The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" asks Culver, casting his eyes speculatively over the countenances of his companions.
"Well, let's not jump to conclusions." John Stone peers up at the darkened windows. "Maybe he's gone on holiday." The group exchange glances. "Granted, it may be a rather permanent kind of holiday where the nightlife is rather dead." There is a pause.
"Hell," says Culver, breaking the silence. "There's no good way to justify breaking and entering but we all know that's what we're going to do, right?"
"I agree," Isobel murmurs. "I'm not sure that I approve of breaking in, but I can see that we need to make sure that Hendleby's alright."
"I'll go take a look round the back," offers John Stone. "May find an open window or unlocked door. Otherwise I think this might be a job for Mickey or Side-step, both seem capable of getting into locked houses."
"Any volunteers to go fetch the wrecking crew?" asks Culver.
Isobel confers quickly with Celestina, then volunteers.
Celestina nods. "OK, then Isobel, you go to the gallery and fetch Mickey. Or even Steven, if he can bring himself to listen to a woman." She gives an impish smile. "We'll wait here."
"Good. The rest of us can 'loiter with intent.'"
Hendleby's house is the last in a line of terrace residences. Walking around the corner, John Stone notes that the house appears to back onto a small yard or garden. This is surrounded by a dun, wooden fence some seven feet high. There is a small wooden door through the fence, but this is secured with a padlock.
Waiting near Hendleby's house, Celestina catches Culver's eye and smiles.
"You mentioned a rather unpleasant encounter with my loa, Baron Samedi," she says. "And he protected our group on our last mission, physically I mean, rather than some spurious claim of spiritual guidance. I'd be interested to know what happened to you! And I hope the Baron has forgotten about it, he may instruct me to put toad venom ju-ju bags under your pillows!" She lets her wide, shapely mouth ease into a smile.
Culver responds with good humour to the light-hearted threat. Celestina learns that in their last mission, Culver, Twitchin and Side-step, accompanied by Benedict Riggs and another SITU colleague, John Henry, found themselves found themselves in opposition to an organisation following a distorted form of voodoo. At one point, the group had been attacked by an individual who to all appearances was being 'ridden' by Baron Samedi. However, in this case, the 'possessed' individual did not only change in demeanour, but also manifested powers of terrifying proportions.
Noticing Side-step lost in thought as he regards one of the pictures, Mickey leans over to him.
"Do you find the artist's use of light and colour particularly intriguing?" he asks, feigning a posh accent. Failing to win more than a trace of smile from his companion, Mickey gives a slight shrug, and continues to look around the gallery, occasionally making a mental note of the prices of each painting. He notes that some of the larger canvases, which are sized about five foot by seven in size, are priced as high as £300. Most of the paintings are rather smaller, about two foot by three, and are priced between £50 and £100. There are also a handful of even smaller pictures, less than a foot square, which are mostly priced at £30. There are also a number of posters, postcards and T-shirts upon which are printed designs from some of the paintings.
Wotan Andrew Weiser decides to make a more thorough search of the gallery, and ventures into some of the other rooms. Other artists' works can be found exhibited in smaller side-rooms. One holds a selection of monochrome pictures of the harbour, built up from a fine clustering of letters, numbers and other typed characters. These are apparently the handiwork of Peri Lee, the founder of a new 'artist's circle' in Whitby. Another side room contains a number of rather striking photographs of seascapes at sunrise. The silhouette of the abbey is visible in some. A small card on the wall describes these as the work of Raymond Hawkes, another local figure.
Andrew even glances quickly through a door marked 'Staff Only.' However, he is rewarded only with the sight of a range of filing cabinets, and the bald crown of an elderly gentleman bowed over a series of leaflets, which he is inserting into brown envelopes. Behind the man's head, a poster on the wall advertises a theatrical production called 'Out for the Count.' Below the title, a crossed stake and mallet are depicted.
Andrew pulls back his head before the man at the desk can notice him.
Professor Twitchin makes his way to the side of Side-step. Ostensibly, Side-step is gazing in the direction of a smaller watercolour of a young woman who is reaching from the waves, perhaps drowning and calling for succour, perhaps beckoning siren-like. However he is yawning, and his attention has clearly wandered.
"Not really my cup of tea, this art stuff," remarks Twitchin conversationally. "Can't really see the point of it. Not compared to a crisply timed cover-drive." He mimes a small cricketing motion, while Side-step stares at him in incomprehension. Twitchin clears his throat and changes the subject. "Anyway, if this surfeit of the 'monstrous regiment of women' is bothering you, Side-step, try to relax a little. It's nice to have some young ladies around. Adds a little glamour to our somewhat dowdy crew and someone is going to have to type up the report to HQ..."
Side-step absently reaches for a cigarette, places it in his mouth, then looks about him as if remembering where he is. A woman by the till and poster stand gives a significant glance towards the prominently displayed 'No Smoking' sign. He sighs, and makes for the exit.
As he is lighting the cigarette, he becomes aware of the soft, even sound of approaching steps. Recognising the figure of Isobel Blyth, he turns slightly towards the wall, cupping one hand about the lighter so that his face is half-hidden.
Finding himself recognised despite his efforts, Side-step turns to face his new colleague's enquiring gaze.
"Yes, Miss Blyth, what can I do for you?" His smile is distinctly forced, and Isobel detects traces of the same hostility that had shown itself so explosively upon their first meeting. She notices that the lighter is his hand is engraved with the words, "Side-step 6, IRA 0, Witches 0."
"Mrs Blyth." Isobel corrects automatically. She then explains the situation, and mentions the plan to break into Hendleby's house.
"OK, I can do that, but I do it alone. I don't want to be worrying about anyone else. Too many cooks and all that. If Mickey wants to be involved he can either do it himself or he can be lookout."
Twitchin, Mickey and Andrew are quickly apprised of the situation. Professor Twitchin decides not to accompany the break-in party, since he feels that the group will draw attention to themselves if they move around in large numbers. Isobel is also unwilling to have any part in the break-in, and opts to stay in the gallery.
"By the way, Side-step," Twitchin remarks, as he takes his leave of the others, "if you are planning to nick the tape from Hendleby's answerphone make sure you put another in its place. The constabulary always check for that. I saw it on 'The Bill.'"
Side-step, Mickey, and Andrew rejoin Culver, Celestina and John Stone at the corner of the street. It is quickly established that there is limited support for Side-step's plan to enter the house alone. Most of the group are interested in helping to search the house, and it is decided that this is the best way to investigate the premises as quickly as possible. When this becomes clear, Side-step is inclined to wash his hands of the whole endeavour, and is with difficulty persuaded to participate even as a lookout.
"I'd suggest that we break in via the back of the house," remarks Dr Stone. "It's rather more enclosed than the front."
Mickey casts a quick, professional glance over the house at the end of the row.
"Well, before we enter either way that alarm needs to be killed." He nods up at a dusty, red box half-hidden behind the guttering above them. "I do have an idea. Are there any hardware shops still open?"
Half an hour later, accompanied by Andrew, Mickey is walking back down Heath Street towards Hendleby's house. Between the pair of them, they carry a ladder, a can of building foam, a length of plastic tubing, a can of building foam and a bucket of soapy water, over the side of which are draped two cloths.
By good fortune, a hardware store had been discovered a bare ten minutes before it was due to close. Mickey now carries the receipt for the equipment in his pocket, in the hope of claiming it back as expenses.
The pair stroll casually up to the front of the house, and begin to wash the downstairs windows, ignored by the occasional pedestrian. When the lower panes are passably clean, or at least wet, Mickey erects the ladder and scales it, while Andrew holds the base firm.
"Scuse me." Hearing a voice below him in the street, Mickey half-turns, raising a hand ostensibly to shield his face from the afternoon sun, but actually to throw his face into shadow. A man in his late forties is squinting at him, mouth hanging in the sort of helpful, helpless grin usually worn by dogs suffering from the heat. The handles of two overstuffed Asda bags are biting into the fingers of his fat, red hands. "You don't want to do it that way round, you know. You want to do the upstairs windows first, otherwise what with all the drips coming down, you just have to do the ground floor windows again."
Mickey squeezes out the cloth in his hand, while he tries to think of a response.
"Is this your place?" asks the man, with the hopeful, resolutely cheerful tone of one who is aware that he has spoken out of turn and is afflicted with the delusory belief that he can make amends by continuing the conversation. Mickey shakes his head. "Well, I was just going to recommend that you took some care with the honeysuckle. I knew the lady who lived here previously, and she was always very proud of the honeysuckle around the door. And now look at it, just a bare, black skeleton. But if it's not your house, then I guess it's not your responsibility. "Oh well. Well... well, I'll leave you to it, then."
Mickey watches out of the corner of his eye as the other man departs. All the while, Andrew has kept his back turned to the enquirer, as if concentrating on stabilising the ladder.
When the slouching figure has turned the corner, Mickey descends the ladder, recovers the can of building foam, and ascends once again. While the street is empty, he inserts one end of the plastic tubing into the core of the burglar alarm, and swiftly forces the building foam through the tube.
"That should do for the speakers. Let's get out of here."
Several hours later, a small group huddle at the corner of Heath Street.
"I don't think we should all go charging in," opines Celestina. "Some of us can wait here and pretend to admire the paintings while the rest of you go in. That way we can warn you if anything happens. The police seem rather friendly around here, and they might just take an interest in a door that's had its lock jemmied off."
"Agreed," whispers Dr Stone. "I'd recommend that we try and enter at the rear. It's a little more enclosed there. Oh, and we'd better all be careful of fingerprints, just in case we end up having to notify the police."
In answer, Mickey raises his hands, already gloved.
"Come and fetch us if anything untoward has transpired in the flat," Celestina hisses to her companions as they depart in the direction of Hendleby's house. She is left by the gallery window, to feign interest in the gleaming canvases on display.
Out of the corner of her eye, she can make out the distant doorway in which Side-step sits back on his hams, apparently enjoying a long cigarette. He is nothing but a hunched, uncompromising silhouette, his presence asserted occasionally by a truculent plume of smoke, like a challenge breathed by a miniature dragon.
The padlock of the back gate gives only a feeble resistance to Mickey's lockpicks. Andrew remains in the back yard, to look through the garbage and listen out for any warning signal from the two lookouts.
"Act natural," John Stone says, under his breath. "If we're seen, then just look like we are supposed to be here." Once inside, he switches on his pencil torch, and flicks the little beam about the room.
A narrow kitchen with a range of stained, pine cabinets. One shelf has come away from the wall, but has been propped in makeshift fashion on two empty paint pots which stand on the washing machine.
"We'd better divide and search the house," mutters Stone.
One old sofa with a ripped, peach plush cover and two misshapen, patchwork cushions. A calendar of Michelle Pfeiffer over the bricked up hearth. A television of somewhat reverent years, linked up to a Playstation with the rather embarrassed air of a middle-aged man holding the hand of an exuberant teenager. A beanbag seat with a print of Einstein's face across it.
It is a somewhat deceptive room, John Stone decides, as he strolls about the lounge, lifting this object and that with a hand carefully swathed in a handkerchief. On the surface, its atmosphere seems casual, lax, almost Bohemian in flavour. But...
The games in the CD tray are all arranged in meticulous alphabetical order. The books on the shelves are regimented so that the spine of each is the same distance from the edge of the shelf. No little cabals of mouldering cups, such as one might expect to find in such a 'relaxed' environment, can be seen conspiring in dark corners of the floor.
Hendleby's reading taste seems rather broad, but centres in particular upon the Impressionists, local books on Whitby and North Yorkshire, late Victorian fiction, English folklore and science fiction.
Searching the upstairs rooms in the dark, Culver is reminded of countless vampire films, and can almost hear the build-up of the spine-tingling music as he proceeds.
If there were a monster, or just a man waiting in hiding to escape... or attack... where would he hide?
Behind the door? Nothing. An old mackintosh is slung from a hook in one of the door panels. The belt buckles chime against the wall as the door is thrust back. The pockets prove to be empty.
Under the bed? A pair of slippers, a pair of trainers, a little mud and sand. The mud has dried into a narrow ridge, like a wedge fallen from an indentation in a corrugated sole.
On top of the wardrobe? At first there seems to be nothing here but on old jigsaw box, a Monopoly set and about six packs of cards. He is about to look elsewhere when his attention is drawn by the stack of card boxes. The two lowest in the stack appear to be buckling under the weight of the upper, as if their contents were slimmer than the full deck of cards that they were designed to hold.
Sliding the two boxes from beneath the stack, Culver shakes them experimentally. The rattle satisfies him that they do not contain cards. Opening one, he slides a small, dark rectangular object out onto his handkerchief. Even in the dark, he recognises it as a dictaphone tape. The second box also contains a tape. The rest of the boxes all contain cards.
Culver pockets the two tapes, and leaves the room.
The garbage outside the house, to judge by the condition of the latest relics, appears to be at least a week old. The lower portions of the refuse sack has been torn by cats, and the contents left to spill over the tarmac. Trying to ignore the smell, Andrew moves the trash into a new garbage sack and secures it, so that he can take it with him and search it at his leisure.
This done, he enters the house to join the search.
In the hall he comes upon Mickey, who is pulling the mass of envelopes free from the congested letterbox, and putting them in his pocket. Mickey tenses a little before he recognises the other man.
A few feet away, John Stone is studying a blanched square of wallpaper, like that left by the removal of a picture about one foot in width.
As Andrew watches, Mickey gathers the last of the mail from the mat, and starts rummaging through the pockets of the coats hanging from a series of hooks by the front door.
"No money, no personal items, nothing. I've looked through the desk at the back of the lounge, and there's virtually no paperwork, just a few bills, with 'Paid' written on them. I didn't even see any personal letters."
John Stone nods. "There's a darkroom just opposite the kitchen, which is much the same. All the chemicals for developing film is there, there's half a dozen cameras and no end of photographic paraphernalia. But there's no rolls of film, and no photographs. There's also a great chest made of carved oak in one corner, but it seems to be empty."
Andrew clears his throat. "There are some clothes which have been left in the washing machine, and which are starting to go mouldy. I do not think Mr Hendleby was intending to stay away from his house so long."
"That's not all he wasn't intending to do." Culver leans over the balustrade of the upstairs landing. "It looks like he wasn't intending to shave any time soon. There are no mirrors in the bathroom. Has anyone else found a mirror anywhere in the house? I haven't."
"I think that counts as 'untoward.' Let's tell Celestina."
Following Culver's directions, Celestina makes her way up to Hendleby's bedroom, and starts up the computer that she finds on the bedside desk next to the scanner.
PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD
Celestina shrugs, and types.
There is a brief pause before the response flashes up on the screen.
YOU'VE FORGOTTEN YOUR PASSWORD AGAIN HAVEN'T YOU KARL? TRY AGAIN BOZO
Celestina tries again.
The same denial message flashes onto the screen. Celestina quickly establishes that she cannot access any files without the correct password. Those which do not appear to contain computer games, she appropriates.
By her elbow, a Bart Simpson alarm clock grins at her. Across its T-shirt, written in small letters barely visible in the gleam from the computer screen are the words,
This guy looks just like you!
Celestina turns off the computer, pausing only to wipe the keyboard before leaving the room.
"Right. Is that everyone out?"
Mickey holds the gate open as Andrew staggers out, laden down with his refuse sack. As he secures the padlock once more, Mickey becomes aware of an almost imperceptible noise, a tiny, dulled thudding like the noise of a woodpecker muffled through three feet of cotton wool. He quickly guesses that the speakers of the burglar alarm must have retained some negligible functionality, and that somewhere within the stifled bell is labouring to make itself heard. However, the sound is incredibly faint, and he is fairly certain that no-one will have heard it. Nonetheless, he follows the others with redoubled haste.
"Ah, hello, Luke. I was wondering if you could do me a favour. You know those pictures we were looking at? I was wondering if you could print me out some good, colour copies of those jippegs, and send them to me."
"Huh, not with my printer. It used to be Dad's until he got a better one, and it's a load of toss - I mean, it's not very good. There's a good printer at school, but it's really for assignments and stuff. I can have a go at using that, if you like. I can print it out on MoD headed paper too if you want, 'coz I saw some on the table in Dad's office."
"Um. Perhaps you'd better not, Luke."
When the break-in party return to the hotel, they discover their colleagues in the bar. Isobel and Twitchin are seated at one table, while Side-step can be seen at the bar, with his trademark Southern Comfort.
Isobel has made a second attempt to start a dialogue with her surly new acquaintance. Side-step did not appear to hear her friendly question about the origin of his nickname, however, and moved away ostensibly to order his drink, leaving Isobel with the impression that, if nothing else, he seems to be expert in 'side-stepping' her attempts to engage him in conversation. However, she cheers when she sees the others arrive within the bar.
Culver offers to buy the first round, and joins Side-step at the bar. The latter greets him with a grim smile.
"This lot is gonna take some getting used to," Side-step mutters, jerking his head towards the group seated at the table just out of hearing range. "I don't like the idea that old Riggs's life may hang on the performance of these new guys." He nods towards Celestina. "I mean, look at that Mirande character. She looks like she should be standing behind a flower stall at a church fete, not chasing around the country playing at sneaky beaky stuff."
"Be nice, now," Culver says, evenly. Side-step sighs deeply, and accompanies his friend back to the group. Culver distributes the drinks, and Celestina finds herself presented with a large spiced rum in addition to her order.
"A peace offering for le Baron," explains Culver, with a wry smile.
Side-step pulls up a chair. "So, what have we got after today's adventures?" Each member of the group in turn recounts their discoveries of the day. A tentative harmony seems to have settled upon the group until Mickey mentions the disturbed earth he had noticed in the hermitage. At this point, Side-step's self-control once again shows uncharacteristic fragility.
"What? Let me get this straight, you stuck your head in the building, saw that the place had recently been disturbed and then promptly turned around and walked back to the safehouse without giving the place a more thorough going over? Didn't it occur to you that Riggs may have sheltered there or someone else connected to this case? What a bloody amateur."
"Wait a moment," Isobel intercedes, somewhat taken aback by the violence of Side-step's tone. "Mickey was very sensible to have left things as he found them. Thanks to him, other members of the group can go and have a look around, without finding it disturbed by his footprints."
"If we are to have a chance at recovering Riggs in one piece," continues Side-step with undiminished fervour, "we gotta have our shit together, and we ain't gonna do it with slack operating like that. Now Riggs may be just a name to you guys but he is a friend of ours. I for one have great respect for the guy. He may be a little off the wall, but he has been through more in his life than you lot put together." Slamming his glass down, Side-step moves off to the bar once more, and orders another drink.
After a couple of minutes he returns to the group, having recovered a little sang froid.
"OK," he says, a little more coolly, "I for one think that it would be a good idea to go back to the safehouse. I want to check that hermitage place. I'll need you, Mickey, to show me where the place is. Anyone else who wants to go, I'll be leaving straight after breakfast. On that point, Wotan, could I borrow your Rover?" It is decided that Andrew, Mickey, Side-step, Isobel and Celestina will drive back to the safe house the next morning.
Professor Twitchin declares his attention to hire a car, and visit Quentin Kay in Sneatonthorpe.
Isobel mentions that she has succeeded in acquiring the address of Sarah Louise Hendleby, and offers to drop in on her under the guise of a market researcher. She also mentions the fruits of her earlier research. Culver is particularly interested in the story of the abbess Hild.
"I know it's sort of peripheral to our mission, but I really think you're onto something with the story of Abbess Hild and the snakes," he remarks, pensively. "I wonder if the snakes themselves are metaphors. What else can we think of that's venomous, banished by religion, killed by beheading and turns to dust?
"By the way, does anyone feel like a little church-going? It's good for the soul, you know." It is decided that part of the group will visit St Mary's at some point the next day.
As the SITU members leave the bar, Side-step naturally falls in beside Culver and Twitchin, and notices their glances askance. He guesses at their concern over his outburst.
"Well, I know Riggs and me didn't always see eye to eye, and I have to admit he drove me crazy on a regular basis, but for some reason I liked, er, like the guy." He looks uncomfortable for a moment, then as if remembering something, draws a mobile phone out of his jacket pocket, and smiles. "I learned at least one lesson from our trip to Haiti."
Side-step dials a number.
"Executive Anderson here. Listen, could you send me the personnel files of all the staff on the roster at your little safehouse near Littlebeck when Riggs disappeared? Thanks."
"I'd be interested to know who the Director of the safehouse is," remarks Twitchin. "I don't believe we met him on our little tour."
"While you're at it, can you ask them whether there's thought to be any ytterbium in this area?" asks Culver. Side-step passes on the various queries, and is informed by Piner that a complete briefing on these matters will be sent to the party as soon as possible.
"The technicians could find no fault with the security system at the safehouse," says Side-step, sliding his phone back into his pocket. "So the thing must have been disabled by someone inside who knows a thing or two about electronics and/or security systems. Thought the files might turn up something, you know, previous employment or maybe someone who may have an axe to grind with SITU. If we can get to them they may point us at who paid them off."
Immediately after breakfast, a phone call is made to the safe house to inform them of the group's imminent return.
This time they are not met at the gate by Piner, but by a man in his fifties who introduces himself as Macket. Macket's hairline is making a heroic effort to scale his scalp through the forest of fading russet hairs. He has a habit of scratching slowly behind his ear before he speaks, as if he were winding up the invisible clockwork needed to fire his brain. He claims to have been assigned from an office in York to cover for Piner.
"Yes, go wherever you need to. I understand, you have carte blanche." He pronounces the word 'blanche' with a short, English 'a.'
"Do you have anything that belonged to Riggs?" Once again, Isobel is in the room of the missing man.
"One or two things, ma'am," the guard offers, politely. "There was this - we thought we should take it away from him when he came here." Gingerly, Isobel takes the proffered combat knife. "I'll be right here if you need me, miss."
Isobel sits down on the bed. For a moment, the blanket feels alien and animate under her hand, like a living hide, or the coarse roughness of feathers. She lets the knife rest in her palm, and closes her eyes.
...and the walls are breathing, stealthily, carefully, so that she won't notice. And now that her eyes are closed she knows that the snake-camera in the corner of the ceiling is taking opportunity to blink, drawing a filmy lid over its burning blood-spot of an eye. A whisper...
...I want to help you...
She opens her eyes sharply. A small involuntary motion of her hand has drawn the edge of her thumb against the edge of the blade, and a little blood is running over her wrist.
In the hermitage, the remainder of the group examine the disturbed earth discovered by Mickey. As far as it is possible to tell, the earth has been raked over the floor deliberately, almost as if covering something, or destroying some trace on the floor. Attempts to dig up the floor prove fruitless.
Attempts to find signs of tracks from the hermitage are also unsuccessful.
When such prosaic measures fail to bear fruit, John Stone returns to the old building, and sits down just within the shapeless doorway, next to the crudely carved initials of some earlier visitor.
There are many kinds of communication, he reflects, remembering the words of his Native American teacher. I must become aware of the unique signals life sends... He meditates for a short while, letting his spirit half-slumber in the dim light cast through the trees overhead. For some reason, however, he finds it impossible to relax. There is something unpleasant about his seat in the hermitage, something that irritates his senses. What is it - a clamminess in the rock? A bad smell?
Meanwhile, Professor Twitchin is driving to Sneatonthorpe in his newly hired car. At a petrol station he pulls over, and hunts out the public phone.
"Hello? Executive Twitchin, seeking a briefing on certain matters of mutual interest."
"Golly." A rattle strongly resembling the sound of a phone being dropped. "Sorry about that. Do you have any... any identification. Oh, that sounds bloody silly over the phone. I mean, can you tell me something that would only be known by someone working for You Know Who." Twitchin obliges by giving one of the SITU contact numbers. There is a rustle of paper. "Yes, that's fine. Right. Gosh. I'll be, er, ready for you. I can't come to the door, I'm afraid, but if you ring the intercom I'll press the button to let you in."
Half an hour later, Twitchin is being ushered into a rather scruffy little flat which shows signs, nonetheless of recent and hurried attempts at a tidy-up.
Quentin Kay is in his mid thirties, peppermint-pale and milky blond, with slightly protuberant eyes and eyebrows like cream-coloured chalk streaks. His eyes are perpetually alight and somewhat confused, apparently with a jumble of thoughts struggling for the right to express themselves. His movements are exaggerated and rapid, and seem to catch him by surprise sometimes.
"I'll sit you next to Rita." 'Rita' proves to be a rather well-fed-looking goldfish, who is gliding about like a duchess through a plastic castle. "I called her that after Rita Hayworth. They're both redheads, you see." Kay laughs, then shrinks into himself a little, as if shocked by the volume of his own voice.
When Twitchin raises the question of the URL sent by Kay to SITU, however, he finds that this is the magic switch with the power to dispel all Kay's shyness.
"Yes, what did you think of them? All that oozing mist, almost a Being, isn't it? Almost ectoplasm, isn't it? I think the artist's a psychic, that's why I sent the URL to SITU, so they could chase him up and find out what he was picking up. I mean, just get the mood of those paintings! I didn't know the guy in the picture was a SITU operative. I just sent the URL like I always do, and one of the people at HQ recognised the picture of him from their files of missing people.
"It was a weight off my mind, in a way. I was starting to think they didn't take me seriously." With the aid of a bottle of Johnny Walker, the Professor soon has his host holding forth upon his favourite subject, Whitby Abbey.
"Did you ever read The Second Coming? Read it, read it. It's by Andrew Collins. It's got all this stuff that happened at the Abbey a few years ago. You see, there's this really big occult organisation called 'the People of Hex.' And they try and take over magical sites, and er, change the psychic frequencies, and stuff. Anyway, they buried all these occult forks in Whitby abbey, and tried to use it to summon Fenris. It's true.
"Well, it makes sense, doesn't it? The place is pretty much sloshing with psychic power. Think about it. Dracula comes ashore here. Yeah, it's just in a book, but that doesn't matter. The point is, people say, oh, yeah, Whitby, that's where Dracula came ashore. So all this sort of stuff gets sort of attached to the place. And then there's all the old religious stuff, that's still got some clout.
"I expect that's why the Grays are interested in it, too. You know, the aliens."
Kay is clearly very excited at the fact that he has a real live active executive in his house, and his awe is rather flattering. Whenever he mentions a far-flung region of the globe, he pulls himself up short, and says apologetically, "oh, but you've probably been there."
It is with difficulty that he can be persuaded to part with his new guest.
"If you talk to the people at HQ," he says timidly, as Twitchin at last rises to depart, "could you tell them to address me in their letters as 'K'? Not Kay, I mean, but the letter 'K', like 'M' and 'Q' in James Bond, you know? It's just that I've asked them before, and they still call me Operative Kay."
After returning from the safehouse, Isobel sets off alone into Whitby. One shopping trip later, she is equipped with a briefcase, a stationers' ID card kit, a set of passport photographs, a clipboard and a few £10 Marks & Spencer's vouchers. At the local library she finds a computer upon which she can concoct a suitable questionnaire.
A short while later, a crisp, smart and entirely respectable-looking female market researcher is walking down Cook Street.
Aware that it would look rather odd is she were to target Miss Hendleby's house alone, Isobel calls at one of the adjacent houses first. A somewhat harassed-looking woman listens to her rehearsed patter for a few minutes before cutting in.
"Free vouchers? Don't give me that. You don't get nothing for nothing, and I don't want to be receiving your catalogues for the rest of my life. Sorry." Finding the door all but slammed in her face, Isobel retreats, hoping that Hendleby's sister does not share her neighbour's temperament.
After the doorbell rings at 23, Cook Street, a dog can be heard giving vent to a low throaty bark.
The door is pulled back by a young woman in the process of pushing a mass of black curls back from her face.
Isobel relaxes a little. It is hard to be intimidated by someone who is wearing slippers shaped like bananas.
"My name is Mary Rubens, and I'm conducting a survey on behalf of Market Research Independent. Would it be alright if I were to ask you a few questions? It'll only take about ten minutes of your time, and if you participate I am in a position to offer you a free gift if you agree to let me return in three months time." Isobel holds up a Marks & Spencer's voucher.
"Mmm? Never shop there. Oh well, never mind, come in and take the weight off your feet." Sarah Louise holds the door open, and leads 'Mary Rubens' to a cramped little lounge. "I've done your job, you see, and no offence, but it sucked. So I sympathise. Are you a tea or coffee woman?"
The owner of the sonorous bark chooses this moment to make his appearance. Isobel hears a clatter of nails on floor tiles, then finds herself with two heavy white paws on her lap, and a face full of hot breath. A creature built like a mad geneticist's attempt to cross a wolf with a polar bear is trying to climb into her lap, all the time lolling a tongue the length of a boot sole.
"No! Bad Nero! Not on her nice skirt! No biscuit!" This last threat seemed to be comprehended by the dog, which retreated a little mournfully. "Sorry. He's a Pyrennese mountain dog. Unfortunately, he thinks he's a Pyrennese mountain puppy." Sarah Louise, now in jumper and jeans, places a pot of tea and a packet of ginger snaps on the coffee table. She patiently answers all Isobel's questions about the brand of washing powder she uses, the charities she supports, and even her own hobbies, which include potholing and squash. Afterwards, the conversation becomes more casual.
"That's an amazing cat," Isobel remarks, noting a rather striking sculptor of a cat in polished pine on top of the mantelpiece.
"Oh, do you like it? I was quite pleased to find it. I bought it while I was Cornwall."
"You simply must tell me where. My brother would love something like that..." Isobel cheerfully proceeds to describe her non-existent brother, and the difficulties of buying him presents. "Do you have a brother?" A nod. "Men are so difficult to buy things for, aren't they?"
"Mine isn't." Sarah laughs heartily. "That's one way in which he's not difficult at all. He decides what he wants about a month in advance, then starts dropping hints. In fact, I think this year was the first birthday that he didn't do that. Well, we've been dropping out of contact a bit this last year. Silly, really, since we're in the same town, but it happens." She shrugs.
Sarah Louise has a peculiarly expressive face. Its proportions are almost kittenish, with its narrow chin and large eyes. As she sits in reflection for a moment, her chin is set, exaggerating the triangular shape of her face, as if she were suppressing some emotion. Isobel can sense a stream of stifled words waiting to be released, if one could only find the right trigger, say the right thing...
The gravestones of the churchyard at St Mary's lean weirdly, as if they were all striving to move in the same direction. They are discoloured about the top, like decaying teeth. Even in bright sunlight, they have an eerie appearance.
Perhaps as a result of this setting, Celestina remembers Andrew's earlier question about the werewolves, and raises the subject once again as the pair of them stroll through the graveyard.
"General folklore holds that a werewolf can be destroyed by a silver bullet, though this idea didn't enter Western culture until it appeared in a Hollywood film in the forties. However, silver is seen as a protection against many supernatural creatures, firstly perhaps because of its supposed purity and perhaps also because the monsters are seen as essentially masculine creatures and silver is soft, feminine material - the two counteract one another.
"If it is a physical creature then I'm sure that bullets would hurt it. But any other device or trinket can only protect you as much as you believe it can. Dr Culver already believes we may be dealing with vampires, but perhaps he's the best person to talk to about werewolves. I believe he is a psychiatrist, and there are many psychological profiles of 'wolf-men', including one, I think, by the ubiquitous Freud. Culver might be your best bet, Andrew."
Within the church, Culver sits in one of the little box pews, and indulges his fascination with religious paraphernalia and architecture. On the box pews he can find the engraved names of the villages from which congregations came to visit the church. Even in the dim light, he can see the place next to the pulpit where the ear trumpet for a former minister's deaf wife is still kept. Mickey strolls about the church, his footsteps echoing. Side-step smokes in silence by the door.
Out by the cliff, John Stone is trying to find the place mentioned in the legend of the Abbess Hild. However, it is difficult to be sure from which location the snakes are supposed to have fallen. In any case, he can find no evidence of snakes, stone or otherwise.
However, as he is walking back towards the church, he notices a young man in a black coat walking towards the cliff edge, with a slow stride, almost a swagger. Celestina and Andrew notice him a moment later. Seeing them start, Side-step follows their gaze and also sees the figure.
The young man shows no sign of halting as he approaches the precipice.