‘Tell you one thing,’ said Major Gilbert Took-Flemyng, ‘this will bloody kill science fiction stone dead.’
Richard Jeperson glanced away from the television set.
Wednesday the 16th of July, 1969. London: about half past one in the afternoon; Cape Kennedy: oh-nine-thirty-two hundred hours.
The Major quaffed from a brandy balloon the size of a honeydew melon. He was an Ordinary Member, one of a necessary rump of blimps who camouflaged the Diogenes Club as a refuge for the hidebound and unsociable. OMs were selected for lack of perspicacity and absence of curiosity. If they noticed the comings and goings of Extraordinary Members, they never mentioned it. For over a century, OMs had filled capacious armchairs, as much a part of the decor as the cushions under their bottoms and the pipe-fumes above their heads. They radiated unwelcome and disapproval with such wattage the casual visitor—not that there were many—was dissuaded from wondering whether the musty, cavernous building in Pall Mall was home to Great Britain’s most secret intelligence agency. Which, of course, it was.
‘So this is the teleovision, eh?’ muttered the Bishop of Brichester. ‘Can’t say I’m impressed. It’s wireless with lantern slides.’
A newly-purchased colour television stood in the hearth of the Informal Room, replacing the grate removed after the 1956 Clean Air Act abolished London’s poisonous yellow fog. Several OMs had resigned over the appearance of ‘this infernal contraption’, and a vote of the full membership was necessary each time it was switched on. It would never be tuned to ITV, lest the sanctum be violated by the Devil’s adverts.
The ostentatious 22-inch screen showed a Saturn V rocket, rising over the coastal swamps of Florida on a column of white smoke.
The Bishop nodded off. Like the Major, he’d recently sat in silence to a heavy meal in the club’s famously unpleasant restaurant room. Richard had opted to nip out to Crank’s in Seven Dials for a salad.
A BBC commentator, in tones of muted enthusiasm usually heard during orchestra tuning of a mid-season proms concert, informed viewers thatApollo 11 would enter Earth orbit in twelve minutes. After a turn and a half around the world, the S-IVB third stage engine would fire, setting Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins on course for the moon.
‘It’s curtains for Dan Dare and Jet Morgan,’ said the Major.
Richard had heard Took-Flemyng’s argument before. Robots had been there, and Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 had orbited the moon, but—until today—manned expeditions to the moon had been taken only in fancy: Lucian on a waterspout, Francis Godwin’s Gonsales in a chariot pulled by geese, Cyrano de Bergerac on a firework, Baron Münchausen on a silver hatchet, Edgar Allan Poe’s Hans Pfaal in a balloon, Jules Verne’s Baltimore Gun Club in a capsule fired from a giant cannon, H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon in a diving bell coated with anti-gravity paint, Hergé‘s Tintin in a red-and-white chequered rocket and Arthur C. Clarke’s Heywood Floyd on a Pan-Am lunar shuttle. Once NASA boot-prints scarred lunar dust, would the memory of these shadow-pioneers fade? Clarke, still alive to see how close his guesses would turn out, did not seem unduly concerned he was about to be out of a job.
The city streets were empty and traffic stilled, in a way not seen since England fought Germany in the World Cup Final. Even Crank’s, a vegetarian café haunted by hippies who’d rather immolate themselves than suffer the haircuts sported by the military men of the Apollo mission, had a transistor set up so customers could listen to launch coverage. US troop withdrawals from Vietnam, Rod Laver’s Wimbledon win, a potential Sino-Soviet conflict and an actual El Salvador-Honduras war were relegated to the deep insides of the newspapers, squeezed in after pages of moon stories. Toyshops were filled with Airfix rockets and child-safe space helmets. People looked up at the skies and claimed they saw rocket-trails. Comedians told jokes about the cow-powered Irish moon mission.
Every magazine in W.H. Smith’s had a rocket or a moon or an astronaut on the cover. The same images were silk-screened on the t-shirts sported in the summer weather by everyone under thirty. Richard’s one-off tee from Stanley ‘Mouse’ Miller was an orange psychedelic explosion laid over a still from Georges Méliès’ 1903 Voyage dans la Lune, with a bullet-shaped spaceship lodged in the eye of an irascible man in the moon. Today, he also wore purple bell-bottoms, red-dyed Chelsea boots, a crushed velvet jacket carried over the shoulder à la Johnny Hallyday, a variety of peace sign lapel badges, a shiny-peaked Victorian band-leader’s cap and wire-frame mint-green sunglasses which folded into a pocket-clip case that looked like a fat fountain pen.
Moon songs played everywhere—Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ (which set Richard’s teeth on edge—as a ‘sensitive’, he knew something was badly off about Jonathan King), the Marcels’ ‘Blue Moon’ (he couldn’t get that ‘moon moon moon’ backing vocal out of his head), Mel Tormé‘s ‘Swingin’ on the Moon’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ (from Trout Mask Replica, the double album Richard agreed with John Peel in rating higher than any Beatles LP), the Bonzo Dog Band’s ‘Tubas in the Moonlight’. David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was climbing the charts. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was still on in the West End. The opening chords of Richard Strauss’ ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, featured in the film, were heard over and over, used by the BBC as a signature tune for its moon coverage.
On television, Patrick Moore and James Burke explained what a TransLunar Injection Burn was. A diagram anatomised the stages of the Saturn V already shed by the Apollo 11. The spacecraft now looked surprisingly like the bullets of Verne or Méliès, though sleek aluminium-steel-glass-phenolic rather than rivet-studded brass. ‘Phenolic’ and ‘TransLunar’ were among the new words everyone had learned lately.
A discreet cough sounded behind Richard. Hills, the first steward in the Diogenes Club to wear his hair an inch longer than his collar, had appeared at the door of the Informal Room. Ignoring the fretful glares of Major Took-Flemyng and the few other OMs goggling the box, Richard stood.
‘Miss Kaye would like to see you, sir,’ said Hills, almost subaudially.
Even today, someone had to think about the Earth. Catriona Kaye, Acting Chair of the Ruling Cabal, was holding the fort. Edwin Winthrop, Richard’s usual handler, was in Houston with a small party of British ‘observers’ at Mission Control. The Club usually had a presence at epochal events.
Richard assumed Catriona wanted his report on Brian Jones. He had spent the past fortnight investigating an instant myth. When the ex-Rolling Stone was found at the bottom of his swimming pool, a lunatic magician who called himself ‘the Elder Mage of Elgin Crescent’ raised a fuss in sorcerous circles, alleging that all currently successful pop groups had contracts with the Devil which required the sacrifice of a key member to stay on top. Richard only hoped someone who was in a band with Jonathan King had the same deal. The whisper was all over the place, which did not necessarily lend it special credence. Most pop stars had contracts with EMI, Decca or Colonel Tom Parker which even the Devil’s lawyers might deem excessively weighted against the talent. When it came to the Devil’s Music, Richard thought Hell more likely to exacerbate the torments of the damned by piping in ‘Donald, Where’s Yer Troosers?’ or ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window? (Ruff Ruff)’ than ‘Paint It Black’ or ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
The case had taken him from Cotchford Farm in East Sussex, former home of A.A. Milne, to Hyde Park, where Mick Jagger mangled a fragment of Shelley before a free concert. A cloud of white butterflies were supposed to be released in a memorial tribute, but—it being a very hot day - mostly died in their boxes. Careful dowsing of the farm turned up nothing suspiciously Satanic, though Richard wouldn’t soon forget the inside of Brian Jones’ bathroom cabinet. A casual glance at the NME showed the line-ups of the Who, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Wurzels unaltered by recent suspicious death—though an underground magazine alleged the Beatles had ritually murdered Stuart Sutcliffe and implanted a coded confession of the magickal crime in Rubber Soul. Richard was prepared to close the docket, though the original complainant was noisily foretelling another significant drowning before the month was out.
This call was new business.
Catriona Kaye—born 1900, as commemorated in the 1920s song written about her, ‘Century Baby’—looked decades younger than her years. Thanks to Thoroughly Modern Millie, her modified flapper style and bobbed hair intersected with a current fashion. Entering the Quiet Room, Richard found her sat comfortably on the edge of Winthrop’s desk, shoes dangling above the carpet. She wore a low-waisted dress the colour of her pearls and smoked a cigarette in a long, black holder. She made an appealing contrast with the Club’s Victorian founder, who glowered heavily out of a monumental portrait behind her.
‘Richard,’ said Catriona, smiling, ‘meet Special Agent Gauge.’
He turned, and had a little electric shock in the brain.
Parapsychologists called it ‘psychic feedback’, but Richard knew it as a kind of spark. Like him, Agent Gauge was a sensitive, a Talent. Frankly, a Spook. Richard noticed that before noticing she was a she—and he knew her sex from the fragrance of Ô by Lancôme lingering in the corridor.
A tall blonde about five years younger than Richard, Agent Gauge had a figure Hugh Hefner would get excited about and a don’t-mess-with-me stance which gave warning to the most octopus-handed Playboysubscriber. She had big grey-blue eyes and straight, mid-length hair with a pronounced widow’s peak. Her only flaw was a tiny question mark scar under her right eye—easy to cover with make-up, but she chose not to. She modelled a powder-blue trouser suit over a fawn blouse. Her wide belt, worn high, matched the blouse and was fastened with a large circular buckle. Her jacket, tailored to conceal a shoulder-holster, hung oddly because she wasn’t wearing a gun. That made her an American. So did the fact her title was ‘Special Agent’.
She stuck out her hand to be shook, but he kissed it.
‘Richard Jeperson,’ he said, meeting her eyes.
That spark was now a crackle. Richard felt his hair rise as if he were touching a Van der Graaf generator.
She took her hand away.
‘Special Agent Gauge,’ she said. ‘Whitney Gauge.’
Catriona slid elegantly off the desk and stood between them.
‘Special Agent Gauge is with a Federal Bureau of Investigation.’
Richard caught the use of the indefinite article. By decades of self-serving flackery, J. Edgar Hoover made the world think there was only one FBI. Actually, Hoover was merely Director of the Bureau of Investigation of the United States Department of Justice. At least a dozen other arms of government had investigative divisions which operated across state-lines, and were thus officially Federal Bureaux of Investigation, among them the Treasury, the Alcohol and Tobacco Overseers, the Internal Revenue Service, the Commission of Major League Baseball and whatever misleading title Whitney Gauge’s superiors (‘the Unnameables’ in spook circles) put on letterheads if they ever sent letters. Alone among overlooked investigators, the Unnameables never grumbled about Hoover’s publicity-hogging.
‘You’re a long way off your beat, Miss Gauge. Or is it Mrs Gauge?’
‘It’s Special Agent Gauge,’ she said.
Richard detected a tiny crack of smile.
‘Something’s come up,’ said Catriona, ‘and Assistant Director Spilsby has sent our friend to sit in. It involves the moon.’
‘So does everything this week.’
Catriona arched an eyebrow. ‘Indeed. All the little boys want to grow up to be spacemen now. And girls, thanks to that splendid Soviet lady…’
Whitney Gauge frowned, reddening her question mark in a manner Richard found curiously fascinating.
‘When I was a lad, I wanted to be a cowboy,’ he said. ‘Roy Rogers was my idol.’
He mimed a fast double-draw and fired off his fingers at Whitney Gauge, blowing gunsmoke away from the tips.
‘I suppose you wanted to be Eliot Ness?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I wanted to be a ballerina.’
She made an extraordinarily limber fast pirouette and froze, thigh and calf-muscles tight, with cerulean-painted toes—she wore open-toed sandals—hovering an inch from Richard’s adam’s apple. After seconds, she broke the pose.
‘But I “overdeveloped”.’
To Richard’s mind, Whitney Gauge developed just fine. He knew better than to put it like that this early in their acquaintance.
‘If you young people have finished flirting,’ said Catriona, ‘can we get on with business? I’ve a transatlantic call in to Edwin in half an hour, and he’ll need to know you’re looking into the threat.’
‘Threat?’ said Richard and Whitney Gauge, together.
Catriona was apologetic. ‘More of a niggle. A loose end, though it flaps more than it ought and deserves urgent attention. Are you sitting comfortably?’
Richard and Whitney Gauge were standing, but that wasn’t the point.
‘Then I’ll begin. Were you aware that a group calling itself the Temple of Domina Oriens circulated a petition to pressure NASA to discontinue the Apollo program?’
Richard looked at Whitney Gauge. They both shrugged.
‘Will you stop doing that,’ Catriona said, pettishly. ‘It’s faintly disturbing.’
‘Doing what?’ asked Richard and Whitney Gauge, together.
‘That. You’re long-lost Corsican twins. I fully understand. I nominate you, Richard, to keep quiet—indeed, to refrain from any gesture. Whitney, if you would respond, when necessary.’
Whitney Gauge said ‘yes’. Richard suppressed an urge to nod.
‘Now, if I may continue…there have, of course, been voices raised against space exploration in general and the moon mission in particular. Some argue it’s an obscene waste of money, when so many problems on Earth remain unsolved. Others worry about a military/political domination of the solar system by America. The Flat Earth Society fear a precipitous decline in membership. And so on. This week, for obvious reasons, the appetite of the press for moon-related stories extends to anyone who saysanything, positive or negative, about the Apollo mission. The High Priestess of the Temple of Domina Oriens—which is in Clerkenwell, by the way—holds the moon sacred, and claims setting a foot on her soil is like defiling a vestal virgin. She isn’t in favour of that.’
‘Who is this High Priestess and how large is her congregation?’ asked Whitney Gauge.
‘She is called Luna Selene Moon…’
‘…that’s like being named Moon Moon Moon,’ put in Richard.
‘…which, as Richard has helpfully pointed out, is gilding the lily. She was born Bridget Gail Tully. It could have been worse. She could have called herself “June Bassoon Moon”.’
‘Or Luna Ticwitch?’ Richard ventured.
Whitney Gauge giggled.
‘Very amusing, Richard,’ said Catriona. ‘Now, if you’d pay attention in class, here’s what we have on the silly goose.’
Catriona handed Richard a sheaf of photographs and press cuttings. After a riffle, he passed the folder to Whitney Gauge, who gave the documents a similar quick study. The earliest pictures were sepia studies of a long-nosed thin girl in a see-through shift.
‘She was an artists’ model just after the War, then turned painter. You can guess her favoured subject.’
A glossy catalogue contained miniature representations of samey pictures.
‘She calls them “moonscapes”, but they look like fairy pictures to me,’ said Catriona. ‘The Diogenes Club has had several unpleasant involvements with the little folk.’
In recent press photographs, which went with ‘silly season’ stories about Miss Moon’s curse on NASA, the High Priestess was still thin and long-nosed, but wore more demurely opaque shifts. She had masses of white hair usually bound by a circlet with a crescent moon stuck to it.
‘The Temple is fair-sized as cults go, with a few mildly influential members. They’re on our List.’
Whitney Gauge raised an eyebrow, exactly the way Richard would have if he hadn’t known what the List was.
‘We divide Britain’s home-grown occult groups into cranks, who aren’t on the List, and the potentially dangerous, who are,’ he explained. ‘By “dangerous”, we mean possessed of some sort of verifiable magic resources. You dig?’
‘Children,’ snorted Catriona, amused. ‘The Temple haven’t got a record for human sacrifice or souring the milk or laming the Prime Minister, but they’ve registered a needle-flicker of power, especially recently. Phases of the moon, I expect. And Miss Moon Moon Moon began issuing veiled threats through the popular press. We’d let it go, except she’s suddenly changed her tune. For a few weeks, any hack in Fleet Street hoping to fill a puff piece could get an ominous quote from her about how the Apollo 11mission was a sacrilege. Terrible would be the vengeance of the ravaged goddess, woe, woe and thrice woe. She came near as spitting to claiming responsibility for the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire that nearly scuttled the lunar adventure before it was started. Two days ago, the High Priestess shut up. Pulled out of appearing on something called The Simon Dee Show. A big protest outside the American Embassy has been quietly called off. One of the busy bees we have combing the cuttings turned up an old associate who is extremely interesting to us. In 1948 or thereabouts, Miss Moon formed a liaison with a Magister Rex Chalfont.’
Catriona paused, as if the name might ring bells. It didn’t.
‘What do we know about him?’ Richard asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Catriona. ‘Not a thing. Just his name, and rank in academic sorcery. Which is wrong and impossible. I mean, we know everything…’
Catriona was referring to the secret files of the Diogenes Club.
‘Whitney’s Bureau know even less about Chalfont than we do,’ said Catriona. ‘But they’re interested now. Enough to fly her over on a military aircraft and put her up at Claridge’s on the sort of expenses the Royal Family can’t claim. If we don’t have a dossier on Chalfont, information must have been kept from us. That is very, very difficult to do.’
Richard understood that, as Chair of the Ruling Cabal of the Diogenes Club, Catriona Kaye know the birth-name of the tommy buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, the present addresses of Ambrose Bierce and Judge Crater and why Borley Rectory burned down in 1939. Come to that, she knew where the woozle went, what songs the sirens sang and how flies land upside-down on the ceiling.
‘I am perturbed more by the apparent invisibility of this Magister Rex Chalfont than the High Priestess’ ominous utterances. For the sake of all our peaces of mind, it’s been decided you two should look up Miss Moon and see what can be learned about her old beau. Do you think you can do that little thing for me? Good. I’m glad. Call Hills and tell him when you can make a report. Better make it before “touch-down” in the Sea of Tranquillity…“Touch-down”? Ugh, what a word…’
Richard and Whitney Gauge looked at each other.
Whitney Gauge saw his scarlet Peel Trident parked outside the Club and laughed. The vehicle had been described as a ‘flying saucer on wheels’.
‘How do you expect us to fit into that?’
‘If three astronauts can get into a capsule, two can ride in a bubble-car,’ said Richard. ‘Comfortably.’
‘They said I was too tall to be an astronaut,’ she declared. ‘The boys in NASA didn’t like being shown up.’
He unclipped the fibreglass chassis and lifted it like a cutaway diagram, disclosing comfortable red leather seats mounted on three go-kart wheels.
‘I guess your Bentley is at home?’
‘I drive a Rolls, actually,’ he said. ‘Not very manoeuvrable in Central London.’
The American woman looked up and down the empty Mall.
‘It’s not like this, usually,’ he said. ‘It’s as busy as New York, with politer beeping and shouting.’
‘I find that hard to believe.’
‘This is a space-related anomaly, Miss America.’
‘You can say that again, Carnaby Street. At least you don’t have this thing painted up like a British flag.’
‘I considered the option, but we’re supposed to be a secret service. We try to exercise a little discretion.’
‘That explains the way you dress.’
‘You’re not exactly unobtrusive, Agent Gauge. Six-foot Giselles are scarce in these here parts.’
She ducked and folded herself into the passenger seat, smoothed her hair and crossed her arms so they wouldn’t be cut off when the dome closed. With practiced ease, Richard took the driver’s seat and pulled the chassis down. The Trident clicked together. The Plexiglas bubble-dome interior was scented nicely with Ô.
‘Pre-launch check, Major Tom?’ she said. ‘All systems go for take-off?’
‘Roger Charlie Chester Wilko.’
He pulled the starter. The radio came on—more commentary from Florida.Apollo 11 had left Earth orbit.
He pulled the starter again. The Zweirad motor turned over, purring like a tiger cub.
‘What do you call this roadster? The “Dickmobile”?’
‘She answers to “Nanny”.’
The Trident picked up speed, zooming through Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square. A plague of pigeons took off in a rapid flutter. No tourists around to feed them. The only people in sight were a gaggle of drivers at the taxi-stand and a couple of policemen—all bent around a wireless cabinet, listening to news from space. Orson Welles would have loved an audience like this. At the top of his column, Nelson was probably lifting his good eye to the stratosphere and waving on the lunar mariners.
Richard could get used to a city empty of traffic and pedestrians. Nanny was modified to his specifications, but he’d never had an opportunity to test her at top speed in an urban daytime environment. He thought he could at least double the ordinary Trident’s advertised 45 m.p.h.
‘I suppose you drive something the length of a skittle alley with fins and an open top?’ he ventured.
‘I have a Tucker Tomorrow. Best automobile ever made.’
Turning a corner into Charing Cross Road, Nanny lurched as one of her front wheels lifted from the road, tipping his passenger against him.
‘You did that deliberately,’ she said.
He supposed he had.
‘Don’t do it again.’
He was warned. On the whole, he thought Special Agent Whitney Gauge was rather fun.
‘So you abandoned promising careers as a ballet dancer and a space-woman,’ he said. ‘What else did you try before you signed with the Unnameables?’
‘I was a Mouseketeer. They took away my ears when I told Uncle Walt I thought his pal Senator McCarthy looked like Monstro the Whale fromPinocchio. I appeared in the first Beach Party movie, but quit because they wouldn’t let “the girls” surf. I can hang ten. Frankie Avalon can barely hang one-half. Do you even know what all this means?’
‘I speak fluent American.’
‘I passed all the NASA astronaut tests, except the one about not menstruating. Otherwise, Buzz Aldrin wouldn’t be Number Two on the moon, you better believe it.’
‘Are you Air Force?’
‘USAAF Intelligence. Officially retired. Like you, a Spook. I passed the other tests they ran at NASA, the ones with the Rhine cards and the spinning needles. You know what happens when you score high psi. I got seconded to, as I said, a Federal Bureau of Investigation. Where you’re famous, by the way. They teach a course about the Ghost Train you shut down in the 1950s. How old are you anyway, Mr Chips?’
‘Cheek,’ he said. ‘And I don’t know, Gidget.’
‘Of course, you have no memory of your childhood. It’s in the file. And nobody’s been able to find out who you really are. That gives you something in common with Magister Rex.’
‘I try not to think about it.’
‘Liar. I can tell when people lie. That’s not one of my tricks. Just a small-t talent. Comes from growing up near Hollywood agents.’
‘So what are your “tricks”? Can you hard-boil an egg with your mind?’
‘No, of course not. Active Talents like that are incredibly rare. I’m a Reactive Talent, like you. A psychomancer. You’re an empath. That’s a weird combo, they say. Not advisable.’
‘You have feelings about things, I have feelings about people. Those ought to be complementary.’
They were in Holborn now, whizzing down Theobald’s Road. A fish ‘n’ chip shop chalkboard offered “moon” rock and “loonar” chips.
‘Catriona thinks we can work together,’ he said. ‘I assume Assistant Director Spilsby does too.’
A pause. ‘I passed the immediate criteria for this assignment.’
‘Being in the building at the time the alert came in.’
‘You have a duty rota? Intrepid agents ready at all times, like the Minutemen?’
‘Not exactly. I was in Spilsby’s office.’
‘Receiving a commendation after your latest victory over the forces of evil?’
‘Submitting my resignation after an eleven month assignment to the reception desk…’
‘I see a pattern emerging.’
‘You would. While I was passing all those courses in the Top Three and qualifying as a field agent, do you know who my hero was?’
Richard huffed modestly.
‘No, Oh-Oh-707, not you…her, your Chief. Catriona Kaye. In the States, the Boys’ Club won’t let a woman into the field. Here, she gets to sit on the board. And her record makes yours look feeble.’
‘Steady on. You’re steaming up the Plexiglas.’
‘I mean, look at it…Angel Down, the Mummy’s Heart, the Blame Game, the Witch War, the Unhappy Medium…she was there, for all of them, in the thick of it.’
‘She wasn’t alone. A fellow named Winthrop was there too. He usually sits in Catriona’s chair.’
‘I’d expect you to say that. She’s had to fight her whole career against people like you.’
‘I’m very fond of Catriona Kaye…’
…who was, in fact, the nearest thing he had to a mother. If Whitney Gauge were cleared to know more secrets, he could tell her Catriona wasn’t even the first woman member of the Diogenes Club. Geneviève Dieudonné, Kate Reed, Amy Thomsett and Annette Amboise (whose memory was always a tiny stick-pin in his heart) also figured on the rolls…not to speak of Vanessa, Richard’s own ward, currently orienteering in the New Forest, picking up tradecraft between A levels at Cheltenham and a Sociology degree at the LSE. Provisional membership was waiting for Vanessa when she graduated, then she’d be in Nanny’s passenger seat on jaunts like this.
‘Hmmn, yes, what?’
‘You’re absolutely right. Catriona sets a mark few can hope to live up to. You couldn’t choose a better heroine. And…the fact that your AD can’t see past your chest just goes to show why our country is better than yours.’
Whitney Gauge’s mouth formed a perfect Lancôme Ô.
‘Just kidding, Minnie Mouse. Hands across the sea, and all that. This is an Anglo-American operation. Our two great nations are equal partners in the marriage.’
‘Only Britain is the chick, right? You do the dishes and have America’s dinner ready when it comes home?’
Richard laughed. ‘Let’s not continue down that path. Besides, we’re where we’re going. Sekforde Street, Clerkenwell. That’s the Temple of Domina Oriens.’
Aside from a gilded plaster man-in-the-moon on the lintel, the building had no distinguishing features. Near-identical premises housed a Socialist reading room and a community centre for Piedmontese exiles, both closed. Trades union activists and Italian mini-monarchists were at home in front of the telly.
‘Ready for EVA?’ he asked.
He released the catch, and the dome rose. They got out and he shut the car.
‘Are you feeling anything?’ he asked.
‘Relief at being able to stand up and breathe. From the sidewalk, nada. You think I should try the door?’
‘Go on, fondle the knocker.’
That came out as rather too Carry On, he felt.
‘I’d rather grab the knob,’ she said, and took hold. She let go again, sharply.
‘You think I’d know better,’ she admitted, momentarily pale under her tan. ‘The last hand that touched this was dipped in blood.’
He looked at her palm.
‘Metaphorically, I mean,’ he explained. ‘If he got any on himself, I’m sure he wiped afterwards.’
‘I’m getting a man. In a hurry. And a lot of blood.’
Richard pushed the door. It opened.
‘Too much of a hurry to lock up behind him.’
Whitney Gauge reached for the gun she wasn’t carrying.
‘Do you have a nightstick or anything? What do you call it, a truncheon?’
‘I am not a policeman,’ he responded, with dignity.
They stepped into the Temple. The foyer looked and smelled like the front of house of a small theatre. A tea urn and an assortment of biscuits filled a refreshments corner. A notice board behind the cashier’s desk displayed type-written schedules of ‘rituals, rites, oblations and obeisances’. A painting of an alien landscape hung prominently. A lush, purplish-green jungle was inhabited by furtive creatures which might be crossbreeds of cockatoo and praying mantis. A gap in the fungoid trees showed a night-sky where the Earth shone amid a sprinkle of stars. He didn’t have to be a sensitive to intuit that this was the work of Luna Selene Moon.
‘Don’t look like fairies to me,’ said Whitney Gauge. ‘More like bugs.’
‘Have you ever met any fairies?’
‘How do you know what they look like?’
A set of double-doors opened into an auditorium with a raised stage. The house-lights were on. An altar-cum-lectern was set up in front of a triptych which showed three faces of the moon. The symmetrical triple-moon, repeated on the backdrop and the altar, featured a grinning full moon sandwiched between two cruelly sly crescent profiles. Folding chairs were set out for a congregation or audience. A group of the chairs were overturned or had snapped shut. A person curled up and bled in the middle of the mess.
‘Moon moon moon,’ he muttered.
It was a middle-aged woman in a white robe with a yellow moon on the front. Luna Moon, the former Bridget Tully. Her long hair splayed around her head like an electrified crown. She had been stabbed or shot through the moon on her robe.
Richard checked for a pulse and caught a last flicker.
Then, he was overwhelmed by visions. He was usually attuned simply to inchoate feelings or moods. Only in extreme circumstances did he pick up anything like an image.
This was the most extreme circumstance.
As the High Priestess departed her earthly shell for parts unknown, pictures crowded into Richard’s mind.
Pictures in the style of Luna Moon.
Trees with meaty leaves, greenish spongy craters, sugary glistening webs spun by asymmetric spiders with cherry-glacé eyes. The artist’s moon was edible. People in robes or jewelled diving suits frolicked—there was no other word for it—with the cockatoo-mantises or their relations, who looked like walrus-weasels or giraffe-fish. The pictures sped up, flickering like Méliès’ moon-shot film.
He was on his knees by the dead woman, struck by acute ice-cream headache and stabbing chest pain.
He had to let go of her, for fear that his consciousness would be pulled wherever hers had gone.
Whitney snapped fingers in front of his face.
He tried to keep the pictures in his memory. Each was crowded out by the next, like pages falling from an album into a fire.
A final image lingered a few instants longer than the others. A different subject, a different style. An Earthscape, a weathered sign in a country lane. Woods and fields. It was daytime, but the moon was out, rising above the roof of an uninviting, large house.
‘Mildew Manor,’ he said.
The image was gone, self-destructing in memory.
But in speaking the words on the sign aloud, he had captured them.
‘Mildew Manor?’ Whitney responded. ‘What is that? A place? A picture? A state of mind?’
‘A novel by Thomas Love Peacock? I don’t know.’
‘Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle…
‘…and Headlong Hall and Gryll Grange…’
‘…but no Mildew Manor, so far as I know. He died trying to save his books from a fire.’
‘You didn’t learn that in The Mickey Mouse Club.’
‘We have libraries in California, too.’
‘Glad to hear it. I thought they’d all been torn down and turned into drive-in churches and no-tell motels…’
Whitney let go of him, and they stood up.
‘In case you hadn’t noticed,’ she said, ‘this Olde Englishe Temple is exactly the kind of ridiculous made-up religion you’re stereotyping as Californian. Oh, and shouldn’t we concentrate on the bleeding woman?’
‘She can’t help us any more, poor love.’
‘She can’t help you, Richard…’
Whitney knelt, and put her palm to the woman’s face.
‘…you read people, I read things. She’s not people any more…’
Whitney made contact, as with the door-knob, and juddered as if holding a live wire. She closed her eyes, pressed hard on Luna Moon’s face and forced herself to maintain the touch.
Richard was concerned.
She let go, opened her eyes and breathed again.
‘I hate that,’ she said.
He helped her into the foyer. She sat on a saggy armchair next to a low table piled with mimeographed occult newsletters and glossy art magazines. She flipped open a powder-compact and examined her hairline minutely in the mirror.
‘Shall I get you tea from the urn? You need to replenish your electrolytes. Maybe some biscuits?’
‘No, just tea…cold, if possible.’
‘Is there any other kind? This’ll be stewed.’
He turned a spigot and thick brownish liquid filled a mug. The Temple had their own crockery, with a smiley moon decal.
‘Ah,’ Whitney said, in triumph, ‘there’s the slut!’
She had plucked a single, silver-white hair from her head.
‘Every time,’ she said. ‘There’s always one.’
She put her compact away and took the cold tea. She drained the mug as if on a dare, trying to get it down without tasting.
He nibbled a stale custard cream.
‘What did you get from her?’ he asked.
‘What do you think, Sherlock? A sharp, stabbing pain in the chest.’
She shook her head. ‘No, that’s what you’ll have felt. Empathy, remember? I just get things. Sights, sounds, processes. Pain is a thing, not an emotion. The last thing she saw was a face, fading to black.’
‘Can you describe the murderer?’
She held up her mug and pointed to the decal.
She nodded. ‘Something like that. But weirder. Yellow, hook nose, cratery skin, bulby forehead. Under curved glass, like a TV screen or a biker’s visor. No, not a crash helmet, a space helmet. No NASA or CCCP logo. It was a custom spacesuit. Old-fashioned, if that’s possible.’
‘Did you get an idea of the weapon.’
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘The bastard held it up, showed it to her. A double-edged knife. Silvery. Carvings on the blade and hilt. That triple-moon thing.’
‘An athamé?’ suggested Richard. He knew she’d know what an athamé was.
‘Like that. Though it can’t have been a ritual killing. She wasn’t on the altar, or I’d have seen ceiling and the blade coming down. She was tapped on the shoulder, turned round and stabbed in the heart.’
‘Your moon-faced astronaut murdered her?’
‘Definitely,’ she said. ‘That’s what she saw. What did she feel?’
Richard tried to remember the impressions he had taken from Luna Moon.
‘What I said. Not so much fear, more annoyance. She was irritated at being murdered, as if she’d had other things to do today and was more concerned about not ticking them off her list than being killed. I got a lot of picturesfrom her, but not real things. Whatever you think of that—’ he indicated the painting on the wall—‘she was serious about art. The images in her mind were the ones she painted. Important to her. Pregnant with personal meaning.’
‘That stood out,’ he said. ‘All the other things were mental moonscapes. The Mildew Manor picture was Earthly. The English countryside, somewhere.’
‘You’re sure it’s a real place?’
‘No, but it’s important. Like your “old-fashioned” astronaut.’
‘That’s his name?’ he asked.
‘I doubt it, but we have to call him something. You have to call out someone or something before you go after it. That’s good practice in magic, isn’t it?’
‘Have you got your Girl Scout badge on you?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Good. You might have to claim diplomatic immunity. Strictly speaking what we’ve done counts as tampering with Her Majesty’s Evidence in a Murder Inquiry. The plods won’t like it, but they’ll lump it. Luckily, we have a friend in New Scotland Yard…’
Stumbling over a corpse within an hour of accepting a commission bordered on the vulgar. A telephone was on the front desk. He picked it up. First, he would call Catriona Kaye. Then, the police.
‘This isn’t what I think of as a hotel bar,’ Whitney said. ‘Too big, too well-lit, too classy.’
‘I trust you didn’t ring down to ask how to make the bed vibrate.’
She poked her tongue out at him.
Normally, that would have excited disapproval in Claridge’s, but even here everyone was only paying attention to the moon voyage. A single barman stayed at his post, while the rest of the staff were in a back-room lit by a television set.
Eight hours into its mission, Apollo 11 had shed its Saturn V rocket stages and left Earth orbit for cislunar space. Columbia, the Command/Service Module, separated from the third stage and docked with the Eagle, the Lunar Excursion Module. Broadcasters were already fed up with the technical chatter tossed between the Apollo crew and Mission Control (‘Houston’) but the public still found magic in the curt, arcane, tinny American voices. They were talking from outer space!
Whitney had changed into a hot pink minidress with a matching alice band and go-go boots. Even the Claridge’s barman noticed, and Richard was sure the great hotels put something in the staff tea to control natural urges insofar as lady guests were concerned.
The only other people in the bar were a table of drunk young execs in city mod uniform—paisley foulards, dayglo shirts, two pieces of three-piece Savile row suits, shaped sideburns. They were toasting a guy named Roly, who had something to do with the packaging of Sky-Ray lollies (a big seller this season). Roly took credit for the visionary spirit of the space age between sudden, rapid trips to the Gents.
None of the execs were so drunk that they didn’t shoot looks over at Whitney Gauge. She noticed. Richard noticed she noticed. She noticed Richard noticing. No one was in any doubt. She had conquered Britain without really trying.
Naturally, Richard had ordered champagne and a platter of fresh strawberries. This was still a business meeting.
Richard had remained on hand at the Temple of Domina Oriens as Inspector Price, the Diogenes Club’s liaison with Scotland Yard’s Department of Queer Complaints, supervised a team of scene-of-the-crime officers and forensics men as they examined and then removed the body of Luna Moon, and searched the building. The Club and DQC had a policy of sharing information, not always observed. No bloody bootprints or daubed messages were found. Richard gave a reasonably detailed report of what he and Whitney had gathered from the deceased, but Price couldn’t make much use of it. His boys were stuck with looking for witnesses, chasing up grasses and hoping for a credible confession. Embarrassingly often, even in Diogenes Club cases, boring old police-work turned up an answer before spookery. And you could take it into court, too.
‘Have we been through that rigmarole,’ said Whitney, biting down on a big ripe strawb, ‘where the cops warn us off the case but we stay on it anyway?’
‘It’s not our place to catch murderers, love,’ he told her. ‘Though I daresay Euan Price would be grateful if we turned over a stone and found this one. If finding out who killed Miss Moon Moon Moon leads us to understand why we don’t have a Magister Rex Chalfont on the books, we should sleuth away to our hearts’ content. If it’s a side-issue, we drop it and try something else. Let’s face it, it would be just too bloody easy if Chalfont were our Major Stabby…’
‘Magisters generally leave athamé-work to minions. Unless it’s Aztec heart-ripping stuff.’
‘In Aztec mythology, the moon is the severed head of the Goddess Coyolxauhqui, murdered—along with four hundred siblings—by her foetal half-brother Huitzilopochtli to forestall Coyolxauhqui’s attempt to force their mother Coatlicue to have an abortion. How unlike the home-life of our own dear deity! Chup-Kamui, moon goddess of the Ainu, was so disgusted at having to bear witness to the night-time naughtiness of adulterers she swapped places in the pantheon with her brother and became a sun goddess instead.’
‘You’ve read this up, right?’
Richard admitted it. ‘I took this from the Temple, and skimmed it while you were napping off jet lag.’
He tossed over a slender volume. Moon Myths, by Enzo Yarikh.
‘If you need to tell your Basque Ilazki from your Dahomeyan Gleti, this is your I-Spy Guide…they’re all moon gods and goddesses. Mostly goddesses. Selene was a Greek goddess. Well, a Titan. Luna was Roman, aka Luna Noctiluca. Humanity has been venerating our satellite since cave-days. There’s a Neolithic stone circle in the Hebrides that tracks the risings of the moon in an extremely sophisticated manner. Looking up at the night sky is nothing new. And the moon is the biggest, shiniest thing in it.’
Whitney flicked through the pages.
‘No pictures,’ she said.
‘The moon affects the tides, women’s cycles, the proverbial lunatic…and some werewolves, though not as many as Lon Chaney Junior would have you believe…’
Whitney gave him back the book and stretched in her chair like a cat. On the other side of the room, she won enthusiastic reviews.
The mastermind of lolly wrapper design finally got drunk enough to do more than look sidelong at the tall blonde bird. Encouraged by perhaps ill-intentioned comrades, Roly spacewalked across acres of carpet and stood over their table. He had a transparent moustache.
‘Is this hippie bothering you, Pink Lady?’ he asked Whitney, using the burp-speech recommended for those who have lost a larynx to throat-cancer. ‘Because, if he is, I could…ah…take care of him for you.’
The other execs cheered. Roly was unsteady on his feet. Mr Sky Ray Lolly didn’t look as if he were in any position to ‘take care of’ a stick insect on crutches.
‘That’s very kind of you, hoss—but this is my grandfather. I’m seeing he doesn’t get into trouble. He’s uncontrollable around women.’
The young exec looked at Richard, trying to focus.
‘Have a strawberry, old chap,’ said Richard.
‘Who are you calling a…what did you just say…?’
Roly unwisely plucked the bottle out of the ice bucket and hefted it like a club. Champagne frothed out of the neck, drenching the cuff of his salmon-coloured shirt. He swung the bottle towards Richard’s head.
Whitney quick-jabbed two knuckles into Roly’s side, just above the rib-cage. He froze in mid-swing, then—as Whitney innocently sipped from her flute—fell like a tree in the forest. Richard caught the bottle.
It was empty. He signalled for another.
Roly lay, face knotted, unable to move. His friends expressed concern, but none ventured to help.
‘How long does that last?’ Richard asked.
‘About ten minutes, usually.’
The barman summoned someone to take care of the fallen exec. If Roly were not a guest, he’d be discreetly ejected from the hotel. If he were, he’d be asked to leave as soon as his bill was settled.
Whitney shrugged, disarmingly, at the pest’s friends and eggers-on.
‘What can I do,’ she said, raising her voice to carry across the acreage of the bar. ‘I’m naturally a knockout.’
‘Roly’s not usually that much of a prawn,’ said one of his mates. ‘It’s moon madness.’
More champagne was produced.
‘We’ll avoid further altercations if this is sent up to the lady’s suite,’ Richard told the waiter, palming him a ten-shilling note in a handshake.
‘Very good, sir.’
‘And more strawberries,’ said Whitney. ‘Many more strawberries.’
‘What are we doing outside Handel’s house?’ Whitney asked.
‘Waiting for a bus,’ he told her.
After breakfast at Claridge’s, they had walked a little way down Brook Street. London was busier this morning. Most folk who had skived off to watch the launch were back at work. Tourists had emerged to wander distractedly. Richard didn’t have to be especially empathic to pick up the epochal beat in the back of everyone’s mind.
…we’re on our way to the moon…
Whitney wore a lime-green trouser suit and matching sun-hat. She had clever glasses which darkened when the sun came out—a NASA by-product, like non-stick pans and velcro. Oh, and the orbital death rays America thought her NATO allies didn’t know about. Those ‘communications satellites’ would blow up if activated, thanks to a tiny pre-stressed ceramic component manufactured in Milton Keynes. In trying to cut plucky little Britain out of the loop, the Pentagon underestimated Harold Wilson’s capacity for sulky vengefulness.
‘There’s no stop here,’ she said.
‘It’s not a regularly-scheduled service. We’re going to a party in a bus.’
‘Very stylish. Is it a long ride?’
‘As long as you want it to be. I didn’t say we’re going in a bus to a party, I said we’re going to a party in a bus. Here it is.’
Richard pulled a psychedelic explosion out of his hankie pocket and flapped it, as if flagging a taxi. A red London bus stopped for them. The number and destination displayed were a sideways eight infinity symbol and ‘Far Out Scene’. Richard helped Whitney onto the open rear platform.
‘Hold very tight please,’ said a woman in a tailored black silk conductor’s uniform, ‘ting ting…’
The conductress rang the bell and the bus moved on.
Both decks heaved with assorted people—fragrant hippies and flower children, pinstriped Establishment types, famous faces from fashion and sport, notable beggars and crooks, popular scientists and unpopular clergymen, a couple of exotic dancers from Soho. Something intriguing if non-sexual was happening under a pile of PVC macs between an angry Liverpool poet, an actress who’d been in a controversial Wednesday Playand a middle-aged cleaning woman who’d probably got on the wrong bus by mistake.
Upstairs, Eric Clapton and Andrés Segovia were duetting. The tune they had long left behind was ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’. Downstairs, Larry Adler played harmonica while Spike Milligan made up limericks. Luckily, there were many rhymes for ‘moon’. Silver-paper stars, planets, satellites and spaceships were stuck up on the windows. It was easy to guess the theme of this bash.
‘Richard Jeperson,’ exclaimed the conductress, kissing him full on the lips, ‘how delightful! And this must be the blonde Yank bird you were glimpsed with in Clerkenwell yesterday afternoon and Claridge’s bar last night! Don’t tell me, Whitney Gauge. With the, um, secret busybody acronym folks…you’re the Girl from A.U.N.T.I.E., right?’
‘I’m with a Federal Bureau of…’
‘Spookery and Goblinage. How sweet.’
Whitney was surprised the conductress was in on the secret, but Richard knew her of old.
‘This is Margery Device,’ he said. ‘Pronounced “Davis”, spelled “De Vice”. She’s the Witch.’
Whitney noticed the definite article.
‘Don’t listen to Dickie,’ Margery said. ‘It’s just a title.’
‘This party is a grand tradition,’ Richard said. ‘It’s always on somewhere in London.’
‘Have a cocktail, dear,’ said Margery. ‘They’re all just invented…Absinthe Apollo, Moon Madness, Space Shiver, Fireball XL-5, Buzz Aldrin…’
‘I’ll have a rum collins…’
‘Not new, but topical—I approve,’ said Margery, signalling to a Maltese bar-tender Richard had last seen on an identity parade as a near-lookalike for a trunk murderer. ‘Richard…?’
‘Tizer. I’m on duty.’
The hostess was Queen of London Gossip, which meant she knew everything worth knowing and was prepared to be wildly indiscreet if it amused her. The only secret she never shared was her age. She looked exactly as she had when he first went to her party—then in a sculptor’s studio in Brixton—in the mid-1950s. The London Witch held up one corner of a defensive magic square which had seen the city through plague, fire, blitz and rationing.
‘Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?’ he asked Margery.
‘No, of course not, silly boy. There’s only somewhere loud.’
Richard sipped his Tizer. Whitney at least looked at her cocktail.
‘You’ll be here about Bridget Tully, of course. Cross-eyed, you know. Odd in a painter. Had an affair with…’
‘Magister Rex Chalfont…’
‘No, that’s not the name I was thinking of. It was the polar explorer. Not him himself—the fellow who played him in Scott of the Antarctic. It’ll come to me in a moment. I can see the face.’
‘It’s Chalfont we’re interested in,’ said Whitney.
‘I daresay you are, my girl. An interesting sort of chap. Not a name you hear every day, either.’
‘Not a name some of us have heard ever, Margery.’
The conductress gave Richard a sly smile. He hadn’t believed she didn’t remember the exact name of every lighting assistant and walk-on penguin in Scott of the Antarctic, much less one of the principle cast. And he didn’t believe her casual assumption they knew as much about Chalfont as she evidently did.
Margery fairly chortled. To the point of crowing.
‘Are your filing cabinets coming up short? Did you only drop in to my “happening” to quiz poor old Marge about an information gap you shouldn’t ought to have? You’ll hurt my feelings.’
Richard laughed with her.
‘Fair enough. You win. The Diogenes Club are amateur dabblers beside you, Margery. I don’t know why we even bother to get out of bed most mornings. But if you could see your way to help…’
‘Quid pro quo, Dickie. Payment in kind.’
‘As you’ve pointed out, there’s an imbalance. You have all the secrets.’
She coyly chewed the corner of a roll of bus-tickets Richard guessed were impregnated with something lysergic. ‘Not all…’
‘All of ours. And all of Agent Gauge’s too…’
‘‘Tis true. I’m terribly well-informed. Would you like to know who the first homosexual in space was?’
‘Not just now.’
‘Very well, but you’re usually much more fun, Dickie…now, I shall point you in a useful direction, on the condition that…’
Richard waited for it.
‘…the lovely Whitney answers one single question. With gory details. Truth or dare, without the dare.’
Whitney shrugged. Richard hoped Margery wasn’t going to ask something indiscreet about President Nixon. Or dredge up that old one about J. Edgar Hoover’s dressmaker.
Margery leaned over, cupping her hand over her mouth, and whispered in the girl’s ear. Whitney looked slightly shocked, then amused. Se blushed in penny-size cheek-spots, like a cartoon character. Margery, eager, turned her own ear to receive—and Whitney whispered into it for what seemed a full five minutes. A smile spread across Margery’s face, with pauses for knowing looks at Richard and mocking tuts of sham disapproval.
‘I suppose I should have known…’
‘All right,’ said Richard, ‘you’ve had your fun facts for the day, Margery. Now…Rex Chalfont?’
‘Don’t know the man,’ said Margery, offhand. Richard groaned. ‘But I knowof him…’
Richard and Whitney listened, intently.
‘In 1948, the Chalfont Group offered to conquer the moon. For Britain.’
If Chalfont had a group, Richard didn’t imagine they were aiming for the pop charts.
‘He was a rocket scientist?’
‘No, Dickie. How many rocket scientists call themselves “Magister”? He’s one of those interdisciplinary fellows who mix runes and equations. You know what Artie Clarke says about advanced technology being “indistinguishable from magic”? Chalfont responds that magic is indistinguishable from magic too. He promised he’d get to the moon before anyone relying on “Nazi fireworks”.’
‘So, a nut?’
‘A nut we should have paid more attention to,’ said Margery.
‘Because he had his old girlfriend stabbed?’
‘Good heavens, no. Someone would have stabbed Bridget Tully eventually. An art critic, most likely. No, we should have paid attention because he did what he said he would.’
‘Conquered the moon?’
‘That’s the whisper. He did it in 1953. In time for the Coronation. Chalfont has always been very patriotic. I suppose Everest got all the headlines.’
‘You’re having us on,’ said Richard.
Margery looked genuinely offended.
‘Have I ever misled you?’
‘Let me get this straight,’ said Whitney. ‘In three days’ time, the Eagle will touch down in the Sea of Tranquillity, Neil Armstrong will clamber down his ladder with a Stars and Stripes, and come across a British flag and…what else? A tea and crumpets stand? A statue of Winston Churchill? Art students holding a “Yankee Go Home” banner?’
Margery was briefly serious. ‘I don’t think Sexy Rexy will let it come to that. If he’s got rid of his High Priestess, who was in the moderate wing of the Chalfont Group, he’ll have decided to haul down the Union Jack, fly the Jolly Roger and…well, prepare to repel boarders.’
It took seconds for that to sink in.
Whitney looked at Richard. He saw her mouth drop open exactly the way he knew his had. Space-time upended itself and turned inside-out like a sock. Arthur C. Clarke would strongly disapprove.
‘In the Lake District,’ said Margery, ‘about five miles from Scafell Pikes. On the Buttermere Road, you take the turn-off marked “Private Road—Trespassers Will Be Dealt With Harshly”. You can’t miss it.’
Richard was jolted out of his mind-expanding fugue.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Your next question was, or should have been, “Where is Mildew Manor”?’
Richard supposed they should be grateful Margery had told what she knew, and understood it unreasonable to wish she’d volunteered all this some time in the last sixteen years. What happened on the moon was irrelevant to her bailiwick. She had enough on her plate looking after London, without worrying about satellites or stars. Still, a quiet heads-up wouldn’t have hurt.
‘Stop the bus,’ he said. ‘We want to get off.’
They were in Piccadilly Circus.
Margery rang her bell, and said ‘ting ting, please take care while leaving the omnibus, and toodle-oo.’
‘How could anyone land on the moon in secret?’ asked Whitney. ‘In 1953?’
‘I don’t suppose people looked at the skies as much then,’ Richard mused.
‘A rocket launch is hard to keep quiet.’
‘We knew about Sputnik,’ she said. ‘We just let Khrushchev have his big day and pretended to be surprised. Do you know how much the covert intelligence and arcane enforcement budget went up the day after all the Senators and Congressmen found out a red eye in the sky could see into their swimming pools?’
They were in St James’s Park, watching ducks on the lake. Defectors, spies, tramps and shady-dealers congregated in twos on the benches. Wardens who picked up litter with spiked sticks here had a higher security clearance than the Secretary of State for Defence. Old government secrets, obsolete weapons plans and two-way mirror compromising filmstrips were always found in the grass—along with bloody Sky-Ray lolly wrappers, of course.
‘Magister Rex Chalfont doesn’t believe in rockets,’ mused Richard. ‘”Nazi fireworks”. Ergo, no rocket launch.’
‘How else are you going to get to the moon? Build a stairway to Heaven?’
‘A diving bell shot out of a volcano?’
She knew this game. ‘The chariot drawn by geese.’
Whitney had pause. ‘That’s not so lunatic.’
‘Ha-ha. Neither is antigravity paint.’
‘Chalfont is a magus, right? A sorcerer.’
‘A flying sorcerer.’
‘Not necessarily. Picture this…the great Pooh-Bah—and his circle or group or whatever—sit around omming like lamas and go into a trance. Their spirits leave their bodies, then float to the moon.’
Richard conceded that was more likely than geese or gunpowder.
It was also comforting. There were recognised procedures for dealing with astral projectors. You found out where their entranced bodies were laid up and shouted ‘wakey-wakey’ in their ears. Not a few snuffed themselves by forgetting to nip home and eat, or secreted fragile flesh in places impregnable to enemies which also happened to be airtight. Most who learned the trick were just nosey parkers, anyway…some nights, three or four at a time collided ectoplasmically in Liz Taylor’s bedroom. The odd adept managed to create a semi-solid ghost body, and could use the old ‘I was dozing at the theatre in full view of the whole audience when that shadowy wraith stoved in my wife’s head with a brick’ alibi.
A commotion of some sort was underway on Duck Island, across the lake. Birds in a tizzy. Like the Trafalgar Square pigeons, the St James ducks had gone hungry for days while everyone was watching the telly. Perhaps there was lingering resentment at the abandonment of Francis Godwin’s waterfowl-based space program. No ducks, no Duck Dodgers.
‘Astral projection to the moon is a new one on me,’ he admitted. ‘In all known cases of out-of-the-body wandering, a filament connects the projected consciousness—in whatever form it takes—back to the physical corpus. A quarter-million-mile sticky string is, to put it mildly, a stretch.’
The ducks quacked up a fuss on the water now, scrapping over floating crumbs, beating each other with tough wings. The disturbance on the island had spread.
‘Didn’t some turn-of-the-century mediums claim to be star voyagers?’
Richard remembered the file.
‘Yes, that’s why it’s called astral projection. But the Club never took them seriously. If they went anywhere during their trips, it wasn’t in our universe. One dotty lady claimed she’d been impregnated by an Arcturan, but the baby popped out human. We kept tabs on the lad, of course. Grew up to be a very useful bowler for Leicestershire.’
‘Now you’re talking mumbo jumbo. As far as I’m concerned, cricket is a chirruping insect. Or that squeaker who bugs Pinocchio.’
‘…says the girl from the he-man steak-eating cowboy country whose rugby players need to cower inside six inches of leather armour so they don’t hurt their little headsies and toesies.’
They both laughed.
‘Actually, you’re right about football,’ she conceded…
‘American football,’ he corrected.
‘Those guys are sissies who can’t take competition without throwing a fit.’
‘They wouldn’t let you play, then?’
‘Uh-huh. Not after I broke my brother’s leg by accident.’
‘Were you playing rough while baby-sitting the little fellow?’
‘Not my younger brother, Brad. My older brother, Trap. The Marine. He was on leave from Vietnam.’
The ducks were tearing into each other now. Feathers and blood-slicks floated on the lake.
‘That’s not right,’ said Richard.
Whitney saw it too. In the agitated water was a rippling reflection which shouldn’t be there. It looked like the moon.
Then the ducks fell silent, stopped attacking each other.
They paddled, turning in sync like a water ballet corps—and wound up looking directly at Richard and Whitney, aimed like the guns of pirate raiders.
‘That’s definitely not right.’
He had a flash of Sky Ray Roly, the moment his eyes blanked and he reached for the champagne bottle.
Moon madness, again?
Richard and Whitney stood still.
Ranks of ducks advanced, sculling with wing-points. Eyes and beaks glinted in the sunlight.
‘Look, Mum,’ said a passing child, dripping ice-cream in his paw.
‘Come away, dear, and don’t bother the nice people.’
Mother and son moved on. The first ducks were off the lake, waddling on the grass. The lack of quack was disturbing.
Richard sighed inwardly. He really did not want to be seen running away from a horde of ducks in St James’ Park. Margery Device would never let him hear the last of it.
‘How did Tippi Hedren get out of this in The Birds?’ Whitney asked.
‘Hard to say. The film has an ambiguous ending.’
They began to back away, very slowly. More ducks made it to land.
‘What about in the original story?’ Whitney asked.
‘That doesn’t have an ambiguous ending. That has an apocalyptic ending.’
‘So, no help there. Thank you, Daphne Du Maurier…’
‘Dame Daphne…it was in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List…’
‘Swell. Remind me to send a congratulation card. Should we turn and run now?’
‘You really think they might be friendly lunatic psycho ducks?’
Richard held out his hand, flat-palmed, and said ‘stop!’
It worked, for almost a second. Then the ducks flew at them, and they ran.
The doorman of the Diogenes Club passed no comment on the state of their apparel. Over the years, he had seen worse.
Richard and Whitney were bloodied and shredded, bruised by bills and scratched by webbed feet—who knew duck-feet had barbs? They’d only got away because the birds wouldn’t leave the park.
‘Really,’ said Major Took-Flemyng to no one in particular, as they entered the lobby, ‘it’s a bloody disgrace!’
‘Sorry,’ said Richard to the Major. ‘Bit of a difficult day.’
‘Still, to bring a woman into the club…’
Richard gripped Whitney’s arm. In her current ticked-off and duck-assailed state, she might serve the Major worse than her brother Trap.
‘Is there a problem, Major?’ asked Catriona. She popped out of the Quiet Room, which was on the first-floor landing, and stood at the top of the broad stairs.
Took-Flemyng’s misogyny evaporated in an instant. He revealed dentures in a would-be ingratiating grin and bowed low.
‘No indeed, Miss Kaye. No problem of any kind. Might I say how charming you look this afternoon?’
‘You might. Now, run along, Major.’
‘Of course, Miss Kaye.’
Took-Flemyng trotted into the Informal Room, glowing like a schoolgirl awarded a Gold Star by ‘Miss’ in front of the whole form.
‘If Daphne Du Maurier got damed, why not Catriona Kaye?’ Whitney whispered.
‘Diogenes Club tradition,’ he told her. ‘Turning down the K. I’ve only turned down the M.B.E. Catriona turned down a peerage once. We don’t like to clutter our calling cards with letters.’
‘If you say so, Galahad.’
Catriona had Hills bring them a change of clothes—a mauve tracksuit with white piping for Whitney, an orange-and-black kaftan for Richard—and personally cleaned and dressed their minor wounds. The Diogenes Club First Aid kit had a few unusual items. Besides iodine, Catriona applied sigils of something herbal to speed the healing.
‘Attacked by ducks,’ said Catriona, as Richard and Whitney drank tea in the Quiet Room. ‘That’s not the strangest item today. We’ve had a rash of incidents. People and animals howling at the moon. Even in daylight. There’s a lot of—and I use the word carefully—lunacy about. Schoolchildren playing “spacemen and monsters” on a bomb site in Streatham managed to vaporise a builder’s hut with plastic rayguns. A horticulturist in Surrey nearly choked to death on the poisonous exhalations of a greenhouse full of man-in-the-moon marigolds. Leaping fish beset an angler on the Trent.’
‘Is it all connected?’ Whitney asked.
‘Almost certainly. Tiresome, isn’t it? So, you’ve been to see the Witch. Any joy?’
Richard passed on what Margery Device had told them.
‘I assume Luna Moon was in this Chalfont Group,’ he said. ‘It might be worth our while running down a membership list. Chalfont is off the books, but if we identify known intimates we ought to get a better picture.’
He expected Catriona to use the antique telephone to ring through to the Archive Room.
Instead, she said ‘I daresay the Chalfont Group found room for a science fiction writer called Mungo Zyle, an explorer named Walter Vereker and a middle-aged drop-out born Lawson Hogg but known as “the Hermit of Taunton”.’
She let the names lie.
‘You didn’t know about them yesterday,’ he said. ‘What brought them to your attention?’
‘They were alive yesterday morning,’ she admitted. ‘In the afternoon and evening, in quick succession, in locations five hundred miles apart, they were stabbed to death. Probably with the same athamé used to kill Luna Moon. Zyle’s wound had traces of someone else’s blood in it. The assassin didn’t even wipe tools between jobs.’
‘Can we definitely link them to Chalfont?’
‘Only by inference. We can link them to each other, though. They were of a like age, fell into the category of “crank”, and have criss-crossing biographies. Luna Moon did covers for Mungo Zyle’s books. Zyle and his wife Anemone co-authored the Moonmist Trilogy. It’s all trilogies nowadays. I blame Johnny Tolkien. Vereker was arrested at Glastonbury Tor in 1949, taking part in Druidical erotic hullabaloo involving Hogg and a gaggle of silly women in robes. All our victims have a roundabout or direct interest in the topic of the day. Moon-worship. You’ll appreciate this: Hogg’s farm makes green cheese.’
‘Is the Group wiped out?’ asked Whitney. ‘Are there any surviving members?’
‘We can take a guess at Anemone Zyle, since she’s disappeared. In other circumstances, she’d be our favoured suspect. I’ve got research moles digging for others with connections to one or more of our dead people. They’ve made some suppositions. There’s a publisher named Maurice Nordstrom, who isn’t in his office today. I had a nice chat with his secretary. Nordstrom & Haw specialise in science fiction, so you’d think he’d be high on Apollo. In fact, he’s been in a sulk for months.’
‘There’s a theory the moon landing is bad for science fiction.’
‘I’ve heard it. Nordstrom publishes the Zyles, also Vereker’s books on mountain-climbing. Vereker used to scale Swiss and South American peaks with a Rudolf Gosling, a nasty piece of work who leads the English Liberation Front—which is a fancy name for yet another fascist party. Their Command Bunker is called “the Laburnums”. It’s in Acacia Road, Frinton. It has net curtains. The ELF tried to get Enoch Powell to join the cause, and got an erudite earful. Gosling is another of Bridget Tully’s old beaux. According to his Deputy Leader, he’s too busy to talk with strange women. Speaking of strange women, Hogg’s Farm was home to a quantity of loose young persons who helped make his cheese. I imagined hermits lived alone, but evidently this one liked the company. They’ve all scarpered without trace. So, that’s quite a little lot of disappearees.’
‘The only one I’ve met is Rudy Gosling,’ said Richard. ‘His party symbol is an eismond, a moon of ice. It derives from one of Himmler’s crackpot notions. We couldn’t prove anything, but came away from that Handsworth Thuggee business with a strong sense that the ELF were mixed up in it. I wouldn’t put it past him to stick an athamé into anyone.’
‘I began one of those Moonmist novels,’ said Whitney. ‘It had a map on the first page, with place-names that were anagrams of brands of detergent. Then a glossary of “moon talk” that went on for pages. After that, on the first page proper, the lunar controller was described as “resting her chin on her elbows”. I threw the book in the trash.’
‘Margery said Luna Moon was in “the moderate wing” of the Chalfont Group,’ said Richard. ‘I suppose the other victims were with her. Which leaves, what? The radical wing.’
‘The nasty wing,’ said Whitney.
‘As good a label as any. Put it on a t-shirt. Chalfont, or whoever heads the Group, has had his Night of the Long Athamé and cleaned house. So, where have the nasties disappeared?’
‘Everyone’s gone to the moon?’ suggested Whitney.
Richard tried not to hum that song.
‘Initially, I think Cumbria more likely,’ said Catriona. ‘That’s the hint Margery was dropping. The Witch is usually on the money.’
‘Where the Hell is Cumbria?’ asked Whitney.
‘Beyond the range of the Trident,’ said Richard. ‘We’ll need the Rolls.’
Catriona picked up the phone and began dialling with the end of her cigarette holder. ‘I’m concerned about Margery’s “prepare to repel boarders” analogy,’ she said. ‘I want to make sure you don’t visit Mildew Manor—which has a horrible history, by the way—without proper covering fire.’
Whitney saluted. Richard could almost hear drums.
Catriona got through to the underground exchange, and played the code-word and response parlour game to clear a classified international line. It took her less time than it would take an ordinary telephone subscriber to reach the speaking clock.
‘Houston,’ she said, when connected, ‘you have a problem…’
‘A pick-and-mix landscape, Cumbria,’ said Whitney. ‘You’ve got your rocks, your grass, your lakes, your mountains. And, oh, no matter how summery it is, it’s wet underfoot.
‘Funnily enough, that’s been noticed before.’
Richard’s Rolls Royce ShadowShark was parked in a lay-by opposite the chained-off turning. The ‘Private Road—Trespassers Will Be Dealt With Harshly’ sign Margery Device had described hung from the chain. The ‘o’ in ‘Road’ was a stuck-on eismond decal with ELF written across it. It might as well have been a neon sign with ‘Secret Lair’ on it.
Richard wore baggy jungle camouflage trousers and a padded mint-green cagoule, custom-made army boots with gadgets secreted in heel and sole, a jaunty ‘Che Guevara’ beret and World War One aviator goggles. Whitney had kept the track-suit and photochromatic shades from yesterday, augmented with an even jauntier ‘Bonnie Parker’ beret. He had turned down several offers of guns, and persuaded a reluctant Whitney not to tool up either. She’d acquired a knobkerrie walking stick—the sort country people said they needed for walking down lanes, but mainly used for beating townies who trespassed in fields—and could twirl it like a baton.
Two army lorries were parked nearby. A platoon of squaddies were having tea around a mobile canteen, wondering why they weren’t back in barracks watching the telly. Apollo 11 was only hours away from lunar orbit. A matching US Army team was due to show up to make this a joint Anglo-American operation. A diversion was in force, steering traffic away from the Mildew Manor area. Fell-walkers were being advised to fell-walk the other way. Anthrax was mentioned, though the cover story was getting whiskery. If you added up the times the British public were warned of an anthrax spill to keep them away from something that would terrify them even more, you’d assume the United Kingdom was knee-deep in the stuff. According to Whitney, the American equivalent was ‘experimental nerve toxin’—though when an experimental nerve toxin actually leaked, the no-go area was blamed on foot and mouth.
Catriona insisted the soldiers were only there to maintain a perimeter. This was a business for specialists.
‘Spectacular views all around,’ said Whitney, ‘except in that direction.’
A thicket of trees lined the Private Road and swelled to a copse.
‘You’d think it’d been cultivated that way,’ she said.
‘A shrewd observation. Successive owners of Mildew Manor have had things to hide. In the 18th Century, when banditti prowled the Lake District, this was the home of the wickedest man in England, Nick Goodman…yes, the irony was noticed in his lifetime…and his equally depraved wife, the dreadful Eithne Orfe. We’ve got two filing cabinets on them.’
‘But nothing on Rex Chalfont.’
‘No need to rub it in.’
Catriona had a theory that Chalfont had a government connection, and used his pull years ago to stay out of the files. In London, she was following this up—in the few moments when she wasn’t suffering transatlantic phone calls from aggrieved, disbelieving and distracted American officials.
The intelligence was not well-received at NASA, even after Assistant Director Spilsby endorsed the report. He took the issue more seriously now than four days ago, when he had packed Whitney Gauge off to poke into it. Along with the global epidemic of moon madness, ‘developments’ in space were troubling. LM Pilot Aldrin’s report that he ‘saw a light moving which was not a star’ was bleeped from television coverage. Anyone who used the term ‘unidentified flying object’ was liable to summary dismissal. Ranger 8 and Surveyor 5, unmanned probes officially dead since their publicly announced missions, had long since repurposed as weaponised robots—packed full of gizmos which guaranteed the Soviets a hot-foot if they tried to steal a march on Apollo with their Zond moon orbital vehicle. The probes had gone ‘off-line’ after broadcasting signals that they were subject to Unusual Uncategorised Stress. Surveyor’s last message suggested it was being ‘eaten’. It was hotly debated how seriously spook stuff should be taken. A roomful of technocrats and science guys had a hard time adjusting their worldview to take in a magic threat. Richard suggested telling them the UUS was an anthrax outbreak.
Dusty contingency plans for engaging with ‘hostiles’ on the moon were hauled out of cabinets and had their seals broken. These turned out to be of no practical use: they were all contingent on either a) an unknown foreign power whose spacecraft had markings in the Cyrillic alphabet having sneakily established a covert moonbase, or b) an aggressive extra-terrestrial intelligence lurking in the craters with rayguns in its tentacles. Whoever was responsible for Plan B didn’t take seriously the possibility of it ever being considered for use, and proposed drafting Flash Gordon and Captain Video. Interested parties argued over what to tell the astronauts, awaiting a decision from Senator Edward Kennedy. It turned out Kennedy chaired the Oversight Committee which effectively ran the ‘Unnameables’. Even Richard was surprised to learn that. When JFK appointed Bobby Attorney General, he gave his other brother a secret job Teddy had hung on to through successive administrations.
In a lorry designated ‘Forward Command Post One’, Captain ‘Mac’ Maitland—who sported a rakish eyepatch, but had a haircut more suited to a Swinging Blue Jean than an officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces—was on the field telephone.
‘The American army took a wrong turn and are up the Old Man of Coniston,’ said ‘Mac’ in cut-glass Sandhurst tones—though Richard had read his file and knew he was the son of a Durham miner. ‘Typical shambles. The Yanks can put a man on the moon, but get lost in a tourist attraction. No offence, miss.’
Richard and Whitney weren’t supposed to venture near Mildew Manor until Anglo-American combined forces were in situ.
‘Can we offer you tea?’ said ‘Mac’.
Richard declined politely.
A flight of birds broke out of the copse, giving Richard harrowing duckpond flashbacks…
…then lighting struck out of a clear blue sky, three times. Close by. Flashes, no thunder. So, not ordinary lightning.
Three lithe figures appeared in the road They wore silver body-stockings, loose but clingy enough to show female form, bulbous spherical fish-bowl helmets, thick silver boots and gauntlets, plates of shiny body-armour and gunslinger belts hung with mystery tools. Their faces were painted bright green. Contoured chest-pieces were numbered in swirly hippie script: One, Two, Five. Richard looked around, but Three and Four weren’t here. Their absences made dents in the space-women’s formation.
A couple of the squaddies laughed. None reached for rifles.
The space-women all carried knives. Athamés.
‘Have you noticed we’ve been wearing “Attack Me” buttons ever since we visited the Temple of Domina Oriens?’ said Whitney.
Two made the first move, tossing her athamé straight at Richard’s eyes. The blade was for stabbing, not balanced for knife-throwing. Whitney swung her knobkerrie and knocked the knife off course—it stuck into the side of Maitland’s lorry, inches from his head.
One came at Whitney, high. Whitney bent over as if to cartwheel, kicking out with a straight leg, catching One in her midriff, knocking her over. Her head rattled inside her fishbowl, but she got back on her feet.
The soldiers had guns at hand now, but no idea what to do with them.
Two jumped in the air, as if beginning a somersault, then popped out of space and reappeared instantly behind Richard, grabbing his arms. The country air was heavy with the smell of chemical discharge. Two had a solid hold on him, and he only hurt his head by ramming at her nose and thumping a heavy face-plate. Five advanced, lower lip sucked into her mouth, tossing her athamé from hand to hand like a teddy girl with a flickknife. She made teasing, stabbing motions. Now might be a good time for Maitland’s men to overcome natural gallantry and fire a warning shot into Five’s helmet.
Whitney and One circled each other, short knife against long stick. Both made test jabs.
Lightning struck again, cracking into the copse.
Another space-woman—Three or Four?—was stuck in the tree. Not stuck up it, like a cat—in it, trunk and limbs embedded in old wood, head kinking out like a broken branch, face rough like bark.
Two noticed and let Richard go. She grabbed her own helmet and twisted, but it wouldn’t come off. Five was distracted by what had happened to the scrambled space-woman, so Richard took her athamé away.
Lighting unstruck—or so it seemed—and Whitney was blinking. One wasn’t there any more, though her smoking silver boots were.
Two dropped to her knees, frantically struggling with her fishbowl.
‘Help her,’ Richard said to Five.
He saw concern in the space-woman’s green face. After hesitation, she tried to help Two get her helmet off. Five held out her hand. Richard gave her back her knife, knowing she wanted it to cut through Two’s neck-piece not stick into his chest. Another practical, everyday use for his Talent. The blade broke and Five threw the hilt away in frustration. If Two’s face weren’t painted, she’d have gone green of her own accord. Her eyes bulged and her mouth gaped like the little boy in the dire warning public information commercial who ‘played spaceman’ with a plastic bag over his head.
Though they had arrived by unorthodox means, these were Earthly beings.
Within a minute of their arrival, only Five was still standing. The ducks had been more trouble.
‘Mac’ rapped on Five’s helmet with a pistol. The woman meekly put her hands up.
Two keeled over.
Soldiers looked at Three-or-Four, who was plainly dead. One asked if they should try to get her down.
Whitney skinned silver-foil away from Two’s wrist—which was pink and had sunburn scars—and failed to find a pulse.
‘Welcome to our planet,’ said Richard.
Five made fists and thumped the sides of her helmet. Her faceplate popped open and she unloosed a torrent of foul language in broad West Country.
Richard deduced the space-women were the flower children from Hermit Hogg’s cheese farm.
The helmet came off. Five shook out a long tangle of brown hair. The green on her face had streaked. She rubbed it with the heels of her hands.
She didn’t stop swearing—not at Richard and Whitney, but at ‘Magister’—for long minutes. She went around kicking things, including One’s empty boots and Three-or-Four’s tree.
The afterstench of bodged magic was thick. A short-term translocation spell, carelessly done.
Richard didn’t think any of the space-women had struck down Luna Moon or the others. Those had been professional, vicious jobs. This had been a throwaway. A delaying tactic.
Five shook her fists at the sky. Whitney slapped her, to get her attention. Five slapped back, instantly. But calmed down.
‘You,’ Whitney said, ‘name?’
‘Fan, do you surrender?’
‘Oh yerr, I gives up all roight.’
Maitland ordered his Sergeant to take away Fan’s tool-belt. A lot of the gadgets seemed to be toys.
‘I knew we shouldn’t have stepped in that morris square,’ said Fan. ‘So did he, Magister. Bloody posh old bastard tosser. Couldn’t wait to get shot of us. It were all lies, all the time. I b’aint never going to the moon. And he’m killed Jillie and Jonquil and Bertha. Hannah too, prob’ly. She never popped back. Goddess knows where her bits be spread.’
Maitland wasn’t following this. Richard and Whitney were.
‘Fan,’ said Richard, ‘we’re here to stop Magister Rex Chalfont.’
‘‘Bout bloody time too.’
‘So…take us to your leader.’
Fan lead Richard and Whitney down a rutted, tree-lined path. Branches entangled above them. Sunbeams filtered down into the nearly-covered way, casting shifting patches of light onto the ground.
‘So that’s what “sun-dappled” means,’ he said. ‘I’d always wondered.’
Whitney tugged his arm, to prevent an unwise step. She used her knobkerrie to snap a man-trap that had been left under a carpet of mulch.
‘Wrong time of year for falling leaves,’ she explained.
An unwholesome country smell turned out to be a dead little man splatted against a stout oak by a giant wickerwork fly-swatter studded with Vietcong-style punji sticks.
‘Magister Rex hates they poachers,’ Fan explained. ‘Leaves ‘en up to warn off others.’
Richard got on the walkie-talkie and warned Mac to have his men be careful about following the country code. Stiles in these parts were likely to be booby-trapped and streams might well be full of mines.
From the disillusioned space-woman, they learned Magister Rex and the Inner Circle of the Temple of Domina Oriens had promised free trips to the moon for their followers. Chalfont claimed to have been there and back many times, but the happy hippie cultie side of things had become strained lately—what with the unsought-for competition from NASA. Fan wasn’t in on the politics, but confirmed there’d been a little war in the Group. Those left standing had fallen back to Mildew Manor, the unlikely mission control from which Chalfont promised imminent mass migration to the sacred satellite. According to Fan, the quadrilocating assassin was Gosling—who nipped about via more precise and effective spells of translocation than the Hogg Farm Space Kiddettes. It was all done by morris dancing, apparently—Moon Man’s Morris, executed by the Chalfont Group with man-in-the-moon masks and belled sticks, around a square marked with yellow diagrams.
Fan was vague about how precisely Chalfont made his space voyages, but clearly believed Magister Rex had been traversing cislunar space regularly since the 1950s. Without anyone noticing. Had Chalfont perfected a long-range translocation spell? Jaunting that far was beyond the combined magical prowess of Merlin, Circe, Ali Bongo and Sooty, and Richard couldn’t see Magister Rex being top of that class. Not with bloody morris dancing. If the sellotape-and-glue sorcery used to deploy Fan and her gang was an example of his prowess, Richard wouldn’t trust Chalfont to pull a rabbit out of a hat without killing a volunteer from the audience. Fan only said Magister went to the moon ‘through the Shimmer’.
They got out of the copse alive and came upon Mildew Manor, a big, square gothic revival pile—complete with turrets and towers—in the middle of 18th century fake ancient ruins and gardens cultivated to seem wild. A single light was always kept burning in the East Tower window, in accordance with a tradition no one dared violate. In the driveway, a minivan with a green cheese man-in-the-moon painted on the side panels was parked next to a jeep with an ELF eismond on the bonnet and a couple of bicycles. No built-in-the-garden-shed rocketship in evidence. No transdimensional police box. No Verne cannon. No antigravity trampoline. No geese.
Fan wouldn’t go further.
Richard and Whitney crossed the lawn. A moondial was set on a stone table, abandoned teacups around the rim. A ceramic ashtray was full of aromatic dog-ends.
The front door hung open a crack. Whitney pushed it with her stick. No death-trap sprung.
‘Anyone home?’ called Richard.
‘Could they have zapped themselves into oblivion?’
‘We can but hope.’
In the hallway, a large Luna Selene Moon canvas hung askew. Whitney adjusted it, and had an insight. Her tactile intuition again.
Richard felt the thrum—in his fillings, mostly—before he heard the churning, rumbling sound. His nerves were on edge, as if he were standing next to an invisible cataract or inside a giant disguised power station. A lot of energy in the air. He didn’t need to tell Whitney to be careful.
The first room they came to was a TV lounge. BBC moon news rolled on, to empty chairs. A well-spoken announcer apologised to those tuning in forTitch and Quackers, usually broadcast at this time. Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit. Onscreen diagrams showed how the Eagle would separate from theColumbia, leaving Mike Collins in orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface. The BBC didn’t ask what the whole world was wondering—how pissed off was Collins at going so far, but hanging back at the last moment? Touch-down would happen tomorrow evening GMT and man would first set foot on the moon in the middle of the night. The schedule was for the convenience of American networks, but the BBC were too polite to complain. The television set was splattered with burst tomatoes, suggesting the Chalfont Group’s feelings about the Apollo program.
Richard switched off the television, and the thrum was obvious.
Something big, nearby.
At the end of the hall, double-doors were painted with Luna Moon designs, in the same style as the décor at the Temple in Sekforde Street. The thrumcame from beyond the doors.
Whitney, wary of another shock, did not reach for the handles.
Richard pulled open the doors…
The Great Hall of Mildew Manor was stripped of furniture. Tall windows were bricked over. Panelling bowed away from the walls, and had come away from bare brick in patches. Uncarpeted, polished floor strained as if the herringbone tiles were resisting universal pull.
In the middle of the room, a sphere of blue-white, crackling energy—about twenty feet from pole to pole—revolved slowly. The Shimmer. It looked like a 3D projection, the ghost of the moon. Though the Shimmer was transparent, Richard couldn’t only see the far side of the room through it. Somewhere inside the shifting, semi-gaseous globe of magick hung a giant, animate Luna Moon picture.
One other person was in the hall. A man in a red diving suit lay in a corner, clutching his right arm—which ended at the wrist, stump caulked over with blue-green sludge. Richard twisted off the man’s helmet—more brassbound and Victorian than the Space Kiddettes’ silver fishbowls—and recognised Maurice Nordstrom, the publisher. His comb-over flapped away from a flaky scalp. He was delirious with pain and wonder.
Nordstrom thumped himself with his stump, and muttered ‘failure, failure, failure…’
Richard understood. Magic devices like the Shimmer depend on faith. Waver for even a second and you end up stuck in a tree or rent apart by dwellers in the outer void. Or it just doesn’t work.
Nordstrom had been cautious, tried to test the waters. The waters didn’t care for the inference that they were not to be trusted.
It was no use quizzing the man. His mind was gone with his hand.
‘I don’t suppose there’s an off switch?’ said Whitney.
‘Not this side.’
‘That’s what I was worried about,’ she said. ‘So, the Shimmer is a portal? A magic door to the moon. Like a Wonderland rabbit-hole or a Narnia wardrobe.’
‘If Chalfont had his physics thinking cap on rather than his sorcerer’s pointy hat, he’d call it a Schwarzschild Wormhole or an Einstein-Rosen Bridge.’
‘Like I said, a magic doorway…’
‘…to the moon, Alice.’
The wall-panels, floor-tiles and ceiling were covered with—as Margery Device had said—runes and equations. Childish scrawls, which shone like teeth and white shirts in a discotheque when ultra-violet plays on the crowds during the chorus of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. Richard wondered if the spell had been touched up since 1953. It was a powerful piece of work—a masterpiece, perhaps the only one Magister Rex had in him. He’d had help, of course. Richard knew the brushstrokes of Luna Moon.
‘I still don’t believe you can actually get to the moon through that,’ said Whitney.
‘Neither did Nordstrom.’
‘I’m not saying you can’t get anywhere.’
Richard understood. The Shimmer was more likely a portal to another dimension than another world. Luna Moon’s imagination, perhaps.
‘What about Aldrin’s non-star light?’ he asked. ‘The breakdown of Ranger and Surveyor on your actual moon.’
‘Suggestive, not conclusive.’
He looked at her. And knew that, like him, she was more excited than terrified. But was still terrified.
Their hair was rising again, more dramatically. Whitney had a Bride of Frankenstein frizz. His scalp prickled as he sprouted a Struwwelpeter afro.
‘We’re putting it off, aren’t we?’ he said.
He got on the walkie-talkie, and Captain Maitland relayed him to Catriona in London. He gave a concise report about the set-up at Mildew Manor. She had dragged more secrets out of Assistant Director Spilsby.
‘The good news,’ she responded, ‘is that someone in NASA covered their bottom by incorporating unadvertised defensive capabilities into Apollo 11. The rocket has “cold iron” and “bell, book and candle”, like all British warships since Nelson fought Cagliostro. So, the—whatchumacallit—BEMought to be shielded from sorcerous attack.’
‘What’s the bad news?’
‘Typically, the shield can only be activated—I’m so dreadfully sorry, I’m mindlessly passing on what Americans have told me, what I mean by “activated” is “switched on”—if certain words are spoken at a certain spot by the man in charge. And he’s unavailable.’
‘Senator Kennedy? Don’t tell me he’s been shot too!’
‘No, he’s answering police questions after driving into a lake with a junior aide who drowned. They’d been at a party. It’s not an affair from which anyone will emerge with honour. Frankly, I’m so annoyed with Teddy I could spit. Even if he’s let go, we can’t get him to the pentacle in the Pentagon to read the riot runes.’
‘How long can the astronauts stay in orbit? Surely, Houston won’t let them try a landing under these circumstances?’
‘Houston’s tolerance for, and I quote, “hoodoo voodoo” is at an end. They’ve all been intent on this since Teddy’s brother said there’d be an American on the moon before the end of the decade.’
‘JFK also promised to bring the American back safely.’
‘Indeed. But NASA is in a risk-taking, seat-of-the-trousers mood at the moment. If they aborted the landing—hideous, term, that—they think it’d be the end of the space program.’
‘Being blasted to bits during the descent would probably put a dampener on things too.’
‘The boffins are impatient.’
‘So it’s down to us? Whitney and I?’
‘Spilsby wants Whitney on the bench. A platoon of GIs with cruciform tattoos and holy water-pistols are on their way…’
‘I know. It’s a wonder they’ve not napalmed Grassmere. As far as I’m concerned, it really is down to you two. Richard, I don’t need to tell you to come back safe. Don’t try too hard to protect the girl. She’ll not be grateful and can look after herself.’
‘Good. You’re getting better at noticing. It bodes well. Gallantry is all very well, but it’s nearly the 1970s. Lecture over. Go and save the world. And the moon.’
He told Whitney they had the go-ahead. He didn’t mention Spilsby.
In an antechamber to the Great Hall, several pressure suits—not strictlydiving suits, of course—hung on hooks, with helmets shelved above. It took long minutes to get properly dressed for the expedition. The gear was baggy enough to fit over their Earth clothes, though Richard had to take his boots off and transfer gadgets to flapped pouches on the thighs. Reluctantly, they left their berets behind. The suit-boots were weighted, soled with something like slate, fixed to the trouser-rims with gluey strips. The space-suit was reddish metallic oilskin, and musty inside. Somehow, the helmet did not shut off sound.
Whitney had a similar suit, but opted for silver finish and the plastic fishbowl. She struck a pin-up pose.
‘Out of sight, Psychedella,’ he commented.
They checked each other for straps, seals and hooks and hoped they’d followed proper procedure. The oxygen bottles were lightweight and seemed too small to be any use.
Richard peeled an eismond off his chestplate.
‘I’m not wearing this,’ he said. ‘It’s the badge of an oik.’
Beside the suits was a rack of athamés. The Temple must have got a good price on a job-lot of ceremonial stabbing implements. An array of contraptions with pumps and nozzles which looked like Edwardian fly-sprays could have been moon-guns. Hung by the rack was a clip-board with printed forms and a stubby pencil on a string. Richard flipped over filled-in forms. Suits were checked out to Nordstrom, who they needn’t worry about, and Rex, Anemone and Gosling, who would likely be more problematic. Boxes were ticked, signatures appended. He and Whitney didn’t bother with the paperwork.
It ought to come down to two against three. Richard knew little about Rex Chalfont or Anemone Zyle, but Rudy Gosling was a practiced killer—and, whatever lay beyond the Shimmer, they were up against people who would be more familiar with the terrain.
When they returned to the Great Hall, Nordstrom was dead. Puffy blue-green fungus was spreading across his face. It was horribly easy to imagine the poison gunk covering the whole world.
To be on the safe side, they picked him up between them, gave him a swing or two and launched him into the Shimmer with the old heave-ho.
Nordstrom flapped in the centre of the globe and disappeared, like a switched-off TV picture dwindling to a dot. Even the after-image didn’t last.
‘I hope he didn’t just dissolve in front of our eyes,’ said Richard. ‘If so, what we’re about to do would be cataclysmically stupid.’
His impulse was to kiss Whitney Gauge, but knew they would just grind helmets.
‘Ready?’ she asked.
They held hands, tightly enough to feel the grip through the gauntlets, and walked towards the Shimmer. After a few steps, they weren’t on the floor, but above it. The phantom moon exerted gravitational pull.
He tried not to shut his eyes. The rushing noise increased.
He and Whitney clung to each other. Incalculable forces worked on them. He felt upside-down and inside-out…
On the other side of the Shimmer was the moon. At least, the parti-coloured Earth, hanging bright in velvet-black night, strongly suggested this was the satellite.
Everything else wasn’t as expected.
No expanse of greyish dust plain, pitted with craters. Not even a range of green cheese. In a screamingly colourful jungle, trees had peacock feathers and birds had serpent-scales. Thick fire rivulets ran through black crystal fern. Dew-drops crawled up rock-cracks like liquid bugs. Some trees were sickly, bursting with the blue-green fungus which had tainted Mo Nordstrom. Patches of the stuff lay about. Small weird dead animals curled up in it like undigested carrots in fresh sick.
His brain stopped sloshing in its pan as the trip trauma passed. But his insides still felt funny, and he was light-headed. Close to tipsy. Tipsy-topsy-turvy was not a place to be. Not with murderers about, and an official moon mission in peril.
The Shimmer was here too, but in a negative image—a globular tracery of sparks revolving in mid-air.
Whitney let go his hand and took experimental steps, making yard-long leaps between footprints. She squealed, like a kid on a fairground ride.
‘Look at meeee…’
Richard bounded after her. On the moon, everyone was Peter Pan.
A Victrola gramophone, plumped down on a vegetable outcrop, played ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ as if underwater.
A gloved hand had taken root in lunar muck, and grown a spindly green arm, with elbow-buds which opened as eyes. Maybe part of Nordstrom made it through the Shimmer after all. The rest of him was presumably scattered in the void.
‘Far out, man,’ said Whitney.
A furry balloon-bean the size of a prize-winning marrow floated towards them at shin-height, propelled by raspberries emitted from what looked like a human mouth—complete with Ringo Starr moustache—at its rear. Whitney prodded it away with her knobkerrie. It drifted placidly in another direction.
They were in the lea of a castle.
It took a moment for Richard to recognise the structure as a colossal version of Mildew Manor, grown from moon-coral. Even the light in the Rapunzel room was reproduced, magnified as if a White Star were imprisoned in the tower. Windows migrated slowly across the castle-face, catching Earthlight like message-mirrors. One wing crumbled like a cake left out in the rain, iced with the blue-green mould. An ostentatious ELF eismond banner flapped above the highest ramparts in a gentle lunar wind.
Whitney pointed at the flag with a stick.
‘If there’s a wind, there must be some sort of air.’
‘For God’s sake don’t try to breathe it.’
‘I wasn’t considering that. It’s just…there’s no atmosphere on the moon.’
‘There aren’t any castles, either. Or gramophones. Or…’
Parked in a beaten-down driveway in front of the castle were a 1920 Type 23 Brescia Tourer, a sleek sit-astride device which might be a resting hover-scooter and a scowling orange Pon-Pon space-hopper. In a corral nearby, lizard-horses stumped on kangaroo legs, whinnying and coughing.
‘Point taken. This is there, though. The moon?’
He shrugged, and wobbled in the bulky, now lightweight, suit. The weird feeling in his water was reduced gravity, he realised. His arms tended to float up in unconscious semaphore.
He was reluctant to commit. Could there be another moon, stashed in Earth orbit, so unobtrusive astronomers had never noticed? That was ridiculous—but so were the poodle zeppelins and cocktail umbrella hummingbirds and crab cowpats with human fingers.
‘It’s magic,’ he said. ‘You know how it works. It’s a short cut. And short cuts don’t always come out where you think.’
Whitney raised a glove to shade her eyes from the glare and scanned the lunar skies for Apollo 11.
A few minutes ago, back on Earth, the television had shown pictures taken from orbit by the astronauts. That was the moon Richard had expected from the blurry transmissions from those now-bust survey probes—less jagged than the desolate, craggy landscape seen in 70mm in the second part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, blanketed smooth by aeons of dust, with craters of all sizes everywhere.
‘This is literally wonderful,’ she said.
‘A rare correct usage of the word “literally”. Congratulations.’
‘We-all did have us prop’r schoolin’ down ‘t the one-room shack between corn-shucking, revival meetin’s and lynchin’s. And at MIT.’
‘Literally wonderful,’ he mused. ‘Full of wonders.’
A purple cow the size of the Goodyear blimp passed over on moth-wings. It was ridden by bipedal lobsters with Maori paint on their organic armour, who stood up like water-skiers, complicated reins in their claws.
‘That’s not something you see every day,’ she said. ‘Even in our line.’
He thought about it.
‘If you took every guess mankind has made about the moon, all the way back to the ancients, and mixed them together, you’d get this.’
‘Maybe Luna Moon was a realist, Richard. She drew what she saw.’
‘Or she saw what she drew…’
Whitney at once caught his drift.
‘The Chalfont Group didn’t travel to this moon. They…what?…they madeit?’
‘I think we all made it. This isn’t the moon. Not NASA’s moon, or Arthur C. Clarke’s. It’s a moon. It’s all moons. All the imaginary moons…’
Three people in moon-suits, without helmets, popped into being around them, holding up those fly-spray gadgets. Anemone Zyle, co-authoress ofThe Marquise of the Moon, had a good seat on the back of a rearing lizard-horse, one hand on the reins, another aiming her moon-gun. A gaunt, blonde-grey woman, her set expression suggested the surgical removal of her sense of humour years ago. Richard recognised the ferret-faced oik with an eismond armband and a top hat as Rudy Gosling, the Frinton Führer. The fellow with the floating cloak and pop-eyes must be Magister Rex Chalfont, King of the Moon. He was the one clapping.
‘Very close, very good, Mr Jeperson. But not imaginary. Nothing is truly imaginary. Potential. And imperilled. This moon is here, accessible through magic, just so long as no one comes the long way and spoils it by saying it’s not so. Know what happens if one of those astronauts sets his dirty great space-boot here? Puff! All gone.’
He illustrated his point, by jabbing a finger at a passing balloon-bean. It burst and evaporated.
‘At the South Pole, there used to be an entrance to worlds inside the Earth. Known of for centuries. Magicians used it. Visited Mole Men, Atlanteans and dinosaurs. Then that boring Norwegian trudged there and the hole went away. Just like that. No yeti has been seen in the Himalayas since Hillary crawled to the top of Everest. We can’t have that here, can we? You see that now.’
Richard thought it over. Many phantom moons would be lost when the real one was gained.
‘Richard,’ cautioned Whitney.
‘Don’t worry, I know he’s wrong. I’m just trying to frame a way of making him see that.’
Whitney breathed again.
Richard looked at the Moon People. Closed, tight, grim faces. Reluctantly, he concluded reason was probably not an option. But he had to share an insight.
‘The blue-green stuff, the mould,’ he said. ‘It’s recent, isn’t it? It wasn’t here before your purge?’
Only Chalfont tumbled, and tutted with irritation.
Rudy Gosling raised his fly-spray, spun slowly—he was practiced in this gravity—and fired a puff of flechettes which spread and tore the Victrola to pieces. Music leaked out of the broken bell for long seconds, then died. Gosling grinned, showing ferret teeth, and brought the moon-gun to bear on Richard and Whitney.
‘Hold,’ said Chalfont.
‘I knew you’d seen it,’ said Richard. ‘Why didn’t you tell them?’
Gosling was furious, but didn’t go against his Magister.
‘We need them alive,’ Chalfont said. ‘They’re here to stop the rot.’
Richard had an answer to something that had bothered him. He knew why they were still alive when the Chalfont Group could have swatted them at any point in the last two days. Why the catspaws used against them—Sky Ray Roly, the angry ducks, the Space Kiddettes—were non-lethal, when the Temple purge had been carried out so ruthlessly and effectively.
He and Whitney were needed.
‘The dreams of nasty people are limited,’ Richard told Whitney. ‘”Sick in the head” is the expression. This moon feeds off imagination, and is a hungry beastie. Since 1953, the Chalfont Group have preserved it—by ignoring what you could read in New Scientist or see through a telescope. Lately, that’s taken a lot more effort. To maintain a wonderland, you need inspired loons—and this little lot killed off their big dreamers. Was it Luna Moon? Or Mungo Zyle? Who put the most in, but wasn’t noticed till you forced them out? Without them, the place has been sighing and dying. It’sliterally a blue moon…’
Anemone Zyle wanted to shoot them, but didn’t.
‘I’m imagining parasitic moon-rats with a moral compass,’ Whitney told Anemone Zyle. ‘Their tiny eggs lodge in the windpipes of the wicked, then hatch into furry, toothy balls which choke their hosts. So, have I thunk them into reality yet, Annie? Can you feel a tickle?’
Anemone Zyle didn’t laugh. She desperately stifled a psychosomatic cough.
She was their gaoler in Moondew Manor, while Gosling and Chalfont were off upstairs about important man’s business. She didn’t much care for the gig.
In a lunar version of the Great Hall, Richard and Whitney were strapped to chairs bolted to the floor in the middle of a morris square.
‘If you undo these tethers,’ said Whitney, ‘we could get down and boogie. I’ll bet Mr J has some funky moves on him.’
‘Shut up, witch,’ snarled Anemone Zyle.
‘That’s about the standard of dialogue in her books, Richard. I assume she wrote the garbage bits. Mungo was the one with the talent.’
The authoress snarled. She wore a chainmail bikini and a veil-trailing triple-moon tiara. A long, thin athamé was strapped to her thigh. She was gym-toned, with any ounce of flab scalpelled or sweated off—but her skin wasn’t healthy, especially in the moonglow inside the Manor.
The blue fungus spread wildly across the walls.
‘Annie,’ said Whitney, ‘tell me something…how can you rest your chin on your elbows? Go on, demonstrate now.’
Anemone Zyle was puzzled.
‘I suppose you’ve written so many clunker sentences you don’t remember just one gaffe. I wonder which is your worst book? Some fans sayGhyslayne, Moon-Elf of Bumph is the absolute pits, but on consideration, I’d have to pick the wind-up of the Tomes of the Dragonwing saga. Tome the Third: Countess of the Craters. That one really sucks like an Electrolux! I wouldn’t think anything could be more crappily drivelling than Tome the Second: Seraphim of Satellite Sigma, but you surprised me again. The only even passable passages are copied out of an old pulp by Otis Adelbert Kline. Which would you say was the worst chapter in your worst book? That scene where Blodwyn the Troll-Girl plights her troth to the Peri Prince Pyrcyvyl? Or the pie-fight which disrupts the moon-vow ceremony of the itsy-bitsy nipsies?’
Anemone strode over to Whitney’s chair, hand out to clamp over the prisoner’s mouth.
Whitney shut up and twisted skilfully in her chair, legs scissoring. Her entire lower body lifted and stretched, anchored by the leather straps which fastened her wrists to the armrests. Her knees hammered either side of Anemone Zyle’s neck.
‘This’ll only take a moment.’
Anemone tried to scratch Whitney’s dance-powerful legs.
‘That won’t help,’ Whitney grunted. ‘Try using your knife.’
Surprised to be getting sound advice in this situation but too pressed to wonder at its sincerity, Anemone drew her athamé and angled it to stick into Whitney’s thigh. Whitney gave a squeeze and the gaoler passed out in an instant. Anemone dropped the knife, and Whitney caught its hilt between chin and chest.
Whitney let Anemone fall in a heap, and resumed sitting position, careful not to lose the knife. She manoeuvered the athamé to slide down her arm, bounce off her inner-elbow and spring into her hand. She reversed it, slipped the blade under the strap and sliced herself free.
‘You should have used chains,’ she said to the unconscious Anemone.
Whitney cut her other strap, but undid Richard’s buckles. Between them, they hauled Anemone into Richard’s chair and strapped her in. Richard took off her tiara and gave it to Whitney.
‘I thought you’d only read a single page of the Zyles’ books,’ he said.
‘As a grown-up,’ she admitted. ‘I was a science fiction fan in grade school. I read an enormous amount I’ve done my best to forget. Ever heard of Varno Zhoule? Keith Winton? Cordwainer Bird?’
‘Can’t say I have. I prefer mysteries myself.’
Their moon-suits had been taken off to facilitate strapping them down. The air in the mansion was breathable, if heavy with spice smells and an underscent of rot.
Anemone moaned, starting to come round.
Whitney gagged the woman with her own veil. Her furious eyes sparked.
‘You’ve had your say, hack queen.’
Whitney gave Richard the knife and fetched her knobkerrie from a corner where a pile of their stuff had been flung.
‘To the battlements,’ she said.
Blue mould was turning grey and falling off the walls, dissipating like fluff. Richard assumed he and Whitney were responsible for that.
How many active imaginations did it take to keep this moon alive?
They climbed stairs. Twice, they stepped on morris squares which entirely negated gravity and floated up between floors. Richard gathered Chalfont and Gosling were busy up in the tall tower.
They had also hinted it wouldn’t be necessary to keep their prisoners alive after their immediate Great Work was done. That had to involve the Eagle, now descending from lunar orbit.
How exactly did the moon prepare to repel boarders?
The answer became obvious when they came to the room with the eternal light. Approaching quietly, keeping to shadows, they peered through a doorway and saw figures clustered around a large, fat cannon aimed out at the sky through a big hole in the wall.
Chalfont and Gosling were there. Chalfont wore M&S wizard-robes, a coronet with stick-ons representing the phases of the moon, and complicated multi-lensed spectacles. He held a long taper, flame dancing slowly at its end. Gosling was in black tweed with a red sash, an eismond armband, red wellington boots and a top hat—the uniform of the ELF upper echelon.
The other people in the room were phantasms. They worked on the cannon—manipulating an apparently lightweight but solid giant ball into the muzzle, attaching a fuse, making minute adjustments to an aiming device.
Some were familiar.
‘The big-schnozz guy must be Cyrano de Bergerac,’ whispered Whitney.
‘The one from the play, yes,’ Richard agreed. ‘The historical Cyrano had a normal nose. With him is Baron Münchausen. The fellow in the toga must be Lucian. The bald Frenchman is Georges Méliès, or at least his character in Voyage to the Moon. The bug-faced one is a Selenite, from Wells. The girls in leotards I can’t place…’
‘Cat-Women of the Moon. It’s a film. The giant toy spider is theirs. Who’s the tall silver goon with pipes in his ears?’
‘A Cyberman, from Doctor Who. He’s British.’
‘The big cheerful robot with the hammer and sickle? The one who looks like a giant refrigerator?’
‘It’ll be from some comrades-across-the-stars socialist realist space epic.’
‘The bearded drunk?’
‘Captain Haddock, from the Tintin album, Objectif Lune.’
‘The blonde in riding britches?’
‘The heroine of Frau im Mond, the Fritz Lang film. Look who she’s with…’
‘Dr Floyd, from 2001.’
‘Arthur C. Clarke is a magician after all.’
A black monolith stood in the room too.
The workers were not transparent, but showed various degrees of unreality. Some were in black and white, or poorly tinted. Some seemed engraved rather than living.
The cannon was stamped ‘Property of the Baltimore Gun Club’.
Captain Haddock looked around, rimmed eyes bulging, and pointed a fat gauntlet at Richard and Whitney.
‘Bashi-bazouks!’ he shouted. ‘Ostrogoths! Shibboleths! Vermiform appendices! A billion blistering blue barnacles!’
Then, they all turned to stare. All the lunar explorers and inhabitants, all the pioneers and colonists, the masters and the monsters. Münchausen doffed his plumed cap.
‘I knew that bint was too stupid to be trusted,’ fumed Gosling, reaching for a moon-gun.
Chalfont was almost happy to see them.
After living off the books for so long, Magister Rex wanted an audience. It may be his magic needed an audience.
‘You’re going to blast the Eagle out of the sky,’ Richard accused. ‘Using a cannon ball painted with Cavorite.’
‘A defensive measure,’ Chalfont admitted. ‘To keep this moon alive, to keep all these moon people alive.’
‘Surely, you can’t want to see an end for poor Münchausen?’ pleaded the Baron. ‘So much would be lost.’
‘Miaow,’ said a Cat-Woman, expressively.
Méliès mimed, impassioned. His films were silent, of course. The Soviet walking fridge saluted Permanent Revolution. The Cyberman raised a headlamp between handles. Richard recognised as the BBC props’ department’s improvised Cyber-gun. Cyrano went for his deadly blade.
Whitney raised her knobkerrie, but Richard laid a hand on her arm.
Before resorting to violence, he would appeal to reason.
‘Gentlemen, Selenites, Cat-Women,’ he began, ‘I salute you. On behalf of all mankind, you have done your job with honour. You flew ahead, on fancy, on calculation, on ambition, on a dream. Now, the rest of us must catch up. What’s about to happen in the Sea of Tranquillity isn’t your death, it’s your glory. I implore you, in the name of the spirit which seized you all in the first place, please do not do the bidding of these mean-spirited men. It’s your moon, not theirs. They made the moon sick, remember…’
One of the Selenites still had patches of fungus around its mandibles. The giant spider’s legs were limp, the strings eaten away. Haddock’s beard had a blueish tinge too.
‘You can’t hold this scrap of territory for them, you must give it up. You have other homes, where you have other shapes. There’s Mars and Venus and Vulcan and Skaro. There’s Metropolis and Atlantis and Freedonia and Utopia. And Narnia and Oz and Erewhon and Wonderland. The men coming in their capsule have you in their hearts, much more than these pretenders to magic. Their whole enterprise is built on your example. Dr Floyd, you must understand this. Science is indistinguishable from magic. You should welcome the Eagle. It’s the keeping of the promise you made.’
Gosling raised his moon-gun, but was caught up short—a ghost blade stuck out of the soft part under his chin. Cyrano pulled his epée free, and the Frinton Führer collapsed. He was not bleeding, not even wounded, but was dead.
Chalfont raised his flaming taper.
The Eagle was in his sights, multi-faceted form descending towards lunar ground, landing-pads extended. What did the astronauts see below them? Not Moondew Manor and the populated jungles. The undisturbed dust of the Sea of Tranquillity.
Chalfont touched the taper to the fuse, which began to fizz.
The ghosts swirled around the cannon. Some passed through each other.
Whitney thumped Chalfont with her stick, cracking his coronet and knocking him to the floor.
‘Too late,’ he murmured.
‘No,’ said Richard. ‘It’s not.’
Münchausen—who knew the worth of a good story and a grand gesture—was first. He clambered up into the barrel of the cannon, as was his habit. A Cat-Woman was next, the zip up the back of her leotard sparkling as she curled beside the Baron.
Then Floyd, letting a slide-rule float away from him.
And Haddock, bright blue hair grown past his knees. Lucian. Cyrano. The Russian robot. A two-dimensional square-jawed comic book spaceman. The Grand Lunar. Georges Méliès. Dick Tracy. The Cyberman. All of them.
A conglomeration of ghosts stopped up the cannon.
The fuse burned down, and the tower room filled with light.
The Manor was falling like the House of Usher. Sublunar tremors shook its foundations. Richard and Whitney made their way down from the tower in a hurry.
‘Great speech,’ said Whitney. ‘Off the top of your head?’
‘I knew they were better than Magister Rex wanted them to be. The moon-ghosts have more in common with the astronauts than the Chalfont Group. The Eagle is their validation. It means we weren’t wasting time dreaming them up…’
‘It’s all right, you can stop now. We should probably shut up and run.’
When the cannon imploded, Chalfont seemed to have been vaporised. The room was empty, even of ghosts. The Eagle was safe, and this dream-moon would change.
Richard believed that when the LEM touched down, this moon would pass away, or withdraw deeper into the realm of imagination, a bywater of dreams rather than a river. That meant there’d be nothing here to breathe.
They had to get back through the Shimmer.
‘We should take Anemone,’ said Richard.
‘If we must…’ responded Whitney.
Anemone was still fuming. Richard unstrapped her. Claws came for his face. Whitney stepped in and administered a right jab to the authoress’ chin, putting her in a co-operative daze.
They carried Anemone Zyle out of Moondew Manor between them.
The moonscape was melting. Animals had become grey statues. A moth-cow was downed nearby, cocoon forming around her.
Richard saw the Eagle.
Toting Anemone, Richard and Whitney ran for the Shimmer. It still sparkled.
They reached the spot where they had arrived. Anemone came round, broke free…
‘Come with us,’ said Richard.
Anemone tore off her gag, and said ‘don’t care.’
‘Jump, you silly woman,’ said Whitney.
The Shimmer was contracting. Richard reached for Anemone, but she darted away. Whitney took his arm, and they stepped into the Shimmer…
…unscrambled again, they were back on Earth, in the Great Hall at Mildew Manor. The Shimmer, a hole in space, gave a clear view of the dying moon.
Anemone looked up. In the distance, the LEM descended.
A wireless was on somewhere nearby, loud…
‘Contact light!’ crackled an astronaut. ‘Okay, engine stop. ACA - out of detent.’
‘Out of detent,’ acknowledged another astronaut.
‘Mode control…both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm…off. Four-thirteen is in.’
The rich jungle was gone, replaced by grey desert.
‘Houston, Tranquillity Base here,’ said Neil Armstrong. The Eagle has landed.’
Anemone Zyle collapsed, sank into dust.
‘What happens if they find her?’ Whitney asked.
‘She’s miles from the landing,’ he said. ‘She won’t be found for years. Not until the moon is covered with colony bases and cities and starship ports. Then she’ll be a mystery.’
The Shimmer winked shut.
Captain Maitland came into the room, with an American officer who had finally found his way. They had been following the moon-landing on television.
‘We cordoned off the place, sir,’ said Maitland. ‘Stayed well away from the big blue thing.’
‘Very wise,’ said Richard.
‘They’ve landed safely on the moon,’ said Maitland. ‘Just thought you’d like to know.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
‘Any sign of the hostiles?’
‘They’re no longer a problem, Captain. Mission: accomplished.’
Teams from an alphabet soup of British and American scientific, paranormal and intelligence agencies were going over Mildew Manor in minute detail, examining every rune and algorithm. Richard suspected they wouldn’t work for anyone but the vanished Magister Chalfont. And that there was little use in a magic portal to a wiped-away potential realm.
He’d reported to Catriona, who was politely telling Spilsby to give Whitney Gauge a permanent promotion to field work. She’d probably also be offered a congressional medal or a free ticket to Disneyland or some other honour she’d now feel obliged to turn down in the Diogenes Club tradition. Eventually, someone would pass on the news to Senator Kennedy, if he was still interested.
In Houston, arguments had continued until the last moment. The official story was a ‘1202 Executive Overflow Alarm’ had put the landing in jeopardy, and a technician named Bales was forced to make a snap decision about whether or not to go ahead. The LEM missed its designated landing site, and Armstrong had to fly it sideways, with only a few seconds’ fuel, to find a flat, safe spot between craters and a boulder field. Catriona had said everyone was impatient. Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to take a rest period before the historic moment, but even NASA training couldn’t turn people into robots who could sleep at a time like this—so man set foot on the moon earlier than advertised, presumably to the fury of US TV networks.
Early in the morning, the garden was ghostly in cold pre-dawn light. Richard sat with Whitney on a bench by the moondial. The silver, conquered satellite was still bright.
The Man in the Moon didn’t have a rocket stuck in its eye. But Richard thought the face looked like a startled, apoplectic Rex Chalfont. Perhaps that was what had happened to Magister.
‘I miss the moth-cows,’ said Whitney.
‘They’re still there, somewhere. Harder to reach. Like the monolith, and the ice-pools, and the spider on strings. We can’t go there any more.’
‘What would it take to find them again?’
‘Time. I daresay if we left the moon alone for fifty years or so, the Selenite forests would grow back—but that’s not going to happen, is it. Armstrong took his “small step”. Man is on the moon now. There’ll be more missions. Mines. Colonies. Probably missiles. That’s the moon-dream of 1969.’
‘Hooray for us,’ she said, a little regretful.
‘By the way, congratulations,’ he said. ‘You beat Armstrong. You were the first American on the moon. That’s showing NASA they’re wrong about girls.’
‘Cool. Will my first words get in the books? What were they?’
‘You said “look at meeeee…”’
‘Okay,’ said Whitney, smiling wickedly. ‘I’ll stand by that.’