The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
"Hello? Anyone in?"
"Oh my," whispers the Professor. "Which of us looks most like a policeman?" There is a space of about a second during which the members of the party look at one another and assess their chances of impersonating such officials. Then, as one, they leap into activity.
Andrew quickly positions himself beside the front door, so that he will have the opportunity to leap upon the newcomer if necessary. Celestina, Isobel and John Stone all but bang shoulders running on tiptoe for the only other visible door at the far right of the studio. This door proves to be open onto a small cupboard room, full of dusty easels, tins of paint, and cobweb-wreathed rolls of canvas. There is barely room for one person to squeeze in among the debris.
Spotting a small window at the top of the opposite wall, John Stone begins gingerly scaling the heap of assorted paraphernalia, and succeeds in hoisting himself up to the window. It opens outwards, and is just big enough to allow him to wriggle out through the gap. When his legs have disappeared from view through the window, Celestina squeezes into the cupboard, and wedges herself in amongst the junk.
Isobel retreats from the little cupboard room, spends a few panicky instants glancing around the room in search of a hiding place, then notices a small cupboard under the one of the worktops. Quickly dislodging a few cans and rags from their place on the inner shelf, she secretes herself within, tucking her knees up to her chin, and pulling the doors to behind her. The discomfort of her position is not improved by the awareness that something cold and wet, perhaps paint, is soaking up through the seat of her skirt.
The Professor, meanwhile, runs gingerly to a dustsheet which has been draped over one of the easels, and tweaks it off. In doing to he exposes the hunched figure of Side-step who has used the cover of the sheet as a hiding place. Meeting his associate's scowl with an apologetic glance, the Professor replaces the sheet, and snatches a dustsheet from the neighbouring easel instead.
His attempts to conceal the body under the sheet are not a total success. The sheet is of less than generous proportions, and as it is thrown over the corpse it drapes it over the length of wood protruding some two and a half feet from the young man's chest, and forms a shape not unlike a miniature white tent, from beneath which the dead man's head and legs protrude.
"Hello?" There is a tentative knock at the door.
Andrew catches the eye of Culver, who has drawn close to the door. He gives a gesture of his head in the direction of the stranger, and mouths the words, shall I knock him down? Culver shakes his head.
After a few fruitless attempts to tug the corners of the sheet over the protruding extremities of the corpse, the Professor tries to drag it from sight by the ankles. However, he soon deduces that the wooden staff through the chest of the corpse has been driven right into the floor of the studio, and that it will take more than his strength to move it. As this becomes clear, he abandons the now slightly disarranged body, pausing only to snatch the photograph of Benedict Riggs from the central easel..
Finding the largest cupboard full of Isobel Blyth, he resorts to a little cupboard under the wash basin near the door, nestling with distaste between the dusty pipes, his feet causing a faint clatter among several jars of turpentine in which paint-logged brushes are soaking.
Culver takes a deep breath, and strides to the door. He opens it, and greets the somewhat surprised gaze of the young stranger with a broad smile.
"Hendleby, I presume? Hope you don't mind our taking advantage of your answering machine - the door was open, after all." With a flourish he produces a business card, and presses it into the young man's hand.
"I... I'm not actually..." The young man seems to be a little bemused, and halts his sentence to smile uncertainly, as if he hoped that a friendly manner would compensate for incoherency. "Um... I think... um."
"I'm Dr Matt Culver," Culver continues mercilessly, "and these are my associates from the Greater London Hospitals Arts Committee." He turns to wave a hand at his companions, and finds that only Andrew and Micky stand behind him. "We're on the hunt for promising young artists for an upcoming exhibition at the Maudsley. The theme's 'Madness And Man,' and you, my dear fellow, are just what we're looking for. Quite, quite outstanding!"
"Thank you. That is... I'm afraid I'm not what you think..."
"Don't be so modest! I mean, this, ah, installation piece," Culver throws the door wide, and for the first time offers the stranger a direct view of the staked body in the centre of the room, "surely your crowning glory!" Despite being a little surprised to see the dustsheet shrouding the corpse's midriff, Culver manages to avoid any break in his monologue. "Metamorphosis, yes? Echoes of Hirst's butterflies, perhaps, but so much more transcendent in its effortless humanity. And those flesh tones! May I take a closer look?"
The newcomer's jaw drops open as the scene within the studio is revealed to his gaze. His large eyes widen to almost cartoon-like proportions, and he raises both hands to cover his open mouth. For a while he seems to have forgotten Culver's presence. When the doctor's flippant chatter does seem to impinge upon his awareness once again, he looks at Culver with a mixture of appalment, bewilderment and incredulity.
He takes a few steps forward and crouches by the body, gingerly lifting the edge of the sheet. With one forefinger, he touches the skin of the dead man's neck.
"I'm not the artist," he says quietly, "and this isn't art."
"What?" Culver takes a few steps forward. He allows the expression on his face to ease from blithe good cheer to incomprehension, then to realisation and horror. "You don't mean... you mean that that's a real..." He draws a ragged breath, and then half-runs from the room. Sounds of retching ensue from outside the front door.
Andrew joins the newcomer by the side of the corpse, and stoops, as if to inspect the body properly for the first time.
"I suppose we'd better call the police," he says.
"Hmm? Yes, oh yes. Let's see if Mr Hendleby has a phone." The stranger glances around the room, then pauses, once again wearing his rather vague but good-natured smile. "Ah. Yes. I should explain. I'm not Mr Hendleby, you see, he's just a friend of mine. I'm Cato Montmorency."
Cato leans forward to examine the features of the dead man, a small silver ankh swinging from a slender chain around his neck. "Looks like Rain," he says, quietly.
"It looks like Rain - I think this is Rain. I don't know him very well, Mr Hendleby introduced us once. Ryan Rain. He has an angel of a bike - a Harley. Had an angel of bike, I mean."
Micky, meanwhile, has slipped on his gloves, and under cover of 'looking for a phone,' takes the opportunity to make a quick search of the studio while Andrew keeps Cato talking. He takes pains not to extend his search to the many parts of the studio which are actually occupied by hidden SITU members.
One of the canvases has a skin of brown paper taped to its back. Noticing something pressing against the paper from within, Micky gingerly prises the tape loose, and looks inside. Within he glimpses large brown paper envelope. Carefully, he slides one gloved hand down between the canvas and the paper back, and succeeds in pulling out the envelope, which he quickly slips under his jacket, making sure that the act is hidden from those in the centre of the room.
After a few minutes, Culver returns, still feigning a degree of shakiness and nausea. He apologises profusely for his interval of absence, and listens as Cato introduces himself.
"We thought we should call the police," adds Micky, "but we can't find a phone."
"Could there be one through the door over there?" Cato points to the door of the cupboard room in which Celestina is concealed.
"No, it's just a cupboard, I've looked," Micky says, quickly.
"Perhaps it would be easier if we went back to mine and used the phone there. You don't look very well, Mr..." Cato scrutinises the business card with which he has been presented, "Dr Culver. I'm sure that Lydia wouldn't forgive me unless I brought you back and let her give you one of her herbal teas. Lydia's my sister. Her herbal teas are the best in England - she makes them herself. There's nothing like her tea when you've had a shock."
Recognising that succumbing to Cato's gently insistent invitation is the best way to remove him from the scene so that their secreted colleagues can leave their hiding places, the three SITU members agree to accompany the young man back to his house. As they approach the door, they become aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. To their surprise, they see John Stone walking nonchalantly along the path towards the studio. He regards his colleagues without the slightest trace of recognition.
"Good afternoon. I wonder if you can help me. I'm looking for Karl Hendleby - do you know if this is his studio?"
Guessing that for his own reason Stone wishes to seem a stranger to the rest of the party, Andrew proceeds to describe the discovery of the body to the 'new arrival.' Stone feigns surprise and concern, and introduces himself as a doctor who has been recruited by a group of Hendleby's friends who had become increasingly worried about the young artist.
"From what I hear, he's been becoming increasingly compulsive in his behaviour, even obsessive. A lot of people have been worrying about both his mental and physical health."
"Are you sure you mean Karl Hendleby? Gosh. Nothing ever seems to worry Karl - he always seems to have an answer for everything. Oh well, I guess I'm not a very good judge of character. Gosh. Compulsive and obsessive." After recovering from his initial shock, Cato seems to be adapting quite fast to the turn which events have taken, in the way that placid, phlegmatic temperaments often do. His manner is friendly, but passive, almost languid, as if he were perpetually half awake, and his motions have an uncoordinated, gangling vagueness, like those of a crane fly. By the time the fivesome are nearing Whitby once more, the little crease of concern in Cato's brow has all but faded, and he is again wearing his affable somnambulist's smile.
"Coast clear," hisses Side-step, disentangling himself from the sheet.
"Oh dear." The Professor carefully extricates himself from his hiding place under the sink, amid the chime of turpentine jars. "This could be a murder - we could be implicated. Oh, good gracious... I can see the headlines now. 'Cabinet Minister's Father in Vampire Slaughter: PM Stands By Him'..."
"Relax, the Montmorency guy didn't see you. Now, let's search this place then get the flock out of here before the police show up and we do have a problem."
Celestina clambers out of the cupboard room. Behind her, there is a slithering grate of wood sliding against wood, culminating in a subdued clatter, as the pile of easels subside. A small cloud of dust accompanies her through the door. Isobel climbs out of her own cupboard, and gingerly stretches her cramped limbs. She swiftly discovers that, as she had feared, a large blot of sky-blue paint the size of her palm now adheres to the back of her skirt.
Professor Twitchin walks back to the prone form of the man pinned to the studio floor, and studies him for a few minutes.
"Our young visitor may be right about the identity of this man. We certainly have no reason to believe that it is Hendleby. After all I've just realised we are looking for a blighter who we are not quite sure who we are looking for. If you get my drift." Twitchin's colleagues stare at him blankly. "Let's see if the fellow has any ID. Here we are... driving licence, credit cards, in the name of Ryan Rain." Besides these, the dead man's wallet contains a folded map of the Cleveland Way with Hendleby's studio labelled on it, a couple of pieces of notepaper with telephone numbers on them, and about thirty pounds. His pockets also hold a bunch of keys, and a length of chain on the end of which is attached an ugly looking metal hook. The chain is some three feet long.
"A scientific approach is required, I believe," he says, eventually. "Hmm. Assuming this is not a vampire, then for no blood to spurt out he must have been dead for several hours to allow the clotting to develop. I've read my Patricia Cornwell - I must have mislaid Umberto Eco that particular evening.
"Also, according to the vampire canon, well, Hammer Horror films anyway, this poor chap was no vamp. Look at him, lying in the sunlight with a stake through his heart... should be nothing left of him but a pile of dust. Ergo - someone stumbled upon his corpse and spiked it. QED." He stands back from the body, and rolls a cigarette.
No trace can be found of anything that fits the description of a 'coffin-like' box. In one corner of the studio, under a cloth, the group finds a large cardboard box. At first sight this appears to be full of empty canvases. Under the first two canvases, however, they find about two dozen tins of spaghetti and sauce, baked beans and soup, a small camp stove, and a large supply of candles and matches.
It is hard to say how recently the studio has been occupied. The oil on one or two of the paintings can be smudged, but no-one in the studio is quite sure how long an oil painting would take to dry. Some empty baked bean cans can be found in a refuse sack in the cupboard room. In some of these the sauce has had time to harden and dry a little. It seems likely that the cans have been there for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or so.
After half an hour or so of thorough search, the four agents abandon the studio, taking care to remove all evidence of their visit as best they can.
"Here we are."
Culver, Stone, Micky and Andrew are confronted with two large, black double doors, plastered with fraying posters, some of them clearly several years old. One of them shows a pair of women in bikinis, pouting and toting rocket launchers, their tanned limbs liberally anointed with camouflage paint. The lettering of the poster is all but hidden beneath another poster with overlays the first. This shows a woman in a mortarboard and a rather minimalist academic gown. She is bending a cane in her hands, and appears to be wearing stockings and stilettos. Beneath this picture is the legend, "For all you naughty boys - does Linda have a lesson for YOU!"
Above the door faded the faded gilt lettering reads "Arabian Nights Theatre - ask within at the booking office for tickets." The seedy little cinema makes a startling contrast with the dowdy fishermen's cottages that surround it.
A padlock hangs uselessly from one of the door handles, its chain filed through. Cato pushes the door open.
"I hope you don't mind if I don't put the light on. You see, we do have electricity, but the people paying the bills don't as such know that we're here. Not as such." Cato leads his guests down a narrow, damp-smelling, carpeted corridor to a little foyer.
"The 'Arabian Nights' used to back onto a sort of working men's club, you see. Both in the same building, both under the same management, both with their electricity on the same circuit. Well, the management went broke, and both of them got closed down. Anyway, about four years ago, someone bought up the building, and made the working men's club bit into a museum on the history of Whitby. So now there's power all over the building, including this bit. But we don't use too much, 'cos we don't want them to notice."
A shutter is drawn down over the window at the little booking office. The shutter has been painted black, and covered with sequins. Cato taps at the metal of the shutter very gently, his fingertips making a sound like rain.
"Lydia? We've got guests."
"Guests? Who is it? I can't come out." The voice that sounds from within is tired, faint and child-like. "I cut off my zip this morning, and now my top won't close. What shall I do, Cato?"
"I'll be back in a moment," whispers Cato to his guests, then disappears through the door into the booking office. There are muffled sounds of two voices, then a noise that sounds for all the world like someone tearing strips from a roll of sellotape.
About three minutes later, Cato reappears, carrying a slender girl of about fifteen in his arms. Lydia Montmorency is unusually striking, not least because her unruly, shoulder-length hair has been dyed a soft and even blue. Her cheekbones are pronounced and broad, like those indicating Slav ancestry, and her hazel eyes are slanting, heavy lidded, and widely spaced like those of her brother. She seems to think nothing of being carried about like a doll, and lets her head sink against her brother's shoulder. Slumbrous and slightly dazed good looks seem to be something of a family characteristic.
She is wearing a tight PVC catsuit, and thigh-high leather boots. The agents try not to stare at the lengths of black masking tape which have clearly just been applied to hold the front of the suit closed. Her tight garments accentuate the fact that she is painfully, unhealthily thin.
Cato introduces his guests to his sister in a gentle voice, and explains the reason for their visit.
"So they've had a shock, and they need some of your tea. Shall we have tea in the screen room?"
Lydia pushes the tip of a pale, pink tongue between her lips, and puts her head on one side to consider.
"Yes," she says. "Let's have tea with the Countess."
'Tea with the Countess,' turns out to mean sitting in the front row of the little cinema theatre, watching an elderly black-and-white film called 'Dracula's Daughter' while Lydia perches on the edge of the raised platform that lies before the screen, pouring tea into mugs. Cato has excused himself, and left to telephone the police. It emerges that when talking of 'his' phone, the young man had been referring to a payphone just outside the cinema.
The film is a little dated, and the picture quality a little erratic, but the four guests soon gather that comments to such effect will not be welcomed by their little hostess.
"That's Gloria Holden. Isn't she beautiful? I wish I looked like that. But she's very tortured because she doesn't want to be a vampire. And she's in love with Otto Kruger, but he likes the annoying woman with the silly hair..." Lydia reclines along the platform like an ailing imp, her weird, delicate form silhouetted against the action on the screen.
The herbal tea is somewhat minty in flavour, a little insipid, but not unpleasant.
The four visitors think it tactful to wait until the end of the film before leaving.
Isobel, Celestina and the Professor arrive back at the hotel well before the rest of the party. Side-step has explained that he has a little shopping to do in town, and arranges to meet them back at the hotel. After returning to their rooms to change out of clothes that show telltale traces of paint, dust and grime, the three agents move into the restaurant to drink coffee and wait for the others..
Twitchin catches Isobel's eye, and a little ruefully raises the subject of the shorthand book.
"Thanks very much for the book, my dear. Sadly, I don't think this old dog can learn that sort of new trick - I may invest in one of those dictaphone thingies though... most ingenious."
"Oh, yes, the book..." Isobel suddenly gives the Professor a warm smile. "Look, Professor, all I really want is to be treated as an intelligent equal in this mission, do you see?"
"Indeed, indeed. By the way, that was a first rate speech by young Celestina, don't you think? Couldn't agree more." Twitchin and Isobel exchange smiles, and the atmosphere noticeably thaws.
"Oh yes," cuts in Side-step, appearing beside the table, "how is our token Suffragette this fine afternoon?" He pulls up an empty chair, and seats himself beside Celestina.
"Again you're a little behind the times," Celestina answers crisply. "Women's suffrage was introduced a long time ago."
"Just for the record," continues Side-step, "regardless of what you think, I don't expect women to be 'bare footed and pregnant in the kitchen.' Let's just say I personally am not comfortable around them. Nothing personal, just the way I am. I'm all in favour of equal rights, so get off my case. Oh, and whilst we're on the subject of prejudice, I think you should take a leaf out of your own book and lay off the ageism crap you keep throwing at the Prof. here. He may be a little more advanced in years than the rest of us, but we could never have managed without his input during our last couple of ops."
He stands once more, as if to leave, then pauses, and reaches into his pocket.
"Almost forgot. I bought you a present." He pulls out a handful of something black and gauzy and tosses it onto the table. A black, lace bra lands on the table before Celestina, draping itself over her coffee mug. "Figured you burned all yours long ago. No need to thank me. Don't worry if it's too big, the shop said you could exchange it if you needed to."
Without waiting for a reply he strides from the room. One cup of the black bra gradually fills with coffee.
Celestina's mind is still on the incident with Side-step a little after half past three, when she is called to the telephone at reception. Perhaps toad ju-ju bags have their advantages after all, she thinks wryly, even as she takes the receiver from the woman behind the reception desk.
Isobel, who is waiting for Celestina at the foot of the stairs, sees her friend's expression change, and the other woman's face grow pale under the tan.
"When... is it serious? Do they know when she'll be out of hospital? Is she conscious? Good, at least... what? She said what? I see. Yes. I see. Yes, I'll be there as soon as I can. Thank you. Goodbye." She replaces the receiver a little clumsily in the cradle, and for a moment stares unseeing at Isobel, her face drawn and anxious. Then she shakes herself a little, and recovers her composure.
"I have to leave immediately - Isobel, please make my apologies to the others. My grandmother is ill - she's had a stroke - a very serious stroke. She has been asking for me, and getting quite distressed about my absence. Apparently, she claims that just before the stroke she was granted a vision... a vision of a shadow that is to fall across someone's destiny."
"A shadow that is to fall across someone's destiny? Upon whose destiny?"
When Culver, Andrew, Stone and Micky return to the hotel, Isobel breaks the news of Celestina's sudden departure. All are concerned by the ominous nature of the event that has demanded her absence, and the general mood is subdued as the group retire to Stone's room to revise their over all strategy.
"We have no reason to think that this vision of Celestina's grandmother has any bearing on our mission," Stone points out, when the door has closed behind them. "We've got to stop seeing the eerie and the weird, the spooky and paranormal in everything we encounter. The thing with the plant outside the Hendleby's house - it died due to lack of care, nothing more. Try to be a little more detached, a little more logical. Otherwise we are playing into the 'bad guys'' hands."
"Yes, and, um, just to scotch one rumour," interposes Culver, "reports of my own undeath are grossly exaggerated, OK? I've got a bloody garlic allergy - I am not a vampire. Having said that, it hasn't escaped my notice that I seem to be unusually sensitive to Emmanuel's presence - and he to mine. Isobel here, a psychic, felt it too, as did the animals in the pet shop - and possibly the dogs on the night Benedict escaped."
"We really do need to find Emmanuel," says Twitchin, thoughtfully. "He is a bit too much of a bad penny."
"Yes, our friendly neighbourhood stigmatic's definitely mixed up in this," agrees Culver. "Sure, we've seen him in daylight, but even if what we think of as 'vampires' do exist, who's to say all the Hammer guff is true?" He shrugs. "At the risk of a staking, I must admit some of this reminds me of weird shit in my own background. I'm going with Side-step tonight to confront Emmanuel directly, see what info I can bluff out of him. That's if he's doing his 'creepy stalker' routine again, at Out for the Count."
Consultation of the tourist information leaflet on the play reveals that the last performance of the play will not be taking place at its usual time, but will be starting at midnight. It is decided that Micky will accompany Culver and Side-step to the play, and one quick phone call later three tickets have been booked. Andrew volunteers to stand by with the Rover, so if the party find themselves having to incapacitate Emmanuel, the captive can be quickly driven to the safehouse.
"Has anyone heard anything further from the SITU offices about progress with cracking the password on Hendleby's computer?" asks Isobel. There is a silence. "I see. I am starting to wonder whether in future it might be an idea to keep such things to ourselves."
Culver nods in agreement. "I've been coming to that conclusion myself."
"None of us have returned to the safehouse recently," continues Isobel. "Maybe it's worth going back there to see if they can give us any more information." It is decided that some of the party will visit the safehouse that afternoon, Isobel to visit Riggs' room once more, and Culver and Side-step to question as many of the technical staff as can be mustered in the time.
Side-step pulls out his mobile phone. "Yes, hello. This is executive Side-step. I want to arrange for the following people to be at the safehouse this afternoon, or at the latest tomorrow: Wilkinson, Brookland, Jetling, Myer and Steel. Yes, I know Wilkinson has been re-assigned, just get him anyway. Don't tell them who's asked for them or why, just spin them a line but make sure they realise they must be there." He listens for a while. "OK, but tomorrow at the latest. Bye." He hangs up. "They say they think they can drag most of them up to the safehouse this afternoon, but they'll have trouble getting Wilkinson until tomorrow, or maybe the next day. They're going to ring back in about quarter of an hour to let us know how things stand."
"I suppose Celestina's departure will mean that someone else will have to meet with Tina Mamba for lunch tomorrow," adds Stone.
"True," says Isobel. "I wonder if the theatre company are giving any other performances in the near future? We need to find out more from the tourist office about the events being organised over Halloween."
Andrew is eager to consult Side-step about the possibility of acquiring a handgun and a shotgun, since SITU has informed him that Side-step has the contacts necessary for the acquisition of such items. Side-step is not unimpressed to find that the other man has an extensive knowledge of firearms, and starts to suspect that Andrew has undergone some military training.
The Professor is also interested to hear Micky's opinion on the manner in which the studio door was broken.
"Do you think it was broken in by the same person that broke into Hendleby's house? Did it seem to have the same 'signature?' You look like the sort of chap who can spot that sort of thingy."
Micky smiles a little, wondering if the latter remark is intended as a compliment, and shrugs.
"The door to Hendleby's house was knocked in with one blow using considerable force. The door to Hendleby's studio was knocked in with one blow using considerable force. I don't know, Professor, does that count as a signature?"
"Executive Anderson... er, I mean, Executive Side-step?" Piner's voice at the other end of the line sounds distinctly harassed. "We've done our best to comply with your request... you understand, very short notice... I'm afraid Mr Wilkinson won't be available until tomorrow. He has a dinner engagement... quite unmissable I understand. However, the rest will be at your disposal this afternoon. I, er, look forward to seeing you again, Executive Ander - Side-step."
Ten minutes after Piner's call, Side-step is driving to the safehouse, Isobel perusing one of her library books in the back of the Rover, and Culver reading through his Penguin Dracula in the front passenger seat beside him
...Lucy met me at the station, looking lovelier and sweeter than ever, and we drove up the house at the Crescent, in which they have many rooms. This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, through which the view -
"Christ, I'd forgotten how bloody dull this was." Culver shuts Dracula with a snap, and gives vent to a long yawn. His glance falls upon Side-step's bandaged hand, where it rests lightly on the steering wheel. "You wanna see a doctor about that hand, Side-step. What happened, anyway? Celestina bite you or something?" He studies his companion closely as he awaits an answer.
"OK, Matt." Side-step says at last, sotto voce. "First of all you had better get some dark glasses for protection when we go after Emmanuel. I don't know how, but the last time I bumped into him, I was put out of action by a really bright light. The next thing I remember is I'm lying on the floor on an alley. Not only that, but I heard that Emmanuel character talking to someone.
"The conversation was something along the lines of how I'd got away, and that I wouldn't remember the face of the other guy who was obviously his boss. Apparently it was he who bust my fingers. The most frustrating thing is that Emmanuel was right - I'm fucked if I can remember what that other bloke looked like. Still, at least we know Emmanuel isn't working alone.
"If we're going to keep hold of Emmanuel this time, we had better use a few dirty tricks. Can you get hold of a sedative so we can put him out of action?"
Wotan Andrew Weiser strolls back to the gallery once more, his mind full of Hendleby's paintings. More than once, he reflects, images in Hendleby's paintings have seemed to reflect real life scenes. Perhaps even images of the SITU team might appear in the paintings if Hendleby were really in touch with the 'beyond.' The idea is weird, incredible... but so much that Andrew has already encountered seems weird or incredible.
While at the studio, Andrew had cast a quick eye over the Hendleby's works, but had noticed nothing in any that particularly reminded him of himself or any of the other SITU members. He has now resolved to return to the gallery and view the paintings once again with this in mind.
The old man with whom Andrew has spoken on previous occasions looks up as he enters, and appears to recognise him. He says nothing, but watches the SITU agent through narrowed, suspicious eyes as the latter strolls around the gallery.
Careful scrutiny of the paintings reveals no images that bear any obvious relation to the SITU team. Andrew does notice one or two female figures that he suspects may have been based upon Tina Mamba. As he surveys the paintings, another impression starts to impinge upon his mind.
One of the paintings shows a white-clad woman carrying a candle down a darkened hallway. For a while, Andrew regards the painting with a nagging sense of recognition. Then, all at once, the light dawns. It is not the foreground image that has struck a chord, but the background. He has seen this mottled, slightly abstract rendering of a stone wall before, in one of the backdrops for the play Out for the Count. The longer Andrew observes the picture, the more convinced he becomes that some of the backdrops for the play have been painted, or at least designed, by Karl Hendleby.
Micky opens the brown envelope which he had found behind the canvas in Hendleby's studio. He carefully pours the contents onto his bed and starts to sort through them.
About a dozen glossy photographs fall out onto the coverlet. The first photograph shows some six or seven men standing in a small huddle by a roadside, next to a car. The photograph appears to have been taken at night, without a flash. Micky estimates that a fairly sophisticated camera has been used to produce a photograph of such quality under such conditions.
The second and third photographs are taken of the same men, but rather closer, as if the photographer has drawn closer to his subject matter. All the men in the photographs are facing away from the camera, some towards the car, some looking down the road. No faces are distinguishable.
The fourth is over-exposed, largely because it seems that the scene has been bathed in the headlights of a second car, the front bumper of which is just visible on the far left of the picture.
The fifth is clearer, and shows the two cars side by side. There are now about a dozen men standing around the cars. One or two profiles are visible, but Micky recognises none of them.
The sixth... Micky holds the photograph closer to his eyes, and scrutinises it carefully. One man in the group has turned his head to look over his shoulder, and his thus the whole of his face has been caught in the photograph. Micky recognises the face from the painting on the web site, and realises that he is looking at Benedict Riggs.
The next four photographs are of the same group. The other men crowd around Riggs. Hands are placed upon his shoulders - helping him? Guiding him? Forcing him? His own hands are not visible - perhaps hanging slackly at his sides? Or perhaps fastened behind him?
The last photograph Micky studies for a long time. It seems that this time the photographer has drawn closer still to his target. Riggs' face is closer, more distinct, as it gazes out disconsolately through the open door of the car. Someone's hand is placed upon his head, as if to force him into the back seat. The car itself is also more clearly visible.
It is a police car.
"Hello, this is David Caine. I'm afraid I'm away on holiday at the moment, but if you leave a message, I'll get back to you as soon as I return. Wait for the beep."
John Stone frowns. It seems that Caine has forgotten to adjust his answering machine message after returning from holiday. After a moment's thought, he decides to call upon Caine that evening anyway in the hope of catching him in, and leaves a message to warn the lawyer of his intention.
He then retires to his room, leaving a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on his door.
At the safehouse, it is easy to arrange that a small, quiet room should be set aside for the questioning of the technical staff.
Ian Brookland is the first to be sent in. He is a short, sturdily built man in his forties, with brown hair in the process of retreat, and fiercely curling eyebrows. These formidable brows raise a little at the sight of Side-step leaning back in a chair with his feet up on the desk, and blowing smoke into the air above his head. A little behind him stands Culver, who smiles pleasantly at the engineer as he enters.
"Ah, Brookland, take a seat." With a curt, po-faced nod, Side-step indicates the chair on the other side of the desk. "How's the family?"
"Not so bad, thank you very much. Suzie's got a bug from one of her friends, so I guess me and the wife will catch it too in the fullness of time." Brookland's voice is calm enough, but his eyes ask a string of questions.
"Expensive business, supporting a family these days."
"Don't I know it. Have you got kids? Married? No? Well, it costs alright, but I guess I'd say it's worth the grey hairs, every inch of the way."
"Managing alright, are you? They pay you enough here?"
"Mustn't grumble. It's steady work and a good cause, isn't it?"
"Says here you have quite a talent with technology. Electrical and computers. I take it you are responsible for the maintenance of all the technical systems here?" An abrupt nod. "Who besides your good self are familiar with the workings of the security system here?"
"Son, if you're trying to imply something, I think you'd just better get on and say it out loud," Brookland says sharply. "The system went down for a bit round about the time that Mr Riggs broke out, I know that. So what are you saying? You think me or someone on my team decided to turn things off for a bit so they wouldn't overheat?"
"Look at it from our perspective," says Side-step quietly. "Everything shuts down just in time for Riggs to stroll out. Very convenient."
"I don't have time for this crap," Brookland says sharply, rising from his chair. "You've got my whole team sitting out there in the corridor like the cast of a bloody Agatha Christie novel, instead of getting on with their job. I don't know about you, sonny, but some of us have work to get on with."
Side-step takes his feet off the desk, and half-stands, leaning across it.
"Look, mate, a man's life is hanging on getting this mess sorted out. If you're planning to get arsey about all of this, then you'd better not have made any life plans because you'll be in this room until you start giving some straight answers to straight questions."
"No-one was making accusations," Culver adds, soothingly. "We just wanted to know who else was knowledgeable about the security system, so that we would know who to talk to in order to find out if anyone had seen anything odd before the break-out."
After a small pause, Brookland returns to his seat.
"Depends what you mean by the workings. There's always a couple of people on the base who can perform maintenance checks on the cameras, and the like. And a lot of people know where the alarms are set, otherwise we'd be setting them off all the time. And I guess that there's always a number of people who have the passwords to turn off the electric fence in the case of an emergency.
"If you're asking about people who know the system as well as I do, I guess that'd be Jacqueline Steel and maybe David Foster. A lot of the other technical staff know the workings of the part of the system they got to supervise, but they don't get a look at the big picture."
Side-step finishes his cigarette, and draws another from his packet. As an afterthought, he holds it out to Brookland. "Cigarette?" Brookland shakes his head, and Side-step shrugs. "What were you doing when Riggs went walkabout?" The older man looks a bit embarrassed.
"Answering a call of nature. Sod's law, isn't it? Didn't even know anything was wrong until the screaming started."
Linda Jetling is shown in after Brookland. She proves to be a somewhat timid young woman, with mousy hair tied back in a ponytail.
"Hello, Linda, take a seat. You've not been with us long, have you?" She shakes her head mutely. "How do you like it? Not getting too much hassle off the lads?"
"No. I mean, not much. A bit, I guess." Linda is clearly rather intimidated by Side-step, and she takes refuge in making her responses to Culver, whom she seems to find a more comforting presence.
"Apparently you've done quite a few less than exciting jobs before you came here. How did you come to be employed by SITU?" It emerges that Linda's father is a close friend of someone in the SITU bureaucracy in London, who had arranged for her to be interviewed for her current post.
"The pay's better here?" Again the same silent nod. "Getting your head around the various systems here?"
"Yes, actually," she replies, showing a little assertiveness for the first time, perhaps suspecting some slight on her professional ability. "Mr Brookland says I've learnt about the systems very quickly."
"What did you see the night of Riggs' vanishing act?"
"I was watching the close circuit TVs, looking out for anything odd - we take it in turn to do that. Mark Myer was there too, doing the same thing. Anyway, suddenly I noticed that one of the screens had gone blank - the one for the camera in Benedict Riggs's room. So I pointed it to Mark, and then we reported it to security, and they said they'd send a guard to look in and make sure everything was OK. We thought maybe it was just that camera that had malfunctioned. Mark set off to go and have a look at it.
"Anyway, a bit after that, I could see some sort of confusion going on in Mr Fulk's room, lots of guards, and pushing, and people shouting. One of them was the Reverend Fanlight. I looked away from that screen for a moment, and I suddenly noticed that some of the screens for the cameras in the courtyard had gone blank. I reported this to security too.
"About ten minutes after that, the camera in Mr Riggs' room started working again, and I could see from the screen that Mr Riggs wasn't there any more..."
Mark Myer is a dishevelled, young man with a slightly jaunty manner. He accepts Side-step's proffered cigarette, and follows the other man's lead by putting his feet up on the desk. His story basically accords with that of Linda. Apparently, by the time he had reached Riggs' room, it had already been full of people standing around the unconscious guard. He proudly relates that even at that moment he had the presence of mind to examine the camera, and could find nothing wrong with it.
Jacqueline Steel proves to be a rather formidable, ice-calm woman in her mid forties who listens to Side-step's questions with unflappable attention, and answers politely and lucidly. It appears that she was working in her own office at the time of the incident, and was only notified of events after the courtyard cameras had malfunctioned. When her opinion is consulted concerning the failure of the security systems, she is fairly forthcoming.
"I expect that you suspect that someone over-rode the system from the inside using one of the computers. As a matter of fact, I think you're almost certainly right. I really can't see a better explanation. There's no connection to any network outside the base - no possibility of someone else 'hacking in.' I'm sure that if I'd wanted to, I could have arranged the malfunction, but as it happens I didn't. I think someone else did.
"One other thing. While I've been working on this base, I've been gaining the impression that there have been different branches of security operating in the vicinity of the base, who have not been put in communication with us. I've often had the impression that there has been some agenda relating to security of which our team has never been informed. If there are branches of security with whom we have no interface, it's possible that there are any number of people with passwords into the system of whom the technical staff know nothing..."
"Would you mind waiting here with me? I don't particularly want to be left alone here."
"Certainly, Mrs Blyth." The young guard wait patiently as Isobel sits down on the edge of Riggs' bed, and then slowly lies down, and cautiously opens her extra senses.
...how tiny she is, how exposed, like a little, living letter on a dead, white page as large as a desert... and then two voices, one hushed and tremulous, the other at once soft and harsh, like the hiss of sand through an hourglass...
... Someone will come to fix the camera, Benedict. You know what to do.
...the gates...the security systems...
...will not be a problem...
...they will be distracted. Trust me...
Isobel feels a rush of hope, faith and something akin to love. Yes, the voice spoke the truth, the voice would save her. And yet... there was something in that sibilant voice that reminded her of the sound of the wind that had risen over the hermitage when she had seen the image of the eye etched in the earth.
A little after eight, Side-step, Culver and Isobel leave the safehouse once more, and drive back to Whitby, where they meet up with the others for dinner.
After dinner, John Stone sets off once again in the direction of David Caine's house, this time accompanied by Professor Twitchin.
When they reach the house, they are discouraged to find the windows dark, and no car parked outside.
"Are we sure he's back from holiday?" The Professor points out the sign by the door, which still reads, 'no milk today, please.'
"Yes, unless I was hallucinating when I talked to him." Stone moves forward to the front room window, and tries to peer in through the slits between the blinds.
"He couldn't have gone off on another holiday already?"
"He'd probably have mentioned it when we last spoke. And... and he'd probably have taken his cases with him. I can see them in the front lounge, next to the sofa..."
"Hello!" Sarah Louise's face brightens as she opens the door to find Isobel standing on the step.
"I just thought I'd drop round and see how you were," Isobel explains. She has taken pains to dress a little more casually than usual.
"It's really nice to see you - I've been thinking about phoning you, but I didn't want to feel I was taking advantage of your kindness." Sarah is very pleased with the little gift for Nero, who busies himself with butting Isobel's knees with his muzzle by way of greeting.
Sarah Louise welcomes the suggestion that the pair of them go out for a drink, and quarter of an hour later the two women are seated at a small table in a corner of the Elsinore, exchanging gossip and reminiscences, albeit fabricated reminiscences in the case of Isobel.
The pair alternate in buying rounds, but Isobel is careful to buy her new friend far stronger drinks than her own, and to drink only in moderation. The young social worker does not seem to notice this, and relaxes into intoxication with some enthusiasm. In a cheerful mood, Sarah proves to be naturally garrulous and entertaining, with a fine line in anecdotes. Isobel finds that she is rather enjoying the company of her new drinking companion.
At eleven, Sarah Louise glances at her watch, downs her drink, and makes an abortive attempt to stand.
"Whoop! Let's try that again." The second attempt is rather less successful than the first, in that Sarah fails even to fall back into her chair. Isobel can hear the sound of helpless laughter issuing from beneath the table.
"Do you need some help with your friend, love?" asks one of the men who has been sitting on a bar stool and chatting with the tender.
"No, thank you, we can manage." Fortunately, Sarah is fairly small and light, so that Isobel is able to support her out of the pub. The journey back to Sarah's house is somewhat unsteady. Their trials are not over when they finally reach the front door. After watching her hostess trying some three or four times to open the door with her car keys, Isobel takes over and finds the right key through trial and error.
Sarah deposits herself on the sofa, and giggles uncontrollably for about ten minutes, leaving Isobel to wonder whether she has perhaps been a little too successful in her attempts to get her new friend drunk. However, the other's laughter is somehow infectious, and Isobel finds herself smiling a little.
"Oh dear. I'm sorry, I'm a mess." This also seems suddenly to strike Sarah as immensely funny, and she subsides into waves of hilarity once again. "Sorry. Phew. I needed that. I've been getting a bit stressed about stuff."
"Is it your brother? Have you contacted him since we last talked?"
"No, I tried, but I can't get any reply. No change there."
"Listen, I've got a good friend, who's used to dealing with people who have experienced the same things as your brother. Would you like me to arrange for the pair of them to meet up?"
"I can't even arrange for him to see me. How can I arrange for him to see someone else? And you know, something really weird happened today. I got this odd phone call from David, you know, David Caine. He said that he'd just got back from holiday, and he'd been listening to all his answering machine messages. David said that he'd come across one from Karl about half way through the tape, asking him to get me out of Whitby by any means he could, straight away.
"I don't know what's going on, but if Karl's in trouble, I'm not bloody going."
"Why, Side-step, this is practically a date." Culver smiles archly at his reflection of his colleague behind him, as he adjusts his appearance in the mirror
"Dream on," says Side-step, without malice.
Culver draws his biker jacket on over his black polo neck. The pink Ezili amulet gleams incongruously from between the folds of leather. "OK, let's go and kick undead ass."
Despite the lateness of the hour, a lot of people have crowded into the community hall to see the last performance of the play. The general ambience is very different from that dominant at the previous performance. There are fewer families, and there is a slightly dangerous, rowdy edge, such as one might expect at an event held after closing time. There also seem to be a number of friends of the cast in the audience. At one point, before the play starts, one of the brides of Dracula puts her head through the door and waves, stimulating a chorus of whistles and cheers from one corner of the audience.
Culver and Side-step seat themselves at the back of the hall, and wait. Micky positions himself by the entrance once more.
The lights lower, the music begins, and Emmanuel has not arrived. Tina Mamba's voice echoes through the little hall once again, and then the light gradually starts to bloom in the centre of the stage. As it does so, Culver sees Micky stiffen, and lean forward to peer towards the front of the hall. A moment later, Micky abandons his post by the door, and walks quickly up the aisle.
Following the direction of Micky's gaze, Culver sees a familiar figure seated near the front of the audience. He nudges Side-step and points.
"Looks like Emmanuel slipped in while the lights were down."
Micky walks up to the row in which Emmanuel sits, apparently oblivious to all but the female figure on the stage. Noticing a spare seat next to the young man, he takes it, and settles as if to watch the play, without acknowledging Emmanuel's presence. Throughout the first half of the play, Micky bides his time, reluctant to interrupt the other man's enjoyment of the performance.
At last the interval arrives, and the lights are raised. Micky takes the opportunity to lean close to the youth beside him.
"What did you do to Side-step?" He allows a trace of a smile to creep into his voice.
Emmanuel does not seem particularly disconcerted by this greeting. He smiles brightly at Micky, as if the pair of them were merely resuming a conversation that they had halted just a short time before.
"Side-step? I bet I know who Side-step was. Maybe I'll show you what I did, if you'd like me to."
"My name's Micky."
"Is that short for Michael, like the angel?"
"Why be a mouse when you can be an angel? Anyone can be an angel, you know. I have the power to make men into angels..."
"Interesting - how do you do that, then?"
"Would you like to know? Well, maybe if you come with me after the performance I'll show you how angels are made."
By the end of the play, Culver is almost overcome with weariness. Once or twice during the quieter scenes, he succumbs to sleep for short periods. At last he is wakened by a swift jab from Side-step's elbow.
"Here they come," whispers Side-step.
Emmanuel has looped his arm through that of Micky, and the pair are walking out towards the entrance. Neither cast a glance towards Culver or Side-step as they pass. The other two operatives rise, and follow the strange pair out into the night street.
Culver detaches himself from his friend, and strides out after Emmanuel and Micky at a faster pace.
"Emmanuel?" The youth turns, and once again Culver finds himself staring into the pale eyes with the vastly distended pupils, now regarding him with a mixture of wariness and uncertainty. The doctor extends a hand, which is not accepted. "I know what you are. We may even be related." Emmanuel's countenance darkens into an expression that combines distrust and outright dislike. "I gather you're already familiar with my colleague, Side-step, but unfortunately he can't remember much of your meeting. Will you talk any more openly with me? It seems we share an interest in local artists - to say nothing of their subjects..."
Emmanuel suddenly moves forward as if to make a lunge for Culver, but Micky swiftly and dextrously changes his grip on the young man's arm, and twists it behind his back. Emmanuel's free hand is moving for Micky's face when, from behind him another hand reaches, gripping his wrist.
"Hello, shithead, remember me?" Side-step hisses into Emmanuel's ear. "Thought I'd come and repay a favour I owe you."
Seizing the opportunity presented by this situation, Culver draws the syringe of sedative from his pocket, and inserts the needle into Emmanuel's neck. As he injects the contents, his hand brushes the young man's neck, and one again he feels a queasy creeping of the flesh. The next moment he has stepped back, and Emmanuel's eyes are glazed with cold, blue fury. The young man struggles violently, spasmodically, then abruptly collapses.
"That was a bit sudden."
"Never mind, where's the Rover? Let's get him to the safehouse."
The threesome make their way along the road as quickly as they can, bearing Emmanuel along between them like a drunken friend. With relief, they soon see the Rover parked by the side of the road. Andrew opens the door, and starts the engine while the others clamber in.
As the Rover pulls away from the kerb, they become aware of the sound of running feet. Just as the vehicle is picking up speed, a figure runs suddenly from a side-street, and a violent bang rings out from the side of the landrover, like that of metal striking metal.
"Did we hit someone?"
"I think someone hit us. Keep going!" In the rear view mirror, Andrew can make out the figure of a man, who seems to be making a valiant effort to chase after the receding vehicle. For an ugly moment, he has the impression that the pursuing figure is actually gaining on the Rover. Then the pace of the runner decreases, and the man is left behind.
A thin and fretful rain starts to sting the windscreen, rendering vision difficult. The narrow roads outside Whitby look very different in the dark, and often it is necessary to slow the Rover, and try to make out signposts so as to recover the right route to the safe house.
"Matt." Side-step is staring at the prone form that lies along the back seat between him and Mickey. "Emmanuel's lying very still. I don't think he's actually breathing."
Culver reaches out one hand, and gently touches the young man's neck to feel for a pulse. Under his hand, he feels the sudden twitch of a muscle. This is the only warning he has before Emmanuel sits bolt upright, ripping free from the cords used to bind his wrists, and gripping him by the throat. The young man's eyes are dazzling, and for a moment Culver cannot even think as the long hands take their hold upon his neck. The next instant his own hands are around the wrists of his assailant, trying to drag away the stifling hands.
Instead of tightening his grip on the doctor's windpipe, however, Emmanuel swings him violently to one side, striking his temple against the side of the van. Before he can repeat this action, Side-step has leapt upon him from behind, and is trying to twist his arms behind his back. Micky aims a heavy punch at Emmanuel's face, and has the gratification of seeing blood rush from the other man's nose. Emmanuel releases his hold on Culver's throat, and the doctor falls semi-stunned to the floor of the van.
Emmanuel suddenly raises himself almost to standing, smashing Side-step against the roof of the car. Side-step gives an involuntary exclamation of pain, but clings on doggedly, preventing Emmanuel from lunging for Micky. He can't be this strong, a part of his mind is thinking, look at him, he can't be this strong. Clinging onto his opponent with his one good hand, he starts to reach with his wounded left for the combat knife strapped to his calf, wincing slightly as he does so.
Just as he slides it from its sheath, Emmanuel half-stands once again, shaking himself in a manner grotesquely reminiscent of a puppy shaking off raindrops. Like such a raindrop, Side-step is thrown off his opponent's back, and crashes against the side of the Landrover. With one long leap, Emmanuel bowls into Micky, and the pair of them fall forward into the gap between driver and passenger seat.
Andrew is struck by flailing fists and elbows as the pair wrestle, and struggles to maintain control of the vehicle.
Micky can feel the gear-stick pressing into his back. Emmanuel's knee in on his chest, and the young man's hands around his throat.
"I'm going to send you to join the angels, Micky. The old fashioned way..."