There are many great things about the travelling life (seeing new places, meeting new people, rarely stopping anywhere long enough to be obliged to do the washing up) but I must confess that being always on the move does come with one or two drawbacks. For me, chief amongst these is the variable quality of bathing facilities on the road. Whilst you can usually be fairly certain of getting a decent meal at any hotel, tavern or wayside inn the same cannot be said of your chances of getting a good wash. The plumbing at some of the places we have stayed ranges from the highly unreliable to the downright non-existent. So when we came by chance upon a small town on the edge of the mountains that boasted a public bath-house of some repute both Michael and I leapt at the chance of a good soak.
In fact I wallowed so long in the steam room and plunge pools that by the time I stepped back onto the street outside, all scrubbed and shiny, I was fully expecting to find a highly irate Michael waiting impatiently for me. But it turned out he must have out-wallowed me for there was absolutely no sign of him. So I found myself an outside table at a nearby café and settled back to watch the bustle of the main square whilst I waited for him to finally emerge.
As I idly surveyed the crowds passing to and fro my eyes fell upon the face of a fair-haired young man carrying a large satchel who seemed to be scanning the square in search of something or someone. It was rather a pleasant face, falling somewhere on the handsome-ness scale between my bloke Peter on a really, really good day and Paul Newman on quite a bad one. So, when his eyes caught mine for a moment, I gave him a smile.
It was just a casual smile, issued with the expectation of nothing more than a casual smile in return. So I was rather disconcerted when his response was to fix me with a peculiarly intense gaze for a few seconds before he snapped suddenly to attention and began marching directly towards me with an oddly stiff gait. I mean, I wasn’t averse to a spot of mild flirtation while I drank my coffee but his technique seemed far from promising.
Having presented himself at my table, gazing awkwardly at me with those strange eyes, he said, “You are Natasha Everingham,” in such an odd tone that I wasn’t sure whether it was meant as a statement or a question.
“Well, yes, I suppose I am,” I confessed, wondering where on earth he could have got my name from.
The young man’s mouth suddenly twisted upwards in one of the most disturbing attempts at a smile I had ever encountered. “I have been searching for you, Natasha Everingham,” he announced. “I bring you a message of doom!”
“What?!” I exclaimed, clutching nervously at the arms of my chair as he reached into his satchel.
“Please remain seated, Natasha Everingham,” said the stranger flatly. “Your message of doom is at hand.”
Well, I’ll admit that at this stage I may have panicked just a touch. It might have been the strange stiff movements or the mechanical way he kept repeating my name but, despite the pretty face, there was something highly alarming about this chap and I had no intention of hanging around to see precisely what message of doom he was planning to pull out of his bag. Instead I leapt up from my chair, sending it flying in the process, and made a dash for it.
If I’d had my wits about me it would probably have occurred to me that in the face of this unknown threat the wisest thing to do would be to somehow keep my distance whilst remaining within the main square, amongst the safety of the crowd. Unfortunately, my wits seemed to have gone the way of my upturned chair and my only thought was to run away as fast as I could. With the stranger’s toneless cry of “Wait, Natasha Everingham!” ringing in my ears, I ran blindly, pelting right out of the square and turning randomly along the streets and lanes. And then, somewhere around about the fifth or sixth turn, I plunged into a narrow alleyway and suddenly found a large brick wall looming up ahead of me. I had hit a dead end.
I turned frantically around, searching for an exit, but the young man had already appeared at the head of the passage and the only way out was blocked. “Wait, Natasha Everingham!” he continued to flatly intone as he strode inexorably towards me. I backed helplessly away until I felt the rear wall pressing up against me, leaving me nowhere else to go. In an instant the chilling stranger was almost on top of me and there was nothing I could do but screw my eyes shut and duck, bracing myself for whatever might come.
“Here is your message from doom, Natasha Everingham.”
Several seconds of silence followed. When I tentatively opened my eyes again the stranger was wearing that awful rictus grin of his and holding out a thick cream envelope.
I straightened up somewhat sheepishly. “I’m sorry. Did you say my message from doom?”
“That is correct. This message is delivered to you by Doom Personalised Android Couriers.”
“You mean to say you’re a courier?”
“That is correct.”
I cautiously took the envelope from the hand of the stranger. “Did you say android courier?”
“That is correct. I am a Generation 5 Light Duty Android with fully replaceable features. We combine the efficiency and reliability of modern communications technology with the warmth and friendliness of a human service.”
“If you say so,” I murmured noncommittally, not finding anything especially warm or friendly in his strange, stiff manner.
The android tipped his head awkwardly to one side. “I sense dissatisfaction. Did you find something wrong with the service you received today from Doom Personalised Android Couriers?”
“Not wrong as such,” I demurred. “Let’s just say I did find your appearance a little, well, alarming at first.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Natasha Everingham. This face was in fact chosen from the thousands available to the Generation 5 model as being the most likely to appeal to your personal tastes.” He reached his hand down into his satchel. “Would you like me to take it off and try another?”
“No! No, that’s quite alright,” I said quickly. On another day I might have found a live android face swap quite an interesting prospect but with my nerves still rather strung out from the chase I thought it best to decline. “The face is fine,” I assured him. “Maybe just lay off the smiling a bit.”
“I see. You prefer a more professional, purely business-like approach, Natasha Everingham. I will ensure that your preferences are recorded for future deliveries.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, not bothering to mention that I was rather hoping this might turn out to be my first and last experience of Doom Personalised Android Couriers.
The android snapped stiffly to attention. “This concludes our business today, Natasha Everingham. I wish you a pleasant day.” Then, notwithstanding his recent promise, he flicked the corners of his mouth upwards in one last horrifying grin and turned and marched sharply away, leaving me alone with my message from Doom.
By the time I found my way back from the deserted alley to the main square Michael had finally finished his bath and was waiting for me on the pavement outside. I gave him a quick rundown of my encounter with Doom Personalised Android Couriers and we retired to the café on the corner to investigate the message they had delivered. The thick cream envelope with its neatly formal handwriting had seemed familiar from the moment I had first handled it so the identity of the sender came as little surprise but the contents of the package were certainly intriguing.
The covering letter read as follows:
Dear Natasha & Michael,
I trust that you are both well and that you continue to make progress in your quest to rescue your unfortunate friend. As I’m sure you appreciate, it was never my intention for us to remain in touch but, as so often happens in the landscape, it seems that our paths are fated to keep crossing. Lately I have come across a bit of drama involving two characters we all know well whose latest exploits will I’m sure be of great interest to you and I felt obliged to pass it along.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining how this all came about. After we parted I will confess I drifted for a while, unable to find the right narrative with which to engage my talents. I have for some time felt ready to move beyond the kind of linear single-protagonist tale I have previously specialised in and tackle something more challenging. Well, a short while ago, my story finally found me. I won’t bore you with a long synopsis (I’m sure you have quite enough on your narrative plate with your own adventures) but I can tell you it’s quite a saga, an epic tale of two warring families, crossing continents, spanning generations and encompassing timeless themes of love, greed and betrayal.
During the course of my narration I happen recently to have been attendant upon a party in Los Angeles in 1971 where I came across two uninvited guests whose encounter I knew would be of interest to you. My own business at the gathering was slight – a brief sub-plot involving a minor character – so once it was concluded I stayed and engaged in a little extra-curricular narration. Consequently, I present to you this brief vignette which I think you will find most informative.
Wishing you all the very best in your continuing adventures.
P.S. Please do not worry about any possible repercussions. I was very discreet and the air at that sort of party is always thick with narration anyway so I am quite sure that our subjects remain blissfully unaware that their actions have been observed.
Accompanying the letter was the following story.
It had been billed as one of the most exclusive parties of the year but Kenneth was quite sure they would have little difficulty getting in. There were several weak spots in the perimeter of the sprawling property high in the Hollywood hills but he had no intention of asking Valentine to perform the kind of hunched crawl through scrub-land that would be necessary to reach them. Dignity required that they enter through the front gate or not at all. Fortunately, though the security around the entrance might appear at first glance quite imposing, it was, like most things in Los Angeles, more style than substance. A neatly forged invitation and some sleight of hand with the guest list were all that were required to persuade the thick-necked lunks in tight suits to let them through.
Once inside nobody questioned their credentials. Exclusive is, in truth, a fairly elastic term in Hollywood. Genuine stars and true moguls are few and far between and so the rooms of the grand mansion were mostly filled with the usual collection of has-beens, wannabees and hangers-on. Nobody gave Valentine or Kenneth a second glance as they wandered through the crowd.
Their journey across the ground floor constituted a predictable progression through every imaginable Hollywood cliché. There was so much white powder in evidence that Los Angeles appeared to be in the grip of an unseasonable blizzard. Guests gyrated to the thumping dance music, striking obscene poses in pairs, threesomes, foursomes and beyond. In the darker corners bulimic young starlets of both sexes demonstrated their skills at fellatio on sweaty middle-aged men who may or may not have been the important producers they claimed to be. Through the middle of it all strolled a tautly-muscled young man, naked except for a generous layer of baby oil, proudly displaying his quite enormous member delicately wrapped in a red ribbon. In his curiosity as to whether the penis was real or not Kenneth momentarily forgot his mother’s advice that it was rude to stare.
Having covered the whole house without success he and Valentine moved out into the grounds. There was a lively crowd gathered around the main swimming pool, plunging in and out of the water in various states of undress, but further on, beyond a maze of immaculately trimmed box hedges, they came upon a second, smaller pool. It was here that they finally found the quarry they had been pursuing for some time.
She sat cross-legged on the ground, slightly apart from the other party refugees who had settled in this quiet corner, away from the noise and hubbub. She had the kind of beauty that was not usually left to itself, especially not at a gathering of this sort, but there was something about her manner that deflected attention, so that any boy or girl who might on first viewing have been tempted to try their luck felt themselves discouraged before they could even open their mouths. This enabled her to sit alone, gazing into the pool, so entranced by the play of moonlight upon the water that she did not appear to notice Valentine and Kenneth until they were standing right over her.
“Good evening Georgie,” said Valentine.
The head lifted slowly, the delicate hazel eyes taking their time to focus. When they did there was an almost imperceptible tautening of the neck muscles, the merest hint of an instinctive fight-or-flight response before the face relaxed into a surprised but still wary smile. “Val! Kenny! Fancy meeting you here,” she casually replied. “I would never have picked this for your scene.”
“Nor I yours,” returned Valentine. “Don’t tell me you’ve finally given up on your quest for spiritual enlightenment.”
“A girl can find enlightenment in the unlikeliest of places,” said Georgie, refusing to rise to the bait. “It’s all just a question of perception.”
Kenneth couldn’t resist a derisive snort in response but Valentine hushed him with an angry glance. Georgie made no sign to indicate that their company would be welcome to her, quite the opposite in fact, but Valentine settled himself down nonetheless on the edge of a sun lounger. Kenneth remained standing, hovering over his companion’s shoulder.
“So what brings you to Hopper’s party?” Georgie finally asked.
“You, of course,” replied Valentine. “We’d like your help.”
“Then I’m afraid you’ve had a wasted journey,” said Georgie sharply. “In case you’ve forgotten I’m not playing on your team anymore. And from all I hear there’s not really all that much of a team left to play for. You’ve driven them all away now, haven’t you?” She looked at both of them with an expression of mild disgust. “That the once great Explorer’s Club should be reduced to the pair of you.” She shook her head slowly. “Someday somebody is going to hold you to account for that.”
Kenneth, bristling at her tone, began to hotly reply but Valentine again quietened him with a gesture. “We only require a little information from you,” he told Georgie soothingly. “Just answer a couple of quick questions and you need never hear from us again.”
“I don’t know what kind of questions you think I can help you with,” said Georgie with a shrug.
“Let’s call them questions of a spiritual nature,” suggested Valentine.
Now it was Georgie’s turn to erupt into a derisive snort. “Don’t tell me you’ve started your own quest for enlightenment,” she said.
“We require some information about a certain cult,” continued Valentine, ignoring the comment. “And as you always were the acknowledged authority on cults, religions and all things spiritual we thought you would be just the person to ask. The people we’re looking for call themselves The Disciples of Antinous. I presume you’ve heard of them.”
Georgie looked at him suspiciously for a moment and then laughed. “I’m not sure you’ll find much enlightenment there. I mean, it barely qualifies as a cult – it’s mostly just a bunch of posh boys flouncing around in the desert. There’s barely anything in it.”
“Barely?” said Valentine, raising an eyebrow.
Georgie shrugged and said nothing, turning her gaze back out towards the pool.
“It’s my understanding that these Disciples of Antinous like to practice rituals by the Nile,” Valentine went on, not so easily put off. “There’s a lot of talk about connecting with the dead, communing with the Gods.”
“It’s early twentieth century, that’s what Europeans tend to do in Egypt,” said Georgie with another shrug. “If you’ve ever seen a film with the word ‘Mummy’ in the title you’ll know it doesn’t usually end very well. I suppose the best you could say for this lot is that they’re pretty harmless. It’s mostly just dressing up, drinking exotic substances and bowing before their God of choice.”
“Rather an interesting choice of God on their part though, I’d say” mused Valentine.
“You think so? Antinous?” responded Georgie with a certain caution.
“Well, he’s hardly at the head of the pantheon, is he?” said Valentine smoothly. “He’s essentially just the pretty young lover of a Roman Emperor who had the misfortune to die young in mysterious circumstances and somehow ended up being deified as a consequence.”
“What can I say? We’re all looking for something different when we choose our objects of worship,” Georgie replied nonchalantly. She couldn’t resist throwing a piercing gaze at Kenneth as she finished her sentence. He glared back but said nothing.
Valentine gave a knowing little laugh. “How right you are,” he declared. “Now if you could just tell us where we might locate The Disciples of Antinous then we’ll be on our way.”
Georgie threw out yet another shrug. “Cairo would appear to be the obvious place to start,” she said lightly.
“We’d worked out that much for ourselves, thank-you very much,” Kenneth irritably interjected. “The question is which Cairo? This is the landscape of the imagination, there are almost too many to count.”
“I’m sure you can tell us exactly how to get to the one we need,” said Valentine with a smile that was half ingratiating, half threatening.
Georgie hesitated. Right now she wanted nothing more than to be rid of these two unwanted reminders of a past she had hoped to put behind her and she recognised that the quickest way of doing so was simply to tell them what they wanted to know. But something made her pause. Partly it was a simple reluctance to help the two men who had slowly and steadily destroyed the club she had once loved so much. But there was also something more, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, something that made her feel that there was unprecedented danger in the information that they were seeking, no matter how innocuous it seemed.
On the other hand, if she refused to tell them they would probably eventually find out what they needed to know some other way. And if her time in the landscape had taught her to trust her instincts it had also taught her that only a fool tries to defy destiny.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult for you,” she finally said with a sigh. “Your best way in is via the Crimelands. From there you can catch a ship from Southampton docks that’ll land you in the Cairo you want. You’ll have to keep your wits about you though – you’ll be passing through prime murder-mystery territory. There’s likely to be a dodgy aristocrat with a dark secret being bumped off in every other cabin.”
“Thank-you,” said Valentine. “I knew you wouldn’t let us down.” Satisfied that their business was now concluded he rose to leave.
“And that’s the last piece of information you’re ever getting from me,” Georgie flung up at him, already half regretting the assistance she had given. “Whatever it is you’re up to, you’re on your own from now on.”
Valentine merely smiled serenely at her before turning to leave.
Frustrated by his calm, Georgie was goaded into throwing out one last futile warning. “Listen, I don’t know what game you’re playing but you may not find The Disciples of Antinous quite as willing to do your bidding as you’d like. They won’t be easily bought, I can tell you that much. They’re all sons of Empire for one thing, brought up to believe that the whole world is theirs for the taking. What do you think you could possibly offer them that they can’t already get for themselves?”
Valentine paused for just a moment and looked back at Georgie with a sly smile. “I’m going to offer them the chance to meet their God,” he calmly told her before finally turning and walking away.
“So what exactly are we supposed to make of all that?” Michael asked once we had both finished reading.
“I don’t know,” I mused, “but Bob’s new epic seems to carry a surprising hint of Jackie Collins.”
“It did start off a bit Valley of the Dolls, didn’t it?” noted Michael.
“I’ve never read that one,” I admitted with a touch of regret.
“It was quite widely admired as a kind of camp classic at one time if I remember rightly,” remarked Michael. “There was a film version too I believe.”
“You seem remarkably well informed about it,” I observed. “And there was me thinking that evenings chez Redgrave were mostly spent sitting around, discussing your favourite Shakespearean soliloquies.”
Michael didn’t reply, confining himself to a withering glare.
“To be honest, I don’t really know why Bob thinks we should be so fascinated with what Valentine and Kenneth are up to these days anyway,” I said. “I really couldn’t care less what strange plots they’re hatching.”
“I suppose the main point for us to take is that they’ve still no inkling of our efforts to free Sturridge,” reflected Michael. “In fact, they don’t seem to be giving him much thought at all these days.”
“I’m not sure they need to,” I noted gloomily. “Let’s face it, given all the time we’ve spent and all the places we’ve been, we don’t seem to have made a whole lot of progress in getting him out, do we?”
“Hmmm,” conceded Michael thoughtfully. “How many rooms of his prison do we still have left to find?”
I pulled the inter-dimensional travel device out from my bag, glanced at the display and shuddered. “Too many,” I remarked, quickly putting it away again.
“Well then, hadn’t we better get on with finding the next one instead of sitting around, drinking coffee all morning?” suggested Michael briskly with a pointed glance at what I will admit was my third cup of the day.
“Excuse me!” I retorted. “I’m not the one who spent three hours in the public baths this morning.”
“You were in there longer than I was.”
“I was not!”
“Well, you were nowhere to be found when I came out.”
“That was because I’d been chased halfway across town by a creepy android with a scary smile!”
“So you say. I never saw him…”
“That’s cos you were probably too busy still eyeing up some dishy bath-house attendant.”
The argument straggled on as we finished our coffees, paid for them and headed off towards the mountains. It was a perfectly harmless dispute, the type of friendly banter that serves as a kind of fuel to life on the road, pushing you through the long dull stretches between places of interest and helping you to ignore the boredom and petty niggles of long distance travel. Unfortunately, it also means that you sometimes ignore things that you really ought to have taken rather more notice of. At least that’s my excuse for why, having tucked the Narrator’s envelope safely away into a corner of my bag, I promptly proceeded to forget all about Valentine, Kenneth and any dodgy deals they might be planning to make with strange cults on the other side of the landscape.
Travels Through an Imaginary Landscape will continue next week with Part One of Episode Nineteen, ‘To Kill a Thief’…