Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel. If you missed the previous instalments you can find them here The Interactive Novel Instalments or read the The Complete Story so Far
At the end of each weekly instalment will be at least one poll where you will decide either:
• What happens next
• A setting
• A character to be introduced
Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote.
Vote closes for the Third Instalment on
Wednesday the 14th November at 8am GMT
Friday, 21 September 1860
Clément’s & Willet’s Auction house was a long squat building, built from red brick and terracotta roof tiles. A large dark green sign branding the gold letters “C” and “W” hung above the open door.
I followed the Professor into the bland lobby where a pair of porters in navy uniforms sat behind a desk. Greeting us with a smile one of the porters took our names and address. He passed the Professor a numbered paddle and a catalogue. The Professor thrust these into my hands as the porter directed us to a set of double doors behind him.
“Come along Nigel,” the Professor said marching off. He took hold of the door handle and paused as if struck by a sudden thought. He turned to me. “I want you to watch what you do with your hands in there. Whatever you do, do not start waving them around. No nodding of your head either. Try not to look at the auctioneer and certainly do not make eye contact with him. I do not want you bidding for anything, even by accident. Are we clear?”
Without thinking I nodded. The Professor frowned.
“Sorry sir, it won’t happen again.”
He pushed open the doors and we entered the auditorium. At the far end of the long room was a stage where a stout man stood behind a pulpit. In front of him prospective buyers sat on cream cushioned chairs positioned in rows on either side of a central aisle. The green walls were decorated with pictures of landscapes in golden frames. A pair of chandeliers hung from the white ceiling adorned with plaster flowers and leaves.
Two guards were posted on either side of the stage. Another guard was positioned by the door leading to where the sale items were being stored. Behind us at the doors leading back to the lobby was another guard. He watched us out of the corner of his eye.
The auction was already under away and about a hundred buyers were gathered in the hall. The majority were men and from their dress I suspected most of them were antique dealers hunting for bargains to sell in their shops. There were a few women amongst the bidders, clearly from affluent backgrounds, looking for trinkets to take home.
Off to one side was a beautiful blond-haired woman. The long-nosed gentleman beside her was dressed more like a servant than a husband. As if she could sense I was looking at her she looked over at me. I met her eye and for a moment I had a sense of déjà vu, as if we had met before, then worried she had caught me staring I looked away. When I looked back, she had returned to watching the auction.
“I have sixty pounds. Sixty – five?” the auctioneer called out. He scanned the room hunting for any prospective bids. There was a flicker of a paddle being raised. The auctioneer pointed his gavel to the left-hand side of the stage. “Yes, sir, sixty five pounds. Do I have seventy? Seventy anywhere?”
His eyes swept over me. I dropped my gaze to the porter on the stage beside him. The porter held a rusty brown vase decorated with cartoonish men throwing spears. Rather than risk the auctioneer think I was interested, I flicked through the catalogue. It was Lot No. sixteen, a vase from ancient Crete.
“It is probably a fake or perhaps stolen,” the Professor said looking over my shoulder. “Whatever it is, it will have a dubious history. If it was genuine, I would expect it to go through Sotheby’s instead of this auction house”
“Professor Ashcroft always the cynic,” said a voice behind us.
We turned to see an elderly man with a thick white bearded hobbling into the room. He stopped beside us and leant on his walking stick, a dark polished wooden pole embellished with a golden dog’s head on the handle. His cheeks were blemished from broken blood vessels giving a red glow to his face. A pair of wiry spectacles balanced on the end of his upturned nose.
“Professor Elman, what a pleasant surprise,” the Professor muttered sounding anything but happy to see the man.
“Likewise,” said Elman with equal warmth. He looked at me. “Is this young man your son?”
“Certainly not,” the Professor said offended. “This is my assistant, Nigel. Nigel, I would like you to meet Professor Daniel Elman. He is a fellow member of the Noscere society, lectures in psychology, and is a firm believer in the supernatural. As you can imagine we rarely see eye to eye.”
“Your master has a rather blinked view of the world.”
“And for a highly educated man, Professor Elman is prone to making some rather amateur deductions.”
There was certainly no love lost between the two men.
“So tell me Arthur what has caught your interest today?”
The Professor looked in two minds whether to tell him or not.
“Lot number thirty-four,” he eventually said.
“Ahh an interesting piece with an interesting history. What draws you to the item? It’s history or the curse?”
“It’s history. There are no such things as curses.”
Professor Elman smiled. “There you go as usual jumping to conclusions without evaluating the evidence. The Amulet of Nergal has a long history of misfortune befalling all those that have possessed it.”
“Nothing more than coincidences and tragic accidents.”
“There have been far too many deaths linked to the amulet for it to be just a coincidence. Perhaps if you are successful in your bidding you may discover more than you bargained for. Although I fear you may find you have fierce competition for the piece.”
“You too are interested in the amulet?” the Professor said. “And why would any believer in the curse wish to purchase such a deadly item?”
“Like you, academic curiosity. But I am not the only interested party. I have heard from Mr Willett himself that has had a lot of enquiries about the piece. He suspects it to sell for double its guide price. Now you must excuse me gentlemen. A man of my age can only spend so long standing before he must rest. Good luck.”
Professor Elman hobbled over to join the left-hand rows of chairs and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat.
“Insufferable man,” the Professor muttered. “You cannot take anything he says seriously. Come along Nigel let us find a seat.
On the stage the auctioneer was auctioning a small sculpture of a fat naked woman. According to the catalogue it was an ancient mother goddess from a lost tribe.
We made our way down the central aisle and took a pair of seats on the right of the stage. I flicked through the catalogue to find out what the mysterious Lot No. 34 was.
Lot No. 34 – The Amulet of Nergal. At for auction for the first time. This is your chance to own a piece of history. Believed to originate in Ancient Mesopotamia, the amulet is great piece that will be at home in any collection of antiquities. The Amulet of Nergal is cast from gold and contains a large ruby in its centre. Symbols that some scholars deem to be a lost language adorn the piece.
The gavel banged down. I looked up from the catalogue. The auctioneer was pointing at a man in the third row, the new owner of the sculpture. “Sold to the gentlemen, number forty-eight.”
“My goodness they are all coming out of the woodwork,” the Professor suddenly muttered.
I followed his gaze to the entrance of the auditorium. He was looking at a muscular man in late thirties that had just walked in. The man’s long black hair was slicked back exposing a prominent windows peak. Except for a thin moustache he was clean shaven. His nose was crooked as if had been broken in the past and then not correctly reset.
“Who is he, sir?”
“His name is Reginald Pearce. His is the son of a lord but has been disowned by the family. By all accounts he has a reputation for being a bit of a rogue. A few years back he was caught smuggling artefacts out of China. He only just managed to escape the country. He abandoned his partners to face the penalty. I believe they were executed. He is proof that the saying is true. There is no honour amongst thieves.”
The Professor reached over and snatched the catalogue from my hand. “I wonder what he is after?” he mused flicking through the pages.
“You don’t suppose he is also after the amulet as well?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “I doubt it somehow. By all accounts Pearce is always interested in making a quick buck. I bet he is selling some ill got gains rather than buying.”
Reginald Pearce took a position a few rows in front of us. His long black hair had been slicked backwards in a poor attempt to hide a thinning crown. He sat fidgeting in his seat as if impatiently waiting for an item to be auctioned off.
Slowly one by one the various lots were brought up on to the stage. I kept my hands on my knees. After the Professor’s warning I was paranoid about accidently making a bid. Not all the items met their guide price and therefore failed to sell. Other Lots went for what I deemed an extortionate amount of money. A year’s wages on a vase. Some people had money to burn.
The Professor sat next to me giving his own running commentary on the items. Most he deemed were fakes or far too expensive. He gave his most derision for a set of spoons that had once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.
“What a waste of money for those,” he chortled quietly beside me.
Gradually the hall began to fill up, until there were only a few empty chairs dotted around the auditorium. There was movement at the front of the hall. The beautiful woman rose to her feet. Having seen enough she made her way up the aisle followed by her servant. As she passed, she caught my eye. There was a flicker of a smile and then she walked past. I turned my head and watched her leave. I was sure I recognised her from somewhere.
“And now we come to Lot thirty-four,” said the auctioneer. He paused for effect. “The Amulet of Nergal.”
A hushed silence fell across the room. The item’s notorious reputation was well known amongst the prospective buyers.
A porter stepped on to the stage carrying a black velvet tray. I sat upright in my chair and craned my neck forward. I wasn’t the only one. With a morbid fascination the audience leaned forward wanting to get a glimpse of an item that had supposedly caused so much misery. The porter angled the tray so that everybody could see the amulet resting upon it.
I was disappointed. I had expected some shinny golden trinket that glistened and sparkled in the light, instead the Amulet of Nergal was a spade shaped piece of dull yellow metal. It had a large red stone, a ruby according to the catalogue, set in the centre. The metal had been moulded so it had two raised curves either side of the stone. I was sat too far back to make out exactly what they were, but the curves appeared to have created the impression of a socket with the ruby in the middle acting as an eye.
“Gentleman I present you the Amulet of Nergal,” the auctioneer said consulting his notes. “This fabulous item is a must for any collector of antiquities. It is believed to have originated in Ancient Sumeria, but this cannot be verified. Now I am sure many of you have heard of the rumoured curse that have befallen many of its previous owners. This rumour accounts for the very low list price for an item of such value. Now Clément’s & Willet’s Auction House has had the Amulet of Nergal in our possession for the past week and we can reassure you we have not had any ill fortune befall us…yet.” His attempt at a joke was met with stony silence. He fidgeted uncomfortably. “We will continue then. What I can assure you, is that somebody today will be walking away with a bargain. Now the opening bid is twelve pounds?”
The Professor lifted his hand.
“I have twelve pounds, twelve pounds, will anybody give me thirteen?”
A few rows away Professor Elman rose his paddle. The Professor scowled. Before he could make a bid for fourteen pounds, Reginald Pearce entered the race with a curt nod of his head. The Professor took it to fifteen, Pearce to sixteen, and Elman up to seventeen. This was turning out to be a three-way battle that neither party was intent on losing.
The Professor took the biding to eighteen pounds. In response Elman climbed to his feet and requested to have an inspection of the item. Trying to hide his glee at how well the bidding was going the auctioneer invited him and any other interested parties up to the stage. Out of curiosity I followed the Professor and Reginald Pearce to the front of the room.
The porter held the tray out so that the three competitors could examine the amulet in more detail. Up close the stone in the middle was a dirty red, like dried blood in colour, with black flecks of impurities speckled through it. The curves and lines moulded in the metal managed to create the effect of an eye looking up at you. It was a hideous piece of work. Not one that anybody would wear with pride.
Mr Elman reached out with his hand. “May I?”
The porter glanced up at the auctioneer. The stout man gestured for the two guards on either side of the stage to stand beside us before nodding his consent. The porter held the tray out and Mr Elman plucked the amulet into his palm. With his nose an inch above the amulet he studied it meticulously in his hands. Satisfied he passed it back to the porter. Reginald Pearce was next to examine the amulet, followed by the Professor who upon finishing his examination passed it to me.
The amulet was surprisingly heavy. Strangely it felt warm against my skin. I gently ran my thumb over the surface. It was spiked and pitted, in places sharp edged, like running my fingers over the blade of a saw. I turned the amulet over in my hand. The back of the amulet was covered in strange marks which had to be the writing mentioned in the catalogue. I flipped it back over. My eyes were drawn to the red stone in the middle. It certainly looked like an eye. I had the strangest sensation that something was looking at me. I focused entirely on the stone. The black impurities were beginning to…
“Nigel,” barked the Professor.
I snapped my head up. He was looking at me impatiently. Beside him his competitors were also watching me. That explained the sensation of being looked at.
“Pass the amulet back to the porter,” instructed the Professor.
I placed the amulet back upon the tray.
The doors to the auditorium flew open.
Six men charged into the hall. They had scarves pulled up beneath their eyes and bowler hats lowered down over their heads, leaving just their eyes and the hair around their ears exposed.
“Get down on the floor,” yelled one of the men. His voice partially muffed by the scarf.
The guard on the door moved forward to intercept them. He was hit over the head with a short club by one of the men, bludgeoned to the ground for his act of bravery. The two guards stood either side of us rushed to his aide.
“I said everybody down on the floor,” repeated the man. He tore open his coat and pulled out a pistol tucked into the waist band of his trousers. He pointed the pistol at the guards rushing towards him and without hesitation pulled the trigger.
The thunderous bang echoed around the hall. The two guards skidded to a halt with their hands up. The expression of surprise on their faces would have been amusing in a less grave situation. They had been only six feet away, yet the gunman had missed.
A women two rows to my left screamed and pressed her hand against her face.
I turned to the stage behind me. The porter had dropped the tray holding the Amulet of Nergal and was clutching his stomach. The blood soaking up through his clothes was beginning to trickle between his fingers. He staggered backwards and collapsed against the pulpit.
Only the Professor leapt into action. Without hesitation or any concern for his own safety he clambered on to the stage and rushed to the fallen porter. He gently lifted the porter’s blood-soaked fingers from his stomach and removing a handkerchief from his waistcoat pressed it against the wound.
The gunman stepped through the cloud of smoke emitted by the pistol. Casually reloading his weapon, he studied the room. Behind him three of his companions held pistols of their own. Patrolling the room, they pointed their weapons at the frightened audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the lead gunman shouted. “I suggest for your own safety you do exactly what you are told, or you will suffer the consequences. Now everybody lay on the ground with your hands-on top of your heads where we can see them.” There was slight moment of hesitation. “I said now.”
With a scraping of chairs, the men and women lowered themselves to the ground and placed their hands over their heads. I lay down on my stomach with my chin resting on the wooden floor, so I could still see what was happening. Beside me Professor Elman was struggling to lower himself to the ground while Reginald Pearce lay with his face pressed into the wooden floorboards.
“Are you deaf?” one of the gunmen bellowed.
The Professor remained knelt over the fallen porter with his hands pressed against the blood-soaked cloth. He looked up at the gunman defiantly.
“If I take this way he will die. Keeping him alive might be the only thing that keeps you from the gallows.”
The gunman pointed his pistol at the Professor.
“Leave him,” grunted the lead gunman to his companion. “Get the bags ready.”
The gunman leapt down from the stage and sauntered to the back of the room. Happy the auditorium was under control the lead gunman walked down the aisle. He passed within a few feet of me, close enough for me to see his blue eyes, a small scar above his left brow, and the dirty blond hair not concealed by his hat and scarf.
The gunman clambered up on to the stage. He held his pistol pointed towards the floor as he stood over the Professor and the injured porter.
“Keep the pressure tight,” the gunman grunted. “But if you move away from his side, I will shoot you myself.”
The gunman leant around the pulpit. “Going somewhere?”
The auctioneer had been slithering backwards on his stomach.
“No, I was just…” the auctioneer said his voice quivering. “Please take whatever you want.”
“We intend to. Now stay where you are.”
Kneeling the gunmen plucked the Amulet of Nergal from where it lay on the stage. He studied it for a few moments before lifting the amulet up above his head.
“Gentleman it appears you all have far too much money if you are willing to buy rubbish like this.” He threw the amulet. There was a dull thud where it landed at the edge of the stage. “Listen carefully, you fail to do as you are told, you will be shot. Make no mistake we will leave you here to die. Now I am certain you all want to live, so one by one you will all stand up slowly and as my associates pass, you will reach into your pockets and remove those bulging purses of yours. Drop them into my associates’ bags along anything else of value. You will then lay back down on the floor with your hands on your head. You comply, and you will be safe. You have my word.”
Starting at the back of the auditorium two or the robbers worked their way along the rows. Purses, wallets and jewellery were snatched from hands and dropped into the bags. They worked quickly and efficiently. The other gunmen patrolled the room looking for any signs of rebellion. When an elderly man refused to hand over his purse, one of these gunmen hurried over and punched him in the mouth. From then on, nobody else refused to hand over their valuables. On the stage the lead gunman paced back and forth impatiently checking his pocket watch.
One of the robbers holding a kitbag reached us. He had ginger eyebrows and sideburns. Elman, Pearce, and I were ordered to our feet. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Amulet of Nergal laying a few feet away at the edge of the stage.
“Hand over whatever you got,” the robber grunted holding open a kitbag full of purses, watches and jewellery.
Reluctantly I took my purse containing a handful of shillings from my inside jacket pocket and dropped it into the kitbag. The robber moved down the line. After taking Reginald Pearce’s purse and watch he spotted the amulet laying at the side of the stage. He reached out for it.
There was a distant bell ringing. The robbers instinctively glanced towards the doors. The sound of the bell was growing steadily louder.
“Leave the rest,” bellowed the lead gunman jumping from the stage.
He waved his arm gesturing for the others to follow. The kit bags were snatched shut as the men ran from the room. The doors clattered behind them and they were gone.
For a moment nobody moved. Everybody was frozen as is they expected the gunmen to return. Then a woman began to sob, and the spell was broken. Slowly everybody climbed to their feet dazed. We looked at each other in stunned silence. Beside me Professor Elman was panting. He leant on his stick shaking. He wasn’t the only one that looked traumatised by the robbery. A few of the men had collapsed in chairs their wobbly legs unable to support their weight, others clutched at their racing hearts.
“Nigel come and give me a hand,” the Professor shouted. He was still knelt over the wounded porter applying pressure to his wound with a handkerchief saturated in blood.
I placed my hands on the stage to hoist myself up. I paused.
The gunmen had fired one shot into a crowded auditorium. He had missed his targets, yet the bullet still struck someone. The porter on the stage holding the Amulet of Nergal. Was it a coincidence that the only person laying in a pool of blood had been in possession of the amulet? Or was he another victim of the curse?
I looked at the amulet on the edge of the stage.
It was gone!
The robber must have snatched it before fleeing. He had been reaching for it when the alarm had been raised. But I couldn’t remember seeing him take it. And he wasn’t the only one with the opportunity to steal the amulet.
Reginald Pearce was already marching for the door. He had been next to the amulet. He could easily have grabbed the amulet in the confusion. Was he fleeing with the amulet in his pocket?
Or perhaps Professor Elman had taken it. He still leant on his stick beside the stage, but he too had been next to the amulet. He could have easily snatched the amulet while we were all distracted watching the gunman flee.
“Quickly Nigel!” the Professor snapped.
I threw myself on the stage. I had to forget all about the amulet. It had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t my responsibility if it had been stolen. Or so I thought….
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decide what happens next, so choose wisely from the options below.