The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 7
Tuesday 17th June, 4.00 am
Breaking from his dream, Side-step sits up gasping, in the grip of a cold sweat. An instant later, he has raced across the room and thrown open the window.
The night is clear and fills the room with a warm breeze. Craning his head out of the window, he glimpses a grey shape which hovers about the window of Riggs room with a velvet pulse of wings. For an instant, it seems as broad as a kite, and Side-step glimpses a disturbing pallor and deformity about its head and upper breast. A few blinks clear his vision, and this phantom dwindles into a mere bird, which abandons its post and sweeps westward into obscurity as another window further along the wall slams wide, revealing the tousled head of Professor Twitchin.
"Shit!" Side-step takes a moment to light a cigarette. "I've been hanging around with Riggs too much. He'll have me as nutty as him before we're through."
He becomes aware that incoherent screams are even now issuing from Riggs' room. A door slams, and footsteps crescendo along the corridor outside. Side-step's door is all but thundered from its hinges by frenzied knocking, and opens to reveal Benedict Riggs, who abruptly forces his way into the room.
"They're here now... they've arrived and there's no going back, no going back... I saw them float god damn it... I saw them float!" Riggs points a shaking finger at Side-step, his voice a cracked and hysterical shriek. "...and now the corn is coming for us... its coming for you, Anderson!" He twitches convulsively, then crumples, curling into a foetal ball upon the floor.
A somewhat more composed knock heralds the arrival of Dr Culver, who casts a rapid, but appreciative, glance over Side-step's nightwear.
Dressing quickly, Side-step ventures out in search of the bird, leaving Culver to comfort Riggs with his 'emergency half-bottle' of whiskey.
Outside the guest house, Side-step sees the Professor, still apparently in his pyjamas, driving past in the direction that the bird had departed. The night has once again subsided into a sultry stillness, and after a while Side-step returns to his room. Despite Riggs' fervent pleas that the group stay together for the rest of the night, Culver prevails in his suggestion that each return to his own bed to sleep.
After a futile quarter of an hour in search of the grey bird, Professor Twitchin returns to the guest house to dress, then drives towards the Bamworth estate, and parks in a unobtrusive spot from which he can observe the entrance to the main drive.
As the hours pass, the Professor notices the air freshen and silver, promising another blistering day. A little after the birds have begun their first querulous attempts at the dawn chorus, Twitchin fancies he hears a faint sound, like that of slow steps striking the road at a distance. As he strains his ears, an insurmountable drowsiness steals imperceptibly upon him. He wakes a little later, half-dazzled by morning sun.
John Henry joins the group at breakfast, and despite his well-rested appearance, quickly reveals that he has not been immune to all of the night's disturbances.
"I usually find it terribly boring when someone insists on relating their dreams to me," he remarks as Karen Norse fills his cup with coffee, "but I have to say that I did have the strangest dream last night..." The imagery he proceeds to describe are recognisable to all.
"Did you have the dream too? How the hell do you think that was achieved? Some sort of mass hallucination?" Culver looks less than convinced by his own suggestion, but Henry cheerfully agrees.
"It's strange and disturbing, I know, but it does happen. I once went down to South Wales to interview a class of thirty primary school children who all claimed to have seen a 'UFO' land in their school field.
"In another case I investigated, over one hundred grown men and women in a little village in Italy swore blind that their church's statue of the Madonna climbed down from its plinth on a feast day and danced a galliard on the altar! That's what I call Mass hallucination!" The journalist allows himself a hearty laugh at his own joke.
Darius is unsatisfied with such explanations, but his patient reiteration of his views concerning the reality of witchcraft are cut short by Side-step, who seems to be in a surly, uncommunicative mood.
"Load of bollocks," he snaps, before returning to taciturnity.
The Professor has spent a few moments in silence, as he mulls over the dream in his mind. "Maybe I've not been getting enough sleep," he remarks, tentatively, "but there seems to be a chess motif developing. Rooks, chequerboards, queen-like white ladies with ruffs, sacrifices, black and white, male and female..."
"Yes, there's something odd about the gender divide in this village," agrees Culver. "Men and women just seem too... separate. I wonder if the women still bear some historical resentment. Perhaps we should try to investigate that, this morning."
"It seems to me that so far our investigations have been going around in circles," opines Darius. "SITU should have briefed us more thoroughly if they thought there would be something sinister about this auction. As it is, we are learning nothing by treading softly-softly - I reckon we should start being more forceful and direct in our enquiries."
Darius suggests another attempt at an illicit viewing of the Bamworth library, but is vehemently opposed by Culver. "But we know there's a connection with witchcraft - it's bleeding obvious! Quite apart from the dangers involved, I don't see what you're going to find without an index, or even an idea what you're looking for. Darius, it'd be sheer bloody suicide."
After some further discussion, it is resolved that all should attend the lodge meeting but Side-step, who is to secrete himself nearby, as an observer.
Before the group separate for the morning, Henry pulls Side-step aside. "That's a good idea you have there about giving Walsh and Lockwood a taste of their own medicine. I trust you are volunteering to administer it?"
After breakfast Culver strolls out into the village square. The post-office doubles as a chemist, permitting him to buy a supply of Diazepam and Chlorpromazine, using his GMC registration card. His purchase of KY jelly earns him a distinctly old-fashioned look from the bespectacled girl at the till.
He finds Karen Norse correcting the accounts at the reception desk. Perhaps alert to the fact that he has been avoiding her for a day or two, she is initially a little stiff in her responses, but she swiftly thaws.
"Yes, I heard a lot of rumpus last night. I hear one of your friends is a little, er..." She taps the side of her head, meaningfully, and darts a shrewd smile at Culver. "Let me give you a tip. If Gill Sexton knows something, then the whole village knows it."
It emerges that Karen is an active member of the Women's Institute. However, when tentative reference is made to the gender division, Culver receives only a smile of incomprehension.
Using the contact number given in the original briefing, Darius calls a SITU office. The man on the other end of the line sounds somewhat bewildered by the dream that Darius describes to him, but takes down all details and promises to consult the files.
Darius then visits the local police station, where he finds Oswald Brice on duty. The rotund constable listens to his queries, then shakes his head.
"Sorry, son, we don't let the public look at our records. Not that there's much in 'em. Just kids taking apples, and people growing corn over footpaths, usually."
In the hall Side-step finds Bill Norse, who turns a glassy, harassed and ill-tempered parody of his usual smile upon his interlocutor.
"You want the name of Lewis's vet? Might you consider asking Lewis? Wait here a moment." He stalks towards the kitchen, closing the door imperfectly behind him, so that his voice continues to be audible in the hall. "Fetch the Yellow Pages, would you, Karen, our sextet desire a vet." Pause. "I don't know, dear, perhaps they have rabies." Pause. "Well, I'm only going by the screaming we heard last night, oh light of my life." A few minutes later, he returns, presenting Side-step with a Yellow Pages, open at "V".
Alone, Riggs strolls out in the direction of Friar's farm. In the wake of the dream, the hiss of the corn is disconcerting, despite the full glare of day.
Rambling along the southern perimeter of Friar's farmland, he observes some of Lewis's cattle. Clipboard in hand, a man in a black suit is studying their unsteady motions, and taking notes.
At twelve-thirty, the group reassemble to prepare for the lodge meeting.
Matt Culver slips the bottle of Chlorpromazine to Riggs. "These are for you. Take one at night, it'll really help. Like in Manchester, if you get my meaning." Addressing the group, he informs them that he has made arrangements so that, if he does not call a certain friend back before four o'clock, the police will be contacted. "I know they're not your favourite people, Side-step," he adds, wryly.
"Do come through to the conservatory." Gerald Bamworth greets the group at the door, and leads them through the shabby, echoing cavern of the main hall, down a corridor and into a well-lit conference room, roofed in glass. Suited in a range of inky blacks and blues, charcoal greys and muted browns, some twenty or so men sit or stand, warming brandy glasses in their hands.
"You find our numbers rather reduced." Gerald gestures, and brandy glasses are placed in the hands of the SITU agents. "Usually our meetings take place in the evenings, so that those who commute to nearby towns can attend. However, on the meeting before the Midsummer Festival, it's become something of a tradition to hold a buffet lunch in the afternoon for, shall we say, the real locals."
Several familiar faces are visible in the surrounding crowd. Simon Farrel gives Darius a smile of recognition. Mike Drayes is a silent, sullen onlooker. John Lewis, tugging at the collar of his ill-fitting suit, stands beside a sallow-jowled man who appears to be his father. Constable Brice is busy heaping a paper plate with chicken wings. Gerald also introduces the SITU agents to Adrian Willis, the owner of the local greengrocers.
It is easy enough for Darius to bring up the Bamworth library while talking to Gerald, and after a short while, as he had hoped, the other mentions the break-in at the estate.
"It's little cousin Harry's fault, of course, she is terribly lax about security. One of the side entrances was unlocked, it must have been easy enough to get in. Of course, we've had the police round, but they've found no fingerprints they can work with."
"What do you think they were seeking?" asks Darius, as blandly as he can manage.
"Well, I doubt that it was the library. There are many valuables in the house that are far easier to carry. And the intruder seems to have been more interested in vandalism than theft. They knocked over a shelf and threw a book or two around, but they didn't take anything." Gerald Bamworth's eyes are as impenetrable as slate.
Darius proceeds to 'mingle', but is occasionally aware of Gerald watching the assembly from a darkened corner, the reflection of the sun in his brandy glass dancing a dark, golden light onto the underside of his face.
Karl Hammond recognizes the rescuers of his daughter, and shakes the hands of each with a warm, heavy paw. He informs them that Tracey, whom the doctors believe to have taken LSD, is still recovering from shock.
Riggs observes Peter Sidden standing alone by one wall. The collector casts a pinch of some powdered herb from a silver snuff box into his glass, before downing his brandy.
John Henry swiftly strikes up a rapport with Mike Ashford, the proprietor of the Star, who shares the journalist's outspoken demeanour.
Henry mentions the Midsummer Festival. "Such a quaint, old-fashioned idea. Do you have much to do with the arrangements, or is that all down to your better halves?"
"Oh, everyone pitches in. Full community effort."
"It must attract quite a lot of people from out of town - have you ever had any trouble?"
"Yeah, me and just about everyone else. Think about it, hundreds of hippies, drunk, stoned, couples performing fertility rites in back gardens... it's a nightmare. But it's essential for business. You seen the Hazel Brewery? That's my baby. You turn out a few hundred bottles of ale, you slap labels on 'em saying, "Essence of the Greenwood" or "Midsummer Brew", and the hippies will sell their dreadlocks to buy 'em. I guess for us men, the festival's just business. For the women it's more of a game, something to look forward to. The Women's Institute..."
"Oh, don't talk about that gossip-shop." Howard O'Keefe, the owner of the petrol station, has waddled across, twirling a stripped corn cob between his fingers.
"Personally, I have the greatest respect for the Institute." Gerald has unobtrusively appeared at Henry's elbow, and even the boisterous O'Keefe yields the floor to him. "I have a respect for all those things that bind our community together, and make Middlechase different from the rest of the world. Tradition. Old fashioned family values. Homely pleasures. Domestic harmony." He raises his glass, turning the last phrase into a toast, his face alight like that of a saint in a stained glass window. A score of glasses are raised and drained.
Outside the village hall, Side-step waits, noting down the registration numbers of the cars that park by the building.
A little after four, he notices a familiar figure on the opposite side of the square. Lockwood enters the guest house, and does not emerge for over half an hour.
The SITU agents excuse themselves from the lodge meeting in time for Culver to telephone his friend, and prevent him contacting the police. While John Henry strolls down to the village school, and Professor Twitchin heads once more towards the church, the others return to the guest house, where they receive a note that has been left at reception.
We called but you were out.
I shall be calling round at eight this evening for your final answer.
The shady church is a relief after the heat, and the smell of toasting tarmac. Twitchin finds it quite empty, and uses the opportunity to study the elaborate medieval carvings that adorn every wooden surface.
He finds no manifestation of a "chess motif", but numerous birds are depicted. One seems to show the victory of an eagle over an owl, but this seems to be just one of a sequence of animal battle tableaux - another shows a stag trampling a cat.
John Henry, meanwhile, arrives at the school in time to see the last children departing for the day, collars unbuttoned and sleeves tucked to the elbow. Following their directions, he finds Margaret Hurst in the art room, washing brushes. He enters breezily into conversation, and with little preamble, mentions the fact that Eric Drayes has been seen mutilating himself with a knife.
"Now some might say it's none of my business, especially as a stranger to the village, but I believe we all have a duty to safeguard the health and welfare of the younger generation, don't you agree? It's a nasty business, I know, but these things aren't confined to the inner cities, rural idylls such as Middlechase have their problems too. Is young Eric perhaps having problems at home?"
Margaret skews her head about to peer at him, and smiles. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"
A red-haired boy of about fourteen has entered the doorway behind Henry, a bundle of brushes in one hand. The bloody letters on his pale forearm are drying black.
Tuesday 17th June, 5.00pm
Adam Twitchin is at the church
John Henry is at the primary school
Benedict Riggs, Darius McGregor, Matt Culver and Side-step are at the guest house