The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 3
Side-step has listened to Dr Culver's concern with some irritation.
"If you ask me, the people of this village are all rubber room candidates. I should be careful about saying things like that in front of Riggs if I were you, Culver, you'll only start him off again. If he carries on the way he's going he'll find himself in a home for looney tunes as well."
Riggs appears, indeed, to have been provoked into a stream of thought, some of which he mutters under his breath in a manner hardly likely to inspire confidence.
"Perhaps this village is being used as some sort of testing site? Perhaps they were trying to use Tracey Hammond in some sort of alien-hybrid experiment when something went terribly wrong and so they had to wipe her mind and leave her out in the fields. Perhaps everyone in the village is connected to this experiment..." He turns to Culver. "You know how AIDS began?" In animated style, he explains that the disease was first contracted by a researcher who was bitten by a monkey that had been injected with alien blood by the American government.
John Henry smiles at these surmises, as he strides confidently towards the house.
"It's quite obvious that the Hammond girl and her friends were out in the fields, experimenting with illegal substances - probably a bit of trendy occult nonsense too, judging by the candle wax Darius found - when things got out of hand. I blame the parents!" he declares, conversationally. "So - let's get on with what we're here for and see about buying those books, eh?"
Professor Twitchin politely hints that this task might be facilitated if only the less unstable or disreputable-looking members of the party were to encounter Harriet Bamworth, but he does not press the point.
As the company approach the house, Side-step breaks off from the drive, heading for the nearest group of cedars.
"You guys go ahead and look at some old books, I'll go and take a sneaky look around the grounds. I'll meet up with you later."
Henry waits for him to leave ear-shot before expressing his concern, not only about the 'Man in Tan' but also about Side-step himself.
"These dodgy organizations - SITU, I mean - can attract all sorts of undesirables and ne'er-do-wells. And do you remember how defensive he was when I asked him about his background. There's a man with something to hide! Tell me, what do you, I or any of us, know about him?"
At its crest, the pot-holed drive dips abruptly into a gravel-strewn courtyard that flanks all visible sides of the house. The Bamworth mansion itself stands some three stories high. It shows signs of renovation, but some sections, notably the tower attached to the western wing, are clearly several centuries old.
"If thee be goin' up to the Master's house, be sure to wear thy garlic..." Matt Culver cowers, crossing himself in cinema-peasant fashion. He straightens quickly and alters his demeanour, however, as the door onto a central first-floor balcony opens, and there are sounds of footsteps on wood above.
"Down in a moment." Professor Twitchin recognises the agreeable purr of a voice he had heard on the telephone the previous day.
Two minutes later, the front door opens.
Harriet Bamworth is engaged in replacing a strap that had been dislodged from one brown shoulder by the attempts of a tortoiseshell kitten to mountaineer its way up the back of her light, sleeveless, summer dress. Her wry, lop-sided smile creates a double dimple in one cheek.
"Welcome to the madhouse."
She leads the group through a narrow hall, checked in black and white like a chess board.
"The other viewers arrived about ten minutes ago, but I thought we'd wait for you." A door at the head of the red-carpeted stairs opens into a large, airy living room. Sunlight pours through the glass doors leading onto the balcony. "Mr Collins, five more for drinks." A grey-haired man with visible veins on his temples nods, then breathes heavily as he strains at the cork of a wine bottle. Harriet Bamworth introduces the 'Orgus Antiques' agents, then her other guests. "This is Peter Sidden, a private collector. Martin Lockwood and Kate Walsh are representatives of another interested party."
Peter Sidden's black suit seems expensively tailored. Where his silver collar-studs catch the light, it is clear that they are engraved with some intricate design. Although his worn features reveal him to be middle aged, his hair is an oily black, perhaps dyed.
Martin Lockwood, a nervous-looking man with sandy hair and a grey, pin-stripe suit, casts a rapid eye over the new arrivals, and visibly relaxes.
Kate Walsh is a slim woman with black, bobbed hair, and a violet dress suit. Her brief flash of a smile exposes an impressive army of straight, white teeth. She extends a hand to be shaken, with all the elegant hostility of a fencing salute.
As Harriet Bamworth leads the way to the library, Culver gives his hostess his condolences, studying her body language in his customary fashion, but can find no ripples in her sleek and easy charm. Her gaze is steady, her manner perfectly polished.
"I hope no-one has a dust allergy. We've been doing our best to sort through, but as you can see, there's so much." The library, a large room with oak-panelled walls, is filled with row after row of shelves, overflowing with books, stuffed ring-binders, boxes stacked high with papers, and loose parchments enfolded by rough, hide bindings.
While the others sift through the library, Harriet answers Professor Twitchin's questions.
"My father approximately doubled the size of the Bamworth library. Unfortunately, the only record he made of his purchases was in his private notebook, which is sketchy and illegible to put it mildly. The front shelves contain mostly twentieth century works, so I suppose that they won't interest you, books by Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley, Graham Gardner, that sort of thing. The older texts are mainly in this area, and towards the back there are boxes of miscellania, documents from the original library, and so forth."
She leads him to a glass-topped display table.
"This might interest you. These parchments appear to be pages from a copy of the sixteenth century version of the Splendor Solis of Solomon Trismosin. As you can see, it's imcomplete, but I think you'll agree that the illuminations are in better condition than that of the copy in the British Museum."
"We have copies of The Sage of The Pyramids, a nineteenth century nonsense-piece, but in excellent condition. The bundle of parchments in the leather binding, however, lays claim to being The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster. Please don't open that, Professor, we'd like to preserve the seal."
"We have had the whole library valued, but we have received radically different assessments. The authenticity of some items have been hotly debated, although I think all of them have value as curiosities. They've been insured since my father's time according to the higher evaluation, but I think I shall be setting the reserve price for auction at £10,000."
Professor Twitchin with difficulty masters his surprise at hearing that his well-informed hostess has chosen to set so low a price upon her truly remarkable library.
Meanwhile, Arthur Collins, Harriet's elderly manservant, responds phlegmatically to Benedict Riggs' questions.
"Yes, Sir Harvey declined for two years or so before his death. In his prime he was as strong as a horse, too. Well, all goes to pot sooner or later." He moves his jaw discontentedly, as if chewing something. "No, sir, I believe if Sir Harvey had been abducted by aliens he would have seen fit to mention it..."
Dr Matt Culver browses through a bundle of the older documents.
...that on Saturday last, about seven in the evening, Avril Bamworth did appeare to him in her usuall wearing clothes, with a ruff about her neck, and presently vanished, turning herself into the similitude of a catt, which fixed close about his leg, whereupon he was much pained at his heart...
Intrigued by this fragment, Culver examines the bundle more closely. It appears to be a transcript of a collection of early witch trials. Unzipping an internal pocket, he slips the bundle inside, wincing as he hears the parchment crackle with the hasty movement.
"Perhaps we could all move up to the living room again." Harriet Bamworth is gently ushering everyone out. "After tea, I was going to give everyone a little guided tour of the house, if no-one has other plans. Oh, and Dr Culver, would you mind not opening that window? I don't want the cats to get in."
Side-step, meanwhile, makes a quick survey of the grounds. The estate seems to cover some two dozen acres, mostly sloping, uncultivated fields. A path through the cedars to the northwest leads to a small wood.
As he had surmised, he quickly finds a white Volvo parked behind the house. The curtains are drawn at all visible windows, and he guesses himself to be unobserved.
The window on the passenger side is open a fraction of an inch. Putting on gloves, Side-Step inserts a loop of tape through this crack. After many attempts, he succeeds in hooking this loop about the knob of the door lock, and coaxing it up.
In the glove compartment he finds a local map of the area, a tortoiseshell make-up case, an RAC membership card under the name of Kate Walsh, and an evening menu for a pub called The Wheatsheaf in the nearby village of Sweffling.
Alerted by the crunch of footsteps, he slips quickly from the car, attempting to nudge the door closed without actually slamming it. As the steps approach, however, he is forced to leave the door imperfectly shut.
From the cover of a distant rhododendron patch, Side-step sees a tall, red-haired man shielding his eyes from the sun as he peers out across the grounds. Side-step resolves to postpone any attempt at illicit entry of the house.
"All aboard for the Mystery Tour! These stairs lead to the chapel, but we're having it renovated. I would take you up the tower, but it's rather dangerous." Harriet leads the group through a labyrinth of tiny corridors and narrow stairways.
Riggs dallies, and uses this opportunity to slip away from the main group.
Harriet leads her visitors along the landing to a long gallery, decked with portraits.
"This is the 'House of Usher' part. Here we have Peter and Jessica Bamworth, parents of our line. The portrait is based on a woodcut in one of the old journals. My father had it painted." A kneeling woman with a Madonna-like moon face smiles up at her husband. Her hand holds a quill.
"This is their son, Matthew Bamworth." A tall man in armour rests his hand on the head of a mastiff. "He was responsible for having his mother burned at the stake... these are Edward and Christopher, his sons... his daughter, Amelia... Edward's son John with his wife Avril." Stark, white faces stare from the grimy canvas, haloed by stiff, pale ruffs. "John showed his respect for family tradition by submitting Avril to a witch-trial." Gazing on the face of Avril, Darius is suddenly reminded of Tracey Hammond's expression of blank, desolate stupefaction.
Harriet walks on, continuing her half-mocking commentary, until at the end of the gallery she reaches a large portrait of Sir Harvey Bamworth. He is depicted seated at a desk, a man of pleasant, robust features, but with a obstinate triple crease between his brows, as if a favourite frown had worn itself into a permanency. Harriet's light amber hair and dark brows are clearly a legacy from her father.
As if leaving the frame of one of the pictures, another figure steps from a doorway. In his face, too, the features of Sir Harvey are reflected, even to a faint shadow of the dead man's frown.
"My cousin, Gerald," Harriet announces, briefly.
Gerald Bamworth approaches, smiling, and puts a negligent arm around Harriet's shoulders as his gaze passes over the assembled company. He is well over six foot, and is dressed in a casual suit and open-necked shirt. Even as he observes the usual courtesies, his rather intimidating grey stare never wavers.
The tour appears to be at an end. Harriet says not a word more, until the visitors are ready to depart.
"Thank you for coming. Do pop in again if you want another look." Only now do Darius's sharp eyes detect the tiniest crack in the enamel of the perfectly charming hostess. As she reaches out her hand to shake his, he sees four neat, red crescents in the heel of her palm, as if from fingernails secretly dug into the flesh.
Benedict Riggs meanwhile, takes an illicit stroll around the premises. The door to the chapel is locked.
Several times he dodges the elderly Collins, warned by his ponderous tread.
In a ground floor kitchen, he observes a young woman seated alone, next to a mop and bucket. She hugs herself, shoulders hunched, and stares at nothingness.
After waiting for Side-step and Riggs to rejoin the group, the agents return to the guest-house.
Culver's manuscript has suffered somewhat in transit, but most of it remains intact. It is comprised of the official accounts of nine witch trials in the year 1566, appended to the private journal of Joseph Bamworth. By the time dinner is served, Culver has deciphered a few pages of the cramped erratic writing, and is becoming certain that the writer was the prey of some overwhelming anxiety.
Telephoning the office of the Watcher, Professor Twitchin is given an appointment to see the newspaper archives on the Monday afternoon. This done, he hands over to John Henry, who is eager to speak to the editor. Impressed by Henry's BBC connections, and evidently intrigued, the editor at last agrees to meet up with him for lunch in Ducklington the next day.
A second attempt to contact Neil Lewis is disheartening. His father's tone has changed. After a few cold, abrupt remarks on the merits of minding one's own business, he hangs up.
After dinner, the group collect once more to pool information. Twitchin finds that Culver is also interested in investigating the lit window next to the school, and after some discussion, the company depart together.
The building, at a closer view, appears to be an ordinary residence, but shares a wall with the school. Through the lit window an old woman can be seen seated, bent over a heap of identical exercise books. As the group watch, she pauses, pencil poised, as if listening. She raises her head. Her eyes are closed. She turns her head slowly until she is facing the watchers.