The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
Through the frost of the shattered windscreen, the red and blue lights of the waiting police cars can be glimpsed in the distance. Andrew turns off the lights of the Rover, and abruptly starts to decelerate. Carefully, he steers the vehicle from the road and into a decline from which he estimates that it will be invisible from the road.
"OK," mutters Side-step, "everyone out and on your bellies along the road in case the Rover's spotted."
Stone slides back the door, and the group scramble out, and follow Side-step's cue by lying stomach down amid the undergrowth, guns in hands.
Noticing that Riggs' sleeve is already soaked with blood, Stone manoeuvres him to a dip behind the Rover, and sets about attending to his injury, taking care to shield the light from his pen torch so that it cannot be seen from the road. Using a length of cloth from Riggs' own shirt, Stone soon has a serviceable binding for the bullet wound.
Each member of the party tightens his grips upon his weapon as a single car approaches along the road from the direction of the gunfight.
"Is that the car that they put Matt into?"
"No, I don't think so. It's one of the others."
The car passes the place where the party lie in silence, and draws up to the roadblock.
"Let's see what happens when our friends reach the roadblock," Side-step says under his breath. "Pound to a pinch of salt the police let 'em through." One of the policemen stoops next to the driver's window. He appears to exchange a few sentences with the driver, gestures in an arc towards the moor, and shrugs. Then he nods, and steps back, giving a curt wave to his fellows. A few instants later, the car can be seen proceeding up the road. "Whoever these bastards are they got connections."
"Side-step, this situation is stuffed up," hisses Micky. "We need to get out of here."
"What are we going to do about Culver?" asks John Stone. "Shouldn't we follow? If we don't know where he is we haven't got a hope in hell of getting him back."
"Culver's in trouble, but there's nothing we can do. Let's slip away and try to plan a rescue. If they're going to kill him, they will probably have done it already, but I think we've got a limited amount of time before they do," replies Micky.
"If they've got a roadblock here, they'll have some in the other direction as well. There's no way we can get through it, so we're not going to be able to follow 'em to snatch Matt back." Side-step glares speculatively at the road block. "We better get back to the digs to plan our next move and lick our wounds. Speaking of which, how's that arm holding up, Riggs?"
Riggs glances down at the wound, and gives a small shrug.
"Messy but minor," he says. Although haggard and pale, he appears relatively composed.
Side-step glances over at Stone's makeshift bandage with some approval, and then for once permits his face to relax into a genuine smile as he looks at Riggs.
"Welcome back, mate. Great to have you back."
The man in the front of the car puts his head a little on one side, like a bird angling its beak for a strike against an intractable worm. The slightly luminous eyes are dispassionate and unblinking. His chin is short, and the line of his jawbone wide, giving the silhouette of his head a slightly serpentine appearance. Crier, Matt thinks to himself.
Culver is aware of a massive figure beside him in the back seat, effortlessly holding him confined within the blanket with a fist the size of grapefruit. Troy.
From his position on the back seat, the captive cannot make out the driver's face. The hands on the steering wheel are visibly shaking.
"The name's Culver, Matt Culver." Culver is amazed at the fact that he has succeeded in keeping his voice steady. "I take it you, er, haven't been expecting me."
"No, we were not, Dr Culver. We were rather expecting you to equal our good faith. You and your colleagues have been quite disappointingly unintelligent."
Culver licks his lips drily as he tries not to let his eyes be drawn to the crater in the right hand side of Crier's head, or his mind to comprehend fully the enormity of what he is seeing. He forces his mind back to his experiences in his professional capacity as advisor during hostage negotiations. Keep them talking, that's your best chance. Bond with them psychologically... a blackened hole is dimly visible in Crier's left temple... an entrance wound. Right through the head. Shot right through the head... Culver fights down his rising panic. The wreckage of a mobile phone lies scattered about the gear stick.
"Ohh..." Culver lets his face clear, as if he has only just come to a realisation. "You were expecting Emmanuel. Isn't he with you?" The psychiatrist is aware of a prickling, stifling quality to the atmosphere, a little like that he had experienced at 'Out for the Count,' but stronger, much stronger. Within the confines of the car, it is painful, electric, claustrophobic.
"If he was, would we be troubling you to return him?" Crier's tone is crisp, icy and a little impatient. Don't think about the hole in his head, don't think about the parts of the brain that must be, have to be totally destroyed by an injury like that... don't think about the bullet passing through his head and smashing his mobile phone while he was using it...
"Look, your communications have been rather cryptic." Culver is aware that the large fist that rests upon his chest, gripping the blanket about his form, has moved in position so that it is nearer to his throat. The folds of the fabric about him are stealthily tightening about his chest. "I think my colleagues have screwed up... big time. Let me explain." Crier changes the direction of his gaze, and his eyes glint for a second, as if the backs of his retina are mirrored, like those of a cat. He evidently makes eye contact with the owner of the giant fist, and shakes his head very slightly. The blanket slackens about Culver once more, and his breathing is once again uninhibited.
"There's been a mistake. Right from the start, our group's been on the, er, paranoid side. Suspicion's tended to focus on me - y'know, what with sensitivity to garlic and sunlight. That and the dreams..." There is a pause.
"Keep talking, Dr Culver. You may succeed in interesting me..."
As he starts to talk, trying to keep his words from tripping over one another, Culver's unseen hands are rubbing at the marks on the backs of his hands, the ink marks designed to simulate Emmanuel's stigmata tattoos. Against his leg, he can feel the cold weight of Side-step's handgun in his pocket.
"Anyway, pleasant as this, we seem to have veered from the point of our meeting." The Professor has become increasingly uncomfortable as he has become aware that the subject of Rain's murder has been skilfully evaded by his companion, and has decided to take a more direct approach.
"Very true, very true." Chief Superintendent Star presses his massive palms together and interlocks his fingers. "When you telephoned our press office earlier, you claimed knowledge of some rather sensitive details. I must confess I would be most interested to know your source for this information."
"Can't do that, I'm afraid, old chap. Not the done thing to reveal one's sources. Suffice to say that we know the Rain murder happened, and that it hasn't been reported in the media yet. We'd like some idea why it's been covered up, and upon whose orders."
"Yes, in good time. But first, you know, I'd like to make sure that you're not carrying a tape recorder." Star's broad face creases in a confidential smile. "It's an old trick, but I'd be an ass not to ask, wouldn't I?" After a moment's hesitation, the Professor shows the contents of his pockets to his interlocutors. The chair creaks under the Chief Superintendent as he leans forward to view this proceeding, then eases back into a more relaxed position.
"In return, would you mind if I were to see your ID?" Star smiles obligingly, and fetches his badge from his jacket pocket. The Professor peers at it across the table. It seems bona fide.
"Thank you very much, sir. Now, if you don't mind, I'll answer your last question first. Release of the details of this case was delayed on my orders. The case is rather more sensitive than you perhaps realise. Ryan Rain was one of the dominant members of a local biker gang called the Warsteeds. Recently there has been a certain amount of animosity between a number of the gangs, and in particular in Whitby, which many of them treat as a watering hole, things have become increasingly... flammable."
With a certain amount of concern, the Professor notices that only one other table in the Rohilla appears to be occupied. The young couple seated there seem to be preparing to leave. As he watches, the girl yawns and rubs at her mascara-laden eyelid, unconsciously drawing a blue-black smear down over one cheek-bone like a tear track. Glancing back at Star, the Professor catches the policeman throwing a rapid glance at his watch.
"So, you see," continues Star, "the murder of Rain could be just the sort of spark to get a rather nasty turf war under way. Over the next week, in the run-up to Halloween, we expect to have any number of people flooding in from all over the country. If a gang war takes place at this time, innocent people are likely to get hurt, and resources which might have been expended in the search for Rain's killer would be busy with damage limitation." Again Twitchin notices the Chief Superintendent casting a surreptitious glance at his watch.
"I would be very grateful if we could count on your paper to keep this whole matter quiet for a brief interval. In return I would be glad to give you an exclusive interview on the matter when it becomes inevitable that the story is to 'break.'"
"Well, it's probably too late for that. As I said, the nationals are onto the story now. My advice is to take the bull by the horns and give your side before the whole thing gets distorted. You know the way it is, the local police always take the blame in cases like this. By the way, who were the scientists recently brought up from London?" In response to this last question, Star stares at him with what appears to be unfeigned surprise and bewilderment.
The young couple are rising to leave, the young man placing a leather coat about the slender shoulders of his companion. As they open the door, the Professor glimpses a pair of figures standing across the street from the little cafe. He has a dim impression that he had noticed them standing in the same place when he approached the Rohilla several hours before. Although their stance is casual, they seem to be throwing the occasional glance in the direction of the Rohilla.
He casts a quick, appraising eye over the policeman opposite. Star still wears his broad, comfortable smile, but there is something in his manner that is subtly redolent of impatience, of edginess.
"Back in a moment." Professor Twitchin smiles, rises, and heads off towards the toilets.
Climbing out through the window proves rather more difficult than he had anticipated. The window itself is rather small, and is positioned high up one wall, almost as if with the intention of preventing such an exit. Being less than agile, the Professor lands rather heavily in the alleyway on the other side, bruising one knee. After taking a few moments to recover his breath, he limps away from the Rohilla, leaving Superintendent Star to make what he will of his disappearance.
Standing motionless in her husband's study, Isobel hears a dog bark once, briefly, and then feels silence settle about her like dust. She feels a sudden horror of her isolated state, lest she be visited by a vision to equal that she had suffered in the hotel room, but this time with no hope of friendly interruption. The telephone beckons her hand, but she is haunted by an unreasonable fear that if she picks up the receiver there would be no comforting dialling tone, just more thick, grey silence churning down the line to her.
Beyond the window, the moonlight's radiance pulses with the passing of the clouds, gleaming and fading like the light in a dying eye, sometimes dimming until fence melts into tree, bush into lawn, sometimes strengthening until each blade of grass has a knife edge shadow. As she watches, Isobel seems to feel her spirits responding to the flooding and fading light, now sharpened by fear, now dulled by weariness. At last a tremor shakes the garden, and a long breeze soothes away the silence, like a sigh released after a period of intolerable tension.
Lethargy and weariness triumphant, Isobel slumps into her husband's chair once more. The last thing she sees before closing her eyes is the photograph of her husband and herself. As her lids drop, the image dims, as if tears had found their way into her eyes, or as if the room had filled with mist.
"Are you sure we're going in the right direction?"
The blind and blackened moor extends in all directions. Under foot, the grass is shin high, and brittle with frost. The party's initial gratitude for the descent of the freezing fog that promised to shroud them from them from their enemies has waned as even the outlines of the distant hills are swallowed by the pallid mist.
After a quick examination of the bullet-ridden Land Rover, it had been judged best to abandon it. A quick piece of reconnaissance by Andrew had established that, as suspected, the road in the other direction from the site of the gun battle was also obstructed by a police road block. The five men had, therefore, set off across the moor on foot.
"Trust me." In a wilderness, John Stone is in his element. Reaching a rise where a group of low stones huddle amid the brush like a family of sleeping trolls, Stone pauses to check his bearings, and to allow the others to rest briefly. Riggs is drawing his breath in through his teeth, as if his injury is troubling him more than he confesses.
"What's that?" Andrew raises a hand for silence. Micky's expression is also distant, focused, as if he has heard something.
"Sounded a bit like a dog. A bit. It came from back there."
"If they have dogs we're in trouble. We'd better keep moving." Stone stands and stretches his limbs. "This way."
Now or never... now or never...
The bag has been replaced over Culver's head. The pinholes are twisted to the back of the bag, and he is hooded to blindness like a hawk. He hears the engine die and the car door open. He is being carefully pulled out of the car, still swaddled like a baby in the enormous blanket.
In a moment they will find the gun. If I'm going to use it, it's now or never...
He is standing on rough grass outside the car. Low hanging thorns pull at his trouser legs as he is propelled forwards.
"Search him." Crier's level, emotionless tones. "Collins, my mobile phone has sustained an irrecoverable injury. I shall have to borrow yours briefly."
I could pull the bag from my head with one hand, and pull out the gun with the other and try to shoot one of those... vampires through the heart. And then...
"Put your hands on top of your head." An unfamiliar voice, terse and professional.
And then supposing I succeed in killing him or it, and supposing I don't get shot immediately, I get to try and outrun the whole lot of them. Across the moor...
"Put your hands on top of your head." More insistent this time. The sound of a gun being readied.
Culver raises his hands slowly, and places them with the palms against the top of his head. He can feel his heart beating as his pockets are emptied.
"Hello? Crier. Yes, I am aware that I am making this call some thirty minutes later than arranged." Culver feels the weight against his hip removed as the Browning is taken from his pocket. "No, we do not. No, we seem to have been the victims of either a misunderstanding or a double cross." There is a faint sound of glass on glass as the syringes of Droperidol are emptied out of internal pockets of the long dark coat. "There was an exchange of fire, in which we lost four men. No, of course none of them were Troy. How did your meeting proceed?" Culver feels a slight pressure against the back of his neck as if someone were examining the Ezili fetish, and pulling taut the cord from which it hangs in doing so. "You lost him? How ingenious of you. I suppose you are going to tell me that he visited the toilet and took the opportunity to climb through the window?" The cord slackens, and with relief Culver feels the fetish fall back to its place against his chest. "You are not serious." A pause. "I see. You are serious. Well. Make your report in the usual fashion."
"Look at these, sir."
Footsteps crunch across the frozen grass a few feet from Culver. Again there is the rattle of glass on glass, and then the click of a gun magazine being opened.
"I see. Secure him and load him into one of the cars." Culver's hands are grasped and twisted behind his back. A chain rattles, and with a click cold metal bands secure his wrists. "Now I must trouble someone for a hat, I think. Halloween is still a week away, and I suspect that my current appearance is likely to invite speculation."
"Well, I don't know about everyone else, but I could do with a drink." Side-step casts a glance over the rather shell-shocked group as they file into Stone's bedroom. Leaving the room, Side-step walks down to the reception, where he arranges for a collection of bottles and glasses to be brought to Stone's room.
While the party are waiting for the drinks to arrive, Twitchin returns, still limping a little from his clumsy fall, and is apprised of developments. He has barely time to offer Riggs an effusive welcome and to express his concern at the fate of Matt Culver when room service arrives. Side-step lines the bottles in front of his colleagues before pouring himself a Southern Comfort.
"How you feeling, Riggs?" he asks. In the clear light of the hotel room, the American looks particularly unwell. Although he is still maintaining his composure in spite of all odds, his face has a greyish pallor against which his long scar is unusually livid. He gives a wry smile.
Stone sets about examining Riggs' wound once again, and replacing his temporary bandage with something a little more professional.
"OK." Side-step sets his glass back on the table. "No offence intended to Riggs, but all we've achieved tonight is the swap of one agent for another. Back to square one you might say, so now we gotta come up with a way of springing Matt. Riggs, what can you tell us about your captors? Think like you're back with the firm and consider this a debriefing. Who are they and what can you tell us about their location?"
"I can tell you what I know, but I don't know how useful it will be." The calmness of Riggs's tone reminds Side-step and Twitchin of the interval of lucidity which he had manifested while wearing the amulet in Haiti. "I was taken prisoner about a mile north-west of the safehouse, out on the moors. I think there were some two or three people out there waiting for me. There was a thick mist so I didn't spot them until I ran into them." He shrugs. "I was out for the count before I could get a look at their faces.
"I can't tell you much about the place where I was kept. The guy they had in charge of me kept my head covered most of the time. A lot of the time, if anyone came into my room it was to ask me questions. It was usually the same guy, with this clipped, dead-sounding voice. He asked a lot of questions, and seemed to have the idea that I'd been spending time in Eastern Europe. I had a hell of a time persuading him that I didn't know what he was talking about.
"The rest of the time he kept asking me about SITU, trying to find out the names of my colleagues, the location of the new headquarters, the names and addresses of senior members, and that kind of thing. Well, I held mum. Once or twice this young, quiet guy came in to see me, and I think he tried some kind of hypnosis on me, and tried to get me to answer the same questions. I held out against it, but for some reason I can't seem to remember what he looked like.
"One thing I can tell you about the place where I was held - it was near the sea. There wasn't much sound of traffic, so I don't reckon it was in a town, but a lot of the time I could hear gulls and the sound of waves. And the building where I was kept was at least one storey high - when they led me out to the van, they took me down at least one flight of stairs."
"Did you see anything of the house when they took you out?" asks Micky. Riggs shakes his head.
"No, my head was covered again. But I know that it had a gravel drive - I could feel that much through my shoe soles."
"Do any of these names seem familiar?" Micky spreads before Riggs the letter to David Caine from Karl Hendleby.
"Maurice. That rings a bell, though I'm not sure I can place it." Just for a second, as he studies the letter, frowning, a spasm of pain passes across Riggs' face and then shudders through the entirety of his frame, as if he were a harp string that had been plucked. The next instant he seems unaware of this little convulsion.
"Your captors - did they seem to have any weak points?" enquires Stone.
"Hard to say. They didn't seem to like the light much, I noticed that much. The guy who questioned me put on an angle lamp to show me some photographs of some people and ask if any of them were familiar. He put on dark glasses first, and kept shielding his face from the bulb."
"Do you know anything about the car that drove you to meet us?" asks Micky.
"Not much. Large car, plenty of room on the back seat. Pine-scented air freshener. Quiet engine."
"Do you fancy going and debriefing SITU about all of this?" asks Micky. A muscle in Riggs' cheek jumps slightly.
"No," says Twitchin quickly. "I don't think we want you in another SITU safehouse, Benny. But I think we do need to get you some medical attention and get you out of Whitby, eh?"
Side-step nods, thoughtfully. "So, anyone got any ideas to throw in the pot as to what we do next? Of course, there's still a chance that our bulletproof friends may just let Matt go, but I think that highly unlikely. Alternatively they may contact us to see if we still have their guy, depending on what story Matt gives 'em. Another possibility is that Matt springs himself, or... well, the final alternative I don't even wanna consider."
There is a sombre silence.
"Side-step, do you think you could adapt ammo capable of hurting those vampire creatures?" asks Stone. No-one protests at his confident use of the term 'vampire.' The sight of the tall man rising from the grass with a torso riddled with bullets has left its mark. "What about incendiary rounds? Or bullets with garlic or holy water in? Seen it on the telly - you drill a small hole in the bullet, put in the poison (or in this case garlic or holy water) then plug it with melted wax or something..."
"Not as easy as it sounds. I could get onto Jim again and try and get us some incendiary rounds, though."
"In the meanwhile," opines Micky, "I vote that we hide the weapons we do have, under a floorboard or something, just in case the police turn up to question us. Like Side-step said, those bastards have connections."
"I suppose we need to make contact with our opposite number, and try and arrange another deal. Dashed if I know what we can offer them, though. Perhaps we could announce that we know of their plans for the Abbey on Halloween, and that if they release Matt and shove off we'll leave them in peace, or something" says Twitchin. "Did Matt have a mobile phone we could ring?"
"No," replies Side-step. "He kept borrowing mine."
"Well, maybe there's some other way we can get in touch. I guess in the meanwhile we'd better follow the leads we've got." The Professor pauses. "I still wonder whether that Montmorency girl may have some bearing on the vampire situation. Perhaps Dr Stone could try and get hold of a sample of her blood? And then there's the biker pubs. Micky, Side-step, do you think you could handle that?"
Absolute blackness, with no sound but his own breathing. There is a terrible clinging static in the air, like the first, stinging, invisible tickle of rain, or the sensation of a thousand tiny fingernails being drawn across every inch of his skin. The bag over his head is stifling.
The handcuffs still fasten his wrists, but they now chain them behind the chair in which he is seated. The floor under his soles is smooth, perhaps fashioned from tiles of polished wood or linoleum. The silence is so complete that he feels that it should be possible to hear the collision of dust motes. Nonetheless he is certain that he is not alone. Since he was thrust into the chair some ten minutes before, there has been not the slightest sound, not even that of anyone leaving the room.
Sure enough, after this interval, he hears a faint sound of motion, a sequence of muffled, measured steps approaching him. The bag is abruptly snatched from his head. And he is still in absolute blackness, and he is still stifled by air filled with storm-static. In the darkness, two discs of mother-of-pearl light hover above him, blink briefly, and recede. There is a creak of wooden joints, as if a chair across the room has taken on a burden.
"Crier says you have an explanation." A female voice with a touch of Southern Irish in the accent, combined with some other region difficult to identify, and a with a curious way of softening the consonants.
"Yes." How can I judge their reactions by their voices? Culver tries to direct his answer in the direction from which the voice had issued. "Like I told Crier, my colleagues have been getting a bit paranoid, and after a while they started to direct their suspicions towards me, what with the trouble I've been having with sensitivity to sunlight and garlic." His eyes starting to acclimatise, Culver glimpses another set of eyes glimmering like twinned moonstone from the shadows. "So, when your note mentioned a 'colleague,' that seemed to confirm things for Side-step and the others. They decided I was working undercover for you guys. I couldn't make them believe I wasn't turning into a ... well, a vampire. So, er, here I am." Blinking repeatedly, Culver contrives to resolve the pattern of black on black in which the luminous eyes nestle into something resembling the silhouette of a human form.
"Why were a gun and numerous syringes on your person?" Crier's voice, steady and clinical like the ticking of a clock.
Culver thinks quickly.
"I was still carrying the syringes from the time we took Emmanuel prisoner - I don't think the others knew they were in my pockets, otherwise they'd have taken them from me. They certainly didn't know I had a gun. I never usually use one, but just this last couple of days I'd started carrying one about, just as an extra precaution. I kept quiet about the gun, hoping that I'd get a chance to use it to maximum effect, and make a break for it. When the gunfire broke out at the hostage-swap, I thought at first my chance had come." Culver shrugs.
"What has happened to Emmanuel?" Crier again.
"Your guess is as good as mine. The reason my colleagues didn't think you meant Emmanuel in your note is that he escaped - before we could get him to the safe house. They accused me of deliberately giving him too little sedative, so he woke up and got away. He seemed pretty crazy, but I guess I assumed he'd have made his way back to you guys. Hasn't he?"
"It sounds plausible enough to me." The woman's voice again. A very attractive, husky voice, but with something subtly jarring about it, like the experience of stroking velvet against the grain. "It's simple enough, we search the lanes and find Emmanuel singing in a ditch for the hundredth time. Why did you drag us here to hear this in person? Why is this man still alive?"
"There is more. Dr Culver, you reported having experienced some unusual dreams."
Culver dredges his memory of the debriefs provided after the SITU missions to Castle Cnoiff and Heidelberg.
"They're always much the same," he says, hoping that he has recalled the descriptions of the dreams correctly. "To start with there's always this dark man..."
Isobel is struggling to find higher ground, to escape the rushing of the water. Even as she runs she can feel it biting at the earth beneath at her feet, snapping at her heels like a dog. She loses herself to frenzy for a few instants, and when her panic subsides, she suddenly realises her feet are pounding along a forest floor, and that there is no longer a deluge at her back. The roar of the water has become more sedate, and she now recognises it as the sound of the waterfall at Littlebeck. Before her stands the hermitage, and by the entrance, as if he has recently emerged, stands a man with dark hair...
"...and when I look down," continues Culver, "I can see into my chest, and there's this snake wrapped around my heart..."
...feeling a motion against her ribs, Isobel looks down, and sees, without understanding how, her own heart, softly pulsing. It is all but hidden within the coils of a slender, ivory-white snake with eyes like jet...
"...and while I'm noticing this, the dark man does something which charms the snake, and I feel drawn to him..."
...the man steps forward, so that his face is no longer hidden by shadow. Although she is for some reason unable to register the details of his face, Isobel feels immediately as if there has been a clearing of the sky, a dissipation of some hanging anxiety. The dark man raises one hand slowly, and suddenly there is music in the air, a disembodied song somewhat reminiscent of that sung by the baritone in Out for the Count. Isobel feels a surge of life shiver through the form of the snake, and its head lifts and sways rhythmically.
The dark-haired man seems to float closer, and Isobel realises that without being aware of it she has advanced a few steps. Another step she takes without volition, and another. In a few moments she will be at the door of the Hermitage - and as she smells the damp earth of the disturbed floor, she remembers the symbol she had discovered within, and she awakens to fear like one about whom a fog has cleared, to show him the precipice flanking his path...
Isobel wakes with a start in her husband's study, and takes a few moments to recall where she is.
After Culver has finished describing his 'dream,' there is a long silence.
"Could he have heard of this dream from somewhere else?" The woman's voice is slightly muted, evidently directed to her companions rather than to the captive.
"It is possible, but I think it more likely that he is telling the truth. Look at him, Isolde. Can you not sense it? When I looked at him across the clearing before the hostage swap, I mistook him for Emmanuel."
"Do the others know?"
"They shall do shortly."
"I'm starting to see your point, Crier."
There is a soft chuckle from the other corner of the room, and Culver realises for the first time that a third individual is seated somewhere against the wall.
"Better check his background carefully this time, Crier. It would be a little embarrassing if we were to be caught out twice in the same fashion." This new voice is male, its tone quiet, but self-assured.
After her disturbing dream, Isobel is rather reluctant to trust herself to the mercies of sleep for the rest of the night. She reads until dawn, then takes a stroll through the garden to the bench by the honeysuckle where she sits for some time to recover her thoughts. After an hour or so, she considers herself sufficiently braced for the business of the day.
Returning to the house, she telephones Benjamin Gould. He seems a little taken aback to discover that the young widow, upon recovering from the passive, shocked state she had manifested during their last meeting, has taken on a more assertive manner. When she insists that she has every intention of seeing Henry's body, he initially seems inclined to treat this as a hysterical whim that should be soothed rather than treated seriously, but in the face of Isobel's calm and emphatic tone he retreats from this position. In response to another request, he also promises to send the details of the funeral to Isobel, complete with a list of all the guests.
When she raises the question of the 'procreational fluids,' Gould sounds almost enthused.
"Ah, yes, they're being kept in cold storage, as I said, in a rather pleasant medical retreat in Surrey. Very restful, very discreet, lovely grounds. Should you wish to... er... I think you'll find it quite a charming place for a little... er... break. Almost like a little holiday..."
After the call, Isobel leaves the house and drives the Mercedes to the home of her guardian, Edward Lloyd. It is strange to approach the house and see all the curtains drawn, and to walk to the door with no expectation of a welcome. Isobel fishes out her own key to the front door, and enters.
There is no sign that Edward's personal papers or possessions have been removed like those of Henry - no suspicious gaps on shelves to indicate that books have been removed, no filing cabinet doors hanging open. Behind the locked glass doors of his cabinets, his papers can still be seen heaped in piles in accordance with his personal 'system.'
Isobel cannot find many books on Psychism on her guardian's shelves, although in his desk drawer she does find a leaflet which appears to be advertising some sort of psychic questing conference in Oxford a few days previously.
When he wakes in the mid morning, Stone departs the hotel and walks into central Whitby to make some purchases.
Finding a SuperSoaker and another water pistol proves easy enough. It is also possible to acquire a small wood axe, a heavy wooden mallet and a couple of large bottles of mineral water. Stone's attempts to acquire a cross-bow prove less successful, perhaps unsurprisingly.
With his new purchases dangling in a couple of carrier bags, Stone strolls towards the old quarter of Whitby, scales the 199 steps, and takes the footpath along the cliff. Sure enough, as he had remembered, there are a few trees standing on the fringes of the little town. Beyond them, the slopes are all but bare of tree cover.
In a relatively secluded spot, Stone finds one tree which appears to be half dead, perhaps as the result of a lightning strike, great corrugated wedges of bark splitting away from the bone-white inner wood. Making use of his new axe, he cuts away some of the smaller dead boughs, then scrapes away the bark and sharpens the tip of each wooden length to a point.
Afterwards, he seats himself on the grass beside the tree and, taking out a pair of scissors, carefully cuts away a lock of his own hair. This hair he then carefully winds around one of the slenderer roots of the tree. Something of me in exchange for something of you, he reflects. That should keep the nature spirits happy.
This done, he strolls back along the clifftop towards the town. At St Mary's church he pauses, and enters. The young vicar is just entering the main body of the church from a small side-door, and starts slightly when he sees Stone standing in the aisle. He listens to the psychiatrist's request for a blessing to be placed upon the mineral water, and appears somewhat unamused.
"We tend to expect requests of this sort at this time of year. In fact, we occasionally have trouble with people stealing water from the font. This isn't the sort of behaviour we encourage - in fact, if we were to allow the church to become part of the Bram Stoker Sideshow, that would make us accomplices for the worse kind of sacrilege. Nor are we likely to be giving out holy wafers."
Back at the hotel, Micky puts a call through to SITU headquarters, and makes some enquiries as to the best weapons to use against creatures such as that encountered by the party the previous night. It emerges that vampire-slaying is still largely a matter of surmise. It is thought that fire can be used to destroy them, and it is suspected that conventional weapons can be used at the very least to inconvenience such creatures.
Micky is somewhat disheartened by the fact that his interlocutor seems just as keen to discover answers to his questions.
"Please let us know of any discoveries you make, and any weak points you might chance upon. Of course, if you could manage to capture a live vampire for study, that would be ideal..."
After pausing briefly in town to browse the local bookshops for works on psychism, Isobel drives to the Ackland Hospital, in which her guardian is convalescing. The Ackland is a small but rather pleasant private hospital. When she arrives, Edward is sleeping. Loath to wake him, she takes a chair by his side, and starts to read her new books, glancing over at him again from time to time to make sure that his sleep is still serene, and his breathing steady. The raw hole in her mind previously occupied by Henry has filled her with a dread of losing her second father.
The books are something of a mixed batch. Many are glossy and superficial. The cover of one shows Uri Geller staring into the camera and holding up a twisted spoon. Another provides a list of potted biographies of historical self-styled psychics. Between them the books touch upon telekinesis, clairvoyance, astral projection, past lives, mediums and prophecy.
When Side-step, Micky, Stone, Twitchin and Andrew meet up again just before dinner, each has to admit that little progress has been made in finding Matt Culver. Riggs has remained in the hotel room all day, so that he can rest, and so that his bullet wound cannot occasion comment.
However, they are both puzzled and relieved to learn that at least their adventures of the preceding night do not seem to have made them wanted men. Twitchin purchases the evening paper, and notes a short story describing an encounter between police and a group of armed drug offenders in the vicinity of Ruswarp. It is reported that the police have succeed in apprehending most of this group, but that a search is being conducted for their accomplices.
After a rather troubled sleep, Isobel wakes once again, and prepares to drive to the hospital once more to visit Edward again.
Pausing on the way, she parks her car on the edge of a sizeable park, and strolls until she finds a quiet seat from which she cannot be overheard. She then uses her mobile phone to call SITU headquarters, and asks to speak to Andre Swahn. After a short delay, she is put through to his office.
"Is this line secure?" There is a slight pause.
"Yes, I believe so."
"This is Isobel Blyth. I'm calling about the Enemy that abducted Benedict Riggs. I need to know something about the way in which it affected his mind." Swahn seems a little taken aback when he learns that Culver has shared his new information concerning the Enemy with his Agent-rank colleagues, but he recovers quickly.
"We are not exactly certain how it was achieved, Agent Blyth. Our knowledge of this enemy is rather hazy and based on surmise, even now. As far as we know, he can perform a breed of mental attack at range. He appears to be able to affect most minds, although it is noticeable that those who are particularly vulnerable to him and, shall we say, particularly susceptible to his influence, seem to be of the same, er, genetic stock. I'm actually a little busy right now. Did you have any other questions?"
"Yes, actually. I was wondering why SITU had felt it necessary to kill my husband, and why they are attempting to do the same to my guardian."
"I... b-b-beg your pardon? There must be some mistake. SITU has most certainly not sanctioned any act of that sort, let me assure you. As far as I know, we do not even have mention of your husband in our files. May I ask the name of your husband?"
"Henry. Henry Blyth."
There is a long pause.
"Your husband was Henry Blyth? The gentleman who recently died in Oxford?"
"Yes." There is an even longer pause, and when Swahn speaks again, his voice is rather cold and strained.
"I must congratulate you, Mrs Blyth. Until now I must confess that I was entirely ignorant of your true affiliations. A very accomplished piece of infiltration.
"I can assure you that we at SITU had nothing to do with the death of your husband. On the contrary, we had, and still have, every hope of working alongside the Trismegistus Club, and would have had everything to lose from murdering such a valuable contact. Anyway, the matter at hand must be to reopen negotiations between our people and your people. We fight a common enemy after all..." By the time Isobel hangs up, she is somewhat bewildered.
She drives on the to hospital, considering Swahn's cryptic remarks. When she arrives in Edward's ward, she is gratified to see that her guardian is looking considerably recovered. He is sitting up in bed with a crossword in his hand as she enters, his face more alert than she has seen it on the preceding days. When he sees her, he puts down his pen, and glances over her pale, sleepless face with an eye of concern. She leans over the bed, so that he can hug her properly.
"Sleeping badly? Poor pet. No, I'm pretty much better. The nurses say I can leave tomorrow - the worst of it was the smoke inhalation."
"I was at a psychic research conference of sorts. To tell the truth -" Edward darts a quick look at Isobel - "to tell the truth, I'd started to get interested in your old stories about sensing and feeling things. And... I start to think that I am in danger of coming round to your view." Isobel is reluctant to raise the matter of Henry's death, in case Edward has not been informed, and in case the shock might cause a relapse. However, she quickly establishes that Edward has been apprised of the facts.
"You're not alone, Isobel, just you remember that. I'm here for you."
"Is this it?" Side-step stares up at a faded sign which features a large ship foundering on black rocks, while in the foreground a figure holds a lantern aloft and seems to laugh at the scene.
"Yeah, look at this." Mickey points out a life-buoy hanging on one wall. Upon the buoy is written 'The Wreckers'.
There are some two dozen motorbikes resting outside the front door.
"I guess the War-steeds are in town."
Stepping past some rather dejected-looking geraniums, Side-step and Micky enter the pub, which appears to be already half full. The other occupants of the bar are clearly a single group, and have annexed numerous of the small tables and joined them end to end on one side of the room. One man with a thick red beard is currently holding the attention of the group, evidently through some anecdote, and the room is currently filled with loud, but basically good-humoured laughter. Most of the group wear weather-beaten black leather, and several are still in the process of removing heavy, gauntleted gloves.
Gauging the atmosphere carefully, the two operatives choose a table of their own. The War-steeds, if such they are, show a comfortably territorial attitude to the Wanderer, resting their feet on tables, and so forth. At the same time, they do not currently seem to be inclined to object to the intrusion from the two operatives.
Intercepting one 'War-steed' carefully carrying four drinks back from the bar, Side-step helps bear one of the glasses back to his table.
"Excuse me, mate, but do you know where I can find Ryan Rain? It's just that he lent me a tenner a while ago, and said that I should come here for him to pay me back." His announcement attracts a certain amount of attention among the War-steeds, and he is quizzed on the when and where of his encounter with Ryan. When he describes having seen Rain no later than three weeks ago, this interest wanes again.
"Dunno, mate. You friends of Ryan?" Side-step and Micky make non-committal noises. "Truth is, we think he's been nicked. You see, I know he was planning to bring some hash and stuff down to sell during Halloween when all the goths turn up. He always does that. Anyway, it sounded like he was bringing down a lot of new, experimental stuff down for this year. Maybe the police caught him with it on him..."
Dr Stone, meanwhile, is standing at a little distance from the surgery of Dr Pym, keeping one eye upon the door. He waits until a little after five without seeing anything of import. At ten past five, the door opens, and Stone sees Dr Pym depart.
Following the doctor, Stone soon finds himself tracing the steps of his morning walk. At the 199 steps, he is forced to allow Pym to gain upon him, since as a 'shadow' he would become entirely obvious if he attempted to ascend the steps while Pym was still scaling them.
When Stone reaches the apex of the steps, he glimpses Pym sitting on one of the wooden seats in the graveyard. He is not alone. Stone draws close to the flank of the church so as to avoid detection, and watches.
Beside Dr Pym sits Cato Montmorency, his sleepy, good-looking features unusually animated and taut. He seems to be entreating, or at least pleading a case with a degree of emotional intensity. Pym in comparison is relaxed, paternal. To judge by Cato's reaction, Pym is holding out against Montmorency's entreaties. Unfortunately, the wind is blowing away from Stone and towards the other two men, so that it is impossible for him to make out their words.
After a few minutes of conversation, Pym takes a small bottle of pills from an inner pocket, and places it in Cato's palm, before departing. For some half an hour after Pym has left, Cato sits staring into nothingness. After a while, he takes out a Swiss army knife, and begins cutting grooves into the bench with great deliberation. His face is entirely impassive.
Culver wakens, to feel a gentle tickling against his chest as if his shirt were being unbuttoned. He opens his eyes and blinks once, twice, but the darkness about him is still absolute.
Amid the daze of his newly awakened state, he tries to piece together events since his capture. There was the long interrogation at the hands of his invisible questioners, which had seemed to go on for many hours. Then there had been a gentle sting in his arm, like the prick from a hypodermic syringe...
He is no longer tied into a chair, with his wrists fastened behind him. He is now prone on his back, on some kind of mattress, with his wrists and ankles bound so that the motion of his limbs is impeded.
Yes, something is moving down his chest, with a velvety texture to its touch, a little like the underside of a cat's paw. Then there is the shock of a disc of cold metal pressing against his skin - after an instant Culver recognises this as the end of a stethoscope.
Footsteps recede against the room, and then the shadows start to ebb a little. After a few seconds, a figure next to the opposite door has become visible, one hand on the dial for adjusting the intensity of the electric light. The figure is that of a man in his late twenties, with brown hair brushed straight back, and a narrow, rather humorous face. Culver notices that, for no obvious reason, his new companion seems to be wearing black, suede gloves.
"It looks like you reached us not a moment too soon." The other man is taking notes, for al the world like a doctor making a record after a diagnosis. "If you hadn't found us, I wouldn't have put any money on you outliving the year."
"Why, am I likely to get the chance to die of natural causes?"
"That rather depends. If you're caught even once in an outright lie, I wouldn't bet on you outliving the night. So it is perhaps just as well that I am not planning to tell my colleagues that I'm pretty sure you're spinning us a line. I noticed just now that you have ink marks on the backs of your hands, little round ink blots. And as far as I know, the only reason for having marks like that would be to disguise you as Emmanuel for the purposes of the swap.
"There's a price for my silence, of course, but quite a light one I think. I just want you to tell me what's really going on...
Andrew wakens abruptly, to find a hand over his mouth. He opens his eye to see Riggs standing over his bed, finger on his lips.
"Need to talk... to talk to you. To the others too. Think they're alright..." The American is almost another man from he who had calmly discussed the circumstances of his capture two days before. His face is dead white, and the muscles around the scar on his face jump in a feverish manner. He grabs Andrew's arm, and all but drags him out of bed. "Got to get out. All of thus. Before they get here..."
"I caught him trying to open the window," he explains to Andrew as he leads him out into the corridor. "I stopped him... you mustn't believe a word he says - he's working for them now." He knocks curtly against each of the bedroom doors in turn. One by one the doors open, revealing people in varying states of wakefulness.
"We've got to get out," hisses Riggs, when he has an audience. "They'll be coming here, don't you see? This is where they'll come next!"