The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Hidden Circles
Chapter 8

Ross carefully makes his way to the room in which 'Jack Garrison' has been working. He checks to make sure the errant didgeridoo-player is absent, and goes over to the fireplace. A few quick manipulations reveal the secret panel, with behind it the suitcase as described by Jack Callaghan. Ross covers the suitcase with one of the dustcloths that the decorating team have left lying about, and with great caution sneaks out of the room, carrying it under one arm.

Russell hunches his shoulders, wishing to avoid a confrontation with the hostile youths, and continues down the lane away from the green. But a voice calls out after him 'Excuse me, sir?' It is one of the policemen, who is walking swiftly towards him.

Russell reluctantly waits for him to arrive.

'I understand you're a resident at Branston Hall, sir,' says the policeman, breathing heavily.

'That's right,' replies Russell politely. 'What seems to be the trouble, officer?'

The policeman - who, Russell notes, is very young - looks at him levelly. 'There's been an incident, sir. Mr Bugbee's daughter - Melissa, her name is - has disappeared, and we're trying to find her. Would you know anything about that, sir? Ever met the young lady?'

'Not at all, officer,' says Russell honestly, although he immediately remembers that Celestina had said she met a girl called Melissa at Elizabeth Sullivan's house.

'Very good, thank you, sir. We'll be up to the Hall to interview all the residents there tomorrow morning - you might care to tell Mr Gupper. And if anyone wants to help us with our inquiries earlier than that, they can call Superintendent Smilie at the station.'

'I'll make sure everyone knows,' says Russell.

The policeman nods curtly and leaves him to walk down the lane in the direction of Branston Hall, as a light rain starts to fall.

'Busy times, eh, Frank?' says Sam affably, as Frank stands alone in the hallway, hands on hips, contemplating the arrival of the Candless gang - Richard Blood has been dispatched to find them accommodation.

'Hmm? Oh! Sam, how good to see you. Yes, business is really booming - this is one of our best weeks of the year, now!' He strikes the palms of his hands together, but somehow the enthusiasm in his voice sounds rather forced.

'Tell me, Frank, I was wondering - is it all right for a guy to put some money on the horses? The Keepers don't forbid it, I mean?'

'Betting? Good Lord, no, that's perfectly fine. As long as it doesn't harm other people, it's fine by The Keepers. In fact, if you've got any good tips, you might let me in on them!' He laughs uproariously.

'You're a sporting man, then? What d'you reckon on Chelsea for the League this year? I see they beat West Ham again yesterday - what a result, eh?'

'Not bad at all, not bad at all - looks like this lad Jody Morris really is the new Zola, eh? I'm an Arsenal man myself, I have to say, but... not our year, this year.'

'It never will be while you've got Wenger in charge, mate,' says Sam none too sympathetically.

The conversation continues at some length, during which Frank unwinds considerably. Finally 'Well, Sam, I'd better be along - things to do! Good to talk to you, though. There's not too many of the people here appreciate sport, you know.' There is a distinct spring in his step as he wanders off.

Michael corners Jack Callaghan in an upstairs corridor. 'Listen, friend - I know something's happened to you. Are you going to tell me what?'

Jack looks at him blankly.

Michael sighs impatiently. 'Come on - the mark on your forehead, the way you've been acting lately. Don't mess me about.'

Jack works his jaw briefly, then his voice comes out - but it is very hollow and flat compared with normal. 'Michael - leave me alone. I no longer wish to speak with you.'

As Michael gapes, astonished, Jack puts out an arm and brushes him aside as lightly as he might a fly, and strides off, with a rigid, regular gait.

Ross sees the police cars still on the green, so approaches Elizabeth Sullivan's house from the back, the suitcase still tucked under his arm. He knocks on the back door - which has hanging baskets of geraniums all round it, and a lovingly-polished brass bootscraper in the shape of a giant beetle - and Mrs Sullivan herself comes to answer it, wearing an apron and with her hair tied back in a bun. There is flour on her hands, and the smell of baking wafts through the doorway. She looks at Ross. 'Can I help you, sir?'

'Mrs Sullivan? I'm a colleague of Celestina Mirande, who you met a couple of nights ago.' He is not eager to give his own name just yet.

'Oh yes, the young journalist. Such a charming girl!'

'I need to ask you a favour, Mrs Sullivan - could you please look after this for us?' He offers her the suitcase.

She regards it rather doubtfully. 'What is it?'

'It's... evidence for a story she's working on,' Ross improvises.

'But what actually is it? What's inside?'

Ross realizes that there is no point lying, because if he did leave it here she could open it whenever she wanted. 'It's money - quite a lot of money.'

Mrs Sullivan jerks her hands behind her back, as though offered a venomous reptile to pet. 'Oh dear - is this to do with some sort of criminal activity?'

'Err... possibly,' says Ross embarrassedly.

'Dear me! No, Mr... er... I'm afraid I couldn't possibly take it. If you even suspect it might be stolen property, you should place it in the hands of the police immediately - even if that does mean Miss Mirande misses a "scoop".' She looks at him in a firm, schoolmistressish way that brooks no denial.

As Ross walks away, wondering what on earth he is going to do with the suitcase now, he sees Mrs Sullivan through her kitchen window, moving towards the telephone which hangs on the wall.

After dinner, Sam follows Kate Carpenter. She looks at him with some suspicion. 'You're new, aren't you?'

'That's right - my name's Sam.' He sticks out his hand, which she takes and shakes delicately. 'You're Kate?'

'Yep.' She looks around slightly furtively. 'Have you got any cigarettes?'

'Fags?' Sam pats his pockets. 'Yes, sure - you don't smoke, do you?'

Kate draws herself up to her full height (about five foot nothing). 'Why not? D'you think I'm too young, or something?'

'No, no, of course not - what are you, eighteen or so?' says Sam hastily.

Kate (who is fairly obviously a few years younger than that) grins. 'That's right. So d'you want a smoke, or what? We mustn't let Frank see, that's all - he doesn't approve.'

If Sam feels a twinge of guilt at enticing a youngster onto the vile weed, he gives no sign of it, as he lets Kate lead him off around the corner of the building and, huddled in a sheltered alcove, he rolls two cigarettes.

'So, Kate,' he says once they are both puffing away, Kate's eyes watering rather - Sam's mix is a bit stronger than what she is used to - 'how did you come to be mixed up in these Keepers, then? I'm thinking about getting more involved, but...'

She snorts. 'You? I don't think you're the type really - no offence,' she hastily adds. 'You're too normal. To really fit in here you've got to be all holier-than-thou, dedicated, religious, all that sort of thing. I get really fed up with it sometimes, I can tell you.' She tries to blow a smoke ring, without much success.

'So why did you join up? Why d'you stay around?'

'I had to get away from my parents - they were driving me round the bend! And I got - promise you won't tell anyone this! - slung out of school again.'

'That's not so bad,' says Sam sympathetically. 'I got slung out myself...' he was going to add 'at your age' but hastily changes it to 'when I was younger'.

'Well, to hear my dad talk about it you'd think it was the crime of the century or something. Just because I wasn't going to let a load of stupid teachers boss me around! Anyway, so I came here instead of going back home - it was a boarding school, you see. This was right around the end of term. And this place is bad enough, I can tell you, but it's not half as bad as home - or another school, which they'd probably try and pack me off to if they had the chance.'

Meanwhile Ross has drawn Frank aside. A certain tension between him and Nina was apparent at the meal, but no words were exchanged. 'Frank, this guy Essawi - is he making trouble?' Ross's expression is sympathetic.

'Oh, well, Ross, I couldn't say that exactly - I'm sure he's not a bad chap - but he's forever poking his nose into things. And because he's Egyptian, it's like he knows better than me about the language, the prayers, all that sort of thing. It's really wearing me out, I can tell you.'

And indeed he looks very tired, with sagging circles under his eyes.

'Anything I can do?'

'I don't suppose he'll stay too long - he doesn't seem very impressed with our setup!'

'How much do you know about him?'

'Nothing at all, really - he just seems to have turned up out of nowhere. His name, of course, and he's Egyptian, but that's all. I told him - look, mister, I was told these rituals by a spirit, a goddess, a force beyond our ken - and he just smiled at me in that way he has.'

Ross tut-tuts.

'Oh, anyway, we'd better be heading off to the dusk ceremony - the sun's nearly set! That's one thing I'll say for Essawi, at least, he never misses a ceremony, he's very keen on them, and he always chants loudly too - he does seem keen to get everyone involved. The only other newcomer who's as keen is that guy Russell, he never misses one either - even when it's raining.' Frank gazes out mournfully at the dark clouds.

Sam takes advantage of the last of daylight to head out to the caves by the river about which Ross has told him. He clambers down into the chilly water and tries to force his way in. Unfortunately, although he is smaller and slighter than Ross, he is still too big to fit into the cave entrance - he would stick and not be able to back out. Perhaps Michael, who is very thin indeed, would be able to manage it.

 It is frustrating, because Sam can see with the aid of his torch that there is a tunnel stretching away into the darkness, towards the Hall.

He continues to peer, then thinks he sees a shape moving in the tunnel. He shines the torch on it, but is horrified to see what looks like a hideous apparition - a pale, roughly humanoid figure, covered in slime and filth, with wild eyes. Sam recoils from the mouth of the cave in horror as the creature screams and babbles at him from deep in the tunnel. By the time he has recovered and returned to the entrance, the apparition is gone - Sam shakes his head in disbelief. Did he really see it, or did he imagine it?

After the ceremony, Russell, Ross, Sam and Michael meet up briefly. 'I'm going to keep away from you lot from now on,' says Russell. 'I don't want to spoil whatever you've got planned. If you need help, of course, just ask.'

'Could you get that Karyn to do something for me?' asks Sam. 'Could she find out whose phone number this is?' He hands Russell the number.

'The other thing,' Russell continues, 'is we should all keep away from Jack Callaghan. Something's definitely not right with him. We shouldn't tell him anything about the investigation unless we can somehow break the spell that he's under.'

'I had a chat with Frank,' says Sam. 'He was as pleased as me about the Hammers getting beat yesterday,' he adds maliciously.

Ross glowers but does not rise to the bait.

Michael heads away by himself, to one of the deserted rooms. He sits down, legs crossed, his back against a wall, and concentrates on clearing his mind. In his thoughts, he rises above his body, seeing himself sitting in the room, with all the Hall spread out around him like a map. Here and there the sparks of lives are visible, moving around the map from one place to another - humans at their business. But there are other spirits here, too - clinging to the ancient walls and the land below, spirits of the dead, and Michael hears their call.

'Are you there?' he asks in his mind. 'Tony Morris? Are you there?'

There is a whipping, whistling sensation, as if an ethereal wind were twisting about him, but there is no answer. Michael moves his point of view, skating about the Hall, but there is no dead spirit here that answers to the name of  Tony Morris.

He is about to return to his body, when a darkness starts to twist about him - a phenomenon he associates with evil doings. A voice seems to whisper into both his ears at once, saying 'Little boy, little lad, what're ye doing here?' Its accent is archaic.

Frightened, Michael tries to shake himself out of his trance, but the voice continues 'Brother kills brother, aye, and down the hole wi' him - into the dark, aye.' There is a curiously pleading quality to its tone.

With a tremendous effort of will Michael opens his eyes, and at once feels sick and dizzy as the room stabilizes around him. He shakes his head wearily.

That evening Sam, sticking to the shadows, follows Joey Candless and his gang - who seem inseparable - as they prowl the Hall. They seem to be looking for something, and in one of the small rooms on the lower floor, they find it: Gary Jackson, miserably chewing his fingernails.

Two of the gang stand in the door, while Candless sits down opposite Jackson and the two other thugs move to stand silently behind him.

'Now then Gary, me old friend - how pleasant it is to meet up like this, away in the country - and so unexpectedly, too.' Candless's voice is heavy with sarcasm. 'If only you'd told us you were goin for a nice stay in the countryside, Gary, we could have come too, and we could have all enjoyed ourselves on holiday together - wouldn't we have liked that, boys?'

'That's right, boss,' booms one of the thugs. Jackson shudders.

Candless leans closer. 'Gary me boy, you're looking good on this fresh air and hard work - and the new haircut suits you, too. Why, it quite changes your appearance - I hardly recognized you at first, and me your oldest and dearest friend, isn't that right? Well, well. Anyway, I haven't thanked you properly yet.'

'Th-thanked me?' stammers Jackson.

'That's right - I owe you some thanks - we all do, isn't that right, boys? For your foresight. You always were a clever lad. I can see it now - right after the job was done, when I'd told you to drive the loot round to the lockup, you must have thought to yourself "No, I don't think that's such a good idea - that lock-up's probably going to be swarming with bluebottles - I know what, I'll take the loot away somewhere where it'll be safe" eh? That's what you thought, isn't it? And I bet your mobile phone's batteries were flat, too, otherwise you'd have told us what you'd done, wouldn't you? And you'd have told us there'd be cops at the lock-up, to save us having to shoot our way out of a spot of bother we had when we turned up back there. And you'd have told us where you'd gone, too, wouldn't you - to save us the trouble of having to ask your lady friend Moira.'

'Moira? You haven't hurt her, have you?' Jackson's voice is full of anguish.

'Me? Hurt a lady? Would I even dream of such a thing, boys?' Candless leans back again. 'No, no, she was very obliging. She found us the advert for this place you'd cut out of the paper - you dim-witted little twerp!' Suddenly the pretence falls away and Candless's voice is full of fury. He leaps to his feet and shakes his fist at the cowering Jackson, as the two thugs move in and grab him by the shoulders. 'All right, you rotten slag, that's enough fun and games. You hand us over that loot right now, and it'll go easy for you - we'll only break one of your arms. Now where is it?'

Jackson screams in pain as his left arm is bent viciously up behind his back. 'I'll get it for you, it's safe, I know where it is, it won't take a minute, honest...' He is babbling.

Richard Blood is tidying up in the kitchen, putting away the newly-washed dishes, when Russell finds him. 'Hi, Russell! How are you?'

'Not bad, thanks, Richard - yourself? Good. Richard, I was wondering - do you remember a man called Tony Morris? He came to see Frank, a few weeks ago.' Russell describes Tony.

Richard scratches his head. 'Ooh yes, that's right, I do remember. He seemed like an old friend of Frank's - at first, but then they started arguing.'

'Did you hear what they were arguing about?'

Fortunately Richard is innocent enough not to ask why Russell wants to know this. 'I did hear a bit of it, actually, through the door. They weren't trying to keep their voices down, I can tell you! Tony was saying something about why wouldn't Frank cut him in on the cult - he meant The Keepers, I suppose - and how he'd left his wife, and he was after some action - not sure what he meant! Then Frank was saying no, it's not like that, and you can join the same as anybody else, but don't expect any special treatment - that sort of thing. Then Tony - I think he may have been a bit drunk - he started really shouting, saying he'd tell the cultists what was what, and how Frank was a fraud and not a real guru at all. And Frank started shouting back... and then it all went quiet.'

'What?' asks Russell, puzzled. 'They just suddenly both shut up?'

'Well - now I think about it, there might have been a sort of struggling noise,' says Richard, frowning. 'And perhaps there was a sort of "thunk" noise - and that's when Tony went quiet, and then Frank did too.'

'And Tony never came out?'

'Never. I went in the office a bit later and it was all perfectly normal, except Frank looked a bit ruffled, that's all. And the rug was a bit crooked.'

That night Ross and Michael meet up after lights-out. 'You back me up and I'll back you up, OK?' says Michael, and Ross nods in agreement.

First they head down to Frank's office. All is deserted and still as Michael swiftly turns the combination to the setting he found out earlier. Ross keeps lookout once more as Michael eases the obelisk out of the safe. Clutching it around the middle, he draws it out into the room, but his grip slips and he drops it to the floor. There is a curious hollow booming noise as it lands on the rug in front of the fireplace, and Michael freezes - Ross, outside, looks around frantically, but no-one seems to have been wakened by the noise. Michael picks up the obelisk again, carefully putting the rug back straight - the floor where the obelisk struck is dented, but the rug covers it up. As he straightens up, he hears the hollow noise again, as he stands on the piece of floor under the rug.

'Come on!' hisses Ross, and together they manhandle the obelisk out into the hallway. 'Where are we going to hide it?'

'Err...' says Michael, 'what about one of the empty rooms?'

'OK then - there's one down here. This is where I hid the money, when Mrs Sullivan wouldn't take it.'

They carry the obelisk along the corridor that leads to the west end of the house, and find an empty room to hide it in. Covered in a dustcloth, net to the similarly-covered suitcase, it looks the most innocent thing on earth. 'Are we going to leave it here, or do you have plans for it?' asks Ross.

Michael just grins and says 'Come on, it's time to meet Warren Martin.'

Out in the gardens, the rain has continued, and it is pleasantly cool and peaceful. The moon is occasionally visible through cloud, and it paints a vague silvery aspect over the gently-dripping trees.

Ross and Michael make their way over to the wall and Michael stands a little way back as Ross chins up and looks over the top. Sure enough, Warren Martin is there, with a small stepladder. 'Hello there - you must be the guy I spoke to earlier.'

'That's right. And I know who you are, too,' says Ross coolly. 'You don't work for the Mail at all, do you? You're here after Kate Carpenter.'

Martin curses under his breath. 'How the hell did you...? Never mind, there's no point carrying it on.' He looks up at Ross with some respect. 'You're a smart man, my friend. That's right, I'm trying to re-unite a little girl with her parents - get her out of the clutches of this cult. Are you going to help me?'

'I might do - if you'll help me.'

'Ah, a deal. I thought there might be something like that. Fair dos - I can make it worth your while.'

Suddenly the night is split by an unearthly howling and wailing. From out here in the woods it sounds much closer and creepier than it did indoors. Still, though, it does not seem to come from a particular location, but more to echo about the whole estate.

'Jesus! What the hell was that?' yelps Martin. He is visibly shaken.

Ross is also pretty shaky, but draws on what seem like new reserves of will [! - ed.] to say 'Oh, that's just the Beast of Branston. Anyway, ignore it - what I want is some information about Joey Candless.'

'Candless?' Martin is surprised. 'What's he got to do... I know, I know, none of my business. OK, my friend, I think I can help you - I'll just make a quick phone call.'

He turns away and pulls out a mobile, muttering into it as the wails of the Beast continue to echo about. After a few minutes, mercifully, it shuts up, and Martin turns back to Ross. 'Right then - Joey Candless. He runs a rather nasty firm in the East End - armed robbery, a bit of protection, that sort of game. Nasty piece of work. He had some trouble just lately, though. A bank job, Alliance & Leicester on Commercial Road - but it went wrong. The getaway man, guy named Gary Jackson, scarpered with the loot. Candless and the others turned up back at the rendezvous to find it crawling with coppers, and there was a bit of a shooting match. He's on the run now.'

Ross nods, filing the information away.

'Anything else I can tell you? Only I need that little girl out tonight - can't bear to think of what Gupper might be doing to her even as we speak, can you?' says Martin.

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