The Devil’s Chessboard

A narrow tar road threads through the densely thicketed hills above the river Salz, the only access route to the sanitarium, a high security garbage bin for the certifiably insane. There are no sign posts pointing to the facility, nor can you find it on googlemaps. The perimeter fence enclosing the cluster of sterile concrete buildings is nestled so snugly into the hills as to be all but invisible to casual ramblers. No-one seems to care what goes on behind the fence or whether the facility really houses France’s equivalent of Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers, quietly awaiting the day the electronic locks fail. 

There are ugly rumours surrounding the fate of the ferals rousted out of the caves by the vigilantes during the battle of the Buggstone three years ago. Several were allegedly confined to this nameless facility and subjected to involuntary medication that reduced them to a docile, semi-catatonic state. Uranie, the little sorcerer of the River of Colors, made the same claim, insisting he had been forcibly injected with Aldol during his confinement. Those that received this treatment seldom returned to normal, but then ‘normal’ has always been a slippery concept in the Zone.
“The kid’s name’s Grendel. Grendel la Page. He’s got one previous.”
“You’re kidding me?”,
 I snorted, rekindling my joint. “That’s got to be phony.”
“That’s what it says on the rap sheet,” brother Pyke shrugged, slowing the van as the facility came into view. “Apparently he robbed a supermarket two years ago. We got his ID number.”
“What kind of mother would call her son that?”
 I shook my head, eyeing the CCTV cameras on the perimeter fence. “Grendel, I mean?”
“Beats me.” Parking up just south of the facility’s main gate, Pyke dusted himself off, thinking through the next move.  “Apparently his dad still lives in the Zone. Maybe JC can find him on facebook. He’ll be easier to track that way.” “He’s lucky I didn’t cut off his arm.”

I got out of the van, walking a few more paces to the crest of the hill. Before me the valley lay silent, mid-morning sun glinting on the coil of the river below. My quarry was out there somewhere, hiding in that wintery sea of trees.

“He wasn’t working alone,” I mused, managing a reasonable smoke ring. “We need to find out who sent him.”
Pyke nodded, following my logic. “JC and the dogs will get him if he’s still in the valley. Unless he’s taken himself right off the chessboard…

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I watched the ring of smoke drift out over the trees, growing thin and wispy before vanishing into nothingness.

Only a few old timers, like brother Pyke and myself, still refer to the Zone as the ‘Devil’s Chessboard’. Used to be a time when you could buy bumper stickers and tshirts proudly proclaiming you had visited the place but nowadays the New Agers shun such casual diabolism, favouring sunnier appellations such as the ’terrestrial temple’, ‘valley of the cross’ or ’womb of Isis’. The chessboard analogy still carries weight however, even in the 21st century, the more so this day with the news of Henry Lincoln’s passing still hovering in the air like smoke. Of course the Zone existed long before Henry came along but his BBC documentaries and the appearance of ‘THE HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL’ in 1982 helped popularise the mystery. 

Like all too many pilgrims, I might never had set foot in this labyrinth were it not for Henry’s research and a colourful photograph in ‘UNEXPLAINED’ magazine of the daemon Asmodeus that caught my attention as a teenager. In the summer of 1990, I detoured from a trip to the Cote d’Azure to visit the church I had read about all those years before and in doing so set in motion a chain of consequences that continue to impact upon me to this day. 

Henry Lincoln ( 12 Feb 1930 – 32 Feb 2022) lived and died in the Zone, spending his twilight years as a virtual recluse on a property not four hundred yards from where I now stood, perched on the same bluff as the asylum. The official obituary in the Telegraph claimed Henry had breathed his last back in Blighty, at home in the Cotswolds but that’s not true. He died here in the centre of the pentagram where he belonged. Under normal circumstances, I would have stopped to mourn him, just as I might have lit a candle to the Ukraine, the Russian invasion having taken place within the same 24 hours as Henry’s passing but instead I found myself caught up in a junior league manhunt.

The concept of the ‘Devil’s Chessboard’ finds expression in the white and black tiles on the floor of the church of Marie Madeleine. The tiles recall both a Masonic lodge and the 64 squares of a traditional gaming board, flanked by a daemon on one side and Christ on the other – a symbolic confrontation between opposing forces, a theme mirrored throughout the Zone where literally everything comes in pairs. 

There are two ‘Rennes’ – Rennes-le-Chateau and Rennes les Bains – literally the two Queens of the chessboard – light and dark – les deux reines. Just as every village has its own dual character, so sunlit, bourgeois Rennes les Bains has its shadow side. Across the river from the fading spa town is its chaotic antithesis, Rennes les Chien’ or ‘Dog Town’, the community of shiftless drifters and marginals, society’s rejects and discontents who have taken refuge in the trees and caves. I knew if I was going to have any chance of locating Grendel, let alone comprehending his motives, I would find the answers in the community’s barely repressed unconscious, amidst the yurts, teepees and benders of Dog Town. 

Mirroring the Maison Bethany on the far side of the valley is the rambling stone walled home of the second Richard, the true guardian of the forest and leader of the ferals. Like myself, this second Richard is a former Afghansi, a veteran of the silk road who still proudly displays the Peshawari plates that once adorned his truck back in the good gone days, nor do the ‘coincidences’ end there. We are almost exactly the same age, both Scorpios, born only days apart, having taken utterly different paths in life only to find ourselves arriving in the same valley and the same third act, sitting out the apocalypse on opposite sides of the river. 

This second Richard, the defacto Duke of Dog Town, is based in a compound just below the insane asylum, his property separated from the facility by a line of leafless trees and a vibracrete wall  decorated in psychedelic camouflage. The worlds on either side of that wall could scarcely be more different, yet unwittingly reflect each other, another example of the mirroring commonplace on the cosmo-teluric chessboard. 

A day-glo mural decorated the approach to the Duke’s front gate, portraying the two things that mattered most – the Goddess and the moon. We didn’t need to ring the bell. The dogs already knew us and their owner was working out front in the vegetable garden, stripped to the waist and making the most of the unseasonable February sunshine. He looked totally blitzed.

““Looking for the kid, huh?” The Duke narrowed his eyes as he drew himself to his feet, abandoning work on the patch
“Word travels fast.” I nodded, surveying the compound, taking in the recent modifications my namesake had made to his rambling, open plan home. “Eh bien, il n’est pas ici.”
“I know. “
The Duke looked silently on as I admired his recent handiwork. The wiry veteran of a thousand psychic wars was one of the most capable individuals I’ve ever met and definitely someone you’d want to have on your team in the event of a zombie apocalypse. He’d been laying the foundations for an extension to his abode, a bathroom/ shower complex and as usual had done excellent work.
“I see you’re putting in une salle de bains. We may have some tiles for you back at the house.”

Water was a habitual problem on the ridge. For the last many years the Duke of dogs had done his daily bathing in the hot springs and been forced to yomp fresh water from the source but now it looked like he was finally getting plumbed in. His Tolkienesque abode is probably the most beautiful home in the valley, set back into the hill, built without consent or planning permission on land whose legal title is less than certain. Freed from bureaucratic constraint, my namesake followed his heart to create his own self-sustaining, pot fuelled paradise where dogs, cats, rabbits and horses cohabit without fuss. Guns, knives and disputes are habitually left at the gate.The Duke likes his world this way and gets twitchy if anyone draws attention to his proximity to the mental hospital, having studiously landscaped his domain to avoid any and all trace of his immediate neighbours. The windows of his domain all face one way, looking due west over the valley towards the Templar citadel of Bézu, affording a magisterial view across the treetops, across this other Richard’s imagined kingdom, across the Zone and all that lies therein.

“We’ve just about got him.” Brother Pyke confirmed a text.
“Grendel?” I accepted the smoke proffered by my namesake.
“Yep. We’ve got his facebook. Apparently he headed out of the village and spent the night in the spring cave. Even posted a photo of his camp fire.”
“What a berk.”
“You said it. JC will get him. What do you want to do?”

“Pick him up and bring him back to the house.” I straightened my hat, deciding on a course of action. “We’ll convene a citizen’s court – oyer and terminer – hear and determine.”

I’d studied the witch hunts of the past in some detail over the course of the year since the  ‘777 attack’. Moreover, I’d been forced to apply some of the techniques I read about, techniques that had been used against me by my adversaries, tactics for controlling gossip and maintaining some sort of order in these backwoods.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with the witches.” The Duke of dogs shrugged.
“I agree. But better safe than sorry.” I watched as Pyke texted the hunting party.
“One of the ladies from the CBD store says the kid left a message on her daughter’s answering service last night,”noted Pyke.
“Grendel, huh?” I raised one eyebrow. “You got a time for that call?”
“Must have been right after he left your place,” Pike concluded. “She said he was laughing like a demon.”
“That sounds like Grendel”, I concurred. “Best we hear what he has to say when they bring him in. I’m sure he’ll have a tale.”
The Duke fixed me with a stony gaze. “Watch out for JC”. “What?” I blinked.
“I said, watch JC.”
“The dogs have got him surrounded,” Pyke kept one eye on the incoming texts.
“There’s no way out.”
“If you give that acolyte of yours too much power, if you let him see too much, he’ll take you down”, warned the Duke.”Ne dis pas que je ne te l’ai pas dit.”

I nodded slowly, not wanting my counterpart’s paranoia to infect me. Cabin fever is a real issue in the Zone where consensus ‘reality’ is a little woozy at the best of times, where false accusations ricochet like bullets fired into a steel drum and Chinese whispers are capable of multiplying themselves until they are powerful enough to destroy entire communities. I knew the Duke was pretty well informed but he had shown past form for believing too much of the malicious gossip that inevitably came his way on the bush telegraph. At the height of the first Covid confinement, he’d developed an alarming conviction that a stealth alien invasion was underway and insisted for several weeks on checking the belly buttons of all who entered his compound. After much gentle ribbing, I’d succeeded in convincing him he was better off checking teeth instead, working on the premise you could tell genuine natural born from xenomorphic impersonators by their dental work.

“JC thinks he’s your natural successor,” hissed the Duke. “I mean, don’t you find it  a little convenient he wasn’t around when the shit hit the fan?”
“The thought had occurred.”
“Your disciple’s been busy down at the springs these last many weeks. He’s building a small army of little witches and wannabe warlocks. You empowered him by taking him on as an apprentice and now it’s gone to his head. Si vous n’y mettez pas fin, ce sera l’enfer à payer.”
“You’re telling me he set Grendel up?”
The Duke shrugged. “Peut-être. Maybe he was counting on the kid to peel your potatoes. Either that or hoping you’d take a shot at him and they’d get you on assault charges, which would clear the way for him to take your place, to become the Grand Dragon or Great Buffalo or Wizard of fuckin’ Oz or whatever the hell it is you people like to call yourselves.” 
“Us people?” I shook my head. “I’m not one of anyone. And I don’t have an official title. ‘Hey you’ will do fine.”
“JC’s made contact,” added Pyke, brandishing the phone to get my attention. “They’re holding the kid at the cave. Do you want them to bring him in like you asked?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, wishing life were simpler. “Tell him I’m on my way.”
“Do you want them to do up his hands?”
“Nah. That’s cool. I trust him not to run. We need to play this by the book, within the letter of the law.”
“JC and the other dogs may make a big song and dance out of obeying you now,” snarled the Duke. “But I know these people. They’d kill you as soon as break wind.
These neo-pagan new age freaks are so fucked up, it devastates the mind. They’re utterly unpredictable – fous absolus! You have no idea what associating with them can do to you.”

“You got any better ideas? I mean what would you do, if you were in my shoes, living on my side of the river?”
The Duke looked me up and down. For a moment he seemed almost thoughtful. “An old man in Frontier Province told me something I’ve always remembered,” he said at length. “He was an old muj and had lived long enough. Il avait vécu toutes sortes de merdes. He told me if you think someone’s doing you wrong, it’s not for you to judge. 
Kill them first and then God can do the judging.”
“Merci, that’s really frakkin’ helpful,” I hissed, motioning for brother Pyke to follow me back towards the van and the unpleasant task that lay ahead.

And beyond, like a tapestry unfurling, the Zone silently waited for us to make the next move…

If you want to support Tales from the Zone by Richard Stanley, you can do say via PayPal donations.

Thank you for reading the Richard Stanley blog, Tales from the Zone, a journal that will give outsiders some small insight into our day to day lives in the valleys of French Occitania. Please NOTE these entries are meant to be experienced in order. If you only just found this blog, you can begin reading from the start: Halloween. You can also find Richard Stanley on Twitter, and Facebook. However, Tales from the Zone are only published here.

4 thoughts on “The Devil’s Chessboard”

  1. I managed to watch the chronicle documentaries and am reading pieces of Holy Blood with Henry Lincoln authored. Did he ever have anything to say about the parchments that where discovered and were confirmed to be forgeries?

    Is it just another link in the mysterious puzzle because with the documents being forgeries the entire book is in disrepute no?

  2. Orlando G Acosta

    I always enjoy reading your material, Mr. Stanley. I always learn something new from them. Thank you for your enriching contributions to our lives.

    -Orlando G Acosta

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