She doesn’t remember the unimportant things any more, of course. She doesn’t remember where she is, half the time, or what she’s doing here. She doesn’t remember what year it is or what’s on television tonight, or what she had for dinner. These here-and-now things, this ever-changing, ever-moving alien world she occasionally notices herself living in today, they aren’t worth remembering anyway, even if she could.
She remembers the important things, though. Some of them, anyway, in no particular order. The big things, the unchanging things; the things she did when she was young. She remembers a slow train in Turkey, a young man with dark, tousled hair and a devil-may-care smile. She remembers fighting monsters, righting wrongs, defying death. And running. An awful lot of running.
And she remembers this song. As the record spins on the turntable, she sits here between the four walls of her little room and sings:
“I'd love to get you
On a slow boat to China,
All to myself alone…”
* * *
“Get you to keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers
Weeping on the faraway shore…”
The young man had very a good singing voice, Bea had to admit. Even if he had just barged into their train compartment looking as if he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. That didn’t, of course, explain just why he was now sat opposite them singing to himself and rather anxiously peering out of the dusty, fly-specked window.
Outside, arid rocky fields and gnarled trees continued to roll past as the ancient train rocked and grumbled its way along the poorly-maintained track. Inside the carriage, the heat was sweltering, not that the newcomer appeared fazed by it.
“Excuse me,” Bea said, as politely as possible, as she fanned herself with her folded magazine. The man just continued to sing, as if he hadn’t noticed her. “Excuse me,” she repeated, more loudly.
She supposed she ought to be pleased to encounter what sounded like another British traveller here in one of Turkey’s more remote corners, but to be honest she found it a bit of an imposition, him just waltzing in here without saying hello or even acknowledging them. And she dreaded to think of what he might have been up to, with his dark hair sticking out all over the place and a tear along the shoulder seam of his filthy tweed jacket. He looked as if he’d been rolling around on the ground; there was a large, bloodstained gash in one knee of his trousers.
“And just what the devil are you shouting about now, Bea?” asked Amelia, seated beside her. She appeared only just to have noticed the interloper, and knowing Amelia when she had her head in a book, it was probably true. Amelia was a small, wrinkled woman with greying hair and a penchant for tatty men’s work clothes, but hid a brilliant mind under her somewhat eccentric exterior.
“He just came in here,” Bea told her, nodding at the man. “I thought we’d reserved this compartment.”
“Well, you know, it’s all a bit free and easy in this part of the world…” Amelia decided. “Mind you, I’d watch out for him. Men, you know; can’t trust them…”
“Tickets please,” said a voice, in heavily-accented English. They all looked up at the man with the large black moustache and shabby uniform who had slid back the door of the compartment, even the young man ceasing his singing for the time being. He frowned to himself worriedly for a second; of course, thought Bea, he wouldn’t have a ticket.
“Here you go,” he suddenly grinned, sticking his hand in his pocket and offering the conductor a fistful of creased and grubby Turkish banknotes: “That ought to cover it.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” nodded the man. It seemed that in this part of the world, naked bribery was more or less expected as a matter of course. Free and easy, as Amelia had said…
“And where would this train be going, exactly?” the young man asked.
“Istanbul, sir,” replied the conductor, still counting the money. “Via Izmir.”
“Oh, that’ll do,” the young man smiled happily.
“Do you often get on trains without knowing where they’re going?” Bea asked him when the conductor had left again.
“Oh, all the time,” the young man informed her. “It’s what you might call an occupational hazard.”
“And what is your occupation?” Bea wondered.
“I’m an archaeologist,” he beamed.
“Now, there’s a coincidence!” Amelia declared, appearing to tune into the conversation again now that it was of interest to her. “So are we!”
“Really?” he answered, grinning from ear to ear. “That is a coincidence, isn’t it? And what’s your interest?”
“Professor Amelia Rumford,” said Amelia, leaning across and offering him her seamed and calloused hand. “And this is my research assistant, Beatrice Atkins; I call her “Bea”. We’ve just been looking at the most fascinating Neolithic bull burials up in the Hatay highlands. Absolutely breathtaking, you know; I’m sure you’re familiar with Berger’s famous paper in, oh…nineteen hundred and, let me see…three…or was it…no… Completely ignored the matrilineal moon-cult, of course, but what would you expect from a man?”
“We are bounders,” he agreed, “the whole filthy lot of us. Pleased to meet you, Professor Rumford,” he said, before recognition suddenly ignited in his eyes: “I say, you didn’t write Bronze Age Burials in Gloucestershire, did you? A marvellous synthesis, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Oh,” said Amelia, modestly, “that was a very long time ago…oh yes, before the war, that was, back when I was living in…”
“It’s still the standard text,” he assured her. “And very pleased to meet you too, Bea,” he added with another smile. “I’m Edgar Nelson-Stanley, my friends call me Edgar; I recently completed my PhD on Hellenistic public works in the Levant region, and I’ve just finished a truly remarkable dig, just over the border there in Syria.”
“I look forward to hearing all about it,” Amelia told him. “After all, it’s going to be a long journey; we may as well talk about something interesting.”
“Dr Nelson-Stanley,” said Bea, suddenly.
“I told you, my friends call me Edgar,” he replied.
“Am I your friend?” she wondered. “We’ve only just met.”
“Well, I hope you’re not one of my enemies,” he replied wryly, casting another anxious glance out of the window. “I seem to be picking up rather a lot of those at the moment…”
“Just how do you come to be on a train whose destination you don’t know,” she enquired, “without a ticket, looking like that?” He looked down at his dishevelled state and appeared to notice it for the first time, looking back up at her with a rueful smile.
“You wouldn’t believe the morning I’ve had, Bea,” he told her.
“Really?” she asked. “What happened to you?”
“No, honestly,” he insisted, “you wouldn’t believe it…”
* * *
Well, he was at the border, Edgar thought, blinking in the white glare of sun on sand. And without anything else untoward happening, even if it was stinking hot and the back of his throat tasted of dust. Walking across several miles of parched semi-desert after having to abandon your shot-up car could have that effect on you.
Getting across the border, of course, that was going to be the real trick. In the decade or so since the end of the Second World War and independence from France, politics here in Syria might charitably have been described as eventful; martial law had been in force ever since the last coup attempt, meaning that those were soldiers at the crossing point about a hundred yards up ahead. Their shiny new Russian rifles and helmets provided the contrast to their crumpled, threadbare uniforms. Above them, the Syrian flag waved atop the pole beside the wooden guard hut; underneath, a line of traffic waited to be waved across the border into Turkey. A few yards beyond, the Turkish crescent fluttered over a nearly identical hut and some nearly identical troops, except that their helmets and rifles were war-surplus American.
Edgar tried to look casual, strolling along the baked, dusty road with his hands in his pockets, not slowing or hesitating or doing any of the other things that might draw attention to him. That was Hatay province on the other side of the line, and the city of Iskenderun, where hopefully he could get some sort of transport and shake off the pursuers who had been dogging his steps ever since the dig site.
Fat chance, he thought with a sinking feeling as a man emerged from the guard hut up ahead; a trim, dapper figure in a white linen suit that positively shone in the strong sunlight. Him, and the hulking, darker-suited henchman who seemed to follow him everywhere; marvellous, just marvellous. Edgar closed his hand almost reflexively on the thing in his pocket, the thing all of this was about, whatever it really was. It felt hard and strangely cold under his fingers.
He took the risk, and stepped off the road, nipping between two of the row of wooden sheds that ran from here almost to the border itself. They were part of the rail yard that extended along one side of the road, with its counterpart on the other side of the border. The railway itself, of course, in an inspired bit of planning, didn’t actually cross the border; you had to detrain here, walk across and catch another one on the other side. Brilliant. He was hoping, though, that somewhere in among all of the sheds and rusting boxcars there might be a secluded spot where he could nip across the fence without anybody noticing and shooting him. It was worth a try, in any case.
At that moment, of course, with a screech of tyres and a squeak of brakes, things went from bad to worse as they tended to do where his little escapades were concerned.
He turned to look at the vehicle that had followed him into the alley between the sheds, half-expecting some Syrian Army jeep overloaded with trigger-happy troops. In fact, it was a very elderly ambulance with what appeared to be black paint over its windows. That was a little disconcerting. The driver’s and passenger doors swung open, and out stepped two women who seemed to be dressed as nurses; which was appropriate if you thought about it.
“Hello ladies,” he nodded, chancing a smile and trying to look innocent, even though he suspected that this was not about to end well. They stood there in their white bonnets and neat navy blue capes, staring at him, unnaturally still and glassy-eyed.
“Give us the Talisman,” the one on the left suggested, her voice low and flat.
“The what?” he asked. “Sorry, can’t help you there.” He gave a theatrical shrug. “What was it you were looking for again?”
“Then we will take it from your cooling corpse,” the one on the right decided, in a voice that sounded strangely identical to that of her colleague.
“Well, that’s not very friendly!” he protested, trying to back away as casually as he could. From beneath their capes, the two nurses drew cruelly-curved daggers that glinted in the sunlight like silver claws. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve mislaid,” he continued as his backing-away accelerated into a virtual backwards run, “but I’m sure they’ve got a lost property office at the border post over there; maybe you could ask…” In unison, the nurses let out a shrill, inhuman shriek of bloodlust and rushed towards him. “All right, possibly not…” he conceded as he finally turned and ran for his life.
He pelted along the rest of the alleyway and turned left, towards the border. He could hear them on his heels, flat sensible shoes slapping on the hard-baked ground. A ladder — that looked like just the thing! He seized it and began to haul himself up the side of one of the sheds, even as the nurses rounded the corner below him. He heard something whipping through the air with cobra speed and felt a sudden sharp pain in his right calf.
“Only a nick…” he told himself, clambering onto the roof and looking down at the blood on his trouser leg. The first nurse was already halfway up the ladder after him, snarling up at him, face twisted in a grimace of feral hatred. Well, nothing for it then — keep running, he supposed.
He sprinted along the uneven tarpaper roof, slightly sticky in the sun, able to hear them right behind him. He took the gap between the end of the roof and the next shed in a flying leap, and somehow managed to stay on his feet when he landed. This was exciting, he thought bitterly as he heard voices shouting in Arabic and Turkish down below, a dozen rifles probably taking aim at him right now. Too exciting, really; however did he manage to get himself into these situations?
He neared the end of this roof too and saw that that was where the row of sheds came to an end; there was just a stretch of stony, barren ground bisected by the wire border fence, and then a railway track on the other side. Well, he couldn’t just stop and let those nurses perform impromptu surgery on him, he decided; there appeared to be only one thing for it…
“Oh God!” he heard himself exclaiming as he hit the ground and went rolling over and over through rocks and muck and spiky dry vegetation. “Oh Christ! Oh bugger! Oh my…Oh…” He came to a halt, finally, and stared up at the flawless blue sky, hurting all over. “Oh, that’s going to smart in the morning,” he said aloud, and then immediately dragged himself to his feet.
He had cleared the fence, he saw to his relief and slight amazement, which meant he was in Turkey, but he hadn’t escaped yet. There was the small matter of all of those Turkish border guards running towards him, shouting and brandishing guns…
“Nothing to declare!” he told them as he ran off in the opposite direction, heading for the railway tracks, wondering whether the nurses were still chasing him too, but not daring to look back. A bullet smacked into the ground somewhere off to his left, raising a fountain of yellow dust. The Colonel had never mentioned any of this business when he’d offered him the job…
He reached the tracks, stumbled and nearly fell, thinking that somebody ought to have shot him by now. That was when he saw the train hurtling towards him from the right, a huge brown iron monster, blaring at him, spewing smoke and steam and showing no sign of stopping. Well, all right, not hurtling exactly, but it was still heading straight for him. He flung himself to one side, rolling painfully across sharp-edged steel rails and through the stones and dust again, just in the nick of time. At least the row of carriages thundering past provided a barrier between himself and the pursuing soldiers. He managed to jump up and catch hold of the last carriage in line, and even more impressively managed not to fall immediately to his death beneath the relentlessly chugging wheels below.
By the time he managed to get the door open and drag himself panting inside, the soldiers and the nurses and the man in the white suit, who had somehow managed to cross the border in all of the confusion, were receding into the distance behind him.
He turned and made a completely pointless effort to straighten his jacket and smooth his hair, checked his pocket to make sure the cause of all of this fuss was still there, and then strolled as casually as he could manage along the train corridor, looking for a seat…
* * *
“And so, to cut a long story short, that’s how I came to be on a train whose destination I didn’t know, without a ticket, looking like this!” The young man called Edgar sat back in his seat, beaming delightedly as if he expected Bea to be impressed by his outlandish tale.
“So you’re some sort of secret agent?” she asked, rather sceptically.
“No,” he insisted, “I told you, I’m an archaeologist! I can’t help it if people want to chase me and try to kill me as a result of perfectly avoidable misunderstandings, now can I?”
“Same thing once happened to me in Egypt,” Amelia told him, “back in nineteen thirty…thirty six I think… No, actually it was thirty…seven, come to think of it. I was there to excavate some First Dynasty burials just north of Aswan, if I remember correctly, and just how the devil I came to be doing that is a completely different story in itself… Do you happen to know the First Dynasty at all?”
“Only to say hello to,” Edgar replied, cheekily. “I wouldn’t call them friends or anything.”
“Absolutely fascinating,” Amelia insisted, continuing with her spiel: “Now Lise Meyer was there, this was before the war you understand; I was only a shy young thing at the time. She was an expert on the…early dynasties, and on…Egyptian prehistory. Haven’t seen Lise in years; heard she’d married some man, which was a pretty misguided thing to do, if you ask me. Anyway, as I seem to remember, she wrote the most remarkable paper on the dating of the…Sphinx. Not sure if I believe it, mind you, but…”
Edgar smiled and nodded and let the words wash over him, as you sometimes had to do when Amelia was in full flow. Bea noticed, however, that he was actually looking straight at her as he smiled that lopsided smile. Not in an uncomfortable, embarrassing sort of way; actually, she had to admit, it was quite pleasant to be looked at as if you were something worth seeing. She found herself smiling back at him, suddenly regretting her earlier unfriendliness. Amelia wouldn’t have approved, she thought with some amusement.
“…American chap with the most ridiculous…hat,” Amelia was saying at the moment. “And a…bullwhip, of all things…”
“So, Bea, are you hoping to make a career in archaeology yourself?” Edgar asked when the Professor eventually had to pause for breath.
“Oh yes, I hope so,” she nodded.
“Excellent news,” he said, as if he really thought it was. “We could team up, the pair of us, if the Professor wouldn’t mind losing you.”
“We could,” Bea answered, treating it as a joke, not sure whether he was teasing her or whether he really meant it. If he meant it, she thought, it was a little bit premature; they’d only just met.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Amelia chuckled. “Men; they promise to whisk you away to the ends of the Earth, but all you’re left with is…”
“She’s right, you know,” Edgar agreed. “I wouldn’t trust me either.” Suddenly, with a groan of machinery, the train began to slow. Edgar almost jumped out of his seat in alarm, all of his insouciant good humour draining away for a moment. The conductor walked down the corridor, shouting the name of the station they were approaching, and the young archaeologist seemed to relax again. “Only a scheduled stop,” he murmured almost to himself, wiping at his suddenly sweaty brow.
“Are you all right?” Bea asked with concern.
“Yes,” he insisted, glancing furtively out of the window. “Yes, I just thought…” He suddenly brightened again, the smile flashing back into view: “Yes, perfectly all right!” He did not sound as if he was convincing even himself on that point. “So, Professor,” he said to Amelia with exaggerated enthusiasm, “what’s your opinion on the age of the Sphinx? Surely you don’t believe any of those crackpot theories?”
Bea leaned back in her seat and pretended to listen to the protracted and extremely verbose debate that now ensued between Amelia and Edgar, but really she was watching the young man, examining him closely. He was scared, she realised, under the outer shell of devil-may-care bravado. Even as he continued to wear that grin, his eyes were filled with trepidation; even as he talked ten to the dozen with Amelia, he continued to look out of the window, and he did not seem to like what he saw.
“Nonsense stories about…theosophy and the lost continent of…oh yes, Atlantis…” Amelia scoffed.
Edgar laughed in response, as if he found it side-splittingly funny, but Bea could hear the false note in his mirth. She saw the beads of sweat trickling down his face; she suspected they were not caused by the heat. The temptation to turn her head and see just what it was he was staring at outside was overwhelming, like an itch she longed to scratch, but something prevented her. Perhaps it was an instinctive wariness of involving herself in whatever the young man was obviously involved in, but she somehow felt that she did not want him to know that she had seen through his façade.
A sudden inspiration came to her. She reached for the bag standing on the floor between her feet, rummaged around until she found what she was looking for. Not that now was really the time or the place for thinking about makeup, she thought as she opened the little powder compact and pretended to study her own face in the mirrored lid.
She leaned towards the window, as if she could see better in the daylight, and angled the mirror just so… Edgar continued to talk to Amelia and gaze outside, seeming not to notice what she was doing.
There. She managed to get the mirror at just the right angle, so that she could see the dusty station platform behind her, thronged with passengers exiting and boarding the train, stacked high with crates and boxes that seemed to contain everything from watermelons to live chickens. The station building itself was another long, low wooden shed with planking sides and a roof of corrugated tin that blazed in the sun; beyond it, a few beaten-up motor vehicles were parked in an uneven row.
That was strange…a rusting ambulance with blacked-out windows, its rear doors gaping wide. There were half a dozen nurses in old-fashioned uniforms standing around it, apparently in the act of unloading something onto the platform. She saw that it was an elderly invalid, a hunched female figure in mourning dress and a thick black veil, slumped in an equally ancient wheelchair. Wrinkled mummy’s hands gripped the armrests as one of the nurses began to push the chair towards the train, the others forming up around it in a sort of phalanx. Whatever was wrong with the poor unfortunate, Bea thought, her condition must be serious to warrant such intensive care.
She chanced a glance in Edgar’s direction, and saw the fear on his face, nakedly visible for the briefest of moments. It was the sight of the invalid emerging from the ambulance, she realised with a creeping sort of uneasiness; that was what had frightened him. Whatever murky sort of business could he be caught up in?
In the same moment, he noticed her looking at him, and turned to her with a dashing smile, pretending to ignore the scene outside the window. Their eyes met, and he seemed to know, just know, what she had been doing and that she had seen his distress.
“You don’t look like the sort of girl who worries about powder and paint,” he commented, nodding at the compact in her hand. “Mind you, if I had a face like yours, I’d stare at it all day too.”
“I suppose I should take that as a compliment,” she replied, snapping the compact shut and dropping it self-consciously into her pocket.
“I suppose you should,” he grinned, suddenly springing out of his seat and buttoning his ruined jacket. “Well, it’s been very nice to meet you, Bea, Professor Rumford, but I think this is my stop.”
“Leaving us already?” Amelia asked with surprise. “I wanted so very much to hear your thoughts on the…what was it now…oh yes, the Seleucid monuments you were talking about in the…let me see…was it the Bekkaa Valley?”
“I’m afraid that will have to wait until next we meet,” he told her, as if they were ever going to meet again. “There are some people, you see, who are just dying to see me, and,” he muttered under his breath, “I’m rather anxious not to see them…”
“Well, it was very nice meeting you too,” Bea told him, standing to shake his hand. At that moment, the train began to move again with jolt, making them stumble into each other.
“Are you all right?” he asked chivalrously, helping her regain her balance. She was acutely conscious of his hand on her waist just before he rather sheepishly removed it.
“Yes,” she assured him, not really knowing what to say, but feeling that she should; he was about to walk out of here into goodness knew what danger, clearly in need of whatever help they could provide.
“I’d better dash,” he said. “I can probably still hop off before this old thing gets up to speed.”
“Goodbye, Dr Nelson-Stanley,” she blurted helplessly as he made for the door of the compartment. He turned, and gave her another smile:
“I told you, my friends call me Edgar,” he reminded her with a rather cheeky wink. “And I don’t believe in goodbyes, only au revoirs.”
“What a strange young man,” Amelia said with a shake of her head when he was gone. She started reading her book again, giving every sign of having forgotten their visitor already. Bea stared out of the window, feeling sick to her stomach, suddenly sure that she had let that young man go smiling to his death. She looked at the trees and fields and fences moving past the window, but did not see them. With a sigh, which Amelia appeared not to notice, she put her hand in her pocket, thinking to return the compact to her bag.
The thing in her pocket was not the compact. It was something hard and intricately patterned, and strangely cold. She took it out with a start and found herself holding a long, heavy gold chain bearing some sort of large pendant; a twisting, coiling nest of intricately-crafted serpents forming the setting for an enormous, glittering jewel. She could not immediately identify which culture or period it might belong to, but she knew at a glance that it was very old, and probably extremely valuable.
“Whatever have you got there?” Amelia asked, because if there was one thing that was guaranteed to get her attention, it was an ancient artefact.
“Dr Nelson-Stanley must have dropped it,” Bea lied, because she knew what had happened. He had slipped it into her pocket when the motion of the train had made them fall together. And stolen her compact, for some reason she could not fathom. And that meant, she thought with a sinking feeling, that he expected to be caught by whoever was chasing him, and that he did not want them to find the artefact on him when they did. That decided her.
“And where the devil are you off to now?” Amelia asked in surprise as Bea dashed for the door herself.
“I’ve got to find him!” she exclaimed as she disappeared into the corridor. “He needs help!” Amelia stared after her in mystification for a few moments, before lowering her eyes back to the book and slowly shaking her head:
* * *
He should have just gone out of the door in Bea and Professor Rumford’s compartment, Edgar was starting to think, but at the time he’d thought that he probably wanted to have the train between himself and the platform in case there was anybody standing and watching. So, he’d nipped out into the corridor, and had been about to make for the door on the opposite side of the carriage when he’d seen a flash of white linen somewhere off to his left.
Yes, great minds think alike, he thought without much amusement. The man in white and his attendant gorilla, instead of boarding the train from the platform side, had circled around to the other side of the tracks, no doubt expecting him to make a hasty exit in that direction. Now that the train had started moving, they’d obviously decided quickly to leap aboard and look for him.
He had a split second to make a decision; jump off the train before they saw him and before it picked up too much speed, and no doubt find himself having to contend with whatever either one of his two groups of pursuers had left behind at the station, or stay and try to hide?
He took a sharp right turn and strolled as innocuously as he could away from the man in white; halfway down the next carriage, he found an empty compartment and ducked inside, picking up a discarded newspaper and holding it up in front of his face as he pondered his next move.
“Tickets, please,” said a man’s voice a couple of minutes later, accompanied by the sound of the door sliding open. It spoke English with a definite accent, he noticed, but not the same definite accent as the train conductor had had earlier. Well, nothing for it, Edgar thought; he’d just have to try to brazen it out. “Dr Nelson-Stanley,” the voice continued. “We meet at last.”
“Ah, Herr De Flores,” he smiled brightly as he lowered the newspaper. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The blond, hawk-faced man in the white suit and snap-brimmed Panama hat stood just inside the compartment, smiling back at him, even if his frozen blue eyes regarded Edgar as if he were a worm. His enormous bald-headed henchman filled the doorway, a nasty scar running down the right side of his face, slowly flexing hands that looked as if they could crush Edgar’s head quite easily.
“Ah, so you know who I am?” De Flores seemed quite pleased by the idea. The shiny black Walther PPK he was holding casually at waist height was aimed somewhere in the region of Edgar’s belly button. Edgar tried to stand, but De Flores merely gestured with the gun, suggesting it was a bad idea. Edgar decided he’d better remain sitting.
“I’m aware of your reputation,” he told De Flores. “You spent the war years, I believe, as a member of the SS Ahnenerbe, plundering occult artefacts for Der Fuehrer. In 1945, like many of the rats on that particular sinking ship, you disappeared. Rumour has it that now you’re working as some sort of odd job man for the Syrian government.”
“The current Syrian regime has need of skills such as mine,” De Flores replied, modestly. “As well as sharing some of my, shall we say, geopolitical perspectives.”
“Meaning they’ll protect you from the Israelis,” Edgar surmised. “Plus I’m sure they pay very well.”
“That is so,” De Flores nodded with a flash of white teeth. “Now, Dr Nelson-Stanley, as enjoyable as this conversation is, I fear that we must attend to business. Where is the artefact you stole from the dig site at Tel al’ Hazred?”
“Well, you probably won’t believe me…” Edgar began.
“I sincerely doubt that I shall,” agreed De Flores.
“…but I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
“I see.” The Nazi let out a gentle sigh as if he were genuinely regretful about what came next. Edgar wasn’t fooled for a second. “I tried to discuss this with you as one man of affairs to another,” said De Flores, “but you opt instead to play the fool, something you Englishmen do so well.” He indicated his massive companion with a nod of his head, speaking with the quiet purr of a man who loves his work just a little too much: “Fortunately, Bruno here is quite adept at loosening reluctant tongues…” Edgar gave that some thought.
“So what you’re saying,” he observed after a moment, “is that you haff vays of making me tok?”
“I’m glad that we do after all understand each other, Dr Nelson-Stanley,” smiled De Flores, before turning to his henchman, dropping his voice to utter a curt order: “Bruno.”
Bruno flexed his huge hands again and started forward, his scarred face twisting into a rather frightening sneer of what Edgar imagined to be enjoyment.
“Dr Nelson-Stanley?” It was a woman’s voice, suddenly cutting in on the whole unlikely scene. De Flores and Bruno both turned towards the sound in surprise, which was all the opening Edgar needed. As grateful as he was for the interruption, however, he could not help but be a little annoyed; what on earth was the silly girl doing putting herself in harm’s way on his account?
“Hello Bea!” He nevertheless grinned, shooting to his feet and, in the same motion, yanking down hard on the emergency cord. “Told you it was only au revoir!”
The train immediately decelerated with an ear-splitting screech of protesting brakes and tortured metal. Which was a lot better than tortured Edgar, he thought as he along with all three of the others flew towards the front wall of the compartment. Bruno went down like a tree; Edgar bounced upright and kicked him viciously in the family jewels before he could think about getting up too. De Flores was on his hands and knees, trying to retrieve his pistol from the floor. Edgar kicked it away, and then chopped De Flores on the back of the neck for good measure.
“Right, nobody move!” he shouted, sticking his hand in his jacket pocket and brandishing it dramatically at the two stunned men. He picked Bea up from the floor with his free hand: “Nothing broken I hope?”
“No,” she insisted, staring at him. “I brought your…” She reached into her pocket too.
“There’ll be time for that later,” he told her, and pointed his jacket pocket at De Flores again: “First man to stick his head out of this door,” he threatened, “gets an extra eye socket! Come on, Bea, we’re leaving!”
“What have you got in your pocket?” Bea gasped when they were out in the corridor and he was shutting the door on his fallen enemies.
“My finger,” he admitted, showing it to her. “And a bit of string.”
“But not actually a gun?” she asked, still staring at him as if he were stark raving mad, which he had to admit he was used to by this point in his career as an amateur secret agent. He took off towards the front of the train in a brisk walk, ushering her along beside him
“Oh no,” he told her, “can’t stand the blasted things. And in any case, I wouldn’t carry one in my pocket! What if it went off?” He heard the compartment door slamming open behind them with a roar of German-accented rage. “Now,” he said, “when I say…” She was, however, already running. He decided he’d better follow her; Bruno did not sound best pleased.
She was quite nippy, he thought, as he tried to keep up with her. They both pelted down the length of the train, from carriage to carriage, with him slamming shut every door they passed through. He could keep track of Bruno’s pursuit by the sound of the same doors being smashed open again behind them. The man could run bloody fast for somebody who was approximately the size of King Kong.
Bea reached the baggage car, the last carriage before the coal tender and the engine. End of the line, Edgar thought, helping her haul open the door and rushing through it; time to make a quick…
“Give us the Talisman,” droned the nurse standing on the other side of the door. Her voice sounded distant and cold, her glazed eyes not looking at them but rather through them.
“The what?” Edgar tried, knowing it would do him no good. There were six of them, all with the same expression of wall-eyed malevolence, stood among the piles of crates and luggage and surrounding the…thing sitting silently in the wheelchair like some sort of honour guard, barring any escape. Somewhere further down the train, Bruno loudly kicked open another door.
“Just what on Earth is going on here?” Bea demanded, wild-eyed, taking the artefact out of her pocket, and eliciting a gasp of what sounded disturbingly like ecstasy from the assembled nurses. “What is this thing, that you’re prepared to chase and maybe kill somebody to get it?”
“The Talisman!” the first nurse declared, voice rising in a wail of excitement. “For millennia we have sought it, since it was taken by the thief Perseus, murderer of our holy Mother Medusa! For centuries, our sisterhood has pursued this sole aim, wholly devoted to the service of the Gorgon!”
“Serve the Gorgon,” the other nurses began to murmur in that same ecstatic tone, like a religious mantra: “Serve the Gorgon…serve the Gorgon…serve the Gorgon…”
The shrivelled shape in the wheelchair shifted slightly, raising one yellow-clawed hand a fraction. There was the unpleasant suggestion of…things…slithering somewhere behind its black lace veil.
Bruno smashed his way through yet another door.
“Get behind me, Bea…” Edgar urged, slipping his hand into his other jacket pocket.
“Who are you?” she demanded of him with a kind of wonder. “What kind of madness are you involved in?”
“Trust me, Bea,” he told her, softly, positioning himself in front of her. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Mother Stheno!” declared the leading nurse, taking her place behind the wheelchair. “Destroyer of cities! Slayer of armies! Purify the unbelievers; grant them the immortality offered by the Gorgon!” She reached forward and took hold of the edges of the veil as the chanting rose to a crescendo:
“Serve the Gorgon…serve the Gorgon…serve the Gorgon…”
“Du wirst sterben, Nelson-Stanley!” roared Bruno, surely only a carriage-length away by now. “Ich werde dich toeten mich! Ich reisse Ihre rauchenden Herz und essen Sie es!” He was rather unhappy about being kicked in the unmentionables, by the sound of it.
“What…?” Bea began, as the veil began to rise, spilling cold white light into the interior of the baggage car. Edgar, however, already had her by the hand, flinging himself sideways and dragging her with him.
“Serve the Gorgon!”
“Ich werde dich toeten, Nelson-Stanley! Ich werde dich t…t…t…”
The veil rose completely; the light was blinding, but Edgar kept his face turned away as he hit the wooden floorboards and rolled. Somewhere along the way, he lost his grip on Bea, but he had no time to hesitate. He had Bea’s compact in his hand, flipping it open and spilling power-puff and powder all over himself and the floor as he sprang back up again and came straight back at Mother Stheno and her disciples, brandishing it before him. The light flickered, casting crazy patterns of shadow across the walls and ceiling, accompanied now by a high-pitched screech of rage and pain; not a human sound.
Eventually, mercifully, everything went silent, and the only illumination was the sunlight streaming in through the windows.
Stheno, sister of Medusa if he remembered his Classics, sat in her wheelchair, a mass of snakelike tendrils exploding from beneath her veil. Her eyes were deep, dark pits of evil. She was staring at him with an expression of the purest hatred, as were her half-dozen acolytes in their nurses’ uniforms. The figures, their clothes, the wheelchair, now all appeared to be made of a fine-grained grey-white stone, like the most lifelike sculptures ever carved. Michelangelo himself could not have done as well. And, like the best magic tricks, all done with mirrors. Or a mirror, anyway.
In the doorway, Bruno stood poised in mid-run, similarly petrified. As Edgar watched, the statue slowly toppled forward and shattered into a dozen segments against the wooden floor. Nasty.
“No need to go to pieces, old chap,” he murmured automatically as Bruno’s stone head rolled past his feet, and then felt like a bit of a bounder for doing so. And then he realised he was forgetting something: “Bea…? Oh God, Bea!”
She was in the corner of the car, up on one knee as if trying to get back to her feet. She was not moving.
“Bea!” He sank down onto his own knees in front of her, raising his hands to her face and finding it unyielding and cold. Not again, he thought, trying to breathe, trying to fight back the emotions because he knew De Flores was still back there, and God knew who, or what, else; he still had to get out of this alive, and to do that he had to keep thinking, but… “Bea…” he whispered, feeling a lump of ice forming in his stomach, feeling the blood buzzing in his ears as he tried to come to terms with being responsible for another innocent life lost as a result of one of his adventures…
Looking around in desperation, he saw the artefact, the Talisman, whatever it really was, lying on the floor near Bruno’s detached left arm; Bea must have dropped it as he dragged her to the floor. The cause of all of this; the Colonel had sent him to Syria to half-inch it, without explaining what it was or what it did, or even that the world and his wife would be perfectly prepared to kill him to take it away from him. Only that it was alien, and therefore “theirs”, the Colonel and his associates claimed.
It was worth a try, he told himself. Desperate people will try anything. He reached over and picked up the Talisman.
* * *
Suddenly, Bea found herself kneeling on the floor, staring into Edgar’s face. An instant ago, she had been trying to get up after the blasted man had pulled her over, and now… Maybe not an instant ago, she realised. She had a vague recollection of being somewhere very still and very cold, aware but unable to move, blind and deaf and dumb. Even as she gasped for air, suddenly out of breath as if she had been holding it for too long, the frightening memory faded like a nightmare fades on waking, seeming less real with every passing moment.
“Bea, are you all right?” he asked, from an inch away. For some reason, he had his hands on her face, which she thought was a little bit over-familiar.
“Yes, I’m perfectly fine!” she exclaimed, trying to rise and then seeing the statues. “What happened to those people?” she wondered, aghast.
“There’ll be time for explanations later,” he told her, grinning all over his face, seemingly overjoyed about something. “Much later.” He seized her face again and, quite out of the blue, kissed her full on the lips.
“Wha…?” She tried to ask him what he thought she was doing, but the words died on her tongue as he pulled away from her and got to his feet. She could feel herself blushing hotly.
“I’d love to stay and get to know you better,” he told her, pulling open the door in the side of the baggage car, “but I think I’ve still got an awful lot of running to do!” There were people milling about outside, train passengers and crew, presumably wondering what oaf had pulled the communication cord.
“But…” she rose too, feeling light-headed, and not just because of the unexpected kiss. Just what was going on here? Then she felt the weight dangling around her neck, and saw that she was wearing that expensive-looking pendant, whatever it really was. Edgar had already jumped off the train and was now racing across the dried-up field outside. “You forgot your…” she began to call, but decided it was probably pointless.
Then, that unpleasant-looking man in the white suit came running into the baggage car, without either his hat or gun. He immediately saw the open door and continued through it in pursuit of Edgar, oblivious to the fact that she was standing right there with the thing he was apparently so anxious to possess hanging around her neck.
She ran to the open doorway, watching as Edgar and the man chasing him disappeared into the distance, shouting after him as loudly as she could:
“Goodbye! Whoever you are! Goodbye!” The reply came as a distant echo, carried on the breeze:
“Not goodbye! Au revoir!”
* * *
It was only afternoon, but already there were couples shuffling slowly around the great waxed floor of the sumptuous bar-cum-ballroom at the Pera Palace Hotel. A band played popular tunes quite badly as a dishevelled young man staggered in from the street entrance. He ignored the best efforts of the staff to turn him away, more or less shoving his way across the dancefloor and drawing more than a few disapproving looks along the way. Outside, the teeming metropolis that was Istanbul continued to, well, teem; the gateway between Europe and the Orient, former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the place where the rendezvous had been arranged four weeks and a lifetime ago.
“Nelson-Stanley,” said the Colonel, plummy as ever, not deigning to glance up from his folded newspaper. “You look a fright.”
“Glad to see you too, Colonel,” Edgar sighed, collapsing onto the next barstool along. He was even filthier and more ragged than he had been boarding the train in Iskenderun; getting chased across half of Turkey by an irate Nazi will do that to you. By now, though, even De Flores had given up and Edgar was still alive, and as far as he was concerned, that was a win. “Mine’s a large G and T,” he told the white-tuxedoed barman, scattering coins on the shiny bar top. “Without the T.”
“Bit early, isn’t it?” the Colonel asked, still reading the paper and sipping sticky Turkish coffee from a tiny cup, immaculate in his brown lounge suit. “Sun’s barely over the yardarm.”
“I haven’t slept for three days,” Edgar told him, gulping down the gin and coughing a little as he peered suspiciously into the empty glass.
“Ah,” said the Colonel, clipped moustache twitching thoughtfully. “I see.” Edgar looked at himself in the huge mirror behind the bar; the figure looking back at him resembled a particularly badly-dressed scarecrow. “And the item?” the Colonel asked, circumspectly. “Do we have it?”
“No,” said Edgar, bluntly.
“Oh, I see,” the Colonel replied, with admirable understatement. “That’s rather a poor show, isn’t it?”
“Can’t win them all, Colonel,” Edgar told him, unconcernedly.
“And you wouldn’t happen to know where…?”
“No,” Edgar lied. “It’s lost, as far as I know; lost forever. Good riddance to the thing.”
“Yes,” said the Colonel, unhappily.
“If it’s any comfort,” Edgar went on, “none of the other interested parties have it either; not the Syrians, not De Flores, not those nurses, whoever they are. The nurses are, however, you may be pleased to learn, down one Gorgon.”
“Ah,” said the Colonel, brightening slightly. “Well, I suppose that’s something.”
“I suppose it is,” Edgar answered, head lolling forward in exhaustion.
“Well, then, Nelson-Stanley,” said the Colonel, finishing his coffee and leaving a small pile of small change next to his saucer, “I ought to get off and make my report. We at the Institute are, as ever, grateful for your efforts on our behalf.”
“Just make sure you deposit the usual amount in the usual account,” Edgar reminded him; their longstanding agreement was that the Institute were paying for his time, not results. “My actual archaeological work doesn’t pay for itself.”
“Of course,” the Colonel replied as he shoved the rolled newspaper under his arm and, with a furtive glance over his shoulder, sidled casually towards the exit. “We’ll be in touch, Nelson-Stanley.”
“Oh, I dare say that you will, Colonel,” Edgar muttered to himself. “Dare say that you will.” He swivelled around on the barstool, fighting sleep, taking a look at his ostentatious surroundings. Not the sort of place he would have stayed at himself. It was lucky that he did so, however, because otherwise he wouldn’t have seen the two women walking past the street entrance, probably on their way to somewhere rather cheaper if he knew archaeologists. He bounded up, suddenly feeling wide awake, and headed off in pursuit.
* * *
“…formerly the church of Hagia Sophia,” Amelia was saying as they hurried along the crowded, blazingly hot, street. “That is, the Holy Wisdom, but, if I remember Ziegler’s monograph correctly…or was it…no, that’s quite right, it was Ziegler in nineteen…twenty…six? He proposed that the term “Sophia” actually refers to the feminine aspect of the…”
Bea nodded and murmured something affirmative as she tried to keep up. She found Amelia’s discursions quite fascinating most of the time, but a busy street in Istanbul was neither the time nor the place…
“You know,” said a familiar voice behind her, “I’ve often thought that the Sontarans must be the silliest-looking race in the entire galaxy. Oh, they all think they’re Napoleon Bonaparte, quite nasty blighters actually, but they look like a lot of giant King Edwards with Flash Gordon ray-guns…”
She turned, and there he was standing outside some extremely expensive-looking hotel, looking as if he’d just fallen off a cliff, been buried alive and then dug up again by an incontinent dog. She glanced after Amelia, who had continued on her way, still lecturing, quite unaware that Bea was no longer with her. She could easily catch her up later, she thought guiltily.
“You really are stark raving bonkers, aren’t you?” she asked him, unable to think of anything else to say.
““Hello Edgar” probably would have been friendlier,” he grinned, “but believe it or not, being bonkers isn’t actually a disadvantage in my line of work.”
“And what precisely is your line of work again, Dr Nelson-Stanley?” she demanded, which only made him shrug innocently:
“I told you; archaeology.” He stepped closer, the grin softening into a genuine smile: “I also told you several times that my friends call me “Edgar”.”
“Just archaeology?” She fixed him with a sceptical look, which made him shrug again, more defensively.
“Mainly archaeology,” he confessed, and put his hand in his pocket, producing her by now rather scuffed and dented compact: “Here, you forgot this. You’ll forget your own head next.” A thought seemed to occur to him and he frowned to himself, adding in a murmur: “A bit like that chap Bruno…”
“Thank you, I suppose,” she answered, putting it away. She touched the gold pendant hanging at her breast, wondering whether she should take it off. “I’ve still got your…well, what is it, exactly?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” he said, breezily. “Something I wouldn’t trust anybody else with, not even myself. You keep it.” She could feel herself blushing as she had the last time she’d seen him:
“I can’t…it’s…it must be worth…”
“Or at any rate look after it for me.” He chewed his lip rather disarmingly, eyebrows arching as he apparently wrestled with some knotty problem. “Tell me, Bea,” he said eventually, “do you mind if I ask you a frightfully personal question?”
“I think you’re going to ask it whether I mind or not,” she observed.
“Quite possibly,” he nodded. “So, you and Professor Rumford, you’re not…well, you know…?” It took Bea a second to realise what he was getting at; of course, it was the thing people always seemed to assume about Amelia, although Bea had never seen anything to confirm whether the assumptions were true or not.
“What?” she asked, before recovering herself. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, oh no. No.” Edgar seemed very relieved to hear it.
“Oh,” he echoed her, the grin returning with a vengeance. “I just thought I ought to check. In that case, would you mind awfully if I had the next dance?”
“What next dance?” she wondered, mystified.
“This next dance!” He seized her by the hand, and pulled her inside the door he was standing beside. She found herself inside a huge, opulently-furnished ballroom, an enormous, glittering bar running along one wall.
“You really are raving bonkers!” she exclaimed, as some sort of maitre d’ tried to wave them away. Edgar just ignored him.
“I prefer to think of myself as endearingly eccentric,” he retorted, nodding at the rather inept band playing in one corner: “Do you know what? They’re playing our song!”
“Our song?” Bea wondered, nonplussed.
“Yes,” he nodded adamantly. “Well, it’s going to be our song, anyway.” And as they started an awkward and rather inexpert dance, he began to sing:
“I'd love to get you
On a slow boat to China,
All to myself alone…”
* * *
“…get you to keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers
Weeping on the faraway shore…”
The needle reaches the end of the track and swings back of its own accord as the record continues spinning on the old turntable. Bea can still hear the music playing in her head as she sits there in her little room. And as she puts her hand to her breast and fingers the glittering jewel hanging in its golden setting, it is as if she is there again, amid the sounds and sights and smells, twirling around and around in his arms as he grins at her in that way he always did, not caring whether the other dancers are staring at them.
And as the dance reaches its end, he sweeps her into an embrace and places another long kiss on her lips.
“I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this,” he tells her, offhandedly, with the same insolent grin, “but, well, I rather think that I love you, Bea.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s a bit forward.”
“I’m usually never wrong about these things,” he assures her. “Trust me, I’m an archaeologist and I know what I’m doing.”
Bea remembers it all, and smiles.