The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
It seems that Celestina's proposed search of the cellars is a popular one, as Michael and Tanzan both offer their aid. It is agreed that a mass expedition will take place that night.
Tanya has other ideas. "Vell, I think we are expected to make some travaille aujourd'hui. Nina, she asked if I can 'elp her in ze kitchen, mais je pense, excusez, I think Mme Mirande, she is more accustomed to zis kind of work, non?" Celestina shoots Tanya a withering look, but Tanya hardly seems to notice.
"Tanzi, you should try to get a look at ze obelisk while we are busy ce matin. You are ze quietest and will have pas de problem. Après, you could take Celestina to find la source du bruit terrible, dans les caves. She seems to enjoy your company and you both need a little excitement, je pense."
Catching hold of Russell's arm and holding it close to her, Tanya looks up into his eyes with a puppy-dog-lost look on her face. "Per'aps I will get la chance de parler avec Franc. Et après, I shall attend la service." she smiles. Russell looks bemused.
As the group disperse to their duties, Tanzan takes Celestina aside. He says "I took the opportunity last night to go through the Gupper-san room and found very little. Tonight, after we have searched the cellars, I will break into his office and remove the obelisk."
"Are you mad?" exclaims Celestina, losing her usual cool in the face of this suggestion.
"Who knows, perhaps we all are for being here," says Tanzan, giving her a rare smile. "The time has come to stop floundering like dying cuckoos. I, for one, can afford little more time for taking my ease here."
"Yes," says Celestina thoughtfully, "I too am concerned that the weekend is progressing and we don't seem to have discovered anything yet."
"If the obelisk is false," continues Tanzan, " then Gupper-san will say nothing and eventually produce another one for the believers. If it is of a great age when we examine it, we will take it to that reporter from the Daily Mail and have him take it to London to be examined by an expert."
Before they part, Tanzan asks Celestina if she can produce an amulet, charm or spell to keep them aware of what is going on when they attend the service at dawn. He believes that they have ignored this part of the investigation at their peril.
Celestina gains a musing look, thinking that there are several lwa who might be able to help defend the investigators against harmful magic, if such it is: perhaps one of the Gédé, the spirits of death, might be appropriate.
Tanya returns to the dormitory to change clothes, thinking herself a little over-dressed for decorating work. Finding she has nothing suitable, she nips into the men's dormitory and grabs up a set of overalls which is lying on one of the beds. On the way out she bumps into a Keeper presumably returning for the same purpose, who is in the middle of shedding his robes as he comes through the door and collides with her. She endeavours to help him back to his feet, but he annoyedly shakes off her hand, pulling the robes back down about himself: she is, though, able to ascertain that he has no visible tattoos or other markings on the bits she saw.
Russell and Celestina meet again in the hallway - Celestina has decided that meeting as a group is too obvious. She plans to communicate individually from now on. "Hi, Russell, I was wondering, can you get on-line, to the Internet I mean with your lap-top? If so, why not have a look for some info on Gupper, see if anything comes up. You could also have a look for anything on Akhenaton, see if we can find anything valid out. What do you think?"
"Good idea," says Russell. "I'd need to use a telephone point, though - I'd have to get permission probably, or else do it at night perhaps. Meanwhile, are you planning to speak to Kate again today? We need to find out as much as possible about the initiation and life within the cult."
"Yes, I'll be seeing her later. I'm going to go to all the ceremonies from now on, too - and I think that if you do too you should try not to listen to the words or look at the light, but concentrate on the words of a pop song in their head, or concentrate on a faraway tree or bird."
When Tanya eventually shows up at the drawing-room from which Frank is directing the renovations, everyone else is already hard at work. She makes her way straight over to Frank. "Franc, I am so sorry pour arrive tard, mais I am 'ere now, wat can I do?" She flashes her eyes at him, and looks rather pitiful.
Frank hands her a wallpaper scraper, "Why don't you go and help Jack to strip off the old paper? He's in the next room. You're the last one now - excellent! I'll be upstairs in the ballroom if anyone needs me."
As Tanya enters, heading for Jack Garrison who is alone in the room, she sees him tense warily. She greets him with a cheery "'Allo, Jacques!" and he whimpers slightly.
"Oh, you will show me, Jacques, how to use this properly?" She approaches the wall beside an old ornate fireplace, and bends over slightly as though to encourage him to stand behind her and take her hands.
Rather than the reaction she hoped for, though, Tanya is surprised as Jack Garrison snaps out tensely "Not there! You stay away from that bit of wall, d'you hear?"
Tanya puts one hand on her hip, pouting.
He scuttles over and takes her by the arm, drawing her away from the fireplace. "It's not safe, d'you see? Could come down on you any minute!" He is sweating slightly. "Now you come and help me with this bit over here, why don't you?"
Russell applies himself keenly to his work in the kitchens, trying to make a good impression and appear friendly. The other Keepers here are good-enough-natured sorts and make him feel welcome: he even achieves a state of relative inner peace while peeling carrots. He finds out that the cult has been here at Branston Hall only since March of this year: prior to that it was run from Frank's house in London. Donations from members allowed the purchase of the Hall, which was in an even more dilapidated state then than it is now. Frank picked it out because the view of the sun at dawn between the hilltops looks very like the Egyptian hieroglyph for dawn, apparently.
The general impression that Russell gets is that life in the cult is not too bad at all provided that you don't mind a little physical work and getting up early in the morning. All the members he speaks to seem genuinely keen, if only to get away from the stresses of daily life outside.
He is also able to establish that the tale of the Beast of Branston Hall is a genuine one, not just made up by Richard to scare the group. It's a popular local legend. None of the keepers are too clued-up on the historical details, though, as they are all incomers.
At one point Nina King wanders through the kitchen as though looking for someone. She greets Russell slightly curtly, although the presence of a huge pile of peelings next to him mollifies her somewhat. "Working hard? Good! Nothing like labour to purify the soul! I'm glad to see you're taking this seriously, Russell, not like your friend Tanya - she should be here now!"
Russell mumbles something placatory about enjoying cooking for others.
"Good!" Nina regards him with more favour. "We get a lot of people visiting here - you'll see some this weekend I expect - who really treat this place like a hotel, won't contribute at all. Pah! We don't need their type, money or not!"
She stomps off, hands on hips, and Russell gathers up his peelings and carries them out to the composting bins. As he reaches up to dump them in, his sharp eyes catch sight of a metallic glinting from underneath the nearest bin. He bends down to dig it out, and finds a gold-plated cigarette lighter buried among the ancient rubbish. From the strata of compost it must have been there for several days at least. It is engraved 'To Tony, love Sheila'.
Tanya misses no opportunity to flirt with Jack Garrison, but he seems more scared of her than allured. And he keeps her firmly away from the part of the room that contains the dangerous fireplace.
Approaching noon, he leads her off towards the midday service, pausing to pick up his didgeridoo.
"Jacques, 'ow long does it take you to master such a big instrument?"
Failing to notice the double-entendre Jack replies, rather embarrassedly, "Oh, well, I'm pretty rubbish as it happens - you should hear a real expert play, I guess."
"It 'as such a relaxing sound, like waves washing over ze shore en été, but 'ow is it that you use such a strange instrument for a religious ceremony?"
Jack smiles ruefully, "Yeah, it was Frank's idea - he asked me to play it during the ceremonies because he says it helps people relax and focus their minds on worship. Don't half put me off, though, I can tell you, puffing that great thing."
"C'est très difficile n'est-ce pas? You 'ave to suck and blow au même temps, non?"
"Yeah, that's the trouble. You blow your cheeks out like this," he demonstrates, "and you sort of breathe in through your nose. It's a bugger actually, pardon my French."
Tanya is visibly impressed, "Per'aps I could try un tout-petit peu, before everyone est arrivé pour la service?"
"Sure, have a go, why don't you? I warn you, it slings out a load of spit too - you'd need a bowl under the end if you was playing it indoors."
He hands her the didgeridoo, which is unremarkable: carved into it near the mouthpiece are the words 'A Dr Didg Production'. They continue to talk as they make their way out of the house and over to the hollow for the mid-day service, Jack loosening up slightly when he hears Tanya's efforts at making a sound through the didgeridoo: it is quite appalling, with the instrument sounding more like a charging rhinoceros than waves on a sun-lit shore.
Celestina, Russell and Tanya all attend the noon service, which is identical to yesterday's version. Celestina and Russell concentrate on other matters and are relieved to find that the sensations of weakness and draining are markedly lessened. Tanya, who is sitting between Frank and Jack, seems to drift away with the mesmeric music, all the time smiling a dazed-but-contented smile at Frank.
Russell stares at the obelisk, attempting to memorize the hieroglyphs on it, particularly those nearest to Frank. He has a reasonable amount of success, being a perceptive type, and thinks that another go in the evening will definitely help.
Afterwards, Tanya slowly returns to herself, and stands up to hug Frank. "Oh Franc, I think zat I am starting to understand. Just now, I felt closer to my own identité, and closer to god zan I 'av ever felt before. We can meet plus tard, for you to show me more of zis enlightenment?
"No problem!" says Frank cheerily. He seemed to enjoy the hug. "We've got some people coming this afternoon, I think - what say we meet up after dinner?"
As the group walk away Celestina quietly says to Tanya "Next ceremony, why don't you pretend to faint or have a fit or something - then while Frank and the others are looking after you, we can examine the obelisk properly?"
Back at the Hall, Frank heads off for his office, but Celestina manages to collar him before returning to her work stripping paint off windowsills. "Frank, tell me, why do the Keepers wear robes?" she asks him with simulated gaucherie.
Frank scratches his head. "Well, they're based on the robes of the old priests of the Aton, you see - the sun god of ancient Egypt. We're the successors of that priesthood, so we dress alike. It's not a big deal, though - if you're not happy with them, you don't have to," he adds hastily. "But I think they're pretty comfortable really - freedom of movement, let the air circulate, that sort of thing!"
Michael is busily cleaning a windowsill overlooking the front of the house when he sees a large black Cadillac drawing in through the gates. Richard Blood is scampering alongside it excitedly as it purrs towards the house. Other nearby Keepers stop what they are doing and watch: it pulls up outside the front porch and a man gets out from the driver's seat. He is middle-aged, stocky, dressed in a beautiful grey silk suit and dark glasses, and he has a Middle Eastern appearance. He shoots his cuffs, glances about him, and heads into the building.
Michael heads downstairs, not too obvious because most of the other Keepers are equally interested (or nosy). He sees the new arrival standing in the hallway, hands clasped lightly together behind his back, as Nina King emerges from her office saying "Whatever next?" She stops when she sees the man and her mouth becomes a firm line. She puts her hands on her hips. "I suppose you want to stay for the weekend, is that right?"
"Indeed," says the man in a deep, musical voice, with an exotic accent Michael does not recognize. "I wish to stay for an indefinite period of time, if that is agreeable."
"Hmph!" says Nina, but at that point there is the sound of scampering footsteps and an agitated Frank skitters into the hallway.
"Richard said... ah! There you are, sir! How do you do, I'm Frank Gupper, welcome to the Keepers of the Hidden Circles!" He offers his hand.
The man takes it and bows slightly. "Abdel Essawi, at your service. I have heard many interesting things about your group, Mr Gupper."
"Are you Egyptian?" asks Frank, nervously.
"What does that matter - he's got money, hasn't he? That's all that's important these days!" says Nina, and she angrily turns on her heel and stomps back into her room.
Frank ignores her, saying "Well, you must be tired after your long journey - eh? - here, Richard, why don't you show Mr Essawi around, eh? I'll be out in the gardens if anyone needs me." He scurries out of the hall, with a rather hunted look about him.
Richard, who seems blissfully oblivious to the rather tense little scene that has just played out before him, cheerily leads Essawi off down the corridor.
Renovation is quite hard work, and Celestina applies herself to it with the same seriousness of purpose that she does to any task which she is set, taking a quiet pleasure in the clearing of layer upon layer of aged paint from the beaded windowsills. In fact, it is initially a distraction when Kate Carpenter appears at her elbow, saying "Quick! No-one's looking - let's nip off for a smoke!"
Celestina downs her tools and accompanies Kate along the corridor and through a very small doorway - they both have to bend double - into an eaves cupboard. It is full of boxes of junk, and there is the strong smell of mouse, but there is a little nest of blankets in the middle, with some magazines, a make-up bag and a small hand mirror.
Kate looks fiercely at Celestina as they nestle down together. "This is my secret place - you mustn't tell anybody else about it! Not even your friends. Promise?"
Celestina raises her hand and swears, uneasily aware that she is unable to break an oath, even one taken this lightly.
Pulling out a battered packet of Silk Cut from under a blanket, Kate takes two out and lights them with a Bic, puffing away enthusiastically and coughing occasionally. Fortunately there is an ashtray: the whole nest looks highly flammable.
"Isn't this nice! So, Celestina, tell me about your charms. Are they real voodoo? What does this one do?"
Celestina obliges, guessing that indulgence is probably the price of Kate's cooperation. Eventually she is able to ask "Kate, what do you think of Frank?"
Kate screws up her face. "He's all right I suppose - he's a bit like a teacher, though, isn't he? Always serious and telling you what to do, and all that stupid religious stuff, praying and that, as if it makes any difference to anything. Not as bad as at home though!"
"Why did you come here, then? What were you hoping to achieve?"
"It was to get away from Mum and Dad, really. I got chucked out of school - boarding school, can you imagine? - and I knew they'd throw a wobbly. It was bad enough when I was chucked out of the village school, last year, and they weren't even paying for that. So I came straight here off the train instead of going home. That showed them!"
Michael looks about him as the other Keepers, chatting to each other about the new arrival in their midst, return to their duties. He scampers down the stairs and crosses the now-deserted hall to Frank's office, whose door is standing ajar. Glancing around again to make sure no-one can see him, he nips inside and pushes the door to behind him.
The office is small and hugely untidy. There is a desk, all but submerged under a heap of papers, a two-drawer filing cabinet, a hatstand - and, the most impressive feature by far, a large safe with a combination lock. Michael takes out a small camera and starts taking pictures. Looking for the obelisk, it is immediately apparent that it must be in the safe.
There is the sound of footsteps in the hall, and Michael nimbly hops out of the window, landing in a flowerbed just as the door into the office re-opens.
Celestina breaks off from her work to head into the village again at around 4pm. She has no trouble finding the schoolhouse, which is at the edge of the green - it is a low Victorian brick-built structure, one end of which has been converted into a small cottage. Around the door of the cottage are baskets of hanging flowers, by it is an ornate beetle boot-scraper, and in it is a cat flap.
The door is answered by a small woman probably in her seventies, her grey hair tied back in a bun, wearing an apron. The smell of baking wafts through the doorway with her. Celestina at once gains the impression of an inner strength about her.
Celestina introduces herself as a journalist once more, and the woman smiles pleasantly. She says her name is Elizabeth Sullivan, and she shows Celestina in.
In the living-room, which is tiny, neat and fussy, is a teenage girl, with a slightly dreamy expression. She jumps up when Celestina enters, and says "Oh, I'll get along now, Mrs Sullivan, shall I?" Her voice is slender and wispy, much like herself.
"Yes, Melissa, dear, why don't you do that? I'll see you soon. Now give my regards to your parents, won't you?"
Melissa disappears, and Mrs Sullivan pours tea. She seems to have the idea that Celestina is here to do a story about her phone box campaign, it turns out. Celestina is eventually able to steer the subject round to the Keepers of the Hidden Circles, and asks what Mrs Sullivan makes of them.
"Oh, I think they're harmless and rather charming in their way. There are all sorts of strange things in the world, aren't there, dear? And we shouldn't condemn people out of hand just because they're not like us."
"What do you think of Frank Gupper himself?"
"He seems a pleasant enough sort, to me. And he was very complimentary about my telephone kiosk. I know some people in the village have taken against him. I suppose some are just frightened for their children - we do so tend to fear that which we don't understand, don't we?"
At dinner Celestina makes a careful scan of the gathered Keepers. There are about forty of them in total, evenly divided between male and female and with quite a spread of age - not counting Jenny Hammond's children, Kate is the youngest, George Windsor the oldest. Essawi has shed his suit and is wearing a jellabah and sandals, looking as though he has just emerged from a Cairo bazaar. He chats politely to the Keepers near him. It is noticeable that Frank regards him nervously, Nina annoyedly, throughout the meal. Nina also occasionally directs a glare at Tanzan, to which he is oblivious as he is facing the wrong way.
At the evening ceremony Essawi chants along with the best of the Keepers, seeming to pick the words up quickly. Frank gives a very poor performance by his standards, occasionally stumbling during his prayers. Russell makes a further mental note of the hieroglyphs. He then heads off to wander about the grounds, looking for areas he missed last night. He does not find any, but he hears the sound of a woman crying from a small grove. Approaching it cautiously, he sees a vague pale form through the branches.
Once darkness has fallen and the Keepers have retired, Celestina, Tanzan and Michael sneak downstairs for an investigation of the cellars. They start by opening the door in the kitchen that leads down to the wine cellar, from which others can be surmised to open. It is very impressive, with shelf upon shelf of space stretching off into the far distance - all empty, alas. Clearly the Branstons liked to do themselves well, but their executors have disposed of the remains. The operatives have barely progressed any distance, though, poking among the empty casks in the darkness, when the sound of footsteps can be heard in the kitchen above them. All three dive for cover as the door opens and a turned-down torch beam starts to probe the near end of the cellar.
Tanya: come evening you enter a secluded grove and prepare yourself for trance. Although hard work, the surroundings are conducive and you are able to achieve astral projection. You have barely left your body, though, when you feel an agonizing pain which drives you away from the Hall - it is as though your being has been immersed in fire. You are forced to whisk back to your body. As you pull away from the building, you see a face appear at one of the upper windows - it is Essawi, the Egyptian. Chillingly, he appears to be looking directly at you, although surely he cannot see your astral form. You feel another blast, this time of a cold wind of pain, and are driven back to your body, shaken, afraid, cold and alone. After hugging yourself for a little while, you hear a stick breaking, and look up to see that Russell is approaching your position through the trees.
Michael: you track down Nina in her office after escaping from Frank's. She is annoyed still, but you get the impression she thinks more favourably of you than she does others of your group. You tell her about Warren Martin and that he has an Oriental infiltrator in the group, and she emits a harsh chuckle of satisfaction, as though it confirms her suspicions. She says that she will keep a careful eye out from now on, and thanks you sincerely for your help.