The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
6pm December 28th
Sam – the sewers.
The others – the university.
The group, Blaize and Swahn with them, crowd into Sam’s bedroom. As Vera said, he is lying motionless on the bed, his breathing regular, eyes closed. Louis shakes him experimentally. There is no response.
Greg doesn’t waste time trying to wake him. He turns straight to Blaize and Swahn. ““All right, gentlemen. You already know that none of the rest of us here has any special ability to arouse someone from a trance, or to pull a spirit back into its body. Can either of you two do that? Or do either or both of you have any other extraordinary talents that can help us in this instance? Celine Coombes was a very formidable lady, and I doubt that the Servitors selected their other chief servitors without choosing them wisely.”
“I can tell you where he is,” Swahn says. He sits down by the bed and closes his eyes. “Oh my,” he murmurs after a few seconds, “I really think we’d better wake him.”
“Dammit,” thinks Sam. “I should have known Abadie would smell a rat!” His animal body squirms and bites instinctively, its brain shrieking out in a panicked need to escape. The part of him that is human struggles to take control, but the only thing that comes to his mind is the phrase, ‘How now! A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!” A line from Hamlet, isn’t it? Sam wonders fleetingly if his subconscious mind is trying to tell him he’s gone mad. A possibility, certainly. He must have been mad to try this.
“Wake up!” he shouts at himself. It makes no difference. He tries to tear himself free of the rat body. For one moment he has the impression that someone else is with him, showing him the way to run, but Abadie’s gaze fixes him where he is, drawing his consciousness back as a whirlpool draws in flotsam. He cannot escape it.
But there’s more than one way of running away, Sam reminds himself. He should know – he’s tried most of them. Ylids can read minds, but not perfectly, and after years of juggling multiple identities Sam is an expert at compartmentalising his thoughts. All he needs to do is build up enough layers. Another thought comes out of nowhere. ‘Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat.’ Whatever that means. Maybe that’s what brought him here: to find out what fate has in store for him.
The rat stops struggling. Instead of trying to claw its way out of Paul Abadie’s hands, it brings its whiskered nose right up to the Ylid’s ruined face. “Let the girl go,” Sam thinks in his most commanding voice. (Barely a squeak in this body, but he’s impressed with it nevertheless.) “You don’t need her anymore; you have me now. Read my mind… you know you can trust me to betray the others if it keeps me alive.”
Abadie believes it. Sam can sense it; he sees the slight change in the Ylid’s expression, curiosity narrowing the eyes. Without waiting, Sam launches into an attack. “You understand betrayal, don’t you… Paul? Will you betray your new master the way you betrayed Sophia? And what of the baby? Do you think you can get what you want by killing the child? Will that make everything right? I don’ t think so. You can’t change what you are… not that way. It has to come from within.”
Abadie’s expression darkens. His fingers tighten slightly on the rat’s fat body, making Sam squeak in pain. “I have no master but myself,” he says. “Sophia is the one who betrayed me – selling me into slavery in exchange for, what? A perfect child? She who only cares about the physical form – she knows nothing of what is within. She cannot bear to look upon my face, and do you know why? It is because she cannot bear to think that I am the husband she has waited for across millennia.”
Sam is only listening with part of his mind. On a deeper level, he repeats over and over nursery rhymes and nonsense verse, anything that comes to mind. And now, unbidden, there comes another chant. “Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
Sam’s lips suddenly start to move.
“What’s he saying?” Daniel asks.
Blaize bends closer. “I’m not sure. Something to do with a trumpet and the dead incorruptible. We’d better do this quickly, Andre.”
“I’m ready,” Swahn says.
The two men move to stand either side of Sam’s bed. As Blaize walks past Vera, she puts a hand on his shoulder. “Just to let you know that if he doesn’t wake up all right I’m going to kill you. Not that I’m particularly fond of him or anything. But I will, all right?”
“Do you want to see what Sophia is afraid of?” Abadie asks softly. With his free hand he reaches up to remove the mask.
At the same moment, Sam twists his body round and sinks his teeth into the tip of Abadie’s thumb. The Ylid shouts, more with surprise than pain, and shakes his hand, but Sam keeps his grip. Blood seeps into his mouth and he swallows it convulsively. Ylid blood. It may poison him. Or it may do something else.
Marie-Claude has jumped to her feet. “Let him go, Paul,” she begs. “Let him go and I’ll stay with you. You know I will.” She runs a few steps closer. “Whoever you are, tell Greg I’m sorry. Tell him… tell him I really love him, but Paul needs me. He won’t hurt me.”
“That’s right. I’m full of gentleness,” Paul mocks. He snaps his hand back, sending Sam flying into the wall.
Two pairs of hands catch hold of him together. “Come on!” a voice, vaguely familiar, shouts. Sam doesn’t need to be told twice. Leaving the twitching body behind, he tears off into darkness.
“Phew, that was close,” he says, sitting up in bed.
“One could say,” says Ned, “that if someone goes putting themselves into the body of a rat without the slightest idea of how to get out, then that person deserves everything they get.” He spreads his hands out on the table, studying the thumbs carefully.
“I was trying to help,” Sam squeaks. “And I did help, didn’t I? Marie-Claude is safe, and we know Abadie and Sophia aren’t best friends any more. And we know where they are.”
Greg paces the room restlessly. “But if Sophia kidnapped Marie-Claude, and now Abadie has her, it suggests that he and Sophia are still working together somehow, and that Sophia isn’t really concerned about her missing child at all. This whole thing could be a hoax, but to what end? Unless Abadie snatched Marie-Claude from Sophia, which doesn’t figure, or unless we’re missing something here.”
“Go for the easiest explanation,” Ned suggests. “Abadie snatches Marie-Claude. Sophia gets to hear about it and pretends she has her to blackmail you into getting her child back.”
Daniel shakes his head. “No. If she knew, or even suspected Abadie had her child, she could have confronted him herself. Why use us?”
Blaize answers that one. “Ylids never do anything for themselves: it’s not in their nature. Of course, there’s also the problem that if Sophia doesn’t have access to dubhium, she can’t go too close to Abadie without them both spontaneously combusting. He may not have full Ylid powers, but his DNA is pure Ylid.” He frowns. “Which raises another interesting point. Sophia was obviously able to handle her new baby safely. So the dubhium effect must be something which develops later on in life. I wonder at what age that kicks in?”
“I think you’ll have to leave your speculations till later,” Greg says. “Some of us have to be at the Sacre-Coeur in two hours time. The rest of us need to take a look at the sewers. We’ve had an offer of help from the Paris police, which I’m inclined to take, Blaize. What we need is cover from you in case there’s any trouble from that later.”
“Who’s going down the sewers?” Daniel asks. “Above ground seems slightly preferable, but I’m not too bothered.”
“I’m going into the sewers,” Greg says. “I’d prefer you to come with me, but it’s your choice, of course. I’d imagine the two groups will be meeting up at some point, anyway.”
Sam shudders visibly. “I’ll go to the ceremony if it’s all the same with you.”
It is decided, then. Sam, Vera, Ned and Louis will go to the Sacre-Coeur at the appointed hour. Meanwhile, Greg and Daniel will meet Lacasse’s police force and investigate the sewers, hopefully finding the secret entrance into the Sacre-Coeur so they can be on hand to provide back-up to the other group.
“We’ll need weapons,” Daniel says. “I don’t think my martial arts training will be enough to fend off bullets. And, by the way, does anyone know anything about spilling blood in the ‘Dreaming’, and giant snakes? Something Belle-Marie’s involved in.”
“Sounds like she’s on drugs,” Vera comments acidly. “What the hell is the Dreaming?”
“An Aboriginal thing,” Swahn says. “I’m afraid they’re going to have to handle it on their own for now.” He looks around hopefully. “You people are in charge of this, but we’ll do everything we can to help. Isn’t that right, Geoff.”
Blaize scowls but nods. “I’ve booked us both on a flight out of here tomorrow morning. Until then we’re in your hands. Just tell us what you want.”
“I want Blaize and Swahn split up,” Daniel says to Ned. “If we can turn the pair against each other while they’re apart, we might actually get them to tell us the truth.”
Ned rubs his right thumb thoughtfully. “And you want me to take care of Swahn?”
“No, Blaize.” Daniel grins at him. “I have this feeling that you’ll be able to get right under his skin.”
Ned considers a moment. “All right,” he agrees. “You and Greg take Swahn on your little jaunt through the sewers. Blaize can come to the Sacre-Coeur with us.” He smiles, uncharacteristically broadly. “Good luck.”
Greg puts the phone down with a feeling of relief. So Marie-Claude is exactly as she seems – an ordinary air-stewardess who happened to get mixed up in something bigger than she could understand. Greg’s investigator in Norway has checked her out thoroughly. Something he should have done long ago, Greg thinks, with a slight twinge of guilt. Much as he loves Marie-Claude, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that she was working for the Ylids. Perez, at least, was something of a ringer, and the same might be true of any of them.
Even so, Marie Claude seemed to be willing to stay with Paul Abadie. Was she saying that in an attempt to save Sam’s life, or did she feel sorry for the Ylid – or did she, in fact, love him? Greg has to dismiss the last possibility. He tells himself that once they have rescued Marie-Claude, she will be able to explain everything.
Before calling Lacasse to accept his offer of help, Greg makes one further phone call, this time to his uncle in California.
“I might have a few problems here,” he explains, telling him about Marie-Claude’s abduction and his attempts to get her back. “The police have offered to help, but it might all backfire. It’s all getting very complicated. I just need to know I can count on your help if I end up the victim of a police sting. I’m not sure if impersonating a police officer is regarded as a serious offence in French law, but it’s bound to carry some penalty.”
It is just past seven o’clock when the group are ready to enter the sewers. Lacasse has brought a unit of thirty men with him – ten to guard the entrance and the others, including Lacasse himself, to accompany Greg, Daniel and Andre Swahn. All of them are wearing bullet-proof jackets and are heavily armed with automatic weapons.
Looking into the black entrance passage, Greg turns to Daniel. “If the situation weren’t so grim, this would be fun. It’s like something out of an old movie.” Daniel grins back, relieved that his friend is able to handle the situation with some degree of humour. He turns on a torch, its beam cutting through the dark and revealing a narrow downward-sloping passageway. Not the place he’d most rather be in the world, he thinks. Gritting his teeth, he steps forward.
For a long time they walk in silence, single file along corridors that are running with water and stink of sewage.
“Supposing we get the Sacre-Coeur on time,” Daniel mutters to Greg, “any ideas on stopping the ceremony?”
Greg shakes his head. “Force of numbers, I hope. We don’t even know what the ceremony is yet.” He pauses at a junction of two tunnels and studies Sam’s map by torchlight. He takes the right-hand turn and leads on, Lacasse’s men crowding close behind.
Daniel glances up. The ceiling of the passageway is no longer flat, he notices, but arched, and carved here and there with lines that suggest the faces of gargoyles watching them. He shivers – but not just because of the surroundings, he realises a moment later: there really is a wind blowing, and it is cold. He slows his pace a fraction. “I think we’re nearly there,” he mutters. His voice echoes along tunnels and comes back to them, and, before the last whisper of it can die away, the tunnel ends abruptly and they find themselves in the cavern Sam described.
Abadie is not there. Marie Claude is, however, and six men who grab guns and start firing the moment they see the group.
The small car park by the steps of the Sacre-Coeur is full of limousines. Most of them have the drivers still sitting inside, reading papers or snoring gently in sleep. They take no notice of the group of five people who walk past.
“So far, so good,” Sam says, stealing a glimpse at Vera. She looks beautiful in black combat gear with only the bulges of hidden weapons marring her sleek figure. If only she’d tried kissing him instead of slapping him, Sam thinks. That would have woken him up for sure. The thought of Vera kissing him makes him blush furiously and he looks down, almost stumbling on the white steps that lead up to the church.
“Any plans for blowing this one up,” Ned asks Louis. The Frenchman scowls and shakes his head. His fingers brush his breast pocket where he has put the picture of Sophia, rescued from his apartment. Lower down, he feels the hard edge of a gun. The Ylids have taken too much from him, he thinks grimly. It’s time they paid for it.
A security guard is waiting at the top of the steps. “You can’t…” he begins. He never gets the chance to finish.
“There’ll be more,” Vera says, lowering his body to the ground. I’ll take care of them. You try and get close to the Sacre Coeur.
She melts away into the darkness. A few moments later the group hears a muffled cry of pain from a second unfortunate guard.
“She can take care of herself,” Ned says. “Come on.” He sets off towards the church at a run.
As Sam draws near the carved doors, the skin on his arms prickles. Blaize feels it too. “Abadie’s here. Take care now.”
Ned peers through a crack in the door. The church is blazing with candle light. He can see people – he’s not sure how many, but it’s got to be at least fifty, he guesses. Some stand around the perimeter of the church, on guard. The rest are kneeling, praying in the centre.
A gun spits somewhere close behind them, then Vera appears, looking a little dishevelled. “There are guards all round here,” she reports in a whisper. “I’ve taken out the ones I’ve found, but if we’re going in, we’d better think of something fast.”
At that moment a flash of light fills the church, making the doors glow under its intensity. And Sam’s lips unconsciously begin to move.
“I have called you for one purpose,” he says. “Freedom – mine and yours.”
“Guess who’s just turned up,” Ned says, stepping back from the door. “And he’s got the baby.”
Bullets ring off stonework. They strike the lake, throwing up small plumes off water, filling the air with their sound until the whole cavern appears to be shaking. One of Lacasse’s men screams and arches backwards, blood spurting from his throat. Another leaps over his body and continues firing. Greg ducks down low and runs, swinging round to fire as one of the six men turns in his direction. Bullets strike the ground by his feet and he jumps the last half metre, landing heavily beside Marie-Claude. Rolling over her to protect her with his own body, he prepares to fire again.
There is no need. The last of the men falls to the ground, the gun sliding from his hand. Greg picks himself up slowly, offering his hand to Marie-Claude. Thankfully, she is unhurt.
“Was that necessary?” he asks Lacasse.
The policeman puts away his gun. “Believe me, these people would have killed us all.”
“I believe you,” Daniel says. He tries to smile, but the stench of blood catches in his throat. “Can we go now?”
Marie-Claude shakes her head. “You can’t!” She looks at Greg, and then at the assembled group with wide, frightened eyes. “He’s going to do something terrible,” she says. “He told me. He’s got the baby, and he’s going to pretend to kill him so that someone called Sophia will try and stop him. And then he’s going to kill himself and her. He didn’t say how, but he means it – I know he does. Those men were supposed to take me out of here when it was all over.” Tears overflow across her cheeks. “Greg, when he kidnapped me, I was afraid for myself, but he’s never hurt me. He said I reminded him of Sophia, that was all. Only, today he say that if he couldn’t have Sophia, he didn’t want anything else. You’ve got to stop him.”
Swahn, white-faced from the shooting, steps forward. “He won’t have to do anything to kill himself and Sophia. Proximity will do it – and the explosion could destroy everything in the area.”
“You have laboured in bondage under me,” Sam says. “And I have laboured in the bondage of desire for the one thing I cannot have. Tonight, we will all be free. It will be something that no one will ever forget – they will see it all over the city and they will remember us.”
A shout comes from one side. Vera tenses, drawing a knife. But Louis puts up his hand. “Wait.”
Slow silence settles over them all. In the darkness a woman comes walking.
“Hello Louis,” says Sophia.
Rage tightens in him. He jerks his head in a nod of greeting. “Abadie has your child.”
She smiles – a faint, terrible smile. “I know. I’m going to get him back. Will you come with me?”
9pm 28th December.
Greg, Daniel – the sewers.
Vera, Ned, Sam, Louis – the Sacre Coeur.