The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
As Frank and the mysterious Sheila enter the Hall, they pass Russell, who at once realizes that something out of the ordinary is going on. He heads back into the empty downstairs bathroom that adjoins Frank's study, locks the door, and presses his ear up against the partition wall.
The sound of voices is muffled, but words can occasionally be discerned. Both parties seem to be agitated.
Sheila says "... said loads of times he'd pack in work and come here ... cut himself a slice of old Frank's sex cult ... never thought he'd actually do it ..."
Frank's quieter voice mumbles in response.
"I don't care if it's really like that or not! He had this idea that you'd left the double-glazing game behind you and were some sort of New Age sex guru now. And he's like, if Frank can do it, why can't I? Share with a mate, eh? That's what he said. So I know he's here Frank, and you just tell me now what you've done with him. Or if he's gone on somewhere else, you tell me where."
"Look, Sheila ... swear I've not ... that's the God's honest ..."
"Truth? You don't know the meaning of the word, Frank Gupper, and you never have done, not when you were fiddling your records to get Salesman of the Year 1993, and not now either – just because these poor sods who fork out their cash for your crooked cult schemes think you're the bee's whiskers, don't you forget I'm wise to you!" There is a pause, presumably while they glare at each other, then Sheila speaks again in a quieter voice. "... right ... suppose if you say it, I've got to believe ... covering up for him, Frank, I'll have your guts for braces, you see if I don't – like that time you and him came back drunk from Yarmouth and you each said the other one had been driving!"
Celestina is surprised, but certainly not phased by Essawi's approach. She looks him up and down and then turns on the full strength of her presence, her priestess training had taught her how to control a situation, how to dominate another purely by appearance and manner. "Mr Essawi," she begins. "Or, if I may, Abdel? I find you are much mistaken in your belief that I am a Keeper, I am merely a visitor here, searching out enlightenment. I am a follower of the path of voudoun." She draws herself up and looks him straight in the eye, a thing that has been known to make grown men shrivel.
Essawi nods blandly. "Ah! The faith of Haiti. Yes, I should have known from your garb. As we say in my country, the broader the tree, the sweeter the figs." He does not seem greatly awed by Celestina, an unusual reaction which she swallows and deals with. Presumably he is used to dealing with powerful women, which must be rather unusual in a Middle Eastern culture. His own presence is remarkably compelling, without being commanding: it reminds her only of a manner that her grandmother, Marie-Therese, is occasionally wont to draw about herself.
"One of the other visitors," Celestina continues, "a girl called Tanya, had had some sort of bad experience. We met here at the hall and she seems like such a sweet girl and she's asked me to go and sit with her, she's too frightened to explain what happened at the moment, but I'm sure she'll be able to explain it to me when she's calmed down a little." She scrutinises his face for a reaction, but there is none. "So, I'm sorry, I must go, though perhaps we can take another time."
"As you wish. I shall be here for several more days yet. When the river rises in the delta, who shall stand before its flood?"
Celestina reaches out her hand to give the traditional blessing, drawing the mantel of power about her. "The laughter of Baron Samedi upon you," she says in a smooth voice, and then moves away.
Essawi stares after her, his expression as usual difficult to read, but she is confident she has left him at least intrigued, hopefully impressed.
In a small, untidy flat in East London, Sam Trend picks up the phone. He is a small, slight man of around thirty, with spiked blond hair and blue eyes. His skin is very pale. He rolls a cigarette with one hand while waiting for the phone to be picked up – clearly a much-practised skill – and lights it. "Ah, right, Branston Hall? Great. I saw your ad in the paper – getting away from it all? That's just what I need, as a matter of fact – that'd suit me just great. You've got space? That's excellent, thanks, I appreciate it. I'll be up this evening, if that's OK. Great, look forward to seeing you, then, and thanks for your help."
He hangs up, and starts to put clothes into a small canvas bag, together with the tools of his trade.
Ross heads out to where his equipment is buried in the grounds. Retrieving the torch and knife, he walks down to the river, where the limestone caves have their entrance.
A few minutes' prowling up and down the bank reveals the cave mouth to him, low down near the surface of the water. He clambers down, but is disappointed to find that it is to narrow for him to fit into. A child might be able to, but not a grown man.
As Ross climbs back up he hears a movement on the other side of the river from the Hall, and turns to see a face peering at him through the bracken – a teenage girl, with long, fair hair and a rather distant, dreamy expression. He straightens up and is about to say hello when the face disappears, with a rustle. By the time Ross has forded the river to look, the girl has gone completely.
Sheila Morris strides out of Frank's office, and he stands in the doorway watching her, scratching his head rather perplexedly. Then he seems to come to a decision and walks off briskly down the corridor.
Michael and Tanya, who have met up near the dining hall, see Frank pass, and silently move towards the office. As Michael is just about to open the door, though, he freezes – there is a muffled sound from within.
Tanya keeps watch while Michael kneels and applies his eye to the keyhole. Inside the room is Abdel Essawi, bent over by the safe. As Michael watches he turns the tumblers back and forth, moving his hand with confidence and precision, and with a click the safe door swings open.
Essawi, squatting on his heels before the safe, closes his eyes and puts both hands inside to touch the obelisk, his lips moving in silent speech. He stiffens slightly as he does so, as if in pain. After a few seconds he withdraws his hands, nodding thoughtfully to himself, and closes the safe back up once more. He then exits the room stealthily, by the window.
As soon as the coast is clear Michael slips into the room, Tanya remaining in the doorway to act as guard. He pulls from his pocket a matt black device with a number of red LEDs embedded in it, and fits it carefully over the combination lock. There is a gentle ticking noise and numbers start to race across the surface of the machine.
" 'Urry up, Michel," urges Tanya nervously from the doorway.
"You can't rush a delicate job," Michael grins up at her. Nonetheless he is poised to leap out of the window himself if need be. The marigolds in that particular flowerbed are having a rough year.
There is a soft beep as the machine finishes its task, and Michael gently swings the safe open. There is nothing inside but the obelisk, which looks rather small and prosaic in this setting. With a grunt of effort Michael swings it out onto the floor and starts to photograph it from all angles. He experienced no unusual sensation from touching the obelisk: it seems like a perfectly prosaic lump of sandstone to him.
"Do you 'ave to photograph the underneath as well?" implores Tanya.
"You can't be too careful," says Michael, tipping the obelisk over. Even he, though, is surprised to see on the obelisk's underside a modern mason's mark – testifying that the stone was carved by Drew and Son, Monumental Masons, of Croydon. This sits curiously with the obelisk's appearance as an ancient Egyptian artifact.
Finally he replaces the obelisk carefully into the safe. Proper analysis of the carvings will have to wait until he has got the film to Karyn to develop, but for now he considers it a job well done. He and Tanya carefully hop out of the window and at once pretend to be idly strolling in the grounds together. "So, Tanya," says Michael confidently, "how are you feeling now?"
Tanya opens her eyes wide and takes his arm. "Oh, Michel, eet was terrible!" She tosses her mane of hair dramatically. "Zat dreadful man... 'ow could 'e do such a thing?"
Michael gives what reassurance he can, and Tanya calms once more. She does not let go of his arm, though.
As Sheila heads towards her car, her heels crunching the gravel, Russell approaches her, slightly out of breath from running round the corner of the building. "Mrs Morris?"
She stops and regards him with some disfavour. "That's right. Who are you?"
"You're looking for your husband?" Russell fishes in his pocket. "I found this, in with the kitchen rubbish." He hands her the cigarette lighter.
As she recognizes it she gasps slightly, and her mouth twists as a tear comes to each eye. "I gave him this on our fifth anniversary, the silly old sod." Then her face tightens. "So that conniving bastard Frank Gupper was lying to me! I'll bet him and Tony are in this together, laughing at me. Too scared to face me! Well, I'll show him – he can't keep a woman from her husband!"
She turns back to Russell. "Thanks ever so much, Mr..."
"Osbourne, Russell Osbourne."
"I'm Sheila... of course, you know that off the lighter. Well, thanks, you've done me a good turn here."
"Is there anything else I can do to help?"
Sheila considers for a moment, and Russell's artless face seems to win her trust. "Look, come and sit in the car with me, I don't want to get overheard."
They face each other across the gear lever, the inside of the car rather cluttered with sweet wrappers, lipstick-blotted tissues, magazines, gym gear and the like. "Look, Russell, it's like this. Tony and me've been going through a bit of a patch, if you know what I mean – are you married? – well, anyway, he's not been happy at work and so on, and one thing led to another, and we had a row. This was a while back now, a few weeks. And he'd always said how he'd go and see his mate Frank. They used to work together a while ago, in the double-glazing this was. They were best of mates then, right old Likely Lads they were. But then Frank went to Egypt on holiday, this was after his wife Jackie left him, and he came back all mystical and whatever, and he packed his job in and set this cult up. And Tony was all, well, if he can do it, so could I, sort of thing. Young girls with no clothes on, that's what he thought. So I reckon he came here – and this lighter confirms it. But where is he, then? Why's Frank covering up for him?"
She and Russell sit in mute contemplation of the dashboard for a moment. "Well, Russell, you can really do me a big favour if you can keep your eyes open for any signs of Tony, or where he might have gone on to if he's not here now. He's thirty-nine now, brown hair, going bald in the middle – bit tubby round the waist..." her voice has started to break, and she restrains a sob. "Anyway, you'd better hop out now, but I'm staying in the village, at the Black Prince, so if you turn anything up, just give us a call, eh?"
Russell gets out, puzzled – the description of Tony sounds nothing like any of the Keepers who are here now – and the car starts with a spurt of gravel. As it drives away he sees Sheila mopping at her eyes with a tissue.
As Russell turns away from the drive he bumps into Michael and Tanya, who have just come round the other corner of the house. Michael looks more than a trifle smug, and Tanya's arm is linked in his. She reaches out the other arm, and draws Russell to her other side, so that she is sandwiched between them. "So, Russell, 'ow are things?"
Michael interrupts. "Russell, I guess you'd better get into the village and meet Karyn before too long, eh?" he hands him the film.
"I'm planning to go after dark," says Russell, "in case I get seen."
"Good. See if she can turn anything up about this Tony, as well."
"And get ze 'ieroglyphs translated," puts in Tanya.
Russell nods. "As for you, Michael, I think you should take some photos of that secret panel Jack found in the fireplace, and the money – just so we have a definite proof of its existence."
Sam's bus arrives in the village of Branston Parva at around half-past five. He heads for the Cricketers' Arms and calls for a pint, standing at the bar.
"Visiting the neighbourhood, are you, sir?" asks the landlady as she polishes glasses.
"That's right – I'm going to be staying at Branston Hall. You couldn't tell me how to get there, could you, please?"
The landlady's face falls slightly at the mention of the Hall. "One of those, eh? Well, you can't miss it – just head straight down the lane, over the green there, about ten minutes and it's right in front of you."
"Is there much coming and going between the Hall and the village, then?" asks Sam innocently.
"To be honest with you, sir, as you're a customer, they're not all that much liked here. Mr Bugbee, he's one of the local gentry, he's got quite a campaign up against them – all that free love and whatever. They were trying to get their children into our village school, but Mr Bugbee put a stop to that, and a good thing too. What we're all worried about here is the way that young people get sucked into these cults." She regards him slightly doubtfully. "Of course, it's different for grown men like yourself."
Ross is still peacefully walking the gardens when Michael, making sure that they are not seen, comes up to him and introduces himself. "I'm here if you need me," says Ross amiably. "Anything you can tell me which'll help me, anything I can do which'll help you – just say it."
Russell too is stalking the grounds – he and Ross are both looking for suspicious activities in the woods or around the river – but he finds nothing of any note. It seems that the farther-flung reaches of the estate are not greatly used.
Just as Ross is heading back towards the Hall, though, he sees a movement at the top of the wall. A man is leaning over it, presumably standing on a ladder or something, watching the Hall with binoculars. From the descriptions he has been given Ross identifies him as Warren Martin, the Daily Mail journalist.
Sam is strolling across the green when he sees an elderly woman tending the telephone box, putting fresh flowers in its vase. He pauses to look – phone boxes with chintz curtains and a doormat are a rarity in the part of London he calls home – and she gives him a friendly smile. "Hello, I don't think we've met. I'm Elizabeth Sullivan."
"Sam Trend. I'm new here." They shake hands.
Mrs Sullivan looks at Sam, her head on one side. "Are you visiting the Hall?" He nods. "I thought so – you look a perceptive man."
"I hear they're none too popular here in the village, though."
"Oh," sighs Mrs Sullivan, "that's true, unfortunately. People can be so closed-minded about what they don't know. I was out in India as a little girl, you know – my father was in the Colonial staff – and so I know that different people find comfort in different ways. It really does make me sorry that most of the village is so opposed to the Keepers. As far as I can tell, they do no harm at all, and the thought of those little children going unschooled hurts me."
Before dinner, Tanya finds Frank, who is pacing worriedly up and down the terrace. He stops when he sees her, and gives a weak smile. "Frank, I thought we 'ad a date for last night?"
"Oh, sorry, dear, I plain forgot – lots of things on the old mind at the moment, you know!"
Tanya approaches him, standing very close. "Per'aps I could help you take some things off... your mind?"
Frank warily nods. "Maybe... look, let's sit down here."
This was not quite what Tanya had in mind but she sits opposite him, both cross-legged, their knees touching.
Frank blinks slowly, and then starts talking about the sun and its place in religious history. His discourse is disconnected, rambling, and vague: Tanya from her own occult knowledge recognizes patchy places. She restricts herself to nodding and pressing his hand at key moments. Eventually Frank works his way up to the present day. "So Nina, you see, she was one of the first Keepers ever, and she's so clever and good at organizing things – and she says I've gone too far, I'm just interested in money now, I've lost sight of the real aims, whatever – I don't think that's true, do you? We need money to live this redecorating isn't done for free, you know, there's paint, plaster, whatever, and there's the adverts to pay for. So what if some of these people just want a holiday – they're not getting in the way of the real worshippers, are they? We can still be just as dedicated, can't we? But Nina's such a purist."
He sighs deeply, and then seems to recollect himself with a start. "Anyway, Tanya, dear, I'm boring you – thanks ever so much for putting up with me ranting on. You really are a good listener, you know?" And indeed some of the worry lines seem to have smoothed away from his face. "Let's get in to dinner."
Even Celestina is somewhat perturbed by the recent turn of events. She is somewhat suspicious that Tanzan has been found out and not her – they did after all talk to the reported together and were in the cellar together. She hopes that her attempt at being a guileless new-ager has prevented suspicion from falling on her.
The whole situation seems to be coming apart for the Keepers – the obvious tensions between Nina and Frank and then Sheila Morris arriving out of the blue. There was also the huge case of money found in the fireplace. Celestina sighs, it might not be going right for the Keepers, but it isn't working out for the investigators either, she doesn't have a clue what is happening. She is very confused at Tanya's predicament. It would be strange for the Egyptian to do such a thing in such an enclosed environment. She increasingly feels that Essawi might be the key.
Seeing Ross approaching the Hall before dinner, she strides out to head him off and introduces herself. Speaking quickly but clearly, she brings him up to speed on the events at the hall. A fresh mind might work out something that she and the others haven't been able to.
It is evening by the time Sam makes his way to the Hall. He finds no-one about at first, as all the Keepers are at the dusk obelisk ceremony, but as he waits he sees their procession, headed by Frank carrying the obelisk, make its way back towards the Hall.
He approaches the procession, smiling, and introduces himself. "Oh yes, you phoned earlier," says Nina King, a small woman with an intense expression. "Just here for the weekend?"
"As long as it takes, if that's OK," says Sam.
"Hmph! It takes longer for some people than it does for others," she replies rather sharply.
Frank comes over, having put the obelisk back in his office, and shakes Sam's hand. "Welcome to the Keepers of the Hidden Circles! I hope you have a pleasant stay with us here at Branston Hall."
"Is there any chance I could have a quick look round the place, before night?" asks Sam.
"No problem at all. Richard..." but there is no immediate sign of Richard Blood. "George, then, could you show this gentleman – Sam? – the ropes, please?"
"Delighted to!" says a middle-aged man, wiry, with white hair and a military bearing. The Keeper's yellow robes look faintly incongruous on him. As he leads Sam off upstairs, Ross pops into view down the corridor, but Sam does not acknowledge his old schoolfriend.
The tour is rather brief as time is pressing for lights out, but George (his surname is Windsor, "like His late Majesty") is a chatty and entertaining guide. He shows Sam the dormitories and bathrooms – one for each sex – the kitchens, dining-room and Frank's and Nina's studies (both shut). The other inside rooms are all currently in need of redecoration, as the building was neglected for a considerable time before the Keepers moved in.
George seems to have sized Sam up as something of a young tearaway, and keeps coming out with roguish asides about his own ill-disciplined youth. "But the Army made a man of me, eh? Needn't be the Army, of course, any body of fellows working together – eh? Just what a young chap needs to keep him on the rails!"
As they are wandering the upstairs corridors a nervous-looking young Keeper clutching a didgeridoo attempts to sidle past, but George collars him. "Ah, Jack, m'boy! New messmate – Sam Trend, Jack Garrison."
Garrison shakes Sam's hand – his own is hot and sweaty but avoids meeting his eye, scooting off at once. Sam is puzzled – he has the strongest feeling he has seen Garrison somewhere before, perhaps back in London. But he knows no-one of that name, or of quite that appearance.
Celestina has sought out Kate Carpenter after dinner, and they are sitting together in Kate's little eaves nest of boxes, Kate puffing away manfully on her battered Marlboro Lights.
"What do you make of these new arrivals, Kate – Essawi, and Sheila Morris?"
"I don't know who she is," says Kate briskly. "Some old flame of Frank's? Ugh – what a horrible thought." She ponders briefly. "Isn't the thought of old people having sex really disgusting? I mean, how can they bear to? All those wrinkles and – ugh! Frank must be nearly forty, for goodness' sake."
"What about Essawi?" asks Celestina, trying not to laugh.
"He gives me the creeps! And I think he gives Frank the creeps too. I think Frank's trying to hide something from him, don't you? – I mean, not something actually something, some sort of information or something. Perhaps Frank stole the secrets from the ancient Egyptian temple, and Essawi's tracked him across the globe to demand the goddess's rightful vengeance!" Her eyes sparkle. "Perhaps he's got this weird tattoo on his belly that turns into a snake, and we'll find Frank naked in bed one morning – ugh! – all green with venom and his eyeballs all rolled up, where it's bitten him. But have you seen how Frank mumbles the Egyptian prayers when Essawi's around? Perhaps they're special prayers only the Sons of the Pharaoh are allowed to utter, or their tongues turn black."
After dark, Russell slips stealthily towards the wall. He climbs over, thinking that the gate might be watched. He then makes his way through the sleeping village to where Karyn Hart's van is parked.
He knocks three times on the door, which is opened by an attractive, sharp-faced young woman with dark hair and eyes. He presents her the card and she studies it briefly before beckoning him in.
Inside, the van is well equipped, with a photographer's lab and a computer terminal, as well as eating and sleeping quarters. Russell is impressed by its compactness. Karyn does not stand on ceremony but pours him a black coffee and says "No Net presence at all for the Keepers of the Hidden Circles, it looks like. I turned up one Frank Gupper, but I think it must be a different one – this guy's a window salesman, he won some sort of prize a few years back. Nothing to do with cults."
"Actually, I think that probably is him," says Russell quietly.
"Yeah? Fine, well, here you go then." She gives him a printout which says little more than the above bare fact.
"Loads of material on Akhenaten – Amenophis IV, he's called as well. He was Pharaoh back in the New Kingdom – eighteenth dynasty. That's fourteenth century BC. He was married to Nefertiti, supposed to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived." She grimaces. "They set up this sun cult, throwing out all the old Egyptian gods, and they moved the capital. But when Akhenaten died, there was first someone called Smenkhare took over – no-one knows much about him, or even if it was a him – and then Tutankhamen came to the throne, he was Akhenaten's son. Not by Nefertiti – she only had daughters – six of them! – by some other queen. And Tutankhamen went back to the old ways, moved the capital back, knocked down the Aten temples."
"Can you have a look for the Beast of Branston Hall?"
A few minutes pass and Karyn eventually manages to find a page of Buckinghamshire folk tales. It confirms Richard's story in much less detail.
Russell sighs. "OK then, here's these hieroglyphs."
Karyn blows up Michael's photographs and they study them closely. After a few minutes Karyn says, "Well, I'm not much of an expert on these."
"I know a few of them, from visiting Egypt," says Russell, repressing a shudder at the memory of that strange trip. "This one's the sun, I think, or it could be the letter T in some of these places – that's the way they work."
"We're going to need an expert to decipher these. I'll email copies to a friend of mine and we can see what she makes of them."
Back in the dormitory, Michael is awoken by a slight noise. He sits up and glances around, to see that Jack Callaghan is missing. A few minutes pass, then the big American returns, walking softly on bare feet. In the moonlight his skin looks ghostly. He lies down and is still.
Tanya: you sneak up and help yourself to a chunk of cash, hiding it among your possessions.
Russell: Karyn tells you that any witch would use a pentagram for most mystic rituals, prayer, invocation, enchantment, whatever – anything that needed power to be focused or collected. She knows of no phenomenon that would cause people to lose their accents, and is rather amused at the idea. "It doesn't sound very occult, does it?"
Ross: you draw Frank aside and tell him of your security concerns. He nods worriedly. "Yes, I know, I really should have given more thought to it – but you just want to trust everyone, don't you?" You cast some doubt on Nina's competence and Frank gains a thoughtful look. "Well, she's my right hand, Nina, really, we'd never have got here without her. But perhaps you're right, she does seem to have been under a lot of strain lately. Perhaps I should think about relieving her of some of her duties."