The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Like a Thief in the Night
The woman lying on the hospital bed is small and looks very pale against the pillow. Various machines keep up a gentle beep and whirr around her – the only sign that she is alive.
“She could wake up at any time,” the doctor tells Eric, “or not at all. Physically, she is perfectly recovered.” He has the medical charts with him and flips through them as he speaks. “We thought at first the poor woman was suffering terminal cancer, which would explain the prolonged unconsciousness – severe trauma when she was already in a weakened state. But it turned out that what we thought was a tumour, here – “ he points to a shaded area on an X-ray – “is simply a growth of tissue. Perfectly benign. Now that the burns have healed there isn’t actually anything wrong with her.”
“May I sit with her a while?” Eric asks. The doctor nods.
“Talk to her. They do say hearing is the last sense to go.”
Eric closes the door firmly behind him when he is gone. Lowering himself into a chair with a sigh, he sits for a while, just watching the woman in the bed. “Anita,” he says. “Miss Rohinder. If you can hear me…”
She can’t. Of course she can’t. It will take more than just words to reach her now. Eric closes his eyes.
The image of the Grail comes to him at once. He holds out his hands to it. Insubstantial though it is, it floats within his grasp, warming his skin. He curls his fingers around it, trying to feel the patterns of its energies. Odd snatches of voices come to him. A woman calling for help; something stirring, wanting to be born.
The exact moment of healing passes so quickly that Eric has no sense of it. He only knows that it has happened.
“Well,” Anita Rohinder says from the bed. “Have you been sitting there all this time?”
For Adam Twitchin, special agent to boldly go where no middle-aged professor has been before, the summer is a grand holiday. He visits Sidestep weekly, sitting by his bedside for hours and chatting about nonsense. The fact that his friend never stirs does not deter him.
Several times, he makes the furtive trip to the safe house where Bennedict Riggs is hiding. Refusing absolutely to leave it (“They’ll be waiting for me the moment I set foot outside,”) he looks well, nevertheless. He’s put on weight and Twitch has to do some arm twisting to persuade Theo to provide some gym equipment. Threatening to release some embarrassing photographs of his nephew to the press finally does the trick. After all, it wouldn’t do for people to see the defence minister aged four and a half and dressed as a toy soldier.
Disguised as a crusty middle-aged professor, he pays a visit to a certain shop in London and comes out beaming, with a bag bulging with listening devices, fancy goggles, watches with pop up knives – he bought two of those, handy for shaving with when he hasn’t got a razor – and his most prized of all prized possessions, an inflatable dingy that folds down to the size of a small paperback.
Congratulating himself on a job well done, he gives Isobel a call to invite her to Lords.
“I’d love to come,” she says after her initial surprise. “But… Adam, I have to warn you. I’m pregnant.”
Twitch nearly drops the phone in shock.
“It’s Henry’s,” Isobel explains. “Well, sort of. His ghost appeared to me and…” She stammers to a halt. “Anyway, there we are. Edward arranged for the IVF and it worked first time.”
Twitch goes to Lords by himself. The cricket is fine and he has the best seat in the whole place, but he can’t enjoy it.
Some months later, sitting in a boat off the coast of Cornwall on the anniversary of his wife’s death, he feels very small and very alone.
It is Sam Hain who gives Mickey the information.
“I’ve found your daughter. She’s with a couple in Oxford. She’s attending the local primary school and seems to be doing okay. Here’s the address.”
Standing outside the gate, Mickey pauses. Years have passed since the Master’s creature snatched Holly. Will she remember him? Will she even want to go with him?
He has faced vampires, evil spirits, werewolves. He has stood before the Master himself and yet, now he suddenly finds his heart hammering. Shaking his head in annoyance he pulls open the gate quickly and strides up the path.
“My name is Mickey Thomas,” he says to the woman who opens the door. “I believe you have my daughter.”
She is about to speak when a girl comes into the hall behind him. She has grown taller, and her hair is longer too. She stares at Mickey solemnly.
“Daddy,” she says. Only then does she smile. “I knew you were coming. I’m ready.”
The woman bursts into tears. “She was playing at holidays today. She made us pack everything…”
(Extract from the Stanton Echo)
A protest rally brought local people together today as archaeologists prepared in earnest to excavate an entire arcade of shops in the village high street. The site, recently purchased by American surgeon and philanthropist Eric Alnes, is supposed to house an ancient burial mound.
Heading the archaeological team are TR Warren and Jane Tate. They say they are very excited at the prospect. Less excited are the local people who stand to lose the only shops for miles around. Pensioners especially will be badly affected.
“If Alnes calls himself a philanthropist, he should pay some care to how this sort of things harms the locality,” says a spokesman for Countryside Alliance.
Mr Warren apologises for the inconvenience. Locals are less than impressed – especially as the archaeological team have yet to turn up anything of interest.
“Come,” the white wolf says. Johnny sits up, pushing aside his sleeping bag. The moon is bright, the sky clear and cold. Vaguely he’s aware of his body lying where he left it, a discarded garment for the time being. He reaches out to the wolf and the two of them merge. For a moment the two figures are still visible, man and wolf, touching. Then there is only the wolf and the moonlight.
The spirit creature that is part Johnny, part something beyond him, stands up and shakes itself. Everything is different here. Still in the world, still seeing it, but through different eyes. The grass appears blue and flickering lines of light show where people are moving, breathing, living. Far away, the road is a red blur, a gash in the landscape. Johnny turns his back on it. His head lifts, ears lying flat as he tastes the night air. Howling just for the pleasure of being alive he crouches low, then springs. His claws catch in the fabric of the air and hold so that he is standing clear of the ground, running, running up into the starlight while the mountains watch, amazed and silent.
Isobel can’t take her eyes off the baby in her arms. He is purple-faced, bald, and when he looks at her, his blue eyes seem to see right through her to what she’s thinking. Yet, for some reason, she can’t help feeling that he is beautiful.
“Arthur Henry,” she murmurs, trying out the name. Arthur because her guardian asked for it, but Henry for her husband, with her now only in memory. She smiles. With the birth of this child, Henry’s death seems to have lost its power to hurt her. She still wishes she could see him, speak to him, but she knows he will always be with her. In her thoughts and in the child.
She hears footsteps behind her and turns. Edward Lloyd, her guardian smiles as he approaches. “How is Arthur today?”
“Fine. He’s fine.”
“He’s more than fine,” Edward says, holding a forefinger out for the baby to grasp. “He’s perfect.”
Andrew Weiser stands at the window of his small flat. His dog, Jakop is asleep curled up by the door. The television is on – some sci fi programme that is turning out to be less good that the trailers promised.
After the German mission, life is blissfully quiet. A few months at SITU’s new training HQ in London, perfecting his weapons skills, then back home to finish off his studies. He’s a fully qualified history graduate now. He ought to be pleased with himself.
Of course, life does become dull from time to time, but so what? At least there are no Ylids trying to kill him here.
A card stands on the windowsill, an announcement of a conference for the paranormal to be staged in Oxford at the end of the year. A scribbled note from Geoff Blaize accompanied it, strongly recommending that all agents attend.
He’d might as well, Andrew decides. Christmas in England. It’ll be nice.
December 23rd, 2000
“I now declare this, the final day of the second International Conference into the Paranormal, open,” Eric declaims modestly.
A smattering of applause goes around the lecture theatre.
The last conference ended in near disaster when an experiment into psychic ability went wrong, leaving several people needing treatment for severe burns. This week, organised and partly funded by the SITU agent Eric Alnes, has proved altogether more peaceful – and a sociable time from SITU’s point of view. Geoff Blaize encouraged as many people as possible to attend so it has been a time for catching up with old acquaintances, for exchanging news and wondering what SITU will do next. There is some talk of the Trismegistus Club, too, especially when people see that Anita Rohinder is present. One of the worst affected by the botched experiment of the previous convention, she was long months in a coma – so long that no one expected her to recover.
“They say Alnes had a hand in her healing,” someone mutters.
Agent Mickey Thomas hears and turns his head reflexively. The little girl sitting on his lap tugs at his hand. “Daddy, they’re thinking that they’d have liked her to stay asleep. They don’t like her much.” Her voice carries and he shushes her quickly. Holly’s uncanny ability to read minds still unnerves him. It must have been that that drew the Master’s creature to her, he reflects. Just as well the Master never found out about her or Mickey may never have got her back. He tries to hide the thought from her. At least she enjoyed the conference, he thinks, trying out different experiments, playing at mind-reading. And there have been other children for her to play with. Belle-Marie and Daniel’s daughter, and – the surprise of the week – the baby boy that Isobel Blyth arrived with.
“My son,” she announced proudly, holding him up for inspection while Edward Lloyd, her guardian, fussed around her.
“Born by artificial insemination, obviously,” Lloyd added, not wanting to cast aspersions on Isobel’s character. “We have high hopes of him. High hopes indeed…” He fell silent, staring off into the distance. Isobel shrugged and brushes away any other questions.
“His name’s Arthur Henry. He’s two months old and he’s doing fine. That’s all you need to know.”
Isobel is in the lecture theatre now, listening with rapt concentration while Arthur Henry chews on a bit of red plastic. Sitting next to them is a middle-aged gentleman dressed in a tweed suit with a feathered cap and, incongruously, a pair of dark glasses.
“Can’t be too careful, my dear,” secret agent Twitch mutters, raising the shades a fraction and peering under them suspiciously. “All sorts of funny people around these days.”
Eric has handed the meeting over to a plump woman who introduces herself as professor Harriet Joyce, an expert on Arthurian mythology and the grail.
“There are two possible explanations for the grail,” she begins without preamble. “The first is that the word is a mistranslation – ‘san gréal’ for sang réal’ which means royal blood. The story has it that Christ survived the crucifixion and later fled to France with Mary Magdalene, his wife. It is from his bloodline that the Merovingian line of French Kings was descended. The grail as a vessel, therefore, does not exist; it is the bloodline that the Knights Templar were hiding.” She pauses to smile. “Be that as it may, it is my firmly held belief that the Holy Grail is a real vessel and does have real healing powers.” Her gaze strays to Anita Rohinder as she says this. “It is not for me to say where the Grail is hidden at the moment,” she continues. “Suffice that it is safe. As to its powers…”
She suddenly realises that everybody has stopped listening to her.
A woman has walked into the lecture theatre – although ‘walk’ doesn’t come close to describing the grace of the action, nor the arrogant tilt of her head. She looks at everyone as if she owns them and walks as if she owns the whole planet. There is something about her so catlike that Ned Numenor, sitting in the back row, feels his artificial thumbs curl in on themselves. He glances quickly at his niece. Vera is tensed, eyes narrowed, looking as if she’s getting ready to challenge the newcomer to unarmed combat.
A ripple of conversation runs along the benches as a few people recognise her.
“Liza Petherton… model… Vogue and Cosmopolitan… say she went off the rails… boyfriend vanished…”
“She was on the French mission,” whispers Ross, who has spent some time going through old files. “No one knows what happened to her after that. She’s still officially with SITU.” A chill raises the hairs on his arms.
Others have felt it too. Edward Lloyd and Anita Rohinder are both watching Liza expectantly. Everything is quiet now, the sound of her stiletto heels the only sound in the room. No one even seems to be breathing.
Liza Petherton pauses centre stage and turns to face her audience. Her eyes are blue and cold as bits of ice. When she smiles, it is ugly, like a wound has opened up.
“You gave me your word,” she says slowly. She pauses slightly before each word, her voice resonating strangely. Harriet Joyce starts to edge away and stops, a worried expression on her face.
But Liza is not looking at her. She is staring into the audience. Her gaze seems to pick out SITU agents by turn and then comes to rest on Edward Lloyd. “You gave me your word. Help for help. And then you draw me here so what is mine can be stolen.”
A number of agents are shifting in their seats, Andrew, John Stone and Ross edging their hands to concealed weapons, Nora, Vera, TR and Greg tensing, ready for trouble. Behind them, Daniel is suddenly glad that Belle-Marie and Rhiannon aren’t here today. Matt watches Liza, frowning. There is something not right about her. Well, that is obvious, but it goes deeper than that, he feels. There is something else in the room with her, something foreign.
“I don’t like her, Daddy,” Holly whimpers.
Matt stands up. “Everyone, get out. Now!”
Liza winks at him and laughs.
The ceiling comes down.
Sudden chaos. People choking on white dust, blinded; trying to escape, trying to hide. Screaming. The first gun shot sounds – a crack like lightning in the enclosed space. Men burst in. They come through the door and the windows, swing down on ropes through the ruined ceiling. All of them the same, black clad, ski masks. Smoke billows, and a gas that burns eyes and throats and makes it impossible to breathe. Ross glimpses a gun levelled at his chest and kicks it out of the way. His own gun is in his hand, but there is too much smoke, too many people, to risk shooting. He dives at one of the black-clad figures.
Mickey pushes Holly under the table. For a moment he thinks he sees a wolf gliding through the smoke and then Johnny Stone is by his side.
“We’ve got to get people out of here,” he gasps. More plaster falls and he brushes it aside. “Come on.”
Another shot. Greg shoves Eric flat and goes for one of the gunmen.
Sam Hain scrambles to the back of the room. This is definitely not what he had in mind for a quiet week in the country, he thinks. He raises his head and blinks owlishly through the dust. He can see Andrew grappling with two men a few rows forward. He seems to be holding his own. Twitch appears briefly, brandishing his umbrella madly before he trips and fall flat. Sam decides it’s the best option, all things considered and curls up into a ball.
Nora and Vera find themselves face to face and pause, sizing each other up before two of the attackers rush them and they flatten them simultaneously. Ned watches his niece admiringly. Then he sees Edward Lloyd go down. He moves to intervene at the same moment as TR Warren. But before either of them can get there, another burst of gunfire rocks the lecture room. Isobel screams, a raw sound of grief and pain, and the attackers run.
Liza’s laughter shocks through the room. She is standing at the front, seemingly unaffected by the carnage around her. Her eyes are completely mad. Ross, standing, fires a shot at her. He’s sure he hits her, but she doesn’t move. The lectern where her hands are resting starts to smoulder.
“For your Lord will come like a thief in the night,” she sings. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and wisdom will triumph.” Light flares around her and she rises into the air, her hands outspread. She looks like an angel, or a goddess. Bullets fly but none seem to touch her. She ascends, until the cloud of dust and smoke hides her from view.
Gradually, the haze clears. The lecture theatre is a wreckage of broken tables, lumps of stone and plaster. People lie half buried: the lucky ones are already starting to drag themselves free.
Edward Lloyd is among the unlucky ones. Most of his chest has been blown away and he lies motionless in a steadily expanding pool of crimson. Isobel sits beside him, rocking herself, crying quietly. “The baby… They took the baby.”
“Not just the baby.” Eric hauls himself unsteadily to his feet and staggers to her. “We’d agreed to let Harriet show the Grail as the highlight of her presentation. It was behind the lectern. They took that too.”
The aftermath is unpleasant to say the least.
Five people besides Edward Lloyd are dead: an American couple there on holiday, a Dutch man and two students. Whether they were deliberately targeted or just unlucky is impossible to say. Many more are injured and need treatment for anything from shock and bruising to bullet wounds. Harriet Joyce was shot in the back trying to protect the Grail. She is alive but unlikely to leave intensive care for weeks.
Isobel, of course, is inconsolable and by the time the police have come in to take statements from everyone and by the time they and the paramedics have left everyone is too exhausted, too shocked for thought.
Blaize and Swahn arrive together late afternoon, spend an hour in furious discussion with Anita Rohinder and then call a meeting of all SITU operatives present.
The group file into the room in silence – fifteen of them in all.
“It’s bad,” Blaize says.
No one contradicts him. The only sound is Isobel’s quiet snuffling.
Blaize looks around at the assembled group. “We need to react to this fast, so no messing this time. Here’s what we know. Liza Petherton was being used by the Ylid Sophia. She is the Magdalene, the French Ylid. We engineered an alliance with her in August ninety-nine – our help in cloning her dead husband, Paul in return for her help in fighting the other Ylids. So far, the alliance has worked well. We hold the genetic material from her husband and while we had that she wouldn’t double cross us.”
“Except that she did,” Swahn reminds him quietly.
Blaize scowls. “In any case, outright force of this sort is not the way Sophia works. We assume she must have forged an alliance with another group. Why she turned against us is a mystery.”
“She said something was stolen from her,” Matt puts in. “Any idea what that was?”
“No. All we have of hers is her husband’s genetic material. Admittedly we did steal it, theoretically at least, but she’s had over a year to deal with that. It seems she was reacting to something stolen more recently, but there’s no way of telling what it might be. Assuming she was working with another group, though, their motives are clearer. Isobel, what do you know about your son?”
Isobel’s head comes up. “He’s missing…”
“Apart from that,” Blaize says with precious little sympathy. “According to Rohinder, your guardian believed him to be the White Alchemist they were striving to achieve, the perfect human. That could make him a possible target of other groups. The fact that they took the Grail as well indicates they knew exactly what was going on here.”
“Meaning there is a leak in the Trismegistus Club,” Swahn interrupts. “That is none of our concern, but retrieving Isobel’s baby is. As is tackling Sophia. According to our sources a woman answering to Liza’s description boarded a plane for Paris earlier this afternoon. Greg, Nora, Vera, Ned, Daniel, Ross and Sam, you will track her down there. We have booked you on a flight leaving Heathrow at seven pm.” He hands a sheet of paper to each. “Here are your mission briefings. They were hastily put together but they should suffice. Eric, TR, Matt, Twitchin, Isobel, Mickey, Johnny and Andrew will begin the task of tracking down Isobel’s baby. Mickey, you’ll need to decide whether to keep Holly with you or not. We can make arrangements to have her looked after. The same goes for Rhiannon, Daniel.” More briefings are handed out. “Is everything clear?”
To Operatives: Eric Alnes, TR Warren, Matt Culver, Adam Twitchin, Isobel Blyth, Mickey Thomas, Johnny Stone, Andrew Weiser.
Mission Objective: to locate and retrieve Isobel’s baby unharmed. To retrieve the Grail.
Secondary Objective: to determine the identities and motives of the group responsible for the kidnap and the theft, and to take appropriate action against them.
Note: appropriate action includes the use of lethal force if deemed necessary.
Resources: The Trismegistus Club has agreed that Anita Rohinder should accompany the group. Also, the medium Isabelle Kingston has offered any help she can. She lost her powers during the operation in Oxford, August 1998 but still has a great dept of knowledge to offer us.
Apart from that, you will have to rely on yourselves and each other. Speed is of the essence here. SITU will stay in close contact and will provide any extra help and back up you may need along the way.
Good luck – and happy Christmas.
December 23rd, 5pm