Monday, February 22, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Five: April 6, 1926

CW: Mention of suicide. Inappropriate touching by Lovecraftian monsters. 

Mikhail at the Library

Mikhail finds a story in a book of Druze oral traditions/fables regarding a long-ago raid on a clan of Tahijuh the clan had captured some Druze camels, and attempted to sacrifice them to their various gods using mirrors, knives, and magical incantations. Mikhail copies this down and returns to the group.

Dr. Black and the Rerun

Dr. Black, Johnny, and Bill Simpson rig up von Varnstein’s lens so that the projector will project the film through it backward. It is quickly decided that Dr. Black will watch this film by himself while the other two men wait outside.

The film is slightly blurrier than before and still strongly tinted blue.  Otherwise, everything is normal, until Dr. Black gets to the three scenes that unnerved everyone before. It appears that, in this configuration, von Varnstein’s lens can make the invisible visible. Dr. Black sees:

  • In the desert fight scene, he sees several non-human fingers shambling around in the background.
  • In the closeup of James Raven, he sees a monstrous figure step out from behind a broken wall, look directly at the camera, and continue on its way.
  • In the last scene, he sees two of the creatures climb through the window into the room, where they harass Monica Anikova.

Dr. Black cries out, thoroughly unnerved at the site of these monsters. When Johnny and Bill rush in to see how he’s doing, he tries—with minimal success—to explain just what exactly he’s seen.

Johnny begins to suspect that he might be able to make the creatures visible with the Powder of Ibn-Ghazi.

Monica’s Apartment

Investigations continue at Monica’s apartment. The group discovers that a framed photograph of Monica, which is just above her writing desk in the bedroom, has had its glass cracked in the bottom left corner. Judge Putnam removes the back of the frame to see if something has been hidden inside. He finds nothing but the photograph, but does reveal two more things: a scrape on the side of the frame near the crack in the glass, and a hole in the wall directly behind where the picture was hung. The hole is roughly rectangular, perhaps an inch long and half that wide.

Judge Putnam descends to the lobby—and the address placards in the vestibule—to see who lives next door to Monica. It turns out that no one does—on either side. The group debates whether this is unusual or not, while Ron decides to break into the door into the apartment on the other side of the hole in the wall.

While he’s doing this, Vivian probes the hole with her finger and gets it stuck. Liam sees that she is trapped and tries to help free her. Hilarity ensues.

Ron, who is now in the apartment, sees Vivian’s trapped finger protruding through the wall. He does the sensible thing, which is to say he slips on his brass knuckles and smashes his fist against the wall right near Vivian’s hand. This shatters the horsehair plaster, widens the hole, and allows Vivian to withdraw her finger. She is also still able to play the violin.

The group convenes in the adjacent apartment. It is fitfully furnished. The group notes a small end table that is next to the now damaged wall. It appears that a vase containing fake flowers had been knocked off the table somehow and had dashed itself to pieces on the floor.

Initially, the group suspects that gunplay was involved in Monica’s death somehow, but, after not finding any bullets in either apartment, and realizing that the initial hole in the wall was the wrong size, they revise their theory. They suspect that the hole in the wall might have been made by something narrow and sharp. Like a knife. Or a sword.

Realizing that they have met one person recently who both knows Monica and wields a sword, the group decides that they need to have another chat with James Raven.

Back at Dr. Wakefield’s

Dr. Wakefield

The group decides that they may need to spirit James Raven out of the doctor’s custody. Ron tells the group not to worry—he has a plan.

On their way over to Dr. Wakefield’s office, the group reconvenes with Johnny, Dr. Black, and Mikhail. They take a moment to share what they have learned before entering the small surgery owned by Palm Tree Studios.

Dr. Wakefield is surprised, but happy to see them. The group explains that Judge Putnam, Dr. Black, and Mikhail have some background in psychiatry, and ask if they could try to get to the root of Mr. Raven’s madness. Dr. Wakefield agrees.

Mikhail makes some headway by talking to James Raven exclusively in quotes from The Count of Monte Christo. Mr. Raven continues to rave about the “friends” that he met in the desert, how they were angry at the studio, “and the others” for intruding in their domain, and how he had promised to help them protect their little valley. He further explains that he will be rewarded for his efforts by being taken to a paradise-like kingdom beyond “the gate.”

The group decide that, based on this information, they should have James Raven watch the outtake film reel. They give Ron the high sign.

Ron fakes a heart attack. Dr. Wakefield immediately escorts Ron to another gurney, located behind some privacy screens, and begins to diagnose him. While Ron tries to keep Dr. Wakefield busy with contradictory symptoms and dramatic acting, the rest of the group releases James Raven from his gurney.

At about this time, Dr. Wakefield realizes that Ron is not, in fact, having a heart attack. He provides Ron with some bismuth subsalicylate and is about to send him on his way. Vivian signals to Ron that the group needs a few more moments. Ron, in desperation, takes down his trousers and asks Dr. Wakefield about a strange rash he’s gotten.

Mikhail manages to keep James Raven calm and pliant with appropriate movie quotes. The group ushers Mr. Raven out into the street while Dr. Wakefield calmly explains to Ron that he has a heat rash. He gives Ron some talcum powder.

Dr. Wakefield washes his hands and returns to his patient notes as the group escort James Raven to the screening room.

An Encore Performance

Bill is still at the screening room and is very disturbed and surprised to see the group arrive with James Raven. The group convinces him that Mr. Raven is fine and completely harmless while in their custody. They ask him to rig up the lens on the projector, as before, and set up the outtakes reel so that they can play it one more time.

After seeing the “normal” version of the film and hearing Dr. Black’s report of what the lens reveals, Bill is in no hurry to sit through another screening of it. He tells the group that he will be outside should they need him. Johnny and Ron with him. Dr. Black and Vivian hide in the building’s small washroom, out of sight of the film, but in earshot in case the others need help handling Mr. Raven.

Mikhail remains in the screening room to keep an eye on James Raven, though he is mostly watching the room’s outer door. Judge Putnam decides to watch the film through his hand, squeezing his fingers shut if anything occurs on screen that is too “scary.”

James Raven becomes much more amiable and normal once the film reel starts playing. He tells the judge and Mikhail that, “Oh, this is a good one. I’m in this one,” and proceeds to watch the outtakes with some excitement.

The three “troublesome” scenes play out as before. Judge Putnam manages to avoid seeing closeups of the creatures in the latter two scenes, and assumes that the things in the background of the fight scene are “just camels.” Mikhail is deeply unnerved by seeing the creatures. James Raven, however, is delighted, and starts telling everyone that the creatures are, in fact, his oft-mentioned friends.

His demeanor changes rapidly when the final scene plays. Upon seeing the creatures “manhandle” Monica Anikova, Mr. Raven goes berserk, at first screaming at the screen and then pulling it down off of the wall with terrifying strength. Mikhail turns off the projector while Ron restrains Mr. Raven.

James Raven is inconsolable, and sobs something about, “she was promised to me. A queen in our new kingdom. They betrayed me! THEY BETRAYED ME!”

The group tries to calm James Raven down, with some success. They ask him about the last time he saw Monica and receive this disturbing reply. “She didn’t like it here. She was going away. She was going to go far away.”

“Where was she going the last time you saw her?”

 "Down, I think. Very far down.”

Regrouping at the Tulip Doree II

The group decides to bring James Raven back to the hotel while they plan their next move. In order to make sure that the studio doesn’t go on the hunt for Mr. Raven, Ron goes back to Dr. Wakefield’s. A frantic Wakefield is relieved, though baffled, that Mr. Raven is with the group. He refrains from asking follow up questions.

Back at the hotel, Dr. Black finds Brother Theodore and Turki Nazar playing chess in the lobby. He asks if Turki could take a walk while he talks to Brother Theodore privately. Turki agrees and says, with some self-deprecation, that he was losing the game anyway. As Turki bows, Dr. Black notes that he is wearing bright yellow socks. This deeply unnerves him.

Dr. Black assembles the group and passes on the color of Turki’s socks. This makes several members of the group, especially Ron, afraid that Turki is yet another form of the entity that was also Nathan Torpley, Nellie Thompson, and Lostalus Black. Mikhail proudly informs the group that he never trusted Turki anyway.

Johnny, who by now has had some private time to himself, has managed to translate the notes found in von Varnstein’s apartment. They describe von Varnstein’s suspicion that invisible monsters were plaguing his set, as well as his efforts to manufacture lenses to render them visible. These documents also, helpfully, include a diagram of von Varnstein’s latest efforts. Johnny and Dr. Black show these notes to Brother Theodore and ask him if he could perhaps go to the markets in As Suwayda and find a glass cutter to hire. Their plan is to either transform von Varnstein’s lenses into “opera glasses,” to make for easier use, or to make additional lenses just in case.

As Brother Theodore departs to scour the markets, one of the desk staff at the hotel informs Judge Putnam that the book he requested at the university library in Damascus has finally come in.

Members of the group split up at this point, attending to their own plans and personal intrigues.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Four: April 6, 1926

CW: Mention of suicide. 

A Bit of Continuity

It should be mentioned that, sometime during the last session, Brother Theodore was meant to have given Dr. Black the reforged Sword of Marcus. He also asked Dr. Black if he, or his friends, were interested in joining Brother Theodore’s order, the Bruderschaft der Fallensteller. After learning that joining the order was not compulsory, Dr. Black told Brother Theodore that he would think about it.

Bill Simpson

As the group decides what to do with Mr. Raven, Vivian informs the group that there is a well-dressed, older woman who has been watching them from across the street. The woman has not moved from her spot, and has quietly been taking notes on their actions this entire time.

Moments later, a Black man approaches the woman and talks to her somewhat frantically. The woman calmly points straight at the group, and the man rushes over. He seems to be about to ask the group something when he sees Mr. Raven draped over Ron’s shoulder.

“Oh no, Mr. Raven! Not again!”

He introduces himself as Bill Simpson, a stagehand on Prince of Babylon.  He apologizes profusely to the group on behalf of Palm Tree Studios, and tells them that he has been trying very hard to keep poor Mr. Raven out of trouble. Bill says that the mad actor has been apprehended several times, only to escape each time. After learning that Mr. Raven sharpened a stage sword and wounded both Ron and Mikhail, Bill promises that he will force the studio heads to understand just how dangerous Mr. Raven has become, and will insist on restraining him more vigorously this time.

Bill tells the group that he is very, very sorry, for what has happened, and also that he is very, very grateful to them for apprehending Mr. Raven without harming him. Ron is quite catty during this whole exchange, but Bill ultimately manages to win over the group. When the group asks if they should take Mr. Raven to a local hospital, Bill says that there is a staff doctor who works for the studio, and that they should take him there.

Bill Simpson, Stagehand for Palm Tree Studios

Dr. Wakefield

The group arrive at the studio’s rather simple field hospital and office. They meet Dr. Wakefield, who puts Mr. Raven on a gurney and then puts him in restraints. 

Dr. Wakefield tends to Mikhail’s shoulder wound while Dr. Black tends to Ron’s leg wound.

Mikhail and Judge Putnam try to talk to Mr. Raven, but learn very little. He raves about the desert and about the “new friends” he’s made, but otherwise seems to make very little sense. The others make a bit more headway talking to Dr. Wakefield and Bill, and learn the following:

  • Both men believe that Monica Anikov’s death was an accident.
  • Bill explains that Mr. Raven somehow got “left behind” when they left the film set the last time. He says that Mr. Raven arrived in As Suwayda dehydrated, starved, heavily sunburned, and raving. They have been trying to keep him out of trouble, but lack the facilities.
  • Dr. Wakefield says that Mr. Raven is physically fine, more or less, but appears to have suffered from a psychotic break.
  • Bill warns the group that the woman they keep seeing is a Hollywood entertainment reporter. She has been snooping around looking for gossip about what’s going on with Prince of Babylon. He implores them not to talk to her.
  • The location of Mr. Raven’s quarters. 

The group leaves a short time later, to pursue their original mission in the area.

von Varnstein’s Apartment

The group returns to the converted army barracks that now serve as temporary housing for the cast and crew. Upon arrival, they are approached by the woman, who introduces herself as Roseanne Bartlett. She asks them the identity of the man they carried off earlier. Ron growls at her and she quickly retreats.

Everyone goes up to von Varnstein’s apartment and Liam lets them in using the key given to him by Mr. Tokamak. Ron stands guard in the hallway while Johnny and Kane take up positions near the apartment’s single window. Kane notes that Ms. Bartlett is still standing vigil across the street, and breaks off from the group to go to talk to her.

Judge Putnam and Dr. Black notice several storyboards arranged on easels around the apartment. These storyboards are a testament to von Varnstein’s exacting vision. Judge Putnam wonders how much money the studio would need to finish the movie.

In the front room, Mikhail searches a table by the window and finds it littered with papers, jewelers’ tools, and pieces of cut glass. He also finds several sheets of paper handwritten in German. He hands these off to Johnny, who struggles to translate them. They appear to be personal notes from von Varnstein, but Johnny keeps getting distracted and is unable to devote his full attention to them.

Vivian searches the bedroom for anything resembling a journal. She finds a book on a nightstand, which turns out to be a ledger of the film’s finances. She also finds a large trunk squeezed into the bottom of a wardrobe. Vivian tries to pick the lock and fails. She calls Johnny into the room and asks him to pick the lock. He succeeds. Liam acts shocked and appalled that the two of them have larcenous skills, despite knowing full well that he can pick locks himself.

Inside the trunk, Vivian finds a film reel labeled, “Prince of Babylon Outtakes Reel #1.” She also discovers two long, curious tubes with screw threads on one end. Looking down the tubes, Vivian and Johnny note that they are packed with colored glass lenses, suggesting that they are meant to be used with a motion picture camera.

Judge Putnam notes a tipped over chair in the center of the front room, as well as a heavy crossbeam overhead. He tests the beam to ensure that it will hold its weight—which it does. While studying the beam, he notes that someone has carved some letters into it with a sharp pencil, “I cannot bear to see what I have seen, and I cannot unsee it.”

A Concerned Neighbor

Pierre Baptiste, Famous Actor

A well-dressed man with a pencil moustache comes out of one of the other apartments on the floor and makes his way to the stairs. Seeing Ron, the man approaches and asks what he’s doing there. After discussing his reasons for being there in vague terms, Ron learns that the man is none other than Pierre Baptiste, a famous actor. Ron invites him in to meet the rest of the group. Mikhail fanboys over his favorite movie star.

Most of the others recognize Mr. Baptiste from his roles in romantic pictures (which Ron rarely watches). Mr. Baptiste explains that Prince of Babylon was going to be a bit of a departure and a breakout for him, as he was signed on to play the villain. He confirms much of what the group already knows—that von Varnstein was the auteur of the picture,  that no one knows how to proceed without him, and that the deaths and the unpleasant aura surrounding the picture has destroyed everyone’s mood. He explains that the cast and crew are under contract, and cannot leave the area before the studio decides what it’s going to do. He confesses that everyone is in limbo right now.

He describes some unpleasant things that other people experienced at the desert film set. Dr. Black realizes that Mr. Baptiste has probably had some unpleasant experiences of his own, and takes him out into the hallway to speak to him privately. Mr. Baptiste says that he has recurring nightmares where he’s trapped on the set, surrounded by walls of canvas that he ins unable to cut or tear through, and plagued with the fear that he is being watched and hunted by something terrible.

Once he describes his nightmares to Dr. Black, Mr. Baptiste suddenly “remembers” that he has business elsewhere and hastily departs.

Kane and Roseanne

Roseanne Bartlett, Roving Reporter

At this point, Kane comes back after speaking with Ms. Bartlett. He tells the group that they exchanged pleasantries and that Ms. Bartlett made it known that she was looking for details about what’s going on with the studio. Kane reports that he was surprised, and a little embarrassed, that Ms. Bartlett seemed to know of him and his work, and seemed not at all shy about turning on the charm.

After a somewhat vague and circuitous conversation, Kane learned that Ms. Bartlett, like himself, is staying at the Tulip Doree II in the center of As Suwayda. She tells him to drop by any time with any information he’s learned. She promises to pay him from her expense account if he is able to tell her anything useful.

Kane asks the group what, if any, information he should tell Ms. Bartlett. After soliciting opinions, he decides to return to the hotel and speak with Ms. Bartlett in private. Turki Nazar and Brother Theodore go with him.

Let’s Split Up, Team!

The group has a lot to do, and decides to split up to cover more ground. Johnny and Dr. Black ask Liam if there’s anywhere they can go to get their hands on a projector to view the outtakes reel. Liam says that the studio has a screening room and gives directions. Johnny and Dr. Black set out with the film reel and one of von Varnstein’s lenses in tow.

The rest of the group decides that they will go across the way to the second converted army barracks, which is the location of both Monica Anikov’s and James Raven’s apartments.

Mikhail splits off from the others, finds As Suwayda’s library, and proceeds to do some research on portals. He doesn’t find very much, but at least he's thinking with portals.

James Raven’s Apartment

The door to Mr. Raven’s apartment is locked. Vivian tries to pick the lock and fails. Before anyone else can do or say anything, Ron steps past Vivian and shoulders the door in.

The apartment is neat, sparse, and little lived-in. After a thorough search, the group head up to the third floor to Ms. Anikov’s apartment.

Monica Anikov’s Apartment

Monica Anikov, Leading Lady

Vivian once again tries to get the hang of picking locks, only to be foiled by the lock. Ron once again smashes open the door with his shoulder. Inside, the apartment is much more nicely decorated and livable than the ones occupied by Raven and von Varnstein. Several photographs of Ms. Anikov hang around the apartment, and a manila folder on a nearby table contains several autographed photos, presumably for her adoring fans.

The group studies the balcony and finds it to be in excellent repair. It seems very unlikely that Ms. Anikov would have fallen off of it accidentally.

In the bedroom, Vivian finds a half-written letter on a small table. The letter seems to have been written by Ms. Anikov, and also seems to be a letter of resignation. Ms. Anikov cites several disturbing incidents, which have made her very fearful, and that she cannot bear to work on Prince of Babylon any longer.

The group compares the handwriting on the note to the handwriting on the pictures, and confirms that the same person wrote both. They also note that the handwriting on the letter is much more frantic than those on the pictures.

The Screening Room

A Single Frame from the Outtakes Reel

Johnny and Dr. Black arrive in the screening room and find it staffed by none other than Bill Simpson. Bill is pleased to see them and is happy to set up the film in the projector for viewing.

The film reel contains outtakes of several scenes—sometimes many, many takes of each. Most of them are unremarkable. However, a shot of several scimitar-wielding dervishes riding across the desert makes Johnny and Dr. Black’s skin crawl. Bill, too, is unnerved by the scene, and stops the projector briefly.

Johnny and Dr. Black produce the lens, and ask Bill if he wouldn’t mind attaching it to the front of the camera. Bill agrees, and finds that the lens fits perfectly. The lens seems to have no other effect than tinting the film a deep, bluish color.

Johnny, freaked out already and suspecting that the lens might reveal more horrors than are readily apparent, goes outside to smoke and calm his nerves. Dr. Black and Bill continue watching the film.

Two other shots are notable for waking feelings of horror and revulsion, despite their seeming innocuousness. The first is a mid-shot of James Raven, the hero of the picture, holding his rapier and speaking at the camera. The second is of Monica Anikov, dressed in regnal finery and reclining on a couch. Dr. Black notes that, though this scene seems normal, Ms. Anikov has a barely concealed look of fear on her face. Dr. Black also sees that Ms. Anikov’s costuming seems to be rippling, as if moved by wind or unseen hands.

The film reel runs out a short time later. Bill, rather upset by what he has seen, packs the film reel into the cannister while Dr. Black goes out to fetch Johnny. The three men discuss what they have seen (and not seen). Johnny suspects that they might learn more if they reverse the direction of the camera lens, holding it so the light of the projector goes from front to back instead of back to front.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Three: April 4-6, 1926

CW: Suicide is mentioned.

Late Evening, April 4th

Mikhail returns to the hotel once all of the Ron-induced excitement dies down. He seems to have made several other purchases, including a crossbow and some bolts.

Everyone retires to their hotel rooms. Everyone, that is, except for Ron Deluca. Despite protestations from Vivian, he wanders downstairs to the reception desk and asks to use their phone. He makes a very expensive transatlantic call to Darragh’s house, to see how his wife and son are doing (Ron had Darragh move them and keep them safe in the face of what seems to be a fairly imminent mob war).

Ron is still stoned out on hashish and on laudanum. He also has a recently Johnny-inflicted head injury. As a result, he doesn’t realize that he should, by all rights, be on a ship right now and unable to call home. Connie immediately picks up on this. She suspects that Ron is tying one on at a speakeasy and calls him out on it. The conversation deteriorates rapidly from there. Ron hangs up the phone in disgust and charges the call to Judge Putnam’s account.

Darragh MacGowan, Ron's Brother-in-Law

Morning, April 5th

The group meets to discuss their plan of action over breakfast. They all believe that they should prepare to travel to As Suwayda and investigate the strange goings on at the movie set. Several members also plan to go on individual errands. Vivian, Johnny, and Mikhail will visit the university library; Judge Putnam will contact the embassy and see if Turki Nazar will accompany them on their journey. Dr. Black visits Brother Theodore and shows him the shattered pieces of the gladius he recovered from Scotland. Kane checks out the vehicles. Ron relaxes at the hotel.

Well, Ron mostly relaxes. During breakfast, Ron becomes aware that several of the other hotel guests seem to be watching him as he eats. Ron, perhaps embarrassed of his behavior the night before, and angry that Connie is, once again, mad at him, leaves the table to go confront his oglers. This causes significant consternation from the rest of the group.

Ron goes over to a table where three couples, who are also French nationals, are engaged in quiet conversation. Ron is immediately threatening, but is handled rather gently by the oldest of the gentlemen at the table, notable for his dashing monocle. Ron invites Vivian to join the conversation, and Vivian does, hoping that she can help prevent any escalation.

The conflict, such as it is, resolves amicably, with the Frenchman purchasing a bottle of wine for Ron. As the waiter shows off the bottle to Ron and Vivian, the French couples beat a hasty retreat.

The Library

Vivian goes to the university library to look up more information on As Suwayda, the Druze, and As Safa. While at the library, she is confronted by a mysterious, elderly woman. The woman, apparently a librarian, has noticed that Vivian seems interested in certain types of rare and arcane information. She offers Vivian, and her friends, a chance to visit the library’s restricted book collection. Vivian, Mikhail, and Johnny all jump at the chance.

The restricted section is in the library’s basement, behind lock and key, and consists of several very large medieval texts, each of which are chained to shelves. Johnny gives the books a cursory inspection, planning to come back to study them more deeply later (possibly when no one else is there to stop him). Mikhail finds enough esoteric research and spellcraft materials to alter his Bless Blade spell and make it a Bless Ammunition spell. He also does some more research on the oft mentioned, but thankfully never seen, Hounds of Tindalos.

Vivian learns several bits of cultural and political importance from the upper library, as well as several pieces of interesting knowledge in the lower library. She discovers that As Safa is currently being used as a base by the Druze rebels and that it is the home to several strange archaeological features dating back to antiquity. Vivian also researches how to safely pass through the Umr at Tawil gateway, thereby reaching the Nameless City and avoiding the light emanating from it. She learns that this might require certain rituals, the blessing of the Keeper of the Key and the Gate, or similar.

Judge Putnam

The judge arranges to meet with Turki and offers him a contract if he will help the London Group on their trip to As Suwayda.  Turki agrees to the judge’s terms, but says that he will need some time to speak to his supervisors at the embassy and pack his things. He promises to return later on in the evening to accompany the group out of town.

While Judge Putnam is drawing up the contract for Turki, he is approached by a hotel manager and informed of Ron’s unpaid $100 (in 1926 dollars) phone bill. The Judge pays the bill, of course, but is privately livid at Ron. He also takes the opportunity to have the hotel manager call the sister hotel in As Suwayda and prepare rooms for their arrival.

Mikhail

When no one is looking, Mikhail sacrifices some of the chickens he bought the previous day and uses their blood to anoint six rounds of .45 caliber ammunition.

To As Suwayda

A Streetmap of As Suwayda

As night approaches and the desert cools, the London Group (along with Brother Theodore—now in civilian attire—and Turki Nazar) departs for the capital of Druze-controlled territory. Their trip is uneventful, and Turki is able to get them through the Druze checkpoint and into the city with little effort.

Driving into the city, the group spies battle damage caused by the ongoing conflict. They also note an Arabic phrase, which is whitewashed onto numerous buildings throughout the city. Johnny, unable to translate it with his fledgling Arabic, asks Turki what it means. Turki tells him it is, "Religion is for God, the fatherland is for all," which is the slogan of the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who is much beloved and who is still directing the revolution after being forced to flee to the Transjordan. Certain turns of phrase he uses in describing al-Atrash, the rebels, and the revolution clue Vivian in that Turki is either a Druze or very sympathetic to their cause.

The London Group arrives at the hotel in As Suwayda and checks in. They rest and recuperate for the long day ahead of them.

April 6th: Locating Palm Tree Studios

With the help of a hotel clerk and a walking map of As Suwayda, the group are able to locate the local office of Palm Tree Studios. Judge Putnam calls ahead to let Faram Tokamak know that they are in the area and on their way over. Faram is overjoyed at this.

The group, along with Brother Theodore and Turki, travel to the westernmost district of As Suwayda, where they find that the Hollywood studio has taken up residence in quite a few buildings in the area. While getting their bearings, they are approached by a very enthusiastic Liam, who greets Vivian loudly as he approaches the group.

Liam says that he likes Syria, but that he is kind of bored and restless and wants to go home. He says that Faram is trying to get checks cut for him and Archie Leech to go back to the States, but that there’s some “financial difficulty” that’s slowing down the whole process. Vivian informs Liam that if he wants to, he can talk to either her or Johnny about using a “special way” to be sent home. She does not elaborate, but she means the Gate Box Express. Liam thanks her.

A short time later, Liam realizes that Ron is with the group and is terrified. The group, especially Vivian, try to calm Liam down, with little success.

Liam directs the group over to Faram’s unimpressive office, where they meet the man himself and Marie, his cranky secretary who is very much over working for this ramshackle studio outfit. Marie is only just barely willing to follow Faram’s instructions, and rustles up several chairs, some stools, and a few packing cases for the group to seat themselves on. 

Departed Film Director Eric von Varnstein

Faram explains that he would very much like the London Group to investigate the issues plaguing the production of the film and Palm Tree Studios. He says that, due to financial constraints, he may not be able to pay them much, but he promises that he will pay them for their services. He also says that there are numerous Hollywood reporters sniffing around, trying to get any scoop at all on the troubled production, and requests that the group say nothing to these people. When the players agree, Faram gives them some details and answers their questions. Among them:

  • The studio cannot seem to decide whether to pull up stakes and leave, or whether to keep shooting the movie. This is not helped by the fact that von Varnstein, the dead director, was an auteur and kept most of the details of the film tucked away in his head. The group asks if von Varnstein kept notes on the production. Faram says that he doesn’t know, but if von Varnstein did, and if they were found, they just might save the production.
  • The film was coming in well under budget until problems began to plague the filming, including the death of von Varnstein. Faram says that the cost overruns now are due to housing and paying all the actors and production crew that aren’t working right now.
  • The other troubles include several actors who quit abruptly and who had to be quickly (and expensively) replaced, as well as the mysterious death of an actress named Monika, who was apparently the picture’s female lead. Faram states that she jumped, or fell, from her third-floor balcony and died upon impact. Everyone initially suspected that this was an unfortunate accident. However, after discovering von Varnstein’s suicide, Faram is beginning to suspect that Monika may have killed herself as well.
  • After Monika’s death, von Varnstein temporarily halted production and moved the cast and crew back to As Suwayda while he researched new methods to bring his vision to life. Faram doesn’t know what these new methods were, but suspects that the group could find evidence of his work in von Varnstein’s rooms.
  • Faram confirms to the group that von Varnstein hung himself.
  • Faram explains that the production site is very expensive and well made, consisting not only of sets, but also of dormitories for the cast and crew, a cafeteria, storage for equipment, and so on.
  • As the meeting concludes, the group suggests that they visit von Varnstein’s rooms first. Faram presents them with a copy of a key to von Varnstein’s quarters and asks Liam to take the group over to where the cast and crew are staying in As Suwayda. Liam accepts.

The Mad Actor

It appears that the cast and crew of the production are staying in two adjacent buildings that are either former apartment buildings or hotels or similar. Liam leads toward the building that von Varnstein is staying at, rattling off facts about the cast, the crew, the city, the film, and similar.

Several members of the group notice a figure, clad in rags, crouching behind a nearby date palm. The figure leaps out at Liam as the young man passes by the tree, lunging at him with a sword. Judge Putnam deflects the sword blow with his cane, and the figure steps back, in stunned surprise.

Judge Putnam eventually recognizes this man as famed “swashbuckling” actor James Raven, though his current presentation—sunburned, wild-haired, filthy, dressed in rags—is a far cry from how the judge knows him from the silver screen.

James Raven, His Co-Star, and an Actress, In Better Times

Vivian notes that Raven’s sword is a movie prop, which would normally be blunted and buttoned for safety. She also notes that Raven has taken some time to sharpen this sword, turning it into a deadly weapon.

Raven raves at the group, telling them that he knows that they’re there to destroy his friends, and that he won’t let them do it. Realizing that he is confronted by superior numbers, however, he turns and runs for it rather than pressing his attack.

Ron pursues James Raven down an alley beside the cast and crew quarters, cornering him as Raven comes up against the alley’s dead end. Ron attempts to subdue Raven with a solid thump to the noggin, only to get stabbed in the leg in return.

As Ron steps back into a more defensive posture, Dr. Black and Mikhail come tearing into the alley.  Mikhail crosses blades with Raven, only to find that the mad actor’s dueling skills are far superior to his own. Mikhail fails back as Raven wounds him.

Dr. Black, desperately trying to deescalate the situation, Wracks Raven with a magical spell. Raven is immediately overcome and collapses in the alley, screaming. Ron picks up the convulsing actor and throws him over his shoulder as the rest of the group crowds into the alleyway.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Two: April 4, 1926

Church and Errands

Those of the group who are feeling religious go to church. Those who don’t do other things. They meet up back at the Tulipe Dorée a short time later to share stories. Here’s what they did in the meantime.

Telegrams: Judge Putnam sent two telegrams—one to Christopher Edwin to let him know he was in Syria and to ask for advice about Bryan Slim, the other to Terrance, his secretary, who was housesitting for him, asking to track down Anne Chantraine and inquiring about any resurgence in the Silver Twilight Lodge. Ron sent a coded telegram to Darragh (with Vivian’s help), to tell Darragh about the imminent mob war and that Darragh should look after Ron’s wife and son. Kane sends a telegram to Horus, telling him that the charm bag that he had purchased was very useful. He also wants Horus to make another one.

Vivian Bernouse and Judge Putnam: Went to the university library to research the Nameless City. They found a very brief mention of an archaeological team that Vivian had researched earlier. The team, consisting of Drs. Masterson, Lavallee, and Thibodeau, allegedly found the gate to the Nameless City using novel methods that they refused to describe. They apparently abandoned their survey when Masterson was critically injured. They also learn that Lavallee currently teaches at a university in Cairo.

The duo also learns of a book called Kinship, Inheritance, and Worship in Arabia, 1804-1900, which is on loan to the University of Beirut. The librarian promises to order the book for them and asks them to check back in a couple of days.

Dr. Black: Visited a local museum set up by the French to display local artifacts. One such artifact was a bronze disc that had a very familiar symbol on the back. Dr. Black spoke with a docent and learned that the artifact was a bronze mirror reputed to belong to the Tahijuh clan, which was originally part of the Druze ethnic group until they disappeared. Dr. Black debated on whether or not to steal the mirror, but ultimately decided against it.

Ron Deluca and Mikhail: Went to the local open-air market. Ron continued his tradition of having a clothes-buying montage. Mikhail purchased an olive wood cane and was also convinced to buy a jar of olive oil and a jar of pickled olives. Shortly thereafter, Ron ditched Mikhail and, through a series of lucky hunches, located one of Damascus’ black markets. Here, he purchased a curved knife and a two-ounce brick of hashish.

Johnny Doukas: Also located the black market, though not at the same time as Ron. He bought his way in with French francs and expensive American cigarettes. He focused on the curio and trinket dealers in the market, and eventually found a bronze disc with a very familiar symbol on it. He purchased the disc for the equivalent of three American dollars. The seller mentions something, repeatedly, about “kaniun al’shaytan,”but Johnny’s Arabic isn’t good enough to understand what this means.

Kane Eastman: He first went to the local Catholic church and inquired about getting a priest to perform an exorcism (his plan to help get Carl Stanford out of Bryan Slim’s body). He learned that there were no priests capable of performing the rite locally, but that the church could contact the Vatican and request someone if the need was dire. Kane also bumped into Brother Theodore, who was in Syria for some reason, and who was staying on the church grounds.  Brother Theodore asked Kane to let Dr. Black know he was in the area.

Kane then has Vivian and Mikhail disguise him as a prim and proper Black woman, complete with a dress and a long wig. In this disguise, Kane hops into the Gate box and travels back to New York City. He goes to Papa Doc Horus, who is shocked to see Kane in his new outfit. Kane explains that he came in secret—and in disguise—because he fears repercussions from the Silver Twilight Lodge. Horus gives Kane another charm bag, but tells him that his energies are waning and that he will likely be unable to make more in the future.

At the Tulipe Dorée and the Black Market

The group meets for lunch at the hotel and shares information. Johnny and Dr. Black learn about one another’s discs. Kane tells Dr. Black about Brother Theodore. Ron tells Johnny about a “really great place” that he just came back from, and asks Johnny, and the group, if anyone wants to go back there.

Vivian remains at the hotel while the rest of the group goes to the black market. She sends a telegram that she and Judge Putnam had worked on to Dr. Lavallee in Cairo.

The others go to the black market, pay off the guards outside, and are let in. Dr. Black goes to examine curios on a trader’s blanket, and picks up an ornate, tarnished silver tube to look at it more closely. The shop’s owner, misunderstanding his intentions, starts shouting at him in Arabic. Her two sons materialize out of the shadows with rifles and point them at Dr. Black. Dr. Black, realizing that he has been mistaken for a thief, gently returns the tube to the blanket and backs up, sweating profusely. Johnny, in an attempt to make amends, purchases the tube.

Dr. Black then talks to a boy with an eyepatch who appears to be a weapons’ dealer. The doctor purchases two .45 automatics—one for him and one for Kane—despite Johnny telling them that they “already have guns at home.” The boy opens up a small trunk containing loose bullets, and convinces Dr. Black to buy several rounds of ammunition.

Mikhail, suddenly hitting on a new and cunning plan, decides to buy several things from the black market, including ammunition, clothing, a bag, and several other things.

Ron, who has apparently given his curved knife to Vivian “for protection,” purchases a replacement from the knife dealer. The knife dealer, who speaks only Arabic and Farsi, points, laughs, and pantomimes until the group is made to understand that he is asking, “Another knife already? Did you kill a Frenchman with the first one?”

The group’s marketplace experience is cut short by a sudden French Foreign Legion raid on the marketplace. The group and the merchants scatter in all directions, leaving behind an empty, dusty plaza.

Brother Theodore

Brother Theodore Returns

Kane, Dr. Black, and Mikhail go back to the Catholic church. They have a private conversation with Brother Theodore in one of the church’s monastic cells. Kane and Mikhail learn that Dr. Black personally invited Brother Theodore to accompany them to Syria. Dr. Black further explains that Brother Theodore belongs to a holy order of monks devoted to fighting evil. Brother Theodore obliquely adds that, while he goes around in the habiliments of a monk, neither he nor his order are, technically, catholic.

The trio tells Brother Theodore about Bryan Slim’s message, and Kane’s exorcism plan is discussed again. Brother Theodore is skeptical that a Catholic exorcism would work, but he does know that his order has some rites which might work just as well or better. Mikhail explains that he could probably just perform an exorcism himself if he had access to the rite. The others inform him that this is impossible, because Mikhail is a) not Catholic, b) not a priest, and c) is a Freemason. Mikhail is undaunted, until he learns that it will take him six years of study at seminary to become an ordained priest. He also spins his Masonic ring around until the symbol is beneath his ring finger.

Dr. Black tells Brother Theodore that the group is seeking the Nameless City. He also mentions to the monk that they believe they will find more information about the city when they explore the now-abandoned movie set in the desert. He asks Brother Theodore to accompany the group, and the monk agrees.

Mikhail ducks out of the meeting early and goes to the marketplace to buy some chickens.

The Museum

Vivian, Johnny, and Judge Putnam go to the museum that Dr. Black found. They quickly find the disc artifact that Dr. Black described and see that it is effectively identical to the one in Johnny’s pocket.

They find a helpful, young French docent, and ask him about the artifact. The docent cannot tell them very much at all. Vivian then enquires about the Masterson/Lavallee/Thibodeau expedition. She explains that Masterson was badly injured on the expedition, and though there is no further mention of him in the literature, it is possible he is still living in Damascus.

The docent searches the records and finds little in the way of new information on the archaeological survey. He does, however, say that he thinks he knows where the professors went on their dig. He shows off a map of the Syrian Desert and points out a site known as As Safa, a large volcanic plain in the middle of the desert. The basic description of As Safa seems to match what Vivian and Judge Putnam discovered in the archaeological survey in the library.

As Safa from the Air

Once Again, The Hotel

The group returns to the hotel, where they encounter a red-eyed Ron. As they catch up with one another, a hotel attendant approaches them to give them telegrams. Judge Putnam hears from both Christopher Edwin and Terrence, while Ron gets a message back from his brother-in-law, Darragh.

Telegram to Ron from Darragh

Telegram to Judge Putnam from Christopher Edwin

Telegram to Judge Putnam from Terrence, his Secretary

Mikhail returns with several dozen chickens, which start wandering around the hotel courtyard and making nuisances of themselves. Mikhail excitedly tells the group that he plans to sharpen the ammunition he just bought into points, after which he plans to cast the Bless Blade spell on them. There is some discussion as to whether or not this will work, as bullets deform on impact. Ron suggests maybe using a bow and arrow instead. Johnny suggests maybe reworking the Bless Blade spell so that it works on ammunition instead of blades.

This conversation is interrupted by the concierge, who demands that Mikhail take his chickens off the premises immediately. A still high, and chatty, Ron, decides to go to bat for Mikhail. He tells the concierge that, since they’re guests, there should be some way for the concierge to put up Mikhail’s chickens for the night.

Unfortunately, Ron, being intoxicated, doesn’t realize that he is speaking indelicately and has badly insulted the concierge. The concierge berates Ron, who responds in the usual way by further escalating the situation until both men are shouting at one another. This comes to a head when Ron, for reasons unclear even to himself, draws the Dagger of Nephrem-Ka from his booth and threatens the life of the concierge with it.

Mikhail flees the hotel while the rest of the group tries to save the situation. Johnny slips on his brass knuckles and decks Ron in the head, knocking the fight out of him. Dr. Black administers some laudanum to calm Ron down, while Vivian takes possession of the Dagger. The group then helps a now mostly unconscious Ron back to his room and into his bed.

The concierge, still quite discomfited about the whole thing, leaves the scene. The group expresses their profuse apologies to hotel management, and just barely smooths everything over.

The Call of Cairo

A short time later, Judge Putnam and Vivian are told that there is a telephone call from one Ambrose Lavallee at the front desk. Both of them take the call and listen in as best as they can as Dr. Lavallee greets them.

Lavallee’s demeanor goes cold when he realizes that the judge and Vivian are interested in finding the Nameless City. He warns them against it, and insists that there is no good reason for them to go there. Vivian presses him for details on what happened at the expedition, and Lavallee explains that they were indeed at As Safa, where they found a free-standing gate that “leads to the gateway of the Nameless City.” The gate, Lavallee explains has “Umr At-Tawil” carved into it in Arabic. This terrifies Vivian, who remembers reading about this gate early in the group’s involvement with the Silver Twilight Lodge.

Lavallee says that they used means he doesn’t specify to open the gate (but which the judge and Vivian suspect is some kind of magical ritual). The gate exploded into “horrible white light” and, when the light faded, the gate was as it was before, and Masterson was gone. Lavallee believed that Masterson either entered or was pulled into the portal, and confesses that he said that Masterson was “injured” only to keep other people from seeking out the gate and the Nameless City.

Lavallee then tells Vivian and the judge that he saw Masterson one last time, very briefly, in spiritual form. Masterson came to him “surrounded by light,” telling him that he had become lost in “the Well of Souls.” Lavallee said that Masterson begged him to never return to the Nameless City, and to prevent anyone else from going there. Then Masterson faded from sight.

When the judge and Vivian express to Lavallee that they need to go to the Nameless City, despite his warnings, Lavallee simply wishes them luck and hangs up the phone.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part One: April 3, 1926

CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of suicide.

Arrival

The group arrives at the train station in Damascus. Faisal helps the group to unload their luggage before driving his truck back to Beirut. The group, tired from their long travel and a bit disoriented, struggle to make plans. A few rather strange things happen, in rapid succession, before they are able to get their bearings.

The Beggar

Johnny and Vivian see a blind beggar across the train station plaza. Though the beggar seems unable to see them, he approaches the group with a single-minded determination and focus. He hands Johnny a small piece of paper and then turns to depart, losing his focus and his seemingly extrasensory perception. Johnny tests him briefly by shouting at him, but eventually allows the beggar to lose himself in the crowd.

The paper seems to be the flyleaf torn from an old book. On it, in rapidly degrading handwriting, is a message asking for help. The group believes that it is a desperate message from Bryan Slim, who has recently won free from his possession by Carl Stanford. The group debates on whether or not they should help Slim.

Slim’s note states that “the drudge will know the way,” which is a phrase that the group finds both significant and puzzling.

Faram Tokamak

Faram Tokamak, Palm Tree Studios Liaison

Dr. Black, and several others, note a well-dressed man in a fez passing through the train station plaza. The man carries a sign under his arm that reads, “Grant.” Assuming that the man is there for Liam, the group calls him over.

The man, Faram, is delighted to meet the group and is indeed there to meet Liam and also Archie. He tells the group that he is the local representative of Palm Tree Studios and is an employee of Grant Winwood.

He explains that the picture’s filming has been halted, quite abruptly, due to the death of Eric von Varnstein, the director. Kane points out that the picture is technically, “almost finished,” since the sets are built, the costumes are sewn, and all the actors are present. Tokamak replies that von Varnstein is something of an auteur, and that there is no one else with the man’s persistence of vision to finish the project.

Tokamak says that he will take Archie and Liam to As Suwayda, where the other members of the cast and crew are currently residing. He promises to cut them both checks so that they can return home. Liam and Archie agree to this, and begin loading their things into Tokamak’s car.

The rest of the group, meanwhile, tries to get more information out of Tokamak. They learn from him that, according to the investigators from the French Foreign Legion, von Varnstein killed himself. The group suspects that, from Tokamak’s demeanor, that the man does not believe that this is the case. Dr. Black procures an area map from the train station and has Tokamak mark down where the film’s set is. It turns out it is in a canyon a short distance out into the desert from As Suwayda.

Judge Putnam offers the services of the London Group to Mr. Tokamak, explaining that they might be able to find out more information about von Varnstein’s death. Tokamak agrees to this and asks the group to come and see him in As Suwayda when they are settled. He exchanges contact information with the judge, gets in his car, and drives south back to the Palm Tree Studio regional office.

The Return of Ron Deluca

At about this moment, Dr. Black feels his ward collapse. As a reminder, this ward was set up around a toolbox in Judge Putnam’s garage. The toolbox contains Dr. Black’s medical bag, which itself contains the Dagger of Nephrem-Ka. A few seconds later, the group hears “shave and a haircut” being tapped out from inside the Gate box luggage.

The group shields the luggage from view and opens it, revealing Ron, who has a black eye for some (probably marital) reason. Ron quickly explains that he gave Vivian’s letter to her father once he returned from Cannich, and that Vincenzio Bernouse ordered him to go to Syria to protect Vivian. He decided that the Gate box was the quickest way to get to Vivian and, bingo bango, here he is.

The group asks Ron if he noticed anything amiss in the judge’s garage and ask if he saw if anyone broke into the toolbox and walked off with the Dagger. Ron denies seeing anything. Dr. Black travels by Gate box to the garage, where he finds that the lid of the toolbox has been pried open with a screwdriver, and that the contents of his doctor’s bag are strewn about. He repacks his bag and returns to Syria with it, explaining to the group that only the Dagger is missing from it. 

The group is concerned.

Ron’s Letter

While the doctor is on his brief, Staten Island jaunt, Ron realizes that he has a letter in his pocket that his wife had given him earlier in the day. He opens it up and reads it. It is from Vito, who mentions that the Cacciatore family in Boston and the Bernouse family in New York are no longer allies. This is partially due to the enduring mystery of Mikey Angelo’s death, but also due to some other factors.

Vito goes on to say that “Big Grin’s” family is trying to ally themselves with Cacciatore, and promises them a lot of cash and influence if they switch sides. This money is apparently going to come from a mysterious benefactor, once the benefactor’s assets have been unfrozen. Vito says that, with the Cacciatore family’s help, the Bianco family will unfreeze the assets, benefit their benefactor, and get paid.

Ron shares the letter with the rest of the group. Realizing that there is a mob war brewing, and that the Silver Twilight Lodge/Look to the Future is backing their enemies, they try to come up with a plan on the fly. They decide that Ron will go back to Staten Island, find Luca, and give him Vito’s letter so that he can pass the information on to Bernouse.

Ron hops back through the Gate box and does so, successfully, visiting Luca in his small apartment. During this conversation, Luca admits that he knows about the Gate box in the judge’s garage, and that he will try to leave updates and messages for the group inside of the box. Luca also notes Ron’s black eye, and tries to get him to promise to stay the hell away from Connie. Ron ignores him.

A Bit of Downtime

The Judge's New Car

While Ron is back in Staten Island, the rest of the group takes care of logistics and necessities in Syria. They check into the Tulipe Dorée, a French-run hotel in Damascus with three floors that is built around a central courtyard. The group all gets rooms on the third floor.

Johnny, Kane, and Judge Putnam decide to purchase vehicles for the group while they are in Syria. They are referred to a nearby used car lot run by a Syrian man with a great many children and a fairly weak grasp of English. The man has a Great War surplus truck available for purchase, which can hold the entire group (though not comfortably) and their gear. The judge also becomes quite taken with a 1924 Ansaldo (an Italian sports car) on the lot.

The group attempts to haggle down the price of both vehicles, or to at least get a few extra spare tires and petrol cans tossed in for free. The negotiations end abruptly when Judge Putnam produces the ten ounces of gold that he had purchased in Boston some time ago. The salesman is overjoyed to receive such a windfall and repeatedly shakes everyone’s hand and bows to them in a very thankful manner.

The salesman gives them everything that they want, tells them to come back again if they need repairs, and offers to drive the truck back to the Tulipe Dorée while Johnny drives the others back in the newly purchased Ansaldo.

Ron returns at about the same time as the others, and the group spends the rest of their evening recuperating, resting, and eating.

The Rebels Attack

The group is awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of gunfire and explosions on a nearby street. The hotel staff, who seems fairly inured to the noise, instructs all guests to report to the courtyard until the attacks cease.

The group learns that there are numerous rebel forces who are angry at French rule and who are attempting to throw off the yoke of their European oppressors. This leaves the Foreign Legion with no recourse except to meet violence with violence, and this sometimes erupts into gunfights and bombings. Judge Putnam discovers that such things happen, “perhaps once or twice a week.”

The hotel manager assures Judge Putnam that everything is going to be all right, however, and informs him and the rest of the group that they can speak to him about anything they need while they are in Damascus.

On their way back to their rooms after the attack, the group debates on whether or not they should hire a translator.

April 4, 1926

Turki Nazar, Translator

Early on Sunday morning, Vivian goes down to the reception area of the hotel and avails herself of a copy of one of the English newspapers. She reads about the Druze, a local ethnic group that seems to be pushing the hardest against the French occupation of Syria. She learns that the Druze control a territory known as the “Jabal al Druze,” which includes As Suwayda and much of the area to the south of Damascus.

She also reads a small article about the death of von Varnstein—officially ruled a suicide—and that that the filming of his movie would be halted indefinitely.

Vivian returns to the rest of the group and shows off the newspaper. She, Johnny, and the others wonder if the “drudge” written in Slim’s note should actually be “Druze.”

Judge Putnam goes down to the reception desk himself and asks to hire a translator for the group. The manager already knows several, all of whom have been vetted by the French government, and that he will be sure to have the commandant’s office send over one of their best candidates shortly.

Shortly thereafter, the translator arrives at Judge Putnam’s room. His name is Turki Nazar, and he politely inquires as to whether or not the group would like to attend church, as it is a Sunday. Most of the group agree to this, and Turki arranges for them to attend services at a Syrian Orthodox Church.

Once church is over, the group splits up to perform various small tasks before continuing on with their investigations.

 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Orient Express Finale: March 26-April 3, 1926

It takes quite a while for the train to get moving again. This causes further delay not only for the group and the passengers on their train, but also for trains all along the line.

The mood is strained. Most of the staff, as well as several passengers, saw the “ghost” rampaging through the train. Between that terrible apparition, the dual murders, the sabotage to the train, and the destruction of the baggage car, everyone is tense and terrified.

The staff continues to do their jobs with deeply ingrained professionalism. They move the surviving luggage from the baggage car and distribute it as evenly as they can between the recreation cars and passenger cars. Once the baggage car is emptied, and once the staff determines that the undercarriage of the car is structurally sound, the train is cleared to continue its journey.

(At some point during all of this, Mikhail finds a very long access ladder that descends from the top of the bridge to the defile below. Amidst shattered luggage and the smeared remains of Mr. Smith, he finds his Masonic blade.)

Even after all of this, the journey is still much slower than it should be. The locomotive’s controls were severely damaged by the possessed engineer and, though they have been jury-rigged back to something approximating functionality, none of the staff wants to risk causing further damage. That, plus the fact that both the engineer and the fireman are out of commission, makes the remainder of the journey to Milan taken an agonizingly long time.

Milan 

The wait in Milan for a new locomotive, a new berth car #8, and a new baggage car, is similarly frustrating. Especially for Liam, who feels his dreams of movie-stardom slipping away from him. He attempts to send a telegram to the offices of Palm Tree Studios on the platform in Milan, once he realizes that he is definitely not going to make the April 1st deadline.

Quite a number of passengers who were not previously expecting to get off at Milan get off at Milan. Some have decided to wait and see if their tickets are valid on another, slightly less accursed, train. Others choose to abandon their travel altogether and return home, having decided that they have had quite enough excitement to last them for the rest of their lives.

Several passengers remain, including Ingrid and Greta, Mr. Craegen (who is determined to go to Venice), and Luci Martin, who is also traveling to Syria on journalistic business.

The End of the Investigation

The incidents surrounding the two murders is, frankly, so bizarre that everyone more or less wants to wash their hands of them. This includes Inspector Thorne, who, after hearing the group's heavily edited  tale of their final fight with Mr. Smith, rules that the case is closed. Thorne tells the group all that it is now fairly clear to him that Smith not only killed both the countess and…himself? Temporarily? Maybe? But also attempted to frame them for the murders. Murder/suicide. Whichever.

He realizes that he does not have all the answers to this puzzle and attempts to probe the group for information. He asks about Bryan Slim, about the group's connection to Smith, and about what they could have done to garner such hatred. Judge Putnam and Mikhail are able to deflect enough of his questions that he doesn’t get much of anything, but also doesn’t believe that the group is lying to him. 

The group later learns, by osmosis, that the Prussian Countess was a woman by the name of Uda Edelweiss. There are rumors that this is not actually her name, that she is not actually a countess, that all of her fine jewels are actually made of paste, and that she was actually a con artist and grifter.

The group is congratulated for assisting in the apprehension of Dwight Featherstone (aka Gordy Ottelly), a member of a drug smuggling ring that the international police have been attempting to shut down for quite some time. Inspector Thorne hopes that Gordy will give up the names of his cohorts in exchange for a lighter sentence, and hopes this marks the beginning of the end of this particular gang of smugglers.

Conductor Jannsens informs the group that, as you experienced undue hardship and delays during your trip on the Orient Express, the company will be refunding the cost of their tickets. He apologizes for the inconvenience.

Athens to Damascus

The group's journey from Milan to Athens is a quiet and restful one. The weather in Greece is balmy and sunny, despite it still being early Spring. The people of Athens are friendly and welcoming, and Johnny is able to use his limited Greek to locate a very good restaurants and arrange for a tour of the city center and of the Acropolis.

Several hours later, as the sun sets over the wine dark sea, the group sets sail from Athens. They arrive very early the next morning in Beirut. While the bags are unloaded, Johnny, Dr. Black, and Kane arrange for passage by car to Damascus. Unfortunately, they discover that there is no one awake at this hour to rent cars from. However, the trio encounter an earnest young man named Faisil, who promises to take the group to Damascus in his truck.

The truck is Great War surplus, with a wobbly suspension and a loose gearbox. Most of the group rides in the back with the luggage, several bales of hay, and the pungent aroma of goats. Judge Putnam rides in the cabin with Faisil. During the drive, he learns about the young man’s opinions on a wide variety of things, from his barely concealed hatred of the French, to why Italians are nicer than Spaniards.

The group passes through several checkpoints on the way to Damascus, all of them stationed by members of the French Foreign Legion. At each checkpoint, they are asked to step out of the truck and show your passports. At one checkpoint, the very thorough commandant demands to search the truck. Faisil acquiesces, nervously, and everyone waits while half a dozen French soldiers pick over the luggage. Johnny sweats noticeably when the commandant himself takes a seemingly undue amount of interest in one particular piece of luggage, and is relieved when nothing comes of it.

After his search is complete, the commandant at last smiles, returns the group's documentation, and bids you a good morning. 

It is just after noon when the London Group at last arrives in Damascus. Faisil informs them that the best place for then to secure cars, lodging, or anything would be from the people who work in and around the train station. He drives the group to the station and cheerfully begins to unload bags as the group disembarks, stretches, and tries to massage their spines and glutes back into some semblance of working order.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Orient Express Part Four: March 26, 1926 (Even Later)

The Scooby Doo Hallway Routine

The group moves back and forth between rooms at somewhat dizzying speed. A brief, but likely incomplete overview:

  • Luci Martin, at Vivian’s request, calls Dr. Black into her cabin to tend to Vivian. Dr. Black gives three warning knocks on the wall of the train.
  • Johnny and Kane, hearing those knocks, leave Smith’s cabin and return to their own cabins.
  • Judge Putnam remains in his cabin talking with Craegen. Worried that whatever tried to possess him might do so again, he removes the bullets from his cane gun and other weapons.
  • Liam leaves his cabin and breaks into Featherstone’s cabin.
  • Mikhail calms Pushok and goes out into the hallway to join the others.
  • Kane returns to Smith’s room and attempts a meditation. He notes that there is a presence in the room (the same one that tried to possess him), but this time it doesn’t bother him. Kane doesn’t feel anything else. On further searching the room, he finds that Smith’s battered trench coat has an extradimensional pocket in it.
  • Kane leaves to show the coat to Johnny.
  • Johnny reads the Astral Projection scroll and begins to put the pieces together as to what’s going on.
  • Dr. Black confirms that Vivian is all right. He begins to suspect that a group meeting might be in order. He gets the group together and tries to muster them to head to the Recreation Car.
  • Liam breaks into Featherstone’s steamer trunk and finds a large quantity of what appear to be drugs. He is surprised by Featherstone, who puts the barrel of a gun to his forehead. He is unable to reason with Featherstone. Featherstone orders him out into the hallway. 

The scene ends with most of the group clustered at the Recreation Car side of the hallway as Featherstone escorts Liam out of his cabin at gunpoint.

The Incriminating Note in Smith's Pocket, Which I Forgot To Show You Earlier

A Double Arrest

Featherstone begins shouting, quite loudly, that he found Liam in his cabin, and so Liam must be the murderer. The group, distrusting Featherstone, manages to tackle him and get the gun away from him. Mikhail draws his Masonic blade and holds Featherstone at swordpoint just as Jannsens the conductor and Inspector Thorne arrive.

Jannsens searches Featherstone’s cabin and confirms that the man was carrying a very large quantity of opium in his trunk. Inspector Thorne, convinced that both men are guilty of something, drags them to the Recreation Car and handcuffs them across the table from one another while the investigation continues.

Thorne then speaks to Mikhail and, while commending the young lawyer on helping to detain a criminal, explains that deadly weapons are not allowed on the train. Despite Mikhail’s protestations, Thorne confiscates his Masonic sword.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group convenes and goes over what they learn. They suspect that someone on the train is astrally projected and is repeatedly attempting to possess people for their own ends. Dr. Black seems to think that whoever is doing this is trying to delay or prevent them from getting to Syria. Johnny notes that, according to the scroll, if someone resists possession by the astrally projected person, they cannot ever successfully be possessed by that person. The group realizes that the astral projector must have left their body behind, which winnows down their list of suspects.

Inspector Thorne orders everyone to return to their cabins, which they do. At this point, Kane shows Johnny the coat he took from Mr. Smith’s room. Johnny experiments with the pocket and realizes he can pull items from it by concentrating very hard. He immediately puts the coat on.

The group is unsure of what to do next. Their hands are forced, moments later, when the train lurches into motion.

Dwight Featherstone, Opium Runner

Runaway Train

The group encounters a pair of porters, running toward the front of the train and shouting in French. Liam is able to translate that the two men don’t think the train should be moving, that pulling the emergency brake didn’t stop it, and that they need to find one of the conductors.

Liam bribes Johnny to pick the lock on his handcuffs, which Johnny does. Liam then remains in the Recreation Car to taunt Featherstone. Liam eventually gets close enough to Featherstone for the other man to punch him and then slap the cuffs back on him. All the while, Luci presides over the insanity and tries not to take sides.

The rest of the group pushes forward as far as they can, only to find Jenssens and Thorne in one of the passenger cars, unable to get the door open. At someone’s suggestion, Thorne uses the gun he took from Featherstone to shoot out the lock on the door. The door still refuses to open, and Jannsens and Thorne both think that whoever has started the train has somehow jammed the door on the other side.

While two porters retreat to the dining car to get a coffee urn to use as a battering ram, Dr. Black studies the door and notes that several mystical runes have been hastily carved into the lintel. He begs a penknife off of Jannsens, climbs on a bench, and starts defacing the mystical runes.

In the midst of the chaos, Mikhail manages to coerce Thorne into giving him his Masonic sword back.

Just before doing this, Dr. Black notes that Jannsens’ penknife has traces of wood shavings in its mechanism, which leads Dr. Black to suggest that Jannsens may have carved the symbols himself while possessed.

The porters return with their coffee urn battering ram just as Dr. Black destroys the last symbol. The group opens the door and proceeds into the next car, only to find that the forward door to that car has also been warded…

The group now notes that the train is moving at increasing speed through the Italian Alps, and several in the group suspect that the mysterious possessing spirit is trying to get the train to derail or crash.

One of the Doors that Blocked the Group's Path

Throw Eastman From the Train

While Johnny and Dr. Black destroy the wards on the next door, Vivian and Kane climb the access ladder between the cars and head for the roof of the train. Their plan is to cross the top of the car, descend on the ladder on the other side, and head through the coal car to the engine.

This daring maneuver is cut short when the train goes around a steep curve and Kane is nearly thrown off the train. He manages to hang on, and Johnny sees Kane’s kicking feet through the windows of the car. Johnny steals the coffee urn and uses it to smash out the train car’s window, so that he can grab Kane and drag him inside the train. This proves to be unnecessary, as Vivian grabs Kane and hauls him back up onto the roof of the train.

Taking greater care, Kane and Vivian make their way down the ladder on the far side of the car and into the coal car. They reach the engine car just as the rest of the group removes the wards on the last door and forces it open.

Engine Showdown

Kane and Vivian arrive in the engine to find the train’s fireman unconscious in a pool of his own blood. Nearby, the engineer is hunched over the smashed controls. Looking on with anticipation as the train hurtles on along a tall and narrow bridge.

Vivian grabs the fireman’s shovel and uses it to knock the engineer unconscious. She and Kane look at the controls, trying to figure out how to repair or deactivate them, when the rest of the team barges into the engine compartment.

Judge Putnam slots the tip of his cane into the remains of the throttle mechanism. Using the cane as an impromptu lever, he is able to safely bring the train to a stop on the bridge.

Dr. Black tends to the fireman as Jannsens, Thorne, and the others try to figure out what happened and why the engineer started up the train without orders.

In the midst of this Johnny notes a strange shimmering in the air, as if of rising heat, coming off of the engineer’s unconscious body. Thinking quickly, he casts some of the POWDER OF IBN GHAZI into the air, revealing an apparition with the face of one Mr. Smith. Smith flies toward the back of the train, his presence terrifying and terrorizing the train staff. The group follows after Smith, suspecting that he is going to try to return to his body.

Liam, seeing the group passing through the Recreation Car, picks the lock on his handcuffs and follows after them. He leaves a sputtering and disbelieving Featherstone chained to the table.

The Bridge

Dealing with Baggage

The group arrives in the baggage car to see that something is stirring beneath the bloody cloth on the stretcher within. The group, now certain that Smith is regenerating himself, surround the stretcher and attempt to hurt him badly enough to keep himself from healing. Johnny does very little damage and is seized and strangled by Smith. Vivian, amped up on terror and adrenaline, manages to pull Smith’s hand off of Johnny’s neck.

Dr. Black casts the Wrack spell on Smith, only to have it rebound on him and strike him with full force. Dr. Black curls up in an agonized fetal ball, and is out for the rest of the fight.

The group inflicts superficial damage on Smith, but not enough to keep him from acting. He sits up and, with a word and a gesture, blows out the side wall of the baggage car.

Mikhail, in a last-ditch effort to keep Smith from leaving, stabs at him with his enchanted Masonic blade. Smith snatches the sword from Mikhail’s grasp and leaps for the hole in the side wall.

Just as Smith leaps clear of the train, Judge Putnam raises his cane gun and opens fire, blasting Smith and filling the air with a red mist. Smith drops lifeless into the crevasse below, thus ending the fight and this stage of the adventure.