The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
8.35 am, Saturday 14th March 1998
'What's it say?' asks Andrew, intrigued by the expression of concern on Gino's face.
Gino, ignoring him, speedily types a message into the computer. It says:
"Jeremiah, whatever you do don't burn Reuben Stokes to death! Gino."
Gino then leaps up and dashes out into the village, leaving Andrew staring after him with some puzzlement.
Stuart hops on a train back to Hatfield Peverel and meets up with Ferdinand. Together they head purposefully to the Manor House, Ferdinand carrying his toolkit. 'Saturn twister!' mutters Ferdinand to himself as Stuart gives him his instructions.
Once again there is one of those amusing moments when Stuart and Gino almost jump on each other in the deserted house. Ferdinand notes with some alarm that Gino is holding a short length of rope for use as a garrotte, and has a packet of weedkiller tucked into his pocket.
While Ferdinand takes the computer apart, Gino busies himself mixing Paraquat into the silver face paint. 'It's odourless,' he explains, 'and you don't need an awful lot of it to give someone fairly nasty superficial burns to the face, which should render them pretty easy to spot later - good idea huh?'
Stuart pockets the copy of John Dee's book. 'It's possible that Jeremiah isn't the only person who's been visited,' he says significantly.
Gino then grabs up the mysterious black stone. 'My plan is to hide it somewhere in the grounds - bury it at a point where I can see it from the window, and see who approaches it.'
'I think we should just take it,' says Stuart. 'It might be useful.'
They have a brief but heated debate on the subject and in the end it is decided to take the stone for the time being.
'This all looks pretty normal to me,' says Ferdinand, screwing the machine back up. 'The modem's normal too.'
'I'm going to stay here - I'm hoping that staking this place out and having a good look around it should reveal Janet,' says Gino
'Janet?' asks Stuart puzzledly.
'Your name gives "frog coercion", Gino - that's quite apt, isn't it?' says Ferdinand. Gino glares at him and he hastily adds 'Or "icon of grocer".'
Jeffrey has been spending the last couple of days in his parish, convinced that the party have achieved all they were sent to do, and keen to placate the Bishop.
Nagging doubts are starting to gnaw at him, though, mixed with a desire to learn how Fulk is getting on, so he returns to the village and is horrified to learn what has been happening in his absence.
'It's all my fault!' he exclaims, with much gnashing of teeth. 'My intentions were good, I swear. I was only trying to save Jeremiah from himself - and now he's turned into some sort of... monster! First Hans, now this! Oh dear, oh dear...!!'
Kris nobly resists the urge to give him a swift kick in the kneecap.
'Gino's vision of the burned-out house and Mr Thane's slip of the tongue about Reuben Stokes being burned to death clearly show that, at this moment, history itself is in flux around us!' Jeffrey declares, dramatically, once he has recovered himself. 'Thinking about what we've learned, there seem to be only one conclusion - Stokely Rubens, Reuben Stokes and the Miracle Visitor are all one and the same person! So Rubens is either immortal (or very long-lived), or he travelled in time from 1681 to 1998. I favour the former - those "jokes" he made to Jeremiah about 30,386 angels, the Millennium Bug and European harmony seem to suggest a familiarity with 1990s culture that a visitor from the past wouldn't have. Though the latter would suggest his rather archaic mode of speech with Grace...' he adds, musing.
'I have a slightly different theory,' says Kris. 'Reuben Stokes / Stokely Rubens found some method of travelling between the past and the present - his future - possibly by means of the strange stone that Gino and Stuart have found, which seems like a prime candidate for being borrowed for SITU to see, though perhaps right now would not be the best time to do so.' [little does she know that her caution is already in vain - ed]
'Stokes / Rubens then wanted to communicate with his old friend Fulk, and bought two computers to do so - the computer that Fulk now possesses, and the one in the Manor House. It would seem likely that he has been in the present a few years, since the computers are by no means modern.
'So we can further hypothesize that the messages appearing on the Leighs' computer are a result of bad tuning; they picked up a message originally intended for Rubens in his Miracle Visitor persona because the transmission method had wandered a little off-station, to pick an analogy at random. Remember, the first message he sent is just addressed "to whom it may concern in futurity".'
'Continental movement since the 17th century,' opines Grace.
'Anyway,' continues Jeffrey undeterred, 'whether or not he's travelled in time before, he's certainly capable of time-travel now, because he disguised himself as the Miracle Visitor and took the computer back to Jeremiah. I say "disguise" because that's what it was - Stokely Rubens knew Jeremiah would otherwise recognize him as his neighbour Reuben Stokes! No wonder Jeremiah was impressed by how much the Visitor knew about him...
'It's quite clear that Rubens' plan all along has been to stir up hatred in Jeremiah against Reuben Stokes, but why? Now wait - that's interesting!' He stops suddenly, delighted with himself. 'If I'm right, Rubens couldn't have travelled in time from 1681 to 1998. He _lived_ that time - he's immortal. He exists both now, as Stokely Rubens, and in the past as Reuben Stokes.'
'Immortal? Isn't that a little far-fetched?' says Grace. 'Who wants to live forever?' She looks around hopefully, but as usual is met with stony silence.
Jeffrey thinks for a moment longer, then declares: 'Here's my theory, then. In 1681, Rubens Stokes is leading a quiet life in Hatfield Peverel. Maybe he knows he's immortal, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he _is_ a warlock. But whatever he is, he can't travel in time. That comes later. We don't know when he gained that ability - all we know it that in 1998 Stokely Rubens goes back in time to bring about his own death.
'Why would a man want to wipe himself out off the face of the earth? There's a terrible secret here, I'm certain.' A dizzying thought strikes him suddenly. 'If Jeremiah burns the Manor House down, not just Reuben Stokes will be killed - his baby son will die too. And that baby must be the ancestor of our "friend" Clive Stokes. Clive will wink out of existence. In fact, he'll never have existed at all!'
'Having Clive Stokes disappear might not be such a bad thing,' says Kris grimly. Jeffrey looks at her in surprise, but he is not as privy to SITU's thoughts on the subject as she.
'However, where is Ronnie?' continues Kris. 'Has she been kidnapped by Stokes / Rubens? If so, then burning the house down would likely kill her as well, which might not be seen as an entirely positive result.'
'Do you mean you think he's kidnapped her to the past?' asks Jeffrey. 'Surely if she's hidden somewhere in the present day, then killing Stokes in the past will just unkidnap her or something. I don't see how it would kill her, anyway.'
'If Fulk doesn't burn down the Manor House - and I don't have any ideas that might persuade him to stop -' says Kris, 'then Clive Stokes lives to thwart us another day, and we have to try to figure out how to persuade Fulk to come off the rampage, which could be somewhat tricky.'
'Well, we _must_ stop Jeremiah,' Jeffrey says, grimly. 'And that means we have to rescue Mrs Leigh...'
'One problem with my theory,' says Kris, 'is of course that the Miracle Visitor told Fulk that Stokes was a warlock. This makes things a little less clear. Perhaps Stuart's theory about an elaborate means to suicide starts to gain some credence.
'Moving on to the matter of the Babe. We should check local news to see if any children have been reported missing, and if any of them might have been described as "unclean". Three nipples, or something more obvious?' She shudders, perhaps recalling evil babes she has met in the past.
'So do you think the babe was kidnapped to the past as well?' wonders Jeffrey. 'We have Fulk's account that it was born to Stokes's wife in a perfectly ordinary way, don't we?'
'Perhaps Ronnie might have been... no, that doesn't quite work,' says Kris, not elaborating the rather horrid thought that has just flitted through her mind.
Grace has been sitting quietly all this time, but now she leans forward to speak. 'Here's another theory. Perhaps the mystery stone is what allows communication between the computers. Another theory is that it's not actually Fulk in the past who is communicating with the Leighs, but it is in fact Stokes / Rubens from the Manor House who is doing so, possibly by virtue of the modems that both have attached, even though there appears to be no suitable software installed.'
'But the phone wasn't in use on the nights when new messages appeared,' objects Kris.
'As for Ronnie, it's possible that Clive Stokes has taken her, rather than Stokes / Rubens. And there are of course the time paradox issues relating to the burning down of the house - what effect would that have on the present? In any case I guess this last message of Fulk's, showing him to be pretty well off the rails, was prompted by another message from Stokes / Rubens, or perhaps another visit with the makeup on.' Grace looks from one operative to the other, her eyes firm and level. 'I think that we should try to travel back in time ourselves to rescue Ronnie.'
Slightly later, Gino phones in on his mobile, and suggests that Clive Stokes should be tailed. 'Warlock that he is,' he adds cryptically.
It is decided that Kyle should be assigned to this task, as he seems to be recovering from the giant bender that has rendered him hors de combat for the last couple of days.
'We must mount a rescue mission with the utmost urgency,' says Jeffrey. 'Otherwise Mrs Leigh will be killed as soon as her kidnapper learns we are trying to dissuade Fulk. She is clearly not at the Manor House, or Gino and Stuart would have found her. Is she being held at the office of Jael Holdings in town?'
'Maybe,' says Grace. 'I saw Rubens heading off somewhere after the Historical Society meeting, which was just after Veronica is supposed to have disappeared - perhaps he was going to his hiding-place then? He wasn't going towards the station, anyway, so not London.'
'And where is Rubens, anyway?' asks Kris. 'He doesn't seem to have been back to the house since, except to send that message presumably.'
Stuart returns to Willow Farm, where Andrew Leigh is in a state of some perturbation. He has called the local police in on the case, and they are scouring the neighbourhood of Veronica's office looking for clues. Stuart is able to establish that she left work at the normal time, half past five, and appeared to be walking to the station - about ten minutes - as normal. Her walk would have taken her through Chelmsford town centre, and she could hardly have been abducted forcibly without someone noticing.
Stuart gets the impression that the police rather suspect she may have disappeared under her own steam, although this has not been made clear to Andrew.
Jeffrey turns up and attempts to comfort Andrew in his own inimitable way, with some limited success.
Stuart, leaving him to it, goes out in search of Clive Stokes. To his surprise, though, when he reaches the campsite at Norsey Farm, there is no sign of Stokes's tent. Not only that, there is no squashed patch of grass, or scorch mark from his fire.
'Perhaps he's already winked out of existence,' says Stuart worriedly to Kyle.
'How come?' demands the Scotsman. 'Gino's wee message tells Fulk _not_ to burn the house down.'
'Yes, but that hasn't been sent yet, remember - it won't go until night.' Stuart squints hard at the campsite, and almost fancies that with the sun behind him he can make out the faint, ghostly shape of a tent. 'What's changed since this morning, though?'
'You nicked that stone and book,' points out Kyle. 'If yon Grace's theory about the stone being needed for sending messages is true, Gino's note'll never get sent to Fulk.'
'I'm going to have a read of this book,' says Stuart firmly. 'We need to know everything we can before we do anything rash.' He pulls out book and stone.
Gino, lurking in the undergrowth near the Manor House, tenses as he sees Stokely Rubens strolling up along the road. He seems to be in a good mood, swinging his cane and whistling 'Greensleeves' as he surveys the blackened ruin of the house.
Wait a minute - blackened ruin? Gino peers anxiously about himself. It appears the Manor House is now firmly in ancient burnt-out shell mode.
Rubens wanders into one of the less devastated rooms and, fishing under a knot of ivy, pulls out the computer. He feels under the ivy again, and a look of rage and horror comes over his face as his hand comes up empty. Rather frantically he pulls the ivy back and starts to hunt vigorously but fruitlessly.
Gino, seizing the moment of distraction, springs on him and wraps the length of rope tightly round his neck.
Rubens, a rather smaller man, collapses to the ground under Gino's weight, but at once his whole surface becomes extremely hot to the touch, creating a small heat-haze. Gino is forced to recoil, and the rope swiftly smoulders and burns through where it is tight about Rubens's neck.
Rubens straightens up, dusting himself down. 'And what is your complaint with me, good sir?'
'You've kidnapped Mrs Leigh!' exclaims Gino aggrievedly.
'Indeed I have, Mr Ferrocco - for such I guess you to be - and, as I explained in my note, I shall release her unharmed provided that you refrain from interfering in my plan.'
'Your plan to have Fulk burn you to death in 1681?'
Rubens chuckles tolerantly. 'Oh, no, my dear fellow, that would be rather a sorry consequence. My house will burn, but not I - I shall not be there. Or rather, I shall not be _then_.'
'So you _are_ a time-travelling warlock!'
'One doesn't like to boast...'
Gino sits up. 'But why such an elaborate procedure?'
'Suffice it to say that I have my reasons. There are those to whom I wish it to appear that I have died. Enemies not just of mine, but of all humanity. This is the only means I have to protect myself, alone and accursed that I am... ah...' He gains a pensive look. 'But, sir, I forget myself. I believe you, or your cohorts, have an item of mine - a curiously-shaped black stone?'
'Maybe we do and maybe we don't,' says Gino cagily. 'Is it important?'
'Oh, no, not at all - a mere sentimental curio,' says Rubens lightly. But there is a tension about his lips.
"I am not some poor alchemist, new set up, with scarcely enough money to buy beechen coals for my furnace; over these years I have found and purchased all my instruments and substances, so that I have no need to rake some dunghill for a few dirty specimens. But neither have I anything to do with the chthonic magic of the past which sometimes secretes itself in caves and woods: those were times of witches and hags, dwarves and satyrs, conjurors and changelings, invoking the incubus, the spoor, the hell-wain, Boneless and other such bugs of the night and mist. Into what blind and gross errors in old time we were led..."
Stuart pages through Dr Dee's eminently readable account with some avidity. It tells of how the Elizabethan magus, aided by the medium Edward Kelley, had converse with a number of spirits who appeared to him from out of a stone, and revealed many wondrous things to him. The book is printed, but a well-formed energetic hand has annotated the margins heavily, mostly in Hebrew or Latin, but with occasional English interpolations. From the sense of these Stuart guesses that the writer, presumably Reuben Stokes, repeated and added to some of Dee's experimentia, using the stone in question, which he had managed to obtain.
This puzzles Stuart, because he knows that Dr Dee's stone is supposedly on exhibition in the British Museum's Tudor Gallery, and it is a milky crystal sphere.
One of the notes in particular is rather intriguing. It comes after a long note in Hebrew, in the margin of a page where Dee describes himself placating various angels and asking them for favours, and says "The angel Zimrael, guardian of the hours? What a power would _this_ be!"
Stuart pulls the black crystal from out of his pocket and turns it back and forth in his hands, marvelling at the unexpected flashes of light from its depths.
"Master Fulk,", writes Jeffrey, "I spoke you once before across the centuries, and then you called me an Angel of the Lord. I admit I succumbed to the sin of pride at your words, and at the great change in your life that I was able to bring about. But now I know only horror at when I hear what you have become. You call yourself a man of God, yet would take up arms against your neighbour Reuben Stokes. How can the mouth that lately spoke so piously now spit bitter words of murder - and murder of an innocent babe, at that! As Herod slaughtered the first-born, so would you kill this child!!
"Has this man Stokes ever raised his hand to you? Then why is he deserving of your wrath? Your Miracle Visitor speaks most persuasively, I know - as did the Serpent who plotted the Fall of our Race!! Would you, following Eve, taste that sour fruit of evil and corruption!?!
"Put down your tinderbox, Jeremiah Fulk. Step back and consider the import of what you are about to do. Then pray that God in his mercy forgives you!!"
He turns back to Grace, stood behind him. 'There we have it - if all goes as normal it will be sent tonight, together with Gino's exhortation. Or perhaps we should delete that? But we seem to be no nearer finding Mrs Leigh.'
'Are you starting to entertain doubts, Jeffrey?' asks Grace. 'Perhaps we should delete this message of yours as well, then, rather than risk Rubens carrying out his threat of killing her.'