THE OLD AND GREY ONES

Part 3: The Thing in the Portal

"This isn't getting us anywhere," grumbled Jack to Gerry.

They had spent most of the morning trawling through the old police files for the names and last known addresses of the friends Jenny had spent her last evening with (six of them, as it turned out), then most of the afternoon driving around London trying to find them.

So far the score was: one married an Australian and emigrated there, one last heard of "in one of those hippie places. Goa, maybe. Or was it Thailand?", one living in Manchester and apparently not responding to phone calls and two still living in the area, but with nothing much of consequence to add to their original statements. Jack's morale had not been helped by finding out, via the sports news on the car radio, that Sunderland's relegation from the Premiership had just been confirmed.

Gerry refused to be daunted. "There's still one to go. Maybe she's the one with the crucial information. As for Sunderland, they've been rubbish all season, so this can't have exactly been a surprise for you."

"Give it a break, won't you? I'm grieving."

"Oh, shut up."

The final name on the list was Maylin Zheng, who worked for a large law firm in Clerkenwell. The offices proved to be a particularly frightening piece of modern architecture which looked like a cross between the Dark Tower of Mordor and a flying saucer, but had the undeniable advantage of underground parking. They were met at reception by Maylin's boss, who responded to a police visit with a fussy concern for his employee's welfare which Jack and Gerry rapidly realised was essentially nosiness. They politely rebuffed this and eventually he led them to a small meeting room where Maylin was sitting behind a light-coloured wooden table. There was a jug of water on it, and three glasses engraved with the firm's over-designed logo.

"Gerry Standing, Ms Zheng. We spoke on the phone. This is my colleague Jack Halford. Thank you for making time to see us." Jack and Gerry sat down facing her.

"Not at all. Jenny was a good friend of mine. I'd do anything to help find out who killed her." She was a petite, fine-featured woman in her early thirties, with an air of quiet determination.

"What was Jenny like?" asked Jack.

"She was quiet, but very warm and kind when you got to know her. Always concerned about other people and the world around her, rather idealistic. A bit too idealistic, perhaps."

"Meaning…?"

"Well, she tended to trust people a bit too much. People she perhaps shouldn't have trusted."

"Yes, we've heard something like that before," said Gerry. "But who do you mean exactly? I mean, some of the statements we've read describe you as best friends, so surely you must have had some idea."

"Well…Jenny tended to be always looking for something to believe in. Her family are Catholic and she would go to church and take it very seriously. She used to get terribly upset when we were all teenagers and the boys at school would joke about how Catholic priests were all paedos and so on. And it was almost as if she transferred that sort of faith to other things. Like, the big boy band at the time was Vital Signs, and we all had crushes on Johnny Ollerthorpe, but Jenny was the one who carried on with that long after the rest of us realised he was gay."

"That doesn't sound too dangerous," said Jack.

"There was more, though… Look, I never told the police this at the time, but just before she died, Jenny had started getting interested in this group. Kind of a religious group. She had somehow come across them on the internet and started reading their pamphlets."

"A religious group?" asked Gerry. "What kind of group?"

"Well, to be honest, from what Jenny said and from their website, I think they were kind of a cult, really. They're called some weird name… Oh, yeah, I remember - "The Root of Jesse." They seemed to be very into getting people to come to live in their study centre, which sounded like a commune to me, where "the truth would be revealed" to them. I thought it was a load of bollocks, really, and told her so. But Jenny lapped it all up. She told me, that last night in the pub, that she'd been to one of their meetings and met the group leader, and that she thought he had some really interesting ideas."

Jack and Gerry glanced across at each other. "So why didn't you tell the police about this?" asked Jack.

"It all seemed so silly, really. Just like another of Jenny's little fads that she'd get tired of after a while. If she'd have run away, left a note on the mantelpiece and all that, I'd have known that was the reason. But Jenny would never have left her family voluntarily. She cared about them too much. We all thought some nutter had kidnapped her. But since they found her, I've started to wonder about that."

"And you say this group "are" called "The Root of Jesse"?"

"Well, they still exist. I had a look at the website after you called me, and it's been kept up to date."

Gerry had heard enough for his purposes. "Excuse me, Ms Zheng. Jack, would you mind just taking over for a moment?"

Gerry hurried down to the reception, and called Sandra on his mobile. She answered immediately.

"Sandra? It's Gerry. One of Jenny Mulhain's friends is saying that she was starting to get involved in what sounds like a cult called "The Root of Jesse" just before she went missing. I think we might have found the answer to who took her. Remember you said it had to be someone she knew?"

"Hold on a sec," replied Sandra. She looked across at Walter Ludlow. "Does "The Root of Jesse" mean anything to you?"

"Yes," said Ludlow, grimly. "That was the name the Cthulhu cultists were using as cover in The Congo. They were posing as a Christian evangelical mission."

"Gerry? You and Jack find out all you can about this group, then get back and meet me and Brian at the Yard. We'll be bringing a friend with us."

Jack appeared at Gerry's elbow. "I've let her go, Gerry, I don't think she knows any more than she's already told us. What are you up to?"

"I'm following up a hot lead." Gerry was twiddling at his phone to get the internet connection working, and in a matter of seconds he had brought up .uk.

As Maylin Zheng had suggested, it was a smooth, modern, very professional looking website that was clearly still fully operational. There had been updates in the last few days, although none of them appeared to relate to human sacrifice or the worship of dark cosmic forces. At the top of the front page was a large photo of a smiling, very bald man who looked to be in his forties, wearing white robes covered in strange symbols and a gold turban.

" Master Paul, UK President of The Root of Jesse,'" read Gerry. "This might be the guy we want."

Unsurprisingly, Master Paul didn't seem to be listed in any phone directory and the only address mentioned on the website was a mailbox. The youth behind the desk at the mailbox centre agreed that it looked a lot like the guy who usually emptied the box, although, "He wasn't wearing no turban last time I saw him." Gerry and Jack went back to New Scotland Yard, to find Sandra, Brian and Ludlow waiting for them in the UCOS office.

"You got back fast!" said Jack.

"I was driving this time," said Sandra. "Found out anything more about "The Root of Jesse" since we last spoke?"

Gerry shrugged. "If they have a physical base anywhere, they certainly aren't revealing it online. We could get the forensic IT people involved and try to track down where the website's hosted, but nine chances out of ten it'll be some country with a lax judicial system and minimal regulation. It could take months to drag any names out of the people who run the server, if we ever do."

"We really don't have that kind of time," broke in Ludlow. Gerry looked at him questioningly.

"This is Dr Ludlow," said Sandra. "And right now, all you need to know is that he has good reasons for thinking the cultists may be getting ready to kill another victim tomorrow."

"We've got to do something fast," said Jack. "Gerry, let him have a look at that "Master Paul" guy off the website on your phone. Do you recognise him at all?"

Ludlow nodded. "I know he's one of their priests, but they all go by aliases anyway. "Master Paul" is just another one of those. Last time I ran into him it was "Wolf Manley". I have no idea what his real name is, or where he's from."

An uncertain silence fell over the group. Then Brian piped up:

"You know, something's been bothering me since the beginning of this case."

"We don't have time for your fish phobia right now, Brian," said Gerry.

"Not that! This girl is supposed to have been murdered in woodland, in a city, that anyone can get into easily, and we keep being told that people, kids and so on, often go in there, even at night. OK, so the cult people hang around there being scary, so most of the usual customers won't turn up. But they still can't guarantee someone won't, or won't be passing anyway, hear noises and screams and phone the cops. Put it another way – it's an awfully public place for a pre-planned murder."

"Maybe the body was moved after the murder," said Sandra.

"You know," said Ludlow. "When I've seen the Cthulhu cult at work before, they've usually had their shrines in hidden places. Especially underground, and they always hide the entrances carefully…"

"The concrete block in the wood!" said Sandra and Gerry, in unison. It couldn't have been more cartoonish if a picture of a giant light bulb had suddenly appeared over each of their heads. "There's a huge slab lying right in the middle of a clearing there – that could easily cover up an entrance to something," explained Sandra.

"Let's go and find out!" said Brian, and made to leave the room. Sandra caught him by the elbow.

"Whoa there, Brian! Not so fast – we're going to do this properly and get the back-up we'll need. Now I'll speak to Strickland about the case." She went over to her desk and picked up the receiver of her phone, called up her superior, and they briefly discussed whether he had time for "a word". Then she walked out of the room. "I might be a while, lads, this is a pretty wacky story I have to sell to him. Don't wait up for me."

They stood in silence for a while. "Cup of tea, anyone?" suggested Jack, eventually. They all grunted assent, and he wandered over to the kitchenette to brew up. Everyone else settled down in various chairs, lost in thought.

"It's getting late," said Brian. "Do you have anywhere to stay overnight, Walter, or will you head back to Chelmsford?"

"Oh, I have old friends in London who've known me long enough to realise I might sometimes need a room overnight, no questions asked. I'll call one of them up." He unzipped a very long, heavy-looking bag he had brought with him.

"Oh, by the way, just one thing, Dr Ludlow," asked Gerry. "Who on earth are you?" He sniffed at the peculiar sickly sweet odour that had started to emerge from the bag. "And what on earth have you got in there?"

Ludlow told him, briefly, who he was.

"Bloody hell!"

"As for my bag, that's stuff we may need tomorrow evening if we go after the cultists. They might be armed, but that's almost beside the point, which is that they can draw on forces from beyond the known universe to defend them. So just turning up there with guns, tasers and pepper spray really is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. This bag contains alchemical solutions, books of ancient spells for the invocation and dismissal of evil spirits and all the paraphernalia of ritual magic. I'm sure we'll need it."

Gerry Standing, for the first time in many years, simply did not know what to say in response.

"Also, this." Ludlow produced a long, gleaming object of metal and polished wood from the bag. "Purdey 12-bore side-by-side shotgun. Inherited, of course. It's for when you probably do absolutely, positively have to kill everything in the room, but it would be bad form to look in a hurry about it."

"Tea's ready!" called Jack. "Do you take milk and sugar, Dr Ludlow?"

Commander Strickland reached up to the top of his head and gripped it with his hand, something that would have meant little to an outsider, but that Sandra realised was a sign that he felt under pressure, not without reason. They had brought a substantial chunk of the Met's Specialist Firearms Command, Strickland himself, the Borough Commander and a lot of his local officers, plus various guys in suits who were very discreet about their exact employer, down to South Beckendon Police Station on the chance that a group of worshippers of an alien space-deity were about to kill someone.

And that rested on what, exactly ? A weird amulet and the credibility of a linguist who claimed to be a part-time hereditary vigilante. If this all went tits up, thought Sandra, her career and probably UCOS itself would go the way of the passenger pigeon and the great auk practically overnight. It had better work out, then.

They were in a command centre that had been set up in a suite of rooms set aside for such purposes at the Station. The one they were in had a cold grey lino floor, high white-plastered walls and was crammed with banks of desks and chairs. Police officers buzzed around purposefully. Sandra could see why it wasn't used much normally; it had the air of a Victorian chapel, an atmosphere that made you want to whisper rather than speak normally.

"OK, the final briefing is in half-an-hour," said Strickland. "The idea seems to be that we head down to the wood around 9:30 or so, to give the cultists a chance to assemble. Of course, it would be easier to grab them on the surface, but they aren't likely to spend enough time there to allow us to surround the whole place without tipping them off as to our presence. We'll have to take the risk of letting them go underground before we move in."

"Do we even know there's an "underground," Sir?"

"It's a bit late for you to start playing the sceptic now you've launched this whole thing, Sandra! However, just so you know…DI Williams!"

Williams came over to where they were sitting. "Sir?"

"Tell DS Pullman what you found in the wood earlier today."

"Well, I went up with a few of my officers to investigate that concrete block. It's huge, there's no way you could move it without machinery and if there's a secret mechanism of some kind we didn't find it. But we took some geophysical survey equipment with us as well, and look what we did find." Williams unrolled the survey printout across the desk. It showed the clear outline of a tunnel leading away from the centre of the wood where the block was, to what appeared to be a rectangular chamber. Then another tunnel led away from that to the southern edge of the wood.

"We think that second tunnel's the escape route for them if things go wrong. It runs to the bank of a stream, pretty steep, and it turns out that the exit there is only blocked by some vegetation and old tyres. So that's where we'll be going in."

"Deputy Assistant Commissioner Wilkins will be Gold Commander for this operation," continued Strickland. "The Borough Commander has graciously agreed to me taking Silver Command." He grimaced. He knew this Borough Commander of old, and had once referred to him in front of Sandra as "Billy Backstab". "I'm sure he's happy to avoid the obvious risk of it blowing up in his face. Sandra, you can take Bronze. You have firearms training and it's your Squad that found this for us. I'm afraid Brian, Gerry and Jack will have to stay out of the front line on this one, though, not to mention that Dr Whatsisname. I don't care if they're retired coppers or Van Helsing wannabes – no civilians where there might be shooting."

"Of course, sir," said Sandra.

A couple of hours later, it was dark. Two white, unmarked vans pulled into a quiet lay-by off a road a couple of fields away from the wood, on the other side from where Gerry and Sandra had previously entered. A belt of trees cast a gloomy shadow over it, and the well-hedged track running towards the wood from the lay-by had a reputation as a lover's lane. A plain-clothes officer had done a discreet recce shortly before their arrival, to ensure it was not being put to that use currently.

The van doors opened, and, as discreetly as could be managed, Sandra, Gerry, Brian, Jack, Walter Ludlow and sixteen black-clad firearms officers carrying Glocks, ballistic shields and a ram, emptied out. They headed up the lane in pairs. It was pitch-black, lit only by the beams of their few torches, red-bulbed to reduce the risk of any sentries noticing them. Their Wellington booted feet squelched on the slick of mud left by rain earlier that day, and on dead leaves left over from the previous autumn.

"This mud is getting on my trousers," whispered Brian.

"Shut up," hissed Sandra. "I'm bending orders to let you come this far, so don't blow the bloody operation by yakking. And remember, you're all staying behind to cover the river bank entrance when we go in."

"Cover it?" said Jack. "All we have between us is a can of pepper spray and His Lordship's glorified clay pigeon gun," indicating the Purdey, which Ludlow had given to Gerry so he could have both hands free for his magic gear.

"It's an English classic!" protested Brian.

"Be quiet!" whispered Sandra.

There was a short piece of open field between the hedge that bordered the lane and the steep stream bank. Two at a time, they ran bent low across it, then dropped down the bank into the shallow but chilly waters. The hidden entrance was a little up-stream on the right, behind some bushes. Two officers removed the tyres and carefully arranged brambles over it, to reveal a large door of crude wooden planks, about six feet by three, through which loud if muffled sounds of chanting could plainly be heard. Others went up the bank and slipped into the shadows of the wood, to watch the main entrance. Sandra kept her ear glued to a radio.

"Bronze to Silver. In position, awaiting your order to proceed." There was a brief pause. "GO! GO! GO!"

The ram smashed into the door, which proved to be flimsy and splintered apart on the third blow. The shield officers broke through first, followed by a general rush of bodies. There were loud shouts of "ARMED POLICE! DROP YOUR WEAPONS! DOWN ON THE FLOOR!" as the firearms officers, with Sandra following, sprinted down a short flight of steps, and then along the passage itself, towards the central chamber. Their footsteps clattered for a few seconds, then were drowned out by the loud and echoing crack of pistol fire, both from the police Glocks and other guns, and more shouts.

But the UCOS team barely noticed the cries or the shooting, because, barely interrupted by either, the chanting had reached a hideous pitch. It had become not so much the noise of many voices as of one, deep beyond reckoning, booming through the concrete underworld like a sound system the size of a city block crewed by demons from the worst deliriums of Edgar Allen Poe. It paralysed thought and action alike.

"Y'AI 'NG'NGAH, YOG-SOTHOTH! AG-JARRGA F'AI MORTHROG UAAAH!"

Ludlow stood rigid for an instant, then with a cry of "It's breaking through! I must go!" he hurled himself through the hole in the bank, heedless of the gunfire that could still be heard from inside.

"Wait – no!" shouted Gerry, then threw himself in after Ludlow. Jack and Brian followed him, bounding along the passage with a speed that belied their ages. It was empty until almost its end, where two bodies lay sprawled across each other, evidently guards who had tried to stop the onset of the firearms team. The chamber beyond was lit by torches on the walls, burning with an unnatural green flame that made the faces of everyone inside look like they were wearing the most garish of Victorian stage make-up. In both the areas illuminated by the torches and the deep shadows they cast, lay a score or so of cultists in their white robes with green amulets round their necks, some lying still and bloodstained, others struggling violently, with police officers holding them down.

In the centre of the room was a marble altar carved with the contorted shapes of things no sane human mind ever imagined, and a man was bound to it. But that was not what fixed the attention, for above the altar hung a black shape like a doorway though the air, and in it something was forming. It was something neither like a human nor yet like any animal known on Earth, nor yet like any thing known in the universe of Newton's laws and Euclid's geometry, monstrous, massive, tentacled and gelatinous, ready to step out of its dark portal into the world…

Reckless of any danger, Ludlow burst into the chamber brandishing a piece of parchment. His voice roared out in answer to the great booming of the thing in the portal above the altar:

"IA! HAAAU GORHTROM IA'F AGGRAJ-GA!"

A cry of "No!" came from one of the cultists on the concrete floor who was being held down by Sandra and another officer. With a mighty effort, he threw them both off, and ran right at Ludlow, a long knife gleaming in his hand. Then came an ear-splitting roar. Gerry had lifted the Purdey to his shoulder and fired, catching the cultist in the chest with the blast of both barrels. The man stopped in his tracks, staggered back a little, then, dropping the knife, he fell to his knees. Blood was beginning to soak through the white cloth as he fell forward on to his face.

Ludlow was not thrown off his stride for a second:

"HTOTHOS-GOY HAGN'GN' IA'Y! YIAH!"

With the last "Yiah!", the thing in the portal let out a great but incoherent bellow that no-one listening to it will ever forget. The black hole turned purple, then red, then white. It seemed to contract suddenly to a tiny point, then equally suddenly, it exploded out it all directions, throwing out a wave of heat and air that knocked everyone still standing off their feet. It blasted down through the passages, exploding out of the stream exit at one end, whilst at the other the policemen waiting by the concrete block saw it physically lifted and rolled to one side by the force of the blast. A purple bolt shot up, blew a hole through the chamber roof and the earth above it, then soared up into the sky above and the blackness of space beyond it. UFO-logists were collating the reports from that night from over the South London area for months afterwards.

A hideous, fish-like stench filled the chamber. Sandra was the first back on her feet, and not before time, since her radio was practically shrieking.

"Silver to Bronze! Silver to Bronze! Report situation! Sandra, what the hell's going on? I've ordered in the back-up team and medical personnel! Sandra, please report!"

"Bronze to Silver," Sandra said into the radio, her voice sounding shaky. "We're OK, sir; we have the situation under control. There are a number of casualties here, but we have secured the suspects. Over."

Everyone else started getting up, cops hauling up the surviving cultists and handcuffing them to be marched off. Someone went over to the altar and started cutting the ropes off the terrified victim. Brian staggered to his feet and helped up Jack. "Pooh! What a stench! Now do you see why I can't stand fish?"

Jack was still staring. "What the…what…was…that…thing…even…what?"

"It's gone back to where it came from, that's what really matters," said Ludlow. "I wouldn't think too much more about it, if I were you, Jack, for the sake of your sanity." Jack continued to shake his head in bewilderment.

Gerry was already at the body of the cultist he had shot, rifling through the pockets for ID. He pulled out a wallet and stared at the photo on the driving licence.

"It's Master Paul!" he said. "Or should I say "Bolt Blazer"? No, actually, his credit card is in the name of "Jack Dauntless". And he has a library card in the name of "Mike Dawson" as well. Oh, sod this - it's going to take forever to work out who he actually was! He looks like he's missing his amulet though – so at least we know where the one we found probably came from."

Through the various holes now blown in the underground sanctuary drifted the noise of the reinforcements and the medical teams splashing up the stream.

"There'll be an automatic IPCC inquiry, of course," said Brian. "People have been killed. They'll work out Master Paul was shot with a non-issue weapon pretty quickly, and probably that Jack, Gerry and me were in here when we shouldn't have been. Then there's the media, the Commissioner, the Mayor, those guys from MI5 will probably want to debrief everyone…Any idea how we can explain what's just happened to all of them, Sandra?"

"Well…"