The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
10.30 pm, Wednesday 26th August 1998
Eric pitches his voice quite softly, intending that it carry no further than to the ear of his dining companion, Margaret Saunders, but with a tone designed to gently pull her attention away from her robust husband at the other end of the table who seems to be so blithely unaware of his wife. 'Your husband is a very impressive man, Mrs. Saunders. I can see that the students would respond to him. I gather that he is one of the dons here, with the Department of Zoology - I suppose he must have been busy with the farming conference going on here. What is his field of specialization, then: something to do with farm animals?'
Margaret blushes proudly. 'Yes, he is rather popular with the students - they like to be lectured by an authoritative figure, I think. At least, I did when I was one. But no, he's not at Zoology, he's at the Department of Plant Sciences. That's just across the road from Zoology, the modern, tall building, next to the School of Pathology. Michael holds the Wickford Chair in Land Economy. He's not actually a biologist, though, he's an economist. Of course he knows an awful lot about agricultural biology, he has to, modification of crop strains and so on... that sort of thing... but really he's an expert on the economics of farming, do you see?'
'Sounds fascinating,' says Eric politely. 'I wonder if you might be so kind as to introduce me to him, when we break up after dinner? I'm sure he's a very busy man, but...'
'I'd like that... I hope so,' replies Margaret Saunders, slightly doubtfully.
'Off so soon?' asks Gottfried Ulek politely.
'Yes, I'm sorry... it's my headache, you see,' says Belle-Marie quietly, not wishing to draw attention to herself as she rises from her seat. She has a worried look on her face.
'I have some paracetamol, if that will help?'
'Oh, thank you, that's very kind, but really I think I'd probably better just go and lay down for a while,' she replies, and slips out of the dining hall. As soon as she is out of the door she takes a deep breath, pressing her back against the cool stonework, and massages her temples gingerly.
Ned is famished and eats quickly through his meal without looking up or participating in the conversation going on around him. Finally, after the dessert course dishes are cleared away, he feels satisfied enough to look up and take note of those sitting nearby. To his left, he notices a small dark-haired woman, her shapely figure obvious to his surprised glance even when seated. His eyes widen slightly, and he is embarrassed as she looks at him and smiles. He realizes she's aware of her effect on him. 'Anita Rohinder,' she says, offering her hand. 'You must have been hungry.' She has a Midwestern accent.
'Mmmph,' Ned begins as he fumbles with his napkin and tries to swallow the last bit of pastry as he tries to introduce himself. 'I'm so looking forward to your demonstration on Friday, Doctor.'
'Anita, please,' she says, smiling.
Ned smiles back, feeling excitement and warmth. 'Could you tell me, um Anita, about your demonstration and experiment, and what results you hope to achieve?' Ned is aware of her close proximity. Could it have been her leg that just brushed his, he wonders. He looks up momentarily and notices an odd-looking, fat man seated directly across from Rohinder, giving him a very curious smile. Well, he hopes it was Rohinder's leg.
'I'm open-minded about it,' she says slowly. 'It may be that we'll see nothing at all. But I'd guess that with such a number of sensitives about - this is what I hope - we'll get some very significant results. You know, I guess, that Rhine cards are just analysed in statistical terms - the number of correct guesses achieved against the number that would have been guessed randomly, which is twenty per cent of course. Sensitives can get that score up past thirty, the best subjects. It wouldn't surprise me if we saw forty per cent or so on Friday.'
'Anita, tell me about your association with Bernard. Have you met him previously?' Ned's now sure that someone is touching his leg. The damn table linen makes it impossible for him to look without appearing grossly obvious. He looks at Rohinder for any clue, and notices a somewhat knowing, sardonic smile. He glances across the table and is surprised to see the expression matched exactly on the fat man's face.
'Not at all, actually. He contacted me earlier this year. I hear he's quite a big name over here in England, but I'd never heard of him.' She smiles again. 'He seems to be a sensible sort of guy. He'd read my work, which was a good start. And the Congress was sponsored by Psychic News, who are good people.'
'Rhine and his co-workers, Anita, how did they arrive at their insights. What influences, do you feel, were important in their work?'
'That's a very good question! I'm going to be talking about this a little in my lecture. You must remember that before the thirties, when Joseph Rhine started his work at Duke, there was no formal study of what we now call ESP. In fact, he coined the term. He and his wife, Louisa, were biologists initially. It was a series of anecdotes about apparent coincidences, suggesting psychic powers - two people thinking of the same thing at once - which pushed them to set up an experiment. You may remember the famous case of Upton Sinclair communicating images to his wife. The Rhines wanted to formalize the whole business.'
Thankfully, the meal is concluded and Ned takes the opportunity to stand quickly. His leg is beginning to tingle and he yet uncertain whose leg - indeed even if it was a leg - was touching his. Though the air temperature is cool, a drop of perspiration falls down his back. Rohinder and Ned begin walking toward the exit with the other guests. The odd fat man, who has still not introduced himself, walks quickly around the table to catch up, and walks closely behind Ned. The guests crowd toward the exits, slightly jostling one another.
Vera is getting ready to leave the dinner too, and notices Martin Keyes is continuing to hover nearby. She will deal with him later, she thinks to herself, striding away, only to realize as soon as she has moved away into the crowd that she has made a huge mistake in not setting up an appointment with Isobelle Kingston right away. She struggles back through the mingling people, who are clearly moving a little more slowly due to sherry, food and wine in abundance. For an instant Vera thinks she sees Kingston again, just one overfed attendee away, in the centre of the room... but then the quarry is gone, disappeared, as if by magic.
Keyes continues to circle near Vera, and now she is angry at having blown another opportunity. SITU won't even let her try to deconstruct a Casper the Ghost cartoon given her current performance. She determines to take her frustrations out on him. She circles to the cloakroom, which is quite empty of people, and after a little while she hears him follow her inside. 'I say? Miss Goodchild?' His voice is a little tremulous.
Only the keenest-eared of listeners, outside the cloakroom, would hear more than a faint, muffled shriek as Vera pins Keyes up against the wall, her hand over his mouth. His heels kick panickedly, his eyes wide with fear, as she stares at him. 'So, why am I supposed to care that you are an orphan, Mr. Keyes?' Vera asks.
As she releases his mouth, he whimpers slightly. 'Well, you know... you were saying about your parents dying... mine died too, that's all. I thought perhaps...'
'Perhaps what?' Vera cocks her head.
'Well, the way it happened. They said it was a car crash, but... they both knew how to drive, they were very good drivers. And they wouldn't have been drinking or anything. It was night, but it wasn't misty or anything. And they said the car hit a wall - just for no reason at all? Do you believe that? Would anyone?'
Vera sighs, slowly releasing him. What a waste of time. 'Listen - what do you know about Isobelle Kingston?'
Keyes readjusts his clothing with a show of defiance. 'She's a very good medium, that's for sure. She put me in touch with my parents. I'm sure she could do the same for you.'
'Are you sure it was them?' inquires Vera scpetically, as he walks towards the door of the cloakroom.
'Oh, yes. There was something they told me, that no-one else could have known - that they were both on their way to start new jobs when the 'accident' happened. With a company called Media / Internet Ventures.'
Vera is temporarily struck dumb as Keyes scurries off into the night.
'What's this story about Professor Saunders and the student Claire, then?' asks T.R. in an offhand way of his neighbours Marion and Andrew.
Andrew looks at him rather sniffily. 'I don't believe I know you, sir. Are you one of the psychic delegates?' He imbues the term with a good deal of disdain.
'I'm attending the congress, sure, but I'm a journalist - the paper sent me here. I don't actually believe any of that junk!' T.R. laughs quietly.
Andrew seems unconvinced, but Marion leans across him. 'Good for you! I dare say you'll be able to get some amusing copy from the antics of the true believers here. My name's Marion Sochacki, by the way. Tutor in English.'
'T.R. Warren, Phoenix Sun. It's all a bit petty, though, isn't it? University gossip is much more interesting,' says T.R.
'Well, you've come to the right place for that! Saunders knocking off one of his students - shocking! And the man wants to be the next Master, would you believe?' says Marion with some indignation.
'Is the current Master retiring, then? He seems still in his prime,' says T.R. diplomatically, guessing that Marion is about the same age - late forties perhaps.
'Oh, he's been given a job by the Government, heading up the Heritage Task Force - fancies himself a latter-day Pevsner, making catalogues of historic buildings,' she replies dismissively. 'But Saunders has the nerve to think he's got a chance of succeeding him.'
'What are the other candidates like, then?' asks T.R. 'Is it a vote among the Fellows, or something like that?'
'That's right,' says Marion, who then suddenly seems to clam up. 'None of this is for publication, you understand, Mr Warren? Off the record, or whatever it is you people say?'
'Of course, if that's how you wish it,' responds T.R. courteously.
As the group breaks up he hears Andrew hiss amusedly to Marion 'You nearly put your foot in it there, didn't you? 'Woman Candidate for Master of Beaufort Smears Rival with Sex Claims' - can't you just see the good burghers of Phoenix, wherever on Earth that is, reading that over their cornflakes tomorrow?' He collapses into giggles while Marion prods him fiercely in the ribs.
Taylor returns from the ladies', ornate silver-wire earrings now adorning her. She rejoins Jackley's side as he and the Master - whose name, she has established, is Roger Harrabin - amble towards the Senior Common Room. 'Will you join us, Miss Parker-Davis?' inquires Jackley politely. 'The bulk of the delegates are dispersing now, but I'm sure the Master won't mind - will you, Master?'
'Not at all, not at all,' replies the Master affably, smiling broadly at Taylor.
'You know, I have a few contacts in the media, back in the States,' says Taylor. 'It might be that I could help you out a little.'
'Really?' says Jackley enthusiastically. 'That would be a tremendous help...'
At this point Margaret Saunders and Eric hove into view. Michael has disappeared again, so Margaret has led Eric towards his second-choice target. The introductions are made, and Eric hands the Master a small slip of paper - a cheque. 'Simply an encouragement to the College to host more such affairs,' he says. 'And please keep me in mind if you should have any other needs.'
'Dr Alnes! This really is too generous,' says the Master in surprise. 'Forgive me - are you an alumnus? I don't remember the name...'
'Not at all,' says Eric modestly. 'It is simply that I wish to encourage links between academic bodies and the outside world, such as those provided by this Congress.'
'Well, most kind of you, sir, most kind.' The cheque disappears into an inner recess of the Master's academic gown.
Jackley has been watching all this in equal surprise, his eyebrows drawn well up on his bald head. 'A real white knight, eh? Congratulations, Dr Alnes, you won't find a worthier cause for your generosity than this famous institution.' There is perhaps a hint of irony in his tone, and the Master glances quickly at him.
'Well, Mr Jackley, I understand that there had been some trouble with the funding for this conference,' says Eric.
'Yes, indeed. We were in danger of cancellation at one point, until our own white knight stepped in.'
'If that ever happens again - I am hoping that this will be an annual affair? - I hope that you will contact me. Is there some difference between the way that this conference is being financed in comparison to most others - say, in comparison to the farming convention that seems to be going on here now?'
'Oh, that's Oxford for you,' says the Master, as the small group continues to walk through the corridors. 'There's always conferences of some sort going on. I believe that one's organized by the National Union of Farmers - that's not a trade union, you understand, more of an industry federation - and I imagine they fund it themselves. A very wealthy body. A congress like Mr Jackley's, organized primarily by one individual, is rather rare.'
'But worthwhile, I hope,' says Jackley.
They have now reached the Senior Common Room, an oak-panelled chamber lined with photographs. A black-clad College servant starts to dispense brandy into immense goblets.
'All these old students!' exclaims Taylor artlessly, admiring the 1st XI cricket team of 1908 in their straw boaters and blazers. 'Were any of you gentlemen students here?'
'I was,' says the Master proudly. 'Not quite as long ago as that, though! Here I am, look.' He leads Taylor towards a picture of the 1st VIII rowing team of 1974. 'That young fellow, would you credit it?' All the men in the picture have immense sideburns, and one - not the Master - an extravagant Afro.
'And Mr Jackley?' asks Eric.
'Oh, well,' says Jackley dismissively.
'Now you were here too, Bernard, don't try to conceal it,' says the Master. 'This absurd inverted snobbery of yours!'
'It's not that!' says Jackley, stung. 'It's simply that I don't make such a big deal of it, don't trade on having been at Oxford like you academics do. People - the people who watch me - don't expect a conjuror, or whatever, to have been to Beaufort College.' There is what sounds like bitterness in his voice. 'And it's not a set of experiences I care to remember particularly often.'
There is a brief awkward silence, broken by Taylor saying brightly 'This lovely tapestry! Is that real William Morris?'
'Yes, yes,' says the Master gratefully. 'He was at Exeter College of course, but many of the other colleges have pieces of his work - he seems to have spent more time here designing fabric than he did studying Classics!'
'Sensible fellow,' says Jackley, draining his glass. 'I'm off - thank you Master, Dr Alnes, Miss Parker-Davis. Good night.'
And with that he strides out of the room.
Taylor, chagrined, muses that she will have to set up another opportunity to gain Jackley's confidences. Perhaps the morrow will bring one.
Vera hurries out of the cloakroom, her skin flushed, glances around, and then stumbles across the path of Ned, who is walking with Rohinder and the unnamed fat man. Vera trips into Ned, knocking his baseball cap off with one flailing arm and exposing his thinning hair to the open air, probably for the first time in months, she thinks.
Ned glares at her, as she hands back the cap, tucked inside it a matchbook from the Bath Place Hotel on which she has scribbled her room number.
'Sorry, stranger - 'scuse me,' she slurs. 'You should try the scotch. It's wonderful.' She giggles. 'It'll put hair on your chest. So naturally, I had the sherry! Perhaps you should put a little of the scotch on your comb in the mornings!'
Ned, glancing around nervously, looks at Rohinder and sees her looking at Vera's receding back. Her expression seems neutral. She then looks at Ned, questioning. He merely shrugs and continues walking, as Vera staggers off into the darkness.
At their parting, Rohinder gives Ned a warm handshake, and hands him a slip of paper. Ned watches her walk away, feeling the cool evening breezes. For some reason, he thinks of his wife, as she walked out of their apartment and his life. That's a different life, he tells himself. He looks at the note, but can't read it in the low light. Ned pockets the note, thinking to read it later.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Steven has a brief moment of panic. Then, calming himself, he thinks Oh damn - the admin person didn't tell the custodian that I was going to be here! They really shouldn¹t power down the equipment that way though.
Gathering a little courage, he calls out, 'Hello, who is there? Hello...'
A man's voice, not one he recognizes, calls sharply 'What? What's that? Who's there?' He sounds alarmed, as though he was expecting the room to be empty.
'Er, I'm just working here - doing a bit of research. I spoke to your sysadmin guy - Keith something - he said it was OK?' Steven starts to feel his way towards the door, remembering the position of the furniture.
'Stay still!' The man's voice is definitely panicked.
'What? Why?' asks Steven in puzzlement.
The door suddenly slams shut, and there is the sound of fiddling with a large bunch of keys.
'Hey!' Steven starts to panic for real now, fearing he is about to be locked in. He moves as quickly as he can through the room in the dark, colliding painfully with a table and sending a waste-paper basket rolling across the lino.
There is a cry of 'Damn!' from outside, the man gives up fiddling with the keys, and a pair of footsteps run away down the corridor.
Steven, finally reaching the door and trying the handle in trepidation, finds that it is merely shut, not locked. Presumably his would-be imprisoner was unable to find the correct key in time - or did not possess it.
He pulls the door open, glancing quickly in both directions, but there is no sign of the other, and all is now silent. There are several doorways and stairwells into which he could have ducked, assuming he knows the college's geography better than Steven himself does.
Steven paces slowly along the corridor, considering the events, and notes that only one door has light coming from underneath it. The plate on it says 'Professor Michael Saunders'.
He gently tries the door, but it is locked, and no sound emerges from it.
T.R. waits as the delegates drift out of the hall, hoping that a group will form and build up the momentum to head out towards a pub to catch last orders. No such movement seems apparent, though, and he decides to take a stroll around the college instead.
He has not walked ten yards from the hall, into the Old Quadrangle, when he hears muttering voices. Michael and Margaret Saunders are standing close together in a corner, talking hushedly. T.R. endeavours to stand quietly, but Margaret somehow senses his presence and turns her head to look at him. Her face is very pale and there are faint tear streaks on it.
Michael, an expression of disgust on his face as he too turns to look at T.R., says 'Come on, dear. Let's head back home now. I think everything that's going to happen tonight has happened, don't you?' And arm in arm they walk past T.R. towards the porters' lodge and the street outside.
Ned has a curious feeling that he is being watched, as he looks down the street after Anita Rohinder. He walks quickly around the corner and dodges into one of the main administrative staircases. Hoping to find the files on Jackley that Marje Criss mentioned earlier, he rushes up the stairs and enters a corridor at random.
After the climb, his leg is aching more than a bit and he is beginning to worry. The corridor is dark. Is that the sound of someone climbing the stairs? Yes. Not the stairway he came up himself, but another, further away. There is the creak of floorboards.
Ned stumbles around in the dark, uncertain about where to turn as the corridor branches. He stops momentarily. Now there are definitely footsteps, approaching cautiously. He backs into a doorway, hardly daring to breathe.
'Oh, thank goodness, it's you,' says Steven relievedly. 'Did you see a guy go past here? He tried to lock me into the computer room.'
'I only just came up here myself,' admits Ned. 'Kind of spooky, isn't it?'
'You're right there,' says Steven firmly. 'Let's get back to the hotel. We can investigate some more in the morning.'
The two men stick close together as they descend the stairs.
Belle-Marie is back in her room, hunched up in bed, reading Bernard Jackley's Encylopedia of Ghosts and Spirits.
'... suddenly the curtains on Andrews's four-poster were pulled aside, and Andrews stared at the figure of Lord Lyttelton in front of him. Believing it to be one of Lyttelton's jokes to turn up in his nightclothes, Andrews threatened to throw something at him and picked up a slipper, at which the form finally said 'It's all over with me, Andrews' and disappeared. It was eleven o'clock, the time of Lyttelton's death at his home in Surrey.'
She shudders, not quite so sure that this is the ideal bed-time reading matter. There is a faint splash from the river, which flows close by underneath her window, and she shuts the book and puts it aside. I've got to try and be more careful, she thinks to herself. Eric must think I'm some sort of nut, the way I reacted to his comment about things rising from the deep. I just wish I could trust someone. Having someone that understands what I've been through might help... maybe when Steven gets back I can talk to him... he seems to be genuine enough.
'What's that?' Ned and Steven simultaneously grab each others' arms. There is a light moving around in the graveyard, flitting from headstone to headstone.
Then it is turned in their direction - the powerful beam of a mini-Maglite.
'Oh, it's you two,' says T.R.
'You could give someone a fright like that,' comments Ned, patting his baseball cap back down.
'There's three brothers called Pursley here, who all died the same year. 1815,' says T.R., pointing out one of the larger gravestones.
'That might have been the Battle of Waterloo,' says Steven mildly.
T.R. considers, then snaps off the torch. 'Maybe. Come on, let's head back. It's getting late.'
The next morning the sky is grey and the sun has to struggle to force its way through. Belle-Marie has a message from Daniel, in which he says he can add nothing to what the team already know about Jackley. One of the other names, though, that of Isobel Kingston, does push buttons. She has been involved with something called the Circles Phenomenon Research Group, which some of his contacts believe to be a front for an alien abductee group / cult. The CPRG was recently disbanded following the mental breakdown of its leader, a Dr Jonathan Sherwood.
She shares this knowledge with the team - minus Vera - in Eric's room over breakfast.
'I was able to research the Tehuti group a little, before the computers went down,' says Steven. 'They're not on the Register of Charitable Trusts, though, which is strange. They don't have a net presence themselves, but they're referred to in a couple of places.'
'Any of the same places that refer to the Alexandria Trust?' asks Eric.
'Yes, actually,' says Steven surprisedly.
Eric smiles to himself.
'What do you make of Margaret Saunders, Eric?' asks Taylor concernedly. 'She's clearly worried about something involving her husband; it seems likely it involves the Master and Jackley as well. I think you should do what you can to find out every detail from her - maybe play on your patriarchal look and manner to offer to help, or even just to be a friendly, non-threatening person she can talk to.'
'I shall do my best,' says Eric, steepling his fingers and leaning back in his chair.
After breakfast, most of the team head towards the Zoology Department once more, although Ned and T.R. are off researching.
T.R. walks across town to the Ashmolean Museum, which he knows to have an excellent Egyptian collection, particularly strong in the 25th and 26th Dynasties. He is able to establish quickly that 'Tehuti' is the Greek version of the name of the Egyptian god Thoth, the patron of learning, scribes, and ibises, and the judge of the dead.
Asking around at the museum, he finds that there is currently no university society with interests in Egyptology or related mysticism. There have been at various points in the past, the wizard Aleister Crowley having been a prominent member of an Egyptological mountain-climbing group during his student days, but not in recent years.
Ned meanwhile is in the Alumni Office at Beaufort College. He finds that the current Master Roger Harrabin, Bernard Jackley, Michael Saunders and Margaret Saunders (then named Roding: the marriage took place a year after she graduated) were all students at the college, between 1972 and 1975. Jackley was a year behind the other three. He read Physics, Harrabin Classics, and Saunders and Roding both read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It seems that Jackley did not complete his degree: at least, there is no record of a final grade.
Like most of the colleges, Beaufort does not specialize in any particular subject, offering all of the mainstream ones. It is particularly well thought of for Economics and for Geography. It is one of the few colleges that offers Materials Science as a degree course. It has 421 students, 107 of whom are postgraduates, and 37 Fellows - a fairly average-sized college.
Putting his hand in his pocket, Ned finds the note Dr Rohinder gave him last night, which he had forgotten. He hastily unfolds it. It has on it three symbols: a plus sign, a circle and a five-pointed star.
Vera, after breakfast in bed, has pulled on her usual jeans and t-shirt and headed off early to the lecture theatre. She meets Isobelle Kingston outside, and suggests that they find some secluded place to meet at 10 am.
'My room at the Randolph Hotel, dear? It's rather nice,' suggests Isobelle. 'I'll need you to prepare yourself. You'll have to try and get in the right frame of mind, dear, and have ready a list of questions you want to ask them - it sometimes helps to write them down, because these things can just go from your head when the moment comes. They'll have things they want to tell you, of course, most probably, but you should have in mind what to ask them as well.'
'And I'll treat you to lunch afterwards - no, I insist,' says Vera firmly.
'Are you sure you're all right, child?' asks Cosmo Landesman concernedly as he and Belle-Marie queue up together to enter the first lecture of the day. 'You look quite ill, did you know?'
'I'm not feeling too special, as a matter of fact,' admits Belle-Marie, who is very queasy. 'I'm a bit nervous, you see.'
'What - about the aura reading? Why, there's nothing to it, girl. It won't be just you, there'll be loads of you. And I'm sure there's nothing too bad to see, is there? If there is, I'll keep quiet about it, trust me.' He grins at her. 'And you can back out of it if you like, I'll do you privately later if that's what you'd prefer.'
'I might take you up on that,' says Belle-Marie subduedly. 'How did Jackley come to invite you here? Do you know much about him?'
'Oh, yes, him and me go back a few years now. He had me on his TV show once, that was the first of it. Fine fellow - always happy to give a leg up to those less successful than himself.'
Down at the front, Mary Gration, a tall, thin woman with short blonde hair and a forbidding air, is busily inscribing a series of symbols onto the overhead projector.
'How are we going to handle this?' Steven asks, glancing warily at the rather off-putting presentation. 'Do we all need to sit through this stuff?'