THE OLD AND GREY ONES

Part 2: He Who Fights Monsters

It was actually quite a long time later before Sandra and Gerry walked back into the Squad's gloomy basement office, to find Brian and Jack drinking mugs of milky tea at a table littered with papers.

"I said "as soon as possible"," grumbled Brian.

"You did," said Sandra. "But there was a burst water main on the A21 and Waterloo Bridge was a nightmare, so this is what was possible. Anyway, this isn't an episode of "24" and there isn't a nuclear bomb counting down under Whitehall, so would you mind just explaining what you two are so het up about?"

"We think we might have found two connected cases," said Jack. "In 1999, a 21-year old student went missing from Greenwich University campus. Her body was found a few weeks later in woodland. The head had been severed and she was wrapped in some kind of white sheet. Then again in 2009, a 30 year old office worker called Laura McAllister disappeared from Blackheath. And when the body was found, you'll never guess what – head severed, wearing a white robe or gown. And it was in woods, too – Oxleas Wood, in fact. It looks like we could have a serial killer on our hands."

"Bloody hell," said Gerry. "Did anyone make any links between those two at the time?"

"The McAllister investigation did cotton on to the similarity with the earlier case with the student – they actually got a profiler in to describe a likely suspect for both. The profile reads like the sort of guy who you expect to have "Murderer" in his passport under "Occupation", but they couldn't find him among the criminal population of south-east London. There wasn't a lot of forensic evidence in either case, although it didn't seem that either woman had been raped. In the end, they just drew a blank."

"And now there's three," said Sandra. "It looks as if they're every five years, for some reason. But if this really is a serial killer, I think we might have to bow out of this case. I'll have to pass on this information to Strickland and the powers that be will probably set up a proper task force to try and catch this man. We just haven't got the resources for that kind of investigation, cold case or not."

There was a slight feeling of deflation in the room. Coming up with evidence that three murders were connected was not exactly a bad day's work, but none of them liked giving up the chance to close their case.

"What did you find in South Beckendon, anyway?" asked Brian, after an awkward pause.

"Oh, that a lot of the locals thought something funny was going on in the wood where Jenny Mulhain was found around the time she disappeared," said Gerry. "But it all sounds pretty vague. Oh, and it seems that this was found near the body."

He brought up a photo of the piece of green stone with the curious carving on the screen of his mobile phone. DI Williams had e-mailed it to him during the torturous drive back. Then he held up the phone so that Jack and Brian could see it.

Whilst eccentric reactions to things from Brian Lane were not unknown, what happened next was pretty much unprecedented. As soon as Brian saw the green stone, his eyes widened. Then he emitted a strangled yelp like a kicked dog, leapt to his feet and bolted out of the office door, dropping his empty mug to the ground as though it had threatened to bite him. For a moment, the others stood around the table, stunned.

"Brian? Brian!" shouted Sandra after him. The door slammed shut.

"I'll get him!" said Gerry, then ran out of the door calling Brian's name. Jack, then Sandra herself, soon followed Gerry out into the corridor. It took a few minutes of frantic searching before they found Brian in a broom cupboard, crouching behind a large plastic bin full of mops and brushes, trembling and with a wild, hunted look in his eyes. Gerry touched him gently on the shoulder.

"Easy, there, Brian. What the hell was all that about? Are you sure you've not gone off your meds?"

He seemed unable to answer, but with a bit of coaxing they managed to get him to his feet and, with Jack and Gerry each taking an arm, led him back to the office. As they reached the threshold, Brian stiffened noticeably and seemed to dig his heels in, resisting their efforts to take him into the room.

"Come on, Brian, what's going on here?" asked Jack. "We can't help you if you won't explain what the problem is."

For a few seconds, Brian's mouth moved wordlessly, as he struggled to get anything out of it. Then, finally, he said:

"The amulet. It's the amulet. Please don't make me go back in there with the picture of that…that thing."

"Well, that's easily solved," said Gerry, calmly. He let go of Brian's arm, walked into the office, picked up his phone from the table where he'd left it and turned it off.

"Thank you," gasped Brian. He allowed them to lead him into the office, where he collapsed into his chair and sat with his head in his hands.

"So, Brian," said Sandra, after a while. "Are we going to get an explanation of what's going on here, or should I just assume this is a funny turn and send you home on medical grounds? Because I've been in life-threatening situations with you where you haven't behaved like this, and that worries me."

Brian lifted up his head. "It's not a funny turn, Sandra. The truth is, I've seen that green amulet before – well, that's how I know it's an amulet. Have any of you ever heard of a book called the Necronomicon by Abdul Alhazred?"

"The Necrowhat?" said Sandra. The others just shook their heads silently.

"Oh, well, I can't say I'm surprised. It's a thousand years old, written in Arabic by a mad sorcerer or magician of some kind to describe the magical visions he'd had. It's only ever been translated into mediaeval Latin, and only a few universities even have copies of that translation. It's full of the guy's crazy, rambling ideas about the hideous race of beings he'd seen living on Earth long before Mankind ever existed, these fish-reptile-octopus kind of creatures like nothing else he'd ever seen or imagined."

"What, like…dinosaurs or something?" said Gerry, grasping at straws for anything that made sense.

"No – these beings weren't animals. They were civilised. They had technology and power beyond that of humans, even modern humans. They came from outside Earth, from the stars. And they worshipped gods that were even more alien, powerful and hideous to look at than they were. Abdul Alhazred wrote that for now, these beings and their gods were sleeping. That was why people ruled the world. But one day they would wake up again, and then…well, watch out human race!"

"And you know about this book because…?" said Sandra.

Brian rested his head in his hands again. "Thirty years ago, when I was a young detective, a little boy was murdered on my patch. A terrible murder – he was practically torn to pieces. The only real clue was that a passer-by the empty warehouse where his body was found claimed to have heard noises coming from there, voices chanting – "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!""

"But those words are totally bloody meaningless!" said Jack.

"Well, that's what my Inspector thought. He sent me to the Department of Linguistics at University College, to try to find someone who might understand the words. Eventually I met a young researcher who showed me their copy of the Necronomicon, explained it to me, and said that he was aware of reports from various remote parts of the world of these tiny cult groups that worshipped "the Great Old Ones," and hoped for their return. And those words were a phrase they used in their ceremonies. No-one knew what it meant because it wasn't in any human language. He showed me amulets like that one on your phone, Gerry, too, because apparently these cultists wore them. But I could hardly go back to my DI after all that and tell him that a bunch of people who worship aliens might have killed someone."

"You did though, didn't you?" said Gerry.

"He hit the roof, called me an absolute nutter, and told me that I'd never get anywhere in the Force if I took loony theories like that one seriously. Of course, we never caught the murderer of that boy. And I've never forgotten that book or the amulet." He looked up at the circle of faces around him. "You agree with him, don't you?"

"Well, be fair, Brian," said Gerry. "It's a lot to take in for all of us. We're just coppers here. Retired coppers, at that. We've spent most of our lives somewhere where you follow the procedure, gather all the evidence and then nine times out of ten, it turns the person who did it is the most obvious suspect. And now you're asking us to believe in super-powerful aliens, gods and cultists. So where's your evidence?"

Brian shrugged. "I only ever told my wife about it all. I suppose she isn't much of a witness now."

"What about the researcher you spoke to?" asked Sandra. "What was his name? Are you still in touch?"

Brian thought a bit. "It was Walter Ludlow, and I've never seen him since."

The internet is a marvellous tool, though, and it didn't take much investigation to find his Facebook page. Dr Walter Ludlow was alive and well and living in Essex, where he worked as Reader in Psycholinguistics at the University of Chelmsford.

"Right," announced Sandra. "Brian, you and I are going to Chelmsford tomorrow to talk to Dr Ludlow and see what he makes of all this. But we still don't have any idea what exactly happened to Jenny Mulhain after she said goodbye to her friends that evening. It's a quiet road, no-one reported hearing any kind of a struggle or argument, so my hunch is she wasn't just dragged off the street. I think it was someone she knew. Gerry, Jack, you see where you can get looking at the people she knew, starting with the friends she was with."

"But what about all that stuff about having to report this to Strickland?" said Gerry.

"That was when we thought this was a serial killer murdering random strangers. It looks like it might not be. I don't think we need to involve the top brass in this – not yet anyway."

It took Brian and Sandra about an hour or so to get to Chelmsford the next day, Brian being the most cautious driver imaginable.

The writer seeking to describe Chelmsford labours, of course, under a heavy burden, since the ancient city's grey, lichen-encrusted stonework, storied college courts and quadrangles and brooding towers have formed the subject-matter of work by such mighty predecessors as John Ruskin, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh and M.R. James. To their less talented successor, those literary lions have left merely the sad task of reporting that everything that isn't five hundred years old is part of a retail chain and pays its rent to a pension fund and that you can't walk or drive anywhere for the crowds.

They parked in a large municipal car park by the River Chelm, and gazed briefly at its swift-flowing stream, into which punting tourists were steadily tumbling as they drunkenly crashed into each other. Oaths resounded across the grey waters.

"Come on, let's go," said Brian. "Ludlow is a Fellow of Gatling College. It's next to the Cathedral."

They walked along a stone-flagged path running under the great oak trees of the Cathedral grounds, where some students in rugby shirts were repeatedly dunking another's head in a large tub of beer as part of an antique male bonding ritual dating back to at least 1990. Sandra's mind, for some reason, was irresistibly drawn back to memories of her early days policing Romford town centre, whilst Brian mused on the terrible waste of what looked like decent India pale ale.

The duty porter at Gatling, a gloomy Victorian neo-Gothic brick pile, turned out to be an retired Met copper whose Sergeant Brian used to know. He readily confirmed that Dr Ludlow would probably be in, and led them up dimly-lit staircases and along creaking old corridors to a massive oak door, on which he knocked.

"Hello?"

"It's Jim, Dr Ludlow. There are two police officers to see you."

The door swung open. Ludlow was about five foot nine, a thick-set looking man in his fifties, bald but for a ring of grey hair, and wearing corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

"You'd better come in," he said. "But if it's about that Danny Treadwell, I've already told you chaps – we're not in loco parentis any more, he's an adult and if he keeps organising mass mooning sessions in the town square you should jolly well arrest him for indecent exposure. Academically, he's pretty much a waste of space as it is."

Sandra shook her head. "I'm afraid it's nothing to do with that, Dr Ludlow. I'm Detective Chief Superintendent Sandra Pullman and this is Brian Lane. We're from the Metropolitan Police and we're investigating a murder."

"Oh. I see. Well…you'd better sit down. Thanks, Jim."

The door slammed shut as they took an old leather sofa next to the narrow mullioned window. It was across a coffee table from Ludlow's overstuffed armchair and looked like his usual place for conducting tutorials. The study was small, filled with tall bookcases lined with thick tomes bearing titles like Queering Sociolinguistics and Hello, I am Adolf Hitler: Ironic Racism and the Unspeakable. An (even smaller) bedroom was visible through a doorway behind his chair.

"You don't remember me, do you, Dr Ludlow?" said Brian, before Sandra could stop him.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't. Should I?" said Ludlow, looking blank.

"1984. You were researching at UCL and I was the detective who came looking for help with a mysterious string of words that made no sense. Cthulhu and his cult. The Necronomicon. Do you remember now?"

Ludlow went pale. "Oh my God, yes! That was you? That horrible child murder, I've never been able to totally forget it myself. I suppose you never solved it?"

Brian shook his head. "My Inspector wouldn't take your ideas seriously."

Ludlow exhaled heavily. "No, I thought he wouldn't. They're things too awful for most people to contemplate…things no-one is meant to know, I suppose. But why are you back now, Mr Lane?"

"A young woman who disappeared a few years ago in South London has been found murdered," said Sandra. "Her head was cut off and the body was left in a white gown. We think there may be at least two linked murders with a similar MO, apparently happening every five years or so. We think there might be a connection to this cult of yours, and we'd like to know what you think."

"Oh, good Lord, said Ludlow. There was a brief silence, and then he continued: "Yes, the beheading and the white gown sound very much like the Cthulhu cult, and they do have a quintennial ritual at which they practice human sacrifice to the glory of the Great Old Ones. I think you may have found a branch operating in London."

"So this Cthulhu, then – he's somehow connected to these…prehistoric aliens?" Sandra could barely believe she was actually saying these words seriously.

"Cthulhu is and was the high priest of that alien race, a huge monstrous being. He's alive but sleeping in their ancient undersea city of R'lyeh, wherever that is. That chant of theirs means – "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." The Great Old Ones were the beings the aliens worshipped, creatures from other dimensions of space and time, indescribable and incomprehensible to us, and incredibly powerful. The alien civilisation on Earth faded away, but, mostly in remote and lonely places, a few humans still worship those gods and hope for their return. Believe me, if they ever do, it will make our worst nightmares of Hell seem like pleasant dreams."

"So how come you know all of this when no-one else does?" asked Sandra.

Ludlow stood up and walked over to his desk, from which he took a silver-framed photograph. It was old and sepia-tinted and showed an elderly white-haired man in academic dress, staring at the camera with a determined eye.

"This is my maternal great-grandfather, Dr Henry Armitage. Also an academic, but in Massachusetts, rather than England. Quite late in life he had some remarkable, if highly disturbing, experiences as a result of which he became aware of the Great Old Ones and…their followers. Ever since then, succeeding generations of the family have continued to pursue the fight against the cultists whenever and however necessary. I've personally been to Ladakh in India, to Brazil and to the Congo to document their activities and involve the authorities where necessary. Usually I explain them as some millenarian cult or other that's armed and might pose a threat to national security and governments always seem happy to suppress them. But the ideas behind it always survive and pop up somewhere else." He stared out of the window. "I never thought they'd turn up in my own back yard."

"Dr Ludlow," began Sandra, "you have to appreciate this is all rather difficult to take in…"

"That doesn't mean it isn't true," broke in Brian.

Ludlow shrugged. "If you want some more evidence, I have kept files of my activities that I can show you, with newspaper clippings, photos and so on. Of course, you won't anything in there that proves the existence of the Cthulhu cult and what they worship, as opposed to just the existence of some strange people who do strange things in remote places. I could just be a conspiracist who's fantasised most of this. But if not, you have a problem on your hands."

"Why's that?"

"Well, I told you, the cultists carry out human sacrifices on a particular day every five years. And tomorrow is that day. If we don't do something fast, someone else is certainly going to die."