The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 1
"I'm going to grab some air." Side-step rises, directing a look of pointed disgust at the plump policeman. "It's getting stuffy in here. I'll be back in about an hour." Striding from the room, he contrives to push past the constable. Matt Culver raises an eyebrow.
A ugly silence is filled as John Henry pushes aside his dismembered custard tart, and breezes to the side of the constable, who is still regarding the closing door with an expression of comical disbelief, a fistful of sugar-lumps poised over his cup.
"Good afternoon, Constable. I'm John Henry of Orgus Antiques - my colleagues and I are staying here for the next few days. I couldn't help overhearing what you just said - is there any way I can be of assistance?"
"If a poor girl is missing I am sure that we would be willing to help in any search party, if you are short of men and feel we could be of assistance," adds Professor Twitchin, also approaching. "We would not want to get in the way."
Darius enthusiastically concurs, and as Brice responds to his questions about the missing girl, the policeman gradually recovers his air of phlegmatic bonhomie.
In any case, Side-step's abrupt exit serves to distract Brice from observation of Riggs' reaction to his words. The crockery rattles as Riggs grips the table, shaking convulsively, and drawing his breath with difficulty. Broken phrases are audible from between his teeth.
"My god they're here already... is nowhere safe... poor girl... poor, poor girl... I'll find you... they can't hurt me again because now I know their secrets... we are but old friends... and we will meet again..." His guarded gaze, alive with suspicion, flicks from face to face, resting with increasing frequency upon that of Darius.
Outside, Side-step leans up against the wall of the corner shop, and lights a cigarette, staring across the fields to where a distant cedar fragments into a flurry of rooks that whirl and settle like sand grains in water.
His inspection of the war memorial is interrupted when a twinge from his trained instincts informs him that he is being watched. Across the square, a man in a long, tan overcoat busies himself with a bus timetable, but casts occasional surreptitious glances towards the SITU agent. Side-step strolls to the corner shop window, in order to observe the other's reflection under cover of regarding the display, but by the time he reaches it, the watcher is gone.
Walking instead into the newsagents, he buys twenty Benson's, and attempts to start a conversation with the proprietor, Gill Sexton.
This conversation proves easy to start but almost impossible to guide. Side-step is treated to numerous family anecdotes, including much coy reference to "my Leo's problem", always accompanied by a conspiratorial wrinkling of the nose, to indicate its delicate medical nature.
"For a small village you certainly seem to have a large contingent of police in the area. What's all the drama?"
"It's a man hunt! Little girl killed and found in bits over the fields, or that's what they're saying. And usually it's so quiet here, just the odd New Age people making fires in corn and leaving gates open. And badgers, of course... Mary, the far end of the shelf, you dopey girl." Her daughter, a rather pretty, pale girl in her late teens, who had clearly been sidling into earshot under cover of arranging a stack of motoring magazines, bows her blond head in agitation.
Back in the guest house, meanwhile, Karen Norse returns to the dining room for the dirty plates. Culver courteously stands and helps to gather them. Her attempt to take them from him is greeted by a playful slap on the wrist, and she succumbs to his aid with an amused smile.
Karen's curiosity is clearly piqued by the odd appearance of the "Orgus agents", and is as keen as Culver to glean information from a tête-à-tête. Nonetheless, she responds to his gently flirtatious manner, the corners of her mouth trembling humorously as she attempts to maintain a frown of disapproval. The flesh of her neck and shoulders deepen into a blush.
"Tracey Hammond? Nice little thing, really. Not much up top, but no trouble either. She's a bit... impressionable. Hangs around with Neil Lewis and Mary Sexton a lot. But I expect the police have talked to the other children..."
Culver makes a casual reference to Bamworth line, and finds that his hostess becomes uncommunicative. An emergency in the kitchen suddenly demands her attention.
Professor Twitchin meanwhile, prompted by Darius, telephones the Bamworth Estate. Harriet Bamworth's voice is warm and cultured, and she seems more than willing to satisfy all queries.
"Orgus Antiques? Ah, yes, we were told to expect you. Yes, naturally you'll want to see the books. Perhaps you would like to attend a private viewing of the library that I'm organising library for interested parties tomorrow, at two. No, there's no catalogue as such - only my father's rough notes... Fine. See you tomorrow."
Culver and Twitchin returning to the group, plans are made for the remainder of the day. It is resolved that Dr Culver and Professor Twitchin will investigate the local church, John Henry will visit the site of the meteor strike, and Darius and Benedict will assist in the search for the missing girl.
"Let's settle a time to meet up again at the Star," suggests Matt Culver. "We could recreate the pub scene from American Werewolf in London."
John Henry finds the location of the meteor strike with difficulty. At last a small sign affixed to a footpath post indicates that an expanse if unbroken grass twenty yards from the road is the site of the "Fallen Star". Following a trail of similar signs, apparently set up to satisfy the curiosity of tourists, Henry learns that the meteor was thought to have descended to earth no later than the tenth century, long before the establishment of the village. The "star" has a high magnetic iron content, and tends to cause erratic behaviour in compasses.
Two girls in their twenties sit cross-legged upon the grass, wearing dreadlocks and a look of intense concentration. Smoke curls from a tiny steel bowl between them, the smell of incense mixing with that of wet grass. Nearby, a skinny dog is tethered to a pair of rucksacks. The girls prove unresponsive to even the most arduous questioning.
Culver and Twitchin find the church empty. The new grave of Sir Harvey Bamworth, with its gleaming white headstone and scarlet wreaths is a stark contrast to the mouldering greys and greens of the graveyard. Many stones have become illegible through moss, weather and subsidence into the soil, but some are clearly several centuries old. Professor Twitchin notes the recurrence of several family names, some of which he recalls from a cursory glance at the war memorial - Bamworth, Drayes, Hurst, Friar, Farrel, O'Keefe, Collins, Lewis...
Inside, the church is well kept, but the dusky stained glass windows let in little light. Ornate carvings adorn the pews and pulpit. At first glance, Culver takes one such as a representation of "Ruth amid the alien corn". A closer study, however, shows stripes across the woman's midriff that resemble ropes. Despite the crudity of the blackened wood, her face is clearly distorted. She stands up to her knees not in corn, but in flames...
Darius and Benedict are guided to the fields where Tracey's clothes have been found, by Constable Gordon Wise, a young man with a radiant but vacant smile who along with Brice seems to comprise the entirety of Middlechase's police force.
The rain has now ceased, but progress through the footpaths are difficult, since the water has pooled on the sun-cooked soil. The dogs brought in for tracking purposes from nearby villages flatten themselves to the ground when they are led to the fields, making low noises in their throats.
As the afternoon proceeds, Darius McGregor and Benedict Riggs stray further and further from the rest of the search party, until, as darkness start to descend, they become aware that they have seen and heard nothing of the police for some time.
Benedict betrays signs of increasing nervousness. Several times he appears eager to draw the attention of Darius to figures watching from the dark of the hedge, figures that his companion cannot detect. At last, he abruptly announces his resolution to return to the village, and leaves Darius to his search.
The walk back alone is an eerie experience. In the darkness the corn is colourless, lustreless, and quivers in the wind like the fur of an animal trembling in sleep. There is a queer sibilance in the breeze, as if a thousand insects were talking in whispers. In the distance, Riggs hears a sequence of muffled gunshots.
Riggs enters the tavern to find Twitchin, Culver, Side-step and Henry already congregated in a quiet corner of the pub, Culver insisting on buying drinks for all. The beer is excellent, but the atmosphere appears a little strained. Oblique looks are continually cast at the visitors, and conversations conducted in muted tones.
"Perhaps we should return to one of the rooms in the guest house," suggests Henry. "It would give us a chance to get to know each other better, which will help our cover, if nothing else!"
The party agree to this suggestion, and retire to the guest house, to compare information gathered. Riggs and Twitchin have both bought copies of the local paper, the Watcher. Since it is a weekly publication, it has no details yet upon the disappearance of Tracey Hammond, but it does include an advertisement for the Bamworth auction. It also gives details of Middlechase Midsummer Festival to be held on Saturday, 21 June. To judge by the coverage, this appears to be a very significant local event.
John Henry waits for the conversation to dwindle before clearing his throat.
"Let me make it clear that I'm not here because I believe for one second that there's anything in this paranormal nonsense, oh no no! Ghosts and magic and UFOs - they're all just fairytales for the gullible. I know it, and you know it, too - if you think about it. But I am interested in why people believe this rubbish, and that's why I'm here. I'm writing a book on the subject, in fact, and I wonder - would any of you agree to be interviewed for it? Confidentiality is guaranteed!" Psion Organizer at the ready, John Henry beams confidently towards the gallery of different expressions that meet his eye.
Darius, meanwhile, stumbling through darkness over the slippery mud, is only prevented from abandoning his quest by a certainty that several times he has heard a distant, recurring sound, a noise half way between a sob and a broken note.
At last he observes a shadowy break in the corn - something has trampled a path through the field. Following this path, he glimpses something white beyond the swaying stalks.
A young girl of delicate build is curled in her petticoat in a make-shift nest amid the corn, quite invisible from the footpath. At the sound of approach, she raises her head with a frightened moan. Reflexively, Darius takes off his jacket and puts it around the trembling figure.
"The birds..." she whispers, "The black birds with the ladies' faces... you won't let them talk to me any more, will you?"