The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


Sunday 9 February 1997, 9:45 pm

"Would you care for a jelly baby, Chief Inspector?" Jake asks, hoping to gain the others time to think.

"Hmm, don't mind if I do. Delicious... Don't I know you from somewhere?" he adds, then shakes his head. "No, I suppose not."

Miss Prism has been listening to the Inspector with as much patience as she can muster. As he pauses to munch on the jelly baby, she exclaims: "Now Inspector, you've had a very busy day with these loutish Americans – " She smiles apologetically at Brian. "And you're absolutely right to want to get to the bottom of this business. If you must know, we are investigating UFOs and psychic phenomena. We have reason to believe that there has been an alien invasion here in Scotland and that the Doonie family are the unfortunate victims of body snatchers..."

Stewart raises his left eyebrow.

"Oh yes, I'm quite serious," Miss Prism continues. "We're going to make a film of it, with all this modern equipment. Oh I do hope that those ill-mannered fellows have not spoiled our plans. Mr Hansen seemed quite agreeable too. Probably taken by the Zoots. Oh yes." She knits frantically. Knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one... "Chief Inspector, I wonder, I'm feeling a little tired and tomorrow I must get up early to take a stroll along the beach. I intend to do some rock-pooling you know. Crabs. Fascinating creatures. The hermit crab especially. How do they manage to drag those shells along?... Ideal target for aliens in one sense. Ho Ho."

She gathers her knitting and has disappeared up the staircase before anyone has time to object.

"Well, well," says Stewart, thoughtfully.

Realizing the Chief Inspector is unlikely to believe they work for the media now, Brian says, quickly: "We're investigators hired by a private consulting firm. Our employers are concerned about the activities of HIDA and the environmental effects of what they may be doing."

Stewart looks interested. "Indeed? And who might your employers be?"

"They're an investigation firm. That's all I can say. They wanted us to check out HIDA's activities. And we've uncovered evidence that some of what HIDA is up to may be harmful. At the very least, they may be dumping toxins or radio – "

"We think they may be guilty of illegal dumping," Jake summarizes, interrupting Brian.

Stewart helps himself to another jelly baby. "But why would this... 'private consulting firm' hire a group of – no offence meant – amateurs for their investigation? If you're right and there is illegal activity here, why not go through the proper channels?"

"The problem is," Jake replies, "our employers don't have the resources to investigate every story, especially about something like the HIDA. Obviously once we have concrete evidence we'll go to the authorities."

"And as far as Dragna, McBride, and Hansen are concerned, I'm as mystified as you are as to why they might have been hired," Brian adds. "They're dangerous criminals, even unstable, Inspector. I was grateful when you arrived and I'm glad they are caught. I helped, remember?"

"Ah yes, you're the one who tipped off MacDuff about Vul Dragna." Stewart says. "But something still puzzles me: who sent the note?" Seeing Jake look confused, Stewart explains: "Earlier today PC MacDuff received an anonymous note warning that Vul Dragna was running around threatening the people of Clachantyre and basically out of control. Did this have anything to do with you, Mr Carter?"

Jake shakes his head. Stewart shrugs, gets to his feet and takes yet another jelly baby.

"Just one for the road... Well, it's getting late and, as your Miss Prism says, this has been busy day. I'll be back in the morning. I'll need more details about your employers to verify your story, of course. And maybe we could take a look at this 'evidence' you've found?"

Miss Prism stops hurrying as soon as she is out of sight of Chief Inspector Stewart and climbs the stairs at a more leisurely pace; this cold, damp air is doing her knees no good at all. She is dismayed to see dark stains on the wallpaper – presumably where that dreadful man Mr Dragna nailed poor Mrs Craig's hand to the wall – and Police Incident tape across the door to his room. As she wonders how she can possibly sleep soundly in her bed tonight, she is disturbed by the soft sound of weeping from the stairs leading up to the top floor. She puts her head round the corner, and sees Lucy sitting on the first step, her face in her hands.

"Can I help you, dear?" she asks, kindly. Her heart goes out to the poor girl – what a tragedy that a child should be exposed to such terrible deeds (in her own home, too!), and without a mother's steady hand to guide her. "Please tell me what's wrong. I would like to help you."

Startled, Lucy looks up at her, and for a moment it seems she is about to speak. Then she shakes her head suddenly and jumps to her feet.

"No, I'm sorry... thanks, but there's nothing you can do..." she mumbles, and runs upstairs into her room, locking the door behind her.

The next day, Miss Prism gets up early and enjoys tea, toast and a boiled egg for breakfast. Then, keen to escape from the horrible murder scene, she takes out Reverend McMillan's guide to rockpool animals and goes for a wander.

As she passes through the village, she hears the mournful tolling of a single church bell, and recalls that this is the morning of the Reverend's funeral. Deciding to attend as a mark of respect, she walks to St Margaret's, where she finds the funeral party filing out into the graveyard. There are more people here than she has seen in one place on Clachantyre before – presumably it is most of the island's population. Among them, she recognizes Cameron Frazer, the Drummonds, PC MacDuff and Donnie the barman from the Old Man's Arms. None of the Doonies are present, except for a pale young man who looks so similar to Tom that he must be the third brother, Dougal.

As she approaches, some of the islanders turn to stare at her, and she senses a most unpleasant atmosphere of distrust. "...murderers, all of 'em..." she hears someone mutter. "...they should lock 'em up and throw away the key...", "...shot her in the head and butchered her like an animal, they did...", "...no, hanging's too good for the likes of them..."

But then everyone's attention is distracted as, without warning, a roar fills the graveyard and a helicopter swoops low over the church. The logo of the Highlands and Islands Development Agency is clearly visible on its side. It hovers for a moment, sending hats and scarves billowing into the air, then speeds westwards.

Fergus Drummond shakes his fist after it. "Have ye no respect?" he yells.

"Now, now, calm yourself Fergus – " PC MacDuff starts to say.

But Cameron Frazer steps forwards and lays a firm hand on Fergus's shoulder. "Remember where you are, man," he says.

Fergus wipes his eyes. "Will you tell those oil developers to explain themselves now, Mr Frazer?" he asks, hopefully.

"Don't worry yourself, Fergus," Cameron says. "I'll sort this out."

MacDuff shoots Cameron a venomous look that is quite at odds with the Constable's usually friendly manner. Miss Prism knows enough about human nature to recognize bad feeling between two men when she sees it...

Sid seems happy enough to let Jake, Brian and Chief Inspector Stewart watch the videotapes in his sitting room at the Old Man's Arms. He appears to be under some strain after recent events, but is trying to make best of things.

"Of course – anything I can do to help," he says. "And Mr Carter, Mr Dellis – if you could see your way to giving us a credit at the end of your film... Nothing flashy, of course: just 'Technical help courtesy of The Old Man's Arms, Clachantyre, fine ales, bar meals, coach parties catered for' – that sort of thing, you know." He manages a weak smile.

Stewart sits back comfortably in Sid's armchair while Brian runs the tapes, dipping occasionally into a bag of Werther's Original toffees. He seems to be enjoying himself.

The early shots taken on the 'Walk Round Clachantyre' are nothing remarkable but then, after a shot of the HIDA divers coming out of the sea, the film cuts to a view of the headland taken from the beach, and for a moment it seems that either the tape is damaged or Sid's VCR is broken. At times the picture is all but obscured by a bright beam of light that seems to flow from the headland straight up into the sky, in a series of pulses of varying duration. The longer they watch, the more convinced they become that the light – or whatever it is – is not a fault, but something on the film itself...

"Good Lord, what is that?" Stewart asks.

Brian realizes he has seen something like it before – the pulsations of light on the film seem to match the pulsations he saw in the underwater tunnel.

There is a knock on the door and another detective enters. "We've had those photographs developed," he says.

"Thank you, Sergeant Iles." Stewart takes the prints and spreads them on the coffee table.

Brian points at the grating. "This looks relatively recent, Inspector. I think HIDA is engaged in illegal dumping here. This may be proof. If you want, I can lead your people back to this site."

"And what is this?" Stewart asks, examining a picture of the strange rune-like writing.

"I don't know," Brian admits. "What do you make of it?"

"Let me take a look," Jake says. He studies the picture closely. The runes appear to have an Icelandic origin but, if this the case, the script is a very ancient and strange variant. "My colleague Derek Lang at the Institute of Scandinavian Studies should be able to help with these," he concludes, realizing this problem lies somewhat outside his own speciality. "I could call him and describe them."

Stewart seems amused. "Or why not use my fax?" he offers. "This may be Scotland, but we have at least heard of the twentieth century here, you know!"

Brian finishes by showing the film of the deformed fish on the beach. "Maybe your people can help make some sense of this, Inspector," he says, " – and bring some heat on HIDA."

Stewart's eyes narrow. "I will look into it. And if there is any heat to be brought, Mr Dellis, be sure to leave it to the professionals. In the mean time, I have to remind you all not to leave the island. Though with the ferryman in hospital," he says, grimly, "that would be difficult."

"I suppose you'll be needing to stay here for a while yourself, Chief Inspector," Jake says, "to clear up the problem with Mr Dragna and so on."

"Yes indeed," Stewart replies. "In fact, I have already reserved a room in this fine establishment – and I'm rather looking forward to the investigation. Clean air, open spaces – what more could a city policeman wish? Though," he adds, rattling the empty toffee bag, "a confectioner's would be nice."

"I think I can help you there, Inspector!" Jake exclaims, his eyes opening wide.

When the funeral is over, Miss Prism meets up with Brian, and together they visit the Heritage Centre. They find Cameron Frazer in his office.

"Mr Frazer, have you heard the good news?" Miss Prism asks. "The Fingers have been found!"

"The police have them right now," Brian adds. "They were found in the vicarage. Word is that Rev McMillan had them and his housekeeper was protecting him."

Cameron looks flustered. "Yes, I'd heard the Fingers had been found, but I didn't know McMillan was involved."

"Do you know what interest the Reverend might have in these artefacts?" Brian asks.

"No, of course not," Cameron says. "As far as I know, he was only ever interested in wildlife, not archaeology. Are you sure he was involved?"

"Well, the police are dealing with it now, so I am sure we'll soon find out," Miss Prism says. "Mr Frazer, do you know whether any odd phenomena, such as phantom voices and the like, have been associated with the Fingers – or with the Old Man dolmen?"

Cameron shakes his head, an amused smile on his face. "If the Fingers do speak, I've never heard them! From the time they were found until recently, they were on display in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but I'm not aware any reports of 'odd phenomena'. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, I am very interested in those Fingers myself," Miss Prism replies. "And you are clearly an expert on the subject."

Cameron blushes slightly. "I wouldn't quite put it that way – I like to think of myself as an interested amateur. I've always been fascinated by relics of the past; understanding the way we used to live can tell us so much about ourselves, about our present, even about the future. Archaeology has been my hobby since I was a boy."

"Have you lived on Clachantyre all your life?"

"Oh no, I'm as much a foreigner as you are – though I've lived here fifteen years! I used to live in Inverness. I was sent to Clachantyre on Council business, met my future wife here, and never looked back..." A shadow suddenly crosses his face, and he stops talking.

Miss Prism changes the subject. "How's your hand, by the way?" she asks innocently, noticing that the hand Cameron had kept hidden in his pocket yesterday is bruised and swollen over the knuckles. "You seemed to have hurt it last time I saw you."

Cameron shoves the hand back into his pocket and grimaces. "It's fine, thank you. Just an accident... with the car."

"Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear that. Cars are such dangerous things. I ride a bicycle myself. Much safer, and so much kinder on the environment."

Brian shows Cameron the photograph of the writing in the tunnel. Cameron seems very interested when he learns where it was taken.

"Under the cliff, you say? This really is most fascinating. No, I've never seen anything like this on Clachantyre before. Can we get these translated? I should make a call to Edinburgh and let the Museum know – maybe we could get some funding for an excavation, though that wouldn't be for some time of course..." He hands the photo back to Brian. "Mr Dellis, you really must take me out there. I'd love to see it for myself."

Jake pays a visit to the Post Office to replenish his store of jelly babies and get some toffees for Chief Inspector Stewart. He finds Mrs Drummond sitting with her feet up by the fire as before.

"Hello dearie!" she greets him with a friendly smile. "More jelly babies is it? You know where they are... Would you like a cup of tea?" Her mood becomes a little more sombre. "I'm sorry about that nasty business up at the farm yesterday. Poor Mary and Hamish have suffered hard times lately, and sometimes they just get a little bit... overexcited."

Jake nods his head reassuringly. "I understand, Mrs Drummond."

She brightens. "What a fine old time this is, eh? All these police and guns and your friends being dragged off to the cells, and poor Mrs Craig..." She shudders. "Clachantyre has never known anything like it! – though I suppose you English people see this every day? ...Still, I love a good funeral. Did you see the Reverend's this morning? Ah, what a fine send-off." She pauses to take Jake's money for the sweets. "I see your television station has sent some more people – are they here to replace Mr Dragnet and the others?"

"What do you mean?" Jake asks.

"I saw two strangers walking on the coast this morning. A woman and a man. An odd looking type he was (that's why I thought of you), with a bald head and an eyepatch. I could not tell what they were saying, though – they were speaking some funny foreign language, but not English. So they're not your friends, then?"

Jake wonders...

After the Museum, Brian and Miss Prism visit Dr Mary Fitzallen's surgery. They are greeted by a middle-aged woman wearing a smart tweed suit and a monocle on a chain around her neck.

"Dr Mary Fitzallen," she introduces herself, giving them both a firm handshake. "Pleased to meet you."

Brian visits Murdo first, glad to see the old sea dog still alive. He shakes his hand and apologizes for what happened. Murdo coughs and splutters.

"Don't know I can remember what happened, exactly," he mumbles, with difficulty. "Last thing I saw was Mr Dragna on the shore... then suddenly I'm here and there are police asking me questions. I do not know the answers. I'm so tired..."

He stops speaking abruptly and lies there with his mouth open, snoring softly. Brian guesses he is under sedation, and decides it might be better to come back later when Murdo has recovered a little more.

John is in a room by himself, a police guard on the door. Brian waits nearby, and when the guard gets up to go to the bathroom, he slips inside. John is just about conscious, but very pale and lying amidst a tangle of well-worn looking tubes and cables. He opens his eyes as Brian enters.

Brian looks at him, his expression hard. "How could you?" he asks, bitterly.

"It was the big score," John replies, a half-smile on his lips. His voice is weak and his breath rasps as he speaks. "Do you think I ever gave a damn about SITU? Money is all that matters, and who will pay me most for what I know. Knowledge isn't power, Brian – it's wealth."

Brian does not hide his disgust. "You killed an old woman, execution style. What threat was she to you? You mutilated her. You were going to kill me!" He pauses. "We came here to find the truth, but you wanted to turn it into a fortune hunt. You made it into a charnel house. You're a piece of shit."

John starts to laugh, but it quickly turns into a wheezing cough. "You think you're so smart, Brian," he gasps. "But you've got a surprise coming. I sell everything I learn to whoever will pay for it. What do you think I might have sold about you? And who might want to know?"

John's words sound chilling, but Brian ignores them. He turns to leave. "Too bad the Brits don't have the death penalty," he says. "But when word gets around the prison you're going to about how you're into killing old ladies, I'm sure you'll make many friends. Your love life may make a turn for the interesting, as well. And if you ever get out of jail," he adds, "don't let yourself see me again. For it will be the last thing you ever see." And as he speaks the words, he means them.

Meanwhile, Miss Prism engages Dr Fitzallen in conversation. The doctor is quite happy to chat idly about subjects such the weather and the advantages of a nice tweed suit over current fashions, but when Miss Prism tries to ask her questions she becomes evasive.

"We can't talk here," she says, lowering her voice and nodding surreptitiously at the police guard in the corridor. "Why don't you come to my cottage this evening – bring your friends, too, if you wish." She taps the side of her nose. "I have something to show you that I'm sure you'll find interesting..."

After leaving the surgery, Brian visits the Police Station. MacDuff is not there, but the mainland officer on guard doesn't object to Brian seeing the prisoners when he explains who he is.

Ignoring the cheap hood Sampson McBride, Brian squats down in front of Vul's cell and stares at him, listening carefully. Vul does not respond; his mind is clearly quite completely gone – or if it isn't, he is a fine actor.

"By this blood you join us, by this blood you leave us; there's no other way," he mumbles, saliva running from his mouth and down his chin. "Any more chickens round here, I'll eat 'em. Don't go waving those chickens at me. A goat's the same as a chicken..."

Tiring of this nonsense, Brian takes out the photograph of the runes in the cave and holds it up where Vul can see it but cannot grab it. Vul stares at it for a moment, then starts to giggle insanely.

"They'll find me one day!" he yells. "One day they will hear me, and then they'll come!" He dissolves into hopeless, hysterical laughter.

Brian gives up in disgust. "Have you heard anything strange from him?" he asks the guard as he leaves.

"Anything strange? It all sounds crazy to me!" the officer replies. "Chicken, goats, blood. Voodoo, sometimes. Then every so often he seems to get clearer and talks about his family and that girlfriend of his, the one he carved up in Paris. He says a voodoo man did it. Then he cracks up again and it's back to same old rubbish: he's trapped here, he can't breathe, he's waiting for them to come and rescue him. Whoever 'they' are." The guard shakes his head. "The man's a total nutcase, if you ask me, sir."

The party gather over lunch to discuss the situation.

"We should mention Mary Doonie when we talk to her doctor," Jake says. "We know something odd happened with Mary's child during or soon after the pregnancy. Maybe she'll be relived that someone knows?"

"Miss Prism," Brian says, "you said 'those two boys' were led astray by Vul Dragna. Well, Dragna is a psycho, McBride is a weak-willed fool and Hansen is mercenary scum, and I don't know what SITU was thinking, assigning them to an investigator team. We have several assaults and at least one murder because of them. When this is over, SITU is going to hear from me on this." He shakes his head and snorts in disgust, still upset by John's betrayal. He liked the man and respected his ability; he'd seemed a bit impulsive with the HIDA people on the beach, but Brian would never have believed he might resort to murder...

"Why don't you go talk to Mary Doonie again, Brian," Jake suggests, hoping to dispel his dark mood. "I'll go with you."

"Yes – we need to find out why she didn't christen her child," Miss Prism adds. "As well as what really happened at the house."

Still feeling on edge, Brian interrupts their deliberations. "Can I ask you both why you joined SITU?" he asks, reflectively, then produces a small magnetic chess set from his jacket and lays it on the table. "Do either of you fancy a game?"

But before anyone can reply, Donnie the barman puts his head round the door. "There's a telephone call for Miss Prism. Long distance."

Intrigued, Miss Prism takes the phone.

"Hilda? Hilda? Is that you?" shouts a voice she knows all too well. "Can't hear a bally thing – where are you, on the moon?"

"Hello Agatha." Miss Prism wonders what her sister might want.

"Now listen here, Hilda. I've reversed the charges but I won't speak for long because I don't want to bump up your hotel bill any more than necessary – I know how strapped for cash you must be these days: why else would you agree to appear on television with that frightful 'Tammy' woman and her coarse accent and braying audience – or is that the other way round?"

"Come to the point, why don't you dear," Miss Prism says.

"The point? Oh my, yes. I just had to warn you, dear."

"Warn me about what?"

"I found a pair of damn strange dark-suited johnnies noseying round the farm this morning. When I asked them what they were bally well up to, they told me they were hikers would you believe it! I showed them the gate, never fear – but they had one of those cellular telephone jobbies with them, and I heard one of them (he was a Cockney, you know, and terribly crude) mention you!"

Miss Prism tenses. "Me?"

"Yes! Well, not exactly you, dear, but that Outer West Nowhere island you're holidaying on. 'If she's going to Clachantyre, tell her to pack an umbrella' – that's what he said. I heard him at plain as I hear you now. Plainer! You should watch out, Hilda. It all sounds jolly sinister! Is it anything to do with Rupert Murdoch?"

After lunch, Jake and Miss Prism walk up to the Old Man. On the way, they discuss the strange sensations emanating from the Fingers and the dolmen, and come to the conclusion that the noises from the Fingers definitely sound almost like voices, while the dolmen just seems to scream.

When they reach the coast, they find that things have changed. The entire headland is now sectioned off with a rope fence, and signs placed at frequent intervals read: 'DTI Property: Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted'. Miss Prism and Jake exchange glances. With a shrug, Jake jumps over the fence.

The Old Man is still standing as it has for centuries, unperturbed by events – except that now the holes in the ground that Miss Prism noticed last time contain a set of slender metal rods, each one about three feet tall and linked to its neighbour by a length of coiled wire. Another wire leads from one of the rods to a featureless black box taped to the clean patch on the side of the dolmen.

Jake has no idea at all what these structures might be, even with his knowledge of gadgets. With some trepidation, he reaches out to touch the Old Man – and quickly pulls his hand away. He experiences the same disturbing screaming noise that Miss Prism felt on their first visit.

Before leaving the inn, Brian locks the camera equipment in his room, puts copies of the tapes and pictures in a backpack, and hides further copies up the chimney of an unoccupied room near his own.

He has not got far before he meets Miss Prism and Jake on their way back from the Old Man.

"I'm going to talk to the Doonies again," Brian says. He looks at Miss Prism and Jake and adds: "You two be careful, alright?"

"Before you go, maybe we should all take a look at this," Jake says, pointing to a sign outside the church hall. "The HIDA are holding a public meeting at five. Let's hear what they have to say for themselves."

The party arrive at the church hall early, but there are already a few islanders waiting inside. Cameron Frazer is in front of the stage, giving information, showing people where to sit, and generally taking charge of things. The receptionist from the Council office lurks behind him, taking copious notes.

Then three men and a woman who are obviously not islanders enter the hall. All eyes turn to them and the hum of conversation falls silent. The woman, who is impeccably dressed and coiffured and about 40 years of age, nods politely at the assembled villagers and starts to stride up to the stage. Then she spots Jake, Brian and Miss Prism. She gives them a strained smile.

"You must be Acorn Productions. You're here to make a film of island life." She speaks with a clipped Home Counties accent. "I am Sarah St. John, of the Highlands and Islands Development Agency."

Delighted to make the acquaintance of such a polite young woman, after all the rude and unpleasant behaviour of late, Miss Prism replies: "Pleased to meet you, Miss St. John. My name is Miss Prism, and this is Mr Dellis, and Mr Carter."

"Jelly baby?"

Sarah St. John stares down at Jake's paper bag, her lip curling in an expression of unspeakable distaste.

"No thank you," she says, very slowly. "My field operatives tell me you've been a little... shall we say, 'overzealous' in your filming activities. But we can avoid future unpleasantness – not to say legal action – if you hand over to me all the tapes you shot on the headland and the beach." She glares at each of them in turn, and holds out her hand. " Now."

The Church Hall, Harriestown
Monday 10 February 1997, 6:50 pm

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