The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Lindorn of Storsjon
Having received a chorus of thanks from her six charges, Thorveig prepares to depart, but is detained for an instant by Robert Montague Flint, who gestures towards the array of local newspapers that display the name of Gerard Dubois.
"I always like to appraise myself of local goings on as soon as is possible on one of these trips. Could I possibly prevail upon you to translate the local paper for me? Perhaps in my room later? Or perhaps over lunch?"
Thorveig offers only slightly more response to his charming smile than one might expect from a shop window mannequin. Daniel Masterson fishes out a few krona for a local paper, and she casts her eye over the main stories.
"The local papers are making sensations," she remarks a little coolly. "There was a man, a poor man who was very ill, not fine in his mind. That is Gerard Dubois." She taps the headline with one long, pink fingernail. "He was French," she adds, as if this explains everything. "The papers are saying that he has run away from his doctors in France. It is not really a local story, but the papers write about it because they wish to make sensations, and because he was here when the authorities came and took him away to the special hospital." Thorveig turns another few pages. "There is the news of the ski-ing competition at the Oviksfjallen. There is the sad story of a reindeer that was hit by a tour bus. There are also the weather reports - they say it will be fine and sunny. Is that not fine for your visit?"
"Oh, indeed," Micheal Stockton agrees enthusiastically. "We do want to see this beautiful place at its best. It's so exciting to finally visit Froson after all we've heard. Tell me, would it be possible to hire a little fishing boat or something so that we can have another look at the island from the lake?"
"Mr Krippner will answer any questions about the small rowing boats provided by the hotel. Also, we recommend the S/S Thornee, which tours the whole lake on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays."
At this point two porters in blue and gold blazers arrive on the quay, and begin moving the party's luggage towards the hotel, supervised by Thorveig. Mal Harris turns to his companions.
"I feel that we should accept Mr Gunnlaugson's hospitality and join him for lunch at one-thirty as requested. However, in the interests of getting to know one another better, perhaps we could all meet at one o'clock for a pre-lunch drink and informal chat?" There is a general murmur of assent. "In the interim," adds Mal, "I think I will have a little stroll around the harbour before making my way up to the hotel."
The young woman working on the quay shows no sign of noticing Daniel Masterson as he approaches. She appears to be in her mid-twenties, but is rather boyish in build. Her hair is cropped short, and she is dressed in frayed denim jeans and a loose 'lumberjack' shirt, checked in blue and black. Her fingers are fairly narrow and delicate, but there are reddened calluses about the knuckles. Daniel watches her hoisting herself with some agility aboard one of the smaller sailing boats, and rolling away a stretch of tarpaulin covering the deck.
"I'm not one of the local tourist sights, y'know." She lifts her head suddenly, and gives Daniel a grim, little smile, half humorous, half hostile. "You want something to stare at, the lake's that way." Somewhat to Daniel's surprise, her accent is not Swedish. The lilt of her vowels is unmistakably Irish.
"I'm looking to hire a boat. Do you know who I should talk to?"
"Depends what you want. If you want a titchy little boat, and Sverre Krippner breathing down the neck of the lady who came with you, get one of the hotel boats." She pronounces Krippner's name with a certain amount of venom. "If you want a boat big enough for twenty, and don't care about money, talk to Sven, on the boat at the end of the quay. If you want a really cheap hire, and don't mind the captain going through your coats an' stealing your cameras, talk to Kopparberg, there, in the yellow deckchair. Otherwise, your best bet is Jan Fjard. He'll talk a blue streak, but he won't cheat you. Oh, and I'm telling you none of this, if you get my meaning."
"I get your meaning. While we're talking, maybe you could tell me if there's anything worth visiting on this island?"
"Nothing that wouldn't bore you in less than a day." She finishes winding in a cunningham, and straightens. "There's a church and a museum, if you like that sort of thing. The dig's just mud and rocks with plastic markers stuck in it. Anything else you want to know?"
"Yes, actually." He grins. "Is there anywhere that you and I could meet up for a drink some time?"
"Don't waste much time, do you?" Daniel is subjected to an interrogative stare from a pair of unusually large, tawny-green eyes. Crouched on the edge of the boat, the slight, impish girl resembles a cat caught in a moment of appraisal, deciding whether to approach or flee. "There's not many places to buy a drink," she says at last. "You know the law, don't you? No drinking alcohol in public places. There's a Konditori though, opposite the church, that sells soft drinks, and coffee, and cakes. I get off work at five tomorrow. If you haven't changed your mind by then, you can find me here."
Mal Harris strolls through the village, camera in hand. Somewhat to his relief, he notes that many of the street signs are given in English as well as Swedish. Numerous signs direct him to the church, which is currently swathed in green tarpaulin and framed by scaffolding. Crimson signs warn that renovations are taking place. He notes several small shops selling postcards and lindorn souvenirs.
One large building near the quay he identifies as the headquarters of the 'Children of the Lindorn.' A large poster affixed to its front wall appears to depict a giant serpent raising its back out of the water in several enormous arches, each one straddled by a smiling, naked girl. The artwork has very little to commend it.
Keeping in mind his assumed role as guidebook researcher, Mal Harris takes numerous photographs of the village and the surrounding lake.
Back at the hotel, a rather harassed-looking man in his thirties hurries out of a back room at the sound of the reception bell. He appears to be in the process of transferring a palmful of pills into his mouth.
"Oh, the 'Sweden Welcomes' people here to register already, and no-one in reception but me, where is Thorveig, no-one where they should be nowadays..." He continues this nervous, muted monotone, seemingly to himself, as he pulls out the register book.
As all the operatives sign, the others notice that Loki writes his name as 'John Smith.'
When Loki enquires after the possibility of hiring a translator for the duration of the group's stay, the man behind reception becomes, if anything, even more distraught.
"Oh, the 'Sweden Welcomes' people have no translator, no-one has given them a translator, so sorry, so sorry... oh, thank God, Louis, Louis, the 'Sweden Welcomes' people have arrived and no-one has given them a translator, take care of it could you please, Louis..."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it, Mr Njalsonn." The voice that sounds from behind Loki is pleasant, well-bred and English in a peculiarly clipped, early BBC kind of way. The SITU operative turns to discover a figure that might indeed have stepped from the screen of an early film. The young man that confronts Loki's gaze is dressed in a crisp, white blazer in the 'Salad Days' style, white slacks and a straw boater. Cream-coloured calf-skin gloves peep from his upper pocket. His wide, friendly, grey eyes are magnified by a large pair of steel-rimmed spectacles.
"Terribly glad to make your acquaintances. I'm Louis Lakersonn. I usually do the translation stuff around here, so please make use of me as much as you wish." He shakes the hand of each member of the party, tipping his hat slightly to Harriet. "Gosh, this weather, eh? Not bad at all, eh?"
After taking a short while to unpack and refresh, the party meet up as planned at one o'clock. The bar appears to be serving only soft drinks, so the group gathers around a little oak table with a number of juices and fizzy drinks.
Mal Harris takes a lead in trying to break the ice, and after a few gentle jokes and a little polite conversation, the atmosphere thaws a little. Eventually the subject of the group's investigation strategy is raised.
"For the moment, we can probably talk fairly openly," Mal remarks, sotto voce. "In the future, though, we'd better discuss our real business somewhere a little more private, perhaps in one of our rooms."
On Mal's advice it is resolved that the entire group should take the guided tour in the hope of extracting valuable information from their guide. It is decided that Loki should begin looking into the cults, and following up the Dubois story. Robert Montague Flint and Daniel Masterson offer to visit the archaeological site. Michael Stockton wishes to revisit the dock. Harriet Shen expresses a desire to investigate the local police presence.
Robert is also intrigued by the mention of the crippled boy in the briefing sheet, and suggests that at some future point the party endeavour to find out whether he is still alive sixty years later.
Gunnlaug Gunnlaugson is still over average height despite his age, and is built like a bouncer. His face is brick-red, and full of heavy, tramelled folds like a rhino's skin. His countenance moves with slowness from one expression to another, as if he finds it hard to release a thought. His white hair is carefully combed backwards, and he wears a blue velvet jacket with gold buttons.
The dining lounge, it seems, bears the brunt of his taste in colour. All furniture is plushed with blue velvet, and adorned with extravagant gilt ornamentation. Fat, gold tassels hang from the curtains. Fat gold cherubs glue pouting mouths to trumpets in the carvings that plague most of the walls. Fat gold grapes hang in unconvincing bunches from the chandeliers.
The vast meal laid out on the central table is equally extravagant but far more gratifying to the senses. Steaming on great blue-and-gold plates are generous helpings of salmon, herring, shrimp, eel, oven-baked omelettes, fried sausages, pates, beef, and other hot and cold meats. Various vegetables lie in great silvery vats in the centre of the table. There is a strong smell of fish and hot herbs.
"This is Smorgasbord, you know Smorgasbord? You take some of everything, help yourself, eat as much as you can. And while we are eating first we start with the akvavit." Gunnlaugson begins liberally pouring measures of a strong-smelling spirit into small glasses, and offering them to his guests. "Nowhere will you find better akvavit than in Hotell Lindorn. Then after the akvavit, we move onto the beer, and we finish with the coffee. Now come, help yourselves, help yourselves."
There are numerous individuals already seated about the table.
"This is my wife, Ingelbjorg." Gunnlaugson's wife is a tiny woman with a thick, white pigtail She greets the operatives solemnly in a surprisingly deep and masculine voice.
"This is my eldest son, Sihtric." Sihtric, a solidly built man in his forties, puts away the handkerchief with which he has been dabbing at his forehead, and stands a little stiffly to shake the hands of the new arrivals. He is dressed in a dark, blue suit and tie.
"And this is Frodi, my younger son." Frodi appears to be about thirty. He has a long face, and slightly unkempt red hair. The effectiveness of his welcoming smile is somewhat dissipated by the piece of fish caught between two of his front teeth. Having executed the required civility, he returns to gabbling some anecdote in Swedish to his mother, and laughing manically at the end of each sentence. She regards him all the while with a stony serenity.
"This is Gudmund Njalsonn. Mr Njalsonn sold me this hotel a few years ago. But he still works here now. That is my policy, you see. When I buy a business I do not throw away people, I introduce them to my people and I say, be friends, now you will work together and we will make this business even better." The SITU operatives recognise the rather tense individual they had met in the hotel lobby. His dark hair is rather rumpled, and he is engaged in sawing away at a slice of ham with neurotic energy.
"This is Helga, Gudmund's lovely wife." Helga is a shapely, blond woman of thirty. She wears a pastel-green tracksuit and the sort of deep, even tan that often requires considerable time and expense. Her carefully-painted, deep crimson mouth tends towards the sort of smile that suggests that she has just been introduced to the one person who might make her life worth living. On her lap sits a toddler whose screaming she is attempting to calm by the simple expedient of smiling blithely and bouncing him vigorously on her knee. At her feet sits a dalmatian, which is making a determined attempt at chewing its way through her chair leg.
"This is Louis Lakersonn, my interpreter, my advisor, my this-and-that - what shall we call you, Louis?"
"I think 'dogsbody' is the technical term, Mr Gunnlaugson," says Louis, cheerfully.
"Yes, my dogsbody." Gunnlaugson laughs uproariously. "Louis, my body-of-a-dog." The joke seems to good to the hotel owner that it is some five minutes or so before he can be brought to abandon it, and move on to other subjects. Ultimately it is Micheal Stockton who manages this miracle, by enthusing about the Hotell Lindorn.
"I'd just like to thank you again on behalf of the publishers for giving us the chance to visit this fine hotel." With more enthusiasm than candour, he gestures vaguely at the décor of the dining lounge. Gunnlaugson's eyes gleam, and he joins Micheal in extolling the virtues of the hotel. When the old man seems suitably softened, Micheal brings up the subject of the VAM. "I've read a rather disturbing report in The European about a rise in Swedish nationalism, and I wondered if it had affected this area. You understand, it is something that we do have to warn our readers about..." Micheal blinks apologetically.
"Yes, we have some few of the VAM, but nothing like as bad as you hear about in Stockholm. They are all very foolish, and I think they should all be arrested for it, but they are not too bad trouble, they have not been violent." Frodi blurts something in Swedish and laughs, but is silenced by an angry look from his father. "Guests to Hotell Lindorn are safe," Gunnlaug declares to his visitors, a little aggressively. "Do not let people scare you with the VAM."
There is a pause, and then Mal Harris changes the subject. "I was hoping you would tell us about the name of your hotel. The lindorn is a feature of a Froson legend, isn't it? The guidebook will be including sections on local folklore, and I wondered if you could tell us more about it." Gunnlaug brightens once more.
"Yes, yes, the lindorn. It was my idea to call the hotel after it - what was it called before, Gudmund? The Hotell Froson? No, I thought, it must be a name that people remember, it must speak to them of the local culture, so I call it Lindorn. You may talk to people in Froson about the Storsjoodjuret, hundreds of them will tell you that they have seen him, or heard him calling in the night. In the Lansmuseet in Ostersund you may see the harpoon and the trap that King Oscar had brought here to try and catch it. But the lindorn, he was too clever for them, he hid away. And now, do you know, he is protected by law. By law!" Gunnlaug chuckles. "Paragraph 14 of the Nature Conservation Act in Sweden, it protects the Storsjon lindorn. Even the law admits he exists."
In the ensuing conversation with his loquacious host, Mal Harris learns the names of several local figures who claim to have seen the monster. He also discovers that although there are no local newspapers in English, there are numerous tourist magazines in English that give details of forthcoming events, and a brief account of recent occurrences.
As the waiters bring in the coffee at the end of the meal, one of them can be seen pausing by the table, as he attempts with nonchalance to disengage the dalmatian's teeth from his trouser leg.
At three, Thorveig can be seen waiting outside the hotel, addressing a serene, secret smile to her reflection in a car bonnet. Beside her stands a placard, reading 'Froson Tour: 3pm.' Around her stand a group of bored-looking school children, and a young couple in matching T-shirts and shorts. When the SITU operatives have joined the group, the tour begins. Their guide walks before them, giving and account of surrounding sights first in Swedish, then in English.
The tourists are first led along the quay, their attention directed first to the merits of Ostersund, and then to the recommended eating houses in the village of Froson.
"The village that now stands occupies the location once held by the Viking settlement which dated from the sixth century. There is evidence that the original Viking harbour would have been situated right where the fishermen moor their boats today. If you look to the left," (there is much straining of necks) "you may see the spire of the church of Froson. Sadly, it is undergoing renovation, and cannot be visited at this time."
At the far end of the quay, Thorveig leads the group up a steep and winding footpath. Soon the path is flanking a descent that is little less than a cliff. At the crest of the ascent Thorveig halts.
"Here we are at one of the highest points on Froson. If you look to the south, you can see the hill of Oneberget, which we shall visit later." Glancing over his shoulder, Mal notices another rise to the north, above which a tiny speck is in motion. Like a bird it soars, then abruptly plummets, then soars and plummets. Mal squints, and sees the speck gleam scarlet and green in the afternoon sun. Someone on the barren-looking northern outcrop is flying a kite.
The path cuts to the northwest across the island, and does not visit the northern hill that has attracted Mal's interest.
"In the northern part of the island are many steep cliffs and rocky inclines. We recommend that visitors keep to the paths, which are clearly marked with the little yellow tags. These glow in the dark, and therefore may still be used by night. We also recommend caution in visiting the caves in these areas."
The path begins to curve along the top of the island's western cliffs. By now many of the SITU operatives are starting to tire a little. Daniel Masterson and Robert Montague Flint, in particular, seem to be lagging behind the main group a little. Mal Harris is also forced to stop and regain his breath occasionally, although he covers this well by using the pause to take photographs of the scenery. Only Micheal Stockton seems capable of taking the repeated ascents and descents in his long, practised stride without tiring.
"On the western beaches, topless bathing is permitted, but we advise visitors to bear in mind the area's changeable climate. We are now approaching the hill of Oneberget. On your left you may see the local museum, in which may be found information concerning the ancient settlement of Mjalleborgen. There you will also find the Froson's famous runestone." Ten minutes later, the tour terminates outside the Hotell Lindorn.
After pausing to recover their energy after the long walk, the group divide to follow individual lines of investigation. Micheal Stockton strolls back down to the quay, to make use of the information gleaned that morning by Daniel Masterson. Most of the workers on the dock seem to possess a smattering of English, and without too much difficulty he finds Jan Fjard, a broad-faced, jocular man with black, curly hair and a Cheshire Cat grin. Micheal arranges to hire the boat for the next day, with the option of extending the rent for the rest of the week. Fjard responds enthusiastically when asked about the legends of the lindorn.
"Yes, yes, I see him many times, he come smooth and fast through the water. His head is bigger than a cow, and he drip water from his big mouth. His eyes are different, one is red and one is green, and they shine out in the dark. Once he tries to come in my boat, but I pick up my paddle, and I hit him on the nose, and I hit him until under the water he goes, and he does not trouble me any more." Fjard finishes and stares speculatively at Micheal's wallet until the SITU operative takes the hint and gives him a few krona.
Fjard shrugs when Micheal mentions the name of Gerard Dubois.
"Yes, the Frenchman, he was here a few years ago. Very sad, he lose his brother in a big shipwreck, then he lose his mind, and run around mad with harpoon. Very sad."
With the aid of his newly acquired translator, Loki soon acquires some four or five names of notorious VAM members. Attempts to communicate with the nationalist group, however, prove fruitless. With the use of the local telephone directory, he telephones one or two, but in each case the other person hangs up upon hearing an English voice. Louis also makes an attempt, since he has a fluent grasp of Swedish, but he receives the same treatment.
"I suppose they recognised my voice. I'm worse than a tourist, you see, I'm an immigrant, one of those scoundrels taking jobs away from honest Swedes. Sorry, you'll probably need a Swede to act as intermediary for you."
Abandoning the task of contacting the VAM for the moment, Loki retreats to his room and his portable PC. Soon he is engaged in hacking into the private records of French psychiatric institutions, in an attempt to find Gerard Dubois' details. After several hours of effort, he traces the Frenchman to a clinic in Paris. The psychiatric records are all in French, of course, but Loki is able to extract much of the basic gist.
According to the record, Dubois was twenty-five at the time of admission into the institution. His condition is attributed to the trauma suffered during a severe boating accident during which he witnessed the death of his brother, Arnaud. Prior to the accident, Gerard was a moderately successful management consultant, and had no record of mental ill health.
The accident left Dubois with multiple fractures, and it seems likely that he left the hospital in which he was recovering against his doctor's orders, and before the healing process was sufficiently advanced. Almost immediately he seems to have returned to Froson., where he was observed on numerous occasions 'staring out across the lake.'
The evidence seemed to suggest that he knew the victim of his attack, Haarkon Cormac, only very slightly. Dubois has refused to discuss the attack consistently over the last three years. Although maintaining a fair façade of lucidity on most occasions, he is described rising to dangerous levels of excitability at the mention of Froson. While engaged in conversation with another person, he has often been observed staring intently at a space of floor a foot or two from their feet. He refuses to discuss what he sees there.
The recommendation of Dubois' doctor is that Dubois should be retained in the institution for the foreseeable future for his own safety and the safety of others.
Having been frustrated in his attempts to find a computer in the hotel with Internet access, Daniel rejoins Robert Montague Flint, and the pair of them head west in the direction of the archaeological site.
Robert presents his genuine credentials to the museum curator, who seems glad to receive a knowledgeable visitor for once.
From the conversation of the curator, the various brochures and his own observations of the site, Robert starts to piece together a mental picture of the ancient settlement of Mjalleborgen. The layout suggests that originally the settlement would have been comprised of a number of small buildings grouped around one great hall. The remains of the hall show signs of charring, as if it had been destroyed by fire, but the wreckage is also strewn and broken in a manner that suggests violent disruption rather than a natural disintegration, perhaps the result of some sort of onslaught. Among the artifacts retrieved are a few engraved buckles, two sword hilts in moderately impressive repair, and a large number of bones.
The runestone quickly attracts Robert's attention. The craftsmanship is not particularly sophisticated, but the stone is carved with considerably more detail and care than the other artifacts. Carved into the rock is the image of a serpent with a fierce, dragon-like head, mouth agape. The runes themselves are contained within its body, and to his surprise are subtly different from all runesets he has previously encountered. According to sketches of the site, the stone would originally have been situated at the highest point of Oneberget hill.
As Robert studies the artifact, Daniel is observing another pair of figures who seem to be favouring the site with their attention. A middle-aged man in brown tweed can be glimpsed on his knees on the rough earth of the dig, examining the ground. A few feet away, a young woman stands in sunglasses stands loaded down with files, folders and two briefcases.
The group meet up again after dinner to pool their findings. Harriet Shen has been disappointed in her efforts to find a police station on Froson. It seems that the nearest significant police presence can only be found in Ostersund.
After recounting their discoveries, the operatives retire to bed. Outside their windows, the dull silver expanse of the evening lake is softened by the pale ghost of mist. The gentle, rhythmic lap of water is soothing, and before long all sleep.