The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
12:30pm Christmas Day
The wailing of the siren draws closer and closer. Louis reaches out desperately. “Liza, come with us, now. Think only of John, and follow me now to a place where the authorities cannot touch you. Trust me …but think only of John…”
Liza shakes her head, trying to pull free of him. Her eyes are bright with fear now, and anger. “John is dead. He died a long time ago. Let me go.”
“Sophia,” Greg says. The others look at him in surprise. Even Liza hesitates. All trace of rage is gone from him. As he walks forward, there is such a sense of physical presence around him that he seems to grow taller with every step. He puts himself directly in Liza’s path and stands there, blocking her way without touching her.
“Sophia,” he says again, more gently this time. “You must think I can succeed in finding your baby where you yourself have failed. Thus, you may well regret it if Marie-Claude comes to harm while in your custody, and I hold you responsible for her well-being until you release her.” His eyes narrow for a moment and Daniel starts forward, worried his friend’s self-control is slipping. But Greg waves him back. “However,” he adds, still facing Liza, “I doubt you realize that she is more than a pawn.”
The police siren is fading. Liza bites her lower lip, looking uncertain.
Greg nods. “I know better than anyone that Marie-Claude can help those who suffer the torments of the damned. If what I’ve been told about you is correct, you know that I speak the truth. You need her help even more than I ever have. Tell her that I said so, and talk to her. It will do you good, both of you. See for yourself.”
“I – I don’t know.” She seems taken aback with this man who considers himself her equal.
Sensing that a certain tension has passed, the others come out of hiding. Vera steps back, grinning wryly when she sees her uncle.
“And they say we’re supposed to be afraid of this,” she comments, gesturing to Liza.
Daniel covers up her words quickly. “Liza, please come with us. We will help you, but we need to know what is going on.”
Her gaze flicks to Greg, then to Louis. “You said you found John. Why?”
Louis watches her cautiously, all too aware that this place of worship is ripe with belief energy, giving Sophia extra strength. “I believe I have,” he says. He smiles, but doesn’t move. “Remember, many months ago, we saw each other in Rennes-le-Chateau? You showed no sign of pregnancy then, else I would have guessed at once what had happened, but looking at you, with your hair afire in the winter sunlight, my heart missed a beat. You were alive. Not like Sandrine, not like the others the goddess had used.” His smile fades. “But when you spoke, it was only the voice of the goddess I heard. That was when I determined to find a way to free you from her influence.”
“I don’t need freeing,” Liza objects. Yet she doesn’t run, she stands and listens as Louis begins to speak again.
“I went back to Paris. And I started to look for the man you once loved. John Matthews.” He glances around the group. “SITU helped a great deal – it seems they are specialists in digging up this sort of information. Before the day was out, I found myself speaking to an abductee specialist from SETI. Then came a corn circle specialist, who said the circle found in the field where John’s car was discovered was as genuine as any he’d ever seen. From there, SITU put me in touch with missing persons specialists, hospital wards and mental institutions all across southern Britain.
“I followed up sightings of people who matched his description. People sleeping rough, people housed in mental wards, sufferers of amnesia. His bank balance and credit cards remained untouched, no friends or acquaintances had seen him, no mortuary reported seeing his body. But I didn’t – I couldn’t – believe he was dead. Months passed. Leads began to wear thin, the paths they lead me on leading to one dead end or another. A handful, though, remained. Conversations whispered on a public phone, cutting off halfway through. Hinting that I bordered on the edge of some secret, some hidden truth or criminal activity.”
He shrugs expressively. “That is where it stands. John Matthews remains unaccounted for, but the files on my desk hold the information that still could lead us to where he vanished that night. That is why I say we have found him, because if there is ever any possibility of finding him at all the answer lies in those files.”
He finishes and lets his hands fall to his side. Trying not to show his secret worry. If John Matthews is alive, somewhere in the world, has he made it his over-riding goal not to be found?
There is a short silence, broken by the sound of a bell chiming once. They have been standing on the steps for a whole hour, they realise.
Liza nods slowly. “I believe you have tried,” she says. “And… and I do not want to see Marie Claude harmed. You must help Sophia find her baby.”
Ignoring Vera’s scowl and Ned’s quick frown, Greg holds her gaze. “If you want me to do you any good, there are things that I must understand,” he says. “Both Liza and Isobel Blyth were guided through their pregnancies at your own clinic in Oxford. If you think that SITU betrayed you by using Paul’s essence for those pregnancies, who was it that provided his essence to Edward Lloyd? We suspect a traitor within SITU, and this could tell us who that is. Or do I misunderstand this altogether – was there some other reason why you supposed that SITU had betrayed you? Why do you blame SITU for the destruction of your tower and the abduction of your own infant – do you know who did this, by name? Are you quite certain that SITU was behind this, and if so, how and why? For that matter, why did you kill Lloyd – isn’t the Trismegistus Club your own catspaw? I’m sure we have both been manipulated here; for one thing, you don’t have the Grail, do you? Someone does. I suspect strongly that you have a traitor working for you just as SITU seems to have.”
It is a long speech and Liza’s expressions changes as he goes through it. A couple of times, she nods. When he mentions Edward Lloyd, she frowns and shakes her head. And at the end, strangely, she laughs.
“You really don’t have any idea, do you?” she asks. Her voice has become that of a goddess. Sam edges back in alarm but she scarcely glances at him. “Very well, if you are to find my child, you may need to know the truth. It is this: I discovered the existence of the Trismegistus Club soon after making my forced agreement with SITU. I had been unaware of their activities until then, but our aims appeared similar, although our motives were vastly different. All I wanted was my husband back, while the Trismegistus Club wished to create a new Messiah figure – a perfect weapon against the enemy they called The Watcher.”
“The Watcher,” Ned echoes.
Sophia smiles. “He is unimportant. Our aims are not incompatible. Neither do I count myself his friend. Edward Lloyd arranged for SITU to release a sample of Paul’s essence to me, and we agreed to share knowledge. With their research into breeding techniques, and my own experience, Paul’s rebirth became for the first time a real possibility. And then there was a promise I made…” Her gaze drifts slightly out of focus then she shakes her head sharply. “It is not important. From what you say, maybe the Trismegistus Club were able to create their weapon too. I don’t know. It doesn’t concern me. All they used was my knowledge; it cost me nothing.” Her eyes flash angrily. “No, the betrayal was not in the using of Paul’s essence. The betrayal came later, after Paul was born.”
“The Oxford convention,” Daniel guesses. He steps back as Sophia looks at him.
“The Oxford convention. The Trismegistus Club and SITU together begged me to attend. They told me I would learn so much from it. They said my kind are so highly attuned to the psychic world that my very presence would enhance the various experiments and demonstrations. And then they told me the Holy Grail would be there.”
She casts her gaze down, almost shyly. “The Sang Greal is very important to the Prieure de Sion, you see. Such a powerful symbol, and we had never been able to come close to it. When they said it was there, I arranged to leave my baby, for one night only, and to travel to Oxford.” She gestures downwards. “Using this body, naturally. Liza Petherton has proved a more than willing servant.”
She raises her head, her face pale and taut in the cold sunlight. She looks like some tragic Greek heroine standing there, her grief become something formal, a ritual that must be acted out. “On that very night, I was betrayed. Thieves came to my home, stole the child and left everything burning. Centuries of work reduced to ash – and Paul, result of more millennia of work than you can imagine, vanished. That was the betrayal, and so I took my revenge.”
“But how do you know it was SITU?” Sam asks. “Or the Trismegistus Club, for that matter.”
Sophia swings round fiercely. “They were the ones who wanted me in Oxford. Isn’t that clear to you? They wanted to distract me while they stole my child. And if that isn’t enough, I have the word of the Prieure leader here in Paris.”
“The leader with the scarred visage,” Louis murmurs. “The one you also call Paul.”
Sophia’s face flushes sharply with rage. “He calls himself Paul. He hopes to be something he cannot. But he is mine and I have never known him lie.”
Greg holds up his hands. “All right. Your child was stolen, you believe the Trismegistus Club and SITU were jointly responsible. We know there is a traitor in SITU, so maybe you are right. But innocent people were killed. Why them?”
The goddess shrugs carelessly. “It is not my concern whether they live or die. The Trismegistus Club became my enemy, so I called on their enemy. His price was to hold the Grail until the end of this year – a price I was willing to concede.” She looks at Greg slyly. “Maybe you would like to worry about that, too. Again, I do not care what the Watcher is doing. Someone has my child, and you will find him and bring him back.” She inclines her head at Louis. “Liza is too useful to me. You may not have her back. Console yourself with this: that she gave herself to my service willingly. As you did once.”
Their gazes lock and hold. “We are in your service again,” Louis says. “We will find your child. But first, I feel, we must talk to Paul – the other Paul. Where is he?”
She shrugs elegantly. “Anywhere he wants to be. I don’t know.
With that she turns away.
“Sophia, wait,” Greg says.
A look of annoyance crosses her face but he merely hands her a business card. “My number is on that,” he says. “You can use it if you need to contact us at any time. How will we contact you?”
She looks at him a moment. “You won’t. If I decide I want to talk to you, I shall find you.” She brushes between Vera and Sam and walks away.
Sam whistles softly. “Tracking down a baby. I’ve done this sort of thing before.” He looks at the others hopefully. “Umm… Does anyone have an idea where to start?”
Daniel glances at Ned. “Could you contact SITU about the baby kidnapping? You trust them the least of all of us, and you’re most likely to get an honest answer out of them.” He pauses. “The other thing is getting information about Paul. I was looking in the right place but I didn’t come up with much. I wouldn’t be surprised if SITU knew about him already, though.” He grins hopefully. “Then all we need to do is get Marie-Claude back safely.” Mentioning Marie-Claude reminds him that he should be worrying about Greg, but the American brushes this aside.
“I’m fine,” he says brusquely. “As Sam says, we have to work out where to go from here. Sophia’s baby is stolen. Where are we going to find it?”
“I suggest we start with Paul,” Ned says.
“Or Perez,” Sam adds. “We still have to hunt him down and find out who killed Ross. Which wasn’t me, by the way.”
Christmas lunch is a dismal affair – the contents of Louis’ fridge supplemented by chocolate and crisps from the university vending machines. After a while, Michael gets up and goes out, muttering something about ‘business.’ Sam sidles closer to Vera. “I don’t think you’re a failure,” he says. “What do the Trismegistus Club know? I still think you’re perfect.”
She gives him a look that is halfway between a glare and a smile and makes him blush. He opens another packet of crisps to hide his embarrassment. “What happened between you and Henry Blyth anyway?” he asks. “What would make him try to kill you?”
“He can’t try to kill me. He’s dead.” Vera tears the end of a Mars bar with a motion that makes Sam think of a tiger tear the hind leg off an antelope.
Ned makes a little motion with his hands. “I think we ought to leave the subject of Henry Blyth. His death was an accident; there’s no way anyone could blame dear Vera for it. However, of course, if the Trismegistus Club should think you were responsible, Vera, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did try to kill you for it.” He stands up, brushing a few crumbs of French bread and Brie from his hands. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I shall phone SITU.”
Geoff Blaize answers the phone before it can ring twice.
“Ned. You’re all right. When Louis said you were going to meet Sophia…”
“We met her,” Ned says. “We’re all alive. Apart from Ross, that is – and a certain Marie-Claude who may come into the firing line if we don’t find out who kidnapped Sophia’s baby. So tell us, where have you hidden the child?”
Blaize sighs. “I don’t know. For the very good reason that I didn’t even know there was a child until all this started.”
“So why were you so insistent that Sophia should attend the convention in Oxford?” Ned asks sharply. “She says it was to distract her so the baby could be stolen.”
“It would account for her behaviour at the convention,” Blaise admits. “But no, I’m convinced this could not have happened without me finding out something about it. And surely not even a traitor within SITU would have exposed so many people to such risk.”
Ned listens to the protestations of innocence without believing them. “Who is Paul?” he asks suddenly.
“Paul? Sophia’s husband, you mean?”
“No. I mean Paul Abadie. The man who built the Sacré-Coeur and the Paris Opera House among other things. The man who, according to Sophia, is the present-day leader of the Prieuré de Sion. What do you know about him?”
There is a brief silence. Ned can almost feel Blaize’s discomfort.
“I can tell you what we know,” he says eventually, “but it’s not very much. Until recently we didn’t know for sure that Sophia existed, remember? We know for a fact that her husband, Paul, was killed long before the Prieuré ever existed. Long before humanity ever existed. And we know that she has, over the ages, tried to resurrect her husband. Add to that the fact of Paul Abadie’s emergence last century, and the vague details of his life and death. No one knows for certain where he was born or when. No portraits exist of him: no one knows what he looked like. He was educated in Paris, studied art and then architecture. He was a famous man, but solitary. When he died, no one mourned him.”
Ned is writing this down, still wondering if Blaize’s embarrassment comes from having to admit to knowing so little, or whether he is hiding something. “So assuming he’s still alive, how could we get in touch with him?” he asks.
“A good question. And one, I’m afraid, I have no answer to. Louis will tell you that when our team wanted to make contact with Sophia, they stole something she valued and used it as a bargaining tool. It was dangerous, but it worked. But do you have anything that Paul values?”
“Paul with the scarred visage,” Louis ponders. “Like some Hunchback of Notre Dame. What hold does Sophia have over him, for she cannot bear the sight of him. How must he feel about that?”
Little wonder he holds sway over the minions of the Prieuré, he thinks. A creature who walks the path between dark and light, between beauty and beast.
“A real-life Phantom of the Opera,” Sam enthuses. “I wonder if he wears a mask! Maybe he’s jealous of Sophia’s baby, or resents her for sending him away.” He rocks back on his chair excitedly. “Do Ylids who are related explode in each other’s presence?”
Ned comes back in. Louis gets up quickly. “What did Blaize say?”
“Very little.” Ned grimaces, taking off his glasses and polishing them. “SITU are either incompetent or lying. Probably a bit of both.” He smiles dryly and sits down. “Do we have a plan?”
No one speaks.
“The Tri Club,” Louis says after a while. “What can you tell us about them?”
It is Vera who answers. “They’re the bastards who messed up my life – and a lot of other people’s.” She leans forward, speaking fiercely. Her fists are clenched, Sam notices, the knuckles white. “My parents were members. Because of the Club, they made some deal with a demon, supernatural being, call it what you like. They said they did it because they loved me, but that wasn’t the reason. They wanted to look good in the eyes of the Club, that was all.”
Everyone is carefully silent. Only Sam continues to look at Vera, and then only in quick glances.
“A bargain was made,” Vera says. “In similar writing to the scrolls we found. Their immortal souls in exchange for a perfect child, poor fools. When they died, I suspected the Club was responsible, but it could never be proved.”
“But this time the payment was not Sophia’s soul,” Louis murmurs, remembering the scrolls, “but her first-born son as a slave. Why would she promise her child away like that?”
“She didn’t,” Daniel says grimly. “The first born is Paul Abadie – and I reckon he must have been pretty pissed off to find himself sold into slavery.”
Boxing Day dawns pale and cold. Louis, who spent the night in the university library, announces his intention of dropping back to his flat for some clean clothes.
“Will you come, Ned?” he asks. Ned looks surprised but agrees, leaving the others to wait for news of Michael and to start looking for Paul Abadie.
Louis is frowning as he climbs into the driver’s seat of the minibus. Does he believe Sophia? Yes – he thinks. Blaize himself admitted the presence of a traitor. He drives in silence for a while. “Three children,” he muses. “Three children of power that have been abducted. Isobel’s, Sophia’s and the pregnant SITU agent, Arabella. Something is set to happen at Stonehenge. A sacrifice. Lambs to the slaughter.”
He glances sideways at Ned, trying to gauge some reaction behind the dark lenses he wears. But Ned shows barely a flicker of interest. “Sacrificing a child is said to have great effect,” he says. “The idea always has had great ritual significance. I suggest we leave the other team to worry about Stonehenge and concentrate on Paris.” He takes his glasses off suddenly. “Is that smoke I can see?”
“We could always try to kill Sophia,” Sam says. “We killed the Master after we tracked him down to his lair. We’d have to find her lair, of course. It might be in the Sacré-Coeur – I wonder if the portraits of Sophia and Paul are a clue to its whereabouts?”
Greg raises his head. “We can’t do anything that will risk Marie-Claude. Enough people have died because of these damned Ylids.”
“Then we can go back to Oxford and root out the traitor. I might have known there’d be something like that, by the way. Even they couldn’t achieve such a level of incompetence on their own. The question is, who’s behind it?”
Or they could just run away, he thinks. But it’s probably too late for that now. He adjusts his spectacles and begins looking through the newspaper, laboriously translating the headlines.
“Here’s an interesting one,” he says. “It says that Monsieur Pierre Plantard is making an unscheduled visit to Paris and is expected to visit the Sacré-Coeur for a private service on the night of the twenty-seventh.”
He spreads the paper out so they can all see it. The photograph of Plantard is instantly recognisable. So is the picture of the Sacré-Coeur.
Perez, Michael thinks. He found him once before. He can find him again. He walks along streets that are still quiet – all the shops shut, and only a few people out walking. He knows all Perez’s old haunts. He’ll try them out, one by one if necessary. He will find him.
He has been walking for hours when he hears footsteps behind him. He turns, swerving instinctively out of the way. With a shock he realises he is staring at the man he’s been hunting since yesterday.
The second shock comes when he looks down and sees that Perez’s shirt is covered in blood.
“The faithful will gather where they see his face appear,” the Frenchman mumbles. “Son visage c’est le signe.” He lurches towards Michael, grabbing him with both hands as his knees buckle. “You must help her.” He coughs blood.
A car screeches round the corner. Perez tries to hide behind Michael and falls. At the same time, a woman’s voice screams, “Murder!”
Michael does the first thing that comes into his head. He runs.”
Two phone calls come in quick succession. The first is from Michael.
Greg relates its contents gravely. “He says he’s all right but he’s going to lie low for a while and keep a watch on what happens.”
The phone rings again.
This time Daniel answers. It is the police. “We believe you are a friend of a Michael Williamson,” the officer says. “We need to ask him some questions. Can you tell us where he is?”
“I haven’t seen him since yesterday,” Daniel says truthfully. “What’s he done?”
There is a short pause. “He is wanted for questioning in connection with a murder,” the officer says. “A man named Maurice Perez.”
Louis jams his foot on the accelerator, tearing through the empty streets. He can see smoke too, now, billowing up like a flower against the sky.
He slows as he reaches the street where his apartment it. Somehow, he already knows what he will find. They turn the last corner. Two fire engines are parked side by side, a crowd gathered around them.
The building that housed Louis’s flat is a smoking ruin – a mess of blackened walls and timber. Too stunned to move, Louis can only stare.
Ned swings out of the minibus. “What happened?” he shouts.
Someone answers him in English. “Fire. Last night. The police say it started in one of the flats. It may have been deliberate.”
3pm 26th December
Louis, Ned – Louis’ flat
Greg, Daniel, Vera, Sam – the university.
Michael – ??