The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 15th midnight.
Twitchin, Isobel, Peter – the hotels.
The others – the village night-club.
A space opens up around Matt for a moment and then people start towards him. Andrew is about to join them, but John signals him back. There may be people watching and any move to help Matt could blow their cover wide open. Still, he does need help. Pushing his way through the gathering crowd, John utters the immortal words, “Let me through – I’m a doctor.”
The thought that the Master may have his agents watching has occurred to Mark and Sam too. Sam tenses a moment then sits back, resuming his flow of chatter. Mark ignores him and concentrates on the people around them.
“Don’t go over to him,” he mutters. “Stay where you are and watch the crowd. Look for anyone watching too Matt too intently or trying to get out quickly. It could also be an attempt by our enemy to see who is involved with SITU.”
Matt is sitting up now, blinking, saying something which makes the people around him laugh. Mark swings his gaze slowly across the room. Andrew has moved to cover one of the doors, Mickey is by the bar. Only a few people are watching as John helps Matt to his feet.
“I knew I shouldn’t have touched those dodgy German Es…” Matt groans.
Two men, in opposite corners of the room. Mark turns his gaze slowly from one to the other. Both of them are blonde, both tall – and powerfully built by the look of them. One of them is watching Matt intently. The other turns his head slowly, his eyes searching the room, just as Mark is doing. Mark turns his attention quickly back to his beer before he is seen. He didn’t get much of a look at the men but he didn’t need to. He knows he’ll recognise them if he sees them again.
Waving away offers of help from a couple of girls, John guides Matt through the nearest door. Mickey and Andrew stay where they are long enough to give the watchers time to lose interest then go out through separate exits. The two blonde men stay where they are for a few minutes longer then walk over to a table in a dark corner.
“Let’s wait a few minutes and follow along behind the others.” Mark suggests. As they leave he adds. “Coffee mocha chip ice-cream – no, I’m not a fan. That stuff is all about flavouring, can’t be a substitute for either of the real things!”
They catch up with the others not far from the night-club. The road is quiet, empty. Mark double checks it before he joins the group. Looking around at them, Matt shakes his head groggily and forces a smile. “Don’t worry, it’s my policy to collapse dramatically at least once on each mission.” He shakes he head again, trying to clear the image of the steel-grey eyes from his mind.
“Eyes,” he whispers. “Cold, steely-grey eyes. I think it was him, I really think it was him. Oh fuck, he knows we’re here…” Wearily, Matt massages the bridge of his nose then looks around seriously at the others.
“Gentlemen, I suspect the stakes have just risen.”
Come morning, a very tired Peter Ramsey stumbles down to the dining room for some breakfast. He slept badly last night, kept awake by visions of vampires and the thousand and one ideas swimming in his mind. He dumps an armful of diagrams and reports on the table and stares at them as he dabs marmalade onto his toast one-handed. When Mark arrives he pushes the papers to one side.
“You know,” he says, interrupting Mark before he can say anything. “I think it is very likely that the Master already knows we are here. For instance, the mine is his pet. I show up with a couple of goons, and he is bound to investigate, and when he investigates, whatcha – Professor Munchkin and Ray Ban Man! Although he was not aware of us, he sees the connection. I should say that he knows all of us by now. That leaves us with the need for a new strategy.”
“It leaves you with the need to lower your voice in public areas,” Mark retorts. He begins to tell him what happened last night and stops. “Mission meeting at Twitchin’s hotel after breakfast. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Isobel asks. She spent half the night sitting up with Matt, trying to work out what happened to him. She can’t rule out the possibility of a mental attack by the Master. Or maybe the sickness that is killing Matt has drawn him so close to the Master’s world that the two simply became aware of each other.
Matt smiles tiredly. After a sleepless night, door barred and garlic gun under his pillow, he should be half dead with exhaustion but he’s feeling surprisingly restless. “I’m feeling much better,” he says. “If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to lie low for a day or so. Spend a little more time on the Net, see if anything comes to mind.”
“The play has to be our main priority,” Isobel reminds them. “The performance is set for the seventeenth – that’s the day after tomorrow. It should be fairly easy to become a part of it if no one knows who’s in it. So we need to decide which character we will take and research them to make sure we can play the roles properly.”
“Which one will you be?” Matt gives her an odd look. “I think maybe I’m supposed to be Balin. I wonder…” He cuts himself off. “Another thing. I’ve been thinking about the mine. We know crystal is important to the Ylids but we’re not sure about the specifics. I believe they can somehow ‘download’ their consciousness into crystal’s lattice structure but perhaps they need a certain type of rock? Anyone have any ideas about the accident rate?”
“The Master is killing them, obviously,” Sam says.
Andrew shrugs. “Or maybe the mines are a dangerous place to work.”
Matt frowns. “I’m not sure why, but I can’t help feeling that whatever’s knocking off miners is connected to that…thing above the Ghost Train entrance. Isn’t there some sort of, I dunno, gnome or something in Germanic mythology that lives in mines? Apart from Grumpy, Dopey, Doc and the others, I mean.” He looks pointedly at Mickey. “People go missing in the mine…and people go missing in the Ghost Train. Possibly. I’d be extremely interested to hear your story, Mickey. And, if you’re willing, a spot of regression hypnotherapy might, er, aid the process…”
The suggestion takes Mickey by surprise. “I can remember the thing clearly enough without hypnosis. But if you think it’ll help…”
“It will,” Matt assured him. “So much for the play and the carnival, I reckon it’s time some of us paid a visit to the mine after hours too. Breit looks like being an important figure as well; maybe we could keep watch on him for a day or so, check out his movements, assess our chances of breaking into his house?” I glance at the newer agents, smiling slightly, “Housebreaking is, of course, another great SITU tradition…”
Sam shakes his head. “There are other ways to gain access without actually breaking in. That would be too suspicious I think, as well as dangerous.”
“I’ll spend some time trailing Breit,” John offers. “That will be a good start.” He glances around the room. Everyone seems to agree except for Peter who has been shaking his head at everything so far.
“The Master knows us,” he says brusquely. “That means he will be expecting us.” He scratches his head, pulling his hair up into marmalade-sticky spikes. “There are three ways we can go about meeting this new development. First, we can try and lure him out, by putting our worm on the hook. Someone will be the sacrificial lamb to draw him out. Second, we can wait and go along, pretend like it’s raining and wait for him to make the first move. Third, we know that he knows, and we act on it. He will be expecting us to go to the mine, but I doubt that will draw him out, especially since I have the twin roughboys with me.
“Naw,” he concludes. “What I would do is go for the brains and leaders, as he sees it, which we conveniently have left unprotected. Munchin and Munchkin as well as Ray Ban Man are in the danger zone now. I say, skip the mine. We will not investigate it further until something new has come up. Instead, we should concentrate on some active work, like checking the transportation of the crystal, Breit’s house, the spooky house at the carnival and so on. And we should keep in larger groups if we want safety. We have already been made, so that concern is so to speak out of the picture.”
There is a long silence when he has finished.
“Does anyone, umm, understand that?” Twitchin asks.
Mark shrugs. “Okay, Peter, let’s go back to the mine and check out the transportation. You come up with more to ask Breit and I’ll watch the yards.” He gets up, eager to go now he’s decided on a plan of action. He opens the door as Matt voices one last thought.
“‘Pretorius’… could be the Praetorian Guard in Rome, but I think it’s more likely to be a derivation of ‘praeter’, as in ‘praeternatural’ – y’know, ‘beyond human’. Whoever ran the carnival in the 18th Century was powerful enough to change the village council’s mind – I wonder who’s running it now? Maybe Isobel and Twitchin could check it out?”
“I’m not going to the mine,” Peter repeats emphatically. “We don’t need to go there to check on the transportation arrangements, and the further we stay away from the Master the better.”
Mark is not so sure that the Master is in the mine. It’s a bit of a cold and damp place for a super-powerful being to be staying, he reflects. But, to save an argument, he doesn’t press the issue. “Okay, Andrew and I will go and talk to Breit. You do your own checking.”
Peter lets them go. He’s eager to get back to his own hotel and to start work again. With the door shut behind him and his computer and papers everywhere, he almost feels safe.
Before he gets down to work he has a quick phone call to make. “Herr Breit?” he says. “Peter Ramsey here again. I was phoning to see if you would reconsider. I’ve been looking over some figures and I can offer you twice the revenue you’re generating at the moment, and more than double profits because switching to a single buyer will save you costs. And I can guarantee you a twenty year contract. What do you say?”
“Herr Ramsey, I’m sorry, I have to say no.” Johann Breit does indeed sound regretful. “We cannot possibly turn over the entire output of the mine to you. I have spoken to the managers of the companies and they agree that ten percent is the most we can offer you.”
“Maybe you’ll be free to discuss it later?” Peter suggests. “Can we meet for lunch?”
Breit sighs. “No. I’m sorry. Today is a busy day. Tomorrow also. I must wish you good day.”
Not entirely surprising, Peter reflects. He gets down to the real work of the day: checking back through the company papers he has acquired. Assuming the Master is taking crystal from the mine, he must be either buying it through fake companies, or he has his own, unofficial, mining operation. It’s easy enough to check up on the companies who buy and transport the crystal. Tedious, but easy.
Pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee, Peter gets to work.
Herr Breit looks surprised and not at all pleased when Mark and Andrew turn up at the mine.
“We just want to take one more look around,” Andrew says smoothly. “We won’t get in your way.”
There are tourist groups at the mines, some of them queuing up for the guided tour, others wandering around the site or in the gift shop. The two men join them.
“According to what we’ve worked out there should be between three and five lorries here every day,” Mark says. He heads in the direction of the concrete loading yard. One lorry is waiting there, its back doors open. On its side is painted the name, ‘ABC Transport.’ Another company that can be checked out, Mark thinks. He makes a note of the name then, while Andrew does another round of the site, he settles down to watch.
The carnival is in full swing. Sam and the Prof are enjoying themselves enormously, knocking coconuts off stands, buying toffee apples and candyfloss. Twitchin and Isobel seem fully immersed in the roles of happily married if slightly batty couple. Sam feels a twinge of jealousy, watching them from a distance. The scent of doughnuts cooking soon distracts him. He buys half a dozen and eats them while staring at the painted front of the ghost train.
Doctor Pretorius, he reflects. Was Matt right about the name? Does Pretorius even exist – and if he does, does he have eyes like steel and claws like knives? Sam shudders. Maybe he should just have a ride on the ghost train now and get it over with. As he watches, a cart rolls to a stop and three people climb out. Sam sees Isobel and Twitchin moving toward it and on impulse he runs across.
“Mind if I join you?” he gasps. “Always wanted to try one of these things, never wanted to try one by myself. You do speak English don’t you?”
The car rolls forward and they are plunged into darkness.
Isobel bites her lip, uneasy. Even the comfortingly ordinary presence of Twitchin, sitting there with a toffee apple in one hand and a torch in the other, doesn’t help much and the darkness is so thick that the narrow beam of light barely carries. They could be in a cavern, going on for miles underground. Only the slight rustle of the canvas covering moving in the wind tells them that they are still above ground.
Ghosts and skeletons flash past and give way to a series of grotesque monsters they cannot put names to.
“There’s Mickey’s alien,” Isobel whispers, pointing. The torchlight picks up the flare of its eyes as they pass. The track dips down sharply before them and she clutches Twitchin’s arm involuntarily. A pair of red eyes leer down at her and she hears the cackle of sharp laughter.
“A recording,” Sam says. He doesn’t sound too sure. Unseen cobweb drags across his eyes and he lets out a yell. The car tilts, jerking them all back in their seat. Then they are bursting into sunlight. Isobel blinks and laughs, realises she is still holding the professor’s arm and releases it. Sam turns his head to stare back but the black sheet that forms the exit has already fallen back into place.
Slipping his torch back into his pocket, Professor Twitchin stands up and offers Isobel his hand. “Well, my dear, that was most entertaining. Now, shall we try the tunnel of love?”
She blushes scarlet. “There isn’t one. It’s not that kind of carnival.”
“Just relax and close your eyes,” Matt says. His voice is already becoming deeper, more hypnotic. Mickey sits back and tries to pay attention. He feels his mind drifting. He’s not sure he wants to remember what happened – just the thought of it brings back the depression that could have killed him. He draws in a shaky breath. His perceptions shift, back several years. Part of him thinks drily that he’s glad he’s doing this under hypnosis – there’s no way he’d put himself through it otherwise.
“Relax and tell me what happened,” someone’s voice says.
Mickey licks his lips. “It was years ago – a year before I joined SITU. We were at home – Laura and Holly playing in the garden and I was indoors, in one of the bedrooms.”
“Laura and Holly?”
“Wife and daughter,” Mickey says with difficulty. “Playing outside. I heard screaming, thought it was part of the game at first, then knew it couldn’t be. I ran to the window and saw… saw a creature. It had Laura and was feeding off her.” The words have become detached from him, no longer part of him. Mickey hears them continue and barely recognises his own voice. “It looked up at me and smiled. Laura’s blood was all over it. Then it grabbed Holly and ran. Never found it, never found her.”
The revelation stuns Matt into silence. “What did it look like?” he makes himself ask.
Mickey makes a slight movement with his hands. “Thin, humanoid, white skin. Green eyes. No hair, ears were small and flat against the skull.” He finds he is remembering more, picturing the creature clearly. “I don’t think it was very tall, but it looked strong. It picked Holly up as if she weighed nothing. And when it moved it… it loped. Like an animal.”
Matt sits back. “All right,” he says more calmly than he feels. “You’re going to wake up now, when I count to three. One, two….”
Surrounded by empty coffee cups, Peter finishes sifting through the last of his papers. All the companies buying the crystal check out ok. He even phoned some of them to make sure. Which leaves him with plan B. He scribbles another note. Assume the Master has his own illicit operation going. Breit said the miners finish at eight o’clock in the evening. The next job, then, will be to go through the personnel records, see how many people actually work in the mine and count them as they come out. If the Master has got an extra crew it should be obvious.
He worries a moment that this is all too simple but he shakes the thought aside. The Master can’t keep his people hidden in the mine forever, surely. A picture of gnomes living underground, chipping away at crystal and singing drifts into his mind. He grins as he empties the last of the coffee into the nearest mug. This is how they’re going to find the Master, not through any of Matt’s crazy ideas.
Besides, this is research. It’s fun!
Breit leaves the mine office well before midday. John follows along behind at a discreet distance.
For a long while it’s just a case of walking along, stopping to look in shop windows every so often. Breit stops to talk to several people, some of them asking questions about the mine, others wanting to know about the play. Breit brushes the questions aside politely. He stops for a moment, checks his watch and changes direction, heading to a small coffee shop on a side road. John slips in after him and sits at a table close enough to be able to hear any conversation. Smiling at the waitress, he orders coffee.
A few minutes later a man comes in. He is short, with dark hair that falls over his eyes. He sits down at Breit’s table without waiting for an invitation and they begin talking in German. John utters a groan. That is the problem with missions in a foreign country: you can’t understand what the enemy are saying.
The waitress appears with a cup and saucer and he smiles at her engagingly. “Do you speak English?”
She bobs her head. “Of course. A little.”
“Good,” he says. He leans forward a little. “Listen, that man with Herr Breit. I was talking to them yesterday and I wanted to say hello, but not if I’m going to be a nuisance. Are they talking about anything important?”
A quick frown passes across her eyes then she obviously decides to take him at face value and smiles. “They’re talking about the play. Herr Breit just said that there is a final rehearsal tonight at the village hall.”
Sam walks in on Matt while he’s searching out Jakob Rilla, Arthur Lindberg and ‘Dr Pretorius’ on the internet.
“I’ve brought you some ice-cream,” the little man announces, ignoring the glare Matt gives him. “Ben and Jerry Chunky Monkey – I reckoned it was your style. Discovered anything exciting yet?”
Matt shakes his head. “Only some stuff about Dr Pretorius. The carnival’s run under his name for hundreds of year, and physical descriptions of him are always the same – tall, black hair, dressed in black silk and a top hat.”
“No steel eyes and claws, then.” Sam is relieved. He starts digging into the ice-cream. “If you don’t want this I’d might as well finish it.”
“Be my guest.” Matt yawns. “Actually, I think I’ll go back to bed for a while, if you don’t mind.” He lets out a sigh of relief when Sam takes the hint and leaves. Taking Isobel’s crystal in his hand, Matt lies down and closes his eyes.
Clutching two goldfish and a huge blue teddy bear, Isobel smiles as she watches Twitchin examine the ground at their feet.
“This is the centre of the pentagram,” he mutters to himself. “It appears to be the centre of the carnival but is there anything, um, interesting.” He paces out the area. “No foundations. I suppose the river is too close, makes the land too wet. Hmmm… No extra drought effect that I can see.”
Behind them a new burst of recorded laughter from the ghost train makes Isobel jump. Twitchin stamps on the ground experimentally. It is solid, baked hard by the sun. If there is anything hidden, he is not going to find it by staring at his feet. He straightens up and offers Isobel his arm. “Lets find out about Pretorius then, shall we? And then we can take another look at the play.”
Mark is frustrated. So far he has watched four trucks leave the mines, he’s checked out ABC Transport and found it to be a legitimate company, and, try as he might, he can’t find any record of new shafts being sunk in the mine in the past ten years. He’s sure that Breit was lying yesterday and he wants to know why, but short of kidnapping the man and torturing him, he can’t see how he’s going to find out.
“Maybe we’re missing something,” Andrew suggests.
Mark nods morosely. “We certainly are. The question is, what?” All this and he’s also missed the start of the football season, he thinks.
It is two o’clock when Matt wakes up. After a shower and the usual Prozac he feels well enough to tackle SITU.
“Hello, Matt Culver here,” he says when he gets through to Swahn. “I realise you’re getting sick of these daily ‘phone calls but hell, I’m getting sick of being sick. Don’t worry, I’m not after a grenade launcher or anything, just a little background info on the Ylid situation in Europe.” He draws a breath. “See, I’ve been talking on the Net to some of the French operatives and, from what I can see, the Watcher – or Harvest, at least – has got his grubby tentacles into Rennes-le-Chateau. Do you agree?”
Swahn makes a sound that could be anything from surprise to agreement. “I agree that an Ylid has got its grubby tentacles into Rennes-le-Chateau. But we don’t think it’s the Watcher. From what’s happened so far it appears we’re dealing with a female – and one we haven’t encountered so far.”
Matt absorbs the news in silence. “In any case, the Master and the Watcher seem to have been involved in boundary disputes recently, what with Whitby and all. Are there any other European Ylids in the picture? Can you tell me anything about their, err, servants?” Quickly, he describes the fanged creature above the Ghost Train. “Does that ring a bell?” he asks. “Anything else you should be telling us? Maybe before the shit hits the fan for a change?”
Swahn sighs. “The creature rings no bells whatsoever. Mickey has already asked us about it and we’ve already checked our files and come up with nothing. If you’ve found it now, there must be a link with the Master… In the Heidelberg mission of 1997, the team discovered creatures – presumably down-and-outs and others who were altered surgically so they could work the mines there. It’s possible you’ll find yourselves up against the same thing.”
Matt hangs up and lies back on the bed, sighing. The piece of crystal glitters on the bedside table. He’s becoming nocturnal, he decide, a true creature of the night.
He closes his eyes, mentally running through the connections between Breit, the village council, the drought, the carnival, the mine, the Mystery Play, the Ghost Train…
It is a few minutes work for Isobel to check over the main characters in the mystery play. Merlin, Herleus, Garlon, Balin, Pellam and Galahad. So if six of them take those parts, it’ll leave three to join the crowd of minor players and be at hand in case of trouble.
“What do you think, Prof?” she asks.
Twitchin jumps and looks up from the book he’s reading. “What, what? Oh, er, yes, very good. Good work. Did you know that the carnival has always been owned by a Dr Pretorius? I haven’t found anything about who he is, or what his real name would be. He’s always had the land at the centre of the village without charge and he’s simply turned up every year at the right time. There’s a standard agreement going back to seventeen-ninety.” He frowns. “It must have been drawn up after the legal wrangle Sam found out about. Another thing – there’s no record of the carnival in any other town in the area. It’s supposed to be a travelling show, but where it travels from – or to – is a mystery.”
“Does it say whether Dr Pretorius appears in person?” Isobel asks.
Twitchin’s head bobs. “Every evening. He runs the main show in the big top.”
John and Mickey meet outside Breit’s house. It is a large, detached building on the edge of the village. A wide driveway cuts across the grass to the front doors. No car outside. The traditional wooden shutters are pulled across the windows; from where the two men are standing, the place looks empty.
Mickey flexes his fingers. “It’s worth a look,” he murmurs.
“Later,” John says. He relates the conversation in the coffee shop. “Eight o’clock tonight will be the best time to do it, when Breit is at his rehearsal. I’ve checked where the village hall is so the others can go there.” He stands up, stretching his legs. “I suggest we meet up with everyone so we can split tasks for this evening.”
Mickey nods, still watching the house. His eyes narrow. “Do you see anything strange?” he asks.
John shakes his head. But even as he turns back he feels it: a slight imbalance, so subtle that he missed it until now.
“The grass,” Mickey says. “It’s still green around his house.”
Seven o’clock. The group gathers in Matt’s room. Matt is looking pale and tired, but he is alert and listens intently while everyone exchanges information. When everyone is done, he sits forward.
“It seems we have three leads to follow up,” he say. “The mine, Breit’s house and the rehearsal. Who’s going to do what?”
MATT: All thoughts and comments delivered.
JOHN: Peter appears to be more frightened than the others. You believe he’s making plans to escape should the worst happen. Everyone else is as normal.
Meditation: Your wolf guide appears less solid, less real than usual. “Things are not always as they seem. You are seeking an enemy, but what would you do if you found a friend instead? “ All the time it is speaking, its eyes flicker from yellow to grey.
SAM: From Matt: “Ha! Don’t tell me about ‘healthy cynicism’! Believe me, I was the arch-rationalist of all time until it happened to me. Do I look healthy?”
TWITCHIN: From Matt: “Can’t help thinking I’m Balin and Isobel’s Galahad. Just a hunch, really, but if we could change the end of the play maybe I could be healed? Or d’you think that’s stretching the metaphor?”
ISOBEL: Secretly, you check out Breit’s house. It’s in a residential area – nothing around of interest. Vampire references – you find some old folk tales, but nothing that suggests there might be vampires operative in the area.
From Matt: “I can’t help feeling I’m Balin, y’know? Anger, vengeance, whatever, violence leading to violence…and I suppose it was me that struck the ‘dolorous blow’ in Whitby. You, on the other hand, are pretty much the most Christian amongst us – perhaps you’re Galahad? Which reminds me, have you taken a pregnancy test lately?”
PETER: You put your escape plans into operation. You don’t think that anyone knows what you are up to.