The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Et In Arcadia Ego
Chapter 7

August 11th, 12:15pm

Dexter, Sonja, Yuri, outside the church

Judith, Nate, Jake, Louis, Harvest, Toulouse

Liza, Corbu's car.

Sioux's shouted warning reaches Louis in a dream. Through the clamour he can still hear his dead father's voice echoing to him from last night's dream. "Mon père," he whispers. Many times he'd thought of him beyond death, trapped somewhere, not in heaven or hell or in any place where the spiritualists could touch his soul. Somewhere in the realm of Anubis - Egyptian god of the dead. The metal ring on Louis' finger is cold, a constant reminder of the unsolved mystery of his father's death.

"Louis!" Nate shouts.

He turns to see Jake puling the sheet back over Sandrine's body, Nate lowering his video camera. Jake swings the trolley round determinedly and Louis stares at him in amazement. "You can't be intending to take the body with us?"

Grim faced, Jake nods. "The police are all out of town and Green Dawn sorted out most of the guards so stop panicking," he says. "Lets just make out way out - calmly but with haste." So saying, he wheels the trolley to the door, pausing only to add, "We need the security videos from this room - see who was in on the autopsy."

"Follow that car!" Dex bellows.

Sonja grabs the painting off him. There's no way they can chase the car while they're carrying stolen goods, she thinks.. "I'll take this back to the house and phone SITU," she tells him. "You and Yuri get after Liza."

Dex is sprinting off again at once, Yuri casts a quick, despairing glance at Sonja and follows. By far the fitter of the two men he easily overtakes Dexter. He can just see the car as it turns a corner at the end of the road. Flagging down a passing taxi he flings himself in. "Monsieur Corbu's house. Quickly." Dexter thumps down on the back seat just as the car begins to move.

"Where are we going?" Liza asks John.

"A safe place." He smiles at her. "I'll explain everything there." He reaches for her hand. "Liza, it's been so long…"

Somewhere in the back of her mind a warning bell sounds. Liza pulls her hand away. "How long?" she asks.

He laughs softly. "What do you mean, how long? It's been an eternity. And you've been searching for me all that time, I know. I'm sorry, I couldn't risk seeing you to tell you where I was. It would have been too dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Liza echoes. "What were you doing?" Something isn't quite right, some small part of her mind is trying to tell her. John is back; she's got everything she's wanted, and yet it almost feels that she can't believe it. Maybe it is just because it's too good to be true. She sighs and settles back in the seat. "I thought you were dead," she says. "After the car crash…"

He picks up the thought. "I know. It looked pretty bad, didn't it. Believe me, I didn't want to do it. But I had to convince the world that I was dead. I was on a difficult assignment - one that could have brought everyone I loved into great danger, and so I had to disappear for a while."

"And now you're back," Liza finishes for him. Her hands, clasped together in her lap, feel cold. John was an accountant, nothing more exciting than that. The most dangerous thing he'd every done was phoning up the tax office about an overdue payment. And his car had been found abandoned, not crashed.

Looking at him hard, she almost thinks she can see someone else's face behind his, then she blinks and it is John again. Or is it. Who are you, she thinks.

The car turns smoothly into the driveway of M. Corbu's home.

The Green Dawners run through the corridors, not caring about the amount of noise they are making now the alarms have given them away. Nate and Judith follow, then Jake and Louis pushing the trolley with Sandrine's limp body. A guard runs at them. Nate elbows him aside, barely slowing.


Another guard has a gun trained on them. Sioux throws herself flat as a shot echoes. Jake lets out a roar of anger and charges, using the trolley as a shield. The guard slams back into the wall and the gun clatters to the floor. Louis scoops it up.

The main doors are in front of them. They can hear sirens blaring in the distance, and the screech of tires of their own getaway vehicle. Two more guards block their way. Sioux punches one in the face. Judith executes a neat little pirouette and kicks the other one straight through the doors. She glances at Nate, flushing triumphantly. "Donovan taught me that, in North Wales."

For a jealous moment Nate wonders what else the Canadian athlete taught her. There is no time to wonder.

"Let's go," Sioux snaps.

They all pile into the van, pulling Sandrine's body after them. When the doors slam shut the enclosed space suddenly smells of formaldehyde and rotten meat. Judith grimaces.

"Yuk. What on Earth are we going to do with that when we get it home?"

"Liza's background?" Andre Swahn says. "Yes, I can tell you. She was a model, no doubt you know that. According to what she told us, her fiancé disappeared five years ago. His car was found abandoned near Stonehenge and there was a crop circle in an adjacent field. No one has ever heard from him since. She went into depression, started drinking heavily, then pulled herself out of it, joined AA and came to us. Hoping we could trace the fiancé, no doubt. We haven't found anything on him yet, and we might not. Some mysteries are never solved despite our best efforts."

"Do you think it has anything to do with what's happening here?" Sonja asks.

"Again, I can't say for sure. It seems that someone has found out about Liza's past and is using it against her. If you mean will her fiancé turn up in the flesh, then no. I doubt that very much." His voice takes on an urgent note. "Sonja, we know that the Ylids have powers over people's minds. Operatives have been taken over in the past. Usually when it happens there'll be a physical mark."

"Like the stigmata, you mean?"

"Yes." He sounds thoughtful. "It's not usually as obvious as that - more often a silvery mark on the face, only visible in certain lights - but all Ylids are different, and we've never come across this one before. Yes, certainly, the stigmata could be it."

"I think Corbu is our Ylid," Dexter says, hauling himself out of the car. In front of them is the Villa Bethania. Corbu's car is parked outside.

Yuri shakes his head, unconvinced. Corbu doesn't really fit his idea of a supremely powerful being bent on ruling the world. But then, it would depend on what his particular aims were. "Shall we knock?" he asks, nodding at the door. "Or shall we just break it down?"

Liza follows John into the house. The blonde woman smiles at her from the painting above the fire place, her blue eyes cold. Turning to face her fiancé, Liza has the uncomfortable feeling that she is being assessed. She crosses her arms across her stomach.

"What's going on?" she asks. John makes a move toward her and she pushes him away. "I mean it. I want to know what's happening. Why did you disappear, what have you been doing these past five years, why is everything so dangerous you couldn't even get in touch with me once to tell me you were all right?"

A look of impatience flashes across John's eyes. "Liza, I told you everything was all right. Right now I need you more than anything. Come with me: we'll talk later."

The last of the dream splinters. Liza lashes out wildly, blinded for a moment by tears. When her vision clears, Corbu is staring up at her from the floor. When he sees the look in her eyes his face slowly becomes angry then frightened.

The front door shudders from the impact of several blows.

"Liza? Are you in there?"

She recognises Dexter's voice.

Corbu tries to seize her hand again. "Liza, listen. You've got to let me explain…" She evades him. She runs to the door just as the catch gives way and it bursts open. She falls into Yuri's arms.

"So what have we got?" Nate asks.

They are back at the house, the whole group together. Liza, looking pale and shaken, tries to concentrate on the group's findings at the Harvest site. Besides Sandrine's body, there are various files on genetic engineering - food and embryo research - and the security tapes. Sioux has taken the rest, promising to get in touch the next day to exchange information. She also agreed after much persuasion from Dexter to send someone into Plantard's house to look at the safe.

"No today though," she said. "You've broken in once already. The place will be crawling with police. Maybe tomorrow."

Nate puts the first security video into the machine and settles down to watch. The autopsy shows two doctors none of them have seen before, and along with them Corbu and Severin. Dexter glares at the screen. "I told you Corbu was the Ylid."

Judith shakes her head. "I disagree. I think it's more likely that the Ylid is a woman, which means she's probably the blonde, blue-eyed one we keep seeing everywhere. And, by the way, Dexter," she adds severely. "I blame you that Liza was kidnapped. The safety of the team is your responsibility but you let yourself get distracted." Her gaze shifts in Sonja's direction. She doesn't need to say what she thinks the distraction was.

Dex shrugs off her criticism, grinning at Sonja. And Judith, turning to scold Jake for his lack of care is suddenly flustered to find that the Australian is looking right at her. He glances away at once.

"I'm going to phone SITU," he says, getting up.

The conversation continues without him. "Why do you think it's a female Ylid, Judith?" Nate asks.

She looks a bit embarrassed. "I've been learning how to use the computer. I got in touch with someone called Dr Culver and he told me that SITU told him it was a female. I thought it was anyway, before he told me, but…" she trails off.

"If SITU think it's a female too, then it probably is," Sonja concludes. "Well, if Corbu and Plantard aren't Ylids they're certainly well in with them. Maybe they're looking for women who resemble the Magdalene, experimenting with them, and that results in the stigmata. This town is obviously very religious, and it's quite secluded and quiet, that could be why it has been singled out for this experimentation."

"Yes, but why?" Yuri asks. "Why experiment at all?"

"The second coming," Sonja says flatly. "Could the Ylid be looking for women to impregnate to carry on the Ylid line and infiltrate the human race?" She frowns. "Or are they are impregnated by a fellow human then the genetic engineering comes into play to add Ylid DNA to the foetus." She glances around at the group. "Perhaps they had already been trying this on young women in the region, hence the high mortality rate, and the "stigmata" was just a happy coincidence and when they are finally successful in impregnating a human woman with a Ylid baby and the stigmata appear on this woman who is pregnant, they can proclaim a second coming of the Lord. And when the Ylid baby is born, they have begun their domination of the world from "the top" so to speak. At the same time the gold "death box" comes to light, which they will claim holds the remains of Christ, giving even more substance to their claims of a second coming." She stops, slightly breathless.

"She's been reading too many of her employer's novels," Liza comments. Sonja looks at her.

"I hope so. Because, if it is even near the mark it is very frightening and we will have to begin to act VERY quickly."

"Jake Hobart here," Jake says. He wastes no time giving a quick summary of what's happened. "So we have Sandrine's body here," he finishes, "and we want someone to come and pick it up. Now."

Blaize sighs. "Will do." He seems somewhat shocked with the speed at which all this has happened. "There'll be a car with you within the hour," he says.

"Thanks. What about our cover? Is that still all right?"

"It's holding for now. We have a cover company set up which does actually research documentaries for the BBC. They had an enquiry about you and verified your story. But it won't take long for anyone with sufficient determination and the right resources to trace who you really are, so don't worry too much about staying under cover from this point on. Just get the job done and get out before they can strike back at you."

A comforting thought, Jake reflects, as he goes back to join the others.

Sonja flicks through the folders of Harvest information. According to what they've got there, none of the food experimentation is done in France.

"I think we're safe," Nate says when she voices her concern that their food has been doctored to produce the strange dreams. "We buy food from all over the place, there's no way they could poison it all just in case. Half the country would be going mad with nightmares."

"I suppose so," Sonja agrees doubtfully. She turns back to the Harvest folders. She was hoping there'd be something there to tell her whether Charles had passed the information Louis gave him back to Severin, but there is nothing. She reads through the information on cloning instead. There is plenty of it. Huge government grants go into the various projects. There have been many attempts at embryonic manipulation - combining fertilised eggs with cellular material from adult animals (all the experiments in the list use small animals) - every one of them so far has resulted in the death of the embryo. In the few cases where an embryo has been implanted into an adult female, the womb has ruptured and both adult and female have died.

In the background, the autopsy of Sandrine Bellaire plays itself out. Every so often one or other of the doctors looks up and says something, but the tape is silent. There is no way of knowing what was said, or what killed Sandrine.

"I have a theory about the tombstones," Jake says to Nate as an aside. "Perhaps Sauniere wanted to give the impression that he had destroyed the evidence, maybe to allay the suspicions of an unknown third party. So the actual 'evidence' could still be hidden somewhere - and probably the real tombstones are somewhere obvious. It's not like you could hide them that easily."

Nate nods. "If that's the case we're no closer to finding out where the evidence is hidden," he points out heavily.

Jake turns his attention to Yuri. "You're a geologist, aren't you? What do you know about Earthquakes? Can an eclipse of the sun cause enough fluctuation in the Earth's magnetic field to trigger seismic activity."

The big Russian ponders the question. "I've done some work where there was correlation between the phases of the moon and planetary conjunctions and seismic activity," he says at last. "I believe it is one of the reason why 'they' might be after me. But the fluctuations were very slight - only the most modern, sensitive equipment picked them up. And in any case, I do not have the equipment with me."

The group falls silent, considering possible courses of action.

"I think we should destroy the Asmodeus statue," Judith suggests. "What does everyone else think?" No one responds at once and she sighs. "Well, let me know when you've decided. We should have another look at the Tour Magdala, too. We might have missed something last time. And if anyone could have a stab at dating the Corbu painting it might help."

"So much to do, so little time," Sonja muses. "I want to research more about Baphomet."

"No need," Jake tells her. "I can tell you what you want to know." He begins, without waiting for her to ask. "The Inquisition believed Baphomet to be a demon worshipped by the Templars. What they didn't know was the Templars were masters of generally confusing the issue with codes, anagrams and euphemisms. The Templars used - and even most modern historians don't know this..." he winks, "… a particular code called the Atbash Cipher. Apply the code to the word Baphomet and you get the word Sophia. Sophia is, of course a word meaning wisdom, used by the Greeks and the Egyptians. So Baphomet could have been no more than a symbol of the Templar's knowledge, and since knowledge is kept up here," he taps his head, "each Templar altar could well have had a relic of some sort that symbolised the head. Since not all Templars were not initiates into the mysteries they may have taken the Baphomet as being literally a talking head which would have meant only one thing to the Inquisition - demons."

"Very interesting," Dexter drawls, "but we'd better get on with the investigation. Do you think you'll all be safe while I go and talk to our friend Perez again?"

Louis shakes his head slowly. He appears to be trying to clear a headache or something. "I have a phone call to make," he says abruptly, standing up. "You go on without me. Someone's got to be here to hand over Sandrine's body when SITU arrive. Oh, Judith - the Corbu painting, mid to late nineteenth century, I'd say."

Louis' head is pounding as he phones his girlfriend, Tanith, in London. Her familiar voice soothes the ache in his skull somewhat.

"This will be over soon enough," he says. "I'll be back as soon as I can then we can take a holiday, go see my parents, maybe."

"That'd be nice," she agrees. "Where are you at the moment? Maybe I could come and join you for a few days."

"No!" His vehemence startles both of them. Louis rubs his head. "I need to concentrate on my work," he explains. "A few more days, that's all, and it should all be over."

Why did that statement fill him with such a sense of cold dread. Bidding Tanith farewell, he dials the number of the Parisian medium to see if she has come up with anything new.

A stranger's voice answers the phone.

"I need to speak to Madame Bovoire," Louis says in French.

"Madame Bovoire is not available. Who are you? A client?"

"Client and friend."

There is a pause. "Madame Bovoire suffered a stroke this morning," the man's voice says. "She is in hospital. They do not expect her to recover consciousness. Her office is closed. If you would give me your name and where I can contact you…"

Louis mouth is dry. "It doesn't matter," he says. He puts the phone down quickly.

Sandrine's parents are at home when the group call. They make their apologies and file in - stopping dead when they see Maurice Perez sitting in the living room drinking tea. He looks equally startled to see them.

"We're sorry to trouble you at this time," Nate says, recovering first. "If this is not a good time…"

"No time will be good," Sandrine's mother says. "We will talk now then you can tell my daughter's story. As you said, it will be a tribute to her."

"Just a few questions, then," Judith says. "First, is your family local to this part of France?"

"Yes. Yes we are. As far back as I can think we have lived here."

"The stigmata, then." Judith pauses a moment, watching the woman's reaction. "Did your daughter suffer nightmares or complain of hearing voices?"

Madame Bellaire's gaze turns hard. "If you're asking if my daughter was mentally ill, then no. Definitely not. The stigmata were a gift, not the result of some illness. If she had dreams, they were always pleasant ones. She dreamed of the Magdalene often, she told me."

Sensing she'd better drop the subject, Judith asks, "Did she make any unusual visits after she returned to live with you?"

The woman looks confused. "Unusual visits? She went to church often. She didn't leave the house much after the stigmata appeared on her. We looked after her here."

Judith falls silent. Sonja makes the appropriate murmurs of sympathy. "You spoke to the doctors at the hospital, presumably." She doesn't want to admit that Yuri and Dex were there spying on them. "What did they tell you?"

"Not a lot." Madame Bellaire shrugs expressively. "They didn't know why she died, or why the stigmata appeared. All they told us was we'd have to wait for an autopsy report. They didn't say how long that would be."

"And how are Harvest connected to this?" Sonja asks.

"Harvest?" The woman's large eyes blink slowly. "I do not think they are." She begins to cry again.

Dexter glances at Perez and stands up. "Madame, thank you. I know this has been difficult for you. If you feel you wish to talk more…"

Perez follows them to the door.

"Can we talk privately?" Jake asks him. He agrees, silently.

"I've told you about Sandrine and myself," Perez says. "I don't think there's any more I can add to that. You know more about the stigmata than I do."

"Where is the office of the Albi branch of your company?" Jake asks.

"There isn't a local office. Our head office is in Paris. The store Sandrine worked for has branches everywhere. Why?"

Jake doesn't answer. "It seems strange that your company moved you when they did? Did they not approve of you seducing Sandrine?"

Anger flashes in Perez's eyes. "I did not seduce her. And it is not unusual for the company to move us on. It was more unusual that I should have been in the one place for so long. Usually I spend a few weeks, a month at most in one area before moving to the next." His mouth sets stubbornly. "If you have a theory about what happened I'd like to hear it."

"We believe Harvest is connected," Liza puts in before anyone can stop her. "Do they have any connection with your company?"

"No. None at all."

"Then why was her body taken to their Toulouse site?" she asks triumphantly.

Perez turns pale. "Her body was taken out of the hospital? It is impossible. Why would they do it?"

"Who are 'they'?" Sonja asks. "Dex said you mentioned them before. Is there someone behind this, who's orchestrating it?"

Perez shakes his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Then why did Sandrine change her mind so suddenly about sleeping with you? Did she have a dream?"

"I don't know!" Perez shouts. "I have to go where I'm sent, and do what I'm told. That's all I know."

It is with a feeling of enormous relief that Louis hands over Sandrine's body to the SITU agent who calls. Still reeling from the news of Madame Bovoire's sudden stroke he pours himself a drink and sits down. The evening sunlight falls across his face making him sleepy. For a moment he has the eerie sensation that he is being watched. He turns his head but the road outside is empty. Only the sun glancing golden off the windows opposite.

… There is no house opposite, he realises. He jumps to his feet. The scene outside is back to normal, grass and flowers and the narrow road twisting away either side. His finger throbs once where his ring is.

"Father?" he breathes. No one answers and he repeats it as a shout. "Mon père? Where are you?"

"I've got another theory," Judith announces. "Plantard's painting had a shadowy man in it - I think it's a fair assumption that it's Plantard himself so we should investigate his life to see if he's ever associated with a stunning blonde. I haven't worked out the chronology yet but, if our Ylid was incarnated as Marie Denarnaud then she may have reappeared and been a twenty-year-old when Plantard was young."

"My understanding was that Ylids lived practically for ever," Yuri counters. "They may adopt different guises over the centuries, but it's always the same person."

Judith looks a little disappointed. "Well, anyway, she could have taken the guise of Marie Denarnaud. I want to find out more about the women who were accused of being Nazi collaborators. More chatting with old ladies, I'm afraid."

Nate and Yuri exchange sighs and follow her. After a moment Liza does to. She's still not sure what to make of what happened to her, but she definitely feels safer in a group at the moment.

There is enough general information about the Nazi occupation to be had to keep Judith happily busy for hours. Most of the houses were commandeered for Nazi officers, including the Villa Bethania and the Tour Magdala. There are no official lists of known collaborators, which is no surprise. In a small village like this people would prefer to forget such things ever happened.

Talking to some of the old people in the village, Judith finds out a little more - that there were many so-called collaborators, that some of them died after the war of illness (which was considered to be a just punishment), that some were sent away by their families and never returned, that others rode out the storm of public outrage and waited until people forgot. Could this experimentation have been going on during the Nazi occupation? Quite probably, Judith concludes. Though it will be almost impossible now to say who was involved and what the outcome was. Presumably the experiments then failed otherwise there'd be no need to continue them to this day.

Night. Returning to the church, Sonja and Jake find it empty. They slip inside, shutting the doors behind them. The statue of Asmodeus leers knowingly at them both.

"Will it come off?" Sonja whispers. Her voice echoes in the empty space and makes her jump. Jake grunts and tugs again at the wall panel showing the burial of Christ. It is fixed firmly to the wall behind and doesn't move. Jake slides a piece of metal under the edge of the frame and twists.

Several attempts later there is a sharp crack and the panel comes loose. Sonja starts forward eagerly.

"Oh," she says.

They are looking at a bare, blank wall. Nothing is hidden there.

Dexter is waiting for them when they come out of the church. "Got to make sure you're safe," he jokes, putting his arm around Sonja's shoulders.

"Another crime to add to the deeds of France's most wanted criminals," Dexter quips. The news that night had been full of the break in at Harvest, and the burglary at Plantard's house. As Sioux had predicted, the police had been all over the house. A further mention was made of a successful break in at an unnamed office in Toulouse. Green Dawn's second raid had obviously gone well.

"What's the best way to do this?" Louis asks Jake as they approach the tomb of Les Bergers. "My guess is the gold coffin contains the body of the priest. Perhaps, even in the sleep of death he clutches to his breast secrets or treasures revealed to him long ago." His voice drifts. Jake gives him an odd look.

The thought of grave-robbing by the light of the new moon sends a shudder through Louis. The shadows seem to clutch at him and he gazes around with dread. He runs his tongue over his lips. "Bringing the treasures to light will reveal more than ever who watches us from the shadows," he says. "The Brotherhood of Zion or the Ylid."

"Thanks for that thought," Yuri mutters to himself. He looks depressed. The others are wavering between excitement and fear.

"Whose grave has a coffin lined in gold?" Liza wonders.

Jake and Louis are already at work, carefully removing the turf in a square, laying it aside and digging into the black soil beneath. Judith clutches at Nate's hand. "Shouldn't we be doing this under a full moon? Like in the painting in the church?"

"Have to wait another month for that, love," Jake answers her. He throws another spadeful of soil aside. He and Louis are standing in a hole a foot or so deep now. Both are filthy and sweating yet refusing all offers of help.

"Archaeologists," Nate sighs.

A car passes somewhere in the night.

Louis' spade hits something hard. He stops digging at once and drops to his knees. By the light of Dexter's torch the peer into the grave and see the top of a coffin, the wood blackened with age and rot. Louis brushes soil away from it. Twin points of gold gleam up at them.

Then the hillside is surrounded by light. Another car roars through the silence and then the distinctive sound of a helicopter's blades.

"This is the police," a man's voice echoes around them. "We have you surrounded. Give yourselves up now."

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