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Authors: Daniel Godfrey

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BOOK: New Pompeii
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Although it was well into the early evening, there were still a fair number of people pushing back and forth on either side of the ticket barriers. Some looked like they were going into town for drinks; others were likely making their way back to hotels after a day of sightseeing. Nick watched for a few seconds, and then headed out on to the street. He couldn’t see the scraggy outline of his friend, and hoped he hadn’t been called out for no reason.

“Hey, you took your time.”

Nick turned in the direction of the raspy voice. His old friend grinned back at him from beside a newspaper kiosk, tipping a fresh cigarette between his lips. The cigarette remained unlit, and he allowed it to slip back and forth across his mouth as he talked. “I thought you weren’t going to show.”

“Well you could have been more specific with your directions.”

Ronnie leant in closer. His breath stank of hamburger. “You look like shit.”

Nick managed a weak smile as he remembered his meeting with Drockley. “I think I’m about to lose my job.”

“Yeah, right.”

“There’s going to be more cutbacks.”

“Your dad will square it.”

Nick didn’t reply. In all likelihood, Ronnie was right. But his father hadn’t been able to get Drockley to sign off on his research proposal. And he must have tried.

“You just need to chill,” continued Ronnie. “Stop worrying about what
could
happen, and start thinking about what
might
.”

Nick closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He might lose his career. He might have to go on the dole. “So what have you got planned?” he asked. “Drinks, and then some video games at your place?”

Ronnie didn’t reply. Instead, he hunted around in his coat pocket and pulled out a couple of rectangular cards. He grinned broadly. Waiting for a reaction. Which he got almost immediately. Because Nick found himself looking at two tickets. Launch night invites to the Peking Man exhibition, complete with security perforation and a skull-themed hologram.

“Where did you get these?”

“Fuck does it matter? We got about twenty minutes to get there before the doors open. You’ve been banging on about it enough. I assumed you’d want to go.”

“Yeah, but…”

Ronnie started to scratch the underside of his jaw. It was a clear sign of nerves. A trademark tell. “Okay. They’re from some guy who owed me. Totally legit, I swear. But what does it matter? You want to go. I want to go. Let’s go!”

Nick continued to hesitate.

“Oh, fuck it – you know why I want to go, and it ain’t about those bones.”

Nick started to turn away but Ronnie grabbed his arm. “Look,” he said. “That boat? The
Awa Maru
? It was loaded with crates before it set sail. Official documents say it wasn’t just carrying the Peking Man specimens back in 1941. Five billion dollars worth of gold bullion and platinum were on that thing. Five fucking billion. So when the Chinks found the boat in the 1970s – after they’d spent millions trying to locate the wreck, by the way – guess what they found?”

Nick shrugged, but he pretty much knew the punchline. Because it was the entire point of the exhibition. The contents of the boat had never sunk. Novus Particles had intervened before the bones had even got damp.

“Nothing,” said Ronnie, answering his own question. “The wreck was empty.” He grabbed the leaflet, jabbing it with his fingers. “So who’s got the gold?”

Nick sighed, and reached for the tickets. In the corner was a stamp he hadn’t noticed on his first glance. But its meaning was obvious, both for the tickets, and for his presence at Russell Square. They were part of a batch reserved for academic staff from nearby universities. The same batch he’d been unable to get hold of when they’d been first offered around his department. “So you need my university pass,” he said, “or these aren’t valid.”

Ronnie didn’t say anything.

Nick looked in the direction of the British Museum. They could make it. Twenty minutes before the doors opened. A couple of minutes’ walk, or a two-week wait. “You promise me you’re not going to do anything stupid while we’re in there?”

“I promise on your mother’s grave.”

* * *

The Great Court of the British Museum looked nowhere near as good as it had done when it had been newly refurbished. The marble floors were scuffed with the pressing of too much shoe leather, and the glass ceiling was almost completely covered in green and brown grime. But it remained an impressive space. And, in some ways, the frayed fabric of the building perfectly reflected the state of its galleries.

Nick sighed. After the hasty repatriation programme, he didn’t come here all that often. There was little of note left on display. Tonight, however, the court hummed with activity – and a long line of people stood waiting to gain access to the central reading room.

It seemed most had dressed for the occasion. Nick glanced down at his outfit, and felt a little embarrassed. Expecting to spend most of the night in an overheated bar, he’d only put on a light jacket to meet Ronnie. It didn’t do much to hide the T-shirt underneath. Still, at least his outfit could pass as smart-casual. What Ronnie had on was hardly in keeping with the marble floor of the central courtyard, scuffed or otherwise. The security guard at the main door certainly hadn’t been able to hide his smirk.

“Remember,” Nick said, coming to a halt some distance from the end of the queue, “I don’t want to hear a single word about NovusPart.”

Ronnie scratched at the back of his neck. “Even your dad agrees with me on this, Nick.”

“Not a word.”

“Yeah, well not talking about it doesn’t mean people aren’t going missing.”

Nick gave his friend a cold glare. “Well I’m still of the opinion that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, and Princess Di’s driver was drunk.” He paused, swallowed. “And you promised me, Ronnie.”

Ronnie didn’t answer. He appeared distracted. Nick followed the direction of his gaze. Two women were looking back at them from near the head of the queue. Both were dressed in smart business suits – one dark blue, the other beige – as if they’d arrived straight from work.

“There’s no dress code, is there?”

“No.” Ronnie took his time pulling his attention away from the women. “No,” he repeated, blinking. “Look, you remember back at university, that old fart Webster used to make a big deal of the Rosetta Stone? How it suddenly allowed classicists to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics after years of scratching their fat heads over fragments?”

Nick nodded. The stone was inscribed with a decree written in three scripts, one of them ancient Greek, the others two types of ancient Egyptian. Translating the Greek provided the key to the hieroglyphics, and suddenly all those mysterious symbols on Egyptian artefacts began to make sense. The last time he’d visited the museum, he’d heard two tourists express surprise it was a real object. “Sure. Your point?”

“Well, we ain’t going to work out what NovusPart are up to from one or two bits of information. We need to figure it out by overlaps. Ideally find something that brings everything together.”

“I’m not interested, Ronnie.” Nick turned away. A man and woman had joined the end of the line. Suddenly, Ronnie and he weren’t the only ones who looked out of place. While the man had dressed conservatively, his companion had certainly come to be noticed. Bright pink hair, bright yellow jacket, bright green skirt. Of course, it could have been a combo that now passed as vintage, but it was going to give whoever was sitting behind her a nasty headache. As he watched, the man returned his interest with a small wave. Nick turned away, and felt his cheeks flush. Did Ronnie know them?

“The Rosetta Stone’s still here, you know,” Ronnie continued. “It’s one of the few things the dicks running this place haven’t given back.”

Nick didn’t reply immediately. The queue was growing. Which meant inside was going to be rammed. But he’d get to see the Peking Man. It would be worth it. “Well,” he said. “Let’s go and see what all the fuss is about.”

“We got time,” replied Ronnie. “I’m going for a piss. Wait for me here.”

Ahead of them, the queue started to move. “They’re going in…”

“I won’t be long. Chill.”

Nick swore under his breath as his friend ambled away and down through an archway. The queue continued to move forward.

After five minutes Nick started to get irritated. Around him, the Great Court was rapidly emptying. The excitement was all elsewhere. And he should be part of it.

He looked towards the archway through which Ronnie had vanished, and started to tap his foot nervously. The evening was going to start with a talk about the Peking Man and some high-level discussion about how the bones were found. No doubt whichever spokesman NovusPart had chosen would be allowed to reveal something interesting about the artefacts, but exactly zilch about how they pulled off their now-famous trick. But still, it would have been interesting to have heard it first-hand, even if he’d be able to read the same information in the exhibition programme.

Because Ronnie was right about one thing, even if he was wrong about everything else. It wasn’t really about the bones. It was about NovusPart. But after getting hold of the tickets, it looked like Ronnie was going to end up frustrating him again.

Shit. Only if he let him. Taking a last look towards the exhibition entrance, Nick headed down a set of stairs, in the direction of the toilets. He found his friend loitering in the corridor outside the gents’. Rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers. Like he wasn’t in any particular rush.

“What are you doing?”

Ronnie turned towards him, his eyes suddenly widening. “Jesus, Nick. I told you to wait for me.”

Nick blinked. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

Nick didn’t say anything. He just waited. Waited for the inevitable scratching around the chin and the jaw. The noise of stubble being rubbed back and forth. The sound of nerves. “What are you doing, Ronnie?”

“Just go upstairs and wait for me, okay?”

“You want me to go in without you?”

“No. I want you to go upstairs and wait.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll all get to know.”

Nick felt his stomach contract. This couldn’t be happening. “Know what?”

“People are disappearing, Nick. They’re disappearing all the time.”

5

“R
ONNIE
,”
SAID
N
ICK
, lowering his voice. “You promised me…”

“Just wait, and hear me out on this.” Ronnie took a step forward. He slipped the cigarette into his mouth. It wobbled between his lips but just about stayed in place. “We both know NovusPart didn’t go down to the bottom of the Pacific to get those bones they’ve got on display up there. No, they reached back through time, and they snatched them from the
Awa Maru
before it went down.”

Nick didn’t say anything.

“A lot of us believe they’re also snatching people off the streets.”

Nick slowly counted to ten. It suddenly felt like someone was pushing down hard on his right eyeball. A migraine was starting. He could no longer breathe freely. “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible,” he said, quietly.

“Fucking A! They did it on Flight 391. They may have done it at King’s Cross…”

Nick flinched.
King’s Cross
.

“I’m sorry, man. But you need to hear it.”

I promise on your mother’s grave.

“There’s one big difference, Ronnie…”

“Only if you believe the government has the power to stop them – which they don’t.”

Nick heard himself laugh. He needed to leave. He could come back in two weeks. Sometime when Ronnie wouldn’t be in the same postcode, much less the same museum. But as he started to turn away, he stopped himself. “‘A lot of
us
’?”

“There’s a small group.”

“And your plan is to loiter near the toilets?”

Ronnie scratched his chin. The cigarette came close to toppling from his mouth. “There’s an important guy from NovusPart in the audience,” he said. “We’re going to try to kill him.”

Nick let the words settle. As they did so, the pressure on his eyeball turned into a high-pitched drilling pain. It transferred across into his temple. He felt his stomach knot, and had to remind himself he was near the toilets. If he was going to throw up, he wouldn’t have far to run. “What do you mean,” he said, slowly. Trying to take in every word. “Kill him?”

“Relax—”

“You’re talking about murder.”

“Relax. I said ‘try’, didn’t I?” Ronnie stopped and removed the unlit cigarette before flicking it back between his lips. He was excited and his words were rolling together. Whatever he was planning, it was certainly real. “Because we don’t think we can. It’s all about the threat. We just need to get close. So fucking close we could breathe down his neck.”

“And then what?”

“One of two things. Either they transport the guy to save him. Or they take the potential killer.”

A test. Ronnie was talking about a test of his conspiracy theory. “What if you’re wrong?” he said.

“We’re not wrong.”

“And you’ve got others working on this?”

“There’s about a dozen of us. All upstairs. All sitting close to the boy.”

Boy
. “How old?”

“Eighteen.”

Nick nodded. So not a boy. A young man. At least that was something. They weren’t all going to end up arrested for attempting to murder a minor. “You think NovusPart will be forced to act,” he said. “That they’ll reach back in time and either take the kid out of harm’s way… or one of your fruitcakes?”

“Yeah.”

Nick tried to breathe. Tried to think what to do. “That’s a pretty big risk for the assassin.”

“Not so big, actually.”

“How so?”

“Everybody will be crowded together when they run out. It’ll be hard for them to tell who attacked him, so they’re more likely to just take the kid. But whatever the outcome – we’ll end up with a transportation on tape.” Ronnie stopped and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. He lit the cigarette. “I’m sorry to have tricked you, Nick. But this is very important.”

“I think you’re an idiot,” Nick whispered. “And I don’t think this is going to work.”

BOOK: New Pompeii
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