“Le Marrant!” Li chuckled in a good-natured way when Marion brought up the subject after dinner. Aineytta had come along, as well as Lily who needed no excuse to visit her lover. The traditional Chinese meal had been a refreshing change from Gallifreyan cuisine, and now they were relaxing in the drawing room of Li’s apartment above his herbalist shop. Rodan was sitting with the grown-ups looking very mature herself as she drank jasmine tea and listened to the conversation.

“He has shown his face on our homeworld again,” Kristoph explained. “Perhaps he has been thrown off every other planet in the sector.”

“How does he get past the Transduction Barrier?” Lily wondered aloud.

“If I knew that I would take steps,” Kristoph admitted. “The man is a ghost. Nobody ever knows where he is until he announces his presence with some ridiculous ‘joke’ of his. He has the most advanced natural powers of telekinesis of any Academy graduate of the past two millennia as well as all the skills of a Celestial Intervention Agency man.”

“He was in the Celestial Intervention Agency?” Marion asked. “He was one of your own?”

“He joined the agency at the same time I did,” Kristoph said. “And, yes, he has a real name. He is the second son of the second son of an Oldblood House. But I won’t reveal that. He gave up both name and family voluntarily a long time ago. He has been Le Marrant since before I became an agent.”

“It means, in an obscure dialect of the Red Desert settlements, ‘The Joker’,” Li explained. “He was a practical joker even as a student at the Prydonian Academy. He was always suspending the tutor’s desk on the ceiling or making the classroom door lead into the stationary cupboard and vice versa. He spent so much time in detention that he had barely any free time to call his own and he must have had corporal punishment every week of his school life. When he joined the Celestial Intervention Agency he carried on with the same sort of tricks. Our mentors were constantly reminding us that we had chosen a dangerous life, a serious life, that diligence and alertness were our watchword and so on.”

”Rightly so,” Lily agreed.

“But Le Marrant did not concur,” Li said. “He took nothing seriously. He was brilliant. He got excellent marks in all of the practical and theoretical courses. The only candidate he couldn’t come close to was Kristoph. But for every commendation he won he received at least two condemnations for his antics.”

“He was a nuisance,” Kristoph pointed out. “Those of us who were trying to become qualified Agents were constantly held up by his sabotage.”

“Sabotage?” Marion queried.

“One of the written exams had to be rescheduled because the students were trapped in an ante-room which suddenly and inexplicably had no exit doors or windows while the examination hall was filled with life-size mechanical clowns,” Li explained.

The ladies and Rodan all laughed at the image that came easily into their heads.

“That wasn’t the worst of it,” Kristoph pointed out. “Remember what happened in the Killing House.”

“Killing House?” Marion looked both puzzled and concerned at the use of such a phrase. “That means….”

“It isn’t quite as bad as it sounds,” Li assured her. “We didn’t do secret executions there.”

“It’s where agents practice executions,” Kristoph added. “There really is no other way to explain it. Deep in the Red Desert there is a huge underground complex set up for honing the skills of an assassin. There are walls to climb, narrow ledges to walk, windows to open without making a noise, and hologram guards to fight before reaching the target – another hologram – and executing him.”

Marion bit her lip. She knew all about Kristoph’s former life as the Celestial Intervention Agency’s top assassin, but she had never really heard about how he qualified for that job. She was almost afraid to hear any more of this story.

“Are you betraying any secrets by talking about this?” Aineytta asked.

“No,” Kristoph answered her. “The Celestial Intervention Agency doesn’t even use the desert training centre anymore. The young Arcalians in the camp turned the Killing House into an air-conditioned indoor sports centre. The only secret was the fact that the candidates had to retake the practical after the chaos that Le Marrant caused. You really don’t need to hear about that part. Mama, Lily, my dear Marion, you all KNOW that I was an assassin. Obviously I passed the Killing House practical. But we were going to tell you about what Le Marrant did to mess it up the first time. Let’s make it visual. Give me your hand, Marion. Mama, take my other hand.”

Everyone drew closer and formed a ring, holding hands. Rodan happily grasped Aineytta’s hand on one side and Li on the other. She was a part of it all just like the grown-ups as they went, in their minds, to a dangerously exciting place.

It was dark and cold in the Red Desert some two hours after sundown. The Candidates tried not to shiver as they prepared to go into the Killing House in pairs. Shivering was for ordinary men, not Celestial Intervention Agency assassins.

“De Lœngbærrow, Serdaru,” the training supervisor called out. The two young men stepped forward quietly and climbed down a ladder set in the side of a long shaft going deep into the ground. At the bottom, they would be out of all communication range, even telepathic. The Killing House was on the edge of that part of the Red desert called Dark Territory where the magnetised rocks affected any mechanical transport, even a TARDIS, where compasses were useless and even the most powerful psychic felt as if his head was full of cotton wool.

They knew just how many rungs there were. They had first been brought here ten years ago on their orientation week and watched from the hidden observation room as senior candidates were put through their paces. After that, they practiced once a week how to assassinate an unwitting subject within the Killing House. Each time, the same sort of technology that was used in TARDIS construction altered the configuration of the complex so that they would never quite know what to expect.

But the shaft leading down to the first door was always the same, always the same number of rungs.

So they were surprised when the ladder ran out when they were still several hundred feet from the bottom. Instead there was a rope.

“Well, we learnt to climb ropes when we were children,” the candidate called Endas Serdaru said to his partner on this mission. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I agree,” answered Kristoph de Lœngbærrow. “But it’s strange that they changed the method of descent.”

They were candidates. It wasn’t their place to question such things. Serdaru grasped the rope and began to repel down the side of the shaft. When he was partway down, Kristoph followed. Moments later, Serdaru screamed. Kristoph was puzzled. Screaming was not something candidates for the Celestial Intervention Agency were supposed to do.

Then he realised that the rope wasn’t a rope. It was a snake.

He didn’t bother about repelling slowly. He slid down the rough, scaly skin until he felt it thinning towards the head. Then he let go and dropped.

He expected a long fall. Instead after a few feet he landed on a smooth, sloping surface and began to slide. It was pitch dark, but he felt that he was sliding in a spiral. Somewhere below, Serdaru was sliding, too. He was making a peculiar noise, something between a scream and a laugh. Neither candidate at this time in their lives had ever visited a civilisation where fun fairs were common or they would have understood the ‘white knuckle’ sensation that drew such a sound from Serdaru.

Kristoph landed on a surprisingly soft surface next to Serdaru. In an eerie blue light he saw his fellow candidate’s worried face.

“I’m sorry,” Serdaru told him. “I hate snakes. They terrify me. I just couldn’t help it.”

“I won’t tell anyone about that,” Kristoph answered. “Assuming that we’re not being monitored already, your secret is safe with me. Come on. We’d better get on with it.”

He stood up only to find that his boots sank into the soft surface. He tried to pull them up and sank even deeper. Serdaru was having the same trouble.

“What is this stuff?” he asked. But there was no answer. They were both too busy falling through the foamy substance that no longer bore their weight.

They landed in a round room with stone walls. It was some eight foot wide with one dark wooden door with metal studs. There was light coming from far above.

“It looks like daylight, but it can’t be,” Serdaru noted. “It was the middle of the night when we came down here.”

“It’s false daylight,” Kristoph answered him. “But just as dangerous as the real thing.”


“This is an oubliette. It’s a form of torture… a form I’m familiar with. The Sarre put me in something like this on a regular basis when I was a prisoner of war.”

Serdaru looked at his friend wordlessly. Everyone knew that Kristoph de Lœngbærrow had been a soldier before he joined the Celestial Intervention Agency. They knew he had been one of the men captured by the enemy during that terrible part of recent Gallifreyan history. But he had never before talked about it to anyone.

“The solitude is hard enough. But there is a physical torture, too. When the sun is overhead it shines directly down into the oubliette. The heat and light are magnified and it quickly becomes unbearable. Without any form of liquid it is a slow, lingering method of execution. Even the Celestial Intervention Agency would hesitate to do that to a prisoner.”

“Yet they do it to their trainees?”

“Apparently so. But unlike the Sarre oubliette, I am sure there must be a way out of this one. They don’t intend to either torture or kill us.”

“Maybe they do. Remember what Octavio Carrillo said… about the quota.”

“He was talking rubbish,” Kristoph insisted. “They don’t expect a proportion of candidates to die. They spent ten years training us, at huge expense. They EXPECT us to have the resourcefulness to work things like this out.”

With that, he walked to the door and grasped the handle. He was more surprised than anyone when it opened inwards.

And surprised again when a skeleton leapt out at him. He stepped back as the bones landed on the ground. He bent and examined them and noted that they were real bones, but attached to each other with wires. It was a biology class prop. Kristoph kicked it back into the cupboard and slammed it shut.

“What was that about?” Serdaru demanded.

“Trusting our reactions, I suppose.” Kristoph looked at the door and frowned. He reached out to the handle again and opened it once more.

The skeleton was gone. So was the cupboard it had been in. Instead there was a corridor with stone flagged floor and cold grey stone walls.

“The way out, but let’s go carefully. There could be more traps.”

Kristoph took the lead. Serdaru kept close behind him. Close enough to grab him when a flag collapsed under his feet. They fell backwards together before recovering and examining the hole. While they contemplated jumping across the missing flag three more fell. The crash as they broke into fragments at the bottom was a long time coming and echoed disturbingly.

“Are you sure somebody doesn’t want to kill us?” Serdaru asked.

“I’m sure,” Kristoph insisted. “But they might want us to have a nasty accident. Come on. We can skirt the edges. This is just a variation on the window-ledges.”

The edge was very narrow – a few inches wide. They had to move slowly and carefully, pressing themselves flat against the wall and finding what handholds their fingertips could grasp between the stones.

It was tricky, but they had been trained for just such difficulties. Their tutors had expected them to be making their way along ledges at the top of tall towers in order to reach targets for assassination who thought themselves safe so far up, or to use window ledges as a means of escape from a difficult location. The principle was exactly the same. They slowly made it past the fallen section of floor onto reassuringly solid flags and continued along the stone corridor until they reached a dead end.

They looked at the blank wall curiously. By now they weren’t ready to take anything at face value, least of all a wall.

“There’s a door,” Kristoph said. “We’re just not seeing it. There’s a perception filter hiding it. Look away and then look at the wall again, quickly.”

Serdaru did as he suggested and was mildly amazed at what he saw.

“It’s the same as the door to the oubliette.”

“Yes,” Kristoph noted. He reached for the handle and pulled the door. It opened.

Inside was another oubliette, identical to the one he and Serdaru had escaped from. It was occupied by four of their fellow candidates: Ute Irgen, Tefi Svider, Remo Bocci and one of the few female agents in their cohort, Taneci Aslic. Taneci, a slender, supple young woman who fitted her all-black outfit very well, was ready to perform some very deadly martial arts on the person who opened the door. She recognised one of her fellow candidates just in time.

“Is there a way out of here?” asked Tefi.

“I don’t really know,” Kristoph answered. “This place doesn’t follow normal rules.”

“That’s the SAME oubliette we were stuck in,” Serdaru confirmed. “I’m sure it is. Not just an identical one, but the SAME one.”

“So we went from one end of the corridor to the other and came back to where we started,” Kristoph suggested. “Well, this is Time Lord technology. A recursive corridor is the sort of test we ought to expect.”

“If we go back to the other end, will we find more people?” Serdaru asked.

“Very probably,” Kristoph answered. “But we’re not ALL going. Wait here. I’ll go.”

Before anyone could protest that there were no leaders among them he turned back towards the broken section of the floor. He edged along the wall again and returned to the first door.

This one opened inwards. He wasn’t remotely surprised when he found another pair of would-be agents.

“That was a cupboard before!” exclaimed Han Beyouv, stepping out and looking around the corridor. “There was a clown in it.”

“A clown?” Kristoph frowned. “The sort that packed out the examination hall last week?”

“Yes,” Han answered. “Exactly like that.”

“This isn’t our official test. It’s him again. He’s got into the Killing House and turned it into one of his jokes.”

Nobody asked who he meant. They didn’t need to. Suddenly it all started to make sense. Kristoph turned back towards the hole in the floor, followed by the newly liberated pair. At the other side Serdaru and the other candidates were waiting.

He looked down into the hole, then he reached into his pocket and found a gold cresset coin. He flipped it into the dark void. There was a metallic ping after a very short fall.

“Another illusion,” he said. “The flags falling in the first place was probably a visual and audible effect. There’s a floor just below here.”

With that, he jumped down, realising as he did so that he might have been wrong – the flags falling a long way could have been real while the coin was an illusion.

But he didn’t think he was wrong, and he wasn’t. He landed awkwardly, but he landed on a floor made of metallic mesh. There was low level light in the corridor, hidden from above by the perception filter. He bent and picked up his gold coin and threw it up in the air. A moment later Endas Serdaru jumped down next to him and returned the cresset.

“We can see it now. Knowledge of the illusion breaks it.”

The others were coming down into the corridor. Kristoph led the way. Nobody doubted that he was the leader of the group, now. He was the one who had broken through the obfuscation that had fooled all of them.

The corridor led to a familiar place – the control room. The candidates stared at the three senior agents slumped in their chairs, unconscious, their faces painted as clowns.

On the screens where the controllers were supposed to monitor the candidates in the Killing House was an eerie image of a laughing clown and a message – from Le Marrant.

“Gallifrey is too serious for me. I’m leaving while I still have a sense of humour.”

“And that was the last we heard of him for a decade,” Li concluded as everyone opened their eyes and looked around in surprise at the well-lit drawing room in Liverpool. “Kristoph and I came across him twice on other planets where he was making a nuisance of himself, and other agents encountered him from time to time. Each time he escaped using his clever tricks and illusions, leaving the Celestial Intervention Agency looking stupid – which was the intention, I am sure.”

“What happened to your friends afterwards?” Rodan asked. It was a question none of the adult women had wanted to ask in case there was a bad answer, but the child didn’t think in such terms.

“I haven’t seen most of them for a long time,” Kristoph admitted. “But Serdaru is head of security with the Gallifreyan embassy on Antare V. He’s doing fine.”

“And Le Marrant is still on the loose,” Marion noted. “Will he strike again, do you think?”

Li and Kristoph both smiled wryly.

“I have absolutely no doubt that he will,” Kristoph admitted. “And I have no doubt the new crop of agents will find him as slippery as we did.”

He smiled again. Marion thought he was glad that Le Marrant couldn’t be caught. But he would never admit that.