The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Et In Arcadia Ego
August 10th 1999, midday
Dexter & Yuri - Outside Sandrine's house
The others - the church
Dexter grabs at Yuri's arm. "Come on." They reach Maurice Perez just as Sandrine's mother is getting into the ambulance. The Frenchman is white, his hands shaking so much he can barely get his car door open. He doesn't appear to notice the two men until Dexter speaks.
His head jerks up.
"We spoke on the phone," Dexter says.
Perez blinks, uncertain, obviously in no state to think clearly at the moment. Yuri steps forward and puts himself in front of the car door. Perez gives him a long, wary look.
"You know what happened to Sandrine?" he asks shakily.
Yuri nods. "Why don't you give us a lift to the hospital and we'll explain on the way?"
An empty tomb, Jake thinks. He stands before the painting of the burial of Christ and studies it carefully, frowning to himself. The body being carried into the tomb by the light of a huge, bluish full moon. The Biblical accounts, of course, state the burial happened before sunset.
"This could point to Poussin's tomb as a clue," Jake murmurs to Sonja. "Or it might mean that Jesus wasn't buried when they claim." He turns to face her with a smile. "Since there's nothing we can do about the latter, I would suggest that we pursue the former option."
He takes hold of the painting by the frame and gives it an experimental shake. It doesn't move; it appears to be fixed firmly to the wall on all four sides. If there is something concealed behind it, they won't be able to find it now with the caretaker watching them.
Outside the church, Nate's phone rings. He straightens up from the empty tombstones.
"Nate." Dexter's voice. He listens for a moment, whistles softly under his breath. "All right, I'll tell them. You and Yuri stick with Perez."
Judith is quiet as they leave the church, shocked by the news of Sandrine's death.
"At least Dex and Yuri are with Monsieur Perez," Sonja says, which isn't much comfort. "They can see where Sandrine is taken."
"When Dex phones again ask him if he can get another blood sample," Jake suggests. "We need to know what killed her." He pauses. "Maybe he can steal the body."
"Or maybe not," Liza adds, looking sick at the suggestion. She refuses to meet Jake's eyes and seems very conscious of the fact that the rest of the party are all watching her closely.
After a moment's silence, Sonja heaves a sigh. "I suppose Judith, Liza and I can go and pay our respects to Sandrine's family when they get back from the hospital. But what do we do until then?"
Speeding after the ambulance towards the small hospital on the outskirts of Rennes-le-Chateau, Maurice Perez seems oblivious to everything else. He stares straight ahead, his hands gripped around the steering wheel, his mouth set in a tight line.
"Stigmata," he says, almost to himself. "You said she had stigmata. But how? What did they What happened to her?"
"Who are they?" Yuri asks. Perez looks confused and he repeats the question. "You started to say 'what did they do to her,' or something like that. Who are they?"
Perez shakes his head. "I'm sorry. I don't understand. Sandrine and I were very close, but I haven't seen her since last Christmas time. I swear to you I don't know what happened. I've been wanting to get in touch with her again for a long time, and when you phoned yesterday and said she had stigmata, I had to come right away. I don't know any more than that."
"Let's make a wild guess that this is to do with freemasons," Dexter says in an ugly voice. He shifts his weight in the passenger seat. "All right, we'll start at the beginning. How close exactly were you and Sandrine? Was she pregnant?"
Perez shakes his head violently. "No. I mean, I don't know. We "
"Could she have been pregnant?" Yuri asks.
He hesitates before nodding. "I said, we were close." He glances at the two of them fearfully. "We were lovers. Sandrine felt guilty about it because of her religion, but I don't believe she regretted it. But if she was pregnant she never told me. We lost touch after my company moved me away. I was intending to come back this summer and see how she was." His voice becomes choked. "I never thought this would happen."
"Who are 'they'?" Yuri repeats. The ambulance, and the car swing in through the hospital gates. Perez stops outside the front entrance. He presses both hands into his eyes and sighs.
"Who are you, anyway? Police? Reporters?" He makes a move to get out of the car and Yuri stops him.
"We are friends of Sandrine, that's all." Yuri's voice is heavy with tiredness and, for a moment, anger. "Someone did this to her and we intend to find out who. You will tell us what you know in the end so you might as well get it over with now." He's beginning to sound like one of the men who tortured him, he thinks, surprised. He takes several deep breaths and tries to calm himself down a little.
Perez sits there, stunned and frightened.
Dexter grins at him - his best, friendly smile, only holding a trace of a threat. "He's right. If you really care anything for Sandrine, you'll tell us what you know now."
Perez licks him lips nervously. "All right. Let's see where they've taken her and then I'll tell you what I know."
The hillside around the tomb of 'Les Bergers' is quiet. Only the hum of insects and the occasional rustle of grass as a rabbit darts for cover disturbs the thick silence. The sunlight is like honey.
Louis wields his borrowed equipment with a flourish, taking time to explain each piece. "It works by sending echoes into the ground and analysing the results. It will show us if there's anything unusual down there."
The others watch as he and Jake slowly sweep the area. A series of beeps and buzzes is emitted, translating themselves into lines on the attached screen. When they finish they have a series of charts and a graphic image showing an object buried in the ground, roughly rectangular.
"A coffin," Nate guesses. "How odd to find one of those in a grave."
Louis shoots him a quick frown. "It is a very odd coffin, actually. Most coffins are made of wood or lead, or a mixture of the two. From the analysis here, the metal we're looking at isn't lead. The density is completely different. And it's a far thinner layer than would be usual."
"What is it, then?" Judith asks.
Louis checks the screen again. He looks as if he doesn't quite believe the result himself. "This may be wrong," he says carefully, "but every indication is that we're looking at a coffin made of, or covered in, gold."
Sitting in the hospital waiting room, one on either side of Perez, Dexter and Yuri keep half their attention on the Frenchman and the other half on the double glass doors through which they can see Sandrine's parents talking to three men in white, doctors' coats.
"I work for a perfume company," Perez says, by way of beginning. "In the marketing department, which means I travel a lot. I was assigned to the Albi branch last winter, and I met Sandrine there. She was a nice girl - I was very fond of her. We went out a few times, but no more than that. Catholicism is very strict about that sort of thing, of course, and I respected Sandrine for it although I hoped she'd change her mind." He pauses and swallows before continuing. "Then, one night she did. I don't know why. Not long after that my superiors moved me on and that was the last I saw of her."
"But you think someone did this to her," Dexter persists. "Who?"
Perez blinks at him miserably. "I think you've already guessed. Why don't you tell me your theory and I'll tell you if you're right."
Before anyone can speak again, the glass doors open and Sandrine's mother and father come through. Perez stands up at once. "Please, excuse me. I must talk with them."
The two men move closer to listen. The conversation is in French but they manage to pick out a few words. Dead, sorry, Toulouse. And then, 'autopsy.'
The group meeting back in the house is made all the more pleasant by Yuri's donation of several bottles of wine. He drinks most of them himself and wavers between bouts of extreme friendliness and tired irritability.
"I don't understand about your etching experiment," Sonja says to Nate. "What were you expecting to find?"
He downs the last of his wine and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "I was expecting to find the remains of whatever writing was on the tombstone before Sauniere obliterated it. What I was not expecting to find was nothing at all." He scowls at the glass in his hand. "Unless he was trying to hide the fact that the tombstones were blank."
"Couldn't he have just engraved something on them?" asks Judith.
Nate shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe he was no good at engraving or something."
"Has anyone else been having strange dreams?" Jake enquires suddenly, looking at Liza. She doesn't respond and he shrugs and continues. "I only ask because I had a really weird one last night. It might just be me, or it might be someone trying to get to us."
"I dreamed about my father," Louis says after a pause. "He died in Egypt, a long time ago. It was a difficult time."
Yuri stirs. "I thought I was being tortured again. That was also a difficult time."
Thinking of the intense loneliness he experienced in his dream, Jake can only think of one word to describe it. "Desolation," he says softly. "Like everything I had ever cared about had been lost and no one understood." Again, his gaze strays to Liza and this time she jumps up.
"Why don't you just leave me alone?" she snaps. "You've got no idea what I've lost, or how I'm feeling, and you don't care anyway. All I want is to get him back."
The words seem, somehow, to come from outside of her. She stands, glaring at everyone for a moment, then runs to the door and slams it behind her. Sonja gets up and follows her.
After a short silence Dexter looks around. "Well, who's coming to visit Sandrine's folks tonight? We'd better get ready."
"Liza?" Sonja asks softly.
The blonde woman's face is in shadow as she turns. She doesn't look directly at Sonja but stares at the ground, stirring one foot through the dry grass. Sonja smiles tentatively and steps forward.
"What do you think of France?" she asks conversationally. Without waiting for a reply she goes on. "I was worried I'd be homesick here. It's my first time in the country, and especially knowing that I wasn't going to be with anyone I knew. Josh promised to keep in touch, but you know what men are like "
"They leave you without telling you where they're going or why," Liza says, her voice hollow. "And you spend the rest of your life trying to get them back." The look in her eyes is slightly dazed. She shakes her head and attempts a smile. "Weren't you going to visit Sandrine's family tonight?"
"There's nothing more to be done," Sandrine's mother says, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. "They've taken her body to Toulouse for an autopsy. They say they need to find out how she died. They don't know how long it will take."
Dexter lays a hand on her arm. "I cannot tell you how sorry we are, ma'am. It must have come as a great shock to you."
"It was a shock to us all," Judith offers. "We only knew her briefly, but her story is one that affected us all."
Sandrine's mother smiles at her gratefully. "She will be remembered by many. She would be happy knowing that." She waits, hesitant, torn between politeness to the foreign visitors and the desire to be left alone.
"Maybe we could come back and talk another day," Sonja suggests in the end. "It would be a fitting tribute to your daughter to tell her story as part of our broadcast."
"Yes, yes. Please come again. Come tomorrow, or the day after." She shows them to the door, still smiling despite the tears running down her cheeks.
Louis is eager to meet Charles in the pub that night, and not just for another chance to catch up on old news. On Jake's suggestion, the two of them go together and after buying a few rounds of drinks they get on to the subject of the research they are doing.
"We made extensive studies of the churchyard today," Louis tells him. "We found some very interesting things. One of the graves, for example, has a channel leading away from it. We don't know what it is yet - probably won't until we can excavate the area, which will need the permission of the church no doubt."
"Which graves?" Charles asks eagerly, sitting forward. Louis makes up a few names. All they need to do now is wait and see what Charles does with the information and whether it makes its way back to Severin at Harvest.
Later, searching the internet for information about the madman who shot the Harvest employee, Sonja finds very little. The case is still open and the murderer has never been found. It is assumed that he had a personal grudge against Harvest but his motive is still a mystery. Finally, giving up, Sonja phones SITU to ask.
"The Harvest killer?" Geoff Blaize sounds a little embarrassed. "Yes. Well I'm afraid he was one of ours. This is strictly confidential, of course. One of our groups led an investigation into Harvest in the UK not long ago. The company was experimenting with modified corn at the time. Corn that had the unfortunate side-effect of causing hallucination and irrational behaviour. Some members of the group became affected and it led to the killing. We hushed it up as best we can and the agent responsible is now in a secure mental unit in the States."
"Irrational behaviour?" Sonja asks. "Could that have anything to do with what we're experiencing here?"
"It may be, but I doubt it. We cleaned up after that investigation pretty well. As far as we know, all the corn was destroyed. I'd say you're facing something with similar effects but a different cause."
The cause being the Ylid, Sonja thinks, putting down the phone. If Ylids do actually exist. Feeling the need to do something more normal she checks out the results of Louis' and Jake's findings against previous research done in the area. Everything seems consistent. Not that there's been much local research at all recently. There are no records at all of anyone else scanning the area as they did today.
She's about to give up when she hear a knock at the door.
"Only me," Dexter says, sticking his head round. His hair is still damp from the shower and he's wearing a fresh shirt. He looks slightly nervous. "I was wondering if you fancied coming down the pub for a quick drink before bed."
Sonja surprises herself by agreeing.
"Nate? Some information for you," James says, calling from the Metropolitan police office. "The Russian guy you sent us the photo of. He's got no criminal record so we've got nothing official. Unofficially, I've found out he's a scientist, studying earthquakes or some such. There's been some attempt to discredit his work recently. But if you wanted to find anything on him you're out of luck - unless you want to try breaking into the KGB files," he jokes. "They might have something. By the way, someone's been asking questions about you too."
Nate is immediately alert. "What do you know?"
"Only the name. A Monsieur Severin. He's been looking into your background, specifically your links with the BBC. Thought you'd better know, that's all."
"I'm worried about Yuri," Sonja confides to Dexter. "He's been acting so strangely today since he had that dream. If he has another one it might send him over the edge completely."
He's not the only one in danger of that, Dexter thinks. He stares into his drink thoughtfully. Eventually, he shakes his head. "We'll just have to watch him, that's all. And find out as quickly as we can what - or who - is behind the dreams."
"It's a shame we can't send off a sample of blood to SITU like we did with Sandrine's," Sonja giggles. "Maybe Judith can slip with a knitting needle and spear him or something."
Dexter laughs at the thought. Covering Sonja's hands with his own, he looks into her face. "Let's forget the investigation for the rest of the evening," he suggests. "We could both do with some time out."
The eclipse is due to pass over France around midday on the 11th August. There are four separate burglaries planned for that time.
While Dexter, Yuri, Sonja and Liza plan to break into first Plantard's house and then Corbu's to steal the portrait, the others meet up with a team of Green Dawners in Toulouse.
The city is unnaturally quiet, only a few cars passing on the wide streets, no one out walking at all. Crowded into the shadow of an office building, the group would have looked conspicuous if there had been anyone to see them.
"Here's the plan," Sioux snaps out. "Team A - that includes you lot - will break into the main Harvest site. We've looked at Nate's video and we've got a good idea of where the security systems are concentrated and how to avoid them. Meanwhile, team B, which Spider's going to lead, will head for the office where they keep their back-ups. If we all succeed we'll have some interesting information. If one group gets caught, the other should still have something. Does everyone know what they're doing?"
"Good then," Sioux says. "Let's go."
"Let's go," Dexter whispers, leading the way. The gates of Plantard's house are behind them. They are facing the driveway leading to the front doors and everything is quiet. Sonja hopes he knows what he's doing. Leaving Liza trailing a moment, she catches up to him, watches carefully as he slips round the side of the house and examines a window that isn't properly closed.
"I think you can fit through this," he says quietly. "Want to give it a try?"
A thrill of excitement runs through Sonja as she nods and allows herself to be lifted up. The window opens and she stiffens, listening for an alarm. Nothing happens. Thank goodness, she breathes. She turns, grasping hold of the wooden frame and lowers herself. A moment later her feet touch the floor inside Monsieur Plantard's house.
She runs through to the back door to let Dexter and Liza in, giggling with a mixture of nerves and excitement. "I never knew burglary could be such fun," she hisses. "Come on in."
Silently, tensed for any sound that will mean they have been discovered, they creep from room to room.
The house is empty, and has been empty for a long time. That is immediately obvious. A few of the surfaces are covered with a dull layer of dust. Others have been more recently cleaned, but casually. It seems that M. Plantard's housekeeper is not as fastidious as she could be. There are very few personal effects. The books on the oak cases are all to do with politics. The large front lounge houses a TV, a video and a stereo with a couple of classical music CDs. A pot plant is dried out and dying on the corner table. The furniture is all leather and solid wood.
Sonja creeps up the thickly carpeted stairs one at a time. She opens doors into bedrooms, three bathrooms, a study. Then she stops. "Hey everyone," she calls softly. "I've found something."
Sioux appears by Nate's side brandishing a pair of wire cutters. "That's the alarms dealt with, only the security guards left. Another triumph for Green Dawn." She is grinning, happy.
"What happens if there's another alarm," Louis calls after all. She tosses her head back and laughs. "Are Frenchmen all cowards? Come on."
They follow, sticking close to the Green Dawners. They look like a group of terrorists, Judith thinks in dismay. All of them dressed in dark combat gear and carrying bags of tools. She dreads to think what will happen if the police catch them here.
Overhead, the sky is darkening by stages. A scream comes from somewhere ahead, cut off quickly. The first of the security men going down.
Sioux leads the way in. The whole place is eerily deserted, every sound echoing as they move. Every door is locked, but the locks are easily dealt with using a combination of fake swipe cards, pieces of stiff wire and, when all else fails, a small hand axe.
In Severin's office they gather up files at random, looking for anything relating to human research. Moving on from there, they hurry into the gleaming laboratories beyond. The computer equipment sits idle, blank screens everywhere. Sioux glances at two members of her team and they immediately get busy with CDs, downloading material.
"In case the team going after the backup discs fails," she explains. "You can start looking through the files over there."
They get to work, Judith hopping nervously from foot to foot, Jake and Louis silent, Nate apparently enjoying himself.
"What's this?" Judith asks, jabbing her finger at a page. Lists of figures run on, covering both sides of the paper. Results of some project or other, presumably. But which project?
Louis flips open a few more folders. "Research on milk production," he reads. "On meat production. Ah, here we are. Cloning and infertility research. I think we'll take this one."
It is the same woman. The blonde-haired Magdalene, the mystery woman at Corbu's house. And now this. A woman in her twenties, pale-skinned, golden-haired, her face turned slightly away from the artist and looking at a man. His face is in shadow, the details only sketchily filled in, as if the artist was painting from a half-forgotten memory.
Close-up the woman is more beautiful than anyone they have ever seen. Even Liza, with her modelling career behind her, stares open-mouthed. So beautiful she cannot possibly be real.
Tearing his eyes away for a moment, Dexter turns his attention to the rest of the room. Everything here is heavy with dust - no house-keeper has been in this part of the house for months. On the dressing table stands a golden goblet and beside it a cross, intricately made. Across the back is inscribed a single word. Baphomet.
"Baphomet? That's the demon the Templars were supposed to worship, isn't it?" Dexter asks.
No one answers. Sonja is still looking at the painting. Yuri reaches past her and lifts it from the wall. Behind, is the metal door of a safe.
Dexter and Yuri start forward at the same time, eager to open it. But they are to be disappointed. They try everything they can think of and at the end of it the door remains resolutely shut.
"It's easier than this on the telly," Dexter comments. Yuri just grunts and kicks the wall.
"Leave it," Sonja says. "We've found enough here. I'll give Liza a call and then we'd best get out of here."
It takes several minutes for them to realise that Liza is no longer in the house.
Cloning and its uses in infertility research.
The file is incomplete, just a paper summary of the more detailed information on computer. Nate flicks through it, reading quickly. It seems this research has been going on ever since Harvest set up in France. So far, every experiment has been marked as a failure.
"Result: death," Jake reads. He glances at the others, eyebrows raised. "I think we need more information on this."
A scream from the next room makes them all jump. Jake drops the file and they run in, almost colliding with Sioux.
One of the female members of the group is kneeling on the floor, retching. On a long table beside her lies a body, covered by a white sheet. A hand droops free from one side, showing stigmata, going right through the flesh of the palm. They all know it is Sandrine's body before Nate pulls back the sheet to see.
Then an alarm shrills.
"We're caught," Sioux shouts in panic. "Get everyone out. Now!"
Liza wanders back to the church in a dream. The shadows lengthen around her as she walks, the sun gradually eaten away. She doesn't look up once. Midday fades to dusk as she reaches the church doors.
"You came," the demon says to her.
She nods slowly. "You waited."
"I always said I would."
The world shimmers. Liza stumbles and almost falls. "John?" she cries.
His arms are around her. "Hush. I'm here. I've come back to you." Gently, he guides her to a waiting car. "Come on, my love. I know a place where we can be alone. We've got so much to catch up on." He runs his fingers down her arms, making her shiver. The light in his eyes is eager.
A car is pulling away from the church as they reach its gates. Dexter, clutching the painting as he runs, is panting for breath.
"Damn!" Yuri swears loudly, lapsing into Russian when he runs out of English curses. But Sonja, watching the car as it swerves and roars off, seizes Dexter's hand.
"Look at it," she shouts at him. "Don't you recognise it? It's Corbu's car."