Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Bally Haunting

This is the outline of the game of The Haunting I ran, oh, five years ago? Gosh. It was written up for the benefit of the players, but since tantalising hints of this game regularly surface when I'm writing on YSDC, I thought I should retrieve these notes from the fossilised depths of my computer and resurrect them.

The Investigators

  • Bertram Perrin, gentleman of leisure
  • Colonel Ementile Crud, retired
  • Encyclopaedius, star of the Merryweather Circus
  • Jacks or Better, gentleman of the streets

For my own convenience, being ignorant of America, I reset the story in Britain, specifically in a nebulous part of London. This was foolish, since I am also ignorant of London and one of my players is from London. Mistake one.

For clarification, however, I should state that the strong resemblence between this game and a cracktastic sequel to the works of PG Wodehouse was due to deliberate decisions made during character generation, and was neither the players getting out of hand, nor me flailing wildly. Which is not to say that I was not, in fact, flailing wildly.

An Uncle's Request

Bertram Perrin receives an unexpected telephone call from affable but business-minded Uncle Quentin (Lord Foxworthy to the plebs). Said uncle has recently acquired a house on the cheap, due to unfortunate events in the owning family that forced them to sell. Specifically, both the adults have "gone off their rockers", forcing the house to be sold and the children taken in by relatives. The house is rumoured to be haunted. Uncle Quentin has an interest in that sort of thing, being a member in good standing of the Sceptics' Society, and is sure that with a bit of investigation, the scientific basis for the rumours can be established and dealt with, and the house sold on for a decent profit. There may be an interesting case study for the Society as well. Uncle Quentin lives in Kent, and doesn't often travel to London, so rather than hiring an actual agent, he's decided to ask a favour from his amiable (if dim) young nephew. It's so much cheaper. He asks Bertie to take a look at the place - bringing along a clever friend or two "in case he overlooks anything". The house is 4 Rose Place, in Ealing.

Bertie telephones his cousin Colonel Crud and recruits him for the jolly expedition. They then call in on Encyclopaedius at the Merryweather Circus in Richmond, who Bertie befriended through his love of ballooning, and the dwarf agrees to help out. He telephones Lord Foxworthy to ask a few questions about the nature of the alleged haunting. The Martin family moved into the house in 1925. A year after moving in, the father had a serious accident and shortly thereafter went violently insane. He was committed. Within the last month, the mother also went insane. Both babbled of a haunting form with burning eyes. They told of inexplicable events in the house. Neither would enter one particular upstairs bedroom. The house was put up for sale by relatives, and bought by the current landlord, who had some idea of the rumours but saw it as a good opportunity. He bought it cheaply with most of the contents, though relatives have removed the most personal possessions. Encyclopaedius recalls Rose Lane, having read reports of a great fire there in 1873, which laid waste to most of the buildings in the area. Only the church and a couple of houses were rescued.

Perhaps influenced by his passion for the sport, Bertie suggests using the balloon to travel to the house. Encyclopaedius reports that the weather is unfavourable for travel westwards, but they eventually decide to take the balloon with them behind the car. They drive erratically through London, and are stopped by a policeman, who is unconvinced by the Colonel's story of a military mission. This may have something to do with the elaborate Merryweather Circus mural emblazoned across the entire wagon. However, the whole situation proves rather too much for him, and he lets them off with a warning, shaking his head and wishing he'd never got up that morning.

Casing the Joint

They go to the house and the Colonel and Encyclopaedius begin setting up the balloon for an aerial reconnaissance. Meanwhile, Bertie realises that he never got any keys, and begins shouting in the hope that a property agent has been sent round.

Bignor cottage

The house is modest but respectable, with two storeys and sizeable grounds. They are now overgrown, and the arbour behind the house is starting to collapse.

While all this was going on, Jack has been prowling around the joint, which he spotted as a likely mark some time ago. The overgrown garden and walls provide good cover for exploration. He picks the lock of the side door, but finds it fastened with three bolts. The windows are, bizarrely, nailed shut from the inside. In the end, he picks the front door lock and stalks inside. He finds a porch full of overcoats, boots and sacks of coal. In the pocket of one of the coats, he finds a few pence and the keys to the house. Just as he's moving into the corridor, he hears a toff shouting nearby. He nips off sharpish and slides out of the side door, unbolting it quickly and glancing round (unsuccessfully) for valuables. Unfortunately, the toff hears him opening the door and comes round to meet him.

Bertie is easily convinced by Jack's claim to be a representative of the property agent, backed up by his presence and possession of the keys. The other two are harder to convince, especially given the lad's tender years, but eventually accept him. They begin exploring the house.

Corridor: tiled narrow corridor. Two cheap prints of flower vases hang on the walls.

Porch: Four aging overcoats and an assortment of galoshes, old hats and so on. Nine bags of coal.

Living room: Ordinary furniture, cheap vases and other tat. Jack notices gaps in dust, where the decent stuff has been taken away. Most of the tat is vaguely Catholic.

Dining room: Long table and a lot of chairs. Built-in sideboard full of cheap crockery and pewter cutlery.

Kitchen: Icebox, wood-burning stove, worktop and larder. Various pans, dishes and so on on shelves. Kitchen utensils have mostly been removed, but rolling-pin and wooden spoons remain. Larder contains tins of soup and corned beef, bottles of something that may be home-made wine, jars of pickles and jams. Traces of where other food has been removed. Rat droppings and signs of nibbling, identified as Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat.

Lumber room: full of firewood and assorted wooden debris, probably for burning. The wood is between 3-6 months old, Encyclopaedius reckons.

Storage room: packed with all kinds of junk, including many boxes, old bikes, rusting bits of old water tank and other scrap. Possibly being saved for a scrap merchant or for re-use. A reasonable toolkit is found inside one box. The Colonel uses it to open a tin of corned beef, as he is very hungry. Encyclopaedius is unsure of the legality of that, but lets the matter lie. Behind all the junk is a wall cupboard. Jack drags the stuff aside to look into it, and finds three books. Encyclopaedius scans them quickly. They are apparently diaries or journals, written in crabbed script in a rather archaic manner. They are also extremely random, a mixture of minor observations, everyday activities, and what seem to be alchemical experiments or some such thing. Deciphering it and making some kind of sense of it will take hours of work. The books are in the name W. Corbitt. Encyclopedius' amazing memory recalls two old newspaper clippings relating to the name. One reported a legal case in 1852, where one William Corbitt was sued by neighbours in an attempt to force him out of his home, due to his "inauspicious demeanour and surious habits". The other reported the suicide of a young man in 1914.

They continued upstairs. There is a corridor with three windows to the right, and four rooms off to the left.

Bathroom: contains a sink, towels, soap, a proper iron bath with clawed feet, and a reasonable water closet. The tap is dripping, leaving a puddle of semi-stagnant water. The Colonel manages to force it closed.

Bedroom: door is jammed shut and requires a shoulder to open. Very dusty, as though left for a year or more, and cobwebbed. Two dusty pictures show a lakeside scene, and a young man leaning over a gate. Even E has never seen them before; they look somewhat amateurish. There is a bedframe with bare springs, and a shabby dresser. The dresser contains a neatly folded hankerchief, yellowed with age. Jack quickly cases the room, and finds a scrap of paper which has fallen behind the dresser. It says:

  • Smith 16 Gatting Street
  • Hodgkins 152 The Wiend
  • Coperstone 4b Church Mews
  • Bentley 8 Bank Close

Bedroom 2: two small beds, suitable for children. Many pictures on the wall, of aeroplanes, cowboys, gallant soldiers and suchlike. A threadbare green rug on the floor. A loose floorboard reveals a stash of marbles, two penny dreadfuls ("The Headless Horror" and "The Murder at Red Grange"), and the gnawed remains of some sweets, accompanied by rat droppings.

Bedroom 3: a humble master bedroom with double bed. Bookshelf has a number of candles, some used. Linen piled neatly on the bed. Various crosses adorn the walls. Books have been removed.

A Hostile House

They decide to head downstairs. There is a door with a lock and two bolts opening from the outside. Bertie observes that this is no use for stopping people sneaking into the house and raiding the basement. Given the other array of locks and bolts, some owner seems to have been paranoid. They unlock the door and find a steep, rickety, dark stairwell. Bertie carries a candle down and arrives safely. They find a small cellar, with two brick walls and two of wooden boards. Under the stairs is a door leading to a coal-room. The coal-chute has been boarded firmly shut, and there is only coal-dust inside. The coal is now apparently stored in the porch. There is an array of junk scattered down here.

The Colonel gets an axe from the lumber room and starts smashing open one wooden wall. A pungent smell emerges, followed by a flood of rats, which drives the investigators away upstairs. They hide in the kitchen until the scrabbling noise dies away. A few odd rats are still visible, and the smell lingers. Encyclopaedius remains upstairs, concerned about the rats, and heads outside for some fresh air. The others return downstairs. They find an inner partition on the wall, which has words scratched on it: Chapel of Contemplation

As the Colonel begins to chop the second wall, a knife flies through the air and begins to attack him. While the three try to fend it off, it stabs him in the shoulder, but he grabs hold of it. Encyclopaedius hears shouting and thinks the rats have returned; he dives into the kitchen to get a frying pan, then heads downstairs. With some effort, the three others wrestle the knife into the coal-room and slam the door just before it can escape. Encylopaedius does not see anything supernatural, only the Colonel bleeding, and manages to patch him up with a clean hankerchief. He decides the others are gabbling nonsense from the shock of being attacked by some intruder.

Something makes the Colonel feel dizzy - probably blood loss. He goes to rest in the dining room while the others decide to continue breaking the wall. The Colonel hears thunderous banging upstairs and calls them back up. They go to investigate, he stays. The dust in the first bedroom is swirling as though from wind, but the window is shut. No other sign of disturbance. Encyclopaedius goes to check the other rooms, Bertie looks out of the window. As he does so, the bedframe hurtles across the room and slams into him, driving him bodily through the window and out to the ground below. He is badly injured and falls unconscious.

Mistake, um, two? Well, more a miscommunication. Bertie's player (Dan) was in the corridor when I described the scene in the bedroom, and said that he would look out of the window. I assumed he meant the bedroom window. He actually meant the window in the corridor. We only worked this out after I'd finished describing the bed attack, and he sportingly agreed to bend reality to my version.

The Colonel hears the crash and runs out to see what has happened. Jack sees the whole thing and rushes downstairs in a panic, yelling "The bed! The motherf*ckin' bed!". Encylopaedius hears it all and sees Jack charge downstairs. Glancing into the room, he jumps to the conclusion that Jack has pushed Bertie out of the window and probably attacked the Colonel before. He runs down after him and tries to seize him, but fails. J manages to talk him into leaving off, at least for now, while the Colonel eventually revives Bertie. Very disturbed, and not thinking straight, they forget the car and flee to the waiting balloon, loosing the ropes as quickly as possible. They rise sedately at first, but as though from nowhere, a great wind catches them, hurling them through the sky in a stomach-wrenching ride that has them clinging on for safety. Eventually they manage to bring it down in a meadow. They are not seriously hurt and the balloon is more-or-less intact. Various people turn up to gawp, including monks from the nearby Abbey, who take them in for medical care and arrange for the balloon to be brought in as well.

Mistakes three and four! This all fell upon me very suddenly, with a string of bizarre rolls taxing my ingenuity. It was also the first time I'd run (and had never played) Call of Cthulhu. In the confusion, I made a couple of schoolboy errors. One, it is really a very long way from London to Shrewsbury. Two, Shrewsbury Abbey was closed in 1540 during that old chestnut, the Dissolution of the Monasteries. ...whoops?

A Night in the Abbey

Bertie is badly hurt, dropping in and out of consciousness as the monks carry him bodily inside. He is taken to the infirmary for proper treatment. The Colonel reluctantly accepts some ministrations to his shoulder and a replacement bandage. Encylopaedius is mostly anxious about the balloon, which is circus property.

ShrewsburyAbbey Interior

Perturbed by the whole uncanny business, the Colonel and Jack are eager to leave immediately they recover from the shock, but Bertie is in a bad way and the monks frankly refuse to let him leave. Pointing out his myriad bruises and cuts, they persuade the others to settle down and rest at least overnight. Thwarted, the two fall to discussing plans for their departure, and wonder where they can find a van large enough for the balloon. Encyclopaedius realises that the circus will be worried about them, and begs permission of the abbot to use the abbey phone. Thankfully, the ringmaster is anxious rather than angry, and he is soon reassured. The men also suggest that Jack calls his bosses at the agency, to ask them for advice and (says Encyclopaedius) to report the 'violent burglars' that have apparently looted the place. Barely rattled at all, Jack manages to act out a convincing phone call to his spurious company. After a bit of talking, the three healthy investigators join the monks for a plain, but welcome evening meal, while Bertie has some brought in.

After the meal, Encyclopaedius decides to settle down with the journals they found and read for a while. They are extremely strange works, as he suspected; a bizarre mixture of tedious everyday ramblings and fantastical occult babbling. Working patiently, he begins drawing out notes and timelines, using his great store of historical trivia to establish when the entries were made, and trying to collate some of the information in a useful way. This takes the rest of the evening, and soon after finishing, he retires exhausted to bed, his head in a whirl.

Meanwhile, the Colonel and Jack, champing at the bit with their confinement, go for a stroll to shake out some of the stress. They pace around the walls, eyeing up the buildings and eventually spotting what looks like a garage. The Colonel wonders what's inside; as he peers through the window, Jack quietly picks the lock and finds the door conveniently open. And why not, inside the abbey walls? Inside is a decent, if elderly, car and a good-sized van. Excited, they hurry back to buttonhole the abbot again.

After finishing his meal, with some difficulty, it occurs to Bertie that what they need is an exorcist! Luckily, they're in the ideal place to find one. He staggers out of bed and limps off to find the abbot.

Roused again from his studies, the abbot is tolerant but unenthusiastic. He explains that the van is essential for the abbey's deliveries and transporting furniture, tools and farming equipment around their lands, and they cannot possibly lend it to the men just so they can get home that night. It will be easy enough to find a van in the morning. In any case, as the monks have reported, Bertie is not fit to leave their care at the moment (and judging by some of the things he's said, his mind has been sadly disturbed by their accident, and he may need a long period of rest). Regarding exorcists, he allows Bertie a little while to explain his plan, but says it's too late to go into the matter now, and they can consider it in the morning. The abbot retires to bed. Remembering something, Bertie borrows the phone again to call Jeeves, and explains about the circus wagon, and indeed the car. Thankfully, Jeeves is sure he'll be able to sort everything out satisfactorily. Following that, Jack (on Bertie's behalf) calls the newspaper office of the Times, and sets in motion a query about the strange house and the fire that destroyed the road.

At the time I really had no idea how to deal with their exorcist idea, like what an exorcist would actually be like, what would happen when they visited the house, and so on. These days I'd probably try to run with it somehow, being a little bit more seasoned (which is not to say much). Again, they were very sporting when this just quietly fizzled out.

Shattered by a long and gruelling day, they all retire to bed in their monks' cells (or, in Bertie's case, in the hospital wing). They fall quickly asleep, but as the night progresses, all four find themselves visited by terrible dreams...

It would not be stretching the truth to describe the amount of fun I had with this next bit as "outrageous". As the session broke here, there was a good week to work on these, and work I did.

The Colonel: You are in the trenches again. The mud is soft underfoot, and the rotting boards creak in the old familiar way. Your old comrades are all around. The shout goes up, and with a roar you hurl yourselves up the ladders and charge into no-man's land, stumbling in the pockmarked earth. You cradle your gun and bend double to make a smaller target, and sense your friends doing the same. Bullets begin to patter around you, as the Germans open fire. Glancing back, you see your comrades following; but as they raise their faces to look at you, you see empty skulls, and bony fingers clutching at their weapons. Then the bullets find them, one by one, riddling the empty tunics, and shattering the grinning skulls. They tumble back into the mud. You turn back towards the enemy trenches, striding alone now, letting the gun drop from your fingers. The bullets sing past you, leaving you untouched. You are invulnerable. The Germans turn and flee. Then something else appears, darting towards you like a shark. It is a dagger, archaic in style, with a strangely ornate hilt, and it flies into your waiting hand. Every detail is familiar to you; the spiral scroll at the end of the hilt, and the heavy red layers on the blade that you know are your own dried blood. Now you are no longer on the battlefield, but somewhere dark, lit by a flickering candle, and rats scurry at your feet. Beyond the candle, a tall figure stares at you with burning eyes, and gestures commandingly. Without hesitation, you drive the dagger into your right shoulder, and scream. Blood begins to soak your uniform. The figure gestures again, and with all your strength, you heave the dagger downwards and leftwards, slicing yourself cleanly in two from shoulder to hip. The pain is unbelievable.

Around four in the morning, the Colonel awakens soaked in sweat, hunched into a ball, with his shoulder in agony. It takes some moments for him to realise where he is, and he hurls the bedclothes aside. For long minutes, he sits silently in the darkness, thinking about the past.

Bertie: It is a perfect summer's day. The sun beams down on you from a sky peppered with friendly woollen clouds, like drifting swans. You sprawl at ease in a punt as it floats down the Cam, boater shading your eyes, listening to the lapping of the water and languidly watching the grassy banks roll past. Uncle Quentin has the pole, and slides the punt along its winding course like a born gondolier. All is jolly peaceful and perfect, and you're not at all surprised to find that the punt is gently rising into the air, to float cheerily across the meadows. You float higher and higher, until you can gawp down upon the city's spires, and then higher still, and the punt slides through the air faster and faster. The wind takes on a chilly note, and the punt starts to rock like a tug in a storm as you soar up into the brilliant blue sky. You turn to look at Uncle Quentin, and the old fellow's no longer punting, but standing on the boards like a charioteer, with his feet wide, brandishing the pole like one of those dashed priests out of the Old Testament. Then the punt isn't a punt any more, it's a great old iron bedstead, floating just in front of you. Uncle Quentin's body cracks and crumbles away like eggshell, until there's a gaunt, wizened creature with burning eyes there instead, who whoops madly and drives the bed towards you at colossal speed. It slams into you, and hurls you backwards into the blue sky, and with a horrid crack the sky shatters around you. You fall shrieking into blackness, and fall, shards of sky falling all around you, until you finally hit the ground.

Soon after midnight, Bertie is woken by a violent fall from his bed, and finds himself sprawled on the floor. He gasps for a while, then begins to call out. After a minute or two, one of the monks comes in, and helps him to bed. Bertie has no further injuries, but is clearly traumatised. Concerned, the monk mixes him a glass of laudanum to help him sleep. Bertie quickly slips back into a heavy, drugged sleep.

Encyclopaedius: You are at the head of a flight of stairs, gazing down. You know you've seen them before, but to your baffled frustration, your memory can't tell you where. Your arms are full of old books, and you stumble as you climb down the stairs, into a dark room. Suddenly, the wall before you shatters, and a living tide of rats emerges - Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat, your mind reports, but their eyes seem to smoke like embers. They flood towards you like water, almost sweeping you off your feet, and you discard the books as you turn to flee upstairs. But the stairs are growing taller, too high for you to reach, and all around you, you feel the rats growing larger too, as you sink below the stinking tide of fur and teeth, and the gnawing begins.

Gasping for breath, Encyclopaedius awakens buried amidst a heap of bedclothes. His skin is scratched, as though he's been clawing at it. He struggles slowly out of the tangled bedding, and quickly lights the oil lamp on his desk. The room is empty, as he knew it would be. For a few minutes, he focuses on getting his breath back and calming his nerves; then, guessing that any more sleep is unlikely, he returns to his desk and begins to work on the journals again.

Jack: You find yourself standing at the open door of a house. It seems familiar, but you can't quite place it. It's a fine brick house, with neat flowerbeds outside and a handy, climbable tangle of red ivy sprawling up one wall. There's a church in the field opposite, and cows grazing. It smells of modest prosperity. It beckons you in. You walk confidently inside, safe in the knowledge that nobody is near. Inside it's much bigger than it seemed before. The rooms are big and nicely done up, even though rats are scurrying about. You notice someone following you, and turn. It's a toff, cheerful as anything, beaming at you like he was your best mate. He reaches forwards, but as you're going for the knife in your pocket, he takes the other hand and shakes it as pally as you like. Now there's two other chaps on either side of you, an old-soldier type with a moustache like a hedgehog, and a little titch of a fellow built like a boxer who watches you like a lizard. But it's all right, nothing to fuss about, and you all stride off through the house.

It's all a great long corridor now, with hundreds of doors off to each side, and more doors in the rooms beyond 'em. Then you see the door at the end of the corridor swing shut, and it sounds heavy as stone, and far away as it is you hear an army of bolts slide to, and suddenly you're afraid. You know you need to run. You turn left, and through a distant doorway you see the Colonel in a cellar full of candles, holding a sword, and a knife dancing in the air. He knocks the knife away, but it whips around like an angry cat and darts straight for him, and as it slices into him he pops like a balloon, and then the door slams shut. You turn and run the other way, through a doorway, and about a mile away there's Bertie waving at you like he hasn't a care in the world. Before you can get there, the window behind him explodes outwards, and sucks him out, and the door slams shut in front of you. Then you hear a yell, and you see the dwarf running after you with a frying-pan, and his eyes are burning. You duck and dodge through the doorways, and all around doors are slamming shut, far away to start with, but getting closer and closer. Now the dwarf's left behind, and you're running for your life back towards the front door while the sound of slamming doors echoes around you, louder and louder. You're reaching for the handle, but then a wall drops down from the ceiling in front of you and blocks your way. Nowhere to run now, and the doors close in on you, twenty feet away, ten, five, one, and then they're all around you, a tight wooden cage, and you're lying down, and there's a quiet voice far above you. You know the words, and you scream and try to hammer on the wood, but you can't move, and then the sound comes, like rain, as the soil patters down on your coffin and muffles all sound.

It is pitch-black when Jack wakes up with a start, and he can barely move a muscle, even to breathe. After a brief panic, he manages to roll free of the bedding, which has become wound tightly around him as he thrashed in the night. Already fully dressed, he doesn't even pause to drag on his boots before racing along the dark corridor to the Colonel's cell and hammering on the door. Already awake, the Colonel lets him in and they discuss their dreams. Jack is convinced that the abbey itself is somehow sinister, and the Colonel is very uncomfortable with the situation. They quickly convince each other that they need to leave at once. They go to find Encyclopaedius, who finds their reaction excessive, but is prepared to go along with them if necessary. Jack, claiming he has the abbot's permission already, grabs his boots and scurries off to retrieve the van, while Encyclopaedius gathers his things and heads downstairs. Meanwhile, the Colonel goes to rescue Bertie. Disregarding the outraged monk, he picks his cousin bodily up and carries him off over his shoulders.

Jack's driving proves less than stellar. He veers wildly across the grounds, scraping the most of the paint from one side of the van against a nearby wall, and careens destructively through the herb garden before plunging straight into a ditch. The engine revs wildly, waking the rest of the abbey from its slumbers. The Colonel and Encyclopaedius spot him and head out to help. The Colonel succeeds only in bursting a tyre, but Encyclopaedius takes over and propels the van smoothly out of the ditch in a single inexplicable attempt, weaving through the myriad obstacles to reach the balloon. They load it into the back of the van, place Bertie gently on top of the cushioning balloon, and drive off, to much waving from the baffled and outraged monks. Along the way, they stop for a new tyre. Much later, a gentle thudding from the back signals Bertie's awakening. They stop and explain what happened. Encyclopaedius still believes they have the abbot's permission, though is a little concerned about the damage done by their hasty exit; Bertie doesn't even question it.

Old News

At last, they arrive back at the circus, where they find the garish circus wagon awaiting them. Jeeves triumphs again! The circus staff, having heard some of the news, gather round to greet them. They are quickly ushered to the ringmaster's office, and the performers gather around the door to overhear their story. Stiff drinks are poured all round, and thankfully drunk. The ringmaster is baffled by the tale, but glad to have the balloon and Encyclopaedius back. Bertie, of course, offers to cover the cost of the repairs like the gentleman he is. Seizing the moment, Jack borrows the ringmaster's phone to find out what his journalistic contact, Tom Patterson, has learned. Patterson is eager to help (a contact in the gentry is never a bad idea) and has worked most of the night researching. Most of the recent material he's turned up they already know from Uncle Quentin. However, there are stories about the house rather further back. The fire, which they've heard of, was apparently a domestic accident which spread along the street and destroyed most of the houses; the Corbitt place survived because it was more isolated and escaped the flames. The suicide of the young man is also reported, though in typically restrained style; the family were reportedly already plagued by illness, and moved out after the death. There's no mention of the legal case, and Patterson suggests they could contact the Announcer, an Ealing local newspaper, which is more likely to feature these local stories.

Following this advice, Jack makes another call to the Announcer, using Bertie's name again, and mentioning Patterson's recommendation to ease the proceedings. The Announcer staff quickly root out a report of the case, in 1852, and also manage to find Corbitt's obituary in 1866, giving the same address. Apparently the case is unsuccessful, and another was being waged over some aspect of his will. The journalist suggests that the actual papers would be found at the West London Legal Archive. As it happens, Colonel Crud has an old army friend there, Lieutenant Colloway Firth, and calls to let him know they will be dropping round. Before leaving, Bertie calls Jeeves and asks him to arrange matters with the abbey. The ever-reliable manservant remains imperturbable and agrees to smooth things over.

At the Archive, the four are welcomed with open arms and a round of brandies. While the two officers talk about old times and old comrades, and the others sit around relaxing over a drink or six, Encyclopaedius decides to joins one of the clerks in researching, having never seen the archive before. Although it takes most of the day, they manage to find the original papers from both court cases. The first was an attempt to drive Corbitt out of the house, alleging nefarious behaviour, rudeness, consorting with villains, blasphemy and witchcraft. It was not well-prepared and did not proceed very far. The second, at Corbitt's death, was an attempt to block a provision of his will, under which his body should be buried in the basement of the house. There was no outcome recorded. The will itself was largely straightforward, if oddly-written, and named a Reverend Michael Thomas as the executor - the minister of the Chapel of Contemplation, Ealing. The dwarf reports each finding to his friends, and they agree it's best to continue researching. It seems that the basement element might be crucial to the case.

The Reverend himself has only a single record that they can find, which refers to a "police action" in 1912, with a criminal case file held at West London Central Police Station. Excited, Encyclopaedius phones the station, dropping Lord Foxworthy's name and explaining that they are researching in the archive. The slightly surprised policeman on the other end agrees to check up on the case. Phoning back some time later, he gives the details of the case, which concerns a secret raid on the Chapel of Contemplation. The police raid was occasioned by affidavits swearing that members of the church were kidnapping children. During the raid, three policemen and seventeen cult members were killed by violence or fire. The autopsy reports are singularly undetailed and uninformative, as though the coroner had not actually performed examinations. Though 54 members of the church were arrested, all but eight were released. The Reverend Michael Thomas was arrested and sentenced to 40 years in prison on five counts of manslaughter. He escaped from prison in 1921 and fled abroad. Privately, the policeman also says that the record is rather hazy. From what he can see, he suspects that someone "heavy" has taken a hand in the case, possibly explaining why it petered out and how it was kept out of the press.

As an afterthought, Encyclopaedius checks on the four names they found earlier; Hodgkins is cited in a boundary dispute with a neighbour in 1922, but otherwise they aren't mentioned.

Beyond anything else, the four (and their helpers) are surprised by how Thomas could still be so active by 1921, given that he must have been over eighty. They wonder whether a son of the same name took over his post, or some such arrangement. Mostly, however, the three who remained in Firth's study are too tipsy to concentrate, and they all agree to return home. Bertie phones Uncle Quentin, and asks him to send over some "burly men" to help them check the house, recounting the story as best he can. This is, at best, incomprehensible to the baffled uncle, who decides that he must be drunk. Uncle Quentin makes a show of agreeing to it all so Bertie will go to bed, and tells him to take it easy for a while. Once his nephew has departed, he forgets the request entirely.

Gentlemen Prefer Guns

The following morning, Bertie phones back to check about the burly men. His uncle asks whether he's sobered up yet. Surprised, Bertie recounts the story again, somewhat less implausibly. Latching on to the rat aspect of the matter, his uncle agrees to send someone; once the phone is free, he calls for a ratcatcher. Clearly, his nephew is going even softer in the head than they realised, making such a meal about the business.

Meanwhile, the four investigators are loading up on tools and weaponry. Enthused by the prospect of dealing with things properly, the Colonel produces an array of guns. Bertie is happy enough, but Encyclopaedius only reluctantly accepts one, as he believes they have only burglars to deal with, and has no desire to shoot anyone. Jack refuses, preferring to rely on his reflexes and the knife in his belt. Guns only get you in trouble. They return to the house and enter carefully, but quickly. Encyclopaedius, who thinks the whole business is something of a pantomime, waits at the top of the stairs with a shotgun, wondering if more rats will turn up. Bertie holds a safety lantern while the Colonel begins breaking down the wall with an axe. It takes a little while, but the old wood cracks fairly readily under his blows, and after a while there's a man-sized hole. He steps back to let the others look through. As he does so, he feels a strange desire to look in the cupboard under the stairs, and wanders over to open the door. Just as he puts his hand on the doorknob, Jack spots him and tackles him aside, horrified. Encyclopaedius, who heard the shout of success from below, comes downstairs just in time to see the suspicious young man hurling himself at the Colonel. The Colonel isn't sure what he was doing, and they let the matter drop.

Peering through the hole, there's not much to see but a table some distance away, with a large shape laid on it. It's too far away to see by lantern light. Entering the concealed room, Bertie finds a jutting bit of board to hang the lantern on so his hands are free. They approach the table cautiously, and the ancient body lying there grows clearer. It's uncommonly tall, with revoltingly long nails and a grinning mask of a face. A sickly-sweet smell comes from the body, not like rotting meat, but something else. Encyclopaedius is a bit revolted, but points out that there's nothing supernatural about the dried-up corpse of an eccentric former occupant. Nevertheless, the Colonel decides to decapitate it, and brushes off Encyclopaedius' objections. Disagreeing vehemently, Encyclopaedius turns his back - and then decides he'd rather head off upstairs, perhaps for some fresh air. His departure is quiet, and though Jack hears him, there's nothing strange about that in the circumstances.

As the Colonel begins to swing the axe overhead, Bertie turns round and fires at the lantern. Thankfully, his aim is off and the pellets blow splinters from the wall. The sound throws off the Colonel's aim, and the axe sinks into the corpse's shoulder. He turns to shout at Bertie. Jack darts in with his knife and stabs firmly at the corpse's heart, from vague memories of penny dreadfuls he's read. But the body feels like dry wood, and the blade cracks it open rather than cutting deep. Bertie gets off one more wild shot before the Colonel manages to snatch the gun away.

With a start, Encyclopaedius finds himself outside the house, staring at the car. He can't remember anything after he turned his back on the Colonel, and thinks he must be dizzy. He leans against the car for a moment to recover. Birds chirp in the trees nearby.

Under Jack's horrified gaze, the corpse suddenly rises to its feet like a puppet on strings. Bertie hears it as he struggles with the Colonel, but that's perfectly normal, nothing unexpected about it. Jack swings wildly at the body, misses, and ducks a swipe from the vicious claws. To his bemusement, Bertie finds himself unarmed and staring at the corpse as it tries to claw his new friend. He snatches the gun back from his cousin and begins reloading it, staring wide-eyed at the fiend. The Colonel hears Jack's swearing and turns round. Confronted with some undead monstrosity, he unslings the old rifle from his shoulder and fires from the hip. One arm comes loose from the thing in a shower of bone-dry fragments.

Hearing a muffled racket below, Encyclopaedius wonders what the others are doing and wanders back in, hoping they aren't causing too much damage to the place.

While Jack stabs the damaged corpse repeatedly, Bertie calmly raises the shotgun to his shoulder and unloads both barrels from a few feet away. There's another deafening roar in the confines of the room, and the jerking body disintegrates. Seconds later, Encyclopaedius reaches the bottom of the stairs, to find the other three standing over a scarred table and the scattered remains of the body. Well, really! He rolls his eyes in strong disapproval. They were only using axes last time he saw them. It's ridiculous, and probably immoral to boot, to blow up an old body, but there's no point protesting now. The Colonel examines some old papers on the table, which appear to be horoscopes, but can't make much of them. They crumble at a touch.

Jack's keen eye sees something glinting on the floor, and spots a necklace of some kind that must have fallen from the body. As he quietly palms it, his hand feels warm, and he realises the gemstone is melting in his hand - into his hand! He opens his mouth to scream, or possibly swear, but a rush of energy passes through him and he feels an odd kind of strength in his mind. He closes his mouth, without a word, and pockets the now-empty chain.

The vague sense of oppression is fading from their minds, and they make their way back outside for a breath of wholesome air.

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