L1 : New Arrival (singular)
While looking at my spare set of pictures from the Texan bunker before tackling the Sunday papers, which Iktar had collected on her way home, I developed a feeling that there was something different about one of the racks of paintings.
I had to dig out a set of photographs from our first expedition to the ranch before I worked out what had changed. The last rack now held five instead of four pictures. A new addition to the collection had made that particular rack more than half full and it was the gross change of content which I had spotted.
The new picture was of a woman in what was clearly her poshest frock. She was holding a young child of indeterminate sex -- which seemed a bad idea for someone in her poshest frock! I admit that I am no expert when it comes to fine art, but I dated the look of the picture to 15th or 16th Century. The whole composition looked too perfectly photographic to be much earlier and the frock looked about that period.
When I phoned Frosch with my news, he thought that I was pulling his leg at first. I had to threaten to go round to his place and duff him up -- no easy task where one of the post-dead is concerned -- if he didn't compare his personal sets of photographs from the two missions to Texas. I was half way though a Sunday colour supplement when he rang me back to admit that I hadn't been yanking his crank, as he put it.
I heard from him again at about lunchtime on Monday, after he had been to see Ms Gashe at her office. I was sitting at an outdoor table at a café, one of five customers who were braving the traffic fumes and the fairly unforgiving weather at the beginning of March. Frosch beamed in beside me, making a couple of passing Japanese tourists blink and start to doubt their grasp on the basic rules of the universe.
The waiter brought tea for Frosch and more coffee for me. He had not spotted the beam-in but he had noticed the presence of another customer. After thanking me again for pointing out the new addition to Mr. Harthorn's collection, Frosch told me that he had played things very cool for Ms Gashe.
Frosch had sat at ease in a comfortable chair in a mid-rank executive office and asked how close the police were to busting the Texan millionaire while watching Ms Lucinda Gashe flick through the latest pictures. And then he had taken great pleasure in pointing out the new addition when she had failed to spot it.
"Did she recognize it right away then?" I asked.
"No," Frosch said with a grin. "The insurance industry expert, who knows everything there is to know about art, drew a blank. In fact, she had to scan it in to her desktop computer and use the Internet to talk to a databank of the world's great art."
"They say you can find anything on the Internet. Must be true."
"Then, when the identification came though, she put on a puzzled look. That painting hasn't been reported stolen."
"You're kidding! You mean Harthorn bought it legitimately?"
"Joke!" laughed Frosch. "No, it's supposed to be in gallery in Ghent. So I looked on while Ms Gashe phoned the director of the museum which allegedly still houses the picture to recommend a check on it."
"Did she say what it's called?"
"It's 'Portrait of a Young Mother' by one Antonio de Vicanza. Painted in 1591/2 and its insurance value is around £820,000 -- or the equivalent in euros as it's supposed to be in a Belgian gallery."
"So what did the gallery say?"
"Basically, it's still hanging where it should be."
"What you'd expect if it's not been reported stolen," I remarked.
"That's something else they told her. But Ms Gashe has a sufficient reputation in the business to get them worried. So they're checking more thoroughly even as we speak."
Someone joined us at our table uninvited. The man was well wrapped up in an overcoat and he was wearing thermal gloves. He took one off and offered his right hand to me.
"Hadukar Prethon. Nice to see you again," he said. "I didn't know you were back in town."
"We're only just back," Frosch said as I was shaking the semi-stranger's hand. "We've come back here for a rest, in fact. I take it your clubs and your business empire are still thriving, Mike?"
Hearing the man's first name allowed me to identify Mike Verbrecher, one of the North Road Mob's sub-bosses.
"You've been away a while, Sokar," Verbrecher said, offering his hand to Frosch.
"Yes, well, there are other parts of the planet that we have to look at as well as the interesting bits of London," Frosch told him.
"Yes, I suppose there are," Verbrecher said with a nod. "I'll have a coffee, please. Black," he added to the waiter, who had rushed out into the chilly outdoors. "Have you been following all the alien stuff on TV?" he said to me, presumably because a Hadukar has a higher status than a Sokar in Frosch's alien hierarchy. "I don't suppose much of that is your people."
"We've seen it all before," I said dismissively.
"Yes, I don't suppose this is the first planet you've visited," said Verbrecher. "Excuse me," he added when his mobile phone rang.
Frosch looked at me and I looked at him as Verbrecher gave his attention to the phone. Here we were, two members of the post-dead talking to one of the pre-dead about aliens. And none of us was laughing. I decided that Frosch's expression was saying, 'Ain't life grand?'
Verbrecher finished his call, which had told him that he needed to be somewhere else, pronto. Even so, he took the time to drink his coffee and invite Hadukar Prethon and his entourage to enjoy the facilities at the North Road Mob's clubs while we were in town and resting. Meeting the visiting aliens, I assumed, gave him a reasonable excuse for being late for his next appointment.
"Are we going to have time to waste in clubs?" I asked when Frosch and I had the table to ourselves again. "Or have you fixed us up with a full and continuous programme of activities in the interesting parts of London?"
"Oh, I think we can manage a few minutes off to go clubbing," laughed Frosch. "And there really is no great rush to get anything done right away."
"Sir, can we take picture?"
Suddenly, our immediate space had been invaded by five Japanese, two men and three women, all bowing and wanting to have their photograph taken with us. One of the party had recognized us and she was carrying a G-4 mobile phone, which has a screen which can be rolled out sideways to about four inches square, something like the communicators used by the Companion Agents on Earth: Final Conflict. I assumed that she had been on the Internet to prove to her companions that she was right about who we were.
Frosch seemed content to play along with the visitors so I followed his lead. The camera passed among them as the visitors gathered around us in different combinations.
When they had finished snapping away, Frosch murmured, "Beam out," to me.
So we bowed to the visitors and beamed out in front of them. One of the visitors had been capturing the encounter on video. And that's how we came to be on the evening TV news along with a story which said that while the rest of the world has bogus aliens, the real thing can be found on the streets of London, taking a rest from their schedule of contact duties.
Iktar had a night out on the town with me planned for Monday. She was entertaining Xanthe & Co. on Tuesday, which mean that my presence was not required. So Tolshivar and I renewed our memberships and spent the evening and half the night watching Japanese monster films at the science fiction film club.
Our busy social life meant that it was Wednesday before we got round to calling in at Cassidy's, the North Road Mob's Number One Establishment. The four of us, Iktar, Frosch, Tolshivar and myself, beamed in to the club's lobby -- to the consternation of some of the guests. The staff had seen it before and they greeted us like any other customers. The members tried to play it cool and pretend that they were used to visiting aliens beaming in among them.
News of our arrival was passed to the management at high speed. We had barely crossed the generous lobby before a delegation was there to meet us. Our hosts for the evening were a North Road Mob sub-boss called Roger Horton, who seemed to have risen to a more prominent position since our last visit, and Julian Hucks, one of the up and comers among the rank and file, who was escorting Debbie Boon, the prime minister's sister in law.
Frosch, via his non-introductions, reminded we others of who the North Roaders and their companion were. He greeted Debbie Boon, for instance, by asking if her sister had divorced the prime minister yet and married a real person.
Roger Horton was tall, dark and very pleasant in an unforced sort of way. If there was an acceptable face of the London gangster scene, he had it. He was as at ease talking to the staff and other customers as he was when talking to the visiting aliens.
Hucks, in contrast, looked like the sort of person who chucks his weight about with underlings and accepts being ordered about by the overlings while waiting to become one himself. Debbie was her usual bouncy self, determined to be outrageous and equally determined to let everyone in range know it.
Gilbert Pole, the tall, distinguished aide from Buckingham Palace, was also there. He seemed well in with the North Road Mob. We assumed that he was in the club by chance and that he had dropped into intelligence-gathering mode, and that the Queen would receive an independent report if we said anything interesting. Pole seemed to have the same sort of ability to thrive in any company as Roger Horton.
We parked ourselves in a corner which offered plenty of seating and table space for drinks. Debbie wanted to know why we had been absent for so long. Sokar Frosch let her know that there is a lot more to her planet than central London. I assumed that he was speaking for the prime minister's benefit, via his sister-in-law, when he added to Horton that backwaters are a pleasant enough starting point but we had been doing some focussed and serious research since Christmas.
Frosch had just about exhausted his remarks about what a pity it is that the Earthers don't have a planetary government when Julian Hucks asked me about the trial.
"Which trial?" I replied with a frown.
"Of the guys who tried to kidnap you," Hucks said.
"Oh, them. I'd almost forgotten about them," I admitted. "No, no one's invited me to go to any trial. In fact, I'm surprised there's going to be one. I'd have thought the gang would be out on bail and they'd have long fled the country by now."
"No, all seven of them are still locked up," said Horton. "Because the magistrate thought they'd do just that, flee the country."
"Seven of them?" I said with a frown. "I don't remember that many. I thought there were just four or five?"
"Two French DST agents and three helpers they arrested at the ruin in Oxfordshire," said Horton. "Plus two more thugs-for-hire, who hijacked the helicopter they used."
"Oh, really? Still, it all happened at the beginning of October, so it's only, what? Five months ago? They won't be having the trial for ages."
"Still time to try and get you into it, Hadukar," said Frosch.
"Haven't you got diplomatic immunity, or something?" Debbie Boon asked.
"You need to have a diplomatic treaty to have that," said Hucks.
"We have a sort of honorary diplomatic status," said Frosch.
"We heard there's some sort of dirty deal being cooked up," said Horton. "To give the DST people a minimum of gaol time to minimize the embarrassment to a friendly government."
"You're talking about the French government?" Frosch said with a mild frown. "And you think they're friendly to the UK government?"
"Good point," laughed Horton. "How would your government react to a deal?"
"Someone who tried to abduct a Hadukar getting away with a slap on the wrist?" said Frosch. "That wouldn't go down at all well."
"What would your people do to them?" Debbie asked with a laugh. "The kidnappers?"
"Take them out into free space and toss them out of an airlock," said Tolshivar.
"Your spaceships have airlocks?" said Horton.
Tolshivar shrugged. "How can you not have airlocks?"
Roger Horton tried to follow this line with questions about how big our spaceships are. Frosch cut him short with the opinion that such a discussion was inappropriate for an insecure location. But he was prepared to talk about other aspects of our 'mission' on Earth.
I assumed that he had some sort of scheme in mind and he was preparing the way with information funnelled to 10, Downing Street via the prime minister's sister-in-law. I also assumed that the context of the information would become clear to old 'No Jacket' in due course. And that General Frosch would let us in on his Next Big Idea in his own sweet time.
L2 : New Arrivals (plural)
The first full week of March ended with a long weekend of dark, wet, blustery weather. The sun came out of its hiding place on Tuesday, and Frosch came with it. He arrived at my executive hospitality apartment in the middle of the morning, straight from another meeting with Ms Lucinda Gashe. Iktar was out somewhere, enjoying herself, and I received his full, undivided attention. Frosch was looking very pleased with himself.
"The Belgians got their tame experts to go and look at the picture," he told me. "The copy of 'Portrait of a Young Mother' by Antonio de Vicanza in the gallery in Ghent. And they didn't see anything wrong with it."
"No surprise there," I said. "If it's been stolen by experts, they wouldn't leave a daub behind in its place."
"True," said Frosch. "But if someone with Ms Gashe's clout was questioning the work, they thought it would be a good idea to have some X-rays done. Which looked okay until they compared them with some which were done about five years ago. They didn't match."
"Surprise," I remarked.
"So they took some samples for analysis and gave them A-one priority. And found out that the paint and varnish and canvas all come from the right period."
"I don't get it," I said into an expectant pause.
"By then, the so-called experts had had a chance to compare the picture in the museum with some photographs of what was hanging in that spot four years ago. And they noticed a few slight differences. Which backed up the X-ray evidence."
"What, it's a modern copy made using original materials?" I asked with a frown. "They've ground up old paints and used an old canvas?"
"Nothing so diabolical," laughed Frosch. "It's a contemporary copy. Probably done in the master's studio by one of his apprentices in 1592. A very good copy, but the X-rays prove it can't be the original."
"Because the master made some alterations to his original design. Put things in and painted over them, changed the position of a hand and an arm. That sort of thing. You can see the false starts in the old X-rays. They're not there in the ones of the current picture. Which is what you'd expect if the person making the copy was working from a fully finished painting."
"All very clever stuff."
"And all highly embarrassing for the museum that didn't notice it had been robbed," laughed Frosch.
"So when's anyone going to do anything about the Texan bloke?"
Frosch shrugged. "Eventually. They have a small problem over proof. And how are they going to get a search warrant? Tell some judge they've been making illegal searches of our friend's ranch to get the evidence?"
"Sounds a knotty problem," I acknowledged. "So what's your next move? Offer to remove all the paintings from this Texan guy's secret hideout when he's got his back turned and have them discovered in a warehouse in the East End of London?"
"Don't laugh, it's on Ms Gashe's options list," said Frosch. "By the way, what have you been saying to Andy Toth?"
"Do I know an Andy Toth?" I said with a frown.
"You know, the PR To The Stars guy."
"Maybe he was the character who tried to tap us up on Saturday. Ik and I were having lunch when this bloke invited himself over to our table and tried to sell us his services."
"Sounds like Andy," laughed Frosch. "Never afraid to crash in where he's not wanted."
"He reckoned he could help us to position ourselves to best advantage with the media and so on. So I looked puzzled and asked him why we'd need that sort of service. After all, I told him, we don't need to put a case to his planet's people. Or get them on our side."
"No, it's the other way round," said Frosch.
"Yes, that's what Ik said. So he stopped his pitch for a moment to think about it. Then he put on a big smile, thanked us for our excellent advice and split. Why, what's he done now?"
"He's only offered his services to No Jacket. To help him get the UK positioned to best advantage vis-à-vis the aliens."
"What would be really good would be to let him pay us for advice on what the UK has to do to get in with us," Frosch said thoughtfully. "Except that it sounds like it would involve too much messing about."
"Yes, I'm sure you can come up with jobs that offer a lot more money for your old rope," I decided. "By the way, did you ever find out who was doing all the shooting at us around this time last year? I mean, who was really behind it? Paying the shooters? Iktar was wondering about it the other day."
"I'm pretty sure it was the French and they thought doing it over here was a good way to divert suspicion. But I'm not absolutely certain yet."
"So we're not going back over there to knock more lumps off their buildings just yet?"
"Not necessarily," laughed Frosch. "Crunching the president's official car now and then might be a good idea to remind him that the aliens are not to be messed about with. Especially if it makes them paranoid."
Acting on an impulse while we were thinking about the past, Iktar and I decided to go back to the farmhouse where we had first met. It was a sunny Thursday and we had nothing planned. We were just going for a look, we told each other, and there was nothing sloppily sentimental about the trip. When we got there, we had to double check our bearing to be sure that we were in the right place.
We had left behind a shell -- a roofless, windowless, doorless wreck which, we assumed, had been left in that condition by a police search party. We were amazed at how completely someone had transformed the farmhouse in the meantime. We assumed that some enterprising estate agent had managed to make a virtue out of 'totally abandoned, allowed to go to wrack and ruin (and then some!), great potential for the keen do-it-yourselfer'.
Someone had made a great job of doing the place up. The window frames, the front door and other exterior woodwork had been replaced and painted dark green. There were flowers in the garden, well, a few hardy daffodils showing in early March, but plenty of greenery waiting to come into bloom. There was an air of occupation but no one came out to ask us why we were standing at the front garden gate, staring at their home.
Eventually, Iktar and I approached the front door. We rang the doorbell -- yes, there was a bell-push and a battery in the bell -- and we knocked. No response. So we went inside, drifting invisibly through the front door as it was locked. The place had a familiar unoccupied look. The main room contained furniture, and there were bits and pieces lying around, but it looked normal to us -- which meant that it probably wasn't inhabited by the pre-dead, who seem to need a lot more junk and personal possessions around them than we do.
Being nosy, we treated ourselves to the full tour. The fridge wasn't plugged in and there was no food in it. Similarly, the kitchen cupboards were also empty. The big cupboard in the main room contained just a few books, which were clearly second-hand. The list of things that were absent grew steadily -- no clothes, no toothbrushes, no toilet paper, no beds in the bedrooms, none of the other essentials of the pre-dead.
Iktar and I argued for a while over whether the place had attracted more of the post-dead, as it had attracted us, and they had decided to turn it into a proper home, or whether pre-dead occupants were still doing it up and they had not yet moved in. Detective Inspector Iktar decided the absence of vehicle tracks was significant. Nobody pre-dead, except a hermit, she argued, would live out here in the wilds without transport.
It was a fine but chilly day and we took the opportunity to watch the sunset from a nearby hill -- unfinished business from when we had lived there. Then we walked back to the house and let ourselves in through the front door, which we had left on the latch. We were just about to take a last look around and leave when, suddenly, we were in the presence of two women, who were getting indignant about the trespassers.
I told them we used to live here, which took some of the volume out of their complaints. Iktar murmured to me that the women looked like aliens. I was just starting to get the same feeling, which was strange. We normally know right away when we are with fellow post-dead people -- as Frosch and I had sensed Borgan's presence in the Pirate Museum and Persid had known that it would be a good idea to join me at my table at the café in Panama City. There was something different about these two women, however.
"There's no other way to do this," Iktar said to them, "but can you do this?" She faded out to a thin mist then solidified.
"You're like us?" The taller of the women seemed only a little surprised.
"We never did the place up like this because we didn't think we'd be staying," Iktar added. "We were just here for a while to, well, sort ourselves out again, basically. We'd all been on our own for years, some more than others, and we took a bit of time to get used to others like ourselves."
"You mean, there more of you?" the shorter woman asked.
"There were four of us when we used to meet here," I told her. "There's about nine or ten of us now. All over the place."
"It doesn't seem very polite, not being able to offer visitors a cup of tea or a drink," said the taller woman. "But at least we can offer you a chair. Not that any of us really need them."
"Actually, we still eat and drink a bit," I said as we were sitting down. "To be social. And it just seems to disappear. We're in no danger of ending up the size of an elephant eventually."
"That's good to know," laughed the taller woman.
"I'm Iktar, he's Prethon," said Iktar, getting on with things.
We soon learned that Loriva, the taller of our hosts, was Cornish and proud of it. She had died about eighteen months before and she seemed to resent not reaching the 3rd millennium in a conventional sense, even though she could see that she wasn't missing much.
Daphre was Welsh, from her accent, and in her mid-thirties from her appearance -- five or six years older than Loriva. Our hosts looked pretty much in the same apparent age bracket as Iktar and myself. Only in the case of our new acquaintances, I suspected that they were carrying on from their calendar ages at death and they had not yet discovered that appearance is a matter of voluntary reshaping.
Daphre had been post-dead for only a few months and she was still finding her feet in a new existence and letting Loriva make the decisions. Iktar and I concluded that the cottage definitely must have some sort of attraction for we post-dead.
We were surprised to learn that our hosts were both practising witches, who had had their doubts in life -- but no more. They were convinced that their training had produced some sort of change in them at the point of death and that was why they were still around. They were rather disappointed to hear that none of the post-dead in our loose group shared their religion.
Taking pity on them, I pointed out that none of us has any idea why we survived to become post-dead, and that their witch-training could well have played a decisive part in their own transformations. Iktar gave me a look that said, 'Yeah, right!' but she chose not to get involved in the debate.
Loriva and Daphre were both traditionalists. They lived in the hours between sunset and dawn. They were surprised and sceptical when Iktar announced that the rest of us came and went as we pleased at any hour of the day, that we interacted with the pre-dead, we lived in posh company hospitality apartments with cable TV and a good library, and we had modern conveniences such as personal computers and mobile phones.
Our witches seemed unimpressed, not at all envious and quite content with their quiet life in the country. My impression was that they looked on their survival into a post-life phase as an ideal opportunity to continue developing their craft. The four of us spent a couple of hours chatting in a room lit by firelight and camping lanterns. Then Iktar and I headed back for the big city, having accepted an invitation to return at some unspecified time in the future.
Back at our company hospitality apartment, armed with glasses of our favourite blue drink and enjoying proper electric lights, Iktar gave me one of her quizzical smiles. "How long do you think it'll be before the easy life seduces them?" she remarked.
I shrugged. "They seem happy enough doing what they're doing. They don't really need anything more than someone to talk to."
"I give them three months after they meet Frosch," Iktar decided.