The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Haunting of Hatfield Peverel
7.15 am, Sunday 15th March 1998
'I'm off to Chelmsford,' says Gino. 'I'm going to search around where I found Veronica - see if there's any clues to Rubens's hideout.'
With that he strides off into the village.
The remainder of the team look alarmedly at Fulk's message.
'The only thing we can do is to go back in time to save Jeremiah - and maybe even stop Reuben Stokes discovering the secret of time travel in the first place,' says Jeffrey firmly. 'It seems that time travel is definitely one of those things that Man (and Woman) Was Not Meant To Know.'
Meanwhile, Jeffrey has drawn Stuart, who is still nursing his injuries, aside. He was looking for Grace as well, but she is nowhere to be found. 'Stuart, I'm pretty certain that it was Gino, not Stokely Rubens, who mugged you disguised as the Miracle Visitor.'
'Are you sure?' asks Stuart doubtfully. 'Why would he do that?' Now he comes to think of it, though, the way the 'Visitor' jumped on him was rather reminiscent of the way Gino ha done in the past - and he seemed rather bigger and more bulky than the slight Rubens.
'Rubens would have been caught by the Paraquat in the face paint, would he? I've no idea why Gino would do such a thing, but I don't want to confront him without evidence - so will you help me search his things?' Jeffrey is distinctly embarrassed to make such a request, and temporarily turns his eyes heavenward in prayer for forgiveness. 'Kris said a week ago that she didn't entirely trust him - how I wish I'd listened!'
'No problem,' says Stuart enthusiastically, a vengeful light gleaming in his eye.
It turns out that what Jeffrey means is for Stuart to break into Gino's room at the guesthouse and do the actual searching, while he stands outside looking guilty. Richie Wardens and Vicki Drew, of _Crop_Circle_Quarterly_, greet him cheerily on their way out, but he is too on edge to do more than smile weakly in return.
Stuart returns after about ten minutes looking puzzled. 'I found this,' he brandishes a tub of silver face paint, 'but no stone.'
'He must have hidden it somewhere, then,' says Jeffrey grimly. 'Let's see if we can find him and get him to confess to his wrongdoing...'
Grace and Kris, making sure that they are not being followed by any of the other operatives, walk down to the post office and send a fax to SITU, containing the instructions needed to use the stone. Then they head to the Manor House to talk with Stokely Rubens.
They find him in the blackened ruins, looking pleased with himself, cleaning off his hands on a patch of long grass.
Kris and Grace note that the house seems now absolutely solid in its ruined state.
'How may I aid you good ladies?' asks Rubens pleasantly. 'On this finest of mornings?'
Considering what's happened to him lately, he's remarkably chirpy, thinks Kris to herself. And there is a strange smell, of camphor and cinnamon, hanging about him.
'Mr Rubens, we're here to offer you help - protection from your enemies,' says Grace levelly. 'We represent an organization which can make sure they are unable to harm you. And we have a way of preventing the doom falling upon you which Pettigrew's journal pages reveal.'
'Ah! As to that, my dear well-wishers, I fancy I have the matter in hand. No burned shade I!' He laughs heartily. 'But protection... yes, the more the better. I have been offered the hand of one benefactor, but in truth I misdoubt it somewhat - could the barbarous shepherd folk of Sicilia truly have risen to any power in the world? But I digress. Your offer interests me - I had suspected that such bodies must exist, to oppose the conspiracy of those who would enslave humanity. And well might they do to seek the aid of one such as myself, for - without that false modesty which is the bane of all plain dealing - I would be an asset to your people. So - what is your proposal?'
'So you know about the conspiracy?' asks Kris, intrigued. 'Do you know -' she glances about herself once more '- that it's just a small number of individuals? And the name that they go by?'
'The name, no, save that the one who dwells in these shores is called The Watcher. But in every offer, from those wise in the ways of the world as I perceive you to be, ladies, there is the _quid_pro_quo_ - what do you seek in return for this protection?'
'We need to travel back in time,' says Grace, feeling rather foolish. 'To sort things out. Both what will happen to you, and what will happen to Fulk. But we need the black stone of John Dee to do it.'
'Indeed you do. Well, ladies, I have it, and I will release it to you. Do you wish me to cast the spell for you, to converse with great Zimrael on your behalf?'
There is something about his smile that Kris does not like. 'No thank you, we'll do it ourselves.' A thought strikes her. 'Will we have to take the stone into the past with us?'
At that Rubens erupts into laughter. 'Most perspicacious, my dear new friend! This is a consideration that is oft overlooked by those new to travelling between the ages! You do indeed - if you wish ever to return to your own time!'
He laughs long and loud, reaching down to pick up the stone where it lies concealed in the grass at his feet, and tossing it casually to Grace. His laughter continues as the two operatives back away.
Walking down the drive, Kris says to Grace 'Did you see what _else_ was lying in the grass at his feet?'
'Yes,' says Grace. Her mouth is set. 'A dead black cat. Its throat cut. And recently, I should think.'
She holds the stone up for Kris to inspect. There is fresh blood on its upper surface.
Jeffrey and Stuart eventually give up on finding Gino, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth, and return to meet with the remainder of the team. Stuart pronounces himself nervously confident of being able to cast the spell - he has friends in Southampton who are Wiccans, and how difficult can it be? - and Jeffrey busies himself gathering together a collection of items with which to impress the natives.
Stuart instructs everyone to gather in the back garden of Willow Farm. Harold Marsh, cutting the hedge that stands between his house and the Leighs', snorts in disgust at the sight of them, especially when Jeffrey hauls his motorbike round to join them. 'It might be handy in a getaway,' he explains.
'Er, it says we have to make a sacrifice now,' says Stuart. 'An animal would do - or something precious.'
'I saw a dog out in the street,' says Kyle hopefully. He falls silent at the selection of looks he is given.
'There's nothing else for it,' says Jeffrey. 'It'll have to be my most prized possession.' From his pannier he produces his treasured Kenny Rogers costume - all rhinestones, fringed leather and silver spandex. 'I shall miss it, but... we're saving a man's soul here, and a young life!'
He solemnly lays the costume down in the centre of the circle the six operatives form, and Stuart places the black stone, its facets glinting warningly in the spring sunlight, on top. He then pulls out his cigarette lighter and sets flame to the edge of the jacket.
The costume roars up in flames more quickly than Jeffrey would have thought safe, considering the number of times he has worn it around candles. A cloud of roiling, rubbery black smoke issues forth.
'Oi! You young hooligans!' shouts Harold Marsh in annoyance, as the smoke drifts across towards his washing-line.
Stuart, ignoring him, instructs the team to link hands around the fire. He starts to chant, in a language Grace recognizes and the others guess as Hebrew.
Perhaps it is something in the way the wind has stilled, but the pall of black smoke hangs heavy over the circle of operatives. Kris chokes faintly, but the fumes seem not to be damaging: they do grow ever thicker, though, until each operative finds him or herself shrouded in odorous darkness, the only contact with the outside world via a damp, shaky hand to either side. Marsh's imprecations die away, and the only sound, apart from the heavy pulse of a slow heartbeat, is Stuart's voice, sounding curiously hollow and weighty, each syllable falling like a block of marble.
After what seems like an aeon, the voice stops. Far in the distance, there is a chiming - it seems to come from all directions at once. Is the chiming words? It is impossible to say. If so, its inflections are not those any human could comprehend.
The black fog starts slowly to dissipate, leaving behind the aroma of camphor and cinnamon. Gradually, sensation returns, starting with the feel of the grass the operatives are sitting on.
The air is warm, much warmer than it was before the spell started, and the sun, as it starts to pierce the drifting smoke, is surely far lower towards the west.
Grace is the first to gain control of her muscles, and look about. As the last shreds of smoke drift away, she sees that they are still sat in the garden of Willow Farm, a hawthorn hedge separating it from the neighbouring cottage, but Harold Marsh and his washing-line have gone. Across the stream can be seen the Manor House, pristine and intact. The woods which run down from it to the stream seem thinner than they should be. A crow wheels in the sky overhead, cawing: it is high summer, late in the day.
In the middle of the circle of operatives lies the black stone of John Dee, its facets still glinting with mystery.
Kris rubs her eyes, turning towards the house: its facade is very similar, black beams with white plaster and finely leaded windows, but she can see the ceiling beams of the kitchen no longer have hanging from them the Leighs' collection of stainless steel saucepans.
The church clock strikes the half hour.
One by one, the operatives stand, stretching their curiously aching limbs. Stuart pockets the black stone.
The back door of the house opens, with a creak. In it stands a man, looking out at the team. He is dressed in a long black frock-coat, with a grubby white linen shirt underneath, knee-britches, and high boots with silver buckles. His long, bony hands are stained with ink, as is his chin. His hair is grey, long and wild, trailing about his clean-shaven face in the light breeze. His eyes are open wide with amazement, and his mouth hangs loosely.
He and the team regard each other blankly, until Jeffrey seizes the initiative. He strides forward, his black clerical weeds looking far from our of place. 'Jeremiah Fulk? May the blessings of the Lord be on you, my son. We come to you from Futurity!' He makes a gesture of benediction.
Fulk - for it is indeed he - closes his mouth abruptly, then opens it again. He steps forward, then back into the doorway, and makes a beckoning motion with his hand, examining the remainder of the team's curious garb. 'Can... can this be true?' His accent is unfamiliar, but not all that different from the way that the wild village folk of East Anglia speak even in the late twentieth century.
'See!' says Jeffrey commandingly. From his pocket he pulls out a Tamagotchi toy. Tapping randomly on its keys, he shows the cyberpet to Fulk.
Fulk's eyes slowly light up with wonder as the Tamagotchi defecates on one corner of its screen. 'Truly, these are marvels beyond the power of dreaming! "Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!" Ye'd better enter, ere my neighbours catch sight of these marvellously strange accoutrements.' He beckons them into the kitchen more forcefully. 'And best cage that diabolic-seeming steed - if such it be - in the stables.' He points warily at the motorcycle.
'...and so the Miracle Visitor is in fact your neighbour, Reuben Stokes,' finishes Jeffrey, who has just laid out the entire scheme of things to the bemused Fulk.
He has been able to establish, much to his relief, that Fulk is not as close to suicide as his last note suggested. 'In truth, when I penned that missive to ye all - "penned"! - how inadequate a word, for these words that wing themselves down the ages! - I was in a most desperate state of mind. But a draught of laudanum sent me to sleep, and morning brought sanity - for indeed self-murther would be a sin most grave. But the temptation was fierce indeed.'
Kris, sipping at the extremely rough ale which is the only beverage Fulk has been able to provide, keeps finding her gaze being drawn to the musket which hangs above the fireplace. Its barrel is very long, and it has an efficient, capable air about it. She reaches down to pat, for reassurance, the two large jerrycans of petrol she has brought.
'But why would neighbour Stokes wish to maze me so?' wonders Fulk. 'What his advantage? Why should he wish his fine house burnt to the ground? Would not he perish, and his new babe?'
'We believe that he will be away at the time,' says Grace. 'But his wish is to appear dead, so that he can cover his tracks.'
'Then who are these enemies dire that he would flee? Rival warlocks? - for such I must now admit he surely is, having the power to command angels and travel the ages.'
Darkness has now gathered outside, and Fulk busies himself about the pot of odd-smelling stew that hangs over the fireplace. 'Will any of you break bread with me, or do you beings of the future sup on more rarefied substances - perchance that ambrosia of which the Romans spoke?'
'Sounds like a kind of tinned custard,' mutters Kyle to himself.
'So, then, what to do? I lack wits, or so said my old tutors at Peterhouse - does my college stand still? - but I cannot yet see where lies the right in this matter. If Stokes is a warlock, should I serve his desires and burn his house, or frustrate them by not doing so? And should I seek to kill him, as he himself seemed to suggest - would that aid him, or not? In plain fact, I have thought of simply laying the whole matter before Master Hopkins, whom I believe is a reasonable man, and letting him be the judge - my only fear is that he may think me complicit in witchery for not declaring earlier. No doubt I should also inform him of your arrival - I feel sure he would relish the chance to speak with ye about how witches are burned in the coming times.'
'You must wrestle with your own conscience, Jeremiah,...' starts Jeffrey, and then there is a knock at the door.
Fulk, panicking, shoos the team out of the back door, whispering 'Hide yourselves! Ye must not be seen!' There is another knock, and he dashes back into the house. As the operatives scurry in darkness to the end of the garden they hear him say 'Ah! Reverend Pettigrew!'
From his vantage Stuart sees Fulk and another, smaller man, dressed as a Puritan minister, come into the kitchen and sit at the table. Fulk starts to ladle out stew into two bowls.
'It looks like we'll be here for some time,' says Grace resignedly.
'How fascinating it would be to speak with him...' muses Jeffrey.
'Let's scout out the Manor House, then,' says Stuart. 'We may yet need to burn it down ourselves.'
Splashing through the stream and up into the woods, the operatives advance on the Manor House, Stuart in the lead. There are a number of lit windows in the house: it looks as though Reuben Stokes is currently in occupation.
As he approaches its rear, though, he sees a human form skulking behind a laurel bush.
Stuart silently advances behind the figure, and with an explosion of energy leaps on it, bearing it to the ground with a thud. Jeffrey, running up, turns on his electric torch and reveals the face of Gino. It is difficult to say who is the more surprised.
Stuart releases Gino, who sits up, dusting himself off, as the others approach. It is notable that at his feet are two jerrycans of petrol, identical to Kris's. Clearly the local garage did good business.
Jeffrey, keeping the torch beam on Gino's face, says sternly 'Is there anything you want to tell us, Gino?'