The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Beginning of Wisdom
Ned, Vera, Louis, Sam, Greg, Daniel -The Sacre Coeur
Ross, Michael – the hotel.
Sam’s voice is loud in the church. Greg walks forward quickly. “The Templars, like the Rosicrucians, are associated with the modern Freemasons, who consider themselves their heirs, in a sense,” he murmurs, keeping his voice low enough that only Daniel, Sam and Louis can hear. “King Phillipe accused Jacques deMolay and the other Templars of worshipping a demon called Baphomet, as well as severed heads and all manner of other strange things. I imagine that Sophia could make sense of a good deal of this, if only she would be willing to do so. I’d always thought of deMolay as the hero of that story; now I have to wonder. Where’s the Museum from here? It won’t be open at this time of night, but I don’t feel like waiting until it opens to the public, do you?”
Louis shrugs. “I can take you there. It won’t be open again until after Christmas now.” His attention is still fixed on the image of Joan of Arc. A martyr, giving herself for a cause. Is that how Sophia sees herself. He calls to the others, softly.
“That is the face we are looking for,” he says when they are gathered. “And that one – ” he nods to the figure of St Louis – “That one is Paul.”
They all stare.
“What happened to his face?” Ned asks. He takes out his camera on the pretext of photographing the mosaic, and studies it through the zoom lens. “The tiles don’t look damaged at all. It looks like it’s supposed to be that way. Was Paul disfigured?”
“No.” Louis frowns, puzzled. “Not in any of the pictures we saw of him.” He bows his head, breathing in the heavy fragrance of the incense. Liza’s face, and Sophia’s merge in his mind.
The last of the worshippers are filing out of the arched door behind them, leaving the group standing alone by the altar.
“Best move,” Vera drawls, “we’re starting to look conspicuous.” She heads for the doors without waiting for the others. Sam mutters something about wanting to see the view from the top and follows at her heels.
Greg casts one more look around. “It occurs to me that it sure looks as if Sophia has been employing the cult of the Virgin as her own vehicle here in France,” he says. “And perhaps elsewhere in Europe. One of the Mexican Ylids was doing something very similar in the Yucatan. I wonder if they were collaborating, or competing over that particular piece of the collective unconscious? Is it the location of the worshipper that matters?” He smiles. “Provided that it matters at all, of course,” he muses, “but I think that it does, at least on the level that it might shed some light on how the Ylids draw their power, how they might be set against one another, and on how they think.”
“If they were competing,” Ned comments acidly, “with the death of the Yucatan Ylid, dear Sophia had the field all to herself. I wonder how that’s affected her?”
Sam is disappointed. He really thought he’d see Sophia face to face there. Never mind, he consoles himself. He snaps a piece of incense off one of the sticks by the door and carries on out into the night. Turning, he starts to climb, away from the crowds. He’s come all the way to France, he reasons. If he can’t see the Magdalene, he’d might as well get a good view of Paris – and the top of the Sacre-Coeur, so he’s heard, offers one of the best.
He’s panting hard by the time he reaches the top. Patting his pockets in an automatic but fruitless attempt to find chocolate, he tips his head back and stares at the stars.
Are they any different tonight, he wonders. The Ylids would know – they’ve been around for long enough to see the subtle changes through the ages. Maybe they’ve even visited them. Sam sighs. “Where are you, Sophia,” he murmurs. He rubs the crystal lenses of his spectacles for luck, his fingers leaving smears that make it easy for him to let his gaze drift out of focus. For that moment all he can see is lights – star light above and, lower down, the lights of Paris, blue and gold, stretching into the distance. He pictures Liza looking back and him and shivers. Just the thought of her cold, mad stare is enough to make him shift uneasily. He wonders what the eyes are seeing now.
The lights all wink out at once. Sam jumps, blinks and loses concentration. Trying to picture Liza’s eyes again all he can see is the eyes of the snake that could have killed Vera – and then Vera’s eyes
Vera smiles at him. “Sam,” she says. “I’ve found something. Come and look.” She holds out her hand. It is traced all over with a fine pattern, like snake skin, Sam notices. He’s about to mention it but Vera scowls impatiently. “I haven’t got all night. Will you come on?”
“Sorry.” Sam steps forward.
At that moment, something hurtles into him from behind.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, you stupid fruitbat?” Vera demands.
Sam rolls over and sits up. “Vera? But…” He straightens his spectacles and looks over his shoulder. He is right on the edge of the walkway. Another step would have taken him out over thin air, and it is a long way down. He suddenly finds that he is shivering. “Uh, thanks,” he says.
Vera glares at him and walks off.
Sam shakes his head and sighs. Vera…now there’s a woman who needs to lighten up! He’s never seen a woman so beautiful who scowled so much. Well, except for the odd supermodel perhaps. “I feel I sense some barely repressed anger in you, my dear,” he says, doing his best Sherlock Holmes impression. It takes his mind off what nearly happened. What is it that makes women like that attractive. Is it really just the added frisson of danger whenever she glowers in his direction? Whatever it is, Sam finds his heart pounding just thinking about it.
“I still think checking out Liza’s old place is our best option,” Daniel is saying. “She won’t be there, but the place might be occupied and we can always ask about her. Louis, can you take us back to the hotel first, to pick up Ross?”
They wait at the minibus for the rest of the group. Vera and Ned arrive together and Sam and few minutes later, looking breathless and shaken. When he explains what happened everyone is quiet for a moment.
“A trick of Sophia’s,” Louis says at last. “Making you see what you want to see.” He looks a little doubtful at the idea that Sam would want to see Vera. Sam flushes and mutters something inaudible, getting into the minibus quickly before anyone else can say anything.
At the hotel, Sam volunteers to stay with Perez while the others check out Liza’s flat. Vera immediately objects. “I’ll stay.” She looks at Sam suspiciously. “You’re too soft. You’d only let him escape or something.”
“Maybe I could take a look at those scrolls,” Louis suggests. Vera scowls again.
“Can’t do any harm,” Ned puts in mildly. “You never know, it might even do some good if we know what those things are.”
The flat is empty. Half the block is empty, in fact: a lot of people gone home for Christmas, Daniel guesses.
Daniel and Greg stand back to keep watch while Ross opens the door.
“You sure you’re holding up?” Daniel asks.
Greg nods, the street light casting bars of shadow over his face. “When I came out of Boiling Hell Valley, I decided that it was time to stop hiding. The Ylids can find us anyway. I have no intention of losing anyone else, and I’m doing what I can to prevent it. That’s why we’re doing this, after all – and we can’t expect anyone else to do it. It’s got to be us. I’ve lost too many people over the course of my life to do anything else.” He stops suddenly and slaps the flat of his hand against his forehead. “Wait a minute… the Borneo Pit Viper… Borneosis trismegistus!”
Daniel stares at him. “You think the Trismegistus Club put the snake in Vera’s room? But why?”
Because they consider her a failed experiment, Greg wonders? He doesn’t know, and there’s no time to think about it. They hear the sharp sound of wood tearing and then Ross’s low call. The flat is open.
It looks like it has not been lived in for a long time. A pile of letters – bills mostly – jam up the front door. Other envelopes lay open in a pile on the small coffee table in the lounge. Daniel starts going through them.
“Gas bill… electricity. A receipt for rent.” He looks up. “All of it’s addressed to Liza. The rent’s paid in full till the end of July 2001.”
“Which means she could come back at any time,” Greg says. “We’d better not take too long.”
In the end it takes a little under an hour to make a thorough search of the place. They find wardrobes crammed with designer clothes, half used bottles of perfume and jars of expensive creams in the bedroom. A couple of books on the supernatural and a French phrase book. Bills and papers piled up everywhere – no personal letters.
Then Daniel finds something at the bottom of one pile. An appointment card for a clinic in Oxford. “The Bradshaw fertility clinic,” Daniel reads. There are four appointments marked – the 14th January, 2000, the 31sth March, 7th August and 20th October. Above the first one is a scribbled, pencil note. Meet S. first. Roseway Hotel, Oxford.
“Where is Sophia?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. And you’re going to tell me. Where is she?”
“I don’t -”
“If you don’t tell me where she is right now I’m going to break both your arms.”
Vera is having fun.
Louis rubs his eyes and stifles a yawn. For the past few nights he has found it difficult to sleep; now he’s overcome with the need to close his eyes. The writing on the scrolls blurs, turning into snakes dancing across the page. Louis picks up his notes and forces himself to focus on them.
Parts of the script are, as he thought, akin to ancient Greek. Other symbols are similar to occult writing he’s translated in the past. Other parts are completely beyond his comprehension.
A bargain. He’s worked out that much. The papers form a contract. The promise of a service in return for something that is granted here. No, not a service. Louis crosses out a few words and scribbles some more. The symbols are similar to the Greek word for service, but they always come followed by the word for ‘man.’ A service man… A slave. Louis goes back to the scrolls, reads a few lines and stops again. He has found the phrase ‘first born son.’ A creeping cold steals over him. Gathering the papers together, he gets up and goes to the door.
It is at that moment that the windows shatter.
“What happened?” Vera demands. She sweeps aside the frightened hotel manager as if he wasn’t there.
Her room looks like a bomb has hit it – which isn’t too far from the truth, Vera thinks dryly. Her booted feet crunch over broken glass as she takes a few steps inside. The windows are smashed completely, with glass and bits of wood everywhere. A stick of something black rolls away from her, leaking acrid-smelling smoke. Vera nudges it cautiously with the toe of her boot.
“Dynamite?” Ned asks, from the safety of the corridor. Vera nods.
“I think so. An amateur job, if ever I saw one. It didn’t even go off properly.”
Just as well, Louis thinks, looking at the blood on his arms. Only a few, shallow cuts, but if the whole room had gone up…
Sirens are wailing in the street outside. Vera steps back. “You could share a room with one of us tonight,” Sam suggests hopefully. She fixes him with a glare that silences him at once.
“You can give me another room,” she says to the hotel manager, who is hopping about like a frightened rabbit next to Ned. “On the top floor, this time. Now, it’s late and I’m tired, so unless anyone has any brilliant ideas of what to do tonight, I’m going to bed.”
Greg, Daniel and Ross return as Ned is finishing giving a statement to the police.
“Thank you, officers,” he says. “As I told you, my niece and I are enjoying a short vacation in your beautiful city, catching up with some old friends. We certainly don’t expect to be victims of mindless acts of vandalism such as this. And at Christmas, too.”
“A terrible thing,” the policeman agrees. “All we can do is give you our apologies. It is inexcusable, as you say.” He produces a card and hands it to Ned. “This is my name and number. If you see anything else, or remember anything, please contact me immediately. Even on Christmas Day.”
It is well past midnight. Everyone is exhausted, but no one feels like sleeping.
“We could go to the opera,” Sam suggests brightly. “That might lift Vera’s spirits a little. Oh, and I’ve found out where the museum of anatomy is. It’s open on Boxing Day afternoon. It’s a long shot, I know, but they do have severed heads there. I found a leaflet. And there’s also the Bastille, or the Place de la Concorde, or wherever it is they used to guillotine people.”
“Tomorrow,” Daniel says. Greg agrees. Both men have things they want to do. It is Christmas after all.
Merry Christmas, Daniel types. How are you?
A slight pause, then the reply. I’m fine. How are you?
Missing you. This should have been our first family Christmas. You, me and Rhiannon together. Instead we’re off chasing monsters again. Rhiannon is fine, by the way, too young to know anything’s wrong, but she shouldn’t have to spend her first Christmas like this.
There’ll be others, Belle-Marie reassured him. Take care of yourself. Love you.
The screen goes blank. Daniel sits for a moment, gazing at it as if he can see Belle-Marie’s face reflected there. Then, sighing, he logs into the on line telephone directories.
There is not a single person called Abadie listed in Paris. Daniel frowns and tries again with a different directory. The same result. A little odd, he thinks. It can’t be that uncommon a name.
Resolving to ask Louis the next day, he turns the computer off.
Greg knocks gently on the door to Marie Claude’s apartment. She’s wearing a nightdress when she opens it and looks surprised to see him.
“I thought you were coming,” she said.
Greg smiles at her. “I promised, didn’t I? May I come in?”
Sitting down in the darkened lounge, he takes her hands in his. “The other night I told you what we’re up against, the whole story, as well as my own life story. It’s likely that we’re either going to win this fight once and for all in the course of the next several days, or that we will lose it. If we all survive to Twelfth Night, the story will have had a happy ending. I want it to be a happy beginning as well.”
He doesn’t take his gaze off her face as he opens her hand and places a small box within it. “Now that you’ve had a little while to digest the facts, to really understand what we’re facing, and you’re in a position to make an informed decision, I hope that you’ll accept the Christmas gift in this little package.”
Marie Claude opens it slowly and gasps. The single diamond winks up at her, set on its plain, gold band.
“Will you marry me?” Greg asks.
Laughing through her tears, Marie flings her arms around him.
“Eat, drink and get merry,” Sam announces. “It’s Christmas Day.” His arms are full of brightly wrapped packages. The others groan, but take it in good spirit – especially Greg, who is smiling broadly. Sam hands him a package that turns out to be a bottle of Jack Daniels. Louis has a box of cigars and a cigar cutter in the shape of a guillotine, and there’s a genuine African shrunken head for Ned, who handles it very dubiously before smiling his thanks. Needing another present for Vera, Sam hands her his bottle of absinthe, and produces a package of soaps, showercaps and bath towels scavenged from his hotel room for Michael.
“Where’s Ross?” he asks. “I’ve got him an ‘Excalibur’ letter opener.”
Louis stops him. “We ought to talk. I managed to translate some of Vera’s scrolls last night. It’s a contract between Sophia and someone else, promising her first born son as a slave in return for an unspecified favour.”
“Her first born?” Greg queries. “Sophia’s devoted her life to resurrecting Paul. She wouldn’t give him away. Unless she has another child we don’t know about..?”
“We could find out where Monsieur Plantard lives and go and ask him,” Sam suggests. “Or try and find the address given from the Prieure?”
“There isn’t one,” Daniel tells him. “I’ve already looked. But Plantard is a possibility.”
“Great.” Sam grins at them all. “I’ll go and find Ross and then we can get started.”
A few minutes after he goes, the hotel manager knocks on the door. “A package for you, sir,” he says to Greg. “And one for you, madam. Once again, our apologies for what happened yesterday.”
Greg opens his packet and turns white. The single diamond winks up at him, set on its plain, gold band. He doesn’t even see the piece of paper: it is Daniel who pulls it out.
If you want to see her again, it says, meet me at the Sacre Coeur, midday. It is signed, Liza.
Vera is still staring at her package, unsure whether to open it or not.
“Go on,” Ned says. “Live dangerously.
“Ross? Ross, I’ve got you a present. Ha-”
Sam stops dead.
Ross is lying on his back on the bed. His eyes are open, gazing sightlessly at the ceiling. The sheets under him are red. His throat has been cut.
Of Perez there is no sign.
Christmas Day 9am.