The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
12.40 am, Wednesday 11th March 1998
'Leave this to me,' mutters Gino, and Stuart wriggles deeper into the bushes as the dashing young American poises to pounce.
The unwitting intruder approaches Willow Farm cautiously, a needle-beam torch stabbing the darkness ahead of him, and he is just about to peer over the window ledge at the happily-chuntering computer when one hundred and seventy pounds of New York lawyer collide with his red-hooded-top-clad back.
There is a brief scuffle in the bed of marigolds, which ends with the man's arm twisted up behind his back, and Gino kneeling on him. 'What are you doing spying on my friends?' asks Gino in a calm, menacing voice.
The man turns his head back to look up at him. He also appears calm, and his features are strong and bony under a shock of dark hair. He appears not to have shaved for the past couple of days. 'Let me up - you don't know what you're getting involved in here. This is serious business.' He has a Hull accent [not that Gino has any great idea what that sounds like].
'Serious for you,' says Gino, yanking the arm a bit further. The man grits his teeth but impressively does not yelp. Gino uses his other hand to reach round and root through the man's pockets, which turns up a wallet including a driver's license in the name of Clive Stokes and also a small stack of business cards indicating that he works for Crab magazine. 'Clive Stokes, eh? I've heard about you...'
'Have you?' says Stokes with interest. 'Who are you working for?'
'I'm not with any of your wacko magazines,' says Gino with some distaste.
'I know that,' says Stokes patiently. 'I'm not a complete fool. You're with some agency, aren't you? Investigating. You and your team. I've been watching you.'
'Maybe,' says Gino uneasily. He looks to Stuart for help, but the young student seems to have scurried off into the night to avoid being seen.
'Well, look - here's a tip from the top. This is a serious business, more serious than you probably think right now. It's not just about some guy in the seventeenth century. Big things are at stake - perhaps including all of our existence. Have you ever heard of time paradoxes?'
Gino frowns and nods.
'You shouldn't be messing about unless you know exactly what you're doing, that's all.'
Suddenly Stokes gives a wriggle and arches his spine like a salmon. Gino, unprepared, topples over, and Stokes twists his hand free. He stands over Gino, brushing the mud from his jacket. 'You and your team - we might be working in the same direction. But before I tell you any more I need to know who you're working for - get me? You can find me at Norsey Farm if you need me. My name's Clive Stokes, but I guess you know that already.'
He strolls off into the night, leaving Gino sitting pensively in the mud.
The investigative team regroup in the Army & Navy in the morning and discuss their findings.
'I brought a copy of Fulk's newest note,' says Gino. 'It's a bit odd...' He lays it on the table and all peer to read.
"My dear Miracle Visitor,
"Thank you, o Visitor, for your new Note - I had feared that I would have no further contact with you, since your visit which so brightened up my life and left mt with this Wondrous Box. In your new message you speak of Beings from Other Planets menacing the Earth - this duisquiets me Much, as you might guess - are these the other planets of our System, as enumerated by the grweat Tycho Brahe (he of the Waxen Nose) and Johannes Kepler, or do they hail from the farhter Stars, those that brighten our night with their gleams - can they bring Menace in such foul form as you dsscribe?
"I am writing this in the same way as I respond to Master and Mistreees Leigh, our Friends from the In-Between Years, in the hope that you will nathelss see it - I confess myself still bemused as to how this Box passes messages between us - yours is the Espertise, and I trust you utterly.
"All the more disturbing, then, your news of my near Neighbour Reuben Stokes up at the Manor House. He seems (although of the faith which slew Our Lord) a pleasant man, open enough of countenanct and amiable, and a scholar, beyond doubt - although with the local folk he has the name of a loner, I gave such idel tales no credence, myself having much the same repute I would guiess - and why should a desire fo solitude be calumniated in this way? we may not all be designed to fill our hours in congress - but I digress. Yet you say that Stokes is a Warlock - a foul practitioner of those vices condemned by the good book? If Future History knows him as such then I must conceive he has learnt to hide his practices from the quotidian peering eyes of his neighbours, only to be revealed in their flower after death, like arum-lillies. Yet I do find it hard to believe, o Visitor wondrous. I would speak to Vicar Pettigrew on the subject but that he, a modern man, gives little heed to tales of witchcraft, pretending that most such accused are but harmless old women - as to that, I know not, but might it not be Stokes's faith, never popular, and his wealth, that lead folk to speak ill of him after the passing of his time in this vale of sorrows?
"How must I treat him, now, I ask myslf - should I shun his shadow? - refuse his hospitality (rarely enough offered, in truth)? - ware his steely eye?
"Yours in disquiet,
There is silence while the import of this message is digested.
'Reuben Stokes, eh?' says Kyle. 'And here we have some chap turning up at the Manor House and calls himself Stokely Rubens, only a faintly transparent attempt at rearranging the guy's name. The Manor House has to be a good place for some serious investigation!'
'I was thinking about that,' says Kris. 'Ferdinand, why don't you get one of the Web anagram generators to work on cracking "Stokely Rubens"?'
'This whole thing is getting cheesier by the minute, we'll be dining on Stilton for the rest of the year!' continues Kyle.
Ferdinand takes a swig of beer - his is a liquid breakfast today - taps briefly on the keyboard, and says 'Ruby skeletons?'
'He's turned up since the start of this thing and he's keen to remain unrecognised and anonymous. I think I might try the Land Registry or council offices and see who owns the house. If he's renting, perhaps he's funded by some rival organisation to watch developments. Either way, I think I'd be happier knowing more about him,' continues Kyle.
'Tersely bonk us? Stereo slunk by? Obesely trunks?'
'I'll get SITU to check the name, too,' says Kris.
'Might there be a Jewish connection with the family who used to own the farmhouse?' asks Grace. 'I've got no idea how to find that out, I'm afraid.'
'Well, the Leighs will probably know the previous owners, from the deeds. And we could investigate that at the Land Registry too,' says Kris.
'I'm shocked by what Pettigrew recounts in his diary,' says Jeffrey seriously. 'Jeremiah committed suicide - which explains why he wasn't buried in the churchyard. The body was unrecognizable, though, according to the Reverend, so I suppose it might _not_ have been Jeremiah - but either way, a terrible tragedy is about to happen. Er, has happened... whatever. And we must do something about it!'
'OK, try blueness?'
'Like what?' asks Stuart.
'Warn him! Perhaps we can forestall his dreadful end.'
'And perhaps we can create an immense time paradox. That might have been what Clive Stokes was talking about. Should we try and make friendly contact with him, by the way?' asks Stuart.
'Who knows, he could be an ally,' says Jeffrey. 'He's been in the area longer than us and might know something we don't. Stuart, you say the Miracle Visitor's appearance was clichéd. Well, he's a cliché _now_, but not in Jeremiah's time. It sounds far-fetched, I know, but what if this Visitor - and others like him - are the basis for our collective idea of what beings of the future will look like? It's a possibility, you have to admit.'
Stuart certainly looks less sceptical than he did this time yesterday. 'I'm going to conduct a small experiment with Fulk - ask him to bury a coin in a particular place, so that we can look to see if it's there now. Somewhere that hasn't been disturbed for hundreds of years. We could even look beforehand. Finding something would prove his existence to my satisfaction.' He frowns. 'Although what would happen if I then didn't make the request for him to leave something? I think I've just run into a paradox... perhaps that proves the communication couldn't possibly happen?'
'Sensory elk tub? Stolen keys rub?'
'If I've got time, I might tackle the fearsome Janessa Pettigrew. She sounds like that Marjorie whatcha-ma-callit in The Archers,' says Kyle.
'Antrobus,' says Jeffrey reflexively.
'Jeff, do you want to come and help me? She sounds like the tea and biscuits type you're so good at relating to,' continues the Scotsman.
'Yokels rent bus?'
'I was going to suggest that Grace might,' says Jeffrey. He turns to her. 'You could say you're interested in her ancestor's journal as part of some study you're making. Reverend Hendry said he thinks the two versions of the journal are identical, but it's worth making sure. And Miss Pettigrew might have other papers that Hendry hasn't seen.'
'I think that if this is a fake then she must be involved,' says Ferdinand, looking up from the screen. 'If not, then her book may have something to do with this.' He looks up at Stuart. 'Were you absolutely sure the room was empty, last night?'
'Yes - I peered in after Clive Stokes had gone. The computer was plugged in and turned on at the mains, but it must have somehow turned itself on at the box.
'And it's connected to a phone line?'
'Yes - the same one as the phone is on. And there's not any sleep / standby / wakeup software on it - I checked.'
'I had a thorough look around the kitchen,' says Gino. 'There weren't any mysterious cables or anything like that.'
Ferdinand has returned to the computer. 'Set us brokenly? Beers, nuts, yolk?'
'What's the date in that diary?' asks Stuart. 'We should compare it with the date Jeremiah thinks it is.'
'It was some time in September 1681 when Fulk killed himself - Reverend Pettigrew doesn't keep exact dates, but it must have been towards the beginning of the month,' says Jeffrey.
'Well, the Leighs said it's late August 1681 now when Fulk is writing. I think they said it would be the 23rd today,' says Gino. 'And they reckon a day passes for him with each day here... er, now.'
Jeffrey gains a look of horror and leaps to his feet, muttering 'I must _do_something_!' He dashes from the room.
'There's loads about you, Kyle,' says Ferdinand. 'Kyle nuts bores, but Kyle snores, Kyle ruts bones...'
Kyle raises his eyebrows slightly. 'I still think it might be a good idea to investigate the Leighs' architects in Colchester. Maybe they found something interesting when renovating the house.'
'And someone should stake out the tent,' says Kris.
A little work with the Yellow Pages gets Grace the number of Solness Master Builders, the firm who carried out the renovation work on Willow Farm. She says that she has a similar property to convert, and was impressed by the job they did for the Leighs.
'Oh, that was a very interesting project,' says Halvard Solness, the senior partner (it doesn't sound like it's a very big firm). He has a faint Norwegian accent. 'The building was in very poor condition. We had the challenge of maintaining as much as we could of the original structure - the great black oak beams - while reinforcing them sufficiently to sustain the new upper story we built. It was nominated for several awards.'
'Were any subcontractors used?' asks Grace (an idea of Stuart's).
'Oh, yes, of course - several. Contract labourers, and also specialists - plumber, carpenter, plasterer, decorator, and a restorer for the beams - these days housebuilding is a major project!' He laughs.
Stuart travels back to Hatfield Peverel on the train, and walks up to the Manor House. It is quiet and still, the warm sprig air lending a peaceful air to the site. He knocks on the door, but there is no response.
He wanders round the house, peering in at the windows, but none of those on the ground floor appear to be in use - there is just furniture covered with dustcloths.
He too sees the horse in the stables: its hooves are muddy, as though it has been out that morning.
Stuart walks to the well in the rear courtyard, which must be at least Tudor in age. He counts the fifth brick down from the handle and the third along, which is loose enough to emerge and provide a recess. He checks that there is currently no Charles II silver sixpence concealed behind it.
Kris also spends the morning on the phone. She is able to establish that Jeremiah Fulk served with the Second Essex Regiment of Foot (now subsumed into the Royal Essex Fusiliers) between 1642 and 1645, rising from ensign to the rank of captain. He does not seem to have left any great mark on the regiment's history, although of course there were no medals awarded at that time: he was awarded a standard military pension.
Prior to that date he had been a member of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, for five years, reading Greats: the advent of the war prevented him from finishing his degree.
She phones SITU, and gets them onto researching Stokely Rubens.
Grace tries to check at the County Records Office for mysterious disappearances, who might have provided the body Pettigrew found were it not Fulk's. Unfortunately, such events were so commonplace and unremarkable at that time that they are not recorded at all. She is at least able to establish where he might be buried: maps of the village at the time reveal that it only had one crossroads, which is still there about half a mile from the church in the opposite direction to Willow Farm.
Jeffrey, seized with a great sense of purpose, strides down the front drive of Willow Farm. Anyone watching closely would see a furrow on his usually clear brow, and a hunted, almost guilty look in his eye. On the way he has stopped briefly at the crossroads where Jeremiah is said to be buried.
Andrew Leigh opens the door - fortunately for Jeffrey, today is his morning off. 'Mr Leigh, please forgive me for interrupting you - give me five minutes to explain and you'll realize this is a matter of life and death!'
'Really! Gosh! Well, in that case you'd better come in, Reverend...?
'Fanlight, Jeffrey Fanlight - please call me Jeffrey,' says that worthy relievedly, stepping into the hallway that three centuries previously was apparently decorated with Jeremiah Fulk's brain matter. He explains, as Andrew makes coffee, that he has been investigating the story of their haunted computer and has come by information not widely known - namely that Jeremiah Fulk is apparently destined to die by his own hand, probably in no more than a fortnight. 'So you see, we have to do all we can to save him - it may be the only way his tortured ghost can find rest!'
Andrew is as concerned as Jeffrey. 'That would be terrible! You're absolutely right - we must warn him. How do you think we should approach it?'
'With your permission, I'll leave a message describing what I read.'
'Might that not alarm him?' says Andrew doubtfully.
'Not as much as what might happen otherwise,' says Jeffrey darkly. He sits at the computer and begins typing. While Andrew pours the coffee he introduces himself as a man of God, being careful not to come over too strong since Jeremiah doesn't seem to have been much of a churchgoer. "Some may say," he finishes the message, "that by trying to change the past we risk changing our present - but better that than to stand by and let a man die in such a barbarous way! I implore you, Mr Fulk, take all precautions to avoid this terrible tragedy!"
'Well, let's hope that works,' says Andrew worriedly. 'Would you like to come back in the morning to see if there's been a response? I'm sure Ronnie wouldn't mind.'
'I thought perhaps if you didn't mind I might stay the night,' says Jeffrey humbly.
'Oh, there's not much point in that - a message won't come back if anyone's watching. I'll book you in at the guesthouse if you like.'
Shortly after Jeffrey has left, Stuart appears, and greets Andrew cheerily. He explains his experiment, which seizes the dentist's imagination. 'Poor old Fulk! Perhaps this'll help take his mind off blowing his brains out.' He explains to Stuart what Jeffrey has just told him.
Stuart types a note instructing Fulk to leave a sixpence behind the loose brick, and commits it to the hard disk.
Meanwhile Jeffrey, hastening away from Willow Farm, has bumped into Martin Thane. The doyen of the Strange is sauntering down the High Street, twirling an ebony cane, whose head Jeffrey notices with some disquiet is in the form of a horned skull. 'Er... Jeffrey! How are you? Visiting our local celebrities, eh? Should look good in your parish newsletter, I don't doubt!'
'Even the Bishop may be persuaded of the instructive value of this particular case,' admits Jeffrey.
'Found anything juicy out?' Thane peers at Jeffrey roguishly, wagging his stick. 'Now don't hold out on me! If you turn up any new material, I could get you a by-line credit in the Fortean Times, you know. Just come to me with anything of interest - and I'll do whatever I can to help you, of course. Share and share alike, eh?'
Kyle, visiting the Land Registry, finds that the Manor House in Hatfield Peverel is owned by a trust, called Jael Holdings. The names of the trustees are not given, although an address in the City is their headquarters, and their lawyers are Jekyll & Hanbury, also of the City.
He checks former ownership of Willow Farm, and finds that the family who owned it last were called Walker - not an obviously Jewish name, but who knows?
Gino was able to establish earlier that morning that the Leighs had no strong feelings for or against Janessa Pettigrew, so goes to visit her. He explains that they told him she might be able to reveal more historical information about their house.
Janessa is a small, slender woman in her fifties, with steel-grey hair and a rather fierce demeanour. Her house is thronged by Afghan hounds, of indeterminate number, all rather slobbery. 'Willow Farm, eh?' Her tone is clipped. 'Not of very great note. Only one noteworthy resident - Jeremiah Fulk, mid seventeenth century. Odd man - bit of a loner. The vicar of that time was my ancestor, Charles Pettigrew - he saw a lot of Fulk. They used to talk philosophy. Apparently Fulk was a big benefactor to the church in later life - he's buried in the main aisle, you can see his stone there still. He had some sort of conversion experience in the summer of 1681, my ancestor said.'
Just about this time, Stuart arrives at the Pettigrew house. Gino and he pretend not to know each other as Janessa rather sniffily pours him a tea, her gaze travelling up and down his scruffy clothing. 'I was hoping to ask you about the journal of your ancestor, which the vicar mentioned,' says Stuart. 'Might I have a look? It sounds very interesting.'
This approach mollifies Janessa and she fishes out a leather-bound volume, which looks much like Reverend Hendry's. 'This is the original - Hendry's is just a copy. At least, so it appears. Would you believe, Mr Winters, Mr Ferrocco, that man wants to publish this book? My ancestor's work - one wouldn't think to see such greed in a minister of the Church. And he and his Bishop are preventing me from publishing, denying the world the chance to read this fascinating volume.'
Stuart eagerly pages through the diary to find that the passage about Fulk's death is absent. The earlier mention of him, which Hendry read Jeffrey yesterday, is still there, but next comes, just before the end of August:
"Master Fulk came to me today, in much of a pother, saying that he must be shriven, for his soul had been distant from God for too long. I could not but agree and took his confession as he wished. He seemed transfigured by devotion, and announced that he was a changed man, and would henceforth be a true son of the Lord. I joined him on his knees and we rejoiced greatly. Asking him what had brought him to this pass - one might call it a very Damascene conversion (the reference is to Saint Paul's famous journey), he replied that an angel of the Lord had spoken to him, in mysterious guise, warning him that his road was one that must end in tragedy and misery lest he change his ways. I felt sure there was more to this story, for he evaded my eye and blushed much, but did not press him."
Stuart pages on and finds that Fulk lives for another five years, giving most of his fortune to the church at his death. "He will be much missed by the village, that in later years was a man of surpassing goodness for whom no deed was too onerous, no request too great."
'Why are there two copies?' he asks.
Janessa has no idea.
Jeffrey visits the County Museum and gains access to the minutes of the Historical Society's recent meetings. It seems that Stokely Rubens, who has been a regular attender, is a frequent contributor: he often interjects with snippets of detail, being a particular expert on the later seventeenth century. His contributions seem to be generally appreciated by the meeting, although he has never given a lecture himself.
Returning anxiously to his new billet at the village guesthouse, Jeffrey sees Gino, but they do not acknowledge one another. More obvious are Richie Wardens and Vicki Drew of Crop Circle Quarterly, who are sat opposite each other at dinner, Drew next to Jeffrey.
'"Are you related to Bernice Rubens?"!' she says derisively. 'What sort of idiotic question was that?'
'Most people believe that she's a very good writer, actually,' says Wardens. 'I'd be flattered to be thought related to her. Have you read any of her novels? No? Well then.'
'I'm just surprised you didn't ask if he was related to Peter Paul Rubens, then. "Most people believe he was a very good painter"! What a pathetic way of establishing a lead.'
'It worked, didn't it? He was very helpful answering our questions.'
'He certainly answered _mine_ helpfully. I think he was rather charmed.'
'Charmed? That's one way of putting it. Did you undo that button deliberately? I bet you did. Never mind charmed, he was probably dazzled.'
'Whatever gets the story, Richie, whatever gets the story - you should try and remember that. You could try it on with La Pettigrew in the morning, if you like - she looks just your type.'
'You can keep the dogs amused, then - you should be good at that. You and them probably have a lot you can talk about together.'
Stuart spends the evening stalking the local woods. Apart from the tent at Norsey Farm, he finds no other mysterious encampments. He watches from the trees as Clive Stokes prepares a small meal for himself over a gas stove, then retires for the night.
The next morning brings a long note from Fulk. Jeffrey, who is at Willow Farm first thing, takes a printout of it.
"My dear Master and Mistress Leigh, Master Winters and Reverend Fanlight,
"So many correspondents! I fear my epistolary skills are not meet to provide each witht he proper response it demands, so I shall answer all togehter.
"Reverend Fanlight, you have my most heartfelt thanks - I write, a new man. Today went I to the Church and was welcomed back intot he bosom of The Lord. Revrend Pettigrew, that good man, wepat alongside me as my soul was purged. I told him that an angel of the Lord had instructed my of the error of my solitary, dark ways - so I painted you - I trust you think it not irrerverent, for surely that is the role that you have played in my humbel life - I was conscious of no urgings to self-murther, as you descibr, but the potential is always there, and surely only diedication to the Lord will keep me from them.
"Master Winters, I have done as you desired and placed a sixpence in the well. My neighboru Stokes (I find it hard ot credit what I hav been told of him! But enouhg on that) was most amused when I told him the cause, thinking that as a clever man and of the Hebrew gfaith he migh not find my plan too Odd - to leave a message to Futurity, a Capsule of Time, as it may be. Of course he knows nothing of my box of lights or miracle visotr, and I will tell him none - nor more to Reverend Pettigrwew neither, I think such matters are best kept dark fo now.
"I received a disqueting notice from my Miracle Visotir yesterday, were you able to pass my reply on to him? Has he yet visited you in the year 1998, as he said he might? I was greatly glad that the Millennium, two years in your future, passed withot the world's end, or so he told me, although he did tell me of a mighty Bug that much plagued the world - like unto the bubonic plague which shocked London and parts thereabouts fifteen year back, until quelled by the grreat Fire, I surmise him to mean. Pray, my friends, take all precautions against it that you may.
Stuart on rising heads to the well behind the Manor House to check the secret recess.
In it he finds a Charles II silver sixpence, tarnished even though wrapped in parchment. It had not been there the previous day, and he does not think that the hiding-place has been disturbed.