The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
3.45pm, Thursday 27th August 1998
Eric calls over to the two plainclothes policemen, musing that their new York counterparts would be unlikely to afford a Jaguar. 'Excuse me - officers?'
The older man simply glares at him and stomps away, leaving the younger to hurry across. 'Sir?' He has a strong Newcastle accent.
'I was with Mrs Saunders when your colleagues arrived, and I was rather worried about her, and Professor Saunders, and about Mrs. Saunders particularly.'
The officer swallows. 'Er, yes, sir, I'm afraid there's been something of a tragedy. Professor Saunders is dead.'
'Dead!' exclaims Eric.
'Come on, Harris!' exclaims the senior officer from the doorway, still scowling at Eric.
'Just a minute, sir!' Harris grimaces apologetically at Eric. 'The old man - Chief Inspector Seymour - keen to be getting on with the investigation!'
'The circumstances were suspicious, then?' hazards Eric.
'Er, I really can't say any more about it at the moment, sir - you understand. The Chief Inspector will be making a statement in due course, I expect.'
'Well, can I at least look in on Mrs. Saunders later? Might your people call me at the Hawkwell House Hotel, and let me know when this dreadful business is finished.'
'Maybe, sir, I'll see what I can do. I can't say how long we'll be here. I'll try to see to it that you get called.' They exchange business cards.
'I am something of a friend of the family,' says Eric hopefully as he leaves, 'so I might be able to help you with some information possibly related to the case.' Harris merely nods as he scurries inside, joined by the police doctor who has emerged from the other car. Eric carefully notes down the license plates of both vehicles.
T.R. hesitates for a moment, uncertain which course to choose. Despite the fact that he joined SITU and despite his fellow operatives' stories of events at the conference so far, he is still basically a sceptic, willing to keep an open mind, but not much more than that. He knows he is supposed to be investigating the conference, but the political infighting surrounding the Rowney Commission is far more interesting to him at the moment than anything he's seen from the so-called psychics. The situation with Rohinder and Ned has possibilities, but T.R. is still not entirely sure the half-reputable journalist from the east coast is not exaggerating the situation. After all, Dr. Alnes checked out Ned's leg and found nothing physically wrong with him. Besides, T.R. is beginning to get a bit bored - he feels as if all he has done since his interview with Chambers is chase wild geese. At least the information regarding the Rowney Commission is real. And if he hurries, he should be able to get the information and still make it to his meeting with Marion on time.
He approaches the two journalists and holds out his hand. 'Hello, I'm T.R. Warren with the Phoenix Sun, out of Phoenix, Arizona. I couldn't help overhearing your conversation about Saunders and the Rowney Commission. I hope you don't mind me breaking in on your talk, but I'm investigating Saunders in connection with another matter. I wondered if you could tell me a bit about Saunders' disagreement with the Commission.' He pauses and looks at his watch. 'I have to meet with someone in a couple of minutes, but if you could give me a quick summary, that would be great.'
'Of course,' says one of the men, shaking his hand. 'Good to meet you T.R. - I'm Jed Barkley, BBC Radio. Don't often get people coming over from the States for the Farming Congress!'
The other man also shakes T.R.'s hand and introduces himself as Mark Woolton, of the European newspaper. They hand him their cards, and he makes a brief charade of having forgotten his own. 'It's a messy story! The Commission is looking into the impact of the new intensive farming practices on the environment, which are considerable of course. Sir Adrian Rowney, who heads it - he was appointed by the last government, of course, the Conservatives, as were all the members - he's seen as leaning towards the farming interests. Saunders is a bit of a maverick. He's no bleeding-heart environmentalist, that's for sure, but he's got some very clever economic models he likes to apply - called True Cost Assessment. The word is that his models showed that the economic costs of some of the new methods, when you take into account the environmental factors, are greater than the benefits they provide - and of course that isn't what old Rowney wanted to hear at all! Nor what these lads here in the audience wanted to hear. That's probably why Saunders stayed away today. The farming lobby's very powerful here, T.R., just like in your own country, and anyone who sticks his head up and speaks out against them better have his tin hat ready!'
T.R., making his excuses, thanks the two and then dashes of, jogging the half-mile distance to Beaufort College. On his way he is passed by a police car, then by a red Jaguar.
Taylor seizes her opportunity while Ulek is scrawling at the board, and sneaks out of the session. She clips on a fresh pair of earrings, and starts to search for people. In the coffee area she finds Martin Thane, hunched over a notepad, and Jackley pacing nearby, sucking hard on a cigar. 'Oh, Bernard? I really am so sorry about what happened this morning, disrupting the session like that...'
'Nonsense, dear, nonsense,' interrupts Jackley. 'Far from it - you've done us a great favour. That little incident will get something of a writeup even in the sceptical press, you see if it doesn't.'
Thane looks up interestedly at Taylor. 'So you're the young lady who blew poor Landesman's mind, eh? Won't you introduce us, Bernard?'
''You should be getting on with those notes, Martin,' says Jackley sternly. 'Oh, very well, then. Taylor Parker-Davis - Martin Thane. Martin's lecturing for us this afternoon.'
'Not lecturing - good Lord! I'm not some sort of professor, you know. Speaking,' says Thane firmly. 'Chatting.'
'We're a little busy now, but why don't you join us for a drink afterwards, Taylor?' inquires Jackley diffidently. 'If you're not otherwise engaged. Before dinner, I mean.'
Taylor assents gladly and, as she wanders off, she hears Thane make a rather ribald spluttering noise of amusement.
Belle-Marie has also wandered off, in search of Landesman, who she learns is being accommodated at Beaufort College. I'm not sure exactly how to approach this, she thinks to herself. I'll try the damsel in distress, and if that doesn't work I could try putting on the charm... damn, if only I looked more like Taylor, more glamorous, more sexy... damn. Landesman knows I'm pregnant, he won't find me attractive now... Still Daniel finds me sexy.... well he does at the moment, what will he think of me when I'm all fat, Daniel... I should tell him that I'm pregnant... I'd better go to the chemist and get a check kit first though. Then I'd better call him...
She stops at Boots and buys a Predictor kit, then makes her way into the college and is directed up to Landesman's room - the porter probably assuming she is a visiting student.
The man himself is in bed, wearing a scarlet dressing-gown with pictures of dragons on it, but he responds cheerfully enough to the sight of her. 'Do you know, you're the first to come and see how I am? As it happens I'm keeping very well, seem to be recovered now from that little escapade. But best to keep to bed to make sure, eh? And it's only poor old Ulek who I'm missing.'
After a few nervous pleasantries Belle-Marie perches on the end of the bed. 'So can you tell me, then, what is it you see when you look at people? This aura business.'
Landesman frowns. 'It's a bit difficult to describe, girl. Can you imagine trying to describe smell to someone with no nose? Or colour to someone who was colourblind? What it's like, is like an extra set of colours, I suppose, that you see around a person. They're there all the time, shifting and pulsating, when that person's thinking, speaking, or whatever. And if you get the experience, see, of the colours, of watching them, then you get to recognize things. Like yellow always means some kind of sickness, for example.'
'So what does mine look like, then?'
'Yours? Pretty good, m'dear. It's got a lot of blue inside it, which is inner strength - hidden reserves. It means that fate can keep on beating you round the head, but you'll always bounce back again. And right at the moment its shot through with these golden weaves of love, which you only get right when it's someone new. And deep inside there's a little knot of colours of its own, of red and orange, and that's the baby.'
Belle-Marie is agog, leaning forward clasping her knees. 'What about some of these other people? Mr Jackley, Professor Saunders, Dr Rohinder?'
'Well, Bernard has a very fine aura, mostly gold it is, which is his generosity and kindness. He's a real prince, that one. Anita's a funny old girl. She has a very pale, small aura, she keeps a lot of herself hidden. I'm suspecting she uses some sort of mental discipline for it, to keep from giving too much away about herself - she's a cagey one. I don't know who Professor Saunders is - not one of the speakers, is he? Doesn't ring a bell.'
After more such banter Belle-Marie guiltily remembers Daniel. 'Listen, Cosmo, I'd better be off now I'm afraid. You take good care of yourself, eh?'
'I'll be up and about in no time, surely. You drop by whenever you've a mind to, child.'
Sitting somewhere near the back of the lecture hall, Ned is slouched down so low only his Miami Marlins cap is showing. After his distressing encounter with Rohinder and her companion, Ned is feeling physically tired and his thoughts are a tangle of discouragement and agitation. The actions of Rohinder and her companion - and his physical reactions to the duo - simply cannot be explained away as he has the quackery-worshipping zealots and self-described psychics attending the conference.
He rises, stepping obliviously across his neighbours - who are few enough, the lecture hall is now only half full - and goes to seek out his niece, a fellow rationalist.
He finds her on the way back to the Bath Place herself, and fills her in on the events of the morning, telling Belle-Marie's and Taylor's tales.
Vera is briefly lost for words, but only briefly. Eventually she begins to smile, or perhaps it is a smirk. 'Let me get this straight. She says she falls for a guy named Daniel and they are persecuted by another of her suitors. Her unwanted suitor has a big ol' wet lake spirit at his disposal, but resorts to sleeping pills. Finally a giant snake rises from the lake and swallows her enemy. Noooo no no no Doctor Freud, no symbolism here!'
Ned laughs, 'Vera two days' worth of stuffy lectures haven't quelled your sharp-tongued spirit.'
'Go tell it to the Nykk,' Vera giggles.
'Taylor claims she was abducted by space aliens, evidence of which Landesman says he observed in the patterns of her "aura"', Ned continues.
'I agree,' Vera says straight faced.
Ned, looking surprised, says 'You must be joking! Everyone knows that all the major elements of abductees' stories can be traced back to those Buck Rogers comic strips back in the 1930s. You know as well as I do that 'abductees' are just people who are either delusional or simply fantasy-prone.'
'No! Seriously, okay, I think Taylor IS a space alien, those earrings are easily big enough to be radio telescopes.'
Ned smiles with relief. 'Vera, no more jokes, please. I'm planning on trying to use the opening Rohinder and her assistant have given me to get into their confidences and try to learn what they're planning to do tomorrow.' He looks to his left and right, and moving closer to his niece, he begins speaking in a soft voice. 'Frankly, those people are starting to scare me. The physical reactions I'm experiencing has me mystified and not a little bit worried.'
'So how's the stump... I mean your foot?'
Ned ignores the question. 'It has to be some kind of cheap parlour trick or suggestion that's affecting me. Dr Alnes has examined my leg and found nothing.'
'Good Lord, Ned, you must be scared. I haven't seen you eating any cookies since we began talking,' Vera exclaims.
At these words, Ned pulls out of a pocket a few animal crackers and begins eating them absent-mindedly. 'I am scared, Vera. I don't mind telling you that. But I can't let that stop me. I've got to find out what's behind Rohinder's experiment tomorrow.'
'No one trusts you to get behind them, Uncle.' Vera cackles.
'Vera, it's about time you grew up!' Ned glares at her briefly and moves away.
Vera, aware she is talking to no one at all, mumbles, 'It's too late for me now.'
Eric waits nervously in his room in the Hawkwell House for almost an hour, before the telephone rings. It is Detective Sergeant Harris. 'Er, Dr Alnes, there's a few questions I'd like to ask you about Professor and Mrs Saunders. How long have you known them?'
'Only a few days,' says Eric, 'but we have become quite close in that time.' It is true of Margaret, he reflects, and Michael is in no position to deny it.
'She's back at him now, you'll be pleased to hear. Perhaps you could tell me if you have any information that you think might help us find the killer.'
'It's homicide, then?'
'Yes - at first we weren't sure. The body was found drowned in the river, you see. But there's a contusion on the back of the head: must have been a blow, says the pathologist. There's a good deal of alcohol in the blood, too. Who can you think might have been an enemy of Professor Saunders?'
Harris's pen scratches busily on the other end of the line as Eric shares the information he has about Saunders being a candidate for Master of Beaufort, the rumour of a student mistress, and the disagreements with the Commission he was a part of.
Finally the detective says 'All right, Dr Alnes, thank you for your help - you do seem to be remarkably well-informed. I understand from Mrs Saunders that you know here rather better than her late husband, is that right? Good, well, can I ask you to keep yourself available for the next couple of days? We may need to ask you some more questions.'
Ned, feeding twenty-pence pieces into the callbox, is speaking to Sarah Vaughan, the proprietor of the Psychic Times. 'This conference represents the largest concentration of raw psychic power that's ever been seen! Ms Vaughan, if you've got a good reason to have exempted yourself and the Psychic Times from this event - a reason that could involve personal safety and/or psychic sanity - you owe it to your conscience and to the hundreds of attendees to tell me what you know!'
'Dear me, Mr Numenor, you do seem a trifle overwrought,' says Vaughan crisply. She has rather a grande dame manner. 'I can assure you that we would have very much liked to take part in the Congress. As you say, it is a most valuable gathering.'
'Then why did you pull out?' shrieks Ned.
'Simply that we were instructed to do so, Mr Numenor, by a body which we greatly respect. Being a foreigner, you could hardly be expected to understand the nature of the relationship.'
Ned bridles but retains his temper. 'Who is this body? What do they have to do with it?'
'They are known as the Emerald Tablet, Mr Numenor, and I assure you that very little transpires in occult circles in this country without their cognizance.'
Ned stares at the phone, his mouth full of questions, but Vaughan has hung up. When he tried the number again, it rings unanswered.
T.R. arrives at Beaufort to find all in tumult, with uniformed and plain-clothes police officers stalking about the place. He swiftly apprises himself of the situation: fortunately Marion Sochacki is happy to ascribe his lateness to the troubles. 'Can you imagine - poor old Michael's head bashed in! What a miserable end, eh?' She does not sound especially sad. 'That educated brain, smeared all over the cobblestones. Like the great Aeschylus, killed when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock, and dropped a tortoise on it.' She glances sharply at T.R. 'The author of the Oresteia, Mr Warren.'
'I had heard of him,' replies T.R. patiently. They are sitting in her room, which commands a good view of the Front Quad and the excitement there, drinking rather nice Amontillado sherry: Marion was reluctant to leave her vantage for a pub.
'Still, bound to happen sooner or later! Probably a jealous husband. He was a terrible philanderer, you know, Michael. One woman after another. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am, as you might say. Margaret's always put up with it - of course, she would be the one to lose out if the marriage ended. Feeble woman, no chance of getting a job or anything.'
'Was he the same when he was a student here?' tries T.R.
'Oh, I don't know about that, long before my time. I was at Cambridge, did I tell you? Much more civilized place. I've got no idea what he and his generation got up to when they were udnergraduates, much rather not find out, to be honest. But since I've been here, eight years now, he's been unstoppable, the disgusting old goat. Still, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, eh?'
'I heard something of his current interest - a girl called Claire?'
'Yes, one of his students, Claire Boothroyd. He was old enough to be her father! Bright girl by all accounts, but nothing very special to look at. Still, middle-aged men must take what they can get, eh?'
'I suppose this means that the race for the Master's job is wide open?'
Marion looks at him in surprise. 'Well, it's not as though, Saunders had been the shoo-in candidate, Mr Warren. I was putting up a good fight, I can tell you! I think I was marginally the favourite in the race. But now, yes, I dare say his passing will greatly ease my progression.' She claps a hand across her mouth dramatically. 'Gosh, mustn't say things like that, or the police'll think it was me!'
'Has the current Master done a good job? Where's he headed next?'
'Oh, Harrabin's kept things ticking over, safe pair of hands and all that. Not much imagination, but he's a real Establishment figure, old school tie and so on. They'll se the back of that when I take over! He's going to be given a peerage, I believe - Lord Harrabin of Burford, that sounds rather nice, doesn't it? - and probably set to chair some Royal Commission or other - that's the way these people look after their own.'
'Like the Commission that Saunders was on? I understand he had some trouble with them.'
'Oh, I don't know the details of that, but Adrian Rowney's one of the same type, Establishment through and through. Saunders wouldn't have got on with him at all. With all his faults, he was at least his own man.' She looks almost wistful.
Chief Inspector Seymour and Sergeant Lewis can be seen below, heading across the quad towards the foot of her staircase.
That's funny, should it be that purple colour? wonders Belle-Marie. Oh well, I guess it's near enough. She is not in any real doubt herself.
She picks up the bedside phone and dials the familiar number. 'Daniel? Some news for you...'
Martin Thane's talk has the audience in fits of laughter. He starts by apologising for his lack of preparation, but it is clear that he is a natural speaker. Rather than sticking to any particular brief or topic, let alone that suggested by the slot's intended title, he produces a long series of anecdotes each more amusing than the last. Even though they all concern people of whom Taylor has never heard, apart from Jackley who comes in for a few affectionate stories, she is in stitches.
The whole thing comes as a great relief from the tension and difficulty of the visit so far, and afterwards in the bar Thane continues to hold forth. Taylor makes a good audience and draws both he and Jackley out about their early days in the business. It takes a few drinks, though, before she raises the subject of student days.
It seems that Thane is several years older then Jackley: he had already been working at various other things before getting the job on the Oxford Mail which coincided with Jackley's student days. He himself studies at the London School of Economics. 'Heady days! 1968, and all that! We had a sit-down protest in the cafeteria one time, over the government's support of the Vietnam War. The police came and hosed us down - wouldn't get the youth of today standing up for something, like we did!'
It is getting towards the appointed hour for dinner, and Taylor is expecting Jackley to suggest a move, but instead he says 'Listen, Taylor, how would you like to join Martin and myself for a meal? I know an excellent Italian place on the Cowley Road - La Capannina, it's called. Luigi, who runs it, remembers me from when I was here before.'
'What, abandoning the flock, Bernard?' inquires Thane.
'Oh, I think they can look after themselves for an evening, don't you? I can't be expected to nursemaid them twenty-four hours a day. And Ian Williamson, the chap who's running the walking tour, can do it in his sleep, doesn't need my help. What d'you say?'
Just at that point Jackley's assistant Richard comes into the bar, looking around anxiously. He sees the group in the corner and dashes over, hair flopping madly. 'Bernard! Bernard! It's terrible - Professor Saunders - he's dead!'
'What/ Calm down, boy,' says Thane, slapping him on the back. 'You're babbling!'
Taylor looks across at Jackley, who is sitting very calmly, twisting his cigar slowly in his fingers, with the hint of a smile. 'How did it happen?' he asks.
'He's been murdered! Last night - after dinner - and we were all having such a good time! He went home with Mrs Saunders, and then he went out again late for a breath of air, and... someone killed him! Bashed his head in and threw him in the river!'
'Well, that's very sad,' says Jackley calmly. 'He was a very well-respected researcher in his field. But I don't think this need affect our dinner plans, do you, Taylor, Martin? Let's raise a glass of Luigi's fine Chianti to Michael's passing.'
All the team except Taylor meet briefly before dinner, to share information and discuss plans.
Ned is nervous to see that one of the number is absent. 'It's probably advisable for no one in the party to do much sleuthing alone, as things are beginning to move more quickly and members out alone might be in danger,' he suggests. 'I'd certainly like some back up nearby when I approach Rohinder's sidekick.'
'I know Taylor thinks they may be our best lead,' says Eric. 'But you should be very careful, certainly. Steven, it seems you have several possible points of investigation. Lloyd and Blyth to start with, and also the SITU operative named Blyth, who made friends with Kingston - can you find a record of any connection between the two Blyths?'
'I'm ahead of you there, Eric,' says Steven quietly. 'They're married. And, not only that, Edward Lloyd, the other name we have for Tehuti, is Isobel Blyth's guardian. I haven't been able to find out what happened to her parents - perhaps better ask her directly.'
'If we can trust her!' says Ned doubtfully. 'I dont know about you guys, but I'm starting to have severe doubts about SITU's operations. Steven, how would you like to perhaps begin discussing some strategies of dealing with these doubts, involving the Internet?'
'Sure,' says Steven amiably. 'What have you got in mind?'
'I'll get back to you,' mutters Ned darkly.
'Also,' continues Eric after a slight pause, 'the Saunders family in Norfolk and any information about crop circles there, the Rowney Commission on Agriculture and its current projects - including the matter of who makes the appointments to that commission, and how the appointing people might stand to benefit from appointing people with a particular point of view - who benefited from Michael Saunders' presence on that commission?'
'It seems to me that these appointments are made by the Government of the day, and a Royal Commission is usually set up to look into one particular issue,' says T.R. 'In this case it was the impact of intensive farming methods on the environment. They're due to report any day now. From what the reporters I spoke to said, though, Saunders had his own findings. It's not common, but not unheard-of, for one or more members to produce what's called a minority report, if they feel they can't sign up to the majority's conclusions.'
'And someone needs to check into Dirkheim's activities on the first evening,' says Eric, 'when Steven was almost locked into the lab. I have a suspicion that we might be able to catch him in a lie here, and that if we can he could be rattled by, say, Vera. For the moment, however, I want to sic Vera on Martin Thane, and have her wrest from him whatever it was that he was about to tell Ned when Jackley interrupted them.'
'Steven, you're ideally placed to spy on people at Beaufort at night,' says T.R., although something in his tone suggests a slight reservation. 'Eric, I guess if Margaret Saunders hasn't been arrested, you can carry on trying to gain her confidence. And Vera, why don't you go on the walking tour and see what happens - Belle-Marie, you might go along too?'
'A bit of fresh air might make me feel better,' agrees the Irish girl. She pinches at her waist disparagingly. 'Feels like I'm starting to put on weight already. And I'll carry on working on Landesman if people think it's worth it, although I'm not sure if he has much else to say, to be honest.'
'Then why don't some of the others of us meet up with Martin Keyes in the Turf Tavern - not to mention whoever suggested meeting there in the first place,' suggests Eric.
'I'm happy to meet him,' says Ned. 'if only to find out what was beneath the top drawer in his study!'
T.R. dashes off to meet with Jane Tate, the former student of his friend Robert Terrero, now working in Oxford. She has a small Citroen car, and as they drive out to Stanton Harcourt she confirms that she has recently returned from a disastrous dig at Giza. 'It was all going so well, until these fanatics turned up - some sort of crazy UFO cultists. And they put the locals' backs up, and all hell broke loose. There was a riot - riot! - more like a small-scale war, guys firing grenade launchers around. And the pyramid we were working on was completely destroyed. One chamber we'd mapped, one we were working on, and one we didn't even know existed - blown to bits, with all the Old Kingdom grave goods too.' She is almost in tears as she speaks of it. 'Poor dead Sonia - Professor Bird, my boss here - she's not been the same since. And my friend Harry Challis, who was with us, he's decided to give up archaeology - says it's too dangerous.'
'Did you have anything to do with an Isobelle Kingston, who was out there then? I've run across her in another context.'
Tate's face darkens. 'She was one of the cultist people - so irresponsible! We had really good relations with the locals, a guy called Abdel Essawi from the Ministry was making it all smooth. And we had some people come out from the Davina Millhouse Trust - you heard of it? - no, well, I must say I hadn't either, but they have pots of money, and they funded us for a new robot after one got lost. And then - all gone to waste. We've published everything we came out with, but it's just a tiny fraction of what was in there, what was destroyed.'
Jane slows the car, and indicates a small parade of shops. 'There you are - underneath that, the finest Bronze Age site in South Oxfordshire.'
They step out of the car, and she sketches out for him the oval shape of the barrow. 'Perhaps one day the shops'll fall down and we'll be able to dig again, but until then -' she shrugs.
On the way back to Oxford Jane explains that the discovery was made by workmen as they started the excavation of the new foundations. The dig was carried out by a Professor Charles Linton, who has since died. The remains were dated to the late 5th century AD. As far as she knows, no undergraduates were involved, it would have been mostly staff from the Institute of Local Archaeology and a few postgrads. The finds themselves were unremarkable: there was a particularly fine neck-piece called the Harcourt Jewel, set with turquoise, and a number of nice swords.
As they approach Oxford once more, she asks him about Robert Terrero's ill-fated last expedition. 'They were probably taken by guerrillas,' says T.R., 'like the Sever expedition in Guatemala in 1990. Have you heard any other ideas?'
'Well, I suppose there's the possibility of a cave-in trapping them, or something - but you'd think good working practices would make that unlikely. I do miss the old guy, though - he was a good friend to me, as well as a good professor.
'Me too,' agrees T.R.
There is a brief pause, as both reflect on their memories, then 'Where are we going for dinner?' asks Tate brightly.
Eric, Ned and an uncomfortable-looking Steven walk down to the Turf Tavern, a sprawling 12th-century pub set alongside the old city wall. 'Steven, if you think you'd be better off getting back onto the computers, please do,' says Eric.
Ned touches his arm. 'Look there.' Sitting in a corner together, around a battered wooden table, are Martin Keyes, Anita Rohinder, her fat sidekick (this time looking like a man) and two other people they do not recognize. Ned's leg gives a faint twinge of nervousness.