The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
7 pm, Monday 9th March 1997
Kyle drains the last of the Ridley's with a satisfied grin. 'Unless there's anything we can be doing out in the dark Essex countryside, we might as well scout Martin Thane and the other fruitcakes snooping around the area. How about doing a tour of the bars of Hatfield Peverel? We'll have to sample the drinks at each establishment, so we don't look conspicuous.' A conspiratorial smile crosses his face. 'Of course if you can't hold a drink, I can do it myself.'
Jeffrey, who looks rather tired, suggests that someone check out Solness of Colchester. 'I wonder if it might be possible to learn the details of their work at the Leighs' house?' he muses. 'Who knows, maybe those weren't innocent renovations. Maybe the Leighs were trying to hide something...' He stops suddenly, with a slightly shocked expression. 'Please do excuse me - I've had a long day on the road. Time for bed!'
He heads for the door, turning back to say 'Anyway, let's hope Gino gets to look around. And it will be interesting to hear Mrs Leigh's opinion of the haunting - she seems to be a lot more sceptical than her husband.'
'Perhaps Gino could get me access to the PC on some pretext or other,' says Ferdinand hopefully.
'I think one of us ought to keep on eye on that Gino,' says Kris reflectively. 'I don't entirely trust him.'
Grace steps into the slightly awkward silence that follows this comment. 'Ferdinand, could you get some equipment that we could use to see if there are any strange electro-magnetic emissions from the house during a haunting? What about observing the house for outside interference at those times?'
Ferdinand frowns. 'I don't know much about it - what sort of wavelengths you'd expect, or anything like that. Perhaps we should take some advice off some of these fringe press people. But whatever it is we decide we need, I could probably knock it up fairly quickly.' He grins. 'But for now - beer, then sleep!'
On his way upstairs, Jeffrey pauses to introduce himself to Martin Thane. 'Mr Thane? How do you do - my name is Jeffrey Fanlight.'
Thane shakes the proffered hand politely, looking curiously at Jeffrey's dog-collar.
'I'm a great admirer of your work on the Fortean Times - in fact, I started a small column in my parish newsletter which is modelled on it!'
'Is that so? Good for you, reverend - many men of the cloth are rather hostile to our work.' Thane's voice is urbane and smooth.
'Would you like to see a copy?' Jeffrey fishes a newsletter out of his pocket and hands it to Thane, who reads the Strange column with interest.
'Ah, the giant prawn in the launderette - I remember that one. We covered it a few months ago.'
'That's right! Could I possibly ask you a huge favour, Mr Thane -'
'Thank you! - Martin, then - could you possibly sign this for me? It would make my Bishop's day!'
Thane squiggles a signature in purple felt-tip.
'Are you here working on a story?' asks Jeffrey politely.
'Yes, that's right - a haunted computer, just a few miles up the road. Call me Martin "Scully" Thane, though, but I reckon it's a fraud. The young couple involved are charming people, but they may be being duped.' He sighs. 'I don't know much about the computer end of things, but could it be some sort of "virus" or something, that's leaving messages on their machine? Or something to do with the Interweb? Or the year 2000?'
Kyle motors up the A12 to Hatfield Peverel, a sleepy little town. The old High Street has just three pubs on it, and he tries them all. Amazingly enough for him he sticks to soft drinks.
At a table in the Greyhound he strikes it lucky. A man and a woman, both dressed in neo-hippy-ish garb, are talking animatedly about the haunted computer. Kyle hovers until they notice him, then says 'Hi - I couldn't help overhearing what ye were saying. I'm down here for this computer business too - mind if I join ye?'
'No problem at all,' says the man, drawing up another stool. 'I'm Richie Wardens - this is Vicki Drew, my junior.' He pauses as though expecting Kyle to be impressed. 'We both write for Crop Circle Quarterly.'
'Oh, aye, o'course, I've read yer stuff,' lies Kyle, wondering what haunted computers have to do with crop circles.
'Who are you with?'
'Oh, it's just a private interest.'
'Oh. Well, you'll be lucky getting in there - the Leighs are pretty fussy about who they speak to. I got an interview, of course.'
'Actually it was me who spoke to them first, if you remember,' says Vicki.
'Well, yes, but you gave them my name, didn't you?'
'No, actually, I just gave them mine - and the magazine's, of course.'
'Oh. Well. Anyway, try your luck, Kyle, but you'll be hoping, I tell you. Pity, it's a really good story.'
'How can you say that?' demands Vicki. 'It's an obvious fraud, and not even a very good one. Messages from the past! You've not even tried to corroborate the information the seventeenth-century guy sent.'
'Listen, Vicki, when you've been in this job as long as I have, you'll know - you get a feel for these things. I don't have to check the facts to know the truth - I can tell the Leighs aren't lying.'
'Hah! I know what the editor's going to say if you just write that in your story. "I knew they were telling the truth" - what are the readers going to do with that, Richie?'
'The readers happen to like my style a great deal, as you know very well. Who got the two top-rated articles of last year in the Readers' Poll?' He wags his finger at her. 'I think you'll find it was me.'
Kyle, cringing, excuses himself and returns to Chelmsford.
Gino's dinner with the Leighs is a very pleasant affair. Gino is as charming and affable as he knows how, and both Leighs relax considerably. He has them in stitches with his merry tales of his childhood in Brooklyn, and how his grandfather used to make false monster teeth out of orange peel and chase him through the tomato plants.
Moving onto leisure, Gino explains how he's recently taken up a new hobby - playing a character by email in a role-playing game. Andrew is intrigued by this bizarre concept, although Veronica shudders and says 'Is it that Dragons and Dungeons? There were some people at university who used to do that - and they always dressed in black. Weirdos.'
'I'm so crap with computers - pardon my French - though,' laughs Gino. 'That email program - you get all sorts of weird messages turning up, and I've got no idea where they come from.'
'That's nothing,' says Andrew. 'Did Ronnie tell you about our computer troubles lately?'
'Andrew! Gino doesn't want to hear about that!'
'Well, if he's round at the house, he can't miss it, really, dear, can he? Basically we've been getting strange messages left on our machine, overnight. And the messages are written by a man in the seventeenth century.'
'You're having me on, right?' says Gino.
'No, straight up. Jeremiah Fulk, he's called, and apparently he used to live in our house. But - get this - the weirdest thing is that he's typing in these messages on a computer himself - that was given to him by a man from the future! What d'you reckon to that!' Andrew's forehead is shining with enthusiasm.
'That really is pretty weird,' says Gino reflectively. 'But there are all sorts of strange things out there, that's for sure. Most people wouldn't believe there's such a thing as vampires, for example...'
'Vampires! Now that really is ridiculous,' says Veronica.
'Actually, I've always suspected the damn things have minds of their own - computers, I mean,' says Gino. 'Nothing about them would surprise me. Could I have a look at it?'
'Mm, of course - not that there's much to look at in the evening. We'll have a look in the morning, and see if there's a new message,' says Andrew. Veronica pats his hand affectionately.
The next morning, Kyle is in expansive form, despite the four more pints he had in the hotel bar on his return from Hatfield Peverel. He declines the Continental breakfast for the traditional English one. 'No poncy museli for me!'
He describes his encounter of the previous night. 'Now we've Gino on the inside, we're already ahead of the game! The rest of the cupcakes will be doing anything from plain skulking near the Leighs' home to an upfront investigation. I expect Martin Thane will go the serious upfront interview, and the teacakes don't figure that much in the seriousness stakes.'
'All these cupcakes and teacakes - sounds a bit fishy to me,' muses Grace.
'If somebody has set this whole scam up, they'd need to get access to the house and the computer and an excuse to spend time covering their tracks. I expect Stuart could look for tampering?'
'I will be,' says Stuart. 'Anyone else want to come?'
'I'll join you,' says Ferdinand. 'Gino's said nothing about getting me in with him, and if I'm with you I'll be able to check the technical side of things.'
'If someone really is running a scam here,' continues Kyle, 'don't you think they'd be around here watching their handiwork unfold? Perhaps we should look for somebody staying here longer term, renting a house, or a long-term guest in a hotel.'
'Or one of the other villagers,' points out Kris.
'What have we got?' says Andrew Leigh, in his dressing-gown, turning on the PC, which is sitting on a worktop in the kitchen. Veronica has already gone out to work, and Gino is sipping coffee. 'Let's have a look - he always puts them in the c colon directory, or whatever it's called - the root? Aha!'
Gino strolls across. In the directory listing there is a file called FORWARD.TXT with a file creation time of 2.37 the previous night. 'Is it always around that time?'
'No, it varies - it's always when we're in bed, though, for some reason. We've tried staying up for him, but no message ever comes that way. Or if we leave the computer on overnight.'
'Have you tried asking him to send at a particular time?'
'Well, time seems to work strangely - not surprisingly! He says it's usually afternoon when he writes, but we always get them at night. And it's September there - then - apparently. Let's have a look.'
Andrew maximizes the Notepad window and they both read.
'My dear Master and Mistress Leigh,
'In answer to your Inquiries of yester-day, nI have no close family - an only child, I was to marry when young, but my Dear Bleoved was taken from me in the troubled times that raged about here then - I refer, of course, to the overthrow of His Majesty King Charles, he who proclaimed himself Anointed by God and was rightly struck down by Honest men for such blasphemies. ince then I have devoted myself to Reading in my beloved Horace and Vergilius - a luxury, perhaps, but one aforded to me by my ate father's Providence and Prudence. Other Philosophers of thet time, the Silver Age, are also worthy of Note.
'You asked also of my Miracle Visitor from Futurity - if I comprehend you, from your own Futurity as well? Such wonders can scarceyl be believed, but did not the Bard write "There are more Things, Horatio, &c"? Or words to that effect. He (my Miracle Visitor) was clad all over in silvery raiment, and his lips, eye-lids and fingernails (which were marvellously regular) were also silver in hue. His Eyes were outlined in a dark substance. His Hair, cut extraordinarily short, Stood Up like small spikes, most marvellously again. This describeds his appearance rather fully, I think.
'Noe I have a question of mine own, for you, dear Master and Mistress: in your time, is there an end to war, as we have long hoped? Has humanity approchaed that desirable state of Utopia, as dear great Sir Thomas More hinted he might?
'What d'you make of that, then?' asks Andrew.
'He's not much of a typist, is he?' says Gino.
Jeffrey hops on his bike and rides down to Hatfield Peverel that morning. He draws at the church - a 15th century Perpendicular affair, rather grand for a small village - and starts by looking around the graveyard. It is rather overgrown, but lichen and undergrowth have been cleared from many of the older graves, presumably testament to their earlier inspection. Quick peeping reveals a few Fulks, although Jeremiah is not among them - all are somewhat earlier than 1680. There are many Stokeses, but only 19th century. There are no Crittons. It looks, to Jeffrey's expert eye, as though later parts of the graveyard overlie some of the earlier parts, so much of the pre-Victorian site is no longer visible.
He straightens up, goes into the church, and knocks at the door of the vestry. It is answered by a middle-aged man with a fringe of snowy hair, drying his hands on a tea-towel.
'How do you do - I'm Jeffrey Fanlight. Hope you don't mind my dropping in like this?'
'Not at all - William Hendry.' Hendry proffers his hand, which Jeffrey shakes. 'Always good to meet a fellow man of the cloth! What brings you to these parts, Jeffrey?' They go into the small vestry, and Hendry starts preparing tea.
'I'm on vacation,' Jeffrey explains. 'Well, more like a motorcycle odyssey, really. I'm touring the country, seeing life outside my own little parish. I think it's so important recharge one's spiritual batteries once in a while, don't you agree?'
'Absolutely - and you couldn't find a better place to do it than these parts. North-east Essex - flat as a pancake, of course, but so peaceful, once you get off the main road. There are isolated little villages here that are essentially unchanged since the seventeenth century, would you believe? And the people are charming. Hob-nob?'
Jeffrey sips his tea appreciatively. 'I see this church is very well-preserved - I don't suppose you could give me a brief tour?'
'Of course!' They go back out into the choir and Hendry starts pointing out features of interest, such as the ornamental rood-screen (thought to be by Grinling Gibbons).
'That's a rather fine sarcophagus,' says Jeffrey, pointing at a marble affair with the figure of a dormant knight on top, which dominates the lower nave.
'Oh, that's Sir Roger Critton, the first proper Lord of the Manor we had here. Back in 1497, he died. Several generations of his family are buried under there, but they died out in the late reign of Elizabeth. Then the manor was bought by another family, called Stokes, and they were Jewish originally, or so I surmise from their names - Abraham, Reuben, and so on - they're buried on their own land at the Manor House. Until the last century, when I suppose they must have converted en masse.'
Jeffrey, while Hendry talks, is looking at the stained glass for evidence of strange futuristic beings brandishing rayguns. He feels uneasy, remembering the vision the arch-Vrlock sent him, but he sees nothing unusual.
'You're very well informed on these matters, William - admirably so.'
'Ah, well, I've been fortunate - a predecessor of mine kept a rather extensive journal. Fascinating reading! I'd been hoping to have it published, under the title The Diary of a Country Clergyman, really put Hatfield Peverel on the local history map, but...' a shadow passes across his face 'there are... problems... with the estate, unfortunately. He - Charles Pettigrew, his name was - held the parish here in the late seventeenth century.'
'Ah! The time of Matthew Hopkins,' says Jeffrey knowledgeably.
'That's right! Hopkins stayed here, actually, at the Stokes house. Pettigrew had a number of meetings with him - rumours about people in the village, you know. Pettigrew seems to have been something of a humanist - he managed to talk Hopkins out of condemning some of the villagers as witches.'
Jeffrey nods approvingly. 'There seem to be a lot of journalist types hanging around the village - is something happening I should know about?'
'Oh, that's rather interesting actually. It seems one of the old farmhouses may be haunted. It was recently converted, and that might have freed the ghost - do you see? Do you believe in ghosts, Jeffrey?'
'There are plenty of them in the Old Testament,' says Jeffrey non-committally.
'Exactly! But in this materialistic age, so many people... I wanted to carry out an exorcism, but my Bishop's not at all keen - he says it would be bad publicity. Helping a troubled spirit into the bosom of the Lord, bad publicity? I don't quite see how, do you?'
Kyle is also in the village once more, in his Landrover. He tours around the edge of Willow Farm, looking for electrical oddities. There is a set of telephone lines going to the house, and a line of pylons marches not far away, which might be the sources of spurious data, he thinks to himself.
At the back of the farmhouse are thick deciduous woods which extend down to the river. On the other side of the river is the grounds of the Manor House, which are surrounded by a high wall: the Manor House itself, a squarish Queen Anne building, is on a small rise. Kyle assesses that it would be easy for anyone to approach Willow Farm under cover of the trees, if they should wish it.
As he is driving away, he sees a glint of light: up by the Manor House, a man with binoculars is studying the back of Willow Farm, or possibly studying Kyle himself. He wears a dull red jacket done up tightly to his neck, with a hood.
Kris spends some time familiarizing herself with the Museum of Essex's archive, while Grace puts in some time at County Hall examining those of the parish records which are there. There is the occasional mention of Jeremiah Fulk as a burgher of the town: his family seem to have been merchants of some sort in Chelmsford before making enough money to buy the house in the country. There are no later Fulks mentioned, though.
At six, Stuart and Ferdinand arrive at Willow Farm. Neither having made any great attempt to appear presentable, they are a far from prepossessing pair.
Andrew opens the door. 'Mr Winters? How do you do. Do come in.'
'This is Ferdinand Bingly, my technical assistant,' says Stuart.
'I don't think you said which magazine you worked for?' says Andrew as he leads them into the kitchen. There is no sign of Veronica.
'Oh, er, I'm with Prawn magazine,' says Stuart, thinking on his toes.
'Prawn? Is that anything like Crab? We had a guy from that the other day. Clive Stokes - you know him?'
Ferdinand looks blank, but the name definitely rings a bell with Stuart - and somehow he connects it with something Liz said about her visit to the Scottish Isles.
'Anyway, here's the computer. Want to take a look? We got a new message this morning, actually.'
Andrew responds cheerfully to Stuart's probing inquiries. It seems that messages are only ever received when the machine is turned off, only at night, and only after the Leighs have gone to bed. The computer does have a modem, but it is just hooked up to the ordinary phone line rather than being a permanent connection. The messages are just plain text files, not emails or anything complicated, and they always appear in the root directory.
All the previous messages, about 12 of them, have been kept, and all are similar in length and tone to the example from this morning Andrew shows them. Andrew and Veronica can send messages back in the same way - they create a file called BACKWARD.TXT in the root directory before turning the computer off, and in the morning it will have been read by Fulk. 'We've mostly been asking him things, of course, but we've told him quite a bit about us, as well, and about now.'
Ferdinand sniffs interestedly about the computer, taking the case off and looking inside, but it is highly unremarkable: there are no mysterious peripherals, and no connections to the outside apart from the power cable and the modem line.
'So no-one's ever seen a message arrive?' asks Stuart. 'Would you let us stake the machine out? We'd help with housework to make up for the inconvenience...'
Andrew laughs. 'That's very kind of you. But we've tried ourselves, and basically nothing happened - no message ever comes when someone's watching. Weird, isn't it? How does it know?'
Jeffrey pauses outside Willow Farm on his bike, looking speculatively up at it - it's a rather fine conversion, in which the essential features of a Tudor farmhouse have been merged with a Scandinavian sensibility - when in the doorway of the next-door cottage appears an elderly man, red-faced, shaking his fist. 'Be off with you, you young hooligan!'
Jeffrey turns surprisedly towards him, and the man falls into confusion on seeing his collar. 'Oh, goodness me, begging your pardon Reverend - I heard that dreadful motorcycle engine, and I thought it was... you know, the young people of today, no consideration...'
'I quite understand,' says Jeffrey, 'and I do apologise if the noise disturbed your evening.'
'Oh, no, think nothing of it, Reverend. It's just... things have been a bit hectic lately. What with the goings-on next door.' He shoots a poisonous glance at Willow Farm. 'There've been all sorts of rowdies and yobbos in the village, snooping and sneaking around, I can tell you.'