The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
8.05 pm, Friday 13th March 1998
'What you're talking about seems sensible and reasonable,' says Gino. He assumes an unaccustomedly open, confiding expression. 'I'll tell you, then - I'm with a group that's trying to achieve exactly the same thing.'
'Who is it?' asks Clive with interest.
'You don't need to know our name.'
Clive looks rather disappointed, but after all he has not told Gino what his group are called either. 'It's not the Trismegistus Club, is it?' he asks hopefully.
'Wh...? No.' says Gino firmly. 'Not them. Anyway, never mind that - the question is what to do.'
Gino proceeds to outline to Clive everything that the group have found out so far. Clive eyes widen as the recitation proceeds - it is clear that whatever he has been up to himself has not had half the success.
'You're lucky your people have enough resources to send a team of seven - so you could split off yourself, Gino, and approach the Leighs under cover. Getting your feet under the table there was an excellent angle.'
'Are your people not too well resourced, then?' fishes Gino.
'Oh,' grimaces Clive, 'they're wealthy enough, it's just that they always prefer solo operations - that preference comes right down from the top.'
'So what now?'
'Well, I guess the important thing is not to change the past too much. Try not to give Fulk too many instructions, that kind of thing.'
'It sounds like he's getting messages from the Miracle Visitor, as well, though.'
'Yerss... I guess we'll have to try and work out what _he's_ up to first. If the Miracle Visitor set this whole thing up by giving Fulk the computer in the first place, we really need to know what that was for, before we know where we stand now.'
'We've not found out much about the Miracle Visitor at all, really, other than what Fulk said,' says Gino. 'On another subject, what do you know about this guy Stokely Rubens?'
'Who?' says Clive.
'You know - he's staying at the Manor House. Very interested in history - runs Jael Holdings, the people who own the manor - that guy.'
'At the Manor House? Good Lord - I never knew there was anyone staying there. Stokely Rubens? I wonder if he's any relation to Bernice Rubens...'
'We think probably not - we're beginning to suspect he's dodgy.' Gino is surprised that Clive did not know of Rubens's existence - but then, the latter keeps much to himself: the SITU team would not have known about him just from its work in the village.
'Right? Gosh. This is a new factor, for me.' Clive shakes his head thoughtfully. 'That Manor House, I just found out, used to belong to my family, would you believe that? Back in the old days. I've been doing a bit of digging into my ancestors, and it turned out they were from round here. Don't know when they lost hold of it to this Rubens bloke. My people were Jewish in the old days, probably something to do with that. There were even rumours one of them was a warlock!' He laughs heartily.
Gino joins in, slightly less heartily.
Stuart strides through the darkened village, heading for the Manor House, its silhouette bulky against the skyline. No lights are on. He circles the building cautiously, and detects no signs of life, apart from the horse, which is asleep standing up in that curious way that they have.
He applies his jemmy to a suitable-looking ground-floor window, pries it open, and clambers within, the needle beam of his torch stabbing into the darkness.
'It doesn't look like she's going to be back tonight,' sighs Andrew Leigh. He looks actually quite miserable, for the first time since Ferdinand has met him.
'Do you think she's all right?' asks Ferdinand nervously. 'Should we call the police, or anything?'
'Oh, I don't suppose there's any need for that - she probably got caught up in the meeting and had to stay in town overnight, or something.' Andrew sighs and rises to his feet. 'Anyway, let's call it a night, eh? Any ideas for a message for Master Fulk, Ferdinand?'
'We could tell him his name's an anagram of "jerk me if hula",' suggests Ferdinand.
Gino bids farewell to Clive and walks to the Manor House, his steps brisk, pulling on a balaclava. He has had enough of waiting and seeing - and his brief intrusion into Clive's tent has given him a taste for bigger things. He too circles the building cautiously, ignoring the horse, and breaks in at a different window.
Stuart freezes as he hears the noise, and moves to a vantage point. He relaxes when he sees it is Gino, and flashes his torch to signal. 'We must stop meeting like this,' he says to the startled New Yorker.
'Found anything yet?'
'How about this?' Stuart leads him into an upstairs study and shows him a portable computer. It is an Elonex 386 - the same model machine as Jeremiah Fulk claimed to possess. 'And it's hooked up to this modem, look.'
Gino rubs his chin thoughtfully. 'Let's search the place thoroughly, then come back to this.'
It seems that Rubens is only using part of the house, mostly rooms on the upper floor. His possessions are sparse and few, but well-selected. He appears to have spent a good deal of time in an Innovations shop. In general, though, the impression is that he has come here to visit rather than to settle. Stuart has been particularly looking for an address book, but there is none present.
In with the modern gizmos are some curiously archaic touches, like a straight razor and strop, and a collection of clay pipes. There are also a number of ancient-looking tomes, mostly written in foreign languages such as Latin and Hebrew. The only one in English is entitled _A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits_, one of whose engravings looks something like this:
'Right, let's fire up the computer and see what we can see,' says Stuart.
To his disappointment, though, all the computer has on it is DOS 5: there is not even any email software. 'What's the point of the modem, then?' he wonders. As far as he can see from his own knowledge of PCs, there is no program on the machine that would allow it to send or receive meaningful data through the modem.
'What do you reckon this is?' asks Gino. He has picked up and is toying with a large black crystal that stands next to the computer. Its surface is absorbent of light rather than shiny, and its planes seem to meet at unexpected angles. Staring at it for too long hurts the eyes rather.
'Better put it down,' advises Stuart. 'Come on, let's get back to the others and tell them what we've found.'
'Hold on - look here,' says Gino. Tucked into the top drawer of the desk on which the computer stands is a small make-up kit. It contains white foundation, silver eyeshadow, lipstick and nail varnish, and glittery hair gel, all partly used.
On returning to Chelmsford, Stuart contacts SITU and tells them of the latest development.
There is a sharp indrawing of breath at the mention of Clive Stokes. 'We advise extreme caution in dealing with this man. Can you please put Agent Macdowell or Agent Ndofir on the line, Operative Winters?'
Stuart, puzzled, hands the phone to Kris. 'Ms Macdowell, this is Andre Swahn here. We have reason to believe that this man Stokes may be an agent of the conspiracy we oppose.'
'But he seemed so nice,' says Kris sarcastically.
'Even so - under no circumstances mention SITU to him, and assess his intentions very carefully before cooperating with him.'
Stuart is put back on. 'Can you help us in creating a false background to feed Stokes?'
'How about claiming to be Rosicrucians?' suggests Swahn. 'Or the Circles Phenomenon Research Group?'
The group convenes in the all-but-deserted bar of the Army and Navy. Stuart in particular is full of theories.
'Here's two ideas. First - Stokely Rubens is immortal, and the future Rubens is the Miracle Visitor. Hence the Miracle Visitor's detailed knowledge of Jeremiah, and possible motive for visiting that time and place.'
'What - to schmooze with his former self?' asks Kyle woozily.
'Maybe. Or to find out something - or perhaps just for old time's sake. Anyway, the other idea is this: the Miracle Visitor doesn't come from the future at all. He's travelling backwards from our own time. So all the stuff about aliens and so on is bull. This would explain the outdated computer, and why messages from the past are being sent to this time rather than any other.'
'Or, from what we found in the Manor House just now,' says Gino, 'perhaps it's a combination of both those ideas. Stokely Rubens is the Miracle Visitor, but he's gone back from our time, not the future. Does that make sense?'
Everyone thinks about it for a while. 'It still doesn't really explain why, though,' says Grace. 'And do we definitely think he's Reuben Stokes, or not?'
The next morning, Stuart rises early, and catches Martin Thane over breakfast. They fall naturally enough into conversation: Stuart is well read in conspiracy theory, and Thane is impressed with his analytical mind. 'Do you know of any interesting history in this area, Martin - historical events?'
'Oh, well, this part of the country is steeped in history,' says Thane, leaning back in his chair. 'The Peasant's Revolt started round here, you know - and it was the stronghold of the Parliamentary faction in the Civil War, too. And there are a number of important scholars from Chelmsford alone, to say nothing of the rest of the county - Philemon Holland, who first translated the Bible from Greek into English - Thomas Mildmay, the great legislator - Essex people get a bit of knocking these days, from the ignorant, but really they're the foundation of our country - progressive, humanistic, intelligent, creative, witty - makes me wish I was from round here myself, I must say.' He sighs.
'Yes, and the best new music is from out of Essex, too,' says Stuart. 'Apart from Blur, there's the dance scene - Underworld, The Prodigy...'
'Well, I wouldn't know about that,' says Thane. 'Anyway, Fortean events - the usual rains of fish and so forth, but nothing of any very great note. Plenty of ghosts. There was a famous warlock around here in the seventeenth century, name of Reuben Stokes, who got burned to death -' he frowns. 'Hold on a minute, have I got that right? No, sorry, don't know where that one came from - I don't think that's true at all.' He scratches his head in perplexity.
Stuart heads to the County Record Office, to look into birth and death records for the Rubens family. Strangely, though, they are lacking - it seems that Stokely Rubens is the only one of his line. There is no record of him having been born, either, which is curious. Of course, it may not be his real name, if some of the team's theories are correct.
The rest of the operatives travel to Hatfield Peverel, where Gino is already at Willow Farm.
'Gino?' says Andrew. 'You haven't seen Ronnie this morning, have you?'
'No, I've been here in the village all night,' says Gino.
Andrew looks very worried. 'Perhaps we should call the police - she didn't come back from work last night, and I thought she might be at a meeting or something - but I've just called her work and they say she didn't have anything planned - she just left at the usual time.' He plucks weakly at his lip.
'Look, let's have a coffee and think about this,' says Gino as reassuringly as he can.
In the kitchen his eye is caught by the computer. There is a new message from Fulk.
"Master Leigh, Mater Ferrocco, & c,
"It was true all along but I denied, it, what a fool, blind I wwas, accuresed by the Lord for my folly - this the result of such long ansence from God's grace, that I ignored the corruption uner my nose!!! All this day have I rent my hair. It stares me in the face now - that fool Pettigew sought to deny it - refuezsed to bring Master Hopkins into our village - I shall show him!!!! We have no need of Master Hopkins and his expertise now, for is not his skill that of detecting the Witrch when she seeks to conceal herself? No need now, indeed, for I Know, the knowledge of the Lord is strong in me now, and I can deal with our Wqrlock myself - but give me good stout brshwood and a supply of tinder, and I wil;l burn him about his ears, him and the whole House, and his foul progeny - that Babe, who knows 2what its destiny weas to be, perchance the Foullest thing to Walk God's Earth? but no, not now, for I shall smoke it and its devlish father - no surprise he did not wish it circumcised, no doubt the good Rabbi would have recognized the unclean thing it was - after this how can I face the world? I shall be murdering, yes, but mursdering for the right - like a soldier - is this not the war of Good angainst Evil, and against us are arrayed all the legions of Satan Lucifer, with Reuben Stokes but the least of their number? But by this next morn he will be no more, and the infernal horde will be that little weaker, and my cosncience will be clear at last!!!!!"
'What's it say, anything good?' asks Andrew from the sink.
'Hold on, there's another one,' says Gino. There is another file with last night's date, called 'LEIGH.TXT'. He opens it up warily.
"Mister Leigh and cohorts,
"I shall not introduce myself. Please be so good as not to interfere with my scheme - if you wish to see your wife again, your best advice would be to refrain from touching this computer before tomorrow morning. She will be returned to you unharmed if all goes to my plan."
'Who's it from?' calls across Andrew.
'Er...' says Gino, glancing around the kitchen for inspiration as to how to break the news to Andrew. Through the kitchen window, his eyes fall upon the Manor House up on the hill. But there is something fuzzy about it - he squints, rubbing his eyes. It must be some sort of heat haze rising off the stream, or something, but the building appears to be flickering - between its present, intact state, and a state in which it is a long-overgrown, blackened ruin.