The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Hidden Circles – Briefing
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99
To Operatives: Jack Callaghan, Tanya Hyde, Celestina Mirande, Tanzan Nangi, Russell Osbourne, Michael Williamson
Subject: New cult in Buckinghamshire
Rendezvous: High Wycombe Bus Station, 1000 hrs GMT, Thursday 21 August 1997 for the British operatives. Operatives Callaghan and Nangi should make their own ways to the UK, to be met at Heathrow Airport at 0900 hours GMT Thursday 21 August 1997: reasonable expenses will be paid.
Destination: Branston Parva, Buckinghamshire. Branston Parva is a small village about 10 miles north of High Wycombe, high in the Chiltern Hills. It has no notable industry apart from farming: most of the residents commute to work, to Wycombe or to the M25.
Travel Arrangements: All travel during the investigation's progress to be by taxi when possible: please keep receipts.
Accommodation has been arranged at the Black Prince public house in Branston Parva from the night of 21 August.
Background information: The Keepers of the Hidden Circles is an Egyptian-tinged sun-worship cult, established by Frank Gupper in 1993. Originally based in London, since August 1995 it has been located at Branston Hall, Branston Parva. The cult's publicized precepts are innocent: devotion to the Sun and to nature, peace, brotherly love between all humans, search for enlightenment. Members progress through stages of enlightenment, known as Hidden Circles. Gupper himself is an enigmatic figure who has received little publicity.
Priority A: to establish whether Gupper is the true leader of the cult (if not, who?), and as much as you can about his nature.
Priority B: to evaluate the cult's innocence or otherwise.
Priority C: to investigate and report on any items or artifacts associated with the cult.
Priority D: to ascertain, as far as possible, what hidden knowledges are associated with the higher levels of initiation.
Cover: On this investigation you will be posing as would-be members of the cult. You should say if asked that you saw the cult's advertisements (copy attached) and were attracted. These advertisements are aimed at 'weekend mystics' rather than true cult members, but they are the only form of publicity the group has. You can pretend acquaintance with or ignorance of each other as you see fit.
Note: this cover is rated Code 6: it should be unshakeable. If you need to contact SITU's offices you can do so on tel / fax 0171 865 0088. This number is on no account to be given to any members of the cult, or to anybody else for that matter. After using it on modern telephone systems you should enter another number to prevent use of any last number redial facility.
Expenses: SITU will reimburse Operatives for all reasonable expenses incurred during the investigation. Receipts will be required.
Extra-legal activity: All Operatives should be aware that, while they may choose to operate outside the Law, they are not above it. SITU does not condone or sanction unlawful activity of any nature. Note that SITU will not act on the behalf of an Operative who is cautioned, arrested, charged, etc, in the course of an investigation. Indeed, if an Operative were to attempt to contact SITU in such a situation, s/he would find all telephone numbers unobtainable and all addresses unoccupied.
Jack Callaghan gazes out interestedly over the rolling English farmland as it spreads out to either side of the chugging bus. Occasional knots of sheep are visible through the light drizzle, munching away, perched on the sides of the gentle hills or sheltering under the occasional stands of trees. He is still running on US time, having flown in from Chicago overnight, and anticipates that the jetlag will kick in later today - but, for now, he feels full of energy, and he stretches his tall, athletic frame in the uncomfortable seat, brushing his short, ebony hair away from his forehead.
"How long d'you reckon till we reach Branston Parva?" Jack asks his neighbour.
"Only another quarter hour or so," replies Tanya Hyde, who speaks with a slight French-Swiss accent. She is an elegant, attractive young woman in her early twenties, perhaps half a dozen years younger than Jack, with long blonde hair piled high over bright, almost iridescent blue eyes. She wears a smart, close-fitting dress, its neckline cut low. She has been chatting animatedly throughout the brief journey, and has attracted the attention of most of the ale passengers on the bus.
Striking though Tanya is, the other woman in the group of SITU investigators, Celestina Mirande, makes an even stronger impression at first sight. She is slim, with delicate, well-structured features and mid-brown skin, and although several inches shorter than any of the other operatives she does not appear small. She wears a long, flowing skirt with a bright African print, and a plain green top, with a yellow-and-red scarf wrapped around her head. She has clusters of silver and wooden jewellery festooning her neck. When she greeted the other investigators, she shook their hands with a slightly unusual grasp, although none were able to attach any significance to the gesture.
With Celestina sits Russell Osbourne, also in his mid-twenties, who presents a complete contrast: he is pale, his long, black hair tied back in a pony-tail, and is dressed in black t-shirt, black jeans, black leather jacket and black leather boots. He has said not a word apart from to introduce himself, and occasionally taps a few lines into a notebook PC he carries.
Michael Harrison is younger, perhaps 18 or 19, but he too has black hair, pale skin and is dressed completely in black, even to the extent of a fedora hat, with a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He is American, although living in Manchester, and he has spoken very little, simply studying the SITU briefing in detail, his mood edgy and tense.
The last operative is Tanzan Nangi, who sits by himself, looking straight ahead, his hands placed calmly on his knees. He is a middle-aged Japanese man, wearing a conservative suit which does not disguise his thick-set build: he is the very image of a 'sarariman', his close-cropped hair greying slightly at the temples. He has been formally polite, but it is clear that he is keeping distance from the Westerners among whom he finds himself. His stillness is almost unnatural.
The bus, which has rather suddenly hit habitation, rattles past a small medieval church and pulls to a halt beside a well-kept village green, opposite a small cluster of shops. Although a cricket pitch is marked out on the green, play must be challenging: it slopes at a considerable angle towards a fast-flowing stream. "Branston Parva!" calls the driver. "Get out if you're getting out!"
Branston Hall is easy to find, from the directions available at the post office near the bus stop: it is only about ten minutes' walk, along a small, winding lane, which climbs steeply. The weather is overcast, but the cloud is high. Jack, who immediately offered to carry Tanya's and Celestina's bags as well as his own, barely has to break a sweat.
As the investigators pass through the village they do receive the occasional look from locals: clearly visitors to the Hall, while not unusual, are not fully integrated into village life.
At the end of the lane they see what is clearly a gatehouse, set in a limestone wall, about ten feet high. There is nothing to indicate the cult's presence, but the gates are shut. Through them, and through the trees that line the drive, can be glimpsed one end of Branston Hall; a rather splendid eighteenth-century manor house, built of limestone, square and solid in structure with Palladian touches.
The gatehouse is guarded by a youngish man wearing pale yellow robes, with a shaven head, who is sitting in a deckchair just within. As the SITU team approaches, he jumps surprisedly to his feet.
"More visitors! Gosh, six of you - excellent! The more the merrier! Come in, come in!"
He flings open the gates and ushers the party through, shaking each warmly by the hand.
"I'm Richard - Richard Blood, but we don't go much for surnames here. Six of you! Fantastic! Frank will be pleased. Here - can I take those bags? Come with me, that's right, I'll take you up to the house - never mind about the gates, I don't suppose anyone else'll turn up in the next ten minutes! That really would be something!"
He strides off down the drive, the party grouped around him, chattering cheerfully. "Have you come to stay for long? Oh, well, I don't suppose you've made your minds up yet, eh? - see how you like it! We get plenty of people here just for the weekend, only it's Thursday now - long weekend!"
He points through the screen of poplars towards a large grove of chestnuts. "That's a really good place to go and meditate, if you're that way inclined - you'll probably find me there, when I'm off duty! And over there, just behind the house, see, that's the vegetable garden - you don't have to work in it if you don't want to, of course, but most people do, because we all eat together, we all eat just what we grow - and it's pretty good stuff! All organic, of course - and working on the vegetables, under the sun - not a bad job! There's a lot worse, I can tell you - like cleaning the lavatories! No, only joking, we wouldn't have new people start off doing that - unless you really want to, of course! Anyway, here we are."
The front door of the great house stands open, and Richard leads the party through into a spacious hall, two stories high with a sweeping staircase at the end, the floor tiled with a repetitive black and white diamond pattern. Although the hall is clean and tidy, some parts are in a poor state of repair: there are extensive water stains on the ceiling, and several banisters are missing. The walls are covered with pale rectangular patches, where pictures have clearly previously hung for some time.
"Nina? Nina! New people!" calls Richard cheerily.
A door opens, and into the hall comes a small woman probably in her early thirties. She too wears yellow robes, but her fair hair is cut in a severe bob. She wears no makeup or jewellery. "What is it now, Richard? I am busy..."
Then she sees the investigators, stood foolishly just inside the door, and her expression changes from annoyance to what might perhaps be resignation. "More visitors, eh? That's good. Richard, why don't you show them to the dormitories, and put away anything they want left in the safe, after I've finished the introduction."
She turns back to the party, stands up straight, and a little self-consciously puts her hands together behind her back. She speaks in a formal, recitative tone. "Ahem. Greetings, travellers, and welcome to Branston Hall, home of The Keepers of the Hidden Circles. My name is Nina King, and I am the deputy of Frank Gupper, who leads our group. You are welcome to stay with us for as long as you wish, be it an hour only or the rest of your life. All we ask is that you make a donation to cover the costs of administration, and that you contribute with your labour in any way that you can, so that our community can thrive and prosper and we can all rise together on the path to enlightenment." She pauses slightly, swallowing. "We live together communally, in single-sex dormitories, although fraternization is by no means forbidden or even discouraged. We eat together as well - the next meal will be at one o'clock, and we usually eat just simple vegetable preparations from our own garden, in which you are welcome to add your labour, or in the kitchens. Before that, though, you're invited to take part in a short religious ceremony at noon - our founder, Frank, will lead the group in a brief prayer of thanksgiving to the sun. There are similar prayers at dawn and at sunset - although you don't have to go to all of them unless you really are keen -" she grins "- we prefer it if you can attend at least one of the three each day."
It seems the speech is over, until Nina swiftly adds "If you have any questions to ask of me, please feel free to do so, now or later - I can usually be found in the office." She points to the room from which she had emerged. "Or if not, Richard will take you to the dormitories, where you can wash and change if you wish, and perhaps then he might like to show you round the Hall, if you wish it - Richard?"
He nods enthusiastically.