The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Witless In Whitby
"Chaps!" The Professor raps sharply at the nearest door. "Hasten to our chariot, the goodly Isobel she doeth a runner!"
Stone's door opens sharply, and the psychiatrist emerges into the hallway. Following the direction of the Professor's pointing finger, he looks down into the car park where Isobel appears to be in the process of inserting the key into the ignition.
Micky's door also opens.
"Where is she?"
"Down in the car park, getting ready to take her Mercedes for a spin."
"Let's follow Isobel. If she's 'susceptible,' as Karl mentioned, to the Master's call then she may lead us to the vampires, and ultimately Culver." Stone runs back into his room, and hoists his pack onto one shoulder. "Once we know where she's going, we'll intercept - we're looking for some place on the coast, right?"
The Professor snatches up the coat he had previously lent to Isobel, and the three men run for the stairs. From behind them they hear the sound of Andrew and Side-step's doors opening, but it seems best not to hesitate. From outside they hear the sound of a car engine starting up.
Micky, Stone and the Professor reach the car park just as the Mercedes pulls out of its parking space and carefully performs a three point turn. It draws quite close to the three men in doing so, and the light falls full upon Isobel's face. Her expression is somewhat pensive, and although she is clearly steering around the physical obstacles that surround her car, she looks straight through her companions.
"Quick! To the car!"
"Halloween..." An auspicious date for 're-tuning' the wavelength of Whitby, reflects Culver, from early Christianity to ,what, Faux-Gothic melodrama? Oh well, no more or less of a paradigm shift than that effected by the Holy Romans, assimilating what they couldn't burn or slaughter, druids becoming priests, an easy change of Messiahs...
Trust us... Culver remembers Maurice's words. What is part B? What do I have to look forward to? Do I become some sort of risen superman as Maurice says, or a passive vessel for the Master's will, or... just a blood sacrifice?
The cool enamel of the Ezili fetish under his fingers offers a slim consolation. He hums under his breath, and then suddenly realises what he is singing.
"...Let me live 'neath your spell... do do that voodoo that you do so well..."
He halts, aware that the faint oppression of the air has not dissipated.
"Maurice? Are you still there?"
Culver throws an apologetic glance over his shoulder at his companion.
"'The potency of cheap music,' eh? Not that Marlene's cheap. I'd be willing to bet you're a fan - hell, you probably knew the woman." Once again Culver is stung with curiosity to know whether he is correct in his theories concerning Maurice's Germanic background.
"I saw her once. Only once." Maurice smiles quizzically at Culver, then lowers his eyes. He moves over to the chair and sits down, his face tranquil with remembrance. "She was being helped out of a long, black car. I glimpsed her for a moment through an upper floor window, before she was surrounded by a crowd of adorers in black tie and tails. I was successful enough at that time to be invited to the same social event, you see, but not enough to be introduced to her.
"It was the year after the Blue Angel came out. She was still very young, and had a little of the puppy fat still on her face and figure, but light had already started up its love affair with her. She always wore it like luminous silk, a sensuous feather-light garment. I think I was a little afraid that if I saw her in the flesh she would be just a woman, her body just one of those fleshy robots I understood too well. But when I saw her from the window, it was in a half-light that pooled on her cheek-bones and long limbs and jewellery. There she was in her silver fox fur, just the same beautiful monster of moonlight and steel I had seen on the big screen.
"I think I felt even then that she should have died right at that moment, before the moonlight could tarnish and the flesh sag away from those perfect bones. And I think I also knew that somehow that girl has found a way to escape the aging process, by allowing herself to be consumed by the celluloid siren on the silver screen. I was young then, and had much more to learn about the death of dreams and the price of immortality."
"The price of immortality... Maurice, you asked if I was still having doubts about... about what lies ahead. Well, I do." Culver turns his back to the window, and faces his interlocutor fully.
"Not big doubts, but doubts. Don't get me wrong - my will to live is strong. I'll fight this damn virus with every damn fibre in my body - and I want to believe. It's just, well, blind faith has never been easy for me. I'm a rationalist - at least, I was - and I'm finding it hard to believe you exist, far less step off into the unknown like this. It's like... like being born..."
Maurice nods, very slightly.
"What was it like for you, Maurice? When you became a vampire, I mean. Weren't you..." Culver pauses and shudders suddenly. Although the other man has not moved, his face has suddenly passed into shadow, and the SITU agent suddenly realises that the darkness of the room has intensified. Culver turns, and gazes out through the window. A black bank of cloud is drowning the stars one by one. He feels an intense tingle of the sixth sense, not unlike that of one who senses that he is being watched, but more acute. "What's happening?"
"Don't trouble yourself. He is passing by, that is all. He has no reason to hurt you. You of all people have no need to fear the darkness. Go on, what were you saying?" From the sound of Maurice's voice, Culver gauges that the vampire has moved closer to him in his disquieting, feline fashion, and is standing a few feet behind him.
"Weren't you... weren't you ever troubled by a single doubt?"
"Of course I was. It is always hard to exchange a dream for a reality. I was working with a number of... very brilliant men at the time. We were all caught up in madness, a dream, shared by a whole nation. We passionately dreamed that we had been placed upon the earth to create a new breed of man, one that could realise the destiny of the species, a breed with more endurance, strength, intelligence, speed and power of spirit than all that had gone before. And one night I awoke from this dream to the knowledge that such beings already existed, had existed for centuries... you may imagine that for a time my mind shunned the facts.
"But once I knew the truth for certain... there was no hesitation. No. I sought it out. I offered my neck to the altar." A mere foot behind. If it was an ordinary man that stood behind him, Culver might expect to feel breath on his neck.
"Look, I know this... ceremony is a big secret and all, but can't you give me some idea of what's to come? Will it be painful?"
"Painful? Yes, I'm afraid there usually is pain. You may not mind too much, many people don't. It's best to relax into it, and not to fight what is happening to you."
"I worry about, I d'know, being possessed, losing my free will. Will that happen?"
"I can see that Crier could be suspected of being a soulless automaton, but does Isolde seem will-less? Does Darius? Do I? No, you will be much as you were before."
"Well, will I be 'reborn' only to become your sacrifice to... to whatever? I've seen Interview With A Vampire, I know it can happen!"
"I will remind you of this discussion twenty-four hours from now, when you are recovering from the ritual and enjoying your new perceptions. I will remind you of this when your own medical knowledge tells you that strength and energy is flowing back into your limbs." Two suede-gloved hands are resting lightly and comfortingly on Culver's shoulders, sending a tingle along each arm and down his back. "You are on a strange journey into dark waters. You will learn to breathe these waters instead of drowning in them, and you will escape the air that has been poisoning you by inches."
The last and most distant star labours against the suffocation of the cloud for a few instants, then pales and dies.
"Where is she? I've lost her tail-lights!"
"There! She took a right! No, the second right!"
The Professor suppresses the desire to expostulate, and steers vigorously. Stone is in the passenger seat, watching for the receding lights of the Mercedes, while in the back of the car Micky fumbles with the map so that the group can keep track of their progress.
"What did that sign say?"
"Two miles to Kettleness to the left, quarter of a mile to Lythe. No, she's carrying on towards Lythe. We're going west."
"At least she seems to be driving safely," comments the Professor. "Still following the mirror-signal-manoeuvre routine, and so forth."
"One mile to Ellerby, two miles to Hinderwell."
"Looks like she's sticking to the A174. That'd take her back up north towards the coast again."
Isobel's pursuers drive through the tiny hamlet of Ellerby, then through Hinderwell, with its well-lit, sprawling caravan sites, and finally through Staithes, a dour cluster of flint houses that form the only feature on the bald heath except the grey line of the road. A few hundred yards to the right of the road, the land ends abruptly. Once more the SITU agents are following the coast.
"I can't see her ahead on the main road. She must have taken the turn to Skinningrove."
The new road is ill-lit and ill maintained. After following it for some minutes, the Professor slows and pulls up. He has seen the Mercedes abandoned by the side of the road.
"There's a footpath here." Micky shines his torch up at a wooden sign. He mounts the stile, and peers into the gloom. "There's something white moving along the path - I think it's her."
"Come on, we'd better intercept her." The receding figure is indeed that of Isobel. Micky, Stone and the Professor catch up with her just as she is in the process of climbing a second stile. When a gentle hand is placed upon her arm, she starts violently, and then starts to slump. The Professor quickly places a supportive arm about her shoulders, and wraps the coat about her.
On the far side of the stile is a stretch of open ground, in the centre of which stands a tower. It appears to be a disused lighthouse of some sort, and at its apex there is still the open storey from which the light would once have shone. All the windows are dark, but there is the faint sound of voices. The four SITU operatives crouch closer to the ground as they glimpse the silhouettes of two men patrolling outside the building.
Isobel is shuddering violently. Each time she blinks she sees the scene in patterns of black on black. She is aware of an overwhelming darkness centred upon the tower, so intense that it burns her retina like a light. It is deathly, terrible, and yet moving to become a part of it seems inevitable, as if she were water flowing where gravity commanded. She remembers the helplessness of her dream, the singing, and the dance of the snake wrapped around her heart. Silently the tower is singing, and about it the grass stems weave like the obedient heads of a thousand snakes...
"He's here - we have to leave here. Now." There are other silhouettes moving around the tower, long-loping dog-like shapes. "Now!"
Micky, Stone, Twitchin and Isobel drive back to Robin's Hood's Bay in silence. Back in the Latimer Hotel, they inform their expectant colleagues of the latest developments.
"I'd be very grateful if no one mentioned my sleepwalking to SITU," Isobel says, quietly. She has now somewhat recovered from her latest perambulation, but still seems somewhat shocked and drained. There is a murmur of consent.
"So, what now?"
"Well, we must make an attempt to help Culver, if we possibly can," opines Isobel "Whether he wants us to or not. But beyond that, I don't see why we should put ourselves in further danger. We've completed our mission by rescuing Benedict Riggs, and it would be best to spend our energies on getting him out of Whitby, and to a safe place."
"I agree," says Twitchin.
"We're just not well enough equipped to take on any further investigation," continues Isobel. "We need to get out as fast as we can, and make sure that the Hendlebys do as well."
"To be frank, I'm not sure how much we can trust Mr Hendleby," interjects the Professor. "I don't know that I believe that he was really able to infiltrate the vampires, or physically overcome Rain like that. And I'm willing to bet that that stuff about the Internet and Benni's photo is nonsense. My own gut feeling is that he may be a vampire, and may have got his fingers burned in one of their internal feuds. Something to bear in mind, mm?" There is a small pause while the others digest the suggestion.
"Something to mention to SITU, perhaps," says Stone. "In the meanwhile, how do we propose to rescue Culver, supposing he is in that tower? I would recommend a day-time assault. It'll make it harder to approach without being observed, but hopefully it will put the vampires at a disadvantage."
"Perhaps we can get the bikers to act as a distraction for us," suggests Micky. "I'll head over to the Wreckers and see if I can hunt out the Warsteeds."
"Good idea. Let's say for now that we try the attack at about two-thirty tomorrow afternoon. That'll give us some time to get some sleep and make some preparations, and still give us a few clear hours of daylight for our getaway."
"What about Lydia?" asks Isobel. "Shouldn't we bring her along, so that the vampires have someone else to use for their ritual?"
"Good question." Stone considers for a moment. "Yes, I think I shall have to talk to the Montmorencies again."
"In the meanwhile," says Side-step yawning, "let's get some shut-eye. We've a busy day tomorrow, boys and girls." Most of the group return to their own rooms, except for Micky who borrows Stone's phone to make some calls, and the Professor, who borrows Side-step's phone, dons his own coat once more and returns to his hired car.
One short drive later, the Professor is tapping gently against the door of the caravan
"Benni? It's just me. We're getting out of here, Benni. Blowing the joint, so to speak. Come on, old chap, we're going to get you somewhere safe. No, not with SITU - I really wouldn't trust them any further than I could throw them any more."
Riggs makes a disquieting passenger. As the pair drive along the road, he occasionally rolls down the window to peer at the sky, or tugs violently at the Professor's sleeve to point out invisible enemies in the hedgerows.
"Yes, I see, I'll keep an eye on them... Benni, old chap, could you stay quiet just for a while, I need to make some calls." Pulling out Side-step's phone he dials the number which Star had given him.
"Hello, Mr Crier." There is a pause.
"We have spoken before. I recall your voice." Twitchin recognises the crisp monotonic voice that had answered when he had rung the phone number that he had found in Rain's pocket. Ah, I thought that number was familiar...
"Dr Culver, please."
"Who is calling?"
"Never mind. I think you would want him to talk to us, and that you would want us to be happy that he is doing what he is doing of his own free will, so that we don't hunt him down and kill him, like that loser Troy."
"Ah, I see. You are one of the SITU people. Yes, that was a cleverly executed ambush. A strategy with considerable potential for collateral, but nonetheless definitely competent. Of course, Troy behaved irresponsibly and without respect for due process. But I must confess I am at a loss to see why, even were Dr Culver within my vicinity, I should allow him to be disturbed by your call."
"It's worth the gamble, surely, just to protect your precious experiment, is it not? Please put Dr Culver on the line."
"I suspect you are bluffing. In any case, yes, I have every intention of protecting the interests and projects of the parties I represent, and as a consequence I have absolutely no intention of allowing you to speak with Dr Culver. Troy was a fool. I am not." The line goes dead.
After a hesitation, Twitchin phones a second number.
"Hello?" From Theo's voice it is clear that he has just been woken from sleep.
"Ah - sorry to wake you, Daddy here?"
"Are you aware that it's..." A rustle of bedclothes. "... about one thirty in the morning?"
"Er, yes, Theo, my boy." Somehow, the Professor contrives to make his voice more frail-sounding and uncertain than unusual. "The fact is, I'm in a bit of a jam. Oh, nothing illegal, Theo... and probably not immoral either... but you remember that tinsy winsy diplomatic incident I ran into in the Caribbean? Well, it may have reared its head again."
"Oh, good Lord, what have you done?"
"Nothing, er, nothing, but I may need to lie low for a few weeks with a couple of colleagues, and I know you are able to arrange this with... discretion. There are, er, MOD safehouses, aren't there?"
"I couldn't possibly exploit my position... if the press got hold of it... oh my goodness. Just for a few weeks, you say?"
"I knew I count upon you, Theo, my boy."
"If it ever gets out that... did you say with some colleagues?"
"I'll explain later," the Professor says quickly, hoping that he can think of an adequate account before he next meets his son.
The Professor pulls up in his hired car in the car park of the Latimer a little after four, his mind still full of the image of Benedict Riggs investigating his new sanctuary suspiciously, and slitting open all the furnishings in the search for hidden surveillance devices. You'll be safe there, Benni - don't run away from the place, there's a good boy.
Halloween dawns uncertainly over the coast, the sun a mere blot of light in a sky as pale and lustreless as egg white. The horizon is a smudge of mist through which boats glide in and out of existence.
A carved pumpkin grins from the window sill of the hotel dining room, baring fat, orange fangs. Noticing that at least one other person in the dining room appears to be reading a local paper on which their identi-kit pictures feature prominently, Micky, Side-step and Andrew decide to take breakfast in their room.
All members of the group are suffering the effects of several nights of broken sleep. Isobel and Twitchin, in particular, yawn frequently.
The items of surveillance equipment that Micky has ordered arrive by first post in a series of packages. After checking the contents of each, Micky carries all the packages out to the hired car, and places them in the boot. He then drives out towards Whitby once more. Stone travels in the passenger seat, his tanned face strangely tranquil, as if he were focussing on some inner thought that at once transports and consoles him.
After consulting the map once more, Micky chooses a route that will pass through Brent Row. If he is to plant surveillance devices in Star's house, and gather blackmail material with which to persuade him to drop the charges, this must be done sooner rather than later.
As he drives past Star's house, he frowns a little. The garage door has been pulled down and fastened. No cars or bikes are visible outside the house, and the washing line has been stripped bare. All windows are dark, and all curtains are drawn. A note seems to have been left out for the milkman.
He is preparing to pull up and take a closer look, when he notices in his rear view mirror that across the road from the Star residence a Renault is parked. There are two men seated in the front of the car. The driver is apparently reading a newspaper, but the man in the passenger seat appears casting a deliberately casual eye in the direction of Star's house. Micky gently accelerates once more, and continues up the street.
John Stone asks to be dropped in the old quarter of Whitby, and then briskly walks the narrow streets to the Arabian Nights Theatre. This time it is Cato that answers his knock.
"I was starting to think you wouldn't call." Cato is dressed in a ruffled, black lace shirt and black leather trousers, and for once his hair is loose. His face shows every sign of a sleepless night, although his romantic dress and rather androgynous good looks lend even this an appearance of unreality, as if he were a tortured poet in a costume drama. "Her hands are very cold, and I can't make her warm."
Stone's heart sinks when he examines Lydia. Her narrow chin juts out from a veritable nest of blankets, old coats and faded velvet curtains, some of which no doubt once graced the cinema podium itself. A few yards from her, a little fan heater roars in vain. The girl herself seems almost impossibly fragile, like something fashioned out of spider silk. Her bed is surrounded by vases full of roses, white roses, red roses, yellow roses, presumably a gesture by her brother.
"She needs to be taken to a hospital."
"She needs to be in the ritual," Cato insists doggedly. "I've taken her to hospitals. They can't do anything for her in hospitals. You're a doctor. Do you know what's wrong with her? Do you know what could make her better?" Stone has no answers for him.
"Alright, Cato. The situation is this. We think we've located our friend, Dr Culver, and we're going to try and rescue him this afternoon. This will leave the way open for your sister to take his place in the ritual. I believe that the ritual will be held tonight, at the ruined abbey. I have... I have seen the blood there. In my dreams." Once one has penetrated Cato's smokescreen of dreamy good-humour, his wide-eyed stare is curiously disquieting. Stone continues. "We think we know where Dr Culver is being held, but if you - or your friends - can help us, then this would be invaluable."
"You have my word that you won't stop Lydia being used in the ritual?"
Stone hesitates for a moment.
"You have my word."
Cato looks at him for a moment, his eyes wide and pensive, almost as if he had become distracted and lost his train of thought. "Mm. OK." He draws back his sleeve, and absently rubs at the wound on his arm. The gash seems to be healing slowly, and Stone wonders whether Cato has once again been experimenting with the remedial effects of blood. "He's in the old lighthouse at Skinningrove. Is that where you thought he was?" Stone nods. "It's one of their local hideouts. I went there the other day to talk to Crier, and I worked out that Dr Culver was being held there from something that some of the guards said. They don't worry about talking in front of me, you see. They think I'm an idiot. The third floor. I'm pretty sure they said the third floor."
"How many guards can we expect?"
"Well, from what I've seen, there are always a couple strolling about the cliff-top just outside the tower. Then you get other small groups patrolling the land round about, I don't know how many patrols, four or five maybe. Then you got four or so just inside the door in case back up is needed. I don't know how many others you got in the tower. And then there are the Dogs. But they're only around at night. I mean, everyone just calls them 'the dogs,' but somehow I get the feeling that 'dogs' kind of has a capital 'D'."
"Do you know how many vampires we might have to face?"
"Well, there's Crier. And there's Dr Oswestry. And a woman called Isolde - don't you think that's a lovely name? Isolde. Anyway, then there's Troy..." Stone suppresses his reaction. Clearly Cato is not aware of all recent events. "And there used to be Ryan Rain, but he's dead. And there was some talk of one or two other vampires coming down from London, but I don't know if they've arrived yet."
"I see. Thank you. Tell me, Cato, how good an idea can you give us of the layout of the tower? What would be the best way to get in?"
"Maybe you won't need to," Cato says slowly. "I, er, I can get in, you see. They don't think anything of me coming and going. They don't think about me at all. Once I'm in there, I could try and get to see Culver - make him ready to escape, maybe even get him down to the ground floor. But I reckon you'll need to come up with some kind of distraction if I'm even going to reach him."
"We're making arrangements for a distraction right now," says Stone.
"So, let's run through this one more time." Thor, the heavy-set red-haired biker from the War steed gang slowly strokes his beard. "You're a friend of the bloke who was in here the other day, and you knew Ryan as well. You're saying you've tracked down the people who did Ryan, and they're what, some black magic cult freaks or something, right?"
"Yeah," says Micky, "we think it was over drugs. You know Ryan did a little selling? Well, this cult are eye-high in the drug scene, and they've got their eye on Whitby as their personal patch. I guess maybe they tried to put pressure on him, and he told them where to stick it - you know Ryan," hazards Micky, hoping he has gauged the dead man's character correctly from the anecdotes that he has been hearing for the last half an hour.
"Yeah, that sounds like Ryan alright." Micky relaxes a little. "But I thought your friend said it was the police who'd done him in, sort of beat him to death interrogating him?"
"Well, that's what we thought at first," Micky improvises. "'Cos we heard from some of our sources that he'd been pulled in for questioning. But now we're pretty sure that the police are working with the cult. It's like the whole freemason thing, you know, people in high places, pulling strings. So I guess the police pretended that they just wanted to talk to Ryan about the dealing, and then, once they'd got him somewhere quiet..." Micky shrugs expressively, and shakes his head.
"OK, OK. So when's this going down."
"Two-forty. In the afternoon."
"The afternoon? In daylight? Why the fuck are you raiding in daylight?"
How do I tell him that we hope the most powerful members of the 'black magic cult' are allergic to sunlight?
"Look, it has to be today. They're moving base later in the afternoon, and we think we'll lose track of them. These people have connections, remember."
Several other Warsteeds are clearly eavesdropping from other tables of the Wreckers, as Thor leans back in his seat.
"I'll talk it over with the boys." From the conversation, Micky has gauged that Ryan Rain had acted very much as leader to the gang, with Thor as something of a lieutenant. With the departure of Rain, Thor's promotion to the status of leader seems to have been tacitly and generally accepted. Micky gives the biker Stone's mobile phone number, and leaves.
Arriving back in the car, he discovers Cato seated in the back seat, the unconscious Lydia curled in his arms.
"They're coming with us," explains Stone in an undertone
While Stone walks into town to purchase some aerosols, some petrol and a lighter so that a conflagration may created if required, Micky uses Stone's phone to call Brett Piner.
"Is Karl Hendleby there? Can I speak to him?"
"Actually, he's resting, Agent Thomas. He shouldn't really... oh. Oh, very well. Mr Hendleby seems very keen to talk to you." There are faint noises of the receiver changing hands.
"Hello?" Hendleby's warm, rather excited voice. "What news from the front line?"
Micky explains the recent news coverage of the events at St Mary's church, and the fact that he, Side-step and Andrew are now being sought by the police.
"I was hoping that you and Sarah could go to the police and feed them a story, perhaps tell them that you and your friend the priest were attacked by the man that died, and that three men came and rescued you, but not before the priest was killed. Then just say that we took you blindfolded to a cottage and explained that we were on a mission for the Army, or something. You were treated well, and then released. A nice, vague story, hard to disprove, with just enough hint that we were SAS or something."
"You're kidding, right? Oh, please, please tell me you're kidding? Look, I'm sorry you're in this jam, and I'd like to help you out, but I'd have to flipping suicidal to go the police. Who do you think I've been avoiding for the last few weeks? And I don't even know if it's just the Whitby police that the vampires have got to - I've no notion how far their influence spreads. If I walk into a police station, I'll tell you what will happen. The next day the papers will be running a story about how the police have caught Karl Hendleby the murderer of Ryan Rain, or whatever, who has just hanged himself in his cell in a fit of mental instability. There'll be lots of interviews with people who used to know me, talking about how I went a bit funny this last year, and how they all thought there was something wrong with me. And Sarah will quietly vanish - it will be assumed that I murdered her, or that she's trying to avoid the press. And not a word will be said about any statement I made while I was in police custody..."
"They're back." Andrew is peering out from behind his curtain into the car park. He has been taking care to keep his public appearances to a minimum.
Side-step moves to the other side of the window and pulls back a corner of the curtain. He scowls as he sees Cato in the back seat, gently stroking Lydia's hair.
"What the hell is the fancy dress posse doing here? This won't be a kiddies' picnic!"
"I expect John has his reasons."
"Well, they've cut it a bit fine. We'll only just have time to grab lunch and get out of here."
"I suggest that when we do we check out and take all our belongings with us," remarks Andrew. "Several of us are now wanted by the local police and I would suggest that as soon as we have recovered our colleague we leave the county, or preferably the country. Myself, I intend to try and make for Norway on a fishing boat. There is virtually no border control there - and I would suggest that the rest of you may want to accompany me."
"It's different this time."
The car journey to Skinningrove has taken longer than expected, the roads congested with traffic presumably heading towards Whitby. Thankfully, there are no signs of police roadblocks, as Side-step had initially feared there might be. Isobel's Mercedes and Twitchin's hired car are now parked on the cliff top a quarter of a mile from the tower.
The tower itself is visible on the next promontory, a gleaming finger of white against the rich green of the surrounding turf.
"It feels different this time," Isobel says again. "Last night... there was something there. I think it was the same thing I sensed when I was in the Hermitage - it felt the same. I just knew that we had to get away. Well, I don't think it's there now. Maybe it's the daylight, I don't know."
"The Warsteeds will be there in twenty minutes," says Micky. "Better make tracks if Cato is going to have a crack at getting Matt out of there."
"Are we sure we want to use any plan that uses him?" Side-step jerks his head towards Cato. "Look at him, for Chrissake!" Cato has seated himself on the grass beside Lydia, has spread her long, white lace gown about her, and appears to be in the process of draping a daisy chain about her head. Cato's brotherly affection does seem to manifest itself in a desire to arrange Lydia in the most picturesque fashion possible, as if she were an over-sized doll.
"He's one of the few trumps in our hand," shrugs Stone.
"I don't think I want to get any closer to the tower than this," adds Isobel. "I don't know why I felt so drawn to the place, and I really don't want to risk finding myself being used in any kind of ritual. I'll stay here with Lydia and the cars."
"Good idea," agrees the Professor. "I'll stay here with you. After all, commando assaults aren't really, er, my thing. Perhaps you'd better leave one of the phones with us."
I must have left the window open... some kind of insect in my room...
Culver tosses between dream and waking, his sleep disturbed by a small insistent whirr, like that of an insect's wings. Some mosquito perhaps, he would have to rise, put the light on, find it, swat it... half a dozen times he dreams that he has risen and crushed the insect, only to realise that he is still lying with his eyes closed and the maddening whine at the edge of his hearing.
...the buzz is growing louder, louder, becoming a chorus... he opens his eyes and sees a monstrous mosquito the size of a horse poised over his bed, swelling and swelling, growing ever more monstrous in size as it saps the blood from his arteries...
He starts from the dream. He is sitting upright in his darkened room, and the droning noise is still audible, still growing louder. Not insects, engines. Outside?
He rises and walks to the window. The inner shutter is fastened. He loosens the catch, and opens it a crack.
He closes the shutter abruptly, eyes clenched against the brilliance of the light outside the window. What kind of light could be shining like that outside the window?
Somewhere downstairs, he can hear Crier shouting commands.
"Wake up Isolde! You, Clarkson, put a call through to Superintendent May and get him to send us some back up. Tell him that we are considering this a code 32 situation."
"Give patrols A and D orders to return here and flank these people if they attack. Leave the rest in place but put them on alert. We can't rule out the possibility that this is some sort of decoy attack."
"What shall we do if they attack, sir?" An unfamiliar voice, brisk and breathless.
"We have a number of critical artefacts and personnel here which we cannot afford to have captured or destroyed. If they attack, do not hesitate to use lethal force. Under those circumstances, however, it may well be necessary to entirely eliminate the attacking force."
"Crier, have you noticed where Montmorency has wandered off to?" Maurice's voice again.
As he listens, Culver suddenly becomes aware of stealthy steps ascending the stairs beyond his door. Yes, the familiar, hesitant creak of one trying not to make a noise - how clumsy it sounds compared to Maurice's velvet tread! The steps stop outside the door, and the handle slowly rotates. The door opens.
"Dr Culver?" In the doorway stands Cato Montmorency. He takes one step, then another, staring wide-eyed about the room, but not at Culver himself. As the younger man reaches out a hand, feels for the wall, and walks forward, keeping one hand in contact with the wall, Culver watches in perplexity until realisation dawns. Of course, he thinks it's dark, he's not one of us...
"I'm here to get you out of here, Dr Culver. Where are you?" Culver walks forward, feeling a turbulence of conflicting sentiments, and takes hold of the youth's hand. "There you are. Quick, come with me..."
Without warning, the door suddenly swings back on its hinges, as Maurice enters the room at a run. Cato starts, stares about wildly for a tiny instant, then twists about to face Culver. Montmorency makes a small, savage motion, and Culver feels a slight, cold pressure in his abdomen. The next moment Maurice leaps from the door, knocking Cato backwards. Culver is dimly aware that pain is flooding his veins like mercury, but his mind seems to have travelled to somewhere cold, and distant, where colours are very faint. Glancing down, he sees blood flooding over his belly from the wound left by Cato's knife. Ah, that would explain it. He slowly doubles, and crumples to the floor.
A few yards away, Montmorency's body is still moving in an irregular, spasmodic way, but his eyes appear fixed and blood is fountaining from some three or four deep slashes across his throat.
Culver sees Maurice stand and move quickly to his side, and then feels an attempt being made to staunch the bleeding. He lies still, staring at a point in the ceiling, feeling curiously distant from the pain in his body. After a while, the patch of ceiling is framed not only by Maurice's head, but by that of Crier.
"We perform the ritual now."
"What? Are you mad? While we're under attack?" Isolde is in the room somewhere
"Orders. I have just talked to Him." Crier takes out a handkerchief and wipes carefully at his forehead.
"Tonight would be better."
"This man isn't going to survive until tonight. He isn't going to survive the hour."
"Then what makes you think he can survive the ritual?"
"We can use the force-flow to heal and strengthen him. We have no choice - these are our orders. We perform the ritual now."
Outside, Side-step lies on his stomach in the long grass, watching the bikers circling the tower, their tyres tracing crude, muddy arcs in the unsullied turf
"What are they doing?" The bikers have slowed, and are standing at a distance, revving their engines. Thor is shouting something. He has raised above his head a bottle, with a length of brownish cloth protruding from the neck. "Oh, shit." As he has suspected, Thor takes a lighter from his pocket, brandishes it and lights the cloth. He then steers a course within feet of the tower, and hurls his home-made Molotov cocktail. There is a smash of glass, and a muffled whoomph.
"I was thinking we might try and flush the vampires out with fire," whispers Stone.
"Yeah, well, Matt could get roasted by the tower burning about his ears, you ever stop to think about that?" hisses Side-step.
There is a rattle of gun-fire, and Thor tumbles from the back of his bike to lie unmoving on the grass. His bike continues without him, careering over the edge of the cliff. Two of the War steeds break away from the main group and ride away from the tower, steering off in the direction from which the shots came. The gunman breaks cover, pausing to fire off another burst of rounds which all go wild, before turning and fleeing. One of the War steeds takes from his belt a length of chain somewhat resembling that found on Ryan Rain's body, complete with the heavy hook at one end. He starts to swing the chain around his head, and as he comes level with the running man angles the swing so that it strikes the runner on the back of the skull. The gunman throws up his hands and falls forward into the long grass.
Gunfire is now issuing from several locations. Side-step identifies two gunmen at windows on the second floor, and a few more at the entrance to the tower. He is also able to pin-point five men firing at the bikers from positions amid the undergrowth and trees at a distance from the tower.
"OK, boys. Now they've nicely given away their positions for us, let's make them uncomfortable."
He fires up at one of the gunmen at a second floor window. The man falls backwards, and his gun clatters down the side of the tower to fall to the ground below. One of the bikers scoops it up, and brandishes it with a whoop.
"Remember, if we see a single camera flash at any of the windows, that means Cato has found Culver."
While Stone watches for Cato's signal, Side-step, Micky and Andrew start providing the bikers with covering fire, targeting the enemy gunmen.
A low haze of smoke is starting to pour from the direction of the door, and furl itself along the ground beyond the tower like the train of a tall, white-clad bride.
"How can we perform the ritual without Him?"
"He will join us as soon as he can. We are simply to start without Him."
Culver lies in the centre of a circular room near the apex of the tower, on hard wooden boards, below a dingy, fly-spotted ceiling. He is dimly that Crier is speaking rapidly in some language he does not understand. He is dimly aware that Isolde has sparks of red in her brilliant copper eyes. He is dimly aware of Darius staring at him with a mixture of fear, horror and fascination. He is dimly aware that Maurice is leaning against the wall, carefully licking Montmorency's blood from his gloves with a long pale tongue, like a cat cleaning its paws. He is suddenly acutely aware of something seeming to erupt and flood from his midriff to his extremities, and then out across the room. And then he is aware of nothing.
"No signal. I think something's gone wrong." Stone suppresses a cough as the bank of low smoke reaches his hiding place. "I think it's now or never. Right now at least the smoke is supplying us with cover. If we leave it any longer, either the whole tower will go up, or the vampires will get the fire under control." No less than two men have staggered out of the entrance, their clothes on fire. One is still rolling over on the grass, but appears too weak to contribute further to the battle.
As Andrew, Micky, Stone and Side-step raise themselves from their bellies preparatory to making an assault upon the entrance, there is sudden surge in the outward acceleration in the smoke, as if it were chased by a following wind. As it passes them, something strikes them like a physical blow, knocking them backwards off their feet. The smoke fills their eyes and ears for a fleeting moment, and then clears.
"It looks like the tower is on fire - I do hope they've got young Matt to safety," remarks the Professor.
Beside him on the cliff top, Isobel peers out towards the tower. Suddenly, she grips his sleeve.
"Look!" While the Professor stares in vain in the direction of her pointing finger, Isobel watches in impotent horror as a spreading ring, not unlike a ripple of heat haze, spreads out from the tower in all directions, engulfing the fight, widening, widening, until the edge of the ring is surging like a great wave towards her.
As it nears, even the Professor becomes aware of the grass flattening, the younger trees buckling as if in response to a steady, silent wind.
Then both Twitchin and Isobel feel the invisible wave strike them, knocking them backwards as if a well-placed hand had pushed each firmly in the centre of the chest.
Matt Culver wakes to feel soft grass under his palms. He is lying on his back, and the ground beneath feels sun-warmed. He opens his eyes a sliver. Above him the clouds seem to be skating across the sky with feverish speed, but the general mood is one of serenity.
Over him stands an old, sandstone cross as tall as three men, mounted on a broad, two-tiered, stone base. The shadow of the cross falls across his face. Leaning against the cross is a young, smooth-faced man in a white suit, who is watching him with peaceful, inscrutable smile. Culver has a hazy impression that his face is familiar.
"You're safe here," says the young man. "Come with me - we have a lot to do." He reaches down to help Culver rise.
Culver takes the offered hand in its black suede glove, and is helped to his feet.
"What the... I've lost my bearings - I can't make out the tower. Where the hell's the tower?"
Side-step coughs, and attempts to fan away the smoke. As he does so, he suddenly becomes aware that he is wearing gloves, old-fashioned calf-skin gloves. There is a gentle pressure around his temples - he reaches up his hand and snatches a broad-brimmed hat from his head.
He glances quizzically at his companions. Stone is carefully rising to his feet, staring in perplexity at the tweed waistcoat he appears to be wearing, and the silk top hat set crooked on his head. There appears to be some form of large hunting dog sitting on its haunches a couple of yards from him, regarding him protectively. Micky is incredulously sorting through the pockets of a heavy frock coat, examining a gold watch and chain, a signet ring, and a gilt edged pocket book.
Their astonishment, however, is nothing to that of Andrew, who is kneeling on the grass in a dark blue cape and muffler, staring at the object which moments before had been an AK-47
Andrew is holding an antique Winchester rifle.
"Isobel? Are you alright?" Kneeling on the grass, the Professor pats at Isobel's hand in what he hopes is a helpful manner. He cannot help but notice that the wrist of the hand that he is patting appears to be enclosed in a white lace glove. Under her coat she appears to be wearing a rather confining grey gown with a full skirt and a narrow corseted waist. Her neck is all but smothered in lace, and hair seems to be tied back in a fashion that recalls the hairstyle of the heroine in 'Out for the Count.' Just as Twitchin is considering searching her purse for smelling salts, Isobel opens her eyes.
The Professor is bending over her. For a moment she cannot place what is different about his face, but then she realises that he has a pair of gold pince-nez perched upon his nose. She tries to sit up, then grimaces as hidden stays pinch her sides.
"I think I preferred waking up in my nightie," she mutters. "Where are we?"
"Ah. Well, that's, um, that's a good question, my dear." The Professor glances out across a broad valley towards the building on the crest of a peak. The light that bathes the scene alters and fluctuates at a crazy, kaleidoscopic speed. Overhead in the sky there are racing, not clouds, but patches of darkness, through which can be glimpsed the occasional star. The rest of the sky is a vivid, radiant blue. When one of these patches of darkness slide over the sun, the orb alters complexion and becomes the moon. Day and night are fighting for control of the sky, dappling the landscape with blue shadow and black, with silver light and gold.
The building on the opposite peak seems to shift in appearance with each change in the light. Sometimes the livid shape of the burning tower is visible. At others the building displays a jagged line of broken battlements against the sky, so crude and monumental in its form that it might have been grown from the crag. At other times, when the moon gleams most brightly, she can see that the building is none other than the ruined shell of Whitby Abbey, low tendrils of mist weaving through its empty arches and windows.
In the valley below twists the river Esk, but it is now a river transformed, a blackened, kinked parody, and around the river cluster the red roofs of Whitby, bathed in a shifting silver and crimson mist. Beyond it stretches a charcoal sea, where a storm is holding sway over some five or six ghostly ships and schooners which tumble or founder on the rocks as she watches.
As he walks towards the Abbey, noting with only a dim surprise the faint lustre that surrounds many of the gravestones in St Mary's church, the queasy air of anticipation and ritualistic mystery sends Culver's mind flitting back to his long-forgotten boyhood initiation into the Closed Brethren. He stares out to sea and tries to visualise the face of Rose-Marie Desruisseaux, of the Ezili fetish, but the racing sky dizzies him.
"Maurice, Emmanuel is... was... your offspring, am I right? So Darius seemed to imply."
"In a sense. Not quite the sense you mean, but close enough. I note that you have discarded your adherence to the present tense when speaking of Emmanuel."
"Yes. Yes, I'm afraid he's dead. Believe me, it wasn't my doing. By the way, is Darius younger than the rest of you?"
"Younger than Crier, or Isolde, or Troy. Older than I, but then I learn fast."
"Darius seemed... almost afraid of me. Why?" There is a pause.
"You were advancing towards him. Our kind are not fond of proximity, and contact between us is... not kind to us. I had already established that in your state of incomplete transformation you could be approached safely, but Darius refused to believe me."
Culver looks down at the hand that is gently cupped behind his elbow, guiding his progress. "Your gloves... are your senses really so acute you have to muffle tactility with a layer of suede? Or is this just a private affectation - a fetish, perhaps?" There is a silence, and for a moment Culver suspects that he may have offended his companion.
"My sense of touch is unusually acute, yes, but I have another reason for wearing gloves. After my own... transformation, I was positively encouraged to experiment upon the nature of our being. The most obvious subject being myself, I set about the task with some aplomb and rather too much haste. A certain experiment had repercussions of a sort which I did not predict. The result of too much youthful enthusiasm, I fear."
"Well," Culver pauses and sighs. "I've been thinking about all the things you've said, and I guess I'm convinced - or at least as convinced as a confirmed non-zealot can get. Even if this is all just a touch of Stockholm Syndrome and I'm poor, dumb Patti Bloody Hearst, whatever you've got planned has got to be better than this... wasting process. Yeah, whatever it is, I'll do it."
He comes to a halt at the entrance to the Abbey. The mist is waist-high, rolling in translucent breakers over the grass. In the centre of the abbey rises a podium of black stone, not unlike an altar. Upon it rests a large ebony box. As he stares at the box, he becomes aware that it is a coffin, lined with red satin plush. Gently, the guiding hand at his arm leads him towards the box. Feeling the gaze of hidden eyes upon him he mounts the podium, climbs into the casket, and lies down.
"I guess we make for the abbey. Unless anyone has any better ideas." Side-step, Micky, Stone and Andrew have established that each is equipped with a Winchester rifle in place of the guns they had been carrying. To his chagrin, Side-step has also discovered that his combat knife has been replaced by a Bowie knife of outmoded design.
"It looks bloody far away." Micky shades his eyes and gazes out across the valley to where the mountains bite into the sky like a row of broken teeth. The abbey teeters at the crest of one of the lower crags. "And anyway, I'm not even sure that is the abbey. It keeps changing." Sometimes, a narrow path is visible twisting up the mountain face towards the abbey. At others, there is a shift of perspective, and Micky recognises the 199 steps. "How do we get there?"
"What about using these?" Andrew approaches, holding the reins of four horses.
"Where did they come from?"
"I found them tethered over there. I guess they're ours."
"OK, how many of us know how to ride?" Stone raises his hand. The others exchange glances.
"Well, if you think I'm going to start learning in this situation..." Side-step tails off, as he becomes aware that Stone's dog is growling.
There is, in any eventuality, something disturbing about Stone's dog. Its species is hard to determine, not least because something in its appearance cheats the eye, so that it seems to morph and shift under one's very gaze. It is of considerable size, but moves silently, and occasionally a watcher might glimpse a constellation of teeth glittering from within its long muzzle. Although it watches Stone almost incessantly, and doggedly remains by his side, there is something in its carriage that suggests the feral and untamed.
Stone has already turned to face the same direction as his dog, his rifle levelled, when from all directions there issues an unmistakable sound, the eerie rising and falling cadence of a choir of wolves. Quickly the four men form a circle, back to back, peering into the mist, rifles levelled.
Indistinct shapes can be glimpsed, slinking this way, that way, circling the group. Then two dark shapes erupt from the dimness and with a rough rasp of rapid breath, two wolves are hurling themselves upon the men in the circle. Andrew fires his rifle twice. The first bullet strikes a wolf, causing it to twist in the air. The second bullet strikes the wolf in the centre of the chest, and it falls lifeless to the ground. The second wolf is knocked sideways in mid leap by Stone's dog, which grapples it to the ground, wrestling for an opportunity to set its teeth in the other animal's throat.
Another dark, lupine form hurls itself out of the mist, and another, and then two more. A short while later the group have accounted for no less nine wolves, five of them slain by Stone's dog.
As the group are reloading and recovering their breath, another chorus of wolf-song is heard, slightly further away.
"Alright, we'll use the horses..."
Walking through the streets of Whitby, Isobel and the Professor are aware of ghost-like forms that flit about them, talking, buying ice cream, drinking coffee in restaurants, crossing streets. These people are little more than gauzy silhouettes, and appear to be quite unaware of Isobel and Twitchin, gliding between them in their extraordinary costumes. Someone has set up some loudspeakers on the waterfront, and a large number of people appear to be dancing. Faint strands of light can be seen issuing from their eyes and ears, and feeding into the shining mist that bathes the town. Twitchin notices that the mist seems to feed both in and out of these spectral people, as if they were breathing light.
On one occasion, they see one of the bikers, crazed with fear, running into an alleyway. Something tears around the corner after him on four legs, and both are lost to sight and sound.
The chaos of mist, rain, spray and darkness that shrouds the air above the sea starts to divide, and the two observers see it split by a slender, ebony prow. A ship is sliding like a knife along a path of calm through the heart of storm. Its sails are black, and it drags clouds behind it, like scavenger birds following a plough.
At the same time that they become aware of this, Twitchin and Isobel notice four men on horseback riding along the clifftop. The foremost are Stone and Micky. The second pair are Side-step and Andrew. The legs of the horses seem to flow under them, and their bodies remain static, so that the riders are not shaken in the saddle.
A dark gaggle of men stand between the horsemen and the abbey.
The dozen or so men that have positioned themselves behind boulders to await the four horsemen are dressed as gypsies, but with a slightly mittel-European tendency to their garb. Many of them wear high boots with baggy, white trousers tucked into them, broad belts, heavy moustaches, and loose linen shirts. One or two seem slightly unused to these garments, as if their costume too has suffered a transformation. Most appear to have rifles or knives at the ready.
Stone levels his rifle and shouts out a threat and warning, and for a moment it seems that the other group will maintain their positions. Then the brigands spring from their hiding places. Some four or five are felled by rifle shots, and then the rest are leaping onto the backs of the horses to wrestle the riders from their saddles, or slashing at the horse's tendons with their knives. Micky succeeds in knocking away one attacker with the butt of his gun, only to have another man from his other side grab at the rifle and attempt to wrest it from his grasp. Stone's horse is hamstrung, and the psychiatrist is thrown, losing his hat in the process. Andrew finds himself tumbling from his horse to wrestle on the rocky path with a burly member of the gypsy party.
Side-step abandons his horse and leaps to earth, bearing one of his opponents down to the ground and dispatching him with his Bowie knife. He then rises, and turns to grapple with another.
The whole scene is a nightmare of knives that flow and glimmer like water, of racing, insane light, of the screams of dying horses. While he wrestles for control over his rifle, Micky notices that as Side-step darts among his enemies, Bowie knife gripped in his right hand, he is keeping his left hand clamped to his side. Blood is spilling between his fingers.
The air is full of whispers, many of them speaking a language similar to that spoken earlier by Crier. The whispers are almost palpable, and Culver feels as if they moving over his skin like spiders, weaving an insidious and intricate web of which he is the centre. He senses the threads of the web extending outwards, weaving and branching like veins. Each time he breathes in, he feels a pulse of soft gold drawn in through the web threads into him. As he breathes out, he feels something flowing away from him along the threads.
He is the heart in the centre of a rich pattern of veins and arteries, the focal stone set in an intricate piece of jewellery. He is the new cornerstone, the centre-piece. And he is not alone.
Something is spilling into the abbey grounds, an invisible darkness, an intangible cold. Something is drawing near. Someone is drawing near. Then an unseen hand reaches seems to reach into Culver's chest, take hold of his heart, and start to twist.
Culver breathes out, and something black and bitter is now surging from the hand into Culver, and through him into the subtle and far-reaching web. He breathes in, and power surges into the waiting hand.
The grip on his heart tightens once more, and he feels a terrible yielding to succumb to it, to allow himself to be reshaped and remoulded.
"Sonnez le mirroire!" The volume of Culver's voice startles him, for he had thought that he had little breath to spare. He pulls his amulet of Ezili from under his shirt and holds it over his heart. "Papa Legba! Open the gates!" With a huge effort of will, he raises himself to a sitting position. Come on, Papa Legba, let the lady manifest herself...
Crier is standing aghast at the far side of the abbey, his short form draped in a black robe, his eyes pale as opals.
"Mistress Ezili! Your horse calls you! I am yours! Come into me, Mistress! Ride your horse!" Hands shaking, Culver traces the vévés on his amulet with his finger tips, and notices that they appear to be glowing with a vivid candy-pink light.
From their viewpoint in the town, Isobel and the Professor suddenly see a flicker of rosy light glimmer in the empty windows of the abbey. Then it seems that soft pink flames start to lick over the building, and spread across the grass.
"What's happening there?" A number of little boats have set out into the chaos of the sea, battling the darkness. The same rosy light plays around the keels of the boats, and sparkles like St Elmo's fire in the air above them. Each stroke of the oars strikes a pinkish phosphorescence from the water, and the little boats leave wakes of pink fire. Not only do they appear to be successfully progressing into the storm, but they seem to be driving it back. As Twitchin and Isobel watch, the prow of the black ship starts to withdraw through the mist before the tiny navy.
"No!" It is Crier's voice, transformed by rage
Teeth clenched, one hand firmly gripping the knife wound in his side, Side-step staggers into the abbey, following the sound of Crier's voice. Behind him he can still hear the sound of the battle against the gypsies.
He makes his way to the black stone altar, and the coffin in which Culver sits, eyes clenched shut, hands clasped around his amulets, mouthing words under his breath.
"Kill him now! Now!"
There is a woman approaching the podium, a few rapid, graceful steps at a time. Her face is a pale oval, tapering to a narrow chin, and she is slight as a faun. A waterfall of copper hair falls to her waist. Her eyes grow large and stony as she assesses the man slumped against the altar, a Winchester rifle tucked under one arm. Then she smiles.
"Put down your gun." All the whispers in the abbey unite to repeat her words, as if admiring them.
And why not? Why not put down the gun... so heavy...
She is beautiful, and delicate, and cold, like a frost pattern on a winter window. She is smiling, and her bare, slender feet are carrying her over the grass as quickly and silently as the shadow of a bird.
Side-step raises his leaden rifle, blinks his eyes into clarity, and fires. Something hisses like a stricken cat, and something crumples. When Side-step's vision clears, the woman is spread-eagled upon the grass, a bullet wound neatly penetrating her heart.
Three other figures are emerging from the shadowy recesses of the abbey. They are strangers to Side-step, but he guesses at their nature.
As Side-step fights to retain consciousness, turning his rifle this way and that in an attempt to cover each of the encroaching vampires, he becomes aware of the sound of running feet.
Micky, Stone and Andrew arrive just as Side-step starts to slump, and the rifle falls out of his hand. They quickly rush to the central altar, and ring it, directing their guns towards the three remaining vampires, who hesitate once more.
And then, in the icy silence that accompanies the confrontation, a woman appears next to the altar. She is dressed in a simple, white surplice with a modest head dress entirely covering her hair, but when she starts to walk forward, there is something in her gait that belies her modest garments. There is a swing and sway in her walk, a sensuous enjoyment of the motion of her own body. Turning to face Crier, she arches an eyebrow, takes something from her belt that resembles a coil of rope.
With a long smile, she shakes the object loose. It is not a coil of rope. It is a vicious looking whip of considerable dimensions. As she cracks it, pink sparks leap from the turf. All three vampires withdraw a step. Almost flirtatiously, the woman runs the whip through her hands, then advances another step and cracks it once more. Her eye is fixed upon Crier, and each step takes her closer to him.
Crier glances behind him, notices that he is being backed towards a wall, makes an impossible, cat-like leap up to one of the gaping windows, and drops down outside the abbey. The white-clad abbess gives a shrill laugh, and runs towards the entrance, whip raised high.
A snarl and scuffle attract the attention of the SITU agents a moment later. It is clear that while they were distracted, Darius had thought he had an opportunity to attack. He is now rolling over and over with Stone's dog.
Halfway up the 199 steps, Isobel and Twitchin are treated to the sight of Crier fleeing to the edge of the cliff top, and gazing in anguish at the receding black ship for a few seconds before turning to face his enemy.
The abbess walks towards him with an easy, jaunty, sensual grace. Each time she cracks her whip, a tiny roll of thunder sounds, accompanied by a little flicker of pink-toned lightning.
Crier finds himself on the edge of the cliff, turns, draws himself up, and starts to incant once more.
The abbess half-turns away, drawing her whip back. Then she swings the whip horizontally, with blinding speed. Crier's headless body wobbles on the edge of the precipice for a few instants, then topples slowly backwards.
The sun has mustered a meagre brilliance by the time that Micky, Stone and Andrew awake next to the smoking shell of the lighthouse. They soon find Side-step's diminutive form among the littered bodies.
"He doesn't seem to be physically injured, but I can't wake him. We need to get him some kind of hospital treatment."
Carrying him carefully, they proceed back to the car, where the Professor and Isobel are seated on the grass, recovering themselves.
Remembering Lydia, Stone walks over to the car in which she is curled in her white lace dress.
"I suppose we'll have the job of telling her that her brother's dead," says Andrew, recalling one of the charred bodies in the wreckage.
Stone bends over Lydia, takes her pulse, then releases her wrist with a long sigh. "No," he says, quietly, "we won't."
"Benni, I'm sure the pieces aren't bugged... Benni, probably best not to prise the bases off the chess pieces, old chap. After all, you know, I'm just borrowing them from my son..."
Riggs has recovered some weight, now that the Professor has persuaded him that the staff at the MOD safe house have no interest in drugging his food. Although Riggs is as feverish in his theories as ever, Twitchin is glad to see him looking fitter.
Theo needed a new chess set anyway, Twitchin reflects as he watches Riggs prising the inlaid squares out of the board...
A black box, a black box, that isn't Henry...
Isobel stands next to Edward at the graveside, watching a long, black box being lowered into a hole into the ground.
A black box isn't a person, isn't an end, isn't an answer. It's a hole, something missing, like the black rectangular mark used to blot out a word in a censored letter.
Although her eyes are misted with tears, she casts a quick glance at the other mourners. Some are familiar, some are not. Among them she recognises James Dasypus, Benjamin Gould, Anthony Deane...
"Glad I was able to track you two down." Geoffrey Blaize shakes Micky and Andrew by the hand in turn. His grip is unusually firm, and he has a habit of holding one's gaze, like a butterfly on a pin.
The three men are seated in the restaurant of a small café in Bergen. "I must congratulate you on your getaway plan. Norway was a good choice until some of the heat has let up. Of course, the problem won't just go away, and we can't expect you to hide here forever - you're both far too valuable as agents.
"I will be setting up some alternative identities for you at the first opportunity, so that you can remain active as agents." He slaps both of them firmly on the back. "Don't say that SITU doesn't look out for its people."
"No progress. They say he's in some kind of deep coma - they don't know what's causing it." Stone and Culver stand on either side of Side-step's hospital bed, with an acute sense of helplessness.
"I'm not happy about leaving him with the SITU medical team, but - what else can we do?" Culver shrugs. "We can't take him to an ordinary hospital. Not now."
"He'll be safer here. Listen, I'm just going to go and make a full report to SITU. Do you want to come?"
"No, I'll sit here for a bit." After Stone has left the room, Culver moves over the window, and pulls down the blind so as to subdue the light. Even the dark glasses are somewhat inadequate protection against the sun. Then he sits down beside Side-step's bed, noting how much smaller he seems when deprived of the effect of his rather vivid personality. There is still a trace of stubbornness in Side-step's face, even in repose, as if he were deliberately shutting someone out.
"You can't walk forever, you know," whispers the wind. Side-step halts for a few moments, stares up at the feverish blue-and-black sky, with its waltzing sun and moon, then back down at the shining sand flat beneath his feet. Then he starts walking again, feeling the sand give under each step.
"I want to help you... you need me, don't you see that? Otherwise you'll be here forever, forever..."
"I'm a big boy. I'll find my own way home." Side-step trudges on, leaving a trail of gleaming, water-filled prints behind him.
From: G M Blaize, Debriefing/65a
To: Executives: Dr Matt Culver, Steve Anderson, Professor Adam Twitchin: Agents: Wotan Andrew Weiser, Micky Thomas, John Stone, Isobel Blyth
Subject: Witless in Whitby
Achievement of aims: well done, Operatives Anderson, Culver, Twitchin, Weiser, Thomas, Stone and Blyth. You have succeeded in your primary objective, the rescue of Benedict Riggs. There is now of course an urgent requirement for Riggs to be placed in the hands of a specialised SITU medical team so that we can ascertain whether he has suffered any form of trauma or other physical or psychological damage during his captivity. Should any member of your team know of the whereabouts of Riggs, or of Professor Twitchin, whom we believe to be with him, we would be grateful if you were to inform us.
Furthermore, during the investigation of the disappearance of Riggs, you succeeded in uncovering various pieces of information which promise to be of great use to SITU.
Your team are also to be congratulated upon your success in preventing the vampire ritual from taking place.
It is, however, regrettable that your team should have attracted such a large degree of attention to your endeavours, to the extent that at least three of you are now being sought by the law in connection with two murders. This is somewhat in violation of our policy of avoiding conflicts with the law.
Karl and Sarah Louise Hendleby
As suspected, Karl has proven to be psychic of no mean calibre. His sister appears to have no trace of his gifts. It will of course take time to verify his story properly, but if it is true, he is likely to be a valuable source of information concerning the nature of the vampires.
At present, Hendleby is in a state of nervous and physical collapse, brought on by a prolonged period of strain. Nonetheless, we have every hope of recruiting him to SITU upon his recovery.
Your team is to be congratulated upon your success in bringing him to SITU alive.
The vampire viruses
Analysis has now begun upon the blood samples taken from Lydia Montmorency, and from the body of Emmanuel. As suggested by the testimony of Dr Pym, the two were suffering from somewhat different viruses. We believe that both diseases were artificially cultivated.
In the case of Emmanuel, it seem entirely plausible that the virus had the side-effect of inducing mental instability, whereas the variety suffered by Lydia seemed to manifest itself as a wasting sickness. Preliminary tests suggest that Dr Culver and Lydia were suffering from the same virus.
As suggested by Professor Twitchin, SITU have taken steps to detain Dr Pym, and hope to learn more from interviews with him.
It seems probable that your surmises concerning the theory behind the ritual were correct, and that it was an attempt to subvert the psychic force-field of the Abbey, so as to exploit and harvest the potency of the Dracula myth. If any specific practical result was intended, this has not yet been determined.
The manifestation of the loa Ezili in a form amalgamated with the historical figure of the Abbess Hild is interesting. We will be sending small reconnaissance groups to the area in the near future in an attempt to assess the affect this has had upon the spiritual essence of the location.
Chief Superintendent Star has recently suffered a total nervous collapse, and is not expected to recover. A large number of his most trusted underlings have also 'fallen ill' over the last week, although a fairly competent attempt is being made to disguise the fact from the press.
It seems possible that the Master has withdrawn his control over Star, and that as a result Star suffered a mental breakdown not unlike that suffered by Ian Brookland during his interrogation.
If the Master has sacrificed such a significant piece in the game, it may be assumed that he has decided to withdraw from Whitby, and restrict himself to efforts elsewhere. It is hard to assess whether he was actually injured during his encounter with Ezili, but it seems possible.
From: G M Blaize, Chief of Operations
To: Operatives: Weiser, Stone, Blyth, Twitchin, Culver, Thomas
You have now been working with us for long enough, and have shown enough dedication to the cause we are all struggling for, that it is time to lay the facts of the matter, as SITU understands them, before you. These Ylids whom we fight seem to have once lived happily together, a very long time ago, but they became sundered somehow and have had to stay apart since. They have spent their time until now squabbling amongst themselves, and manipulating and shaping human thought and endeavour so that it suits their purposes - what those purposes might be, we are still not entirely clear. It seems to us that Ylids in general want to increase the amount of mystical belief among humans, hence we often find them inspiring cults, magical works, drugs, vampire activity and so on. However they also seem to be keen to back space research - you will remember from the debriefing you hgave received on the recent Norway mission that the group of 'organized Ylids' under Yashimoto were killing off the 'rogue Ylid' Krillikhesh's agents, and we think his hostility to the space program may have been part of this. Furthermore there is at least one Ylid, The Watcher, active in Britain, who seems keen to make contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms. However, Ylids such as Nefertiti, whom some of you encountered in Egypt, and The Master, as encountered here in Whitby, are more common: those who raise up cults to venerate themselves, and somehow 'feed off' the psychic energy thus generated. Ley lines and places of ancient mystical significance are clearly also important to them.
Our main weapons while learning about the Ylids have been their division and their lack of knowledge of our existence. That phase has now come to an end - The Master's destruction of our Boundary Row headquarters, and his capture of Benedict Riggs from our safe house, show that they know us to be their enemies. We must assume that the capture of Riggs was a trap: The Master's (fortunately temporary) influence over Operatives Blyth and Culver added teeth to it. However we doubt that all of the Ylids yet know the extent or capability of the threat we pose to them, so we now plan to send our most senior Operatives, including yourselves, on a series of missions to take out individual Ylids and weaken their overall power considerably. By that stage, of course, the gloves will be off, but we hope we will have taken the maximum possible advantage from what we have learnt so far.
It need hardly be said that we rely on you to achieve these goals. It will not be easy, and some of you may be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice. But this is the only way to save humanity from slavery.