The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


Hawkcraig House, Clachantyre
Tuesday 11 February 1997, 11:05 pm

"Now you listen to me a minute, my dear," Miss Prism says firmly. From her expression it is clear that she is not going to be put off lightly by this foolish young girl. "My little story was designed to show you what a change of scenery can do. It could change your life for the better. Get away from all this, get a little job somewhere, settle down. Now I won't take no for an answer, and my sister will look after you. A bit scatty, but kindly."

"How could an old woman kill a grown man?" Jake wonders.

Mary shakes her head. "It's true – you have to believe me! You haven't seen what she's like when the power is on her!"

"The power she gained from the Sea People, you mean?" Jake persists. "When does she meet them?"

For a moment, Mary stares at him uncomprehendingly. "When does she meet them? No, no, she doesn't meet them. She listens to them. They are trapped in the ground and only Ma can hear them – Ma, and the baby..." She shudders. "They spoke to her when she was a little girl, and they're speaking again now."

"But what is she trying to do?" Jake asks. "What does she hope to gain? And how?"

Mary seems to forget some of her misery now in her eagerness to get the story out. She leans forward slightly, clasping her hands. "Ma says it was the power of the Sea People that made the Doonies successful and wealthy but over the years the power faded, until the family reached – this... " She gestures back towards the decrepit old house.

"When those men from the mainland dug up the Fingers, Ma had to have them – she was sure they were linked to the Sea People. But the men took them away, and it's only a while since they came back to the island. Ma sent Tom to steal them from Mr Frazer's museum, but Reverend McMillan was working there and he caught Tom red-handed. Tom told him some story about how the Fingers were part of Clachantyre's heritage and should be back where they belong and not stuck in some dusty museum. The Reverend didn't call PC MacDuff, but he took the Fingers from Tom and sent him on his way. Ma was so angry when he came home. I'd never seen her like that before..."

"Please go on," Jake says, sympathetically.

Mary begins to tremble again. "A few days later, the Reverend came to see Ma. I don't know what he said, but it made her angrier than ever. I heard her scream that no one dare threaten the Doonies, then there was a terrible noise all through the house. I rushed upstairs and found the Reverend on the floor. Ma told me to get back to the kitchen. The next I heard was the door slam – Ma must have taken the Reverend up to the cliff, where she – she..."

She dissolves into tears once more.

"You don't have to stay here, Mary.", Brian says. "There are some bad things happening here, alright, but you don't have to become one of them. You don't have to be a victim." He raises his hand. "Whatever will happen here, it will happen on this island. If you can get off of it, you will be safe."

"No. She'll kill me, like she killed the Reverend," Mary insists. "And she would have killed your friend, if the helicopter hadn't disturbed her."

Brian remembers Vul's strange experience at Hawkcraig House. "I thought he was a few plates short of a full setting, but what I saw in the jail cell was a man totally unhinged. Please, tell me what happened when he was here."

"It was horrible! He burst into the kitchen with Tom bleeding and threatened to hurt us if we didn't do as he said..." She puts her face in her hands. "Then Ma came down and the power was on her, and on the baby too, and she got into his mind. I don't know what she did, exactly, but from the look on his face, she must have touched his deepest, most awful fears. He dropped unconscious and she took him away. That's all I know, I swear."

"Is Tom here?" Brian asks. "I'd like to speak to him, and I have something to show him."

"No, he's gone out. And you'll stay away from him – all of you – if you value your health."

Miss Prism takes Jake and Brian aside and speaks to them in a low voice. "I fear that Mrs Doonie Senior might be problematic, but I should like to talk to her directly. Maybe she'll have to be burned like a witch... like that dreadful story of the alleged witches being hurled into the sea in closed barrels." She looks thoughtful. "I wonder if that was the reason? Maybe they were part of this affair. Interesting..." She stares up at the forbidding grey walls of the house and shudders. "This is an evil place, I can feel it. We should take an opportunity to burn it to the ground. Now that's a job for you boys – I'm a bit old for that sort of thing."

And with that she strides purposefully towards the door.

"Where is are you going?" Mary squeals after her. She turns to Brian and Jake, desperately. "She can't go in there. Ma will so angry..."

Miss Prism climbs the stairs. The carpet is worn and many of the treads are loose, and she has to watch her step to avoid tripping in the poor light. She finds Ma Doonie's room at the top of the stairs on the second floor, a heavy oak door barring her way. With trepidation, she pushes it open.

For a moment she cannot see a thing. The shutters are closed and the room is so dimly lit she almost falls over a packing crate lying just inside the door. She looks down and sees the shimmer of silverware inside it.

As her eyes grow accustomed to the dark, she sees that the rest of the room is similarly filled with crates and boxes, most of them open, trailing fine clothes and jewellery and paintings on the floor – presumably all the wealth of the Doonie family. A huge four-poster bed stands by the far wall, swathed in a lace canopy that looks like a spider web in the half-light. Miss Prism can just discern a small, still figure within.

"Mrs Doonie," she says, advancing slowly, "stand up and let me have a look at you. I have knitted a scarf and I think it's just your colour. Yellow and red. Delightful. Would you do me a kindness and accept it? You people have been so kind to us and this is a way of repaying your hospitality."

The figure on the bed grunts and stirs. Miss Prism keeps on talking. "What a mysterious place this is. And what shocking things keep on happening. Why, I can't help thinking of that young rascal Willy Killah – oh, lived just down the road in one of the council houses, you know. Not a very good upbringing, but he was a terror. Used to torture the cats, pull legs off spiders and catch rabbits for his dinner." She shuddered. "He came to a bad end, though. Went to Borstal and is now in Parkhurst for thirty-seven years. They've thrown away the key, I shouldn't wonder. If only he'd had someone to look out for him and put him on the straight and narrow... "

She reaches the bed and puts her hand on the canopy, about to lift it aside. "What about you, Mrs Doonie? Are you happy with the straight and narrow? Such a strange history in your family. Tell me a bit about it. Do you remember much about your childhood? Why, I remember – "

Without warning, the figure on the bed jerks upright and pulls the canopy out of Miss Prism's hand. Miss Prism gasps and takes an involuntary step backwards as the withered face of Ma Doonie looms out of the darkness.

"Cease your prattle!" the old woman barks. "I know why ye are here!"

"Yes – I have this scarf for you." Miss Prism holds it up for Ma to see. "Please do try it on!"

"Ach, ye came here to take, not give. Answers ye want, and some ye shall have – more than that idiot girl Mary told ye."

She jumps out of bed with surprising agility, and Miss Prism sees she is wearing a nightcap with a pompom on the end. On anyone else it might have looked ludicrous; on Ma Doonie, the effect is almost frightening.

Without a word, she leads Miss Prism to the wall, where what Miss Prism had at first thought to be merely a collection of miniature portraits is now revealed to be some sort of family tree – and not just of the Doonie family. From the names she sees represented there, it seems likely that the whole island is included. Only the Doonies have portraits, but some of the others have photographs, and all are connected by a network of fine lines and strange symbols.

"This is my aunt," Ma Doonie says, pointing to one portrait. "She was carrying my cousin when this picture was painted. The power was in him. I was just a girl, but I heard him talking, even in his mother's womb. He told me to bide by the voices I heard in my dreams, and so I did. My father and his brothers knew that I was special, and when I told them what the voices said – that we should drive out the strangers – we took the Lord's girl and offered her, and the strangers never came again. But we paid a terrible price. The men were hanged, and my aunt so eaten with grief was she that her bairn, my bonny cousin, died within her."

Her voice has dropped almost to a whisper. "I lived these ninety years since, believing all was lost. Those three grandsons of mine are poor stuff, like empty vessels. I though that I would die soon, and the power would die with me. And then came wee Hamish... He is our future, the most powerful of our line. Long before he was born, I knew the time had come."

"The time for what?" Miss Prism demands, now trying to buy time herself.

"The time for the Sea People to return. Wee Hamish knows it. In the old days, the Sea People made our family great, but when they went away our powers faded as the generations passed. But they heeded the offering I made, and now they are coming back to us, to make us great once more."

She yawns widely. It is a gruesome sight. "Now I will ask ye to leave, for I am tired and shall return to bed." She notices the look of surprise on Miss Prism's face. "Thought I would not let ye walk free after all I told ye, did ye? Repeat my words to whoever ye choose – it will help ye none." Her sudden grin is surprisingly friendly. "Clachantyre folk do not like strangers. Ye'll not leave this island alive, I promise ye. Ye'll not leave this island alive..."

Back in Harriestown, Miss Prism tries to visit Murdo, intending to make arrangements for getting Mary off the island and on a train to the south. She is turned away by the nurse, however.

"Mr Muir is sleeping and cannot have visitors," the nurse says in a tone that invites no arguments. "He's not a young man and he's taken a nasty knock – it will be some time before he's on his feet again."

Wondering if there is another boatman in town, Miss Prism returns to the inn.

"Maybe the solution to the problem here is to release the dolmen?" Miss Prism suggests brightly when she meets Jake and Brian back at the inn. "If it really is a wild spirit wanting to get back to its people, then it would be a kindness to let it free. Can't we dig it up and lever it so that it rolls down the cliff into the sea?"

It seems unlikely, however, that the three of them working alone could uproot the Old Man before they were spotted.

"You could try to find out who Lucy intends to run off to Spain with," Jake suggests. "And it might pay for Brain to try to contact the eco-extremists – they might have a better idea of what the HIDA is up to. Do we have any leads on the HIDA, and Ms St. John and her people in particular, that we could follow up?" he muses. "I still have the registration number of their helicopter – would it be possible to trace that, I wonder?"

Leaving Jake and Miss Prism to talk, Brian telephones his daughter Wendy back in the States. As he waits for the call to be connected, he hears an odd whispering noise on the line. Then he is through to a receptionist.

"Tell her it's her father," he insists when the receptionist tries to put him off. There is a long pause, then Wendy comes onto the line.

"Hi dad." She sounds tired. Brian wonders what might be wrong – whether she has work trouble, or problems with the latest man she has gotten herself involved with. Wendy is one of the few bright spots in his life, and at times like this he wishes he was better at talking to her. Maybe things would have been different, he wonders, if her mother hadn't died.

He explains quickly where he is. "I'm dealing with a company running roughshod over the rural community here. At the least, they may be taking environmental liberties with the populace. Could you check into the legalities of the situation, Wendy? I'd appreciate it."

"Sure." Again there is a slight hesitation in her voice.

"So how are things with you?" Brian asks cautiously.

"Oh, I'm fine. Say, dad, when you're finished in Scotland, why don't you come over? I'd love to see you. And I have some news."

While Brian speaks on the phone, Chief Inspector Stewart enters the bar. Jake gets up and offers to buy him a drink.

"Uh, thank you. I need one," he says.

"How was your meeting with the Chief Superintendent?" Jake asks, concerned that Ms St. John might have put in a complaint about the party or the police – or both.

Stewart grimaces but doesn't reply immediately.

Sid appears with his pint. "What's this – drinking on duty, officer?" he comments, jovially.

"I'm not on duty," Stewart grunts, and downs half the pint in one gulp.

Jake's eyes open wide – Stewart's words sound ominous. "Oh dear – I hope there's no problem?" he says.

"Oh yes, there's a problem!" Stewart takes another mouthful of beer. "I've been taken off the investigation, that's the problem. According to the Chief, the Whitehall boys are in negotiations over sending your three friends back home, and as far as he's concerned the case is closed. But not as far as I'm concerned." He raises his glass to Jake. "I've taken a week's leave, and in that week I'm going to get to the bottom of this! HIDA isn't going to pull the wool over my eyes."

"So you think HIDA had something to do with the case being closed?" Jake asks.

"I'm certain of it. The St. John woman threatened me with as much. I didn't credit it at the time – but within twenty-four hours I'm hauled in front of the Chief and giving a real dressing-down. No, it can't be just coincidence."

"I'm worried about the HIDA's activities myself," Jake says. "They are clandestine, shady, not legitimate and possibly illegal. Those HIDA people have only their own interests at heart (if they have one) and don't care about the islanders or the island at all!"

Stewart's eyes narrow. "Well, it's time someone exposed them for what they are – and I'm the man to do it... " he says, darkly. He reaches into his overcoat. "Care for a sherbet lemon?"

Next morning, after a good night's sleep, Brian sets off for Cameron Frazer's house.

"Would you please ask Cameron where I might find a new knitting pattern – and some nice Highland wool!" Miss Prism calls after him. She feels at a bit of a loss now the scarf is finished.

Jake is keen to tag along ("Cameron Frazer is a little too close to the HIDA," he explains. "He shouldn't be trusted far."), so together they trek halfway across the island to a dark stone cottage that stands alone on a barren piece of land.

As they approach the building, they have a clear view into the kitchen, which has been renovated and redecorated in a modern style, presumably at some expense. A blonde woman of about 35 years of age is chopping vegetables with a large knife – and attacking the leeks and carrots with such ferocity that Jake wonders if she has someone in mind as she does so. Then she reaches into a cupboard under the sink and lifts out a packet of weed killer. She stares at it contemplatively, then at the saucepan, and for one moment it seems she is going to pour the weed killer in...

Then the door to the kitchen opens and Cameron Frazer appears. The woman shakes her head, startled, as though the interruption has brought her back to the real world, and hastily puts the weed killer back under the sink.

Raising his eyebrows at Jake, Brian knocks on the door.

Cameron drives Brian and Jake to the coast in his Range Rover. Though they will be using Murdo's diving gear, Cameron has arranged for another boatman named Munroe to take them out as Murdo is still recuperating in hospital.

"I'm afraid I haven't done this since my college days," Cameron admits, nodding at the diving gear. "So I'll be looking to you for advice, Brian. How about you, Jake – have you had much experience?"

"Oh no, I don't intend to dive!" Jake exclaims. "I'm just here to observe." He has been keeping a close eye on Cameron throughout, though Cameron does not seem to have noticed.

Brian has been sitting quietly, wondering about the Mrs Frazer he was introduced to back at the cottage. A few days ago, Cameron had talked almost as though his wife was dead. Brian guesses that he must have lost her in another way...

He comments to Cameron: "I noticed at the meeting that you didn't seem nearly as thrilled as the other islanders about the statements the HIDA reps made last night. Why is that?"

"I just don't trust them," Cameron says. "Maybe I'm getting old and cynical, but whatever they say, I cannot believe they truly want the best for the island."

Brian agrees. "I think what HIDA is doing not only is harmful, but is disturbing something out there in the ocean that is best left undisturbed. Not to mention illegal. Mrs St. John was very perturbed when I told her that copies of those pictures and tapes had gone to the cops. She didn't like the idea of the media getting hold of them, either."

Cameron clicks his tongue. "I sad to say that doesn't surprise me. I've always had the impression that there was more to this oil development than the HIDA was letting on. Oh, I had no concrete evidence, but Mrs St. John and her cronies seem such a shifty bunch. And she has brought such odd characters in to observe her work."

"What sort of characters?" Brian asks.

"Well, one... mainly. A bald man with an eyepatch. East European, I think, or Russian. Mrs St. John said he was here to study how we do things here in the West." Cameron gives an ironic laugh. "'Here in the West'! For all the freedom of information HIDA has granted us, we may as well be living in some old Communist regime ourselves!"

"It's so difficult to get anything out of them," he continues. "Ninety percent of the time, there's no reply when I call the number Mrs St. John gave me, and when I called the HIDA central office in Edinburgh once I was treated as though I was talking nonsense. They claimed they'd never heard of Clachantyre – such poor public relations, don't you think?, and talk about the right hand not knowing what the left is doing!"

While Jake waits in the boat with Munroe (a taciturn and rather unfriendly man in his forties), Brian and Cameron swim down to the underwater tunnel (Brian carrying his knife and the camera) and set to work on the grille using the tools that Cameron has brought for the purpose. It takes more effort than they were expecting, but they eventually manage to force it open. With mounting anticipation, they swim past the grille and round the corner, towards the source of the light...

For a moment they can see nothing, so bright are their surroundings compared with the murky waters outside. Then they break the surface, and find themselves in a small, domed cave.

The source of the glow is immediately obvious: a slender, three-foot high column of glassy stone stands in the centre of the dome, on a black base carved with strange markings. The column is pulsing with an inner light brighter than any Brian and Cameron have ever seen.

The pulsations are almost hypnotic, and they spend several minutes just staring into the light before they even think about taking a closer look round the cave. When they do, they quickly realize that it cannot be natural: the walls are smooth, and the shape of the dome is perfect. Ranged around the walls, like the points of a five-pointed star, are five pale patches, each one about two feet deep and five feet long. The stone here is almost translucent, with a faint light glowing behind, and there is a small hole, about one inch in diameter, in the wall above each patch.

"What do you think they are?" Cameron whispers.

"I don't know," Brian says, but a strange memory stirs, unbidden, deep within his mind. He reaches out to touch one of the patches.

"Don't!" Cameron hisses.

Brian looks at him enquiringly.

Cameron gives a sheepish shrug. "I've got a strange feeling that we're being watched..."

Together, they look up to the top of the dome. Attached to the ceiling is a video camera – and the lens is pointing straight at them...

Brian and Jake – In underwater cave off the west coast of Clachantyre
Miss Prism – The Old Man's Arms, Harriestown
Wednesday 12 February 1997, 9:55 am

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