Notes: Standing Stones takes place after the events in the eighth Arkham Files story, Scorpion Hill. I've written short summaries of the previous Arkham Files stories for the blog I co-write with Penna: Penna Nomen & Silbrith Conversation. The post is called "Inside the Arkham Files Vault." For a status update on the main characters, see my post: "Vault Acquisition: Standing Stones."
Chapter 1: Covert Surveillance
Arkham, Massachusetts. Saturday, January 24, 1976.
"I would have thought you'd sworn off trudging in the snow long ago," Henry grumbled, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. "Why don't you own a car?"
"No need for one," Neal protested. "Parking spaces are limited on campus, especially now that the semester has started, and the walk to the quad from the campus parking lot is almost as long as from June's house. Besides, you're the outdoor adventurer. This should be right up your alley."
"If you had a list of my jobs, you'd notice a clear pattern—tropical locations. That's not a coincidence."
Neal sympathized with him, but snowstorms and Arkham in winter went hand in hand. Yesterday Henry had been greeted by a two-foot snowfall when he returned from an assignment in Argentina. He was entitled to grouse, but Neal wasn't about to complain about a little white stuff on the streets.
This was Henry's first official day to work with SCAGR, the name Henry had coined for their group of Scholar-Adventurer-Guardian Reprobates. He was staying in June's guest bedroom which was formerly used by Pagna Sastri. The Meropian scientist had vacated it in early January when she returned to her world's home base. Mozzie was now in charge of the instrumentation she'd left behind. His lab was their current destination.
"Think of this as your orientation tour," Neal said. "Peter and Elizabeth live four blocks away from me in a townhouse on Cedar Street. Sara's apartment is on Larchmont. If you insist on a car, I can borrow her Beetle. She asked me to look after it while she's gone."
Henry arched a suspicious eyebrow. "You never owned a car. Do you know anything about car maintenance?"
"I skipped Auto Mechanics 101, but how tough can it be?"
Henry smiled. "You better let me take it over. Generally, I prefer something racier, but I'll have that car purring like a kitten. You think she'd like it souped-up?"
"She'd probably love it," Neal admitted. "I'll gladly hand the reins over to you."
"Consider vehicle customization part of the package deal. Gideon's already placed me in charge of security and covert operations. I may need a raise."
"I don't remember him wording your duties that way."
"Close enough," Henry dismissed airily. "You could verify it with him."
"A little difficult since he's no longer on Earth." They turned off Cedar onto Trinity Avenue which led directly to the main entrance of the campus. Henry had already been introduced to Dorian's and the Sentinel Alehouse. Somehow Neal didn't think it was necessary to point out the rare bookstore. Henry had already been groaning about the amount of reading Lavinia had assigned him.
Henry shrugged. "Not my problem, but what is in my bailiwick is getting to know the members of the team. So what's up with Mozzie and Lavinia?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's obvious by the way he talks about her that he's a smitten man. Are his feelings reciprocated?"
Neal shrugged. "Who can tell what Lavinia's thinking? As for Mozzie, at first I wondered if his interest was more akin to scientific curiosity, but he swears that's not the case."
"You're the expert on Meropians. I know they're shapeshifters, but what do they really look like?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. They've never given me a clue about what their true appearance is. Zophar transformed himself to look like Montgomery Clift to mate with my mother, but if she knew what his true appearance was, she never told me. I didn't even know he was my dad till it was too late."
Henry shot him a quick glance. "I shouldn't have brought it up. Not knowing much about your heritage has gotta suck."
"After everything we've experienced together, there shouldn't be any secrets. You had worse luck. You never even met your dad. Did your mom share any stories about him?"
"Just his name and a photo which was taken at a carnival booth in Providence. But don't get me distracted. This is official SCAGR snooping business. How about Cyrus? What's the scoop on him?"
"He's head of the chemistry department. Works in Derleth Hall, the same building as Mozzie."
"Does he live there too?"
"No, Mozzie has the only apartment in the science building. It's a privilege he claimed because of the rooftop observatory. His fame as an author has brought the university so much recognition the president's not likely to deny him any request."
Henry nodded. "Got it. Anything I need, Mozzie's the facilitator. Is Cyrus hooked up with anyone?"
"He and June have been seeing each other," Neal said as they walked through the wrought-iron gate into the university quad. "That started a few months ago. They're both into cooking and we're the beneficiaries. They also have something else in common. They're the only ones who've declined algolnium. Cyrus claims it makes him a useful control for their experiments. Much of his and El's work for the team consists of working with alien chemicals."
Henry's brow wrinkled. "What are they testing? I thought they got rid of the drug Sornoth had infected you with."
"They did, but you remember the zoog you killed in Marrakesh?"
"Yeah. What happened to it?"
"It disintegrated but before it did El was able to extract its blood, and so far the sample has maintained its integrity."
Henry snorted. "Man, the stuff that comes out of your mouth. You make zombie zoogs sound like they're an everyday occurrence."
"Have weirdness, will travel, that's our world," Neal said with a shrug. "Since you signed up for SCAGR, it's now your life too. If you'd read those reference materials Lavinia provided, you'd understand it better."
Henry grunted. "I knew I was asking for that. So what do El and Cyrus plan to do with the blood?"
"They hope to eventually be able to eliminate zoogs from their human hosts. Who knows how many cult members have been infected with zoogs?"
Henry nodded thoughtfully. "And not just them. There could be innocent victims as well."
"We already have a blood sample from one victim, Martin Keller, but he was no innocent. He was the leader of the local chapter of the Starry Wisdom cult." And the one responsible for Sara's kidnapping. Neal still had nightmares about wandering through the streets of Arkham looking for her.
"Is there any word about the Moroccan whose house we broke into?" Henry asked, breaking into his thoughts.
"Saalim Kattan? He died four days after we returned home. Supposedly a brain aneurism, but El will know for sure once she receives samples of his blood. He may have been parasitized as well."
When they entered Derleth Hall, the blast of steam heat was a welcome reprieve from the snowy conditions outside. On a Saturday, most of the students in the science building were working on lab projects. The staircase was empty of the weekday hordes, allowing him and Henry to continue their discussion. In any case, talking in murmurs had become second nature for SCAGR members. Neal tried not to think about the stack of papers waiting for him in his office. They were the results of the first week of classes. With Sara in London, they'd be his Saturday night date.
"Any news from Peter?" Henry asked.
"He's still in Marrakesh." Peter had returned to Morocco to act as consultant for the local archaeologist Hayat Boutella who would oversee the preservation and documentation of the cave they'd discovered in Scorpion Hill.
"How's he going to explain those weird drawings to the local archaeologists?"
"They'll join the ranks of other inexplicable Neolithic paintings that will make archaeologists scratch their heads for decades to come. Peter will publish a paper about them. Eventually, when there's enough documentary evidence, he'll be able to go public about the Elnath."
Henry stopped on the stairs. "You think that's really possible? He won't become a laughingstock for having written about extraterrestrials settling Earth?"
Neal smiled. "That's why he's waiting. If the evidence isn't sufficiently compelling, he'll leave it to others to speculate."
"Neal will be sorry he wasn't here for your call," Mozzie told Sara.
"I wish I could have alerted him in advance," she said, her disappointment evident. "I know the security measures are essential, but it doesn't make them less frustrating."
"Milly and I are working on a solution," he disclosed. "We're in the final stages of testing. If it works as I hope we'll have a solution ready for you as soon as we can arrange safe transport. If it had been in place, you would have been able to join us at Dorian's last night. Neal and Henry gave an impromptu concert at the coffeehouse."
"And I missed it!" she groaned. "What did they sing?"
"A few hits by the Rolling Stones. That must be Henry's influence. No more Simon and Garfunkel for Neal, at least not when Henry's singing with him. 'Child of the Moon' was my personal favorite."
Betelgeuse had jumped up on his lap when the call started. He'd rubbed against the phone affectionately when he heard Sara through the handset. The tabby had welcomed her into his cluster of friends. Betelgeuse would enjoy the new device as much as Sara.
"Our connection's starting to go," Sara said.
"That's just Betelgeuse's purr," he assured her. "Soon you'll know for yourself when he joins the conversation."
"Won't you give me any details?"
"And spoil the surprise? You'll have to be patient just a little while longer."
She sighed. "It's just as well. I need to leave to meet my team. Tell Neal I'll call tomorrow at this same time."
When Mozzie hung up, Milly asked, "She is not content?"
"No, she misses Neal."
"Are the two in love?" she asked.
"You should ask him that," Mozzie deferred. To his mind, Neal was, but Milly was becoming a little bit too nosy for his liking. Soon she'd be asking about his feelings for Lavinia, and he wasn't about to discuss them with an alien armillary sphere. Unless . . . would it help? "Milly, what can you tell me about Meropian courtship practices?"
"That is for you and Lavinia to discuss." Was there a trace of huffiness in her voice? That would imply Milly experienced emotions. For a Celaenian construct, surely not an impossibility. Neal claimed her personality was emerging as her acquaintanceship with Mozzie grew deeper. An unsettling thought. He hoped she hadn't developed a crush on him, though it would be understandable . . . and perhaps on the intellectual plane . . . No, it likely would come to naught. And a threesome with Lavinia, tempting though it might be, could cause more complications than even he was willing to contemplate.
Mozzie left the lab to make himself a cup of tea. Lavinia had given him an exotic blend which included leaves grown on Merope. He sensed they could be an aphrodisiac. Perhaps it was a signal used among Meropians to indicate they were favorably disposed to being courted.
While he was in the kitchen, a soft chime alerted him that someone approached his office door. Mozzie fished Argos out of his pocket. He was quite proud of the device. Pagna had worked on it with him before she left for the Meropian home base. The unit was no larger than a switch plate. It was in constant communication with a concealed camera outside his door and alerted him of anyone's approach.
When he asked Lavinia if she'd like a similar monitor for her quarters, she scoffed at the notion. She claimed that the chittaks made admirable guardians, not that she'd provided any details, of course, on how they performed their role.
Mozzie opened the door to Neal and Henry before they knocked. "Welcome, fellow SCAGRs."
How'd you know it was us?" Henry demanded.
Mozzie waved Argos in front of him. "Nothing escapes my spy camera."
Neal reached down to stroke Betelgeuse. "Hello, handsome. Miss me?"
Neal had already seen the device, but Henry insisted on a demonstration. Neal obligingly stepped outside with Betelgeuse. Whether it was Neal in front of the door or Betelgeuse flopped on the floor, Argos honed in on the target with astonishing accuracy.
"You could make a mint off this," Henry commented.
"Alas, no," Mozzie said. "It operates on gravitational waves generated by a Meropian computer in the lab. The rest of the world will have to wait." He turned to Neal. "I wish you'd arrived a few minutes earlier. Sara called."
"Did something come up?" Neal asked worriedly. "This wasn't our normal schedule."
"Do you have one?" Henry asked, furrowing his brow in turn.
"She normally calls at one o'clock our time on Sunday afternoons," Neal explained. "If she's busy, she sends word through Gideon's assistant Fei Hong."
Henry grunted. "As your security expert, I'm not thrilled with the predictability of your calls."
"In this case, it makes sense," Neal said. "In the basement of Gideon's building is a martial arts studio. Sara goes there on Sunday evenings to study kung fu. Fei is also in the class. A private secure elevator in the back of the studio takes Sara directly to Gideon's private office where she places the call."
Henry's face relaxed. "Not bad. It receives my seal of approval pending personal inspection." He dropped onto Mozzie's well-worn leather couch. "Why did Sara call?"
"Her Interpol contact has a lead on the Starry Wisdom cult," Mozzie explained, lifting Betelgeuse off his favorite armchair so he could sit down. "Nisha said agents were running a sting on a possible smuggling ring operating out of London when they overheard chatter about moon-tree wine."
"That's the stuff which contains zoog embryos, isn't it?" Henry asked.
Neal nodded. "We believe it's drunk by cult leaders. An embryo matures and forms a nest inside the victim's head where it modifies the ganglia in the brain. El believes it assumes motor control of the host and is also able to influence their thought processes."
"And the zoogs come from Tirelia?"
"Yeah. If they're in London, that means there must be an active wormhole nearby." Neal turned to Mozzie. "Has Sara told her team yet?"
"No, she called to ask us how we wanted her to handle it."
"She's warned Nisha about Raquel, right?" Henry asked.
"Of course," Mozzie assured him. The events in Marrakesh proved that Raquel was working with the cult. The drug she tried to add to Neal's drink was algolnium based. It could only have been produced off-world.
"This places Sara in a difficult position," Neal said. "Since her team is investigating cults in England, this is precisely the kind of information she should share."
"But if a mole is working on the team, the information could be used against us," Henry pointed out. "What did Sara recommend?"
"That she should continue to act as our eyes and ears," Mozzie said. "She intends to gather intel for us but will only supply her team with what we want them to know."
Neal nodded absently. "If she tells them she overheard the chatter without mentioning Nisha, that would keep Interpol out of it. The greater problem is keeping Sara safe. She's probably already plotting a way to infiltrate the gang."
"Why do you say that?" Henry asked.
"She did the same thing in Arkham last autumn," Neal explained. "She wound up being kidnapped by the cult. We were barely able to rescue her in time. They were about to force her to drink moon-tree wine."
"Sara has no business going undercover," Henry declared. "After that incident, she has to be known to the cult. For all we know, Chad could be in London, too."
Mozzie winced at the mention of Chad's name. That bully had been a curse on Neal's life since foster home days. It still rankled that Mozzie hadn't recognized the signs of abuse earlier.
"What you need is someone who's an unknown." Henry grinned and pointed to himself. "That's me. Consider me your x-factor."
When Neal didn't immediately take him up on the offer, he added, "This is why you wanted me on the team . . . besides giving you guys a name, that is. This is exactly the type of assignment I thrive at."
Neal hesitated then nodded. "All right. I'll ask Marjorie to teach my seminars. I'll give her—"
"—You misunderstood me," Henry said, interrupting him. "This is a solo job. There's no need for you to go too. I can get all the background information I need from Sara. Once I find out what's going on, then we'll regroup."
"I don't like it," Neal objected. "Simply communicating in a secure manner will be a challenge. We'll need to arrange a schedule first with Fei Hong."
"That won't be necessary," Mozzie assured him. His moment of triumph had arrived. "Henry will be able to talk with us as if he were in the same room." A slight pause for dramatic effect was surely in order. If only it wasn't so early, he'd break out the champagne. "He'll also be able to see us."
"What are you talking about?" Neal asked.
Henry's eyes widened. "You've perfected wormhole technology!"
Mozzie frowned. "That will take more time. This, on the other hand, is ready to go." He retrieved two of the devices from his desk drawer and passed them to the boys. "You'll be here for the final test which I assume it will pass with flying colors."
"What is this? A cigarette case?" Henry rotated the case in his hands. Mozzie had selected a weather-beaten gunmetal gray metal for the enclosure.
"It resembles Argos," Neal said, pressing the release button to open the case.
"This is a visual communicator," Mozzie said proudly. "I call it a com-link. Milly and I've been working on it for the past few weeks. The com-link enables us to conduct secure conversations anywhere in the world. It's powered by wave technology. I've registered the harmonics for all the members of SCAGR. We can call any of our associates with it."
"What do you mean by harmonics?" Henry asked.
Mozzie gave him a break. He was, after all, still a new recruit. "If you'd read the materials Lavinia prepared for you, you'd know that every individual, indeed each organic object, has a unique harmonic wave pattern. Call it a magnetic wave resonance if that makes more sense to you. It's the basis of much of Meropian technology."
Neal was already fiddling with the dials. "How do you turn it on?"
"Press the top red button." Mozzie demonstrated with his link. The device responded with a soft amber glow on the display screen. "Then say the name of the person you want to speak with. It's been programmed for us, Lavinia, Peter, El, Cyrus, June, Sara, and Fei Hong. It goes without saying that you can also contact Milly at any time."
Henry frowned. "I know Fei Hong is Gideon's assistant. How much does she know about SCAGR?"
"She's also a Meropian," Neal explained. "Gideon revealed her status when he returned to his home base. He warned us he may not be back for several months. Fei funds our expenses and makes travel arrangements. She's completely trustworthy."
"Will she provide assistance for less than legal activities?" Henry challenged.
"Like what?" Neal asked.
Henry shrugged. "Standard stuff—forged passports and IDs, surveillance equipment. Do you want me to go on?"
Neal exhaled. "Gideon said she's here to assist us. I expect that includes anything you need."
If only Mozzie had known Fei during his anti-war protest phase, life would have been so much simpler. He really did need to forge closer ties with her.
"If you have any other questions, you can ask them of Lavinia," Mozzie said and spoke her name into the link.
Lavinia's image appeared on the screen a few seconds later. "Are you ready to begin the test?" she asked, her voice as clear as if she were sitting next to him. Mozzie felt a glow of pride that it was working so well. Neal and Henry's eyes were riveted to the screen.
"Yes, please point the link at different objects of varying distances," Mozzie requested.
She first moved the link toward her shoulder.
"That's Ch'uli!" Henry exclaimed. "I can see her now."
"Actually, it's her mate, Ch'orri," Neal explained. "He has a green mask."
"This is Ch'uli," Lavinia said, directing the link to the tapestry-covered table in her office where Ch'uli was munching on a chocolate-chip cookie.
Neal laughed. "I recognize that container. June must have sent over a care package."
"She did indeed," Lavinia confirmed. "And that was fortunate. She's spoiled the chittaks. Store-bought cookies are no longer up to their standards."
The experiment was a complete success. The link was also able to display with excellent clarity objects as far as twenty feet away. "Henry can deliver Sara and Fei's links when he goes to London," Mozzie said. "Neal, you'll be able to talk with them as often as you like."
Two weeks later. Gilman Townhouse.
Peter looked up from his stack of correspondence when he heard the door open. Satchmo was already racing into the kitchen, and he was right behind the Lab. Peter had brought his work home in the hopes that El would be there, but patient rounds had kept her at the hospital. Although he'd returned home from Morocco close to two weeks ago, their schedules made together time a scarce commodity.
"Sorry I'm late," El said, shrugging off her coat. "A stroke victim was admitted just as I was getting ready to leave. I stayed till her condition had stabilized."
"Are you still on call?"
"No, thank goodness for efficient assistants. Vijay is there. Have you eaten?"
"Not yet. I was waiting for you. Would you like to go out to dinner?"
"Let's stay home. We have leftover beef stew in the fridge."
"I received a letter from a colleague in England," Peter said, retrieving the container from the refrigerator. "You remember I'd sent inquiries about starfish designs in Neolithic artifacts."
El nodded as she placed a pan on the stove. "Did they find something?"
"An artifact was found in a riverbed near Avebury. Frank—that's the name of the archaeologist—wasn't sure what to make of it. The piece was shaped like a starfish and carved from soapstone." He paused at El's exclamation and chuckled. "That was exactly my reaction. And not only that. There are marks on the starfish which, based on the description, sound like they're Elnath script."
"Did he send you a photo?"
"Not yet, but I've asked him to." He paused for a moment. "I'm also thinking of going over there. Avebury is the site of barrows dating back to the Neolithic period."
"You think it's possible there's an Elnath cave in the region."
"I do, but I'm just back from a trip. I hate to leave you again so soon. Is there any chance you could go along?"
El shook her head. "Between my patients and the classes I'm teaching, I don't see how I could. But that shouldn't stop you. This is exactly why you have a light course load this semester."
Peter winced. "I'm more of a guest lecturer this term. Thankfully, Eleanor had already prepared for the fact I wouldn't be around much. She actually seemed rather miffed when I returned from Marrakesh earlier than expected." Eleanor had become his lifesaver. As head of the department, she was a far more experienced teacher than he was. His students wouldn't suffer under her guidance.
"The entire archaeology department is benefitting from your discoveries," El consoled him. "Just wait till your paper about the Scorpion Hill cave is published. Your colleagues will be demanding you spend even more time in the field."
He groaned. "Don't wish that on me. We don't see each other enough as it is."
"At least now we'll be able to talk with each other thanks to Mozzie's com-links."
"Prepare yourself for a lot of calls," he warned, "but I'll keep the difference in time zones in mind and try not to wake you up." Privately, Peter was relieved El didn't want to go. She didn't need any additions to an already demanding workload. "You promise to take care of yourself while I'm gone?"
She raised her eyebrows. "And get enough rest? That goes for you too, hon. As well as your assurance to avoid any unplanned intergalactic excursions through wormholes."
"Duly noted. Another excellent reason for frequent calls."
"How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"I'm calling this an exploratory trip. I hope to restrict it to a week in length."
"Will Neal go with you?"
He nodded. "I'll need his help to decipher the script. Plus his algolnium-sniffing ability is essential. Until Cyrus succeeds in building an instrument capable of detecting algolnium, Neal's all we got." He smiled ruefully. "If I can tear him away from London, that is. I stopped by his office to tell him. He can't wait to see Sara and Henry in person."
"Is there any news from Henry?"
"He's established himself as an auto mechanic and has made friends at the pub where the cult chatter took place. Henry's targeted one person who appears to be a member and is hoping to receive an invitation to join. Sara hasn't heard anything more from her Interpol contact. Is it wrong for me to wish that remains the case?"
"So she won't be in danger?"
Peter nodded. "That and so Neal won't have any additional reason to feel torn. As it is, even the lure of the Elnath may not be able to compete with Sara's appeal."
She smiled. "I know I can count on you to let them have some time alone. How about Mozzie? Will he go too?"
"I checked with him, but he wants to stay to monitor the communications. This will be the first long-distance field exercise for the com-links. If there are any issues, he believes he and Milly will be able to make the necessary adjustments. He also muttered something about a project with Lavinia."
Mozzie hesitated before knocking on Lavinia's door. He had absolutely no need to feel nervous. Although . . . perhaps it would have been better to have dispatched Neal first. The boy was part Meropian. He had every right to inquire about Meropian intimacy practices. Lavinia was fascination personified but hers was a prickly beauty. Would she misunderstand Mozzie's intentions?
He raised his hand then dropped it again. Did Neal even need to be present to provide the solution? If his behavior had changed or if he was showing unusual symptoms, Mozzie would have every right to be concerned. It would be only natural to assume that Meropian hormones were the culprit. Yes, the perfect opening.
Now to invent some symptoms. Nothing too radical. Perhaps a trifle too much blood flow to his—
"Are you going to stand outside my door all evening?" Lavinia barked, opening the door. Ch'uli was on her shoulder eyeing his package curiously. She must think cookies were inside.
Confound it, he should have realized the chittaks would alert her. Still, there was no need to panic. He'd already determined his strategy.
"A new tea shop opened in town," he said calmly, hiding any trace of nerves. "The owner impressed me with the depth of her knowledge. She has a remarkable selection of Asian teas. I thought you might like to join me in sampling one." He realized some might construe his words as babbling and waved the package enticingly while taking a breath. "This is a rare form of Oolong. It's grown at only one plantation in the Wuyi Mountains."
"This was thoughtful of you," she said, taking the package. "Another time perhaps. Your arrival is fortuitous. There's a matter of great urgency we should discuss."
When he saw the stack of books on her table, he realized it wouldn't be the topic he'd selected. He took a seat and waited to be enlightened.
"It's something I've long wanted to bring up but the moment never seemed appropriate," she said, sitting down across from him at the table.
Was there hope after all? A covert signal would be helpful. If only a copy of Masters and Johnson's famous tome was in the stack of books . . . Perhaps a gentle nudge. "I've felt the same way," he murmured.
Her face softened. "Of course you have. A man of your perspicacity would have recognized the need to proceed post-haste with exploration of the time vortex."
His jaw dropped. "Time travel?" Curse his voice for squeaking. Romance would have to wait.
Neal and Peter arrived in London early on Monday morning. Once they'd cleared customs, they headed off in opposite directions. Peter rented a car to drive to Avebury while Neal took a cab to his hotel in the city. The next day, he'd take the train to meet Peter at the dig, but until then he was free to reconnect with Sara and Henry. Neal had picked an inexpensive hotel not far from the Tower of London. It was close to where Sara worked and an easy trip on the tube for Henry from where he was staying in Southwark.
Henry had been in London for close to two weeks. Thanks to the com-link, Neal was able to receive daily bulletins from him and Sara. Much as he would have liked to have accompanied Henry, Neal had to admit he was ill-suited for the type of work Henry was performing. Hanging out in pubs, playing pool, chatting up the locals—Henry appeared to thrive on it but Neal would have been a fish out of water.
The com-links worked flawlessly. Henry could even let him know when he arrived at the hotel so that when Neal heard a knock on the door, he knew who it was.
"Hey, kiddo," Henry said as he breezed in. "Ritzy address you fixed yourself up with." He dropped into an armchair and scanned the simple hotel room. "You even got a telly."
"Just what kind of dive are you staying in?" Neal asked.
"You don't want the details. Its only selling point is that it's convenient, but the place suits my profile. Fei made the arrangements for me to be affiliated with a garage in the vicinity, so if anyone checks my cover story, it's legit."
"Have you actually been working as a mechanic?" Neal asked.
He shrugged. "I've been a grease monkey before, and it's paying off. My mate George has invited me to an introductory meeting at the Church as he calls it."
"By that you mean the cult of Starry Wisdom?"
Henry smiled contentedly. "The one and only. They're preparing for some gathering near Marlborough next weekend. I've expressed an interest in participating, and George has offered to take me along. First, though, I'll need to go through an initiation ritual."
"Don't drink anything," Neal cautioned. "It could be moon-tree wine."
"Don't worry. I'll stay far away from the stuff."
"Peter and I witnessed an initiation ceremony last fall. The priest made the initiates stick a finger inside a wooden box that contained a zoog. The zoog punctured their fingers with its fangs. The members were rounded up when we rescued Sara, and they didn't appear to suffer any harmful effects but we can't be positive."
"Thanks for the warning. I'll think up some excuse. I have no desire to be gnawed on by a zoog. But the meeting's not the reason I wanted to see you."
Neal's link buzzed before Henry could explain. When Neal opened the case, Sara's face appeared in the display.
She cut off his greeting, speaking in an urgent whisper. "I've retreated to the loo to call you. A police report just came in. Nisha's body was found in an alley this morning. The police think she was killed sometime during the night and are calling it a mugging, but I think the cult's responsible."
Henry darted over to stand next to Neal. "Do you have any tangible evidence to back up your suspicion?"
"No, but Nisha had been asking around about Raquel. I'm afraid the cult found out about it."
"They could be following you too," Henry warned. "Is Nigel working in the office today?"
"How long can you stay in the loo?"
Sara held her hand to her forehead. "I'm suddenly feeling quite faint. I may need to be here a while to recover. Do you have news?"
Instead of answering her, Henry pulled out his link. "Let me check if Peter's available. You all need to hear this."
Peter was in his hotel room at Avebury when Henry contacted him. By using all four of their links, they were having SCAGR's first conference call.
"First of all, you should know that when I arrived in London, I placed wiretaps on the private phones of Sara's team members," Henry said.
"You did what?" Peter demanded, looking shocked.
Henry shrugged. "I make no apologies. It was a necessary precaution. Sara's team's researching the cult. It's the perfect setup for a mole to find out what they know."
"Peter, you haven't heard," Neal interjected. "Sara's contact at Interpol was murdered sometime during the night. Henry's activities are fully justified. "
Peter frowned. "And highly illegal. If you're caught—"
"—I won't be," Henry dismissed. "This is not my first time around the block. And wait till you hear about the conversation I recorded between Nigel and Raquel."
"Nigel, meaning Sara's boss?" Neal asked, stunned.
"Yep, that Nigel. Turns out he's not only Sara's boss. He's Raquel's as well."
Notes: Thanks for reading and welcome back to Arkham! If this is your first visit, you may wish to check out the resources on the Arkham Files page of our blog. Standing Stones has 3 chapters which I'll post weekly on Wednesday.
Readers have known about Nigel for a while but Neal and Peter haven't been clued in. They're in for a greater shock in next week's chapter as details about an enemy invasion are uncovered.
Introduction to Arkham Files for new readers: FBI Agent Diana Berrigan began writing Arkham Files fics as part of a strategy to capture a cybercriminal nicknamed Azathoth. She is now sharing writing duties with Mozzie. Most of the characters are drawn from the world of White Collar and retain their same given names. Events and characters in Arkham Files are sometimes referenced in the Caffrey Conversation stories and have an impact on plot development.
Penna Nomen created the Caffrey Conversation AU and is the head muse for our series. The characters and I are very lucky to have had her beta help for this story. Penna and I went on a virtual retreat recently, and she wrote about the experience for our blog. The post is called "Writing Retreat: 2020." Such a pleasure to brainstorm ideas for future stories with her!
Blog: Penna Nomen & Silbrith Conversation
Visuals and Music: The Standing Stones board on the Caffrey Conversation Pinterest website