The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
6.45 pm, Thursday 27th August 1998
T.R. smiles and shrugs. 'I overheard a few of the folks at the ICIP talking about a place called the Turf Tavern. Is that any good?'
'Oh, yes!' says Jane Tate enthusiastically. 'It's really cool - they have these braziers burning, and it's all surrounded by the ancient city walls! - the food's nothing to write home about, but the beer's something else!' Without further ado she directs the nose of her Citroen towards Longwall Street. There is a flash of lightning, a crack of thunder, and the heavens open. 'They've got these big awnings, too... thank goodness!'
Taylor smiles back at Bernard Jackley, though a little more tentatively than usual, and says, 'I'd love to, Bernard...just give me a moment to call my hotel for messages?'
As Jackley and Thane nod avuncularly, she scurries to a telephone, calls the hotel and leaves messages for T.R. and Eric, mentioning where she is going to dinner and with whom. She also learns that Eric, Steven and Ned are on their way to the Turf. There is no sign of Vera, and Belle-Marie is still in her room.
'It's just a short ride,' says Jackley, and indeed before long the taxi is depositing the three outside La Capannina, a pleasant establishment whose outside has been coated with split logs to resemble the Alpine cabin from which it takes its name. He generously spreads his raincoat across Taylor's head as they dash to the door.
'Mr Jackley! Mr Thane! Madam!' cries Luigi, a bonhomous middle-aged Italian gentleman, in delight. He ushers the three to a secluded table, covered in a cheery red-and-white check tablecloth, with a huge dripping candle in its centre. While Taylor peruses the menu Jackley and Thane, in what sounds like fluent restaurant Italian, order a vast array of antipasti and three bottles of assorted wine. By the time Taylor is ready she finds that Jackley has already ordered for her, and they are now talking (in English, thankfully) about Luigi's family, most of whom also work in the restaurant: his younger daughter, though, is about to start a degree in Biochemistry at the University of Bath.
'A toast,' says Jackley solemnly. 'To Professor Michael Saunders - may he rest in peace, the poor devil.'
All three drink, and then Thane says 'And here's to those of us that survive - long may it remain so, eh?' The sombre mood at once lightens.
Vera is rapidly losing interest in the ICIP sessions. She is convinced Keyes and Kingston can help her. But Kingston probably thinks Vera is just another interested amateur, and Keyes... Vera is convinced Keyes is in danger. Somehow it was just too easy to send him looking in a drawer.
She returns to the Bath Place hotel, showers, as best she can with the Heath-Robinson device provided, leaves her hair down and tries on the dress again. The sales lady was right; diamond earrings, and black heels. She adds the wide chain belt, the crucifix, puts the blackjack in her evening bag. The dagger just doesn't fit. She picks up the iron poker from the suite's fireplace, but it won't work as an ornament. She smiles into the mirror and, with apparently minimal exertion, bends the poker into a gentle curve.
'I'll have to explain that at check out.' She goes down, arranges for one more night at the Bath Place, and leaves for the evening's festivities by cab, its wheel splashing through the puddles.
Steven whispers to Ned and Eric, 'You two go talk to them. I will get a drink and watch from the bar. If it looks like things are OK I'll go back to the computer lab. Meet me there when you are done.' With that he melts into the circle of drinkers around the bar.
Eric speaks up brightly. 'Ah, Dr Rohinder - I recognize you from the congress,' he says, stepping toward the table. 'I'm Eric Alnes. Mr Numenor here told us that there was a group of us meeting here before the walking tour. Of course, if this is a private gathering, I wouldn't want to interrupt.'
Ned, also smiling sunnily, shakes hands with all at the table. The two strangers are introduced as Henry Blyth and Edward Lloyd: both are middle-aged Englishmen in blazer and old college tie, and speak very properly. Rohinder's strange companion is introduced just with 'And this is Gulo, whom you have met already, I believe.' Gulo smiles enigmatically.
The general atmosphere is friendly, as Ned bustles to order drinks for all. Eric perches expectantly, upright on his bench, waiting for one of the others to say what the meeting is about. Keyes looks distinctly nervous and fingers his lip.
Rohinder looks at Lloyd, the elder of the two newcomers, and eventually he speaks. 'Dr Alnes - Mr Numenor. I trust you will forgive the slight subterfuge necessary in arranging this meeting.' Keyes blushes. 'My companions and I -' he gestures to include all of the others '- represent an organization of which you may have heard. We wish to make friendly contact with the organization of which you are, we believe, members.'
Ned blinks, alarmed. Do these people know about SITU? Eric moves smoothly into the conversational gap. 'Please speak more clearly, sir. This congress represents a great gathering not only of power but of esoteric learning. That body of knowledge has been approached by scores of cultures and traditions in different ways, and the cause of its advancement is ill served by insisting that we all discuss it in the same language, framed with the same nuances and connotations.'
'Old habits die hard,' smiles Lloyd. 'I admire your frankness, Dr Alnes. Of course, it is one matter to request openness from others, another to provide it oneself - eh?' His dark eyes bore into Eric, and for a moment the elderly doctor is frightened - Lloyd has tremendous command in his gaze. It is as if he knows Eric's innermost secrets - but how can that be? He has felt so exposed on only one occasion before. The noise of conversation around takes on a distant, muffled tone, and the lights seem to dim.
Then Lloyd smiles, and the mood is broken. 'But we need have no such secrets from each other now - after all, we both seek help, do we not? My companions and I represent a body called The Trismegistus Club - whom you may have come across in one or more of our guises. Tehuti, the Alexandria Foundation, Hermetic Elect, the Emerald Tablet, the Sons of Mary - all are faces for the one body. We are the ancient tradition of English magery and alchymy. And you are members of the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained, are you not? Your group and ours have the same enemies, Dr Alnes, Mr Numenor, and so it is now that we reveal ourselves to you.'
Eric blinks slowly, trying to take all this in. He has sufficient background in matters occult to realize that the names Lloyd has given all refer to events or persons in the mythic history of alchemy. But can there really be an order of alchemists operating today? And very wealthy, by the sounds of what they have achieved. 'You will have to excuse my confusion... this is all rather sudden.'
Ned, meanwhile is baffled and frustrated in equal measure. 'Those SITU varmints! I knew they were holding out on us! Mr Lloyd, you'll have to accept that we're both very junior - we haven't even been told that we have an enemy.'
'Oh, you do,' says Blyth, in a light, pleasant voice. 'You most certainly do. We all do. An ancient enemy of all humanity. We have stood against it for centuries. Now you come to join us. We should share our knowledge and stand all the stronger together.'
Steven, over by the bar, sees that all seems to be amicable at the table. His colleagues can probably manage without him. He finishes his single malt and his pasty, and heads off back towards Beaufort. As he leaves, T.R. and Jane are entering, Jane leading T.R. eagerly towards the bar, where she starts to extol the virtues of several of the ales on offer. 'I'd never drunk this weird dark beer before I came over here, but I've really been getting into it!'
T.R. sees the small group over in the corner, all sitting very still. It does not look like trouble, but nonetheless he takes Jane to sit so that he can observe the scene over her shoulder.
'What my colleague says is true,' Eric says quietly. 'The lower ranks of SITU are kept uninformed as to the organization's nature - we have to earn knowledge.'
'Not a bad precept,' nods Lloyd. 'In that case it might be as well for you to allow us to contact your superiors.'
'Er, we'll have to discuss amongst ourselves how best to do that,' says Ned hastily. 'But what exactly are you all - Anita? - doing here, at the ICIP, right now?'
'I think we can reveal our hand here, as a gesture of good faith, hmm?' Blyth looks at Lloyd and Rohinder for assent.
'It's very simple,' says Rohinder. 'The mass card trial is as I've described it to you. We anticipate a huge efflux of psychic energy. These gentlemen have sponsored a good deal of my research, as they do many other valuable things, and they ensured that they would have control over the Congress's operations by moving Psychic Times out o the way and stepping in themselves. During the experiment a set of cards will be - I guess 'charged' is the right word - and will become powerful tools that we can use against our enemy.' She smiles, an unusual sight on her rather strict features. 'Mr Numenor, Ned, you'll have to forgive Gulo's antics. We suspected that you were from a mystic group, but we didn't know who, or which side you represented. We had to test you out. Your leg'll be fine now, believe me.'
Ned reflexively reached down to rub his thigh, which does indeed seem free of pain at the moment.
'So where do you fit in, Martin?' Eric asks Keyes, with a grandfatherly expression.
'Oh... I'm an Apprentice in the Club,' says the young man embarrassedly, glancing at Lloyd and Blyth, of whom he seems to be rather in awe. 'I was here just attending, like I said, but I overheard your niece, Mr Numenor, talking about her parents, and that tied in with some things I knew, so I phoned back to London...'
'He did very well,' says Lloyd. 'His report together with Dr Rohinder's convinced us to investigate you all further.'
'Us all?' inquires Ned ingenuously.
'Yourselves, Miss Goodchild, Mr Smith and Miss Parker-Davis,' says Blyth heavily. 'Your whole group.'
While Eric and Ned digest this, Rohinder rises from the table, shortly followed by Gulo. 'It's time we were getting back. I suggest you gentlemen sleep on the offer, or discuss it with your fellows - whatever.'
'Yes, thank you for your time,' says Lloyd. He and Blyth shake Ned's and Eric's hands once more, and also rise. 'Here's a number on which you can reach me - any time of day.'
And with that, all four leave.
Martin Keyes makes nervous motions, but Eric lays a soothing hand on his arm. 'Martin, just one more question - what was underneath the study drawer?'
Keyes laughs with relief. 'Oh - that! It was good luck, actually - all Mum and Dad's old Premium Bond certificates. One thousand pounds of unclaimed prizes!'
Steven takes up his usual seat in the computer lab, greeting Keith, who is eagerly reading a Web site about a wonderful new play-by-email game called Inferno, recently launched by an innovative Oxford firm. He fires up Turnpike and types the following email:
Subject: Investigation of ICIP and Tehuti
Sent: 08/27/98 19:32 BST
To: Isobel Blyth, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Ms. Blyth,
I am a SITU operative currently investigating the International Congress for Investigation into Psychism (ICIP) in Oxford. ICIP is the brainchild of Bernard Jackley, and was originally supported by Psychic Times magazine which withdrew its support at the request of an organization called the Emerald Tablet. An organization called Tehuti stepped in and funded the congress. My investigation of Tehuti has only been able to discover the names of two people Mr. Henry Blyth and Mr. Edward Lloyd, whom I believe to be your husband and guardian. Any information you or they can provide on Tehuti and its funding of the congress or the Emerald Tablet for that matter, would be most appreciated.
I understand that you were a SITU operative in an investigation earlier this year in Egypt and met Isobelle Kingston who just happens to be attending the congress. Any information concerning her would also be useful – I have seen the report on the Egypt operation and know of her connection to the CPRG.
I have included the program for the congress; If you recognize any of the names of the program participants any information would be of help.
<the full ICIP programme of events is included at this point>
Thank You Sincerely,
Steven Smith, SITU Operative
As the three operatives leave the Turf, Eric is in instructional mood. He rapidly fills in T.R. - who has walked ajen back to her car and then returned, she looking a trifle disappointed to have the evening end so abruptly - on what he and Ned have learnt. 'Checking into Adrian Rowney is probably a red herring,' he says, 'but we'll never know until we try. I'll suggest it to Steven. And someone - T.R., you're probably best - should try to talk to Claire Boothroyd about Michael Saunders.'
T.R. is not quite sure why Eric has picked him out for this peculiarly delicate task, but nods agreeably, rainwater cascading from his shoulders.
'And you should also explore possibilities about cooperating with Barkley and Woolton on any leads into Saunders' murder. They might know something about the reputation of the detectives on the case, and that might be useful information too. Then, you might look into the Harcourt Jewel and the associated swords. If objects sometimes have auras, perhaps they should be shown to Landesman; or perhaps Madame Kingston could do a reading on them. I have a hunch that those swords and the burial are significant; Arthur and his knights lie buried somewhere, awaiting their recall when England needs them.' Eric glances at his companions meaningly, but after what they have heard tonight, they are disinclined to write any theory off as daft. 'And we have a group with no English operatives for this investigation!'
'Vera's mother was English,' Ned says absently. He is still marvelling at his cured leg. He doesn't really see his niece as Guinevere. Morgan le Fay, perhaps.
'And, Ned,' continues Eric, 'I think you, and perhaps Vera as well, should go to Isobelle Kingston and have her do a reading on you as quickly as possible. We do not know whom to fear, nor what their plans, but we have to assume that they involve harnessing the power inherent in this congress, so it must be tomorrow, if not sooner, that they will strike. Before that happens, we must know what they mean to do, and how, and how to stop them. I am sure of it!' His voice has taken on a deep, bell-like tone.
Ned and T.R. stare at him alarmedly.
'Oh, she's very bright, Anita,' says Jackley in response to Taylor's question. She sips gently at her wine as he takes another swig of his own. 'A genius, really. She's applied scientific method to what you might call 'the occult' - really rigorously. The orthodox scientific community can't find any fault in her methods, no matter how hard they try.'
'Pretty rare in our field,' confides Thane. 'She's a good advertisement. I'll be writing up this big experiment of hers tomorrow, that's for sure.'
'This Congress has been such a wonderful success!' says Taylor enthusiastically. 'Are there going to be more?'
'Well, I hope so, dear,' says Jackley, absent-mindedly caressing the back of her hand. 'If the people who funded us this time are pleased, I suppose they'll be prepared to do it again. And, really, there's nothing they could complain about - as you say, it's all gone rather smoothly until now. No disasters.'
'Apart from poor old Mike Saunders, eh?' says Thane rather sharply.
Jackley winces and looks deflated, taking his hand away from Taylor. 'All right, Martin, all right. I'm not going to pretend I'm shedding tears for him, no more than you are.'
'Have you been to see Margaret yet?'
'No, not yet. I was thinking about going tomorrow.'
'Hmph! Well, I don't suppose she'll have had much time for social calls yet. I heard the police took her in briefly.'
Jackley looks wretched. 'We're boring Taylor, Martin. She's not interested in this ancient history. Why don't I get the bill, and we can move on, eh?' He smiles, brightly but rather emptily, and leaves the table.
'What was all that about?' Taylor asks Thane, slightly hesitantly.
It is immediately clear, though, that he is bursting to tell her. 'Well, my dear, Saunders, the professor who died, was a student together with Bernard and Margaret, who's now Saunders's wife. Now his widow, I suppose I should say. But back then she and Bernard were something of an item, as we used to say.'
'Really?' Taylor's eyes are wide and innocent.
'Yes indeed! Saunders took her away from Bernard, I understand. I wasn't here myself, you understand - I was working nearby, and I only knew Bernard vaguely - but there was a scandal. This was back in the early 70s, of course, and attitudes here were rather different. Very old-fashioned, I dare say you'd think it now, but Margaret fell pregnant. I don't know precisely what happened, but there was some sort of big scene between the three of them, and Margaret went away to get rid of the baby, and Bernard was sent down - expelled from the university, that is. Then Saunders and Margaret married, the next year, and Bernard was off starting to establish his career.'
'That's fascinating!' breathes Taylor, but Jackley has returned to the table.
'Well, time to get along, I suppose. Martin, I daresay you'll be wanting to get some sleep, eh? And Taylor, can I tempt you to a nightcap back at Beaufort?'
'That sounds absolutely delightful,' says Taylor, looking up at him meltingly.
As the dinner in Beaufort breaks up and people start to gather for the tour, Vera encounters Isobelle Kingston. Kingston seems to be busily talking to one of the catering staff, so Vera approaches behind her. Grasping Kingston's arm tight enough to cut off the circulation and force her attention, she whispers in her ear, 'SITU is here.' She releases the pressure, smiles and says somewhat louder, 'I'm so pleased I'm among friends like you.'
Kingston looks confused then blurts out, 'We must chat later, dear. During the tour.'
Vera thinks to herself, 'friends': well, what's one more lie more or less.
Belle-Marie is feeling sick again after the stodgy meal, and is relieved to find Landesman appear and take her arm. 'How's my cherub today?'
'Oh, not so very bad Cosmo, so. How's yourself?'
'I'm fine, thanks. Wouldn't miss this tour for the world!'
Vera feels an arm around her waist, and turns to find it belongs to Mary Gration. She glares at the academic. Gration just smiles and whispers, 'I'm going to try and find you during the tour, or maybe afterwards!' Then she moves away quickly.
'I'm going to need a dance card for this tour,' Vera mumbles out loud while leaning up against a pillar.
A man in a bow tie, balding with a few wisps of hair combed straight across, wearing thick glasses, glances at her in surprise, before moving to the front of the hall. 'Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name's Ian Williamson, and I'm your guide for this tour.' His voice is thin.
There is a ripple of mild applause from the two dozen or so hardy souls who are prepared to brave the downpour.
'Now if you'd all like to follow me, we'll set off. I'm sorry about the weather, but you can't always have everything just right, can you?'
As the procession moves off, rapidly becoming bedraggled, Belle-Marie sees, parked just outside the college, a red Jaguar. It is empty.
Steven has spent some time searching the Web, but the only references to the Emerald Tablet he can find are to a legendary book of that name. Attributed to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, 'Thrice-great Hermes', the aspect of Hermes identified with the Egyptian god Thoth or Tehuti, it is supposed to have been produced in ancient Alexandria and to contain the essential divine wisdom and foundations of alchemy and all other hermetic lores. No text exists, of course, and there are a number of ill-constructed guesses as to its contents, which have the garish wallpaper so dishearteningly prevalent on fan sites.
Keith has left by now, and Steven is alone in the room. From along the corridor, though, he hears a sharp clicking noise, which distracts his attention, and he raises his head warily, remembering his unpleasant experience of the previous night. The noise is not repeated, and he returns his attention to the screen.
T.R. meanwhile has insinuated himself into the college's inner sancta as before, and is prowling around the top corridor near to Steven's position. He too hears the click, from Martin Dirkheim's office, across the corridor from Michael Saunders's. As he peers round the corner, he sees a figure entering the office - presumably the click was the door unlocking.
T.R. steals along the corridor towards the office, which is still in darkness, and presses himself against the wall, hardly daring to breathe. He can hear two muffled voices. Both are male, and strange to him.
'... so this is the place, eh? You and Saunders. Messy bugger, wasn't he?' A bluff voice, affecting casualness.
'He was a very careful worker, actually.' This voice is very strained.
'Not so careful as he should have been. I've seen those results now, remember - complete and utter bollocks. You and I know that. Eh, Martin?'
'Look, you've had your bloody pound of flesh, you vulture. Just take the manuscript and get out, for Christ's sake. Haven't you done me enough harm already?'
'Harm? Martin, aren't you forgetting? I'm your dear friend, remember? It was me who kept that little... incident quiet for you, back in Ambridge. The police would have been very interested to hear who the man that girl described was. It's a good thng you were playing chess with me up at the farm, isn't it?'
'Look, Brian, just fuck off, all right? Fuck off! You've got what you came for! You've got the poor bugger's minority report! For God's sake, aren't you happy yet? You fucking vulture!'
Steven, two doors down the corridor, can hear the sound of raised voices now, and rises cautiously to his feet. He peers out into the corridor, and is surprised to see T.R. listening at Dirkheim's door.
T.R. frantically waves Steven back, a finger to his lips.
There is a sudden silence inside the room. Then: 'What was that? I think I heard something,' says Martin.
'Don't be such a coward, man. If you can't face up to the consequences of your own actions by now, it doesn't say much for you! Well, I'm off now, anyway. I've got the manuscript - you're sure this is the only copy? Well, in a few hours it'll be destroyed, and that'll be that for the late great Professor Saunders's wonderful opinions about farming economics. Think of it as your civic duty, Martin, you've assisted in the disposal of some deeply flawed research!' His voice is cruelly sarcastic.
'Helped you bastards to carry on raping the land you mean! Well, look, just clear off, all right? And I'm never going to hear from you again, OK? You don't even know I exist.'
'Unless any of this Saunders material sees the light of day in some other form... because then I might just remember the strip of negatives tucked inside the Royal Wedding mug back on the mantelpiece, eh?' Laughter.
T.R. dodges aside as the door starts to open, and hides in another embrasure along the way. From the office emerge two men - one he guesses to be Martin Dirkheim, a flustered fellow with a tear-streaked face, the other he does not know but he appears a well-set, burly chap, in his forties probably, wearing a Barbour jacket and thick corduroy trousers, carrying a bound document under his arm.
With a final whistle, the second man strolls off down the corridor. Dirkheim shudders, locks the door behind him, and starts to walk the other way.
T.R. is momentarily torn as to whom to follow, but his decision is made for him.
From the shadows at the end of the corridor steps the form of Detective Sergeant Harris. 'Going somewhere, were we, sir?' he inquires of the second man.
The man curses and spins round. Dirkheim shrieks and starts to flee, but from another patch of shadows steps the burly Chief Inspector Seymour, his eyes glinting like coals under his tousled grey hair. He takes Dirkheim firmly by the arm. 'Not just yet, sir,' The 'sir' is accented very sarcastically. 'We have a few questions we'd like to ask you.'
T.R., who is between the two policemen, tries to melt into the wall, but it seems they are aware of his presence. 'And perhaps our American friend would like to emerge now, and explain himself?'
'I'm a journalist,' says T.R. calmly, stepping into the light. 'I'm investigating the circumstances of Michael Saunders's death.'
'Yes, well, so are we, sir, and I'm afraid you're going to have to join these two gentlemen in accompanying us down to the police station to answer a few questions. About your own role in the events of the past couple of days.' Seymour's tone is extremely ominous.
Steven, still skulking in the computer room, is unsure whether to reveal himself or not.
Eric meanwhile has set off back to Iffley, to call on Margaret Saunders. He finds the big square house in darkness, and has to ring for some time, staring up at the dead-eyed windows, before he obtains a response.
Margaret looks terrible - like a zombie, is Eric's first instinctive thought. She stares at him, hollow-cheeked and gaunt, without recognition. She is wearing a black evening dress and has tied a black ribbon loosely into her hair, from where it trickles over one shoulder.
'Margaret? Might I come in out of the rain?'
'Oh! Doctor. Yes, of course, please. I'm sorry, it's...' She beckons him into the parlour once more.
Eric sits down, and makes sure that both have a glass of brandy to hand. 'Margaret, I want you to tell me about your husband.'
'Michael? He's dead, Doctor. Hadn't you heard?' She gestures fitfully.
'About him, Bernard Jackley, Roger Harrabin... when you were students.'
'Oh, Doctor, it was a long time ago. We were all such good friends, you know. Look -' she grabs up a photograph. 'Here we all are. This was Eights Week, my first year. Goodness, don't the boys look handsome?' She smiles fondly, passing the photograph across: it depicts the four people mentioned, against a backdrop of river, sharing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. They do indeed look rather handsome, if you can forgive the deplorable sideburns. Margaret looks rather nervous and very young, but all seem happy and generally carefree.
Eric, sighing, returns the picture. 'Very nice. So you were all good friends, then? Why did Jackley leave Oxford?'
'Oh, Doctor, we've talked about this before. He wasn't very academic, Bernard. Much better off where he ended up - he's made a great success of his life, you see. So did Michael and Roger, of course. As for me...' she looks a little downcast '... it wasn't really for women to have brilliant careers, at least that's what we thought then. Women had their success in the home, providing a good home for their menfolk.'
'And children, of course,' says Eric casually.
'Yes. And children.' Margaret's hand tightens about her glass, and there is an embarrassing pause until she says brightly 'Well, anyway, enough ancient history, eh? You must think me a silly woman, Doctor Alnes.'
'Not at all,' says Eric. 'I was most interested by what you had to say about your early interest in the occult, when we first met.'
'Oh, yes! I told you about the Roman ghost, that offered me the spear and the bunch of rods - fasces, they're called, I remember now. Like with Mussolini.'
'Fasces, yes,' says Eric. 'Interestingly, I was once offered a similar choice myself, I think.' He sips his brandy.
'Really!' Margaret is agog, and leans forward, elbows on her knees. 'How extraordinary! By a ghost?'
'No... at least, not strictly a ghost. A spirit, perhaps.' He shudders slightly. 'Something more than human. And I was offered the spear or the chalice.'
'Which did you choose?'
'The chalice. Yourself?'
'I couldn't decide, I must say. I didn't think either was really for me. He was probably expecting someone else. I'd have preferred a nice chalice.' She giggles, incongruously. The room feels very cold. 'I'm sorry, I forgot to put the heating on. You wouldn't think you'd need it in August, would you?'
Eric puts his fingers together. 'Margaret, this may sound strange, but your husband's death - have you considered the possibility that it might just be some sort of sacrifice or other ritual in connection with some cultist's scheme, whether mad or coldly sane?'
'What on earth do you mean?' She stares at him in horror.
Eric spreads his hands. 'There are people in the world with strange beliefs, you know that as well as I. Could such a group have seized upon your husband as a victim?'
'Doctor, that really does sound quite extraordinary. If you want to know what I think, I don't believe Michael was killed at all. He probably bashed his head on a branch, or on the concrete kerb, and fell into the river unconscious.'
As the crowd assembles to begin the tour, Vera hangs back. Now she can not see Gration, or Kingston, so much for being in demand.
Belle-Marie clings to Landesman, who is describing in a spooky deep voice the miasmic swirling of the city's grey aura as it is riven by stroke after stroke of lightning. Fortunately, he has a large golfing umbrella, which goes some way to keeping them both from the worst of the rain.
Vera keeps hanging farther and farther back, and as the tour progresses along St Aldates's street to the Folly Bridge, Ian Williamson pointing out the hall where the medieval monk and mystic Roger Bacon used to live, her attention is caught by an antiques shop. The window displays a great deal of solid silver and silver-plated serving ware. Vera stops to stare, even though the shop is long closed.
'... and the men from Cambridge scurried back home, saying to each other "If the Oxford gatekeeper is so learned, just think what the scholars must be like!"' There is polite laughter, receding into the distance, muffled by the noise of car tyres in rain.
Suddenly, Vera realizes she has no idea where she is or where the group has gone. The potential hazards of her amateur sleuthing crash to the front of her mind when she hears footsteps on the sidewalk behind her, and a voice say quietly. 'Vera...'
She spins round, but no one is there. The voice is neither male nor female, and she does not recognize it. Vera starts to walk again, and the footsteps begin again. She stops. They stop.
Vera, her senses heightened and adrenalin coursing through her system, regains her thoughts and barks, 'Good Evening.' Is it a laugh she hears, or just a rumble of thunder?
Vera extracts the homemade black jack from her purse and tries to listen for other sounds that might indicate the safety of more people, but there is no obvious sign of safety nearby. Swallowing, she realizes her best hope is to catch up with the group, and she breaks into a run. Her heels are fairly high, and they make enough noise to wake the dead even without the aid of Isobelle's bloody voodoo.
After passing around several more buildings that look identical in the darkness and across several streets, Vera reads a sign that tells her she has reached the outside of Jesus College. It is an oddly shaped building surrounded by lawn, which muffles the sounds of her footsteps. Her heels dig into the soil and, desperate by now, she kicks the shoes off. She is thoroughly drenched and panicky.
She cuts round two corners of the college and presses her back up against the wall, begging her panting to quiet and her heart to still so she can listen. The familiar footfall that was behind her on the streets and sidewalks now also is treading across the grass more slowly, obviously uncertain where Vera might have gone. She inches down the wall a couple of feet to give her room to manoeuvre, and readies the blackjack.
The footsteps reach the corner and pause and, taking a deep breath, Vera whirls around the wall and lashes out at throat height with her blackjack.
The blow smacks solidly into the old limestone wall. There is no-one there. A flash of lightning reveals her own pale, ghostly face, reflected in a window, and at her feet, in the long grass, a large black cat, its eyes greenly looking up at her. It is standing exactly where the footsteps were.
Vera bends to pick it up, but it hisses and strikes swiftly out with one claw, scratching her hand. Before she can grab it, it darts off into the long grass.
There is another rumble of thunder as Vera straightens, glancing about her: she has wandered into the college graveyard. She sways, suddenly light-headed, and stumbles towards the gateway back onto the street.
'Well, here we are, home sweet home,' says Jackley, glancing at Taylor slightly nervously. They are in his suite at Beaufort, two large rooms panelled in dark wood, with dreadfully uneven floors and gigantic furniture. Taylor feels like an extra in 'Land of the Giants'. As Jackley pours out two generous helpings of crême de cassis, topping them up with white wine to make kir, his hands shake. Taylor realizes that as well as being rather drunk he is not completely confident of his seductive powers, which she finds rather touching.
'So - to us!' He hands her a glass.
'To us!' agrees Taylor, and she reclines on the chaise longue in an alluring pose.
[Discreet GM draws a veil over what next transpires, but by eleven Jackley is snoringly asleep, and Taylor is gazing ruminatively out at the storm-swept college.]
Vera stumbles around two corners, bumping into the walls. As well as being drenches, she is now scratched, bruised and muddy. Finally she sees the tour party, thirty yards ahead of her. She realizes, rather vacantly, that she has forgotten her shoes.
Belle-Marie and Landesman are near Williamson and look at Vera anxiously as she approaches, Landesman wincing, but she has seen Isobelle Kingston somewhat alone to one side, and approaches her. 'You won't believe what just happened to me,' Vera whispers.
Isobelle turns to look at her, but her eyes are wide black holes and Vera hears that voice again, chilling her to the bone. Kingston may have been an ally, but the spirit speaking through her is not. 'Vera Goodchild, you are a dead woman walking. Your soul is forfeit to a dark power.'
Underneath it Vera can faintly hear her parents' voices, angrily demanding release and to be heard. Off to one side, she is vaguely aware of Landesman shrieking like a stuck pig.