The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Crouched in the darkness, Celestina draws into herself, welcoming the darkness and the shadows. She holds breathes very shallowly, wondering if the footsteps and torch are the artless Tanya.
"Come on out! I know you're in there!" comes a sharp voice, as the torch beam sweeps about. It is Nina King. "Don't bother trying to hide - I can see exactly where you are!" Her tone is tense and edgy.
Michael exchanges a meaning glance with Tanzan, but the Japanese is holding himself dead still, his gaze distant: he is hardly breathing. Swallowing, Michael gets to his feet and moves out into the open, away from Celestina and Tanzan. "Er, Nina - it's me, Michael."
"What are you doing down here?" Her voice is surprised and relieved, as Michael walks towards her, the thin beam playing over his features.
"I'm sorry - I was looking for something - I guess I got lost..."
"You'd better come with me then!" Together they head back up the stairs out of the cellar, leaving Celestina and Tanzan undiscovered.
Russell glances cautiously about himself, making sure that there is no-one else nearby and that he is alone with the woman. He slowly approaches, and pauses, ready to introduce himself from a distance. Then he realizes that the woman is Tanya, rocking backwards and forward, sat in the middle of the group of trees.
Russell quickens his step to join his comrade, but almost trips over a tree root as he takes in that Tanya is completely naked, with her overalls thrown carelessly a short distance away. She sobs loudly at the sound of approaching footsteps, jarring Russell back to the reality of the scene. "No! No, no please! No!" Tanya looks up through her tears, suddenly sees that it is Russell standing over her, and throws her arms around his legs, forcing him to clutch hold of a low branch to keep balance.
"Oh, Russell, it was horrible! Just horrible!... I felt so weak and powerless I couldn't do a thing!... the Egyptian, he was just so terribly strong!... it was just a complete nightmare."
Russell strokes her hair soothingly, trying to make sense out of her garbled words.
When Tanya finally manages to pull herself together, she starts to explain what happened. "I was just walking across the lawn, back to the house, when the Egyptian - the one who arrived this afternoon - he appeared at a window on the first floor of the house. He looked straight at me as though shooting lasers from his eyes. All I could do was run. I ran and ran, but my whole body felt as though it was on fire. All the time, I could feel his eyes burning me from the inside out! I can't remember any more, I must have fainted or something, but when I woke up I was here in this grove all alone. All alone and so terribly cold. I must have been here for hours."
Russell is mystified by this account and scarcely knows what to make of it. He continues to hold Tanya close, while draping the overalls awkwardly about her. Suddenly, he realizes what has been the strangest element of the experience - there has not been the hint of a French accent in Tanya's voice during her account. Another unexplained factor is the presence of a pentagram on the ground in front of Tanya: Russell recognizes it as a symbol favoured by many modern-day witches.
Ross Myers thanks the driver cheerfully as he gets off the last bus in sleepy Branston Parva. He is a tall, well-built man in his mid-thirties, with close-cropped dark hair. He hefts his ex-Army kitbag, glancing about him, wondering which of the four pubs surrounding the green to try. He had been hoping for a motel, but the bus driver had told him there was nothing of that sort this side of High Wycombe. He strolls easily towards the Black Prince, which is nearest, and walks into the bar.
The pub is full of typical country types out for a Friday night beer - farmers, commuters, schoolkids chancing it. Ross buys a pint of Brakspear's and downs it appreciatively. "I'd like a room, please," he says, his East London accent sounding out of place here in wildest Buckinghamshire.
"I suppose we may as well carry on and explore," says Celestina after a little while has passed and it is apparent Nina is not returning with any imminence. Tanzan nods silently, his expression unreadable. Together they forage onwards into the cellar, threading their way between yards of empty wine racks, with even a few old beer barrels among them. The cellar shelves downwards as it heads away from the house, and it has a strong smell of damp limestone about it: the walls are rougher and unclad here, as though they have just been hollowed out from the living rock.
The large wine cellar rapidly breaks up into a series of passages which wind in and out of each other, all full to a greater or lesser degree of generalized household junk. Celestina and Tanzan spend some time searching through it, but both have the feeling that they are not really making progress. It would take a small army to search this place properly, and with the two of them, in the dark, they can do little more than scratch the surface.
Tanya eventually stands up, pulling her overalls back on. "Alors, we must retourner, before we ar' missed." She smiles weakly and kisses Russell on the cheek. "Merci, chéri." She scoops up the pentagram and quickly puts it into one of her deep pockets, and heads back to the Hall.
Ross approaches Branston Hall at around midnight, under cover of darkness, carrying a heavy plastic zippable sack with a knife and torch inside. He clambers over the wall and observes the sleeping estate: the squarish Hall, outbuildings behind it, amid its rolling wooded grounds, which slope sharply downwards to the river at one side. There are no lights on.
Ross chooses a suitable spot and buries his bag of equipment. He then clambers back over the wall and heads back into the village.
The next morning is a fine one, and all the operatives at Branston Hall wake feeling revitalized, although Tanya is still a little weak.
Russell and Celestina head out with the yawning Keepers to the dawn ceremony, which again is much like the previous versions only with slightly different wording. They both concentrate on other things, and are pleased to note no repetition of the draining effect: it seems their minds have learnt a way round it. Essawi is there, chanting away sonorously in his jellabah, although Nina is for the first time conspicuous by her absence. Frank seems a little more confident than last night, but still keeps looking nervously at Essawi.
Russell by now has a good idea of most of the hieroglyphs, and has copied them down onto a piece of paper. On the way back to the Hall he meets Michael, who has just got up. Michael hands him a business card - a plain white card, with the word MYSTERIA printed across the middle in bold black letters, and a hologram above the word of a phoenix engulfed in flame. As Russell tilts the card he sees the flames wavering around the bird's body. Russell recognizes the name and logo as those of an underground magazine of the paranormal.
"Head into the village," says Michael, "and parked behind the Cricketers' Arms pub you'll find a black van. Knock three times on the back and show this card to my friend Karyn Hart: tell her I sent you. She's been searching the Net for information relating to this investigation, as well: I guess you two should pool resources."
Russell manages to track down Jack in the billiard room, where the big American is practising cannons. "Jack, why don't you check out the fireplace in the room Tanya was working? - check for hidden panels, doors, that sort of thing. And see if any large areas are inaccessible."
Jack amiably agrees.
Before lunch, Tanya takes Russell aside briefly. "Russell chéri, ze lighter - can you find out to 'oo it belongs?"
She then files into the refectory with the other Keepers. Frank and Essawi are stood near the door, talking quietly, and as Tanya walks past Essawi glances sharply at her, frowning as though puzzled.
The meal passes uneventfully, but at its end Nina stands up and raps on the table for silence. "I have serious news, brothers and sisters - there is someone among us who is not what they seem!"
A general murmur of surprise runs around the room, and all the SITU operatives get a vague guilty feeling. Frank looks up in puzzlement and says "What's going on, Nina?"
"What's going on is that I've been looking after the security of the group, together with the help of some of the really dedicated people here, while you've been schmoozing!" Nina snaps. She points dramatically at Tanzan, who remains expressionless. "That man - Tanzan Nangi - is in the pay of a Daily Mail journalist!"
There are gasps of horror and amazement around the room, and Tanzan's neighbours edge away from him. He blinks slowly. "This is not true."
"Nina, look, let's not jump to conclusions," says Frank worriedly, but Nina ploughs on regardless, her face red with anger.
"Don't try and pretend! I've got witnesses! I know you've been speaking to this journalist guy in the village, and here you are poking round our cellars, spying on us, looking for dirty stories to carry back to your boss!"
Tanzan knows better than to glance at his fellow operatives, merely shaking his head.
Frank gets to his feet, saying worriedly "Dear me, dear me, Mr Nangi, this is terrible - if what Nina says is true..."
"Of course it's true! And you'd know it if you were paying any attention to what's going on here!"
One of Jenny Hammond's children starts to cry.
Tanzan rises to his feet with dignity. "If that is the way you feel, Gupper-san, then I must leave at once." He walks out of the room.
At once there is an almost audible lessening of tension. Keepers start to whisper excitedly to each other: it seems that penetration by tabloid journalists is one of the things the cult most fears. Frank and Nina are in heated discussion, Frank looking helpless. Essawi appears oblivious to the whole affair, merely finishing his glass of water.
Ross walks up to the gates of Branston Hall in the morning sunlight, and is greeted by a youngish man in pale yellow robes, with shaven head. At Ross's approach he jumps eagerly to his feet. "Another new visitor! Hi, how are you, I'm Richard - Richard Blood!"
Ross shakes him by the hand. "Ross Myers. I saw your ad in the paper. I could use a bit of peace and quiet, I tell you - this seems like just the place." He glances around appraisingly.
"Yes - it's wonderfully relaxing here. And you can find your inner spirituality too - if you work at it! How long are you likely to stay?" As they talk, they are heading down the drive towards the Hall.
"However long it takes, I guess. I've got a few things to deal with..."
"You look like a Forces type, if you don't mind me saying."
"That's right - I was out in the Gulf."
Richard purses his lips sympathetically. "Grim! We've had a few of you guys here, actually - that Gulf War Syndrome."
Ross nods, smiling.
There is the hoot of a car horn behind them, and they both have to jump to one side as a Renault Clio tears down the drive, coming to a sudden halt in front of the main doors. A woman in her late thirties with an elegant perm gets out.
Richard calls out "Hello! Can I help you? Have you come looking for inner peace?"
She turns to him as he approaches, and Ross is shocked at the distress on her face. "No, I haven't - I've come looking for my husband. Tony Morris - is he here?"
Richard is just starting to say, with a puzzled expression, "No..." when Frank comes out of the door, looking pale.
"Sheila! What are you doing here?"
"I could ask the same of you, Frank Gupper - you look a right berk in those robes, I can tell you! I'm looking for Tony - have you seen him?"
Frank gulps and opens and shuts his mouth silently. Then he notices Richard and Ross in the background. "Sheila, love, why don't you just come in here, into my office." He takes her by the elbow and leads her within.
As she disappears, Ross can just about hear her saying "Now don't flannel me, Frank, I know he's here."
Frank faintly replies "Honestly, love, I've not seen him..."
Tanzan does not take long to put his few belongings into his case. Now that his cover has been blown, he recognizes himself a liability to the investigation. If the Buddha is merciful, his departure will divert suspicion from those who remain. He still has no real idea how he was found out, but that is irrelevant now. He permits himself a small frown as he walks away from the Hall: something is wrong here, but he is not quite sure what. He will report what he has learnt so far to SITU: from this point it is up to the others to carry the investigation forward.
Russell spends a while wandering around the house, looking for phone points. There are telephones in Frank's and Nina's offices, but there do not seem to be any others: clearly the old Branstons were not great believers in modern communications technology.
He collars Nina as she strides across the hallway, lips pressed tightly together. "Nina, I wonder if I could possibly use your telephone socket for a little while - just to check my email?"
Nina, hands on hips, considers for a moment, looking Russell up and down. Not terribly prepossessing at the best of times, he does his utmost to appear inoffensive and harmless. It seems as though the hours spent peeling carrots have paid off, for eventually she nods in permission. "As long as you pay for the calls!"
Ross allows Richard to show him around the Hall: the dormitories, one for men and one for women, the kitchens, the dining hall, the vegetable gardens. He makes no attempt to contact the other SITU operatives, merely noting them and putting faces to the names he was given in his briefing. Celestina Mirande, small, dark-skinned, exotically dressed. Tanya Hyde, tall, blonde, sexy. Michael Williamson, American Goth. Russell Osbourne, British Goth. Jack Callaghan, Top Gun. Tanzan Nangi - but there is no sign of the Japanese operative. Ross shrugs.
Jack, first making sure that Jack Garrison is otherwise occupied, goes to the upstairs room with the purported dodgy fireplace. He assesses the adjoining rooms, and decides that there cannot be a very large space concealed behind it: big enough for a person, though. He taps on the fireplace surround, listening carefully, and to the left finds a hollow sound.
Squatting down, he attempts to manipulate the panelling, and after a few minutes' struggle is able to detach it. Behind, in a recess, is a large, brand-new looking Samsonite suitcase. He pulls out the suitcase, with some difficulty as it is extremely heavy, and, glancing about once more to make sure he is alone, cracks it open. He is startled to find that it is absolutely crammed with low-denomination British banknotes.
Celestina notices Essawi talking to George Windsor after lunch, and as she heads out into the corridor she finds him approaching her, his tread fast but soft. "Mademoiselle Mirande? May I take the liberty of introducing myself? Abdul Essawi, at your service - may the blessings of a thousand suns shine upon you, as we say in my country. Or, si vous préférez, on peut parler en Français?" His French is good, although it carries the same Middle Eastern accent as his English.
"English will be fine," says Celestina, offering her hand, which Essawi kisses delicately.
"Can you possibly spare me a few minutes? To aid the enlightenment of another is the greatest good, or so it is written. I am seeking to learn what I can about the personal beliefs of each of the Keepers here - can you tell me what drew you to this group, and what faith you profess?"
Michael: you explain to Nina that you were in the cellar after Tanzan, and she nods approvingly. "We'll settle his hash in the morning," she says crisply. She tells you that Essawi is an Egyptian who wants to join the Keepers: neither her nor Frank had met him before yesterday. She believes him a wealthy dilettante who just wants to buy serenity, like so many of the 'weekend cultists'.
Tanya: you make your mental approach to Essawi. You do not feel, though, that you have made any contact at all. It is strange: he does not seem to have anything like the same capability or power today as he did last night, if indeed it was him you saw. He does not respond in any way.