Ships and Stings and Wedding Rings

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S
hips and
S
tings and Wedding Rings

A Christmas short story from The Chronicles of St Mary's Series

Jodi Taylor

It's Christmas again at St Mary's and time for Max's obligatory illegal jump. On this occasion, however, they're right up against it.

A loaded gun has been left behind in Ancient Egypt and it's up to St Mary's historians to retrieve it before someone accidentally blows their own head off, thus affecting the timeline for centuries to come.

And as if that's not enough, Max has inadvertently poisoned Mr Markham.

It's hot, they're running out of supplies, they can't find the gun, and it's all going horribly wrong. Again.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to my editor, Cat Camacho.

Thanks to Suzie for her comments and encouragement. And special thanks to Phillip Dawson who kept me right about the Glock.

List of Characters

Dr Edward Bairstow
Doesn't actually appear in this tale but is about to be very cross indeed.
Dr Maxwell
Chief Operations Officer.
Head of the History Department. Trying to put things right.
Dr Tim Peterson
Potential Deputy Director.
Determined to be involved.
Mr Markham
Security Guard. Currently flirting with the diseased transvestite look.
Miss Elspeth Grey
Historian. It's not really her fault.
Major Ian Guthrie
Head of Security. A man with a decision to make.
Mr Tom Bashford
Historian.
Not
concussed. A bit of a first.
Mr Cox
Security Guard. Should have been more vigilant.
Mr Gallaccio
Ditto.
Dr Helen Foster
Chief Medical Officer. As warm and compassionate as pneumonic plague. That's the other sort and even more deadly.
Chief Leon Farrell
Chief Technical Officer. Max's husband. Hero.
Nurse Hunter
Recipient of Mr Markham's affections.
Mr Phil
Atherton Historian. Probably up to no good because that's what historians get up to.
Miss Elizabeth Sykes
Ditto.
Rupert
Markham's special little friend.
Snowman
With an oddly placed carrot.
A stallholder
With an eye for a bargain.
Sundry children
Dirty, sticky, crusty, dusty – the list just goes on and on.
Egyptian labourers
An unspecified number. Almost naked.
Glistening. Muscular. Strong.
Lsing th ablty ti type … May hv to lie dwn.

Contents

Chapter

End

Other Titles

Years ago, when I first came to St Mary's, Chief Farrell said, ‘You get a feel for when things have gone wrong,' and he was right. You do. So when Grey, Bashford, Cox, and Gallaccio stepped out of their pod, one look was all I needed to see that something had happened.

I stood quietly while they were ushered off to Sick Bay for the statutory check-up, waited for everyone else to disappear, and then followed on behind.

‘Why are you here?' said Nurse Hunter to me, ushering Bashford into an examination room. ‘Is everything all right?'

‘Absolutely fine,' I said. ‘Why shouldn't it be?'

‘You're here voluntarily, that's why.'

‘I'm just checking up on my people. They've returned from a vital and important assignment and I want to debrief them as soon as possible.'

She consulted her scratchpad. ‘Are you sure? They've only been checking out shipbuilding in … Ancient Egypt.'

‘Quite sure,' I said firmly. ‘Where's Grey?'

She nodded in the direction of the women's ward.

Elspeth Grey was sitting in the window seat, staring at the snow falling silently outside. She turned her head as I entered and I knew I was right. Something had gone wrong. From the look on her face, something had gone badly wrong.

This wasn't unknown. We're St Mary's – something always goes wrong. To give us our full title, we're the Institute of Historical Research, based at St Mary's Priory just outside Rushford. We investigate major historical events in contemporary time. We don't ever call it time travel because our lives are hazardous enough without deliberately calling down the wrath of our boss, Dr Bairstow, upon ourselves.

Grey and her team had returned from Ancient Egypt and something had happened. I was at a bit of a loss. They all seemed relatively intact to me. Very sunburned, obviously and with hair like straw, but no one was missing a vital body part, or leaking vast amounts of body fluids everywhere. I had a horrible feeling this was more serious than simple physical injury.

I dragged up a chair. ‘What's happened?'

She was so pale that I was surprised Hunter hadn't shoved her back into the scanner again.

She said quietly, ‘I've done something terrible, Max,' and stopped, unable to go on.

Many terrible things can happen to historians. It was obviously up to me to whittle them down a bit.

I said, ‘Is anyone dead?' and waited for her hasty denial.

It didn't come.

I felt myself grow cold. The team was all present and as correct as St Mary's was ever able to achieve, which only left …

‘Elspeth. Is someone dead?' I took a deep breath. ‘Did you – has someone – killed a contemporary?'

She shook her head, then nodded, and then said, ‘I don't know.'

I'd had enough. If something catastrophic had happened, I needed to know immediately. Before the bloody Time Police came crashing through the door to arrest us all.

I pitched my voice to bring her back. ‘Report.'

She pulled herself together. ‘The assignment went well. No one knew who we were. We've got masses of good footage.'

‘So what went wrong?'

‘It was me. I did it.'

‘What did you do?'

She clenched her hands tightly in her lap. I'm not actually that terrifying. All right, I'm slightly pregnant, but that doesn't usually reduce people to a state of speechless terror. My husband Leon had actually been quite pleased. And Dr Bairstow had immediately commanded Mrs Partridge to prepare him a briefing on the duties of a godfather. Even I was coming round to the idea.

I said gently, ‘Elspeth. You must tell me so I can put it right.'

She took a deep shuddering breath and braced herself. ‘I took a gun on the assignment.'

I braced myself because I could see what was coming.

‘And …?'

‘And I lost it.'

‘Where?'

She couldn't bring herself to say it. ‘Not … here.'

‘You took a gun on assignment?'

‘Yes.'

‘To Ancient Egypt?'

She nodded, miserably.

‘But why? You had two security guards.'

Yes, she did. One more than normal, but there were special circumstances attached to Elspeth Grey and Tom Bashford. They'd gone missing in 12
th
-century Jerusalem and were eventually discovered in Roman Colchester, only minutes before Boudicca's army crashed down upon the town, hell-bent on obliterating everyone and everything within it. Something like that can take some time to recover from.

Bashford had apparently picked up the threads of his old life with no problems at all, but Grey, who had been the one who battled to keep them both alive while he'd been semi-conscious, had been having problems. It had taken her a year to pluck up the courage to re-enter a pod. I'd selected her for the shipbuilding assignment specifically because it would be quiet and uneventful. And I'd allocated her an extra security guard. To make her feel safe. There were no wars, no plagues, no famines, and no civil unrest at that point in Egypt's history. All they had to do was record the various stages of shipbuilding and anything else they thought might be useful, stay out of trouble, not die, and return to St Mary's. All of which they appeared to have achieved, no problem at all. And now – this.

Keeping my voice steady, I said, ‘What did you take?'

She swallowed and whispered, ‘A Glock.'

Shit. Glocks don't have a conventional safety catch. They have safe action designed to prevent the weapon accidentally discharging, should it be dropped or banged, but if you pull the trigger, it will fire. Because that's what it's designed to do. And now we had one in Ancient Egypt. Just waiting for someone to pick it up, wave it around, and blow someone's head off.

We're not allowed to kill contemporaries. Think of all the thousands of people who must be descended from one single person living say, three thousand years ago. Now imagine that person never lived long enough to have children. What would happen? Would all those people disappear? Some would never be born. Others would be the product of different parents and all that would work its way down to the present day. Suppose Grey herself suddenly vanished, never having been born. And if she'd never been born then she couldn't go back to Ancient Egypt to leave the gun that was the cause of all the trouble. What would happen then? At the very least the Time Police would come down on us like the proverbial ton of bricks and at the very worst, we'd be looking at the ‘P' word.

Paradox.

With two security guards to keep her safe, why on earth would she feel the need to take a weapon? At the very most, historians are allowed a stun gun to defend themselves. Our normal defence strategy is to run like mad away from any trouble. Obviously, it would be nice if we could rely on not getting into trouble in the first place, but we're St Mary's and that's not really a reasonable expectation.

‘Elspeth,' I said carefully. ‘Tell me about your problem.'

The door opened and Bashford entered.

Without turning my head, I said, ‘Go away.'

He closed the door behind him. ‘With the greatest respect, Max, no.'

I'd never actually had someone defy me before. They would stand in front of me and argue themselves to a standstill – that's the definition of an historian – but I don't think I've ever actually had someone look me in the eye and say no.

He said, ‘I can explain.'

‘No need. Miss Grey is about to do that. Continue, Miss Grey.'

‘No, Max …'

‘Be silent, Mr Bashford, or leave the room. Continue, Miss Grey.'

She returned from wherever she had been and focussed on me again.

‘I took a gun on the assignment in case … in case …
he
was there.'

She meant Clive Ronan. The man who'd snatched them out of Jerusalem and abandoned them in Colchester. Abandoned them to die.

She was continuing, clenching her hands so tightly I could see red crescents where her fingernails were digging into her palms. ‘I can't … I know … I know it's stupid to expect him to be everywhere I go. I do know that, but I just can't rid myself of the fear that I'll step out of the pod and he'll be there and I'll be whirled off to somewhere and this time … this time … there won't be anyone to pull me out and I'll die. And yes, I know you allocated an extra guard. And I know there is no reason to suspect anything like that would ever happen again. I know all that. But I keep thinking, Max … suppose you hadn't found us. Suppose you hadn't pulled us out in time. Suppose it happens again …'

Silence fell in the tiny ward. On the other side of the door, I could hear Dr Foster giving Cox a hard time over something or other. She'd be in here in a moment to find out what was going on.

Bashford stirred. ‘Max, she's been through enough,' he said, and put a protective hand on her shoulder.

It wasn't needed. I wasn't going to shout at her. Actually, I didn't know what I was going to do. I fell back on more questions.

‘So, what happened to the gun?'

‘I don't know. I was carrying it in my pack so I could get to it quickly if I needed to. And we stopped for water, and when I looked, it wasn't there.'

‘Could it have been stolen?'

‘No. Not a chance.'

‘Did you take it out and leave it somewhere?'

‘No. I think … I fell … and my pack came undone. I think it must have been then.'

‘Did you go back and look?'

‘Yes. Three times.'

‘So Cox and Gallaccio know what happened?'

She nodded.

I had huge sympathy for her, but she'd committed a cardinal sin by taking a gun in the first place and an even bigger cardinal sin by leaving it. My blood ran cold just thinking about a child picking it up, staring down the barrel and wondering what would happen if you pulled this funny bit here …

‘Did the others know you had this weapon?'

‘No,' she said, too quickly.

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