The stately grounds of Hazelbrook Manor had changed little in three hundred years. The lawns, the fields, the woods, the rolling green hills beyond. Everything the eye could see was spread out under the proprietorial eye of the great house perched on the hillside, its stones mellowed by weather and age, its ancient leaded windows glinting in the sun.
The fortieth coach of the day crunched across the gravel towards the grand front door. The tourists had seen the lions and the monkeys out in the park, had bought ice creams at the café, and were relaxed and happy as they approached the final section of the tour. They filed out in good humour, accepting the barked instructions of their guide without demur, and were quickly shepherded up the polished marble steps to the entrance.
Inside, they spread out, those with a thirst for factual detail hurrying after the guide to benefit from her curt pronouncements on the history behind each room and item. The others wandered, lacking much idea of where they were or what they were looking for, but enjoying the ambience of velvet ropes, solemn paintings, old oak furniture and expensive-looking vases.
“Good day, good day, good day!”
The voice was a hearty, fruity sound, and issued from a portly gentleman with a bristling white moustache, the remains of his hair standing up in fluffy clumps on top of his head. He wore a pair of bright red trousers which seemed baggy on him despite his considerable girth and a loose green paisley shirt which hung down to his hips and was almost a smock. His face was red-cheeked, criss-crossed with visible arteries, and his eyes twinkled with unaffected good humour.
“Enjoying your visit, I hope? Don’t miss the master bedroom, apparently Henry the Eighth once slept in that bed, which is more than I ever have, ha ha Don’t miss the eighteenth century water closet. Don’t forget to spend lots of money in the gift shop ”
The couple he had approached, apparently at random, gave him a wary look, but a moment later recognition lit up in the woman’s face.
“Oh You’re... Lord Hazelbrook?”
“I have that honour,” he confirmed. “How do you do?”
He shook both their hands warmly and she fussed with the nervous excitement of this sudden close contact with the aristocracy, looking as though she’d like to curtsey but not quite sure how.
“Oh, your Lordship,”she gushed, “we’ve had such a lovely day here. You have a lovely home. The gardens, the flowers, the house...”
“I’m so glad,” he beamed, patting her hand. “You know, one does enjoy the extra money from opening the place up, but the real reward is the pleasure so many people derive from sharing it with me.”
Her husband, standing back from the conversation, took a more wary attitude, but at length felt the need to impress himself upon the scene.
“What’s that other building?” he asked gruffly. “The modern one, behind the house. With the wall.”
Hazelbrook disengaged his hand from the lady’s grasp.
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s the one and only part of the estate which must remain private,” he explained genially. “As you may or may not know I run a little retreat there. A sort of self-help commune, you might say. And the residents do have to have their privacy.”
“Oh,” she said brightly. “What sort of things do you do there?”
“Yes, Lord Hazelbrook,” a fresh voice cut sharply across them. “What sort of things to you get up to there?”
Hazelbrook turned to the newcomer, lifting his eyebrows with an air of surprise more than reproach at the curt interruption. He found himself looking up at a man six feet tall, whose ramrod posture and stiffly held chin made him look taller still. With close-cropped pale hair, a firm, muscular jaw and hard, dark little eyes set deep into his rough-cut features, it was instantly clear that he was no ordinary tourist.
“I’m afraid the precise details are confidential except to members of the group,” Hazelbrook replied with an easy smile. “If you’re hoping to join, I have to tell you that the entry process is a long and tortuous one.”
“Yes, I’m aware that certain specific credentials are required,” said the man, apparently oblivious to the smile. “That’s why I’ve come to see you. Perhaps I should introduce myself.”
He drew a leather wallet from the inner pocket of a plain brown overcoat and flipped it open to display the identity card inside. Hazelbrook read it with interest and then glanced up at the man’s face with a little chuckle.
“Colonel Sebastian Stark,” he said, his lips quirking up at the corners. “UNIT.”
Stark snapped the wallet shut and put it away.
“We’ve come for a few words with you about this so-called commune of yours, Lord Hazelbrook,” he said, his expression remaining hard and immobile. “Perhaps we might talk in private?”
“Um...” The lady tourist nudged her husband and spoke up with an apologetic smile. “Perhaps we should be getting on. It was lovely to meet you, my Lord.”
Hazelbrook beamed at her and grasped her hand, bending to press a formal kiss upon it.
She simpered and hurried away, casting a nervous glance at Stark, who stood patiently waiting for her to depart out of earshot.
“Now then, your Lordship,” the Colonel said. “Perhaps you could explain...”
“No.” Hazelbrook held up a hand, his smile not dimming but unmistakeably hardening. “I’ve got a better idea, and it involves you leaving immediately and not coming back. You really shouldn’t waste your time. Over the years I’ve had police inquiries, judicial inquiries, official inquiries, unofficial inquiries. I’m sure you know that none of them have uncovered evidence of illegality, so I really don’t feel the need to cooperate with yet another inquiry by yet another government agency. I assume you paid to get in, in which case I’ll ask you to enjoy the tour and then go without causing trouble.”
“I’m afraid that won’t wash,” Stark replied, raising his voice just a fraction as it looked as though Hazelbrook might turn his back and depart. “This organisation of yours... what do you call it, the Children of the Sanctum? You’ve been on quite a recruiting drive this past year, haven’t you? And some of your new members are not the sort of people who can disappear without drawing attention.”
“As I’m sure you’re well aware,” replied Hazelbrook with heavy condescension, “no one has disappeared. In fact...”
“Adam Merryfield,” Stark persisted. “Heir to the Merryfield hotel chain. Lady Sarah Lancaster, with her estate in Surrey. Derek West, the lottery winner. All young, wealthy people without any apparent previous interest in fringe religion or philosophy. All suddenly announced they were selling everything they had and coming to live with you here.”
“I really don’t know what you expect me to say.” Hazelbrook spread his arms expansively. “These people came here, like many others, because I offer them a purpose in life which was lacking before. I’ve helped them.”
“You’ve also taken their money.”
“I have expenses. They were happy to help. And now, if there is nothing else...”
“Just a moment. I’d like to introduce my scientific advisor.”
The Colonel glanced back over his shoulder, picked out the person he was looking for from the browsing tourists, and raised his voice so that he could be heard.
Hazelbrook sucked in a breath and mustered a smile as he waited to greet the new arrival. Slipping between two pairs of harassed parents dragging reluctant children on to the next piece of historic furniture came a slender bespectacled woman in her late twenties, blonde hair drawn back tightly into a knot, lending some sharpness to her small, delicate features. A plain grey skirt suit suggested a librarian, but there was a purposeful certainty in the click of her heels on the floor.
“Good afternoon, Lord Hazelbrook,” she said with a tight little smile. “I’m Doctor Angela Castle.”
“Charmed,” said Hazelbrook, responding with a broad and easy smile of his own. “And may I congratulate you on reaching the dizzy heights of UNIT scientific advisor so early in your career?”
“I’m fully qualified, I assure you,” she said primly.
“I’m sure. But as I was telling the good Colonel here, there really is nothing here for UNIT to investigate. No one is here against their will, I’ve done nothing illegal, so...”
“Frankly,” she said, her cool, crystal-clear voice interrupting him effortlessly, “I’m less interested in the rich wastrels whose pockets you’ve been emptying than in some of your lower profile recruits. Technicians. Scientists. Not the bored, pampered youngsters one would expect to fall for your patter.”
“Once again, then,” sighed Hazelbrook, rolling his eyes. “No one has fallen for anything. To the scientists, like the others, I offer something they don’t get in the outside world.”
“And what’s that?” she asked. “What exactly goes on behind the walls of that ugly concrete compound of yours? How do you keep them penned up in there?”
Hazelbrook simply grunted his amusement, shaking his head.
“And so it goes on. You ask your questions over and over again, and all I can do is keep pointing out that they came here of their own free will. You doubt my word, ask them.”
“I intend to,” said Stark.
“Mm. Good luck with that. In the meantime, I’ll bid you good day.”
With an amiable nod, the portly, shabbily dressed aristocrat turned his back on them with an air of finality and strolled from the room. The two UNIT employees exchanged thoughtful looks.
“I dislike him already,” she said.
Stark allowed his grim little smile to show.
“No argument with that, but he seems more confident than I’d like.” With fierce concentration he eyed the door through which Hazelbrook had departed for a few seconds before speaking again. “I think we’ve learned all we’re going to today. We’ll try doorstepping him at the compound tomorrow.”
She didn’t object, and followed him from the mansion, her eyes drawn as they left to the bulbous mass of concrete which loomed amongst the trees on the hill. Its walls rose forty feet high, surrounded by a lower perimeter wall, and it was surmounted by a great dome, also in concrete, a windowless mass of clashing grey against the skyline. However willing its occupants might seem, it was hard to see it as anything but a prison.
* * * * *
Eleven miles drive to town, dinner, discussion, planning. It was past eleven when Angela got back to her hotel room, kicking off her shoes with nothing on her mind but to fall face first onto the big soft, bed. She was halfway through unbuttoning her shirt when she realised that sitting cross-legged on her bed was a man.
He had her laptop open on the duvet in front of him. He had somehow got himself logged in and his fingers were stabbing nimbly at the keys, the dim blue light of the screen illuminating a long, narrow, pale-skinned face with a scornfully twisted mouth and pinched nose, surmounted by a thick shock of jet black white-streaked hair swept back from his brow.
He looked up, having apparently become aware of her presence just a second after she saw him, and he reared up furiously, his eyes flaring with a chilly hostile light.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What are you doing in here?”
It was snapped out with such rock solid self confidence that she actually took an apologetic step back before collecting herself. She jammed her fists onto her hips and riposted resentfully:
“It’s my room!”
“Oh.” He gave her a suspicious glare but returned to work on her laptop. “All right, then.”