The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
"That all sounds good," says Russell, "but I think someone should talk to Kate as well. Michael, you're the closest in age, but she seems to have taken to you, Jack? We should find out why she was wearing jeans rather than robes - does that mean there's some kind of initiation ceremony, which she's not been through yet? If so, when will it take place?"
Celestina says "I plan to speak with her tomorrow. She seemed interested in my pendants."
Michael gets to his feet, shrugging. "So I'm selected to attend sunset prayers? Fine, I'd better get along then." He heads off into the grounds.
Russell, saying "We should make sure no-one sees us leaving this place together - or at least just one or two at a time," disappears too, taking Tanya with him.
"But what about the rooms at the Black Prince?" asks Jack. No-one else seems concerned, so he decides to look for Frank for a chat.
Celestina and Tanzan leave the operatives' brief meeting together. "Celestina-sama, let us take a brief walk in the garden,' says Tanzan. "A little silence will help us gather our thoughts, while we plan our meeting with Bugbee-san."
Once out in the garden, clouds scudding across the reddened sky, Tanzan describes to Celestina his encounter with Jenny Hammond, and they devise a plan for gaining the confidence of Charles Bugbee.
Michael manages to find his way back to the site of the ceremony without any difficulty: his sharp eyes noted the appropriate landmarks.
He finds all the cultists already gathered, with Frank stood proprietorially over the obelisk once more. The young man is hunched over the didgeridoo once more, and starts to parp mournfully as Frank intones. This time the prayers are slightly different, as far as Michael can make out - although many elements are retained. He has his micro-recorder turned on: perhaps SITU will be able to make something of the words. Once more he feels the same strange sense of weakness and light-headedness, even though the air is now quite cool.
At the end of the ceremony, Frank picks up the obelisk - with considerable effort, but even so it must be lighter than it looks - and leads the group back to the hall, frustrating Michael's plans of photographing it. Apparently it only leaves Frank's office for these ceremonies, and he always carries it himself. As the group of cultists, chatting cheerfully amongst themselves, strolls along, Michael slows his pace to walk alongside the didgeridoo player. He offers his hand. "Michael Williamson - hi! You're pretty good on that thing."
The young man starts nervously, then grins with relief at the sound of Michael's accent. "Yank, eh?" He has a strong Cockney accent. "Jack Garrison - pleased to meet you. You must be kidding! These things are bloody difficult, I tell you - you have to sort of breathe in and out at the same time, and that's no joke. Leave 'em to the abos, that's what I say." He takes a couple more paces, then adds "Of course, it's a very good meditative discipline, and I'm keen to help the others as much as I can - they've done such a lot for me!"
"Is that right?" probes Michael. "What made you join up?"
"Oh, the usual story, you know," says Jack Garrison, glancing about him rather nervously. "I had an unhappy childhood - dad on the bottle, mum at work all the time, I got beaten up all the time at school - then I lost my job when the factory closed down - and the girl I loved went off with another guy, my best mate - or so I thought - and my little kiddie got run over by a police car, would you believe, that's a joke, eh? - so here I am, Jack Garrison, starting a new life for myself, turning over a new leaf, that sort of thing." He is talking very quickly by the end of this little speech.
"Ah, Jack my boy, having a chin-wag with our latest recruit, eh?" Another figure looms up out of the dim light to join them: it is George Windsor. He shakes Michael firmly by the hand. "You look like a well-set-up young feller-me-lad, eh? Tell me, what's your line of work?"
"I'm a music scout," says Michael, politely. "I work for Revolting Records, in Manchester."
"Ah! That'd be this new 'punk rock' would it, I suppose!" He laughs heartily. "Call that music? It's just a lot of shouting! Why, when I was your age I was listening to Al Bowlly, Vera Lynn - ah! Happy days... but that was a long time ago, hey? Don't suppose you youngsters have even heard of them! Youth must have its fling, eh?"
"That's right, George," says Jack Garrison, resignedly. Clearly he has heard this theme many times before.
Rather than heading straight out into the grounds, Russell lingers around the Hall. He meets the cultists as they return, and finds Richard Blood among them. "Is there any kind of curfew, Richard? Or can we meditate after sunset, when it's cooler? We wouldn't want to disturb anybody..."
"Oh, no, nothing like that, it's Liberty Hall here!" says Richard cheerfully. "Turn in whenever you like, as long as you're quiet that's perfectly fine!"
Russell then heads off to the billiard room, a puzzled Tanya still in tow.
Before more than ten minutes have passed he is joined by Frank Gupper, who pauses in the door briefly to admire Russell's potting skills. "What's your name - Steve Davis?" he asks. "You can certainly handle a cue, my friend."
"Oh, I'm more of a snooker man really," says Russell modestly. "And I studied the mathematics of oblique impacts at university."
"Really! That must be the first useful thing anyone's ever learnt at one of those places!" Frank takes down a cue and racks up at the next table. "I studied at the University of Life, myself - and everything I know, I found it out the hard way. Until I found Enlightenment, of course: that was like a light bulb turning on inside my mind."
All this time Tanya has been trying to catch Frank's attention, and he now favours her with a warm smile before turning immediately back to Russell. "Fancy a quick game? Two hundred up?"
A couple of the other cultists, who have wandered into the room, cheer ironically. "Don't do it, mate," says one of them to Russell. "He'll scalp you - Frank's the original hustler!"
Frank growls in mock annoyance. "Don't go giving away all my secrets!"
"I'd love to," says Russell, "but perhaps another time - there's some things I need to sort out this evening." He looks at Tanya.
"Oh, I understand! No bottle, eh? Well, I'll be here any time you want to be trousered out - when your girlfriend's not watching!"
As Russell and a slightly disconcerted Tanya leave, Jack comes into the room.
Celestina and Tanzan have decided to pose as journalists, and have both changed clothes when they meet again - Tanzan in a grey business suit once more, Celestina in dark blue flowing trousers and a plain white shirt. She has tied her hair back, hating how conventional she looked: but this will be the only way to make a good impression on Bugbee. She has borrowed Russell's computer, to aid with her cover.
They head off into the cool night air, Celestina musing about how different this investigation, and her colleagues, are from how she had imagined. She is glad to be getting out of the sickly-sweet and false atmosphere of the Keepers' home.
The village is quiet for the most part, the only signs of life coming from the four pubs, which spill light and chatter onto the village green. Also on the green is an old-fashioned red telephone box, up against a telegraph pole: it looks very lovingly cared for, with little chintz curtains and a small tub of pot-pourri nestling by the receiver. Beside it is a petition, which enjoins users of the box to sign up and prevent British Telecom from replacing it with a modern cubicle: it appears to have been organized by an Elizabeth Sullivan, whose address is The Schoolhouse, Branston Parva.
Tanzan and Celestina try the nearest pub first, the Cricketers' Arms, and as luck would have it the barman is able to direct them to Bugbee immediately - he is sitting in one corner of the saloon bar, holding forth to what looks like a group of acquaintances. He is a shortish, stout, middle-aged man, with a red face and short, sticking-up reddish-grey hair, dressed in a tweed suit. He is drinking from a pewter tankard, with which he continually gestures forcefully, slopping beer about. His audience consists of three men of the same general type, all of whom nod firmly at each of his utterances.
Celestina takes the lead. "Good day, sir, I'm Miss Mirande and this is my associate Mr Nangi from the Financial Times; we're here to ask you a few questions about the group at Branston Hall."
"Eh?" Bugbee regards Celestina and Tanzan with a distinct lack of favour. "Financial Times, eh? What's a serious newspaper got to do with that bunch of deviants?"
"We're doing an investigative piece on them," Celestina ploughs on. "We've been told that you have some objections to them?"
"Damned right I do! These cults should be banned by law, if you ask me - corrupting the youth of the nation! They're a menace, isn't that right?" He turns to his cronies for affirmation, which is not slow in coming. The rest of the bar has gradually fallen silent to watch.
"Are you aware of anything they have done that might be considered out of line?"
Bugbee splutters. "Good god, woman, just the fact of their existence is out of line. What have we got to do - wait until they've kidnapped all our daughters and brainwashed them?"
"Can you point us in the direction of any other villagers who might have had experiences with them?"
"Listen here, missy, we all try and stay away from them as much as we can - don't want to get contaminated!" he spits the word out. "How about if I tell you they've been planning to infiltrate our village school - hey? Get their goddamned hippy ways taught on the curriculum, I shouldn't wonder. Well, we soon sorted them out, I tell you. I'm a governor of the school, you know - my own daughter went there! I'm not going to let those filthy kids of theirs sit next to our village children!"
"That's right!", "Well done George!" and similar endearments come from the appreciative audience.
"We understand that their leader is one Frank Gupper," says Celestina, "but we've been unable to get an appointment with him, can you tell us anything about him?"
"That bugger! I tell you, if I get my hands on him, I'll break him in two! Comes over all mystic and holy-man, but I know what his game is - sex! Sparing your presence, miss. That's what all these cults are about - some swine with more charm than honesty sets them up to lure young girls into his bed! I know what I'm talking about! He ought to be castrated!"
Celestina backs away in the face of Bugbee's fury, judging that he has exhausted his stock of useful things to say. "Would you like what you've said to be anonymous in our article?" she asks politely.
"Certainly not! Put my name in bold type, if you please - Charles Bugbee, gentleman farmer of Branston Parva. I'm not ashamed of my opinions, and I'm not scared of Gupper either!"
Jack has to confess himself ignorant of the rules of billiards, but Frank is happy to teach him. "US navy, eh? Like Top Gun?"
"That's right," says Jack. "But we mostly play pool over there."
"Of course! Fast Eddie - The Hustler! Excellent film."
After a few minutes desultory potting - Frank revealing considerable skill with the cue - Jack asks "So, Frank, the Keepers - what's it all about, really? What gave you the idea to set it up?"
"Oh, well, I suppose that all my life I'd been heading towards this. You know how it is - you're looking for something, but you don't know what? I'd been to many of the world's great mystic places - Macchu Picchu, the Nazca Plain, Stonehenge of course, Ayers Rock - but it was in Egypt that I was finally enlightened. The sun, you see - that's the key to everything. Of course it is! We all come from it - from the life-giving energy it provides - and when we die, we all go back to it. Even scientists accept that now. So veneration of the sun is absolutely fundamental. The ancient Egyptians knew all this - well, one of them in particular, a chap called Akhenaton, a pharaoh he was. He overthrew their old pantheon of gods, ones with the heads of beetles and all that sort of rubbish! And he set up this sun religion, which is what ours is based on. We use ancient Egyptian prayers, and an ancient obelisk - they were given to me in a vision by a goddess, or a spirit, one of the sun's servants, who'd marked me out. She told me the prayers to use, and gave me the obelisk. When Akhenaton died the Egyptians went back to their old ways, the idiots, but we've got the chance now to put humanity back on the right path!"
Jack cannot help but be impressed with Frank's enthusiasm.
Russell and Tanya wander around the moonlit grounds of the Hall. They spiral outwards from the main building, checking inside all the outbuildings first: these hold nothing more suspicious than gardening tools and so on. One, which clearly used to be a stables at one time, holds a battered old Ford Sierra, whose road tax is months out of date.
The estate itself is attractively landscaped, with a number of small dells, coppices, nooks and bowers, and it is difficult to be sure they have covered all the ground, in the dark as it is: but there is no sign of any part of the grounds having been used for ritual apart from the dip where the two sun ceremonies the operatives have witnessed took place. Saying that, it's too dark to tell much really.
By the time they have made their way over to the small river which forms one boundary of the estate, it is approaching midnight. The mouths of a couple of dark caves can be seen, near the waterline. Both are so small that an adult would have difficulty squirming in. Exploring them at this time of night, without equipment, would be risky, Russell and Tanya judge.
As Celestina and Tanzan are heading for the door, Tanzan feels his elbow taken by a man sitting alone near the bar. He politely disengages and turns to face the fellow - a middle-aged man in glasses, with a thin moustache, wearing a bomber jacket and jeans.
"Hello there - I've seen you up at the Hall, haven't I?"
"Are you one of the Keepers?" asks Tanzan doubtfully.
The man laughs. "No! But I keep an eye on them. I know you two are new arrivals - you do stand out a bit! I'm interested in learning a bit more about what goes on in there."
"For what purpose?"
"I'm a journalist - and I really am one, not like you two!" He points mockingly at the portable computer. "Name's Warren Martin, I'm with the Daily Mail. I'll pay good money for good information." He holds his jacket slightly open, showing the top of what looks like a large roll of banknotes.
"What are you interested in learning?" asks Tanzan non-committally.
"Let's say you tell me what you find out, and I'll give you whatever that's worth, eh? I want to know about Gupper - what's his game, what's his background. I want to know who the people are in that cult - names, ages, where they come from. And I want to know what goes on there - sex rites, sacrifices, whatever."
"We'll think about it," says Tanzan.
"Do that - you can find me here pretty much any time, or leave a message for me with Eric here," indicating the landlord.
By one in the morning all the operatives are back in their beds, listening to the snores of the Keepers - all of whom have presumably been labouring all day, rather than simply ambling around. Suddenly, there is a strange sound - a sort of chilling, echoing ululation, very faint and distant, as though some strange creature is howling in a far-off wood.
Michael starts up in his bed, clutching at the blanket - for a moment the sound triggered unpleasant memories in him, memories of his friends screaming their last breath away... he shakes himself, and swallows. He must have been dreaming. Then the sound comes again, fainter. He listens carefully, but it's impossible to say where it comes from.
The next morning, which is chill and rainy, the Keepers all gather in the big dining-room for breakfast. Most are damp from having attended the dawn ceremony. The operatives gravitate to Richard, and Michael at once asks what the noise was he heard during the night.
"Noise? Was it a sort of unearthly howling?"
"That's right," says Jack. "I heard it too."
"Oh, that was probably the Beast of Branston Hall!" Richard glances round the six attentive faces cheerfully. "Haven't you heard about our local legend? It's a great story! Back in the eighteenth century it was, there were two brothers, Richard and Miles Branston. Richard was the heir, but his evil brother Miles came back from his travels in the Orient and wanted the whole estate. Miles and his henchmen got Roger drunk one night, and then they threw him into the caves underneath the Hall - then he bricked up the only entrance! So poor old Roger was trapped down there. As he heard Miles's henchmen filling in the hole, he cursed his brother and all those who would falsely occupy Branston lands in the future. But Roger didn't die - oh no! He's lurked in the caves ever since, bemoaning his fate, transformed into a creature of the dark and damp. Denied his true inheritance, he's become the Lord of the Underground. Every so often, they do say - the locals do, that is, they'll all tell you this same story - his lust for vengeance grows stronger, and he seeps into the Upperworld through a dark and damp place within the Hall, seizes his hapless victims and drags them down into his world, where he exacts a hideous revenge..."
As Richard mimes big pointy rending claws, Nina King interrupts him. "Haven't you got anything better to do than talk nonsense, Richard?" She turns to the operatives. "Actually, the noise is just the wind blowing through the caves, when it's in the east. Now you lot, are you here for a holiday, or for some serious work? If you feel up to it, I'd like to put you all to work inside the house today - the weather's bad enough that there's no point sending newcomers outside. How about if you two" she points to Tanya and Russell "help out in the kitchens, and the others of you work on the renovations. We'll be starting at ten thirty." She strides off again.
Richard smiles weakly. "You'll have to forgive Nina... she's under a lot of strain just now. But she has a heart of gold!"
Tanzan moves to join Jenny Hammond as she gathers her three small children from breakfast. "Who knows," he muses to himself, "she seems a very spiritually aware person, perhaps she may be drawn out by my telling her a little about Soto Zen."
Jenny is more than willing to chat, provided Tanzan helps her dress the children. She listens with interest as he tells her of the teachings of his own sect. "That all sounds very interesting! Do you all learn martial arts as well, or is that just in the films?"
"A Zen adept must train all aspects of body and mind," replies Tanzan. "But tell me, Mrs Hammond, what of the rituals used by the Keepers here?"
"Rituals? Well, they're all based on ancient Egyptian prayers. You've seen the midday one, there's others at dawn and dusk - and special ones at the solstices and equinoxes. Basically, Frank explained it to me once, they ask the sun to look after us and protect us, make us strong - that kind of thing."
Celestina has been thinking about seeking out Nina, perhaps so as to provide a shoulder to cry on. Just at the moment, though, as she sees Nina exchange a few brisk words with Frank and stride off busily, she thinks this may not be the ideal time.
Instead she approaches Frank himself, who is looking slightly bemused, and says "Frank, I have been here a day already and I don't feel any closer to enlightenment, is there anything else I can do?"
"Hmm? Oh! Dear me, Celestina, you can't expect miracles overnight. What you should do is come to more of our rituals - get Old Man Sun shining down on you! That'll get you started. You can't expect enlightenment without hard work, you know. Nina said she'd asked you to help with the renovation work - that's great, I'll be supervising that myself today. Don't worry, I won't work you too hard! Meditate on sunlight, and if you come across a patch of sunlight, shining through a window or whatever, take a couple of moments to study it."
As Frank turns away, Celestina is approached by Kate, who sidles up to her. "I don't much fancy working all day, do you? We can probably sneak off and have a smoke later if you like, Frank won't mind."
"How long have you been here with the Keepers, Kate?"
"Only a few weeks. I came here by myself!" She looks smug. "Frank says I can be initiated next week, if I'm good. Then I'll have to wear those stupid robes, though."
"What does initiation involve?"
"Oh, it's just some silly question and answer thing, like the Creed really. Have you been confirmed? I was last year, in the cathedral, it was so stupid, all these white dresses and stuff."
Celestina takes one of the minor pendants from around her neck - a carved wooden face surrounded by two highly polished chicken bones wrapped with brightly coloured taffeta, and presents it to Kate. "Here, because we're both new here together, I wanted you to have this...'
Kate's face lights up. "Brilliant! That's really smart! Wow, no-one else has got anything like this! You're really nice!"
Tanya has made a bee-line for Jack Garrison, who is still eating the remains of his breakfast. She sits down next to him and places her hand on his arm. "Monsieur Jack? Ow are you today?"
Jack Garrison chokes briefly. His eyebrows shoot up and down as he struggles to regain breath. "Not bad, thanks - how's yourself?"
"Oh... I am tired," pouts Tanya. "Too tired to work all day..."
"Can't you get your boyfriend to help out? Pretty girl like you, shouldn't be working."
"Oh! What an idea! I most certainly do not ave a boyfriend!"
He regards her doubtfully, his Adam's apple working up and down.
Before any too onerous duties can be foisted on them, the SITU team meets up again in their cosy disused room. Celestina reports what Frank said to her about the ritual. "I think perhaps we should show our faces at more of these rituals - if we're to blend in."
Russell in particular looks a little doubtful, remembering the curious draining sensation he felt.
"I know that you place great weight on the physical effects of the ritual we attended, but I am not quite so surprised. Ritual is ritual: even the Christian church uses chants and incense to invoke a religious experience. Still, she will not dismiss it out of hand."
"We need to get to see that obelisk," muses Michael. "There's got to be a way."
"I also noted that Richard mentioned cellars and outhouses but didn't take us to see them, even though he showed us every other falling down corner of the place," says Celestina. "Michael, or Tanzan, will you come and help me sneak around them - at the first opportunity?"
The sound of tramping feet, as the Keepers set about their duties, can be heard in the corridor.
Tanzan: during the night you silently make your way into Frank's room, where he is laid snoring on the bed. You ghost around the room examining his goods, but as far as you can tell (which is not very far) there is nothing here but mundane items, clothes and such.
Michael: during the night you sneak out and meet with your friend Karyn in the village. She is eagerly waiting in her van, but a bit disappointed to learn that you have no photos or documents for her to examine. You get her started hacking into SITU, but she reports surprisedly that it appears to have no Net presence at all. She says she will continue to work on it during the day.