This is the next chapter in the horror story (at least what we hope will be a horror story, may turn out to just be SFR). The first installment is here. Something has awoken, not a very nice something.
Sunlight streaming through his window finally wakened Roland. He rolled over in bed, reaching for her, hoping last night had not been a dream. He had a panicked moment, “She’s not here!” Then he heard a tuneless humming from downstairs.
Then the humming stopped. Evaporating like the dew in the sunlight of the morning.
Roland leaped out of bed and took the stairs at a bound. There was no one down there, not in the kitchen, nor the front rooms, nor even the loo. The loo he, and … it was too much.
Then his mobile shot into life, “Bloody hell!”
He answered it, “What the hell now?”
It was Mr Shah. “Did you hear the news?”
“When we lifted that damned block of yours. The bomb, the bloody German bomb, it went.”
“I lost two men. Two of my best men.”
“I’m sorry. Is there something I should do? Their funerals?”
“When they finally scrape up enough of the bodies … The bomb, it may have, must have been inside that block.”
“Captain Carter examined the area before the blast. There wasn’t any bomb.”
“He must have missed it. That was Roman concrete, and you know as well as I do that the Romans didn’t even have gunpowder, let alone high explosives. What does he say about it?”
“Nothing. Can’t. He caught it.”
“Oh … I’m sorry.”
“Well. Just a head’s up mate. Expect you’ll get a call. They’re thorough bastards.”
“MI6. There’s a chance it wasn’t a German bomb.”
“All I can say is it’s a good thing I’m Indian, Hindu. They’ve already interviewed Na’el. Gave it to him.”
A loud knock on the front door interrupted their conversation. Roland said, “There’s someone at the door. I’ll need.”
“May the Gods smile on you Dr Stevens. I think you’ll need them.” Mr Shah hung up.
Roland grabbed one of his wife’s old aprons and wrapped it around him in a semblance of decency. He hadn’t been able to face clearing them away. Then he answered the door.
A man and a woman, dressed in conservative suits. Suits that signally failed to hide the bulges under their shoulders waited outside.
“Yes, I am he.”
“Good. May we talk to you?”
“Who are you?”
“That is irrelevant.” The man pulled a warrant card from inside his jacket and showed it to him. “It’s better if you don’t know.”
“For me or for you?”
“Very funny, Dr Stevens. May we come in?”
“I suppose. Not like I have much of a choice, is there. I need to shower. Do you mind waiting?”
“Not at all.”
The man followed Roland upstairs and waited outside the bathroom while he showered. The woman used the time to search the downstairs rooms. She found a letter, written in an obscure script, one that looked suspiciously like Arabic or maybe Farsi, on the kitchen table. After sending a picture of it to the office, she pulled a chair from the breakfast table and sat. Satisfied with her efforts, she’d await the outcome.
Roland refreshed from his shower and decently clothed, with his escort, walked down to the kitchen. “Care for some coffee?”
The woman rose when he entered. “What’s this? Arabic text from Al Qaeda or Isis?”
Roland looked at it. “No.” He paused, “Damn. Not ever. I couldn’t.” He laughed, “She’s good.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a note from my … I don’t know. She was here last night. It’s just I’ve never had a note left for me in Demotic before.”
“Can you translate it?”
“Am I a specialist in Roman Britain?”
“What’s it say?”
Roland blushed, “It’s sort of personal.”
“Translate it, or we’ll take you in and hold you while someone else does it.”
“Oh. Well. Here goes.” He cleared his throat and started, “Dearest love. Thank you for last night. It was wonderful. It was so good that I’ll have to sleep it off. By all the Gods, even if it risks his revenge, even Zeus wasn’t that good, nor Jason.”
He stopped for a moment. “I told you.”
“May I skip the details? She’s telling me what she liked last night. I think it’s encouragement for tonight.”
The woman laughed, “Embarrassed Dr Stevens? I’ve heard it all, done most of it.”
“The touch of your tongue upon my.”
She stopped him, “You can skip it.”
“Embarrassed after all?” Roland read, silently, until he reached a final passage that he could read aloud without a blush. “We are of one flesh, one blood, one people. It is foretold my love and so it shall be. I shall be back tonight. With all my love, Diana.”
Roland paused; then stared at his two visitors. “Not exactly subversive.”
The man said, “We’ll take it none the less. It’s evidence.”
“As long as I get it back. I don’t have many love letters. Do you mind if I take a picture of it?”
“We’ll see. Now what were you doing last night? You can skip the night-time acrobatics.”
Roland started with Mr Shah’s call when he was teaching, and ended up recounting his dinner. “Then we, ah, came here.”
“When did you meet your Diana?”
“I don’t know exactly. I was at the Roebuck when she walked in and asked for wine. There was some bloody murder mystery playing. Must have been eight maybe half-nine.”
“We ate, and came here.”
A cat scratching at the outside door interrupted them. The woman rose, “I’ll get it,” and let an animal in. A sleek, dark black animal, with glossy clean fur shot in and jumped into Roland’s lap. She, for it wasn’t a tom, purred. Then she turned and hissed at his two visitors.
“Did you own a cat? It’s not in your files, and I don’t see any cat dishes.”
“I guess I do now.” Roland stroked the cat, which had resumed purring and nuzzling him. He asked his uninvited guests “Are you done with me?”
The woman said, “Not yet.” Then her mobile chittered away, playing ‘Rule Britannia’ as a ringtone.
“Not exactly subtle.” Roland said.
The man replied, “We’re not undercover.”
Then they both listened to half of the conversation.
“So it really is Demotic.”
“A love note. That’s what he said too. Read it to us.”
“Roland Stevens, he’s a lecturer at the local.” She handed the phone to Roland. “I’d sent a copy to our specialist, at Oxford. Professor Welchmann.”
“I know him.”
“He wants to talk to you.”
Roland sighed, Welchmann wasn’t his favourite person, not since that time when he was a post-doc and the professor had made a pass at Janet. More than a pass in fact, but the police hadn’t been very enthusiastic about pressing charges. Not against an eminent and well-connected scholar when the charges were based on the word of a grubby post-doc and his wife.
He took the phone. “Yes,”
“Ah, Roland, I hear you’re reading Demotic now. Quite fluently if you translated that. Fairly obscure.”
“Not a lot of call for that in Roman Britain, so I’d think.”
“You’d be surprised, besides I was thinking of a trip, need a change of scene.”
“No news about the lovely Janet … or your boy, whatshisname, then.”
“Sorry, anyway there are a few cryptic inscriptions I’d like you to look at.” Roland looked at his male guest. The man’s mobile buzzed and he jumped. Welchmann continued, “I’ve sent them to our mutual acquaintance.”
The man handed Roland his phone, there was an image, a scan of a fragment on it.
Roland started reading, darkness, despite the sunny morning, surrounded them and ‘his’ cat hissed. Roland stopped and the room lightened. The cat resumed her purr. “It’s a curse. Not to be read aloud, at least not if you don’t mean it. It invokes Apep.”
“Apep, the God of Chaos and Evil. Not to mention destruction.”
“You don’t believe that tripe, do you?”
Roland shook his head, “No, not really, but it’s been such a strange last few days. I’d rather not tempt fate.”
The next image was spray-painted on a brick wall. “It’s from here, painted on the new biochemistry building, off Sherrington Road. Keeps coming back, no matter what they do to clean it.”
“It’s a warning, about transgenic animals. Bringing a curse from Bastet upon their efforts.”
His cat purred louder.
“The transgenic is spelled phonetically, you know as well as I do that the Egyptians didn’t have them, but the curse is a standard boiler plate of a curse. May his … genitals … drop off. That sort of thing.”
The next two images were Arabic and Roland simply said, “I don’t read that. Not my period.”
The last image provoked a derisive laugh, “Are you sure, Dr Welchmann, that you can’t read it? The passage is from the book of the dead, a blessing. I mean, it’s in the textbooks. Even your books.”
The doorbell interrupted the readings. The woman went to the door, and after a heated discussion at the door, reluctantly escorted someone in. He said, “Ah, Roland, I see you’re entertaining the funnies. What happened?”
“Apparently they’re worried about that explosion in London. Think I had something to do with it.”
“Did you lay gas lines in 1950, and not bother to put them on the map?”
“Then it’s hard to see what you have to do with it. It wasn’t a bomb, it was a gas leak. Small comfort to the injured, but nothing to do with,” he nodded at the MI6 agents, “that lot.”
“Thank you John. I’m sure you didn’t visit just to tell me that.”
“No, this is … official. About Janet and Thomas.”
“News?” Roland’s attention focused on him.
“Good and bad. Something’s been found, but …”
“Not a trace.”
The man from MI6 stood, self-important to the end, “Who is this?”
Roland said, “Sorry, I don’t know your name, but this is D.I. Davies. He, John, worked my wife’s disappearance. She and my boy … three years ago. We’re … friends, now.”
“I see … I’m sorry.”
“Yes, so am I” Roland shrugged, “I’ve been keeping busy … all I can do. That’s why I know Demotic. I’d taken Welchmann’s course as a student, but it was useless. I’ve been studying … thought maybe a sabbatical in Egyptian studies.”
John cleared his voice, “Roland, you remember we found her car, by Grwyne Fawr, dragged the reservoir and searched the hills.”
“I know; there wasn’t anything.”
“Some hikers, doing their Duke of Edinborough award and taking a short cut through the heather. They found a child’s clothes. There was a name tag – Thomas Stevens.”
“You want me to take a look at them?”
John nodded, “If it won’t be too hard. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but-“
“I know. Were there any remains?”
“No … That’s probably good news.”
Roland paused, and then said to his guests, the spooks from MI6, “Are you finished with me?”
“For the moment.”
John drove Roland to the police complex in the hexagon, next to the county hall, in the centre of Reading. Then he led him inside, “I could have brought this to you, but with DNA evidence, we don’t want a chance of contamination. Gloves and facemasks when we handle it.”
Roland nodded, “If it helps.”
“We’re pretty sure it’s his. The amulet you described was attached.”
“The bulla I gave him? Didn’t work.”
“Maybe it did.” John opened the door to his office and showed Roland what he had.
It didn’t take Roland long to confirm that the clothing had been his sons. “It’s in good condition for three years on a Welsh mountain top.”
John replied, “It wasn’t there three years ago. There’s no way we could have missed it. No way I could have missed it, because my team swept that area, twice.”
“With a cherry on top. There’s something going on.” He waited, examining his friend’s expression, “There isn’t anything you need to tell me about?”
Roland said, “No. It’s been classes, study, and that contract with the underground people. I’m one of the archaeologists they call when they find something. No one’s contacted me, no ransom … no nothing.”
“That woman last night?”
“You’ve been thorough … She walked into my life at the Roebuck. Never saw her before, but … well … we hit it off. I hope she’ll be back. She said she would.”
“That’s what Paul said; more like you had it off.”
Roland snorted, “Janet’s dead, probably. That’s what you told me. I suppose these clothes.”
“As I said, Roland. Something’s going on. If you are involved, even if you aren’t, be careful.”
Roland shook his head, slowly, “Bloody Hell. I was just beginning to put my life back together.”
“Need a lift back, a talk?”
“I’ll walk, it isn’t far.”
Roland didn’t go directly home. He walked several miles along the Kennet and Avon towpath, past a pub, the Cunning Man, and past an ancient brick blockhouse. A blockhouse from 1940 that smelt of urine. It had been boarded up in a futile attempt to keep the vagrants out. Then he returned to the Cunning Man for a lunchtime beer or two. Or three.
It was almost dark when he finally returned to his terrace. The cat, now his cat, scratched to be let out, so he let her out the kitchen door and put the kettle on.
A minute later, the doorbell rang. It was her, Diana.
“Miss me?” She said as she stepped inside.
Anger, annoyance and love fought inside Roland. Love won, “You’ve no idea how much. Where were you?”
“Around. Sniffing out … things.” She wrinkled her nose. “Still stinks of those men.”
She ignored him and walked to the mantle on his fireplace. It was, like most fireplaces, blocked. A bouquet of dried, dried for three years, flowers sat in a dried vase in front of it. She picked up a photograph and turned to Roland. “This, this was Janet?”
“She was pretty. I can see why you miss her, and that boy.”
“How do I know about her? Reading library, the stacks. I read English well.”
“Then we’ll have to work on your speaking it.”
Diana smiled at him; she had a smile that he could get lost inside. Then she said in English, “Dinner … I … am … have hunger.”
“Am hungry. I am hungry.”
“You as well? I’m starving.”
“First,” she said, “My bags, can you help me with them?”
“If I’m to stay here, I need my things. I brought them, had to retrieve them from the station.”
“I meant it to be a surprise.”
Roland kissed her, went outside and brought the bags in; then he kissed her again. “Where would you like to eat?”
“It’s your civitas, city.”
Roland chuckled, “Then what would you like to eat, besides meat?”
“I’d like to dance, too. Have fun. How do you say it? Walk a little wild.”
“Walk on the wild side?”
She grinned. “Yes. It has been a long time without that.”
“Me too. It’s been so long that I’ll have to google a place … That note, your Demotic is excellent. It’s the first time I’ve had a love note in Demotic.”
She continued to smile at him, “I hoped you’d notice. Univerisità di Roma.”
“And the … Latin, not modern Italian is it?”
“Of course. You wouldn’t have noticed me if I’d just asked for wine.”
“Fine, why me? It’s not like I’m exactly famous, handsome or desirable.”
She shrugged, “It was, how do you say it? Something of a lark. I finished my degree, there aren’t positions for me in Italy, and so I thought I’d make a tour of the Empire. I didn’t think I’d.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it, “Didn’t think I’d fall for you.”
Roland smiled back, “I suppose you picked Reading on a lark too.”
“No, I saw you give a talk last year. I doubt you’d remember me.”
Roland tried, but had to admit he couldn’t remember her.
“I called at your department, but they said you were in London. One of them told me that the Roebuck was your usual pub. I waited outside, and followed you inside.”
“I’m glad you did, but have you heard of stalking? That’s illegal.”
“Stalking,” she licked her lips, “Yes, stalking. I’m good at stalking. Besides,” she smiled, “You called me.”
“Yes, from the void in your distress. Clearly you don’t remember.” She smirked, “But I do … Now about that dancing?”
“I don’t remember calling you.”
She stared at him, forcing him to look into her eyes. They pulled him in until he was lost in their depths. Then she laughed with a peculiar deep laugh. “No, I wouldn’t expect that you would, but you meant what you said when you read that verse. I heard you and I came. We are of one kind, one flesh. I knew where you were, where you are.”
He shook his head, the spell broken. “Now you’re scaring me.”
“Don’t be.” She squeezed his hand again, “It is the way of us both of us. Now forget.”
Roland’s eyes briefly defocused and then his attention snapped to her. “Diana, where should we go?”
“Why don’t we just head to the centre of town? There’ll be something to do.”
“The Oracle, I don’t think. If worse comes to worse, there’s always the Roebuck. Trivia night.”