The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Like a Thief in the Night
Oxford, 23rd December 2000
TR Warren finishes reading through the mission briefing and laughs tiredly. “So we are going after the Holy Grail. My archaeology colleagues are never gonna let me live this down if they find out. Should I go buy a fedora and a bullwhip?”
“Berets and garlic, that’s what we want.” Twitch, who has barely glanced at the briefing is convinced he’s on the Paris team. “Ah, la belle France. Marvellous. See you at the airport, chaps.” He dashes out.
“Uh, Twitch…” Mickey begins. He is too late.
Andrew seems inclined to follow him. “He has a point. We ought to start with wherever this French Madonna came from.”
“Leave it to the other group,” Blaize tells him. “As far as we know, Isobel’s baby hasn’t been taken out of the country. Your priority is to get him back.”
“Yes, tell us about the baby.” Matt’s voice drips with sarcasm as he cuts in. “The White Alchemist stuff. That’s clearly why you’re showing this sudden interest in the welfare of one of your field operatives, isn’t it? Or do you usually send eight agents after missing children?” He peers at Blaize, eyes narrowed. “Doesn’t it seem a little strange that, after decades – centuries – of failed attempts, the Tri Club should suddenly get so excited about little Arthur Henry? How do they know they’ve hit the jackpot this time? Have they taken a ‘shortcut’? I’m just speculating of course, but is it possible that someone could’ve loaned them some ‘Ylid essence’? Sophia certainly seemed to think the baby was hers for the taking…”
He stares at the two SITU leaders closely. Neither shows any sign of guilt. Blaize shakes his head firmly. “Paul’s essence has been guarded carefully. If the Tri Club wanted any, they’d have had to steal it from us and that would have been impossible.”
Just like it was impossible for someone to steal the Grail, Eric thinks ruefully. Carefully guarded in a cardboard box under a university lectern.
“Who is SITU’s new contact in the Tri Club?” Isobel asks, taking interest in the meeting for the first time. “Who can we trust now. Now that…”
Blaize spares her the effort of finishing the sentence. “Rohinder is our main contact now. I presume we can trust her. We’ve not had much to do with her yet, so only time will tell that.”
Matt turns to Isobel, his voice softening slightly. “Isobel – where exactly did you go for the IVF treatment? Can you remember the names of any staff there? Was there anything… odd about their methods, or your pregnancy itself? Stigmata?”
“No.” She looks dazed, miserable. “I went to the Bradshaw Clinic, here in Oxford. Edward arranged it all. He…” She has to stop a moment, fumbling in her bag for a handkerchief. “Edward did everything. The doctor’s name was Nigel Bradshaw – he owns the place, I guess. Everything was normal. I got pregnant first time, there were no side-effects.” Her cheeks flush with sudden colour. “Are you saying that Arthur isn’t human? You don’t know him – he is. He’s an ordinary little boy. There’s no reason anyone would take him.”
Eric lays a hand on her shoulder soothingly. She barely glances at him. Across the room, Mickey finishes a whispered conversation with his daughter and stands up. “Don’t worry Isobel,” he says. “We’ll get him back.” His face is set. He knows only too well what it is like to have a child stolen. He looks down at Holly who stands clutching his hand, fearful and excited. “I love you,” Mickey murmurs to her.
“Blaize,” Matt says loudly, “I think you need to check out that genetic stuff from Sophia’s dead partner. “Could anyone have tampered with it? And while you’re at it, check out your allies too. Let us know what you find, hmm? For example, what exactly did you learn from the ‘alliance’ with Sophia – other than ‘don’t trust an Ylid’? Any new insights into Ylid behaviour? Anything you’d like to pass on to us? Anything useful at all?”
Blaize stiffens slightly. “What we know is that Sophia is a recluse. Her whole aim throughout history has been to bring her husband back to life. She set up the Prieure de Sion, she controls the French arm of Harvest. She communicates through dreams and visions and considers people important only insofar as they are of use to her. Her greatest power lies in the manipulation of the mind, playing on fears and sorrows to turn people to her side. Her alliance with us was a reluctant one which she kept to partly because we had her husband’s genetic essence, partly because she saw us as her best chance of recreating him. She’s never been known to use or encourage force of arms – not since the Templar movement which vanished centuries ago. A holy war is one thing, gunning down innocent people at a public gathering is another entirely. It’s not her style.”
“It is now,” Matt says flatly. He stands up. “I suggest we meet up again in a couple of hours time. Dr Alnes, I presume you have a suite booked in some luxury hotel. Shall we use that?”
Eric refuses to take offence. “Very well.” He gives the address. He is softly spoken and his voice has a musical quality to it, adding to the general air of benevolence about him.
Matt moves to leave the room but TR stands up, blocking his way. “Look I know we’re in a hurry, but before we start, I just want to take a few seconds and find out who I am working with. Last SITU mission I was on, we had one party member who jeopardized all our lives by planting explosives beneath us and another one who went crazy. If you folks could just tell me real quick who you are, where you’re from, and what you do for a living, it’ll make me a lot happier. I’ll start, if you like. My name is Theodore Warren, but I always go by T.R. I’m a journalist from California with a background in archaeology. I already know that Eric is a doctor from New York. What about the rest of you?”
“Introduction time,” Matt mutters. “Matt Culver. I’m a psychiatrist.”
“One thing TR didn’t mention,” Eric puts in mildly, “is that the two of us were here at the first Psychic convention in 1998. That one ended on a sour note, too.” He waves a hand. “Sorry, I’ll let you carry on with the introductions.”
“Andrew Weiser.” It is the first time Andrew has spoken and everyone turns to look at him. “I’m a student and I have army connections back home in Norway. I think we should track down the men in black and crush them.” The word ‘crush’ comes out with a certain degree of relish.
“Nice idea,” Mickey agrees. “I’m Mickey Thomas. I’m – uh – a businessman. My daughter, Holly, will be sticking with us.” He gestures in Isobel’s direction. “Isobel’s from Surrey. She’s reliable. And our friend who ran off to Paris and should be back later is Professor Adam Twitchin. Doesn’t live in quite the same universe as the rest of us most of the time, but he’s all right.”
“John Stone,” Johnny says, finally. “I’m British, but I’ve spent a fair bit of time in America, travelling and studying.” He flashes TR a smile. “Come to think of it, we had people setting off explosives and going crazy on our last mission too, so we have something in common already.”
“Oh buggery.” Twitch stares for a moment at the main terminus of Heathrow Airport then turns his car around. Why did Blaize say they were going to Paris if they weren’t? Someone could have told him. “Who’s going to foot the bill for the disguise, that’s what I want to know,” he mutters. His words are lost in the roar of a plane taking off. He sighs and adjusts his beret. Well, while he was this close to central London he might as well do something useful. He swings out onto the road, lighting a foul-smelling filterless Gitane and filling the car with smoke as he goes.
The phone rings only once before it is snatched up.
“Sergeant Harris?” TR says, “This is TR Warren of the Phoenix Sun. We met in Oxford some time ago – I was covering the last Psychic Convention, remember?”
There is a slight pause. “Yes, I remember. I read some of your articles – good stuff. So tell me, do you cause trouble at all the conferences you attend just to get a story, or is it coincidence these things happen around you?”
“Pure coincidence. Listen, I need information. Anything you’ve got on the attack so far. Strictly off the record, of course.”
“Of course.” He pauses again. TR can hear voices, and other phones ringing in the background. “We’re pretty busy here at the moment,” Harris says. “It’ll have to be quick. Our main suspect is a woman called Liza Petherton. She’s fled to France. Interpol are working on finding her. Apart from that we have a group of fifteen to twenty men, all dressed in black and with black ski masks, all heavily armed. We have reports of two vans leaving the scene, and we found them abandoned in a city centre car park. Licence plates A435 BS4 and W289 CR5. We’ve no idea who might be responsible. Maybe a terrorist group, but God knows why. We found a baby’s bottle in the van, and a soiled nappy, nothing else. Is that any help?”
“Some. Can you give me the address of the car park?” TR writes it down. “Thanks. If I give you my mobile number, can you call me if anything else comes up?”
Eric finds Anita Rohinder sitting alone in the university canteen. She has a mug of tea in front of her and is stirring it slowly and thoroughly. She looks up as Eric joins her. “Dr Alnes. What can I do for you?”
“You can tell me about Sophia,” he says. “Matt thinks she had reason to believe Arthur Henry was created using Paul’s genetic material. Is this true?”
“Paul as in Sophia’s dead husband Paul?” The teaspoon doesn’t stop moving. “No. Ylid and human biology are wholly incompatible, as Sophia has already found out. And that is putting aside the fact that such an experiment is strictly forbidden. Taking shortcuts can only result in harm, we know that. Slow and steady is how we work. Slow and steady.” The spoon moves in rhythm with her words.
“I most admit I know very little about Sophia,” Eric says. “I’d always thought Sophia was the bride of Christ. Is this Paul supposed to be St Paul?”
Anita shakes her head and laughs. “No. The names of Sophia and Paul have been linked throughout history, but that is only because of the myth she has created. She may have met St Paul, may even have influenced him – he changed his name from Saul to Paul after his dramatic conversion, remember – but I believe he was an ordinary man. The original Paul was an Ylid, killed by his own kind, they say, long before our historical records began. Sophia managed to save some of his genetic material and has been trying to recreate him ever since. Sad.”
“So where did the genetic material used to create Arthur Henry come from?” Eric asks.
“From Isobel and her husband, of course.”
Eric raises his eyebrows in surprise. Anita has the decency to look at little shame-faced. “Sophia isn’t the only one who saves genetic material, I’m afraid. Henry was a valued member of our community. We were delighted when Isobel agreed to go ahead with the pregnancy – we’d been trying to persuade her for months.” She takes a mouthful of tea and pulls a face. “Cold. I’ll have to get another one.”
“I want a black BMW 5 series,” Mickey says. “The fastest in the range. A bulletproof vest for myself, and one for Holly. Two semi-automatic pistols. One sawn-off repeating shotgun. In the meantime, you can get me a list of all the people invited to the event, and the names, addresses and details of the dead people.” He speaks in a business-like manner, his tone of voice suggesting he will accept no argument. Blaize heaves a sigh.
“Very well. The weapons are a last resort, mind. The last thing we want is another shoot-out. I’ll print off the list of names for you now.”
The full list of names seems to be a random sample of people from all over the world. Mickey recognises the names of some SITU agents on it – the rest mean nothing to him. Edward Lloyd’s name tops the list of the dead. Next come Enid and Martin Salzman from New York, in Oxford as part of a holiday touring the UK. The Dutch man is listed as Dirck van Ufford, also on holiday. The two students are Fiona Ness and Emma Darton. Known to be friends, they were sitting together when the gunmen struck. The only other piece of information is that Emma had written several pieces on UFOs for the Fortean Times, a well-known magazine of the unexplained.
Mickey stuffs the papers in his pocket. It is a start, albeit a small one. Maybe Edward Lloyd’s house will contain more information.
In the small chapel, Isobel sits alone. The stained glass windows throw warm streaks of colour across her face. She has a map spread out in front of her and she is dangling a small piece of red plastic over it on a string, letting it swing freely.
She must have done something terribly wrong for God to have so many awful things happen to her, she thinks. Both her parents, her husband and her guardian all dead, and now her baby taken from her. She bows her head. “Forgive me,” she whispers. “Whatever it is, forgive me. And let Henry forgive me too. His spirit has been with me before. May he be with me again to help me through this time.”
‘Fear not.’ The words are in her mind. ‘Do not be afraid, for I myself will help you, declares the Lord. Because you are precious in my sight I will take you by the hand and lead you in the right paths.’
Isobel opens her eyes. The piece of plastic is still swinging slightly, but the circles are smaller. Centring on Wiltshire.
Isobel watches it a moment more. Then, breathing a prayer of thanks, she scrambles to her feet just as Mickey and Holly come in, with Johnny Stone in tow. The sight of the little girl holding her father’s hand makes her insides tighten with pain again and she draws in a sharp breath, scarcely aware that John has spoken.
“Edward’s house?” she says, understanding his request at last. “Yes, I was going to go there myself. I’ll take you.”
Medical people are dull, Matt decides, after an hour on the phone. The Bradshaw Clinic appears to be beyond reproach. It has been operating in Oxford for ten years and last year achieved a fifty per cent success rate. Nigel Bradshaw himself has an outstanding record as a doctor, a specialist in gynaecology and the latest infertility techniques. Edward obviously wasn’t taking any risks over Isobel – using a reputable clinic with a good history of successes.
Then, scanning through the records, Matt comes across something that makes him stop. When Nigel Bradshaw set up his clinic he did so with the help of a loan from the genetics corporation Harvest. As far as Matt can tell, the loan has never been repaid.
Twitch sits himself down and beams broadly at his son. “Well, Theo. It seems I need your help again. Matter of life and death, you know. Mind if I smoke? I have some rather revolting French cigars to finish.”
“Why are you wearing a beret?” The junior MOD minister looks distinctly hostile. “Dad, if this is one of your games again…”
“It’s no game.” He sloshes whiskey into a glass. “I was looking through my scrap books today, you know. Some interesting pictures. Like you being led away by two policeman for suspected possession of hash.”
“Dad!” Theo contrives to look outraged. “I won’t give in to blackmail, you know. Anyway, it was only a caution.”
Twitch hums to himself and relights his cigar. “That’s all right then. No doubt your constituency selection panel took it into account, hmm..? Details are probably still in a police archive somewhere. Well, as long as it’s all out in the open…”
Theo sighs heavily. His expression says he’s been through all this before. “All right,” he says. “What do you want to know?”
“Marty, this is Eric Alnes. Sorry to bother you, but I need some information about the Tri Club. Anything you know about them at all – names, addresses. Anything you can think of will be useful. This is rather urgent so might I impose on you to call me back as soon as you possibly can. Many thanks.”
Eric sits back and stares thoughtfully at the wall. The Grail is broken and yet he is able to draw on its power to heal. He knows he still is – in the aftermath of the havoc in the lecture theatre he had plenty of time to prove to himself that the power was still there. Inside him. He wonders if he is able to sense the Grail, and he wills his mind to go blank as he does when he’s healing, picture the chalice in front of him, just out of reach. He is tired; the image keeps wavering and slipping. After long minutes of trying he gives up.
“I know what it’s like to lose power,” a woman’s voice says. Isabelle Kingston sits down beside him. “You were trying to do something then, weren’t you? I could see you focusing, but it wouldn’t come, whatever it was you wanted.” She looks at him shyly. “I’ve lost everything. I need a new spirit guide but none will come. Maybe the key to it lies in what happened today, or maybe I’ll never see the spirit world again, but if there’s anything I can do to help…” Her voice trails off. “There probably isn’t, is there? But if I can help, I will. I just wanted you to know that.”
The home of Edward Lloyd is in a leafy suburb of the city. Isobel opens the door and stands back to let the others go in first.
“She doesn’t want us to be here,” Holly whispers. “She’s very sad and she wants to be on her own. I think we should stay with her.”
Mickey squeezes her hand. “So do I, pet.”
They go into the office together. Everything is immaculate, a computer on the desk, a filing cabinet, shelves stocked with books in alphabetical order. An photograph of Isobel and Henry stands on the desk. Isobel recognises it – it was taken years ago. Years before all this started. In silence, she motions to the two men to look around.
Edward Lloyd was a tidy man who kept notes on everything. A few minutes work on the computer reveals a full set of breeding records with names of everyone who was born as a result of the Club’s program, including SITU agents Martin Keyes and Vera Goodchild. Births show a steady pattern of six to eight a year, going back over the past century. Ratings are given against each name, presumably the results of tests carried out. Keyes and Vera are both marked as failures. Edward Lloyd, Henry and Anita Rohinder are all down as successes.
“See if you can find out anything about the other people who were killed,” Isobel says. Mickey searches without success. There is no mention of them on any of the files he can find.
“What’s this?” Johnny asks, pulling a thick book out of a drawer he has forced. Isobel snatches it out of his hands. Her face is suddenly wet with tears.
“It’s his journal. His journal.” She opens it at random. “Trying to persuade Isobel, but she wants some sign from Henry. There’s nothing more I can do; I can’t force her into it… Isobel still resisting. Still hoping she’ll change her mind… Isobel has agreed. Everyone delighted. Anita (newly recovered, what a relief!) suggests the Bradshaw Clinic and it looks perfect. Next step, then, to talk to S. Happy mothers all round. Will phone the clinic tomorrow and fix a date.”
Isobel closes the journal firmly and holds it tight. “I think we have what we’re looking for.”
Calling round his circle of contacts, TR puts together a rough picture of what happened. Two vans were seen leaving the college straight after the attack. At 9:45am, two dark blue vans pulled up directly outside the lecture theatre. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty men, disguised and armed, got out, got themselves into position, including some of them on the roof and set explosive charges. All this, apparently, without anyone outside seeing a thing. It was, of course, a cold day, and very close to Christmas, so there were few potential witnesses around.
After the attack, the men got back into the vans and made their escape. Several people remember seeing them leave the area of the college. The vans were found in a nearby multi-storey car park. Security cameras on that level mysteriously stopped working for the whole morning. Police suspect a terrorist group or some sort of organised criminal gang and have no idea regarding motive. Attempts are being made to find them and baby Arthur, and police have checked all local hospitals and have begun a plan of door to door enquiries, so far with no positive result.
John Stone crouches in the middle of the multi-storey car park. The smell of oil and of tyre rubber is all around him. People, too. Men – he can’t make out how many. A faint, milky smell that has to be the baby, and a flowery hint of a woman’s perfume. Not Sophia. Her scent in the lecture theatre was strange, half alien. This one is far more ordinary. Just a woman who wears cheap perfume.
He eases forward, keeping close to the ground. The strands of scent separate, blur, fade. Too much time has passed now, too many other people have been here. The sound of a car startles him and he stands up quickly. Cars and people: that is all he can smell now. The last of it fades away and he walks back to the exit.
“Find anything,” Andrew asks, lounging besides the door.
John shakes his head. They were here: he is certain of it. But where they went is a mystery he cannot solve alone.
Someone has hung a string of fairy lights over the mortuary door. Very bad taste, Isobel thinks. Then the nurse pulls back the sheet from Edward’s body and she forgets all about them.
She is acutely aware of the silence of the place, the cold, of each sharp little tap made by the heels of her shoes as she walks closer, step by step. It seems that everything else in the world has stopped moving – everything except the swaying edges of the long, white sheet. Edward’s hand lies across a fold in the cloth. Isobel looks down at him and smiles. It is easy to touch him, easy to pretend that he is sleeping here and it will only take the lightest brush of her fingers on his to wake him.
The hand she is holding is cold. In her mind, Isobel reaches out to Edward. Don’t leave me now. I need your help. There is no answer, only a great sense of emptiness and loss. Wherever Edward is, he is, for now at least, beyond her reach.
Sighing, Isobel steps back. Edward’s hand falls, stirring the sheet into motion again.
Eric’s suite of rooms is every bit as luxurious as Matt expected: several comfortable armchairs, thick curtains (pulled firmly), a leather topped desk with a mah jong set laid out. Antique ivory and worth a fortune, Mickey thinks, earning himself a reproving look from his daughter.
“So here you all are,” Twitch cries, bumbling through the door. His beret is lopsided, his cheeks red from the cold and he’s waving an unlit cigar in one hand and, for some reason, clutching a bent and dripping baguette in the other.
Mickey winks at him. “Paris in December would have been nice.”
“Certainly would have.” He sidles up to TR. “Stick close to me young man, I’ll look after you. So you’re an archaeologist hey… my my whatever next. I’ve been to Haiti, don’t you know… not afraid of a few Ylids when you’ve been chased by the zombies, oh no.” He lapses into whiskey-laden mutterings that everyone ignores. TR watches him dubiously, but Isobel and the rest seem to take the ramblings in their stride.
It is left to Matt to call the meeting to order. “Liza Petherton was quoting from the Bible. It’s been years, but I think it was Revelations. All very apocalyptic – and so near the Millennium too. I can’t help wondering if there’s more to this than just Sophia…” He looks around at the group thoughtfully. “Who were the black masked men? Knights Templar? Airforce 2A? Freemasons? And that business with the burial mound at Stanton Harcourt – is that connected with what’s happened? Any bright ideas?”
“Yes,” Andrew snaps. “Launch an aggressive hunt, find the people who did this and make them pay.” He is itching to get his hands on a weapon. “We’re not going to find them by sitting here – we’ve got to go out and look for them.”
“As soon as we know where to look,” Johnny agrees. “What do we know so far?”
Quickly, people pool information, with Twitch adding at the end that although the official story is the attack was carried out by unknown terrorists, the MOD has its doubts and are not ruling out the possibility of religious fanatics.
“Theo said all the weapons were standard army issue so it must be an organised group with access to that, um, sort of thing. This trismtything club… anyone know anything about… bit baffled myself…” He passes Isobel a handkerchief. “There, there my dear. Nothing to worry about…”
“The Trismegistus Club is a breeding club,” Eric tells him patiently. “They were trying to breed the perfect human. It’s been going on for at least a century. Edward and Henry were both part of it.” He pauses while Isobel blows her nose. “Do we have any indications that there was a leak at the Tris Club before Anita Rohinder recovered? If not, she’s our most likely candidate. We should keep an eye on her.”
“According to Lloyd’s diary she’s certainly involved,” Mickey agrees. “But with what? Holly, did you manage to pick anything up from the minds of the attackers?”
The little girl frowns. “No… I don’t think they liked the lady much. One of them was thinking about a man – a big, tall man.”
Matt smiles encouragingly at her. “Do you think you’d be able to help us find Arthur? Maybe Isobel has some photos to help you, um, get an impression.”
Isobel has a whole album full of photos. Holly looks at them all before shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Daddy, I don’t know how to look for him. If he was close by, I might be able to do it, but I don’t know where to start looking.” She looks close to tears.
9pm 23rd December 2000
Twitchin – Matt says to you: “D’you remember those women in Middlechase? I wonder if Harriet would be willing to help us?”