Authors: Jodi Taylor
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Historical, #Fantasy, #Adventure, #Humour
NO TIME LIKE THE PAST
‘History is a jangle of accidents, blunders,
surprises and absurdities.’ Henry Steele
Jodi Taylor’s best-selling series
The Chronicles of St Mary
is back with a bang …
St Mary’s has been rebuilt and it’s business as usual for the History department.
But first, there’s the little matter of a seventeenth-century ghost that only Mr Markham can see.
Not to mention the minor inconvenience of being trapped in the Great Fire of London … and an unfortunately-timed comfort break at Thermopylae leaving the fate of the western world hanging in the balance.
Re-join Max’s madcap journey through time in Jodi Taylor’s fifth inter-dimensional instalment
To the best bunch of loyal and enthusiastic followers an author could ever wish for. St Mary’s thanks you for your support and encouragement over the past four Chronicles. This, the fifth book, is dedicated to all of you.
As usual, I'd like to thank all the wonderful people at Accent Press, especially my editor, Cat Camacho. Grateful thanks also to Suze and Suzie for their comments and support; and to my neighbour Aly, who has to put up with me suddenly staring into space and then starting to scribble on the nearest horizontal surface – a bit of paper, the back of my hand, her dog …
|Dr Bairstow||Director of the Institute of Historical Research at St Mary’s Priory. Any resemblance to a bad-tempered bird of prey is not coincidental.|
|Mrs Partridge||PA to the Director and Kleio, daughter of Zeus, Muse of History. Critical and unforgiving. Probably easier to find the source of the Nile than any evidence of a sense of humour.|
|Maxwell||Chief Operations Officer. Responsible for re-establishing St Mary’s after its exciting summer last year, and for organising the infamous Open Day this year.|
|Leon Farrell||Chief Technical Officer. A man of extraordinary patience and restraint – he says.|
|Major Ian Guthrie||Head of the Security Section. A man of extraordinary etc. – he says.|
|Mr Dieter||Second Chief Technical Officer.|
Because you can’t have too much of a good thing – he says.
|Dr Tim Peterson||Chief Training Officer in search of someone to train. The sensible one – he says.|
|Mr Markham||Guthrie’s Number Two. In every sense of the phrase. Disaster magnet and mostly indestructible.|
|Dr Helen Foster||Chief Medical Officer. The only medical officer, actually. Not to be trusted with ten feet of rubber tubing and a jug of warm water.|
|Dianne Hunter||Chief Nurse and recipient of Mr Markham’s affections.|
|Prof Andrew Rapson||Head of Research & Development. Very unreliable with anything more inflammable than a wet tissue.|
|Dr Octavius Dowson||Librarian and Archivist. Elderly and irascible. You wouldn’t want to turn your back on either of these two.|
|Theresa Mack||Kitchen Supremo and former urban guerrilla.|
|Mavis Enderby||Head of Wardrobe|
|Elizabeth Shaw||PA to the Chief Training Officer.|
Highly valued for her cakes and biscuits. Not that historians are in any way shallow or easily bribed …
|Rosie Lee||Supposedly PA to the Chief Operations Officer but does pretty much as she pleases.|
|Mary Schiller||Senior Historian|
|Greta Van Owen||Senior Historian|
The tea-sodden catastrophe-cluster that is the History Dept:
|Tom Bashford & Elspeth Gre||Recently rescued historians. Currently at Thirsk University, acclimatising themselves after a ten-year absence.|
|Clive Ronan||Renegade historian and bad guy|
|Isabella Barclay||Professional bitch and bad girl|
|Chancellor and members of the Senior Faculty University of Thirsk.||Nominal employers and purse -holders.|
|Dr Kalinda Black||St Mary’s liaison officer with Thirsk University|
|Professor Penrose||Retired physicist and newly appointed boat designer|
|SPOHB: Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings.||The provisional wing of English Heritage.|
It always seemed strange to me that a building as old as St Mary’s should have no ghost.
No Headless Monk.
No Grey Lady.
No sinister shade haunting the corridors, uttering blood-curdling warnings of vengeance and retribution – apart from Dr Bairstow distributing his ‘Deductions from Wages to Pay for Damages’ forms, of course – so when Markham claimed to have seen a ghost, no one believed him and the reason we didn’t believe him was because he was the only person ever to see it.
Then it happened again.
And then again.
And still no one ever saw anything. No one except for Markham, bolting into my office, as agitated as I’d ever seen him, and gabbling about something that no one else could see.
We didn’t realise that the reason he was the only person ever to see the ghost, was because he
Another all-staff briefing from Dr Bairstow. The first since our unpleasantness with the Time Police last summer. However, they’d gone – we were still here – most of the building had been restored, and St Mary’s was open for business.
We work for the Institute of Historical Research at St Mary’s Priory. We investigate major historical events in contemporary time. For God’s sake –
call it time travel. The last person to do that had her head thumped and then was inadvertently caused to fall down the stairs.
Anyway, the building had recovered from its wounds – we’d recovered from ours – and here we all were, slowly suffocating in the smell of new wood, damp plaster, and fresh paint. Not the best smells in the world, but still a big improvement on cordite, blood, and defeat.
Tim Peterson and I sat in the front row and assumed expressions of near-terminal enthusiasm and commitment. Once we would have sat at the back and played Battleships, but senior staff have to sit at the front and show willing. It makes the destruction of the enemy fleet that much more difficult, but we were willing to rise to the challenge.
Here came the Boss, limping to the half-landing and standing in his usual position, leaning heavily on his stick. The cold winter sunshine streamed through the newly restored glass lantern above him as he surveyed his unit with the expression of an impatient vulture waiting for a dying wildebeest to get a move on.
‘Good morning, everyone. Thank you for coming.’
As if we had any choice.
‘As you can see, with effect from 10 a.m. this morning, St Mary’s is up and running.’
There was a polite smattering of applause. Most of us had been working our socks off for the last three weeks, restoring the Library and Archive, and generally helping to put the building back together, so whether St Mary’s was open or not actually made very little difference to us.
‘There are a few staff changes to announce. If you care to consult the organisational charts distributed at the beginning of this meeting by Mrs Partridge …’ He paused for the traditional panic from those who had lost theirs already. Peterson and I were using ours to record the disposition of our respective armadas.
‘Firstly, I would like to confirm Dr Maxwell in her position of Chief Operations Officer.’
He paused again. I fixed my attention on my imperilled destroyers and mentally crossed my fingers. There was a small round of applause and I breathed a sigh of relief. There had been that episode last Christmas, when Dr Bairstow had returned from a rare night of carousing in Rushford to find he had mysteriously acquired two additional historians. He’d taken it very well, all things considered. They were off now, reorienting and acclimatising themselves at Thirsk University – a necessary procedure after such a long absence. They’d been missing for ten years. And Ian Guthrie, to whom one of the missing historians was very special indeed, had caught me in the corridor one day, held my hand very tightly, said, ‘I owe you, Max,’ and then walked away before either of us displayed any unseemly emotion.
Dr Bairstow was forging on. ‘Dr Peterson assumes his original position of Chief Training Officer. Chief Farrell returns as joint head of the Technical Section, alongside Mr Dieter. Miss Perkins is appointed Head of IT, replacing Miss Barclay who has left us.’
Yes, she bloody had. She’d escaped in the confusion arising from the kitchen staff blowing up the building with flour-filled condoms. Long story. Still, a wrecked building was a small price to pay for ridding ourselves of Bitchface Barclay. Sadly, she hadn’t gone for good. She was out there, somewhere. It was only a matter of time before we met again. She’d left me a note to that effect.
He continued. ‘I would like to congratulate Mr Markham on his promotion to second in charge of the Security Section.’
No, I didn’t think he’d be able to bring himself to utter the words,
in the same sentence. It would be asking for trouble. Markham sat up and beamed amiably at him. His hair, as usual, stuck up in irregular clumps. He looked like someone being treated for mange. And not for the first time, either.
‘Mrs Partridge is confirmed as my PA and Miss Lee will return to her former position as admin assistant to the History Department.’
The History Department sighed. As did I. Yes, there she was, two rows along, her short dark hair waving around her head, just like Medusa’s snakes, but slightly more intimidating. She turned her Gorgon stare upon the History Department who promptly shut up.
‘I would also particularly like to welcome back our caretaker, Mr Strong.’
This time, the round of applause was enthusiastic and genuine. He was an old man and last year, he’d disobeyed instructions, pinned on his medals and stepped up to fight for St Mary’s. He’d been injured – we all had. Some of us had died. The Boss had tried to send him away to convalesce and he’d respectfully refused to go and spent his time stumping around the ruins of the Great Hall, telling the builders where they were going wrong and infuriating the Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings, who were supposed to be overseeing the repairs. They’d complained and Dr Bairstow, in a few well-chosen words that echoed around St Mary’s, had given them to understand that Mr Strong was one of his most valued employees and his long years at St Mary’s made him a leading authority on the building and everything in it. They got the message. Mr Strong had, however, in the interests of good will, consented to a two-week visit to see his grandchildren.
‘Mr Strong has asked me to remind you that this building is in better condition now than at any time during its long history – and certainly since we moved in – and he would be grateful if you could all use your best endeavours to keep it that way. As would I.’
He paused for this to sink in as Peterson whispered, ‘B6.’
‘Normal service is to resume as soon as possible. The History Department will let me have their schedule of upcoming assignments and recommendations by tomorrow.’
‘Dr Foster, please confirm all personnel are medically fit to return to duty. Or at least as fit as they are ever likely to be.’
‘You’re cheating, aren’t you?’
‘The Technical Section is to confirm that all pods are serviceable.’
‘Dr Peterson? Do we possess any trainees at this moment, or did they all run for the hills during our summer unpleasantness?’
‘No and no, sir. We didn’t have any trainees before the summer unpleasantness, let alone afterwards. Our last recruiting drive was … ineffective.’
He sighed, impatiently. ‘I cannot understand why St Mary’s finds it so difficult to recruit and retain staff.’
In my mind’s eye, I saw the broken bodies, half-buried under the rubble, the blood, heard the thump of explosions …
‘Please draw up ideas and suggestions for recruiting and, most importantly, retaining suitable personnel. Please do not construe this instruction as permission to roam the streets with nets and ropes, offering people the King’s Shilling. Attempts to retain future trainees by nailing them to their own desks will be discouraged.’
‘You are imposing unreasonable restrictions, sir, but I shall do my best.’
He started on about something else, but I’d discovered Peterson’s cruisers, cunningly clustered together in the top left-hand corner of his A4 ocean. In the subsequent orgy of destruction, I completely missed what he said next, and was roused only by his traditional, ‘Are there any questions?’ which is Dr Bairstow-speak for ‘I’ve told you what to do – now get on with it.’ He had once been forced to attend a ‘Caring Management‘ seminar, during which someone had courageously informed him that staff are more productive if they feel included and valued. Clearly, he hadn’t believed a word of it. There were never any questions.
‘Dr Maxwell, if you could spare me a moment, please? Thank you everyone. That will be all.’
Back in his office, he didn’t waste any time.
‘I’ll leave you to set the date, Dr Maxwell. I think you’ll agree that sometime during the coming summer seems most convenient – good weather and so on. There will be an enormous amount of work, of course, but farm it out as you think appropriate. I shall want weekly updates, but just a quick progress report will be sufficient. Draft in whomever you need. I’ll be able to let you have details of the budget sometime over the next few days.’
I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.
Behind him, Mrs Partridge smirked unhelpfully.
‘I’m sorry, sir?’
‘Mrs Partridge will handle the admin side – licenses, permits, insurance, etc. Pass all the details to her.’
He handed me an already bulging file and dismissed me. ‘Thank you, Dr Maxwell.’
My finely honed historian senses told me I’d missed something. And he knew it. There was no escape.
‘I’m sorry, sir – perhaps you could elaborate a little?’
He sighed, and as one addressing an idiot, said, ‘The Open Day.’
‘What Open Day?’
‘St Mary’s Open Day.’
‘Whenever you select the date. St Mary’s is to hold an Open Day and you are to organise it.’
‘Am I? When was all this announced?’
‘About twenty minutes ago. Just as you destroyed Dr Peterson’s second submarine.’
I was back in my newly refurbished office. The windows had been heaved open, but even so, the stench of paint was making my eyes water. The smell reminded me of the polyurethane poisoning I’d had as a student, when I’d painted my room one weekend and had only a very rudimentary understanding of the words ‘adequate ventilation’.
In reverse order of importance, I had something ergonomic in the way of a desk, a new, posh chair, and a new kettle. Sadly, I also had Miss Lee, who was peering at her screen and possibly frying a few circuits with her Gorgon glare.
I dropped the folder onto my desk with a thud and was about to request a cup of tea from Miss Lee – yet another example of blind optimism over experience – when Markham burst into the room.
‘Max! Quick! Someone’s fallen off the roof!’
I shot to my feet and followed him out. We ran down the corridor to the second window from the end. Unlike the others along the corridor, it was open. He thrust out his head and shoulders, leaning precariously over the low sill.
‘It was here!’
I grabbed a handful of his green jumpsuit and yanked him back.
‘Steady on or there’ll be two of you stretched out on the gravel …’
There was nothing there.
I looked left and right but there was nothing there. The bare-stemmed Virginia creeper covered the walls, but other than that, there was no plant life for yards around. A wide gravel path ran along this, the eastern side of St Mary’s. There was just the path and the frosty grass sloping down to the lake. The only sign of life was a few of our less traumatised swans, stumping up and down on the far side of the lake. Other than that – there was nothing.
I pulled my head in.
‘Here. I saw it. They fell past this window. But when I looked, there was no one there.’
I didn’t bother asking, ‘Are you sure?’ This was Markham. To be sure, he was small, grubby, and accident prone, but he was also virtually indestructible and very, very tough. Yet here he was, standing in front of me now, so pale that I could see the blue veins in his temples. There was no doubt he thought he’d seen something.
He stuck his own head back out of the window, presumably in case the body had magically reappeared.
‘Perhaps they weren’t hurt – or not hurt very badly,’ he said, ‘and they got up and went for help.’
‘Good thought.’ I opened my com link and called Dr Foster. ‘Helen – has anyone reported to you at any time in the last ten minutes?’
‘There’s a possibility someone may have fallen off the roof.’
‘Check around. Especially those idiots in R & D. Sounds like the sort of thing they might do. I’ll let you know if anyone turns up.’
She closed the link.
Markham was as near angry as I’d ever seen him. ‘There’s no “possibility” about it. I know what I saw.’
‘What did you see? Tell me every detail.’
‘I was standing just here.’
He pushed me aside and stood where I had been.
‘I was walking towards your office.’
He mimed walking, just in case I was having some difficulty grasping the concept.
‘The window was on my left. Just as I drew level, something black fell past. I was so surprised I couldn’t move for a second.’
He mimed a level of surprise and horror that would lead anyone else to believe he’d just witnessed the asteroid wipe out the dinosaurs.
‘Then I heaved up the window, leaned out, and … and there was nothing there.’
‘Is there a possibility they got up and ran away before you had a chance to see?’
‘I don’t know. It took me a while to get the window open, but you’ve seen for yourself – there’s no cover. All right, they might not be dead since they only fell on gravel, but it’s three floors up – they’d have broken a bone or two at least. And why would they hide? It doesn’t make sense.’
He looked genuinely agitated, which was a first for him.
‘I think,’ I said slowly, ‘that someone’s pulling your plonker. Someone’s up on the roof – they push off an old dummy and in between the time you see it and struggle to get the window up and look out, someone’s leaned out of a downstairs window and pulled it in. I bet they’re down there now, laughing their heads off and waiting for you to appear at any minute and start dashing about looking for bodies.’
His face cleared. ‘Of course. Bastards! Good trick though. Talk about shitting bricks – I nearly evacuated a monolith. Thanks, Max.’
He strolled off, presumably to bring down retribution on persons unknown and I wandered back to my office.
The next day, he was back again and this time he wasn’t alone.
They burst through my door, Peterson escorting Markham who looked – not to put too fine a point on it – as if he’d seen a ghost.