The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Witless In Whitby

"The plot thickens, the game's afoot," Side-step mutters, as he leans over to look at the note on Andrew's pillow.

"Don't touch the note," says Stone quickly, placing a hand on Side-step's shoulder. "I'll go and get Isobel and see if she can sense anything from it." He leaves the room, and can be heard a moment or so later, knocking on Isobel's door across the corridor.

Without laying his hand upon it, Side-step reads out the letter.

"To whom it may concern, it seems that we have both made an error. We have one of your colleagues. You have one of our colleagues. It would be to our mutual benefit if we could arrange an exchange at the first opportunity. I will telephone at ten tonight. Yours in good faith, AC." Side-step glances around at the others.

"Oh fuck." Culver sits heavily on the bed, and wearily massages the bridge of his nose. "I think we're buggered."

"Isobel?" Through the deafening roar of the rain, Isobel can hear Stone's voice, thin with distance and anxiety. "Isobel? Are you in there? Are you alright?"

For a moment she seems to see the door to the room buckling under the weight of the water. In another moment the wood with give, and the deluge would sweep Stone down the corridor like so much flotsam...

No. She steels herself, digging her palms into her hands.

"Mrs Blyth?" A tiny voice issues from the dangling receiver.

She becomes aware that she is gasping helplessly. Her lungs must be filling with water at every hasty, desperate breath...

No. It's not real. She labours to steady her breathing. It's not happening. Not happening. Not happening to me.

Struggling to her feet, she manages to stagger to the door, and opens it.

John Stone's medical instincts come into play as soon as he lays eyes upon her. She is shaking violently, and appears to be in the process of recovering from a fit of hyperventilation.

"John... there's... there's no water in the room, is there?" Stone casts a quick eye around the room. All seems entirely prosaic. He helps her back to the bed and sits her down. She makes a small gesture towards the abandoned phone. John squeezes her hand briefly, then walks to the phone and picks up the receiver.

"Yes... yes, she's a little indisposed at the moment. Yes. I'll tell her."

"Ask them..." Isobel raises her head for a moment. "Can you ask them how..." Stone nods.

"Can I ask how Mr Blyth died? I see... yes, I see. Thank you." Stone scribbles down a contact number, and then hangs up and turns to Isobel again. He sits next to her and takes her hand. "It seems," he says very gently, "that there was something of an accident. Your husband was in Oxford on business, and one evening he took a walk alongside the river. There had been a lot of rain, the footpaths were more muddy and slippery than usual... well, it seems that he fell into the weir and drowned."

Isobel mouths the word 'drowned' to herself, and covers her face with her hands.

When Isobel feels more composed, John Stone helps her into the room where the others have been waiting. Her news is met with a shocked and appalled silence, followed by murmurs of sympathy. The Professor in particular seems very distressed at the news.

"I don't like this... looks like investigators' families are getting involved. I'll be back in a moment - I'll just put a call through and check that my son Theo's OK." He leaves the room somewhat hastily.

Isobel glances at the note on the bed, and shakes her head.

"I'm sorry, I just can't right now. I don't want to open myself up to sensing things... I feel..."

"Of course," Andrew says quickly.

"I must go home," Isobel continues. "I must go home straight away. I'm sorry, but my family comes before any investigation." There are general noises of assent. The other investigators help her to pack, and Andrew offers to drive her to the station. After brief farewells, the pair depart.

The Professor re-enters the room looking somewhat anxious and despondent. He has rung his son's office, and has been given a contact number for the bed-and breakfast where Theo is staying in Pembrokeshire. The woman working answering the phone at the bed-and-breakfast has reported that Theo left the premises the previous afternoon, and has not been back since.

Stone looks quickly around Andrew's room for any other sign of the intruder, but the rest of the room seems to have been left untouched.

Side-step picks up the letter and reads it through again, under his breath.

"OK girls," he says after a pause, "what are we going to do about this?"

"Who does the note refer to?" John Stone taps the line referring to 'one of our colleagues.' "Emmanuel?"

"There seems to be some possible confusion on both sides," remarks the Professor. "The mention of our colleague might be a reference to Benny - but then it could refer to Isobel's husband, or even Celestina. Who's their 'colleague?' Emmanuel? Could it be Fulk or even Fanlight?"

"I think we can assume that their colleague is Emmanuel, and that ours is Benedict." says Side-step. He rubs at the plaster across his neck, under which the skin feels tight and irritated. "OK, how about this. Why don't we accept the invitation, but stipulating a location of our choice. That way we can set up the area before the swap. Set it up like one of the old Harry Palmer films, you know, each party have a man escort the hostage to the middle of an area for the swap. We have some of our team in hiding ready to pounce at the best time for a result and snatch old Riggs. What do you think?""

There are a sequence of slow nods of assent.

"Whatever." Almost unconsciously, Culver is reaching into his pocket for his sunglasses. The afternoon sunlight lancing in through the window is sickeningly vivid. He feels as if someone is tightening a cheesewire helm about his skull. Only when his dark glasses are shielding his eyes do colours loose their jarring, metallic gleam.

"So who do we use for the swap?"

Glances are exchanged. Side-step and Micky are clearly too short for the role. The Professor is the tallest of the group, at about six foot, and slight of build, but it is debatable how far the difference in his age from that of Emmanuel can be disguised, even by a bag over his head.

"How tall is Andrew?"

"A little taller than me," says Stone. "But he has the wrong build." Stone's own tanned and weatherbeaten skin is a far cry from Emmanuel's pallor.

"I suppose I'm roughly the same height as Emmanuel is - was," says Culver at last, wearily.

"I can arrange for some firepower in case these guys are playing hardball," announces Side-step. "Oh yeah, and one of us better be sat ready in a vehicle for a fast exit. Just like at the Bamworth shenanigans, remember, Matt? To help with the deception we had better have a hood over the patsy... err... decoy, and he had better keep his hands behind his back, too, so they think he's tied up. That way if any shooting or fisticuffs start he will be an extra surprise for the boys to have to deal with."

"Fine. I'll be the pansy... patsy. Whatever. Just make bloody sure the bad guys don't get me, OK?"

"Who's going to drive?"

"Well, Andrew did well handling the Rover last time when we went off the road," suggests Micky. It is agreed that Andrew will be placed in charge of the emergency 'getaway' vehicle.

"OK, it's settled." Side-step takes out his mobile phone, and dials.

"Jim? Yeah, it's me. Listen, can you go to the goody bag and take out four 9 millies and a couple of loaded mags for each and drop 'em off at the same place you dropped me off the other day? What? You're where? What the hell are you doing in Aberdeen? Can't you get someone else to do that? Well, how fast can you get the stuff here? Damn. OK, that'll have to do. Thanks, Jim." He hangs up.

"Looks like Jim can't get here until tomorrow afternoon. We'll just have to set the date for the swap a little later, that's all. Anyway, the morning after tomorrow those who want one will have a nice shiny 9 millimetre Browning automatic pistol to play with. I know a couple of us are familiar with weapons so we'll show those of you who aren't which is the nasty end tomorrow. You'll each have two 13 round mags, which is enough to start a small war, so don't go getting trigger happy. This is Whitby, not Bunker Hill."

It is decided that the group will divide to pursue different paths of enquiry, and regroup at ten o'clock to receive the promised phone call.

"Just give me the phone, eh?" Side-step hands his mobile phone to Culver without question.

Culver takes the phone with him to his own room. On an impulse, he turns off the light and draws the curtains. There are still occasional spasms of pain from the back of his head, but he can think a little more clearly again. A large, heart-shaped blotch dances on his retina, the after-image of the extinguished bulb, and he is reminded of the heart-shaped pool of blood on the floor of the Land Rover, spreading out beneath the body of Emmanuel.

Hand almost trembling with anger, he dials the number of SITU headquarters.

"I want to talk to Andre Swahn."

"I believe he's in his office. Can I ask to what your call relates?"

Culver manages a grim, ironic little smile.

"I can't tell you that, it's on a need to know basis."

"Hold on please, I'll put you through."

A few moments later a man's voice answers. It sounds brusque, and a little irritated, as if at an interrupted train of thought.

"Hello? Hello, who's that?"

"It's Agent Culver and I'm fucked off with the whole bloody shooting match. We're risking out necks here in sodding Whitby and we haven't a bloody clue what the fuck we're up against - or what it can do. Celestina's out of the picture, Isobel's lost her husband and we've just killed a... we've just killed something called Emmanuel. But then you know that, don't you? You snatched the fucking corpse."

"Yes, for... f-f-for analysis. The first of its like we've had... your team made a - a great breakthrough... Dr Culver, I can tell that you're upset. If there's anything I can -" The voice at the other end of the line sounds genuinely shaken by Culver's deluge of words. Under different circumstances Culver might almost have pitied Swahn.

"Look, at the risk of sounding like a bloody drama queen, don't you think it's time you gave us some answers?" There is a faint rattle, a sound that might have been a swallow, and the sound of a glass being placed on a wooden surface. Culver can almost visualise the pill bottle next to the glass of water.

"Of course we... we... we give our field operatives any information which seems necessary for the progress of their investigation. If you'd like me to have another... another... briefing sent to your group, would that -"

"I don't have time for this shit. Call me back if you don't fancy losing another agent." Culver's is moving his hand to hang up the phone, when a blurted question from the other man causes him to hesitate.

"Is this line secure?" The tone is belligerent, almost brusque, but there is an edge of anxiety to it.


"What phone are you using? The hotel phone?"

"No, Side-step's mobile phone."

"He purchased it himself? It was not supplied by SITU or any other party?"

"No, it's his. What's that got to do with anything?"

"Listen, Dr Culver. I am trying - I have been trying from the start to prevent the loss of agents. Secrecy - that was the key, I always knew it was. Sooner or later the Enemy would become aware of us, and would try to infiltrate - I have no doubt that there are Enemy agents among the field operatives already. But our experience-based hierarchy would ensure that they never reached the upper echelons, and the restriction of the downward flow of information would make sure that they were barred from SITU's greater secrets. Between the Enemy agents and the knowledge they desired would stand the senior field operatives - like you, Dr Culver." There is a slight air of pride in Swahn's voice, as if he identified with Culver's exalted standing.

"Do you think we are playing a playground game from which we can run crying if we graze our shins, or decide we don't like the rules? We are playing for more than our lives, we are playing for our species. We are soldiers in the biggest war in world history, and one that I pray God will never be recorded in any history book."

"You're not exactly a front line troop, though, are you?" asks Culver a little nastily.

"No," says Swahn simply, "but that doesn't make me any safer. It didn't help Celine Coombes, our recruitment officer. The Enemy is striking back at last, and it will strike for what it sees to be the head."

"So we sacrifice a few pawns to protect the kings and queens, eh?"

"No - that has never been my attitude - never - I swear it. The others... I think sometimes they see things that way - they are taking power out of my hands - sometimes even over my own operatives. Believe me, Dr Culver, I would never have consented to the Riggs project. That was the Coombes woman - I didn't even know what had been done until it was too late..."

"The Riggs project?" asks Culver slowly and carefully. There is a pause, during which he can hear his heart beating.

"Yes." There is another long pause. "You are aware, of course, Agent Culver, of the... Beings... that threaten our species? Are you aware that a particular Being of this sort has been suspected of involvement with the events at Castle Cnoiff in Transylvania in which you yourself expressed interest?" Matt continues to wait in silence. "The Being was forced from his base of operations. He has left Transylvania." Releasing information seems to be as painful to Swahn as bloodletting, and between each sentence there is a pause, as if he were gathering willpower needed for the next revelation. "He is in England." Another pause. "We believe he is in North Yorkshire. And we now believe that he has a centre of operations in - "


"Yes. This... Being... is extremely active and dangerous. We have reason to belief that he was responsible for the fire that devastated our old HQ, acting on information gained through a truly lamentable leak on the part of a group of field operatives. Miss Coombes was very... proactive in her stance, and decided to lay a trap for the Being. Since SITU knew through bitter experience that this Being had access to a certain... source of information, Miss Coombes placed false information there to the effect that a certain operative had been investigating the Transylvanian affair, and had made a number of important discoveries, but had suffered mental collapse as a consequence. The location of the safe house in which the operative had been placed was also leaked."

"So SITU used Benedict as bait."

"There were a large number of armed guards on the premises, and others out on the moors looking out for anyone approaching the safe house. The best surveillance devices were employed night and day. And at a short distance there were a number of cross-country vehicles including armed personnel, and SITU members with, shall we say, more esoteric skills ready to descend upon the base if any unauthorised personnel approached it."

Culver suddenly recalls the perimeter fence, and Piner's rueful face as he explained the fact of Riggs' exodus. You see the barbed wire prongs, well, they sort of point out, rather than in... A large, elaborate trap prepared for any attacker breaking in, but not for Benedict Riggs breaking out...

"I dare say that Ms Coombes thought that she could guarantee his safety. Or maybe she thought it was an acceptable risk. Still, one shouldn't speak ill of the dead." Swahn's voice bears traces of strain and bitterness. "This is only the start, you know. They're taking things out of my hands. I find out about more and more missions getting the go-ahead without my consent. And they don't care about the operatives - the just treat them like a resource." He gives a short, hollow laugh. "What a situation, eh, Culver? I'm the best chance you people have got. And you're the best chance the human race has got. Shall we quit? Shall we let the world go to hell?" Jesus, thinks Culver, I thought I was close to cracking, but this guy is so far ahead of me on that road that I'm almost losing sight of him. "I have a family too, you know."

"Look, I'll phone you back when I've had a chance to think, OK?"

"I'm counting on you," Culver hears Swahn say as he is hanging up.

Borrowing Stone's mobile phone, the Professor meanwhile is engaged in making another call.

"Hello, is that police station press office?" I represent the Daily Meteor - I'm checking out reports of the illegal abduction and detention of a Mr B Riggs by North Yorkshire police. I understand that a couple of the nationals are onto the story and that it is linked to the murder of a Mr Rain. How do you respond to these allegations?"

"I beg your pardon?" The young woman at the other end of the line seems a little flummoxed. "Er... perhaps I had better take down your details and get someone to ring you back." The Professor gives the number of Stone's mobile phone.

"I understand that someone is likely to approach the Chief Constable shortly," continues Twitchin smoothly. "Maybe he would like to meet myself and a colleague before this goes tabloid?"

Micky opens David Caine's mail, letter by letter. There are a couple of bills, a special offer from a book club, and a short letter from a client thanking Caine for his advice with regard to the client's noisy and abusive neighbours. Finally, Micky slits the flap of the largest, thickest envelope. A number of lined A4 sheets are rolled up inside, covered with tiny, slanting, precise handwriting.

"Dear David,

"I really hope that by the time this reaches your house, you have taken my advice and gotten the hell out of Dodge, taking all my notes and tapes with you. If for some reason you haven't taken any of this seriously yet, then I say again, grab all the stuff I've been sending you over the last year in the sealed envelopes, and vamoose, taking Sarah with you. Then read the papers, listen to the tapes, make copies of both and send them out - impress your friends. I'm asking you to do this as a client, and I'm begging you as a friend. Even if you think I'm nuts, humour me.

"Even if they haven't found Rain's body yet, I think I'm pretty much rumbled. I don't think there's much doubt about that. It's almost a relief, in a way. If they have found Rain, then things are going to get messy very fast - I don't think all the king's horses and all the king's men are going to keep Troy on his leash once he finds out Rain's dead. And Crier's going to be too busy nursemaiding Emmanuel to keep Troy under control.

"In envelope 3 there are photographs of the whole bunch of them, except Maurice. He's too sharp - I thought he might notice me taking a picture of him. Just stay clear of anyone who fits his description and tends to wear black suede gloves, OK? Look at the photos, commit the faces to memory, and if you see any of them, run like hell, even if it's Isolde. She may look like a Waterhouse nymph, but she could break you like a stick of rock.

"Well - this is the latest from the roving reporter. Whatever it is that they're planning to do on Halloween, it will be at the abbey. You wouldn't believe the way it looks right now - I tried to explain it to you once, but you thought I was entering some kind of epilepsy of artistic pretentiousness. Let's say that there's this tide of stuff like low-hanging sunlight, just surging towards the abbey. When I see people going up the steps towards the abbey, I can see a faint aura of this stuff around their heads, just oozing out of their eyes and ears, and running into the main stream. And I think that's where it comes from, you know, out of people's heads..."

The letter continues in a similar vein. Unfortunately, the rest of the letter is similarly riddled with references to earlier messages and packages.

"...and anyway, don't worry about me, I'll be OK.

"Give my love to Sarah,


"Down, Toby!" Culver freezes at the door to a clothes shop, startled by the savagery with which a barrel-chested Rottweiler has greeted his approach. His owner, a girl in a fur-trimmed coat, grimaces apologetically, as she braces all of her strength against the leash. "I'm sorry, he's never like this... bad Toby!" The dog is on its hind legs, held upright by the leash's restraint, the whites of its eyes showing, its gaze almost blind with hostility as it regards the psychiatrist. He quickly slips inside the clothes shop, shutting the door behind him. Outside the dog is still barking great lungfuls of steam into the October air, the noise muted by the intervening glass. Its heavy, black jowls shake with each bark.

Inside the shop he searches among the racks, and before too long is able to find a long black coat with more than a passing resemblance to that in which Emmanuel died.

"Stop a moment."

Side-step waits until the Rover has pulled to a halt, then gets out. Andrew and Side-step have been driving along the roads around Whitby looking for a suitable place for the swap.

"Not bad. Not too close to the nearest habitation, so we won't have civilians with itchy dialling fingers calling up the boys in blue at the sound of the first gunshot. There's some cover there for anyone who wants to spring a bit of a surprise on the other party. What about that terrain, Andrew? Do you reckon you can drive across that OK if we need to break things up sharpish?"

Andrew casts an appraising eye across the moor.

"No problem."

"Good. I think we've got a location."

Recalling Isobel's description of the area, John Stone finds Sarah Louise's house without much difficulty. Preparing his story in his mind, he rings the doorbell.

"Sarah Louise Hendleby? I'm Dr John Stone. I'm a psychiatrist - I'm here to talk to you about one of your patients..."

As he is shown into the narrow hallway, Stone feels a fleeting sense of wrongness. Something is missing, something from Isobel's description of her welcome at the house...

He only identifies the missing factor when he enters the lounge and notices the form of an enormous, shaggy, white dog waiting motionless at the front window, fore-paws on the sill. Of course, there had been no deep bark to herald the arrival of a stranger.

The counsellor's dog is quite silent, eyes bright, the occasional quiver passing through his flank. Occasionally he turns his head a fraction of a degree, his attention never lapsing, as if he were watching or scenting something. Periodically his long, pink tongue runs over his white muzzle.

"Bad Nero! Not on the windowsill! Grubby paws! No biscuit!" Alas, even the magic of the biscuit is not enough to deter Nero from his vigil. "I'm sorry, he's been like that from time to time for a day or too. I take him for walks, but when we get back, he's just the same. Don't take any notice of him." Sarah Louise clears a space for Stone on the lounge.

Sarah Louise is willing to discuss Emmanuel's case within certain parameters. "Of course, there are some very personal matters which I don't have the right to repeat. You understand that, of course? Yes, I counselled Emmanuel for about a month. He broke off the sessions himself - said that it was 'due to forces beyond his control' - he didn't explain.

"To be honest, I was quite worried about him, so I've been trying - unofficially - to keep some kind of tabs on him. Perhaps that wasn't terribly professional, but I was concerned about him. At first I think I underestimated the extent of his problems. He seemed to have come up with a semi-escapist identity which enabled him to cope with his life, and to an extent allowed him to forge a certain self-respect - I take it you know about the whole 'Messiah' thing, Dr Stone? Anyway, after a while I got the impression that he had taken the identity rather to heart, and rather literally. I started to worry that he had illusions of, well, invulnerability. I got the impression - and this is just a hunch, I have no evidence - that someone had been encouraging him in his chosen identity. And from the start I got the very strong impression that there were important things that he hadn't told me, that he was enjoying not telling me. It's as if even the sessions themselves were somehow part of a game..."

"Here we are." The taxi pulls up next to Isobel's house. For a moment she stares at it without the ability to move or speak. "You did say this house, didn't you, miss?" The taxi driver turns his head and regards her with undisguised concern.

"Oh... yes, yes." She fiddles with her purse, pays the driver, and gets out of the taxi. After it has driven away, she lifts her case and walks to front door, marvelling at the steadiness of her own steps. As she pauses at the front door to look for her key, it opens.

A man in a blue business suit is standing in the doorway, a small portable phone in one hand.

"Mrs Blyth!" His expression is one of surprise, interest, concern, but no embarrassment. "I'll call you back," he mutters into his phone, then folds it and places it his pocket. "Mrs Blyth, what are - what are you doing here?" There is a pause, during which he evidently realises that the inappropriateness of the question. "I mean, we were not expecting you back so soon."

"Who are you?"

"My name is James Dasypus. I was one of Henry's friends. Please, come in, you must be exhausted from your journey." The man is in his early thirties, with a pleasant if rather impassive face. On one arm he wears a band of black crepe - a token of mourning.

"How did you get into my house?"

"There were some official matters that need urgent attention. Lawyers, you know, coroners, that sort of thing, and Henry's lawyer needed access to some important documents. Don't worry, the whole thing has been taken care of." That tells me why you got in, not how, reflects Isobel, but she is too drained to push the point, and allows herself to be led into her own living room like a guest. Certainly, there is nothing in the stranger's manner to suggest that he feels that he is trespassing. In the living room, the pair encounter a second stranger, a man of Isobel's age, with dark red hair and brows. He too wears a black armband.

"Anthony, Mrs Blyth is here. She's had a very trying day and I'm sure she'd like some tea."

Anthony nods, and moves towards the kitchen.

"I'll show you where the cups are," Isobel says faintly, moving to rise from the sofa to which Dasypus has guided her.

"Don't trouble yourself, Mrs Blyth," says Anthony, gently. "I know where they're kept."

"You just sit there and relax," Dasypus says. "I'll be back in just a moment." He leaves the room, and an instant later, she hears his footsteps on the stairs. Isobel is left alone with her perplexity for an interval, until she is rejoined by Anthony.

"Anthony Deane." He holds out a hand to be shaken. "Please do accept my condolences. Henry was..." he shakes his head as if at a loss for an adequate term, "he was irreplaceable." He gently hands Isobel a cup of tea.

"Is Edward here?" she asks.

"I'm afraid Edward's in hospital. Don't worry, it's not serious, but there was a bit of an accident. A building he was in caught fire, and the hospital is keeping him in for a few days to make sure he hasn't too much smoke in his lungs, or anything. Don't worry, he'll be right as rain."

Two sets of footsteps are audible on the stairs. Dasypus returns with another man, whose face is at least slightly familiar.

"Benjamin Gould. I believe we met at one of your dinner parties - do you recall?" Gould is a nervous-looking man of thirty, with short brown hair parted down the middle. Each time he blinks, his forehead furrows into a small, brief frown, as if he is suffering from some eye complaint.

Isobel nods, and automatically shakes the proffered hand. Gould glances at Dasypus and Deane, both of whom politely withdraw from the room.

"I was a very good friend of your husband. He will be very sorely missed." Gould takes her hand, but Isobel senses that this is rather because he knows such an act is appropriate to the moment, rather than because he has any idea what to do with a hand thus acquired. "Please do not distress yourself with thoughts of the legal and practical details of this affair. The funeral has been set for a date a fortnight from now, the invitations are ready to be sent, and all arrangements have been made. Everything has been taken care of."

"Can I see him?"

"I don't think you'd want to do that, Mrs Blyth. I would recommend that you go away and put it out of your mind for a bit. Leave everything to us. In fact, I gather that you've been on holiday in Whitby recently. Perhaps if you were to go back... a little sea air... blow the cares away..." he tails off, and fills the awkward silence by patting vaguely at Isobel's hand.

"There is another matter on which I ought to consult you," Gould continues, apparently eager to seize upon a change of subject. "I know that Henry and yourself always hoped that, um, that your union would be blessed with the, er, the gift of children. If I may politely enquire, are you... are you in a condition... is such a blessed souvenir of Henry in any way an imminent probability?"

Isobel stares at him.

"Well, I thought perhaps not. That is why I thought that you should be made aware that, er, if you were of a mind to mother such a, er, souvenir, that some of Henry's... procreational fluids are available in cold storage for just such an eventuality. I thought you should be informed of this at the first opportunity. I thought it might make things easier."

Isobel continues to stare at him in mute incredulity.

"Well, I expect you'd like some time to think about it all, wouldn't you?" He takes out a business card and places it in Isobel's unresisting hand. "I'm sure you'd like some time alone now." He stands, picking up a large document case from beside the coffee table.

For about five minutes after she has heard the front door close behind her visitors, Isobel sits in silence. Then she takes a long sip of tea. She frowns, sets the mug on the coffee table, and stares at it.

Someone I've never met before, she reflects, someone I've never met before knows how I take my tea...

A little before ten o'clock, Culver, Side-step, Stone, Andrew, Micky and Twitchin are all back in Andrew's room, to wait for the call. It has been decided that Side-step should take the call.

"I should imagine that there will be no way of tracing the call," remarks the Professor. "For future reference, could there be any way of setting up a device for recording calls?

Even as he ends his sentence, all become aware of the sound of a phone ringing. Side-step's hand is halfway to the room phone when he realises that the ringing is sounding from another room. It is exactly ten o'clock. The investigators exchange glances, and realisation dawns.

"Oh, shit." Andrew opens the door and the group pile out into the corridor.

"I think it's coming from one of the doors on this side."

Culver presses his ear against his hotel door, then reaches for his key. "It's the phone in my room." He opens the door, and Side-step steps in, scooping the receiver of the phone from its cradle.

"Hello? Am I talking to Dr Culver?" The voice at the other end is steady but with little inflection, almost but not quite like that of one reading words in a language he does not understand.

"No, I'm a colleague of his. Is that A.C?"

"Yes. Have your organisation had time to consider my suggestion?"

"We have, and we're willing to play ball. On a few conditions. We choose the time and place." There is a brief silence.

"I do not see that either of us have anything to gain from protracting the discomfort of our hostages. I would suggest that we perform the exchange tonight, perhaps in a few hours."

"Unacceptable. It will take the place at midnight, tomorrow night." There is a long pause.

"May I ask the reason for the proposed delay?"

"You want to tell me why you're in such a rush?" There is another pause.

"What is the place you have selected?"

"I've picked out a nice, little spot due south of Ruswarp..." Side-step describes the location of the proposed meeting place.

"Very well. Your time and place are acceptable. I am glad that a reasonable solution to our problems has been negotiable." The end of the line goes dead.

The next morning, immediately after breakfast, the Professor again borrows Stone's phone so that he can make another attempt to call his son.

To his great relief, the proprietress puts him through to Theo's room. The phone rings a few further times, and then Theo answers, sounding sleepy. He seems perplexed that his father should have felt any anxiety on his behalf.

"No, I didn't sleep at the bed and breakfast last night. I had a dinner engagement and my host offered to put me up for the night since the weather was rather bad... were you ringing for any particular reason?"

"No, no real reason. Just thought I'd check that you were alright, my boy. Oh, and Theo? I know you couldn't possibly tell me even if you could - national security and all that - but if matters were a little hairy around certain nameless North Yorkshire fishing villages you could hypothetically, that is, tip one's pater the wink, so to speak?"

"Of course," says Theo, somewhat uncertainly. "Um... you're sure you're not... doing anything in Whitby, are you? You're just on holiday, aren't you?" The Professor hastens to reassure him, and Theo appears soothed. "Well, I don't know how you got these worries in your head, but I can assure you that I know of no threats to Whitby, and it seems to me that if any existed I would be best placed to hear of them."

His mind now considerably relieved, the Professor seeks out Stone to return the phone. As he hands it over, it begins ringing. Stone answers, then hands it back to Twitchin. The Professor finds himself talking to the woman from the police press office. He quickly reassumes the identity of investigative reporter.

"The Chief Superintendent is willing to talk to us? Good. At the Rohilla - I see, an informal conversation. I quite understand. This evening? Certainly. Yes, ten o'clock would be perfectly satisfactory. I will be present."

A quick survey of the telephone directory the day before had satisfied Stone that only one Dr Pym is based in Whitby. Telephoning the number in the directory, he is fortunate enough to make an appointment for that morning.

"You're lucky, Dr Stone. We've just had a cancellation. I can put you in the eleven o'clock slot, OK?"

The doctor's surgery is positioned in the modern quarter of Whitby, in a relatively new-looking red brick building. Arriving at eleven exactly, Stone is shown in to see Dr Pym with minimal delay.

"Good to meet you." Dr Pym is a short, balding man with a sharp tug of a hand shake, and the bold, resonant tones of the slightly deaf. "Do sit down. I understand you want to talk to me about one of my patients?" He sits back in his leather chair, and smiles encouragingly. As he sits, Stone gives the surrounding room a surreptitious glance. There are a number of certificates on the walls, and Stone notes that besides conventional qualifications, they include among them diplomas from colleges of alternative medicine.

"Yes, Lydia Montmorency."

"Ah." Pym places one palm against the other and rotates it gently. "Ah, yes. So you're her psychiatrist, mm? I don't envy you that job. In many respects she seems to have coped with the knowledge of her HIV status remarkable well, but... I sometimes wonder if she really realises the fact of it. I take it you know how it happened? Very tragic. It was shortly after the death of the parents, you know, in the car crash. Well, she took that badly, and cut her wrists one night. Her brother did all the right things, poor chap, bound the wounds, and rushed her to receive medical help. Of course, the first thing they did was give her a blood transfusion. Well, this was quite a few years ago, the medical profession was not so familiar with the risks..." Doctor Pym shrugs. "The blood was infected.

"In many ways, it's her brother for whom I feel the most sorry - he's the one that actually understands what is happening. Do you want my advice? I don't think there's anything to be gained from dragging Lydia out of her escapism. If she wants to spend the rest of her tragically short life in fantasyland, I say let her, let her..."

Having made the relevant arrangements by telephone, Culver leaves Whitby once again, and drives to the safehouse for another interview with Ian Brookland. This time he arranges for the conversation to take place in a slightly more comfortable room, and one with less resemblance to a police interrogation cell.

Ian Brookland is shown in, and seems relieved to note that this time he is not expected to face the 'bad cop' half of the questioning team. Culver smiles, and passes Brookland a glass of brandy.

"I wasn't expecting to be called back. Is there a problem?"

"No, no. Don't worry, it's nothing important, just a chat. Here, take the comfortable chair. Relax, hmm?" Culver smiles as Brookland settles himself into the chair, and takes a sip of the brandy. Hopefully the Diazepam dissolved into the liquor will have the required calming effect. "Warm, isn't it? Warm and safe..." As he talks, Culver allows his voice to subside into a soothing, softened monotone. Brookland is initially a little perplexed but basically unsuspicious, and finding that he is not to be the subject of a rigorous cross-examination, he starts to relax. Since he has not hypnotised anyone for a considerable period, Culver is initially worried that he might find himself out of practice. To his surprise, finding the right tone is easier even than he remembered it to be.

At long last, Culver considers it safe to guide the mind of the other man back to night of Riggs' disappearance.

"You were answering a call of nature. That's right. Don't worry, just go deeper..." A troubled tightness appears in the corners of Brookland's mouth, as if he were sensing something false in his memory, and were silently striving to understand it, to see it better. The frown clears, as if he had seen the answer to a puzzle that had troubled him. Then he opens his mouth and screams.

"You see it? We must give it everything! Everything we can give! The blood of our children, if it asks it! We must give it everything!" Brookland is on his feet now, staring through Culver with eyes as empty as the sky. His eyes travel upwards degree by degree, as if scanning up the face of something of impossibly huge dimensions. Then his eyes roll up under his lids, and he falls unconscious to the floor.

After lunch, Micky strolls over to the motorcycle garage which the Professor had telephoned the previous day. One of the attendants is extending his lunch break with the aid of a can of beer, and proves fairly easy to engage in conversation.

"Yeah, there are quite a few biker gangs that hang out in Whitby some of the time. The War-steeds often meet up in The Wreckers. You get the Scars hanging around at The Bearpit. Just as well those two pubs are on opposite sides of the town, I always think..."

A little after five, the investigators meet back at Stone's room. Side-step appears at the door with a heavy but innocuous looking packing case. He is followed by Andrew and Micky, who are similarly encumbered. Jim's delivery has arrived.

"Time to open your presents, children." Having shut the door behind him, Side-step opens the first of the cases, and reveals the handguns inside..

Andrew handles the gun that is passed to him with the confidence of practice, and examines it with a professional eye.

At first, Culver declines the offered firearms, showing the capped syringes of Droperidol concealed in the pocket of the long coat. "After all, I have at least some idea of an appropriate dose now," he adds grimly. However, eventually he consents to hide a handgun on his person. "In my brief experience, these things cause more hassle than they're worth. Rest assured that I shall be hitting the deck first opportunity I get."

For the next hour, Side-step talks to the less experienced about the use of the Brownings.

"For one thing don't think about firing one of these unless your arm's locked, like this, or you're using two hands. I don't want anyone breaking their own nose when the gun kicks..."

After this, the group settle down to discuss strategy for the evening ahead. Side-step has made a small map of the area, and over the next few hours this map becomes criss-crossed with lines and symbols as the plan forms. The Professor has his appointment with the Chief Inspector that evening, and cannot therefore aid in the practical execution, but he, like the others, offers his suggestions. At last Side-step clears his throat and smooths the map flat.

"OK, to summarise. Micky will be placed at the scene in advance - there's a nice little hidden dip, the far side of the clearing from the road. They shouldn't be able to see you as they drive up. It would be nice to have more people concealed, but the fewer people we have to bundle back into the Land Rover when we're heading away, the better. The rest of us will approach nearer the time, in the Land Rover.

"When we get to the spot, I'll get out, along with Matt. Andrew will stay in the Rover, but with the engine running, and his gun handy just in case. John will stay in the back, ready to open the door and drag people in, or to fire out if necessary.

"We wait for the point where both hostages are starting to walk towards the centre of the clearing so that if I have to I can get a clear shot at my opposite number. When we reach that point, Micky fires from his hiding place, full automatic. Micky, as soon as you've stopped firing, start running. There's a handy, little ridge that runs west along here, and will cover you to the point where the road bends around, and we can pick you up. Micky probably won't be able to get a clear shot at the people a few paces behind Benedict, but at the very least he can take out the tyres of any vehicles they have, so that they'll have trouble chasing us. And he'll be behind them, so hopefully that'll get their heads turning.

"If any of them look like they're thinking of shooting the hostages, I'll change their minds for them, on a permanent basis if necessary.

"Matt, as soon as you hear a shot, hit the floor. Andrew, as soon as gunfire breaks out, get the Rover moving along here -" Side-step traces a line on the map with his forefinger, "and John, get the door open and get ready to drag us inside. I'll grab Benedict and shove him into your waiting arms, OK? Then Andrew takes us off sharpish back to the road, this way, pausing here to pick up Micky. Everyone got that?"

In silence, Isobel sits in the leatherbound chair in her husband's study. Behind her the doors of the filing cabinets are slightly ajar. She already knows that they have been emptied. She has not pulled out the drawer of Henry's desk, but somehow she suspects that that too has been stripped clean.

She has spent much of the day waiting to see Edward, her guardian. When she did at last see him, she found him somewhat dazed in manner, and rather more badly injured than she had been led to expect. Perhaps the sense of distance between them was the result of some kind of medication he had been given. Perhaps he was in shock.

Through the window, she can see the lights of another house going out one by one. The extinction of even this evidence of other human beings fills her with a sudden panic - it feels as if she is being left entirely alone. She has come into the study to be with Henry, to acquire a sense of Henry. And she cannot find him.

His likeness is on the desk before her. She can reach out her fingers and touch the photograph in which they stand on the lawn, her hair blowing around his face, and his arm around her shoulders. But now the face is just a collection of tessellating shapes on a piece of card. It is a jigsaw puzzle of light and shade. There are no answers there any more.

There is a fine network of scratches on the surface of the glass. They criss-cross the face of the man in the photo like delicate cracks. She has looked at the photo a thousand times, and never noticed the scratches. Perhaps that is the way with things that gather gradually. One gets used to seeing a thing as one is intended to see it. Only with a change of angle are the years of accumulated details suddenly presented to the eye.

She closes her eyes, and settles back into her chair, closing her eyes. A man sat in this chair, time and again, year after year. His head rested here. His hands rested here and here. But I don't know him. I don't know him at all.

She rises from the chair. The thick rug deadens the sound of her footfalls as she paces the length of the study, and back, and to, and fro. For a moment, just a moment, she seems to sense something reaching back towards her, a loving and tender presence, like a warm hand extended towards her own. But with a sudden shock she is certain that it is not Henry...

With increasing impatience, Professor Twitchin sits at his table at the Rohilla, awaiting police delegation. Some half an hour after the agreed time, two men enter, and seeing his questioning glance, make their way to his table. Both are dressed 'plain clothes.'

The elder of the two holds out a smooth, white hand. "Chief Superintendent Alexander Star." He is remarkable fat, sporting a truly superb triple chin. His mouth is unusually wide, another long crease in the generous flesh of his face. His manner is very genial, and he is most apologetic for his tardiness.

The Superintendent proves to be pleasant and articulate, and it is only when the Professor has established how many reading interests the two men share that he suddenly becomes aware that somehow the intended subject of the meeting has not yet been introduced. He also notices that the waiting staff have ceased to serve, and that the buffet counter has been cleared.

"Yes, they stop serving eleven, but they let you just sit and chat until about one, if you wish. That's one of the nice things about the Rohilla." Glancing at his watch, the Professor notes that it is twenty-five to midnight.

In his hiding place among the undergrowth, Micky lies flat, occasionally glancing at the luminous dial on his watch. Twenty to midnight. He rubs his chilled fingers to warm them. Best not to have numb fingers while wielding something that could send a round through a wall, he reflects.

Quarter to midnight. Ah, here comes something. One set of headlights proceeding up the road from the direction of Whitby. It halts in the assigned place, and a number of dark figures get out. He sees torch beams flicking to and fro. He ducks low, but Side-step has chosen the hiding place well. One torch beam passes over the undergrowth at the crest of the hollow, but there is no outcry. After some seven or eight minutes, Micky hears someone say, "all clear."

There is a pause, and then Micky glimpses another set of headlights approaching. At first he thinks it is the Rover, but as it nears he realises that it is another car. It parks alongside the first. Micky grins - if all goes as plan, the position the cars have chosen will allow him to shoot out their tyres without risking destroying the ankles of the hostages and their guards at the same time.

Midnight. And there are a third set of headlights approaching along the road. This time Micky recognises the Land Rover.

In the back of the Land Rover, Culver sits in silence, feeling the weight of the hand gun against his hip. A simple hood made from a cloth bag has been placed on his head, and pin holes cut so that he can see what is happening. The Rover stops, and he hears the door slide open.

Taking care to keep his hands behind his back, he alights from the back of the car. Side-step gets out beside him, taking him a little roughly by the shoulder as if to compel him forwards.

Standing by the cars opposite are four figures. Two are of probably of average height, but are dwarfed by a third, who stands some six and a half feet tall. He appears, for some reason, to be carrying a large blanket of some sort. All are dressed in black suits. Before them, his hands behind his back, his face dazed and expressionless, is Benedict Riggs.

The other group seem to be waiting for some signal before proceeding. Looking closely, Culver notices that a man in the front of one of the cars is scrutinising the SITU delegation carefully. At last he turns to his associates and nods, and the three men accompanying Riggs advance a little.

"We send the hostages into the middle and get them to walk past each other to their own side, agreed?" shouts Side-step.

"Agreed." comes the answer.

Through the opening in the undergrowth, Micky sees the two hostages start to walk towards one another. He takes a deep breath to steady himself, and... empties the contents of the Browning into the wheels of the enemy cars.

As Side-step had predicted, all three men standing behind Benedict turn their heads and half-crouch for a critical fraction of an instant. Matt immediately throws himself flat on the ground, and the Rover surges into life. Side-step catches Riggs' eye, and jerks his head towards the Rover. The effect is all but magical. Riggs' trained instincts evidently over, and jerk him out of his dazed or drugged state. A flicker of lucidity passes like lightning behind his eyes as he clearly take stock of the situation, and then he is running towards the advancing vehicle, and Stone's ready hands.

The next instant, the Rover's headlights gleam off the three submachine guns as Benedict's guards turn back, training their weapons on the fleeing figure of Riggs. Side-step who has drawn his own weapon in the interim drops, and rakes all three on full automatic. Three bodies shake in the rain of fire, then tumble.

Fire from at least two other submachine guns is now raking the turf around Culver and Side-step.

"Time to go." Glancing over his shoulder, Side-step sees Stone helping Riggs into the Rover. Side-step turns to help Matt up from the ground, and is suddenly gripped by the collar, and lifted up, and up, until his feet are no longer touching the ground.

The tallest man is standing, apparently oblivious of the gunfire around him. Side-step is treated to a close view of a large, bland face with wide, empty, tranquil eyes and an entrance hole the size of a ping-pong ball in the centre of the man's chest, before he is hurled violently to one side.

Seeing Side-step jettisoned abruptly into his path, Andrew slams on the brakes. In the back, John Stone and Riggs are thrown flat, a fact which they do not regret when an instant later a burst of gunfire traces a ragged line of punctures through both walls of the Rover inches above their heads. Leaning through the window, Andrew releases a few three-round bursts into the cars. There is a sound of breaking glass, and one of the submachine guns falls silent.

Before he has time to respond, Culver feels a heavy blanket thrown over his form, and the next moment he has been bundled off his feet, and tossed over someone's shoulder. To judge by the sound of pounding feet below him, his new captor is not unduly inconvenienced by his weight. He manages to take hold of one of his syringes, and drive it into his captor's flesh through the blanket, but with no noticeable result.

Recovering himself, Side-step rolls out of the way of the Rover, recovers his feet, and runs to the door where Stone pulls him inside. One of the enemy cars, despite the ragged state of one wheel, has jolted into life, and is setting off in pursuit of the tall man who has seized Culver. Stone rakes the side of the car with his automatic, but this does not seem to make an appreciable difference to its speed.

"Shit!" Glancing up the road, Side-step sees some three or four other vehicles approaching. Any doubt about the affiliation of the newcomers is dispelled by a burst of submachine fire as the Rover lurches into range. "They had backup ready."

The car is now level with the running man. A door opens, and the runner and his burden enter the car, which then picks up speed, and hastens to join the approaching reinforcements.

Another spray of bullets hit the Rover, passing through metal like butter and turning the windscreen into a map of stars. One bullet has scratched Riggs, and he is bleeding profusely from one arm.

"We're Swiss cheese if we stay here! Go! Go!" The Rover swerves away, back onto the road, and picks up speed. The reinforcements seem disinclined to give chase.

"No way! No fucking way!" Side-step is breathless and enraged. "A 9mm in the chest leaves an exit wound the size of a dinner plate! The guy's lungs must have been painting the grass! No way you get up after that!" At the agreed place, the Rover slows a little, just enough for Micky to run from the roadside and jump in through the door.

Micky, who had been peering out through one of the holes in the windscreen, suddenly tenses.

"What's that?" he enquires, pointing ahead

"Turn off the road! Turn the lights off and get off the road! There's a police roadblock ahead!"

"That was messier than it needed to be," says a quiet, level, impassive voice, somewhere a few feet from Culver's head. He is still muffled in the blanket.

"Are you alright, Crier?" The second voice is deeper, and has a slightly Germanic accent.

"No, Troy, I have been shot in the head. My mobile phone has been totally destroyed. Fortunately I had enough time to give the signal for reinforcements." There is a silence, filled only by the sound of the car engine.

"Look, Emmanuel stuck a syringe into me. Look."

After a brief icy pause, Crier snaps, "Take those things off his head."

The blanket is loosened about Culver's head, then the bag tugged loose. It is very dark within the car, as if the windows were tinted. A man in the front passenger seat has turned his head to inspect Culver. His face is largely in shadow, but his eyes have a trace of opalescence. There is something disturbing about the outline of his skull, as if a portion of it were missing.

"A double-cross," he says. At the final hiss of the second word, two narrow cat-like fangs show beneath his upper lip.

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