Although it was only a few years ago, my time at Exeter seemed like a lifetime away. Had the world really changed so much since then, or had I?
A couple of weeks after Boom first approached me about his website idea he rang me up and we arranged to meet again. In the meantime everything he had predicted about my relationship with Kate had come to pass, and with such exactitude, you would have thought he had scripted the whole thing himself. Nonetheless I was glad when he got back in touch– I was happy for something to take my mind off things, and I knew there would be no smugness or gloating on his part; Boom was the last person in the world to say, ‘I told you so.’
When we got together Boom explained, over a fair few beers, the basics of what he wanted. It seemed like a really good idea and I set to work on it as soon as I had some free time. After that we met up on a fairly regular basis so that I could give him progress reports and talk over possible adjustments. I found that I enjoyed working on the project a lot more than I had expected, particularly as Boom was happy to defer to my judgement on many points of design and content. When I had finished we were both very satisfied with the results.
We had agreed early on that if we wanted to attract the interest of academics and other serious people, the site should have a sober, scholarly feel about it. The home page gave a brief outline of our interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century esoteric societies (here we listed The Astrum Argentinum, The Sphere Group, The Brotherhood of Saturn, The Isis Movement, The Order of the Morning Star and The Fraternity of the Inner Light amongst others) and stated our intention to explore the ways these groups were derived from or influenced by much earlier mystical and philosophical traditions. Whilst acknowledging that much important work had already been done in this field (and at this point we gave illustrative examples from a number of standard works of reference) we also stressed that significant areas of uncertainty still remained. By presenting both what was known and what was not in the form of an interconnected, multi-layered diagram (that is, Boom’s model) we hoped it might be possible to reach a greater understanding of the pieces still missing from the puzzle. An analogy we thought apposite was Mendeleev’s first, partially complete, periodic table. By contemplating the nature of the elements already listed, scientists were able to accurately predict the nature of those still to be discovered.
Other sections gave a more detailed explanation of the workings of Boom’s model, with the model itself forming the main body of the website. This was delineated in as much detail as we could manage without making it confusing, and incorporated some graphic features I was quite proud of. For instance, when you ran the cursor over a given part of the model, a pop-up box, giving an explanation of that particular item, would appear along with links to other related parts of the model.
We explained that our aims were to attract contributions and suggestions from others to help complete the model and, on a more general level, to encourage debate and therefore stimulate more interest in this field of research as a whole. To this end I constructed a messaging board system that was quite sophisticated but very easy to use. You did not need to register, supply your e-mail address or anything else in order to make a contribution. The messaging system also incorporated a forum facility which meant that contributors could reply directly to the comments of others. For those who wished for a more discreet interaction, I created a link to a private e-mail account Boom had set up for the purpose.
When it came to a name, Boom was happy to go along with my suggestion, which was in keeping with the serious nature of the project, yet still had a subtle air of mystery about it. I hope the reader will understand my reluctance in revealing it here. Although all traces of the website have long since been removed from the face of the internet, the key role it played in the disturbing events that were to follow make it difficult for me to mention it even now.
The day the site went live Boom and I celebrated at the local pub. We talked about how this could be the start of a whole new era for the Ex-Files, perhaps the start of of something really big and God knows what else. Over the next few days we both kept going to the site every few hours to see if anyone had left any messages. No-one had. In fact overall site visits were disappointing, though I knew it was unreasonable to expect too much from a new site, especially one we did not really want to publicise for fear of attracting the wrong sort of person. After three weeks the only things on the message board were a couple of attempted witticisms by what we assumed were bored schoolboys. Gradually we checked the site less and less, and life went more or less back to normal. Except for one thing. I slowly began to get the distinct impression that Boom was conducting an extra Ex-Files investigation of his own. One he did not want me to know about. I could not quite put my finger on what he was up to, and nothing showed up on the website; indeed there were times when I thought I must have been imagining it. But now and then he would let the odd comment slip out, and if I tried to query it he would be evasive. One time he even snapped at me, which was not like him at all. And so, when I received the following e-mail:
Finally had a tickle! Get over here ASAP.
I thought I might finally get to the bottom of the mystery. I replied immediately, saying I would be round at his place that evening.
When Boom opened the door I could see he was halfway through having a wash. He said he would not be long, so I went into the lounge to wait while he headed back to the bathroom. I had not been round to his flat for a while and the first thing I noticed was that his desk and the area around it were piled high with books, files, photocopied documents and other papers. So he had been up to something!
Whatever it was that Boom was working on had completely taken over that side of the room. Behind his desk the wall was covered in a chaotic mass of papers: photocopied articles from academic journals and pages from books, printouts of material downloaded from the internet, newspaper clippings, tables, charts, diagrams, drawings, photos and goodness knows what else. Virtually everything was covered in scribbled notes, underlinings and various other hand-written annotations, adding to the impression of feverish, almost frenzied activity. In fact the whole scene reminded me of the kind of thing detectives in films find when they stumble upon the lair of a deranged, obsessive serial killer.
I went over and tried to make sense of it all, but to no avail. The books, which were scattered all over the place, at least gave me some clue about the nature of Boom’s research. I could see they were serious works, and judging by the titles mostly on religious or related topics: Medieval Heresy, The Forbidden Bible, Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Time, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe, The Passover Plot, The Other God, The Western Esoteric Traditions, The Lost History of Christianity, were but a few of what I saw there. And they had all clearly been consulted at length, because every one bristled with bits of paper or card serving as makeshift bookmarks, presumably pointing back to particularly useful sections of text.
Then, as I looked over the desk further, I noticed that in the middle of the chaos an A3 sheet had actually been sellotaped to the desk top. I recognised this as a ‘master sheet,’ an old student trick of Boom’s to compensate for the messy way he worked and designed to make sure his most important ideas did not get lost in his research notes and jottings. He would tape a blank sheet of paper down and only write on it if a truly significant thought or conclusion came to him. Unfortunately I could make neither head nor tail of the notes on the master sheet. His handwriting, crabbed at the best of times, was rendered even more illegible by the obvious haste with which he had noted things down; a situation made still worse by the fact that the alignment of the entries, which often overlapped and ran into each other, varied according to which side of the desk he was standing on when he had a given flash of inspiration. And when you added all the underlinings, crossings out, corrections, additions, the asterisks and other symbols used to highlight a word or phrase, as well as the numerous lines and arrows snaking their way across the sheet cross-referencing one thought with another, then I could well imagine a seasoned code-breaker from Bletchley Park throwing up his arms in disbelief and walking away.
There was, however, one beacon of clarity shining through the confusion- a single line of carefully written text, thrice encircled in bright red felt-tip which served not only to highlight the importance of the information contained within, but also to protect it from the babble of chaos trying to encroach upon it from all sides. I knew straightaway that this was an important conclusion; more than that I suspected it was in fact the conclusion, the answer to whatever it was Boom was so desperately looking for. It took the form of a mathematical formula—complete with equals sign—but instead of numbers and symbols it consisted of words and abbreviations. I stared at it long and hard, trying to divine its meaning. I was concentrating so much I did not hear Boom enter the room behind me.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he shouted angrily, making me nearly jump out of my skin.
‘I, I was just looking at your research...’
‘That stuff’s private!’
‘Sorry, Boom,’ I mumbled, quite abashed. I had rarely seen him so angry. ‘I didn’t realise it was off limits. It was on open display and I, er...’
‘On open display?’ he sneered. ‘So what? Does that mean if I left a personal letter on my desk you’d just pick it up and read it?’
‘No, no of course not! I’m sorry, I thought this was the stuff you asked me over about.’
‘Well it isn’t.’
He must have seen I was quite put out by the vehemence of his outburst because when he spoke again his tone had softened considerably.
‘What do you know about the O.C.C. ?’ he asked quietly.
‘The Order of the Crimson Chalice.’
I shook my head. ‘Never heard of them.’
‘Can’t say I’m surprised,’ he remarked drily. ‘They make the Vril Society look like a bunch of rampant exhibitionists.’
‘You’re joking! So who are they then?’
‘Damned if I know.’ He sighed heavily. ‘They haven’t come up on the radar anywhere. Not a single mention. And believe me, I’ve looked! Anyway, a little while back someone got in touch, claiming to be a member...’
‘So what convinced you he was genuine?’ I realised Boom would not have taken his research this far if he believed the O.C.C. a hoax. Which meant he already had evidence to the contrary.
He grinned, pleased to see my time with Kate had not completely destroyed my critical faculties. ‘Well, the jury’s still out– you know how suspicious I am, but you’re right, there are certain indicators.’
‘So firstly, there’s been no hard sell, no attempt to convince me the Order really exists or anything like that. I’ve not been given any documentary evidence about its origins, there’s been no potted history, no list of members, nothing. In fact my source—who’s never identified himself—made it pretty clear from the outset that wasn’t his purpose.’
‘So what was his purpose, then?’
‘Well, that’s the funny thing– he wouldn’t tell me that either. Instead he said he was going to give me enough information for me to work it out for myself.’
‘So either he really is genuine, or he’s found a very novel way of leading you up the garden path.’
‘Exactly. As I say, the jury’s still out, but what he’s sent up till now has been very interesting.’
‘Really?’ This was getting more intriguing by the minute.
‘Yeah. And there’s been plenty for me to go at. That’s what I’ve been doing these last three weeks. Every few days I get an e-mail telling me to have a look at a specific piece of research. It’s always something connected to the model, but there’s always an extra twist to it as well...’
‘Well, for one thing he keeps putting me on to stuff about these weird medieval heretical sects I’ve never even heard of!’
I chuckled approvingly. ‘I don’t know what his game is, but he’s certainly no mug!’
‘Exactly. Anyway, the e-mails always follow the same pattern. He refers me to some detail in a published source —always a serious academic study, another point in his favour—and then adds some insight of his own, some additional information, some interpretation no-one else has ever come up with. Something that throws a whole new light on what is already out there.’
‘Now that is interesting.’
‘Yeah. And the most remarkable thing of all is that although every one of these insights was startling in its own right, after a while I began to realise they were part of a much bigger picture. And when you took them all together you could see they were hinting at something. Something absolutely mind-blowing.’
‘Which is?’ By now I really was on the edge of my seat.
Boom grinned. ‘I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to reveal any more at this point.’
‘It’s all a bit cloak and dagger isn’t it?’ I snorted, deeply disappointed.
‘Well, I’ve already told you more than I should’ve. My source made me promise not to tell anyone about him or the O.C.C. To be honest I get the impression he’s a bit jumpy. I suppose he’s leaking stuff he shouldn’t be and is scared to death of being found out.’
‘I still don’t see where all this is heading.’
‘Well, neither did I at first. But I think I’ve worked enough of it out now to make a pretty good guess. And if I’m right, what we’re talking about is so monumental, so earth-shattering, it’ll have a whole section in Mind, Body and Spirit to itself!’
‘You’re joking!’ I gasped. I knew Boom was not given to exaggeration.
‘Yeah. I’m just waiting now for him to send me the final bits of evidence to confirm my suspicions.’
‘What’ll you do then?’
‘That’s where you come in. What I’ve got, what I think I’ve got, is potentially so explosive I daren’t even think about believing it till I’ve had independent verification. Arthur C. Clarke’s unavailable, so you’ve got the gig.’
‘But I thought you were sworn to secrecy!’ I objected. Actually I was very flattered Boom intended to involve me in this very exciting development.
‘I am, but I also think my source ultimately wants me to go public with this stuff. Otherwise why tell me in the first place?’
I nodded. ‘Fair point.’
‘But I’d have to be certain first. Absolutely certain. Put it this way, if I revealed this stuff to the world and it then turned out to be a hoax, it’d make falling for the Hitler Diaries look like a minor lapse of judgement.’
Boom fell silent and so did I. There was a lot to take in. Then a very surprising thought suddenly occurred to me:
‘Hold on a minute! You said this wasn’t what you’d asked me over to talk about!’
He grinned. ‘That’s right. You’ve been in the game long enough now to know that Ex-Files are like buses– you wait for ages and then two turn up at once.’
‘So what’s the other thing?’
‘This baby.’ Boom handed me an e-mail printout which went as follows:
I am highly impressed with the theoretical model you have posted on your website. I myself have devoted many years to related fields of study and feel I may be of no small assistance in the furtherance of your own work.
If you are interested in my offer, I propose an informal meeting where we can discuss the matter further. I am presently based in Central France, but would be willing to come up to Paris if that is convenient.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Professor R. P. Haywood
P.S. For reasons that will become apparent in due course, I would prefer it if you did not discuss the contents of this message with anyone else.
As soon as I finished reading I looked up. ‘When did you get this?’
‘A couple of days back.’
‘So what are you going to do?’
Boom grinned again. Even more widely this time. ‘I’ve already told the Professor we’re going.’
‘We’re going!? I think he’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want anyone else involved!’
‘Okay, I said, “I’m going,” but I thought you’d want to come along for the ride.’ I must have looked doubtful because Boom added, ‘Come on, it’ll be a laugh! We could go for a long weekend. I can meet the Nutty Professor alone and after that we can have a wild time in Paris!’
Boom’s words made me chuckle. I always found his enthusiasm hard to resist. ‘Alright then. So when are we talking about?’
‘Don’t know yet. I asked the Professor to pick a few dates next month, all weekends, and we’ll take it from there.’
‘So have you found out anything about him?’
‘Nope. He hasn’t come up in any web search. So either he’s kept a very low profile, or he’s using a pseudonym.’
‘Or this is a hoax.’
He laughed. ‘Maybe. But if this hoax gets us a weekend in Paris, I won’t be complaining too much.’
I could not fault Boom’s logic. I have to admit I was excited at the prospect of a Paris adventure. I was also excited because the website I had designed had now produced two very promising leads. It looked as if the Ex-Files were really starting to take off.
Over the ensuing weeks Boom and Professor Haywood exchanged a number of e-mails, and the trip to Paris was fixed for one weekend in May. We were due to go over on a Friday evening. We booked ourselves into a small hotel the Professor recommended in the twelfth arrondissement. He himself would not be able to make it to Paris till Saturday evening, and arranged to meet Boom at eight o’ clock in the café Saint-Félix, which was just round the corner from the hotel.
On a more disappointing note, Boom’s other interesting lead, the source from inside the mysterious O.C.C. suddenly went quiet, and had sent no new messages for several weeks. Boom did not seem overly concerned by this, or if he was he did not reveal his concerns to me.
Barely two days before we were due to leave, Boom unexpectedly turned up at my flat. He did not waste any time getting straight to the point:
‘Looks like I won’t be going to Paris after all.’
‘I know. It’s a real bind, but there’s nothing I can do about it.’
‘So what’s happened?’ I asked irritably, unable to contain my disappointment.
‘Well, you know that big conference we’ve got in Nottingham at the weekend, the one I’d carefully managed to body-swerve...’
‘That idiot Tomlinson, the one who was supposed to be giving a presentation for our department– well, he’s very inconsiderately decided to go down with appendicitis. And guess who’s been brought in off the subs’ bench.’
I threw up my hands in despair. ‘Can’t they find someone else?’
‘Not really. And before you say it– it’d be career suicide to say no.’
‘So what are we going to do now?’
‘We go ahead as planned. It’s just that now you’ll be the one meeting the Professor.’
‘But he’s expecting you!’
‘Not anymore. I’ve e-mailed him explaining the situation. I’ve told him who you are and that you’ve been involved in the Ex-Files since day one.’
‘So what did he say to that?’
‘He hasn’t got back to me yet.’
Boom chuckled. ‘I don’t know what you’re getting so het up about. I’m the one who’s missing out. You’re always banging on about how you never have any adventures anymore, so now’s your chance. Besides, Paris’ll be just up your street– the girls all look like Hope Sandoval.’
‘She’s not French!’ I said with a laugh, won over as usual by his infectious optimism.
‘Well she ought to be. Anyway, you get the idea.’
So that was that. Two days later I was on the Eurostar heading for Paris. The nightmare was about to begin.