Okay, so this is how I ended up at Mania. After solving the internet quest by decoding the clues in the paintings devised in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, I went underground. But I didn't stay off the internet completely, as the police had advised.
Occasionally I would post on an internet discussion list with other researchers, but all my serious investigations were conducted via private email with an intimate, trusted group that we had formed. Little did I know that my email account was being hacked, so that certain parties could keep their eye on my movements and the confidential underground research that I had embarked upon.
Therefore, following another series of bizarre threats, I went back to the police, who groaned that I would never learn my lesson, but officially cautioned the hacker for Computer Misuse.
Meanwhile, I had been approached by a couple of literary agents, but I was still embroiled in the legal and financial complexities of dismantling my company for the divorce. So, I put my writing career on hold, unaware of just how many people were already surreptitiously editing my existing emails into viable manuscripts.
Finally, on January 1, 2003 - almost eight years after my marital separation began - divorce proceedings were initiated and my life could resume. I celebrated with a trip to visit the gang in Paris on January 17th, the Feast Day of Saint Sulpice, the infamous "trigger" date of the secret society called the Priory of Sion.
Just for fun, one of the Frenchies had organized a gathering, which I later described as "the Priory of Sion equivalent of a Star Trek Convention", for all of us to ceremoniously traipse along the old Paris Meridian at the Paris Observatory and then walk the solar meridiana at Saint Sulpice, culminating in a descent into the crypt during the appropriate Newton coordinate. To be honest, it was more of an excuse for a themed performance art party, involving the consumption of copious amounts of food and alcohol, than anything else.
But a month later, to our amusement, a letter was posted from Barcelona to an antiquarian book dealer in the South of France, which eventually wended its way to me. The letter was signed by the alleged secretary of the Priory of Sion, dated 27th December, the Feast Day of John the Evangelist, announcing the re-launch of the reformed Priory of Sion, citing our Paris ceremony on the 17th January as the first "official" Assembly.
Let the games begin! We didn't need the internet, we were going to play prankster ping-pong out in the real world this time.
Just as I was in the process of trying to think of a suitably cryptic way to respond, I was conveniently offered a column in a US magazine. Seizing the opportunity, I used my column to write a "reply" to my new-found invisible pen pal. On the surface, the article read as a colorful but fairly straightforward account of our trip to Saint Sulpice in Paris to "decode" the Priory of Sion's clues, but the subtext was filled with a multitude of in-jokes, if you knew what you were looking for.
But the editor hated it, he didn't want to run the piece. He thought the idea of decoding clues in Leonardo da Vinci's paintings, which would then lead to various locations in Paris and London in search of the hidden secrets of the Priory of Sion, was utterly ridiculous. It would never sell. Why couldn't I write something about aliens instead?
So, while I was off interviewing dead alien skulls in Mexican restaurants, a completely unrelated fictional book was published with a plot revolving around decoding clues in Leonardo da Vinci's paintings, which then led to various locations in Paris and London in search of the hidden secrets of the Priory of Sion. It immediately became a best-seller and a movie deal was announced.
Exasperated, I re-wrote my original article incorporating references to the newly-released book, entitling it "My Soul is at Peace in Saint Sulpice", after the note that my Newton had presciently transcribed a good ten years earlier as "The Amoebas are Screaming". After its US publication, the piece was translated for a French compendium, which was then sent to a “representative” of the Priory of Sion, who responded by "leaking" cryptic fabricated correspondences to me, which I dutifully published on the magazine's website in order to trigger another round of our obscure new game.
As usual, on the surface, everyone completely ignored these public exchanges. But behind the scenes all hell was breaking loose.
Firstly, my article had also been passed to one of the producers of the movie by a record company executive that I knew, but any attempts to make contact with me were intercepted by an ever-increasing number of middlemen.
Consequently, harassment campaigns were launched against me and anyone publicly associated with me. Peoples' livelihoods were damaged. As variations of Stella's adventures - sometimes even my exact words - appeared in more and more books, websites, and even DVDs that were published around this subject matter, I was sent legal notices informing me that I couldn't write about my specific personal experiences anymore because the copyright to this material was now owned by an increasingly long list of authors who were declaring themselves "experts" on this subject.
Hate-pages on websites "exposed" me as a liar, a fraud, revealing a series of imaginary "facts" about me, ranging from completely untrue to outright bonkers. Fabricated emails from me were circulated, some of them presumably generated during the time my email account was hacked or from more recent fraudulent generic accounts. One "expert" authoritatively claimed that I was the victim of a Montauk-style mind control experiment which had inserted fake memories into my consciousness, vowing to publish the sensationally gory story after my death.
Watching the ever-increasing levels of hysteria escalate, our little group went deeper underground, deciding to ride out the storm at first. When that failed, Michael and Richard, who had ignited the original flames of this genre well over twenty years ago, reluctantly decided to launch a lawsuit.
Perhaps the least said about this, the better. All I'll say here is that it was our hero, Chip, who tried to help me salvage the mess at the eleventh hour, but the circus had gotten far too big by that time and there were too many middlemen and bandwagon-jumpers in the way.
I attended court every day, watching grown men in white wigs arguing about the legal complexities of something that didn't actually exist.
It was at this point that I finally decided to concertedly walk away from the whole nightmare, once and for all. In all the delirium, people tended to forget that I had actually started out as a serious businessperson, having co-owned a successful music business company. Now, in the real world, while I earned a tiny crust after my divorce as a freelance writer, constrained by circumstance to write about aliens and other ephemera rather than my own specialty, I had simultaneously been performing an increasing amount of local community and environmental work.
So, I decided to ditch the aliens and faux chivalric orders for good and devote all my efforts to the community. Now I raise money to plant trees, build playgrounds, I've started a football program for disadvantaged kids.
You'd think that the circus would be glad to see the back of me but, when it became known that I planned to escape, the entire fiasco erupted again with a series of defamatory emails being sent to newspapers and even to politicians, in an attempt to "expose" me. In accordance with UK libel law, I ended up appointing a firm of lawyers as my official spokespersons and became embroiled in two more police investigations. One local person was officially cautioned by the police for harassment.
Then, after a year of relative normality, Michael and Richard decided to appeal the judgment so back I went into court again, for moral support.
By a perverse coincidence, the appeal took place over January 17th, the Feast Day of Saint Sulpice... so, in jest, Michael proclaimed that he was handing the duty of chronicling the shenanigans of the Priory of Sion over to me on this momentous occasion. Oh goodie, you've given me the Curse of Sion, I noted drolly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they lost the appeal. Afterwards, an agent tried to convince me to finally write The Ultimate Kiss and Tell Book, but I told them that life was too short and happily went back to my trees.
Shortly afterwards, Michael collapsed in the Holy Land while researching his new book. But it was Richard who died first, without warning, just this past November. His death hit me hard as I began to realize just how short life actually was...
A couple of weeks later, in the run-up to Christmas, Chip contacted me out of the blue, we hadn't been in touch for ages. He asked how I was doing and I rambled incoherently, still upset about Richard.
As I obviously needed a therapeutic outlet, he suggested that I write for Mania. Chip had witnessed my tortured, angst-ridden turns before and knew that it made for good theater, if nothing else.
At first I thought the idea was completely bonkers, but I gradually warmed to the concept of reviving Stella's internet adventures. I knew that most of what I wrote probably wouldn't make sense to anyone until months into the future, if ever… but I figured no one would even notice me flitting by on a Saturday. I'm used to being invisible.
Then, the whole National Treasure backstory kicked off and our little gang began to think that Mania might become a safe haven, where we could all hang out again. Just to make sure, I ran the idea by the police, who groaned that I would never learn my lesson, but gave me their blessing as long as I promised only to write bona fide fictional adventure stories and stay off the bloody internet forums.
So, here I am.
Okay, Soph, now let's finish off this bottle of Corbieres rouge, we've got work to do...
Newton Coordinate:- The Feast Day of Saint Valentine, February 14th, on the Greenwich Meridian.