The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Celestina smiles at the harassed-looking Nina. "Though the Buddha teaches us patience, but I am always eager to continue on the road to enlightenment, will there be any lessons or sessions that we might attend, being strangers and only short term visitors at that?"
Nina smiles back, wearily and slightly forcedly. "Yes, yes - some are further along the road than others, but we all have the same distant destination, don't we? We aren't very big on formal tuition here, Frank believes that each person must find enlightenment - the Buddha-nature, I suppose you'd say - within her or himself. He can help people look within themselves, and he can provide the environment to do it in, but he can't teach them how. So the best thing would be for you to attend the ceremonies, and meditate - talk to Frank about that, he knows some good techniques." She taps her foot rapidly.
Celestina says nothing else, not wishing to annoy the obviously busy Nina.
"This way!" says Richard, indicating the tall staircase.
He leads them up, and off down a long corridor into what must be the east wing of the house. Throughout, the signs of disrepair and disuse are evident, and there are more pale patches where pictures and other objects must once have been. The impression given is that the house was cleared some time ago, and may have stood empty for a while before the Keepers moved in.
"There's the bathrooms, look," says Richard, pointing to a group of four doorways. "And here's where the boys sleep!" He flings open a double door leading into a large dormitory, with around two dozen bare-looking frame beds in it. It looks rather like a hospital ward. The beds have thin mattresses and very old-looking pillows, and apart from a small cupboard by the head of each bed - these cupboards being very ill-matched - there is no other furnishing in the room. The only lighting is natural, through a set of tall windows on the east wall.
Most of the beds are made up and bear the signs of having been used last night, but those at the far end just have a small stack of sheets and blankets on, and it is to these that Richard directs Jack, Russell, Michael and Tanzan. "Make yourself at home, and I'll come and find you in time for the ceremony - you do want to attend, don't you?"
Russell nods, and one by one so do the others.
"Good! Right then, now the two ladies - this way please!"
As Tanya leaves the room she takes the opportunity to draw Jack aside for a moment. "Mon cher Jacques," she says in her alluring French accent, "I 'av seen 'ow you 'av been looking at me, and I too feel ze same vay. My 'art it goes de-boop-pet-de-boom. Yor 'air is like ze blackest raven, and yor eyes are like pools in ze desert. 'Ow I long to be 'eld in yor powerful arms, and to feel yor warm embrass. I feel lost and alone, and far away from mes parents et ma famille. You will comfort me, non? I need someone pour me faire sauvir."
Jack looks around himself embarassedly, running a hand through his hair. Tanya casts him a melting glance as she follows Celestina and Richard out and down the corridor.
The women's dormitory is identical to the men's in every regard, except that there is a vase full of sprigs of yellow broom in water under each tall window.
Celestina sets about unpacking her possessions - which seem to be merely a few changes of clothes similar to those she is wearing - while Tanya struggles with her cases. Celestina watches her intently, and Tanya meets her start with a piercing look of her own. "Wat iz wrong?" she asks sternly. "Won't you 'elp me with zese?"
Celestina turns away. "Wat iz wrong is that I am wondering why you've brought enough clothes for a fortnight's holiday when we are in fact staying for a weekend, and I don't suppose you've got anything more appropriate in those bags than what you're wearing now. This is a new-age hippy commune and not a night club, you know. And if you want some help with them, get Callaghan to do it, or if not, perhaps you might plan your packing better next time, hmm?"
Michael speaks to Jack as they unpack their belongings. "You're in the Navy, is that right, Jack? Where are you from?"
"I'm from Chicago," says Jack, flashing Michael his rather charming smile. "I spend a lot of time in DC, too - yeah, I'm with the Navy, I'm a lawyer for them."
"I'm from Phoenix, Arizona," says Michael. He and Jack chat animatedly about the merits of their respective states.
Meanwhile Tanzan has laid out on his bed a set of pale grey robes. Standing at the centre of his own silence, surrounded and unhearing the movement of the others around him, he quietly considers. Without saying anything to the others, he heads out of the dormitory and down towards the gardens.
Celestina turns back to the flushed, struggling Tanya. "There's no point getting off on the wrong foot," she says, going over to help her. "We have to work together and watch each other's back, which we won't be able to do if we're squabbling. Friends?" She thrusts out a dark hand in a gesture of friendship.
Tanya takes her bag from Celestina's other hand, places it on the bed and walks straight out, past Celestina, without another word.
As she walks down the corridor, she sees Tanzan. "You will take ze walk avec moi dans le jardin, excuse, ze gardin plus tard, Tanzi Nanzi?"
Tanzan ignores her completely.
Michael smiles to himself at the sound of Tanya's accent.
The investigators, apart from Tanzan, meet up before Richard is due to collect them.
"We haven't decided whether we're going to behave as acquaintances or not," says Celestina. "Perhaps Tanya and Jack could masquerade as a couple, and Russell and Michael could be friends. Tanzan and myself could pretend to be strangers to the entire group."
Michael holds up his hand for silence. He pulls from his pocket a device that looks like a portable radio, and sweeps it around the room, listening intently. He is satisfied that they are not being bugged. "After we've all had a chance to probe around, we should meet up again and compare notes," he says.
"Yes," says Celestina, "we shouldn't be seen meeting up like this again - just in pairs, or all get together if we are sure it is private."
"We need to act cautiously," says Russell quietly. "If we want to get close to this organization, causing a scene on the first day won't help."
There is a cheery "Hello!" and Richard Blood appears in the doorway. He has with him a teenage girl, probably about fifteen, with a pointed, intelligent face, dressed scruffily in jeans and tee-shirt. She looks curiously at the ill-assorted investigators.
"This is Kate," says Richard. "She's one of our newest and keenest members, isn't that right, Kate?"
"Better than being at home," says Kate. Her voice is very middle-class. She stares at Celestina's pendants. "Is that a real rabbit skull?"
"That's right, and look -" she shows her, "- here are its leg bones. Very useful things."
Michael is intrigued and peers as well. "Do they protect you against attack? I knew a guy once had a rabbit's foot bones to keep him from being struck by lightning."
"Shall we?" says Richard.
As they walk down to the garden, Kate dances among and about the investigators, plying them with questions. She is delighted to find Jack and Michael are American. "Are you a pilot, like in Top Gun?"
"A bit like that, I suppose," says Jack modestly.
"Are there any other visitors here at the moment?" asks Russell.
"Apart from you, no - just the natives! - I mean those of us who live here all the time. We're expecting two or three at the weekend, though, I think," Richard replies.
They are joined as they reach the gate by a middle-aged man with short grey hair, a red face and a bushy moustache, wearing the same robes as Richard. He too seems delighted to see the new recruits. "Fleeing the stresses of the city, what? Name's Windsor, George Windsor - like His late Majesty!" He offers his hand to each in turn. "Young Richard showing you the sights, eh? Fine fellow!"
The group of eight walk along together around the corner of the house, towards a small dip in the ground. The plangent tones of a didgeridoo can be heard issuing from it.
Cresting the rise, they see that in the dip beneath them are gathered twenty or so people, all wearing the cult robes. They are standing in a broad half-circle, in two rows, facing southward. In front of them is a grey obelisk, about four feet tall with a pyramidal top, the surface of which is covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Standing next to the obelisk, one hand on it proprietorially, is a man of around 45 years, of average height, slim, with close-cropped brown hair receding at the temples. His eyes are very bright and animated, and his face appears very expressive and energetic.
The party join on at the back of the group, feeling rather out of place in their ordinary clothes. "Don't worry about knowing the words, you'll get the hang of it," whispers Richard reassuringly, as the man by the obelisk - presumably none other than Frank Gupper himself - starts a low, sonorous chant in an odd-sounding foreign language. The didgeridoo, which is being played rather inexpertly by a young man sat over to one side, keeps pace with him, and after two or three phrases the robed devotees join in with varying degrees of tunefulness.
There is a curious sense of absorption in this secluded dell, with only the droning of the didgeridoo and the calm, monotonous voices of the Keepers drifting around it. The sun is high and hot, and the atmosphere is full of a beguiling lassitude: Russell in particular is finding that he can hardly keep his eyes open by the time the fifteen-minute ceremony is over.
The Keepers start to disperse, some looking curiously at the new arrivals, and Russell has a good look at Frank: the fellow certainly seems to have a charisma about him, greeting and chatting to various of the worshippers as they head away.
George heads over to the young man with the didgeridoo, and pats him on the back amiably, saying something quietly - Michael, straining his ears, thinks it's just something like "Well done, Jack."
Eventually Frank comes over to the group, where Richard eagerly introduces him. "This is Frank, our leader here."
"Not leader, Richard - we have no leaders, remember? I'm just fortunate enough to have received the revelation of enlightenment earlier than you others, that's all." He clasps both hands of each of the party between his, which are warm and dry, and looks each deep in the eye. Tanya takes the opportunity to lower her lashes alluringly, and this certainly seems to have an effect on Frank: he holds her hands longer than anyone else's. "You are all most welcome to this haven of tranquillity," he says, finally releasing Tanya. "Please make yourselves at home, and treat us as all pat of the same family. We demand nothing of you, but hope that you will be able to contribute to our little community in some way. If any of you wish to speak with me, I'll be available this evening in the billiard room - for now, I'm sure Richard is taking admirable care of you."
"What was all that we were chanting?" asks Russell curiously as Frank leaves.
"Ancient Egyptian prayers and spells," says Richard. "Frank was given them in Egypt by a mysterious beautiful woman - and the obelisk, as well. Exciting, eh? That's how the Keepers started, really. She - the spirit, goddess, or whatever she was - must have marked him out as well down the path to enlightenment already, he'd had loads of different mystical experiences already - but he hadn't realized until then that all beliefs are just imperfect reflections of the True, like ripples on a lake - or something like that!"
As he speaks he is leading the party around the back of the house. "That's the vegetable garden, as I said, and there's my 'meditation grove'! The ground runs down to a little river, a stream really I suppose, down there," he points, "and there's some caves in the hill over there," pointing again, "although they're not very safe, so I wouldn't advise going in."
Meanwhile, Tanzan has been performing his own form of meditation, the Soto Zen discipline of mokuso. He has found a secluded stand of willows, and is kneeling in the seiza position. His mind drifts over the koan given to him by his Sensei to answer, before he left the temple: "What will you do when they ask you to kill the cuckoo?" The intuitive answer still does not come.
After some time Tanzan becomes aware that he is being watched. Without opening his eyes, he can sense that the person is some metres away, so there is no need to take up an attack posture.
Slowly he rises and turns round. Standing at the edge of the grove, her arms hugging around herself, is a woman in her thirties, thin, with a slightly mournful expression, dressed in the cult robes. She smiles weakly. "How do you do? I'm Jenny Hammond."
Tanzan bows politely. "Tanzan Nangi."
"Sorry for disturbing you at your meditation, I saw a grey shape and I thought... anyway! Sorry, I'll leave you to it." She makes to go away.
Tanzan opens his hands. "Not at all, my dear lady. Please, join me. I am most interested in hearing about your beliefs. Come, sit beside me a while and tell me about yourself."
Jenny's face breaks into a smile, almost disbelievingly. "Thank you! That's really s very kind of you." She comes over and perches on the root of a willow. "Are you joining the Keepers, or are you just her to visit?"
"I am not yet decided," says Tanzan non-committally.
"Oh, well, I recommend it, really I do. It's done wonders for me and the kids. Frank is a wonderful man, and everyone here's so lovely - all so friendly. It's like being in one big family all together, and we share everything with each other - better than anything we had out there!" She gestures towards the world in general.
"Is it a true religion, with its own beliefs?" probes Tanzan.
"Oh, yes, for sure. It's all about the sun, it's based on old Egyptian beliefs. But we tolerate people who believe in other religions," she adds hastily. "If you follow... I don't know... Buddhism? or whatever, that's OK, it's just a different way of arriving at the True - that's what Frank says, except it's not as good of course!"
"How do the local people take to all this?" Tanzan asks.
Jenny's face loses the happiness his first question had engendered. Her mouth twists. "Most of them are all right - well, some of them are very good people, most of them can't be bothered either way - but there's some of them... I wanted to send my kids to the school in the village, you know? And one of the governors, this awful man called Bugbee, he chucked them out, said they weren't good enough for his precious village school, as if his daughter'd catch something off my kids, or something. And he told such a lot of lies about the Keepers!"
Tanzan nods, his face expressing only interest, and thinks to himself "Amazing what a little mokuso can lead to!"
Richard is leading the group on a tour of Branston Hall, with Kate in tow occasionally throwing in remarks. Tanya takes every possible opportunity to make suggestive comments to Richard - making Celestina cringe and Michael laugh quietly to himself - but Richard seems to interpret them merely as friendly chatter.
It seems that the whole house is in pretty poor repair, and the Keepers are only gradually making it habitable. On the ground floor there are offices for Frank and Nina King, who seems to be pretty much his deputy. There are large kitchens, opening onto the extensive vegetable gardens (both kitchen and garden busy with toiling Keepers), and a big dining room with trestle tables and wooden folding chairs. There is a large and well-appointed billiard room, with a full-sized table that unlike everything else seems in good repair. The young man who was playing the didgeridoo earlier is in here, practising cannons, and he looks rather sheepish and embarrassed to be found at it. Richard sighs slightly but does not comment. There is also a small library, which catches Celestina's eye.
"Richard," says Russell, "Nina mentioned a safe - I might want to think about putting some things in there."
"Like your computer?" says Richard, gesturing at the notebook PC which no-one has yet observed leave Russell's hand.
"Maybe, if I could get access to it whenever I needed it - how many people have the key?"
"Just Frank," says Richard, "and you'd need to ask him if you wanted it out - so it wouldn't be ideal if you'd be needing it in and out all the time, he's very busy most of the time. But don't worry about it, no-one here would dream of stealing any of your stuff - the safe is just for if any of you feel uncomfortable, really." He laughs lightly.
Upstairs there is pretty much just the dormitories, including one for children only, and bathrooms, plus another door on the other side of the main landing which Richard indicates as Frank's bedroom.
"And that's about it, apart from the cellars - that's where we keep the wine and beer we make, and that sort of thing. And there's a load of outbuildings - sheds and so on. What do you think?"
Everyone makes polite "very nice" noises, and Tanya thanks Richard effusively.
Celestina heads back for the library, which she finds empty of people. She tours the shelves, finding with some disappointment that it mostly consists of thrillers and other popular novels. There are a few shelves of occult / New Age material, but it is all very populist - nothing that anyone with any real knowledge would find interesting or useful. It mostly concerns Egyptian mythology and beliefs, although pretty much every culture to have been robbed by New Agers has a prettily-illustrated book on it somewhere on the shelves. All the books in this section are fairly new.
She wanders back out, thinking to herself that she would like to talk to some of the female Keepers about the mysterious Frank, and what sort of sway he might hold them in - but that to set up such a conversation may call for a little delicacy.
Tanya draws Russell aside. "Ah Monsieur Ozburne, enchanté encore. I would like to take ze walk in ze woods plus tard. Veux-tu sortir avec moi ce soir?"
Russell, over whose features a variety of expressions swiftly pass, embarrassingly blurts out "Yeah, sure," his usual way with words deserting him.
The party meet up again to plan for the evening in one of the unused rooms on the ground floor, hoping that they have not been seen gathering together. Michael sweeps the room for bugs.
"Tanzan and I are planning to go to the village, posing as journalists, and try to find this Bugbee character that Jenny Hammond mentioned," says Celestina. "I'm not sure how we should go about finding him, though: we could try the pubs, I suppose, there seemed to be three or four of them in the village."
Russell, glancing at Tanya, says "We were going to investigate the grounds, and see if there's any hidden or out of bounds areas - anyone any ideas about what we should be looking for particularly?"
"Is anyone going to go to the sunset prayers, or to have a talk with Frank?" asks Jack.
It seems as though he and Michael are the only candidates for these tasks.
"And what are we going to do about the rooms in our names at the Black Prince - cancel them, or keep them? If we want to keep them we should at least show our faces, or they'll think we're no-shows," he adds.
"You should meet with Gupper, Callaghan," says Tanzan unexpectedly. "You are a strong character."
Michael looks at Tanzan suspiciously. Tanzan is impervious.
Russell hastily breaks the moment of tension by saying "Oh, if anyone wants to use this -' he brandishes his computer '- you're welcome, as long as it's for something useful – I don't want to risk my hard disk getting wiped just because someone wants to play Doom!"
Tanzan: you cast the I Ching and receive the hexagram 'Hidden dragon. Do not act.' You smile to yourself, knowing the meaning.
Tanya: how do you propose to go about your inquiries about the existence of a coven? Who to ask, what to say?