The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 10
Thursday 19th June, 11.00 am
"My dear lady, it is a pleasure." Professor Twitchin responds to Harriet Bamworth's greeting with his usual old-fashioned courtesy.
"We wouldn't miss it for the world," adds Culver, smiling as he returns the heiress's wave.
As Arthur Collins holds the front door open for the SITU agents, the Professor observes a red, plastic box fixed high on one of the outer walls, indicating the existence of a burglar alarm. Within the entrance hall, however, he can see no obvious means by which it might be triggered.
Upstairs, a throng fills the large reception room. Some three dozen chairs have been ranked before a great oak desk which stands raised upon a makeshift platform. Flushed and animated, Gerald Bamworth relates some anecdote to a cluster of farmers, and leads them in a long laugh. The maid, Julie Osmond can be seen slipping timorously through the crowds, placing hors d'oeuvres in glass bowls upon coffee tables.
The SITU agents have the satisfaction of watching Kate Walsh perform a perfect double-take as they are ushered through the door. She tugs at the sleeve of Martin Lockwood, who glances over his shoulder at them, and promptly chokes upon a handful of peanuts.
"Okay, guys, let's not get carried away and bid against each other, eh?" mutters Matt Culver to his colleagues as the butler leaves earshot.
"So, who is going to do the bidding, then?" asks Side-step. "It won't be me. I'm going to pick a good spot from where I can keep an eye on things. I'm going to pay particular attention to Laurel and Hardy over there." He nods in the direction of Walsh and Lockwood.
"It's vital that we bid highest and buy the library, whatever the cost, otherwise all our time here has been wasted," Darius remarks, quietly. "I'm willing to bid, if no-one objects." It is decided that, during the auction, Culver, Side-step and John Henry will observe proceedings, while Riggs takes the opportunity to perform another search of the house and Twitchin acts as look-out.
"I wonder why the Cooperative would want an occult library so much that they are willing to intimidate people and spend a small fortune?" John Henry muses. "What on earth do they plan to do with it? And why is Harriet Bamworth so keen to get rid of it? It seems that she believes in some strange superstition surrounding it."
Matt Culver explains his developing theory that Harriet is attempting to break some family 'curse' connected with the library, and is opposed by another faction, possibly headed by her cousin. "Look, I know it's bloody mumbo-jumbo but it's a theory, right? Christ knows why getting rid of the library's so important but if the 'Curse of the Bamworths' is tied in with a specific book or books, it must be pretty damn old. And you can bet Kate Walsh'll be bidding her socks off for it, albeit with rather less capital than before!"
As the party separate to 'mingle', Culver unobtrusively slips a small tube of KY jelly into Riggs' palm. "Wonderful stuff! Squirted on the floor - just inside a door, for example - it's slippery as hell..."
The heiress is tying tags about the throats of a set of mildly obnoxious ebony cherubs as Professor Twitchin approaches her.
"Harriet, my friend Dr Culver told me of your anxiety about getting rid of the books for almost any price, as shown by that paltry reserve set. Look, I understand that things are going on around us, here and in the village that are, frankly, over our head. But, please excuse my presumption, if your intention is to keep the book collection out of any particular set of hands, why not take the easy way? Cancel the auction..."
"Its not too late. The Orgus organization will be able to buy the library off you directly - I assume £100,000 would suffice. If not, we could possibly consider £150,000. I promise you the collection would disappear from your life and that of the family and village forever. How about it?"
"Professor Twitchin, believe me, I appreciate your offer. I would give a great deal to be able to accept it. However, as you suspect, my situation is rather... complex. I cannot cancel the auction. It is too late." After casting a swift, surreptitious glance about the hall, she smiles brightly at Twitchin and hands him a printed list, as if in response to an enquiry concerning the lots up for auction.
Side-step positions himself against one wall, hiding the direction of his gaze behind his aviation sun-glasses. His vantage point offers him a fair view of the mixed throng of buyers and spectators, who are now being gently but firmly shepherded by Gerald and Harriet Bamworth from the buffet tables to their seats. Like counterparts in a sedate dance, the cousins move through the crowd, smiling, nodding, guiding with a glance, a gesture, a gentle touch on the arm.
Catching the eye of Martin Lockwood, Side-step grins broadly, then in pantomime fashion draws a finger slowly across his throat. An ugly light flickers in the eyes of the taller man.
Taking a seat near the door, John Henry casts an eye over the assembled company. Clive Marx is conducting a lively interrogation of the old butler. Mark Ashford is inspecting a set of crystal goblets with a covetous air. The Reverend Sourley, seated across the room, is marking his copy of the list of effects for sale, in felt-tip.
Peter Sidden sits in the central row, apparently oblivious of his surroundings as he watches his pocket-watch swing on its silver chain.
After sorting through a ring-binder full of papers with painful care, a white-haired, ruddy-fleshed man in a blue suit calls for quiet. The auctioneer, who proves to be an old university friend of Sir Harvey, sees fit to preface the proceedings with an ambling speech that combines feebly comical anecdotes, reminiscences and eulogy. Many of his remarks express sympathy for "Harvey's little girl."
Harriet smiles with impassive solemnity at the old man's courtesies. As the speech runs into its twentieth minute, Darius notices her clenched fists slowly rending a cotton napkin from corner to corner.
At last, after removing his glasses to rub at his wrinkled eye-lids with the heels of his hands, the Hon. Adrian Simpole initiates the auction, and bidding begins for the smaller lots.
Having failed to gain the attention of Gerald Bamworth, Professor Twitchin slips into the corridor and succeeds in collaring Arthur Collins, who shows him to a telephone in an unused study, where the Professor makes a call to a fellow academic in London.
"Adam? Dear chap, I thought you'd fallen off the edge of the earth, it's been an age since we've talked. Yes, I can nip down to Companies House and check that out for you, if you like. I'll just write that down. The Middlechase Cooperative. Right. Look, Adam, I'm actually in the middle of a seminar right now. I'll call you back this afternoon, OK?"
While Mark Ashford battles with a blond, beagle-faced woman for possession of the goblets, Benedict Riggs slips out of the auction room to meet with Professor Twitchin. Having already scouted out the area on his previous unlicensed tour of the building, Riggs has no trouble in finding the door to the chapel, nor in picking the lock.
As Harriet Bamworth had indicated during the tour, the chapel is clearly undergoing a process of renovation. Carefully, Riggs skirts a broad expanse of new cement. Rich ornate hangings in crimson, blue, white and gold have been folded, wrapped in thick plastic sheets to protect them from the plaster dust that fills the air, and piled upon the altar. Pale oblongs of exposed wall reveal their usual locations. Riggs is aware of a slight breeze stirring the air in the room.
A low, unpainted door in the opposite wall opens onto a set of spiral stairs, the stone worn into a slope by the pressure of centuries of soles. As Riggs ascends, he is treated to glimpses of sky through crevices in the masonry. The only hand rail is a rusted chain threaded through a sequence of metal hooks.
After ascending gingerly for some minutes, Riggs emerges into sunlight. The dell that embraces Middlechase spreads before him, and he can view the gentle roll of the Cotswolds beyond, freckled with sheep. In the village square, cars are amassing, gleaming like beads of coloured glass. On every expanse of green, small pavilions and tents are scattered like brightly hued confetti.
As the afternoon crawls towards three o'clock, the auctioneer is still involved in the disposal of three Japanese screens. After sneaking a few glances at his watch, Side-step sidles along the wall to where Dr Culver leans.
"I'm off to pick up the transport now. I'll see you in the digs tonight after I have set it up."
By four o'clock, the crowd has thinned. Each time a new lot is called, Darius's stomach jumps with the expectation of hearing the library mentioned, and the sustained anticipation is beginning to wear upon his nerves. The sun now glares through the great windows into the eyes of the buyers. Glancing side-ways, Darius glimpses Lockwood yawning and shielding his gaze. Walsh, who is wearing her sunglasses, is sipping mineral water from a bottle and speaking into her mobile phone.
A little after half past four, the auctioneer carefully sorts through his papers for the twentieth time, then declares that bidding will begin on lot 113, the Bamworth Library.
In his peripheral vision, Darius sees Peter Sidden slip his watch into an upper pocket, and blink as if waking from a trance.
"Reserve price, £10,000." The old man reads off his notes, then frowns and blinks at them. "Is that right, Harry?" he enquires in a loud whisper, leaning across the desk towards Harriet Bamworth. "Only ten thousand?"
"Yes, Uncle Adrian." Her voice is tight with frustration. As if to hide her reaction, she moves towards the back of the hall, and begins to collect abandoned glasses from the side-board.
"Very well. Ten thousand. Does anyone bid ten thousand five hundred?"
The bidding begins.
Despite suffering the accumulated tension of five and a half hours, Darius succeeds in simulating composure and nonchalance. He quickly discovers that the auctioneer is a little short-sighted, and is forced to exaggerate his signals to be sure of being observed.
The other SITU agents posted about the room are in a better position to observe the various contenders for lot 113. Darius bids ten thousand five hundred. Walsh bids eleven thousand. Eleven thousand five hundred is bid by an unknown Japanese man in the back row. Twelve thousand is bid by Sidden. Darius offers thirteen thousand.
Martin Lockwood is biting his nails.
John Henry observes Gerald Bamworth slipping from the room, and rises to follow him.
"I hope the auction is going according to plan, Ms Bamworth." Under the pretence of helping to collect the discarded drinking vessels, Matt Culver has contrived to draw close to the heiress, and now seats himself on a side-table beside her. "What was it really about? The rule of three times three?" The last phrase wins her gaze away from the auctioneer, and she stares at her interlocutor with a surprise that swiftly melts into suspicion and slight hostility.
"Look," he continues, "I sense undercurrents in Middlechase - I know you and your history are involved, along with Margaret Hurst, Joanna Drayes and the Sexton girl. I have a... private interest and I believe I'd be keen to help if you'd enlighten me as to your intentions."
"Are you... Are you saying that you and your friends are part of an... an organisation like..." She pauses, as if trying to select the appropriate euphemism. For a few seconds her eyes scan his face carefully as if searching for confirmation of some suspicion, then her jaw sets. "No. I'm sorry, Dr Culver, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
Harriet's gaze flicks reflexively back to the auctioneer's desk. Sidden has offered thirty thousand, and the Japanese buyer is shaking his head and folding up his leaflet.
"If my gender bothers you, don't worry - I'm definitely the last of my family line, if you get my meaning." Impassive as a watching cat, Harriet continues to observe the rows of buyers, tension betrayed only by the rapidity of her glances. "Well, just answer me this, Ms Bamworth. Are you the last of the Bamworth line? Or is Eric Drayes?" Staking this last chip he succeeds in recovering her attention.
Slowly she turns to face him, moving round to eclipse the blaze of the sun through the opposite window. In silhouette, her features are unreadable, but some obscure instinct tells Culver that she is wearing her father's frown. Her hair glows like an aura of flame.
"Martin Lockwood was blackmailing your father with some gobbet of information, wasn't he? And everything seems to converge upon the Drayes boy. Odd colouring too, seeing as both his parents are dark..."
"Stop!" Her voice has a gentle chilliness, like snowfall. "Yesterday I made an appeal to you, but if you imagine that this gives you the right to cast aspersions upon my father, in his own house, less than a month after his death..."
"Oh well, just a theory." The SITU agent shrugs ruefully and smiles. "I suppose it'd be bad form to try blagging a party invitation, then."
"This would be a bad time, yes. You'll have to excuse me, my sense of humour often suffers in hot weather." Stepping out of the line of the sun, she offers her seamless smile.
"Forty thousand... will anyone bid forty-five thousand? Forty-five thousand..."
"Fifty thousand..." Darius raises his hand. "Sixty thousand..." To his left he sees Kate Walsh signal with a long forefinger. "Seventy thousand..." Sidden gestures with his folded list.
At five o'clock, the bidding has reached £100,000. Five minutes later, it has reached £200,000. The stake is raised to £250,000, and still none of the three buyers show sign of surrender. Only as Walsh offers £300,000 does Darius hear a sigh, and the scrape of a shifted chair. Glancing around, he sees Peter Sidden stand, and begin to sidle along the rank of seats towards the door.
"Three hundred and ten thousand, three... why, what is it, Harry?" The heiress, who has been gesturing to gain the auctioneer's attention, walks swiftly to the platform, and converses with him for a few moments, sotto voce. "Oh, yes, I suppose that's reasonable. Since the price being offered for the library is rather large, could those bidders still interested show us some proof that they have the requisite funds to make this purchase?"
From her wallet, Walsh pulls what appears to be a cheque and shows it to the auctioneer, who looks at her askance, but nods. Fortunately, SITU had issued the party with a banker's letter guaranteeing a budget of £500,000. Darius draws it from his inner pocket, taking care not to reveal the wads of used twenties that pad his jacket.
"Is that alright, Harry? Jolly good. Three hundred and twenty thousand... Three hundred and thirty thousand... Three hundred and forty thousand..."
The offered price rises to £350,000.
£400,000 is bid.
£450,000 is bid.
Darius realises that the only hope of inducing his opponents to back down is by conveying a false impression of confidence, and succeeds in maintaining his mask of calm, even as the bidding approaches his financial limit.
"Four hundred and sixty thousand... Four hundred and seventy thousand... Four hundred and eighty thousand... Four hundred and ninety thousand..."
Mouth dry, Darius bids half a million for the Bamworth library. There is a pause, during which Walsh is busy with her phone.
"Is that the last bid? Any advance on five..."
"Five hundred and fifty thousand." Kate Walsh's sharp voice slices through the hopes of the SITU agents. With no other proof of collateral than the banker's letter, Darius has no option but to surrender the cause.
Lot 113 goes to Kate Walsh and Martin Lockwood.
Positioned in the shadow of a grandfather clock, John Henry observes the pacing of Gerald Bamworth. For some half an hour, the tall man has been striding up and down the gallery over the stairs, eyes flicking unseeing from this picture to that, a mobile phone cradled against his ear as he conducts a continuous, breathless conversation.
A little after half past five, Gerald lets out a long breath, and pushes down the aerial to his phone. In a more leisurely, proprietary manner, he strolls back along the gallery in the direction of the journalist's hiding place.
Before the great picture of Peter and Jessica Bamworth, the tall man halts, touching his temple in a curious gesture resembling a salute. Taking advantage of this pause, the SITU agent slips away along the darkened corridor.
In the Giant's Head, meanwhile, Side-step is sharing a drink with an old comrade, and trading reminiscences. Jim makes no effort to conceal his curiosity concerning Side-step's 'job'.
"No, Jim, you know better than to ask. All I will say is that it isn't the kind of work we are used to."
"OK, mystery-man, have it your own way, but this is another one you owe me, Side-step. Make sure the tank's full when I get her back, will you?"
An hour later, the SITU agent is driving a black and green Landrover with army registration plates along the narrow country roads. Dressed in a camouflage uniform and a light blue air corps beret, he would be easily mistaken for a 'squaddie' passing through the area on an exercise.
The agent has been driving for over an hour before he finds a suitable place to conceal the Landrover, a small copse about five minutes walk from the village along the western road.
As dusk sets in, Side-step backs the vehicle through a gap in the hedge, and secretes it among the trees. By the time he leaves the site, once again in his own clothes, the lights and windows are covered with hessian, a cam. net covers the whole, and the area is strung with hidden trip-wires and 'flash-bangs'.
Back at the guest house, Side-step joins the rest of the coterie.
"Hello boys, how did it go?" The general air of dejection answers his question. "Well, everything is set my end. No one can get near the thing without us knowing about it. The little sparklers I have set up won't hurt anyone, but the bang and flash those babies produce would scare the shit out of Schwarzenegger." Darius is eager to know where the Landrover is hidden, so that evacuation can be effected swiftly in an emergency.
"No, I won't tell you the location in case someone gets cold feet and decides to go it alone. When we go, we all go together. Besides, there is only one way to get to it without making it look like Bonfire night's arrived early."
The conversation drifts to other topics. "You know," remarks John Henry, "I had another very strange dream last night. I wonder if the local shop stocks bottled water?" Culver expresses doubts concerning the journalist's pet theory concerning heavy metal poisoning of the water supply, and explains that only ergotamine, a fungus affecting damp flour, has ever been documented to cause hallucinations on a village-wide scale.
The psychiatrist gives voice to his own theory. "I think we've stumbled upon a very old dispute involving the women and men of Middlechase and, yes, witchcraft - or at least, people who believe in witchcraft." He hypothesises a historical tension between the male farmers and certain of the village women.
"Does anyone know the significance of the objects Riggs found in the barn?" Henry blinks at his colleagues through his thick lenses. "Are they part of some kind of ceremony, I wonder?"
"I believe there is some kind of ritual - involving fertility and female sacrifice, I think - which Harriet and her 'coven' want to break," continues Culver. "That's where we come in. And I reckon Cousin Fester is opposing her."
The Professor shares his growing suspicion that the problems of Middlechase have their root in the Bamworth family itself, in particular its male line. "Perhaps," he adds thoughtfully, "perhaps the 'curse of the Bamworths' may only be ended permanently with the extinction of the male line, of which Gerald appears to the sole survivor..."
At half past nine, Professor Twitchin's academic acquaintance returns his call.
"Yes, they have records at Companies House. There's about half a dozen directors. Michael S Drayes, Alan Friar, Simon Paul Farrel, Mark Ashford, Ian Lewis, Gerald Bamworth. Gerald Bamworth seems to be registered as Managing Director, Chairman and Secretary. Is that any help?"
As the group prepare 'watches' for what they anticipate to be their last night in the guest house, a gentle knock sounds at the door, and Karen Norse brings in a letter left at reception a few minutes before by the butler, Arthur Collins.
I am pleased to invite you to our Midsummer Party which will be held at the Bamworth estate of 20th June at 6pm. I am sorry that you were disappointed in your bid for the library this afternoon. Perhaps I can tempt you to have one last look at the books before they are taken away by the new owners?
Thursday 19 June, 9.30pm
All are at the guest house