those already on board like a rugby prop forward going for the ball. No one tried to get in the empty end carriage. The aversion spell was highly effective. It would have worked on Gaston were it not for his “lucky” heather.
“Let the doors close or we won’t be going anywhere,” the driver said over the speakers, the poor fidelity not hiding his Jamaican drawl. Somewhere someone was trapped in a sliding door. Gaston had seen idiots put their briefcase between closing doors in the hope of triggering the safety mechanism so they would open again. If the briefcase wasn’t wide enough the safeties ignored it and the train went off anyway. Losing a briefcase was unfortunate but it was even more awkward if it was chained to your wrist at the time.
In the West End, the train stopped just outside Holborn station.
“We’re being held on a red light. Hopefully, we should be moving soon,” said the driver, in a voice that held out no hope at all.
Only the rear carriage doors slid back and Gaston hopped out onto a platform. Just the rear carriage was level with the platform, the rest of the train being parked down in the tunnel.
The British Museum stop was one of the “lost” underground stations, supposedly disused and mothballed. Few people remembered its existence. It wasn’t until the train pulled out that Gaston felt uneasy. Why was the station deserted? Where was the Black Museum’s security? Surely you couldn’t just walk in? Bloody Jameson said there would be a receptionist.
Maybe he had got off at the wrong place but how many disused stations did the special train stop at? He walked along the platform a little way and found a faded sign: British Museum. That settled the matter.
Gaston had been in the army a long time and led many a patrol.
“You won’t have any problems, Sergeant. The area has been completely pacified so you won’t need helmets or armor. Just have a few sweets handy to give the kids. You’ll have dedicated artillery support on instant notice. Friendly tanks will already have the crossroads secured when you arrive. Choppers will be in to extract you zero eleven hundred hours without fail.”
He’d heard the bloody lot. Any briefing given to the PBI, Poor Bloody Infantry, could be expected to be a mixture of wishful thinking and sheer bleeding lies. You just got on with it anyway and hoped the body count wasn’t too high.
A cold wind blew along the platform. It lifted a dirty piece of paper and wrapped it around Gaston’s legs. He pulled the sheet off and examined what was the top of an old torn poster with faded colors. A slogan written over a Union Jack and a silhouette of a First World War Tommy exhorted Britishers to enlist. He tossed the paper back into the wind and wiped his fingers on his jacket. What on Earth was a “Britisher”?
A tube train rattled sounding nearby but it didn’t come through the station. The side of the tunnel was lined with grimy tiles. Many were cracked and some had fallen. He walked along the platform until he reached an exit and peered in but it was too gloomy to see much.
A black cat stalked out of the tunnel and looked Gaston up and down. Not impressed, it stalked up the platform with an air of magnificent disdain.
“Yeah, you and me both, pussy,” Gaston said.
Somehow the presence of the animal was reassuring. Gaston pushed on up the tunnel. What else could he do? It got darker and rougher underfoot the deeper he went in until he tripped over something. Gaston fished out an electric torch key ring. The bright white light of the LEDs lit up a cave. He swore and turned around to retrace his steps but could find nothing but a dead end. Someone was playing games.
The cave opened onto a gulley in mature oak woodland. The sun was low on the horizon and obscured by clouds so it wasn’t all that much brighter than the cave. Ground cover was sparse, mostly grass and ferns. This was what the Thames Valley must have looked like before the trees were cleared and London built. None of this was real, so it must be the Otherworld. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t cleared or trained for solo Otherworld penetration. That was what the witches of the Coven and Jameson got the big buck salaries for.
A path meandered through the woodland so he followed it. Pipistrelle bats flitted between the trees, intercepting the evening insect swarms. The back of his neck itched, like he was being watched. He looked carefully around. Something bulky moved deep between the trees. He caught a flash of horns so it was probably just a deer. He hoped it was just a deer.
“Caw!” A raucous shriek from over his head made him jump.
“Are you trying to scare me to death?” Gaston asked the crow perched on a branch over the path.
The crow looked at him cocking his head from side to side and shuffling its feet. It leaned forward and just for a moment it reminded him of his fellow passenger in the special tube carriage.
The crow laughed.
Gaston blinked. Okay, crows were mimics, but a laugh?
The crow laughed and laughed, the cry becoming ever more maniacal. Static built up. Gaston knew that meant magic. He definitely wasn’t paid to handle magic. He thought to run, but where? In any case his legs wouldn’t obey him. They firmly stayed rooted to the ground like he’d turned into one of the oaks.
A black streak erupted along the branch and the crow launched itself into space. Feathers spilled down where a clawed swipe raked the bird’s tail. The crow fluttered out of sight among the trees, its outraged squawks fading into the distance. The black cat sat on the branch and observed Gaston. It looked bored.
“Thanks, cat,” Gaston said.
It ignored him and began to clean a white-spotted forepaw with great care.
Gaston shrugged and went on.
A horn sounded in the distance. It brayed discordantly in a key not used by people; brassy notes that projected overweening arrogance and menace. He quickened his pace. The horn sounded again, closer this time. He broke into a trot, jumping over branches strewn across the path. Another fifty meters and he heard bodies crashing through the woods behind and on each side. The horn sounded closer. He put his head down and ran.
A branch snagged his foot and he pitched forward in a roll, letting momentum carry him back on his feet. The first dog broke from a patch of ferns on his left and leapt for his throat. He didn’t remember drawing the Glock from under his arm but it was in his hands in the SOE grip.
He fired twice and the dog sailed past him without contact. Another appeared, bounding up the path. Gaston raised the gun but the double tap had no effect. He fired twice more and the dog rolled over coughing blood.
The animals weren’t all that large. He didn’t recognise the breed but they looked like bulky whippets. The problem was that more poured out of the undergrowth in a semicircle around him. They hunted silently, which was far more frightening than if they barked. They made short rushes from all sides, one feinting an attack to get his attention while another rushed him from a different direction.
He laid down a barrage of fire until the gun clicked on empty. Had he really fired seventeen rounds? He used the plastic pistol as a club, batting away one animal as another bit into his arm. The surviving pack moved in. A dog leapt at his throat.
A black leather-clad arm tipped with claws intercepted the leaping canine, slicing through its neck. A black boot smashed the spine of a dog worrying his leg. A charging dog halted abruptly, skidding on its haunches. Karla caught it in one hand, ripping out its throat with the other. She hurled the corpse back at the pack.
Karla moved through the gloom like a quicksilver shadow, kicking, clawing, biting, leaving a trail of broken bodies in her wake. Gaston dropped the magazine from his pistol and loaded a fresh clip. He raised the gun but couldn’t make out a target in the mayhem long enough to get off a shot. Karla followed the dogs into the trees. Agonized howls indicated when she caught one. Eventually, it went quiet.
Gaston held the Glock in both hands, ignoring the pain in his arm. The thick material of his jacket had absorbed most of the bite. A branch swished behind him. He whirled, raising the pistol.
Karla stood right behind him, eyes like glowing chips of emerald ice. Blood ran down the side of her face, dripping from her long protruding fangs. Her arms were covered in gore and her hands ended in long hooked claws. His pistol sights were lined on the bridge of her nose. For a long time neither moved.
“One day, monster, your usefulness will be over,” Gaston said, evenly.
He reluctantly lowered the pistol and replaced it under his arm. He and Karla had a history. The trooper she had killed had been his girlfriend. On the other hand this was not the first time Jameson’s pet monster had saved his life.
A whimper attracted his attention. The animal with the shattered spine was trying to crawl away using its front legs. Its paralysed rear quarters dragged behind.
“I like dogs,” Karla said happily, the words slurred out through fangs.
She picked the animal up with one hand and bit deep into its neck. It only struggled for a short time. Gaston walked off in disgust.
He had travelled but a little way when a tall figure sporting a magnificent set of antlers pushed through the ferns and straddled the path in front of him. The creature wasn’t a stag. It walked on two legs for one thing and wore clothes for another, a russet-brown tunic over trousers of Lincoln green. Its right hand held a bronze horn and in its left a long spear with a leaf-shaped steel blade at the tip.
The stag-man put the horn to his lips and blew a short note that set Gaston’s teeth on edge. He had the Glock in the SOE grip. The stag drew back the spear so Gaston fired a double tap, then a second. He might as well have been blowing bubbles. The bullets were hitting, the tunic jerked where they struck, but they had no effect.
The heavy spear thrust forward and Gaston threw himself to one side, landing awkwardly on a tree root. The pistol flew from his hand. He lay winded for a second. The spear lifted over him then surged down.
And stopped dead, six inches from his heart.
Karla had the shaft firm in both hands. The stag pulled it clear, spinning her round. She went with the flow, turning full circle with the grace of a ballet dancer to confront the stag as it moved in to stab her. She flowed like fluid black lightning around the thrust, evading it by millimetres, and grasped the spear shaft in one clawed hand. The other struck like a sword, shearing through the wood.
She tossed the spear head behind her. The stag raised the broken spear in an overhead grip. It ended in a jagged splinter. A wooden stab wound could be lethal to Karla’s kind in a way that mere bullets weren’t. If the situation bothered her then she hid her fears convincingly. She bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, beckoning to the stag.
“Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough,” Karla said, quoting the time-honored jibe used by the British Army and the England football supporters club to intimidate truculent opponents.
The stag took a step towards her.
“To the death,” Karla said.
The stag paused.
“Duel to the true death? With you Dearg Due?” the stag said in a rich baritone voice.
It seemed to consider, cocking its head to one side in a surprisingly birdlike manner. Karla grinned at it, showing her teeth.
“Well, we’ve all had a long day. Perhaps another time.”
The stag vanished into the shadows among the trees.
The path ended at an old barn with blacked out windows. Gaston knocked at the door and was ushered in to a British Museum study laboratory. The walls were concrete painted battleship grey and a large square metal duct ran across the ceiling. Benches covered with academic papers, curios and bits of laboratory equipment lined the windowless walls.
“Professor Fairbold?” Gaston tentatively asked the grey-bearded man in a lab coat.
“Major Jameson’s daemon,” Fairbold said delightedly, looking at Karla and ignoring Gaston. “What a pleasure. I did not realize you would be coming.”
“Um, Professor?” Gaston started.
“But how did you get through the wards around the Museum, my dear? Did Jameson make special arrangements with the Director without telling me? You really shouldn’t be here.” Fairbold shook his head, scattering dandruff over his lab coat.
“Um, Professor, we have a situation,” Gaston said, somewhat desperately.
Gaston gestured through the still open door. Was the man blind or half witted?
Fairbold stuck his head out. “Fascinating, fascinating, that’s the Otherworld you know?”
“Yes, I do know. Don’t go out. Things lurk in the trees.” Gaston made a grab for the professor’s arm, as he showed every sign of exploring, and shut the door firmly. Just on the off-chance he opened it again but the forest was still there.
“I’d better put some tea on.”
Fairbold boiled water using an old electric kettle by the sink in the corner of the room while Gaston recounted his adventures. By the time he’d finished, Fairbold had two steaming mugs of tea.
“I’d offer you my arm, my dear, but I see you’ve already drunk something,” Fairbold said to Karla.
That was a fair assumption as her leather suit was covered in dried blood. Gaston finished his account. Fairbold hadn’t appeared to be listening but now he looked at Gaston with sharp eyes.
“It sounds to me that you’ve had an encounter with The Green Man and the wild hunt, young, er…”
“Gaston, thank you, but the spear is anomalous. I would have expected a bow. We need to know what we are up against before I can dispel it.”
The professor produced some dusty tomes and showed Gaston various pictures of Green Men of the Forest but none of them were quite right.
“Hang on. The daemon recognized her!” Gaston said, pointing at Karla.
“Yes,” Karla replied.
The two men looked at her but she said nothing more. It was at times like this, thought Gaston, that he realized exactly how alien Karla was.
“He called you something, deerugdo?” Gaston asked.
“Dearg Due,” she replied.
“Dearg Due,” Fairbold repeated. “Well, well, well, you really are so much older than you look, my dear.”
“What’s a Dearg Due?” Gaston asked suspiciously.
“A who rather than a what,” Fairbold replied, taking a sip of his tea. “An old Irish myth about a young woman who was forced into an arranged marriage with a brute who beat her. She committed suicide and was buried but arose from her grave at midnight to kill her husband and father.”
“Oh yes,” Gaston said.
“By drinking their blood,” Fairbold said. “It’s an old Irish vampire myth really.”
“It would be,” Gaston replied, with feeling. “A vampire myth, I mean.”
A loud hiss interrupted them. A black cat emerged from under a bench. It arched its back and spat at Karla.
“Now be nice to our guest, Mike,” Fairbold said. “Mike doesn’t like daemons in his Museum.”
“I understand your position, cat,” Gaston said.
He turned to Karla.
“If he knew you then you must know him?”
“The stag-man. You must know who he is.”
“Oh, Nud. His name’s Nud,” Karla replied.
“Indeed,” Fairbold said.
He selected another volume and showed Gaston a drawing.
“Yes, that’s him,” Gaston said. The slanted eyes under the spread of horns were quite distinctive, and he held a spear. The legend under the picture said Nodens, not Nud.
“Of course, the Crow god, now we’re getting somewhere,” Fairbold said.
He fished around amongst a stack of books piled up against a desk leg until he located one bound in red leather cracked with age. He thumbed through until he found the right page, opened the room door onto the woodland and began to read out loud.
“Lord have mercy.
“Christ have mercy.
“From all evil, deliver us oh Lord, Christ have mercy, from all sin, from your wrath, from sudden and unprovided death, from the snares of the devil, from anger, hatred, and all ill will…”
Gaston gaped. He had the usual relaxed English attitude to attending church but his West Indian relatives were still fire and brimstone so he knew a prayer when he heard one. Fairbold continued until there was a snap, a discontinuity in reality and the woodland vanished as if it had never been. Outside was a basement corridor, all neon lit, dry dust, and peeling paint.
Fairbold closed the book of prayer with a thump that made Gaston jump. His nerve was going.
“What did you do?” Gaston asked.
“I exorcised Noden,” Fairbold replied. “He’s a Romano-British pagan God. Wheeler found the remains of a late Roman temple dedicated to him at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire back in the Twenties. Like all pagan shrines, it was slighted by Christians so Nodens is vulnerable to exorcism. Magic is forbidden to Museum staff but exorcism is a special case, classed under religion, don’t you know.”
Fairbold’s expression lost its normal smile.
“But someone has been performing forbidden magic from within the Museum’s wards. That much is clear. Someone here has broken The Regulations.”
Gaston could tell Fairbold pronounced the last two words in capital letters.
“And the target seems to have been you, Mr Gaston.”
“Me? Why would anyone want to stop me? I’m just the post boy here, which reminds me.”
Gaston held out Jameson’s package but Fairbold was staring at the ceiling, eyes unfocussed so he put it back in his pocket.
“Perhaps the right question at the moment is not why but who and how. Who tried to stop you and how did they manage to create an Otherworld bubble inside the Museum. Find the how and I suspect it’ll point to the who.”
He looked at Karla.
“You must know something, my dear. You knew enough to turn up at a critical moment. You must have bypassed our wards by entering through the Otherworld bubble. Were you following Nodens? Hmmm?”
Karla was sat cross legged on the floor engaged in a staring contest with Mike the Museum Cat. Their frozen body poses suggested that they were both in for the long haul.
“She’ll only tell you what she wants you to know,” Gaston said. “Daemons are very like women in that respect.”
Fairbold sat at his desk and began flicking through volume after volume.
“Interesting chap, Nodens; he didn’t start as a Roman god, you know. He was a Celtic deity originally. The Romans had a habit of taking over the gods of their subject peoples. The Professor...”
Fairbold implied capital letters again.
“…associated his name with a Germanic root word meaning to entrap.”
“Karla called him Nud,” Gaston said.
“That’s the Welsh form for Nodens. It got into English as Lud, as in the name of the legendary British king who is supposed to be buried at Ludgate. There used to be a statue of him there. I believe it is now in the porch of the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street. Fleet Street, you know is where…”
“Yes, Professor but if we could get back to the attack on me,” Gaston said, somewhat desperately, before Fairbold could launch into a rambling one hour lecture down the byways of the mythological history of Britain.
“Well, the relevance is that according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, London is named after Lud so Nodens has a close connection to the city. Of course, Geoffrey is a bit dodgy as a source, I remember that…”
“But how does this help us?” Gaston asked, getting skilled at heading Fairbold off at the academic pass.
“Because of The Professor, my dear chap.”
“And he is?”
“Why J.R.R. Tolkien of course. Everyone knows of The Professor, surely, even in the Commission? The trouble that man has caused us over the years: brilliant scholar, of course, but no common sense.”
Gaston thought that was rich coming from Fairbold.
“The Professor became interested in Nodens because of The Ring.”
More capital letters but Gaston had a horrible feeling that he knew all about The Ring. But it wasn’t real, was it?
“Perhaps I should explain.”
Oh Dear God, another lecture, thought Gaston.
“Wheeler found a number of defixiones at Lydney Park. They’re curse tablets,” Fairbold said, noting Gaston’s blank expression.
“One of them was from a certain individual called Silvianus. It asked Nodens to curse a ring that had been stolen by a man named Senicianus and promised the god half the value of the ring if it was returned. A heavy gold ring had already been found at Silchester in the eighteenth century with a depiction of Venus. Someone had badly inscribed on it an exhortation to the Christian God to protect a Senicianus. Senicianus is an unusual name,” Fairbold said, dryly, “so we can be sure it is the one named in the defixio.”
“At least it wasn’t inscribed with One Ring to Find Them All,” Gaston said. “So we have a cursed ring. Where is it now?”
“Why here in The Black Museum’s Roman collection, of course. A properly authenticated fake, properly authenticated by the British Museum that is, is on public display at Vyne House but we keep the original secretly under lock and key. Can’t have cursed rings lying around rural England, can we now. That ring must be the key to all this.”
“Lead on,” Gaston said.
Fairbold lead the way through the winding underground corridors of The Museum to another door. He knocked and they walked into a study room that was identical to the one they had just left. Identical except for the occupant, that is. The man wore the stained white lab coat uniform of a BM academic but the antler horns tied to his head were presumably not standard. He had a silver glove on his right hand with a large gold ring on the forefinger. He was waving both arms around and chanting in what sounded like Latin.
The man would have looked ridiculous were it not for the heavy static charge of magic in the room. Fairbold stopped in the doorway, gaping at the sight of his colleague.
Gaston was now on familiar territory. He had never claimed to be any sort of intellectual but when it came to swift violent action he could recover a great deal of ground lost in debate. He shoved Fairbold to one side. Throwing himself at the man with the ring, Gaston seized his right wrist with one hand and hit him good and hard on the jaw with the other. The BM academic flew backwards into a wall and collapsed, the glove spinning off his hand. Gaston bent down to pick it up.
“No, don’t touch it!” Fairbold said.
Fairbold hunted around the room until he found a lead box. Carefully teasing off the ring with a pair of tweezers he manoeuvred it into the box, snapping tight the lid. The he picked up the glove and tossed it to Gaston.
“A souvenir of your memorable visit.”
Gaston examined the glove. It was ordinary leather coated in tightly wound silver paper. Fairbold picked up the antiquated black Civil Service Bakelite phone on the desk and dialled a number.
“Security, Fairbold here. Could you come to the Roman Section, immediately please.”
The man on the floor sat up, brushing a broken antler branch away from his face. Blood ran out of his mouth.
“I think that Commission thug has broken my jaw,” he said, thickly. “Violence, that’s all they know. Bloody animals.”
“Really, Dumpkins, you thought a bit of tinfoil would protect you from the Vyne Ring’s curse? I suppose you got the idea from the Welsh myth of King Lludd of the Silver Hand. Absurd! Everyone knows that tinfoil is only useful for keeping out CIA brainwashing beams,” Fairbold said
“It would have sufficed for my limited purpose,” Dumpkins said, defensively.
“Nonsense, for pity’s sake man we are dealing with the Vyne Ring. All those Lord of the Rings books, movies, toys, dreams. You know mythology is charged by human dreams and imagination. If only one per cent has flowed into that artifact from the Tolkien connection then the damned thing has more latent power than the Spear of Longinus. The Ring would have eaten you in the end.”
“I think you overestimate the danger, Fairbold. You were always prone to hyperbole. Take that paper you wrote on the decommissioning of Mycenaean cult figurines,” Dumpkins said.
“If we could save the academic argument for another time,” Gaston said.
“What were you trying to achieve anyway?” Fairbold asked Dumpkins, ignoring Gaston.
“I suppose I may as well tell you as it will all come out now anyway. I intended to win the National Lottery with the help of a little magic. Harmless enough, surely?”
“Harmless! Using heavy duty magic within our wards, playing games with probability, you could have collapsed the walls of reality letting God knows what into London. But why, what did you need money for? You haven’t bought a new suit in twenty years to my knowledge.”
“The winnings were not for me personally, Fairbold you old fool, but to finance my next project. My grant to investigate Easter Island was rejected—as well you know since you were the anonymous referee who canned it.”
“Rightly so, your ideas were ludicrous. The whole thing would have been an enormous waste of money.”
“Unlike your Etruscan Expedition,” Dumpkins sneered.
“I was unlucky there.”
Fortunately for Gaston’s patience, not to say sanity, the two learned savants were interrupted by a knock at the door. An elderly face almost completely obscured by a black peaked cap and a snow-white walrus moustache peered around the door.
“Did you call security?” the face asked.
“Ah, Grindyke, detain Doctor Dumpkins and hold him in your Lodge while the Director decides his fate.”
“Certainly, Professor Fairbold. Now you come-along-with-me, young fellah-me-lad,” Grindyke said as he tottered in.
Gaston thought he had now seen it all but The Museum still had a surprise in store. Grindyke had bought two assistants with him, from the Egyptology Section no doubt, where they were part of the Collection. They moved astonishingly quickly for mummies, for the sort of mummies wrapped in bandages rather than snot-nosed brats. Each took one of Dumpkins’ arms and hauled him out, still exchanging obscure insults with Fairbold.
“Wait!” Gaston shouted.
They all stopped and looked at him.
“I have been hexed by a crow, bitten by dogs and nearly spitted like a suckling pig by an Iron Age god. Now in the name of all that’s unholy would someone please tell me what the Hell your internal squabbles in The Museum have to do with me?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Dumpkins asked.
“Not to me, so humor me with an explanation?” Gaston replied.
“When I was washing out my mug in the kitchenette after this afternoon’s tea, I heard Fairbold talking to the Director in the Senior Common Room. They didn’t know I was there, of course,” Dumpkins said smugly, “but I could hear every word through the hatch.”
“So?” Fairbold asked
“I heard you warn the Director that Jameson was coming on an unscheduled visit. I mean, why would the Head of The Commission’s enforcement arm be coming here secretly? Obviously, somehow, they found out about my magical experiments. Why else would Jameson come except to terminate me with, with…”
“Extreme prejudice is, I believe, the current expression,” Fairbold said, helpfully, doubled over, unable to contain his mirth.
"Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer," he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
“I merely came to deliver a package to Professor Fairbold as a favor for Major Jameson,” Gaston said carefully, feeling like shooting someone or perhaps just banging his head on a wall.
“I thought you were Jameson,” Dumpkins said.
“No, I’m Sergeant Gaston.” Gaston replied firmly. “Just Jameson’s delivery boy—which reminds me.”
He fished in his pocket and held out the package.
Fairbold took it from him and broke the seal, snapping open the hinged cardboard box.
“Excellent, Jameson remembered to get my Turkish cigarettes when he was in Ankara,” Fairbold said, in delight.
“All this over a packet of fags?” Gaston asked in disbelief.
“Not just any cigarettes,” Fairbold said, huffily. “These are Murad’s special shag. You just can’t get them in Britain anymore. The European Health and Safety Directorate banned them. Dangerously high tar content, don’t you know.”
That was when Dumpkins screamed.
Copyright © 2013 by Dr. John Lambshead
John Lambshead is retired research scientist from the British Museum of Natural History. He is the author of swashbuckling fantasy Lucy’s Blade and coauthor, with best seller David Drake, of science fiction adventure, Into the Hinterlands. This story takes place in the world of The Commission and his new contemporary fantasy novel Wolf in Shadow.