The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Dolorous Stroke
August 16th 7pm
“…And the circus don’t forget Matty-me-laddo,” the Professor reminds Culver. “I for one always loved the smell of the thingy… and the roar of the …whatsit.” He wags an eyebrow at Isobel suggestively. “Care to escort me my dear… best seats in the house and all the sauerkraut a lady could desire.”
“Someone ought to go, I suppose,” Isobel begins, but Matt cuts her off.
“Isobel and I should avoid that one. The good doctor’s description’s a little too close to the Master – or at least his dream appearance.” He turns and stares morosely at Isobel’s goldfish swimming in spirals in their glass jug.
“I’ll come to the carnival,” Sam offers. He seems excited at the prospect. “Do you think Pretorius is the Master’s head honcho, or is he the Master himself? The Pretor was the second ranking official in Rome, wasn’t he?” When no one answers he shrugs. “Then again, what’s in a name? The carnival’s a better bet than the mine, anyway. If it’s safety record is as bad as all that we should knock up a letter from the health and safety board and send it to Breit to see what he does.”
“Or have it closed down on safety grounds, “ Andrew suggests. “I wonder if SITU can do anything?” He looks around at the others fiercely. “Personally, I think the Enemy knows we are here. But he may not know much more than that so we should avoid unnecessary exposure. It’s time we went on the offensive, put some pressure on the opposing forces. The play is the key and we have to be prepared to stop it, by force if necessary.”
Matt passes a hand over his eyes. “Err, yes,” he says tiredly, “I, um, I certainly don’t think we should be trying to bargain with any of our enemy but we can’t just mow down the whole village in a hail of bullets. We need to be pretty damned sure of who’s working for who – and if we start shooting to early the Master’s just gonna stay in hiding. Look out for silvery forehead markings and sharp pointy teeth, though, I guess…” He breathes out softly. “I really don’t think ‘drawing the Master out’ is our problem. We know, more or less, he’ll pitch up to be healed by Galahad. Our difficulty’s controlling what happens next.”
Isobel looks at him glumly. “Our difficulty is in making sure we having missed anything vital. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere – just finding out a lot of things that don’t seem important.”
“I don’t know,” Mark grins. “I was thinking that things seem to be picking up. This has turned from something I don’t understand into something that is beginning to intrigue me more and more all the time. There is no point my taking part in the play. My gammy leg’ll be spotted right away, if they’re looking.” He slaps it regretfully. “Makes me too obvious. I’ll go along to Breit’s house with whoever. I may not be an expert in breaking in but I know how to search a place if needed.” He casts a glance in Mickey’s direction and raises an eyebrow. “If not I’ll stick to me strengths and keep watch outside.”
“Feel free to come along,” Mickey murmurs. “I’m probably best qualified for Breit’s house, so who else would like to help?”
John volunteers at once. “One more thought about the mine, though. Maybe the reason there is nothing strange about the transportation is because the crystal mined fir the Master is actually kept in the mines and whatever is done with it, whatever it is used for, takes place within the mines. The only way we’re going to find out is to get inside or get someone on the inside to tell us what’s going on. Perhaps the people who’ve gone missing on the ghost train are being used to mine and work the crystal…”
“It’s decided then,” the professor concludes with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “Sam and I will go to the carnival, John, Mickey and Mark burgle Herr Breit, and everyone else can watch the rehearsal. Should be a fun night.” He beams at John and Mickey. “And one of you youngsters go and steal the master casting list will you? There must be one…” He sighs, trailing off into mumbling. “I can see you are getting restless…. no patience.. and anyway you have already been made… apparently… now when I was a lad.”
Leaving the room together, Isobel touches Matt’s arm. “You were asking about dwarves,” she says. “The only one I know about is Alberich – a sulphur dwarf. I don’t think he’s related to what’s happening here, but I can tell you the story if you like.”
“Maybe later,” Matt says. He catches Peter’s arm as he passes. “A word, Peter. You’re new, you’re arrogant, you think you know it all. That’s okay; I can relate to that. Less of the ‘Munchkin’ bollocks, though, eh? If you’d seen the Prof possessed you’d know it’s not a good idea to get him angry…” He smiles quickly, then turns away.
A barely audible, muttered response comes from Twitchin’s direction. “Munchkin and Rayban man indeed… cheeky blighters…”
In the various hotels preparations are underway. Andrew phones SITU about the mine.
“A gas leak sounds good,” Blaize says. “That could be arranged for tomorrow.”
Tomorrow is also the day of the play, Andrew remembers. A double blow for the Master, possibly, the play failing and the mine being put out of operation within hours of each other.
Mickey gathers together all the equipment he can get his hands on. Camera flash guns – he bought three earlier in the day – a camcorder which will work in low lighting conditions, gloves for the burglars and his own baseball cap. The car from SITU arrives as he is finishing up. He takes the lockpicks and master keys and leaves the rest of the stuff in his hotel room. Too late to set up the listening device now, but the camcorder should at least be some use to the group going to the rehearsal.
Mark and Twitchin both find themselves in the same shop looking at the array of carved walking sticks. Mark because he wants a good, stout weapon, the professor because he thinks they look good. They carefully avoid looking at each other until they get outside. Then, Twitchin can’t help giving Mark a big, conspiratorial wink.
John pulls on dark trousers and sweat, shirt and loads a rucksack with torch, penknife, whatever other survival gear he can find, and the all important pair of black cotton gloves. All set, he goes out to meet the others.
Matt, wearing a black poloneck top, which makes him look paler than ever, heads purposefully towards the village hall. The Ezili fetish dangles against his chest, digital camera and garlic gun appear as bulges in the pockets of his dark combat trousers.
The village hall is set at the centre of a square, with a few cafes around the outskirts. There are two doors that Matt can see: the main front doors stand open, a small entrance to one side is closed and locked. Ground floor windows run all the way around. Matt settles himself at one of the cafe tables and orders a beer. Nursing it in both hands he sits back to wait.
Isobel arrives next, just as a couple of people go into the hall. She pauses to let them past. Matt discreetly raises his camera. A few minutes later, Peter and Andrew turn up, Andrew carrying Mickey’s camcorder. Both of them busy themselves looking in the windows of the cafes and shops while keeping note of who passes. More of the actors appear, six in all as Matt expected – four men and two women. Then Peter sees Breit and turns his head away quickly.
He needn’t have worried. Breit goes straight into the hall without looking at anyone else. He looks stressed, Isobel thinks, watching him speak to the two men on the door before he disappears inside.
The doors are closed.
Matt gestures the others together. “Right, so we’ve got everybody on film,” he says. “How are we going to get in to see the rehearsal in progress?”
Mickey stops his car just down the road from Breit’s house, close enough so it is still visible. No car outside, high wall between it and the next house, plenty of space all around.
“It feels wrong.” John mutters. “Or rather, it feels right. Like there’s something wrong with everything else and only this spot has been left out. Odd. He pauses, then adds, “I don’t think there’s anyone in there.”
“Easy way to find out,” Mickey says and reaches for his phone. He listens to it ring for a full minute before he is satisfied.
Mark shifts uneasily. The thought of breaking into Breit’s house, finding the evidence that will link him with the Master, sends a thrill of cold down his spine. “What’s the plan then guys,” he asks, “a quick in and out or a thorough search?”
“Thorough search,” Mickey answers after a pause. “There’s no point leaving a job half done. You’ll take the downstairs rooms at the front and keep a look out while you’re searching. Johnnie and I will take the rest of the house.”
Mark nods, glad that he’s going to have some real work to do. “What sort of signal due you want me to give you if Breit or one of those nazi guys start heading in your direction? And where do we want to meet up if we get separated, for whatever reason?”
Quickly they agree a system; or rather, Mickey tells them what it will be and then Mickey eases the car closer to the house.
“Here we go,” he murmurs. “Good luck.”
Armed with popcorn and candyfloss, Twitchin and Sam join the crowds heading for the black tent. The canvas is pulled back to form doorways in several places and inside is loud with lights and music.
The clowns, dressed in black evening costume with powered white faces and black top hats.
“They look like they’re going to a funeral,” Sam quips. The professor is about to disagree when he sees the coffin in the centre of the ring. A pair of masked women circle it on horseback. The music rises to a climax as one of them leaps down onto the coffin and lifts the lid.
Doctor Pretorius sits up slowly and smiles. He is dressed head to foot in black silk, save for the lining of the cloak that spreads from his shoulders. That, in the grand tradition of circuses and opera everywhere, is red. He spreads his arms wide, giving the crowds the full benefit of the sudden flare of colour, and smiles when the cheers begin. Slowly, he climbs from the coffin. He raises one hand and a whip falls into it. The sound of it cracking cuts through the babble of voices and music. Everything goes quiet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. His voice is quiet, carrying no hint of showmanship, and yet it does carry. Both Sam and Twitchin have the strange impression that they are being spoken to individually, and judging by the way people are leaning forward, waiting for the Doctor’s next words, they are not alone in that feeling.
The whip cracks again making everyone jump. A dozen people skip into the ring. Their costumes are bizarre, padded in places to give them odd humps and swellings. Faces are black and white alternately, mouths all smiling, all bright red.
The first act begins. Performed almost in complete silence, punctuated only by the intermittent cracking of the whip.
They watch for half an hour or so, the professor filming the whole thing surreptitiously. Finally, Sam digs him in the ribs.
“I’ve had an idea,” he whispers. “While Pretorius is here, he can’t be in his private tent or caravan, can he? Shall we go and take a look?”
“Why not?” Twitchin agrees impulsively. He slips from his seat. This will be something to tell Isobel about over dinner later.
At the village hall, the rehearsal progresses without any of the actors seeming to be aware of the uninvited watchers. While Isobel peers in through the cracks in the closed doors, Andrew, Matt and Peter position themselves at windows.
They can’t here much of what’s happening, but it seems most of the play is mimed anyway. Gestures are big and bold and even in the bare hall without props or costumes there is a real sense of drama to it. It is easy enough to identify all the main parts simply from the gestures are the order in which the actors appear. Isobel watches the one playing Galahad closely, taking careful note of each movement, trying to get a feel for what is happening. His is a small part, a matter of appearing at the end of the play, touching his hands to an imaginary lance and then to Pellam’s leg, turning around to face the audience, signalling that the play is over.
A line from the Grail myth comes back to her. ‘Search out your own heart and know thyself.’ She hopes she will be able to do that, to carry off a convincing performance. She moves away from the door.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” she whispers to the others. “I want to spend some time in the church so I’ll catch up with you later.”
The others continue to watch. Breit walks to the centre of the hall and says something that makes the actors gather around him. They talk for a while and then the group breaks up.
“Final instructions for tomorrow, presumably,” Peter mutters to himself. “Well, if we can take over some of the parts at least we won’t make utter fools of ourselves. Anyone got any bright ideas on how we’re going to get hold of the costumes?”
Visions of papier mâché and sticky-backed plastic flit across Matt’s vision. Inside the hall the actors are putting on jackets, preparing to leave. Matt glances quickly at the other two. “How about splitting up and following one each, see where they go?”
Both Mickey and Mark are experts in searching a house thoroughly and neatly. They move quickly while John shares his attention between watching the road outside and following his sense of something being wrong compared with the rest of the village.
Disappointed to find there is no basement, therefore no hope of a secret tunnel leading from it to the mine, Mark checks through the files in what appears to be Breit’s office instead. There is nothing about the mine, which is suspicious in itself, Mark reflects. In his experience, people always have some overlap between home and office but Breit appears to have none at all.
Mickey busies himself bugging the phones and placing listening devices in every room of the house. From the look of the place Breit lives alone, and he is not short of money. The furniture is all polished wood and leather, the kitchen looks brand new and hardly used, TV, video and hi fi are all this year’s models. A thief’s paradise, if they were here to steal anything.
John moves past him, treading softly. “There’s something upstairs,” he murmurs. He doesn’t explain further, and he doesn’t wait for Mickey to follow. The wolf is standing on the bottom step, looking back at him expectantly.
The thick carpet on the stairs gives slightly below his feet. John pauses at the top, looks around for the wolf again, sees a wisp of grey vanishing through a closed door. He tests the door, finds it locked, and stands back for Mickey to open it.
“So that’s where they are,” Mickey breathes.
The door swings back to reveal a pile of boxes, each one marked with a name. Pellam… Balin… Galahad. Carefully, John pulls the flaps back from one and reaches inside.
The two men stare in silence at the papier mâché head. Comically large, surprisingly light, the features are painted in bright colours and the eyes are clear, set with pieces of crystal that turn the hall into a weird mix of distorted shape and colour when John lifts it over his head to see.
Downstairs, Mark opens up a file and has to stifle a cry of triumph. The whole thing’s in German, of course, but he doesn’t need a second language to read the list of names and addresses, each one set against a character from the play. He photographs the pages quickly.
He’s just putting the file back when he hears a car turning into the street. Calling urgently to the other two he checks quickly that everything is back in its place and closes the door behind him.
“For the little one of course… please sign it ‘to Theo’,” Twitchin gushes. “That ringmaster was a character… Where could he e found if someone wanted to bring his circus to Ireland?” While he tries to draw random performers into conversation, Sam saunters on past and heads towards the dark shapes of the caravans, set a little way away from the carnival site.
“Which one is Pretorius’s caravan?” he asks a girl. She stares at him with mute, scared eyes and turns away.
Feeling suddenly far less safe Sam hesitates and glances back. The professor’s voice comes to him in snatches. “How long have they been with the circus? Can I buy you a beer? O my, I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years, what?”
Sam opens the door of a caravan and pokes his head round. The tiny space is empty. Completely empty – no furniture save a mattress along a cupboard, no sign of clothes, no plates or any food by the sink. In fact, the sink looks as if it hasn’t been used in centuries. A fluttering of unease starts in Sam’s stomach and resolutely refuses to go away even when he has closed the door. He chooses another caravan. The same. One of these must belong to Dr Pretorius, he thinks, but which one? Or does the ringmaster really sleep in that coffin during the hours of daylight?
He can’t hear the professor any more. Sam keeps on walking, looking through the grimy windows of caravans he passes, seeing each one in the same state. Finally, he turns back. The main area of the carnival is bright with lights, altogether more friendly. He begins to retrace his footsteps. Besides, he reasons, he wants to try out the ghost train again.
One by one, the members of the group drift back to the hotel. Matt, Peter and Andrew tick off three addresses on Mark’s list.
“So we know where Galahad, Pellam and Balin live,” John says. “We can check out the other addresses easily enough. My guess is the performers will pick up their costumes tomorrow before the play starts. What time is that, by the way?”
“Midday,” Isobel supplies. Her time in the church has left her feeling much calmer, more positive about the whole thing. She still hasn’t sorted out the big question of who her true self is, but it will come in time. She’s sure of it. She gets to her feet as Twitchin comes in. “How was the carnival?”
“Fine, fine. Sam’s still there. Most charming people you know.” He frowns. “Strange thing was, I couldn’t get a single one of them to say a word to me. Obviously didn’t understand English. And when I mentioned Pretorius’s name some of them positively jumped.” But he has more pressing concerns on his mind now than the strange behaviour of carnival performers. “I’ve found a nice little Hungarian restaurant just around the corner,” he says. “If Mrs Snodgrass would care to accompany me…?”
“People really have disappeared on this thing?” Sam asks, standing in front of the ghost train. “Do you know when, and who they were?”
The woman he’s talking to frowns. “No, I really don’t. I don’t remember ever hearing. All I know is they say people have vanished.”
“Be a bit of a blow if you lost your main performers in the play,” Sam says. “I don’t suppose that’s ever happened.”
She shakes her head. She’s looking positively vague. “No. I don’t think so.”
Sam gives up. Only one way to find out. He hands over his money and jumps into the end car just as it starts to move. A cheering from outside signals the end of the performance in the big top. Knowing what to expect now, Sam looks around with interest and, when the car slows for a moment in a dip of the track, he swings his legs over the side and hops out.
The lights fade around him and he brings out his torch, flashing it up over paintings of ghouls and demons. Sam eases forward, feeling the way carefully. His feet kick the side of the track, feel soft ground underneath.
And then, in front of him, a shadow stirs and stands up.
Sam stops where he is.
“Uh, hi. I dropped my pen somewhere, you haven’t seen it, have you?”
There is no response. The thin light of the torch crawls higher. “I suppose I’d better be go…” Sam begins. His voice dries up.
The… the creature standing before him – it cannot possibly be a man – is well over six feet tall, but hunched so that its spine appears to be doubled over on itself. Its right arm is long, thick as a tree branch, its left is slender, the nails painted scarlet. Pale blue eyes blink slowly, then it smiles, showing pointed teeth, and crouches ready to spring. Sam stumbles back.
The crack of a whip breaks the silence.
“Might I ask what you’re doing here?” Dr Pretorius asks pleasantly. When Sam looks again the blue-eyed creature is gone, vanished into the night.
“Sam hasn’t called in yet,” Mark says worriedly. “Should we go and look for him?” He crosses to the window and gazes out. He catches sight of the professor and Isobel making their way out of the hotel arm in arm. The professor appears to be singing and Isobel is giggling. Neither of them notice the tall, blond man who wanders along behind.
August 16th 9pm
Sam – the carnival
Matt, Mark, Andrew, Peter, John, Mickey – the hotel
Isobel, Twitchin – the road outside the hotel
John – No chance to go to the fair in daylight yet – you put that off until tomorrow. Reaching for your wolf totem you feel a great sense of unease and looking up you see a net spread out above you, ready to fall. Then the vision dissolves and you are back in your hotel room. As for your team mates, no one is acting any more strangely than they usually do.
Isobel – Pregnancy test is negative. You have enough time after visiting the church to try to contact Henry. While you do not hear his voice you do experience a feeling of great peace and a sense that you are strong enough to cope with anything. When you think about Edward’s wanting you to get pregnant you suddenly feel frightened, but whether this is a sending from Henry or from your own subconscious you don’t know.
Andrew - Weaponry – Colt M-16 Commando with 100 rounds of ammo and suppressor, Cobra AOW with 300 rounds of ammo. Kevlar vest. All with appropriate papers and authorisations.