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Authors: Neil Cross

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He had not chosen the name Jack Oliver Shepherd at random. Andrew Winston Taylor had been surprised to read in one pamphlet that a legerdemain he’d learned of many years before (in
The Day of the Jackal
) was still available to him.

Long before he vanished, he made a single research trip to the Bristol Central Library, off College Green. A quick scroll through microfiche allowed him to find a child with the same approximate birth date as his own, who had died before its first birthday. There followed a trip to Bristol Register Office, where—because it was merely lawful proof that a birth has taken place, not that it was his own—he was legally able to obtain a copy of the baby Shepherd’s birth certificate. In the name of caution he claimed genealogical research, and paid the required fee in cash.

Thus, many months later, Shepherd now had both a permanent residence and a birth certificate. With this he applied for a provisional driver’s licence. He then arranged to take an intensive course of driving lessons over ten days at a local driving school.

He passed the second time (too many ingrained bad habits). Although Shepherd waited a long time before asking him, Lenny proved happy to endorse his driving licence fraudulently, effortlessly faking the signatures of his GP and Eloise’s father. One name he signed in ballpoint, the other with a Mont Blanc ink pen he retrieved from his office.

While he awaited dispatch of the licence, Shepherd also applied for membership to as many institutions as he was able: the local library, the video shop, the sports club. He arranged it so that each of these had a reason to write to him.

Soon, with a driver’s licence, a birth certificate and other sundry proofs of identity, he was able to open a bank account in his new name. He did so with a deposit of £1,000 in cash.

Ten working days later a cash-point card and chequebook arrived in the post.

For several weeks, he was out of the house most of the day. But he spent the evenings with Lenny and Eloise.

Often they shared takeaways and watched a video. Sometimes they played Trivial Pursuit around the kitchen table. Usually, Shepherd and Eloise shared a bottle of wine, taking it in turns to pay. Now and again, she rolled a joint. Lenny drank draught Guinness from a can with a widget.

Eloise’s parents were old money, but they disapproved of her lifestyle (by which he assumed they meant Lenny) and she had little contact with them. She was employed by Hackney council as a music therapist, working with disabled children and adults with learning difficulties. She also composed music, and belonged to various art collectives, of whose shifting, interconnected memberships and political infighting Shepherd could not keep track. But he enjoyed her exasperated gossip.

Other than Eloise, Lenny had no visible means of support. When Shepherd ventured to ask, he licked the gummed strip of a cigarette paper and claimed to buy and sell shares online.

In addition to being a financial genius, Lenny had at least one opinion about everything. He was immersed in a personal project, the precise nature of which was enigmatic, but which he pursued with alchemical, evangelical zeal. Everything was part of this exertion; every book he read (and he sometimes read two a day); every magazine; every print he hung in the hallway and contemplated through narrowed eyes. Everything he said, however mundane or gnomic, skirted an immense, unspoken significance. Lenny had discovered something, some deep structure, proof of which he sought to verify by linking into a coherent pattern clues whose very ubiquity (once one knew where to look) served to confirm his thesis: it was in Hollywood movies, in pop videos, in architecture. It was encoded in the flag of the European Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall; it was encrypted in advertisements carried by cereal packets and the movements of the international stock market. It underlay the structure of the language itself. Beethoven had encoded it in symphonies. It was in the structural correspondence of the DNA spiral to the shape of galaxies.

The single bedroom on the first floor was Lenny’s office, to which nobody but Eloise was permitted entry. He spent hours in there, buying and selling stocks and shares online, and following diverse lines of inquiry, each of which (as far as Shepherd could ascertain) unlocked a dizzying infinity of further lines of inquiry.

Tired, Lenny rolled a cigarette and dragged his fingers through hair that stood up and out in every direction. He described the problem as fractal.

Lenny’s theories interested Shepherd and they became friends. Shepherd learned that, in order to escape the indeterminate enigma that was the pursuit of fractal ontology (or fractal semiotics, depending on his mood), Lenny liked to walk. Together they began to map out their physical and psychological territory. Lenny had steeped himself in the lore of the East End. He was versed in an interlocking narrative of questionable histories: Nicholas Hawksmoor, Jack the Ripper.

Wrapped in several layers of ragged clothing, Lenny took Shepherd on a three-day pilgrimage. They walked the streets and arteries of the East End and the lines of energy between the Hawksmoor churches. Shepherd experienced the peculiar, pervasive aroma of Smithfields meat market: years of slaughter somehow insinuated into granite. On to the numinous glower of Christ Church. The streets Jack had walked.

This pilgrimage did not allow for a return to one’s bed, or indeed any bed. They spent two strange nights huddled on the street with the homeless, two nights in which Shepherd saw and heard and experienced things he would rather have not, and was glad that Lenny carried a knife and a can of mace.

Returning home to a hot bath and clean clothes and daytime television, he felt himself changed.

In the early hours of 29 July 2000, the dreams located him.

He awoke sodden. Tangled in bedclothes.

Lenny ran up the rickety stairs two at a time. He charged into Shepherd’s room like a milky-grey whippet in Y-fronts and unlaced Adidas.

‘Fuck’s
sake
,’ he said. His deep voice cracked on a high note. ‘Are you all right?’

Shepherd was rigidly upright on the bed.

‘Something terrible has happened in America,’ he said

Downstairs, Shepherd hunched in a towelling dressing gown while Lenny made him a cup of sugary tea.

A bulletin on Radio 4 broke the story.

In Atlanta, a man called Howard Newton had bludgeoned his family to death before walking into the offices of the North Atlantic Tech Investment Group, where recently he had blown a $400,000 insurance pay-off on bad investments.

Inside, he opened fire with a 9-mm semi-automatic pistol. He killed nine staff and badly wounded another twelve. Cornered, he sucked on his own pistol and blew off the top of his head.

The $400,000 insurance money had been a contested pay-out: life insurance due subsequent to the death of Newton’s first wife, whom both the police and the insurance company strongly suspected Newton to have murdered, but which neither were ever able to prove.

Shepherd did not remember dreaming about Howard Newton. He had an afterimage of the dream that did not seem to fit. Two vast, shattered teeth, their stumps still lodged in a lower jaw.

This way, it began again.

5

By the end of 1998, Rex Dryden’s Temple of Light had attracted followers and financial backing sufficient to allow him to move his headquarters to a privately purchased ex-public-school building set in a generous estate near the coast of East Sussex. Permanent inhabitants of the Cult Headquarters (as the press would have it) were estimated to have numbered between as few as two hundred and as many as a thousand.

In September 1999, shortly after questions were asked in the Commons, Dryden called the first of what he announced would be three press conferences. It was here that he publicly detailed much of what he knew about the imminent end of the world.

First (and most importantly) it would be very soon.

Uncharacteristically reading from a prepared statement, he said that every historical cycle known to humanity was coming to a close or entering a new phase: we were living in the dying days of the Kali Yuga, the period of 6,480 years
which Hindus believe to be the last and most degenerate stage of a recurring cycle in which humankind slowly descends from light into darkness. We were in the twilight of the Greek Age of Iron; a new Age of Gold beckoned. The calendar of the mysterious, ancient Maya, which extended millions of years into the past, came to a sudden end on 22 December 2012. The Age of Pisces, dictating two thousand years of violence, segued violently into the Age of Aquarius, the millennium of wisdom and light, shortly after the year 2000.

The warning signs had been there for all to see: upheavals, wars, volcanic eruptions and the cult of personality. Gaia, the living earth, would take revenge on those who had raped her; ancient prophecies of the annihilation of the species would be brought about by the species itself: there would be plagues of drugs, crime. What Christians called the Antichrist would reign supreme. (Some of those present may have noticed in passing that the digits of the year 1999 signalled both the upended number of the beast, and a one—for the Only One?) However, the Elohim, a race of space angels, were returning to earth. Their aim was to teach us to become not
Homo sapiens
but
Homo spiritualis
. Through them we could become living vibrations in a fourth dimensional plane which some knew as Heaven.

The success of this mission was hindered by the dark forces of the New World Order, and the media were mouthpiece of one of its many heads.

Not every journalist present believed everything Dryden had to say. Dryden welcomed their questions. When asked if Elvis Presley was returning to earth with the Elohim, he threw back his melon head and barked an appreciative laugh at the ceiling. After knuckling at the moist corner of an eye, he replaced his spectacles and fixed the gathered reporters with his gaze.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said. ‘If he is, do you know what I’ll ask him?’

He paused, swept the room with his eyes. ‘I’ll say: “Elvis, how could a higher being make
Fun in Acapulco
?”’

Many in the room laughed with him. The line went unreported everywhere but the
Guardian
and the
Fortean Times
.

There were a few beats of prosaic silence before he continued: ‘There hasn’t been a single human being put on this earth,’ he said, ‘in whatever time frame, during whatever historical period, under the auspices of whatever god or empire, who doesn’t know, deep down inside themselves, that the universe is a struggle between good and evil.

‘I don’t know about you, but I believe in what you’d call God. I also believe that the Devil is abroad. And I don’t mean he’s in France. He’s out there right now. And he’s in here, in this room, with us. He’s King of the World. He’s Prince of the Air. We all know that, whether we allow it or not. Deep down. We all know that someone like Hitler wasn’t a
man
. Not in any sense we recognize. He was a devil, a demon, a dybukk, and for a while he possessed Germany and foamed and raved and threatened dominion over all the princes of the earth. Look in the history books, the newsreel archives. Turn on your televisions, read your own newspapers, and tell me these aren’t the last days. Tell me the Devil isn’t unleashed upon the face of the Earth. Show me a man who says otherwise and I’ll show you a fool. Now tell me: is it better to curse this darkness, or to light a candle? Next question.’

The next question was the first to be put by a female journalist. Young (young enough to be polite). Prada suit, Jimmy Choo shoes. Hair in a complex topknot.

‘What about the rest of us?’ she said: ‘Those of us who aren’t saved. Where are we?’

Dryden rested his chin on a knotty fist. Was silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was with quiet acquiescence. He shrugged.

‘What do you want me to say?’ he said. ‘You’re nowhere. Forever. Simple as that.’

On 22 December 1999, Rex Dryden arranged to have one dimpled 250 ml bottle of orange Lucozade distributed to each of those hundreds of men, women and children who had gathered about him in the grounds of the ex-public school in East Sussex. To each of these bottles had been added an odourless, flavourless ingredient which would hasten whoever drank it towards the Elohim and the eternal presence of God.

Of those hundreds who had gathered, an estimated 50 per cent refused to ingest the poison.

Although Dryden was indulgent to their schismatism, he nevertheless requested them to leave the grounds within the hour. All of them did so. Later, media psychologists would try to analyse why not one of them called the police. But not one of them did.

Those faithful who imbibed the poison were instructed to return to their beds, where they would fall into a dreamless sleep from which their bodies would never wake.

When the two or five or seven hundred cult suicides had done as instructed, closing the doors of their dormitories behind them, Dryden waited alone in the study until the sun had gone down, reading Erasmus.

In the morning, the suicides woke as normal. There was much confusion.

Nobody had died.

Upon investigation, all that proved otherwise unusual about the day was that Rex Dryden had disappeared from the compound.

Among a small but significant proportion of the elect, there arose an initially tentative belief that their survival in some way constituted a miracle.

Perhaps Dryden had been assumed directly into the arms of God.

The most vocal proponent of this amended belief system was a sales representative called Henry Lincoln. Henry Lincoln was a deputy of Dryden’s. He had personally been responsible for regulating distribution of the poisoned Lucozade. He now claimed to have been visited by Dryden as he slept. The ascended dream-Dryden told Henry that he was risen into the arms of the blessed Elohim. There he would prepare the way for his disciples.

However, the new gospel as espoused by Henry Lincoln was constructed in circumstances that were not ideal, and Mr Lincoln did not convince all the survivors of its veracity. Instead, many of them decided to leave the extensive grounds of the old public school and return to their previous lives.

With varying degrees of success, most of them managed to do so. Even before the humiliations still to come, there was much anger to learn how to manage and to this end some sought professional therapy.

Most of those who had chosen to remain in the compound eventually left when, on 2 January in the year 2000, the world inexplicably failed to end.

The departure of the final few dozen acolytes made the final item on that evening’s news.

The scattering of the faithful left the grounds accompanied by the clicking of cameras and the flashing of bulbs and the bellowed questions of jubilant reporters.

Henry Lincoln, humiliated, wore a knitted ski mask over his face to hide his shame from the congregated lenses.

At the end of January 2000, a BBC television news reporter received in the post what claimed to be a letter from Rex Dryden, of whom there had been no trace since he vanished at Christmas.

In the interim, Dryden had become a byword for the comical medievalism which was discerned to have infected the popular mind in the run-up to what proved to be a rather unexceptional New Year’s Eve and the beginning of a third millennium which so far was largely indistinguishable from the second. This was exactly as those who were in a position to know assured us they had always known it would be.

Since the note was handwritten, its authenticity was easily corroborated. It requested that on 24 February a specific BBC Television news reporter, accompanied by two cameramen and a single sound technician, should set up their equipment in a suite in the Edinburgh Waverly hotel. The suite had been booked in the name of Singh and their arrival was expected.

When the news crew had done as requested, there was a twenty-minute wait before Dryden entered the room. He was accompanied by a handsome, aquiline Sikh in grey three-piece and good brogues.

As they prepared him for interview, clipping a small microphone to his lapel and feeding the cable under his jacket, Dryden appeared sprightly and undiminished. He addressed the representatives of the BBC as ‘gentlemen’.

He became serious only when the cameras were running, adopting a severe facial cast. He and Singh sat alongside one another in formal chairs, against a neutral screen that had been brought along for the occasion by the BBC.

Off camera, the reporter’s voice: ‘Mr Dryden, I believe you wish to make a statement.’

‘I do.’ Looking briefly to his companion: ‘The gentleman to my left is Ranbir Singh. Mr Singh has been my friend and solicitor for nearly twenty years. Mr Singh will read my statement.’

Singh removed from his pocket and unfolded what appeared to be a legal document on creamy yellow A4. His voice was clipped and somewhat officious.

‘I read from a statement dictated and signed in the presence of witnesses by Rex Dryden on 25 February 1994. The statement reads as follows:

“I, Rex Dryden, previously known as David Kubler, wish to make the following statement.

“Two days ago, on 23 February 1994, I witnessed on the BBC Television news the conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which killed David Koresh and an as yet unconfirmed number of his disciples.

“As an artist, I am outraged and inspired by these events and hereby announce my intention to use them as the framework on which I will create the greatest conceptual artwork of the late twentieth century.

“The piece will be called
Illumination.
It will consist of my appropriation of a messianic identity. The work will commence without financial capital or a cohesive, original theology. Using only borrowed materials, the work will culminate on or around Christmas Day, 1999, when I will encourage what followers I have gathered voluntarily to kill themselves in the name of the lies I have told them.

“Assuming the brand continues to exist on the date specified, the mechanism of mass suicide will be the glucose drink Lucozade.

“Because of the longitudinal and experimental nature of this artwork, the location of this mass suicide cannot yet be specified.

“Whatever the degree of its success, I will make the nature of this conceptual experiment known to the BBC on or around 23 February 2000. For the reasons mentioned above, the location of this conference cannot yet be specified.”’

Singh folded the statement and replaced it in his pocket.

‘The affidavit of which this is a copy is co-signed and witnessed by myself and my partner, Richard Joseph Parsons. The original may be viewed by appointment at the London office of Parsons Singh Associates.’

On a quiet news day, the report was fourth lead on that evening’s six o’clock news on the BBC. The BBC agreed to share the footage with all other terrestrial and satellite networks in time for their evening broadcasts.

Editorially, the decision was taken to leave uncut the five seconds of silence which followed Singh’s completion of Dryden’s statement, indicating the interview might now proceed.

When the reporter speaks, off camera, it is in an excited half-whisper.

‘Mr Dryden,’ he says, ‘are we to understand that your so-called Temple of Light was a
practical joke
?’

Dryden cannot quite maintain his calm. Momentarily, he seems agitated with the triumphant hilarity of it. He shifts in his seat and looks to the floor. When he looks at the camera, his face splits into a half-melon grin, cropped out with teeth for seeds.

‘A work of
art
, Martin,’ he corrects the reporter. ‘But (and let me quote Horace): “what is to stop us telling the truth with a smile?”’

The next day, for the first time, the
Sun
chose to repeat one of its own front-page headlines.

Over a slightly pixilated, over-colourized close-up of Dryden’s grin, lifted straight from videotape of the previous evening’s news, it printed in eighty-point type a single word:

Gotcha
!

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