The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
12.05 pm, Tuesday 25th August 1998
Mike Burgin looks expectantly at the three operatives, as though anticipating that they will dash away and get out of his hair.
T.R. is rather amused at the situation, and has to repress a grin. 'Ah, Mr Burgin, I realize I'm kind of the new kid in town in SITU, so I probably shouldn't be making suggestions, but... you know... if we're going to stop on the way to Oxford to investigate the cultists, it might be better for us to rent a car for the day instead of taking a cab.'
'Eh? Rent a car?' says Burgin distractedly, clutching at his hair.
'That way we can store our luggage in the trunk... er... boot... of the car while we're in West Wycombe. A rental car will also help if some of us need to drive between High Wycombe and West Wycombe.'
Burgin hesitates, clearly weighing up the options - argument versus hassle. Finally he flaps his hands defeatedly. 'Oh, whatever, yes, hire a car - fine. Just sort out the paperwork later. You'll get a proper briefing when you get to Oxford - I expect.' A sudden realization strikes him. 'You do know we drive on the left over here, don't you?'
Taylor, intrigued by the recently-disappeared dancers, has strolled off to politely accost the young man lounging behind the counter of the Croissant Shop concession. 'Pardon me, sir... those odd people in robes. Do they come through here often?' she asks, with a charming smile.
'Oh, them,' he says, dismissively, with a world-weary air. 'You don't want to worry about them. Bunch of nutters, but harmless enough.'
'What's it all about?' presses Taylor. 'I've never seen anything quite like it in South Carolina, you see.'
'They're by here every day, pretty much, for the past few months, trying to pick up thick tourists - not like you, miss,' he hastily adds. 'Some sort of new age hippy commune, that's all it is. You here on holiday?'
'Well, you don't want to go wasting your time with that lot. Get up into Town, that's my advice - London, I mean - see Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, that lot. Make the most of your holiday!'
Eric is uneasy about the vague hints that have so far been dropped to him. 'While we three are so far unproven, you think we might learn something, or you wouldn't suggest this trip,' he says to Mike Burgin.
'Well, yeah, sort of...'
'We're glad to do it,' Eric continues confidently, 'but we'd be more effective if we have a better idea what to look for, and you clearly know more than you've said. I ask you to tell us as much as you possibly may.'
'Look, it's not as simple as that, see? That isn't the way SITU works. You ever heard of security clearances? Like in the Army or whatever, you're told stuff on a need-to-know basis? It's a bit like that.'
'The Army?' asks Eric. 'We're not at war, are we?' He chuckles lightly.
'You'll just have to take my word for it, Doctor - if there's something you're not meant to know, it's for a very good reason, all right?'
T.R. has been searching his memory. 'Is this anything to do with the story in SITUation Report back in March? The guy, Russell Osbourne was it? - writing about some experiences he'd had. Was he with the earlier group of investigators you're talking about?'
'Oh, hell, I'd forgotten about that,' says Burgin. He looks miserable. 'All right, yes, that was one of the team, but, you know, not everything that gets into SITUation Report... that's to say, it's not always... well, let's just say that sometimes these accounts are a bit over-dramatized, you get my meaning? Mr Osbourne's a sci-fi writer, I believe, so you can't necessarily take everything he says as gospel, get my meaning?'
Mike checks his pockets, preparing to leave, and Eric asks 'One more thing, Mr Burgin. You said that SITU "lost Boundary Row" - how did that happen? And why are you not "using" London - might it be dangerous for us to go there?'
'Oh,' Burgin calls over his shoulder, 'don't worry about that. Boundary Row - a fire, that's all. Probably nothing important, but - you know? And by all means travel to London if you like, after the mission's complete. Do some sight-seeing!'
Eric is feeling rather jetlagged, so T.R. takes the wheel of the comfortable Rover Sterling he has hired - although here in its country of origin it goes by the rather more prosaic name of the 825. The motorway is crowded and slow, and although the journey from Heathrow to Wycombe is only twenty miles or so, it is a good hour before he is signalling for the exit.
Eric was able to establish, during the course of a phone call made from the airport, that the Keepers of the Hidden Circles are not really set up to provide medically-approved therapeutic benefit. They have no medically-trained staff and no medical facilities on site: the woman to whom he spoke ('Richard' was unavailable) explained that the clientele are mostly stressed executives wanting a relaxing break from London. When Eric asked for testimonials from previous guests, there was an embarrassed pause: it seems the operation is rather new, in its current incarnation at least.
To get to West Wycombe involves negotiating a complicated system of roundabouts, but eventually the team find themselves on the A40, driving up what looks like an eighteenth-century High Street towards the long hill on which Medmenham Abbey stands.
'I couldn't find any brochures on this place at the airport,' says Taylor. 'I guess it's not that much of a tourist destination.' She looks around. 'Seems kind of quaint, though - nice!'
She and T.R. get out of the car, leaving Eric to drive back to High Wycombe, a much larger township which has clearly grown in recent years to dwarf its neighbour. Both are clad much less formally than they were at disembarkation, T.R. in a long-sleeved beige shirt and trousers, with a lightweight black jacket over the top, Taylor in a sweater and calf-length skirt, her face devoid of makeup and her hair pulled back with a scrunchie, her earrings now much smaller and plainer. They look the very image of innocent tourists: the camera bag T.R. carries serve to enhance the effect.
The entrance to the limestone caves is close by the road, and it is to here that T.R. and Taylor first direct their steps. 'They should be open on a Tuesday,' says T.R., who has found a page on Wycombe in his Blue Guide to Oxford and Cambridge. And indeed this transpires to be the case. The caves, quarried by Sir Francis Dashwood and used as the setting for Hellfire Club meetings in the 18th century, are not as interesting as a natural cave system would be: level corridors lead from one chamber to the next, and there are no unexpected turnings. According to the guide, there was a secret passage linking the caves with the Abbey, some way to the south, but its location is unknown.
T.R. takes a number of flashless pictures with a very high speed film, but nothing here seems tremendously inspiring: perhaps it is an effect of the municipal owners, but the whole affair is rather sanitized. The idea of Benjamin Franklin and other notables of the age indulging themselves at freethinking orgies in this setting is a difficult one. There is no sign that the Keepers of the Hidden Circles have any presence here.
At the foot of the hill is the church, on the spire of which is a tremendous globe: it is said that twelve people could sit in it and look out, although it must have been something of a tight squeeze, even allowing for the smaller body sizes of two centuries ago. There is a good view over the town, which preserves much of its early layout, and the Abbey itself, down by the river. The building is an unremarkable stately home of modest proportions: it is not actually an abbey, merely erected on the site of one. Its gardens are striking, though, with giant topiary animals discernible scattered about the lawns.
T.R. clips on a telephoto lens and snaps away, catching a few white-robed figures at work in what looks like a small vegetable garden.
Leaving the church, the pair traipse up the hill towards the Dashwood family mausoleum, which stares down across the town. It is a small building of striking regularity in its architecture, with a pleasing arched entranceway looking at the embrasure in which stands the tall urn containing Sir Francis Dashwood's heart. There is a small plaque below it:
Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Despencer, Chancellor of the Exchequer to His Majesty King George III.
Underneath that, in cursive script:
"Fay Ce Que Voudra"
'Is the actual heart really in there?' Taylor asks the elderly assistant innocently, wrinkling her nose.
'Oh no, ma'am. It's in London now.' He nods wisely. 'Wouldn't do to keep it here where anyone could come by. Very valuable item, ma'am - needs to be taken care of.'
As they wander away, T.R. says to Taylor 'Did you see the badge that guy was wearing?'
'No - what was it?'
'It was a caduceus. Wonder what that means - it normally signifies medicine, doesn't it? Perhaps the Royal College of Surgeons has the heart.'
Eric meanwhile has carefully parked the Rover in High Wycombe town centre, behind the Buckinghamshire County Council offices. He has considerable experience of property matters, and after an hour in the County Records Office is able to establish that the estate of Medmenham Abbey is currently in the hands of a body called the Alexandria Trust, which has owned it since 1843. The deeds were notarized at that time by a firm of London lawyers called Jekyll & Hanbury, of the Inner Temple. The estate includes the mausoleum, but not the caves (which are owned by the county) or the church (which is owned by the Church Commissioners).
Eric dines at the Paragon restaurant, the best central Wycombe has to offer: the meal is filling, if uninspired. As he pays the bill he shows the Keepers' flier to the waitress. 'Excuse me, miss, are you familiar with these people at all?'
She peers at it and sniffs. 'No, sir - never heard of 'em. Out in West Wycombe, is it? They'll get up to anything out there. Sounds like a health farm to me.'
As they approach the Abbey itself, T.R. and Taylor's act takes on new dimensions of authenticity. The building is in a very pleasant setting - on the banks of the Thames, its well-kept lawns and attractive borders setting the solid limestone house squarely in the Georgian tradition. The giant topiary animals, which range from peacocks and squirrels to more curious beasts which probably have their origins in heraldry, are scattered aimlessly about the lawns as though they have been dropped there, or are foraging. Above the gateway is an ornate piece of scrollwork, which bears the legend they saw at the mausoleum - 'Fay Ce Que Voudra'.
T.R. takes a picture of a giant topiary unicorn framed against the gateway, and Taylor gazes about herself curiously. It is not long before a white-robed shaven-headed young woman comes rushing up the gravel driveway towards them, her sandals clattering. 'Oh - I'm so sorry! I should be on the gate, welcoming, but - you know - busy!' She extends a hand. 'I'm Mary - Mary Harris.'
T.R. shakes her hand reservedly, Taylor more enthusiastically. 'Are you one of the Keepers? What a lovely house! Are there a lot of you here?'
'Yes, that's right, I am - no, not really, not yet, anyway - we're recruiting! Richard - Richard Blood, he's the leader, well, not really the leader, we don't say that, but he set us up - well, not really that either -' she laughs embarrassedly, 'I'm not making much sense, am I?'
'What does that motto mean?' asks T.R., pointing up at the gateway.
'I don't know - they say it's French, but it doesn't look like any French I did at school. It's been here forever, to do with whoever had this house before us, it's nothing to do with us, anyway.'
'So do you all live here?' asks Taylor as they stroll together down the driveway.
'That's right - nine of us here permanently, nine so far, and the guests of course.'
'How many guests are there?'
'Er, well, at the moment there aren't any, actually, but, you know, when word gets around - Richard's done these lovely fliers and we've been going down to the airport -' realization strikes her. 'That must be where you found out! You're American, aren't you? Do you want to visit? Or to join?'
'How much does it cost?' asks T.R. drily.
'Oh - well, it's voluntary, the donations, just however much you can afford and you think it's worth - mostly we think about ten pounds a night, I suppose - whatever, though, if you can't afford that - but all Americans are rich, aren't they?'
'What about to join up?'
'Oh, that's free, you just give of yourself, that's all - we work in the gardens growing food, of course, and help the guests on their paths to enlightenment, and we all have to pray together of course, and Richard hopes that we'll get some people with skills, craftsmen and women, and then we can sell things in the market perhaps...'
By now they have reached the house itself, and Mary looks around. 'Richard'll be here somewhere. Richard? Richard! New visitors!'
There is a loud whistle from one of the lower windows, and a man vaults out of it, bounding across the lawn to join them. 'Mary! Well done! What lovely people!' He shakes the two operatives vigorously by the hand. They recognize him as the leader of the chanting dancers in the airport. 'Richard Blood - at your service. And that of the ruler of the two lands, of course. Would you like to come in?'
Once inside Richard offers them each a glass of a cool red liquid, which T.R. declines but Taylor tastes curiously. She finds it slightly sweet and very refreshing. 'It's called kirkaday,' explains Richard. 'Made from hibiscus petals. Very popular in Egypt.'
He sits down, hands clasped between his robed knees, and looks at them expectantly.
'Who's "the ruler of the two lands"?' asks Taylor. 'What two lands? And what's your "inner sun"?
Richard chuckles. 'The ruler of the two lands - that means the two kingdoms of Egypt, Upper and Lower Egypt. The ruler was the pharaoh, of course, but more importantly it meant Amun-Ra, the sun god - the main one, there were several - the nurturing sun. We use it just to mean our sun, who we pray to. And your inner sun, well, that's what the Keepers is all about. It's that warmth within you, that life-giving energy that we all possess - but with most of us it's all bunched up and occluded with shadows. We can teach you to let it out, to be open, warm and free, and to enjoy true health - physical and spiritual - with the help of the sunshine from without and from within.'
'How long's it take to find?' asks T.R. 'Could you fit it into a weekend?' His manner is rather bored, and he stands up and start taking pictures of the interior, which Richard does not seem to mind at all.
'Oh, well, for some people the journey is longer than others - it depends on how occluded you are to start with. But even in a weekend you can make progress, with the meditative techniques we'll show you - and you can keep on practising them in the office, and you'll keep on feeling better.'
'When we saw you at the airport, you looked like Hare Krishnas - is it the same sort of thing?' asks Taylor ingenuously. 'Do y'all have to shave your heads like that?'
'It helps us feel the sunlight better, but you don't have to if you'd rather not,' says Richard cheerily. 'I suppose we are a bit like the Hare Krishnas - they're good people! But they clutter up their message with all sorts of doctrine, We're more direct - we're about doing you good.'
'I bet you only eat vegetables, is that right?'
'Yes, we do actually!' says Richard with surprised pleasure. 'I can see you've got the idea! We grow them all here. Well, almost - we're not quite self-sufficient yet, it's true.'
'The building sure is interesting,' says Taylor, glancing around at the ceiling bosses in the hallway where they find themselves. 'Does it all belong to you Keepers? Do you own it? Wow, I bet it must cost a lot to keep up.'
'Oh, no, I wish we did,' says Richard, spreading his hands in a gesture of despondence. 'We're only just starting - restarting, rather. The old Keepers, which this group is the successor to, had a lovely house north of here, Branston Hall, which they owned, but it was burned down in a fire - and we don't have much money, I'm afraid. No, we're reliant on generosity.'
'Seems to me you must be,' says T.R. practically. 'If you're not self-sufficient, you don't take money off people except donations, and you haven't had many guests yet - how do you fund these trips to Heathrow and printing fliers?'
'Our benefactors are very generous. A group of businessmen, they've agreed to let us stay here rent free, and they provided some startup cash to get us going.'
'Who would that be, then, if you don't mind my asking?'
'They're called the Alexandria Trust. They own the Abbey, you see.'
'And they just give you a free hand?'
'That's right - well, they occasionally visit as guests themselves, and we're always pleased to help them, of course.' He sighs. 'Some of them are very occluded.'
'Well, it all sounds pretty good to me,' says Taylor enthusiastically, glancing up at T.R.
'Yeah, well, look at the time, honey - our friend's coming to pick us up pretty soon, right?'
'You can't stay?' asks Richard. 'That's a pity. Another time?'
'Mm, maybe!' says Taylor. 'I've got your telephone number just here.'
'We'll discuss it later,' cuts in T.R. 'She'll call you in a couple of days, if she still wants to seek enlightenment.'
Eric has taken the short walk across the square to the High Wycombe District Library. It is not as complete as the county library proper in Aylesbury, the librarian sorrowfully informs him, but is has a complete run of the local newspapers, back to 1861. Seek as he might, he can find no mention of the Keepers of the Hidden Circles moving into Medmenham Abbey, nor of its purchase. There is a good deal of material about Branston Hall, the group's earlier base, which is only a few miles away to the north: there was much local resistance to the Keepers buying it in the first place, and a few unsubstantiated reports hinting at wild orgies taking place behind its bland façade. The building was destroyed by fire in August of last year during a police siege, the intent of which was to rescue a young girl believed to be held hostage by the cult - in the aftermath no charges were brought against any of its members (although one of them, Nina King, was confined under the Mental Health Act) and the police superintendent in charge of the operation was disciplined. With the destruction of the Keepers' headquarters, a grudging 'perhaps they weren't so bad as all that' tone creeps into the newspaper coverage.
The afternoon is wearing on, and Eric drives north to the ruins of Branston Hall - now a rather picturesque site, stumps of blackened masonry overgrown by grass and weeds. There is no-one else about and he is free to wander about, imagining the terrified moments of the siege. There is one curious item - in the middle of what must once have been a corridor, there grows a single black arum lily, although surely the ground here is too far from water to support such a plant.
The team regroups at 6 o'clock in front of the church. They share what they have learnt, as T.R. takes the wheel for the half-hour trip up to Oxford.
'That all seemed pretty innocent,' says Taylor. 'I wonder why SITU are so interested in them?'
The Hawkwell House is not in the city proper, but in the village of Iffley, a couple of miles down the Thames. It is a pleasant, light, airy building, and Eric ensures that Taylor's and T.R.'s rooms communicate. His own suite is large enough to host a decent-sized gathering, tanks to the upgrade he has requested.
'Well, what happens now?' asks Taylor, folding her long legs under her as the Channel Four News flickers in the background. 'I could just about do with eating.' She has changed into a long dress, with pendant earrings.
'We should report to SITU, I guess,' says T.R. 'And then... wait for our briefing? And for the others to get here?'