The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
'Come on, let's get moving' says Sam to Kate. She seems greatly relieved to finally have the word, and makes no complaint as he helps her pack up her belongings.
'Are you going to take those books?' she asks curiously as Sam grabs up the box of musty tomes. 'What for? Isn't that stealing?'
'No-one here's got any use for them, have they?' says Sam reasonably. 'I'm going to pass them on to some friends of mine who'll be able to make the most of them.'
'Fair enough, not as if I care,' says Kate. She does raise an eyebrow when Sam produces the pickaxe, though.
They slip out of the back door of the Hall, while the Keepers are still busy barricading the place. They are stealing across the vegetable patch and have almost got away when a plaintive voice comes from the yard 'Kate! Where are you going?' It is Jenny Hammond.
Kate swears under her breath and turns back. 'I'm off, Mrs Hammond' she calls out. 'Sam's taking me away over the river. Back to Mum and Dad.'
Sam turns back too, and sees that Jenny looks desperately worried. 'Don't worry, I'm coming back,' he calls, 'and I'll see what I can do to help the rest of you then.' I must be getting public-spirited in my old age, he thinks to himself as he follows Kate down into the woods towards the river, lugging the books and pickaxe under one arm.
'Nina, I'm concerned about Frank being in his office,' says Russell as they walk back towards the Hall.
'How d'you mean? He's out of our way there, isn't he?'
'Well, it's probably no more than paranoia, but he's got a ground floor window that's easy to climb through, and in there he's got a phone, and possibly records of all the cult members...'
'Damn! You're right!' Nina looks at Russell with new respect. 'We'd better get him out of there right away. Good thinking, Russell. I'll get Joey and the boys onto it.'
Russell suppresses the twinge of guilt he feels at the thought of Frank being subjected to the Candless gang's tender mercies. 'I can guard the office, if you like, to make sure no-one else gets in there - me and Michael, perhaps.'
'What could you have that would possibly interest me?' sneers Candless.
'About fifty thousand things,' says Ross calmly. 'But you'll have to earn them.'
'Not so cocky, mate. We've got your friend here.' Candless indicates Michael.
Ross gives Michael a brief, cold glance. 'What's one Yank more or less in the world? I can get another one if I need it.'
'Fair point,' says Candless. He gives a nod, and Michael is released: he straightens his rumpled jacket. 'Keep talking.'
'You're going to help me get on top here. The Egyptian guy, Essawi - he's pulling Nina's strings, and he's got the money - that American gave it to him for safekeeping before you got to him.'
'Right!' says Candless. 'That thieving Arab - I never did trust 'em. OK boys, we're on our way.'
'Without knowing where the cash is? You reckon he's going to tell you? I don't think so!' Michael cockily chips in.
'You want your money, you get rid of Essawi for me,' says Ross. 'Simple as that. I'm going to front him, you do the strong-arm work. And then we both make it out of here by a secret way I know.'
Candless leans back, scratching under one armpit. 'Sounds like fair dos. We can live with that.' He tips the chair forward again. 'Who exactly are you?' His tone is one of puzzled respect.
Ross just smiles, but Michael says 'Let's just say that if you don't want to be top of McNally's hit list, you'd better help us out while we're giving you the opportunity'
There is a spark of alarm in Candless's eyes at that: Sean McNally is the most feared gang boss in East London. He doesn't have a name for giving people second chances. 'How do I know you're sweet with McNally?' he says, with a slight quaver.
'You don't,' says Ross, picking up Michael's cue. 'But do you want to take that chance?'
Candless holds up his hands. 'OK, OK, fair dos, fair dos. We get the dosh, you get your Egyptian friend whacked, we get out of here, we're all happy - eh?'
'Oh, by the way,' says Michael, 'you want to keep an eye on this one, losing your cash like that.' He points at Gary Jackson. 'If I hadn't told him who took it, he'd still be fumbling around in the dark now.'
'You?' says Candless, swinging round in surprise. 'Gary said he saw Callaghan swipe the case himself. Said you were involved too.'
'That's right,' protests Jackson, who looks increasingly nervous.
'Is that what he told you?' says Michael, who now has his shoulders hunched forward in a Godfather-like way. He turns to Jackson, saying 'Now is that any way to treat someone who helped you out?'
'Boss, I don't know what he's...' protests Jackson, but the guilty look on his face can be seen a mile off.
Candless draws breath in through his teeth. 'Gary, Gary, you're a big disappointment to me - you were like a son at one time - have we come to this now? You muppet! D'you think you can pull a fast one on me, me who taught you everything you know?'
Ross touches Michael's shoulder. 'Come on, let's get moving. Leave them to their domestic.' As they reach the doorway he calls back to Candless 'I'll give you the word, OK?'
Michael and Ross walk down the corridor to the sound of Jackson's plaintive protests, diminishing in volume as the scene recedes. As they reach the landing the sound is stopped by a single pistol shot.
Sam and Kate wade across the river, at which there is no sign of police activity as yet. Sam hides the pickaxe near the cave mouth, then they walk down into the village.
Kate is buzzing with excitement now that Branston Hall has been left behind, almost skipping as she walks. Sam cannot help but wish that he too did not have to go back, but he stifles the thought.
At the Greyhound pub, Sam first books two rooms. He puts the books in one and gives the key of the other to Kate, telling her that if she has any trouble with her parents she should lock herself into it and wait for him - and on no account to return to the Hall. The pub is busy with policemen, a few of whom wear the Metropolitan insignia with which Sam is uncomfortably familiar, so he keeps his head down and escorts Kate upstairs.
After leaving Kate Sam calls SITU from the phone box, and explain events as he sees them at the current time. Gupper is no longer in control of the cult: Nina King, who is a back street kid, believes she has taken over, but he thinks an Egyptian called Essawi is really the one in control.
'Right,' says the SITU staffer on the other end. 'Sounds like this Essawi is the key, then. Be very careful with him - he could be dangerous.'
'Don't worry, we will,' says Sam. He adds that most in the cult are innocent but it is still hard to tell who is and who is not. 'And I've found some old books, one of them's called Splendor Solis - I've left them in Room 3 at the Greyhound.'
'Good work! We've been trying to get hold of that for a while. Any idea whose the books were?'
Sam has no real idea. 'Might be this Miles Branston guy we've been told about - he's supposed to have been into occult stuff.'
'We should head down into the tunnels first,' says Russell to Ross and Michael. 'If Melissa's down there, we could defuse this whole situation quickly and easily - or if not, they'd be a good escape route for us, and possibly for Jenny and her kids - we should make sure none of the children get hurt if there's a clash between the police and Candless's gang.'
Concern for the children's safety has not been uppermost in Ross's or Michael's mind before now. 'No, I reckon we should hit Essawi now, before we lose the cooperation of the gang,' Ross says. 'And we'll know he's not causing trouble up here for us while we're down underground. Michael, you should get that obelisk destroyed as soon as you can.'
Michael looks distinctly annoyed at being ordered around like this. 'I suppose so,' he says reluctantly. 'Looks like it's ready to pop any time soon.'
'OK then,' sighs Russell. 'I'll stand guard on Frank's room while you deal with the Egyptian.' He has an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Sam makes his way back to the river and finds it still devoid of police. Taking up the pickaxe, he sets to work with a will and within quarter of an hour has enlarged the cave entrance to the point where an ordinary-sized person can pass through. Taking a deep breath, he steps into the dank, smelly opening, his torch beam dancing off the moist walls.
One less vermin for the police to worry about, thinks Michael to himself. recalling the gunshot that marked the end of Jackson's miserable existence. He knocks on the door of Nina's office - the War Room.
'Who is it?' Her voice sounds suspicious, paranoid, and Michael smiles to himself. This is going to be easy.
'It's just me, Nina, I need to speak to you.'
She opens the door. 'Sorry, Michael, you know... can't be too careful!' Her features are taut with tension.
'Don't blame you,' he says, walking in. 'Listen, I think I saw the cops starting to move up the drive a while back - you might have a bit of a fight on your hands, it looks like they've brought half the force with them. There's riot vans, horses, everything.'
'Ha! Just like the bastards to come in heavy-handed,' says Nina, pacing about. 'Well, we'll show 'em. How long d'you reckon until they try and raid the Hall?'
'Can't be long,' says Michael. 'It looks like Stamford Bridge after a derby match out there.'
'We'll be ready,' she repeats.
Michael waits for a moment to see if she is going to add to this, then says 'What's the defence plan? Have you got any armaments?'
Nina grins fiercely. 'We haven't got anything, except knives and stuff - that stupid bugger Frank never guessed anything like this would happen. That's why I signed up Joey Candless, his boys are carrying, but that's the only firearms we've got.'
Michael blinks in surprise. 'How are you going to hold off the police, then?'
Nina stares at him. 'We'll sell ourselves dearly, don't you worry, Michael. I've been spreading petrol around the ground floor rooms. The moment the first copper sets his foot on that doormat, up the whole lot goes.'
'But... how'll we all get out?'
'You don't understand properly yet, do you, Michael? We don't. We're in here for good, now. It'll end here for all of us. The only question is how many of them we take with us.' Here eyes gleam, and Michael feels a chill of fear at the realization that she has now definitely gone completely over the edge.
'You can't do this to me!' protests Frank. 'I set up this group! I bought this Hall!'
'Shut your lip,' growls Slap'ead Brown, as he and another gang member drag Frank from his office. 'Boss wants you out, so out you goes.'
Frank glances around him wildly, his heels leaving grooves in the carpet, and sees Russell. 'Is this Nina's idea? It is, isn't it? So much for her ideals, eh? This is how it starts - thugs, violence...' Before he can say any more Slap'ead lifts him up with one hand and nuts him firmly on the forehead. Frank's eyes roll up in his head and he slumps.
Russell lets himself into the office and locks the door. He at once opens the trapdoor in readiness and starts paying out orange twine. As well as caving equipment he has with him his laptop, and a stout iron poker.
'He's in there,' whispers Michael, pointing at one of the upstairs bedroom doors. Ross, Candless, Slap'ead and the two remaining thugs are lurking behind him.
'Right, I'll go first,' says Ross, 'then you boys open up. Michael, if he causes trouble, see what you can do with the obelisk.'
'No problemo,' says Candless, checking his automatic is loaded. Michael grits his teeth but says nothing.
Ross opens the door, Michael at one shoulder and Candless at the other. Essawi is sitting by the window, looking out over the darkened grounds - searchlights are visible from the gate. He turns gracefully to meet Ross's gaze, not looking at all surprised.
'Essawi, this is the end of the line for you and your plans,' says Ross. 'Hand over the obelisk.'
Essawi stands up, revealing himself to be rather large and imposing. His eyes are deep and dark. 'I do not think so, Mr Myers. We have a saying in my country: to drink at the same well as the leopard requires the patience of the snake. You have no idea what is planned here, and you must leave now before you endanger yourself further.'
'You're the one who's in danger, pal,' says Candless, drawing his gun and levelling it at the big man's heart.
Essawi merely smiles slightly.
Michael closes his eyes, letting his spirit senses open up, and is at once aware of the power of the obelisk in the corner of the room. He starts to draw in energy to himself, with the aim of shattering it.
Ross puts his hands on his hips. 'I've asked nicely so far, but you're stretching my patience, Essawi.'
The Egyptian points at him and says in a loud, deep voice 'Go!'
Power seems to swirl around the word, and Ross feels an almost uncontrollable fear, a desire to flee, as though black-winged demons are preparing to chase him throughout eternity. Beside him Candless mutters 'Shit!', and running feet betoken the disappearance of the two terrified thugs.
Michael, in a trance, is oblivious.
Candless raises his gun again and pulls the trigger, firing three shots at Essawi at only a few feet range. Ross gets his own gun out, his hands moving slowly.
The three shots all miss, one shattering the window and the others embedding in the wall. Essawi merely smiles, and to Ross's eyes it looks as though there is a heat-haze around him, blurring his outline.
Slap'ead Brown lets out a snarl and charges Essawi, his hands grasping for the man's throat. Essawi neatly sidesteps him and places one of his hands along Slap'ead's neck. At once the thug collapses to the ground, choking, his face a terrible brick-red, his eyes bulging out.
Michael has not been distracted by the mutterings of ghosts in his ears 'brother strikes brother, aye, and down the hole wi' 'im - a horrid thing, aye, new or old'. He concentrates on the obelisk, which is burning like a beacon in his mind's eye, and releases the power he has gathered at it as a blast.
There is a terrific concussion and Michael, Ross and Candless are struck to the floor, their heads ringing. Thick black smoke fills the room, smelling of sulphur and blood.
As it clears Ross gets groggily to his knees. There is no sign of either Essawi or obelisk in the room. He shakes the puny Michael back to consciousness. 'Jesus, what the hell was that? Did you get it?'
'Uh... no. I don't think so,' says Michael painfully, the taste of dead leaves in his mouth. 'It bounced me right back. It's too powerful for me - and so's he. We'll have to think of something else.'
Sam thinks he is heading in the direction of the Hall, but to be honest he is completely lost in the maze of tunnels. Every now and then he hopefully calls out 'Hallo? Anyone there?'
Amazingly enough, after about half an hour of this, there is an answer - a young girl's voice. 'Hallo? Who's that?'
Sam flicks the beam of the torch around, trying to work out where the voice is coming from. 'Is that Melissa? My name's Sam, I've come to try and find you.'
Suddenly she bursts into the torch beam - a pale, thin girl of about fifteen, her long blonde hair wild and matted, and slime and moss all over her clothes, some of it luminescent. She rushes at Sam and clings onto his arm. 'Do you know,' she says in a quite matter-of-fact way, 'you're the first real human person I've seen in ages - not counting the Beast.'
'The Beast? Have you seen it?' asks Sam doubtfully.
'Oh yes, it lives down here. Never mind that, though - we should be getting back. I got lost down here, I'm afraid. Which way's out?'
'Er... that way,' suggests Sam, and they head off together, Melissa clutching his arm still and chatting happily about which of the fungi here are safe to eat.
After a few minute they are back in the same place. Melissa regards Sam with some doubt. 'You're lost too, aren't you?'
Ross and Michael leave Candless unconscious in the room. 'How we can catch Essawi now, I've got no idea - he could have gone anywhere,' says Ross.
'Let's meet up with Russell, go down into the tunnels, try and find Sam,' says Michael. 'There might be something useful down there, you never know.'
Russell leaps up when he hears their knock at the door of the office, and impatiently ushers them down towards the trapdoor. They descend into the tunnel, and he starts laying out twine, being careful to conceal it in the area directly beneath the trap, so that pursuers will find it difficult to follow. 'Let's start off this way - this is towards the river.'
Sam and Melissa clutch each other tightly at the sound of eerie howling, which definitely comes from ahead of them. 'The Beast!' whispers the girl excitedly. 'Let's follow it!'
'Er, d'you reckon we should?' mutters Sam uneasily. 'Perhaps the opposite direction might be better.'
'It might lead us to the Hall!' she says. 'I'm sure its calls have led me underneath the Hall before - but I could never work out how to get up into it. There might be a trapdoor or something!'
They half-glimpse a pale form, glowing and humanoid, no more than a couple of turns ahead of them.
Spine-chilling ululation can also be heard from ahead of Russell, Ross and Michael as they advance down the tunnel. 'The Beast, eh?' mutters Michael. He shakes his head peevishly - it still aches rather.
Suddenly there is a howl very close ahead, and around the corner towards them comes blundering a humanoid figure, glowing in the torchlight, bumping from wall to wall, crying out. Ross raises his gun instinctively, but Russell at once strikes it down - the figure rushes towards them and then collapses at their feet, sobbing uncontrollably.
It is a man - hair wild, flesh bruised, eyes staring, covered all over with luminescent fungi that must have scraped off the walls onto him. He moans and froths gently at the mouth, a sinister purple froth.
'Looks like this guy's been eating the wrong mushrooms,' says Michael, bending to turn him over.
As the man's face comes directly into the torchlight, he shrieks, covering his sensitive eyes, but not before Russell has had a good look and recognized him as Tony Morris.
'I can hear people up ahead,' says Sam, greatly relieved. 'We might be getting close now.'
'So the Beast did bring us back here!' says Melissa.
Around the next corner they see Russell, Ross and Michael, bent over Tony Morris's prone, gibbering form.
'Sam! Glad you could join us!' calls Michael.
'This is Melissa,' says Sam. 'I guess we can head back up now.' He sees Tony. 'Who the hell's that poor sod?'
'This is your Beast,' says Ross breezily. 'Another case solved. Poor guy must have gone round the twist after Frank shoved him down here. Not to worry, we can head straight out now, hand over Melissa and lift the siege. Which way's the river?'
'I don't know about that,' says Russell, whose sharp hearing has picked up the sounds of activity above. 'I'm not happy about leaving those children up there with Nina, Candless and Essawi - by the time the police get in it might be too late, especially if Nina's planning to burn the place down like you say, Michael. It's not just kidnap now, it's murder, remember?' He shakes his head and adds bitterly 'Why do these cults prey on children?'
'Well...' Sam is just starting to say, when Melissa's gasp makes everyone turn round.
'If that's the Beast you've got there, then... who is that?'
Her quavering finger points over Russell's shoulder, down the corridor, to a spot just about under the Hall, where a ghostly, glowing figure, human in shape, flutters and floats. Parts of the stone wall of the passage can be clearly seen through it. Its face is contorted into a hideous mask of horror and dread.
It opens its mouth and lets out an unearthly shriek, sending a chill through the marrow. Michael, though, can hear words beneath the scream, the same old voice that has been pestering him. 'Brother against brother, aye, my brother, he holed me, confined me, King of the Underdark me, alone, dark, thirsting for vengeance, vengeance, avenge the brother, slay him, destroy his works, destroy the inheritance he stole, aye, bring him down low, my brother Miles.'