The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Russell is growing concerned that he has not seen Tanya for some time. He pads over to the women's dormitory and cautiously peers through the doorway, but her bed is unoccupied.
Further down the corridor, there is a light on in one of the rooms, so Russell walks quietly down towards it and peers through the keyhole.
Within is the Egyptian, Abdel Essawi, sat at a small table on which an intricately-carved golden bowl sits. Steam, or smoke, is rising from the bowl. In front of the table kneels Tanya, rather in the attitude of a pupil. Essawi is speaking gently into the bowl in a language Russell does not recognize. From time to time Tanya speaks too, in the same language: from her smiles and nods it appears she is not there under duress.
Disturbed by what he has seen, Russell heads downstairs towards Frank's office. There he meets Sam, who is similarly skulking about the place: the Hall by night has a living, breathing air, as though a thousand secret rendezvous have been held in its passages.
Together Russell and Sam go into Frank's office and lift up the rug in front of the fireplace: underneath is a large wooden trapdoor, with an iron ring set into it. It looks very old.
Russell and Sam glance at each other and then Sam lifts the trapdoor, which creaks slowly up. A blast of cold air comes up through the hole, together with the sound of dripping water and the smell of damp and rot. Russell clicks on his torch, and sees that beneath is a wet, dark tunnel, extending in both directions.
'It's more serious than you might have thought, Martin,' says Ross. 'You're going to need backup to get the girl out of that place. It might not look it, but it's like a fortress in there.'
Martin looks up at him. 'Is that right? I thought they were just a bunch of hippies.'
Ross shakes his head firmly. 'No, no, you want to watch out. If I was you I'd get the police involved.'
'No police - her parents don't want that. No trouble. So, what are you saying - it can't be done tonight?'
'That's right. If you don't want the police involved, then we're going to have to do some preparation work - clear the way and that.'
'Damn! I told the parents they'd have her in the morning.' He looks suspiciously at Ross. 'You wouldn't be trying to stall me, would you?'
'What for? You've done me a favour by telling me about Candless, I'm trying to do you one by saying don't rush in without being ready.'
'Hmm - all right then! But tomorrow night it has to be, do you hear me? I'm going to be here ready at midnight, and I want you to have everything fixed up for me. No messing about, OK?'
Ross lowers himself down from the wall and rejoins Michael.
'What are we going to do about that guy - are we just keeping him hanging around for nothing?' asks the young American.
'I don't know... I guess we'll think of something to use him for,' says Ross thoughtfully.
'Well, you'd better come up with something, or else he'll come busting in by himself - and that could make a real mess!'
They start to head back towards the house, and Michael adds 'Let's check out that trapdoor I found in Frank's office, OK?'
'Good idea. But before that, let's move the money and the obelisk out of the house, before someone stumbles across them. We should bury them both in the woods somewhere. In two different places.'
Down in the tunnel all is oddly muffled, with only the drip, drip of water for company, echoing curiously about, up and down the caves, its source unclear. On the walls are lichen, moss and strange luminous fungi: underfoot scurry slimy things and crunchy things. Within a few yards the tunnel divides, and then it divides again, one branch diving under the other. 'It's a right maze down here,' whispers Sam.
Suddenly the tunnel is filled with a hideous noise - the wailing and caterwauling of the Beast of Branston. Sam and Russell are both fairly stalwart, but even so they clutch each other in terror. The noise sounds a hundred times worse than it does above ground - as though the Beast is down here with them. As the howling dies away, Sam mutters 'That thing I saw in the cave by the river - do you reckon it could be the Beast?'
There is the noise of footsteps behind them, and then the beam of a torch stabs the darkness, reflected by the glowing eyes of a myriad tiny creatures. 'Who's there?' It is Ross's rather wary voice.
The four investigators meet up and compare notes. 'There's no way we're going to be able to search these tunnels just by wandering around in the dark like this - we'll just get hopelessly lost,' says Michael. 'We need a systematic search plan, we need to keep a map, and we need more equipment. Torches, nets, whistles, luminous paint to draw arrows with - we could probably get them in High Wycombe, if one of us takes a trip out this afternoon.'
'I reckon these tunnels link up with the caves down by the river,' says Sam. 'They're going in about the right direction. Maybe we could enlarge that entrance, with a pickaxe - or you could go in that end, Michael, you're skinny enough.'
'There might be other ways in, too,' says Russell. 'But if Frank did dump Tony Morris in here, he wasn't dead - we'd have found his body under the entrance.'
'Unless the Beast dragged him away,' adds Sam cheerily. 'Anyway, we'd better be getting back out now - it's pushing dawn, and people'll be up and about soon.'
There is barely time for the operatives to resume their beds before the Keepers start to rise for dawn. But it is far from being the usual peaceful, tranquil start to the day that has been observed up till now. Instead, Frank and Nina are in the hall downstairs, standing outside Frank's office, yelling at each other.
'How can you just lose it like that?' Nina is shouting, her face red and her eyes narrow. 'Don't you care at all about everything we've built up here, all of us?'
'I didn't just lose it!' Frank shouts back, veins on his neck standing out. To see such a normally placid man this furious is rather disturbing. 'It was in the safe! I locked it up! Somebody broke in and stole it!'
'Don't be ridiculous! How could anyone break into that safe! You must have left the door open, and one of the visitors just helped themselves!'
'Now you're being ridiculous! Our visitors wouldn't do something like that - they care just as much about the Keepers as the residents do! Someone broke in, I tell you - the marigolds outside my window were all squashed!'
'Don't talk nonsense! How do you know they care? You don't know them from Adam!'
Frank suddenly realizes that more or less the whole cult is lined up along the banisters, gaping down at these unseemly goings-on. He waves Nina to silence, and smiles weakly up at them. 'Er good morning everyone. There's been a bit of a disaster, I'm afraid - the obelisk has been stolen from my office, from the safe.'
Gasps of horror all around.
'Now, don't worry, everyone, although the obelisk is very precious we can do without it. We'll go out and say our prayers just as normal, and the sun'll still come up, you'll see!' He tries to laugh feebly, but it dies in his throat.
Nina puts her hands on her hips. 'If any of you know anything about this -' her eyes dwell one by one on each of the SITU operatives (except Russell and Michael), the Candless gang, and lastly Essawi '- you'd better tell me right now. Or there'll be big trouble.'
The dawn ceremony is a subdued affair: without the obelisk to act as focus, Frank seems to find it difficult raising his inspiration. Curiously, Russell notices, the headachey, weak feeling that usually accompanies the ceremonies, even to a certain extent when he clears his mind and thinks of other things, is completely absent this morning.
For once, there is no sign of Essawi at the ceremony, and Nina is not there either.
As the Keepers walk back to the house, Russell joins Frank, who is looking extremely preoccupied. 'Er, Frank, when I was in the village yesterday I was told something - apparently a girl called Melissa Bugbee's gone missing -'
'Bugbee? Not that nutter Charles Bugbee's daughter?'
'That's right - and apparently the police are going to come up here and interview you, all of us, later this morning.'
Frank howls in anguish, and Russell steps back, alarmed. 'My God! That's all we need right now!' He spreads his arms wide. 'Come on, world, shit on me some more! I really do not need this! I've never even seen the girl in my life!'
'I'm sure if you tell the police that, and let them search around a bit, they'll leave us alone,' says Russell, but he is unable to make it sound very reassuring.
Michael finds Gary Jackson [for so he shall henceforth be known - ed] in the room where the money was originally hidden, with the hollow fireplace. Jackson is nursing a black eye and clutching one arm to his side, as he desperately delves about under the dustsheets, but of course there is no sign of the suitcase. 'Looking for something?' asks Michael politely.
'Yeah, as a matter of fact - I, er, left something in here when I was working here the other day.' He looks at Michael with a pleading, desperate gaze. 'I don't suppose you've seen anyone poking around in here lately?'
'I have, as a matter of fact,' says Michael. 'You know that big American guy - Jack Callaghan? He was in here in the dark the other night - looking in the fireplace, I think. I just caught a glimpse as I was going past the door. I thought it was a bit strange, but...'
Jackson falls down on his knees and raises clasped hands to heaven. 'Thank the Lord! You're a real mate, mate, all right?' He leaps up and darts off out of the room.
Russell is just returning from visiting Karyn - she has told him that the phone number is registered to a Joseph Candless - as two police cars sail past him, headed for the Hall. One is a local Thames Valley car, but the other is a Metropolitan Police Rover. When he reaches the house, he finds Frank, wearing normal clothes for once rather than his kaftan, deep in conversation with two local officers, including the one who Russell spoke with the previous night. There are also two Met officers, standing looking suspiciously about them.
The policeman is saying '...so, Mr Gupper, you're saying you've not seen Melissa Bugbee at all?'
'That's right,' Frank nods earnestly. 'We don't kidnap people here, officer - we're not like the Moonies, you know!'
'No, sir. Well, I have to advise you that we're in the process of obtaining a search warrant for this property, and we'll be back later in the day with more people. Any cooperation you and your people can give us in the search will be greatly appreciated.'
Frank runs a shaking hand through what is left of his hair. 'Of course, of course - we don't want any trouble! We'll do anything we can to help, I assure you.'
'Good. Now, my colleagues from the Metropolitan Division also want to conduct a search of the premises - they're looking for a gentleman named Joey Candless and his associates. Apparently one of your people here spoke to an old lady in the village about a sum of money that we believe might be linked with them. Does that name mean anything to you?'
'Candless? No... we've had a few people from London come up over the weekend, but none gave that name. Should I ask about?'
'Better not, sir. We don't want to alert him, if he's here: he's an extremely dangerous man, and probably armed. We'll deal with that when we come back.'
As the police get into their cars, Russell sees Nina, peering through the doorway at them: her face is white with fury.
'Hey, Sam, did you see those police about? Do you know what they were here for?' asks Kate Carpenter, lighting another one of Sam's dreadful roll-ups.
'I think they're looking for some girl - called Melissa. She's not one of the Keepers, is she?'
'No-one here called that - but people don't always give their right names!' says Kate wisely. 'I thought they might be here after me, actually. You'd think my parents would be trying a bit harder - I've been away for weeks now, and they haven't even tried to get me back.' She sounds rather disappointed.
'What does she look like, this Melissa girl?' asks Ross of Jenny Hammond, who is stood next to him on the steps.
'Poor dear! She must have run away - I'm not surprised, with a father like that. And her mother's really wishy-washy - you know? I met her - Melissa - a few times at Mrs Sullivan's house, the old postmistress lady, when I was trying to get my children into the school - Mrs Sullivan was trying to help me, but it didn't do any good.' She sighs. 'Melissa and her are good friends. She'd probably know where she's gone, if anyone does.'
'And what does she look like?' repeats Ross.
'Melissa? Oh, she's rather a sweet little thing. She's about fifteen, I suppose, with long, blonde hair, a bit wavy. And she has this very sweet, dreamy expression.'
Ross recognizes the description of the girl he saw down by the river.
The Candless gang, little knowing how close a brush with the long arm of the law they have had, are cloistered together in a room at the end of the east wing's upper floor. Sam is listening through the fireplace of the adjoining room.
'Right then, mister,' says Candless, 'no messing about, eh? Let's be friendly about this. You've got something that belongs to us, right? Now give it back, and we can all be friends.'
'I do not know what you are talking about,' says the slow, monotone voice of Jack Callaghan.
'Look, don't mess about,' says Gary Jackson nervously. 'I saw you with my own eyes going into that fireplace and taking the suitcase out. Just tell us where you've put it, and it'll be all right for you.'
'I do not know what you are talking about.'
'Stop saying that!' says Candless. 'You're giving me the creeps. And just staring straight ahead like that - what are you, some sort of zombie or something?'
'I do not know what you are talking about.'
'Right, that's it, I've had enough of this. Slap'ead, get to work.'
Sam winces. Slap'ead Brown, Candless's enforcer, is one of the most feared men in the East End, a ruthless persuader.
There is a brief grunting, and the sounds of a struggle. A chair goes flying to the floor, and Candless shouts incoherently. Then there is a single gunshot.
'Oh, shit,' a voice says quietly.
'What are we going to do with him, boss?' says one of the gang.
Candless is breathing hard. 'We'll have to bury him in the woods. They won't think to look for him there - he was a Yank, anyway, probably his family's the other side of the world. We'll leave him here for now, cover him up with those dustsheets - then we'll move him out when it gets dark, OK?'
'My arm hurts, boss,' complains Slap'ead Brown.
'Stop whinging, you great tart! And as for you, Jackson - don't think this lets you off the hook. You're going to help me find that money. Where might this Yank have put it?'
'Er, I, I don't know... Ow!'
'Right, who's his friends here then?'
'Don't think he had any, really... Ow! Ow! Wait, wait, let me think, er, er, yes! There's another Yank here, a guy called Michael Williamson - maybe they were in it together?'
'Excellent! I knew it would come flooding back to you once you opened your mind, Gary. Not quite as open as poor Mr Callaghan's is now, but we can work on it, eh? Now then, you're going to take us to this Williamson, are you?'
Michael, meanwhile, is traipsing through the woods with Nina and Essawi, the Egyptian leading the way. Essawi is holding a willow twig in each hand. Every now and then he stops, and they twitch, and he changes direction slightly.
'I have to admit I was wrong about him,' whispers Nina to Michael excitedly. 'I thought because he's rich he was just another tourist, like those others. But look at this - proper dowsing! If he can find us the obelisk...!'
And indeed Essawi is heading towards the tree under which Michael buried the obelisk earlier that day. He stops by it, lays down the rods, and starts to clear away the soft earth with his hands.
'That poor idiot Frank couldn't have found it if he'd tried,' says Nina. 'He really has lost the power, don't you think, Michael? The way he was just nodding along to those pigs this morning!' She spits. 'It makes me sick, I tell you. He's not fit to lead this group any more, if you ask me.'
With a grunt Essawi straightens to his feet, cradling the earth-stained obelisk in his arms. Nina whoops in triumph, and Michael claps weakly, feeling he ought to join in, although pleasure is the last emotion he feels right now. He catches another glimpse of the mason's mark on the bottom: perhaps they should investigate that? Karyn and Russell still have copies. But for now Essawi, who has remained silent the whole time, leads the way back to the Hall, Nina beside him with one hand proprietorially on the obelisk, Michael trailing dispiritedly along behind.
'What do you mean, they're going to come back and search the place?' Nina's screech is even louder than this morning. 'I thought you'd got rid of them this morning!'
Frank raises his hands defensively. 'Look, Nina, just calm down, all right? I'm very grateful to you, and to Mr Essawi of course, for recovering the obelisk, but... I couldn't just get rid of them, all right? They're getting a search warrant. We can't break the law...'
'The law? Fuck the law!' Nina spits again, accurately landing it between Frank's feet. 'What we can't do is, we can't let them push us around like that! I'm not going to stand for it, Frank! We can't let them in.'
'Well, I've got to, Nina, and I'm going to.'
'Right! Well, it might not be up to just you, now.' Nina's voice is grim. By now pretty much the whole cult, except for the Candless gang, is watching the scene over the banisters.
Frank pales and staggers backwards. 'What do you mean?'
'What I mean is, I don't think you're fit to lead this group any more. All these cock-ups - that journalist - these new people we don't know - the obelisk stolen - and now backing down to the police. It's too much. I'm taking over, Frank. You're out.'
'What?!? I can't be out! This is my group!'
'Not any more it isn't. You're not worthy. The power of the sun has passed from you, that's pretty obvious. I'm going to have to take over - and it's not just me. Mr Essawi's with me - isn't that right?' The Egyptian nods. 'And so are you, Michael, aren't you? And all you others, you see what I'm saying, don't you?'
There is a general uneasy muttering and murmuring from the Keepers, and everyone looks at each other nervously.
'Come on! Speak up! Each of you - are you with Frank, or with me!'