The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


Saturday 8 February 1997, 4:30 pm

Seeing Vul and Sampson at the door of Hawkcraig House, Brian picks up the camera equipment and starts towards them. Vul spots the sudden movement and turns quickly to Hamish Doonie.

"You see that over there, Hamish, pal?" he says, pointing at Brian. "That ain't me, that ain't Sampson here. That's the real enemy, that's the friggin' Highland Company for you, spying on your house, your wife, your baby. You see that Brian Dellis, you know who he really works for. And I ain't so sure about his friends either, especially that old woman he's got with him..."

Trembling, the young woman clutches Hamish's arm. "What does he mean?" she wails, on the verge of tears. "What's happening?" Inside the house, the baby's cries grow louder and more insistent.

"What's your kid's name, lady?" Vul asks. "I never had a kid of my own, not yet, but I had this nephew once, loved him. They blew up my brother's car the morning he tried to take his kid to the park. It haunts me, lady, and not much haunts me. Take this money, buy something for your kid, tell him he's got an uncle Vul... or use it to buy smokes for Hamish here, what the hell."

The woman shrinks away from him as though bitten. Hamish stands protectively in front of her and gives Vul a defiant stare. "Get off my land – both of you - and don't let me find you here upsetting my wife again, do you hear?"

Vul isn't ready to leave yet, however. "I'll just stick around for awhile, if you don't mind," he says, casually ignoring Hamish's pathetic attempt to threaten him, "to make sure Tom gets that note. I don't expect you to invite me in, the porch'll do. Oh, yeah, one more thing: here's a license plate some fishing fool pulled up from the ocean. You know who it belongs to? Give it to Tom. Maybe he knows..."

The baby's cries escalate into anguished wails. The woman tugs at Hamish's arm.

"I will tell my brother you called," Hamish growls. He snatches the plate out of Vul's hand and slams the door in his face.

As the door closes, Vul and Sampson hear another voice, interspersed with the baby's cries, chattering away in a language neither of them recognize.

Vul sits down on the porch. He waves at the approaching Brian. Brian gives him a curt nod. Vul gives Brian the finger.

"What the hell was that all about?" Sampson demands. "What's your business with Tom Goonie?"

Brian reaches them and looks at Vul. "Step aside, please," he says, quietly. Vul doesn't move. "Step aside," Brian repeats, even more quietly. He tenses. With a mocking smile, Vul lets him past. But his knock on the door brings no response.

He looks at Vul with disdain. "We have a film to make here, Dragna," he says. "I'd like to know what possessed Acorn to hire you onto this project."

At the vicarage, John follows the elderly woman inside.

"Indeed I would, Ms..."

"Mrs," the woman croaks forcefully, "Craig."

"Mrs Craig." John casts an eye around the kitchen. "I'm a private investigator assigned to investigate the death of Reverend Andrew McMillan."

"Are you? That's nice..." Tea-making forgotten, Mrs Craig wanders over to the table, sits down heavily and peers intently at the almost-empty whisky glass. She seems to have forgotten about John, too.

"What's your relation to him?" John asks.

Mrs Craig jumps, startled. "Who?"

"Reverend McMillan."

"I'm his housekeeper. Was. Oh dear oh dear, my poor Reverend." She begins to sob. "What kind of world is this, that a wonderful man like him could end up dead in such a way? And it was not by his own hand!" She opens her eyes wide and grabs the whisky glass. "No matter what they say!"

John is intrigued by this. "You mean it wasn't suicide?" he asks

"No! I mean it was foul play! Murder!" Mrs Craig drops her voice and looks around nervously, as though the murderer might be listening.

"That's a serious claim, Mrs Craig," John says. "Why would you think that?"

The housekeeper moves closer to him, almost falling off her chair in the process.

"It was Tom Doonie, I tell you! The Reverend was in a dreadful state for days before he died – he didn't have a civil word for anyone, and when he wasn't out walking alone, he was in the church, praying for all he was worth. And I know it was all about the Doonie boy, for I heard him say that Tom would be the death of him. Then he came here the day the Reverend died, and they had a fearful argument. He called the Reverend a thief! And when he left he slammed the door so hard, he set the china rattling. And before he slammed the door, I heard him say, as plain as day, that the Reverend should give it back, if he knew what was good for him. And then... just a few hours later... "

"What did the police say about this?"

Impulsively, Mrs Craig drains the last dregs of whisky from the glass and pours herself another drink. "I cannot tell the Constable."

"Why not?"

She raises the glass to her lips. Her hand is trembling. "Last Sunday evening I set to cleaning the church, for it hadn't been touched since the Reverend died. When I reached the altar..." Her face goes pale. "I had to give it a good old scrub. And then a panel in the side fell away. I looked inside." She looks as though she is about to be sick. "And there they were...."


"The Old Man's Fingers," she whispers, with a sob. "I knew then that the Reverend had stolen them. It must have been him, for who else could have put them inside the altar?" She fixes John with a desolate, despairing stare. "So you see, I cannot go to the Constable, for the Reverend's secret will be out. And he wasn't a bad man, you know... No, he was the kindest man I ever knew. He took me in and gave me hope when all was lost... What way would that be to repay him – if I were to let the whole world know that he was a – a thief?" She starts to sob again.

"Would you mind if I searched the house?" John asks. But even as he speaks, Mrs Craig lays her head on the table and falls into a stupor. He doubts that, when she wakes up, she will even remember he was there.

"I appreciate your cooperation," he murmurs.

He searches the Reverend's study first, but finds nothing remarkable – just church records, accounts, past sermons all neatly filed away; everything, it seems, in order. There is a folder of documents related to the youth club; a register of attenders includes the names of a Jamie Drummond, and Donnie Bonwick, the young barman at the Old Man's Arms. Donnie came top of the table tennis ladder last year, apparently. Lucy Bridgewater attended rather sporadically until three months ago, after which her name does not appear again. There is no mention of any of the Doonies.

At the back of the house, John finds what is presumably Mrs Craig's bedroom. He glances in the dressing table drawer – and notices something hidden rather ineffectively beneath a pile of woollen stockings. The five slender rods of stone can only be the Old Man's Fingers...

That evening, Miss Prism, Jake, John and Brian sit down to dinner at the Old Man's Arms. It is a rather uninspired affair; Sid seems distracted about something. At one point, the door flies open and Lucy strides in.

"Is that you, love?" Sid calls. He pops his head through the door from the back room.

Lucy pauses just long enough to give him a withering stare, then stamps up the stairs.

Sid grins apologetically at the party. "Kids, eh?" he says. "But who'd be without 'em?"

Then Sampson appears, heading out. "I've got plans," is all he will say. "But I'll be at the Sunday service if you need to tell him something." He gives Miss Prism a leering glance, and asks, almost casually: "Do any of you others know if SITU has any political motivations?" And then he is gone, with a friendly "See ya when I see ya."

Vul comes in not long after Sampson leaves. After sitting on the Doonies' doorstep for hours without success, he is not in a good mood.

"My grandmother Angelina would spin in her grave, God rest her soul," he remarks to the rest of the party, "if she caught sight of that table and smelled the odours rising off the food."

Vul eats at the bar and returns to his room. Wary that someone might try to sneak in during the night, he crumples up some sheets of newspaper and puts them in front of the door and on the window before to retiring to bed.

He is woken some time later by a rustling noise somewhere outside. He looks at his watch. Two a.m. He jumps out of bed and runs to the window, ready to defend himself. But he can see no one. The garden below is empty.

Later in the evening, Brian returns to Hawkcraig House, reckoning that the Doonies might be more willing to answer their door when Vul Dragna isn't sitting on the step. Anticipating the longest conversation he's had with anyone in a long time, he steels himself and knocks.

Again there is a long delay, then Hamish's wife appears, looking even more nervous than before. When she sees Brian she gives a frightened squeak and starts to close the door.

"No, wait – Mrs Doonie!" Coming here was difficult enough for Brian, he isn't about to let this opportunity slip. He smiles shakily at the young woman. "I'm sorry about what happened earlier. I'm Brian Dellis, cameraman and one of the researchers for this project." Hesitatingly, he extends his hand. The woman stares at it as if wondering what to do next, but at least she doesn't close the door.

"I'm Mary," she says, so quietly that Brian has to strain to hear her.

"In case you haven't heard," he continues, slightly reassured, "our group is here to film a documentary on this island, the people here, the history and current events taking place. Your family seems to figure prominently in the historical information we have on this place. Could you tell me what you know about your family's history here?"

"I don't know..." Mary looks nervously over her shoulder. "There's only me and Hamish here."

"Then maybe I could talk to your husband?"

For the first time something resembling a smile crosses Mary's face. "That's wee Hamish, I mean. The bairn." She sighs. "I suppose no one would mind if you... but only for a moment, mind."

She steps aside and allows Brian into the house. It is very dimly lit inside, and the air is filled with a damp and musty smell. As Brian's eyes adjust to the dark, his is attention is drawn to the impressive oak staircase that winds its way to the upper floors. Mary seems to notice the direction of his gaze.

"No!" she gasps. "Not that way! Follow me."

She leads him into the kitchen, where an old-fashioned, heavy wooden cot stands beside the fire.

"Is this your son?" Brian asks, trying hard to be sociable. A far-away expression on his face, he takes a look into the cot. The baby boy inside looks perfectly ordinary, but his behaviour is decidedly odd: his arms wave rhythmically and without rest, and his head twitches from side to side as though he is trying to listen to something beyond everyone else's hearing. His mouth is moving, almost as in speech.

"So what is it you'd like to know, Mr Dellis?" Mary says suddenly, in a high-pitched, silly sort of tone that sounds as if she is trying to draw Brian's attention away from the baby.

"Well, I'm interested in this old house of yours and its history. I heard it was once destroyed by a fire. Do you mind if I take a look around? We might decide to film here and I would like to look for possible locations."

Mary shakes her head. "I don't know much about the fire, except that it happened a long time ago. I can show you around the house, though, but we'll have to be quiet if we're not to... wake the baby."

It is clear that this was once a fine house, owned by wealthy people – Mary shows Brian extensive servants' quarters at the back, a huge dining room with dusty candelabras still standing on the table, a drawing room containing a broken harpsichord, a cloakroom filled, inexplicably, with dozens of rotting fur coats and capes. There is a well-appointed study lined with impressive oak bookcases, but every one is empty; the fireplace in this room is clogged with ashes. Every room, Brian notices, is crammed with unexpected objects: an ancient wash-stand in the drawing room, a set of bone china in the study, riding tack in the hall. It is as though the occupants have been hoarders for generations, or perhaps these objects have been moved here as other parts of the house have fallen into disuse – or maybe a little of both.

This quick tour of the ground floor complete, Brian assumes he will shown the upper floors next and starts to climb the stairs. But he manages only a few steps before Mary grasps his arm – then releases him just as quickly.

"Please come down," she begs. "You'll wake Ma. Please, I don't want her upset."

"I was just looking at these paintings," Brian says, pointing to one of the portraits that line the staircase.

Mary stares at the painting. "That's Ma's uncle Dougal and his wife Mary," she says, quietly. "She was my age, and carrying a child herself when the picture was painted. There were no more portraits after that..."

"When was this painted?" Brian asks.

"Before the Great War. It was a bad time..."

Brian guesses that she isn't talking about the War. "I heard about that incident," he says carefully, trying to judge Mary's reaction. "Angus Doonie and his four brothers were convicted of a strange murder."

Mary sighs. "Aye, it was a terrible tragedy. And whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair may have been, the innocent suffered most. Poor Mary – " She nods at the portrait. "She lost her baby, she was so upset, and Ma is still grieving, after all these years. She might seem like a strange old woman today, but she was once a just little girl who looked forward to having a wee cousin to play with."

Brian clears his throat. "I noticed a young grave belonging to an Angus Doonie," he says, trying to conceal his embarrassment. "Please, who is little Angus and what happened to him?"

Mary's eyes fill with tears and she grips the banister for support, her knuckles standing white. "My boy. His twin." She points towards the kitchen. "He... " She makes a strange choking noise. "Passed over before he was two months old."

"I'm sorry," Brian says awkwardly.

"Hamish blames himself," Mary continues, more to herself than Brian. She takes a handkerchief from her apron and wipes her eyes. "Hamish said it was a family tradition and Ma would be upset if we didn't. But now there are people with all sorts of weird machines up there, and Uncle Fergus says they've found radiation, and Tom told Hamish it must have something to do with what happened to the bairns – "

Brian tries to make sense of what she is saying. "Please – slow down. Why don't you start at the beginning and tell me what happened."

Mary's eyes open wide and she stares at Brian with something approaching terror. It is as though she has only just remembered he is there.

"Tell you?" she gasps. "No I can't do that!"

There is a muffled thump overhead. Mary looks up, startled.

"You must go now, please!" she says in a panicky voice. "Ma's awake and she doesn't like strangers."

Brian is about to speak, but is interrupted by a series of thumps crossing the floor of the room above.

"Please!" Mary hands are locked together as if in prayer. She looks genuinely frightened.

"Very well," says Brian. "But may I call again to film here?"

"Yes, yes." Desperately, Mary hurries him through the hall and out of the door.

Next morning, Vul sets off back to Hawkcraig House. Sampson joins him.

"If you gonna go around dissin' the whole island you better have some muscle with you," he explains. He looks admiringly at his own fists and adds: "I bet these people ain't never seen a Golden Gloves champion before!"

They have not gone far, however, before who should they see but Tom Doonie walking down the track towards them. Tom has clearly seen them, too, and pauses for a moment, as though deciding whether to run away or not. He carries on towards them with wary resignation.

"What do you want?" he grunts without grace.

"Sioux Sitch," says Vul. Sampson wonders what he is up to. "'Spider'. Hanging Grimston. The Green Dawn Brigade."

Tom looks uncomfortable. "What are you talking about?" he demands.

"If you want to know how I know," Vul says, "you better do what I say."

"I don't know what you – "

Vul interrupts him. "The Highlands and Islands Development Agency has a couple of subsidiary groups in America, and one of them played hell with some wetlands in Pennsylvania. I buried a couple of environment-busters." He pauses to let this sink in. "And those wetlands are as pure as ever. Ever since then, I've had it in for Highlands and Islands. So when I heard they were trying to take over this island, I got myself over here as part of a film crew so I can bury a couple more of 'em."

Tom snorts derisively. "The Highlands people in America? Prove it!"

"It seems to me," Vul continues, ignoring him, "that you're up here cleaning your shotgun while the agency boys are now at the beach, in their helicopter, diving off-shore, and doing whatever the hell they please." He pulls out his hand-gun. Tom gulps. "I got heavier stuff, too. We've got a common interest here. If an agency boy needs to be whacked, I'll do it. I got lots of experience." He gives Tom a questioning stare. "You ever killed anything bigger than a squirrel?"

"I – I – I – "

"Maybe you did. I got a plate that was part of a car, and nobody drives their car into the ocean. Who the hell's GTP? Maybe a company plate? Petroleum company? Good for ya if they're whacked and buried. But you don't sink 'em and then let the damn license plate float into shore... Ah, who cares about the plate. I'm sick of this island, sick of the slice of bread covered with tomato sauce and goat cheese that my innkeeper calls pizza. My eco-friends back in the States want action. I'm ready for some action. Are you ready?"

"Yeah, I'm ready," Tom says defiantly. Then he suddenly frowns and says: "Wait a minute – what was that plate again?"

Vul repeats the number. Tom gapes at him. "That's Clive Stokes' car – my mate from 'Lobster' magazine," he says, looking from Vul to Sampson and back. "He said he might be in trouble... What the hell have you two done with him?"

Next morning, Miss Prism, Jake, Brian and John make the short walk to St Margaret's to attend the morning service. There is a small crowd of islanders in the church yard, milling about and muttering among themselves. A few of them give the party members wary glances.

Brian spots Murdo among the crowd and walks over to him. "Captain Muir," he says. Like the other islanders, Murdo looks preoccupied about something, but he seems quite pleased at Brian's greeting. "Is it possible to rent your scuba gear and boat to go diving?"

"I'd be honoured, Mr Dellis! Your colleague Mr Hansen asked me earlier about making a trip out for him to take some shots of the island – so I can kill two birds with one stone." He attempts a weak laugh then turns it into a cough. "So to speak."

"Is there some problem, Mr Murdo?" Miss Prism asks, joining them and nodding at the islanders.

Murdo wrings his cap between his hands. "You could say so, you could say so." He lowers his voice. "These are dark and terrible days – not even a church is safe!"

"Safe from what?"

"The rumour is..." Murdo casts a furtive look back at his fellow islanders. "When the minister from Flannen Island arrived to lead the service this morning, he found the vestry in a terrible state – china smashed, prayer books and bibles thrown all over the room, order of service sheets ripped into confetti. And worst of all..." He lowers his voice still further. "It's said that someone – or some thing – left a message laid out in pens and pencils on the floor."

"What was the message?" Miss Prism breathes.

Murdo whispers his reply: "'LEAVE.'"

Miss Prism, Jake, Brian, John – St Margaret's Church, Harriestown
Vul, Sampson – The track to Hawkcraig House, Clachantyre
Sunday 9 February 1997, 10:00 am

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