The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
3pm 24th December.
Louis, Ross, Greg, Daniel – the library.
Ned, Vera, Sam – Paris, Latin quarter.
Ned and Vera start forward at once, Sam puffing along behind them. The fleeing man fits the description they were given at the airport: could he be Liza’s mysterious ‘husband’?
The man in question has his attention fixed on the young tramp who accosted him and doesn’t notice Vera until she is inches in front of him.
“Bon-ju-or mon-sewer,” Vera bellows in her worse Texan accent. “Ou est the hell tu va so damn fast?”
The fellow does a double take, tries to avoid her, trips over his own feet and goes sprawling. Vera glances at her uncle and Sam, eyebrows raised, amused. “I never touched him.”
“Course not, my dear,” Ned murmurs. “We all know your smile alone is enough to fell an ox.” He offers a hand to the man to help him to his feet and absent-mindedly keeps hold of him once he’s got him up. “Maybe we should have a talk, monsieur. May I ask your name?”
“He’s called Perez.” The tramp has wandered over to join them. Now the drama appears resolved, the rest of the crowd has lost interest. People are pushing past them in both directions.
Sam fixes the tramp with a hard stare. “And who might you be?”
“My name’s Michael Williamson,” he says carelessly, as if this explains everything. When no one reacts he sighs. “I’m a SITU agent. Same as the rest of you, I believe. Perez knows all about you – don’t you Maurice?”
“I haven’t done anything,” Perez squeaks. He looks about in terror, and pales visibly when he meets Vera’s stare. “All I know is I had to meet Liza Petherton at the airport. She’s the one who told me about SITU. She said there would be people looking for her and I should find out who they were. I’m not a spy. I didn’t even know where to start looking.”
“Well, you found us now,” Vera murmurs. She glances at Sam and Ned. “Now I have to go shopping.”
Ned watches her go. “I suggest,” he says, taking off his glasses and polishing them, “we retire somewhere more private to talk.”
In the bibliotheque, Greg closes the last of the books and puts it back on the shelf. Just in case anyone is coming along behind to see what they were studying. He looks at the others. “I think we should get back to the hotel first,” he says. “See what Ned, Vera and Sam have found out. Then it won’t hurt to look into the history of the Sacre Coeur and Paul Abadie.”
Louis is obviously reluctant to leave the library and lingers over the shelves until the librarian gently ushers him outside. Ross and Daniel are far more eager to be getting on and are already making plans as the four men make their way back to Louis’ minibus.
All other plans, though, are shelved the moment they reach the hotel. Ned and Sam are waiting there, and with them the tramp Greg remembers seeing the previous night, and a small, dark-haired man, who looks half scared to death.
“This is Michael Williamson,” Sam says excitedly. “He’s one of us. And this is…”
“Maurice Perez,” Greg and Louis finish together.
Perez utters a whimper of terror. “It wasn’t my fault the plane crashed in Nepal. I was a victim the same as you. And it wasn’t my fault about Sandrine, either. All I knew was the bosses want to do some tests on her. Once I knew what happened I tried to help, didn’t I?”
“If by ‘helped’ you mean we had to drag information out of you, then yes, you helped,” Louis says dryly. “You ran away, I believe. There is nowhere to run this time, monsieur.”
Michael helps himself to a drink from the cabinet. “He’s the weak link in all of this,” he says. “He’s an agent of the Prieure, even if he’s on the lowest levels. My guess is he’s too low in the organisation to know anything much of use, but he was sent to meet Liza, and that’s important. He could lead us to her. Couldn’t you, Maurice?”
Perez shakes his head, looking desperately around the room as if expecting an escape route to open up any minute. “If I tell you anything, they’ll kill me. Just like they’ll kill me if I don’t do what they say. I saw on the news what Liza did in Oxford, but they said I had to meet her and take her to the George V hotel. I left her there, and I haven’t seen her since, I swear. On the way, she told me there would be people looking for her from an organisation called SITU. She said I had to find them, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Louis echoes. “How were you supposed to contact her again?”
“I wasn’t! She said she’d contact me when she needed me.”
The group look at one another. “He’s telling the truth,” Ned says. He’s positive of it.
So is Sam. The little man bounces in his chair until it sounds in danger of breaking. “He’s our link to Liza, then. So, what are we going to do with him?”
Furnished with a list of the shops frequented by models such as Liza Petherton, Vera makes her way through the crowded streets. Some of the larger stores are already closed, she finds, but the smaller boutiques seem willing to remain open as long as people are desperate – or stupid – enough to pay the outrageous sums they demand for clothes that are likely to be out of fashion by January 2nd.
It takes ninety minutes and several costly purchases (three scarves, one black leather jacket for Ned, two pairs of diamante earrings and one short red evening dress) before she finds what she’s looking for. Corrine Picard, the proprietor of “CP’s!” is from Winnipeg, Canada. She married a Frenchman, Louis Picard, after a whirlwind romance when she was in Nice on vacation and he died of cancer just two years later. She made a living briefly as a model, and then opened her own boutique in Paris, her late husband’s hometown. The important point in all this is that she was a close friend of Liza’s.
“I counted her as one of my best friends at one time,” Picard says. “She was much more successful than myself, but she was the kind of girl who would convince whoever she was working for to throw a little work my way. I think some of the magazines hired me more as a travelling companion for her. I was lucky to get one published shot out of each trip.” She sighs. “But it was such fun, and it seems like so long ago.”
Vera hands across her credit card to pay for scarves four and five. She wonders fleetingly if SITU will count this as a justifiable expense. “How does the Liza you knew fit in with the image of the woman the police are looking for?” she asks.
Picard shrugs. “I do not know Liza anymore. It has been almost a year since she came into my shop.” She pauses, frowning. “And the last time, she seemed lost. Unable to remember what she already owned or needed.” She points to a rack of bags arranged temptingly by the full-length mirrors. “Before she left she picked up a sharkskin bag. I asked her if she was sure, leather was not really part of her typical wardrobe. But she insisted and in the next breath told me she had no money.”
“No money,” Vera echoes.
Picard nods. “It is what she said. She had other bags with her, so she must have been shopping before she came to me. I can’t believe she had no money left. I would never demand money from her, of course. I owe much of my good fortune today to her support of my modelling career and her patronage after I opened the shop. I told her not to worry. But she laughed, saying she wasn’t worried. Then she slapped it down on the counter and left with the bag. That was the last time I saw her in person.”
A cold wind seems to touch Vera’s skin, freezing her. “What was ‘it’ that she put down in exchange for the bag?” she asks carefully. She can barely breathe.
Picard takes a tube, which looks a bit like a relay baton, out from behind her counter. “There. I’ve had it valued. It’s gold and ivory, probably made for a nobleman of Rome before the time of Julius Caesar, but produced in ancient Greece. Very valuable, of course – worth many, many handbags. I’ve kept it here in case Liza should come back for it.” She takes a cap off one end and slides out a roll of something that is either paper or cloth. “Some of the people who valued it for me asked if it contained anything,” she says. “I told them no. I have never shown the document it contains to anyone. I don’t know what the writing on it means.”
She unrolls the sheet.
Vera recoils in shock. It takes her a moment to steady herself and then she stares at Picard in disbelief. “This writing is not as old as the baton,” she says with difficulty.
Picard’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “Do you understand this language?”
Vera takes a deep breath. She is overcome by the all too familiar smell of sulphur. All at once she remembers the books bequeathed to her by her parents. She remembers the moment in Moscow when she traded the books for their souls. The writing is the same, although much smaller. There are several sheets, at least a dozen, which are covered edge-to-edge with the small figures.
“No. Yes. No,” Vera stammers out the words, unsure of what to tell Picard. Picard’s frown deepens.
“No? Yes? Which is it?”
“I used to own two books written in the same language,” Vera says. “They were old, and I don’t know if these documents refer to the same things, but if they do, then Petherton may be under the influence of the same… powers that… tormented my parents. I gave up the books when I…” She stumbles to a halt. Her mouth is completely dry. She leans over the papers, both hands on the counter, breathing hard.
Picard touches her on the shoulder. “Liza is in trouble? Can you help her? You are her friend, aren’t you?”
“I witnessed the events the police are investigating now,” Vera says. She licks her lips and continues. “There may be a connection between that incident, Petherton’s sudden change and this document, and possibly they may be connected to my own experiences elsewhere.” She looks up, meeting Picard’s gaze. “Please, may I take these documents with me?”
Picard shakes her head at first, but then she puts the documents in a box and hands them to Vera. She does not, however, release the box from her own grip at first. “Are you going to hurt her?” she asks.
“I rarely hurt anyone,” Vera says truthfully. “But people around me tend to get hurt, including people who try to help me. Petherton is wanted in connection with a kidnapping of a child and several deaths. The police cannot be expected to treat her lightly. If I can help it, they will at least be able to take her alive.”
It is not the answer Picard wanted, Vera can see that. The woman releases the box reluctantly. Vera puts it quickly into her pocket, thanks her and promises to return the documents as soon as possible. Then, collecting up her bags, she goes to the door.
“Miss!” calls Picard. Vera turns.
“One other thing,” she says. “The last time I saw Liza – the bags she had with her, they were all from ‘Petites Messieurs. Baby clothes,” she adds, in response to Vera’s blank look.
Leaving Perez in the guard of Ross for the time being, the others retire to Daniel’s room to discuss what to do next.
“I’ll contact SITU,” Daniel says. “They must have more information on the Sion and the Black Madonna Cult we can use.”
“We can assume that as Liza didn’t have any luggage, she didn’t bring the baby or the Grail to Paris,” Sam adds helpfully. “Though one of her agents might have. Can we check other people on her flight? Greg’s stewardess friend might be able to help. And then, does anyone fancy midnight mass at the Sacre Coeur. It seems a prime hangout for an Ylid, especially on Christmas Eve with all that belief energy washing about.”
Surprised that Sam is talking such good sense, Ned nods. “Worth a try. Let’s see what we can dig up in the meantime.”
Privately, he wonders where his niece is. Out getting into trouble, most likely, he thinks wryly. He hopes she’s able to contain herself, at least until they track down Liza Petherton.
The information you requested follows. Good luck. Blaize.
The Black Madonna Cult
Known to be active in Mexico, the Black Madonna Cult is a corruption of Catholicism which links the images of Mary the mother of Christ with the myth of ‘mother earth’ to create the figure of the Madonna. It is known that the Mexican Ylid, Ahuantepec, set herself up as the Madonna, feeding off the worship of her followers. The Ylid is now dead. The leader of the Black Madonna Cult in Mexico, Jaime de Reconvaco, is in a secure hospital following severe injuries sustained during SITU’s successful mission against the Mexican Ylids.
The aim of the cult was to see Ahuantepec reinstated as the prime god of the Mexicans. In her guise as the Madonna, she hoped to gain sway over the Catholic church whilst the earth mother figure held great appeal for the followers of traditional religions in the area.
At its most powerful, the cult had a following of thousands, but that has dwindled to a few hundred in recent years. As far as we know the Cult is no longer active, although elements of it may still remain in the traditional Catholic beliefs of the country. The Cult is still officially outlawed in Mexico. As far as we know, it has always been confined to Mexico, centring exclusively around Ahuantepec. The Cult leaders are not known to have formed any links with any other religious or political groups in any other countries. We do not consider the Black Madonna Cult to be a threat.
But then, they didn’t believe Sophia to be a threat, Daniel muses. He reads on.
The Prieure de Sion
The current face of the Knights Templar. The Prieure is run from Paris. Sophia is the prime force behind it. Its current, unofficial leader is Pierre Plantard, who officially resigned from the position many years ago.
The current aims of the Prieure are unclear. We can assume, that the organisation was set up by Sophia to promote her aims which so far have been to keep her presence secret and to find a way of resurrecting her husband, Paul. Plantard has links with Harvest, and we know Sophia is behind that company. A tertiary aim of the Prieure may be to promote mysticism in France – which is a notoriously secular country – in order to increase Sophia’s power base there.
References to the secret treasure of the Knights Templar undoubtedly point to the genetic remains of Paul, smuggled into France by Sophia, probably shortly after the death of Christ. One branch of Grail mythology suggests that the grail is in fact the royal bloodline of Christ. We believe this bloodline is not Christ’s but Paul’s. The mythology was created by Sophia as a smokescreen to cover her real activities.
It is interesting, however, to note that members of the Templar movement attempted to steal the Grail after it was recovered from Glastonbury and were narrowly prevented from using it in a ritual which would have summoned and controlled the grail guardian – the so-called ‘Grail maiden.’ Whether they were doing this for their own ends or under the instructions of the Prieure remains unclear.
SITU has had no other dealings with members of the Prieure, apart from our brief alliance with Sophia herself. We can give no advice on their location or the identities of key members. Our advice is to start with places of religious significance.
Australian born and a successful model, she suffered a breakdown which resulted in alcoholism after her fiancé, John, vanished near Stonehenge. We have had no further information regarding his disappearance or subsequent whereabouts – the only clue was a crop circle in a field close to his abandoned car. Liza was admitted to a private clinic and on leaving she joined SITU. The mission in Rennes-le-Chateau was her first and only one for SITU. Following the mission, she failed to report back to us and we lost track of her completely.
Liza spent much time in Paris during her years as a model. As well as staying at the George V hotel, she rented an apartment on the bank of the Seine (the address is given.) Liza was obviously unbalanced before she came under the influence of Sophia, seeing in the Ylid a mirror of her own loss. Liza was also typical of the women Sophia was using as ‘vessels’ in her attempts to see Paul reborn.
Daniel finishes reading. It sounds like Blaize should take more care over which missions his agents were sent on, he thinks. Although, to give Blaize his due, he didn’t know what Liza would come up against.
A few minutes more checking with old contacts reveals nothing has been heard of the Black Madonna cult in Paris in the past 15 years. And the name of the Prieure has only come up in speculation. No one knows whether they are still active and, if they are, what they are doing now.
After emailing a message to Belle-Marie via SITU and checking that Rhiannon is safe with her grandparents, Daniel turns the computer off and goes in search of Greg.
Greg is on the phone to Marie. “Right, thanks,” he says as Daniel comes in. “Merry Christmas to you too. See you soon.”
He puts the phone down and waves Daniel to the only chair in the room. He himself remains standing by the window. “I’ve just been talking to Marie. She’s checked the records of everyone on the flight Liza was on. None of the names are familiar. Sam could be right that one of them is an agent for Sophia, but there were three hundred and sixty eight other people on the flight. With no obvious lead, it could take us years to check them all out.”
Daniel sits down. “Talking of checking people out, Belle-Marie has told me a fair bit about Ned and Vera. She was on a mission with them a few years back – the psychic conference where SITU made contact with the Trismegistus Club. A pair of nutcases, if what she tells me is right. Both of them completely paranoid, not even trusting SITU never mind anyone else. And Vera’s an augmented human. Her parents were part of the Tri Club’s breeding programme and did a deal with some demon or other; you know, selling their souls in return for a superhuman daughter. Belle reckons Vera’s easily capable of murder.”
Greg frowns. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing.” Daniel stretches back in his chair. “We’ve got to work together on this, and it won’t do to be fighting amongst ourselves. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t say I trust either of them much but I’m going to try and forget most of what Belle-Marie told me for now.” He looks up at Greg. “Actually, I came here to talk to you. How are you doing?”
“Fine.” Greg speaks heavily. He laughs and sits down on the edge of the bed. “Honestly, I’m coping. The media attention since my miraculous come-back has stopped, everyone’s been pretty much supportive. And Marie-Claude has helped a great deal. I’m feeling almost normal now – although I’ll be glad when this thing is all over. To tell you the truth, I’m getting too old to be chasing Ylids all over the globe.”
Daniel nods understandingly. He can’t say he feels old, not yet, but he does have a new focus for his attention. Belle-Marie and Rhiannon. More than anything now he just wants them to be safe. It’s unfortunate that, to ensure their safety, he has to leave them both and go chasing off to Paris at Christmas.
“What do you think of the rest of the team?” he asks, to take his mind off the fact that he’s missing his wife and daughter so much.
Greg ponders before answering. “So far, no problems. Ross strikes me as someone handy to have around in a fight, and he’s not likely to lose his temper as Vera might, which makes him a safer bet. Louis’ probably had more chance to be corrupted by Sophia than anyone, but he seems all right, and he knows more than any of us about the local situation. Ned and Vera… as you say, could be trouble, but then again they could both be very useful. Sam… harmless, I’d say. Just as long as he doesn’t start feeling sorry for Ylids.”
Paul Abadie, Louis reads. Architect. His birthplace is unknown, but thought to be Paris in circa 1854. A very private man, there are no pictures existing of him. He saw few people and worked mainly through his agents. He is said to have had a passion for opera and had a private box in the Paris Opera House. While most of the Opera House pre-dates him, he was responsible for some of the redesign work backstage.
He will be remembered best, however, as the designer of the Sacre Coeur and his mysterious death during the construction of the church only adds to the air of myth surrounding him. He is thought to have been murdered, although his body has never been found. All that can be said is that he disappeared from his home one day and was never seen again. A brief police investigation at the time failed to find any motive for murder or indeed any suspect. The case was closed three months after his disappearance and he was officially declared dead. The Sacre Coeur bears a plaque in memory of him. His real memorial, however, remains the church itself.
Interesting, Louis thinks. A trip to the Sacre Coeur is definitely in order. He picks up the phone.
“Hello? Yes, I wish to enquire about the services at the Sacre Coeur this holiday season. Can you tell me what time… Eleven o’clock tonight, thank you.” He is about to hang up but something makes him stop. “Is there a New Year’s Eve service?” he asks. “At midnight. Right. Thank you very much.”
He glances at his watch. Time he was getting back to the hotel to join the others. Talk to Perez again and then on to the midnight mass. After that, who knows?
To Ned Numenor,
From Matt Culver.
Ned, I’ve been keeping an eye on the Paris side of things and I’m suspicious of Greg – I know you are too. Sounds like he’s even MORE charismatic than usual (if you know what I mean) and he sounded pretty worried to hear about those girls dying when they mixed human and Ylid DNA. Has he injected himself in secret? Watch him, okay? And Sam too – he’s an Ylid sympathiser, almost got me killed… Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas.
Ned grins as he reads the message. Keep an eye on Greg, that’s nothing new. And the bit about the fruitbat just confirms his suspicions. Typical of someone like Sam to fall for an Ylid sob-story. Maybe he ought to have a word with Sam in private.
He is just getting up to go and look for him when a ear-splitting shriek comes from Vera’s room.
Vera had been lying on her bed with the documents taken from Picard spread out around her. Everyone who used her parents’ books paid a heavy price. Her parents lost their souls, her uncle lost his thumbs and the priest lost his life. If these documents are from the same source and perform the same function, then there will be hell to pay if they are employed in that fashion again. The only question is who’s to pay?
It is then that she sees the snake. A pit viper, it must be at least five feet long, sliding out of the bedclothes towards her.
Vera lets out a shriek and jumps back, landing back out of the snake’s reach a moment before it strikes. She hears someone pounding at the door and her uncle’s voice, but she can’t answer, frozen where she is and shivering with shock. The snake curls and hisses at her, its heavy body creasing the papers as it slides across them.
Something inside Vera snaps. “This is a private room you FUCKING REPTILE!” she yells. She grabs her cowboy boots and pulls them on, then seizes a French/English dictionary off the desk.
The snake slips from the bed and writhes on the floor, rising up to strike again. Vera stomps down hard on its tail. It swings around and tries, unsuccessfully, to bite through her boots.
“Fashionable and functional, you creep,” Vera hisses. She removes her foot from the snake’s tail and slams the book down on the its head.
“Having trouble, my dear?” enquires Ned from the door.
“Not any more.” Vera answers through gritted teeth. She picks the snake up by the tail and hurls it out of the window. Leaning out, she can see where it has landed, over a street light.
The noise has attracted the attention of the other operatives, and many of the hotel guests. Vera chases the guests away with a fierce glare, assures the manager nothing is wrong. “I dozed off and had a nightmare. Nothing to worry about.” Finally, she ushers the group into the room. They are all there, Louis looking a little breathless after running up the stairs.
“Where’s Perez?” he asks.
“In my room,” Ross answers. “I left him tied and gagged. He won’t be going anywhere. What’s going on, Vera? And what are those papers?”
24th December 2000, 10pm
The hotel St James.
SAM: Shopping accomplished!