The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
'All those things you've said, Nina,' says Ross loudly, 'are security problems - your department! It looks like it's you who's not up to the job, not Frank!'
'That's right!' says Sam loyally.
'Oh yeah,' says Michael sarcastically, 'and I suppose Nina's just got to magically make the place secure by herself? If Frank isn't giving her the resources and support she needs, how's she meant to do her job?'
Nina looks greatly relieved at this support.
'Anyway, Nina,' continues Ross, 'why are you so scared of the cops? What have you got to hide?'
'Now, now, lad, let's not get personal,' mutters George Windsor, who looks unhappy.
Nina's face contorts with anger. 'That's so easy for you to say, Ross, Mr Ex-Army - I don't suppose you've ever wanted for anything in your life! If you'd grown up on the streets like me then you'd know what the cops are really like. They get the chance, they'll come in and bust this place up for the sheer hell of it, because they don't like our kind of people - and if you're not our kind of people, if you're their kind of people, then as far as I'm concerned you can just clear off !' [except she doesn't say 'clear' - ed]
Frank suddenly slumps, his face, arms and body all sagging. 'Look, I've had just about enough of this. Nina, are you saying you're going to try and keep the police out of here?'
'Damn right I am! Are you going to get in my way?'
'You know what that'll mean? Well, look, on your own head be it, that's all I can say. All of you,' he looks around the group, 'notice, this is nothing to do with me - I tried to stop her.' With that he turns and walks back into his office.
'Frank!' calls out Jenny Hammond, who is clutching her children protectively to her. 'Don't leave us!'
'Right then!' says Nina crisply. 'Michael, you're my deputy from now on, together with Mr Essawi. We're going to make this place secure - lock and barricade all the ground floor doors and windows, everyone!'
As the cultists disperse to their tasks, with a mixture of elation and resignation, Sam attracts Nina's attention. 'All these problems seem to have started since that new bunch turned up, from London. Maybe they know something about the missing girl?'
Nina thinks for a moment. 'Good idea, Sam - I don't like the look of that lot at all. I'll check 'em out.'
The SITU team has a rare meeting to plan for the emergency. Russell suggests that they explore the tunnels properly that night - he plans to make his way to the village to get some materials for the purpose. He says that carrying out the task together will be essential for safety.
'I'll get hold of a pickaxe,' says Sam, 'and then we can enlarge the other way out so we can use it as an escape route.'
The sound of activity approaches - Nina has gangs of Keepers nailing boards across the windows - and the operatives disperse.
Ross nips into Nina's office to make a phone call. Glancing anxiously out of the door in case he is overheard, he calls the police and asks for the Serious Crimes Squad. After much waiting he is put through to a Sergeant Tracey.
'This is Ross Myers, Army serial number 37574870 - check it out, I'm no hoaxer. I've got a tip-off for you about the Joey Candless gang.'
'Hold on a moment, sir, I'll put you through to our colleagues from the Met.'
Another brief wait and then an Inspector Rogers comes on the line. 'Where are you calling from, sir?' Ross gives the details. 'Right - interesting. We've had other reports of men answering the gang's description in that area.'
'I can lead you right to them, Inspector. If you can get a team of a dozen armed men and wait in the woods for my signal, you can get the drop on them no trouble.'
There is a pause. 'Don't you risk yourself, Mr Myers - these are very dangerous men, as I'm sure you know. Can I call you back on this number?'
'Er, not really,' says Ross, who is by now hopping from foot to foot in fear that Nina will return to her office.
'Leave this to us - thanks for your tip-off, I'll make sure you're suitably rewarded when the villains are brought to justice. You keep your head down, we'll handle the snatch without your help.'
'No, wait,' says Ross, but he can hear footsteps approaching the office.
'It'll be OK - leave it to us. And, Mr Myers - be careful.'
Michael, having shown willing for a little while, makes sure that Essawi is occupied with Nina and then goes to look for Tanya. He finds her staring out of an upstairs window, into the woods. As he enters the room she turns and smiles at him. 'Hello, Michael.' Her French accent has completely disappeared.
'How are you? I've not seen you about for a while.'
'Oh, I've been doing some stuff - you know.' She makes a vague gesture.
Michael comes over towards the window. 'Hey - what's that out there?' He points.
Tanya turns round to look, and as she does so Michael brings up the frying-pan he has in his other hand and cracks her satisfyingly over the back of the head. Tanya looks puzzled for a brief moment then slumps gracefully to the ground, unconscious.
Michael, working quickly, binds and gags her with the dustcloths that are scattered about, and locks her into a wardrobe. He then pulls out his mobile phone and calls up Karyn.
As Ross and Russell head down into the village the Hall is taking on a siege atmosphere. The main gates have been locked shut, so they have to climb over the wall - not a challenging task.
Down in Branston Parva there are still a number of police cars drawn up on the green, plus some unmarked ones, and the few villagers wandering about look fearful and suspicious.
Russell heads into the post office-cum-general stores, and buys a large ball of orange twine, attempting to draw as little attention to himself as possible - even so, the woman behind the counter glares at him.
Ross goes over to Elizabeth Sullivan's house, knocks and is admitted. 'Ah, Mr...? Miss Mirande's colleague.'
'Myers - Ross Myers,' says Ross, who has the feeling he will not learn much more without giving his name.
'Ah! I hope you were able to sort out the matter you came to see me about earlier - that suitcase. I really do feel you'd be best off putting the whole matter into the hands of the police, Mr Myers.'
'Well, as a matter of fact, I spoke to the police this afternoon,' says Ross.
'Good! Well done!' Mrs Sullivan's mood warms considerably. 'Scone?'
After a little chit-chat Ross works the conversation round to the missing girl.
'Dear Melissa! She's such a charming child - very interested in nature, not as materialistic as so many children are these days, don't you find?'
'Do you have any idea where she might have got to?'
'Oh dear, the police asked me that, too, but I really had no idea - except something that was probably too silly to tell them.'
'What was that, then?' asks Ross, hoping that he is silly enough to fit it.
'Oh, really, it's just a wild idea - she's very interested in the Beast of Branston legend - you know it? – and I just wondered whether she might have gone to investigate it? We were talking about it just before she must have disappeared - we talk a good deal about folklore - and I distinctly remember her saying that she would like to find the Beast. I just wondered whether she might be looking for it now?' Mrs Sullivan sips at her tea. 'I haven't told her father yet, it sounds so foolish, and I hope that she'll reappear soon, of course...'
'Where would she have been looking, do you know?'
'Well, the noises are strongest from the woods and the river behind Branston Hall itself. I dare say the police will be searching that area before very long.'
Michael drags Tanya's prone form - he had to hit her with the frying-pan again - through the woods towards the wall. Karyn is waiting there, her van backed up ready.
After they have put Tanya into the back, Michael says 'I want you to go to the police and flash some ID around. Tell them you and your associates are trying to get Kate Carpenter out of here, and you've run into the Candless gang. Here's some photos I took - that should be good enough to convince them. Get them moving on it.'
'You're the boss,' says Karyn cheerfully. 'You want them to storm in there mob-handed, or what?'
''With any luck this'll leave us in control of their actions.'
'How?' Karyn is puzzled.
'It's Ross's plan,' Michael is forced to admit.
'What do you want me to do with Sunshine here?' She indicates Tanya.
Sam, rightly suspecting that Kate will want little to do with the hard work of securing the Hall's perimeter, goes to look for her. He eventually tracks her down in her little eaves-cupboard cubby-hole, curled up in a blanket reading an ancient-looking tome.
'Sam! Good to see you. Look at this, it's brilliant - Splendor Solis, it's called. It's all about magic and stuff.'
Sam peers at the book, but it is written in Latin. 'Can you read that stuff?'
'Yes, of course, we get taught it at school...' Kate grimace, having been caught out in scholarship. 'Well, I don't pay much attention, I mostly mess about in Latin lessons. I got a detention once for talking back to the teacher!'
Sam reflects briefly on the difference between state and private education. 'Where did you get it from?'
'There's a whole box of them over there, they turned up in one of the walled-up bits downstairs - that stupid Jenny Hammond found them, she was just going to throw them away! I rescued them.'
'Does Frank know about them?'
Kate giggles. 'No chance! Books of old spells? He'd be right after them, try and cast enchantments on us all to make us listen to him instead of Nina.'
Sam sits down beside her. 'Listen, Kate, with all this trouble that's going on just now - this place is probably going to get pretty hairy really soon now.'
She becomes serious. 'Do you think so? I know the police are coming, but that'll be all right, won't it? We haven't done anything wrong.'
'Even so - they can be pretty funny with people who they think are causing trouble. And if Nina's plan goes ahead then anyone who stays here'll be in the same trouble she'll be. I think you ought to get out.'
'What? Run away? No fear!' Kate's bravado is unconvincing - the suggestion clearly has some appeal.
'Look, there's nothing wrong with it, I'll be going to as soon as I get the chance. Listen, I heard something in the pub about you.'
'About me?' Kate at once becomes interested. 'Brilliant! What?'
'It's your parents - apparently they've been around looking for you. I heard they were trying to keep the police out of it.'
'Hmm.' She looks levelly at him. 'Do you really think things are going to get grim here? How could I get out?'
'I'm sure of it. There are some pretty dodgy types here now - that new bunch from London. I'll get you out myself if you like.'
'Look, I'll have a think about it, all right? My parents...' she grimaces again. 'I'll decide later. Anyway, have you got any of those roll-ups?'
'No, sorry, all out,' lies Sam.
'Drew and Sons - how can I help you?' The voice is of a middle-aged man.
'Hello, this is Mr Waring,' says Russell. 'I want a monument made, in the style of an Egyptian obelisk, with hieroglyphic carvings - can you do that sort of thing?'
'Hold on a sec, sir...' there is the sound of riffling. 'We have done in the past, sir - one of them, anyway - you'd have to supply the design for the carvings full size, of course.'
'What was the one you did like? What sort of stone?' asks Russell.
More riffling. 'Oh, right, I remember this one. Interesting job, very fiddly getting all the little birds and that right. Strange...'
'Yes, I remember now. Funny guy who commissioned it, Mr Gupper his name was. He gave us these designs for it - they were written on this Egyptian papyrus, with a load of spells and such-like, he said, and the carvings were meant to be a spell too!' He chuckles. 'Yours isn't anything like that, is it, sir?'
'Er, no, mine's just a copy of a historical obelisk.'
'Good, good. I ask because, this is daft really you'll think, just my little joke, only after carving out that other one, we had it out in the yard, and I got the strangest feeling - all sort of sick and headachy, weak. I had to lie down for the rest of the day.'
'What time of day was this?' asks Russell, interested.
'Ooh, must have been just about bang on mid-day. Nice sunny day, too, the sun was shining right down on the obelisk.'
Nina gathers the cult together in the late afternoon. 'Right, everyone - the time of our trial is coming upon us! We all have to be strong together, and help each other as best we can.'
At one of her shoulders stand Michael and Essawi, at the other Joey Candless and his gang. There is no sign of Frank. 'These brothers -' she indicates the gang '- have some experience dealing with police harassment, it turns out, so they'll be able to help us defend ourselves.'
Candless grins widely. Sam, who is peering through the banisters, groans inwardly - he know what that grin means.
'I think, though,' continues Nina, 'that because of this situation, we're going to have to abandon the prayer ceremonies for now - it's too risky all of us being away from the building.'
Essawi suddenly jerks, his face pale. 'No, Nina, really, I must disagree. It is vital that we carry the ceremonies on, especially at this troubled time. At least this evening's and tomorrow morning's.'
'What?' Nina turns to him in surprise. 'Why?'
Essawi has found his stride again and talking more smoothly. 'In this time of trial, a you say, do we not need the Sun to smile down more favourably on us, to preserve us from those who assail us? We should be imploring its help all the more vigorously. When the waters rise, the foolish man looks to the crocodile for example, but the wise man looks to the dung beetle, as we say in my country.'
Nina looks slightly puzzled at this but says 'Oh, well, all right then, I suppose it's only a few minutes. Will you be all right to lead the prayers? I'll stay here myself just in case.'
'Yes, yes, I will do my humble best,' says Essawi relievedly.
Candless, in recognition of his new status as Nina's lieutenant, attends the evening service with Slap'ead Brown. Candless chants along lustily and tunelessly, although Slap'ead looks as though he would rather be somewhere else.
Ross has stayed back in the building and, moving quietly on his toes, follows one of the other gang members as he heads for the toilet. The man is alert, but as he comes out of the small room Ross, waiting in the corridor, kicks the door back in his face, jumps in and straight-arms the man across the face. As he collapses backwards across the toilet his hand goes into his jacket for his gun, but Ross kicks his hand precisely and the automatic goes spinning across the room. Kicking the man once more for good measure - he is snivelling and rubbing his nose by now - Ross picks up the gun, drags the man to his feet and twists an arm up behind his back.
'You're going to take me to your boss now. I want a word with him.'
'Orl right, orl right,' says the villain sulkily. 'You don't 'ave to break me arm, you know.'
Essawi recites the same prayers as Frank, but he seems rather more fluent and clearly has a better command of the language. Russell finds he has to concentrate much harder to prevent the draining, headachy sensation.
After the ceremony has finished, Essawi has almost a spring in his step. Russell hears him mutter to himself 'Tomorrow at dawn... and we shall see!' He is carrying the obelisk carefully, as if it was hot.
As the Keepers walk back to the Hall, though, the sound of a car engine can be heard. Russell sees that Nina is at the gate, and jogs across to see. A policeman is trying to show her his warrant through the bars, but Nina tears it up and flings it at his feet before stalking back towards the house. The policeman goes back to his car.
On Nina's face is an almost exalted look, as though she has been waiting for this moment for many years. She squeezes Russell's forearm painfully hard as he reaches her. 'We'll show the swine - we'll show them!' Coming down slightly, he recognizes that it is him. 'Oh Russell - this came for you earlier.' She hands him a letter.
Russell can see, back at the Hall, Frank peering disconsolately through his study window.
As the cultists returned to the building, Michael is suddenly seized from behind by two of Candless's gang. He struggles furiously, but both are much bigger and stronger than he, and they bear him kicking and swearing along the corridor. 'The boss wants to see you.'
Michael relaxes, drawing the dark power into him - he believes that if he finds himself under threat he will be able to surprise his opponents with his powers.
He is bundled through a doorway into a small room where sits Candless, Slap'ead Brown at his shoulder.
'Mr Harrison, is it?' says Candless. 'A little bird told me you might know a thing or two about some property of ours that's gone missing - would that be right?' He is cleaning his fingernails with a vicious-looking knife.
Ross is coming along the same corridor from the opposite direction, his victim in front of him. ''E's just in here,' the thug mutters.
Ross uses the man's face to push the door open, and takes in the scene within. He swiftly covers Slap'ead, who ha made a move for his pocket, with the gun. 'Candless? I want to talk some business with you.'
Michael appears greatly relieved.
Sam and Kate look out down the drive at the array of police vehicles, including Landrovers, riot vans and even horses, drawn up outside the gates. Both Thames Valley and Metropolitan insignia can be seen.
'I think perhaps it would be better if I was to get away now,' says Kate, rather quietly - her hand steals into Sam's. It seems that, for her, the adventure is over.
Sam sighs in relief that he does not have to drug her and take her out against her will. 'Right, good, sooner the better I reckon. Looking out there, it looks a bit tricky - we might be better going out the back, across the river - the police might not have men posted there yet.' He looks at his watch, remembering that he and the others are supposed to be descending into the cellars shortly - but Frank has been locked in his office all afternoon, so how will they get at the trapdoor? He has got hold of a pickaxe, at least, so they could try and get in at the river end - but what to do with Kate? And what might happen at the Hall while they were away? And where are the others, anyway?
Russell: the letter has been forwarded by SITU.
Dear Russell, Greetings.
We worked together for a while on the investigation at Branston Hall. I have moved onto another investigation which may involve Ben Foster who I believe you have come across before. We are hoping to talk to him and I was wondering if you were able to provide me with some details on him, anything that might help.