The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
24th December 2000, 10pm
The hotel St James
Greg takes up a position leaning against the door. Daniel, hovering beside him seems more nervous of Vera that whatever attacked Vera.
Louis stares, fascinated, at the parchment scrolls lying on the silk covers of the bed. His lips work silently as he tries to read the tightly written language. An old language indeed, it seems, nothing he has ever seen before, although a few elements in it seem to bear a similarity to ancient Greek. The texture of the parchment, however – lacking both the brittleness and yellowing he’d have expected, speaks of a more modern hand.
Behind him, Sam is saying something about snakes. Louis pays no attention. His heart thuds in his chest as he tries to make out any meaning at all on the page he is holding. Finally, he turns to face Vera, managing to meet her intimidating glare head on for a couple of seconds.
“I’ve not seen anything like this before. There are some elements that are similar to Greek, but my guess is they predate Greek rather than derive from it. Some of the structure of it suggests a ritual element, further than that I can’t say.”
He looks down. “You will excuse me, I have a little matter to attend to before we can leave for the church. Ross? I am afraid I shall need the keys to your room…”
Ross hands them over without a word.
“Snakes alive,” murmurs Sam. He gives Vera a look that starts out as concern and turns into a grimace. “Well, a pit viper, eh? Not very common in these parts, not common at all. Did you notice what species it was? Could be important to know.”
“I’ll go and get it,” Michael offers. He slips out past Greg and comes back in a few minutes later swinging a plastic bag in one hand. Sam prods it gingerly and jumps back.
““Hmmm, no sign of a rattle…thick bodied…distinctive dorsal markings…yes…I’d say it was a Borneo Pit Viper, if I know my herpetology; Borneosis Trismegistus no less!” Everyone is watching him with expressions that range from amusement to surprise. Realising he is rambling, Sam falters for a moment but then continues. “But of course, the more important question isn’t ‘what is it?’, but ‘what is it doing here?’, and, indeed, ‘how did it arrive?’. Escaped from the local zoo? Possible, but unlikely. The hotel proprietor’s idea of rodent control? I don’t think so… Obviously, it means our presence here is known. And resented. We must assume Sophia knows our location, and it’s here to do her bidding…nice of her to send us a Christmas present! It’s not inconceivable that it is Sophia in person (as it were); there are many cultures which consider the snake to be the embodiment of Wisdom…” He risks another quick peek at the dead serpent. “Though with this specimen’s choice of ‘victim’ one must doubt that. It could be, my dear Vera, that you have unwittingly completed our mission!”
He beams in her direction. Vera scowls at him, her expression turning stormier still when Ned pats her consolingly on the arm. She picks the snake up by the tail, walks deliberately to the window and, with a glance at the others, drops it out again. A scream comes from the street outside.
“I am not having that… that thing in my room,” Vera announces.
Ned smiles thinly. “I’m sure,” he says, “you were on the point of calling us together to tell us about those fascinating papers strewn all over your bed when you saw the snake.”
Vera shakes her head irritably. “They belonged to Liza Petherton. I picked them up in a shop today. Apparently she left them as payment for a bag about a year ago. The owner of the shop was a friend of hers and said Liza looked very distracted that day. She hasn’t seen her since. I thought they might be important. The tube is Greek. The papers are more modern, as Louis said. Another thing, handbags weren’t the only thing on Liza’s mind. She was buying baby clothes as well.”
Greg raises his eyebrows at this. “Baby clothes a year ago. So there’s another child, presumably about a year old now.”
“Or less,” Ned points out. “It could have been a pre-emptive shopping spree. Did your shopkeeper say whether Liza was pregnant, Vera?”
“No. I’d imagine she would have, though.” Vera sits down on the edge of the bed and picks up one of the papers, holding it between her fingers as if she thinks it will turn into a snake and bite her at any moment. She shudders and thrusts it aside.
“All right,” Greg says, “the tube came from Greece, but the documents are newer. Is there anything particularly significant about the tube coming from Greece?”
“Wisdom is an ancient Greek concept, isn’t it?” Daniel suggests. “The tube could have some link with Sophia.” He looks at Vera curiously. “The papers appear to have more significance for you, though.”
“I’m tired,” she says abruptly. “I want to get an hour’s sleep before we go to the Sacre Coeur.” She rolls over on the bed, pointedly ignoring everyone.
It’s left to Sam to voice one last opinion. “What if the snake is some sort of guardian spirit, rather than a direct sending from Sophia? We ought to get it back again and see if the markings on its back resemble the writing on the parchment.”
Ned ushers him out. “I think it’s safe to say Vera will break your neck if she ever sees that snake again. See you later.”
Louis fumbles at the lock of the door, swearing angrily to himself. His head is spinning. Knowing that he must remain in control of himself, he flings the door open.
Perez is propped up on the bed, securely bound and gagged. The sight of the man sets Louis’ blood racing. He grabs him by the lapels, rips the gag from his mouth and drags him up so the little man’s feet dangle uselessly.
“What would a woman such as her see in you, Maurice?” he growls. “Because I venture that she calls you something very different when you meet…does she not? What does she call you Maurice? And who does she see when she kisses you?”
Perez squeals in terror. Louis shakes him hard. “They played tricks on Liza’s mind, made her think she was seeing her fiancé. Is that what they’re doing now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Perez kicks out and Louis slaps him hard.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He repeats it like a mantra. “Liza said she was helping a friend. I like her. I wouldn’t try to trick her. I don’t know anything about her fiancé. They told me to meet her at the airport. When I did, she said some people might come looking for her from England and I should find them. She meant you, didn’t she? You’re going to do something to her.”
Louis throws him back on to the bed. Re-securing the gag he promises himself grimly that, by the time this affair is over, Liza will be freed of whatever influence Sophia holds over her. He owes her that much, at least.
“You know, we never did learn who brought down that plane,” Greg says to Daniel. “He, she, or it was directly responsible for the deaths of all the other passengers and crew, and as far as I’m concerned, also for the death of Ella Wallace. I still want to get to the bottom of that.”
Daniel nods. One more thing to worry about. “I’m worried about Belle-Marie,” he confides. “For you as well for that matter. This whole thing feels like everything’s coming to a head. I’m… I’m scared of losing people.”
“I’ve got no intention of losing people,” Greg tells him firmly. “Listen, why don’t we go and talk to Perez? I’m going to threaten to kill him. No intention of doing it for real, of course, but it might frighten him into telling us something. You coming?”
“It’s worth a try.” Daniel starts for the door. “By the way, I had a pile of information through from SITU, about the Black Madonna Cult, the Prieure de Zion and Liza. You might want to take a look through it later.”
Ned stops Sam in the corridor outside his room.
“My niece seems to have taking quite a liking to you,” he says, polishing the lenses on his glasses as he speaks. He replaces the glasses firmly back on his nose and smiles – the effect is somewhat disconcerting now his eyes are hidden. “I’m not suggesting you might hurt her, of course, I think Vera is capable of taking care of herself. But you have to admit your loyalties have proved questionable in the past.”
Sam scowls. “If anyone’s to blame for the situation that arose, it’s SITU and their policy of throwing new recruits in at the deep end – is it any wonder that some of us flounder about, until we can keep our heads above water long enough to draw breath, and a few conclusions?” He doesn’t blame Ned for doubting him, but he’s been over the arguments in his head for so long now he can’t help wishing people would believe him now and then. He believes himself, after all. “Sure,” he says, “I could sympathise with the Master – as far as I knew, we’d been sent there to murder him in cold blood – until I found out a bit more about him and his kind. But that’s all changed… I’ve changed. I know what these Ylid’s are capable of now. We all saw what happened in Oxford…” He falls silent. Another missing child… his speciality, he thinks bitterly, although Mickey has now been reunited with his daughter. He looks direct at Ned, trying to see his eyes behind the dark glasses. “It’s true I felt the Master’s power. But I’m stronger now.”
A slight doubt creeps into his voice and he turns away, annoyed at himself. “I’ve got to get ready for our Sacre Coeur visit. Excuse me.”
Perez wriggles back on the bed when Greg and Daniel enter the room. Greg pours himself a glass of water and sits down beside him, making a great show of getting comfortable before speaking.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “I’m not going to start about Liza. No doubt the others can do that. I want to talk to you about a plane crash. What do you know about the downing of that flight we were on?”
He pulls the gag from Perez’s mouth.
Perez shakes his head, seeming confused. “I thought the crash was an accident. I was on that flight too. I could have been killed, you know.”
“I know that,” Greg says patiently. “But it doesn’t mean you don’t know anything about it. I want some answers.”
“I don’t know any answers.” Perez seems close to tears. “I am a perfume salesman. I work in France and travel abroad sometimes. I’ve had a few requests to carry out small jobs for people in the Freemasonry hierarchy, usually befriending someone, or meeting someone and taking them someplace. I wasn’t on any sort of job when I was on that plane – it was business only. I didn’t even realise anything strange was going on until I met you people. Then planes crash and people fall mysteriously ill and die and everyone seems to think I know all about it. I don’t.”
Greg is inclined to believe him. Nevertheless, he leans closer. “You’re afraid of Sophia, aren’t you? Let me give you something else to be afraid of. “You’ve seen me kill a man, Maurice. If you do not tell us everything you know, I fail to see any sufficient reason why I should not kill you.”
Perez shrinks back from him. “I don’t know anything… But I could try to find something out.” He casts Daniel a hopeful glance. “If Liza is in trouble, I want to help her. She said she’d contact me again. Let me go and I’ll tell you when she does.”
Ross sticks his head round the door. “Time to go, people. Michael and I will keep our friend company ’til you get back.”
A nervous tap on the door brings Vera to her feet.
“Who is it?”
“Me,” Sam says apologetically. He opens the door a crack. May I come in? I wanted to give you a Christmas present.”
She snatches the package off him impatiently.
Inside is a pendant fashioned in the shape of a tiny amphora, complete with miniature stopper, sealed with red wax.
“I bought it in a little shop on the Left Bank somewhere,” Sam explains. “The old lady said it was genuinely magical, a charm to protect the wearer. She said something about keeping their souls safe in the bottle.”
“What?” Vera’s eyes flash fire at him. He steps back hastily.
“She said something like that, anyway. My French isn’t too good. I thought you might like it. Not that you need much in the way of protecting…”
Daniel spends a frustrating three-quarters of an hour searching the net for anything incriminating about Pierre Plantard. The man has an excellent reputation as a politician and businessman and has obviously covered his tracks very well. The worst anyone can say about him is that he has a reputation as a workaholic. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he is said to be spending Christmas and New Year with family and has already stated that he will not agree to any interviews over the festive period.
As for his involvement with the Prieure, the only link Daniel can find is that he is listed as a former leader of it. There is nothing to say what his duties were or, indeed, what any of the activities of the Prieure were, although there are strong Masonic connections. Sighing, Daniel turns the computer off. It’s getting late – time to go to the service at Sacre Coeur.
Louis drives most of the way to the church of Sacre Coeur in silence, frowning from time to time as a thought nags at him. He makes a mental note to talk to Greg or Daniel later.
“We shouldn’t enter the church en masse,” he says aloud. “Pairs would be better, and we should sit in different pews.”
No one argues with that.
Sam chatters on as usual. “The Sacre Coeur’s where I’d be if I were an Ylid. This architect chap, Abadie; he was a strange one. I think he was an Ylid, or at least a front for one. I mean, he was called Paul for a start. And he was head of the Prieure, yes? And no-one ever saw him, right, except for his ‘agents’. No pictures, no details of his life, nothing. Not even a corpse. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t die at all, just changed his name to Debussy, or de Gaulle, or Plantard, and carried right on. And the Templars, I mean Sion, they were into sacred geometry, right? I’ve read that. Who better than an architect to head their organisation? If Abadie designed the Sacre Coeur, and Sophia is there tonight, you can be sure that there’s some sort of purpose behind it. That big dome, I bet it acts like some great parabolic dish; so all we have to do is find that focus, and we’ve found our Ylid!”
Vera gives him a look as if she wants to break his arms.
“We’re here,” Daniel announces.
The church is lit up from the outside, its white stone looking even more startling that Louis remembered it. Louis stares up at the carvings on the outside – Joan of Arc and St Louis, and the imposing figure of Christ himself, his arms outspread in blessing.
“Shall we go in?” Daniel murmurs to Greg. The two men stroll in first, Ned and Vera following them a few minutes later leaving Louis and Sam to bring up the rear. The church is so crowded with worshippers that it is easy to slip in as part of the congregation. Apart from a few people who wish them a ‘Joyeux Noel,’ everyone is too taken up in their own thoughts to take notice of anyone else.
Candle light glitters off the stained glass windows, throwing jewel-like spots of colour everywhere. The altar looks plain against the mosaics that surround it – Joan of Arc and St Louis again, and an image of Christ adored by the Virgin Mary. Every element from the soft, Latin plainsong of the choir to the heady scent of incense conspires to produce an atmosphere of religious awe, a sense of mystery that draws the worshippers in one by one.
The first carol begins. A few people turn to look at Vera as she starts to sing, surprised no doubt at the presence of her harsh American accent amid the softer French voices. With a guilty jolt, Louis realises it is Christmas and he hasn’t phoned either Tanith or Maman. No doubt his answerphone will be blinking at him when he returns to his flat later tonight, a reminder of just how obsessive he has become about his work – or of just how much danger he is in, he reflects, feeling the weight of the bulletproof vest under his coat.
The priest steps up to begin the celebration of Mass. Some people are crying now, gazing with rapt adoration at the altar as they cross themselves. Clouds of incense almost hide the front of the church from view.
The priest makes the sign of the blessing. It is as if some tension has suddenly been released. People sigh, dry their tears, blow out their candles.
Sam feels almost disappointed that some act of mass destruction hasn’t happened. “We ought to look at the Opera house next,” he says, turning to Louis. “If Abadie designed some of that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had some sort of secret chambers built there – he probably lives there to this day, haunting it, a real-life Phantom of the Opera!”
But Louis is already walking away, pushing through the crowd to where Daniel and Greg are standing together. “There is something I believe I should make you aware of,” he says in a low voice, “a concern that has been plaguing me for the past few days. La Tour Magdala, Sophia’s residence in Rennes-le-Chateau – it was torched shortly before Lisa arrived in Oxford – the police believing it to be the work of some arsonist. This could of course have been Sophia herself, realising she had to move to Paris (for whatever purpose she is here), but not wishing to leave any trace of her presence in that little village for others to find. But somehow I cannot believe that…for she had spent hundreds of years in seclusion there, and the place must have come to mean something to her. Which leaves me with the thought that perhaps someone… or something… instead burnt the tower, in an effort perhaps to kill the Ylid. And if so… why we may very well have not one, but two Ylids on our hands here, monsieur!”
“Sophia and Paul,” Greg muses. “The story of the architect who died and may have been murdered, but whose body was never found, bears so great a similarity to the Masonic story of the murder and resurrection of the architect of the Temple of Solomon that it can’t be a coincidence. It might have been a ritual re-enactment of the Masonic story somehow, in which case Abadie might still be alive – and it’s probably no coincidence that Abadie’s first name is Paul, either,” he adds.
Daniel frowns, watching the faces of people as they leave. “Could Paul be another Ylid? If so, and he’s still alive, just who is Sophia trying to recreate?”
Then, through the clearing incense, Louis sees something that makes him start. He excuses himself and makes his way forward to the altar. Greg nods his head to the door behind where Vera and Ned are waiting. “What next?”
“Liza’s old address?” Daniel suggests. “You, me and Ross could do it. I doubt she’ll be there but whoever is there might know her. It’s worth asking.”
Louis stands by the altar, pretending to pray, although his eyes are wide open. Staring not at the image of the Virgin, but the face of Joan of Arc. He can’t understand how he failed to see it the moment he walked into the church. The woman, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, is one he’s seen before and would recognise anywhere.
“Sophia,” he whispers.
And the face of St Louis on the other side… One half of the face is scratched, marred whether through age or a deliberate act. But the other half is Paul’s.
“I heard there was a Museum of Anatomy somewhere in Paris, where all the heads of executed criminals and such like were kept and displayed,” Sam says behind him. “Is that true, Louis, have you heard of it? Do you think it has anything to do with the Templars? They used to worship severed heads, didn’t they? It might be worth checking out, if we get the chance”.
December 25th 2000, 12am
DANIEL: The word is that Ned is completely off his head and Vera is little short of psychotic. They’ve never killed any of their co-investigators yet, though Vera has issued some very alarming threats in her time. The advice is to stay on the right side of them, and never trust them completely.
MICHAEL: If you want to end the turn anywhere that at the hotel, I can write this up as a secret action before next turn. Let me know.