The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
3pm 26th December
Louis, Ned – Louis’s flat
Greg, Daniel, Vera, Sam – the university.
Michael – ??
“Murder?” Daniel injects the right amount of bewilderment into his voice. “No, I really don’t know where Michael is at the moment. Yes, I do know him.” He looks at Greg, eyebrows raised. “Look, maybe I should come and talk to you about this. Where is the police station?” He listens for a few minutes. “Right. I see. Thank you. I’ll be there in, say, twenty minutes then.
“I’m going to the station,” he says, putting the phone down. “In the meantime, one of you should try looking for Michael. If only to find out what he knows about Perez.”
“I’ll do it,” Vera offers quickly. “Once Ned and Louis get back, you lot can think about finding this Paul Abadie.” She looks at her watch impatiently. “What’s taking them so long, anyway?”
It seems to Louis that he has been standing there forever, shaking all over, his hands clutched around the steering wheel of the minibus as if his life depended on it. His home – worse than that, his works, he thinks – his archaeological finds, his most treasured possessions, all become ash on the wind.
Other people – neighbours from the block – come running. Louis sees the fear in their eyes and knows he must be looking very much the same. He steps away from the vehicle in a daze, barely aware of Ned standing beside him. Hearing more sirens in the distance, he can only hope that no one has been killed.
“Fourteen people injured.” He’s not sure who’s spoken the words. “Six of them seriously. Another twenty suffering smoke inhalation.”
Ned puts a hand on his shoulder. Louis can feel the gloved fingers twitching spasmodically.
“Come on,” Ned says. “There’s nothing we can do here. We’d might as well go.”
Everything gone. The last remaining possessions Louis inherited from his father. His journals. His maps of Egypt. His last writings on the tomb that was excavated so soon before his death. All of it lost.
“A part of who I am has died this day,” Louis whispers to himself in French. Fire burns behind his eyes. He grabs Ned’s arm. “This is not her doing. It serves no purpose to her to make enemies of us if she needs us to do her bidding. It is this other – this second ‘Paul’.”
A fireman approaches. “Monsieur, you live here?”
Louis nods, gives him the number of the flat.
“It is the apartment where the fire started,” the fireman says. “Monsieur, the blaze was started deliberately. We believe someone entered the apartment, poured gasoline in several places. It was too thorough to be an act of vandalism. It was a deliberate and thorough attempt to destroy the whole apartment. I’m sorry, Monsieur, but the police will want to talk to you.”
“My friend has just lost his home,” Ned says sharply, getting the drift of the conversation. “He has had a big shock. Un grand shock, you understand? He can talk to the police when he’s calmer.”
Louis lets his hands uncurl slowly. The fire has spread to consume every part of him: a single, burning desire that leaves no room for anything else. To find this Paul, this Prieuré. To take the fight to their door. To challenge Paul and bring him down, no matter what the cost.
Ned, seeing the look on his face, feels his thumbs twitch again. He takes hold of Louis firmly. “Monsieur will speak to the police later,” he says. “Come on, Louis. I think I’d better do the driving on the way back.”
“I’ve known Michael for at least five years,” Daniel says. “He’s a record producer in England, and… well, you’ve probably got all his personal details, haven’t you?”
“Indeed we do,” the officer says. His name is Jean Lacasse – the policeman who took charge of the investigations at the hotel. He smiles, but his gaze doesn’t leave Daniel’s face for a moment. “It seems you have enemies in Paris, Monsieur. Maybe you would like to tell me about it. Maybe I could help?”
I doubt it, Daniel thinks. In any case, he’s not about to start trusting anyone. He keeps his expression of polite bewilderment. “I’ve not been to Paris before; I shouldn’t have any enemies here. This Maurice Perez – who was he?”
Lacasse shrugs dismissively. “A perfume salesman. He’s travelled a lot. For example, he was on a plane that crashed in Nepal not so long ago. I believe another of your ‘friends’, the American senator Greg Wentworth was on the same plane. I’ve been checking into your backgrounds, you see. I have found nothing at all about you which is strange. Monsieur Tregalier, however, had some involvement with a French girl who died after developing stigmata. The girl in question had been a girlfriend of Maurice Perez. And now you – whoever you are – and Senator Wentworth and Monsieur Tregalier are all in Paris together, along with this Michael Williamson who was last seen standing over the body of Maurice Perez. Do you still know nothing about him?”
“I’ve heard his name,” Daniel says. “Michael spoke about him. He said he was helping him, that Perez feared his life was in danger. God knows how they met in the first place – or who was after Perez. All I know is that Michael was worried about him.”
“So now we are getting somewhere.” Lacasse makes a quick note on a pad of paper. “Let me tell you the situation. Mr Williamson arrived in Paris three weeks ago. You and your friends arrived later – just before Christmas. While you were in the Hotel St James, there were several occurrences. First, a poisonous snake was found hanging over a streetlight outside the hotel. Thankfully, it was dead. Second, an explosive device is thrown into the room occupied by Ms Vera Goodchild. Third, a Mr Ross Myers was found murdered. He was also a friend of yours, I believe? You move out of the hotel. Then there are two more occurrences. Monsieur Tregalier’s apartment is burned. And Maurice Perez is murdered and we have an anonymous phone call that Mr Williamson was responsible. Are you saying this is all coincidence?”
“No.” Daniel hesitates. “All I’m saying is that I know Michael wouldn’t have killed Perez – or anyone else. He said Perez’s life was in danger. If that was true, it could be that the people who were chasing Perez are behind the attacks on the hotel – and on Louis’ apartment. Maybe they tried to kill us because they thought we knew who they were, or because they knew Michael was involved with Perez somehow. And now they have killed Perez and want to implicate Michael in the murder.”
It is close enough to the truth to sound convincing. Lacasse pushes his notepad aside with a sudden gesture and leans forward. “Mr… ah… Carter,” he says, smiling slightly as if he knows the name on Daniel’s passport isn’t his real name. “I believe there is more going on here than either of us realise. Maybe you know more than me. I don’t know. In any case, I shall tell you what we know about the death of Maurice Perez. There are two conditions. First, you tell no one else that I told you this. Second, when you have finished you own investigations here, you let me know of the outcome. And if you find you need help, you call me. Do we have a deal?”
“We do.” Daniel sits back and watches the policeman carefully. From what he can tell, he’s on the level, wanting to solve a mystery and prepared to divulge police information to do so.
“As I said, Maurice Perez is – was – a perfume salesman,” Lacasse says. “He also had connections with the Freemasonry movement. On a very low level, I understand. It is possible for the police to check these things. When we searched his hotel room here in Paris we found a great deal of occult literature as well as magazines about UFO’s and several Bibles. Monsieur Perez was obviously a man who was searching for something. Also, he had many pictures of the model Liza Petherton – you probably know of her since the terrible events at Oxford. Interpol will track her down, I have no doubt of that.
“Now, Perez. He fitted the description of a man seen meeting Liza Petherton off a Parisian ‘plane. So we looked for him and did not find him. But yesterday we found him shot dead in the street. A single bullet wound to the chest, the gun fired at close range. The bullet came from an ordinary handgun – the sort that anyone can pick up on the black market if they know how. The injury was severe enough that he could not have walked far after being shot, so the attack must have happened close by.” He scribbles an address on a sheet of paper and hands it to Daniel. “This is the most likely address – an empty shop. We found nothing there, but the lock on the door was broken and marks on the floor showed signs of a struggle. Michael Williamson was seen standing over Perez on the street. I don’t believe he would have shot him then followed him to where he could have been seen. My bosses think Williamson is the murderer. I think otherwise. Maybe you can do something with this information. But until we find out what really happened, your friend is still wanted for murder – there is nothing I can do about that.”
“Michael’s been framed,” Sam says stubbornly. Greg doesn’t answer. Sam’s going to keep saying it no matter what.
“He’s innocent,” Sam mutters. “Sophia made a promise. What was it – and who did she make it to?” He paces the room, frowning, doing a good impression of a very short, overweight Sherlock Holmes. “Presumably the promise is the contract detailed on the scrolls, selling Abadie into slavery. But to whom? Do we know that?”
Greg shakes his head. Sam frowns again, then jumps excitedly. “Hold on! The Tri Club and SITU begged Sophia to come to Oxford to the convention. Why would they kidnap the baby and burn her home when they were already working with her? Surely they had more to gain by keeping her onside than antagonising her? No, it’s far more likely to be someone with a grudge against Sophia. And judging by the number of fires being started, someone in Paris or arriving here soon. What was it Sophia said about Paul?” Once again, he doesn’t wait for Greg to answer. “He hopes to be something he cannot. Perhaps the bitter and twisted first-born hopes the new and perfect baby can turn him into that something.” He turns to face Greg, his round, little face serious. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some baby-sacrificing shenanigans at the Sacré-Coeur tomorrow. We’ll have to put a stop to that!”
“We will,” Greg promises grimly. “By finding the baby.”
Phoning SITU, Greg listens in silence to the latest news. Andre Swahn has vanished following the Stonehenge team’s discovery that he was at the Roseway Hotel and in all probability met Liza/Sophia there. The Trismegistus Club have gone to ground, the members disappearing, all phone lines disconnected. The whole thing is becoming one big mess, Greg thinks.
“What can you tell us about Swahn?” he asks Blaize.
“Only what’s on his file. He’s been a loyal member of SITU for decades. His twelve-year-old son was killed in a hit and run accident shortly before he joined. Swahn took it as a warning, but it only made him more determined to fight what he considered as an abhorrent evil. We worked our way up through the ranks together – never saw eye to eye on everything, of course. I was more in favour of direct confrontational methods, which Swahn considered as unnecessary risk-taking at times. In the case of Sophia, he never trusted her at all. It was my idea to forge an alliance with her, not his. I think he’d have been happier to see her safely dead. I can’t think why he would have done anything to help her.”
“And the Trismegistus Club?” Greg asks.
“We’re still unsure of their part in this. They say that they will never take shortcuts to achieve the birth of their White Alchemist – their perfect child. But Vera’s parents were members of the Club and they made a bargain with a demon in order to have a physically superior child, so the rules have been broken. My best guess at the moment is they made a deal with Sophia – using Paul’s essence so she got her husband back and they got their White Alchemist. Until we can track some of them down we won’t know for sure.”
“Would someone at the Club have betrayed Sophia after the birth of the baby?” Greg asks, thinking that someone could have been in contact with Paul Abadie to arrange the kidnapping of the child while Sophia was distracted. Sam is on the right track saying the fires were all started by the same person, he thinks. It’s unlikely Sophia would have burned Louis’ home in retribution, but the person who burned Louis’ home may well have burned hers.
“We have three major players in this,” Blaize says. “Sophia, the Watcher and the Trismegistus Club. And now Paul Abadie, if his interests differ from Sophia’s. The Trismegistus Club are old enemies of the Watcher and appear to have allied with Sophia, if only for a while. The Watcher has an interest in Harvest, as does Sophia – but the main Harvest operation is run from Paris which is the domain of Paul Abadie. If Paul has turned against Sophia, he may well have joined forces with the Watcher. Is any of this making sense?”
“Not much.” Like he thought at the start: one big mess. “One other thing,” Greg says. “The Master’s star charts. You must have finished studying them now.” He allows irritation to creep into his voice. “For the love of God, Blaize! We may have the Second Coming on our hands to cope with, and you persist with withholding this information? Why?”
Blaize clears his throat uneasily. “It’s not related to the present case, but all right. We thought at first that the star charts showed the location of the Ylids’ home world. But it seems that what they actually show is the area of the solar system where the Ylids live now – where they went after leaving Earth. Ylids are not an alien race. They originated on Earth and most of them left before mankind ever came on the scene. Why they did is a mystery, but the ones that remained found they were worshipped as gods by primitive man.”
Greg lets out his breath. “So the Master was trying to find the rest of his family, as it were. I wonder if he managed to contact them. Where is this Ylid world, Blaize?”
“More than four light years away. There’s no way we could ever reach it. Although, given that the Ylids retired there, I suppose there’s a chance that they could come back again.”
There is no time to talk any further. The door bursts open and Michael comes in, half-dragged by a furious Vera.
“I found him hiding under a bridge,” Vera says when everyone is together. “He didn’t want to come back, but I persuaded him.”
She smiles at Michael who shrugs and fingers a fresh bruise on his cheekbone.
“Suppose you tell us everything you know about Perez,” Daniel suggests. “From the beginning.”
Michael pours himself a drink before he starts. Louis has one too, staring into the pale brandy thoughtfully. Alcohol burns, he thinks. He wonders how many bottles he’d need to reduce a whole church to ash. Do unto others what they have done to you.
“All I had at first was a suspicion that there was a traitor in SITU,” Michael says. “I didn’t know who it was, I just knew it was someone high up. I started investigating – carefully, to make sure no one knew what I was doing. After a few months, I came across a half-burned piece of paper with the words ‘Harvest’ and ‘Paris’ on. Then, a few weeks later one of my contacts mentioned the name of Perez. I checked up on his file, found out that he was one of the plane crash survivors from Nepal, and that he was involved in the SITU investigation in Rennes-le-Chateau. I also found out that he’d moved to Paris and had been seen talking to strange characters in old churches. At the very least he’d have told his contacts everything he knew about SITU.” He rubs his fingers into his eyes. “Anyway, he’s dead now. The Prieuré turning on him when they thought he’d become a risk.” He stares at the others. “The faithful will gather where they see his face appear,” he says. “His face is the sign.”
“What did he mean?” Sam asks. “The private service we read about in the paper? Is that a meeting of the Prieuré?”
Daniel looks morose. “It’s a fair assumption. Which means we’ll have to be there – and there’ll probably be trouble. What are we going to do in the meantime?”
With Louis’ help, Sam pays a visit to the university libraries. In fact, he’s surprised Louis is so eager to help, given the circumstances.
“What do we have so far?” he asks.
Louis goes through the papers on the table. Some of them are modern computer printouts. Some are line drawings and look to be at least a hundred years old. The opera house. The Sacré-Coeur. A few smaller churches around the city. All of them designed by Paul Abadie.
Sam rummages through for the plans of the Sacré-Coeur and lays them on top of the others. “I thought we should look for sacred geometry first,” he says. “And then for spaces where secret passages or rooms could be. You’re good at that sort of thing, Louis. You could…” He raises his head, realising the Frenchman is walking away. “Where are you going?”
“Out,” Louis says. He doesn’t need to study the plans. He has the locations of the churches; that is all he needs. Almost all. The explosives they obtained from the arms dealer, he wonders. Where are they now?
“Blaize, it’s Greg again. I’m concentrating on finding Sophia’s baby. I need all the information you have, please. The Stonehenge group have found a baby, haven’t they? Do they know whether it’s Sophia’s or Isobel’s?”
“Isobel’s,” Blaize says. “They’re making a rescue attempt tonight. I think you can assume Sophia’s baby is still in Paris.”
“Oh.” Greg feels deflated. If the child at Stonehenge is Isobel’s baby, it means he still has a lot of work to do to track down Sophia’s. “What about Krillikhesh?” he asks. “He’s shown an interest in children before now.”
“He’s been quiet for ages. We doubt very much that he’s involved.”
Another dead end. Greg hangs up. Thinking of Krillikhesh makes him wonder whether he should play his music box to Paul Abadie. Not that it will do any good, but there’s always a chance…
The first thing, though is to phone another contact, a private investigator in Norway.
“Check the airports,” comes the advice. “That will tell you whether the child is still in the country or not. You could try the hospitals in the area, though you probably won’t get very far there. There are some people I can phone. If the baby was stolen, someone must have been hired to do it, and it may be possible to track that person down.”
It has been a long, hard afternoon for Sam. Skulking round the Sacré-Coeur. Checking for signs of baby paraphernalia such as disposable nappies. (There were plenty in the ‘mums and babies’ room of the public toilets.) Talking to attendants who shook their heads politely when asked about secret passageways. Now he finds himself standing in front of the altar at the Sacré-Coeur and the two mosaics don’t seem to resemble anyone at all in the harsh light of day, let alone Sophia and Paul. Could it have been a trick of the candles the other night, Sam wonders. Or is it what Perez’s last words meant – that the appearing of Paul’s face will be the sign for the faithful to gather. Sam takes his glasses off, cleans them and puts them back on. The plan of the church, he thinks, had a bigger space around the front altar. He paces it out surreptitiously. Not a great deal bigger, but enough to allow for a hidden door and a cupboard or something. He stares at the mosaics again and has the uncomfortable sensation that there is someone staring back at him.
“All right,” he mutters, “I’m going.”
He sits on the steps outside to look at the plans again. The church is roughly cross-shaped – a feature of Catholic churches. And also of Templar buildings, he seems to remember. He spreads the plan out side-by-side with the one for the nearest other Abadie-designed building: the Paris opera house, and looks at the two together.
The opera house is huge. Four stories and a basement level with three staircases leading to it – one of them directly from the orchestra pit. The basement must house the dressing rooms, Sam thinks, looking at the criss-crossing of lines. There seems to be a lot of small rooms down there. From the plan it’s impossible to say whether any of them are designed to be secret. Nothing at all that links the house with the Sacré-Coeur.
Another thought strikes. “Sewers!” Sam cries, jumping to his feet.
The airport proves another dead end. Greg checks out all passengers with babies leaving Paris on the 22nd and 23rd December and all identities are genuine. Which at least suggests that the baby is still in France, he thinks, and most likely in Paris given that Paul Abadie is prime suspect at the moment.
He’s wondering what to do next when his Norwegian contact phones back.
“I have some news,” he says. “It’s not much to go on, but it may help. I’ve come across a rumour about a kidnap and arson job in Rennes-le-Chateau. One of the criminal groups associated with the Templar movement was supposedly involved. The only name I can give you is a woman. Tanith. There’s also a rumour that she was recruiting independents for a job in Oxford, and that rumour dates back to the beginning of November. If that relates to the terrorist assault at Oxford university, it was planned well in advance.”
“How do I get hold of the criminal group?” Greg asks.
The Norwegian reads off an address. When Greg checks it, he finds it is the same deserted ‘shop’ where Perez is supposed to have been shot.
“I’ve got it!” Sam cries, bursting through the door in a flurry of papers. “The Phantom of the Opera lived in the sewers, right? And the Sacré-Coeur and the Opera House are directly linked by the sewer network. All you need is a secret passageway leading down from each and you could get from one to the other without anyone knowing.”
To take from them what they have taken from him, Louis thinks.
He has parked his hire car on a slight rise in the road where he can easily see the bell tower of the church. Around him, Paris is quiet. Night has fallen and in this part of the city the only lights come from a few cars that drive through and are gone.
Then, suddenly, there is light everywhere. An explosion that rocks the very road Louis is standing on, and fire that reaches all the way to the stars and back. To Louis it is the brightness of a angels’ choir and the silence that falls is like the hush after the final ‘amen’ of a great chorus.
The bell tower is no longer there.
Louis lowers his binoculars and gets back into the car. He is driving away before the first sirens reach the place. And that is only the beginning of the destruction.
Let it be the retribution of God. And pray to God that Paul Abadie was in one of his churches this night. Immortal they may be these Ylids, but surely even they could not walk away from an explosion on any scale.
By dawn, there are only two left: the Opera House and the Sacré-Coeur. Both too huge, too well-guarded to tackle alone.
“Police are still hunting the terrorist group that destroyed four churches in the Paris area last night,” the radio announcer says. “All of them date back to the nineteenth century and were important historical monuments as well as religious sanctuaries in their own right. We can only guess at the motives behind such an attack. Eleven people were injured by falling debris and houses in the immediate area of the churches have been evacuated. Police are appealing for witnesses.”
Louis says nothing, grim-faced and silent. Daniel looks at him hard. “Did you..?”
There is a knock at the door. The team look at each other nervously then Greg gets up to answer it.
The man outside is short, in his forties with receding, brown hair and eyes that appear to be fixed in a permanent worried frown. His clothes are crumpled and dirty. It looks like he hasn’t bathed in days.
“Swahn?” Greg says in surprise. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I have to try and put things right,” Swahn says. “After what happened…” He shudders visibly. “Blaize doesn’t know I’m here. No one does, except you. Once I knew what Sophia wanted, I had to come. It’s all my fault.” He scratches his head, sighs uncomfortably and continues, staring down at the floor.
“I made a deal with the Trismegistus Club. They’d help with our negotiations with Sophia and in return I’d get them a sample of Paul’s essence to study. Edward Lloyd swore to me that they wouldn’t use it except to study it and I believed him. It seemed to be working. They even set up some secret meetings between myself and Sophia.” He spreads his hands out on his legs and drums the fingers nervously. “We were getting nowhere, you see. The Tri Club said they could persuade her to co-operate, and they did. It was working.” He stares around at the group, almost in tears. “Where did it all go wrong?”
December 27th 10am
The Paris university