The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
9pm 28th December.
Greg, Daniel – the sewers.
Vera, Ned, Sam, Louis – the Sacre Coeur.
Greg looks from Andre to Daniel to the woman he still hopes will marry him. “We’ve got to get everyone out of here, then. We could get buried alive down here.” He speaks fairly quietly, not wanting to start a panic. He looks around at the waiting policemen. “Come on,” he calls, “we need to get back up to the surface now.”
Daniel quickly steer Lacasse to one side. “Abadie has a bomb. How soon can you have the area evacuated?”
“Within an hour. But surely he would not destroy the Sacre Coeur?” Lacasse sees the look on Daniel’s face and his mouth sets in a grim line. “Very well. I will give orders for evacuation. But let us stop this madman.”
He begins talking into his radio, urgently. Daniel leaves him and runs to catch up with Greg and Marie-Claude.
“What you’ve just told us is very likely enough to save his life, and Sophia’s,” Greg is saying. “At the very least it gives us a better chance to do that. But we will need to hurry.”
“We should get Marie Claude to safety,” Daniel says. He looks at Greg. “Uh, you’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?” Greg glares at him. Daniel shrugs. “Sorry, but I know what you Yanks are like – you can never be too sure.”
Greg manages a laugh. With gentle pressure, he urges Marie Claude on, and at the same time punches up Ned Numenor’s number on his cell phone. “Ned, this is Greg. We have Marie-Claude, and the Paris police have just killed a squad of Abadie’s men. If what Abadie has told Marie-Claude is correct, Abadie is going to pretend to kill the baby in order to lure Sophia close enough to him that they will both explode. If that happens, the baby and probably that entire section of town will go up with them. What he’s really aiming at is trying to kill Sophia, because if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want anyone else to. It’s possible that Abadie was lying to Marie-Claude, but I don’t think so. We’re on our way, but we may not be able to get there in time. It’s probably all up to you.” Turning to Daniel, he says, “That’s all we can do for now. Let’s hope they can come up with something.”
“Mmm…” Daniel frowns. “Sophia might be willing to throw her own life away, but I don’t think she’ll sacrifice the child.” He shoots a glance at Swahn. “I don’t suppose anyone actually has any dubhium with them? That might make things a little easier.”
“What’s going on?” Louis asks Sophia.
Behind him, Sam shakes his head. “I never knew I could speak Yliddish.” The words taste strange in his mouth, as if he’s eaten something foreign that doesn’t quite agree with him. He doesn’t feel any different. He rubs his hand over his cheek and pats his ample stomach. No, everything still the same, alas. “Do I look any different to you?” he asks Vera hopefully. She grins at him and shakes her head.
Ned’s phone rings, making them both jump. He answers it. “Yeah, right.” He glances at Sophia. “You’d best hurry, then, she’s already here.” Putting the phone away, he turns to the others. “That was Greg. Apparently, Abadie is going to pretend to kill Sophia’s baby to lure her in. And then they both explode, taking half of Paris with them.” He turns to face Sophia directly. “Is that what you want to happen?”
She stares back, unblinking. A single tear slides down her cheek. A sense of loss steals over the group so subtly they don’t realise what has happened until they see one another weeping. “Mon pere,” Louis murmurs. Everything is lost, he realises. His apartment, all his treasures, his own good name if it ever comes out that he was the one responsible for the church bombings. Vera wipes tears away angrily. She doesn’t care that her parents died. It was their own fault.
Ned heaves a sigh. “Shame how things have turned out,” he comments. Blaize nods.
“You’re right. This whole mess is all my fault. I’ve let you all down.”
“What’s going on?” Sam asks, genuinely confused. He looks at the others and a slow grin of understanding creases his round face. Paul’s blood has affected him in more way than one, then. Maybe he’s got some sort of link with all Ylids now: a link that offers him a measure of protection. And maybe the link is a two way thing.
Sophia brushes Louis’ hand aside and starts towards the church. Louis lets her go. Sam swings around quickly.
“Everyone out!” he snaps, straining to project his thoughts past the locked doors of the church. “Into the tunnels – now!”
He hears the words echoed in Paul’s voice, feels Paul’s surprise as people get up and run to the secret doors. He finds himself beginning to shout to them to sit back down and he suppresses the words, fighting against the Ylid. His mind squirms, caught in Abadie’s grip like a rat in a trap. His strength is bleeding away.
Then Blaize is there supporting him, their two minds together against Paul’s. Even that is barely enough. Sam’s head thumps with a blinding pain that makes him think his brain is about to explode, but somehow he holds on.
Sophia’s grip on the group loosens. Vera darts after her but Sophia holds up her hand and she is brushed aside.
“Sophia,” Louis shouts urgently, “we will come with you. But wait a moment, let us deal with Abadie first, then we will get your child back.”
The Madonna pauses. “If I do not go in, he will kill my child.”
“He won’t,” Sam says, breaking free of Abadie’s grip for a moment. “It’s a trick. Vera, Ned, we need to get inside and lock the crypt doors.” He wonders what the blast radius will be if the two Ylids do meet. Or if, indeed, now that he is imbued with Ylid blood, he will be affected. It’s a pity nobody’s got any dubhium.
“Dubhium,” Blaize says in surprise. “Of course I have some. Why didn’t I think of it?” He makes a grab at Sophia. Ned and Vera run to block the church doors.
“We can help you,” Louis says. “You can take your revenge on Abadie without harming yourself or your child.”
“Why should I trust you?” Sophia asks. But, for the first time, there is a look of hope in her eyes.
“This way,” Marie Claude instructs. “We can get into the Sacre Coeur through the tunnels.”
Greg takes her hand as they hurry on. “This may not be the right time,” he says, “But it may be that I’ve never told you clearly enough how much I need you. Andre can tell you that I’m a changed man since I met you. But it may also be that Paul needs you more, and only you can make that decision. But never doubt that I need you as well as love you.”
Marie-Claude blushes. “I know.” She squeezes his hand and leans closer to kiss him.
Daniel grins to himself and falls back to join Swahn. “So, what exactly is going on between you and Blaize?” he asks.
Swahn grimaces. “A difference of opinion. Blaize, believe it or not, was always the one for taking risks, not thinking of the consequences of his actions. I had no love for the Ylids, but I’d sooner take things slowly than rush to kill them all at once. Slow and steady and make sure each step is achieved before taking the next one. Blaize was spreading himself too thinly, taking on so much that he couldn’t keep track of everything. It was leaving holes in our defences. When he started pressing for an alliance with Sophia as well I could see everything starting to fall apart.”
“So you decided to take matters into your own hands,” Daniel says.
“Something like that.” Swahn sighs ruefully. “Not that I did any better at it than Blaize. I thought if I cemented our alliance with Sophia it would be one less thing to worry about. I had no idea that the Tri Club were going to betray us, of course. Or that the Watcher would get in on the act to steal Arthur.” He frowns. “I presume he must have made some quick alliance with Sophia when her child was kidnapped, lent Sophia some of his agents or something.”
“Although the Watcher had been recruiting people long before the kidnap,” Daniel points out. “Which means he must have known about it in advance. He has links with Abadie through Harvest so he could have found out what was being planned, and made plans of his own to take advantage of it.” He pauses to look at Swahn. “What’s going to happen now?” he asks. “When you get back to London, I mean? Who’ll be running SITU from now on?”
“Blaize, I guess.” Swahn shrugs. “I took a gamble and lost. Ironic, when I’d always criticised Blaize for taking unnecessary risks. Funnily enough, I did want to help Sophia. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – not even an Ylid.”
Lacasse suddenly hushes him. “I can hear something up ahead.”
The whole group falls silent. In the dark tunnels they can hear shouting. Daniel pushes forward. “Sounds like trouble. Come on.”
Vera charges through the doors of the Sacre Coeur, gun in one hand, knife in the other. The place is in chaos, people shoving to get through a pair of narrow doors behind the altar, while Abadie alternately shouts at them to come back and to get out.
At the sound of the main doors opening, Abadie swings round. The sight of his scarred visage, twisted further in rage, is almost enough to make Vera hesitate. She grits her teeth and aims her gun at him. “We’ve come for the baby. Hand him over.”
Abadie’s eyes narrow sharply in surprise. “Hand him over?” He laughs mockingly. “Who are you that I should obey you?”
“They are my servants,” Sophia says from the door.
Abadie tenses at her voice. He spares a quick glance at the last of his followers fighting to get through the door to the tunnels and dismisses them with a wave of his hand. He makes a small bow. “My lady. I did not doubt that you would come, though it surprises me you have involved others in this.” He steps back to the altar and picks up a small, blanket-wrapped bundle. “Here,” he says. “Come and take him. Take him from my arms and I will let you have him.”
Sophia stays where she is. “That will be death for both of us.”
“Then you may have him back in pieces.” A knife appears in Abadie’s hand. Vera starts forward and he shakes his head. “If any of you try to touch the child, I will kill him now.”
Sophia holds out her hands. “Give me my son.”
“Come and get him,” Paul says nastily.
She smiles. With the candlelight casting a halo about her golden hair, Louis thinks she looks like an angel – like the virgin Madonna herself. She walks forward hesitantly, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Her hands tremble slightly. She has probably never trusted a human with her life before. Louis wonders what she’s feeling, what she’s thinking.
She reaches Paul, gazes into his disbelieving eyes for a moment then carefully lifts her child from his arms. “You are a fool,” she says softly.
Paul’s sharp intake of breath disturbs the candle flames. “How?” he asks.
The tunnels below the Sacre Coeur are full of confused noise, with people pushing in both directions.
“You are all under arrest,” Lacasse shouts. “You will remain here until I give you permission to leave.”
Greg shoves his way past several French dignitaries. He vaguely recognises some of them, but he doesn’t stop to take a closer look. His priority is getting to the Sacre Coeur.
“For Gawd’s sake, get me to the church on time…” Daniel sings behind him. He touches Greg’s arm. “Can you see light up ahead?”
Greg can. He breaks into a run.
Sophia stands serenely, holding her baby. Paul lets out a howl of despair and falls to his knees by the altar. And Greg and Daniel step through the door behind the altar into the church.
Greg pauses, relief flooding through him. So Blaize had the dubhium serum on him, he thinks. Even so, this crisis is far from over, and could still result in death. He walks forward, past Paul, and joins the rest of the SITU group. His footsteps echo unnaturally loudly in the taut silence.
Sophia steps back slowly, stopping when she finds herself next to Louis. “He burned your home,” she says softly. “Now you have your chance for revenge.”
Louis’ jaw tightens. He doesn’t move.
Greg holds up both hands. “I don’t know all of what led to this between you, but while it can’t be unimportant, at this point it isn’t important enough to matter,” he says. “The two of you need to focus on what really does matter.” Sophia and Paul both look at him. He pauses, drawing in a breath. “If the human race has learned nothing else in all the millennia of its existence, it has learned the importance of romantic love. The country that the two of you have fostered and nurtured has, with my own fledgling land, raised that standard as high or higher than any other culture. That must say something fundamental about the both of you, and you in particular, Sophia.” He meets her gaze, his expression is carefully.
“Paul,” he says, turning back to the creature at the altar, “you’re ready to destroy the person you most love, as well as her child, your most beloved creation, your most loyal servants, and yourself because she has rejected you. That may be very romantic, in the most precise sense of the word, but it’s fundamentally a rejection of love in favour of its very opposite. You want to be remembered, but wouldn’t you rather be remembered for the greatness of your heart rather than for allowing it to turn to stone within your breast?”
“What do you know about pain,” Sam mutters beside him, his lips moving in time with the Ylid’s.
“Move than you think,” Greg counters. “Look at me – I am far from the same man I was a few years ago. I have put that hatred and bitterness behind me. And that is because I found Marie-Claude.” He reaches back to take her hand. “Sophia, so far as I can tell, everything bad that has happened to you has arisen from love gone wrong. It need not stay wrong, though, and you can do more than anyone else to set things to rights. Yes, your child was taken from you, but now you have been reunited. Yes, your tower was destroyed, but now you know why: because you alienated the love which Paul felt for you. Yes, you were profoundly wronged by that destruction, but surely you must be able to feel some compassion for what we now know moved him to do such a thing? Paul believes that you do not love him because he is disfigured. That you care only for the physical form, and nothing for what is within. Paul himself said so, only hours ago.”
Paul raises his head and laughs. “Do you really think we can fall into each other’s arms as if nothing has happened? She rejected me the moment I was born. I came close enough to her ideal to remind her of what she’d lost and because of that she couldn’t bear the sight of me. Look.”
He stands up. Calmly, with one hand, he removes his mask.
There is a long pause.
Beneath the mask, Paul’s face is perfect, an exact likeness in every detail of the portrait that Louis has seen so many times. The exquisite lines of his features are made painfully beautiful by the contrast to the twisted ugliness that is all that was visible before.
“If you want my advice, you’ve been wearing the mask on the wrong side of your face,” Vera says dryly.
Abadie shakes his head. “The ugliness she can bear. Not the reminder that I could have been her husband. What future do we have? She sold my soul in return for a perfect son. That-” he points to the child in Sophia’s arms, “will replace me.”
“I never intended that.” Sophia’s voice sounds strange. It has lost its edge of command and gained a kind of intimacy, a hint of warmth that thrills through Louis’ soul. But she is not looking at Louis. Her eyes are fixed on Paul’s face and there is a curious mixture of pity and affection in their expression. “I need you,” she says. “You know that. The contract I signed was only to come into force after your death. I never intended to let you die so it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“But he will die.”
The new voice makes them all turn as one. Lacasse steps through the door behind the altar. There is a gun in his hand. “Paul Abadie, I don’t know who or what you are, but you have been manipulating our city for too long. I’d arrest you on charges of terrorism and mass destruction if I thought you’d give yourself up. But as it is…”
He fires. As if the single shot is a signal, more men crowd in through the doors. Vera shoots one of them then is forced to dive for cover as they all open fire. Sam immediately dives after her, yelling as a bullet grazes his leg.
“Stop it!” Greg shouts. “This is madness!”
Vera fires back, felling three of the policemen in quick succession. But more crowd in to take their place. Paul Abadie staggers under the hail of bullets. If he was a normal man they’d have torn him apart within seconds. As it is, his hands leave smears of blood on the altar. His knees buckle.
Sophia screams, thrusts her baby into Louis’ arms and flings herself over Paul’s body, protecting it with her own. Bullets strike her but appear to glance aside. Lacasse walks forward. “You are as guilty as he is,” he says coldly. He steadies his gun in both hands, aiming at the back of her head. Vera lunges at him. The gun goes off and they both fall.
“Get out of here,” Ned snaps to Sophia. “Quickly.”
She nods and raises her head to look up at Louis. Her face is streaked with tears. “Look after the child,” she says, “I’ll come back for him.” She lifts Abadie to his feet. He sags against her.
All the candles in the church suddenly flare up, blinding everyone.
Sam gropes his way over to Vera’s side.
“I’m alive, you fool,” she says, sitting up. “Where’s Sophia?”
She is gone – so is Paul Abadie. One the blood stains on the altar and the child that lies sleeping in Louis arms remain to show that they were ever there. Greg runs a hand over his eyes. His head is thumping. Maybe love will triumph after all, he thinks tiredly. Maybe not.
Lacasse is dead, his neck broken. Several of his men gather round.
“What’s going to happen now?” Daniel asks.
One of them shrugs. “He was killed trying to apprehend a murderer. He will receive a posthumous commendation. We will find Abadie – and the woman. Now we know who we are looking for our job will be easier. You can leave the child with us, we will see that it is taken care of.
But when they look around, Louis and the child have vanished, too.
It takes several weeks and many hours of legal wrangling before the affair is finally wrapped up. Vera is charged with murder, then the charges are dropped, then it comes to light that she is wanted for the murder of one Henry Blyth in England. Finally, she and Sam disappear one night, leaving a note saying they are going on an extended holiday and may be some time.
No one pays much attention to the Frenchman who moves into the quiet village of Rennes-le-Chateau. Recently widowed and left to bring up his baby son alone, he rejects all offers of help with the same sad shake of his head. Poor man, the women says. Still mourning his wife. Yet he has the child to console him, and time is, after all, a great healer. Louis hears them gossiping outside his door as he opens the morning’s post. There is a letter from Greg, telling him of the rescue of Isobel Blyth’s baby, and suggesting that the two children should be allowed to meet. Louis wonders how Greg found his address. Maybe he ought to move again, he thinks. But no, he needs to be here, ready for when Sophia chooses to come home.
The pain inside him is not so raw when he thinks of her now. In time, maybe it will fade altogether. Somehow he hopes that it won’t. He needs this connection, this feeling that she still matters to him. He needs to believe that he will see her again.
“…And now comes the part where I must make a speech about my friend’s better qualities,” Daniel says. He pauses to grin around. “I can only tell you what you already know. Greg is a brave man. He has been through much in his life and he has come through it all changed for the better. He thoroughly deserves the love and support of someone like Marie-Claude. I would like to be the first to wish them a long and happy future together.”
There is a smattering of applause as people raise their glasses. Daniel sits down and squeezes Belle-Marie’s hand. A long and happy future, he thinks. With Sophia and Paul vanished and other Ylids dead or severely weakened, maybe there’s even a chance they’ll see it now.
“Have you thought any more about what I said?” he whispers to Greg. “About you and Ned taking over at SITU?”
Greg nods. “I think it’ll depend on what we find on Nauru. His fingers slide to touch a brown envelope in his breast pocket. “It’s a strange place to be going on honeymoon, but I must admit I’m curious to see what’s there.”