The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Lindorn of Storsjon
Wednesday, 11th September 1998
Breakfast in Hotell Lindorn bears the mark of the owner's taste for the extravagant. A great buffet has been erected on one side of the communal dining area, upon which mock-Willow Pattern plates are stacked high with breakfast cereals, muesli, different varieties of cheese, ham, pinkish-grey cubes of pate, boiled eggs, bacon, scrambled eggs, herring, yoghurt, Danish pastries and fruit. A small silver bowl with matching spoon contains a black, lumpy substance that appears to be a form of cheap caviar.
"I wouldn't do that." Louis Lakersonn, who has just swung into the dining room with a copy of the Times under one arm, gently detains Robert's hand as the latter reaches for the milk jug. "That isn't meant to be added to tea. It's not actually milk at all, it's filmjolk, a sort of thick, sour milk the locals use for pouring onto cereal, and so forth. As a matter of fact the tea hardly passes muster anyway. It's a fine country, this, in many ways, but the tea..." Louis walks away, shaking his head mournfully.
Daniel waits until he is out of earshot before leaning forward. "What is that guy meant to be? I mean, the dress sense is bad enough, but that plummy English accent doesn't exactly fit in with his surname, does it? Bit odd, don't you think?"
Since the dining area is rather full, it is decided that all further discussion should be delayed until the group can talk in the privacy of their own rooms. Glancing around, the SITU agents recognise the young couple who had accompanied them on the guided tour the previous day. These two have chosen a small table close to the wall, and appear to be engaged in expressing their mutual affection through a rather embarrassing demonstration of nose-wrinkling, nick-name calling and close range gazing. On another table a pallid, elderly woman swathed from head to foot in elaborate Indian shawls is attempting to repencil one pale eyebrow with the aid of a pocket mirror. Across the room, next to the buffet, Daniel also recognises the man and woman that he had observed at the dig the day before. Like the SITU operatives, they are clearly guests at the Hotell Lindorn.
Once the group has returned to a convenient bedroom, Micheal Stockton suggests that the party divide so as to investigate different aspects of Froson. He recommends setting one group to investigate the existence of the lindorn, one to look into the VAM and one to find out about the Children of the Lindorn. This suggestion meets with some assent. It is agreed that during the morning Mal Harris and Harriet Shen will accompany Stockton on his rented boat in an attempt to examine the island from the vantage point of the lake. If any promising-looking caves or coves are glimpsed during this morning trip, it is agreed that Loki, Harriet Shen and Micheal Stockton will mount a potholing expedition in the afternoon to explore the northern caves.
Mal Harris is intrigued by Robert Montague Flint's findings at the archaeological dig. "Do you have any idea what caused the destruction of Mjalleborgen? Was there any definite traces of military attack, or could it have been crushed by, say, the lindorn?"
Robert reflects carefully. "No, I can't say there was much sign of it being other than a military attack. A number of bones showed signs of wounding from edged weapons, although there's no real way of knowing whether the wounds were gained in the fall of the settlement. However, I'd say that the way the front wall of the hall seems to have breached suggests a certain amount of tactical precision. An animal, even an intelligent animal, would be unlikely to target an architectural weak point."
It is suggested that Loki continue his hacking efforts in an attempt to trace the movements of Gerard Dubois.
"Excuse me, but are you aware that violation of computerised security systems could easily be construed as an illegal act, facing a sentence of up to a year or eighteen months, depending upon whether you were prosecuted by the Swedish or the French authorities?" Harriet Shen glances about at her companions, seemingly undaunted by the icy silence that follows her question.
"I believe the risk is justified," Robert suggests. "After all, we have every reason to believe that Dubois may be heading back to Froson."
"I see, please excuse me. I'm not used to working with such methods. Are they usual for such missions?"
Daniel can be heard muttering words to the effect that being trapped on the same island as certain female operatives promises to be punishment enough for a whole host of illegal acts.
To change the subject, and to dissipate the almost tangible hostility radiating from Loki and Daniel, Robert mentions Daniel's new Irish acquaintance from the docks. "I think you should meet up with her again. After all, who knows what she might be able to tell you about the town!" He offers this remark with a mischievous glint in his eye, and a distinctly suggestive smile.
Daniel then brings up the subject of the couple at the buffet. "I saw them taking more than a casual interest in the archaeological dig yesterday. I reckon it's worth finding out what they're doing."
It is decided that Robert Montague Flint will try to gain access to the church in the afternoon. Mal wishes to investigate the kite he had seen flying above the northern outcrop. Robert is interested in revisiting the archaeological site. The crippled child survivor of the 1939 disaster and the attack of the Dalmatian upon the waiter the day before are also considered as possible lines of enquiry.
"Above all, be careful, everyone." For a moment, Robert sheds his usual humorous demeanour. "We don't know how many potential foes we may be facing here, human or supernatural."
Loki agrees. "If you ask me, the people around here seem like more of a threat than any monster."
When Mal calls in at reception to look for Gudmund Njalsonn, he finds Thorveig Hylten stationed there in his place. She obligingly redirects Mal to Njalsonn's office on the first floor.
Njalsonn is seated at his desk, running his finger down a column of figures with an expression of acute distress. When he finds that he is not alone, he makes a token attempt to smooth his hair with the flat of his hand, and stands.
"Can I help you? Well, if I don't, who else will around here? How have they been treating you? Not too bad? I know the breakfasts have been very bad these last couple of years."
Mal explains that he is interested in acquiring information about the history of the hotel and Froson. He suggests that Njalsonn, as the previous owner of the hotel, will probably be better able to provide such information than Gunnlaug Gunnlaugson. The resulting conversation is less fruitful than Mal had hoped. His questions seem to trigger the Swede's nostalgia for the days of 'Hotell Froson.' Njalsonn is always careful to refer to Gunnlaugson's changes as 'improvements,' albeit it with a weak smile, but there is a covert, diluted bitterness to his references to the décor change, and the introduction of new staff.
At last, Mal succeeds in extricating himself from the conversation. As he attempts to leave, Njalsonn's Dalmatian, which has been lolling against his calf, bites firmly into the fabric of his trouser leg and clings doggedly for several steps.
Somewhat disappointed with his interview, Mal goes in search of Louis Lakersonn, whom he discovers at length sitting in the dining area attempting to entertain the Njalsonns' child, who has evidently been left in his care. This seems to involve allowing the child to wear his hat, and performing simple, and rather clumsily executed magic tricks.
"Oh, good morning, Mr Harris. (Look, Olaf, ball! A-a-a-and where's it gone now? Look, gone! Magic, Olaf!) No, of course I don't mind answering questions, fire away." It emerges that Louis has only lived on the island for eight years. "Yes, I visited the place while I was rediscovering my 'Scandinavian heritage' - I'm half-Norwegian, you see - and I fell in love with it. Mr Njalsonn senior agreed to hire me, and Mr Gunnlaugson kept me on. He kept quite a group of us, Krippner, Thorveig, Gudmund, Bersi Kittelsonn, most of the waiting staff, some of the people on the docks... it was a pretty gentle takeover in some ways."
In answer to Mal's questions about the cults, Louis looks a little embarrassed. "Off the record? Be a little careful around the VAM. There have been... incidents. Just unimaginative thuggery, nothing arcane. I'd be awfully grateful if you didn't tell Mr Gunnlaugson that I mentioned it, though. As for the Children of the Lindorn, well, they often hold public rituals at noon near the docks. If you're interested, I suggest that you turn up there at noon the day after tomorrow and watch the fun."
In his room, Loki attempts to trace the motions of the escapee, Gerard Dubois. His first move is to check airport computer networks for any names that resemble that of Dubois, or that might be an anagram of the same. One or two leads seem promising, but a little quick research is enough to confirm in each case that the person buying a ticket to Sweden is an authentic individual, rather than a hastily adopted alias.
Temporarily discouraged, Loki returns to the private medical files devoted to the Frenchman, and begins trawling through them once more, painfully translating them word by word in the search for any clue to the other man's mindset.
At last he pauses, his attention drawn by a throwaway detail in Dubois' personal profile.
Prior to the accident, Dubois and his brother had been members of a sailing club on the northern coast of Brittany. A year before the tragic incident that destroyed one brother and crippled another, the pair had bought themselves a thirty-foot sailing boat, named the Elise.
A little after ten, Micheal Stockton, Harriet Shen and Mal Harris depart the hotel. Before they proceed to the docks, Micheal pauses to buy himself one of the better quality digital cameras from one of the souvenir shops. At the docks, where they find Jan Fjard squatting on the deck of his little boat, winding faded, blue rope slowly around his thick, brown fingers. Smoke and the smell of cooking kippers issue from below deck.
"You bring friends! Good, good!" Fjard casts off with the help of a tall youth who appears to be his son. The boat is a little elderly but well scrubbed, and dips daintily as they leave the quay. Along its flank is painted the name Mermelle.
Fjard responds well to Micheal's ingenuous questions about the lindorn. "Yes, the Storsjoodjuret, he live deep, deep down. Look at the pretty lake, see how blue it is? It is fine for swim, like the swimming pool. On the surface it is fine summer water that washes to and fro, like the tide. Twenty foots, thirty foots down, there is winter water. Cold. Still. The Storsjoodjuret, he live in the winter water."
Micheal continues listen to Fjard's tales, with every outward sign of credulous amazement. As the sailor talks, Mal and Micheal insert the occasional sly question in an attempt to gain a sense of a pattern to the creature's appearances. If Fjard is to be trusted, many sightings of the lindorn take place during dull, misty or stormy weather, but it is hard to tell how much such elements are being introduced into his accounts to add atmosphere. It also seems that the lindorn is seen most often during April and May, or during August and September. Fjard explains that for most of the period between October and March, the lake is usually frozen over.
"How would the lindorn come up during winter? He bang his head on the ice!" Fjard laughs heartily. "No, no, he goes to sleep then, sleep all winter."
The monster has, it seems, been sighted in numerous locations about the lake, although it seems to make a habit of lurking near to the shores of Froson. One or two accounts even describe it basking on a beach in a little frequented cove on the island itself, allowing the gentle waves to lick its flanks. Many of the tales are set during the night, or during the grey hours of dawn or twilight.
The northern coast of the island slides into view in a leisurely manner, and the three operatives line up to photograph the terrain. The sun-baked rock rises in a slope that is less than a cliff face, pocked by an irregular mesh of cracks and crevices which appear to contain nothing but an inky blackness. These are evidently the caves mentioned by the guide.
"I suppose it is redundant for me to mention the danger inherent in unaided investigation of these caves?" enquires Harriet Shen.
Meanwhile, Robert Montague Flint wanders towards the Froso kyrka, guided by the sight of the single grey spire that juts above the more modern buildings. The front edifice of the ancient building is almost entirely obscured by tarpaulin, but here and there he catches glimpses of elaborate, rather pictorial carvings, which are enough to whet his academic appetite.
His attempts to initiate conversation with the men working upon the church renovation is at first unrewarding. Many shrug and shake their heads, apparently to indicate that they know no English. At last, he succeeds in finding the curator of the little museum that adjoins the church, a slightly effete, elderly man wearing a heavy, blue pullover and a slim, gold crucifix.
According to this individual, the church has merely fallen into disrepair through the effects of time and weather. "We have such big hots and colds in Froson. Every year, hot, cold, hot, cold. After a few centuries, stone starts to crack. Sorry, no-one must go in, we cannot afford to pay for the smashed heads of visitors." The curator-vicar seems more than willing to discuss the church, however. Before Robert departs, he has been loaded down with brochures and booklets about the building, most of which appear, thankfully, to be in English.
The group reconvene for lunch, and force themselves to muster the courage necessary to face another Smorgasbord. Loki offers to lend his portable PC to Daniel so that the latter can engage in his own investigation.
After lunch, Loki, Harriet and Micheal make preparations for the potholing escapade. Loki makes a few enquiries at the hotel concerning the possibility of acquiring a guide to show them the caves. Thorveig is of the opinion that a guide for such an enterprise will be nigh impossible to find, and hints in the most tactful manner possible that any guests attempting such an exploration should consider the hotel free from culpability for any mishaps that might occur.
"I guess we go it alone," Loki remarks as he rejoins the others.
In one of the shops off the main square Harriet succeeds in finding climbing equipment of a primitive kind for hire, although it is clear from the doubtful eye she persist in casting over them that they fall far short of her expectations. She makes a prolonged attempt to ascertain which safety standards have been consulted in their design, but the proprietor, an elderly female Swede with minimal English, persists in facing her with a blithe, bewildered smile, and trying to sell her toy windmills.
The prospective potholers take the northern footpath, accompanied by Mal. Where the footpath curves sharply to the north-west, Mal abandons the path to climb due north. The others continue in the direction of the caves.
As they reach the crest of the cliff, it becomes apparent that descent towards the caves that scar the rockface will only be feasible through use of the rope. Micheal's elementary climbing experience here proves invaluable, and he is soon engaged in fastening the ropes that link the group. Harriet has a somewhat vexing habit of checking and rechecking every loop, knot and pulley.
Micheal is the first to begin the descent. He soon appreciates the justice of Thorveig's warning. Sand masks the divide between rock and rock, giving an illusion of solidity to a mass of fragments. Again and again he tentatively places his foot on a little shelf, only to feel it slide from its socket and fall away towards the water with a diminishing clack, clack, clatter. At last he succeeds in swinging himself into one of the lower caves, and making the rope fast.
Harriet Shen follows down the cliff face a moment later, with surprising speed and agility. Last comes Loki, wincing now and then as his footing slips and the rope burns his hands. Leaving one end of the rope attached at the top of the cliff, the SITU operatives venture into the cave.
They quickly establish that, as they had hoped, the promising hollow contains a tunnel that leads deep into the rock face. Turning on flashlights, they advance gingerly. This corridor within the rock is large enough for all but Micheal to walk erect, although there are signs that it narrows as it proceeds. As they walk, Harriet maps the route of the tunnel, charting each turning and junction.
Loki keeps an eye out for signs that the caves have been inhabited by animals of any sort, but can detect nothing conclusive. In places the stone floor appears to be grooved in a curious manner, but it is hard to be sure whether this might not have been caused by water dragging rock shards back and forth across its surface, rather than by the gouging of enormous claws.
Although he succeeds in maintaining his almost icy composure, Loki begins to fall prey to an increasing sense of creeping claustrophobia. This sensation becomes more acute as the tunnel narrows, bringing to him an acute awareness of the monolithic volume of rock that is suspended above the slender bubble of air through which he walks.
After a refreshing but uneventful stroll along the docks, Daniel returns to his own room. With the aid of Loki's PC, he sends out emails to a few long-distance acquaintances. The first response arrives within half an hour.
>hi masterson welcome back from the dead what can I do you for
Those contacts who respond to Daniel's message seem more than willing to help with the investigation of the Froson cults. After a short delay snippets of information start to arrive, many anecdotal but suggestive.
Unfortunately, much of the information Daniel receives concerning the VAM seems to relate to the activities of the movement in the inner cities. The VAM seems to resemble the British National Front to an extent. Its followers seem to regard membership of the movement as an excuse for physical assaults upon Asian immigrants in the Stockholm subway. As far as Daniel's contacts are aware, after a small outbreak of criminal incidents in the early 1990's, the VAM have dwindled as a significant force in Froson. Apparently, several of the local leaders had died in 1994 in the S/S Stiklestad disaster.
The 'Children of a Lindorn' seem to be an exclusively local phenomenon, and Daniel's contacts lack information on this group. One friend, however, does report that a Haarkon Cormac worked as a Public Relations Officer for Masmo Oil Corporation between 1983 and 1989.
Pausing in the struggle over the rough ground, Mal Harris looks up to see a curious creature swimming through sky, surfing the currents of the air. Today it is a strand of green that now spirals, now swoops, trailing its length like a banner. One end of the ribbon narrows to a tail, the other is decorated with eyes and gaping mouth.
Near the apex of the northern hill, largely hidden by the great boulders that break up through the scant vegetation, is a small cottage. Some twenty yards from the door stands an elderly man, his back turned to the SITU operative. His head is upturned, his hair drawn up into a wild white quiff by the wind. In his fists he clutches the strings to the kite above. His proportions are curious, like those in a childish drawing. After a moment's study, Mal realises that the old man's legs are unusually stunted.
A few minutes before five, Daniel is back at the docks, scanning the boats for his new Irish acquaintance.
"You made it." She standing behind him on the quay. Today she appears to be dressed in a light summer blouse and jeans, casual but clean, unlike the tough, scuffed, oil-stained relics of the previous day. Her hair also shows signs of some rough brushing. She fidgets under Daniel's scrutiny. "Follow me," she says, bluntly.
The Konditori is a narrow little restaurant in which are lined high stools with leather cushions, like those in an American diner. From floor to ceiling the walls are daubed with mountainscapes in smoky blues and pinks. The dusty blue blinds are pulled two-thirds of the way down the windows, creating an artificial twilight. The smell of coffee is so strong it creates a taste like grit at the back of the throat. Daniel and his companion appear to be the only customers.
"This place is dying. The street kitchen's driving it out of business, no-one comes here any more. Except me. It's a good place to get time to oneself." Rich, dark coffee is served in large mugs with lindorn handles.
After some quarter of an hour, the abrasive edge to the conversation starts to wear away, perhaps as the result of the mellow light, or perhaps because of the difficulty of maintaining a mood of wariness and hostility while faced with a plate heaped high with Danish pastries. The manner of Daniel's companion gradually becomes less defensive, and after a while he ventures to encourage her to talk about herself. With a certain degree of reluctance, the Irish girl admits to the name of Belle-Marie Prior.
"So why did you come here, anyway? Drawn irresistibly by stories of the lindorn?"
"No, I don't believe that thing exists. Well, I've never seen it. No, it wasn't anything like that." She grimaces. "I came to the island to be with someone, I guess. It... it went badly wrong." Belle-Marie looks somewhat ruefully at her empty cup. "Look, we probably can't just sit around here without buying anything for hours. Perhaps we'd better..."
"...go somewhere else for dinner?" suggests Daniel. Belle-Marie laughs and consents.
Outside the sky has already dimmed to the dusky blue of the coffee-house blinds, and the air is cooling. The restaurant to which they walk along the quay has a shabby appearance, the paint peeling from the word 'Brunkullans' that loops in red lettering across the front. Within, however, it is glossy with wooden panelling, that reflects the multicoloured gleam of the dozen or so tiny lanterns that jewel the ceiling.
Daniel responds to his companion's questions about his own past with considerable candour. Belle-Marie listens with evident interest and empathy, but without offering the token noises of compassion that can be so galling to the recipient.
"What happened to her? The fiancée?"
"Her?" Daniel smiles a little bitterly as he stirs his fondue. "She left me for another man." He gives a wry, thumbnail account of his life from that point, carefully omitting any reference to SITU, or related subjects.
"I was going to be married." The Irish girl lowers her eyes and glowers at her chafed knuckles. "I told you I came here to be with someone. He really liked me, and I really needed someone to get my head together. I was... I was on some pretty serious stuff, right out of my head on it." She is still frowning, gripping her upper arm with her other hand as if anchoring herself. "So I left Stockholm and came here, and he paid for me to be put into a clinic, and when I walked out of hell there he was waiting for me. And then a bit later he proposed.
"Oh, I didn't love him or anything, but he was alright. He was about thirty years older than me, and I knew his family hated my guts, and I almost said no. But the world was this great desert, with just one pocket of safety in it, d' you know what I mean? I said yes, and it was such a relief." Belle-Marie draws a cigarette out of her pocket. "Then he died." She lights the cigarette. "Cue violins, The End," she mutters.
After the meal Daniel walks her home to a dingy bungalow just north of the docks.
"Look, don't run off to England without dropping by for another talk, will you? You're not too boring a conversationalist, I think I can stand it." Belle-Marie manages a surprisingly relaxed grin, as she shuts the door.
"Interested in archaeological digs?" Hearing Robert's voice, the middle-aged gentleman who has been engaged in close study of the runestone straightens from his stoop and beams.
"Splendid, isn't it? Prettiest thing I've ever seen. How do you do, I'm Marcus Massey."
"That woman's staring at us again, Dr Massey." A young woman with a black ponytail puts her head around the door to call out to him. She has bright, black eyes and the sort of deliberately patient tone that suggests extreme irritation or heat-fatigue.
"Don't worry so much Leda, they're probably just some more tourists." Casting his eye over Massey's papers, Robert notes to his interest that the other man has evidently pre-empted his own plan to take rubbings from the runestone. When he learns that the pair have a common interest, Massey is more than willing to share some of his own rubbings with a fellow academic.
Robert quickly remembers Massey's name from numerous academic papers on Scandinavian and Germanic history, and the pair are soon involved in an animated discussion, which continues as they walk with Massey's assistant, Leda, back to the Hotell Lindorn. From the dining area, where they have been discussing the day's events Daniel Masterson and Mal Harris observe Robert, Massey and Leda entering the lobby.
"That woman's still behind us," hisses Leda, who has been looking over her shoulder through the glass door of the hotel lobby. "And she's got a lot of friends with her who don't look happy."
The sound of angry voices may, indeed, be heard from beyond the outer door.
Returning from a long exploration of the cave, Micheal peers up at the hook by which the group's rope is attached to the summit of the cliff. Even to his relatively inexperienced eye, he is fairly sure that it is jutting at a different angle to that at which he wedged it into the cliff top. He gives the rope an experimental tug, and watches the hook shift a little further. Another tug, he guesses, would pull it out of its socket...
Any climbing will have to be managed without the rope.