The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Et In Arcadia Ego
Chapter 8

1am, 12th August

Les Bergers' Tomb

"Not now!" Louis groans, staring down at the gold of the coffin. His words are all but lost in the sudden wind from the helicopter's blades. "Not when we stand so close to the truth… ." He grabs at Nate's shoulder. "Nathan, the coffin… it will be lost to us if we are taken in for questioning… Do you have such a thing as a tracking device… transmitter… ?"

But Nate is already moving. Taking a swing at Jake with his shovel - and only missing because Jake chooses that moment to jump down into the hole - he grabs Judith and runs towards his car. Liza takes off too, in the opposite direction, and after a moment's shocked pause Sonja and Yuri run after her.

Louis and Dexter are left standing together, frozen in the blinding glare of the searchlight. Dexter shrugs. "Better bluff it out." He walks forward, raising his hands as he goes.

"It's all right, we're here with the British Broadcasting Corporation." He emphasises the word 'British.' "We do have all the required documents for the archaeological endeavour. Louis here, our resident Frenchman should have it all with him."

The resident Frenchman quickly hides his gun in his sock and joins Dexter. "We should admit to the Harvest break-in but say we had reason to suspect them of illegal activities," he mutters.

A pair of policemen come towards them. Louis catches sight of the black truncheons they are carrying - and the glint of handcuffs.

Crouched in the tomb, Jake desperately punches out SITU's number. No answer. He leaves the phone ringing and scrabbles at the earth around him. A mad idea of tunnelling to freedom crosses his mind and he almost laughs. And then, on one side of the coffin, his fingers dig through wet earth and hit stone: the flat edge of a slab, as thick as his hand. He pushes it and it gives slightly under the pressure. His heart beat quickens.

But before he can investigate further, a sound makes him look up. "Come out of there," a voice commands him. Three policemen are standing around the top of the hole, gazing down. Jake remembers the phone and turns it off quickly.

"Officers, thank goodness you've come," he says. He allows himself to be dragged out. "Those lunatics dragged us out here in the middle of the night and forced us to dig. I don't know what's going on - I'm only an archaeologist."

Handcuffs are snapped over his wrists and, without a word, he is led to stand with Dexter and Louis. Louis is busy arguing in French, explaining that they are archaeologists working for the BBC, that they are conducting legitimate research, that he wishes to phone his lawyer if charges are to be pressed. Jake and Dexter both back him up with vigorous nods every time he pauses, regardless of the fact he's talking far too fast for them to make any sense of it.

"You will come with us, please," one of the policemen - obviously the officer in charge - says, switching to English.

Louis protests at once. "You can't leave the grave open like this. This might be one of the most important finds in French history, if you leave it unguarded there'll be nothing left in the morning."

"Don't worry, sir. It won't go unguarded." The officer gestures to some of the others. "I want the coffin lifted out of there - carefully. And fill the hole back in." He turns back to Louis with a faint smile. "If your credentials check out you may have a chance to examine the find later. Until then you are charged with vandalism and the wilful desecration of a national monument. You will come with me, please."

Knowing better than to argue, the three of them follow. There's no sign of any of the others. They can only hope that they got away.

"Get in the car," Nate pants. He bundles Judith in while she's still protesting that someone ought to keep an eye on the grave.

A car is coming towards them. Nate jams his foot on the accelerator and goes straight for it. "Take a photo of it!" he yells at Judith. She obeys instinctively, without understanding. The powerful flashlight flares, sudden brilliant white. The other car swerves and Nate hauls on the steering wheel, taking them around it. Tyres squealing, he straightens up and screams off down the road. That was fun, he realises. The Cobra is certainly a step up from his old BMW.

"Do you think they were real police?" Judith asks breathlessly. Nate shakes his head.

"I'm assuming they're not." He allows the car to slow a fraction, watching the road behind for signs of pursuit as he endeavours to lose them in the maze of country roads. Finally, he hits a main road and a sign for Toulouse. He turns in that direction.

"I hope they were police," Judith mutters. "Otherwise the bad guys will have gotten their hands on the coffin."

"We'll worry about it later," Nate says. "For now we need to get away. Let's try out a Toulouse hotel for the night, shall we?"

The car purrs off into the night.

Liza runs in a panic, not caring where she's going. Blinded by the lights, her only thought is to get away. She stumbles, catches at a bush to steady herself, barely feeling the thorns that drive into the palm of her hand. For a moment she thinks she sees the face of Asmodeus leering at her.

"I can give you everything you want," it says. "Even now. Just ask me."

She shakes her head, panting for breath. Her long hair whips in front of her eyes and she tears it back. Someone looms up in front of her and she screams.

Then two other figures converge. One of them grabs her, the other punches her would-be attacker. Yuri and Sonja, she realises. They lift her up, half carrying her as they dive into the shadows of the trees at the bottom of the hill.

In a hotel on the outskirts of Toulouse Nate finishes packing up a copy of the video tape to send to SITU along with a detailed report. Then he picks up the phone and dials the home number of James from the Metropolitan police.

An irritable voice responds after twenty or so rings.

"Nate, do you know what time it is?"

"One o'clock in the morning French time. I know." Nate doesn't apologise. "This is important. I want you to contact the French police in Rennes-le-Chateau for me and see if they've arrested, or tried to arrest a group of documentarists. Tell them that the group are working undercover for Interpol, tracing the missing Brinks Matt gold bullion."

James splutters protests. "You're in trouble with the police. Good God, Nate what are you doing this time? And anyway, no deal. Sorry, but I can't just go making phone calls to get you off the hook. I've got my own career to think about."

"What about your marriage?" Nate asks blithely. "I know it's asking a lot Jimmie me boy, but I'd hate to have to tell your darling wife about your little indiscretions last year, it's that important."

A silence. "You wouldn't."

"Try me," Nate says.

"I have phoned your employers," the gendarme officer says, coming into the small cell. "It seems you do work for the BBC. You are here to make a documentary about the history of the area, I understand." He pauses, then adds. "Monsieur Tregalier's lawyer also rang, and the chief of the Metropolitan police. All I can say is that if you people do not fill us in on your plans you cannot expect us to support you."

Jake and Dexter look at him in confusion. Louis simply sags against the wall in relief that release is imminent. The thought of being locked in the cell all night was bringing back all his old feelings of claustrophobia.

"So what were you looking for?" the officer asks. "The gold?"

"The King," Jake replies promptly. He flicks a grin in Dexter's direction. "Elvis." He laughs, but the officer remains stern-faced.

"Monsieur Hobart, we cannot look upon the destruction of our national treasures with levity. As someone claiming to be an archaeologist surely you'd understand that. If you suspected something was hidden in the coffin you should have contacted us first." He sighs and stands back. "You are free to go, but we will be putting in an official complaint about your behaviour here. And I expect there to be no further incidents of this kind. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Dexter assures him, getting up from the floor and stretching. He's still not sure what the officer is talking about but it doesn't matter as long as he's letting them go. "What about the coffin?" he asks. "When do we get to see that?"

"You do not. The coffin contained the skeleton of a man, that is all. There is no reason for you to examine it. It is in the hands of local archaeologists now."

"Liza, stop," Sonja pleads. She didn't realise the ex-model was able to go so fast. She's having to go flat out to keep up with her.

Liza doesn't slow. "I've got to get to the church. It's his fault. All his fault."

The church is in front of them. Liza leads the way, flings herself through the doors, screams when she sees the statue. Before the others can stop her she has grabbed a chair.

"Liar!" She attacks the statue as if she is possessed. "Liar. You make promises… don't keep them." The chair smashes in half and she uses the two bits to continue beating the statue, sobbing now.

Yuri takes hold of her. "Liza, stop." She doesn't respond. He tries to remove the mangled chair from her hands and she continues beating against the statue. It is only when Sonja comes to his aid that the two of them are able to pull Liza away. As soon as she is away from the statue she goes limp. Broken pieces of wood clatter against the flagstones.

"Where am I?" Liza asks weakly.

Yuri and Sonja exchange glances over her head. "We need somewhere to hide for the night," Yuri says heavily. "The police are probably at the house right now so we can't go back there. Here is as good a place as any to stay."

The group in the church sleep fitfully, nightmares coming and going under the glare of the demon Asmodeus. As dawnlight crawls in through the open door, Sonja rouses herself.

"While we're here we might as well do some good," she comments. "If the tombstones outside are fakes, the real ones must be here somewhere." She begins to search the church, studying the walls, the floor, stooping to look under the altar.

Liza sits up, rubbing her eyes. "I suppose we ought to go back to the house, see what's happened there. I wonder if any of the others got away." She stifles a yawn then announces, "God, I need a drink."

Finished with her searching, Sonja nods. The three of them make their way out into the deserted road.

Woken up by repeated hammering on his front door, Corbu has just enough time to register shock before Nate blinds him with his flashgun and forces him back into the house. Judith watches nervously as he ties the struggling Frenchman to a chair.

"Where do you get off kidnapping defenceless young girls and dragging them back to your house?" he yells. "What were you intending to do to her?" He picks up a vase and smashes it then drops his voice to a whisper. "What have you done to the others?" Another vase smashes. "What sort of sick creature are you?" Nate shouts again. "You degenerate pervert, I ought to take you apart piece by bloody piece until there's not enough of you left to cause any more grief in this town."

He grabs Corbu and plunges a syringe into his arm. It's harmless saline solution but the Frenchman doesn't know that. "This is Sodium Pentothal," Nate says seriously. "A truth drug. It should start working soon." He paces the room again, sees the painting of the blonde woman over the fireplace and seizes it, holding it over his head.

"Weirdo's like you don't deserve to have beautiful things around you," he grates. "If you don't tell me what the hell is going on around here then I'm going to smash this to pieces, so you'd better start talking, right now!"

Corbu splutters and moans. Swearing loudly, Nate moves behind him so he can't see what he's doing, takes another picture at random and smashes it then slits the canvas of the woman free from its frame and slips it into Judith's handbag.

Corbu screams when he hears the frame smash. "Don't break it. It's priceless."

"Not any more it isn't," Nate replies grimly. He flicks a glance at the wall above the fireplace. It is blank - no hidden safe. He swings round on Corbu again. "Now, you better start talking."

"I.. I can't. I don't know anything, I swear." There is panic in his voice."

"Harvest," Nate says. "How are they involved? What were they doing conducting the autopsy of Sandrine Bellaire for a start?"

Corbu swallows convulsively. "We were trying to help. The stigmata - it was a genetic abnormality… " Nate hits him and he screams again. Judith feels almost sorry for him. Almost, but not quite.

"You better tell him," she advises. "He gets really angry when he doesn't get what he wants."

Corbu wets his lips. He turns his head to look at her, then his eye widen, his gaze going past her. Judith turns round, but there is no one there.

"It wasn't my fault," Corbu moans. "I haven't told them anything."

The room has suddenly gone cold. Nate backs away from the chair a step, tensing. Corbu moans. Then there is no sound at all. The Frenchman's head lolls sideways. He lets out one last sigh and is silent.

"Dead?" Judith asks quietly. Nate tries to find a pulse. There is none.

"Dead," he agrees. He slashes the ropes holding him to the chair. The body flops sideways. Judith attempts mouth to mouth but something already tells her that it is too late.

Nate gathers up the pieces of rope, smashes a few more ornaments, pockets others. With any luck the police will assume a burglary attempt went wrong.

Dexter, Louis and Jake go together to see Maurice Perez. He turns a fraction paler when he opens the door and sees the three of them standing there but after a moment he motions them inside.

"I don't know why you're here," he begins. "I told you everything I know."

"No you haven't," Dexter says. He sits down. "It's time you told us the truth. Come on, man, you owe us at least that much, don't you? Now, tell us all you know." He leans forward, raising himself out of his seat. "Or we'll just have to get nasty."

Perez holds up both hands. Jake closes in a step. "I have to go where I'm sent, and do what I'm told," he quotes softly. "Who sends you. Who tells you what to do?"

"My company." Perez squeaks in fright. "All right. My company, and the order of Freemasons. I'm one of them, all right? My company assigned me here, but the order encouraged me to befriend Sandrine. I don't know why - honest. They just did. I had to tell them when I'd slept with her. And… and one night, when she was staying with me in my hotel room, they wanted to examine her. They sent me out. She slept right through it, never knew a thing so I thought it was all right. They told me she wouldn't be hurt and she didn't remember anything so I thought it was all right. I never thought… "

The three men are silent. Dexter's expression has turned nasty at the mention of Freemasons.

"There's that word 'they' again," Jake says. "Who are they - specifically?"

Perez stares at him in fright. "Corbu. Monsieur Corbu. He told me what to do. I don't know who else - when they came to the hotel they kept their faces covered."

The house is deserted.

Liza goes straight to the cupboard for a bottle of wine and drinks half of it straight off. Yuri leaves her to it and does a quick tour of the rooms to make sure nothing has been disturbed. It looks as if people have been back here since last night - remains of a hurried breakfast is strewn over the kitchen table. He hopes it is other members of the group and not the police - or fake police, whichever they were.

Sonja takes the phone into her room.

"Any news on Plantard's house?" she asks Sioux.

"Yeah. We got the safe open. Some money, some jewelry, a few ornaments and things - haven't got a clue what they are." She pauses before continuing. "And a list of women's names, all of them crossed through. The last one on there is Sandrine Bellaire."

Sonja's hand tightens on the phone. "Can we see them?"

"Sure. They're no use to us. Do you want to meet in Toulouse later?" She gives her an address. "There'll be someone there all day. Say Sioux sent you."

The others make it back to the house shortly after. Judith is in a state of shock as she relates what happened to M. Corbu. She takes the painting out of her bag and lays it beside the one they stole from Plantard's house.

"Don't you get the feeling that the eyes are following you around the room?" Dexter jokes. No one else thinks it's funny.

Judith calls the meeting to order, firmly removing a third bottle of wine from Liza's reach. "Bearing in mind that the fourth Grand Master brought something back from the Holy Land, and we know that another SITU team have the Holy Grail with them so it can't be that," she says, "I was hoping that the gold coffin was the Ark of the Covenant. Even the title of the tomb painting Et in ARCadia ego has Arc in it!" She drops her gaze, flushing slightly. "Anyway it seems from our initial exploration, that it's not but I think we need to go careful with whatever is in that grave, after all, touching the Ark of the Covenant is punishable by death."

"If we get a chance to touch it," Louis adds morosely. "Maybe I can ask Charles to help."

"Yes, and ask him how the police knew what we were doing," Dexter adds. "Someone must have told them and it's got to be either him or Green Dawn."

"Or someone else," Judith says. She looks hard at Liza. "I don't want to offend you, Liza, but would you mind if we checked you for silvery marks or whatever? If the Ylid is controlling you she may be able to find out information from your mind."

Liza shrugs and agrees. "As long as everyone is checked. It might not be me."

They take it in turns to check each other. Finally, when everyone is satisfied that they're 'clean', Judith asks, "What about the statue, then? Has anyone had any thoughts on destroying it?"

Liza nods at once, her eyes shining. "Yes, kill it."

But Louis smiles and disagrees. "But, my dear lady, what if the statue were not the focus of this spirits power… its source if you may… but rather a prison designed to hold it, entrap it, keep it bound to the chapel? Destroying it… would be akin to opening Pandora's box, no?"

Judith looks frightened at the prospect. "We could X-ray it at least," she suggests. "And we can use your equipment on Marie Denarnaud's tomb as well. It might be interesting. Can we have another look at the tower, too. I'm sure the Ylid is living there somewhere." She frowns. "I wonder if the Magdalene is trying to produce a child who is part human and part Ylid? It's possible to kill Ylids, and they know we're hunting them so maybe they're trying to find some way of reproducing. The Magdalene is an expert in genetics and so the task has fallen to her. Only so far she's failed."

"A pity Corbu can't tell us about Sandrine's autopsy," Jake murmurs when she's finished. "What we need is a lip-reader to view the tapes. They don't need sound to tell what's being said."

"I still don't see how you're so sure the Ylid is a woman," says Liza. She makes another grab for the wine and Louis takes it off her this time.

"SITU think it is," Judith tells her. "We have two portraits of identical women, women appearing in dreams - and this obsession with reproduction is definitely a woman thing."

Nate, who has been studying the portraits, stands up. "The best thing to do is get in touch with SITU now. I'll send them copies of the paintings and see if they recognise them."

The group splits to various parts of the house. Judith following Jake into the kitchen to help make lunch. Soon, Louis and Liza are left together. Louis feels a wash of tiredness come over him, warm like the heat of the desert lands around the Nile delta. He shakes his head to clear away the picture of sand and water. Visions now, as well as the voice he hears in dreams, he thinks. What is happening.

Beside him, Liza sits still, drinking from the wine bottle from time to time. How like the portrait of the Madonna she appears, Louis reflects. Or is it simply her beauty that makes him stammer when he tries to speak to her. "Liza, I… I need to ask you of your abduction. Certain things are happening, and I need to make sense of them. If it is painful to talk about, then please say so… but… I fear I am being manipulated by something, which makes me see and hear things - but whether such things have no basis in reality, are illusionary in nature; or whether these are secrets and truths revealed bare before me, I cannot say."

She turns her head to look at him quizzically and he continues. "I still don't know what happened with you, beyond Corbu abducted you through some fashion… but is it not true you were led to believe certain things which blinded you to the truth of your predicament? How did you see past the lies in the end? Make sense of what was fabrication and what the truth?"

She pauses before answering. "I knew what the truth was," she says softly. "Corbu tried to make me think he was my fiancé, but I know John, and I knew that the person I was with wasn't him." She finds herself telling Louis about her fiancé, and in return Louis confides in her the vision he had the other day - sunlight reflecting gold off windows that weren't there a moment later.

"I think the Ylid is trying to mess with out minds," Liza says. "Make us see things that aren't there." Louis nods agreement. Yet, if he were an Ylid with the power to cloak truth by illusion wouldn't he seek to hide his lair from the outside world in such fashion?

"Liza," he says, "I think having broken the spell of the Ylid or whatever power held you in its thrall, you will be able to resist further influence, perhaps. I hope that if we come to confront this thing, this Ylid creature, that it will not be able to work its tricks on you a second time."

He gets up. He still needs to check over the church for the missing tombstones. Sonja may have done her best but she doesn't know what to look for, may well have missed something. For the first time in days, though, he finds himself smiling.

But, before he can leave the house to check out the church, Nate's voice stops him.

"Dex?" Sonja asks, "Have you had any strange experiences or sensations since we've been here, like whatever Louis, Liza and Yuri seem to be experiencing."

"None at all." Dexter looks up from the twin portraits of the Madonna and grins at her. "Unless you mean hot flushes and palpitations every time I look at you. But I don't think that's the work of an Ylid - it's all down to you."

Sonja finds herself blushing and laughs to cover it up. "Idiot. So, any ideas about Liza? Can we find out who has been digging into her past? It might be the same people who've contacted the BBC to check out our story." She gasps as an idea strikes her. "Dex, you don't think someone has infiltrated SITU, do you, to find out the information?"

"if they have, it's SITU's problem," Dex answers. He goes back to studying the canvases. "There's nothing on the backs of these, or on the frame. I hope SITU can tell us what they are."

Right on cue, Nate shouts. "Everyone in here now. This is important."

Blaize's voice, distorted by the speakers on the phone, fills the room. He sounds excited, Jake thinks. Excited and terrified.

"First of all, Sandrine," Blaize says. "When we examined her we found signs that she had miscarried - her womb, ovaries, everything were a complete mess, with traces of Ylid DNA all over the place. By our reckoning she would have miscarried around Easter time, which is when the stigmata appeared according to your report. But the important thing is the portrait - portraits. We know the woman. She is an Ylid, called Sophia. Her husband, Paul, was killed centuries - no, millennia - ago. From her background we know there's a good chance she's working alone and she may well be opposing the other main groups of Ylids. The bottom line is we have to contact her and find out."

He pauses for breath. The operatives look at one another with various degrees of confusion and disbelief.

"You want us to make friends with her?" Jake asks.

"I don't think that's a good idea." Blaize stops again. "We are going to need some hold over her, something she wants. The treasure, whatever that is… the treasure may be the key. Find the treasure. Find Sophia. You must find out exactly what she's doing there and achieve some hold over her so we can force her to listen to us." He takes a breath that is clearly audible over the speakers. "Believe me, this is very, very important. If you fail, we could lose everything. But if you succeed it could be the biggest breakthrough since SITU was founded."

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