The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
Jeffrey looks at the newsletter, at the Bishop and back, remembering all that happened in Transylvania. He had always believed there were strange things in heaven and earth, but to think that vampires truly exist... He remembers the Baron, servant of evil, Dr Odorf the misguided physician, the treacherous Albrights and Paul Crab, their hapless dupe - and the Arch-Vrlock himself. What was the meaning of the vision he saw - if it was a vision, and not prophecy?
Most clearly of all, however, he remembers Hans's scream as he fell to his death - Hans who had shown him nothing but kindness...
How could the Bishop possibly understand such things, he wonders. There's no point in even trying to explain.
'Your Reverence,' he says, coming to a decision, 'maybe you're right. Perhaps I've been getting things out of perspective. Perhaps I've been working too hard. I've got some holiday due,' (he thinks with a pang of the trip to Nashville he has been saving leave for) 'and if you don't mind I'd like to take it now. Get away for a while and sort myself out.'
'Don't ye worry ma sweet,' says Kyle as he bids Siobhan farewell. 'I won't be too long'. He traces a finger over her worried frown. 'I've money in the bank, it's just a lean patch at the moment. I'll look up my contact at Shell on my way back. He'll have something for me I'm sure'.
He puts a couple of bags into his trusty Landrover, and makes the long journey down from Scotland without a break, stopping over near London for the night of the 8th of March.
The next day he fills up and makes an early start for the hotel.
'Hinkins and Frewin, solicitors - can I help you?'
'Could I speak to Veronica Leigh, please?' asks Gino. 'This is Mr Ferrocco, of di Matteo, Amoroso and Lombardo, attorneys, of New York.'
Mrs Leigh's tone is highly professional and clipped, her accent clearly shaped by a childhood listening to Radio 4.
Gino explains that his law firm are looking to set up a branch in the UK. They are looking for a firm of solicitors to handle lease of premises and other legal matters for them. 'We were given the name of Hinkins and Frewin with a high recommendation - and your name, Mrs Leigh. Our contacts at Radome Electronics spoke highly of the conveyancing work you did for them back in 96.' This was the nearest thing his research could come up with.
'Oh! Well, that's very good of them - really, it was quite a routine matter...'
'I'm flying in to the UK tonight - perhaps we could meet for lunch tomorrow and discuss the scope of the work? Somewhere local to you - in Chelmsford - I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble.'
Veronica suggests the Orange Tree, in Moulsham Street. By now she is definitely sounding slightly flustered. Gino guesses that transatlantic, jet-setting business does not come Hinkins and Frewin's way all that often.
Stuart books himself into Chelmsford's Station Hotel - it is the cheapest place the local tourist board were able to suggest.
That done, he wanders down to the Department of Physical Sciences, to talk to some of his postgraduate friends. In the coffee lounge, sprawled over low, padded chairs, it is their custom to while away the days speculating on such matters as the possibility of time travel. Stuart outlines the Leighs' story and asks whether science rules out the possibility of its veracity.
Once the initial howls of derision have dies away, Stuart is presented with a rather confusing picture. Conventional Einstein-Hawking space-time does not admit the possibility of information travelling backwards in time, although Bell's Theorem does allow for alternative universes to communicate backwards in time (but with no possibility of return). There is a sense, though, one of Stuart's friends says, in which all points in time can be said to be happening 'simultaneously', so access to a higher dimension would allow quick and easy 'movement' between them: what 'higher dimension' might mean in this context, though, is literally inconceivable to the human mind. There is another sense, of course, in which any moving frame of reference is travelling in time relative to any other frame of reference - as evidenced by the twins paradox.
Stuart is left with the impression that, while physicists do not currently believe time travel in either direction possible, they wouldn't be too surprised if some bright spark came up with a space-time theory which allowed it: all the same, the kind of incidents the Leighs and Fulk describe sound extraordinarily unlikely.
Ferdinand, seized with excitement, rings round the other investigators. He is able to contact only Stuart, Kris and Grace; all the others are in transit.
'Can you take charge of bringing some "computer related stuff" on the trip, Ferdinand?' requests Grace. 'Er, spare floppy disks... whatever you think appropriate.'
'Why don't you have a look online to see if there are any other reported instances of haunted computers?' suggests Kris. 'Also, is Jeremiah Fulk mentioned in any online sources? News items relating to the current events, or perhaps in someone's family history?'
Ferdinand flings an assortment of equipment into a bag, and hooks himself up to his beloved Net once more. He finds no mentions of Fulk other than items relating to the current story, clearly based on the Essex Chronicle article and adding nothing new to it. Haunted computers are not as unusual as one might at first think, though: there are many, many instances of bizarre, inexplicable stuff going on with computers, which has been ascribed to ghostly activity. With a healthy degree of scepticism, these are easily dismissed as pranks or sheer user incompetence. Ferdinand can find nothing that seems to correspond to the current instance: nor can Kris, when she tries the search herself.
Kris, before she leaves London, carries out some research on the north-east Essex area. Imperial College's library turns out to be poorly supplied in this field, so she wanders down to UCL.
Hatfield Peverel is first mentioned in the late 15th century, as being the village attached to Peverel Hall, home of Sir Roger Critton, one of Edward IV's knights: prior to the Battle of Barnet the estate had belonged to the Earl of Warwick. Later, in the Malleus Maleficarum survey of witchcraft under James I, a gentleman named Abraham Stokes is named as being in residence at the Hall; he helped the witchfinders while they were based in the area in 1609. Hatfield Peverel is not mentioned in Matthew Hopkins's own writings, although he burned witches from Colchester and nearby Witham: 'their petticoates danced in the winde' at the assize held in Chelmsford in 1682. In between, this part of the country mostly took the Parliamentary part in the Civil War: Fulk might well have served as a soldier, if he is an middle-aged man in 1681.
Stuart is conducting parallel researches in Southampton. He finds that after the Civil War none of the great landowners had much property in Essex: small manorial estates were the order of the day. This was among the most prosperous parts of the country, with a burgeoning bourgeoisie, and probably most of the inhabitants of a village like Hatfield Peverel then would have been either tenant farmers or property-owners with businesses in Chelmsford, which as the county town with a good road to London was then the focus of commercial activity.
The best local sources, it seems, are going to be the County Records Office, in Chelmsford, and the Museum of Essex which is also there. And the village church's parish records, of course.
Jeffrey returns from his motorbike odyssey little refreshed. When he sees the letter from SITU lying on his doormat, he crumples it into a ball and throws it away without even reading it. After a night spent tossing and turning, though, he can resist the urge no longer. There comes a time when every man has to take a stand for what he believes in. So he raids the bin and retrieves the letter.
Realizing the rest of the party have left him behind, he hops on his bike again and sets off - first, though, calling in at the house of 'Little' Johnny Watkins, a bright local lad. Johnny spends half an hour explaining the basics of what Jeffrey still insists on calling 'the Interweb' to his bemused pastor.
The Army & Navy Hotel is a large, nineteenth-century building on the edge of a busy roundabout: it seems to be Chelmsford's premier resting-place for business folk. The bar is full of suited middle-aged types talking in quiet voices. Ferdinand, Grace, Kris and Kyle have taken possession of their rooms; Stuart, for reasons best known to himself, is staying in another hotel, and there is no sign of Gino or Jeffrey.
'I've been doing some research on the current protagonists,' says Grace. 'Not much to say - they don't seem like the kind of people who even make the local papers very often. Reverend Hendry's in the paper quite a lot - apparently he's some sort of local historian. And Harold Marsh crops up more than once, too, moaning about one thing or another. But nothing about the Leighs apart from an article on the house renovation, which was done by a firm of architects called Solness in Colchester. Of course, I haven't had very long to look, yet: there might be more.'
'Did any one remember to bring a copy of the Fortean Times?' says Kyle with his dour Scottish tones. 'Call me Kyle "Scully" McKenzie, but this email from the 22nd century story sounds like complete shite.' He swigs from his pint of Ridley's Old Bob, and looks round at the others challengingly. 'Now I'll admit I was a bit sceptical about vampires and I was wrong, but I think we can safely assume that time travel isn't possible and email was not invented in the seventeenth century - unless he's using he using Windows 1695!' Kyle nudges a surprised Ferdinand as he laughs at his own joke. 'Maybe that's why Siobhan keeps getting this "Illegal Operation" message on the school computer, it's three hundred year old software!'
Meanwhile, in the Orange Tree, just a mile down the road, Gino has just sat down to lunch with Veronica Leigh. She is an immaculately-turned-out young woman in a dark grey pinstripe suit, with a soft crepe de chine blouse. Her dark brown hair is worn in a bob, and her eyes are grey and rather widely spaced. She wears glasses.
Gino spends some time outlining the details of the operation his firm wish to set up. Veronica is trying to look intelligent and ask appropriate questions, but it is clear that she is somewhat out of her depth - flattered but confused that she was asked for personally for a matter of this sort. Over the dessert, Gino sighs 'Would you believe it, my assistant didn't manage to book me a room - some sort of mix-up with the wrong month - and I find all the rooms in Chelmsford's one decent hotel, the Army & Navy I think it's called, are taken for some conference. I guess I'm going to have to slum it for the next few days - I saw a joint called the Station Hotel on the way in, is that any good?'
Veronica frowns. 'Oh dear, that's terrible. You can't possibly stay there - all sorts of riff-raff, the worst types use it.' An idea strikes her. 'Well, if you like, if you don't mind being outside town -'
'Mmm?' says Gino.
'Well, I was just going to say that in the village, Hatfield Peverel I mean - that's where I live - it's about five miles away - there's a nice guesthouse.' She swallows some wine. 'I mean, it's not the Hilton, but... well, the Army & Navy's not really that brilliant, either... I mean, it'll be very quiet, but of course you could eat with us, with Andrew and me - that's my husband -' She tails off slightly.
'That's such a kind suggestion, but really, I couldn't possibly put you to that much trouble,' says Gino solemnly.
'Nonsense - it'd be no trouble at all. In fact, to be honest, some intelligent company around the place would be a relief after the past few weeks...' She takes some more wine and does not elaborate, despite Gino's quizzically raised eyebrow. 'Really, I insist. Why don't we drive back there now, and we can get you set up in a room? I know the lady who runs the place, Mrs Carter - she's a dear.'
Jeffrey stomps into the bar in his biker boots, face red with exertion, unwrapping a long scarf from around his neck. 'Sorry I'm so late - have I missed much?'
'I like Gino's solicitor idea,' Kyle is saying. 'With all the wackos banging on their door, he'll be a welcome visitor. Maybe he could introduce Kris or Grace as his assistant?'
'Or you or Ferdinand,' replies Kris sharply.
'And he could see if Veronica has been working too many late nights,' continues Kyle. 'I suppose we should find out how easy it is to get information onto their computer, maybe they're getting this rubbish from the Internet? Ferdinand, you could pretend to be Bill Gates's best mate at Microsoft and check out their computer.'
Ferdinand nods eagerly, patting his bag of kit. 'Once I can get my hands on the offending machine, things'll be a lot clearer.'
'I reckon we're gonna have to leave Gino to the facing with the Leighs and the Reverend checking out William Hendry. If we all pile in with funny stories and excuses they'll all get cheesed off,' says Kyle, hitting his stride now as the Ridley's begins to take effect. 'Now I'm not saying I believe this time travel story, 'cos as you know, "Scully" is my middle name, but don't ya think, Reverend, that your soon-to-be-best pal William Hendry might have interesting stories from the seventeenth century if there really was a time traveller there, you know ray guns, strange lights, strangers who talk in strange accents and using strange words'.
'I'll speak with him,' says Jeffrey, remembering the meeting of minds he had with Father Lundekvam back in Pfaawelt.
'Now in the film "Timecop", they always had to be careful that they didn't change the past otherwise bad things would happen, if there was a time traveller in the seventeenth century monkeying about like this one is supposed to be, some seriously bad things would be happening.'
'Like what?' asks Ferdinand with interest.
'I don't know... James Watt inventing the microwave, Australia being discovered early, the Germans winning World War II... whatever.'
'Perhaps that is what happened,' says Stuart. 'Perhaps if there hadn't been this time traveller we'd never have had the Industrial Revolution at all.'
Kyle thinks about this for a moment.
'Ms Macdowell? Telephone call.'
It is Gino. He explains what he has been up to. 'I'm planning to take the Leighs out to dinner somewhere local tonight - it'll help them see me as a friend. With any luck they'll open up about their troubles.' He gives his own mobile number.
'I'll call Andrew Leigh now - he should be back from work,' says Stuart. After a few minutes he returns. 'Right, I've made an appointment to visit him at the farmhouse tomorrow afternoon, at six. I just said me, but any of the rest of you who want to come along... I don't suppose we should all go, like Kyle says. Perhaps we should travel to the village in the morning, though: I want to check out some of these "fringe press" people SITU mentioned, and they might be prowling about. Or they might be staying here in this hotel, I suppose.' He holds up a piece of paper. 'I've got a long list of questions I want the answers to!'
'I'll be the chauffeur, if people want,' says Kyle, 'although it'll be a bit of a squeeze in my short-wheelbase Landrover - still, we all know each other, don't we?'
'Mr Thane? Mr Martin Thane? Telephone call.'
'Martin Thane?' says Stuart. 'That's one of the writers from Fortean Times - one of the big boys, too. They must be taking this case pretty seriously, then.'
The telephone is being handed to a slim middle-aged man with short pepper-and-salt hair, wearing a mustard-coloured velvet jacket.
'We need to find out if there's any computer firms locally, or computer whizzes in the village, who might be hoaxing the Leighs,' says Stuart. 'And investigate the builders who did the conversion, too.'
'How do you do, Mr Leigh,' says Gino, shaking Andrew Leigh's hand. The dentist looks rather haggard - he has a round face, with short blond hair and a snub nose, and his movements are jerky. 'I really am sorry about disturbing you like this.' He has installed his baggage at Mrs Carter's guesthouse and is now visiting Willow Farm for the first time.
'No, no, not at all, Mr Ferrocco - it's no trouble! Quite an honour really, your firm picking out Ronnie to do their business!'
'Andrew!' hisses Veronica with more than a trace of annoyance.
'You'll have to forgive us a bit of disarray,' says Andrew, gesturing around the living-room, taking in unwashed coffee cups as well as a computer which Gino assumes to be the offending machine. 'I just had another phone call, Ronnie, another one of these nutters - called Stuart Winters. I said he could come round tomorrow at six.'
'Oh, really, Andrew, did you have to? With Mr Ferrocco here?'
Andrew shrugs. 'He seemed not too bad compared with the others - and we have a responsibility, you know.' He turns back to Gino. 'Oh, sorry, Mr Ferrocco - domestic matter! We don't want to bore you with that. Now, Ronnie said we were taking you out to dinner...'
'No, no, I wouldn't hear of it after all the trouble I've already put you to,' says Gino, who is secretly itching with curiosity but knows better than to blow his cover with an awkward question. 'I insist, you must be my guests. What's the best place in the area?'
'I thought... Furze Hill?' suggests Veronica.
'Excellent!' says Andrew enthusiastically. 'Haven't been there since your birthday!'