The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
8.30 am, Thursday 10th March 1998
Stuart, slipping the coin into his pocket, wanders back round to the front of the Manor House and knocks on the door. He has a brief wait, during which he peers through the windows again, assessing possibilities for breaking in - which are many - before it is answered by a sleepy-looking middle-aged man with greying dark hair and a pointed beard. He stifles a yawn. 'Can I help you?' His accent is vaguely East Anglian sounding.
'Mr Rubens? I wanted to ask you about this current story in the village - the Leighs.'
'The ghost in the computer? I've heard of it. Who are you?'
'My name's Stuart Winters - I'm a journalist with Prawn magazine.'
'Right,' says Rubens, rubbing his eyes. 'You'd better come in, I suppose.'
He shows Stuart into the living-room, whipping dustcloths from two chairs. The room is large and chilly. 'What's your angle on the ghost, then?' he asks Stuart over his shoulder as he pours out two bottles of brown ale. 'I had some people from Crop Circle Quarterly round yesterday - an odd couple! - they were very sceptical.'
Although this is a little early for Stuart, he accepts gratefully. 'We're very open-minded at Prawn,' he replies, sipping.
Stokes sits down opposite him. His eyes are intense. 'I think it's a complete joke,' he says firmly. 'The idea that messages can travel in time - absurd! Why, people would be forever trying to kill their own grandparents.'
'How could they, just with messages?' asks Stuart.
'Well, they could... I don't know! I'm a historian, not a quantum scientist or whatever you call it. Anyway, the point is that people like you publishing stories like this do no good for human society - nothing personal, I mean you fringe press in general. You encourage credulity and fuzzy-minded belief in occultism, witchery, paganism, idiocy - don't you see that you're just playing right into the hands of humanity's enemies, the enemies of rationalism, science and progress, those who want to see us falling before them in unquestioning worship once more?' He gesticulates wildly, slopping beer around.
Stuart is more than a little cowed by this verbal onslaught.
Back at the Army and Navy the investigative team gather to discuss the morning's findings.
Kyle as usual is always ready with an opinion as he learns that Stuart has found the coin. 'Our fraudster makes his first mistake. You asked Fulk to put the coin in the wall but he says that he'll put it in the well!'
'It's the wall _of_ the well,' says Stuart. 'The brickwork around it.'
Kyle is not daunted. 'That was only the first mistake. His biggest mistake however is the time paradox he has unwittingly made for himself. If Fulk really had left the coin in the wall, it should have been there all the time. Even before we thought of asking him! Think about it back in 1621 or whatever, he puts the coin the wall because we told him to. In 1892 it's still there, we aren't even born yet. 1992 goes by, it's still there, I've never even heard of SITU let alone Fulk. March 1998 we check the wall and logically it should be there, we should be scratching our heads and thinking, who the hell puts coins in walls? But no, it isn't there is it? It only appears after we ask him to put it there, a day or so later. Guys, we've proved it's a fake!!' He leans forward with a knowing smile. 'Unless you believe in parallel universes, then we are special beings indeed, able to move between them. Cheesy? A fine mature cheddar if you please'
No-one else seems wholly to share his opinion. Indeed, Jeffrey appears quite overcome with satisfaction. 'This proves it!' he chortles, waving his copy of the SITU briefing in the face of whoever is closest. '"Your mission: to establish whether this phenomenon is genuine or hoax." And we've done it - Jeremiah's messages are genuine, the Leighs are telling the truth, _and_ we've saved a man from an eternity of unquiet rest! I think we deserve a collective pat on the back!'
Kris has something of a scowl on her face, which darkens as this speech progresses. 'I think it's worth checking that the diary in the church agrees with Janessa Pettigrew's, just to make sure.'
'Oh ye of little faith!' Jeffrey gazes at her fondly. 'You Doubting Thomases go ahead and check - in fact, according to the journal, all you need to do is look in the church for Jeremiah's grave. _That_ wasn't there before.'
Kyle throws up his hands in disgust. 'We can't change the past, it's already happened. How about this for an experiment. Send Fulk a message and watch the words change on the page before our very eyes!'
'We wouldn't know when he was going to read it,' objects Ferdinand. 'It might not be for hours of our time - I don't suppose the vicar or the Pettigrew woman are going to let us stand over their book all night. Pity it hasn't been published - then we could just buy a copy in Smiths.' He looks puzzled. 'Or would that work?'
'This story about a plague in the future sounds like the story from Twelve Monkeys,' says Kyle. 'Bruce Willis goes back in time to find the cause. If the script writer is any good, they'll make the time traveller the cause of the plague.' He takes another drink, to illustrate his point. 'As I see it, the game is up. We should conduct a thorough examination of the computer and power socket so we can see how they're doing it. Once we've established their modus operandi, all we have left to do is report on the activities of the other investigators. How about a friendly chat with Clive Stokes. He sounds the most earnest of the fruitcakes.'
'Never mind talk to him, I say we should beat him up,' says Stuart. 'Wasn't the last time he was spotted connected to aliens? Perhaps the plague was started by an alien?'
Kris has been trying to stifle her amusement during these references to the plague but can control her mirth no longer. 'I think you'll find that the plague the Miracle Visitor was talking about was started by whoever it was drew up our calendar - in conspiracy with people who rely on ancient software. Do the words "Millennium" and "Bug" mean anything to you?'
'Maybe,' continues Stuart unabashed, 'but how about this - if one side in a war has time travel, and the other side doesn't, then it strikes me that the side with time travel is highly likely to win. If the aliens are putting up a decent fight then I presume they are trying to interfere in Earth's history, perhaps both in JF's time and in ours? We need to determine if the miracle visitor is indeed human, and whether the plague is due to start in our near future - perhaps as a result of alien activity?'
Just at that point Gino is advancing on Clive Stokes's tent in the grounds of Norsey Farm. Stokes is at the stream, washing clothes, and looks up impassively as Gino steps down the muddy slope towards him. 'Fancy a coffee?'
'Very kind of you,' says Gino, and he sits on the camping stool he is offered as Clive prepares a small Primus stove.
Clive says nothing, merely looking up at Gino occasionally as he makes the coffee, so the American says 'You were wondering who I was with - well, the answer is, no-one. I'm a friend of the Leighs, I'm interested in what's happening with them.'
Clive raises his eyebrows. 'Is that right?' He does not seem wholly convinced.
'Yes, but I still have some questions you can help me with...'
'If you're not working with anyone, you're not much use to me, are you?' says Clive calmly, handing the coffee across.
'I've got the Leighs' ear,' says Gino hopefully, 'and I can send Fulk whatever messages I want - how's that for useful? If you don't help me out, who knows what might happen - I might send him something disastrous.'
'Hmm,' replies Clive. He considers for a moment. 'What d'you want to know, then?'
'Basically, how's this guy sending these messages? And what's the risk we run? This plague he talks about?'
Clive snorts. 'Never mind that - that's all nonsense if you ask me. Messages to and from the past, maybe - we've seen it happen, so it has to be true. But time travel - I just don't believe it, sorry. I reckon this Miracle Visitor is an invention of Fulk's.'
'Then where did he get the computer from?' asks Gino.
Clive shrugs. 'Anyway, the danger is if we change the past through what Fulk gets told, isn't it? Fortunately it's just you sending him messages, and you can be careful. As long as he's not being told to do stuff by anyone else. I mean... I don't know... someone might tell him to start shopping in Colchester instead of Chelmsford, some family of traders goes out of business, and your grandfather ends up not getting born.'
'My grandfather was Italian,' objects Gino.
'Well, my grandfather, then,' says Clive. 'But imagine if it was yours - all your enemies would have to do is send the right message, and you'd suddenly wink out of existence.'
'Is that why you're spying on the Leighs' computer?'
'That's right - I want to make sure no-one's sending dodgy messages through.'
'Why? Are you working for the Time Police, or something?' Gino grins.
'Never mind who I'm working for,' says Clive.
'The only thing we've done so far is prevent Fulk from killing himself,' says Gino. 'Is that safe?'
'I guess so,' says Clive, 'since the world hasn't ended. But you can't be too careful, you know?'
'We should make a full report to SITU,' says Jeffrey, 'telling them we've solved the case. I'll wager they weren't expecting us to wind this one up so quickly!'
'I'm not so sure there's not more going on here,' says Grace. 'I think we should investigate a few more things before we declare it over.' She does call SITU, though, and asks them to check up on Jael Holdings and Jekyll & Hanbury, the firms which administer the Manor House.
Stuart is also busy on the phone, ringing round his friends and acquaintances in the alternative society. He learns that this part of the country has no currently active military airfields, although it did during the war (notably North Weald, a Battle of Britain site): now the nearest is Lakenheath in Suffolk. There is a big Army base at Colchester, though. There are no known bacteriological warfare research laboratories here, either, although there is an institution called the Life Science Research Centre near Ingatestone, the other side of Chelmsford which is much picketed by anti-vivisectionists and may well have something to hide.
Kris is also phoning strange friends, in her case those expert in the matter of time travel and paradoxes. She finds, as did Stuart when he asked his at the start of the investigation, that orthodox science thinks time travel impossible in practical terms, and even her most open-minded friends struggle to name an attested case. For thoughts on paradoxes she is referred to Robert Silverberg's 'Many Mansions', Robert A Heinlein's 'All You Zombies...' and 'By His Bootstraps', and David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself.
Tea finds the morning's mixed mood still hanging over the team. During the day it has been established that the text of Pettigrew's diary in the church now agrees with that held by his descendant; that there is now a stone for Fulk in the main aisle of the nave; and that the parish records here and in Chelmsford accord with what seem to be the new circumstances of his end.
Kyle is still obdurate in his scepticism, Jeffrey insistent that nothing more remains to be said on the matter, Stuart concerned for future apocalypse; the rest of the team keep their opinions open.
'We should ask JF to tell us exactly what the Miracle Visitor said,' suggests Stuart.
'And fix this little beastie on,' says Ferdinand. At Grace's suggestion he has constructed a device which will register activity in the phone connection to the computer.
'We should try it with the phone unplugged one night, too,' adds the mild-mannered anthropologist. 'It'll need to be a night when we're not bothered about whether we get a message back or not, though, I suppose.'
'We need to establish for certain whether Reuben Stokes and Stokely Rubens are one and the same,' says Kris. 'Grace, you're a historian - couldn't you go and see him under the guise of historical interest, and try and work out whether he is a time traveller, creature of the night or other entity from the 17th century?'
'It's a little outside my area of expertise,' says Grace doubtfully. She almost certainly knows less about seventeenth-century England than anyone else in the team, with the possible exception of Gino. 'I'll have a try, though.'
'You could take in the next meeting of the County Museum Historical Society for some background,' suggests Jeffrey helpfully. 'It's tomorrow evening: they'll be talking about trade between Essex and the Low Countries in the Tudor and Stuart periods.'
As the meeting breaks up, Jeffrey drifts across to Martin Thane, who is holding court to the Crop Circle Quarterly team at his table. 'Well, Mr Thane, I believe the amateurs have beaten you experts to this story,' he beams smugly.
'What can you mean, my dear Jeffrey?' asks Thane puzzledly. Wardens and Drew look up eagerly.
'Let's just say that we've registered a success,' says Jeffrey. 'I'll say nothing more now.'
'Now, now - don't forget, your by-line in the Fortean Times if you'll share the details with me, my dear fellow,' says Thane worriedly.
Jeffrey swans away from the group, but feels his elbow tugged by Richie Wardens as he leaves the room. 'Any chance of an interview for the Quarterly, Reverend? We'll come to press a lot quicker than the FT - and you can be sure we won't edit your material down, either, like Thane would.'
The next morning Gino checks Ferdinand's device to find that there was no overnight activity on the phone line. He reads Fulk's new message eagerly, relaying it to the rest of the team.
"My dear master and Mistress Leigh, master Ferrocco, &c,
"Much plagued by ill dreams last night - no dubt the result of the fine sticklebacks I ate last night. Towards the end of their season they are a chancy beast, I find, for my delivcate stomach. I pray twas indeed that, and not an ill sending from some witch or sorcerer.
"You asked for the full mesage of what my Miracel Visotor said of your future - in truth, I relayed the chief parts of it yesterday, there was no more detail fgiven. No doubt he wished to avoid alarming me with the Horrid Truths. He has in all been most considerate for my state of mind. Why, he seemd to know me as well as I did myself, with all details about my dwelling and state clear to mind, as though he had lived here himself - knowing more, from his future vantage, than yo, dear Master and Mistress Leigh, do in your time so much nearer to mine own. No doubt advances in archaeology will be great in the intervening years.
"Good and bad news from hereabouts: my neighbour Stokes's wife has been delivered of a fine young boy, but the unhappy woman perished with much bleeding before the night was up. I have been giving him as much sympathy as I may, I who have never had a life's companion to lose, although I must say eh seems less prone to excite himself at the loss than a Christian man might - I had expected more wailing, gnashing of teeth &c. At least the child is heatlhy. In truth, I believe Stokes not especially devout - I asked when the Rabbi would arrive for the child's circumcision - out of a ntaural interest in the persistence of this barbaric practice - and my neighbour declared that, as far as he cold see, there was no great haste in the matter, and that the Lord could no doubt recognize those who were his People without the need to examine their fore-skins - a dangerous strain of talk for a Christian, of course, but a Jew may say these things more safely. Perhaps what my Visitor said of him is indeed true, that he is a Warlock accursed in the eyes of the Holy? But I find it hard to credit. Anyway, enough on that, my bowels trouble me again and I must haste away to the close-stool.