January 14, 1901 - London
London, 1901. It was a time when the grip of the Empire stretched into the depths of the African jungle, to the lofty peaks of the Himalayas and to the distant islands of the Pacific. In those days London was the still the commercial centre of the world, the point around which all events pivoted. It was in Queen Victoria's last days, which would see the passing of an era. Soon the automobile would succeed the hansom cab, the electric turbine would replace the water wheel and furnace, and the aeroplane would make its debut at Kittyhawk, North Carolina. But all that was in the future.
Sir Arthur, Ace and the Doctor arrived to see a population going about its business with the leisurely confidence of knowing the world revolved around them. In dark alleys shadowy figures skulked, flitting images gone in the wind. Horses waited patiently, tethered to iron posts. Young debutantes walked hand in hand with eligible bachelors, signs of social circles gearing themselves up for the 'Season', when the far flung nobles of the land would arrive to mingle with Royalty, and improve their prestige among friends.
Sir Arthur let them off at the Royal Albert, while he wound up his affairs with his father's solicitor. The Doctor looked around and then walked up to the ticket office.
‘I'd like two tickets for tonight's performance, please.’
‘You're in luck,’ replied the ticket lady. ‘It's Rama's last night.’
‘Surely you've heard? He arrived a couple of weeks ago from Cairo, and he's been the talk of London ever since.’
‘What does he do, this Rama?’
‘Everything. Magic, fire eating. He's a real wizard with the knives. You can't miss him. He's a great Arab. I don't usually hold with foreigners, but he's something else. Here are your tickets, then. See you tonight.’
‘Oh, one other thing. You wouldn't happen to know where I could find a Mister Henry Jago, would you?’
‘Henry? He retired a few months ago. Can't rightly recall where he is at the moment. Litefoot'll know, though. Professor Litefoot is a great friend of Henry's. He has an office over in Greenwich by the Royal Observatory.’
The Doctor doffed his hat, and escorted Ace back into the sunshine. The ticket lady was busying herself with the cashbox when she felt a cold presence behind her. She started, surprised by the silent dark figure, until recognition dawned.
‘Oh, Mister Rama, you scared me. Creeping up, all silent like. What are you doing here then?’
‘Those two people you were talking to, who were they?’
‘I don't know. Just two people wanting to buy tickets. One was a friend of Mister Jago's though. Seemed to know him from a long time back.’ The Egyptian gave no reply, instead staring intensely at the space where they had been. His expression sent shivers down the ticket lady's spine. She felt that sometimes he possessed knowledge beyond that of mere mortals. There was something eerie about the way he carried himself. Maybe that was why he was so popular with the patrons. Magic of the orient, the fear of the supernatural. But her mind was wandering. Rama had left abruptly, and there were still things to be done. She wondered why he was so interested in the customers, though. Like those two were... special?
A short ride later, a hansom cab dropped off the two time-travellers at Litefoot's offices. The Doctor walked up to the door, and wiped a smudge from the neatly stencilled brass plate on the wall. Grabbing the heavy embossed door knocker he gave several short knocks. The door was opened by a harassed looking clerk.
‘Hello? Do you have an appointment?’
‘I'm the Doctor and this is my assistant Ace. We've got urgent business with Professor Litefoot. Just mention Mr Sin to him, and Giant Rats.’
Inside the building, Professor Litefoot sat, gazing at the window. As Hobbes entered, he made a pretence of poring over various accounts.
‘Yes, Hobbes, what is it?’
‘Two people to see you, Sir.’
‘I'm busy, Hobbes. Tell them to make an appointment.’
‘Very good, Sir. Oh, one mentioned something about giant rats and Mr Sin. Couldn't understand it myself, Sir.’
As Hobbes left, Litefoot stood pondering. ‘Giant rats...’
‘My dear Litefoot,’ the Doctor exclaimed from the doorway.
‘Heavens, this is most improper. Identify yourself at once!’
‘Litefoot, is that any way to greet a friend?’
‘I have never seen you before in my life.’
‘Don't you recognize the Doctor?’ Ace asked curiously.
‘But that's preposterous. He was...’
‘All teeth and curls? Yes, that part gets a bit difficult.’
Litefoot's heart sank. Another madman. Still, he could afford a few minutes of his time to humour this impostor. ‘What brings you here, Doctor? I trust it's nothing too unusual. Henry gets so excited. He's liable to do something foolish.’
‘Actually, we're here for a holiday. Allow me to introduce my companion, Ace.’
‘What's your line, Professor?’ she asked, examining a shrivelled hand on a shelf with unsettling relish.
‘I don't understand.’
‘What's your occupation?’ the Doctor translated.
‘That's what I said!’ she protested indignantly.
‘I am a criminal pathologist.’
‘You cut up a bodies?’
‘That's one way to put it. I prefer to think of it as advancing science.’
‘What do you make of these disappearances, Litefoot?’
Litefoot started to despair. Would there be no end to these questions? ‘They're very strange. Nobody can make head nor tail of them. Henry's the one to ask. He's heard all the rumours. Can't say I pay much attention to them myself.’
‘What about George Cartwright?’
‘Sir Arthur's father? The renowned archaeologist? Now there's an exception. He didn't actually disappear. He was brought into the morgue about a fortnight ago. It was most strange. Sudden heart failure, severe burns. I could have sworn it was a lightning strike.’
‘Where was he found?’
‘In the study of his manor. It might have been electrical charge, but his estate hasn't been put on electricity yet. The circumstances were peculiarly disturbing.’
‘Curiouser and curiouser.’
At that moment, the door opened and Hobbes entered.
‘Mr Jago, sir.’
Henry Jago was just as the Doctor remembered. A few more lines perhaps, the odd grey hair, and a few extra inches round the waistline, but that was all.
‘My dear Henry Jago, how have you been? Still in the music hall business? It's me, the Doctor!’
‘Surely my eyes are deceiving me?’
‘He seems to be the genuine article, Henry,’ said Litefoot, turning to face the newcomer, and winking broadly.
‘Of course I am. Who did you expect? Now Henry, I was wondering if you could give me some information. What do you know of these disappearances?’
Henry was a trifle taken aback by the stranger's effusive manner, but then his showman's instinct reasserted itself. An audience was an audience, no matter who they claimed to be. ‘Rumours have been rife, ever since it started.’ His voice dropped to a low whisper. ‘The latest word from the speculators is that it's a mysterious group.’
‘What sort of group, Henry?’ The Doctor's voice was as quiet as Henry's.
‘An Arab cult, with strange purposes, and stranger ways.’
‘Not Arabs again!’ said Ace, breaking the silence. ‘First there were the two blokes with swords, then we find out about Rama at the ticket office, and now this.’
‘It fits. What do they want though? Tell me, Henry,’ suddenly resolute, 'when did these disappearances first occur?’
‘A couple of weeks ago. I remember Rama had just arrived in town. Must have been the night of his first performance. He created quite a stir, I can tell you. Lockerbie was in the audience, I think. I spoke to him briefly, just as he was leaving. He never made it home that night.’
‘The plot thickens, eh Professor?’ Litefoot started at Ace's comment. It had definitely been addressed at the person calling himself 'the Doctor'.
‘Professor?’ Litefoot glanced at the pair suspiciously.
‘So nice talking to you Litefoot, and you Jago, but we really must be going.’ With this cue, the Doctor tipped his hat and they made a quick exit from Litefoot's office.
When they were gone Jago turned to the pathologist.
‘Do you think it was really him?’
‘If it wasn't, Jago, it was an impersonation the likes of which your Rama would be hard put to match.’ Litefoot sat down, wondering if he would ever know just who the person who had stepped through his door was.
‘But the performance is going to start in half an hour. You can't go out for a walk!’ The theatre manager's protestations went unheeded by the figure methodically wrapping himself up against the cold. The mechanical, bespectacled figure that did up his final buttons was hardly recognisable as the great mystic of the posters.
‘Your performance will not be affected. You will receive the full value of the ticket sales, and none of your patrons will ask for refunds. That is all you need to know. Now go. I have business to attend to.’ The manager thumped his palm in frustration, muttering low inaudible comments about unreliable acts. ‘No, wait.’ Rama called the fuming manager back. ‘Tonight, no one must enter the backstage area, no one. Especially not a short man, with a floppy hat and red-handled umbrella, or a girl, in a black jacket. Watch for them. They could be dangerous.’ The theatre manager was mesmerized by Rama's words, so startled by the request that he could only nod foolishly in agreement. The Arab picked up an umbrella, and strode purposefully out.
‘Doctor...’ began Ace.
‘Shhh. Rama's about to come on. We don't want to miss him.’
Ace looked as if she was going to continue anyway, but then a voice bellowed from the stage.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, The Royal Albert is proud to present, in his last night in London, the incomparable Great Rama!’ There was a thunderous round of applause from the packed house. Rama had drawn a capacity audience to see his final act.
The clapping died down. Silence stole over the crowd. Ace involuntarily held her breath, waiting to see what would happen. Almost imperceptibly the gaslights dimmed, until the theatre was nearly pitch black.
Suddenly the stage blazed into life. The curtains had parted in the darkness. On the stage stood a huge throne, standing high upon a large platform. Wide steps led down to the stage floor, where dozens of dark skinned figures prostrated themselves, chanting strange words, a deep constant hum. An explosive cheer welled from the crowd.
As the cheering died down, Ace noticed the figure on the golden throne. Dressed in vermilion robes, he commanded attention. His face was clean, his hair closely cropped, a magnificent crown adorned his head. To Ace's eyes they didn't look like Arabs... her mind struggled to remember a long-forgotten history class. The crown he wore... her face creased in concentration.
‘The crown of the high priest,’ she exclaimed, momentarily forgetting where she was.
‘What is it?’ whispered the Doctor.
‘This Rama bloke is wearing the crown of the high priest of Amunra. On important ceremonial occasions, the high priest of Amunra wears this special crown.’
‘What sort of important occasions?’
‘Only on the death or coronation of a king of the united kingdom.’
‘Who's Amunra? I seem to have forgotten that particular god.’
‘Not surprising really. Our history teacher dredged him up from some prehistoric textbook. Some king ascended to the throne and thought he better cut the church down to size. So he replaced the old gods with new ones, and a hierarchy controlled by him. He was murdered by fanatics four years later, who wanted the old gods back. The high priest vanished taking his crown with him.’
‘Until now. I think a word with the great Rama after the performance wouldn't go amiss.’ Deciding on a course of action, the Doctor settled down to enjoy Rama's act.
Rama had stood up while they were talking, and now he moved to the front of the wide platform. He started to speak, a rich mellow timbre, complemented by the low chanting from the worshippers.
‘A light for the Temple of the Sun,’ he boomed. He held a club in one hand, its head shrouded in a pitch soaked rag. He slowly held it aloft and tilted his head back. Pausing for what seemed an eternity, he then began to exhale. There were gasps of admiration and awe. As he breathed out, a jet of flame lit the torch. He held out a hand to silence the applause.
‘As night comes, so darkness falls.’ The torch descended. Ace realized with fascinated horror that he was going to swallow the flame. The fiery head disappeared into Rama's mouth, then emerged extinguished. Suddenly he tossed the torch into the air.
The move caught the audience by surprise. Hardly had they registered the fact that he no longer held the club, than he was holding a golden sceptre seemingly plucked from the rafters. The clapping was rapturous.
He motioned for silence. An almost imperceptible signal, and hidden drums boomed. At the back of the platform, two sun-bronzed giants opened an ornate gate set in the rear wall.
Out wafted a beautiful young woman, her face veiled by soft white robes that might have floated on and stuck there. She paused, the gaslights now catching her radiance. Rama beckoned. Smoothly she flowed beside him.
He turned and gently lifted the delicate veil. He murmured a few low words, unintelligible to the audience. As he spoke, he brought the sceptre up and started to move it across the girl's face in a complicated pattern. Slowly, he increased the speed up the sceptre's passage. His words were louder, clearer. Now the legions of figures on the stage were providing an invisible counterpoint, echoing the words, magnifying them, filling the hall with their power. It was only a short phrase repeated over and over. Yet nobody could think of anything else.
‘Rahtep, Rahtep Ularum, Rahtep, Rahtep Ularum.’
Ace was concentrating on the pattern the sceptre was making. The speed was dizzying. The Egyptian's words drummed on her skull. The rhythm of the drum was almost hypnotic. She couldn't tear herself away. The theatre blurred. She felt herself slipping... ‘Ace!’ The Doctor's sharp whisper brought her back to self awareness with a snap. She looked at the stage. The young woman was now in a trance. Rama had stopped the sceptre's bewildering flight, and was now using it to emphasize his words.
‘Rahtep, Rahtep Ularum, Rahtep, Rahtep Ularum.’
Now Rama was speaking alone. At every emphasis he thrust the sceptre at the air. It was as if he was trying to levitate the woman by will-power alone.
Then to the audience's astonishment, the woman slowly began to rise, a few inches at a time. When she was several feet off the stage, Rama changed the direction of his movements. He started to draw the sceptre across his chest, struggling against some invisible force, still chanting.
The woman's body turned till she was lying on her back. The delicate robes hung from her limply, shaping the curve of her body. She began to move forward, floating across the platform. At the far side, Rama motioned the figure to stop. There was silence.
To Ace, watching a magician levitate someone was not a new experience. However it was the first time she had seen it in a live performance, and even by her own modern standards she couldn't help but admire Rama. He knew exactly how to hold an audience.
A large board was rolled out by some invisible stagehand. To Ace's surprise Rama positioned the woman on it. Ace corrected herself - the woman was floating upright a few inches in front of the board, still trance-like.
Rama plucked several knives seemingly out of thin air. Each one was a masterpiece unto itself. The blades were curved with a wicked edge, but the handles were ivory, intricately carved. He held them aloft, then turned towards the woman. He stood perhaps fifteen feet away, on the opposite side of the platform. Ace could see that the board extended about a foot from either side of the girl. Rama drew back one of the glittering blades.
The first knife whistled through the air, to sink into the wood above the girl's head. More knives followed the first, outlining a pattern around Rama's assistant. The supply seemed endless. When the last one was thrown Ace counted twenty four knives sticking from the woodwork, none more than six inches away from her immobile body. The applause was deafening.
Rama put on a blindfold, and held up his last knife. This one was the most ornate of all, with colourless gems flashing above the painstakingly carved handle. Ace looked to see what his target was. She gasped. The woman was holding a small wooden target, not more than three inches across. How could Rama possibly hit such a target blindfolded?
Rama was not even facing her. His back was turned as he held out the knife in front of him. With no almost no apparent movement, he flicked the shining blade across the stage. There was silence for a moment as the audience tried to discern where the knife had landed. It was then they noticed the target. In the exact centre protruded the ornate knife.
Before the audience could react the lights went out. One woman screamed and pandemonium was unleashed on the unsuspecting crowd. Shouts, screams, a cacophony of panicking gentry, forced to suffer incalculable damage to their dignity. Finally the lights rose. A short balding gentleman, perspiring heavily, walked out in front of the lowered curtain.
‘I'm sorry for that interruption to the performance. We had a minor technical difficulty which we are working on. However I'm afraid to say that the rest of the evening's entertainment will have to be cancelled. Partial refunds are available at the door.’ He walked off, and ushers appeared, to escort the unsettled audience out.
As the crowd slowly shuffled towards the exits, Ace noticed the Doctor hadn't moved.
‘What's up, Professor?’
‘I'm just interested in knowing where Rama is at this moment.’
‘We're going to take a look, aren't we?’
‘And the staff won't like that, will they?’
‘Not particularly, I'd imagine.’
‘So what are we waiting for?’
The stage of the Royal Albert was a cathedral. Cat-walks and ladders stretched as high as the eye could see. Ace peered into the unfathomable depths of the stage. The Doctor had found an oil lamp in some corner, and was now casting it round the gloom. What they saw was unsettling.
The stage was empty. Not one set, not one board remained to betray the existence of the act which they had witnessed scant minutes before. Nobody was in sight. Of the cast of hundreds, not one lost soul was in sight. The Doctor bent down.
‘Looking for clues, Professor?’
‘Yes. Look at this dust.’
‘What about it?’
‘Elementary, my dear Ace.’ Slowly he dragged his finger across, revealing a thick coat on the stage. ‘This dust hasn't been disturbed for a long time.’
‘But that's impossible, we saw...’
‘Never rely on what you see, Ace. Things are not always what they seem.’
‘So what do we do now?’
‘I think I'd like to have a word with the great Arabian magician, Rama. You, are going to wait for Sir Arthur. He should be back any minute.’
She was left talking to the darkness.
The maze of corridors honeycombing the dark recesses of the theatre could be daunting at the best of times, but the Doctor wasted no time in finding Rama's dressing room as soon as possible. There was only one problem, and it stood six feet tall.
It was only as he was staring at the sentry's muscular torso that the Doctor realized he wasn't going to be allowed in. The Doctor retreated a little, and considered his choices. He was several hundred years out of practice with his Venusian Aikido, and he didn't favour his chances against the brawny Arab's sabre. The guard looked impassively resistant to bribery, not that he had much of worth anyway. Intimidation he could rule out, pleading was too humiliating, and the guard might as well have been set in stone.
Still he had to try. The Doctor slowly sauntered up to the guard...
Ace was getting irritable. Sir Arthur had turned up, but the Doctor had been gone for ages.
‘Come on, Sir Arthur.’
He looked up in surprise. 'Where are we going?’
‘It's time we found the Doctor,’ she said nonchalantly.
‘But... but the sign says Staff Only.’
‘When do you ever follow the sign's advice? Come on.’ She tugged him through the door.
The corridor beyond the door was like the entrance to Hades. It stretched on into darkness, doors branching off on either side. They rounded a corner and...
‘Looking for something?’ The voice was cold and hard. Ace's gaze moved upwards to fix on the granite features of the Theatre Manager.
‘A friend of ours is down here,’ Ace said, without her usual bluster.
‘You are mistaken. This area is off limits to the public.’
‘I would advise you, Sir, that I am Sir Arthur Cartwright, of the Royal Society. We are assisting the investigation of Inspector Mackerby into the recent and sudden disappearances. I hope you will do all you can do help our inquiry.’ Ace was amazed by Sir Arthur's speech, and it seemed the theatre manager was taken aback as well.
‘Do you have proof of your authenticity?’
‘You doubt the word of a knight of the realm?!’ Sir Arthur exploded. ‘I have in my possession the royal seal, and a special dispensation signed by her majesty, Queen Victoria herself! Sir, you offend me!’ The theatre manager was completely undone by Sir Arthur's brutal condemnation.
‘How could I possibly think that you were anything but what you claimed to be? I am your humble and obedient servant, Sir. Anything I can do to help?’ Sir Arthur winked at Ace.
‘Yeah, bilge bag, what happened to the sets for Rama's act?’ The theatre manager's reply might have been markedly different if Sir Arthur had not been looking sternly at him. As it was he reined in his barely controlled temper.
‘I don't know. Rama agreed to provide all his own sets and costumes, if we would let him perform. Any theatre owner would jump at the chance, especially if he had an act with the crowd pulling power of Rama. He was sensational. This was his last night. He was responsible for what he did with the sets.’
‘Can we perhaps have a word with Rama?’ said Sir Arthur, matter of factly.
‘I'm afraid that after the performance he disappeared completely, along with everything he brought with him. His contract had expired so we weren't overly worried. He left prematurely I know, but we can't do much about it.’
‘I think that about concludes our enquiries. I will pass on your information to Scotland Yard. Thank you for your time.’
The Doctor was frustrated. He had completely exhausted his repertoire of tricks to get past stubborn guards. Even his unusually fertile Time Lord imagination failed to produce a satisfactory solution to his problem.
Irritated and annoyed, he set out to rejoin Ace. His agitated state of mind could be blamed for his lack of concentration. But whatever the reason, the Doctor soon found himself lost in the labyrinthine underworld. It was only by pure chance that he stumbled on an exit.
The Doctor found himself in a dark alleyway. Debris piled high, like silt resting on a river bed, catching in rips and eddies. The Doctor had experienced alleyways on a multitude of worlds, but one was much the same as another. The forgotten parts of cities, invisible to the public at large.
The Doctor disliked alleyways. They often reflected the real character of cities, and this was not always a pretty site. He had once written a thesis on the philosophy of alleyways. They were places for intrigue, for secret rendezvous, brutal murders and displaced souls. Of course the thesis had been heavily censored when he had started wondering why Gallifrey had more dark alleys than anywhere else. He had abandoned the project and delved into bus stations instead, which were an unknown concept on Gallifrey.
Just when the Doctor thought he should probably start to find Ace and Sir Arthur, his musings were interrupted. Was that a shadow he saw? He quickly dismissed it as a figment of his imagination.
There, another one! Never quite in full view, they danced like fairies at the edge of his vision. The Doctor started towards the road.
Something banged behind him. He whirled to see a startled cat fleeing as some unidentified piece of antique garbage lay creaking on the cobbles. He relaxed and turned.
The war-cry was unexpected and shocking. From some high perch a white figure leaped in front of the Doctor, sabre brandished viciously. The Doctor turned and saw to his dismay that from behind him, more white-robed figures were approaching. As they encircled him he could not help but notice the evil swords they wielded. The fearsome edges were starting to get uncomfortably close, and he couldn't help but think Ace was right...