The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
6.30 pm, Monday 9th March 1998
Back at the Army & Navy Stuart makes a phone call. He returns looking pensive. 'That name - Clive Stokes - I called Liz about it, and apparently it's some fringe journalist who was involved in that business in Scotland.'
'That's right,' says Kris, her expression grim. 'He had tickets to Spain, but his car was in the sea off the cliff... I just called SITU, and they said they've heard nothing about him since then. They still don't really know what he was doing up there, except that it seems to have been him who tipped off Sarah St John and her cronies about the cave - so I suppose that makes him one of the bad guys. They say if it's the same man we should keep a close but cautious eye on him - I had them run a registration check, but there's no vehicles registered to him at the moment.'
Kyle, who has no real idea what she is talking about, grins reassuringly. 'Not to worry, we'll sort 'im if he starts acting up!'
Jeffrey introduces himself to Harold Marsh (for it is he) and sympathizes with him concerning the 'rowdies and yobbos' in the village. 'I come out into the countryside for some peace and quiet and find myself in the middle of some kind of media circus - whatever is going on, Mr Marsh?'
'Tchah! This young couple next door, they're publicity mad - they've dreamed up some idiotic story about a ghost in their computer, or something.' He directs a poisonous glance at the inoffensive Willow Farm. 'There's been nothing but trouble since they moved in - loud music at all hours of the night, all that banging with their DIY, their cat messing in my garden - why don't they see they're not welcome here and just beggar off?'
Jeffrey attempts to remain sympathetic, but finds it difficult, as Marsh is a poor advert for the Christian virtue of tolerance. 'Trouble, eh? Tch, tch...'
'I'll say! And all their crazy friends and journalists' he spits the word 'snooping about the place. Why, would you credit it, I found one of the swine in my marrow patch the other day, spying with his pesky binoculars! I gave him a hoseful of water between the shoulders, I can tell you!'
'What did he look like?' asks Jeffery. 'I'll keep an eye out for him...'
'He had a sort of red hooded jacket affair on, and binoculars - filthy swine! And his great hoofprints all over my prime carrot seedlings!'
'What do you think of the renovations to the house?' asks Jeffrey innocently.
At this Marsh goes so red that Jeffrey is quite worried for his health. 'Vandals! Philistines! Heretics! They've desecrated that beautiful Tudor building with their trendy Scandinavian monstrosity! I tell you, the number of letters I wrote to English Heritage to ask them to list the building and poke those dreadful young whipper-snappers in the eye, I can tell you... and it wasn't even a decent English firm of architects, it was some muesli-munching Norwegian outfit from Colchester!'
'There must have been some stories about the old house,' says Jeffrey, 'with its age, I mean.'
'Ha! Not that I ever heard of, not that I'd pay any attention to that sort of mumbo-jumbo, gossip and historical farrago! I dare say the vicar or that appalling Pettigrew woman could tell you, if you've the sort of idle mind that takes pleasure in such things.'
'Pah! Dreadful hag - lives on the green - big Afghan dogs - filthy brutes always messing all over the place! Calls herself a local historian!'
Jeffrey judges it wise to break off the conversation before Marsh succumbs to apoplexy.
'You must have been worried about weirdos spying on your house,' says Gino at dinner at Willow Farm, 'with all these strangers in the village.'
'Oh! I hadn't thought of it, actually,' says Andrew worriedly. 'I mean, they seem pretty harmless to me, don't you think, Ronnie? We had the strangest pair round this afternoon - Bingly and Winters - they looked like Del Boy and Rodney.'
'Which one was which?' asks Veronica. 'It is something I've thought of, Gino, especially with there being no policeman in the village these days. Some of them are a bit... strange.'
'Well, look, tell you what,' says Gino, 'if you like I could keep a bit of an eye on the place. I used to work as a bouncer - paid my way through law school! - so I know how to handle unwanted intruders.'
'Oh, I don't think that's necessary,' says Andrew, rather shocked. 'Anyway, we couldn't possibly dream of it, you're our guest here! We couldn't have you standing around all night stalking intruders.'
'What would Mr Frewin say?' says Veronica, her tone appalled. 'No, really Gino, it's very kind of you, but I won't hear of it.'
'A guy in silver clothes and silver skin, wearing makeup like Julian Clary?' scoffs Kyle over a half of Old Bob after dinner. 'Whoever's behind this been watching too much Flash Gordon on the telly. I read somewhere how the descriptions of alien abductions correlate to the culture of the victims. In South America people are man-handled and tortured while in England they are (in a posh voice) "awfully nice and would you like some tea in our spaceship"...' He suddenly falls quiet mid-sentence, and Kris observes his hand tighten about his glass.
'I'm rather concerned about this fellow you saw spying on Willow Farm, Kyle.' Jeffery, who has now rejoined the party, tactfully changes the subject. 'He could be just a journalist, I suppose, but he sounded a bit more sinister than that. We should all keep a look out for dull red jackets!' He glances around quickly, but none are apparent in the immediate vicinity.
Kyle regains his stride. 'Even I know enough about computers to know ye cannae get data on a computer without turning it on. Why that'd be like getting up in the morning and finding that the video had taped Celtic giving Manchester United a much deserved thrashing on Match of the Day when it wasn't even plugged into the wall!'
'It all sounds too easy to fake to me,' says Stuart. He leans back in his chair, counting on his fingers. 'The description of the "miracle visitor" sounds a bit too clichéd. What was the miracle visitor's motive? Jeremiah appeared to be going out of his way to name drop... basically it all sounds a little far fetched - and easy to fake...'
'Stuart, what you want is something that can record the times that the computer is turned on, then we'll know when our fraudster puts this message on it,' says Kyle. 'Even better, what about making the computer make a loud noise when it's turned on. Siobhan's school computer plays some funny tune when the cloudy picture goes away.'
'I could rig something up that will detect when the machine's turned off and on,' says Ferdinand eagerly. 'Or we could sneak a miniature camera into the kitchen.'
'Jeffrey, do you think the neighbour would allow a stake-out from his property?' asks Grace.
'He didn't seem very helpful,' admits Jeffrey. 'Unless we could make him think it was to discredit the Leighs...' He stops, ashamed of himself once more.
'Stuart,' continues Grace thoughtfully, 'it may be worth trying to talk to some of the random journos hanging around the place to see if they know Stokes and whether they have noticed anything... strange... about his behaviour in recent months.' She pauses, then adds 'And you may need to think of a better magazine pseudonym. Jeffrey, do you think you could borrow or copy the journal that Hendry referred to, or at least the portions of it referring to Fulk's time?'
'I'd certainly like to take a look,' says Jeffrey. 'Maybe it contains some answers. I wonder what Hendry mean by "problems with the estate"? It seems as though the estate wants to hush up the journal's contents - but why on earth would they be worried about something dating back to the seventeenth century? They must have something very important to hide...'
He muses for a minute, then continues 'There are no local records of any Fulks after Jeremiah. That suggests he either died without issue or moved from the area. And if he didn't move, why wasn't he buried?' Jeffrey pauses as he has a rather unpleasant thought. 'Maybe he was one of those accused of being a witch - it wouldn't be surprising, if anyone from his time saw his "box of lights"!'
'There were male witches as well as female, weren't there?' wonders Ferdinand.
'Warlocks,' says Grace.
'No, there were, I read about them...'
'Though according to Reverend Hendry,' Jeffrey ploughs on regardless, 'no one was actually condemned for witchcraft... Presumably the Leighs are communicating with Jeremiah at a time before that happened. Do you think we should warn him...?' He looks round at the others. 'We should try to find out more about Jeremiah Fulk. Who keeps records from that time? The land registry? The courts - or local assize, whatever. If he was a solider, would there be any records of that? You're probably best placed to look, Kris, though I don't mind helping out myself, of course.'
'Telephone call for Ms Ndofir!'
It is Gino, reporting the results of his conversation with the Leighs and warning the other operatives that he may well leap on them and duff them up if they turn up prowling around Willow Farm without warning him.
'Gino, do you think the Leighs would consider letting you put questions in the BACKWARD.TXT file?' asks Grace.
'I don't see why not,' says Gino.
'Do you know, Gino,' puts in Jeffrey, 'whether the Leighs have ever left a message for the Miracle Visitor from Futurity, or have they only ever communicated with Jeremiah Fulk?'
'I think that the Miracle Visitor only appeared to Fulk once, when he left the computer: he instructed Fulk to send messages forward, but Fulk has only communicated with the Leighs since then.'
'Even so - perhaps you could suggest they do so, anyway - or maybe you could try? You could call the message FUTURE.TXT,' Jeffrey adds, feeling rather smug as he shows off his knowledge gleaned from Little Johnny.
'Here's an idea,' says Grace, who has been pondering. 'Ask him to describe the appearance of the computer he's using. Specifically, is it just like the Leighs' computer, older tech, newer... obviously this will have to be phrased rather better. "Whatte dost thou mean, 'am I using Windowes Ninety-Five?' Dost thou refer to the product of thatte Spawne of the Devil, Goodman William Gates?"' Kris looks at her with eyebrows raised.
'I'll give it a try,' says Gino doubtfully.
The next morning Gino drops round on Veronica just as she is leaving for work. He is pleased to find a reply to his message for Fulk.
'My dear Master Ferrocco, Master and Mistress Leight,
'Master Ferrocco, from your Name I judge you an Italian - is this true? Can it be, then, as my Miracle Visitotr hinted, that all the Folk of Europe live together in a Union of harmony and peace unknown since the days of Rome? May I congratulate you on your command of our language: I wish I could respond in your tongue, but all I have is a little Dante : "o io chi sono in piccola barchetta" &c.
'I will now desrbribe the wondrous box of lights on which I am composing this message, as you requreszt. It bears a glass window atop, in a black box-like case of a sort of light, hard wood, but of no Tree which I have ever seen the Like, for it has no grain. Under all is a hinge, and the Lower Portions are a wonrous array of tiny Buttons, each with a letter of the alphabvet, and many strange symbols besides of whose meaning I have no knowldeger - perhanche they are Qabbalistic or Alchmical in nature, in which case Dark Science best left unknown to Man. I press them not, but for the friendly Ampersand. Scribed at the foot is the word "Elonex", which sounds to my ear much like the anme of one of the lesser demons - or Angeles perchance, for Demons are but Fallen Angels, so we are told. Was not Lucifer himself the brightest and best of the Sons of the Morning? But I digress. Next to this word is the figure 80,386 - my Miracle Visotir told me that this was the number of Angeles which had in his time hbeen Proven to be able to Dance on the Head of the Pin, but I misdoubt that he may have been Making Pleasantry with my ignorance. On kindling the machine's internal fires, which is done with one small Button - most marvellous! - no tinder is required - the screen blackens after various number and letters have flung themselves by, and left is a blue screen headed with the word 'UNTITLED1'. This spell, ritual or preparation - whichwever it be - allows me to read your messages and compose my own. I know nothing of the Windows of which you speak, nor do pictures ever appear on my box of lights, only letters and numbers.
'To-day Reverend Pettigrew came to visit, and I described a litle to him - mentioning not my Box of Lights, for although a tolernat and Human man he might take it oddly. He proved open to the possibility of travel from Futurity, though, so I think taht at a future visit I will confide in him.
There is no response to the message FUTURE.TXT.
During the morning Ferdinand, with help from Kris's ICL contacts, rigs up a detector which will detect whether the computer is being used and send a signal to an observer. It is small enough to tape to the outside of the Leighs' kitchen windowsill without being noticeable. The companion unit will bleep quietly when it triggers.
Ferdinand is satisfied, after considering the problem from all angles, that there is no way the files can be left without the computer being turned on. Therefore, if the device triggers, someone is using the computer: and, if a message appears without the device triggering, strange forces are at work.
Grace and Stuart are between them researching Fulk's note for authenticity. They are able to establish that the quote from Hamlet and the knighting and subsequent execution of More all predate Fulk by some decades and might be assumed to be commonplace references of his time. Similar references from earlier notes also check out.
Stuart rings round the county's local historical societies. None cite either Leigh as a member: Reverend Hendry and a Janessa Pettigrew are the only Hatfield Peverel folk very active in these matters. There is one interesting entry at the County Museum Historical Society, though: six months ago a gentleman called Stokely Rubens joined, giving his address as The Manor House, Hatfield Peverel.
Stuart then calls British Telecom to find whether they will give him details on the Leighs' phone line's activity, but unsurprisingly they will not do so. He is similarly unable to track the Leighs' book-buying and library-using habits.
Jeffrey returns to the village and meets the delighted Reverend Hendry once more. Over a cup of tea, after a discussion which has ranged over Bishops, exorcism and the Strange, he raises the subject of Pettigrew's journal. 'You said there was a problem with the estate, William?'
Hendry sighs. 'It's really too bad - this wonderful manuscript, The Diary of a Country Clergyman, is being denied to the public, thanks to what one can only call pig-headedness. It could be the Edwardian Lady of the Nineties! The problem is that one of Reverend Pettigrew's descendants also has a copy of the manuscripts, a local lady called Janessa Pettigrew. She claims that only she has the right to publish the book, being in the family line: to you or me, of course, it's obvious that the Church should publish, as his spiritual successor. And of course the revenue the book would bring in would be very useful in keeping up our repairs - the fabric has suffered a great deal in recent decades, I fear.'
'Is her copy identical to yours?'
'Er, I believe so,' says Hendry. 'Never actually checked them, you know? But both are dated alike - it's difficult to say which is a copy of the other, actually.'
'It had occurred to me that Fulk, as a troubled spirit, might have been accused of witchcraft. Do you think your predecessor Pettigrew would have known anything about Fulk's activities? Would you mind if we took a look at his journal to find out?'
'Why, certainly,' says Hendry, and he fishes out a large leather-bound tome, filled with clear copperplate writing. 'Let's have a look through... business about the village stocks being dug up... churchwarden's meeting... here we are. "Went to visit with Master Jeremiah Fulk this day, who is somewhat of a scholar, though as yet he has not published so as to bring credit to our village. I must pronounce him but a lax attender at church, although as he served with the forces of God in the War he is to be accounted a Christian nonetheless. Much discussion of philosophy and lore, Master Fulk being wise in the writings of the ancient Latins and Greeks - quite like my Oxford days come round once more! Some of his speculation about the nature of life in the Future sounds a trifle mystical to my ears, I admit, but harmless enough no doubt. Quaint fancies are bound to come to one who lives alone: Master Fulk says he never had the fancy to take a wife, which I cannot call healthy, for did not The Lord dispose us male and female for the purpose of companionship as well as procreation?"'
'Does he make a return visit?'
'Yes, there are a few more... this is rather fascinating, isn't it? Fulk continues to reveal his curious theories. Then... oh. This is tragic, actually. Fulk dies, by his own hand. "Master Bleddoes was good enough to cover the body with a sheet, but nothing could disguise the quantities of blood and other matter. Unlike that Stoical philosopher Seneca, Master Fulk had not chosen to end his life gently in the bath: they do say that a good hot bath and a little brandy, a sharp knife and one knows no more, without more than the barest of pain. Instead, perhaps so as to impress us who remain with the horror of the deed, he had taken his musket and rigged up a contrivance to allow him to pull the trigger by means of a piece of string, while the end of the barrel rested in his mouth, or so Master Bleddoes surmised. The poor fellow could barely be recognised, such was the damage to his features. Master Bleddoes and I will bury him at the crossroads this night: few will mourn, sadly, for Master Fulk was not a great social lion of the village. Many of our people will not notice his passing at all, and perhaps that is for the best, in all."' Hendry lays the book down, his eyes moist. 'So much for Fulk! No wonder the poor fellow is still so troubled. I must try once more to persuade the Leighs and the Bishop to allow me to carry out an exorcism - will you back me up, Jeffrey?'
Gino, wandering about the village during the day and making himself amiable, occasionally sees Kyle on the same errand, but they ignore each other. He finds, in the post office, that the only newcomers staying in Hatfield Peverel, apart from himself, are Richie Wardens and Vicki Drew of Crop Circle Quarterly - they are at the guesthouse with him. Everyone else seems to be basing themselves in Chelmsford.
'That's not quite true,' says one old lady in the queue for her pension. 'There's a fellow camping up at Norsey Farm, as well, I've seen him - scruffy-looking chap.'
'Did he wear a red hooded top?' asks Gino.
'Er, I think so... maybe... no, I don't know...'
Meanwhile at the Manor Kyle has his own binoculars out and is scanning the hillside. The house itself is in a rather poor state of repair, as though it has not been inhabited for some time. Its grounds command an excellent view of the back of Willow Farm (and of Marsh's house) and he can see why hooded-top-man chose them for his spypoint.
Poking around in the outbuildings, Kyle is surprised to come across a horse, cropping at a manger full of hay. There is no riding tackle in evidence, although it looks more like a riding-horse than a carthorse. It regards him placidly: it seems to be well looked-after.
Gino makes his way to Norsey Farm, which lies at the northern end of the village, a couple of miles from Willow Farm. He finds a small campsite down by the stream which flows along one boundary: a one-man tent, with a latrine pit and the site of a fire. There is no-one about, and not wishing to draw attention to himself he refrains from rifling the tent's contents.
'I've got great idea for a story,' says Kyle, in full flow after a couple more Ridleys, back at the Army & Navy. 'This guy travels back in time but ends up in the wrong place. Due to a temporal anomaly caused by his time travel, the Leighs' computer exists 1681 and in 1998 simultaneously and this allows him to communicate with the future.'
'Doesn't work,' says Ferdinand. 'The Leighs' computer is a modern machine - Fulk's sounds like it's a couple of years old. And it's a portable - fortunately for him, as I should think mains supply is pretty difficult to come by in 1681. I wonder how long his batteries'll last?'
'Anyway, anyway,' continues Kyle, flapping his hand. 'The guy in the Manor House is a member of an time police squad waiting for this guy to return to the other end of the anomaly which is 1998. This time traveller is a freedom fighter who really wanted to come back to 1998 to avert a great disaster but overshot the mark...' He glances around the table, but he has lost his audience. 'Well it happens in Voyager all the bloody time...'
Gino rises from his bed at the guesthouse and starts to prowl the village. He stalks towards Willow Farm, and is excited to see a muffled figure lurking near the back window in a privet hedge. He is greatly disappointed, though, to discover that it is Stuart, who has his binoculars trained on the dark kitchen window, behind which the computer sits.
Gino, glancing about, sees the tiniest flash of light on the hill behind them, in the Manor House's grounds. Might it be the reflection of the Moon from a pair of binoculars? He is just about to draw Stuart's attention to it, when the bleeper on Ferdinand's device goes off in Stuart's pocket. Through the kitchen window, Stuart can see the computer starting up by itself, although there is no-one in the kitchen at all. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Gino turns his own binoculars towards the flash he saw behind them, but there is nothing to be seen - he does, though, hear a rustling noise, as though someone is approaching the house through the undergrowth. If they are to reach it they will pass very close to where he and the fascinated Stuart are hiding.