The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Seeds Of Suspicion
July 16th 10am
Mal - Huntingdon
Will - London
The others - Usk
Mal stands up quickly. "Daniel, well done. You handled that well."
"Did I?" Owens grimaces. "If I'd accepted their offer the department would be considerably better off by now.
"And we'd be no closer to the truth." Mal turns off his camera and begins stowing equipment back into its bag. "I'll stay in touch," he promises. "If anything else happens here..."
"I'll let you know. Good luck." The two men shake hands.
Half an hour later Mal is slipping out of a back exit. A good look around shows that no one is watching him and he breathes a sigh of relief. Checking the car over to make sure that hasn't been tampered with, he slings his bags into the boot. Jennifer Matthews seemed very uncomfortable with her two associates, he thinks. Very strange - unless the men weren't Harvest employees but from a different organisation.
No one sees his car leave the Institute grounds and no one follows. Whistling to himself, Mal heads for the motorway. Keep up a good speed and he can be in Usk in a matter of hours.
Will is also preparing to leave. The 'Enemy' obviously know way too much about him for comfort. He wonders if they also know about SITU and hopes not. If they do, he doesn't rate his chances of surviving very high. But whatever they know, the only way to make them back off is to make them think they've won.
There is a car parked opposite the guesthouse when Will leaves. He glances at it briefly. The windows are smoked glass, too dark to see if there's anyone inside watching.
There is a car showroom close to the airport. Will takes the car in there, accepting the first price they offer him without arguing. Glancing at the road outside he catches a glimpse of a car with dark windows coasting slowly past.
When he gets to the airport, he sees it again, parked right in the entrance way. He has the feeling he's being herded, that the mysterious Enemy want to hurry him out of the country.
"I'm going, I'm going," he mutters. He reaches the front sales desk. "A ticket to Paris," he says, then more loudly. "I'll be going on to America - I've had enough of this country."
He looks around one last time before going through to the departures lounge. A man and a woman look back at him incuriously then turn and walk away.
"You share everything, understand?" Jonas says fiercely.
Nolan Corey looks back with mild amusement. "But of course. Don't worry, Doc's filled me in. I'll have your man out of there soon as you like."
His smile takes the wind out of Jonas' anger. Deflated, he grins sheepishly. "Right. Give him the rest of the day, and if anyone comes to talk to him I want full details."
"You got it." The lawyer salutes him without a hint of mockery and picks up his briefcase. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got an appointment at the police station."
In the interview room, two men sit opposite Jake and wait impatiently for Corey to arrive. Lesley stands against the wall by the door, her face grim.
"I think we can begin," one of the men says. She shakes her head at once, her gaze straying again to Jake's face. The poor bastard hasn't got the wit to kill anyone, she thinks. She is momentarily furious with Jonas for dragging him into this.
Before she can speak, the door opens.
"Sorry I'm late," Corey announces. "I got held up outside." He smiles at everyone in turn. "So, I'm representing the defendant, you, sir must be the defendant, and you," turning to Lesley, "are obviously with the police force. What about you two gentlemen?"
They stand up together. "Geoffrey Ashe," the first one introduces himself. "And this is Mark Taylor. This man stands accused of the murder of the Harvest executive Anthony Claydon."
Corey looks at Jake. "Has he confessed?"
Geoffrey shakes his head.
Corey beams at him, slings his case onto the table and sits down. "Good. Then lets get started. First of all, who are you representing? The police? Harvest?"
"The police, of course," Geoffrey snaps back. "And I'd remind you we're not the ones being held for questioning."
"Of course." Corey is all apology. "Then, Jake, why don't you start off by telling us where you were on the fourteenth July?"
Jake shakes his head slowly. With a feeling of dull surprise he realises he's having trouble remembering what he was doing five minutes ago, never mind on the fourteenth July. "I... I was here," he begins. When he speaks his throat hurts as if he's got something trapped inside it. "At least, I think I was." He looks up. An angel or devil with golden hair and grey eyes is standing by the door watching him.
"Why'd we have to do, like, anything about Jake?" Maddy shrugs lopsidedly, "He did, uh, shoot that guy dead an' all, remember? That's, like, really baaad karma whatever, um, team you support. Anyway, five's a much more susp... auspicious number - more, y'know, Discordian. Like the whatjamacallit, Famous Five, or Scooby Doo. Or, uh, Steps..." She breaks off, humming tunelessly to herself.
Brandy ignores her. "Can we get him out on bail?" he asks. "How much money do SITU have, anyway?" He runs his hand through his hair and sighs. "Your lawyer had better be good."
"He is," Jonas assures him. "Jake'll be out by tomorrow, don't worry. And in the meantime he'll be picking up information for us."
"You hope." Brandy moves to the table. "First thing I'm going to do is get back on line, and then do a thorough search. There must be some information out there we can use."
"The truth is out there," Maddy mutters, feeding Jason the rat a last M&M.
"Obviously, Harvest are in this up to their necks," Brandy continues, "but we're not going to get any more information out of them. What time did Mal say he'd be here?"
Jonas shrugs. "Couple of hours."
"Then we've got a couple of hours to find out as much as we can. Lets get to it."
Maddy sniffs. "Oh, whatever. I'm bored with Harvest." She smiles brightly. "I'm going to Oxford to, like, find 'Marilyn'. But first, I'm gonna have a nice chakra-balancing bath!" Tossing her head at the two men, she heads for the bathroom.
She locks the door carefully behind her - she doesn't want to risk her ritual being interrupted. Then, pouring a can of beer under the running taps, she chants, "Yeast and hops, balance and clear Chakra blockages front and rear. Wash them away from head to toe as I will, now make it so!"
Even if the ritual doesn't work, she reflects, it's going to be good for her skin.
Mal phones Tariko from a public box at a service station. She sounds upset when she answers.
"Did you know there's a meningitis scare here?" she says. "Everyone in the science department is supposed to get a blood test."
Mal frowns. "That sort of thing usually makes the news."
"I know, and I don't know how they kept it so quiet. Reardon gave out an announcement that it would be bad for the college if the media found out, but they usually do whether someone tells them or not. Anyway, the men in charge of it left yesterday so I suppose the crisis is over."
"Men?" Mal cuts in quickly. "What did they look like?"
He can almost sense her frowning as she remembers. "There were two of them. Smart, suits, briefcases. They looked more like lawyers than doctors. They didn't say much, just that there might be an infection and they were taking precautions. Then they took blood samples from everyone and left."
Putting the phone down, Mal walks back to his car. He is frowning thoughtfully. What would Harvest - or the people behind them - want with blood samples? Unless they thought whatever had infected Kawakami might have spread.
Will doesn't hang about in Paris. There is a plane leaving for Bilboa within the hour and he makes sure he's on it. None of the other passengers pay him any attention. Even so, he doesn't risk calling SITU until he's safely in Santander.
"You're safe," Blaize tells him. "They gave up following you once they'd seen you out of the country. Oh, you might be interested to know we bought your car back - just a few minutes before someone else came in asking for it. We put a tail on him, and guess where he went? The Harvest office."
Will digests this information in silence. "My theory is we're up against some sort of enemy. It might be government-based, or it could be some government project that tries to tap into the powers of the enemy, whatever they are. Did you get the films I left for you?"
"Yes, we're running the prints through our computers now." There is a long pause, then Blaize says, "Will, I think you're right. We haven't proven the existence of an organised enemy group, or their links with the government, but it looks like you're onto something. I want you to concentrate on this enemy, find out who's involved and what they're trying to do. But be careful. They know you're onto them now. I don't think they know of SITU's existence but no doubt they'll be trying to find out who you're working for. Use force if necessary."
"All right," Will agrees. "What about the scientists - or have we messed up too badly there?"
"Messed up?" Blaize sounds surprised. "Not at all. From what you say, Harvest is the link, and Harvest leads directly on to the enemy. You've already had some contact with them so that's your starting point. Turn the tables on them: try following them for a change. One more thing," he adds. "Don't rule out the possibility that more scientists may die. We don't know how widespread these experiments were. Presumably only Harvest or the enemy itself knows that."
Filled with a new sense of achievement, Will hangs up. The diving gear he bought is at his feet. He takes it with him onto the ferry. Plymouth, and then Usk. And from there on he'll play it by ear.
Maddy sits bolt upright in her bath.
"Marilyn Hook," she shouts. "It's not my mother or my sister. It's me!"
Brandy's case notes:
1. Five scientists have been affected by a mystery substance that has made them commit suicide or murder.
2. All five were carrying out a secret experiment for Harvest PLC.
3. As Harvest are involved in genetic modification of crops, it is likely the experiments were something to do with that. Could they have been growing some sort of drug? It's unlikely they'd have agreed to this so Harvest would have told them some cover story. The deaths - did Harvest know this would happen, or was it an unforeseen side-effect? And what is the real purpose of the drug?
4. Seems that there is another organisation behind Harvest, at least as far as this experiment goes. Who they are is unknown, but they have enough power to silence the police and the media.
5. Harvest, suffering severe cashflow problems, have received recent government grants, and have made large grants to the scientists and their colleges. Could be that the government money was intended to fund this experiment.
6. There have been cases of similar experiments in the past. Maddy's experience, Saffron Walden, they could all have come from the same source.
7. So, a government-linked organisation has been conducting experiments on the public for at least forty years. They've covered their tracks well, and spaced experiments out so no one becomes suspicious.
Brandy looks up. "That's all I've got so far. It sounds a bit too much like conspiracy theory to be real."
Jonas just grunts, looking over his shoulder. "It's real enough."
Maddy's scream brings them both to their feet.
Jake feels as if he's been talking for hours. His throat feels raw and the light in the interview room is stinging his eyes. He rubs at them with his fingertips. Some small part of him wonders why he's feeling this bad, but most of him just wants to throw up.
"I was in Usk," he repeats. "I don't know what I was doing?"
Corey stands up. "My surmisal is that my client is an alcoholic. The confusion, the memory loss, all fits in. I doubt very much whether he ever was in London, let alone committed the murder he is accused of. I suggest you have no option but to release him."
By the door Lesley starts to nod, but Geoffrey shakes his head emphatically. "Not before this has been thoroughly investigated," he says. "We'll be moving the case to London. And, if you say this man's an alcoholic, a simple blood test should confirm that."
"Not without a warrant," Corey says flatly. He looks at Geoffrey hard. "Unless you want to find yourself on assault charges. Now, I suggest you return this man to his cell so he can rest. Give me a call when you're ready to move him."
An hour has passed. Maddy is sitting, still looking very shaky, an empty glass beside her.
Jonas puts the phone down. "They're taking Jake to London," he says. "Corey's going to hold them up until Mal arrives so we can slip him one of his bugging devices. Maddy, do you still want to go to Oxford?" She raises her head and looks at him and he grins. "Of course you do. Brandy, will you stay here and keep an eye on things? I told Corey to report to you. We'll get in touch when we know anything else."
They get the next train out of Usk. Maddy sits quiet, fiddling with a few skeins of embroidery wool. A corn dolly lies beside her on the seat and she picks it up.
"Umm, did you ever see The Wicker Man, Jonas? It's, like, this creepy old Hammer thing where Edward Woodwoodwood goes to this, like, weird pagan island where they've got all maypoles an' stuff." She heaves a sigh. "Anyway, at the end they burn him in this giant wicker statue thing - even though he's, y'know, the hero... Dunno why, but I just thought of it again."
She lapses back into silence, frowning out of the window. Her fingers move almost unconsciously, plaiting strands of wheat and wool together. She knots the bracelet around her left wrist. "There!" she smiles, "it's a protective whatsit. White for success, purple for magic an' wheat for, like, Harvest."
Jonas looks at it curiously. It looks like a badly-plaited string to him. But if Maddy is happier wearing it, so be it.
Mal arrives in Usk to find Brandy exchanging notes with Nolan Corey. Drawing Brandy aside, he brings him up to date on what's been happening.
"I think Jake may have been affected by whatever substance was responsible for Nigel Thomas' deterioration," he confides softly. "The pattern seems very similar."
It makes sense. Brandy glances at Corey then adds, "If our friends Geoffrey and Mark suspect that, they're going to want to monitor him to see what the effects are. What's our next move?"
"This." Mal tosses a small disc of metal to Corey. "Give that to Jake and tell him we won't be far behind him. I'm going to contact Will."
Will is halfway between Plymouth and Usk when Mal phones. He's driving an old brown Ford picked up second-hand from a garage, and he's still satisfied that no one is following him. After telling Mal his suspicions and relaying what Blaize said he tells him what he's trying to do - to follow the team in order to pick up on any of the shadowy enemy who are trailing them.
"Best thing then is to pick us up between Usk and London," Mal says. "We'll be pulling out of here very soon. Keep out of sight."
"Will do." He doesn't want to risk saying more. He stops the car to study the road map for a while, picks a spot and begins to drive again.
Oxford. Maddy, A-Z in one hand, is hailing a taxi. She gives the address, squeezes into the back seat next to Jonas and grins at the driver. Now she's this close to what she guesses is home, she finds she can't sit still.
They drive through the centre of Oxford, past colleges and shops, and on into an area where the houses are progressively bigger, the streets wide and lined with trees. Maddy stares out of the window, her mouth falling open. "I live here?"
The taxi pulls up. "This is it," says the driver.
They get out. The house is detached, set in a wide area of carefully tended garden. Apple trees shield the front windows from the street. Maddy skips to one side out of sight, signalling to Jonas to borrow his phone.
"Hello?" Even from the single word, Maddy can tell the voice is educated. The class of woman who'd sometimes pass by laden with shopping bags and pay her a fiver for a single copy of the Big Issue. Her heart is suddenly beating too loud for her to think properly.
"Oh! Uh, um, I'm looking for, erm, Marilyn," she blurts out. "It's, uh, really important, yeah? I need to, y'know, see her..."
She runs out of words, her mouth drying up.
The woman on the other end is also silent a long while. Then Maddy hears a slow indrawn breath.
"Marilyn?" the woman says. "Is it really you?"
Jonas, waiting beside her, suddenly feels a wave of dizziness wash over him. He staggers sideways. "Jake's in trouble," he gasps. "I can feel it..."
The police van keeps to a steady seventy along the M4. Inside, Geoffrey and Mark look and Jake and he stares back blearily, neither knowing nor caring where he is. A devil's face mocks him from the wall opposite and he ignores that too. When he tries to move to get comfortable he finds there are chains linking him to the seat he's on, enough give to let him move a little, not enough for him to stand. He slumps back with a sigh.
"What do we do with him?" Mark asks.
Geoffrey is still watching Jake. "I don't know. He doesn't know anything. Look at him: he doesn't even know we're here."
"Do you recognise the voices?" Brandy asks Mal shakes his head.
The two men are in Corey's car, following at a safe distance. Right now there's no way of telling if they're being followed. Hopefully, Will will pick that up and deal with it.
Will pulls onto the motorway far enough back that he can just see the police van. He catches a brief glimpse of Brandy and Mal sharing a car with a man he doesn't recognise. He drops further back, scanning the cars immediately behind them. One of them - a black Mercedes - changes lanes as they change. Will watches suspiciously. Surely that one can't be tailing them; it's far too obvious.
Geoffrey's voice starts up again. "One thing's for sure, the boss isn't going to be pleased about this. First we have a group of reporters or whatever coming far too close for comfort. Then one of them confesses to killing Claydon."
"You think he did?" Mark asks.
"No. Though he's certainly mad enough to." There is the sound of a slap. "Hey, you. Wake up and talk to us. Who are you working for?"
The only reply is a mumbled Latin phrase.
Jake's mind is beginning to clear. The devil on the wall fades and he's staring at the metal side of a van. Two men come into focus. He moves again, feels the chains move with him and lets himself relax. Something has gone very wrong. His mind hasn't been working properly, he knows, best not let these two see that he's starting to recover. He blinks twice and moans to himself.
"He's got to be affected," Mark says. "He was in Canterbury and Usk, and he saw the Kendall woman. There's been plenty of opportunity."
Geoffrey shakes his head. "It's the pollen that does it. It's not a virus that can be caught."
"We don't know that."
Geoffrey sighs and stretches his legs out. "I suppose we don't. One thing we do know, we can't risk this one reporting back to his organisation, and he's too far gone to be useful to us."
Mark smiles at tightly. "You mean if we do get anything out of him it might reflect badly on us?"
"Maybe." There is a short pause. Geoffrey looks at Jake again. "Know what I think? We should take him out now and tell his lawyer he had a heart attack on the way." He stands up, swaying with the movement of the van.
Mark clutches at his arm. "You can't do that. He won't believe you."
"Who cares? There'll be nothing he can do about it." He takes a step closer to Jake, leaning right over him. Jake makes himself sit still, unresponsive.
"Or we can tell the lawyer he escaped en route," Geoffrey says. His voice fills Corey's car. "It's up to you."