The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Et In Arcadia Ego
Chapter 4

August 8th 1999 4pm

Louis, Toulouse university

The others - Toulouse centre.

Standing with the two Green Dawn activists, Judith looks bored, Sonja excited. Yuri raises his eyebrows in Dexter's direction and goes back to staring into the distance.

"Green Dawn," Jake echoes, his Australian accent exaggerated. "Sounds like my kind of thing."

Sioux immediately turns her attention to him. "You Australian?" she asks.

He nods. "My mother was Aborigine. I know all about environmental exploitation."

"Sure you do." She is suddenly interested. "So what are you doing in France?"

"Holiday, research…" He is intentionally vague.

"So what do you people know about Harvest?" Yuri cuts in brusquely. He makes no attempt to be polite. In his experience groups like Green Dawn have proved at best a minor nuisance, and at worst a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Spider scowls at him, and Nate puts out his hand placatingly. "Why don't we buy you people a drink?" he asks. "Something to eat too if you like. Then we can talk."

"We're fine," Sioux snaps. "And we don't take no bribes neither, if that's what you're thinking." Spider starts to say something and she shoots him a glance that silences him. "If you're from the telly we'll talk," she says decisively.

They find a place to sit within sight of the gates of the Space Agency. Liza looks up from studying her fingernails and smiles hesitantly.

"Harvest," she begins. "Who are they? What do they do? Assume for the purposes of the interview that we know nothing about them."

Sioux flicks her a quick look. "All right. Harvest are the largest genetic engineering company in the world. They've got offices in New York, London, Paris, Bonn. Just about every major city in the U.S. and Europe. The Toulouse site is the main French research base. They've been going for almost twenty years. In Britain, they're not very popular at the moment, but here in France people regard them as heroes. They've been putting a lot of money into the area, supporting educational work and so on, which probably explains why." Her lip curls in contempt. "As if people are going to care about money when all our crops suddenly stop growing."

"Do you think that's what will happen?" Sonja asks, worried.

Sioux shrugs. "It could be worse than that. You know they cloned a sheep in Scotland? Harvest provided some of the money for that, and they're spending a lot on animal research. You know, putting genes from one animal into another and coming up with God knows what."

Dexter, imagining Nate's head attached to a chicken's body, suppresses a laugh. "How far does this research go?" he asks. "If they'd come up with anything new it'd be in the news by now, surely?"

"Unless they wanted to keep it hidden," Sioux says darkly.

Her tone pricks Nate's interest at once. "What do you mean?"

She stares at him sullenly for a long while before answering. "I mean, it's not just animals they're experimenting on," she says. "We've heard they're trying it on people too."

Jake frowns. "Do you have proof of that? It's illegal."

"I know it is. That isn't going to stop them, though, is it?" She shakes her head, pushing her hair back with both hands. "No, we haven't got proof yet, but we'll get it. In three days' time."

"The eclipse," Jake says after a pause.

Sioux nods. "The eclipse. Practically the whole population of Toulouse will be travelling north to see it. Which will mean the place will be empty. And we'll be free to do whatever we want."

"Such as breaking into the Harvest buildings," Dexter suggests.

Sioux suddenly seems to realise she's said too much. She looks around nervously.

Jake stops her getting up with a movement of his hand. "We think Harvest is hiding something, too," he says. "We might be able to share information on this. We're going to try and get in to look at the site tomorrow."

Sioux looks thoughtful. "When we tried, the guy on the gate wouldn't let us through. But they're always letting TV crews in there."

"So we get you the layout of the place and you owe us a favour," Dexter suggests.

She frowns a moment, chewing her bottom lip, then nods. "OK, deal. We'll be here again tomorrow, same time. And if the police come asking, we never talked to you."

Just what is the University of Toulouse doing with the backing of Harvest's money, Louis thinks to himself. A genetic engineering corporation sponsoring an archaeology department. Or maybe it's part of a wider funding to the whole university. He bids Charles good day and heads back to the front entrance of the building, only stopping to check a campus map for the whereabouts of the biology department. Then, finding a payphone, he dials the number of Nate's mobile phone.

"Louis here," he says, the moment Nate answers. "Listen, I've got a few things to do here, so I'll make my own way back to the house when I'm done. Can you put Jake on a moment?"

The two men talk for a few minutes then Louis nods. "Right, I'll see what I can arrange today. See you later."

"Try and make it back by six," Jake advises. "I thought we could have a barbecue before we have to go and see Corbu." Handing Nate's phone back, he explains to the others: "We're going to try to borrow some imaging gear from the university - the stuff they use at archaeological sites to detect tunnels and so on. Louis said he'd see if he could rope in a couple of students to help as well."

Yuri yawns. "Good. Now, Dexter what about Green Dawn? What do you know about them?"

Dexter settles himself more comfortably on the wall he's sitting on. "Only what I read in the papers. They turned up in Scotland while I was still at the university. Led a series of protests against a new oil refinery. One night part of the building caught fire, but the police never managed to pin it on them. We all knew they were behind it, though. They've got a reputation for breaking the law whenever it suits them."

"I don't like the sound of them," Judith says. "But I've never been much into environmental issues. Jake, maybe you should stay in contact with them. And Liza."

Liza has borrowed a nail file from Sonja and is giving herself a quick manicure. She doesn't look up. Jake hesitates then nods. "I can see how they'd be useful."

Dexter agrees with a grin. "They certainly could." He stares off in the direction Spider and Sioux went. "They certainly don't seem averse to a little breaking and entering," he muses.

Louis' plan had been to look around the biology department, but when he gets there he finds the whole building locked and empty. It's because it's Sunday, a passing student tells him. She pauses to look at him suspiciously. "Maybe you'd better come back tomorrow?"

"I'll do that," Louis agrees pleasantly. "Thank you." He contents himself with a walk around the building, looking into all ground-level windows. Science not being his speciality, he doesn't know what he should be looking for. Some of the rooms are lecture theatres, others are labs with long, empty tables and locked cupboards. Leaving, Louis goes back to find Charles in the archaeology department. He is putting his jacket on ready to go when Louis comes in and he looks up and smiles at him.

"Did you forget something?"

"Not exactly," Louis tells him. "I've just had an idea I think some of your students might be interested in. While I'm in Rennes-le-Chateau, I thought I'd do a spot of treasure-hunting."

He'd expected some opposition and was prepared to argue, but Charles is surprisingly enthusiastic. "I dare say we can spare the equipment for a day or so," he says. "I've got a student on secondment here at the moment - name of Marc - he'll be in tomorrow. Tell you what, why don't you come in then and have a chat with him, and in the meantime I'll see about getting you a scanner or two. It won't be the sort of quality you're used to, of course, it'll have to be whatever's lying about unused at the moment, but I'm sure I can find something."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Louis thanks him.

"I hope so." Charles pauses at the door. "Rennes-le-Chateau is a particular interest of mine, you know. All this talk of treasure, and no one's ever found anything. A great pity we haven't got the resources to do some more investigation ourselves, but the work Harvest is sponsoring is taking up all our time. If you find anything, you will let us know, won't you?"

The rest of the group stop at the Church of the Magdalene again on their way back to the house. While Yuri walks around the statue of Asmodeus, pausing in his study of it now and then to look curiously at Liza's pale face, Nate goes to talk to the old caretaker.

"Young?" Her delighted laugher peels through the building. She pauses to wipe her eyes. "No, we all age the same here as anywhere. It is a pity, but what can you do? Most of the old people have lived here all their lives. Any of them will remember the war. You ask them."

Realising that Jake is gone, Judith wanders outside. She finds him kneeling by Lucille's grave, carefully pulling up the weeds that have grown. She watches him a moment before walking quietly to join him.

"It is sad that no one remembers her," he says, glancing up. He lays his hands on the stone a moment then stands. "I'm glad you're here; I wanted to talk to you. I had an idea about the statue. Can we shine sunlight at its eyes at exactly noon? Maybe it will reflect and show us something in the church."

Judith looks doubtful. "I suppose we can try. But Nate wants to look around Harvest tomorrow so we might not be back by noon."

They agree to try it the next time they can get to the church at noon.

'Get me to the church in time," Judith hums as Nate comes out and points his camera in her direction yet again.

"Nate, you bastard, that was my best shirt," Dexter roars, charging out of his bedroom. A dog follows him out, chewing what appears to be the remains of a black pudding and a few strips of rag.

The scent of cooking wafts in from the garden outside, Jake and Judith in hot competition. Louis arrives back just in time to see the dog go dashing out of the back door and away.

"What's going on?" he asks.

Dexter scowls. "One of Fat-boy's so-called jokes."

Jake's shout from the garden that the first steak is cooked comes just in time to head off an argument.

"I think we should split this evening," Sonja suggests as they eat. "Some of us go to see Monsieur Corbu, the others find out more about Green Dawn. And Sandrine. Jake, you said something about the stigmata being like a cancer. What did you mean?"

Jake pauses to finish a mouthful of meat. "It's hard to explain. It's a feeling I had. Like the stigmata aren't something that appeared on the surface of her, but are the result of something inside her coming out."

"Like in 'Alien,'" Dexter suggests. Jake shakes his head with a grin.

"I'm not making much sense, am I? I said it was hard to explain. I think they're the symptoms of an illness. Like chickenpox, only worse. No doubt we'll find out more when we get the results of the analysis from Situ. And maybe we could check to see if she has a boyfriend."

"My money's on Plantard," Judith says. "Or an Ylid. Unless Plantard is an Ylid, of course, and then…" she falls into thoughtful silence.

Division of labours agreed, after they have finished eating, Jake Liza and Nate head off to visit Monsieur Corbu. He is waiting for them, a small man, almost completely bald, dressed smartly. His first question is about money.

"We visited your workplace today," Nate says, writing a cheque out. "We were hoping to get an interview, but there was no-one available. I guess you must have been incommunicado as your housekeeper said you were at work when we called earlier."

Corbu looks puzzled. "But it was Saturday evening she told me you'd called. That's why I rang this morning. Yesterday I was in work, but today no. I like to keep Sunday free, you understand; that's the way we do things in this part of the country. If you visited Harvest today I'm not surprised you found no one there. If you want an interview there, I'm sure I can arrange it."

At a price, Liza thinks. She smiles. "No, we'll arrange that ourselves tomorrow. What we really wanted to ask you about was the history of your home here. We understand it used to belong to Marie Dernarnaud."

"That's right. She sold it to the family very cheaply. Nobody knows why, but when you're offered something at such a reasonable price you'd be a fool to turn it down, n'est-ce pas?"

Liza agrees. Watching Corbu, Jake sees a flush of pleasure climb up his neck. He is a greedy man, he judges, and obviously flattered by the attentions of an attractive woman.

"We want to get a feel for the village, and the people who live here," Liza explains. "What are people like here? Friendly? Aloof?"

"A bit of both." Corbu treats her to a smile that is almost a leer. "People are the same wherever you go, mademoiselle. Me, I like to keep myself to myself. We all need our privacy, don't we?"

She nods uncertainly. "Then, what can you tell us about Marie Dernarnaud?"

Corbu winks at her. "An ordinary woman, mademoiselle, not at all pretty like you are. Why Sauniere chose to tell his secret to her is a mystery. People think they were lovers, which might be true, I don't know. It does not matter. She is dead now. If they were lovers, that is long over, and if there was a secret between them, no one has ever discovered what it was. We are glad we have her house. It is a nice house."

It is indeed a nice house they discover when he allows them to film parts of it 'for the television.' The rooms are large and richly furnished, hung with paintings. Jake pauses before a portrait of a woman, blonde hair and blue eyes, smiling down at them from above an ornate fireplace. She looks familiar though he can't place her.

"Who is she?" he asks.

Corbu shrugs, uninterested. "No one knows. There are lots of pictures here. This one is not by anyone famous so it is worth very little."

It is not until they leave the house that Jake remembers where he saw the woman before. The resurrection painting at the church. Mary Magdalene, also with blonde hair and blue eyes.

"I looked up Green Dawn on the internet," Sonja tells the others as they walk through the village. "They seem to be quite famous. They started off as a small protest group and grew. They've got members throughout the world now and they moved pretty quickly from peaceful protest into direct terrorist action. They've claimed responsibility for sabotaging power plants, disrupting plans to dump industrial waste at sea, derailing trains carrying waste, even blowing up a rocket. They say their main targets are the large corporations who pollute the world for the sake of profit."

"Like Harvest," Dexter says with a grin. "I'm beginning to feel glad we ran into them today."

Sonja frowns in disapproval. "I also found out a few things about Asmodeus," she says, pointedly changing the subject. "He appears as a demon in Classical and Biblical mythology, usually as a builder - or a keeper of secrets. So there."

Walking through the village as the church is turning out, there is plenty of opportunity to talk to people, and most people have an opinion on Sandrine. She was praying alone in the church when the stigmata appeared, Dexter establishes - which is why some people are convinced the wounds are self-inflicted. Others are vehement in their disagreement. Most people seem quite willing to talk to the foreign 'journalists'.

"I'm a doctor," one woman tells Sonja. "I've seen Sandrine's hands and there's no way she could have made those wounds herself. They are supernatural, a sign. There is no medical explanation for it."

"What about the other cases?" Sonja asks. "There are at least two others. And there's a surprisingly high mortality rate among young women. Does that worry you?"

The doctor looks surprised at the question. "It always worries me when people die. But I personally didn't see the other cases of stigmata. And I do not believe the mortality rate is so high." Her eyes narrow. "We do not want our village portrayed as a place where people die young."

Yuri pauses, hands shoved deep into his pockets. "Have you ruled out cancer as a cause? A link with the power plant, or with Harvest?"

Another firm shake of the head. "Our own journalists have investigated the link many times over and found nothing." She smiles. "Believe me, we wouldn't live here if we thought there was any danger."

A further, minor success comes when Yuri finds out that Sandrine had a boyfriend, a perfume salesman by the name of Maurice Perez.

"Not Plantard, then," Judith says, disappointed. From what they can find out the relationship fizzled out after Perez's job moved him on to another area. He's not been seen in the village since late winter - long before the stigmata appeared.

They are on the point of giving up and walking back when Judith recognises a man and woman from the newspaper photo of Sandrine's parents. They both look tired, the woman is pale.

"Mr and Mrs Bellaire?" Judith enquires politely, falling into step alongside them. The woman says something in French and turns her head aside. The man slows and faces Judith.

"I'm sorry. You want to know about Sandrine. She is not well. We are praying hard for her recovery, but we must go back to her. Excuse us." With that, he brushes on by.

It is twenty past ten. Nate puts the final touches to his video camera set-up in the churchyard and leaves it set to start filming at 11pm. Yuri yawns and announces that he is going to get an early night. While Jake checks up on who pays to maintain the Tour Magdala - a combination of government money and entry fees, as it turns out - Judith does some reading about the statue of Asmodeus. Designed by Sauniere himself, it is cast in bronze. The artist who made it is unknown; the only name associated with it is Sauniere.

At midnight, Liza enters the churchyard. She pauses a moment at the gateway then steps forward.

"Are you here?" she asks the demon. The wind blows rose petals around her feet.

"What do you want?" Liza is not sure whether the whispered voice comes out her own mind or the wind.

"I want to be happy," she says. "I want to know what happened to my fiancé." His face comes unbidden to her mind, and with it the pain of waking up one morning and the police calling her to tell her he was missing, his car abandoned besides a corn field, the field itself marked with a series of circles. The police had suggested John Ward had staged the whole thing himself as a hoax at first, but as the weeks passed and he didn't return they started talking about 'suspicious circumstances' and then decided he'd disappeared for personal reasons.

The night air fills with the scent of roses.

"Do you want him that much?" the wind asks. Liza nods, tears trickling down her cheeks.

"Then come to the church again, and come alone."

The voice is a fading memory.

"Are you well?" Yuri enquires cheerfully the next morning.

Jake, startled, nearly falls out of the bathroom window. He's been hanging there, leaning as far out as he dare, trying to catch the reflection of the Tour Magdala's windows in a shaving mirror. Yuri claps him on the shoulder and clatters downstairs to find the others.

A parcel is sitting on the kitchen table, Nate's name on it: a couple of bottles of some clear liquid and a brush. Nate is ignoring them.

"Can you explain this?" he asks Liza. He presses a button on his camera and a picture comes to life on the TV set. It is the front of the church. The scene runs empty for a time then Liza appears. She stands in front of the church for about ten minutes, her lips moving silently from time to time, then she turns and walks away.

Yuri turns to look at her first. "Well?"

She flushes. "I went to look around. Does it matter?"

"It does when you don't tell anyone else," Yuri says. "What were you looking at? The statue?"

She shakes her head and doesn't answer.

The shrilling of the phone breaks the silence. Dexter, wondering idly whether to try out the etching fluid on Nate's chair or not, answers it automatically.

"Geoff Blaize here," comes the voice. "Thought you'd better know - we've done the analysis on the handkerchief Judith sent us. The results are not good. The blood is human, standard B negative, but there's something else there. Traces of DNA of a type we've only come across once before - from the body of an Ylid."

Dexter wrinkles his eyes in a frown. "You mean Sandrine is part Ylid?"

"I mean she's been infected with Ylid DNA." Blaize actually sounds frightened. "This is something we've never come across before. Strictly speaking, it cannot happen - but it obviously has." Dexter hears the harsh intake of breath. "In any case, you've definitely uncovered Ylid activity. All I can do now is warn you to be careful. I don't know what you're up against out there, but one thing is sure. It's dangerous."

There is a long silence once Dexter relates the information to the rest of the group. Sonja laughs nervously to break the mood.

"Well, I guess I should phone Henri Severin at Harvest and arrange our tour. Is everybody coming?"

Everyone except Louis, it turns out. He intends going back to the university.

Severin meets the rest of the group at the main gates of the Harvest site a little over an hour later. Nate skims his camera over everything in sight, repeating almost word for word his patter about the benefits of TV publicity. While he talks, Sonja surreptitiously gazes over the parked cars, noting several that the others had reported seeing in Rennes-le-Chateau.

"If you will come this way please," Severin says, throwing an irritated glance in Nate's direction. Annoying but harmless seems to be his impression and Nate works hard to keep it up as Severin takes them through a set of laboratories to an office beyond.

"This is where we start all official visits," he says, indicating for them to sit down. "There are company reports here, please help yourself to whatever you need. Harvest has been established here in France since the company's birth. This plant has been running successfully for ten years now. We specifically chose this area because we wanted to spread the benefits of our work outside the capital cities. We provide employment for many people in the area, not just directly through our departments, but also by funding a variety of local projects. As for our 'technological advantages'…" he emphasises the words slightly, with a glance in Nate's direction, "you will find we are the world leaders in genetic research. We do not hide what we do. It is not always popular in the eyes of the world, but that is because there is so much misinformation about the science of genetics at present. We hope in time to redress the balance."

Dexter sits back on his chair, making it creak heavily. "So, what exactly are you working on at the moment? I heard mention of genetic experiments on people."

A quick frown passes across Severin's eyes. "That is the kind of misinformation that causes so much damage. We are funding research into genetic diseases. Things like cystic fibrosis, Down's Syndrome. If the faulty genes can be repaired or replaced at embryo stage, the quality of life for millions of people will be improved. That is what the truth is. Unfortunately, it gets twisted out of all proportion by hysterical pressure groups who'd like to see us all back in the Stone Age." He opens the door with a quick motion of his hand. "Gentlemen, ladies, I have limited time today. I suggest I show you our laboratories now. You can ask your questions on the way."

In contrast to yesterday's quiet, the university is bustling with people when Louis arrives. Very few undergraduates around, of course, being the summer break, but that is made up for by the numbers of postgraduates and research students. Louis knows how the system works: with no courses to teach for a few months, the summer is when most of the research is done.

Picking up a white lab coat that he finds hanging on a hook outside the gents' toilets, Louis walks quickly through the front entrance of the science block. The door leading to the labs is locked and requires a security card to open it, and there is a small camera set high up in one corner. Louis avoids it as best he can. The walls are lined with notice-boards and several tables are piled with books and papers. Louis wanders around them all slowly, checking his watch from time to time as if he's waiting for someone.

A notice for a science department lecture catches his eyes. The date is from two weeks ago, the subject, 'Genetic Engineering: the Future.' Louis helps himself to a couple of leaflets at random and leafs through them.

Harvest have made no effort to hide their involvement with the university. Their name appears on several of the lecture courses and according to the departmental guide, a high proportion of students from biology and chemistry end up working in the company's research labs. There are courses in all aspects of genetic research from the history and ethics to the mechanics of how it works. There is even a course on the cloning of human embryos. Louis wrinkles his nose in distaste.

He's spent long enough here, he decides. He stares at his watch again, heaves a sigh heavy enough for the security camera to pick up and goes back out. He shed the lab coat when he gets within sight of the main building. It'll be time to find Charles and the research student soon, he thinks. First, though, he turns in the direction of the business library.

The Harvest laboratories are enormous. Everything seems to be either stainless steel or brilliant white ceramic. Liza puts on her sunglasses as she goes. Jake nudges her. He has the annual report open to the financial statements for the year.

"Look who is says authorised the grant for the university project," he whispers. "Monsieur Severin himself, in conjunction with Plantard."

Liza whistles softly. "Let's see that."

Severin has stopped in the middle of an expanse of white surfaces and computer equipment. "This is the primary research facility," he says. "Before we do any experimentation, we run a series of computer models, showing us every possible outcome of the experiment, depending on what variables are used. For example, growing conditions vary greatly from area to area. A crop that will grow successfully in a dry climate such as in Africa may fail completely where there is too much rain." He pauses, looking at them all expectantly. "Do you have any questions at this point or shall we move on?"

Looking through papers about Harvest in the university business school, Louis unearths a lot of information. For example, Harvest was involved in some sort of scandal in the UK not long ago, which culminated in a terrorist murdering the financial director of the London office. The terrorist was never caught and his motives were never made clear. In Britain, as in France, strong links exist between the corporation and the government. Harvest UK regularly receives government grants and, like the French wing of the company, regularly finances university research. The scheme here in Toulouse, however, seems to be the only non-science project funded. All the rest are in the areas of biology and bio-chemistry.

As far as property is concerned, the research establishment in Toulouse is the biggest of the locally held assets. There are other offices in Toulouse - one of them is officially registered as a storage unit for the back-ups of their full computer files - but, surprisingly, there is nothing at all listed in Rennes-le-Chateau.

Or maybe it isn't so surprising, Louis thinks. Harvest seem to be spending a lot of money keeping archaeological interest away from Rennes. If the corporation is interested in the place, it would anything that would link the two of them in people's minds.

Sighing, Louis closes the last book and stands up. It is time to go and meet Charles and see what he has managed to find in the way of equipment.

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