The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
The cool wood of the pews under his palms, Culver sits back and closes his eyes, for all the world like one rapt in religious meditation. A narrow window trails a ribbon of pale light across his forehead.
"Mickey?" Mickey, who has paused to examine the carvings around the pulpit, looks up at the sound of Culver's voice. "Y'know that guy that came and talked to you when you was, er, fixing the burglar alarm? He mentioned the honeysuckle, right? Well... I'm no gardener and it might be nothing, but if the thing's withered away recently, doesn't that suggest something's been disturbing the roots? Might be worth a look, yeah?"
Mickey gives a small non-committal nod. Then he raises his head slightly, under the impression that somewhere outside, he has heard Celestina's voice raised.
"Excuse me, I am holidaying here, you can tell me where Dracula is buried?" Celestina's voice has altered, the syllables clumsily articulated. As her words are carried to him, Side-step recognises her newly adopted accent as Haitian, albeit with a pronounced British flavour. Celestina has taken one or two steps towards the young man on the cliff top, one hand held out as if to attract his attention. The other hand clutches at her headscarf at which the wind tugs and teases. She has taken on the gauche, well-meaning manner of the tourist astray.
The young man halts his pace a little at the sound of her voice but does not turn. Nonetheless, his pace slows a little.
"Hello?" Wotan Andrew Weiser is at Celestina's side. The young man in the dark coat continues to proceed towards the edge with slow, swinging, almost mocking steps. Celestina and Andrew exchange glances, then Celestina runs back in the direction of the church.
Andrew takes a few rapid steps forwards, but at the sound of his footfalls upon the turf, the other man turns his head. The face that meets his sight is unusually pale, delicately boned and almost feminine in appearance. The lower part of the rather elongated face is starred with traces of pale golden stubble. A small, softly pink mouth hangs half-open in a partial smile that gives the whole face a slightly child-like look. The stranger seems oblivious of the lashing of his shoulder-length blond hair against his face.
Reading the defiance in the other's eyes, Andrew halts his approach. The young man lifts his arms from his sides, allowing the wind to fill his dark coat, so that it flaps loosely outwards like a pair of clumsily opening wings.
"Yeah, yeah, I see him," mutters Side-step as Celestina pauses to point out the dark-clad figure on the cliff edge. Side-step pushes himself away from the wall against which he has been reclining, and throws away his cigarette. "HEY, YOU!" he shouts. The figure on the edge of the cliff is gently backing from Andrew without taking his eyes off him. "Hey, dickhead, what you think you're doin? Stop!"
The young man turns his palms to face Andrew. In the centre of each is a small dark mark the size of a five pence piece. His face is a picture of mocking calm. Then, abruptly, his expression alters, and he swings around to face John Stone, who has taken the opportunity to advance within ten feet of the stranger. The psychiatrist only halts his casual stroll forward when the young man takes a few abrupt steps towards the drop. As he maintains eye contact with the stranger, all of Dr Stone's professional instincts scream at him to halt his approach. The other's eyes show a giddy glitter, like those of a child who sees a way to win a game. The muscles of his slim frame give little spasmodic motions, as if readying for sudden exertion. If I take another step he'll jump, thinks Dr Stone with a sort of incredulous certainty, he'll really jump...
"Excuse me, are you local?" No trace of tension finds its way into Stone's voice. The stranger pauses, hesitant, uncertain, little excited tremors still running over his form.
"Aw shit," mutters Side-step, and sets off from the church door at a run.
Seeing the rapid approach of his new colleague in his peripheral vision, Stone takes pains to maintain eye contact with the young stranger.
"My name's John Stone. Tell me, do you know anything of the local legends?"
"I am a local legend." The stranger's voice carries the regional accent, albeit with a softened timbre.
"Really? Well, then perhaps you can tell me..." Stone pauses as Side-step reaches the group, rugby tackling the stranger and bringing him down to the turf. "...perhaps you can tell me why a local legend should wish to throw itself from a cliff top?"
The young stranger wrestles furiously with his captor for a few moments, fingers curved as if he hoped to rake Side-step's chest with these makeshift talons. As soon as Side-step secures his wrists, however, the captive slides into passivity, and allows himself to be held down.
"Do you have a death wish or are ya just plain stupid?" mutters Side-step, as he recovers his breath. "I could really do without this kind of exercise right now."
"What the fuck were you trying to do?" Culver has been dragged from his meditation by Celestina's hurried explanation, and he now crouches over the prone form of the stranger. "What's your name?" The stranger smiles very slightly, as if the grass that cushions his head is whispering a secret joke to him. His eyes follow the motions of the clouds above. As Culver takes his pulse, a slight jerk passes through the other's body. The young man's skin is unpleasantly warm to the touch, and where his fingertips touch the stranger's wrist, Culver feels a curious tingling, like static. "Tell me, have you taken anything lately? Hallucinogens? Speed?" The young man's pulse is not particularly fast, but Culver notes that his pupils are unusually large. No response is forthcoming.
Culver takes a few steps backwards to confer with Stone.
"This doesn't look like suicide to me. Jumping from clifftops is a relatively rare means of killing oneself, and it's generally done alone, without spectators."
"I know. But I saw him on the clifftop, and if you ask me, he was ready to jump. But as you say, it didn't look like a potential suicide. It was almost as if he didn't believe he'd get hurt."
Culver walks back over to the group that surround the enigmatic stranger.
"Look, I'm a doctor - a psychiatrist - and I reckon you need to be in a hospital. I'm going to call an ambulance, OK?" Side-step passes his mobile phone to Culver, who starts to dial.
His finger is still pressing the third '9' when a violent spasm passes through the figure sprawled upon the turf. Somehow the slender wrists are wrenched free from the grasp that holds them to the ground. Somehow the slim hands grip Side-step's shoulders and fling him aside. Somehow the passive, almost catatonic figure leaps to its feet in one motion, and tears away, pushing Mickey and Stone to either side. Somewhat to the relief of the watchers, the fugitive runs away from the cliff-edge, back towards the 199 steps.
"Shit!" There is a general rush to pursue the vanishing figure. Side-step, Mickey and Andrew reach the top of the steps in time to see the youth descending the steps in a sequence of reckless, haphazard leaps, arms spread wide as if he thought that he could glide down to safety on imaginary wings. With slightly more care, the three SITU members pursue him down the steps, drawing glances from one or two tourists, trudging up the steps, camera in hand.
Halfway down, Side-step loses his footing for an instant, jarring his calf against the edge of the step, and falls a little behind his colleagues. Mickey, the fastest runner, reaches the bottom of the steps just as the fugitive turns a corner, yellow hair flaming like a torch above his lean, black figure.
Somewhat hampered by the cobbles, the SITU members pursue the retreating figure across the small marketplace. This is the older part of the little harbour town, and the streets are narrow and sloping, the old fisherman's cottages divided by a network of steps and ginnels. Mickey turns into a narrow street, just in time to see the runner take a sharp left down a dark crevasse of an alleyway. A few seconds later, Andrew and Side-step arrive at the same corner, and see Mickey vanish into the alleyway. Side-step has recovered the distance lost through his slip, and is now running shoulder to shoulder with Andrew.
"Let's take this turn and try and head him off. Come on!" The two men pelt down the nearest left hand turning. To their vexation, however, they find themselves in a narrow street that insists in twisting sharply to the left before turning right once more. They break into daylight once more to find themselves in an empty street. On one side, a postcard rack rattles in its place in a shop doorway. A dozen little blue and white windmills whirl, losing their outline and filling the air with a subdued hum.
Mickey, meanwhile, emerges from the echoing darkness of the little alley in time to hear a dull, juddering crash ahead of him. Bursting out onto a wider street he sees a shop door, which has been flung back upon its hinges, swinging slowly shut. Gathering his breath, he sprints for the closing door, and pulls it open again.
Inside the ill-lit shop, Mickey is immediately assailed by an orchestra of restive, distressed sounds. From every corner issues the furtive crackle of paper disturbed by tiny claws, the faint thud of wire mesh receiving the sudden weight of furred forms. Now and then the thin, chilling shriek of a small animal in fear sounds out, like the screech of a skidding bicycle tyre. From within half a dozen cages, wings beat rapidly like frightened hearts. Cockatoos bob in a staccato, mechanical way, like puppets on a steam organ, and stretch their beaks to sound like sirens.
From cage to cage a small woman in a floor-length paisley shawl is running, waving her hands as if she could pat the cacophony back into calm. Her white hair is tied loosely into a pony tail, and her face is narrow, tanned and tight as a nut.
"Did someone come... did you see..." Mickey gasps between breaths.
"You mean that boy? I think he ran out the back way, like he usually does. Through the 'Staff Only' door, first door on the left." Mickey nods his thanks, and runs off towards the door at the back of the pet shop. Beyond it runs a short corridor that terminates in a red fire door. Mickey tugs it ajar, and finds himself on one of the lower levels of a fire escape. On either side, the street lies empty. With a sigh he retraces his steps back into the shop. The shop owner has to a degree succeeded in calming her charges.
"Do you know the young man who ran through here?" asks Mickey.
"Oh, yes. Well, he drops by often enough, and uses the place as a short cut. Wish he wouldn't, it takes half an hour for the animals to settle down after he's been here. Yes, I know him a little. That's Emmanuel."
"I know my brother went through a funny phase once," Isobel says gently, trying not to bruise the fragile potential of the moment. "He got involved with some... group very deeply, and didn't contact me for a while."
"Hmm? Really? How long?" Sarah Louise lifts her head, her face undeniably strained and anxious.
"Well, fortunately it didn't last long. Just a few months."
"A few months. Not a year then." Isobel's hostess gives a wry, troubled smile. Her hand absently strokes the muzzle of her great dog, which rests upon her knee. "What kind of... of group did your brother join?"
"Oh, I don't know, he never really told me. But he even went through one of those bizarre phases of wearing black all the time - but then most young men seem to do that, so I suppose it isn't all that bizarre after all!"
"No... and Karl always wore a lot of black anyway. One of his favourite T-shirts is black, but with a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon on the front."
"So... have you tried to contact your brother recently?"
"Well, yes, I..." Sarah Louise bites her upper lip, and then covers her eyes with her hand. Her shoulders jerk in the painful fashion of one who is unpractised in the art of crying, and thus awkward in the execution of the task. "Sorry. Yes, I've tried. Golly, this is so embarrassing." Reflexively, Isobel places her arm around her hostess's shoulders. Seeing a box of tissues on the coffee table, she gently moves it towards the other woman.
"I've sent him I don't know how many letters, and left him hundreds of messages on his answering machine. And I get messages back, but they're just unreal. They sound like Karl, but it's like Karl when he's performing, being 'Karl the bouncy puppy, everyone's friend.' And he knows he doesn't have to do that with me." She hides her face in a tissue. "And when I drop round to his house there's never any answer. It's been that way for about a year. And sometimes I swear that I hear him moving in the hallway - it's like he's looked out through the spyhole, seen that it's me, and decided not to open the door.
"And occasionally I see him in town, and when I do, he always tries to seem happy to see me, but he isn't, I can tell. And his eyes are always looking up and down the street, as if he's expecting a way out of the conversation to just walk up to him. Then he makes vague promises to meet up some time for a drink, and he heads off as quickly as he can.
"Sorry, you don't want to hear all this. I don't know why I'm stressing at you like this."
"No, no, go on. Have you any idea why his behaviour changed?"
"Well, I know it started up about the time he broke it off with Tina. Tina... she was his girlfriend for about a year before that. Anyway, I've sometimes had an idea that he might have dropped Tina for some other girl, someone who has been getting him involved in... oh, I don't know what. You see, about four months ago, when I was in town I saw him in a café with this young woman, the two of them leaning over the table towards one another. I waved to him, and I'd swear he saw me, but he just ignored me, so I kept on walking."
"Do you know who the girl was?"
"No. I couldn't see her too well. She had a dark red scarf over her head - I couldn't even tell you her hair colour. I could see some of her face, though, and she was very pretty in a weird, delicate, Uma-Thurman kind of way. I don't think she saw me." Sarah Louise blows her nose in a careful, deliberate way, and composes herself a little.
"Thanks for listening to all that. Honestly, I didn't lure you in here just so I could dump my personal problems on you. But I feel a hell of a lot better for having talked about it a little. You know, the irony is that I'm a professional counsellor. If someone else were in my shoes, I'd been trying to draw them into talking about it. Well, since you've saved me the cost of a professional listener, will you let me pay you in chocolate chip cookies?" Isobel consents. Nero shows signs of exhilaration when a circular tin is reached down from the one of the upper shelves and opened. His enthusiasm is explained when his mistress tosses two biscuits onto the carpet for him.
"The thing about Karl, you see," adds Sarah a few minutes later, through a mouthful of biscuit, "is that he thinks he can do everything by himself. I remember when I was about six I had a pet rabbit that got ill, and my parents decided that it had to be put down. Anyway Karl decided that he could make it better. So he stole the rabbit from the hutch, and took it away and hid it. He nearly gave himself pneumonia sneaking out every night to look after it, and feed it, and stuff. I knew he was up to something, and I knew he was getting ill, but he wouldn't tell me what it was all about, because he didn't trust me not to give the game away. He wanted to make the animal better, then bring it back and surprise everyone. Well, my parents found out anyway, and they had the rabbit put down. I don't think any of us ever convinced him that he couldn't have made it better.
"So if he was in really bad trouble, I don't know if he'd come to me. I don't think he would. I know David's worried, too. David Caine, he's Karl's lawyer. But he won't tell me why he's worried either - rules of confidentiality, that sort of thing. I nearly fell out with him over it about a month ago.
"Anyway, I'm sure you've heard quite enough of my problems. I ought to let you get on. Thanks for letting me bleed all over you."
"I don't mind at all. Look, if you want to chat again, or just meet up for coffee, why don't you call me? Here's my mobile phone number. I'm rather new to the area myself, so I don't have many people I know well enough to socialise with..."
"Thanks. Thanks very much."
Leaving the promised voucher on the coffee table, 'Mary Rubens' walks back to the front door, the backs of her knees buffeted in a companionable way by the nose of the large, white dog. After leaving Sarah's house, Isobel moves on to the next house, and makes a desultory and futile attempt to interest its elderly inhabitants in her Marks and Spencer vouchers.
Having established that the pet shop owner knows little more of the elusive Emmanuel than his name and the fact that he lives locally, Mickey retraces his steps, and succeeds in tracking down Side-step and Andrew. Together, they return to the church to report the disappearance of the fugitive.
"OK, I think a little 'retail therapy' is in order," remarks Culver. The group agree to divide, buy necessary equipment, and meet up later at the hotel.
Andrew takes the opportunity to buy a good camera. Celestina accompanies him to the shop, and also buys a camera, and a large supply of films and batteries.
Culver returns to the hotel rather later than the rest, burdened down by a dictaphone with headphones, a notepad and pen, two garden spades, half a dozen cloves of garlic and a pair of pump-action water pistols. He has failed to find Andrew Collins' book, "The Second Coming," at any of the bookshops he has visited. The local library records show that the library once owned a copy of the book, but unfortunately they also show that the book was borrowed by one Quentin Kay of Sneatonthorpe in July 1997, and has not been returned since. The library does have copies of another book by Collins, however, called "The Black Alchemist."
Meanwhile, having taken his leave of Kay, Twitchin drives back to Whitby, warmed within by both his new acquaintance's adulation, and the effects of his own bottle of Johnny Walker - now deceased.
Reaching Whitby, he parks his hired car in a long stay car park, and then strolls in the direction of Hendleby's house.
On the way, he pauses by a postcard rack outside one of the waterfront shops. One postcard shows a particularly busty young woman wearing a badge marked 'Pat' on the front of her over-stretched jumper. She is being observed lasciviously by a middle aged man, who according to the caption is asking, 'Is that your name, dear, or is that an invitation?'
Filled with a mischievous impulse, Twitchin buys the card, addresses it to his son Theo's office, signs it "Daddy," and posts it. He smiles as he imagines Theo's crimson-faced indignation, and the titters of the girls at his office.
Finding a comfortable seat outside a little teahouse further down the street, he settles down to watch the house, eyes shaded by his blue sailor cap. After a couple of hours, during which time no-one appears to show any interest in Hendleby's house, the Professor walks back to the Cove Hotel. Returning to his room, he indulges in a small nap, in order to sleep off the effects of the Johnny Walker.
It is a little after half past three when the eight SITU operatives meet up once more at the Cove Hotel. Those involved in searching Hendleby's house have had time to investigate the various odds and ends recovered during the reconnaissance.
"More like mass trespass to me," remarks the Professor. "I expect you did a lot of that at Greenham Common," he adds, addressing his remark to Isobel, who regards him with a little surprise. "By the way, is your shorthand up to scratch, my dear?" He gives a small sideways smirk at Side-step and Culver.
"I'd quite like another 'mass-trespass' session," says Celestina. "Mickey, do you fancy a return to Hendleby's house to find out if anyone's noticed the triggered alarm yet?"
"Well, no-one seemed to have noticed anything this afternoon," remarks Twitchin.
"I'd like to have another go at finding the password for that computer," explains Celestina. "I wondered whether it might be 'Tina.'"
"Call me a hacker extraordinaire, but I would hazard a guess that Hendleby's password may be 'Again bozo,' or maybe I'm just an old Luddite."
"Or perhaps a Simpsons-related word?" suggests Matt.
"Yes, like 'Bart,'" offers John Stone.
"Or 'd'oh!'" suggests Isobel.
"Well, would it not be best to take the whole computer, and bring it to a SITU workshop, so that they can crack the password in their own time?" asks Andrew. No one can think of a sensible objection to this plan.
"Well, how much have we learnt from the things we did recover from the house. Mickey, what luck with the letters?" Stone enquires.
"Not many personal letters. There's a number of bills, one of them a red gas bill. There's an invitation to a wine and cheese party hosted by the Whitby Art Society. Someone's written, 'don't stand us up again, you naughty boy,' on the back of the invitation. There's notification of a number of exhibitions taking place in the area. There's some junk mail, and one or two letters asking after paintings shown on the website. Then there's a blank piece of paper which has just been pushed through the letterbox. It just reads, 'WHERE WERE YOU?' in capital letters, and it's signed with an 'I.'
"What's the earliest postmark among them?" asks Stone.
"Hmm. A week ago. How did you get on with the dictaphone tapes, Dr Culver?"
"All blank and unused, I'm afraid."
"Johnny, did you check the cameras in the dark room to see if they had film inside?" asks Isobel
"Yes, I thought of that. They were all empty."
"Oh yes, that dark room," interposes the Professor. "To my mind, a large, empty chest in a dark room says bedroom. Stick a 100 watt bulb in the room, that'll shock the blighter."
"There wasn't much to learn from the rubbish either," remarks Andrew. "In fact, curiously little. Nearly every dustbin bag is choked with paper of one sort or another. In this bag there were virtually no papers. However, I did find some ashes with fragments of charred paper among them, as if someone has burnt papers before throwing them out. There wasn't that much food in the bag, either. There were no artist paraphernalia either, no empty tubes of paint, or ruined brushes. To judge by the rate of decay, I would guess that the bag had been left outside the house for several days, perhaps as long as a week."
"I'm not sure how much there is left to find in the house," Celestina adds, thoughtfully. "From the looks of it, Hendleby's house has been stripped clean, and not by burglars, not that there seemed to be much to steal there. Various items, presumably incriminating have been removed, including a painting and all personal items. This makes me think that Hendleby has been taken away. Andrew pointed out that there was mouldy clothes in the washer, Hendleby obviously didn't expect to be away very long. Not that any of this helps us very much."
"We might want to broaden the net," suggests Andrew, "and talk to people who might have known Karl Hendleby, such as that old man at the gallery."
"Yeah, and I reckon some of us should start by talking to Peri Lee and Raymond Hawkes," says Side-step.
Isobel repeats her own conversation with Sarah Louise. The group listen with interest, and Professor Twitchin suggests that Isobel might consider engineering a 'chance meeting' with Sarah Louise at some point to consolidate the friendship. He then describes his own meeting with Quentin Kay.
"Do you think he might have some more details of 'alien involvement' in Whitby, or information about the local legends?" enquires Isobel. "If you talk to him again, you might also suggest that he change his surname by deed poll to the letter 'K.' Then SITU would have to call him Operative K, the way he wants." Isobel also expresses an interest in visiting the Dracula Experience.
Several voices are also raised in support of attending a performance of 'Out for the Count,' if it should happen to be a current production.
"Yeah, why not." Side-step meets a few surprised glances, and shrugs. "Well, I don't have anything better to do right now, so I might as well get some light relief."
"One other thing I've noticed," Celestina says slowly, " and this is going to sound quite peculiar - but has anyone else noticed that we're involved in the plot of Dracula? I mean first of all there's Renfield, a much respected intellectual who goes off the rails, and is put in an asylum, where he has fantasies of persecution and rescue by his master and is eventually killed, or in Riggs' case escapes." The three executives familiar with Riggs cannot entirely keep their eyebrows from rising at hearing him compared to a 'much respected intellectual.'
"That is as far as I'm willing to take the coincidence, though of course our group bears a striking resemblance to the one in the book, with two women and six men, that's Harker, Seward, Van Helsing, Holmwood, Morris and of course the Prince of Darkness himself. That would make one of you gentlemen Dracula, and I know who my money's on." Celestina's long brown hand moves to encircle her Baron Samedi fetish. "Of course this is pure hokum, but seeing as we already have theories about vampires flying around, I thought I'd try my own out.
"Celestina's right, we need to keep our options open. So far, everything's screamed 'vampires' at us. Hendleby's house with its absence of mirrors, darkroom with coffin, the whole Dracula thing. It's like a bloody huge cliché come to life, and maybe it's meant to be. Maybe someone somewhere has a vested interest in making us think that vampires exist." He shrugs. "Anyway, I know it's horror movie death, but I do think we need to give the house a second look." He explains his theories about the honeysuckle. Indicating the two steel-bladed garden spades, he catches Side-step's eye. "Won't be the first time we've indulged in a spot of late-night dirt-digging, eh? At least we won't have Gédé to contend with this time." The little, pink talisman around his neck gleams as he absently spins it upon its chain.
A little after half past four, Professor Twitchin strolls back into the little gallery displaying Hendleby's work. His manner is now not that of the casual browser. He strides from painting to painting, casting such piercing, seasoned glances upon them that one might expect even the very paint to tremble self-consciously under his severe, and clearly professional scrutiny.
After some five minutes engaged in such study, he approaches the woman who is reading a copy of 'Now!' behind the till counter.
"I take it that all the paintings in the room are by the same artist? A local man, I understand. Very interesting work. Very precise. Very tactile. I'm sure I could find an outlet for works of this quality in London, and maybe abroad." The Professor watches as the woman surreptitiously puts away her everyday face, and replaces it with the face to be worn for special guests. In her eyes, he guesses, even his slightly shabby clothes now seem the trappings of eccentricity rather than of limited means.
She proceeds to wax lyrical regarding several different pieces, in particular those in the larger price range. Her enthusiasm is if anything augmented when the Professor declares himself similarly interested in the works of Peri Lee.
"I would be interested in talking to both artists, if possible. Could you possible let me know how I might get in touch with them?" The woman is clearly a little reluctant to sacrifice the opportunity to mediate between artist and dealer, but Twitchin succeeds in mollifying her by 'reserving' a number of the larger portraits. He hopes that this will convey no obligation to buy, since between them, the paintings cost a little over two thousand pounds.
"As it happens, I believe the Whitby Art Society will be meeting for lunch the day after tomorrow at Miss Lee's residence. It's all very informal, I'm sure they'd be delighted to have an out of town visitor. I'll telephone Peri and let her know that you'll be coming. You'll find Jane Seagreen there, and Alexander Poe, and Raymond Hawkes, and Peri of course. You probably won't see Mr Hendleby there, though, he's rather detached himself from the rest of the society. He's still very active as an artist, as you can see from the dates on these pictures - all new work. Here, I'll give you their addresses and telephone numbers."
Glancing at the slip of paper she has passed to him, the Professor notices that there is a different telephone number listed for Karl Hendleby's 'studio.'
"Oh yes, he does have a studio. Generally he doesn't like people to know where it is - doesn't like to be interrupted in his work. But I can't see him minding in this case. The studio's in a sort of shack on the clifftop, half a mile south-east along the Cleveland way. It's a very pretty walk."
Watching from outside, Wotan Andrew Weiser sees the Professor engaged in conversation with the proprietess of the gallery. He observes as the woman shows Twitchin into another of the side-rooms leaving the main hall unsupervised.
He quickly surveys the paintings on display. One shows a lone figure walking across the water towards Whitby harbour. Behind him the moon is greenish-white, like tarnished marble, and clouds are gathering in his wake.
Another painting shows a dark, Goya-like rendering of the interior of St Mary's church. In the gloom, half a dozen expressionless, white masks hang unsupported. From behind one gleam human eyes.
After a few minutes, he selects the small picture of the man walking upon water, since it seems likely to be concealable under his coat. It shows the abbey, apparently awash with spectral sulphur yellow flame. Andrew has lifted it from the wall and taken a number a number of steps towards the door before he is arrested by a loud, meaningful cough.
"Can I help you, sir?" The old man previously seen in the little private office is standing at the back of the hall regarding Andrew with thinly veiled suspicion.
"Yes, actually. I was starting to wonder if anyone worked here." Andrew strides to the counter, and brings the painting down upon the counter with an indignant thud. "What kind of business is this, keeping customers waiting for half an hour?" The old man's suspicion is clearly not entirely abated by Andrew's belligerent manner. He walks ponderously around to stand behind the counter.
"I suppose you've got the money to pay for that, have you, sir?" Andrew has little choice, given his story, but to pay the £50 price for the painting. He places the receipt in his wallet, hoping that he can reclaim the funds from SITU at a later point.
"Do you mind if we have a quick chat?" John Stone's voice wakes Culver from the reverie into which he had sunk. He flashes a smile of consent at the other doctor and moves his glass so that Stone has room to set his own drink down.
"I hope you don't mind me asking you this as one professional to another, but I'm a little concerned about your friend Side-step. He seems to be suffering from severe anxieties, xenophobia and even gynophobia."
Culver gives a small involuntary grimace. He had been somewhat surprised by the extremity of Side-step's reaction to the arrival of the female investigators. Then again, the extremity of a lot of Side-step's reactions tended to be surprising.
"What is it with his problem with strangers? We have been in the field before, so it can't be just our inexperience that bothers him. Is he an insecure chap? Afraid of change? Unable to trust others? And this thing with women, what is that all about? Do you think it could be the result of any past trauma?"
"Well, if so, I don't think it's a trauma that happened on one of our little outings." John Stone shows great interest in hearing more of the other group's previous missions.
"There's one thing I can tell you about Side-step." Culver leans forward, confidentially. "He is definitely, categorically... coming this way with a drink in his hand. Let's finish this conversation another time, mmm?"
A quick tour of the local bookshops and newsagents have supplied Isobel with an armful of new reading matter. Returning to her room, she begins a quick scan of the books and pamphlets that her investigation have yielded.
She learns that while Hild was abbess at Whitby, or Streaneshalch, as it was then known, the monastic order that she governed had gained celebrity through the work of a man named Caedmon, who became known as 'the Father of English Poetry.' According to legend, Caedmon was a shy man, who preferred to spend his time herding cows, rather than singing with the choir. However, one night Brother Caedmon had dreamt that an angel had visited him, and commanded him to sing. When he awoke, Caedmon discovered that he was possessed of a fine voice, and felt himself inspired to praise the Lord in English verse. His song, "The Song of Creation," is the earliest known poem in English, and a sandstone cross dedicated to the poet stands in St Mary's churchyard.
The original abbey was apparently destroyed by Viking raiders. Another abbey was built on the same foundations in the 13th century. This building still stands in a ruined state, although somewhat damaged by shells from German gunboats during the First World War.
Whitby is also the birthplace of Captain Cook, and the harbour in which all four of his ships, the Discovery, the Endeavour, the Adventure and the Resolution were built.
The harbour has been, at different times, the focus for a thriving whaling community, a fashionable jet industry and large scale smuggling.
Twitchin has barely had time to close his hotel room door behind him, before the phone rings.
"A Luke Twitchin to speak to you. I'll put you through."
"Grandad, I did what you said and printed out the images from the website. I posted them to you just now. I got to use Dad's printer, his new one, 'cos he's not here at the moment. The Prime Minister told him to go to Wales to attempt to control a situation, or something. His office phoned up our house, and I thought Dad was going to go spare. He's gone to Pembrokeshire, and he didn't remember to lock his office."
With regret, Twitchin reflects that the postcard sent to his son will not reach him for some time. Then he brightens as he wonders how many people in Theo's prestigious office will have a chance to see the postcard before Theo returns to prevent it circulating.
"This is bloody ridiculous." Alone in his hotel room, Culver has laid out the heads of garlic on the side of the sink. Hands swathed in latex gloves, he carefully starts to crush them with the base of a small pill bottle. The purple skins of the little cloves crack and split, the white flesh breaking and oozing in an oily fashion. He raises the bottle for an instant to wipe the base, and accidentally inhales a mouthful of air heavily fragrant with garlic.
"Shit." His eyes immediately water and sting, as if he were cutting onions. The smell strikes the back of his throat like a little fist, and for an instant he has the uncomfortable suspicion that his throat is swelling up, narrowing his air passages. He backs away from the sink, and takes a minute or two to breath deeply before returning to his task.
When the last clove has been rendered into a pulp, he gingerly sweeps the odorous mess into the sink, which he fills with water. After a small hesitation, he takes from his pocket a hip flask which he had filled from the font at St Mary's before leaving the church. The 'holy water' contained in the flask is added to the garlic water.
A little after midnight, five figures meet a little distance from the Cove Hotel. Culver is the last of the four to arrive. His eyes look a little swollen, and he is dressed in dyed-black combats, DMS, gloves and biker jacket. Under one arm, he carries an amorphous bundle swathed in black polythene dustbin liners. Side-step, Andrew, Mickey and Celestina are all similarly dressed in subdued, dark clothing.
Cautiously, they proceed towards Hendleby's house once more. The little speakers in the burglar alarm seem to have given up the ghost, and the street is still.
Once the group have reached the shelter of the back yard, Culver removes the black polythene covering from the two spades and the pump-action water pistols.
"Don't laugh! This garlic water could save your life! Hey, Side-step, what do vegetarian worms eat?" He pauses, dramatically. "Linda McCartney!" His face falls suddenly. "Hush! Someone's passing." The five pale faces of the SITU members hover silently in the shadow, mouths slightly open as they labour to breathe silently. For a moment they remind Andrew of the masks in Hendleby's picture.
Somewhere on the street, a door shuts, with a click. Then there follow the neat, echoing clip, clip, clip of passing feet. A long stride, a confident stride, making no effort to muffle the slap of the sole. The steps approach the fence behind which the party hide. They approach, they pass, they slow, they pause.
With great difficulty, Culver manages to subdue the sound of his breathing. His lungs seem again to be filling with the garlic gas, and he is aware of an irritant warmth stealing over his skin. The rash on the backs of his hands, under the gloves, itches abominably.
A pause, and then once again the clap, clap, clap of leather on cobbles. The step move away swiftly, and fade.
It is decided that Side-step and Andrew will ply their spades in front of the house, while the other three enter the house one last time.
Digging the front garden proves to be an unrewarding task. A long, hot summer has baked the soil like a kiln, and it is with great effort that the two excavators succeed in pitting it with their spades. The roots of the honeysuckle do not appear to have been previously disturbed, although both men harbour severe doubts as to whether the plant will ever recover from the investigation in progress.
They quickly start to suspect that it is the dry, hard soil that is to blame for the plant's demise. A foot below the surface, the soil is as resistant as ever, and there is no sign that anything has been buried in the spot.
At the back of the house, Mickey pushes the door open, and then stands staring at it.
"I didn't pick the lock this time. It was just open." He stoops and stares at the door frame, noticing a splintered square hole in the wood. "Something's torn the lock right out of the frame." The trespassers glance at one another. With a faint sense of the ridiculous nature of the situation, Culver and Mickey shoulder water pistols. The three investigators peer into the darkness of the kitchen. From within comes a faint drip, drip, dripping.
The party move into the kitchen, gingerly, before turning on their torches. One beam travels up a table leg like a willo-the-wisp, resting upon a mass of red that smears the table top, giving the watchers a queasy moment before they realise that the gleaming chips of light that speckle it are fragments of a jar of strawberry jam. On the window sill, the carcase of a milk carton bleeds its contents shapelessly into the sink. A cream-coloured fan-shape spatters the window where the carton must have struck the glass. The front door of one of the pine cabinets is now hanging from one hinge, and it appears that most of the objects from the cabinet have been removed, and cast around the kitchen with some violence. Fragments of broken glass and china crunch under the soles of the three intruders.
Celestina, Mickey and Culver conduct a quick search of the rest of the house, feeling slightly absurd as they abruptly round corners, neon-green and orange supersoakers raised to shoulder level. The entire house appears, like the kitchen, to be in a state of disarray, less ransacked than ripped apart. The Michelle Pfeiffer calendar has been ripped through and thrown upon the floor, and the sofa has been overturned. The monitor of the computer has been smashed, but fortunately the computer has escaped intact.
"This must have made a lot of noise. How come the police aren't here?"
"Maybe the police aren't here yet."
"Let's get out of here." The trio pause only long enough to take possession of the computer, and to take a photograph of the mud under the bed. A few fragments of this mud are also taken, wrapped in a handkerchief. The two diggers in front of the house are soon apprised of the situation. As the group depart, Celestina thinks she sees a net curtain twitch at the window of the house opposite.
At breakfast the next day, the adventure of the night is discussed. It is decided to give Hendleby's street a wide berth for an interval, since it seems unlikely that such devastation could have been wreaked upon the premises without attracting the attention of the neighbours, and probably the police.
"Well, I'd like to spend the morning visiting the Hermitage, so I can get a feel for the place," remarks Isobel. It is decided that Mickey and Celestina will accompany her to the spot.
Side-step has received a brown envelope in the post, which proves to contain the promised personnel files. As soon as he has finished eating, he retreats to his room to peruse them.
The accompanying letter starts by asserting that, as far as SITU are aware, there are no deposits of ytterbium in the immediate vicinity of Whitby. It is signed by Piner.
The personnel files are fairly skeletal. In the case of the Director, Paul Wilkinson, the biography is particularly minimalist. It gives a list of the schools he attended in Kent, and of his BA in Law at Birmingham University. The next ten years of his life are simply described as having been spent in 'industry.' From a footnote, it is clear that in the wake of Riggs' disappearance, SITU thought it best to assign Wilkinson to a post elsewhere.
Side-step flicks through the potted biographies until he reaches the names of the engineers and technical support staff. There are seven of these, working in shifts. At the time of Riggs' disappearance, there were four on duty.
The head of technical support is Ian Brookland. Brookland is 44, married, with one small daughter, and lives in Littlebeck. To judge from his curriculum vitae, he appears to be a competent Jack-of-all-Trades, with experience ranging from electrician to software engineer. His previous employers include a computer games company, and a shipping company. He has been working for SITU for a year.
He is assisted by two younger staff. Linda Jetling has recently qualified for a Level 1 NVQ in Electrical Maintenance. She is twenty-two, and has only performed a sequence of temporary jobs, several of them menial or secretarial. She has been working at the safe house for four months. Mark Myer is twenty-nine, and apparently left school at sixteen with only three O'Levels. According to the file, he was trained to a high standard of electronic expertise by his father. After working for a series of different firms, all of them apparently small and local, Mark now workes part time with SITU, and has done so for a little over half a year.
Jacqueline Steel has worked as 'Information Technology' officer for a branch of Lloyds' bank, for a lawyer's firm called 'Minor and Smedling,' and for two local universities. She has been working for SITU for two years, and is responsible for maintaining the computerised aspect of the safe house's day-to-day running.
"This is it." Mickey lays his hand on the dank, green shell of the little hermitage.
Isobel ducks her head, and enters. Looking about her, she remembers Stone's description of the ambience of the place... clammy, uncomfortable. She seats herself upon the earth floor, and tries to rid herself of preconceptions. Outside, she can see Celestina with her notebook, ready to note down her friend's impressions.
Gently, Isobel touches the ruffled earth of the hermitage floor. Closing her eyes, she imagines someone carefully raking the earth, combing it back to anonymity. Why? What were they hiding?
After a while, against the reddish darkness behind her closed lids, she almost starts to see her own hand as it reaches out and strokes the earth, strokes it, pulls its fingers through the soil. But the hand in her mind's eye is longer than hers, whiter than hers, and its motion is not entirely synchronised with that of hers. On an impulse, she changes the pattern of her hand's motion to fix that traced by the ghost hand. It traces a shape in the sand; she apes this weaving with her own finger.
Isobel opens her eyes, and stares at the shape in the dirt.
"Isobel? Are you alright?" From within the hermitage, comes the sound of a faint scuffling, punctuated by muffled thuds. "Isobel?" Celestina stoops to peer in through the crude doorway. Isobel is frenetically scattering the loose earth, and stamping it flat with the heel of her hand.
"It was an eye. The shape in the earth was an eye. It saw me."
A long exhalation of a breeze is passing through the balding trees, like a long sigh of realization or recognition.
Lunch is a somewhat taciturn affair. Most of the group responsible for the second break-in the night before have had a chance to make up for their lost sleep. However, Isobel is still somewhat pale and shaken. Culver, also, appears to be unusually weary and lacklustre. He manages a few remarks which draw smiles from the rest of the company, but this clearly takes considerable effort.
Andrew has spent the morning visiting local newsagents and art shops, and has acquired a leaflet advertising 'Out for the Count.' The group learn that the penultimate performance of the run is taking place that afternoon, at the newly opened community hall, and decide to attend en masse, after visiting the much publicised 'Dracula Experience.'
"Are you sure this is it? I was expecting something bigger - something a little more Gothic and impressive."
From the street, the 'Dracula Experience' could, indeed, almost be mistaken for another shop, albeit one before which the local tourists seem unusually enthusiastic to be photographed by their friends. The SITU operatives have to edge past a couple who are all but obstructing the doorway as they pose for their friend's camera. The woman stands in a mock-horrified recoil, hands raised, while her male counterpart bares plastic fangs, and leans forward as if with designs upon her jugular.
Queuing behind some six or seven school-children suffering from varying degrees of nervous anticipation, the group each pay their £1.95 for entry, and shuffle into the darkened rooms beyond. The Dracula Experience turns out to be comprised of some nine or ten clumsily constructed 'scenes' from the novel, most making use of animatronic figures. Although somewhat laughable from an adult perspective, the weird, repetitive movements in the dim light is enough to frighten many of the visiting children.
Isobel discovers two girls of about eleven or twelve, hovering at the doorway of one of the larger rooms, and balancing on the knife edge between pleasurable and unpleasurable fear.
"We've got to go through to get out of here, let's go... Oh no, I can't, I can't!" Up on the gallery set into the wall in the larger hall, a life-size model of a man in a sweeping black cloak turns its face towards the door, then back, mouth for ever wide in a snarl. "Get back, he's looking at us!"
"I can't bear to go back either, through all those rooms," whispers the other, twisting her blond ponytail around her finger.
"How shall we get out then? What can we do?"
Isobel's arrival is received as a solution to the problem. Laughing a little, she consents to accompany the two girls to the exit, and thus ensure that the animatronic dummy on the gallery did not take it into his mechanical head to vault the rail and assault them at floor level. She advances through the great hall, each coat sleeve grasped firmly by small hands. Each time the dummy above turns his head, the two girls dart backwards to hide themselves behind Isobel, almost dragging her to a stop. However, eventually the three person convoy succeed in passing through the room.
Side-step wanders through door after door, hands in pockets. He pauses next to the glass case containing the cape worn by Christopher Lee in "Dracula, Prince of Darkness." According to the card, the cloak weighs 56 kilos. Even unoccupied, it looms in the little room, dwarfing the diminutive figure of the observer.
The Dracula Experience terminates in a gift shop, in which the school children are hurrying to the till with plastic skeleton, miniature vampire capes, red-eyed plastic rats and glow-in-the-dark fangs.
"Do you have a booking? Well, don't worry, we've got lots of seats free this evening." The broad-faced girl carefully tears out eight tickets from the book in her hand. She is seated outside the little community hall at a desk which could only have been commandeered from a local primary school. The little plastic bucket chair upon which she perches seems to be a companion to the desk. Being a creature of generous and healthy proportions, the girl looks a little like a fairy-tale giantess when contrasted with the tiny furniture.
"It's five pounds for standard, three for discount. Discount for students, OAPs, and Friends of the Whitby Art Society. It's just twenty pounds to become a Friend, and it's for life. And you get a little badge. Do you have your student card with you sir? Never mind, I'll take your word for it."
Within the community hall resembles the main hall of a small school, with row upon row of uncomfortable looking chairs facing a small raised platform, or 'stage.' There is a narrow gallery to the left, where a couple of youths are visible, one tapping nervously at various pieces of equipment, the other leaning precariously over the balustrade to adjust the great stage lights that hang clumsily over the stage.
Abruptly the lights go out. The change is so sudden that a few moments pass before the audience can be sure that this is in fact intentional, and not the fruits of an unexpected power failure, of technical fault. However after a second or two there is a faint electronic crackle, followed by the sound of someone saying in what is probably meant to be an undertone, "one, two, three, now." There is a dull click. Through speakers at either side of the stage, the black box on the gallery starts to speak with the voice of a violin. A few haunting phrases are uttered, uttered somewhat melodramatically, the occasional asthmatic crack and spit betraying the electronic origin of the music.
There is a sharp, thick hissing, as dry ice is churned from hidden jets under the stage.
Then the false violin falls into silence, as if abashed, and another voice takes its place. This is full and real, broken only by the soft, rough sound of a breath being taken between one line and the next. The words are in Latin, but there is nothing dead or clinical in the voicing of the strange words. Living feeling seems to have violated and intruded upon the clear, clinical vowels, and the effects of the outrage are electrifying. The song itself might be a hymn or a prayer, but it is sung like a love song, a lament, a complaint.
A halo is growing in the centre of the stage. In the centre of the growing spot of light stands a figure, a female figure. As the light becomes more intense, it becomes apparent that she is dressed in sombre period dress, a twilight grey frock coat covering a simple blue gown with a full, Victorian skirt reaching down the ground. A bonnet hangs down her back, suspended from the pale grey ribbon fastened at her throat. Her hands, hidden by black lace gloves, are raised towards the light that bathes her. Her hair is meticulously plaited and arranged upon her head.
It is the position in which she stands, arms raised as if to beckon or appeal, that strikes a chord in Side-step's mind. He suddenly recalls the Hendleby painting at the exhibition, upon which his bored eyes had rested for a little while, the picture of the female figure reaching from the waves. Although the garb and the circumstances are very different, he is abruptly aware of a strong similarity between the face in the painting, and that of the girl upon the stage.
He tugs the sleeve of his nearest companion, and whispers. Celestina has a program, and quickly scrutinises the cast list. Quickly, she discovers that one of the names at the top of the list is that of Tina Mamba.
Meanwhile, Stone has made another discovery. Happening to glance his shoulder, he notes another man sitting several rows back, his face radiant with delighted anticipation. Stone recognises the man as the elusive Emmanuel.