The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
11pm 23rd December.
Greg enters his hotel room deep in thought. Perez. A strange coincidence that he should turn up here and now, and Greg has learned never to be too trustful of coincidences. He can well imagine the little man being lonely in the city at this time, but loneliness will only make him easier meat for Sophia. Greg blows out a sigh. Well, he warned Marie to be careful and that’s all he can do for now. He still doesn’t like it, though.
Three in the morning. Louis sits chain smoking by the window, watching the still crowded streets of the Latin quarter.
Sleep didn’t come easy this night and when he did drift off it was into dreams of the Bastille and the guillotine. An omen? he wonders, lighting another cigarette. Or just the hazards of the historian immersing himself in the troubles of the past.
He had thought the trouble with Sophia was in the past.
Outside the streets are slick with the touch of rain, street and car lamps distorted in the mirrored image of the macadam, to become some twisted inversion of the night. People hurry out of cars and taxis, couples huddle together under umbrellas to escape the touch of rain. Unseen by any of them, Louis takes the last cigarette from its crumpled packet and considers whether or not to brave the night and the rain for the trip to the corner store. In the end he stays where he is, feeling his eyes grow heavy with sleep. Yet every time his eyelids fall it is like the clang of the guillotine.
The day is a long time in coming.
“You’re looking especially beautiful this morning, my dear,” Ned says, finding Vera alone in the hotel restaurant. “I’m sure that young man whose wrist you broke would appreciate your efforts.” He butters a croissant as he speaks, not looking at his niece. “It probably explains why you have so much trouble getting second dates,” he comments.
Vera scowls at him. “Do you want those new thumbs to stay attached to your hands?”
Ned glances down at them. They look almost ordinary this morning. And he’s gone out of his way to dress in nondescript dark trousers and shirt to avoid notice. It seems to be working: the only waiter in this place is doing a very good job of not noticing him. He gives up in the end and goes to get some coffee himself.
“Any plans?” Vera asks. “Or is that brilliant mind of yours still working on the last case?”
Ned takes off his glasses and polishes the small, round lenses. They are very dark, almost black, completely hiding his eyes when he’s wearing them. “I was thinking of finding out where Sophia is most likely to be and taking a look. You can come if you like. Maybe the fruit bat – what’s his name? Oh yeah, Sam, too. Seeing as you seem to have the hots for him. Just remember to leave his arms intact, won’t you?”
Vera is about to answer when the fruit bat himself comes in. He’s wearing a pair of trousers that appear to be several sizes too big for him, topped with an orange shirt, brown wool waistcoats and – incongruously – a red silk bow tie. He grins and waves at Ned and casts Vera a slightly nervous look.
“Up early,” he says.
“We always are.” Ned pushes the plate of croissants towards him and Sam helps himself to three. He eats two in rapid silence and then looks up with his mouth full.
“We need to think like Ylids for this one. Or supermodels. Vera – you look like you could be a model. Where would you go if you were Liza Petherton.”
Vera treats him to a smile that makes him yip in terror.
“I was thinking we could start at the airport,” he says. “We know which flight she was on. There must be some baggage handlers or check in clerks who saw her – especially the male ones. Or taxi drivers, if we get really lucky.”
“A good plan,” Ned agrees. “You’ve obviously done this sort of thing before.”
Sam swells a little with pride. “You bet I have. Sam Hain, psychic investigator. That’s what it says on my passport. See these?” He takes off his spectacles, as round as Ned’s own, but the thick glass appears pink when he tilts them. “Made from crystal taken from the Master’s own mine in Bavaria,” he says, lowering his voice. “They’ve got magical powers… well, they might have.”
“You saw the Master?” Ned sits forward, interested. “I heard that he was killed.”
“In an explosion in the mine.” Sam’s head bobs several times. “My first mission. He tried to convince us he was the good guy, you know, that he just wanted to survive and SITU were the ones that started attacking him, not the other way round.” He looks slightly uneasy. “I didn’t fall for it, of course.”
But you nearly did, Ned thinks, watching him.
The others come down as they talk. Daniel and Greg arrive together – Greg in an Armani suit, Daniel in his usual jeans. Ross, in tight denims with his close-cropped blonde hair still damp from the shower, attracts a fair bit of attention from the other women in the place. But it is Greg who draws all eyes. Despite the suit and the sleek, white hair, there is something about the way he carries himself, an aura of confidence and of power about him that cannot be hidden.
Ned waits until everyone is sat down before he speaks again. “Well, I see Alnes is now two-for-two in being responsible for disastrous paranormal conferences. Too bad the old bastard didn’t suffer another heart attack.” He looks around, his face tense behind the dark glasses. “What are we going to do about it, people?”
“I’ll check up on Maurice Perez for a start,” Greg says, ignoring the slight to Eric Alnes. “He was connected to one of the French Masonic groups, possibly the Prieuré de Sion. I’ll phone Andre Swahn about it. Apart from that, I’m not sure we have a great deal to go on.”
“There’s the library,” Daniel says. “And I can do a search on the Internet. That might turn up something. It seems to me we can’t do much until we get a lead on where Sophia is.”
Russ nods. “First thing, though, get tooled up so we’re ready to take out the Ylid when we find her.” He picks unenthusiastically at a croissant. “Is this all they’re giving us for breakfast?”
“Perez, you say?” Andre Swahn still sounds tired but he suddenly comes alert. “He’s turned up again? Yes, I can tell you about him. After your dealings with him in Nepal, our people ran into him in Rennes-le-Chateau last year. He was seeing a girl in the area – a Sandrine Bellaire. He…” There is a pause, “Well, he allowed his Freemason bosses access to her to artificially impregnate her with Ylid material. Another of Sophia’s attempts to recreate her husband, I’m afraid. As far as we know, he doesn’t know anything about Sophia; he was taking his orders direct from his Lodge. He came clean and confessed everything – not that he knew much to start with.”
“What happened to the girl?” Greg asks. Sudden fear cuts through him.
“Sandrine?” Swahn sounds deeply unhappy. “The Ylid DNA poisoned her. She miscarried, developed stigmata… And then she died.”
Perez, Michael thinks. The only lead he’s got so far and it’s a slim enough one. It may be that he doesn’t know anything at all, but he’s got to be worth tracking down. Turning up on two SITU missions to date, a Freemason, almost certainly a tool of the Prieuré de Sion, and it’s with the Prieuré that the present trouble he’s in started.
The question is, how much does Perez know? And there’s only one way to find that out…
Louis arrives in the minibus at nine o’clock. A strange day ahead, he thinks. He’s dressed in jeans, sweater, trenchcoat and gloves – appropriate garb for a meeting with the French underworld, he thinks. He follows the directions Greg gives him and keeps up a running commentary as they drive through the crowded streets.
“The Louvre is to the right now… this is the main tourist area… Montmartre and the Sacré-Coeur coming up…” At least he didn’t have to speak to Blaize or Swahn personally, he thinks. Dictatorial and patronising, he finds them, maddeningly frustrating in their habit of dispensing information on a ‘need to know’ basis. And never, he knows, never quite trusting him. After the affair of Rennes-le-Chateau, he doubts they would have let him stay on as part of SITU at all if he hadn’t proved such a valuable liaison with Sophia.
He breathes a sigh of relief when he comes to a dead end after a series of narrow side roads and Greg announces that they have arrived.
The contact SITU have dredged up for them turns out to be a woman. Overweight, with grey hair tied back in a rough knot, she stands and stares at the group before speaking.
“I’ve been told to give you what you want and charge it to your bosses. I will not tell you my name and you will not be able to find me again after today, is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” Ned says crisply. “I only want two things. A high-quality, lightweight flak jacket and an automatic pistol that’s easy to operate and conceal.”
Louis glances towards Vera and Ross. “I think you two should choose the weaponry for us, yes?” They should know the best weapons for the untrained members of the group. The thought of Sam laying about him with a powerful sidearm makes him shudder.
“Don’t worry,” Sam says, as if he’d spoken the thought aloud. “I don’t want a weapon. It’s those who carry guns who tend to get shot.”
He does, however, accept that a bullet-proof vest will be useful. Ross quickly gives a list of equipment including vests for everyone, six automatic handguns of various types, “and plenty of ammunition, of course. Also a couple of explosive packs. Just in case we need to blow anything up,” he explains to the others.
The Paris Bibliothèque is a huge, imposing place, silent and all but deserted.
“Texts here date back centuries,” Louis explains in a whisper. “The library is one of the richest sources of information to be had in the world. What we need to look for is some historic place – anything that holds a connection with the Templar movement. There are plenty of buildings that have survived the centuries unscathed and that the Ylid and the Prieuré might choose to call their own.”
“I suggest we divide our efforts,” Ned says. He’s planning to spend as little time here as possible. He’s relieved when Greg and Daniel move off out of sight. He’s been uneasy around Greg since the start of all this in Oxford, and he knows from experience that when his suspicions are raised it is not generally without reason.
Louis, being the only one who is fluent in French, finds himself doing the bulk of the research, alternately aided and hampered by Sam whose French is probably a little worse than abysmal.
“I think we have very similar views on Ylids,” Sam whispers to him. “I’m in favour of live and let live, myself. We leave them alone and they leave us alone. Trouble is, they’re not leaving us alone at the moment.”
Louis doesn’t respond and after a while Sam gives up and wanders off in search of a patisserie.
One of the charges against the Templars was that of idolatry; the veneration or worship of an idol called Baphomet. Various translations have been offered for the name Baphomet; Idries Shah, author of The Sufis, claims that it is a corruption of the Arabic abufihamet (pronounced bufhimat) which translates as ‘Father of Understanding’. Magus Eliphas Levi the mystical writer of the last century, proposed that it should be spelled in reverse as TEM. OHP. AB. This he then construed as Templi Hominum Pacis Omnium Abbas or ‘Father of the Temple of Universal Peace Among Men’. Another legend equates Baphomet with the severed head of St. John the Baptist who was venerated by the Knights Templar.
The Atbash cipher, an esoteric code used by the Essenes to disguise the meaning of their scriptures, was applied to the name Baphomet by the Dead Sea Scroll scholar Hugh Schonfield. The cipher produced the word Sophia, the spiritual principle of Wisdom which is usually associated with the ancient Greek or early Mesopotamian goddesses. The Templar cult of the Black Madonna, black carvings or icons of the Madonna and Child, supports this concept.
At first glance this cult looks like a variation upon normal Catholic practice of the time. The reality is very different however, especially when we take into account the influence of ancient Egyptian ideas on the Templars. In ancient Egyptian symbolism, the colour black indicates wisdom. In the cult of the Black Madonna the Templars were venerating the Mother of Wisdom, the ancient goddess Sophia embodied in the form of the goddess Isis with the Horus child. This pagan concept was disguised as the Christian Madonna and Child.
Outside the library, Ned and Sam debate the relative merits of American style cookies and French pastries. Vera watches impatiently.
“I suppose we could just eat everything in Paris and see if that brings Sophia out of hiding. Are we going to go back to the airport or what?”
“They sell Ben and Jerry’s at the airport,” Sam says dreamily.
Ned’s eyes light up. “Taxi!”
For about one hundred years, the Order of the Temple – Knights Templar – and Sion were apparently unified under one leadership, though they are said to have separated at Gisors in 1188. (The Templar order was then destroyed by King Phillipe Le Bel of France, in 1307.) Sion appears to have been at the nexus of two French antimonarchical movements, the Compagnie du St. Sacrament of the 17th century – acting on behalf on the Guise-Lorraine families – and the Fronde of the 18th, as well as behind an attempt to make the Hapsburgs emperors of all Europe in the 19th – the Hieron du Val d’Or. It appears that there are vast connections between Sion and numerous sociocultural strata in European thought – Roscicrucianism, Freemasonry, Arthurian and Grail legends, “Arcadianism,” Catharism, chivalry, etc.
Yet this mysterious secret society brought itself to light in 1956 and is listed with the French directory of organizations under the subtitle “Chivalry of Catholic Rules and Institutions of the Independent and Traditionalist Union,” which in French abbreviates to ‘circuit’ – the name of the magazine distributed internally among members.
Depending on what statutes one considers, Sion either has 9,841 members in nine grades, or 1,093 members in seven, with the supreme member, the “Nautonnier” or Grand Master of the Order being, till 1963, Jean Cocteau.
“She was about this high,” Sam says, indicating with his hands. “Long blonde hair, tight skirt. Someone must have seen her.”
He gazes around eagerly. Eventually one of the porters returns his gaze and shrugs. “Yes, I see her. Yesterday night. She had no luggage, not even a handbag, I remember thinking it was strange. I might have talked to her if her husband had not been here to meet her.”
Ned’s right thumb twitches painfully. “Her husband?”
“Oui, monsieur. Husband or lover. He was here waiting, she kissed him, they left. That is all I know. I’d say he didn’t deserve someone like her, but that is life, is it not.”
“Describe him,” Vera says abruptly. The Frenchman gives her a startled look.
“Small. Shorter than her. Dark hair, I think. He had a hat on. He looked timid, frightened as a mouse. I wondered what she might see in him.” He flashes them a worried smile. “Are you police? The police have been asking questions about this woman too. What did she do?”
“Never mind,” says Ned. “We’ve found out all we can here. Let’s go.”
While it is believed the head has been Pierre Plantard de St.-Clair up until recent times, he claims to have left that post in 1984, so it is not clear who runs the organization at this time. But whoever he is, he has had illustrious predecessors: Leonardo de Vinci, Isaac Newton, the architect Paul Abadie, and Claude Debussy, among others! Plantard, in any case, seems to have enjoyed the ear of many influential persons in contemporary French politics – de Gaulle, Marcel Lefebvre, Andre Malraux, and Alain Poher, and others, many of whom appear to know him from his efforts with the Resistance during the Vichy occupation. Despite its registry, however, the organization remains untraceable, its given address and number leading to dead ends – which might lead one to wonder why the government never bothered to verify the information.
The streets are bright with multi-coloured lights and crowded with people buying last minute presents. Vera, though seems to have a clear space around her at all times. Maybe it’s the fierce look on her face as she walks, the threat of what she’ll do to anyone daring to get in her way.
Ned and Sam follow along behind. Think like an Ylid, Sam thinks. Where in this great mass of humanity would an alien hide? A picture forms in his mind, the slow pulse of Paris, people and vehicles flowing like blood through its streets.
“The man’s the key,” Ned mutters to himself. “Find him and we find Sophia. But who is he?” His fists close momentarily. “Whoever he is, when we catch up with him, he’s going to have some explaining to do.”
Le Monde 24th December
Former model wanted by police.
Liza Petherton, an Australian former model whose career has included work for Vogue and Cosmopolitan, is wanted for questioning following an incident in Oxford, England during which several people died and many more were injured.
Anyone seeing Miss Petherton, who is believed to be in Paris, is asked to contact the police immediately. It is stressed that she could be armed and should not be approached.
Miss Petherton was last seen at Charles de Gaulle airport in the company of a man who has yet to be identified.
“Monsieur Perez?” The concierge wears a frustratingly bland smile. “No, Monsieur, he is not in his room. Would you care to leave a message? You are visiting Paris, yes. Do you wish to reserve a room here?”
Michael sighs. “No. What I wish is to get hold of Monsieur Perez as a matter of urgency.” He leans forward across the desk. “This is an Interpol matter. If you’re not able to help, I can always call my colleagues and have them clear the hotel.”
The concierge looks as if he’s not sure whether to believe the threat or not. In the end he reaches a compromise. “You cannot see his room without a warrant, Monsieur, that is the law. As for Perez himself, he took a taxi to the Latin Quarter this morning. Maybe you will find him there.”
Michael nods. “Maybe I will. When Monsieur Perez returns here – if he returns – you would do well not to mention we were here. It could make things very difficult for us, and for you.”
Leaving that threat hanging, he goes back onto the street and hails a taxi. “The Latin Quarter, please,” he says.
Paul Abadie, architect of the cathedral of Sacre Coeur, died during its construction. He…
“Excusez-moi, messieurs,” the librarian calls. “The bibliothèque is now closing. We will be open again on the 27th December. Merry Christmas.”
The small dark-haired man is in a hurry, pushing through the crowds, careless of who he bumps into. He keeps his head down, and his hat pulled well down over his eyes. Find them, she said.
So it is that he doesn’t see the young tramp until he almost trips over him. A hand closes on his arm and he tries to tug away.
“I don’t have money,” he mumbles.
“I don’t want money.” The accent is English. Michael Williamson smiles at him in a way that manages to be friendly and threatening at the same time. “I want to talk to you. You are Maurice Perez, aren’t you?”
Ned notices the scuffle first. Two men arguing loudly, one of them trying to get away, the other holding on to him. There’s no reason to think it’s anything to do with the investigation, but then he recognises one of the men as the tramp he saw yesterday and he starts to push his way over.
The three of them are nearly there when the man trying to escape struggles out of his coat, leaving it in the tramp’s hands, and runs.
3pm 24th December.
Louis, Ross, Greg, Daniel – the library.
Ned, Vera, Sam – Paris, Latin quarter.
Michael: What you know – Over recent months you have picked up hints here and there that there is a split in SITU with possibly a leak at the higher levels. No-one has actually voiced any suspicions – all you have to go on is a feeling that things aren’t right, files going missing and reappearing, that sort of thing.
The name of Sophia has come up and you know from previous SITU missions that she is the French Ylid behind the mysterious Prieuré de Sion, once operating as the Knights Templar, now as the Freemasonry movement. Your only link to the movement in France is a man called Maurice Perez, a perfume salesman who last crossed paths with SITU during last year’s mission in Rennes-le-Chateau. (Louis Tregalier was on the mission and can supply details of what went on.) Hearing that he had been transferred to Paris, you suspect he is once again involved in the Prieuré’s dealings. Possibly no more than a willing pawn, he is still the best lead you’ve got.