Surrounded by idiots

Previous: God speed, Professor Hammond

The joy of working with professionals – Missing, and shove your presumptions – The road to hell – Carl Tennant

We’ve found Hammond’s camp, and it’s in a sorry state. All the expedition members are dead, and there’s a tent full of minerals that probably killed them. As far as I can see, there was a dust storm a while back and what better way to wait it out than gather up in a tent with the glowy rocks, close all the doors and sit there banging away at them to get the glowy stuff out? I haven’t a clue what that stuff is, but to sit in a big circle huffing the dust that comes off seems to me like a perfect way to get infected with whatever is in those rocks. There is now a jar of the stuff in our transport, and I’m sleeping on the other side. I’ve been on Arkham expeditions before, and eldritch emanations from the ghost-world are usually a good sign that you’re about to get hosed.

One person remains unaccounted-for: Carl Tennant, our friendly sniper’s brother. He’s wandered off to get help. No telling what state of mind he was in, but getting the hell away from that camp seems like a sign of sanity to me. We’ve now set off looking for him. His letter said he was sick already, so he’s probably lying in a ditch right now. Still, as the Prof says, no man left behind, tally ho old bean. Why do these Arkham expeditions always turn into such God-awful messes?

— James T. Riley, expedition report.

God, I hate working with amateurs. They were actually starting to trust our mystic friend. Well, I liked him fine, but I didn’t trust him further than I could comfortably throw him. That mumbo-jumbo act of his was starting to have an effect on the Brits. Does tea make your brain turn to mush?

To make things worse, one of our brave protectors decided to look for some entertainment with, of all people, sniper girl. I’ll grant you, she’s the only decent piece of ass on this expedition, but really? When I get in the sack with someone, I like them to be in a state of mind where they want to do nice things to me. Or kill me, but that’s a whole different story. Miss Tennant was as cold as a fish, and all focused on finding that brother of hers. If she even had a libido, she was doing a damn fine job of hiding it. What the hell got into that stupid Hun to try it is beyond me. Well, there’s nothing like a bullet in the head to get rid of stupid ideas, and she got that right.

Since Mr. Carl Tennant said in his letter that he was going West, we set out in that direction. Wadcroft and Enderby stayed at the camp with Klemm and the soldiers, to find out what the hell happened there. Nazeem had volunteered to come with us and ‘beg the spirits to aid us in the search’. If he hadn’t volunteered, I’d have dragged his sorry ass onto the vehicle anyway, because I wanted to have a private word with Master Nazeem. We steamed along happily all the afternoon until Nazeem gave a shout and pointed. When I stuck my head out of the hatch, Nazeem and Miss Alexandra were already on the ground, running. She bent down and picked up a rifle that was just lying on the ground. Damn it, people. You find a piece of evidence, and the first thing you do is mess with it? If the woman had kept her fingers off it, we could have seen the direction in which it fell, how deep it was buried, you know, useful things. But there’s no arguing with people when they’re in the state of mind Miss Tennant was in, and I couldn’t slap her. I walked up to Miss Tennant. Nazeem was standing off to the side, chanting something mystical.

“What have you found?”

“This is Carl’s rifle,” said Miss Tennant. “I’d know it anywhere. It has his name on here. He’d never leave it behind.”

I held out my hand, and she gave it to me. It was a more modern variety of the M4 Garand rifle. The boy had good taste in rifles. These things were the workhorse of the American army, up until the Colt automatics eclipsed them. I checked the magazine, and it had the standard eight rounds in. I sniffed the barrel. It had not been fired recently.

“What do you think happened?”

Miss Tennant was looking at me. Her expression was carefully kept clear of any emotion, but I could hear it in her voice. She wanted me to say that her brother was probably fine, he’d just dropped his rifle and forgot to pick it up again. Happens to anyone. To me, this spoke of despair. He would probably be in a state of mind where he no longer cared who might be after him, and trying to lose some weight so he could keep going for longer. I looked around. We were in sandy plains, with nothing much growing. American deserts at least have cactuses that you can chop open for water, but nothing like that grew here.

I scanned the horizon. People don’t realise that is a skill you have to learn. When you’re looking from one place to another, your eyes move in jerks. Try it. Find a mirror, and look at your left eye, then at your right. You never see your eyes move. If you don’t know this, and don’t take your time to move in very small skips, you can miss things. This got explained to me when I was a liaison officer in the Navy. And what I saw on the horizon was one place that was a bit darker than the rest. Just as I opened my mouth to say something, Nazeem piped up.

“The spirits are speaking to Nazeem, at just this moment. They command us to move in that direction.” Nazeem pointed at the dark bit. Probably some kind of oasis.

“Well fancy that,” I said. “Them spirits is mighty concerned about us heathens. Let’s go!”

We all got back on board, and the Beast ran on in the direction of the trees. We kept rolling on until it became too dark to see anything. Andrew Parsons stopped the Beast without being asked to. Miss Tennant looked down the hatch.

“Why are you stopping?”

Andrew came up. “I cannot see the trees anymore. If we keep going, then we may miss them.”

“I can see them,” said Miss Tennant, pointing. “They’re straight ahead. Just keep going on the same course.”

“The Spirits…”

“Shut up, Nazeem,” I said. “Miss Tennant, your brother may have made for that patch of trees, but there’s no telling if he made it. If he collapsed somewhere, then we could run right over him and never know.”

Miss Tennant looked at me, cold as ice.

“We need the light, Alexandra,” I said. “The headlights won’t cut it. Get some sleep, and tomorrow’s another day.”

“You don’t know my brother, Mr. Riley. When he sets out to do something, nothing will stop him. He did not collapse somewhere between here and that patch of trees. We don’t need the light to reach it.”

I’ve worked in very nasty places for a lifetime. There isn’t a thing on God’s green Earth that I haven’t seen human beings do to other human beings. I’ve seen people hanged. I’ve seen people shot. I’ve seen people flogged to death. Burned alive. Torn to pieces by dogs. Cut with knives. Left to starve. I’ve wondered about the sheer genius people sometimes display for the purpose of making another human being miserable, and wondered why? Why invent all these ingenious devices? All you really need is a piece of rope, and it works on everybody. I’ve seen the poor bastards, the victims. Completely broken people for whom death comes as a friend. And I’ve seen how much people can endure. People with no fingers, bodies twisted, broken and burnt, and still not talking. There’s a place where people’s minds go, and no matter what you do to their bodies, you won’t touch it. It’s a place of despair, a place where you simply wait for death. The cruelest torturers recognise it, and then, they do the worst thing a man can do to another human being.

They give them hope. They give them hope, and then they start all over again, crushing it.

I wasn’t about to do that to Miss Alexandra Tennant. I didn’t particularly like her, but I could admire her spirit. And nobody deserves that.

“Where he’s gone, it doesn’t make any difference if we arrive a few hours later. If he made it to the trees, then good. He had a nice shady place to die in. But like as not, he’s under a foot of sand right now. You’ve read his letter. He was sick already. He dropped his goddamn gun on the ground, and he didn’t even care.” I looked into Miss Tennant’s eyes. “You’re not going to find him alive.”

She gave me a look, filled with the purest hate. Good. Let her hate me. Let her want to claw my eyes out, but damn it, let her believe me.

“You do not know what Carl is capable of. He is alive. He is waiting for us at the oasis.”

“He is not a goddamn immortal, Miss Tennant. Nobody survives a hundred-mile trek across the desert with poison in their veins. He’s dead, and the troubles of this world no longer concern him. Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I am an expert, I am the goddamn professor on what a human being can endure. We’re going to find him, we’re going to bring him back to the camp, and then we’re going to stick him in an orderly grave next to his learned friends. We’re going to say the Lord’s Prayer over him and then we’re leaving. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Miss Tennant snarled. “Go to hell.”

She turned round and went into the Beast. I looked up. Andrew stood next to the tracks, watching me with a blank stare in his eyes. Nazeem stood next to him.

“Well, what do you have to say?”

Andrew shrugged. “I have no data upon which to build a hypothesis as to the condition of Mr. Tennant.”

“Carl Tennant lives,” said Nazeem. “This, Nazeem was given by the Spirits to know. But unless the Spirits wish otherwise, he will die soon.”

“So we have two votes for alive, one for dead, and one abstention. Priceless. Well, I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me when you want me to take a watch.”


I lied. I didn’t go to sleep that night. What I really did was pretend to sleep until Miss Tennant and that brute Parsons were sleeping. I crept out, pulled out my revolver, fitted the silencer so as not to disturb my friends’ sleep, and went to have a chat with Nazeem. Nazeem was sitting on his mat a few dozen yards away from the Beast. No use sneaking up on a guard. I sat down on the ground in front of him and pointed my gun at him.

Now let me tell you a few things about holding people at gunpoint. Once you do it, you have to know and accept that they may end up dead. There can’t be the slightest doubt in your mind that you’ll pull that trigger. It’s the one poker hand where you really can’t bluff. They’ll know. It is the ultimate battle of wills, and I love it. I’ve been held at gunpoint myself several times. There was one time when some guy thought I’d molested his sister. I held out my hand, and told him that he didn’t want to do that, and to give me the gun before someone got hurt. It took me maybe two minutes of talking, and then he broke and actually gave the gun to me. As it happened, I’d never even seen his sister let alone laid a finger on her, but so help me. That moment where he gave the gun to me, and he crawled away with his tail between his legs? I wouldn’t have traded it for a whole week alone with his sister.

So I assure you, when I sat down there for a friendly chat with our Master of Strange Powers, I was absolutely prepared to shoot him if I had to. I have to say he didn’t even flinch. He looked at me with a dark look in his eyes.

“Who are you working for?” I said.

“It is as Nazeem has said. The spirits of the elements have spoken, and Nazeem must obey.”

“Cut out the crap, Nazeem. We both know that all that spirit mumbo-jumbo is just to fool the ignorant morons we meet. Who are you really working for?”

“Nazeem speaks only truth, and no lies have ever passed his lips. Has Nazeem not been a faithful companion to you? Then why do you not trust his words?”

“How did you know which way the expedition went?”

“Nazeem was given this to know…”

“So help me,” I said, raising my gun. “If you mention those goddamn Spirits one more time, I’ll put a bullet in your head.”

Nazeem glowered. “No earthly weapon may harm Nazeem. Your bullet will circle round his body, and strike down the heathen who fired it. So speaks the Spirit of Air, and so speaks Nazeem.”

“Oh that I have to see,” I said, and pulled back the hammer with a click.

Nazeem raised a hand. “Wait.”

I looked at him. “Well?”

“To satisfy your curiosity, and put to rest your unfounded suspicions, Nazeem will share these words with you. Nazeem belongs to the mystical order of Cross and Moon. This Order was founded in the time of the Crusades, when it was revealed that the wars of hatred between Christian and Muslim were a fabrication of an evil influence that desired the destruction of all people on Earth. It was to study and oppose this influence that the Order was formed. Nazeem is the last in a long line of Masters. Through the power of our minds, the Order succeeded in putting to rest the malevolence, and free the Elements so that Mankind might serve them, and that the Elements might serve Mankind in return.”

I took a deep breath. “Damn it, Nazeem. I thought you were going to tell me something useful there. I’m giving you one more chance. If you don’t tell me something I can work with, I’m gonna bury you under the Beast and say you were gone when I came to relieve you. Start talking sense.”

“There is nothing else to say! Even if you do not believe in the Elemental Spirits, do you not believe in people who do?”

I had to admit, he had a point. Ghosts and witches and wizards may not really exist, but there’s always stupid people who want to believe, and smart people who get rich by letting them.

“So this Order,” I said. “What do they want with Hammond’s rocks?”

“The samples unearthed by the Hammond expedition are dangerous. We know spirits of Earth, of Air, of Water, and of Fire. But this is something new, something… evil. It is the old malevolence, changed in form, and awoken to new deeds of ruin. When left to its own devices, it will destroy the world.”

“So you tried to stop them?”

“No! Without the aid of the Order, given in secret, their bones would now lie in the forest. The Order wished them to succeed, that we might obtain the knowledge of this new form of evil, and by knowing, end it.”

“Still, they’re all dead now. Outlived their usefulness?”

Nazeem bowed his head. “We were defeated. This new form of Spirit is powerful beyond anything we know. It is the fear of Nazeem, and of the Order of Cross and Moon, that nothing can stand in its way. Yet the greatest of powers can be brought to nothing by those who have the wisdom to understand the source.”

I gave Nazeem a long hard look. His expressions were hard to read at the best of times, but in the dark of night, it was impossible.

“What are your plans?”

“To bring the evidence to our Order, and learn what we may, before it is too late. Then, the Order will oppose the Malevolence as ever it did, and turn to naught all its efforts.”

I want to make this perfectly clear. I didn’t believe a word of any of that mystical clap-trap, but Secret Orders are thick as flies on this continent. Cloaked and hooded figures. Rules, laws, and hierarchies complex beyond belief. Sometimes, the head of the order is himself a believer, sometimes he’s just a fraud who plays his followers for fun and profit. Some of these orders are really fanatic, and will die for their beliefs. It made sense, if sense is the right word for it. I pointed my revolver up, held the hammer and pulled the trigger, lowering it gently onto the cartridge.

“Today Nazeem, you live.”

I got up and turned towards the Beast. Nazeem looked over his shoulder at me.

“Riley?”

“Yeah?”

“If ever you point a weapon at Nazeem again, it is his promise that he will unleash upon you the full force of the elements, and scatter your limbs to the four winds. Thus speaks Nazeem.”

I gave a little laugh, and went back into the Beast.


Miss Tennant had the last watch, and she roused us all at the crack of dawn. We fed Andrew Parsons his breakfast first, then ate ourselves with the Beast in motion. We all sat on top, staring ourselves blind on the sand and the small clump of trees in the distance. Nazeem, who wasn’t one for idle chatter at the best of times, now kept his mouth completely shut and didn’t look at me. Miss Tennant sat next to him with her rifle, looking through the scope, which was after all a superb piece of optics. Unfortunately, Carl Tennant hadn’t seen fit to drop more of his stuff to give us a clue, but Miss Tennant was absolutely certain that we would find him at the oasis, and that we would fix him up with a few cups of tea. It was almost painful to watch her, so I didn’t. I climbed down the hatch to keep Parsons company. He was sitting strapped in his chair, completely motionless except for slight movements of his arms to steer. I have to admit, I couldn’t have done that. How a man with such an active mind could sit still for hours on end, was a complete mystery to me. Maybe he was immune to boredom.

I awoke from a nap I hadn’t meant to take by a shout from Miss Tennant and a sudden stop of the vehicle that nearly threw me into some piece of equipment. I bit back a few of the words that my grandfather used to say on such occasions, and went up top. There was a line of native warriors standing in front of us. Their body language was clear. They wanted us to get lost, and to get lost in an easterly direction. Since we wanted to go west, we were in what the analysts call a conflict situation. There were maybe two dozen of them. They had throwing spears. Notice how I didn’t say they had only throwing spears. They could slaughter the lot of us in a heartbeat. I looked at their faces. Dark, tense, but trusting in their leader, and quite prepared to fight. I looked at their leader. He was not holding a weapon, and had stuck his spear in the sand next to him. As soon as I showed myself, his eyes turned to me. Now body language is everything in a situation like this. Miss Tennant was standing up with her rifle in front of her, pointing away from anyone. Nazeem stood raised to his full height, arms crossed in front of him, his gaze gliding over the line of warriors, as if sizing them up for magical retribution. I could see several of them looking at him nervously. Word of these sorcerors got around.

I turned away from the warriors to Nazeem, and motioned him to stand down, do not attack. Just as I made to jump off the Beast and walk up to the leader, Miss Tennant put down her gun and jumped down. Oh crap. Granted, she had her back to me, but this, damn her, was my department. She should have known better. She walked up to the leader, and just as she opened her mouth to say something, the leader drew back his arm and hit her with a flat palm right between the boobs. Miss Tennant flew back, and landed on her butt right in front of the Beast. Nazeem cried out, leapt down and with a great cry jumped in front of the leader and hit him in the chest with a double handed stroke that sent the leader flying backwards into his men. I drew my revolver and fired three shots into the air. Everything stopped.

“Nazeem. Take Miss Tennant and put her inside.”

“I’m… alright,” said Miss Tennant.

“I don’t give a damn,” I said. “Pick her up, Nazeem. Alex, don’t move. Play dead.”

Nazeem picked up Miss Tennant in his arms, and walked round the back with her. Andrew opened the back hatch. Meanwhile, the leader had gotten to his feet, and now walked forward. I looked him straight in the eye and cocked my gun. He could break my neck. I could shoot him. Clearly, these people knew what firearms were. I deliberately broke eye contact, put away my gun and climbed on top of the Beast. I picked up Miss Tennant’s rifle and climbed down the hatch. I shut it with a clang, locked it, and breathed out.

“Turn around Andrew,” I said.

Andrew did what I said without a word. Good. Nice for a change. We rolled away for about two hundred yards.

“Stop. Turn around again. When I say, all ahead full. As fast as this crate will go.”

“There are people in front of us,” said Andrew.

I reached for the steam whistle.

“They’ll get out of the way.”

With a great hiss of steam and thundering of engines, the Beast stormed forward. I blew the steam whistle and all the warriors scattered to the sides, except the leader. He drew back his arm and hurled his spear at the Beast bearing down on him. He actually hit one of our headlights. Parsons had to go and pull the spear out afterwards. When I looked, there was no blood anywhere, so I assume he hit the deck and the Beast rolled right over him. I hope the stupid bastard got medals or lion skins for that. We thundered on towards the trees. I picked up Miss Tennant’s rifle and handed it back to her. She looked at me.

“Only my friends get to call me Alex, Riley. You’re not my friend.”

“For future reference, Miss Alexandra Tennant, when there’s weapons out, I call the shots. You could have gotten us all killed. Now are you injured?”

“I’ll live.”

“Good.”


A few hours later, Parsons stopped the Beast between the trees, in the shade. Miss Tennant leapt out. That woman is irrepressible. She stood there, rifle out, looking round. Parsons calmly walked round the back and started to repair the headlight. Nazeem stood there with his arms raised, chanting, slowly turning on the spot. For once, he wasn’t the first to spot something. Miss Tennant ran forward, then fell to her knees in the shade of one of the trees. Lying on his back was a tall man. He had taken off his shirt, and his chest, face, and arms were covered with sores, just like the poor bastards we found back at the camp. He was dead. He had to be. But of course, some people take a little convincing. Miss Tennant was shaking him. Of course his body would still be warm. This place never gets below body temperature. I waited for her to realise that no Earthly help would be of any use here. That his suffering was over, that he was in a better place now and all that crap. She was calling his name, again and again, and getting no answer. Then, I could see her take a deep breath. The corpse on the ground coughed, turned its head towards her.

“Alex?”

Oh crap.

With Carl Tennant in one of the bunks and Miss Tennant watching over him, and yes, pouring tea into his mouth, we thundered across the stretches of sand, back to camp. We couldn’t see beyond the headlights, but since this was Andrew Parsons navigating, I had no doubt we’d get there. We got back in the early morning, to find the camp back in order, soldiers and Wadcroft in one tent, Prof. Enderby in another. We put Carl Tennant in one of the empty tents, and Enderby and Miss Tennant watched over him. I didn’t stay long. The man was clearly in a lot of pain, and I’d be surprised if he made it till morning.

I’d had enough. I didn’t want to sleep in the bunk where a sick man had been. Infected blankets is how we got rid of the Indians back in the day. The same went for the beds in any of the empty tents. People hadn’t got round to burning those blankets. So I went aboard the Beast, grabbed a couple of blankets and a seat cushion, stretched out in one of the supply tents and was asleep before my head hit the ground.

Next: Contact with the enemy


Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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