The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Like a Thief in the Night
Chapter 5

Christmas Eve, 11pm, Avebury Travelodge.

“Darius?” Matt calls. “Darius, is that you? It’s me, Matt.” Closing the car door gently, he takes a step or two closer to the trees. “Come out into the light, Darius, I won’t hurt you. Christ Almighty, though, you look like shit…”

The strangeness of the situation, the perfect reversal of what happened before, passes him by completely in a sudden rush of nostalgia – and of sympathy. It doesn’t even occur to him that the vampire might be an enemy.

“Merry Christmas, Matt!”

This comes not from Darius but from TR, greeting him heartily as he comes out of the hotel. Matt groans to himself.

“Uh, right. Merry Christmas. I’m sorry, I’ve got…”

“Things to do.” TR gives him a slight frown then slaps him on the shoulder and walks on.

Matt stares around. Branches rustle. The wind? Or…

“Look, do you want to come in? Or go somewhere else? Look, if it’s blood you need…” Matt tails off, slowly realising that Darius’s deterioration is probably connected with the Master’s own death and that there’s probably very little he can do to help.

“You’re wrong,” comes a whisper.

Matt stops still.

It almost seems as if the shadows shift and part up ahead, allowing Darius to step through. He stands, not speaking for the moment, not moving, just staring at Matt. His face is bone white, hollow, framed by grey hair, his mouth a barely visible line. His eyes reflect weariness, complete and utter.

Slowly, one bony finger raises. “You survived,” Darius whispers. “You recovered. You should have died with the rest of us and you’re more alive than ever.” He breaks off. “Maurice is here,” he says. “Somewhere, I don’t know where. He wants revenge, Matt. He wants to see you die before he does.”

Matt takes another step forward. “And you? What do you want?”

Darius utters a short laugh. “Isn’t that obvious? I want to live.”

While John examines the severed finger, Mickey puts a comforting arm around Holly. “What do you think, love? I could find somewhere safe for you to stay.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll stay with you. I want to help.”

“That’s my girl,” Mickey says, hugging her.

John is standing with his back to the rest of the group. Partly to help him concentrate and partly because he doesn’t want them to see the hungry look on his face. The wolf in him is urging him to gulp the severed digit down whole. He licks his lips.

“Oh Keeper of ancient knowing, Whisper your wisdom to me, That I may always remember Life’s sacred mystery,” he prays silently.

There is a belief that everything made or owned by a person takes on part of their essence, and the more personal the item, the stronger the effect. John can’t think of anything more personal than part of a person’s body. He touches the finger lightly.

A man, still living. The thought leaps into his mind. He breathes in deeply. Someone close by. John can feel the connection between the man and this part of the earth. Someone who has a connection to… Ah…

“Mickey,” John says, turning around. “I think you ought to phone your contact, Sam, and see how he is.” He moves from the table, allowing Eric his turn at examining the finger, and looks at Isobel enquiringly. “Do you want to try dowsing with it to see if you can find anything?”

Isobel shudders at the thought. “Later, if it’s necessary. Right now I want to catch midnight mass. It should be starting soon.” She gets up.

Twitch immediately jumps up with her, muttering that it’s not safe outside alone. “The same goes for you, my friend,” he tells Mickey. “You should take your little girl away, anywhere you like, just enjoy your life together. No Ylids or baddies are worth risking her for.” He pats Mickey vaguely on the shoulder. “Let us old fools take the risks. You shove off, abroad or somewhere.”

His speech is spoiled somewhat by the fact that he suddenly realises Isobel is leaving without him and he gets his jacket caught on the door handle when he runs after her.

The chiming of a church bell makes TR pause. He smiles, gazing across the town, which, with its light covering of snow, looks like a scene off a Christmas card. Hard to believe that this was once a place of ritual sacrifice. And still could be, he reminds himself.

The sound of footsteps behind him makes him turn. “Merry Christmas,” he says automatically.

“Merry Christmas.”

The woman is smiling, her blonde hair looking silver in the moonlight, her skin pale creamy white. Her eyes are grey: tiny chips of stone. She holds out her hand to TR. “I think you want to come with me now.”

For a moment he finds himself moving forward, but something makes him stop. The woman’s smile fades. Something moves in her face, twisting the perfect skin into hard ridges: the hideous scars of old burns. TR stumbles back.

The woman’s eyes turn wild. She shakes her hair back, her hair that is the moonlight; her head is bald, nothing but purple scars. Her breath hisses in and out of her. She appears to be staring through TR, to something behind him. He turns his head but sees nothing.

He feels something, though. A slight pressure on his shoulder that spreads warmth through him. “Run,” a voice whispers in his mind.

TR doesn’t need to be told twice.

Matt loosens the tourniquet on his arm. “All I can spare, I’m afraid,” he says conversationally, handing a glass of something thick and red to Darius. “What’s been happening? Why’ve you come here?”

The vampire sips and swallows slowly. “You found a cure. No, don’t worry, I’m not going to drink all your blood to try and cure myself. I know it wouldn’t work. But something obviously worked for you. Whatever it was, if I could try it, it might do the same for me. It’s a small chance, I know, but the only one I’ve got left. Most of us are dead now, you know. Only Maurice and myself left, and Maurice isn’t talking to me.” He falls silent, turning the glass in his hands.

“Do you know anything about the bigger picture?” Matt prompts him. “Y’know, what the Master character was planning, along with his cronies?”

Darius looks up. “He talked about ‘the others’ from time to time. Something about tracking where they had gone and following them. But to do that, he needed power. He talked about power a lot. I was never quite sure what he meant. He liked playing with people – you know that.”

Matt nods. “Look, I’ve got to go talk to my friends. You can stay here if you want; I’d like that.” He gets up, goes to the door then hesitates and turns back. “Oh, and Merry Christmas.”

 “Mickey.” Sam’s voice sounds strained. “I can’t talk to you. Sorry.”

Mickey is afraid he’ll put the phone straight down. “Wait,” he says. “Don’t hang up. Listen. We’re onto something here. If anyone’s touched you, we can find out who did it.”

Sam’s breathing is fast and hard. “It doesn’t matter. I wish I could help, but… They said I’d lose my whole hand next time, all right? They might be listening now. There’s nothing I can tell you.”

The phone goes dead.

 “If we split up,” Andrew is saying, “and I think we should, we should make sure we have mixed groups. Action and thought works best together.”

John agrees. “If we split into two groups, one goes around Stonehenge, the other checks out Avebury, we’ll be close enough to each other that we can meet up if necessary. If no one’s got any objections, I’ll join the group in Avebury.”

“I have an autopsy to perform,” Eric says gravely. “I can get into a SITU lab first thing tomorrow. I’d rather not miss the walk around Stonehenge, and maybe I won’t have to, but if I can get access to that lab, the sooner, the better.”

He looks up as Mickey comes in.

“If you’re looking for the owner of that finger, there’s no need,” Mickey says. His face looks green. He walks through to the bedroom where Holly is sleeping to check she’s all right, then comes back and sits down. “John, I thought I’d take a trip back to Oxford tonight, have a look at the Bradshaw clinic?”

“Sure,” John says. He looks ready to get up and go right away. Eric holds up a hand, stalling him.

“Before we all rush off in different directions, it might be a good idea to think things through. So far we’ve had two messages, presumably from Sophia. She seems to feel the need to make the same oxymoronic point twice, in an increasingly threatening manner, yet, so far as we can tell, without doing actual harm to us. Although the same might not be said for whoever recently had that finger attached,” he adds, casting an apologetic glance in Mickey’s direction. He frowns. “Message one, culmination of thousands of years of planning, no man will stop it now. Interfere and we will kill you. And then, later, message two. This is a warning. You cannot stop what has been set in motion. Continue, and we will take your girl and do the same to her.” He looks at each person in turn. “If no man can stop what has been set in motion, including us, specifically, why is she sending us these warnings? She’s worried about something that we might do, that can’t be mistaken. Either she’s lying about us not being able to stop it – or perhaps not as sure as she wants us to believe her to be – or she thinks that we could produce significantly bad results by trying to stop it, without stopping the actual grand plan. What is it that we can do that worries her so?”

“We could kill her,” Andrew points out flatly. Eric winces slightly.

“‘Happy Christmas, War is Over,’“ Matt sings, walking in. “Not. I’ve been liasing with another SITU group in London and hanging out with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Here’s your pressies, folks. Enjoy.” He passes out a selection of hastily wrapped parcels.

His gesture prompts others to do the same and for a few minutes everything is forgotten in the sound of tearing paper. The mood sobers a little when John hands out the protection charms he has made.

“Shit, and I only got you barbecue fuel,” Matt says, hanging his around his neck where it tangles with the Ezili fetish he always wears. He pours himself a shot of brandy and sits on the floor. “I’ve just met Darius outside, Darius-the-vampire-who-maybe-isn’t-anymore, I mean. He looks like shit.”

“Darius?” Andrew, John and Mickey are immediately alert. “What did he want?”

“A cure, apparently.” Matt quickly fills them in. “The other thing you should know is that I made contact with another SITU group operating in England. There are interesting parallels. They’re also chasing after a child – an unborn one, this time – that’s been kidnapped by an Ylid setting herself up as a fertility goddess. Nefertiti rather than Sophia in their case, but they’ve had the same threatening notes. I’ve asked them to scan me a copy so we can compare them. Oh, and Twitch’s son’s involved – another connection…” He pauses, glad for the moment that the professor isn’t there. “Talking of fertility, here we are in the centre of Ye Olde Earth Goddess. All roads seem to lead to the Red Lion – but we should probably check out Silbury Hill and the Devil’s Chair too, as well as Stonehenge.” he rubs his eyes wearily, “All the Ylids are getting apocalyptic. Sophia’s setting herself up for some kind of New Year sacrifice here. Nefertiti’s got the whole Whore of Babylon routine going, and it looks like even Yashimoto’s trying to start up the Dance of Shiva over in India. Oh, and some Von Daniken type’s been swept up by Australian ‘Sky Heroes’. Trying to keep up with it all’s getting to be a royal pain in the arse.”

The door opens again. This time it’s TR, looking a little breathless.

“Is everything all right?” Eric enquires.

TR nods. “Fine.” He feels surprisingly calm. “Had a bit of a strange encounter outside, though.” He runs a hand through his hair. He’s not sure he should mention it at all now – now he’s back in the hotel, the whole thing feels a bit like a dream. But everyone is looking at him expectantly so he tells them about the blonde woman.

“Not that it matters,” he says. “What we need to do is get as clue as to where the baby is. A bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, I know.”

“We should clearly stay away from the Red Lion,” Eric says seriously. “It’s clearly a red herring.” He waits for the others to protest before smiling. “No, seriously, someone should go. Who would be best for the task? You, TR, or Isobel, maybe? Also, we haven’t thought much about how the Grail fits into all of this, or where it might be. I know that I might be somewhat self-serving in saying this, but I think that we ought to try to figure that out. And what do we know about the so-called Grail Maiden?”

“She protects the Grail,” John says. “Protects and serves it, if I remember right. A bit like a genie in a lamp, only more dangerous. She sees everyone in terms of Arthurian figures and heaven help you if she decides you’re one of the bad guys. There are various rituals that can summon her, apparently. You need the grail first, of course, and she’d have to be willing to appear. It would take tremendous power to summon her unwilling. If she’s been severed from the grail somehow, that could explain why it’s no longer working.”

How do you unsever a maiden, Eric wonders. Aloud, he says, “Let’s assume for a moment that in a very short amount of time, perhaps by the end of the year, Sophia will have completed her millennia-long scheme to resurrect or recreate Paul unless we stop her somehow. Let us also, on insufficient evidence, conclude that this is a bad thing – although we should make sure of that before we take drastic steps.” He nods in Mickey’s direction. “First thing is to break into the Bradshaw Clinic and learn what we can from there. But we should be looking into the possibility, and preparing. And also try to learn what we can about what will happen if Sophia does succeed. Matt mentioned the Second Coming – which might refer to a millennium in a religious sense, the return of the Messiah, or might be more in line with Yeats’s suggestion, that it would produce a Rough Beast, or the Antichrist.” He pauses. “There is also the possibility that we could get both Messiah and Antichrist. If so, we’d better not slay the Messiah, or thwart his birth.

“Another radical possibility – and this should appeal to you, Matt – is that we must take steps to see that we get any information that Blaize and Swahn might be concealing from us. I know the SITU offices somewhat, having spent several months there. Perhaps we could somehow get Blaize and Swahn out of there, and take a look around there ourselves?” He frowns. “I really hate to do this, particularly to Swahn. But I also suspect that we may have run out of time to permit ourselves to be kept from the truth, or at least what they know of it. Now, this could be utterly futile, and a waste of our time, and it could seriously undermine SITU’s operation at a critical moment, so if SITU is really on the side of the angels, it could be the worst thing that we could do. What do the rest of you think?”

TR yawns. “I think those of us not breaking and entering tonight should get some sleep. Tomorrow we should look for clues as to where the baby might be. A bit like finding a needle in a haystack, I know. And, if Sophia’s planning a ritual, we should also look into the new-age group that’s trying to perform the ritual at Stonehenge. They may very well be connected to the Ylids, or being used by them.”

“Where’s the thumb?” Matt asks.

Mickey gets up. “It’s all right. We know whose it is. Will someone stay with Holly? Coming, Johnny?”

The two men leave, going out as Isobel comes in.

“Twitch has gone to bed,” she announces. “What’s been happening here?”

They tell her. “One other thing,” Eric adds. “Anita deems the Watcher to be a major foe. It’s just possible that even if Matt has tried to set the Watcher against Sophia, the Watcher, if he is in fact a real adversary of the Tri Club, would be willing to tell somebody about Sophia, or at least about the Tri Club. This sounds like a job for Matt to me. Or does someone else know more about the Watcher?”

The midnight chimes sound like a death knell in Twitch’s ears. He wanders unsteadily though the village, clutching a whiskey bottle in one hand.

“’S all right for you,” he tells the Devil’s Chair resentfully. “Your wife didn’t die trag… tragically.” He hauls himself up onto the ledge. “I wish things were like in the old days. Before Maggie drowned and I lost my job, and all this ridiculous adventuring began.” His head droops. “I wish she was still alive. I miss her.”

A soft chuckle of laughter fills the night. Twitch doesn’t hear it. He raises the bottle to his lips. The whiskey is tasteless but at least it stops him feeling so cold.

It’s another hour before the group finally splits up. Isobel checks on Holly and makes up a bed on the sofa for herself. She has pulled the curtains back so she can see starlight from where she’s lying.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see you lie…

The words of the familiar carol soothe her mind. Without knowing why, she smiles.

TR is smiling, too. “Thanks, mom. Merry Christmas to you. Goodnight now. I’ll send you a postcard, soon as I can.”

“Good luck with the article,” his mother says.” TR can hear carols playing in the background as she rings off.

Matt isn’t quite sure what he’ll find when he goes back to his room. Will it be safe to sleep with Darius close by? His instincts say yes, but he fingers his Ezili charm uneasily before opening the door.

Darius is there, sitting in a chair by the window. The glass beside him is empty. Matt looks at him for a few moments before coming in.

“Well,” he says, with forced cheerfulness. “The bed’s big enough for two. Fancy sharing?”

It is a short drive from Avebury to Stonehenge and, at this time of night, the roads are deserted. But there are plenty of people about: Andrew can see that. He can see the outlines of tents in the fields, catch the glimmer of firelight here and there. He stops the car well short of the circle and goes the rest of the way on foot.

The police presence appears to be fairly small for now. Unsurprising on Christmas eve, Andrew muses. He creeps closer to look. A cordon line has been marked and there are a few cars and a black van. Everything appears to be peaceful – Andrew can even hear singing from one of the campsites. He wonders what the scene will be like in a couple of day’s time when people decide they want to get to Stonehenge whether there are police in the way or not. He eases his hand back to grip the gun at his side. Can’t risk the police finding it on him, of course, but the group have to be protected. That’s the problem with SITU missions – you never know what’s going to happen next.

Andrew grins to himself. Satisfied that he’s found a good vantage point where they’ll be able to watch without being seen, he pulls back and returns to the car. Time to follow the others’ lead and get some sleep. Tomorrow could be a busy day.

 “We’re being followed,” John murmurs. Mickey nods.

“I know.” He turns the car, heading away from Oxford, taking one of the country lanes that wind all over the place. He keeps his foot down hard on the accelerator, slewing the car against hedges to take a sharp turn. By the time they come back onto the motorway, the road behind them is clear.

The Bradshaw Clinic, when they reach it, shows no sign of life. Mickey pulls on mask and gloves, gesturing to John to do the same.

The alarms, to his relief, turn out to be standard models, easily disabled. The security cameras are rigged to an alarm too. Mickey holds his breath and cuts a few wires. A sharp click and then there is silence. All the interior doors are locked, making progress frustratingly slow, but finally they are at the office. John paces the corridor while Mickey works. All his senses are alert, straining, and so far everything is quiet.

“Done,” Mickey says, pushing open the door. John goes in eagerly, allowing Mickey time to check the whole room before touching anything.

They search quickly, thoroughly with an ease that comes from years of practise. John searches the desk drawer by drawer whilst keeping half his attention on the corridors outside. Mickey, after a little trouble, breaks into the filing cabinet. “Nothing even on Isobel here,” he says, surprised. He stands in the middle of the office and looks around, then goes purposefully to one wall and removes a painting. He finds himself staring at the flat, grey door of a safe.

More alarms, two combination locks. Whatever is in here is important enough to take no chances with, Mickey thinks to himself. The door swings open.

A portable computer. And two cardboard document holders. Mickey draws them out. One of them is marked ‘Isobel Blyth.’ The other says ‘Liza Petherton.’

Treatment of Isobel Blyth (Mrs). Insemination using semen sample taken from husband, now deceased. Using semen from a dead partner is looking to become more common – no great ethical issues arise. Isobel’s guardian, Mr Edward Lloyd is overseeing treatment and will arrange for the relevant semen to be delivered.

Treatment of Liza Petherton (Miss). Direct implantation of a ovum fertilised elsewhere using, according to Miss Petherton, sperm taken from her deceased fiancé. The treatment is sponsored by Harvest at the arrangement of Mr Edward Lloyd.

These two pregnancies are to run in parallel. Personal note: this is not standard practice for this clinic, however, both parties are keen to proceed and we see no ethical dilemma.

Bradshaw’s house is on a quiet road overlooking a park. Mickey stops outside and watches the place for a while, while John reads. He’d imagine there’d be a full alarm system, but the house is large and shielded from its neighbours by large trees. It should be easy enough to get in if he has to.

Both pregnancies progressing well. At the insistence of Mr Lloyd, Isobel Blyth is to be kept ignorant of Liza’s pregnancy. This is a pity as it would be interesting to make a direct comparison.

Darius is gone. Matt rolls out of bed and peers out of the window. The snow has melted, turning into a grey slush. “Just like the ones I used to know,” he mutters. After a quick breakfast he calls Anita Rohinder on his mobile.

“Merry Christmas, Anita. Matt Culver here, we spoke a couple of days ago and something you said to one of my colleagues… resonated with me. You told T.R. about the experiment at last year’s Psychic Congress in Oxford, the one that went wrong. You implied that the cards, charged with enough ‘psychic energy’, could be used as a weapon against the Ylids – specifically the Watcher. How, exactly? How would such a weapon work?”

“Very unreliably.” She is cheerful. “Our idea was to use psychic energy against the Watcher, turn his own strength against himself, so to speak. We found that the psychic energy stored in the cards could be released by destroying them. Someone with enough psychic know-how should be able to channel the released energy at a particular target. Our problem was containing enough energy in the cards to start with, as TR witnessed.”

Matt listens patiently. “Okay. You say that experiment wasn’t related to the White Alchemist project, yes? It seems to me that, if the cards could potentially be used against the Ylids, couldn’t a new Messiah figure fill the same role? After all, such a child would harness the concentrated faith of generations of Trismegistus alumni – to say nothing of the rest of the population. It’s an enduring archetype after all, eh?”

A short silence. “It is,” Isobel agrees quietly.

Matt feels something cold pass through him. “Is that what Isobel’s child really represents to you? Does the Trismegistus Club see him as a weapon against the Watcher?”

“We don’t know what he is,” Isobel says. “Or what he could be. Right now we don’t know where he is either, I thought that was supposed to be your job.”

She is lying, Matt thinks, hanging up. The Tri Club have been working towards their White Alchemist since the beginning. Of course they know what he is.

He’ll think about it later. He punches out another number. “Hello and Merry Christmas, Blaize, Swahn, whoever. I know it’s early in the day but there’s something I’d like you to help with – and, if you can’t help me, pass it onto one of your superiors…”

“Blaize speaking,” Blaize says wearily. Matt finds himself wondering if Blaize has a wife and children to celebrate Christmas with, or whether he spends all his time at SITU’s office.

He gets straight to the point. “I’ve been talking with agents on other missions, and I’ve heard the Egyptian legend surrounding the constellation Aquila, the area of night sky documented in the Master’s star-charts. So…this makes me think about what I was told by that ‘SITU superior’, the Buck Rogers lookalike on the web-cam – at its highest levels, this organisation is also ‘non-human’.”

“Non-human?” Blaize attempts to laugh, but it doesn’t come off. Matt ploughs on relentlessly.

“Are our esteemed bosses and the Ylids from the same solar system? Do they both hail from Aquila? Were they originally warring races? Only, I get the feeling something’s going to happen soon – something astronomical in every sense – and both SITU and the Ylids are waiting to seize the moment. It’d be really helpful to know a little more of the agenda we’re working to, hmm?”

There is a long silence: so long that Matt begins to think that Blaize has simply left the phone hanging. Then he lets out an audible sigh. “Matt, this is difficult. Believe me, I don’t know the full picture myself. The people I work for… they originated on Earth, as did the Ylids. They are as ancient as the Ylids. I don’t know whether they were always at war with the Ylids. All I know is they seek to protect mankind.”

Matt lets out a long breath. His hand is shaking on the phone. “It doesn’t feel good keeping this stuff from my colleagues, Blaize. I’m going to tell them. I’d also like a web link or email address where I can contact the ‘bosses’. Is that possible?”

“No. I’ve already said too much, Matt.”

Matt grins. “Okay,” he agrees. “Then on a more mundane note, what are our chances of contacting the Bamworth Coven to see if they can help find Arthur?”

Liza shows a great interest in the progress of Isobel’s pregnancy, almost as much as she shows in her own. She never talks about her fiancé, indeed when I mentioned his name once, she appeared surprised. I had to remind her that it was his baby she was carrying. I asked her if she’d thought about a name yet. Jean-Paul, she said. She is convinced that the child will be a boy, although she has refused all tests to find out for certain.

A crowd is gathering around the Devil’s Seat. Twitch stirs and looks up, bleary-eyed. “Whassat?”

Children laugh. TR pushes through them and helps Twitch down.

“I had such a lovely dream,” Twitch tells him happily. “All about Margaret.” He blinks and peers at TR sharply. “What’ve you been doing?” he asks suspiciously.

“Walking. And now we’re going back to the hotel. Come on.”

Twitch follows meekly. “Got a wunnerfull new disguise,” he chatters. “I need a woolly hat, poncho, those tatty old trousers from the army shop. Oh, and not to shave. Make myself a dowsing rod and I’ll be a new age traveller.”

TR nods encouragingly. It’s something that needs to be done, and if Twitch can manage it, it’ll be one less job for the rest of them.

“Catweezlal Moonbeam,” Twitch announces proudly, spreading his arms wide and making several people turn to stare.

 “Happy Christmas,” Mickey greets Holly. He drops a few extra parcels into her lap and sits down to watch her open them. “I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on our situation. You know, any suggestions.”

She flushes in pleasure. “I don’t know. Have you got rid of the finger?”

“Eric’s taken it to a lab.”

“Good.” She shudders, then laughs, obviously over yesterday’s fright. “I think we should look around. There are lots of people here. Everyone’s very happy, today, thinking about Christmas, but I think that something else is going to happen too, and people don’t know about it.”

 “Anita, Eric here,” Eric says. “I want to ask you a question about that experiment you did with the psychic cards.”

“Ask away.” She sounds irritated. Eric wonders why.

“All right. It’s only a short question actually. When you were talking about it, you said you couldn’t answer the question why the experiment went wrong. I wondered whether it was because you didn’t know the answer, or because you’d been forbidden to say.”

Anita laughs. “Is that all? It’s because I don’t know, Eric. If I did, I’d tell you. Merry Christmas now.”

Isobel Blyth. A pleasant young woman, middle-class, naive. Probably somewhat sheltered up to now. I wonder how her husband died? Liza Petherton. Strange. Her personality changes from visit to visit. She is impatient for the child to be born, so much so that her impatience turns into anger on occasion. When asked if she has other children she laughed. One, she said, but it’s not right. The next moment she changed her mind again and said she had no children at all.

Matt bumps into Twitch and TR in the foyer of the hotel. He quickly pulls Twitch aside to bring him up to date on what’s been happening.

“So, uh, I’m afraid Theo’s mixed up with something even shadier than Jack Straw,” he says. “I believe de Montfort referred to him as ‘that bumptious young puppy’…”

Twitch winces, rubbing the back of his head. “That sounds like Theo. Do you have to shout, my boy? Maybe I’ll give the lad a ring, now. Ought to say Happy Christmas anyway.”

“If you need any help…”

“Yes, yes. I’ll phone him now.”

Wondering whether he only dreamed about drinking a whole bottle of scotch last night, Twitch wanders up to his room. It takes him two attempts to get Theo’s number right.

“Happy Christmas, Dad.”

“Merry Christmas, my lad. And how is the grandchild and mutual heir?”

“Fine. Finishing breakfast now. Guess where I’m going next week, Dad? Buckingham Palace. Some private do with only family and government people like me invited.”

“Yes, yes.” Twitch stops his son before he can get into full flow. “By the way, that new adviser chappy of yours… de Montfort?… I must speak to you about him. In person. Maybe I’ll pop along to see you later.”

“You’d be welcome.” Theo sounds suspicious. “This isn’t another of those spy fantasies, is it, Dad?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Twitch says in tones of hurt innocence.”

 “Geoff Blaize here, Andrew. In response to your query, the answer is no, I’m afraid. Bradshaw’s got no connection with Avebury at all. Not even any former employees in the area. By the way, you might want to be aware that he’s blaming Matt Culver for a burglary on his office yesterday. I presume Matt has an alibi?”

“Yes,” Andrew replies, thinking that spending the night with a vampire is as good an alibi as any.

A little later the group splits, promising to meet in the Red Lion for a late lunch. Eric, TR, Twitch and Andrew make ready for the tour of Stonehenge.

“Thank you for showing us round on Christmas Day,” TR says, greeting Jane Tate. She smiles at them all warmly.

“To be honest, it’s nice to get out of the house for a bit of peace and quiet. Do you want to ask questions as we go?”

The stone circle, seen close up, is disappointingly ordinary: a set of stones in long grass with the motorway running by. TR examines each stone carefully. “Have there been any recent excavations?” he asks.

Jane thinks a moment. “The last one was the excavation of a male skeleton some distance from the stones. The theory was that he was executed here.”

TR walks over to examine the place she indicated. There’s nothing to show that the ground was ever disturbed now.

“Could it have been a sacrifice?” Andrew asks Jane.

“It’s possible. The skeleton was dated back to something like the seventh century AD. It’s impossible to say why the man was killed now, of course.”

They have completed two full circuits of the stones by now. Eric rests his hand on one. “I read somewhere that the stones from Avebury are identical to ones on Mars, called Cydonia? How do we know this?”

Jane Tate laughs. “We don’t. It’s speculation, made up by people who like the idea that Stonehenge was built by aliens. It has no basis in fact at all. The Stonehenge stones mainly came from South Wales – TR will tell you that – brought by water. Other stones came from the local area and were probably hauled into position. Not as glamorous as Martians, but it’s the truth.”

They look around the area once more before leaving.

“You might also like to look around Avebury itself,” Jane suggests. “And West Kennet Long Barrow. All very interesting. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.

It’s a good thing that the Beaker people were associated with Avebury, John thinks. For he, too, worships the Earth Mother. Maybe Avebury will mean more to him with such similar beliefs.

Isobel, Matt, Mickey and Holly shield him from any onlookers as he stands before the great stone for a moment, then lays both hands flat against it.

“Sacred Libraries etched in stone, Please help me find my way; Symbols of all the earth has known, Mark the language you display. Can I read your alphabet, And will I understand, The silent message you send me, While resting in my hands? Will I grasp the meanings of the steps I must take, To walk with you in beauty, As my spirit comes awake? And is the Warmth you send, An understanding alive in me, Reflected by Earth Mother, And the Sacred Mystery? Will you pone the Remembering, I feel sleeping inside of me? Do you know my deepest longing, to be all that I can be? Silent Messenger of the Earth, My teacher made of Stone, I honour your seeds of wisdom And the knowing you have sown.”

A few minutes later he pulls back and turns to face the others. “The child is here,” he says with certitude. “Inside the circle of stones.”

The taproom of the Red Lion is full of groups in celebratory mood. Streamers hang down, a tree in one corner sheds needles whenever anyone touches it.

The landlord has obviously been celebrating too. He is red-faced and laughing when he comes over.

“Hi folks. Tom Williams – I own this fair place. You’re all a long way from home on Christmas day.”

“We’re on holiday,” Isobel tells him. “This is a beautiful area – full of history. Have you been here long?”

“As long as the stones, love.” He laughs. “No, seventeen years this year.”

“We’re here for Christmas and New Year,” Matt adds. “You doing anything special in Avebury for the new year? These stone circles must’ve seen a few millennia in their time, eh?”

“They certainly have.” Williams pulls a stool around and sits down, breathing beer over Isobel who edges back a fraction. The landlord seems all right, she thinks. The trouble is, he’d probably happily spill this entire conversation to anyone else who came asking.

“Wiltshire…” Twitch mutters, pulling at the brim of his woollen hat that is the first part of his new disguise. “Crop circle country isn’t it around here? Or just pissed students or rutting badgers or whatever.”

“Pissed students mostly,” Williams says happily. “As long as they spend their money getting pissed here, I don’t care what they do afterwards.” He beams at them all. “Tell you what, let me get you a round on the house – it is Christmas, after all. An’ then you can tell me all about yourselves.”

4pm Christmas Day.
The taproom of the Red Lion.

Secret actions:

John: No one is showing any signs of psychological problems. Except for Twitch and it’s normal for him.

Eric: Autopsy of Mexican Ylid – tall skeleton. Roughly human physiology except for an enlarged organ near the heart whose use you could not determine. You thought it was a tumour at first.

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