The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


Thursday 13 February 1997, 12:10 am

The hobbling footsteps come to a stop and Miss Prism has an unpleasant sensation that she is being watched – maybe through the keyhole. Dazed and confused, she tries to pull herself together. She retreats down the stairs, and looks around for something with which she might be able to make the sign of the cross. A pair of old broom handles seem perfect, but as she struggles to tie them together with her handkerchief, the door creaks open and Ma Doonie appears.

"Now this really will not do!" Miss Prism declares, sternly. "How dare you imprison me in this nasty dark cellar. Do you call that hospitality? The very least you could do is let me get on with some knitting, please, or have something to read."

Ma Doonie cackles manically. Miss Prism sees for the first time that she is carrying a basket in her left hand and a handaxe in her right.

"Ye should have paid heed to what I told ye!" she hisses. "Now it will be the worse for ye!"

She steps aside and gestures to the open door. Walking straight out of there seems a good idea to Miss Prism – but it is not her own will that carries her through it. Even as her legs begin to take her up the stairs, she realizes to her horror that she has no control over them – or any other part of her body. An invisible, irresistible force is moving her and she is powerless to resist.

As she passes Ma Doonie in the doorway, she glimpses the basket in her hand; it contains baby Hamish, wrapped in a blanket. His eyes follow her with vague disinterest and then she is past, walking down the hall and out of the house to a destination she can only guess...

On the headland, Jake holds his breath and presses himself flat to the ground. The only sounds he can hear are his thumping heart, the distant hiss of the waves – and the heavy footsteps of the HIDA man approaching him.

The footsteps get closer and closer, until Jake is certain he will be seen any moment. His nerve begins to falter. He tenses, ready to leap to his feet and make a run for it...

Then a tinny, electronic version of the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony breaks the silence.

"Yeah?" the HIDA man says, pulling out his mobile phone. "What? Now?" he adds, the three questions rising in pitch and incredulity. He shoves the phone back into his overcoat and stomps back towards his companion, whatever noise he may have heard forgotten.

Jake breathes a shuddering sigh of relief.

"That was the boss," the HIDA man says. "Would you believe it – she says they're going in tonight."

The other man straightens up and stops his inspection of the dolmen. "But how do they know it's safe? And what about Borrisov's plans?" he asks. "He wanted to keep up the tests for at least a month – just to make sure."

"Hmm... if you ask me, this was Borrisov's idea. The boss sounded none too pleased, I can tell you. I didn't dare let on about what's happened to the equipment up here – "

He is interrupted by his companion. "Look!"

Jake risks raising his head just enough to see what is happening. The HIDA man is pointing out to sea. In the pale silver light of the moon, he sees the dark bulk of a submarine break the surface...

Jake hurries back at the inn to find Brian in a more desperate mood than he has ever seen him – and Miss Prism missing.

"Dammit, Miss Prism went to get Mary by herself," Brian says, almost to himself, pacing back and forth in front of the fire in his room. "At night! Goddammit, where is all the common sense going? The Doonies are armed, hostile and have access to supernatural force! Stupid, stupid..."

Jake keeps calm. "Let's make our way to Hawkcraig House," he says. "I'll set light to an outbuilding to attract everyone outside, while you go in and find Miss Prism."

Brian shakes his head. "We'd be unarmed, alone and on enemy turf with them holding the cards – and a hostage. And they're not likely to be reasonable..."

Coming to a sudden decision, he opens the door, marches across the hall and knocks on the door of Chief Inspector Stewart's room. There is a pause, then Stewart peers out, dressed in pyjamas and a tartan dressing gown.

"What on earth do you want?" he mumbles. "It's gone two o'clock."

"It's time to hear more of the truth, Inspector." Brian looks past Stewart into the room, and over his own shoulder down the hall. "But not here – in the bar."

Brian leads Jake and the Chief Inspector downstairs, to a corner table well away from the window. Then, lowering his voice, he says: "I suppose you have figured out that what is going on here is far bigger than those three hoods you arrested – am I right about that?"

Stewart rummages around in the pocket of his dressing gown, extracts a somewhat fluffy mint humbug and pops it into his mouth. "Hmm... " he says. "Hmm... Yes, you're right. The moment I learned the Government was involved, I knew there must more going on here than anyone is letting on."

Brian nods. "I'm not sure exactly what the nature of the threat is, but it's connected with the Doonies, and has been for generations. And HIDA knows about it – or more exactly, the MOD. Whatever it is, it's real. And it has to be stopped." He takes a deep breath. "I can only think of two ways. Kill Ma Doonie and the baby – "

Stewart's eyes widen.

"But I don't want to have to do that," Brian adds, quickly. "The other way is to demolish the cave. You've seen the pictures, the light, the interior of the cave. Whatever is about to happen, that's the focal point. We must try to destroy it. If you have any idea on how we can get our hands on some explosives, I'll dive down there and plant the charges. I've been through the Navy's Underwater Demolition School. I'm a bit rusty, but I think I can do this."

Stewart remains silent.

"I can take you down into the cave and show you what's there myself," Brian persists. "I don't recommend it, without the explosives – and possibly a cutting torch, if HIDA has blocked the entry again. But if that is what it will take to convince you, I'll do it."

Stewart sighs, then seems to come to a decision of his own. "Very well, Mr Dellis, I'm with you. I've been on the force almost twenty-five years – I'm due for retirement next year. And after all those years' hard graft, there are still villains on the streets... Maybe this is my chance to make a real difference... "

Relieved to have Stewart on board, Brian lowers his voice further still. "One more thing you need to know – the Doonies have Miss Prism," he says. "I don't think they will kill her. Not yet. I don't recommend an armed assault on the Doonie house, though, and I don't think we can sneak up on the place – whatever power Ma Doonie has, I think she would know we are coming. No, the answer is to cut off her access to the power she is tapping into. That means destroying the cave. And I need your help – getting those explosives, that is. Once that is done, I think Miss Prism and Mary Doonie will have a much better chance... "

Glad that they have come up with a less violent plan than burning Hawkcraig House and killing the Doonies, Jake leaves Brian and Stewart making plans and returns upstairs to search Miss Prism's room. He hopes to find any notes she might have made about what she has discovered. He doesn't find any notes – but he does find a scrap of paper stuffed down the back of the armchair.

It is a strip torn from the top of a letter. On the reverse there is a rough map, drawn in pencil, showing Harriestown and the headland. On the front, the words 'Highlands and Islands Development Agency' and an address in Edinburgh are printed across the top. The addressee is 'Clive Stokes'.

Jake leaves the room, closes the door quietly behind him, turns the corner – and walks straight into someone sneaking down the stairs from the top floor. It is Lucy, carrying a selection of bags and holdalls.

She stifles a shriek. "What are you sneaking around for at this time of night?"

"I might have asked you the same," Jake comments, drily.

Lucy looks down the bags, and gives him a shamefaced smile. "I'm off – for good. And don't you dare tell my dad until I've gone. Dougie's outside, and Munroe is waiting for us at the harbour. We'll be away before you can stop us."

"Monroe?" Jake remembers his own unnerving experience with the sinister boatman. "You're sailing with Monroe? At night?"

"It's the best time, he says." Lucy shrugs. "Dougie says he knows what he's talking about. You want to feel you're in safe hands on the sea, don't you? I don't like sailing much as it is... " She grimaces. "Well, I'm off now. Say ta-ra to Miss Prism for me, will you?"

Still struggling with the bags, she hurries down the stairs and out of the inn.

As if in a dream, Miss Prism finds herself propelled towards the headland, Ma Doonie skipping behind her like an excited schoolgirl. The clear sky has clouded over and as the Old Man looms into view she hears a distant rumble of thunder.

With an effort of will she finds her voice, though it sounds like that of a stranger. "What are you going to do with me?"

Ma Doonie leans close. She smells disgusting. "Ye planned to burn us. No need to deny it – I see the guilt in your eyes. But ye are lucky – I shall make an offering of ye rather than kill ye as the murderer ye are."

"Ah... I do hope making an offering doesn't involve any unpleasantness."

Ma Doonie laughs.

"When they hear the call, they'll come to get us," says a tiny voice from the basket. "Soon, soon, the waiting will be over. Then we can breath again."

Miss Prism stares at the baby in horror, only dimly aware of stumbling a few feet further over the grass. She finds herself staring at a wall of stone – the Old Man.

There is a rustling, then a noise that sounds horribly like the axe being sharpened.

"The Sea People are coming," Ma Doonie says in a sing-song voice quite unlike her usual cackle. "They heeded the offering I made, and now they are coming back to us, to make us great once more."

"But if they're already on their way," Miss Prism tries to reason, "there's no need to offer me, too, now is there?" A large drop of rain splashes on her nose.

The sharpening noise stops. Ma Doonie says something in a language Miss Prism has never heard before, then throws the handaxe onto the ground at Miss Prism's feet.

"Ye know what ye have to do," Ma Doonie says.

Miss Prism does know, and though she doesn't want to, she is unable to resist. Her head pounding, she slowly bends and picks up the axe. Summoning the last dregs of her willpower, she begins to sing: "The Lord is my shepherd, I sha-all not want, he maketh me down to lieeeeeeee, in pastures green he leadeth me... "

There is a flash of lightning, and a fearsome crash of thunder.

"It is time!" Ma Doonie shouts.

Then a tremendous rumble rocks the clifftop, sending Ma stumbling to her knees. Miss Prism manages to keep her feet. Now if she could only make them walk for her, she might be able to make an escape while Ma is on the ground...

But Ma is no longer paying attention to her. She remains on her knees, staring blankly into space. Her withered mouth opens and emits a long, slow shriek.

"They have gone!" she howls. Then she is silent.

"Here are your saboteurs, George!" a man's voice shouts.

Miss Prism turns to see two HIDA men ambling towards them, foolish grins on their faces.

The younger man continues: "Not so much the Red Brigade as the Grey Brigade!"

Miss Prism is not at all impressed by this, particularly as she still retains the curly brown locks of her youth – and Ma Doonie is bald. She would have told him so, too, but somehow she just doesn't have the energy.

"Watch out, Steve – she's armed!" The elder man sounds equally amused.

"I'll take that, Grandma." Steve slips the axe out of Miss Prism's hand and hooks it onto his belt. "Now – who's going to tell me what's going on here?"

"Looks like they were having a picnic." George peers into the basket, then recoils with a grimace. "Ugh – it's a baby!"

The baby starts to cry – very loudly. Steve puts his hands over his ears. "Which one of you does this kid belong to?" he shouts. Getting no reply, he picks up the basket and shoves it into Miss Prism's hands.

"We can't hang around up here," George says, looking round nervously. "Let's take them down to the beach and let the boss decide what to do with them."

The two men march Miss Prism and Ma Doonie off the headland and down towards the beach. Ma is lost to the world; she does not seem to see the HIDA men, and makes no sound except to sing a strange little song; Miss Prism does not understand the words, but it sounds almost like a lullaby.

Though her knees are aching, Miss Prism begins to regain some of her energy.

"If you plan to hold us captive," she says, brightly, "I do hope the accommodation will be of a higher standard than my last prison. Somewhere warm and dry will do very nicely. And with a radio, maybe, so I can listen to the Home Service. I find the Shipping Forecast so relaxing, don't you?"

She stops chattering, though, as the beach comes into view. The usually peaceful scene is now a hive of activity: two dozen or more people – some in diving gear, others in white one-piece suits with heavy helmets and gloves, a few wearing some sort of uniform that she doesn't recognize – are bustling to and fro in the stark glare of a floodlight. Some are taking notes, others operating unidentifiable pieces of equipment. She spots a camera crew in action. And at the centre of all this activity are five glowing, coffin-shaped objects, lying side-by-side on the sand.

As she takes all this in, someone she recognizes strides towards them. It is Sarah St. John.

"What are you doing here?" St. John demands, scowling angrily at her colleagues. "And who the hell are they?"

"We found them up on the clifftop, ma'am," Steve replies, with an audible whimper. "George thinks they might be the ones who smashed the monitors."

"Smashed the monitors... " The look of anger on St. John's face is briefly replaced by one of incomprehension. "What do mean 'smashed the monitors'? When did this happen?" She shakes her head in frustration. "I haven't got time for any of this now. I'll speak to you both later."

She turns to go back to the beach.

"But what shall we do with the granny squad?" Steve persists.

St. John throws her hands into the air. "What is wrong with you two? Can't you make any decision on your own? Didn't they teach you initiative in spy school? I don't give a damn what you do with your girlfriends here. Send them back home to their knitting, then keep out of my way and let the grown-ups get on with their jobs!"

"We're already on our way!" Steve says, affably.

As he starts to lead the two women away, St. John glances at them for the first time. Her lip curls at the sight of Ma Doonie. Then she sees Miss Prism. A muscle twitches in one smooth cheek.

"No – wait!" she snaps. "I've changed my mind. I want to question this one – later. But she can't stay here." She pauses, a look of furious concentration on her face. "I know – I'll give the local PC Plod a call..."

His discussion with Stewart over, Brian tries to snatch a couple of hours sleep in preparation for what he is sure will be a hard day. But shortly after dawn he is woken by the sound of breaking glass.

Instantly alert, he checks his own window (it is intact), then realizes that the sound came from the ground floor. He runs downstairs, and finds a sleepy, dishevelled Sid at the front door, shaking his fist at an empty street.

"Little hooligans!" Sid shouts. "When I get my hands on you, I'll - I'll... " He sighs and points in dismay at the smashed window and the brick on the carpet. "Look at this mess. And I thought I'd seen the last of this sort of thing..."

Despite having spent most of the night awake, Jake gets up early and calls Derek Lang at the Institute of Scandinavian Studies.

"Sorry Jake," Derek says, with only the barest hint of remorse in his voice. "I haven't had time to do anything more with those runes of yours – I've been busy." He chuckles enigmatically. Jake wonders what on earth has been going on down there. "But I have taken a look at the photo you faxed me last night – don't you ever give yourself a break, Jake? – and I have to say I'm stumped."

"What do you mean?" Jake asks.

"I mean, the script used in the carvings on that column – if it is a script – is not the same as the other sample you sent me. In fact, it's like no writing I've ever seen..."

At the Harriestown Police Station, Miss Prism is dismayed to find herself in the hands of her third gaoler in less than twelve hours.

"Constable, I am becoming heartily sick of being passed form pillar to post like an unwanted parcel," she complains.

PC MacDuff opens the door to the cell. "Please step inside, madam."

Miss Prism peers doubtfully at the bars and the stone floor, and the uncomfortable-looking bunk with its worn grey blanket. "You can't put me in there, Constable. It would be inhumane! It's damp, the heating is inadequate I'm sure, and that blanket is probably riddled with fleas! Why can't you let me return to my room at the inn? I am not going to run away, I promise you."

"Please. Step inside, madam," MacDuff repeats, his patience wearing thin.

Miss Prism sighs and does as he asks. Sniffing the air delicately, she prods the bunk with one fingertip and perches warily on the edge.

"Isn't one traditionally allowed a telephone call at this point?" she asks. "And I'd like to see my lawyer."

With a grim frown, MacDuff turns his back on her and walks away.

"I'll have you know, my sister is a good friend of the Lord Chancellor and his family!" she calls after him.

He disappears from view.

Craning her neck, Miss Prism can just see the noticeboard behind the front desk. The poster offering a 10,000-pound reward for the Fingers is starting to curl at the edges.

What seems like a long time later, Miss Prism hears the door open, and the sound of high-heeled shoes on the floor.

"Oh dear, oh dear," she says to herself. "Here we go again..."

"He's gone for good," says a voice. To her surprise, Miss Prism recognizes it as Mrs Frazer's. "Now we can be together. You don't know how long I've waited for this..."

"Ssshhh!" MacDuff hisses furiously. "Not here! I've got a guest in the cells!"

Mrs Frazer gives a simpering laugh. "Well, later then. But don't keep me waiting too long..."

When he has finished on the telephone, Jake pops down to the Post Office to buy some more jelly babies. As he approaches the building, he glimpses Mrs Drummond at the window. She sees him, and a startled expression crosses her face. Then, to Jake's surprise, she moves to the door and turns the sign from OPEN to CLOSED.

While Stewart investigates the possibility of pulling some strings and obtaining explosives from the police, Brian decides to return to the beach and judge the lie of the land with a view to his forthcoming demolition job. His thoughts keep straying to Miss Prism in the hands of the enemy, but he is sure that, if anyone can sit tight in such a situation, it is her. That talented tongue will keep her alive, he is certain.

He takes up position at the place where the party watched the HIDA 'biologists' what seems like an age ago, and takes out his binoculars.

The beach is completely empty – except for a dinghy and two figures. One is Sarah ST. John, the other a bald man with his back to Brian. They seem to be engaged in an animated conversation – an argument, maybe. Brian watches with interest. He is not a particularly good lip-reader, but he is pretty certain ST. John isn't speaking English. Then he almost drops the binoculars in surprise as the bald man turns and he gets a view of his face.

It is a face he knows. The eyepatch is new, but the rest is horribly familiar. It is a face he has seen many times before, in his darkest nightmares of lights and drugs and tests and more tests...

It is, he is sure, the face of one of the men who held him captive in Siberia...

Disturbed at being shunned by the previously friendly Mrs Drummond, Jake returns to the inn to find Sid in the bar.

"Excuse me, Mr Carter – you haven't seen Lucy today, have you?" he asks.

Jake fingers the coins in his pocket, wondering whether he should be the one to tell Sid or not.

"I haven't seen her since last night," Sid continues, with a shrug. "I don't know – kids! But who'd be without 'em, eh!"

A gust of cold air fills the room as the door swings open. PC MacDuff strides in.

"Evening all!" Sid bellows. "What can I get you, Constable? Or are you on duty?"

"I'm on duty," MacDuff says, stiffly. He stares hard at Jake. "Jake Carter, I'd like you to accompany me down to the Station to help with my inquiry into – "

There is a commotion outside, then the door bursts open again. A distraught-looking islander staggers into the room.

"MacDuff, MacDuff! Come quickly!" he gasps. "There's been a murder!"

Brian – Western coast of Clachantyre
Jake – The Old Man's Arms, Harriestown
Miss Prism – The Police Station, Harriestown
Thursday 13 February 1997, 12:10 am

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