The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
"Troy is on his way." John Stone gets to his feet slowly and carefully, taking care to make no sudden movements. "My friends are nearby and they've seen him coming."
"Oh shit." Karl Hendleby has turned deathly pale. "Oh God. How soon can your friends get here?"
"A few minutes, they say. We'll have to hold out until then." Stone turns to the priest. "Can vampires enter churches?"
"Is that a serious question?" Simon flushes a little. "Look, I think I've already done enough damage in humouring my friend's delusion, and I'm not going to be a party to it any more." Hendleby gives a deep sigh, shrugs, and manages a wry smile in Stone's direction.
"Think we'd better arm ourselves," mutters Stone. "What have you got, apart from the crossbow?"
"Four stakes and a kukri knife. Oh, and three communion wafers and two bottles of holy water."
"Sorry, Simon. Needs must. What have you got, Dr Stone?"
Stone sorts through his jacket pockets. "Looks like five stakes and a mallet, a water pistol full of holy water, a torch to blind them and this." He holds up the Browning automatic. Sarah Louise and the priest each retreat a step.
"So holy water really works on vampires, then?" asks Hendleby.
"Actually, I was hoping you might know."
"Never had a chance to use it. For all I know, maybe it just makes them wet."
Stone glances around the cramped little office. "Let's get into the church - we don't want to get boxed in if Troy can get into here." Hendleby appears to be making a heroic effort to rally himself, but Stone is concerned that his new ally may sink into a paralysis of fear if he finds himself cornered.
Pushing the door of the little office open, Stone peers out into the church. All is silent. He slips out of the side room, and takes up a hiding place between two box pews, from which he has a good view of the external door. He sees Hendleby slink to a place behind the pulpit and raise his crossbow so that the shaft is aimed directly at the main entrance. Sarah Louise and the priest seem to have chosen another box pew as their hiding place.
Trying hard to steady his breathing, Stone opens his senses, trying to make himself aware of even the tiniest sounds in his environment. Through the gloom of the darkened church, he sees Karl Hendleby suddenly stiffen a little, and tighten his grip on his crossbow. He is staring rigidly towards the door.
Suddenly, without warning, from outside the main entrance there comes a terrible, grinding crack, like that of stone breaking stone, combined with a low, discordant ringing, as if a blow had struck a cracked metal gong of enormous size.
Then there is silence. Stone narrows his eyes, watching for the narrowest chink of light to appear between the door and the jam.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see a large stained glass window, its colours dulled by the dim sky beyond. The window is patterned with the figure of a man, halo-headed. The face of the man in the window is parchment-pale, its features indistinguishable, its arms lost in sea-green sleeves that drape like wings, raised in a shapeless benediction. It takes only an instant for Stone to realise that somehow the image in the window is altering, only an instant to turn his head and look directly at it, but this instant is the longest in Stone's recollection.
In that instant, he sees the man in the stained glass window seem to darken, as if a storm cloud had rushed over the sky beyond. He sees the darkness coalesce into the shape of a man, dimly glimpsed through the coloured glass. He sees the window shatter first here and then there, as first a foot then a fist strikes through it, the glass exploding inwards in clouds of emerald, ruby and sapphire dust. He sees a large and ragged star of sky left in the centre of the window, as Troy lands on the church floor, rolls and stands.
"Oh, er, chaps? I don't think I'll be a significant help in a toe to toe with a vampire thingymebob." The Professor casts a rueful eye over his own delicate frame. "Anyway, I'm not sure a dash up those steps won't deplete our numbers still further - one's not quite as nimble as one was." It is certainly hard to imagine Twitchin sprinting up the 199 steps hefting a gun of any reasonable size.
"Alright." Andrew runs to the car. He casts a careful eye up and down the street before opening the boot. "You'd better stay with the car." He takes two shotguns out of the boot and passes them to Side-step and Micky. "I'll take Miska here," he pats the AK-47, "and hope that she doesn't break up on me." The third shotgun he straps to his own back.
The weapons are difficult to disguise, particularly the AK-47. Although the streets are relatively deserted, the four men are painfully aware that in their current position on the waterfront, they are at the focal point of the little harbour town, many of the houses tiered behind them looking down on their position like audience seats towards a stage. Countless dozens of net curtains might be twitching as they heave their supply of armaments out of the boot, clumsily covering them in coats and blankets.
"Catch me up when you can." Micky sets off at a run towards the steps.
A group of two girls and three youths emerge from a side-street, their leader swinging a six-pack of lager in one hand. Catching sight of the urgent and furtive preparations taking place at the back of the car, the fivesome halt, their conversation dying, and after some consultation turn to walk rather briskly the other way along the waterfront, pausing occasionally to glance back.
"Can we make some kind of petrol bomb?" enquires Andrew. In answer, Side-step pulls out the petrol can, and sets about pouring some of its contents into a bottle, stoppering the neck with an old handkerchief.
"Let's get going."
"The car keys, gentlemen? Thank you. I must away. See you all later, and, er, Side-step? Take care of the FNGs for me, there's a good fellow." Side-step gives a curt nod, and then a grin. Adrenalin always does seem to have a beneficial effect on his temper, reflects the Professor.
"Keep in touch. We'll call you on Stone's phone when we find him." Side-step takes his mobile phone out of his jacket pocket and hands it to Twitchin, before setting off with Andrew at a run. The Professor watches as Side-step reaches the base of the steps and begins a hasty ascent, face vivid and alert with the prospect of imminent action.
A tiny noise issues from the direction of the pulpit, and Troy abruptly rolls away towards the box pews, in one practised movement. At the same instant, there sounds an abrupt wooden reverberation, like a plucked ruler. Hendleby has fired his shaft.
Has it struck its mark? There is silence.
From the direction of the pulpit, there issues the faint squeak of trainers against stone, perhaps the noise of Hendleby trying stealthily to find a new sniping point. Stone winces, aware of how thoroughly the artist is telegraphing his whereabouts through this manoeuvre. Pistol in one hand, unlit torch in the other, he carefully wriggles along his stomach towards the end of the pew, in the hope of snatching a glance down the aisle. When he is two yards from the end of the pew, something passes him at a crouched run, with the speed of a panther. There is a moment of incredulity at the creature's pace and silence, before Stone collects his faculties, stands, and levels his pistol.
The big man is at the foot of the altar steps when the crack of the gun sounds out. Behind him a glass vase cracks, sluicing water onto the altar cloth and scattering lilies. The sound of the gunshot echoes up and up and down the length of the church, as if the resident spirits were repeating it in disbelief. Troy changes the direction of his progress in mid stride, and slips suddenly side-ways, becoming one with the shadows behind a pillar.
There is a frantic padding of rubber-soled feet as Hendleby breaks cover, tearing towards the back of the church once more. Almost immediately the dark oval of Troy's head appears around the pillars, as if its owner were scanning the church for his fleeing prey. Flicking on his torch, Stone aims the beam towards the pillar behind which his opponent is hiding. The face caught in the beam has flesh of a pallid, dough-like appearance. As Stone watches, the other man's brow creases slightly, like that of a child caught in an unquiet dream, and his mouth falls open, as if to bite at the painful light. Troy's hair is so blond as to be almost white, and reflecting the light from the torch his eyes glow in his head like jewels. The hint of misty red in their hue grotesquely calls to mind the pinkish eye-colour of an albino rabbit.
Troy's head disappears behind the pillar once more. At the back of the church the sound of running ceases, and Stone surmises that Karl has found a new hiding place from which to rearm. Just as the psychiatrist lets out a breath of relief, the figure of Troy appears around the edge of the pillar once more, one hand shielding his eyes, the other extended before him. Stone only identifies the object in Troy's outstretched hand when a second loud crack sounds, and the torch is jolted violently from the psychiatrist's left hand, spilling glass fragments and returning the room to darkness, now all the more impenetrable in contrast to the interval of light.
Of course, thinks Stone as he throws himself flat once more, why wouldn't a vampire carry a gun?
There is an ear-splitting crash a foot above Stone's head, and the pew lurches, fractured slats of wood descending painfully upon his right arm. Glancing up from his prone position, the psychiatrist is startled by the sight of a marble angel which he had previously noticed standing by the altar. It has apparently just struck the carved back of the pew with such force that its head has cloven through the wood. Its wings lie shattered on the seat.
"Run!" The priest has abandoned the box pews and made a break for the door, dragging Sarah Louise along by the shoulder. He turns the metal ring of the door, and succeeds in dragging it open an inch before it sticks.
As John Stone struggles to free his arm, the pew above him suddenly shakes, then steadies, as a man-shaped patch of darkness leaps onto the top of it from another pew, pauses for a fraction of a second, and then bounds to the top of the next pew, taking the direct route towards the door and the would-be fugitives.
The priest notices Troy's approach first, and with all his force pushes Sarah Louise back towards their hiding place among the pews. As the larger man leaps from the pews and lands lightly, barely four yards away, Simon holds his position between Troy and Sarah Louise's fleeing form. The priest is holding up a crucifix, maintaining his ground with a tremulous resolution.
Troy pauses as if nonplussed, but only for an instant. The next moment, he has reached forward and gripped the priest by the collar, swinging him round and down so that the back of his skull impacts with the stone slabs of the church floor. The motion is economical, dispassionate, fluid, hateless, like that of a thrush smashing the shell of a snail against a stone.
That sounded like a gunshot...
Micky is the first to reach the top of the 199 steps. Near the summit, he notices that one of the iron railings that flank the steps has apparently been wrenched from its place, leaving a space. Gathering his breath once more, he sprints to the door of the church.
The mystery of the truant railing is quickly solved. It has been threaded through the iron ring attached to the door, and then plunged straight into the earth in front of the doorway, apparently to prevent the door being opened inwards. Micky grips it and gives it a few experimental tugs, but he has an uneasy feeling that it has penetrated the stone beneath the turf.
As Micky scans the front of the church, noting the jagged hole in one of the stained glass windows, Side-step arrives at his side. Without a word, Micky points to the iron spike before the door.
From within, Side-step and Micky hear the sound of two gunshots in rapid succession.
"Sod this." Micky levels his shotgun at the portion of the door in which the ring is set, and pulls the trigger. He has the satisfaction of watching the blast punch a splintered hole into the wood. Helped by Side-step he kicks at the door once, twice, then the heavy metal ring detaches itself from the wood and rattles down to the base of the railing, and the door is flung back. Each man instinctively moves to a defensive position on a different side of the doorway in case of ambush, before cautiously stealing a glance into the church...
The first sight that meets their eyes is that of the stricken priest, a darkness spreading around his head like ink through blotting paper. The second is less a distinctly registered detail than an impression of movement, an large patch of animated shadow racing for the back of the church. As it passes the door, it turns a wide, bland face towards the watchers. The mouth gapes for a moment without expression, and two white fangs as slender as knife points gleam. Before a trigger can be pulled, the figure has passed.
The two new arrivals leap in through the door, swinging their shotguns around in an attempt to train upon the fleeing figure.
"Did you see where he went?"
"Please don't shoot! Don't..." Rounding the corner hastily, Andrew has knocked another man off his feet. He wears a waist-length cape of a tacky, shiny fabric, and his eye-brows are blackened so as to exaggerate their arch. A green plastic vampire mask hangs in disarray around his neck from its elastic. Before Andrew can recover enough breath to reassure this new acquaintance, the other man staggers to his feet, and stumbles away across the graveyard, hands shielding his head as if that might fend off a bullet.
Andrew recovers himself, and runs to join his two colleagues at the church door.
"Can you see John and the Hendlebys anywhere?"
Using the pews as cover, Side-step and Micky run at a crouch in the direction that they had seen the tall man flee. Andrew remains at the door, watching for sign of motion at any of the windows, and to ensure that no other assailants can attack by the door, blocking his comrades into the church.
"There's a door over here - it seems to be locked. I think it leads up to the clock tower..."
Hendleby's leg is leaking blood badly, despite Stone's hasty attempts to bandage it, and carrying him up the steps is proving no mean task, even with the aid of Karl's sister. Stone has few illusions that the locked door at the base of the stairs will hold Troy for more than an instant, and he is all too aware of how little time he has to find a defensible position.
At the apex of the stairs stands a door, which proves to be unlocked. Stone pushes it open, and a strong gust of sea breeze tears into the narrow stairway. The three fugitives find themselves in a little tower room, open to the air through a gap in the western wall, which looks onto a sky flushed amber by the lights of Whitby below. They are standing on a form of platform, which skirts the large rectangular hole in the middle of the room. A narrow balustrade divides them from the sheer drop into darkness. There are no more stairs, no more doors.
"We can try and hold out here until my friends get here," Stone says, trying to sound hopeful. "We'll be able to pepper him with bullets if he tries to climb the stairs after us."
Hendleby looks grimly at the bullet wound in his leg, then glances back up at Stone.
"He won't stop, you know. He won't stop until he's killed me. I'd better go and face him myself before anyone else gets hurt."
"Don't be a twit, Karl." Sarah Louise is brandishing Stone's water pistol with a rather touching attempt at bravado.
"Is there any other way he can get up here?" asks Hendleby, making a motion as if to rise, and wincing violently.
"I don't think..." Stone pauses, and stares into the middle of the room. For the first time, he notices several thick black ribbons of shadow extending down from the roof, into the hole in the centre of the floor. As he watches, one of them twitches slightly, then jerks.
A moment later one of the bells five feet above his head starts to ring.
At the sound of the bell ringing above, Micky and Side-step spin to stare at the four bell ropes behind them. As one they follow the ropes upwards with their eyes... and glimpse two feet and shins disappearing upwards through a hatchway into darkness.
Both raise their shotguns to their shoulders and fire. Holes the size of fists appear in the intricate seventeenth-century carving of the arches, but there is no evidence that the elusive target has been struck.
"Shit! How did he get up there so fast?"
"He must have been hiding half way up the wall, clinging onto one of those carvings and watching us. Then I guess he grabbed a bell rope and started climbing."
"Andrew, keep an eye out for the tower! He's climbing the bell ropes up into the tower!"
The first shock of sound is so intense that Stone's vision blurs for an instant. He sees Sarah Louise drop her water pistol, and clamp her hands to her ears, her face contorted in pain. Hendleby has not released his grasp on his crossbow, but his eyes are clenched shut, and Stone suspects that he is within an inch of passing out. The noise is literally tangible, as if Stone's skull were lined with brass, and as if something the size of cricket ball were rebounding within it, trying to force an exit.
Two of the bell ropes are swaying and jerking in a rhythmic fashion. For a moment Stone simply stares at them, too stunned by the cacophony to comprehend the significance of their motion. The next instant the penny drops, and he staggers away from the stairway he has been scrupulously guarding.
The ropes hang some four metres beyond the balustrade, too far for him to lean across the drop and attempt to sever them. They are several inches thick, and he is not confident that he can shoot through them, hampered as he is by the gloom that surrounds him.
Hands pressed firmly to his ears, he runs to the opening in the western wall, and peers out. On the outside of the wall, a set of metal rungs affixed to the stone lead upwards, towards the roof of the tower.
Side-step and Micky take up positions flanking the doorway to the tower, then Side-step kicks it open. . The sound of the bells immediately increases in volume. Behind it lies a series of wooden steps, leading upwards. On one of the lowest steps, there is a smear of blood. A hesitant shaft of light is filtering down from above.
When they are halfway up the stairs, the clatter of the bells starts to become less urgent, the tolling more regular, as if the bells' frenzy were ebbing.
The two SITU operatives burst through the door at the head of the stairs to find themselves on the platform of the bell tower, facing the opening in the western wall. Before them the ropes are swaying, swaying, slowing, stopping.
A man of unusually large physical proportions is in the process of swinging one leg out through the opening in the wall. As the door slams back on its hinges, his head snaps around to stare at his pursuers. The angle of his shoulders twist as his right hand raises sharply to shoulder height, as if in a weird kind of salute. The gesture has the inhuman rapidity of a machine. Micky is propelled to the floor by a timely shove from Side-step, and then hears the detonation of the gun in Troy's extended hand. The bullet passes through the space occupied by Micky's head a moment or so before, and drives through the wood of the door.
Before Troy can fire again, Micky sets off one of his camera flashes, reducing the scene for an instant to a design in stark white and dead-black, knife-thin shadow. Troy visibly recoils, lowering his gun and almost losing his grip on the stone with his free hand. Side-step takes the opportunity to fire his shotgun.
A moment later, Troy has swung himself out of the window.
"Winged 'im," mutters Side-step.
Where do we run now?
In the sky above, clouds roll rapidly across the sky, parting here and there to let through the lustrous hint of a star. To the east, the fractured shell of the abbey is clearly visible. To the west sprawls Whitby, a crescent of amber lights hugging the harbour. Fat, cold drops of rain are starting to fall, darkening the stone.
Below, Stone can see the roof of the main body of the church, but the drop is too great for him to risk the jump. In any case, Hendleby seems at last to have fainted with pain, evidently exhausted by the effort needed to mount the iron rungs to the roof.
Although he is expecting an attack, Stone is still caught off balance when a figure erupts upwards from behind the wall, like a giant doll from some diabolical Jack-in-the-box. He fires twice, and sees his second bullet score a line across the left temple of an impassive, implacable face. Then a hand twice as broad as his own swings across his jaw, knocking him from his feet.
Micky reaches the topmost rung just in time to see Stone fall, and lie unmoving upon the tower roof. Troy pauses but a second, as if to be sure that the psychiatrist no longer provides an obstacle. Then he turns his gaze upon the unconscious form of Karl Hendleby. Sarah Louise is half-sprawled over the body of her brother as if to protect him, her dark hair damped to her skull and her eyes round with fear.
As the big man begins his sprint towards the brother and sister, Micky levels his shotgun once more, aiming for the kneecaps, and fires. In mid-stride, Troy lurches violently side-ways and falls. Immediately the big man tries to roll to his feet, and again his leg collapses under him. Once again he tries to stand, as if he cannot comprehend that his body is no longer obeying him.
Micky fires again, and this time sees Troy's gun knocked from his great fist. We could do this, we could take him prisoner...
Troy turns his head, and looks over towards Micky, even Hendleby apparently driven for the moment from his mind. There is no fear, no pain, no confusion in his face.
Micky struggles to reload as Troy drops to all fours and begins a rapid shamble towards him, trailing his ruined leg. Just as Micky is readying the shotgun to fire once more, he sees the great figure of the other man hunch slightly, like a cat readying for a pounce, and then launch itself in a lightning lunge. The gun is knocked from Micky's hands, and a palm the size of a saucer is pressed against his windpipe, pushing him backwards, weakening his grasp on the iron rungs.
Then there is a rattle that is not rain, and above him Micky sees the vampire shake, break and scatter, like the seeds of a dandelion clock in a strong and sudden breeze. A tower of flesh totters, slumps and falls past Micky to the graveyard below. He clings to the rungs for a few moments, gasping, before he realises that his ears are still stinging with the after-echo of a burst of full automatic from Andrew's AK-47.
A few minutes later, the unconscious Hendleby is being carried out of the church by Side-step. Stone is nursing a slight head injury, and is being supported by Micky. A quick examination of Simon's body has revealed that the priest is quite dead.
"Good shot," mutters Micky to Andrew as they meet up again outside the church. "And very, very good timing."
The wreckage of Troy's body sprawls across one of the taller gravestones, face down. Micky approaches it, and quickly rifles through the dead man's pockets, appropriating the contents.
"Side-step, do you still have that petrol? Thanks." Andrew walks over to the body, removes the cloth fuse from the bottle, and pours the liquid over the corpse. He then lights a match, and casts it onto the puddle of petrol, causing flame to start licking unwillingly over the body.
"What are they doing... oh my god..." A shrill female whisper attracts the attention of the SITU members. Some twenty yards away, a young man and women, half concealed behind one of the gravestones, are hastily dressing. When they become aware that their appalled commentary has attracted the attention of the party, they abandon decorum in favour of haste, and set off at a sprint for the 199 steps, still half-clad.
Following the flight of the couple with their gaze, the group suddenly become aware of a cluster of flashing red and blue lights at the base of the steps.
"John, can we use your phone?" Side-step calls the number of his own phone. "Professor? Get that car as close to the Cleveland Walk as you can. Star's boys are on our tail again - we're making a break for it along the cliff walk."
The Professor, who had already been driving the car south-west towards Hawsker, takes the first turning to Stainsacre, and then weaves back towards the coast, taking the road that passes closest to the abbey.
His allies are, fortunately, very distinctive. The Professor raises his eyebrows a little at seeing the number of people that are expected to fit into the car. In the end, it is necessary to lay Hendleby across the laps of Side-step, Micky and Andrew in the back seat. Since Sarah Louise is decidedly small and light, she finds herself sitting on the lap of Dr Stone, in the passenger seat.
"Let's hope we don't get stopped at a road block - this isn't exactly legal. Let alone if they decide to look in our boot..."
The car has been in motion for only a few hundred yards before Side-step's phone rings. There are muffled exclamations of discomfort as the three conscious people in the back try to shift their positions enough to allow Side-step room to lever the phone out of his jacket pocket.
"Hello? Who? What are you doing there? Right. OK. Where are you exactly. Right. We'll get there." He pushes down the aerial of his phone, his face plainly perplexed. "It's Mrs Blyth. She says she's just woken up and found herself in Ugthorpe."
Isobel replaces the receiver of the payphone back on its cradle, pushes open the door, and gingerly picks her way back to the car, wincing when the sharper pieces of gravel press against the soles of her feet. At the very least, you'd think I might have been wearing slippers, she reflects bitterly. A dressing gown might have been nice as well. She shivers. Her nightgown has never before struck her as particularly diaphanous, or as anything other than functional and sensible, but she is now acutely aware that it is formed of rather flimsy fabric.
She climbs back into the car, glad to be out of the lighted display case of the telephone box. Oh well, thank goodness for those ten pence pieces at the back of the glove compartment, anyway.
After about ten minutes, she sees another car draw up near the phone box. She feels a momentary sting of unease before recognising Professor Twitchin in the driver's seat. As she watches, he gets out of the car and approaches.
When he is within a few feet of the car, the Professor succeeds in identifying the reason that Isobel is sinking down in her seat, as if to conceal herself. Quickly he removes his coat, and passes it in to Isobel through the car window so that she can wrap it around herself.
"So, Karl, what's it all about?" asks Stone.
"Karl, you shouldn't try to talk. You should be resting."
"Bollocks, darling, you're just saying that because women always say that in films. And no one ever listens to them, even when they're right. Right now talking is more important than resting, and these are beans I've been dying to spill for about a year." Stretched out on one of the little beds in the Latimer hotel, Karl Hendleby still looks over-wrought and ill, but he has rallied marvellously in response to the medicinal properties of the contents of the liquor cabinet.
Stone has satisfied himself that his own head injury is fairly minor, and has washed and dressed the wound. Isobel sits in the armchair, still shrouded in the Professor's coat. Twitchin places a cup in her hands.
"Just a nice cup of sweet tea, m'dear." Isobel smiles a thank you.
"So why're the vampires after you then, Karl?" Stone enquires.
"Basically, they didn't like me crashing their little undead-only club." Karl gives a flash of a Cheshire Cat grin. "No, hang on, I've got to start this at the beginning. In the beginning... a guy called Ryan Rain screwed up.
"You know the funny thing about vampires? The really funny thing? They really don't like each other very much. They can't stand being around each other. It's partly that they, I dunno, eat up each other's oxygen or something, give off something that drives each other up the wall, but more than that, they're just not really pack animals. They're solitary, like cats. Territorial. They don't feed together, they don't often talk together, they hardly even confide in one another. From what I gather, if one bumps into another in a city, odds are one of them will leave for a new city the next day. And they can always recognise another vampire. Nearly always. Nine times out of ten. Anyway, this is a story of the tenth time out of ten.
"The other funny thing about vampires is, they aren't independent. That sounds weird, but it seems to be so, there's some big boss who tells them to jump through hoops from time to time - I don't know if he's some big king vampire like Dracula, or something. Well, one day, all of a sudden, this big shadowy boss guy gets in contact with a number of different vampires, and tells them that they're to go to Whitby and work together.
"Anyway, I don't know if you know about this, but last year there was a big event arranged in Whitby celebrating the centenary of the publication of Dracula. There were conferences, auctions, gigs, you name it. Every vampire society in the country was involved. I was very caught up in it. I've always had a bit of a thing about folklore, and when I visited Whitby for the first time it just blew me away. That's why I had to move here.
"I got caught up in a lot of the local scene, and a number of the vampire societies - also one or two psychic questing groups. But I had to pay the bills too, so I got some work turning out scenery for a little theatre company, and ended up dating an actress called Tina. Well, when the centenary came around, the company dusted off this little play called "Out for the Count," a Dracula rip-off, but with songs. I went to all the performances, and I noticed that this weird, young guy kept showing up to watch the play, and eyeing up Tina. Well, after the last performance, I'd had a bit to drink, and I saw him hanging around near the changing tents, so I tried to take him aside and give him a bit of a talking to.
"So I walk up to him, and all of a sudden this other guy is blocking the way, and chatting to me, and I've forgotten what I was about to do. It was, you know, one of those evenings when everything's a bit weird, but cool, and you don't really question things very much. So I walked off with this guy along the cliff top, and we end up sitting on the grass sharing a joint. And I notice that he's taking a lot of care not to touch my fingers when he passes the joint, and I think, that's weird. And I notice that he's watching me as if he's trying to make up his mind about something, and I think, that's weird too.
"And then he comes up with this Latin quote, just from nowhere. Only it isn't from nowhere, it's from Zopfius' Dissertation de Vampiris Serviensibus, I know the quote, so I answer with the next line. He gives the line after that, and I give the next. Then he sort of relaxes, and laughs, and moves away from me about two yards. And that's how it happened. Just like that. That's how Ryan Rain mistook me for another vampire.
"It was a set password, you see. That was how they were meant to identify one another. They'd no idea that anyone would have read the damn thing - but I'd come across a reference to the text in a Montague Summers book, so I chased it up, the way I chase up everything that interests me. Of course, it's not as simple as that. Even before I gave the password, Ryan thought that I might be a vampire.
"As I say, vampires give off a kind of vibe that others of their kind can pick up, but they're not the only ones. Over the last year I've got a lot better at picking up whatever it is that vampires radiate, and I've started to notice that I get something like the same kind of feeling when I'm with friends of mine who are 'sensitives,' or 'mediums,' or whatever. Well," he suddenly raises his head and smiles straight at Isobel, " you obviously know what I mean. Anyway, at the risk of boasting, I've always been good at tuning in to things, if you see what I mean. I, er, see things in weird ways sometimes. Whatever. Anyway, I must have been throwing off enough 'sensitive' vibes for Ryan to get confused.
"Ryan got everywhere on his charm - he had flair and panache, and he had an eye on the leadership of this little group of vampires. He already knew Troy - the pair of them were actually friends - you've no idea how rare that is. Troy in particular worshipped the ground Rain walked upon, and Rain knew that he could count on his support. He'd met Maurice, a local vampire, the week before, and the two had struck up an abiding antipathy. And now he'd found me, an easy conquest for his charm surely, a 'recent,' inexperienced vampire. He vouched for me with the others, and took me under his wing.
"At first I didn't take it totally seriously, although I played along to see how far it would go. I thought there was something else behind it. Then one night I tailed Ryan Rain when he was nipping out for a bite. That was a revelation and a half. I knew it was all for real. It was a girl, just out walking..." His eyes cloud for a moment, and he bites at the upper joint of his thumb for a moment or two. "Do you mind if I smoke?" His hands have started shaking again, and he draws several deep breaths from his cigarette before continuing. "I thought about running away, but I didn't. I thought about telling everyone, but I didn't. I knew I had to find out all I could - I knew I had a unique chance to circumvent whatever they were planning.
"I dropped Tina, and broke contact with nearly all my friends - knowing me was likely to be far too dangerous. I had no idea which of the old vampire legends were true and which weren't - and what might give me away to my new friends. So I stopped going out in daylight, just in case. I got rid of all the mirrors in my house, just in case they searched it. And I made notes of everything I discovered, and made dictaphone tapes of my conversations with the vampires, and I sent them to my lawyer with instructions that they should be opened only if I told him to, or if I didn't contact him for a certain period." Karl gives a tight, slightly manic little giggle. "Interesting little old year I've been having.
"All the time I was trying to find out more about why they'd been brought here. I think Maurice had some idea, and I reckon Alexander Crier knew a lot he hadn't passed on, anally-retentive little s.o.b. that he is.
"Then one night I followed some of Crier's men to a meeting place a couple of miles outside Whitby. They'd set off with some haste, and I got curious. Anyway, I got close enough to see these two cars meeting up on the edge of the moorland, and a man being shunted from one to the other. I got some photos of him. There were a lot of armed men there - several of Crier's best. I knew this hostage had to be important somehow.
"I didn't know anything about the man, all I had was the photos. Just a face, no name. I already knew that the police were working with the vampires - no use going to them. And how did I know that the police outside North Yorkshire would be any better? I didn't dare use any of the standard missing persons channels.
"So I took a crazy risk. I put the man's face on the internet, to see if someone, anyone, would recognise him. I put him in one of my paintings, and scanned it onto my web site. I guess I thought, this way, even if something happens to me, then people looking for this guy might still stumble across the site, and maybe pick up the trail. It was a long shot, but I could feel in my bones that time was running out.
"My bones were dead right. I don't know how they rumbled me in the end, whether they saw the picture on the web site, or whether one of them talked to their big boss, The Master, and found out from him that I wasn't a card-carrying member of the fang gang. Rain came after me. All this year, he'd been my best friend, I guess. And then all of a sudden there I am pinning him to the floor of my studio with a length of wood, because he's a vampire, and I'm not, and he's trying to kill me...
"Any more of that whisky kicking around?"
"Surprise, surprise." Culver hears his own voice issue as a level, lifeless monotone, with just the slightest sting of sarcasm in the tone. "The unexpected hits you. Between. The. Eyes. Or in my case, through the immune system." Independent of his volition, his fingers move to touch the old scar inside his forearm. Yes, there is the patch of scar tissue, smooth as cellophane, but the flesh around is it is now so wasted and sparse. Culver takes a step forward, and Darius immediately retreats a pace, his face appalled, as if he had seen the harrowed skeleton of some forgotten crime walk in through the door.
"What's the matter Darius?" he asks, as the other man retreats before his victim's bright, crystalline mirthless smile. "Something you ate? Don't you just hate it when food repeats on you?" You're doing it again, Chandler Bing, Culver tells himself sharply, using humour as a defence against anger. Don't blow your one chance to find the answers you've been seeking.
Still good-looking. Still just my type. Culver runs his eyes over the face he had tried so often to recreate in his mind, noting the swarthy complexion, the deep set, vivid eyes and strongly defined brows Still looking good in leather trousers. Still good-looking. Remembering his own fading form, the injustice of it stings Culver to the quick, and he takes another step forward.
"Keep away! Are you crazy?" Darius seems to be in a state of near panic.
"It's alright, it's quite safe," Maurice remarks, serenely.
"I don't believe you!"
"I checked myself. I examined him personally."
"You're mad, Maurice!"
"OK," Culver stops, raising his hands. "OK. I do want answers, but let's try to keep things nice, hmm? Even though you have fucked up my entire life."
"Matt," Darius says blankly. "Christ... your face, your arms..." He seems unable to look directly at Matt. He stares at the carpet for a few seconds, his chest heaving convulsively, and then he snatches up the coffee table in the centre of the room and flings it towards Maurice's head. It scarcely seems possible that Maurice will have had time to duck, but when Culver turns his head the man behind him is straightening from a stoop, his sang froid apparently untrammelled, and casting a quizzical glance at the smashed mess of wood tumbling to the floor behind him.
"Darius, if you are so incapable of dealing with the consequences of your own actions, I would advise you not to behave in ways that are likely to have... repercussions."
Culver sits down, and after a moment's hesitation, Darius seats himself opposite.
"So, Darius, what did happen that dark and stormy night? All I know is, I woke up with the hangover from Hell, and the virus from Vampyria. What did you do to me?"
"You already know, don't you? Would it make you feel better to hear me say it? We went back to your place. There was some brandy there, I remember, but I didn't drink any. I tied you to the bed by your hands and wrists, and removed some of your clothes. Then I made a puncture in your arm, and I didn't use a knife or a syringe. Do you want me to go on?" Darius leans forwards, looking into Culver's face, and seems to find an answer there. "I drank blood from your arm. Then I made a little cut, just here," he touches a spot on the inside of his own forearm, "and then I propped your head up while you drank my blood. Is that what you wanted to hear me say?" He holds Culver's gaze, then gives something between a smile and a frown. "Matt... I did tell you that I was a vampire."
"Why? Why me? I can assure you I was no virgin." Culver cannot keep the bitterness out of his smile.
"Do you want the truth?" The leather of Darius' clothes creaks softly as he eases back in his chair. "I'm really sorry, Matt. I wanted you. You weren't even on the list of people I was set to seek out. I... just wanted you. I always remembered you afterwards, and hoped that you wouldn't be affected."
"How nice. So, you deliberately infected me with this weird HIV strain and Maurice tells me it'll kill me if I don't go through with... well, if I don't go through with something. Is he right?"
As he glances towards Maurice, Darius' eyes glitter for a moment with the light of pure hatred. Then he looks back at Culver.
"Yes, Matt, it'll kill you."
"What's Part B?" Darius' eyes flit back to Maurice's face once again, then back to the floor. Culver glances at Maurice, but the latter's face is, as usual, entirely inscrutable.
"It'll be clear what you need to do when the time comes."
"OK, so here are my choices. One, eternal life. Two, torn apart by dogs. Three, torn apart by vampires. I'm hardly going to linger over my decision, am I? What's in it for you guys, though? You're apparently so keen to 'vampirise' someone - anyone - you'd have used Emmanuel, and he's delusional and irritating."
Darius smiles, a little maliciously. "Indeed, a most malfunctional specimen." He gives Maurice another blackly malevolent glance.
"Well, it doesn't exactly instil me with confidence in your 'selection' procedure. You must be able to pick and choose to some extent. Why the desperation?"
"We are currently involved in a... project... which requires the cooperation of one of our own kind," Maurice says, carefully. "Due to the nature of the project, however, we cannot use an individual who has become one of us through... the usual means. The virus to which you take such exception was designed as an alternative to this procedure. However, as I believe I mentioned to you, in approximately 96% percent of cases the symptoms are indistinguishable from normal AIDS.
"There were many others who were recipients of the same virus. Nearly all of them are dead..."
"So what do we do now?"
"Well, one of the first things we need to do is get the Hendlebys out of Whitby." Isobel glances across to the bed where Sarah Louise had fallen asleep with her arms around her brother. Karl is absently stroking his sister's hair. "Apart from that, there's Matt Culver, of course. Rescuing him has to be our top priority. We don't have any choice but to stay here and keep trying. If we do get him back, I vote that we leave Whitby as soon as possible. I don't see how we can do much more here."
Stone recounts his conversation with Cato. "He let me take a sample of Lydia's blood. I vote that we send this for analysis - some of it to SITU, perhaps. Maybe this will shed some light on what they plan to do with Matt."
"I'd still be interested in trying to get help from those bikers," adds Andrew.
"Good idea." The Professor glances at his watch. "In the meanwhile, I must drop in on dear Benny. I have some ideas I'd like to run past him..."
At about one-thirty, Professor Twitchin is back at the Hawsker caravan site once more.
"Benni?" Shielding his head from the rain, the Professor taps at the door of the caravan. "Only me, the old duffer, not a lord of darkness or any such nonsense." The door opens a crack, and then swings wide enough to admit Twitchin. "That's better."
Inside, he updates Benedict Riggs on the latest discoveries. "They're intending to turn young Matthew into a vampire. I know a man, a man, Benni, nothing more, who knows when and probably where... you know how to persuade him to tell us. Remember Haiti, Benni my lad. One in, all in, and so forth..."
Benedict's eyes gleam.
"That's the place." It is now three in the morning, and the streets of Whitby are deserted. Twitchin's car is parked across the road from Dr Pym's surgery. "Now, Benni, my boy, just nip across the road and kick the door in, will you, there's a good chap?"
Twitchin watches as Riggs swiftly crosses the road, looks the door up and down, and then abruptly kicks the door off the lock. As he had hoped, an alarm starts to sound. Riggs sprints back to the car.
"Perfect." Twitchin draws away from the kerb. "Now we find a place to watch. Doctor's surgeries always have drugs, so if the police are called out to investigate a break-in, they'll bring in the registered keyholder to make sure that nothing has been stolen. Let's hope that the keyholder is Pym, mmm?"
As hoped, a police car arrives after a short interval. About half an hour later, another car draws up, and a figure matching the description of Dr Pym gets out. Twitchin watches from the car as Pym enters the surgery with the policeman, watches as the policeman pulls away in his car, and watches as Riggs' figure emerges suddenly from the shadows and pinions the little doctor.
"Got him? Right, see if you can wedge him into the back somewhere. Back to the caravan!"
Isobel starts violently, and wakes, finding herself at the window of her darkened hotel room. A few feet away, watching her from the chair, is Sarah Louise.
"I didn't want to wake you." It had been considered most convenient for the two women to share a room. Sarah seems to be coping quite well with the revelation that her new friend, the market researcher, is not exactly what she seems. "It's the third time you've got up. The first two times I managed to lead you back to bed."
Isobel runs her fingers down the ice-cold pane, and shivers.
Seeing Pym's elderly form bound to a chair in the caravan, turning a blindfolded head this way and that, the Professor has a momentary qualm about his proceedings. However, the somewhat theatrical setting rather dissipates the sense of pathos.
He carefully adjusts an angle lamp so that it shines directly in the other man's face, before reflecting that the blindfold would probably somewhat obstruct the efficacy of such a manoeuvre. He moves around behind the other man, and removes the bandage from the prisoner's eyes.
Pressing the record button on his Dictaphone, Twitchin walks back to sit behind the angle lamp. Riggs positions himself behind the captive, who appears to be uneasily aware of his presence.
"Good evening, Dr Pym. I believe you may be able to help us with our enquiries. We are looking for a Doctor Matthew Culver, and you are going to help us find him."
"Who are you?" quavers the other man, trying to peer through the light towards Twitchin's figure.
"Ve ask the qvestions!" snaps Twitchin, before realising that he has slipped into a Hollywood-Russian accent.
"I don't know any Dr Culver..." Twitchin glances past at Riggs, and gives a small nod. Benedict opens the little cutlery drawer, and draws out two or three items that gleam ominously...
In fact, as it turns out, very little violence is necessary. The doctor proves to be relatively easy to intimidate, and the sight of Riggs shaking violently while brandishing a corkscrew does wonders in loosening his tongue. Unfortunately, fear renders him somewhat incoherent.
If he is to be believed, he knows relatively little of the ritual that is to take place, and in which Culver is to play a part. He knows that Culver and Lydia are suffering from an artificially engineered disease which cannot actually make them into vampires, but make them susceptible to being actively vampirised. As far as the Professor can make out from the prisoner's stammered remarks, while a vampire may drain blood from any victim, it would only be possible to vampirise certain individuals with a latent genetic susceptibility. The disease was designed to artificially create this susceptibility in individuals who did not innately possess such potential. Pym describes Emmanuel as suffering from a different disease, created for the same purpose. He shows an understanding of the viruses that eventually leads Twitchin to suspect that Pym himself may have had some hand in engineering either the one or the other.
Pym seems to be unaware of Matt's current location, or of where the transformation might take place. As far as he knows, there is no known cure for Matt's condition. He does not believe that a 'transformation' of the sort planned will be reversible.
"...were last seen heading out of Whitby along the Cleveland Walk..."
"Turn that up!" shouts Side-step. Micky adjusts the volume on the television set.
"...witnesses saw the three men moving towards the church at speed, along Whitby's famous 199 steps, carrying shotguns and other weapons. The exact order of the events are still unclear, but several local residents reported gun-fire issuing from within the church. At some point the bells of the church were rung loudly. Police are currently of the opinion that this may have been an attempt on the part of their victim to summon help ...."
"...it seems that while two men pinioned their opponent, who had apparently fled to the safety of the tower, their accomplice raked him with gun-fire from the ground. The body was then hurled from the top of the tower. The dead man's attackers were then seen covering his body with some flammable liquid and igniting it. Police currently suspect that this brutal killing is the work of a local drugs syndicate. The three men..."
"Uh-oh, here come the identikit pictures. Andrew, you'd better come and have a look at this, they've got quite a good likeness of you. Though that one doesn't look too much like you, Side-step." Micky winces as a fair representation of his own features flash onto the screen.
"... were seen leaving with three hostages, one girl and two men. Both men appeared to be injured, one of them seriously. Simon Mortimer, the 27-year-old priest who also died in last night's tragedy, was apparently killed by a violent blow to the back of the head. Many of the local charity groups with which he worked have voiced their sorrow and offered their sympathy to his family..."
Professor Twitchin wakes at a little after eleven, to the smell of cooking bacon.
Riggs is standing at the little stove, stirring the contents of a frying pan with a wooden spatula. He seems calm, almost nonchalant, his lips slightly pursed as if whistling silently.
Glad to see that his friend has once more emerged from the throes of crazed, paranoid distress, Twitchin sits up. The first thing that meets his eye is the empty chair by the door.
"Where's Pym, old chap?"
Benedict looks up from the frying pan, and smiles broadly.
No amount of patient explanations or questions enable Twitchin to learn anything of the disappearance of Dr Pym from Riggs, who persists in asserting that he has no knowledge of any such individual. At last, in despair, Twitchin leaves Riggs to his breakfast, and returns to Robin Hood's bay.
Much of the ensuing day is spent in the rooms of the Latimer hotel. Sarah Louise ventures out into Robin Hood's Bay to buy a paper, and when she returns reports that the story of the gun-fight at St Mary's is front cover news for all the local papers, and for one or two nationals. The identikit pictures are featured on many front pages.
Stone insists that Karl should seek some proper medical help for the bullet wound in his leg, and since Hendleby categorically refuses to have anything to do with an ordinary hospital, it is eventually decided to put him in the care of SITU. Sarah Louise refuses to leave his side. A call is put through to Brett Piner, who is initially rather startled, but agrees to send a car to take the Hendlebys to safety.
When Piner arrives, Stone hands him a small sample of Lydia's blood to be taken away for analysis.
"I can't believe I'm going to miss the climax," mutters Karl, as he is helped out to the car. "You keep in touch, OK? I know these people, you're going to need me... you're going to need all the help you can get."
Micky sorts through the items gleaned from Troy's pockets. Keys, all unlabelled. Spare ammunition. A driving license in the name of Howard Stoke. Credit cards in the same name. Micky looks in vain for a Howard Stoke in the telephone directory. A clasp knife. Nothing else.
Next, Micky consults the local directory in search of a surveillance shop. He finds a few names that seem promising, but these prove to be little more than shops for burglar alarms, and so forth. In answer to his enquiries, more than one recommends Spymaster, in London. When his other leads peter out, he telephones Spymaster, orders a number of items, and asks for them to be couriered down to Whitby the next day.
"Edward, it's me, Isobel.... yes, everything's fine... no, I just rang to let you know that I'm back in Whitby again. No, I just thought you might worry if I didn't tell you were I'd gone. I need a little time to myself right now, so I thought I'd stay here for a few days. But if you need me, I can come home... well, if you think you'll be alright... of course...."
It is now several hours after dusk, and Matt Culver stands at the window of his room, listening to the faint sounds of motion elsewhere in the building. He has just left the presence of Crier, Isolde, Darius, and Maurice, and he finds himself with an odd, contemplative tranquillity of spirit. With an idle hand, he turns his Ezili fetish over and over.
"So, how did you find it?" Maurice is in the room, once again. For all his developing senses, Culver has yet to master the art of hearing the other man's approach. Nonetheless, he does not feel discomforted by the other's arrival.
"Crier's looking better." Culver thinks of the little man whose presence he has just left, with his eyes like stones and his sleek, unchanging reptilian jaw. The only sign of Crier's recent injury had been a slight discoloration and indentation in his temple.
"Yes. You did well to direct all your remarks to him. 'I want to live, be strong, be like yourselves. Death does not become me.'" Culver smiles as he hears his own words repeated. "Yes, that went down well. Of course Isolde showed no sign of swooning before your charm." Oh yes, Isolde, a pre-Raphaelite dream with a cobra's eyes... "Yes, I think they bought it." There is a pause. "You're still not sure about this, are you?"
"Are you a psychiatrist? I had you placed as some other kind of doctor. I see you working on governmental projects somehow - perhaps during the Second World War?"
"Touché." Maurice smiles.
"Crier is your leader, is that right?"
"Not exactly. We have no assigned leader. But Crier's gift is organisation, so he was given a number of facts which he has persisted in keeping from the rest of the group - this has afforded him a degree of control. Crier has all the empathy of a filofax, and is thus fundamentally unsuited to leadership. He was not recruited for his social skills, and he has a fundamental inability to read people. He is best used as a computer program. You give him a task and press 'Enter.'"
"Isolde seems to resent him."
"Naturally. She resents anyone who refuses to offer her the tribute of their admiration. The only reason that she has anything to say to me is that Crier annoys her, and she can see that I annoy Crier. An alliance balanced upon a web of enmity."
"Maurice, just one or two more questions. Firstly, is the Hammer stuff true? Evening wear doesn't appear to be compulsory, but what about crosses, garlic, daylight, bloodletting?"
"Well, as you'll have noticed, garlic is something of an irritation. As far as I know it's never been fatal though. Just regard it as an allergy. Daylight is not fatal, although you may find it unpleasant. Crosses, you will be glad to hear, are completely useless. Bloodletting is less a matter of compulsion than some films would lead you to believe. In fact, our condition is in no way as crippled with handicaps as our cinematic cousins'." There is another pause. "Emmanuel's dead, isn't he?"
Culver's mouth dries.
"Whenever you speak of him, you are always a little too deliberate in your use of the present tense. It's just a trick of emphasis. I will not pass on my suspicion to the others, I think. It would be a pity to spoil the impression that you made back there."
"It wasn't a misleading impression. If we're to maintain the illusion of choice, I think it's fair to say I'm sold on the deal. I always like to read the small print, though - 'long spoon' and all that. What's the catch?"
"The catch is, that you have to trust us." Culver shrugs. Outside he can see the lights of a distant ferry ease across the horizon.
"Um, Maurice? Would you indulge my superficiality for a moment? You've said I'll feel stronger, faster, after the transformation, yes? I don't suppose it'll do anything for my appearance, will it?" He smiles wryly, smoothing down his shirt around his narrowed torso. "I mean, the 'Brad Pitt' look is well out of my league, but I'd still rather be Kiefer than Kinski!"
Maurice laughs. "Yes, Matt. Vampirism has its cosmetic benefits, too. Your current appearance is the consequence of the wasting effect of the illness - after the transformation you should be able to build up your weight again, and start seeing a face you recognise in the mirror." He moves back towards the door. "I'll leave you to think of that. Oh, and, Matt? Happy Halloween."
"Hello? Yes, this is Chief Superintendent Star speaking."
"Hello again, old fellow." Twitchin hears a muffled expostulation at the other end of the line. Clearly his voice has been recognised. "Mr Crier's phone number, please. And try not to do anything unnecessarily heroic. I've restrained by less sophisticated friends so far, but they tend to be indiscriminate when their blood is up, if you get my drift. One number, and there will be no need for them to visit Brent Row to talk to you in person, in about five minutes actually. They will have more, shall we say, urgent matters to hand, and it would be such a shame to wake the children..."
A few moments later Twitchin hangs up. He has a mobile phone number written upon a piece of paper.
He is about to dial the number, when a car door slam outside draws his attention.
Down in the car park, once again dressed only in her nightgown, Isobel is seated in her Mercedes. She seems to be in the process of fastening her seatbelt.