The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Beginning of Wisdom
Chapter 2

23rd December 2000.

“Is everything clear?” asks Blaize.

Ned, who has been staring at him with unconcealed animosity, speaks out abruptly. “The main thing that’s clear to me, Blaize, is that the Trismegistus Club shouldn’t be trusted. And, frankly, I have serious doubts about you.” He turns on his heel and stamps out of the briefing room.

The others exchange glances and follow.

The Beginning of Wisdom, right before the End of Times, which brought about the Sum of All Fears, but not before I Shot The Sheriff, thinks Vera Goodchild. She hopes she can start out on a better foot with this team than the last group. She’s done her best – dressing discreetly in jeans and a University of Maryland sweat shirt. It’s not exactly her fault that the long black-leather duster coat she added at the last minute that morning makes her look like a very sinister college co-ed.

Forcing a large smile, she turns and offers her hand to Ross, an open gesture of friendship that somehow has a frightening air coming from Vera. The tough army man hesitates a moment before responding with a handshake.

“I was impressed with your restraint at Oxford,” Vera gushes. “It would have been easy just to start blasting away indiscriminately. It’s easy for us to forget that local authorities often take a dim view of people taking the law into their own hands.”

Ross, with several ‘murders’ on his own hands, shrugs and grins. “It’s a case of doing what’s necessary,” he mutters.

Vera nods enthusiastically. “Speaking of ‘the law,’ I plan to approach the French police about the possible whereabouts of Petherton. I have press credentials that should camouflage my interest.”

Her gaze wanders. Turning away from Ross she grabs Sam’s hand and begins shaking it. The little man gasps and splutters, flapping his free arm, the loose sleeves of his coat giving the impression of a fat and very animate fruit bat. He tries to meet Vera’s stare and can’t. Instead he focuses on her chest.

I’m going to have to say something, Vera thinks, Oh God, I’m going to have to make conversation.

Why is she still shaking my hand, Sam wonders, I wish someone would make her stop.

Vera does stop, suddenly enough that Sam stumbles backwards. “You’re very, very uh, different aren’t you,” she blurts out. “The way you curled up in that little ball during the attack was, uh, compact. Perhaps you and I should work together for a while, since we have such contrasting styles.”

Sam’s not sure whether she’s serious or not. Thankfully, at that moment her nerve appears to break and she retreats behind Ned Numenor, staring fixedly at the ground.

“So, here I go, off to gay Paris for Christmas, chasing after a supermodel,” Sam says, and flushes. He’s not sure why he said that out loud, Vera must be upsetting him. He gives his fellow operatives a wry smile. “As usual!” he adds.

Michael Williamson scuffs his way along the Champs Elysee. He is bored, cold, starting to feel hungry but he can’t afford to stop and eat now. Besides, if he stops too long, the people who were tailing him yesterday might spot him again.

A high level leak in SITU, he thinks. Can it be possible? It would certainly explain a lot. There’s no proof, of course, nothing he can pin his suspicions on. All he knows is that, for now, he has to keep digging, and the few pieces of evidence he has found point here, to Paris.

Ned looks over at Vera and snickers audibly. “How painful, Vera dear, it must be for you to sit in the cattle section of the airplane, for once.” Still chuckling, he turns to Daniel sitting beside him. “What about you? Are you used to this kind of thing?”

Daniel gives him a slightly scared look. “I was in a plane that crashed once. It wasn’t much fun. To be honest, I was looking forward to a quiet Christmas with my wife and daughter. Now my wife’s on a mission too and Rhiannon’s got to settle for her grandparents’ company. It was either that or let Blaize look after her.”

The thought of the head of SITU looking after anything as demanding as a small child makes Ned laugh. “What can you do,” he asks. “Anything useful?”

Daniel gives him a slightly disparaging look. “Plenty. I’m into computers mainly, but I’ve coped with what SITU have thrown at me so far, and believe me, we’ve been in some pretty bad situations.” Boiling Hell Valley in the middle of an earthquake, he thinks, now that wasn’t pleasant. He looks in Greg’s direction, but the ex-senator is reading a newspaper, looking relaxed and almost happy.

Sam is less happy. Trying not to think about the events of the day, he can’t help picturing the Magdalene’s eyes – her piercing gaze chillingly reminiscent of the Master’s. The suddenness of the attack, the choking confusion of dust and smoke, mixed with the unmistakable tang of blood… Why was there always so much blood involved? He heaves a sigh and hands back his suddenly unappealing glass of vodka and tomato-juice to the attendant flight stewardess.

“Happy Christmas,” she says. Happy Christmas, indeed.

So, what could Sophia have hoped to gain from the attack? It has to be the grail and the baby – Isobel’s perfect baby. The grail had been with SITU since the French mission, but the baby was a recent arrival…could he be the vessel for the true sang real? Sam utters a groan. What if the Trismegistus Club had somehow incorporated some of the Ylid Paul’s preserved DNA into the child, wouldn’t she be prepared to kill to have her lover back? He sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. It is an intriguing possibility. Ylids may well be spiteful creatures, but they surely aren’t the only ones. The Prieure de Sion would certainly be interested in the grail, if it truly existed. Funny though, he’d heard it was all a fraud. He even had a friend who claimed to know a man who had forged the original manuscript. Maybe it was all an elaborate double bluff, though. It just went to show; you couldn’t trust anyone these days.

Talking of which, Sam swivels round to peer furtively at the other members of the group. Which ones will be susceptible to Sophia, he wonders? Having felt the Master’s influence for himself, he knows how strong the mind of an Ylid can be. Behind him, Ned and Daniel are in conversation. Greg is reading a financial paper and Ross is staring straight ahead, eyes half closed. Vera is flirting with the Frenchman next to her – or rather, suffering his attentions.

He has his hand on her thigh. “You American girls have to exercise too much, because you eat too much,” he says, smiling through cigarette-stained teeth.

Vera’s patience finally snaps. To be honest, after being on her best behaviour for what seems like weeks, she is almost thankful for the chance to react naturally. She smiles. “One trick to intelligent exercising, is not to leave out the smaller muscle groups, like the forearms,” she says while gripping his forearm and removing his hand from her leg. “For example, without strong forearms and wrists, it’s difficult to apply the strength from the biceps and triceps in practical situations.” Without warning, she squeezes the man’s wrist with as much force as she can muster. He realizes the danger too late, opens his mouth to yell for help, and only a strangled moan comes out. He faints and, a few moments later, Vera hears the small pop of a bone breaking in his wrist. Briskly, she returns her seat to the upright position, and turns her attention to what her uncle is saying.

Sam slides back into his seat feeling sick. Never mind Sophia, he thinks, that is one woman he definitely doesn’t want to cross. He takes his glasses off and cleans them, an action that is becoming a habit. The lenses are crystal from the Master’s mine in Germany. Maybe it’s his imagination, but everything seems a lot more understandable and clear-cut when he’s wearing them. He smiles to himself, wondering if, perhaps, they’re made of rose quartz.

Louis Tregalier arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport a few minutes before the flight is due, cursing himself for not taking the Christmas traffic into account. He’s wearing a three-piece Armani suit, overlaid with a heavy black overcoat and leather gloves – not for any reason of fashion, but because the Parisian weather can be a temperamental beast and he wants to be prepared for the worst of it.

Fighting his way through the crowd to the arrival gate, he stops to scan the terminal furtively. He’s half afraid that there’ll be figures dressed in black standing in wait there and he pats his left hand inside pocket to feel the reassuring bulge of the weapon there; a small sporting pistol. He hasn’t used it for years, and it took him the best part of an hour to find in his university office, but its presence is reassuring nevertheless.

Six dead, he thinks, thirty needing hospitalisation… his fellow agents coming to know the wrath of this goddess. He keeps to the side of the room, away from the main press of people. He’s afraid that Sophia’s agents might see him and recognise him. But why should his details be common knowledge of the Prieure de Sion?

Seeing a group of five men and women coming through customs together, he strides forward to greet them.

“Bonjour,” the Frenchman says, offering his hand. “Louis Tregalier. I wish we could only perhaps have met under other circumstances. If you would be so kind as to follow me, I have a minibus outside on loan from the university… we can talk on the way.”

Ned and Vera look at him suspiciously. “You’re our contact, I presume,” Ned says. “Lead on, then.”

“SITU have assigned me to join your group,” Louis explains as they settle themselves into the minibus. I presume you all have accommodation booked?” They all nod.

“In the St. James, Avenue Bugeaud,” Vera adds brightly.

Louis nods. “I know it.” He pulls out of the car park onto the main road. “I don’t know what SITU have told you,” he says, “but I was part of the mission in France that uncovered Sophia, and I’ve been working as their contact point with her ever since. I can tell you what I know about her, but alas, I fear it is little indeed. She is a fascinating creature, dangerous, lonely, playing on the sorrows on others. The only thing that matters to her is her husband.”

Greg frowns. “Didn’t I hear that you came under her influence yourself?”

Louis’ only answer is a deep sigh. “You cannot begin to understand what Sophia meant to me, as an archaeologist and historian. Here was a person, or so I thought, who could speak to me of the Athens of her youth, of Troy and Minos, of Alexander the great, Pythagoras… that she might have known and could relate of any of these people or places – why I could not allow anyone to seek to harm her… don’t you see? But what I didn’t yet know about her, was how reticent she is to divulge the slightest information about her past.” He gives a little smile. “ … and believe me, how I tried!”

Ned looks around the group. “So, Louis has some useful knowledge, what about the rest of you, what do you all know? Just so we know what to expect of each other. Daniel’s got computer skills, he told me. Vera’s good in a fight.”

“So am I,” adds Ross. “And it looks like we may well have one. One thing’s for sure: next time we meet those men in black, I want to meet them armed.”

“I’ve got contacts here,” Greg says. “And experience of other Ylids.”

Heads swivel in Sam’s direction. “I’m a psychic investigator,” he squeaks. “I can tell you about, uh, otherworldly things. And I met an Ylid in Germany. He wasn’t very nice.”

“None of them are,” Daniel murmurs.

It is beginning to rain: a thick, wet sleet.

“First thing tomorrow we can meet the weapons contact,” Louis tells the group. “After that, I suggest the central library as a starting point. They have records going back centuries.” He stops the minibus. “Here we are. Shall I pick you up at nine tomorrow?”

Greg is the only one who feels up to doing anything else that evening. The first thing he does after booking into the hotel is to make a phone call.

“Marie-Claude,” he says. “It’s me, Greg. Listen, I need to talk to you, now. Can I come over?”

He tells her everything – about SITU, about Sophia, about the Prieure de Sion. He’d already told Blaize he was going to do this and, despite SITU’s opposition, he is determined that Marie-Claude should know of the danger she may be facing. Because Sophia could easily strike at anyone associated with her enemies.

Marie-Claude listens in silence, gradually turning paler. At the end she nods and takes Greg’s hand in her own. “I understand,” she says, a little shakily. “If there’s anything I can do to help you…”

“You can. We need contacts, information. Do you know anyone?”

She frowns. “I know lots of French tour guides. They all keep an eye on what’s going on in the city. Oh, and guess who I bumped into not long ago. Maurice Perez – remember him? He’s been assigned to Paris for the winter, he says. I’ve met him a few times since. The poor man seems lonely.”

Louis’ apartment is cold when he returns. His breath mists the front of the glass cabinet in his study. His most precious ‘finds’ are housed there. Figurines of the Egyptian gods stand in solemn line – Ra, Osiris, Anubis, Bast. And at their side, the portrait in miniature. To those of an ecclesiastical nature perhaps, it is Mary Magdalene, but to the group who visited Rennes-le-Chateau a year and a half ago, she will ever be ‘Sophia’.

“Ah, mademoiselle, today you have shown me your true colours I think…” Louis whispers to her portrait.

Outside the window the wind shrieks, the clouds heavy with the promise of snow.

Vera’s room is one of the best in the hotel. The bed is king-sized, piled with duvets against the cold. But Vera is so tired, she hasn’t made it into bed. She is asleep on the couch. So deeply asleep she barely stirs when a cold wind lifts the hair from her neck.

Greg, hurrying back to the warmth of the hotel, barely notices the young tramp loitering in the doorway.

Michael Williamson barely feels the sting of the cold on his hands now. He pushes them into his pockets and closes his fingers over a stiff scrap of paper. On it is written a single word. ‘Perez.’

11pm 23rd December.

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