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Satan’s Rock

Part 35

Cabbages and Kings

Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”

“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said;  “Come and take him off my hands, will you?  I have to go to work.   Oh, and don’t let him in…”

#

“I’ve found someone.”

Lesley regarded Roderick blearily:  “How sweet!   But I thought you were a monk?”

“No.  Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”

“Come in.”  Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm.  “You do know what time it is?”

“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”

“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.”  Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee   “Go away.”   Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle.  “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”

“I just do.  I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find.  You have to trust me.  And you have to put water in that kettle.”  

After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.  

“Logical, really.  Only one place he could have gone.  You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”

Lesley opened her eyes:  “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it?   You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already!  It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”

“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult.  We won’t force you to do it.”

“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”

“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose.  Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”

“What for?”

“For helping me through – for being right.  For being wise…”   She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee.  Stuff’s  in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”

Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs,   “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that.  Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”

Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white.   It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’.   It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.

“Hallo, lass!”   Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles.    “So you’m my cargo, eh?”

Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo?  Oh, Cyril, you old romantic!  You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”

Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then?  You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”

“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!”   With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.  

“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”

Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter.   Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods.   Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.

“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,”  Cyril said.  “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”

Roderick gave a supporting hand.  “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”

Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril.   Everyone knew him.   A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed.   His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.

“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick.  “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”

The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks.    She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves.   The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose.  There was a pause, then the engine revved and  the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.

Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil.   An apple dropped on her neck.   Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking.  Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another.  Outraged hooting broke out on  one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes.   In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.

 It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock.  If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.  

Then – anxiety.  The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt.   Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.

“Sorry about this.”   It was a woman’s voice.    “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room.   We’ll have it clear in a jiff.      You don’t have any oranges in there, do you?  I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”

Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges.  “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”

“Onions, then?  Some greens, maybe?   Can I have a look?”

Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter.  Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg.   She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.

“Don’t you go opening my van!”   Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.

“I’m sorry!  I only wanted a look!”   Charlie’s voice was all innocence.  Her face was set in steel.

“’Tis my property.   ‘Tis private, right?”

Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes.  A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her.  She was obviously a professional. 

Cyril had joined Charlie at the back.    “See?  You have got some oranges!   What else have you got down behind there?”  She made to climb into the display.  Cyril was equally resolute.  He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.

“I dissent sell from the van, missus,”   Cyril said severely.  “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”

Charlie’s voice had an edge:  “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”

“Twice weekly.  What of it?”

“Where?  Which houses?”

Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied.  “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.”   He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down.  Charlie’s hand stopped him.

“Now look!   I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!”  Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down.   From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured:  from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind.   Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van.  Backing off gave her great pain.  No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.

From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.

“Anything?”   Klas asked.

“I couldn’t see anything.   The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”

“You could have made it official.”

“We could follow it, too, but no.   Low profile, remember?   Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more.  This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation!  He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”

Klas glanced apprehensively skyward.  “Do we include seagulls in that?”  The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock.  “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.”  He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”

“Possibly.  It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though:  the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”

“How should we deal with the van?”

“Wait for it to come back.   Then follow it.”

#

Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen.   Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her.   They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come.  He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his.  He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind:  saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him.   He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.

What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door?   Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of  furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.

The intruder was near, approaching.   Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.  

“Hi.” Lesley said.

He could not respond.   He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.

She said:  “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”

“Yeah.”    Peter could hear his own heart beating.  It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too.  But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.

“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now.  I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”

#

The office window overlooked  the River Thames.   Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move.  Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed.  Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window.  They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three.   Jeremy felt at home among their cushions.  Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.

“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?”  Jeremy accused his operatives,  “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”

Charlie said:  “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”

“Not that late!   Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie.   You lost him.  Too casual, way too casual!”

“The rain, the birds…it was dark.  Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours.  Now he can’t remember it…”

Klas said:  “I think I must have read it.  It will come back to me…”

“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.

Klas shrugged.  “It will.  One cannot predict these things, but it will.  The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.”  he murmured.

“What is?”

“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion.  I have never known such a thing.”

Charlie asked:   “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt?  Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper?   Ah!  It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”

“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”

“They were really determined, the birds!”   Klas mused.  “A methodical attack, almost.   It was as if they knew…..”

“Is he quite with us?”   Piggott asked Charlie crudely.   “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”

“They did assist in his escape.  Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”

“Oh, very odd!”   Jeremy seethed.   “Anyway he’s gone.  Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.”   Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”

“Unlikely.  There was a big storm and the tide was running high.  No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north.  The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”

  “And your reasoning?”

 “We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?”  Charlie said;  “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days:  only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”

“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?”  Klas asked.

“It’s possible.”  Charlie nodded.  “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it?   Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”

“The boy went north, too.”  Jeremy said.  “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours.   That could have put him in Scotland, too.  Two separate trips, one shared destination?   So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”

“I don’t know!”  Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice!  Anyway, this is pure conjecture.  For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”

Piggott grunted;  “Where’s our Howard now?”

“He’s dropped from sight.   The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”

“Seriously?  We didn’t actually lose them, did we?” 

Charlie ignored the sarcasm.  “We can’t be everywhere, chief.  I had to put local lads on it.   It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know, now.  Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”

“So what do we do, drop this?   Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”

Jeremy Piggott shook his head.   “I would.  I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed.   Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get.  With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into.  He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic?  Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”

“Al Khubar?”  Charlie asked. 

“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously.   “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead.  They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.”  Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge.  “He’s a man with a mission.  Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs  can reach.   Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better.   He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”

“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”

“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate:  but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway.  We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process.  And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”

“Ah!”   Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted.  Very intriguing!”

Jeremy smiled grimly:  “Can you imagine?   Look, our people are working on this, OK?  Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be.  For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath,  find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down  – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image credits:

Featured Image: Inigo de La-Maza from Unsplash

River Thames: Kevin Greive on Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Four

Candle in the Window

Morning discovered Peter Cartwright at the window of his room in St. Benedict’s House, staring back across the water at Levenport Esplanade’s bleary late autumn awakening.   Tenuous rays of sun washed the hills above the town a limpid glow, while familiar landmarks on the waterfront, the Causeway Café and the Lord Crowley Inn, still languished in grey pre-dawn anonymity.  His eyes had struggled to focus for a minute or two, as the indistinct outline of one window on the first floor of the Inn fuelled his curiosity.  Was there the faintest reflexion from behind the glass; a glow that at once seemed dim and warm – a candle, perhaps??

He needed no extra diversions of this kind:  his mind was full enough, what with his worry for his parents, who in his mind’s eye languished in a cell awaiting MI5  interrogation, Lesley, his girlfriend, and a vividly curious dream of a child found abandoned in a box, afloat on the lake at Crowley House.  Melanie would have divined the meaning of the dream, had she been close by.   That was her part of the ‘gift’ that held them both in its grasp –  unravelling the nonsense of his visions, finding the simple message at their heart.  In his dream Melanie HAD been there, holding the spyglass in the trees across the lake, she had seen all that he saw.  She would know, and if he could only open his mind he was sure she would tell him what it all meant.  Could the foundling answer the mystery of that unmarked coffin in the Crowley family crypt; a coffin that contained only rocks?  Melanie would know.  Last night the communication between them had been as clear as if she had been standing at his side, yet today she was silent.  It was early morning, still.  He told himself the only barrier between them was sleep.

With the encroaching sun the far-off candle-glow in the Inn window faded to nothing.  Whose hand had held it?    Was there a message there for him?  As the profile of the old Inn became more distinct,  Peter dug into his mental archives.  Although in its current manifestation it was styled ‘The Lord Crowley’ the building’s history predated His Lordship by a few centuries; back, in fact, to Carolingian days when it was known fashionably as ‘Roper’s Hotel’.  Lord Crowley himself had stayed there while St. Benedict’s House was being built which, Peter supposed, inspired the Inn’s eventual change of name, although it was still ‘Roper’s’ until after the Crimean War.  So was the bearer of that extinguished light the same lady who, in this very room the previous night, he had hear  cry out the name of ‘Arthur’ in such despair?  There were more questions than answers, Peter decided, but at least some sort of cohesion was beginning to emerge.  He had expected no less:  the rock. The Truth Stone which Simeon believed held all of the answers may have seemed to be inert, but it lay waiting for him, right beneath his feet.

When had he slept again?  When had he returned to bed; or had he only witnessed the flickering candle in another dream?   The hand shaking his shoulder was Estelle’s.   She was wearing the same, gentle, self-conscious smile.

“Hey, Peter?  ‘Morning, hon.   “I brought you tea. Come down and join us when you’re ready, huh?   No rush.”

Vincent and Estelle were waiting in the room where Peter had first met Alice the spider-woman, news of whose subsequent brutal fate Howard had broken.    For Peter it made breakfast a sombre affair. 

 “Back again, then mate?”  Vincent’s greeting had real warmth.  His left hand was bandaged.

“He just about got himself struck by lightning last night.”  Estelle explained.

Vincent grinned:    “Took a Stratocaster up on the roof.  Silly bugger, aren’t I?”  

A big television screen on the far wall unobtrusively fed the room with a background of incessant ‘news’.    In Crowley’s time, Peter had to remind himself, the opiate of the people had been gin.

For a while they ate together in silence:  then Vince said:  “Have a look at this, Peter.”

He turned up the volume.  The screen showed a vast stadium in the United States jammed to the doors with cheering people.  

“It’s the Republican Convention,”  Estelle said.  “See if you can see a familiar face or two, huh?”

The actor dominating the stage at that moment was certainly familiar.   He was introducing a Presidential candidate, in an acclamation which, without newsroom cutting, would have lasted ten minutes.   At its close a band struck up enthusiastically, the crowd surged forward, cheering rose to an organised crescendo.   JD, as Senator Goodridge liked to be known, emerged from a throng of distinguished well-wishers, pumping hands, exchanging greetings, smiling and waving his way along an expertly choreographed path to the microphones.   

“Recognise him, Peter?”   Vincent asked.

“I know who he is.”  Peter acknowledged.   “He’s the bloke the bullet missed.”

“And our bastion of freedom for the next eight years.”   Estelle commented, with just a hint at irony.

“There’s a Democratic candidate though, isn’t there?” Peter asked.

“Sure.  Senator Wilmott, the man from Illinois.  A real turned-on guy.  If he doesn’t trip over something before November fourth, he might just have an outside chance.”   Estelle shook her head.  “The man makes massive mistakes and the media know it.  If he don’t make one by himself they’ll trap him some way.   And they’re right, of course.  Wilmott shouldn’t be President.”

“Should Goodridge?”  Peter asked.

The news programme had meandered away from American politics to a local news item about a stolen hearse, which had been recovered, complete with coffin, from a service area on the motorway north of Levenport.  Vince turned the television down. “Prob’ly not, Pete.”

“Better or worse, Goodridge’s kind of a big change of direction in US foreign policy.”  Estelle said.   “He heads a gang of politicos, most of who seem to be either driven by extreme self-interest or religious fervour.   When that guy gets the reins, he’s going to shift American power eastward.   JD’s Crusade, they’re calling it, but that’s boloney.  He’s after the rich oil states of the Gulf: of course he is – he owns half of GAM  Oil.  

“Khubar’s the obvious first move – the old King is seriously ill, mostly only a figurehead.   El Saada, his eldest son, well, he is just so not the son of his father.   Very pro-American, lots of US connections, very ready to open the door to a big US deal.   The king is almost certain to die in the next year, and when he does….”

“When he does, Goodridge will move in on El Saada.”  Vince took up the thread.  “He has to, mate, ‘cause if he doesn’t, El Saada’s own brother will, within the year.  Prince Shumal is twice the leader Saada could be, and his politics are the exact opposite of his brother.   It was Shumal’s operative who missed J.D. in London – he hates America and everything she stands for.  Goodridge’s implacable enemy.”

Peter was listening carefully, trying to absorb the substance of the argument:   “Are you saying maybe saving Senator Goodridge wasn’t such a good thing after all?”

Vince shook his head. “I wish I knew.”

“Simeon would know,”  Peter thought.

Estelle laughed.  “Simon?  You only met that goddam human jelly once, and already you’re a Believer?  What’s that creature got the rest of the world doesn’t know about?”

Vincent was less scathing.  Peter could see he had posed a question that was troubling him.   “Simon?  Let’s leave out the Biblical references and call him that.”

“Mabe we shouldn’t?”  Peter interrupted.  His father had not entirely failed in instilling some religious knowledge into his pre-college years.  Sometimes there was special significance to be found in  a name. 

Vincent caught his look; “Right!  Sure, man.  See, the thing about Simeon and his cabal is their ineffable bloody rightness.   They – you, I suppose – know exactly which side to pick.”

“Or think they do,”  Estelle chipped in, with a hint of warning in her voice.  “And there’s nothing Biblical about that jelloid.  He’s just plain obscene!”

“Or think they do,” Vince repeated.  “The rest of us poor eejits stumble along in the dark.”

“If it’s any consolation,”  Peter said miserably.   “It all seems as much a mystery to me as it does to you.”

Estelle began gathering the breakfast things:  “The way I heard it tell,” she said, “You’re supposed to have the gift of sight.   A lot of lives are gonna hinge on our hope that you do.”  

“You think Goodridge is about to start a war?”  Peter wanted to respond in more depth, yet there seemed no point in attempting to explain:  the sounds and pictures in his head, the voices, had nothing to do with Middle Eastern politics or the US Republican Convention; they had to do with the ancient Lord Crowley, and a deeply religious farmer of his time who raised a foundling child.

“Here’s the thing, Pete:” It was Vince’s voice, in there with the others.   “Shumal knows the score.    Assassinate JD on the eve of his Presidency he’ll get his war anyway, whether he wants it or not.  But if he doesn’t and El Saada becomes King, Goodridge gets control of his country, and he’ll never get him out.   Shumal will make a move.   We have to find out what, how and when, and try to stop it happening.   Only this time we don’t have anyone on the ‘inside’, no idea what he is going to try, how or when.   We just don’t have a clue.  We needed your help before, but the stakes are a lot higher now.  You’re the front line, if you see what I mean?”

Peter nodded dumbly.

“And that;”  Said Vincent in a way that demanded Peter’s undivided attention;  “Is why I’m back here and not cowering in the frozen North.”

 “Now see, this is Simon’s idea.”   Estelle chipped in, and, again with her unique gift of irony:  “It always is.  Suppose we could set up a meeting of all the principals?   Here, on the rock?  If Goodridge and the old King got a chance to tie things up with a quiet agreement, before Saada becomes ruler or the Presidency gets in the way?  A nice, peaceful, under the table solution!    Seems to be that the rock is in the middle of all this, though what a lump of granite on the south coast of chilly old UK has to do with a Middle Eastern implosion I don’t know, but it’s for sure the reason Simon and his old ‘stone librarians’ are interested.   Bring ‘em to the rock!   Draw the vermin out into the open.”  

Vincent said:  “It’s a pie in the sky idea, Pete.  But for some reason Simeon – Simon – whatever you call him thinks it’ll work.  I’m to try to convene a meeting between Goodridge and the King of Khubar, with their advisors, right here in St. Benedict’s House.  Simeon thinks we need to bring matters to a head, and, if we can, do it on our terms.  That’s the best way.  He’s solidly behind it, I think he’s mad.”

“He’s not mad,”  Peter said grimly,  “He’s right.   Khubar ‘ll come.”

“Why?  I don’t get it!”

“Because if Saada has Melanie, and I’m almost sure he does, Saada already knows about the Truth Stone  – why else would he want her? .  And he’ll work it out – if I’m here, if this is where I made the first connection to Godrfidge’s assassination attempt, he’ll put two and two together and he’ll come, and Goodridge will follow where he leads, full security and sackloads of guns on both sides.  You could even involve the dear old Rock in a full-scale war!  But if you think you can control the agenda – if you think power-broking will be the reason El Saada, particularly, comes – you’ll be wrong, Vince.   A deal with Goodridge is neither one way or the other to him; that isn’t what he wants.”

“Worth a go!”  Vince said cheerfully.  Then, after a pause,  “Alright mate, what d’you think he wants?”

“He wants access to the warm rock – The Truth Stone.   But I thought the authorities were after you for aiding my ‘escape’?  How are you going to organise something like that with the police chasing you?”

Vince tapped the side of his nose.  “Haven’t called yet, have they?   Not battering the door down.  I’ve got friends, mate. Guys a couple of steps up the ladder:  oh, not the sort you call in favours from, but friends nonetheless.  There’s one hell of an attraction to brokering a meeting like that, even if it’s low key: getting a percentage, yeah?   And this guy’s a specialist.  I reckon I can do it.  No-one’s going to pull me if I’m working on a nice big earner for the State, especially with him.   One problem, though.”

He sat on the edge of the breakfast table, rubbing his chin with those long, artistic fingers of his.  “The old geyser, His Majesty.   Will he be too ill to travel?  And if we’re going for the kind of agreement that gets these guys interested, Saada won’t do as a substitute. (unless they crown him first, of course).”

“Well then nothing can be done.”

“No?”   Vincent engaged Peter with one of his deeper looks:   “I sort of maybe think there can….

“In the meantime,” he went on; “We have to keep you out of the hands of the spooks for a while.   We reckon here, mate – we’ll have to shift you up the back and out the way, but this place’s big enough to hide anyone.  Like I said, they won’t break the door down, but they might try something by a back way, if you see what I mean.  Do you mind stayin’ with us for a while?”

“Mind?”  Peter could not resist a weary smile.  “No, I think I’ll manage”

It was late afternoon.    Peter was ensconced in a small suite beneath the Great House’s western tower, on the third floor and overlooking the sea.  Vincent had left for some meeting or other, Estelle was busy in the kitchen, and he was already feeling trapped.   Having at last forfeited any pretence at independence: Peter’s fate now lay, he knew, in the hands of others and he must wait to see what that meant.   He had made his choice.

He stared from the window, his gaze elevated to a vast, unclouded sky of the softest blue.   Up there, birds flocked in undistinguishable thousands, up there was freedom; limitless, untrammelled liberty from the weight he bore.   Scything across the void, a tiny, pencil-thin sliver of an aircraft, thousands of feet overhead, glowed rose pink in the sunlight.

Peter’s eyes were drawn to it, and as he watched he felt his head suddenly clear. A picture, a scene, a succession of images entered his brain.   There was no doubting what he saw.   There was no disputing the answers it provided.    The need to share them gathered in tiny shimmers in a deep dark corner of his mind.  They grew there, feeding from each other, spinning together, forming threads.  First they were just a few, a few coincidences of space and time; but soon they became thousands, then tens of thousands.   Had he more experience, he would have recognised the warp that was forming; he might have tidied it, given it shape, allowed the weft that he knew he held to bind it together.  He did not.   Instead, he gave way to his need to share, not to be alone with this immensity anymore.    So he wrapped the unwoven turmoil up within his head then propelled it like a ball into the ether.  Only as the burden left him did he fully understand its size, the fearful power he had emitted, so that at once he tried to regain it, draw it back to him, but it was too late.   The rock beneath his feet , the Truth Stone that he had come to read, had found him.  Peter sank back onto his bed, exhausted and full of dread for what he had done.

Melanie sat couched in luxurious calf-skin leather.   She raised her wineglass to her lips, aware that Marak, who sat facing her, was speaking, but not really hearing him.  Melanie had not tasted many wines as rich as this, her second that afternoon, so she felt a little fuzzy, and the background drone of the aircraft’s engines were mesmeric when blended with good wine.   She found fascination in the movement of the Arab’s mouth as he spoke, one moment wide and thin, the next pouting and sensual:  his voice was intense with emotion as he expounded the true questions as he saw them;  western capitalist evil, the infection of materialism, the rape of his Moslem world.   His stare was stern and keen, a-glint with profundity, but the wisdom of The Toa seemed forgotten; a new, more insidious philosophy stood in its place.

‘Why me?’ Her inner thoughts persisted.  ‘Why am I here with this magnificent man?” And:  ‘Does he really believe I can do anything without Peter beside me?’

“Why do you look at me that way?”   She surprised herself with the boldness of her question, but his diatribe had become unpleasant to her, and she had to break into it.  She had already acknowledged that Marak was something other than he pretended.

At her question, Marak ceased speaking and broke into a smile.   “I am boring you.  I can be – how would you express it? – overpowering.”   He leant forward, elbows resting upon the table which separated their seats.  “Do I look at you in a ‘way’?   In what ‘’way’?”

“Sort of – sadly; a little cynically, perhaps.”

“Ah.  And you really want to know the answer to this?”

“Please.”

Marak drew her gaze, reaching forward to lift her chin with the fingers of his right hand.   He said:   “Because you are beautiful, Melanie Fenton.   And because your eyes recall someone I once loved.”

Her heart beat wildly.  She drew back, foraged for her self-possession among the ruins he had just made.   Quick to interpret her discomfiture, Marak rose from his seat.

“I shall leave you for a while.  Look down, if it pleases you; I have instructed the pilot to follow a certain course.  Try to rest.”

Melanie looked through her window to a sun-jewelled sea far below, a shoreline at the sight of which her heart filled, because she knew it was Levenport – there, the town, and somewhere there, too small for the naked eye, her home; her mum, all she remembered and loved.   There, too, the rock of Old Ben with St. Benedict’s House at its summit, surprisingly meek and small from her lofty perch.  For some reason there was a light there she felt she must focus on, one tiny dot, one window among the hundreds.    And as she complied; as she did that, her mind exploded.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Three

Convocation

The first thing Peter remarked was the darkness.   The room in which he stood, the room Estelle had given him was not dark; the room he saw in the mirror was.  It was not even the same room, but a cavernous hall with candelabra-decked walls, walls freshly clad in panelled oak and hung with tapestries.   Through the gloom he could distinguish little else, a bed, perhaps, a well-upholstered chair in the Regency style.    Every objective observation he tried to make, however, was overlaid by the presence.  

Other than in the touch of those gentle feminine fingers on his arm it had no substance at all, just a skein of grey shredded light that wavered and altered itself into various images, sweeping towards the mirror-glass then tumbling away again, rearranging itself to spiral upwards, almost finding shape before once again descending.    At its best it made a half-drawn figure that might be the owner of the voice, at its worst the coiled menace of a snake.

The voice:  that voice!

  “Arthur?   Arthur my dear?  Arthur?”   A pleading, abandoned sound as of a woman drowning.

 And the snake?  The snake came slithering and robbing, taking each strand of the woman’s so nearly finished sketch to integrate within itself.   Too much!  Fearful of spirits that threatened to overwhelm him, Peter tore off his bathrobe, throwing it over the glass, and the voice cried out:  “No!” As if defying him.   The glass cleared.  Exhausted he fell back into the bed and his consciousness left him, but his dreams would not.

Peter spent the rest of  his night somewhere in a hinterland between sleeping and waking.   His dreams led him first to Crowley House – by the lake where he and Lesley had made love together, and she was there; they were looking down into the water, into reeds which grew at the water’s edge, to something floating there they wanted to reach but could not:  Peter woke for a moment, or thought he did.  He saw Melanie far away across the lake, her spy-glass glinting in the sunlight.

Was he dreaming again?  The man’s approach was undisguised, the heavy boot-tread of one who worked the land.  And when he came into view so he proved to be; a gaunt, mean creature whose hardened years had left their trace, like the dendrochronology of a tree, upon his scored features.  This was a man of deeds, a worker who, had he not spotted the same small irregularity that had drawn Peter’s and Lesley’s eyes, would be stooping to some merciless peasant labour even now.   But his keen eye, which knew every inch of this estate and its lakeside, bade him investigate.

Where Peter and Lesley might hesitate this man did not even pause, but slithered and waded in among the weed-choked shallows.   What he found there caused him to draw breath.

“Lord bless us!” He exclaimed, in genuine amazement.

When the man raised a small box from the waters’ edge Peter’s dream followed him, so that he was able to see and understand why he, whose name was Micah, and  his wife should take the little naked child inside the box as their own; because they were barren and they thought it a gift from God,  They called it Moses because of how they had found it, and in the years that followed they would raise it as their own.

In a single night Peter’s dream revealed the  early history of the child (who they named Moses because of the manner of his discovery) through his growing years;  how he came to be known in his local Parish, where his past was never discussed by citizens because they lived a little in fear of his deeply religious and ascetic adopted family.   Peter found himself a fading witness to those passing years, as Moses grew and proved a true son of his adoptive father; one about whom more would be forgotten than known.   But questions, reserved for hushed moments in private corners, were nonetheless asked.   For not everything about Moses added up.

#

There had been a calling together of the secret ones.

They had come by night, in stealth:  quiet cars with darkened windows, solitary figures on footpaths which eschewed the beaten track.   They came, cowled and silent, to the little monastery because the tolling of a Sanctus bell commanded them, but not to pray.   And the plainsong beckoning them from cloister to their holy place was not a holy song, and the monks who sang were not of any order whose name dared be spoken, even there.

Words of wise ones were uttered in hushed tones, so their whispered echoes might not be remembered by the stones they passed across.   Their faces in the guttering candlelight not so plain they might be remembered, or want to be.   And when their hour was done and they melted back into the dark night, their words would be consigned to darkness too.

“We are concerned…….”

“Too vital to lose….”

“One chance to shake the world……”

“The end of all false truths…..”

The frailest, oldest of them all, a gargoyle from the wall of Mother Church supported behind a lectern of stone, led this faceless gathering:  “Be advised!”  His wracked voice ranted:  “There is one transcendent moment coming,  one God-given chance to convert the lost hosts of Islam and bring them to the one true path.   It must not be squandered!   Our weapons are God’s weapons!   Our mercy is His mercy – accept God’s blessing upon your accomplishment, for our war, dear brothers, is a Holy war – our right, the right of Heaven!”

Outside in the cloister as the mysterious ones, these words ringing in their concealed ears, dispersed on their homeward path, two cowled souls met: one, an abbot, the other a monk – a slighter, smaller man whose habit flapped around his ankles as he walked.

“….but Holy Father?”

“Still we must be sure.  Sure, Roderick, are you really sure?”   The Abbott’s tone was urgent.  “You heard his Holiness, did you not?  This – this day:  it is a day given to us.  We must not let it go to waste.”

“I am confident.”  Roderick replied.  “Yet, if you wish it, I shall set the seal.  I will go to Levenport this very night.”

The Abbott nodded and smiled, though behind the anonymity of his hood  it was a secret expression even Roderick would not know.

            The train journey south was a protracted affair: there were few fast links at so early  an hour of the day, the operators preferring to wring every last customer from every station.  It was mid-afternoon before Roderick reached Levenport, and near to dinner-time before he found a hotel.

“Will it be just for one night, sir?”  The desk clerk sounded suspicious.  He eyed the little man’s cheap, well-worn suit, his battered suitcase.   “And how will you be paying – cash or card?”

The instant he stepped off the train, Roderick knew something was wrong.  He had been here many times, and Levenport always affected his psyche to some degree; be it because of the closeness of the rock, or all the myriad lines of energy which converged upon the town.  Today there was a sensation of disturbance, an electricity not attributable to any natural source.    In his hotel, he tried to prepare logically for an evening of waiting.   Something was coming, something palpable and strong, he could feel it.    Yet it would come in its own time, not his, and he must simply be patient.

“Um, is the restaurant open?”   He asked the clerk.   He was unused to restaurants, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Dinner’s at seven.”

Roderick was dressing, preparing for dinner, when the cry from Peter and Lesley blundered into his head – a scream like a cannon shell in flight pursued by a soft, almost muted feminine presence.  Peter was still learning to cope with his enormous powers, while Lesley was encountering them for the first time; but their message, though not intended for him in particular, was clear enough.

For all of his experience Roderick was not the coolest head to have around in a crisis.    His first instinct, to throw his arms in the air, running around the room cursing fate and the small “g” gods in general, was, given consideration, probably not wise.  The curtains were open and he had neglected to dress his lower self; so there may have been a witness or two to this strange ritualistic dance who would go to their homes that night with his image implanted upon their inner eye for ever.   It did not last long, though, this invocation of heathen deities.   Gathering his thoughts, the fully-clothed Roderick raced for the stairs.

“Dinner is being served, sir?”   The desk clerk hailed him as he almost ran through the hotel lobby.

“Ah!  Yes!”   Roderick slid to a halt, pivoting on a precariously balanced heel:  “Hire cars – have any?”

“No, not here sir.”  The desk clerk replied carefully.  “Did you want a taxi?”

“Yes!  Taxi!”  Roderick thought for a moment:  “Here?”

“I can call you one, sir.”

“No.  No good.  Need it now!  Now!”

“Restaurant closes at nine-thirty, sir?”

Wrestling with the old-fashioned swing door, Roderick almost fell out onto the street.   He had selected, or rather wandered into, a hotel on one of the minor thoroughfares which ran down to Levenport Esplanade:  a peaceful back alley as likely to produce a passing taxi in October as fishing in a swimming pool might ensnare a trout.   He cast desperately about him for some sign of transport.   There were, of course, ranks of parked cars.   Swiftly adapting to the role of car thief he peered through car windows looking for keys, attracting the suspicion of a couple of passers-by.   Whilst he had no compunction, in the gravity of his cause, about taking without consent, Roderick was not expert at this trade and it showed.   Anyway, there were no carelessly abandoned vehicles with open doors or inviting keys, so it dwindled as an option.

Panic was beginning to set in once more.  He stilled himself, breathed deeply, looking again at the road and at the buildings which lined it.   He had begun to accept defeat and even started to run down to the seafront in the hope of finding a taxi there, when he spotted the yard.   Its steel gates were open, and within it stood a vehicle with engine running and driver’s door flung invitingly wide.   There was a light in the office behind it, otherwise no sign of life.

Roderick looked dubiously at the vehicle.   “It’ll do.”  He decided out loud.    Without another thought he slipped into the driver’s seat.

Fully ten minutes had elapsed before the vehicle’s absence was discovered; another five before the police were informed by a rather perplexed owner of its loss, by which time Roderick was working his way through the back-streets of Levenport.  It was not entirely by chance he came upon Lesley’s disconsolate figure, walking towards him in the rain.

“Last chance?”  Roderick asked.

When Lesley had recovered a little, and they were driving away, she said:   “Nice choice of car.”

“All I could find.”

“A hearse?”

“I know.  It’ll suffice.”

“Yeah,”  Lesley thought for a little before she said:  “Have you seen what’s in the back?”

#

‘Well,  here’s a pretty pass!’  Francine Delisle scolded herself.   She stared from the window of her rooms in Roper’s Hotel at the sunset profile of St. Benedict’s Rock as if that great black basalt mass might provide her with an answer;  ‘It seems I cannot trust myself when I am with you, Arthur, nor can I be trusted when I am without you.’

They were taking supper together, Arthur Herrit and she, before Arthur retired to his adjacent suite.  Raising his cup to his lips, Arthur asked, “How may we resolve the matter, pray?”

She had spoken these final words aloud, had she?  That had not been her intention.  The reaction in his eyes told her he had divined the unspoken part.  Did they even think alike, now?

He raised an eyebrow.  “It vexes me,”  he admitted, “Yet I cannot say I find the dilemma unpleasant.  Should we discuss your impressions of Lord Crowley’s ruin?”

Francine inclined her head.  “There is little more to discuss, than that about which we have already spoken.  It is a residence in dire distress, I can see that, not so much from the physical assault of the storm, as from Mr Ballentine’s choice of Housekeeper.”

“The redoubtable Mrs. Cruikshank,”  Arthur smiled.  “She provided a lunch upon which I must compliment her, although she seemed lacking in certain mannerly aspects of her appointment.”

“I thought her blunt, at best; her warning to beware of snakes even before we had alighted from our carriage, as an instance.  She appeared quite anxious to see us from the door, Arthur.  I know my behaviour might have been odd, but nonetheless…”

“Nonetheless!”  Arthur agreed.  In his level of society part of a housekeeper’s function was to show visitors around the property in their charge, but he was prepared to make allowances.  “There has been a minor plague of snakes on the island, ‘tis said, since the night of the storm.  Could the wind’s destruction have led to their release, I wonder?  She did mention that it is impossible to find servants for fear of them.”

“And I did not entirely disgrace myself, did I?  What do you suppose will become of the house?”

“Oh, Ballentine will make good the damage, have no doubt of it.  He has some special connection with the widowed Lady Crowley, so I imagine she will persuade him.”

“Indeed, sir!  A ‘special connection’!  He has a reputation, then?”

“Ballentine?   A strong business head, mayhap a ruthless nature. Nevertheless he has promoted Levenport’s cause admirably.   I would like to turn over a few opportunities with him, should he be of a mind.  I left my card.”  Arthur’s  chair seemed to make him uncomfortable;  “Francine?  What happened to you there?  What could you have found so disturbing…”

“As to so nearly rob me of my senses?”  Francine closed her eyes because they were still full of the island.  “In faith, Arthur, I do not know.  It besets me still.   From the moment our coach’s wheels touched The Rock I believe I knew what I should discover there.  Then there was the vision of those two young people on the hill which somehow further convinced me.”

“The stone…”

“Yes!  In the stable yard, of all places!   How could something so noble occupy so lowly a space?   Who could have cobbled all about it yet left it exposed, if they had not shared my experience?  You see what it tells me, Arthur?  I am not alone!  There are others who know, or knew, the worth of it as certainly as I!” 

 “Does this not bring us closer to the answers we  seek?”

Francine scowled.  “I had hoped that would be so, until I tried to touch the stone.  Remember how the stone beneath your great oak charmed me so strongly I I was powerless but to fall upon it and hold it near to me?  This was the reverse case.  Although I feel compelled to get near it, reach out to it, even feel its warmth; when I tried to touch it I thought my head might explode!   It thrust my hand aside so brutally I did indeed fear I should faint.”  She drew a deep breath to steady her voice above the turmoil she felt inside; “And yet now, with the night, it summons me, just as before.  I fear it, Arthur:  I am afraid for myself!” 

Francine had risen to her feet before the window, her fingers gripping the sill with such intensity Arthur was concerned they might break.   His heart bursting, he rose to stay her arm.  “This is a temptation to which we may not yield,”  he insisted.

“’We’?   The temptation is mine, surely.  It is I who cannot be trusted.”

“And I must bear the fault for bringing you here.”  With a steady hand he drew back a frond of hair that had fallen across her cheek, and stroked the pale flesh at the arch of her neck.  Her breathing slipped from her control once more.

“Sir?”  She whispered.

“Is young Samuel safe abed?”   His hand rested about her shoulder now, and she should have resisted such familiarity, but somehow she could not.

“He is,” She answered; then, unsteadily:  “Would you protect me, Arthur, from myself?”

“I would.”  There was sternness, but also honesty in his words; “I would not leave you on your own tonight.  You need not fear:  the couch looks conducive to a night of rest.  I will take it gladly.”

“Nevertheless, sir, my reputation…”

“Ah, the bubble reputation!” He smiled down upon her, but kindly, and at this she gave way, melting shamelessly into his arms – that full embrace she had longed to repeat ever since she sought it once in fright at the discharge of a servant’s gun.

“Alas yes,”  She managed to say;  “It seems if you stay to ward me, my reputation is forfeit…”

“If I leave, can I trust you not to throw yourself on the mercies of that tide?”

“And there, alas, no, for the call of the place is quite beyond my power of resistance…”

“So, am I condemned to take a chair outside your door?”

“I might escape through the window – the fall is not far…”

“So,”  He said. “I must be in the room with you, it seems.”

“I would have to know, Arthur.  I would have to be sure that we…”

“You do know.”  Arthur replied.  “Since the day we first met, you have known.  We both knew.”

“Indeed, did we?  Was I so remiss?”   A small tear of affection escaped onto her cheek.  “I am glad, sir.  That couch seems fearfully uncomfortable, to me.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part 32

Did I make us Fly?

Beset by an array of emotions between hope and despair, Howard, Karen and Lesley  departed the  Cartwright home to disperse into the night, with so much to distract them they scarcely heeded the gathering tumult above their heads.  Seabirds, a hundred, maybe more, swirling and eddying on cardboard cut-out wings around the chimney pots, quarrelling in their language of cackle and keen.  Their talk was of conspiracy and plot.   There was an excitement filling the air, a rushing, a fervour.

The Rock’s western cliff stood gaunt in the last blush of sunset against the shadows of advancing night, a sky fading from vermillion through darkest purple into black.   Thunder growled, a distant mutter lingering to rattle in brassy pinball echoes among the headland crags.   As its echoes died, nothing.

 Silence. 

Even the gulls seemed to pause. 

Then, a first fusillade of raindrops battered the pavements.   Lightning came like the tearing of glass, a brittle scar of brilliance searing heaven and turning night into blue-white day.  

Lesley walked past the silent van that crouched before Peter’s house not thinking, perhaps not caring she might be accosted or attacked.  She was aware of neither thunderclap nor lightning, undaunted by the deluge that soaked her thin clothes.  For the space of two streets, her heart clamped by a second bitter parting with Peter, she was conscious of nothing but loss.  She only barely acknowledged the unlikely vehicle which had stopped just a few metres in front of her; although when its occupant emerged she was compelled to pay attention. 

“Last chance?”   The driver planted his feet so he was directly in her path.  

“How did you know I was here?”   She demanded dully.    The figure’s pinched shoulders and pigeon feet were familiar even in darkness.

“Oh come on!  You can’t shout so loud and not be heard!”

She stood like a child, scuffing and kicking the pavement with expressive feet as the storm poured over her.  This for guilt, this for angst:  this for a promise not kept.    “I can’t.  I won’t.  I didn’t expect this.”

“What else did you expect?  A cosy little provincial eccentricity?  Nights by the fire with beneficial herbs and readings from Dante?  You were told how it would be.”

“Maybe.  Yeah, maybe.  Not – not this!  It’s, like, too intense, you know?”

“You speak as though you had freedom to choose.  Do you?”

Lesley fought back the threat of tears:  “I don’t want to.  I’m in lo…  I like him a lot, alright?  That wasn’t meant to happen was it?”

“But it did.  It would be a sad world indeed if there were not space in it for ‘liking a lot’.”   The man’s words were kind:  “You always liked him, right from the first.  You can’t deny your feelings, Lesley.”

“I might have to, mightn’t I?   I mean, I’ve got a life, yeah? It’s not all ‘Whither thou goest I will go’ and stuff.  I just want to think!”

The strange vehicle’s driver put his hands on Lesley’s shoulders.  He was shorter than she.  “Reason doesn’t always have to win, Lesley.”  He smiled into her eyes.  “You know where you want to be and it might seem mad to you right now, but it’s all about acceptance, isn’t it?”

Lesley shook her head,  “I dunno,”  she replied sadly.  “I just don’t know.”

After Karen and Howard left, the Cartwrights joined Peter in their drawing room.   Peter had never felt less empowered.   Tom and Lena were no longer acting as a father and mother should act:   they prowled about him like bobcats around a porcupine.   Tom, shifting from foot to foot as he sought an apt phrase when even the best of his sermon words proved elusive was reduced to sporadic humming, punctuated by half-formed hand gestures and whistling through his teeth.   Lena stalked hither and yon, drying her sweating hands compulsively on the wool of her skirt, peeping from the window, listening at the glass.

“Well?”   She demanded shrilly:  “Are we going to just wait until they come in here and get you?”

“It’s all in hand, Mum.”   Peter reassured her.   His mind was much more upon Lesley than his possible abduction by Howard’s ‘people’.   Frankly, he did not much care if they did ‘come and get’ him.   Lesley had gone and nothing mattered.   He knew this time there was no reparation he could make that would induce her to return.

“I don’t believe this.  I don’t believe any of this.”  Lena muttered. “This is some juvenile prank.   God!  My God Peter, how did you get yourself involved in – in this?”

Tom seeing his wife in danger of becoming hysterical, moved to comfort her.   “It’ll be alright, dear.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Tom was correct.   When a motor droned in the back lane Peter was expecting it.

“You’ll be glad to be rid of me,” He said:  “I mayn’t be able to get in touch for a while, but you mustn’t worry, Mum.   I’m going to be well taken care of.”

An estate car waited with its tailgate open.   As Peter slid inside, hands reached over the back seat to cover him with a large blanket.   Then the tailgate closed and his transport bumped out of the back lane into the road, gaining speed with a surge of power surprising in so nondescript a vehicle.   

A hundred yards further down the road in the van Charlie  had posted Klas to watch the back of the Cartwright residence, so she tracked both Howard’s departure with Karen and Lesley’s solitary walk.   She conferred with Piggott on an open line.

“The girl’s out of there, so is Sullivan.   We don’t get too many chances like this, Ger…”

“So Howard’s gone with the woman?”  Piggott said.   “Wonders never cease!”

“Ger, are we doing this?”  Charlie urged, impatiently.  “Do we lift him, or what?”

“Yes, if – and only if – he comes out.   Don’t go in after him, for fuck’s sake!   Not tonight.”

Klas’s radio voice was harsh.  “BMW Estate, heading east.  He is in the back!”

“They’ve got him.”  Charlie snapped.  “I’ll pick you up from the end of the alley.  We have a go!”

Charlie picked out the red dots of the estate car’s rear lights as soon as it emerged from the alley.   She   fired the  van’s engine into life and raced to pick up Klas, who dived into the passenger seat beside her.

“He must be going it alone.”   Klas said breathlessly, as Charlie slid into the passenger seat beside him.

“Foolish child.”  Charlie murmured.  “Let’s see if we can catch him before he gets to the main street.  How many in there?”

“Two, I think.”

“You only think?”   The departing rear lights of the BMW were still in view as she gunned the van up through the gears.  It was a narrow road, and Charlie not the most careful of drivers.  Gears screamed, door mirrors flew.   Her blood was up.  “There it is!  We have him!.”   

Then:  “Oh!  What the f..….?”

Rain swept down the road in a dense curtain into which the van, already moving fast, must plunge.   Concealed behind the rain, suspended in the thundery air, a spiralling white mob of seabirds waited.   As soon as the vehicle was immersed in the cloudburst they attacked.  They slammed into the van’s windscreen with their powerful beaks and thrashing wings.  Their screeches and cries blotted out all other sound, their claws brought ordure, discarded food, waste paper, polythene bags, plastic trays snatched from tourist-frequented streets to plaster over the glass.     Blinded, Charlie threw the wiper switch.   

“Can’t see!”   She shouted above the din.  

She could only hit the brakes, but in a narrow road lined with parked traffic it was already too late.  The van demolished a lovingly-tended hatchback with a single, glancing blow.  Charlie fought frantically with the wheel – to no avail:  striking through a garden wall with crunching impact, the van climbed a toppled ramp of bricks before rolling gently onto its side.    Less gently, Charlie, who had scant respect for seatbelts, catapaulted into Klas’s lap.

Their part in the mission achieved, the seagull mob wheeled away en masse, quitting the heavy tattoo of rain in favour of their foraging in the bay.   They were gone as swiftly and as purposefully as they had arrived.   One gull alone remained.   Throughout this attack it had watched from its advantage on the Cartwright chimney as a general might watch a battle.   Now it took off, lazily accepting the rain’s bruising punishment as it swooped over the stricken van, briefly hovering  as if to satisfy itself no-one was badly harmed, before it, too, went in search of jetsam the trawlers had left behind.   Even generals have to eat.

For the second time in the space of a day Peter found himself back on the road to Old Ben.  This was no surprise:  he had known as soon as he was shut into the car that at least one of its other occupants was Toby.   The cottager who cared for Vincent’s estate on The Rock had a signature aroma which was unmistakeable in a confined space:  not an objectionable odour, but a very characteristic and individual one.  Toby’s were the hands which had quickly mantled him with a blanket as they drove away:  the voice which cheerily gave the all clear from his driver’s seat was equally easy to identify – the gatekeeper who had announced him upon his visit to the Great House was, it seemed, also in on their plot.

“There’s no-one following us, lad!   Pop over and have a seat if you like?”

“Ah!”  Toby said.   “You come and sit aside me, young Peter.   I’m not as you might say a good traveller, see?”

Rain hammered, lightning flickered, thunder boomed, once, close by, a huge boulder-on-the-roof bang.   The causeway barriers, normally dropped whenever high tides or weather threatened, were mysteriously raised for their passing.

“Tricky tonight, Tobias my son!”   The gatekeeper yelled above the din. “Where’d this seaway come from?  It was as calm as a mill pond half-an-hour ago.”   Headlight beams, neutralised by spray and rain, struggled to pick out a safe path: in Peter’s eyes, seeing how the storm surge had raised the sea-level to the same height as the road, it appeared they were driving deliberately straight into the waters of the bay.  He flinched instinctively, holding his breath for total immersion: none came.

“It’s in here somewhere!”  The gatekeeper shouted, referring to the road,  “What do we aim for, Toby?  The third lamppost on the left?”

“And straight on ‘til morning.”  Peter found himself saying.

“What?”

Although a valiant row of enfeebled streetlamps showed the line, the causeway itself was completely obscured by waves, themselves scarcely visible in the blackness.  Every now and then, a lightning lantern-slide revealed a snapshot of wet concrete.   Somehow, their car remained central to it, skimming like a pebble:  lifting, skidding, sliding, but still safe.   And the great slab of The Rock, the starry lights of the village road, grew ever closer. 

Suddenly wary, the gatekeeper slowed right down.    He was still revving the engine hard, fighting to keep water out of the exhaust.   “Last bit’s the worst.”  He said quietly, all humour drained from his voice.   “Don’t like the look of this, Toby old mate.”

In the topography of the bay, the water deepened as it reached away from Levenport beach towards Old Ben.   Here, just before the road turned upwards onto the man-made shelf where Crowley had once intended to build his railway station, it described a horseshoe bend some hundred metres in length, into which the sea was piling, breaker after breaker, crashing over the causeway in titanic shows of force.   If only one of them should catch the car the most glancing of blows, it would be thrown into the sea beyond like a discarded toy.

“’Tis too deep. Reckon as we needs you, young Peter,”   Toby said.  “Affer all, us can’t go back, can us?”

Peter understood.   He leant forward to study, as best he could, the movement of the sea. The road was already below sea level and the breakers were truly massive.  There would be no second chance, no room for error.   Nor was there the luxury of delay:  the car must keep going in this deepening water, or its engine would die.

“Us’d feel better if ‘ee stopped shakin’, lad,”  Toby advised him seriously,

Peter nodded.   He watched the swelling sea intently:  the highest, shortest wave would come, then a space.   The undertow would clear the causeway completely, but only for a moment before the next onslaught buried it.   Like a machine, it had a pulse, a rhythm, a beat.   He fed himself into it and he learned its meaning.

He said quietly: “Now.”

There was a wall of water across the causeway when he said it, but the gatekeeper stepped on the pedal without question and ploughed straight in.    The foaming sea drew back before them like a chemise of white silk.   Through a mist of spray the road glistened naked in their headlights – a flash of lightning turned it momentarily to silver.   But the same lightning showed a new, advancing roller, huge and threatening at their side.   The gatekeeper slammed through the gears; the car flew for shelter and The Rock.   The road was rising, rising fast,  but the breaker pursuing them was faster.   It reached them just as they leapt over the hump between causeway and island, catching the tail of the car to thrust it sideways and hoping, maybe, if it had sense and feelings this storm, to clutch it in its fist.  A second too late, it succeeded only in tipping them forward, helping them the last dozen yards of their way.   Moments later they were safely clear of the sea and through the barrier at the island end of the causeway.

“Bloody hell!”   The gatekeeper breathed.

Now  they sped along Crowley’s narrow road towards the summit of Old Ben, Peter awed by the ferocity of the seaway gathering momentum below them.

“Never knowed it come up so sudden.”  Toby sounded bemused.   “There’ll be no-one troublin’ us from the land tonight, I’d reckon.”

Peter remained silent.  Some of him, some part of him, was no longer bound by flesh:  it was out there, at one with wind and rain, learning.  He was a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the gale; finding how little he needed to incline his head to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: police clustered around an upturned van.   He could see the van’s occupants, hear them if he wished, as they engaged the officers in earnest conversation.  

“Were we really flying, Simon?’  his mind asked.  “Did I make us fly?”

‘Simeon, dear boy!  Allow me the distinction of the ‘e’.    As to your question, I don’t know’ the seagull replied.  ‘In my experience when your path is clear, many means of travel it are open to you.’       

 “Dunno.”  This was Toby’s voice.   “Us got over the Causeway an’ then ‘e sort of passes out.  He jus’ sort of drifted off.”

“Don’t worry, me old son. He’ll be all right.”  Peter opened his eyes to see Vincent’s concerned face looking down on him.   “Hey, Pete!  You OK, man?”

Gentle hands were helping him from the car.  The car door was slamming, hitting his back.

“Ow, shit!  I felt that!”   Vincent sympathised.  “For Christ’s sake, loves, get him inside before we kill him!  Bloody weather!”

Floodlights held back the darkness.   The whole of the west-facing front of the Great House was bathed in light, as it could never have been in Lord Crowley’s time.   This, Peter thought, was the lynch-pin of civilisation; a light-bulb.   The dark ages only truly ended when Edison threw the switch.

He was indoors.  He was standing unsteadily, as caring hands supporting his arms.   Vincent, his rock guitar hero, was mopping rain from his face.

“I thought you had to keep away from here,”  Peter said weakly.  “Something about staying out of sight?”

Vincent laughed:  “Yeah, so did I.  But what can you do?  When we realised what was breakin’ down here we had to come.  ‘Struth, Pete, we get around, don’t we mate?   Better get him a bit of a drink, love.  Looks like he needs it.”

“Hi Peter.”  Estelle’s voice chimed from somewhere beside him.  “Come with me, hon.   We’ll sort out a bath for you and something to change into. I’ve put you in the South wing.   Hope you’ll like it.  We better feed you, too, hadn’t we?”

  After his last visit, Peter had no expectation of returning to any of Vincent Harper’s luxurious ‘Guest Bedrooms’ in St. Benedict’s House.  Then, he had grown tired of their repetitive opulence.  Now he had time to enjoy the luxury of bathing in a bath comfortably large enough for two people his size, toes caressing idly around a gold faucet, and fatigued by his day he was glad of the softness of warm towels and the yielding luxury of a bed every bit as accommodating as the bath.  Only the mirror troubled him, for Lesley’s was the reflection he imagined there, not his own: now and then, entirely without his permission, his face would crease as he fought back tears.   It was not over.   If there was ever any love in the world…but each time he pictured her, she wore the same look of farewell.

          For the sake of his sanity, he made a deliberate effort to close his mind to the looking-glass and the pictures it showed him.  The moment he did so, a most peculiar thing happened.

First it was a touch, a gentle, feminine touch upon his arm, just above his wrist.  Then he heard the words,  in tones instilled with longing:

“Arthur my dear?   Arthur?”

When Peter looked again at the mirror, he saw he was not alone.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credits:

Featured Photo Athanasios Papazacharlas on Unsplash

Lightning David Moum on Unsplash

Seascape Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-One

A visitor of Distinction

There was no inaccuracy on Peter’s part:  he relayed Melanie’s message to the gathering in his parents’ living room exactly as she sent it; she was, indeed, learning.  Her day, which began by climbing a perilous flight of cliff-side steps without suspecting supernatural assistance had altered the balance of her relationship with Agnes, her host, quite profoundly. Agnes who knew, (and explained with some reverence) that many of those steps had crumbled and collapsed into the sea almost a century ago, drove her the miles of winding road she would have had to walk, had she reached the headland where she was found by any natural means.  But they did not return to Agnes’s villa by the sea; instead, they drove on to the local town, and Melanie suffered the unique experience of changing her clothes into ‘something more suitable’ which Agnes had the forethought to bring, in the back of a Land Rover

The hotel appointed for the meeting Agnes had arranged was uniquely Scottish: a high-fronted building of severe grey stone with windows glowering defiantly over a town square in which small businesses rippled around like eddies in a wind-stirred pond.  Within its doors there was a feeling of warmth and oak, mellowed by voices in highland tune.  Agnes was recognised by the desk-clerk who nodded towards the lounge, wherein, beneath a slightly moth-compromised stag’s head, sat a man of distinction.

Melanie knew, immediately, that this man was important to her.   Rising to his feet with effortless grace, the man took her hand and raised it to his lips in a perfunctory kiss.  She was taken so completely by surprise by this that she almost snatched the hand away:  no-one had ever greeted her so before.

“Lady Agnes” He said in a voice which trickled like honey; “You bring me a jewel of exquisite beauty.   Welcome, my dear Miss Fenton.”

Such a greeting should have caused Melanie to recoil: from any other man it would have seemed insincere, sleazy, almost.  Not from this man.  His dress was immaculate; the dark suit of finest cloth, the shirt radiantly white, his tie tastefully blue. When she looked up into his face, his olive skin taut with muscle and remembered pain, she saw the scars which traced a pale lattice there, and caught the magic of his deep brown eyes, her Lawrence, her Arabian Knight, her saviour from herself.  She was speechless: she shook, but not with fear.  No, even though his face was the face of a devil, she could not feel fear from him.

“Let me introduce myself.  I am Marak.  This will be a strange name to you, because I am from a far-off land.  Please, let us sit?  Would you like something to drink, some wine, perhaps?”

Melanie tried to speak but no words came out.  So she just nodded assent.

“This, I think.”   Marak selected one of several bottles from a table beside his chair, pouring into a sparkling glass.  “You see, I am prepared.   I, myself, do not drink: you must forgive me.   Lady Agnes?   A fine peat-cured malt, I believe?”  – Another bottle, another glass.

Dazed, Melanie tried to take in her situation. 

“You are asking yourself why you are here.”   Marak said.   “So I must tell you.”

And he did.

Her meeting at the hotel was not a long one, yet in its space Melanie grew by several years.  She felt she fully understood, now, her place in the universe.  Although until this precise hour she had never heard of a society called ‘The Toa’, still less had an appreciation of the mystical universe it believed to exist, Marak’s depiction of it was so enticing, so sympathetic to her own interpretation of her ‘gift’ as to convince her utterly.

 There was nothing in Marak’s account of his beliefs, of his assertion that a bridge between life and death existed, that seemed less credible than Peter’s chosen path.   It was much more acceptable to her that she might be a prophetess whose powers would lend substance to spiritual contact, to bring comfort to the grieving.   She little knew that the bereft people of Marak’s philosophy were nations not individuals, or that the Toa’s spiritual gateway to a paradise world was most frequently opened by a bomb.   How would she?  After all, Bianca, her own mother’s sister, was a believer.   How could her aunt’s straightened middle-class morality be even suspected of seeking such a devious route to salvation?

Taking tea with Agnes that evening, back at the old lady’s seaside retreat, Melanie felt she was about to take a seven-league stride in her life.  She wished for it, even relished it.   She had met with someone who could be a big part of her future:  if she could only just bear the next twelve hours – then she would be with him again!

In early evening with the sun still bright, Melanie left Agnes to her book and took a walk along the shore of the little bay.  She did not want, particularly, to return to the chill, blighted harbour beyond the tunnel, but her steps seemed to draw her there.    It was as if the two adjacent arms of the sea were connected in some way other than the physical – as though the tunnel somehow formed a link between the present and the past. Was this how she had performed her small ‘miracle of the steps’ that morning?   But if she hoped, emerging from dark tunnel to scant light on the harbour side, that she might see the little place as it had been in happier times – bustling with fisher folk, landing boxes crammed with the sea’s rich pickings, she was to be disappointed.  The tiny harbour was cold and deserted.

At the foot of the flight of steps she paused, half-expecting to be able to repeat her morning’s climb, but they were as she had seen them the day before, eroded and insurmountable; so she turned her attention seaward where, far off, a lonely boat bobbed, so tiny that it dipped from view often and again in the folds of ocean.  

“Where are you, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was at once distant and near; inside her head and yet as far away as that little boat.  She was neither surprised nor scared by it – it was Peter’s voice.  It came with a warm music she had heard before, and it was like a cup she might raise or put aside as she chose.  “Hello, Peter!”  Her mind replied.   She told him where she was, knowing it did not matter, for tomorrow she would be gone.   She did this because, through it all, her mum remained a tiny hook upon reality, an anchor she could draw in if she had to go back to all that one day.   And, after all, Karen was her mum.   She should not worry – her daughter was in charge of her world.  

Melanie scanned the tiny harbour one last time.   She would never, ever forget this place.   Shuddering, she turned away from that little piece of hell with honour in her heart for those had toiled there, but gladness that she would not return.

#

In the dusk high above Levenport a white gull wheeled and drifted with the freshening wind.   At any time in any day there might be a hundred such gulls in just this patch of heaven, but this day it was almost alone, for a couple of trawlers had discarded waste from their catch out in the bay, gathering its brethren in a screeching host.   Enjoying the wind, proud of its skill in riding it, the great bird seemed to dance to its own private music.  Over a town like Levenport there were wind eddies and thermals:  baffles provided by high buildings, warm, rising air from commercial flues, cold tunnels rushing in from the sea.   Swerving upward on a draught, almost stalling at the peak of the lift, delicately twitching the angle of its flight feathers into a dive before turning tail to a gust, hurtling forward like a graceful arrow and round again, this gull was simply playing: having fun.   Yet the bird’s eyes never rested.  It watched everything.

The gull seemed fascinated by the way the waste of human occupation was taken by the wind.  How it, too, swirled and turned, twisted and tumbled.  Paper, plastic cartons, detritus and dust all formed their separate patterns: they were like another tide, a different sea.   The gull was professorial in its study of these movements:  it knew them minutely, predicted them to perfection.

An attentive onlooker might have noticed the creature’s flight pattern was not, in fact, random at all:  they might have seen how its earlier separation from the predatory host in the bay had led it first to circle above St. Benedict’s House for long enough to witness the House owner’s Ferrari bringing him home on a visit he had not intended to make; or observed that the gull’s navigation took it close to one street, and at last to one particular roof.  It watched the lights from inside the house beneath, and the van with two humans inside parked just a little down the road.  After a while, it descended to rest, perching upon the high, narrow stack of the Cartwrights’ household chimney.  Preening itself, combing rebellious feathers delicately with its viciously hooked beak, the gull seemed to be waiting for something.             

The warning found Vincent in his bathroom.  Vincent was covered in soap.    “Why?”   He complained out loud.   “Why does this always bloody happen just when I’m having a shower?”

Melanie had just returned from her contemplative walk along the shore deep in melancholy, to sit on one of the wooden seats which graced Agnes’ veranda.  She was resisting the first evening chill, reluctant to go indoors to Agnes’ well-meaning but drab conversation, and unprepared for the image of a naked middle-aged man which suddenly blasted across her brain.   She shrank instinctively from the image of a follically impoverished head with a pair of mighty ears, a wrinkled, gaunt body, and what other features she tried not to envision!   Yet however it  repulsed her with its nudity this figure was familiar to her in some way.   It went almost as rapidly as it arrived.  A Wrong number?   Was that a feature of telepathy she might encounter again? Squirming afresh at the recollection: she returned to her thoughts.

#

As thoughts go, among the gathering in the Cartwright household Lesley’s may perhaps have been the most challenging to read.   When Peter had related the nature of his gift had she convinced herself that it did not matter if the guy she was with was a little eccentric, a bit harmlessly loopy, as long as it felt so good to be with him? This was merely an aspect of his personality she could compartmentalise, set aside from the person she had discovered:  the person who, however inappropriately, she knew she might actually love.  But now?   Well, now there was no point in denial:  if the other simple little tests of the day had not been enough she had felt the mad heat of sheer power that shot through their clasped hands as he made contact. It had torn into her body – she had seen Melanie as clearly, perhaps, as he.  There was no denying that Peter was everything he claimed to be.   So how might she go on, knowing that truth?  Knowing all that she knew?.

“We don’t have very much longer;” Howard’s words intruded:  “We have to move you, son, and we have to do it soon.”

Peter made no reply, for Lesley’s face betrayed those same doubts he had seen long ago in the features of someone else he held dear.  His world was collapsing.

“Peter?”  His mother’s voice drew him from his thoughts.   Lena’s own comprehension had been stretched in the past few minutes.  Although she had seen changes taking place in her son, maybe even known something a little more than natural was happening to him, she could not, would not, accept what she had just witnessed.  Worse, she could see how completely Karen was taken in, the unjustifiable relief her dear friend took from this – this adolescent fantasy!   Karen was already preparing to leave with body language that made clear she would not stop until she reached this Scottish cove.  

Karen believed; Lena didn’t.   Yet everything had begun to drop into place: the urgency of the duplicitous Howard, the manner of Melanie’s disappearance.   Married to a clergyman, Lena’s life was moulded around her propensity for rationalisation, for finding a truth behind the lie.  But who was telling the truth this time? 

Peter understood his mother’s torment.   “Mum,” he said,   “Go to the window in the front room.  Keep back from the glass, look down the street and you’ll see a van parked on the other side of the road, about fifty meters away.  Howard’s ‘people’, a man and a woman, are inside it.  They‘re watching this house.”    His mother hesitated.  “Please?”

At first Howard did not take the bait, but after  Lena had exited, he asked:  “How do you know there’s a woman in there?  Is that a guess?”   Charlie never showed herself on surveillance:  she always stayed behind the driver, out of sight.

Peter replied:  “You mean Charlie?  I can see her.”

“My god you are real, aren’t you?  In that case you’ll see we have to get out.  Now!”  Howard sprang into action, proudly unboxing skills that had lain unused for many years.  “We’ll need a diversion….”

“It’s all arranged.”  Peter cut in.  “Howard, I won’t be going with you.”   His tone was detached, his eyes on Lesley, who had wandered away and now stood with her back to him, looking  through the small window into Lena’s studio.  He knew she was close to tears.

Lena returned: if she had left the room with any purpose, that purpose had deserted her.  She looked smaller somehow, and not a little confused.    “It’s there.”  She said simply.  “You can see that?”

“Peter,”  Tom Cartwright reasoned:  “I would say that Sullivan here does have a point, you know.  Mightn’t it be better to keep out of these people’s way for a while?”

“I will dad.   But I’ll do it….”  Peter hesitated, concentrating still upon Lesley’s back; “…..on my own, I guess.   I’ll leave in a while, Mr. Sullivan, but not with you.    You have to help to find Melanie.”

Howard’s frustration was evident:  “But it’s like throwing you to the lions!”

Everyone was standing now.   Karen said, more in an expression of reverence than anything else: “Total self-belief.   He has it, don’t you think?”   And, making to gather her coat and handbag, she added:  “Peter, I believe in you.   Thank you. Howard darling, can we go?”

“It seems I’m robbed of choice,”   Howard said, defeated.

Each left the room in their turn; Karen and Howard by the back gate, which led out into an alley behind the street.  This was accepted by Howard, knowing it would fool no-one: without Peter, though, he was not a target yet.  He might be followed, if his colleagues had extra man-power to do it, but they had been briefed to abduct Peter, not him.   Sensing Peter’s need to be alone with Lesley, his father spoke softly to his wife and they, also withdrew, although Lena couldn’t resist mentioning she was “Going to clear up in the kitchen.”

Lesley’s expression was inscrutable.  “Well, that put a damper on the mood,” she said quietly.  “I think I should go too.”  She headed for the door.   Peter held her arm.

“Les?   Please don’t?”

“Why not?   I mean, you don’t need me to keep these bastards away.  You’re bloody superman, or something.”

“It isn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”

“Yeah, I know.   Look mate, I’ve got something to sort out, Okay?”

“What?  I can explain everything – I haven’t hidden anything from you.  Don’t, break us up, please?”   Peter pleaded.  “I need you!   All this, this stuff; I can’t handle it on my own.”   Lesley gave him a rueful grin.  “You should.  You’re good at it.  You’re scary, you know that?  Really scary!”

“And you don’t – like – me enough?”

“Oh, hey!”  She came to him then, stroked his cheek fondly:  “What’s the cliché?  It isn’t you, it’s me?  You’ve been telling me everything, but s’pose there are things I haven’t told you, yeah?  Stuff of my own?”

“What ‘stuff’?” 

“Oh, just ‘stuff’.  It’s like I took a path I thought was sweet, and calm, and sunny, and after a few steps I realised it wasn’t.  I was seeking one thing, and I found something else.  Something just as fabulous, maybe:  I dunno.  I can’t work that out.  Like I said; ‘stuff’.”

“So you’re parting with me?” 

“Yeah, for a bit.   You’ll be alright.  With – all that – how couldn’t you be?  I need a bit of space, Pete, that’s all.”

Lesley turned on her heel and walked from the room, just as he remembered Melanie’s parting with him one not so distant morning on the road to St. Benedict’s Rock.  Moments later, Peter heard the front door close behind her.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty

Steps out of Time

Beyond the door of the Cartwright drawing room a sombre gathering waited.  Tom Cartwright, Peter’s father, perched on the edge of an old occasional table by the wall, Lena his wife, seated with Karen Fenton on the over-stuffed sofa, lit by an old casement window behind them.   Tom used this room as his reception for visiting parishioners and it was never, even in height of summer, the cosy spiritually uplifting haven he would have wished.   Its window faced west, onto a dingy side street of run-down houses, and the intrusion of seasonal westerly winds through leaky panes gave supplicants who sought his guidance a stiff neck for their trouble.   The apparently random nature of furnishings around the walls was, truthfully, a very careful arrangement.   Each table or chair or settle concealed a place where mildew grew most tenaciously.  Although Lena’s scented candles burned to reduce any odour of damp, nothing could ever take the chill from the room’s atmosphere.   This late September evening seemed to have caught it at its chilliest.

Peter and Lesley’s entrance, still in some disarray, was confronted by the even cooler blast of Karen Fenton’s stare: Tom rose instantly, rushed to grasp his son’s hand:

“We didn’t know, old man.   We didn’t understand what was going on.”    Then, all-too-obviously observing his son’s predicament, he performed a pantomime double-take.  “I should sit down, old chap, eh?”

It may have been simply nerves, or Lesley’s quirky sense of humour,   or even Karen’s obvious antipathy towards her: whatever it was, the result was laughter.   At first a gust of exhaled breath, hastily suppressed, then a ripple, then a wave of shoulder-shaking, tear-inducing mirth.   In desperation, Lesley turned her back on the room and threw her arms around Peter’s shoulders, beating her head on his chest.  “Oh fu….hell, I’m sorry!”   She spluttered out.   “Oh…..help!”

Lena’s comment was acid: “I assume you were about to have sex on my kitchen floor?”

 “Table, actually.”

“Sit down, both of you.   Now!”  Lena’s voice would have stopped the strike of a clock.   “And you, young lady, for heaven’s sake try to behave!”

An aged armchair faced the room from beside an even older sideboard.   Peter slid thankfully into it:  Lesley, still suppressing her giggling fit, refused a separate chair, perching on the arm beside him.   They were immediately aware they had been brought into an ongoing conversation.   Peter’s father continued a line of thought as he said:

“What I can’t understand is why your ‘people’ didn’t simply come and ask us:   why all the clandestine stuff?”

Howard agreed.   “Bull in a china shop, I suppose.   Truth is, that would have meant too many people knowing what was going on:  and besides, when we told you what we wanted to do with Peter you might well have said no.   As long as we were fairly sure you knew even less about this chap’s apparent talents than we did we preferred to keep you in the dark.   Our way of doing business, I’m afraid.”

“See?”  Peter breathed.  “I told you he was some sort of secret agent or something.  I knew it!”

“Be quiet, Peter.”  Lena shot him an impatient glance.  “So presumably, now we aren’t in the dark, we can say no?”

“I wouldn’t recommend trying.   My superiors are far too keen to be put off.   They do have a certain degree of latitude when it comes to playing by the rules, you see.”

“You said you thought you knew what had happened to Melanie.”  Karen interjected.

“Yes.”  Howard’s tone was softer.  “We aren’t the only ones who are interested in these two.   There are others.”

“Who?”  Peter asked.

“The Amadhi, the assassins whose attempt on the US Senator you foiled – however you did it.  They want to find out how.  I believe there might be another group looking for you too.   Until this weekend, we were pretty certain we had a head start on everyone and they didn’t know who you were.  But we think they do now, although we can’t understand why they should pick up Melanie first and not you.”

“How did they find out?”   Lena asked.

“They got one of our operatives, someone working inside their organisation.  We believe she may have talked.”

“Oh my, did they torture her, or something?  Is she alright?”

“No.”  Howard said flatly.  “She’s dead.”

These words fell into the centre of the conversation like a toppled headstone.

“Good Lord.”   Bob Cartwright muttered.   Lena’s face drained of its colour.

Howard saw Karen’s face drop and quickly added:  “But if they do have Melanie (and personally I don’t think they do) she’s safe enough.  They will want her talents just as much as we do.  Try not to worry, my love.  She’ll be OK.”

“Oh sure!”   Karen groaned.  “She’s in the hands of terrorists and she’ll be perfectly fine.   And how do we ever, I mean ever, get her back?”

“Well, that rather depends on young Peter here, doesn’t it?”

All eyes in the room turned to Peter.  Howard said carefully:  “You have to tell us exactly why you’ve become so important to so many people.  I know bits, but I don’t know enough.  Tell us the rest.”

At once, Peter found himself staring at his own future:  at the inevitable he could not avoid, at the traps he must.  There was a weight of ages on his shoulders as he replied, very carefully:   “No.   I don’t think I will.”

“Peter!”   Lesley hissed.   “This is serious stuff, mate.   Like, national security and everything!   Wrong answer?”

“You should listen to your girlfriend, son,”   Howard advised.   “This is – very – serious stuff.”

Lena was less tolerant.   “For god’s sake, Peter, just come out with it!”

But Peter was in command, and he knew it.   “Firstly, how do I know I can trust you, Mr. Sullivan?   The last time we met was on a train and the last thing you did was to try to get me kidnapped.   Your ‘people’ as you call them have been following us all day.   How do I know this isn’t just another way to get me?  Secondly, the thing I have is not for sharing.  I don’t want to share it, and I couldn’t if I did.  You can’t control me, you see.   I’m really no use to you – no use at all.”

“Pete!”   Lesley was distraught.

“Les, don’t you see why they just followed us today?  They dare not take me until I’m away from you.   It would draw too much attention to us – they might have to abduct us both.   He’s on a deadline, you see?   This way he thinks I’ll come away with him by consent and leave you behind.   He gets what he wants without having to do anything too messy or too public.”   He turned to Karen.   “I know you think I don’t care about Mel anymore, but she’s still a friend to us both and we do.   If you want our help in finding her, you won’t go along with this either.”

Lesley said in a hushed tone; “Our help?  Are you including me in this?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is he right Howard?”   Karen asked.

“No.  No, believe me,”    Howard assured her.   “I told you the truth.”

“The truth?”  Peter’s riposte was fierce.  “Like you weren’t in Seaborough looking for Mel this weekend, you were in Manchester following me?”

There was a pause then, as each of the adults present looked to the others to answer.   It was Karen who spoke:  “Peter, I know.  Howard’s told me everything.”

“Karen, you don’t have to…”  Lena made to silence her.

“No.”  Karen held up her hand:  “He’s entitled to hear this.   How can he believe us, otherwise?   Howard has never shared his secrets with me before, Peter, but today, when he was ordered to kidnap you and go back with you to London, he chose a different path.  If he had done what his superiors wanted, I would never have seen him again, but he didn’t.    He chose to stay with me, bless him.”  She reached out to clasp Howard’s hand.  “We are together in this, and you can believe him.”

It was a difficult moment, filled with emotions at a level which Peter, not yet so mature in his perception of relationships, was ill-equipped to grasp.  Yet grasp it he did.

Howard saw this.  “OK.  You put two and two together – I didn’t doubt that you would.   You’re a clever chap, Peter, but here’s the bottom line, son.   See, in a way, the intelligence guys were protecting you.  I’m not with them anymore, as of today, and I don’t want to control you, I just want to keep you from whatever Melanie’s already into.   You should understand that when you pulled off that stunt in Hyde Park, you saved Senator Goodridge, very probably the next President of the United States, from assassination.   If he does become President, his foreign policy will tear the Arabian oil states apart.”

Peter didn’t care.  “Everything is politics for your lot.  The Establishment Suits always pump us with this stuff, don’t they?  And the ‘crusties’ swalllow it every time.  Then, in gets Senator Goodridge and his people tell him what he can and can’t do, and it all blows over.  You want me to join your game  Mr. Sullivan?  I may have helped the old Senator, whether or not I meant to is something else.  I’m not in this for the politics.”

Howard frowned,  “Maybe not.  But we first became aware of you because you caused something to happen that was political.   You can’t blame those parties for taking the bait, son.”

Tom Cartwright had been quiet for a while.  “What are you suggesting Peter does, Sullivan?”

“I – we – have to get him away from here.   Where, I don’t know – somewhere safe.   Somewhere neither our people nor theirs will be aware of.   Then we have to find Melanie. With Peter’s help that shouldn’t be too hard, because I think – no, I’m as near as dammit sure – they are on some kind of mutual wavelength:  they can communicate. 

“Nevertheless I’m not convinced the Amadhi have anything to do with Melanie’s abduction.  I believe they may have provided the spark, the information, but I just don’t see them as sufficiently interested.   They would want Peter, especially if they believe they can control him.

            “Whether or not you want to share this thing you have with us, I believe you when you say you can help, son.  So it’s important to me to keep you in circulation – you see, Melanie’s my only interest here.   I want Karen to get her daughter back.”

Peter had felt the strangeness inside him all that afternoon.  It had been slumbering, quiescent, but there.   Now it seemed to awaken; not in a blaze of untrammelled strength but as in the Causeway Café that morning with quiet pleas for attention, like a tiny flicker of fireflies on a summer evening.    Now it became plain that there was an answer inside him he must find.  He just had to shield himself from the distractions of the room.

“Les; sit on my knees?”  Lesley looked at him, bemused.  “Please?  Like, face me?”

Lesley, with a shy smile for the benefit of their sceptical audience, did as she was asked.  He sat forward in the chair so she could sit across his lap.   He grasped her hands.  “Look at me.”  He said.

“For god’s sake!”  Lena snorted, not for the first time.  Peter did not hear her.

“Pete, maybe it’s not the right moment…”  Lesley’s voice tailed off as she saw the absence, the deep abyss behind her boyfriend’s eyes; there was something in there, some small thing waiting to grow, wanting air, wanting to be free.   It came pleading to her in small waves, this presence in the void:  and although she did not know what it was, it convinced her that it needed her utterly.  “Jee-zuz!”  She said reverently:   “What’s happening?  What are you doing?”

Peter did not answer.  He was focussed on Lesley’s face, using her complete absorption to feed the tiny picture he saw within him.   She screened the room from him, generated a mist in which the shocked faces of its other occupants faded.   He was elsewhere.   He was standing by a cold sea with Lesley beside him and Melanie was there.

It took all of thirty seconds, this episode.  After Lena’s protest, no-one spoke as the gravity of it became apparent, both in Peter’s cold, unearthly expression and Lesley’s equally remarkable response.   Her back and arms were gripped by spasm:  she took the little spark to her and it fed through her quaking body as though she were conduit to a high-voltage shock.  When it finally passed, she slumped with exhaustion.   Then the familiar, ordinary Peter returned, as suddenly as he had left: quickly supporting her, smiling reassuringly.    “I had to do that, Les.   You had to know.”

“Melanie is safe.”   He told Karen.  “She’s staying in a green-painted house that overlooks a small cove on the east coast of Scotland.  It might take you a few days but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.”  He turned to Howard, whose jaw had dropped.  “Now.”  He said quietly:  “Do you see why you can’t control me?”

“There are a number of those extinct fishing communities.”  Howard rejoined:   “It could be anywhere.”

“It isn’t anywhere.”  Lesley informed him in clipped tones, “It’s on the Sutherland Coast.”

Howard maintained his air of cynicism.   “If you know that much, I’m sure you also know the place’s name?”

“We do.”  Peter said.  “But we’re not going to tell you.   Mel asked us to gain her some time.  She’s learning; finding stuff out – she doesn’t want to leave there.  Not yet.”

#

When Francine rides in a horse-drawn carriage the jolting, uncertain action is not unfamiliar to her.  In her life, she is certain, she must have travelled far.  Yet the little causeway on the journey to St. Benedict’s Rock that she crosses with Arthur Herrit in his carriage and pair induces a sway which she might have described as almost hypnotic, had she lived in an age familiar with the term:  she feels quite light-headed, so that only the frenetic enthusiasm of her son in his excitement at their proximity to the sea prevents her from losing her equilibrium altogether.   It is a sensation that becomes even more emphatic as the coachman drives them from the causeway onto this grim island with its high cliffs.  As if innate knowledge has been given a conscious voice, she understands this place has some special significance to her.  The road is narrow, the drop to the sea precipitous, so when they must alter course to pass the two young travellers on foot she feels quite nervous, watching little Samuel leaning eagerly out of the window and imagining the iron-shod wheels scuffing the roadway’s very edge, envisaging the death-plunge that must follow if the horses miss a step.  Her fear is tempered somewhat by the sight of those two young people.   How are they dressed? 

“Arthur, did you see?”

Arthur has been watching young Samuel, with a restraining hand placed for safety on his belt, rather than the road.  “Indeed no.  Pray, what should I have seen?”

“Why those two whom we passed; walkers on the road.  The young woman wore breeches of such peculiar cloth and colour, Arthur.  One has to ask, what next?”

“Really?  A young woman in breeches?”  Arthur, faintly amused, cocks an eyebrow at his companion.  “Were you outraged?”

“Not entirely,”  Francine allows herself a secret smile.  “Despite myself, I thought it quite becoming.  One should admire such courage, one supposes, but however must she be received?  Is there more to Levenport I should know?”

“I have always found it an unremarkable town,” Arthur rejoins, “Although Roper’s is a passably comfortable hotel, don’t ye find?”   his voice is echoing, for the carriage has turned a corner into a short tunnel carved through the rock.

Francine reflects that Roper’s was indeed a pleasant contrast to her enforced confinement at Mountsel Park, even if her view across the water to the deceased Lord Crowley’s storm-ravaged house was one of such dereliction and tragedy.  Young Samuel’s evening walk by the shore, punctuated by a perilous confrontation with a crab and his collection of aesthetically pleasing pebbles, had so lifted her spirits she had been incapable of sleep for some time.  The memory of that little family expedition now accompanies them in the form of a reassuring rattle from the coach’s roof.   

 Shortly the sun will intrude upon them as their transport finds the Rock’s Southern side, and thereafter neither adult passenger will speak for a while, although young Samuel will fill the coach with his excitement at their high prospect of the ocean.  In a while they will pass a lowly peasant’s cottage where a labourer works, and he will doff his cap as they go by, while Francine, despite herself, will inhale briefly from her vinaigrette.  It will take their first sight of the ornate gateway to the Great House, with its Turkish domes teetering precipitately on the brink of their destruction, to loosen their tongues.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part 29

The Homecoming

Peter and Lesley had returned from St. Benedict’s Rock together, to sit and warm themselves in the greasy embrace of the Causeway café, from where they had embarked upon their journey some hours before.  Lesley’s mood was no longer hostile or defensive, but after Peter told her that the eccentric old woman she had seen dancing in her cottage garden had appeared to him to be no more than a child, she became quiet for a while, because there was no doubting Peter’s honesty about what he had seen and it was her first experience of his altered vision.  She was deep in thought and unaware that something new was occurring to gently rock Peter’s world.   It was a transition as sweetly soothing as the breath of a summer breeze; as if a door had moved soundlessly open.  So subtly did it begin, at first he noticed no differences at all;   he did not see how his view had changed.  Only gradually did he realise the causeway road was less a road now, more a stony track.  Beyond it, on The Rock itself, the windows of the dejected, half-ruined cottages were glazed again.   There were fishing smacks hauled up on the tiny beach with distant figures moving among them with fish to land, nets to mend.  An oxcart laboured painfully upward to the tunnel that would lead it through to the south face, and ultimately the Great House.

It was a thing of moments.  As rapidly as his vision came it dissipated.   The causeway was a road again, everything back in place.  Then, as his dream died he felt Melanie standing beside him.   She was there only for seconds, but her presence reassured him.   She was well, she was safe.

“What are you grinning at?”  Lesley asked suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing.”

“That’s my line.  There was something, wasn’t there?  One of your insights?”

“Okay, you got me.   I saw us doing some course-work together this evening.  I thought human biology would be nice.”

“You should be so lucky, pervert!”  Lesley grinned at him.  “Now can we get moving?  I’m hungry and if we eat here we’ll probably die?”

They abandoned the café at precisely 1:37pm.   That was the time on Howard’s carefully synchronised watch.   He advised his two colleagues of this, but counselled restraint.   “We don’t take him now, not in broad daylight, and not while he’s with her.  Anyway, we stick out like sore thumbs here.   Wait until they separate.”

Watching the couple pass not three metres from the dark-windowed surveillance van Howard felt the infection of Lesley’s presence, the life which radiated from her, the brilliance of her smile, the music of her laughter.  He may have regretted the probable despoiling affect his plans for her boyfriend would exert; or he may not.   He was too old a hand, immured to such pettiness as the destruction of innocence, the theft of youth.          

It had been a busy twenty-four hours for Howard.  On his return from Manchester, knowing Peter would alight at Levenport he had stayed on his train until the next station, some thirty miles down the coast.  He hoped by so doing to avoid an immediate crisis, although since the debacle at Hemlington station his cover was blown.   Peter knew what Peter had probably always suspected.  and now the risk of Karen Fenton, Melanie’s mother, sharing the knowledge was too great.   His life with Karen had to be over.   Howard faced this with some regret because, in spite of all he had been taught as an operative, he had formed a strong attachment to Karen.  A lengthy cab journey back to Levenport, bouncing on hard leather in a very aged Mercedes, gave him plenty of time to ruminate upon this misfortune.   In two years playing the part of a family man he had become convincing enough to make Karen love him.   They were not idle years:  whilst watching Peter and Melanie he had been able to pursue other work, but Levenport was his base; Karen’s was his home.   Looking forward to their times together had been consolation during some of the more testing phases of his job.

The subject-matter of Howard’s next telephone conversation with Jeremy had come as no surprise.

“That was a right fecking balls-up.  Sorry, mate.”  This, at least, was unexpected.  Piggott rarely apologised.  “Two right wankers we had on that one.  Local lads from Bristol.  No more. I’m sending two of our own guys.”

“Did we get anything from his stuff?”

“The coat and a bag?  Nah, nothing, he didn’t even have a ‘phone in there.  No worries, my people’ll be with you before midday tomorrow.”

“You want me to meet them?”

“They’ll find you.  You’ve got to keep your head down, old son. Shack up at that hotel on the quiet end of the seafront you were talking about.   The Lord something-or-another?”

“Crowley.”

“Yeah, that’s right.  Use the name Conway.  Stay indoors, Okay?”

“Sure.”   Howard could imagine doing nothing else.   Levenport was a small town.  His was already a well-known face.  “Do we still pull the lad?”

“As of now, yes.   Higher authorities are becoming interested for some reason.  I can’t go for a shit up here without signing three forms at the moment.  When you get him bring him straight in.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I get support.”

 “Good.   Listen, don’t pull the Walker girl, understand?  That’s a big ‘don’t’.  We just want him.”

“And what do I do now?”

“Come back with him.  We can’t use you there any more, can we?”

Howard closed the line with a muttered curse.  Apart from his personal difficulties, there were the small issues of two very expensive suits and a lot of sundry clothes and possessions hanging irretrievably in Karen’s bedroom.  Expenses never took account of such trifles.

He slept well.   When morning came and a whimpering sun crept between the black masses of headland and island, it found him moodily awake, perched on his airy window-sill.   His gaze was fixed upon the vista of the seafront, paving still wet from night rain, but his thoughts were elsewhere.   Karen would be rising soon: she would make her way to the bathroom wearing just a t-shirt or, often, nothing at all.   He might have been watching the graceful curve of her retreating back, might have urged her to come back to bed for what he, alone again, knew would have to be a last time.   Might-have-beens:  they were the piers which sustained his whole world.   As he grew older, he looked down upon them from his creaking platform more and more often, watching helplessly as waves of reality wore them down.   Soon there would be no-where else for him to hide.   All his covers blown, he would knock at some door someday to seek refuge, and the chances were he would not even remember who he was.   Mr. Who?  Mr Who, who had turned his back on someone he loved to chase an adolescent with a probably coincidental connection to an attempted killing.    A strange young man, certainly, but no threat – no danger to anyone.   Just a normal lad trying to grow up normally.   The assassination attempt had not even been a success.

Howard (we shall continue to use this name even though Jeremy had moved his identity on another notch) tried to turn his mind to the matter in hand.    Jeremy would want the boy lifted today.   Two new operatives were coming to help him, Special Branch people probably.   He might know them.   Together, that made three adults skilled in the arts required to subdue trained and hardened terrorists, to capture one slender lad; although, for all their undoubted negligence, the pair who had attempted to lift the boy at Hemlington were no pushovers, and Howard had been amazed to see that Peter had eluded them.   Had they been too confident, too casual because their target was apparently so easy?  Could he have been too relaxed himself when a similar thing had happened to him in Manchester?   Peter had help then, he knew.  Was there help at hand here, too?               

“Mr. Conway?”   The speaker took care to announce herself slowly, so as to draw Howard’s attention without over-reliance on his new, unaccustomed name.   Howard had seen her coming anyway, and his heart had sunk as he watched her decamp from a surveillance van parked in front of the hotel.

“Hello Charlie.”   He said, without a hint of welcome.

“Fate brings us together again, hmmm?”   Charlie was a chilled blonde woman of thirty-five or so years.   She was so chilled that Department legend had it she needed to be defrosted before she could piss.   “Meet Klas.”

Klas came forward and greeted Howard cordially.  Someone new, Howard thought.  He doesn’t hate me yet.

Charlie and Howard had been thrown together before – Charlie was the super-efficient, super-active model of a modern major general:  calm in a crisis, ruthless in command, technologically versed in every software programme, every piece of hardware the Department possessed.   In every way she was the antithesis of Howard, and her presence was a slap in the face from Jeremy: because Jeremy knew how much Howard disliked her, how he had emphasised his desire never to work with her again.

Howard would be Jeremy’s scapegoat for the slip-up at Hemlington, that was now clear.   Sending Charlie was his way of expressing mistrust.  This was Charlie’s operation now, even though he, Howard, was still nominally in charge.

Charlie was as perceptive as she was brusque.  “Still in love with me, eh, ‘Conway’?”

Howard ignored this.  “Klas?”  He asked.

“German father,” Klas said.   “Ma was from New Brunswick.   Bit of a mixture, really.”   He had a nice smile, Klas.  Not a trace of the cynicism commonly associated with operatives, even when with colleagues.

“Or a hybrid.”   Howard said unkindly.  “I suppose we all know what this is about?” They seated themselves around a coffee table in the hotel lounge, where Howard had been waiting and reading for more than two hours.   Charlie slipped a document wallet across to him.   Peter Cartwright’s photograph, replicated from different angles and in different lights, was inside.  “Him?” 

So it happened that the three of them were hidden in the back of the surveillance van on Levenport Seafront:  Klas with his pleasant smile, Charlie in her accustomed flinty pose, Howard with his memories of the last time he had worked with this woman, and how she had stolen the credit for a success that was his.   It was he, not Charlie, who had discovered the address of the bomb factory.   It was he, not Charlie, who picked up the leader at his workplace so he could not access the others in his group.  And as he saw Peter walk past, with the nubile girl on his arm, there occurred in Howard a stirring of old feelings, a revival of pages in his psyche he had been trained to ignore, long ago.   In short, at precisely 1:37pm, there occurred a Road to Damascus moment. 

Karen was slow to respond when, thirty minutes later, he walked into her kitchen.  She looked up at him reluctantly, not wanting to show that she had been crying now for nearly two days.  “Howard?   Oh Christ, Howard, where have you bloody been?”

“Come on my love,” He said, as she sobbed out her distress in his arms; “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

#

Peter’s and Lesley’s afternoon passed quickly.  Late lunch at Hennik’s Coffee Bar, afterwards the Mall, dream-shopping among the clothes and games; then later in the park, sharing some intimate game of their own, or just walking.   Where they went or what they did was unimportant, save that they stayed together.   Once or twice, Lesley noticed the SV with the tinted windows:  “Is he, like, obsessed or something?  I think he’s following us, Pete.”

Peter was all too aware of the ominous presence.   “Following you, probably.   Dirty little man!”

“Cool!   Really?”  Lesley felt like teasing.  “He’s quite hunky isn’t he – he could be sorta nice… I fancy his wheels!”

“Nope – chav for certain.  I think he’s a bit creepy.   Best avoid.   Come on, we’ll use The Woolmarket to get to mine, he can’t drive through there.”

Lesley was curious.  “You’re really worried, aren’t you?  Is it your pair from Hemlington, do you think?”

“The guy driving isn’t, but who knows who else is in there – could be.”  Peter was reasonably certain that this was the case, although he did not feel any immediate danger.  The vehicle had been tagging them since they passed it on the Esplanade just before lunch.   If they had wanted to, the occupants could easily have grabbed him before now.   Obviously, Lesley was the reason they hadn’t.  

They were near The Woolmarket, which led from the top of the town down to the seafront: narrow (once filled with stalls selling food produce, now lined with antique shops, souvenir kiosks and café bars)  it was as crowded as anywhere in the town at the peak of the season.   Although much quieter in autumn, it would still deny access to their ‘tail’, or at least force abandonment of the van.   After their last attempt, Peter was sure the kidnappers, whoever they were, would not try to apprehend him again on foot.  They would need transport.

Behind the surveillance vehicle’s bland exterior, Charlie was engaged in earnest conversation over a ‘phone link with Jeremy Piggott.

“I don’t know.   He seemed fine.   Just made some remark about nothing happening for a while and he was going to get a ‘paper.”

“He may have some scheme of his own?”   Piggott suggested.

“Jer, he’s been gone three hours – he said he’d be back in two minutes.  His ‘phone’s switched off.”

Piggott did not admit his concern.  As a professional, he told himself, Sullivan was not that imaginative.  He had never before shown any signs of having his own “schemes”.  Yet there had been something indefinable in the tone of his voice during their last telephoned conversation.   And Jeremy was used to losing his people this way.

The day was Monday:  it found Piggott in a hotel room, away from his office on another case.   If he took a moment to look around it, survey its clinical functionality in the light of a dull grey afternoon, he might find unwelcome reminders of what he was and what he had.   He was forty-two: there was little, really, to declare for his life which would not have fitted into a suitcase the size of Howard’s – a failed marriage, two children he never saw, ruinous child support that bled all pleasure from the business of existence, a house which, small though it was, took what remained of his income.   Howard Sullivan had spent last night in a room just like this: or worse; then Charlie had arrived on his patch the next morning to turn another screw.   Howard was forty, wasn’t he?

“Listen, Chas.   I think you may be right – there could be a problem.   Back off, OK?   Just keep a watch on the Cartwright home.   I want to see what happens.”

Meanwhile the surveillance vehicle had been on the move.   Klas had shadowed Peter and Lesley to the top of the Woolmarket, parking just up the street as the pair turned into the pedestrian only complex.   Before they disappeared, Lesley glanced back at him with a little shrug of her shoulder, pursing her lips in a mocking air-kiss.

“Sweet child.”  He murmured.   “And so clever, hmmm?”

Long Lane, the spine of the old town, emerged three streets from Peter’s house.   As they walked these final pavements Lesley and Peter scanned each side looking anxiously for a sign that the Surveillance Vehicle had arrived before them.   There was nothing.   Five minutes later they opened the door to the kitchen of the Cartwright household.

The room was empty; the house quiet.

“Do you think we’re alone?”   Lesley asked.

“Dunno, maybe.   Why?”

Lesley grinned.  “You know why.”    She moved close to Peter, draping his body, every inch of his body, with her own.  “I’ve been dying all afternoon!   Can we go study now?”

“Oh, I think so.”   He agreed.

“Upstairs?”  Her lips teased his ear.

“No.    No time.”

She felt the hard edge of the kitchen table rub her thighs as his hands cupped beneath them, lifting her.

Lesley laughed out loud.   “Hey, back up a bit you silly sod.  Not here, Pete!  What if somebody comes?”

“They’re out.  They’re both out.”  He was peeling her jacket from her, his hands finding a way beneath her t-shirt.

“You don’t know that!”  Lesley’s hands offered token resistance, but as resistances went, it was already going.  Peter’s impatience, her desire for his touch overwhelmed her.   Intending to make the very best of what was to come; she sank back, thrilling at the touch of cool wood on her naked flesh.

“How does this…?”   Ardent in the minefield of fastenings, Peter was clumsy.

“At the front, dopey!  Oh, here, let me….let me…. Peter….

“Peter?”

Only when she had resolved the mystery of the clip and sought to fold her arms about Peter once more, did it dawn upon Lesley that her lover was no longer close to her.   She opened her eyes quickly to find Peter staring over her shoulder, beetroot-red, guiltily trying to retrieve his boxers.

“Come on, you two.”   Howard’s voice snapped.  “No time for that.   We have a lot to do.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credits:

SV : Ian Dooley on Unsplash

Solitary man: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Eight

Ascending

 The Causeway Café was one of those dejected-looking businesses which eke out a living on the margins of the English tourist trade.   Viewed from almost the entire length of Levenport seafront, St Benedict’s Rock was arguably a thing of scenic beauty, framed by sea and sky.   From here, at the very end of the road which connected it to the shore, its great mass was just a little too close, a little too massive: forbidding and black, it eclipsed the sun.   No landward attractions drew interest to this extremity of the Esplanade.  Its shops and arcades all clustered around the western end, where gulls circled over Levenport’s little fishing harbour and the larger hotels basked in such riches as the season could offer.   Peter was one of only three customers that morning who sat at the Causeway Café’s open-air tables, braving the elements.  An elderly woman in a camel coat sipped noisily at tea: a harassed mother placated her whining child.   At ten-thirty despair drove Peter to text Lesley.   “Cswy Caf. RU comg?  Luv U, Peter.”

Five minutes, then the reply.  “Y.”

He watched her approach from far off, a disconsolate figure with none of the usual purpose in her stride.   Jeans, a short jacket, hands in pockets, her hay-cloud of hair flying in the stiff breeze.   She looked miserable, and cold.

“Alright,”   She said sullenly,   “Why here?”

“I want you to come over to The Rock with me.”

“Oh, no!   Just say what you want to say, and talk fast.  I want to go home.”

“I can’t just tell you.  You wouldn’t believe me if I did.   I have to show you.”

What could he show her?   How could he make her believe him – better yet believe in him?  He had no idea.   He only knew that here was the one person who absolutely must believe him, and she would, however reluctantly, walk with him the half-mile of wind-whipped causeway, and up the road which led around the shady, damp northern face of The Devil’s Rock.

As they walked he told his story – of his first visit to the rock, his invitation to Vincent’s home, of Toby and the cave.  He did not omit his parting with Melanie, or how she had rejected the fate she was being offered.  It was time to be honest about everything, because this was the only chance he would be given.   Finally he explained why he had not called her that weekend; and he related the incident at Hemlington, including Howard’s part in it.   By the time he had stuttered lamely to the end of his tale, they were wandering through the half-ruined, impoverished village at the foot of the rock.  Lesley, who had listened without interruption, maintained her silence.  Shivering against the cold she remained frostily aloof until, as they ascended the little road up the side of the rock, while still deep in the despond of its northern shade, she picked her occasion to say, loudly:.

“That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”

With sinking heart, Peter nodded.   “I know that’s how it sounds.”

“Peter, it’s just nuts!   I mean, they could put you in a home for spouting that stuff!”

Peter turned away, afraid she would see the emotion written on his face.  But then he felt her hand, slipping into his.    “That would mean I fancy a head-case.   I’m not that bad a judge, am I?”

He dared not trust his voice.  He shook his head.

“I mean, you think you can really…..do some of those things?”

He nodded.

A tear escaped down Lesley’s cheek.  “Fuck!”    She said, swiping it away impatiently. “I’ve a shitty taste in blokes, but I really scooped the pool this time!”

They walked on together, hand in hand, then hip to hip.   In the tunnel between the shady and the sunny side of the Rock, they kissed, paving the metaphor for their emergence into mid-morning light.

It was a bright autumn day, made suddenly very new.

#

Melanie was aware of a dark cloud of melancholy closing around her, although she could not fathom why.   She had woken early to a watery sun leeching through the salt-spattered panes of her bedroom window.   The wind which had demanded entry so furiously in the night had tired of its pursuit.   Beyond the bay a rough sea still threw the odd scouting wave at the foreshore, but the clouds were gone.  The beach beckoned.

She had dressed quietly in the clothes of last night: those she had worn on the boat were still draped damply over a clothes-horse in Agnes’ kitchen.  No sound had come from Agnes’s room, so she slipped quietly downstairs and out onto the gravelly scrunch of the drive, following that weed-strewn path which led back to the old harbour.   Why she so needed to return there, she didn’t know:  she had no clear plans, or idea what she would find:  it was curiosity that drew her – the same curiosity which prevented her from following Agnes’s driveway to whatever road it sprang from and running until she was miles from this cold, wild place.  

The rock passage echoed to her footsteps.  There was no gale now.   Yet, if she expected the little harbour to seem more welcoming in the greater brightness of the day she was disappointed;  for the place was as stark and grim as before.   At the end of the tunnel the gentle breeze bit icily at her face, played a lonely lament through reeds of piled stone.  The sea washed black in the harbour basin, like a cold douche of arterial blood.

She found the ruined cottage to be no more enticing than the day before, and the old boat, still as  close to final decay.    She wandered about the harbour for a time, as the concrete of the wall was drier and easier to negotiate.  Even the stairway in the rock which led from the harbour to the top of the cliff no longer threatened certain death.   There was no incentive to tarry in this harsh place, so suspending her fear she, set herself to climb. Edging past treads that had eroded away meant progress needed to be careful, and she was thankful for the odd handhold in the side of the cliff, but Toby’s assessment of her as being ‘sure-footed as a mountain goat’ proved accurate once more.  

At the top of the cliff she found little to investigate.   The headland was a meadow of coarse grasses raked by generations of sea-salt and gale.   Of the village which had once striven for life here no more than an occasional stone remained.  The sun was warm though, and one of the larger stones inviting enough to lie upon.

Stretched out, Melanie was drifting into slumber when the faintest of scratching reached her inner ear, a sound so tiny that at first she doubted it was there at all.   Then a whisper came, like breathing in a silent room, as though someone or something wanted her attention.  Whatever it was, it was close – beside her left ear.

With great care, she turned her head to find that just inches from her face the miniscule pin-head eyes of a snake were fixed upon her.   The creature’s tongue, flicking in and out so fast it was little other than a blur, was the source of the whispering.   To her great surprise she felt neither fear nor revulsion, but rather a sense of sharing, of mutual need.   She adjusted her position, carefully offering a hand, palm upwards, so that the snake felt no threat.   Completely unafraid, the snake responded by slipping through her fingers to drape itself over her forearm where it seemed happy to rest, sharing her enjoyment of the sun.   Melanie was enchanted.  As softly as she might she stroked its head, running her forefinger along the earth-brown zigzags of its length.   She knew it was a viper, knew of its poison; but she knew, also, the creature had come as a friend, and she welcomed it.

            The snake remained with Melanie for a while, then, possibly hearing the sounds of a Land Rover carrying in the breeze, slipped silently away into the grass.   Before long a vehicle materialised.  This was Agnes, relieved to have recovered her charge.

“Melanie, my dear, I thought I had lost you!”

Melanie lifted herself onto her elbows to regard her captor.   “I was just here.  I thought I’d look for the village.”

“Well, come back with me now.  We have someone to meet.”

In the Land Rover, Agnes was solicitous.  “Are you warm enough?   I was beside myself!  However did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Walked?   But my dear, it’s almost eighteen miles!   Whatever time did you start?”

“No.  No, it’s not very far at all!”  Melanie replied.  “I came straight up the stairway on the cliff.  It took me half an hour at most.”

Agnes said carefully:   “You’ve been away two hours or more.  Its half past eleven now, I noticed you had gone at nine o’clock or a little after.   And I told you last night:  the steps on the cliff are far too treacherous to climb. The only road to this place is this one, and it has to go right up the valley before it crosses the ravine and returns to the sea.   Did someone drive you here?”

 “I climbed the stairs on the cliff,”  Melanie repeated.   “They were slippery, but not too difficult.”

Agnes appeared to be wanting for words.

#                     

Peter was about to knock on Toby’s door.   Though fond, Lesley was still reticent. Since they had crossed to the more benevolent side of Old Ben, she had rarely spoken.   He felt her uncertainty; she had committed to him and he knew, in his heart, he should answer the questions she was reluctant to ask.  But his own insecurities played against him.  He needed to prove his truth to himself as much as to her, to show she was right to trust him.   He did not understand:  Lesley just needed to know she was loved.

“Peter?”   She stopped him. “That time at the big house?   You know that was, like, really different for me – really special?”

“I guessed.”    Peter kissed her forehead.  “It was pretty amazing for me, too, yeah?”

“It’s important to me – that you know?”   Her eyes betrayed her fears, but Peter did not see.

He knocked.

The sun was high over the south side of the rock, bathing the turning colours of heathland in a warm, September glow.  Most of the birds on ‘Old Ben’ were done with nesting now, singing their freedom in trees just tinged with gold.   A flock of seabirds wheeled and played below them on the lower cliffs: Tern, Kittiwake, Black Back Gulls, Guillemot.   Their distant cries added a descant to the song of the wind in the grasses, the tune of the blackbird and the thrush on the branch.  Nothing else stirred.

“He isn’t in.”   Peter accepted.

“It doesn’t matter.  Peter, let’s go home?”

“Come on, I’ll show you the cave.   Maybe, if you touch the rock, it will do for you what it did for me and Melanie…”

Peter carefully folded Lesley’s hand in his, leading her toward the narrow path on the seaward side. 

“Now, young Peter; where do you think you’m be goin’?”

Toby appeared in front of them, his malformed figure’s awkward, rolling gait suggesting a grotesque dance as he climbed the path.   Lesley suppressed a gasp of surprise.

“Toby!”   Peter felt genuinely delighted to see him.   “This is Lesley – we’re going down to the cave.”

  Toby stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily from his efforts. “Tain’t poss’ble, young ‘un.”

“Why not?   I can do that climb now – so can Lesley, with my help.”

“What?  An’ you goin’ to put ‘er at risk, jus’ to prove what you’m told ‘er?    Wha’ you told ‘er, Peter?”

Peter knew the trust he had broken, yet he felt no shame.   “Everything.  Toby, whatever I have, Lesley shares.  I won’t keep secrets from her.”

 “Never’ less, it were given to you in confidence.   Peter, I can’t let you past, an’ I wouldn’t if I could.   That’s my job, lad.   That’s why I’m here.”    Immovable and austere, Toby stood between Peter and his proof: there was nothing Peter could do.

“Young Miss,”   Toby said, his stooped head and up-cast eyes giving Lesley an arch look;    “He’s already told ‘ee more than you’m s’posed to know.   More ‘an anyone’s s’posed to know.   He’s told you ‘cause of ‘ow he feels about ‘ee, that’s what I’m thinkin’.   He’s different, young Miss, very different.   But you can’t have what he has, unnerstand?  You never can.”

Peter was moved to protest, but Lesley took his arm, drawing him back.   “It’s all right, Peter,   I do understand.  Come on.”

“But you have to believe me!”

“Do I?  I want to be with you.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Take ‘er home, young Peter.”   Toby said.  “If she wants to stay with you she’m got troubles enough, I reckon.”

Peter still argued, but Lesley tugged his arm:  “I just want to go home, Peter!   We can do this some other time, yeah?”

Protesting, Peter allowed himself to be turned back up the path to the summit of the Rock.    As he watched their retreating forms, Toby shook his head sadly.   “Women!”   He murmured.  “’Credibly strange creatures, them.”

Lesley hugged Peter’s arm as they walked, keeping him close to her:  “Listen – all this, it doesn’t count:  it doesn’t matter to me.   What matters is you’ve told me – all the places in your head you were keeping me away from, you’ve let me in.    The smelly guy, the whole thing.  I’ll try to believe you.   It’s all mad, but I’ll try.   Seems like I can’t bloody live without you, so I’ll have to, won’t I?”

The sky was beginning to cloud over as they made their way back, past the house where the little girl played.   She at least was there,  dancing her secret little dance in the garden, as always.   Lesley watched her as they walked past, a laconic smile on her lips.   “Oh, sweet!”   She murmured:  “Petey, look at that!”

They, allowed the steep gradient of the hill to draw them down, back through the tunnel which led them to the dark side of the island.   Peter’s fear of impending doom at this point was unwarranted, for Lesley was not Melanie.   There would be no parting here.   Nevertheless, he clasped Lesley to his side protectively and when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, drew her close to the wall to let them pass, and it did not seem at all extraordinary to him that the creatures pulled a carriage, any more than it was unreasonable that the coachman wore a full livery, or its passengers, a young man, a veiled woman and a little boy, should be dressed in Regency fashion.  The carriage had past them, and Peter was looking after it as it made its way into the tunnel when he realised that Lesley was leaning into the wall with him and expecting to be kissed.

“That was nice and spontaneous!”  She murmured when they had disengaged, “If you want to go caveman on me it might be a bit public, though.  Your bum’d be visible from  most of the Esplanade.”

He laughed.  “I just didn’t want you to be flattened by a coach and horses, that’s all.  Although now you mention it…”

“Oh, there was a coach and horses, was there?  And here’s me thinking ‘he’s into exhibitionism now’!  What next?”

“Les!  There was an old carriage – it passed us, just then!”

Lesley scowled, then gave a smile:  “If you say so, love.”

 They walked quite slowly:  for a long time neither of them said much, their minds too full of each other to need words.   Back at the Causeway Café they ordered coffee and sat inside on scrooping wooden seats to warm up.   There was a real chill in the air now, and no sign of the sun.   On an impulse, Lesley kicked Peter’s leg under the table.   It hurt.

“What was that for?”

“Well, you being superhuman and all, I wanted to see if you feel pain.”

“You were right to try.  I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Oh, yeah!”

The coffee came. 

“Peter, I don’t understand what this  is all about, I don’t really care.   But if we stay together, I mean, if it works out that way, I want us to be happy, Okay?  I know it sounds stupid, but in fifty years’ time I’d sort of like to be like that insane old woman.”

“As if!   You’d like to be an insane old woman?”

“She was happy, Peter.  She might have been a bit cracked, but she was happy.  It was lovely.  I’d like to be a bit like that.”

“What old woman?”

“That one back on the rock:  you saw her – the old dear dancing in the garden.”

“Wait a moment.”  Peter tried to understand.  “There was a little girl – a child – dancing in a garden.   You said how sweet she looked.”

Lesley watched Peter’s face closely; seeking something she didn’t comprehend, but knew was there.  “Pete, that was not a little girl; that was a very old woman.  She must have been, like, eighty or something?”

A truth dawned on them both.   “I saw a little girl.”  Peter said.

“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”  Lesley breathed.   “Oh Peter!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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A Meeting on Praed Street

She is sitting by the window and far away in her thoughts when the voice intrudes, asking quietly…

“Excuse me, it’s Eve, isn’t it…?”

She is sitting by the coffee house window, staring out at Praed Street and the passers-by who hurry against the rain.   Hoods and high collars, hunched shoulders, plastic hats of clear polythene.

“…Eve?”

A peach-mac’d mother bent over a recalcitrant child, controlling her anger:  brollied partner standing by, impatient.   Two young Chinese men arm-in-arm, running and laughing…

“It is Eve, isn’t it?”

The smell of rain, that rustle only a wet coat makes, the persistent voice:  there is something familiar in it.  She turns to acknowledge its source, reluctant.   “I’m sorry?”  

“I’m Paul.”   He is standing across the table from her, one hand resting, two fingers, on the bleached wood surface, looking down on her;  “Paul Ferryman,”  He says.    Then, when she does not answer:  “You don’t remember me!  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I must be wrong…”   His hand leaves.

“No.   No,”  She says quickly,  “No, I don’t think – that is, you aren’t wrong.”  She doesn’t wish to be impolite.  “How are you, Paul?”  This is awkward; so awkward!  

“It’s been…oh, lord, how many years?  You look sensational!”  He laughs and the sound rings in her remembering like a peal of bells.  “Eve!   After all this time – who’d have thought of it?”  Then he remembers himself:  “Oh, look, this might not be such a welcome surprise.   I have to return to a meeting, so I won’t embarrass you any more.”

She lies.  “You’re not embarrassing me,”  Wishing she could return his compliment, she adds,lamely:  “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“How I wish that were true!”  He says;  “But you!  You’ve scarcely changed at all. Do you still dance – is that your…?”

“No.”  She cuts in quickly,  “No, I haven’t worked in years.  I still practice, that’s all.”

He says nothing for a moment.  His eyes are clouded with memories, yet he sees into her soul as well as ever.  

 “You’re sad,”  he empathises, stepping back,  “I’m intruding on your melancholy.”   He produces a silver case from beneath the folds of his coat.   “This is a business card,I’m afraid, but the number reaches me. Maybe we could meet up sometime?  Have a coffee together, ‘do lunch’?  If you don’t hate me too much, that is?”

His card is on her table and he is gone, leaving a last brief smile in his wake.  Perhaps he will get his coffee somewhere else, she thinks?  Hate him?  No, never that.  Her last sight of him, striding away down Praed Street oblivious to the rain, awakens emotions that have lain dormant for a long time.  

Memories.   

With a sigh of resignation she rises from her table, goes to pay her check.   

Six weeks after that meeting Paul Ferryman finds a message on his ‘phone.   ‘I Can’t keep pretending this hasn’t happened.  Are you in town Saturday?  I’ll be at the Arbor Cafe at eleven o’clock – you know, stay twenty minutes, that sort of thing?  If you can’t make it, don’t worry.’ Her voice is clipped and unemotional; so unlike the Eve he remembers.

He replies with a text, simply:  ‘OK.’

She is late, though not by as much as twenty minutes.   Wearing a simple green dress of a shade she always favoured in their long ago days together she sweeps towards the pavement table where he waits, and once again he wonders at an elegance that is timeless.  He worshipped her once, idolised her – an alabaster creature of unnassailable grace and beauty.  Life has taught him since, given him ample occasion to rue his mistakes.  He was so young.  They were both so young.

“Hi, it’s so good to see you.”  She greets him, before adding in an undertone as she sits, “I nearly didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did,”  He says.  “I hesitated too.”    A waiter appears.   He orders coffee, a cake he remembers she used to like.  “What are we doing?”  He asks.

She makes a small, open-handed gesture.  “I don’t know.   Seeing you again was nice. I wanted to talk, I suppose.”

He grins,  “Reminisce?  There are things I prefer not to remember.”

“Then those are the things we’ll avoid!”  She decides.  “Do you live in Harliston?”

“Not quite.  My firm opened an office here and I moved back to Brickley just before Christmas.  You?”

“Yes.  Do you remember Alice?”

“Alice with the teeth?”

“Oh, that’s cruel!  She had them corrected, anyway.   I live in her street now…”

And they talk,  They speak of this and that, of who among their once-shared friends remain close, who is still near, who has travelled far.  Who has gone before them…

“You haven’t eaten your cake,”  He accuses her.

She is apologetic,  “I hope you aren’t offended.   They’re a little too sickly for me, these days,”  Then she says:  “Dad was only doing his best for me, Paul.”

“I thought we agreed not to go there,”  he admonishes her.  “You want to, though, don’t you?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  You were so angry, the last time we were together.   We didn’t have a break-up; not properly,  We couldn’t.”

“And you want closure.”

“I suppose I still want to know why. No goodbyes, no parting scene, you just left!   The next thing I heard, you weren’t in town anymore.”

“I was on the morning train.  I couldn’t stay near yet apart from you.  He banned me from seeing you, effectively.  He told me I wasn’t good enough; he’d set his sights high for you.”

“And you didn’t fight for me?”

“He had all the weapons, Eve.  You were too young – we both were.   I knew you couldn’t make an enemy of your father for me, just as I knew he would break us up if I stayed.  I had nothing to offer; no right to take you away from everything you had.” He adds reflectively,  “I wanted to though, I admit that.”

“We were children.”  Eve fixes her gaze on her lap, brushes absently at her skirt in a demure gesture he remembers.  “Those were such different times, weren’t they?   I think I would have gone anywhere with you that day, if you had asked, but I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  I couldn’t make myself choose.”  She sighs.  “So, what are you doing with yourself these days, Paul?  Are you still married?”  

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll return your question.  What are we doing here?”

“We’re talking.  We’re laying old ghosts.  Isn’t that all?”

“Is it?”  She says miserably.  “Why didn’t you just walk past me the other day?  Why did you leave that card?”

“Why did you dial my number?”  He counters; then, more gently:  “What do you want me to say?  How long is it?  Thirty years?  Do you want me to admit that not a day’s gone past when I haven’t thought of you, if you were happy, if you were well?

“But you married,  You got married very quickly.  I heard.  You’re still with her, I take it?”

He strives for a smile.   “Yes, in a manner of speaking, I suppose we are.  Perhaps that’s why I’m here.”

“You must love her?”

“I must, mustn’t I?”

“Tell me.”

“You’re right; I married very quickly, and for the wrong reasons.  I was angry, I suppose, with the hand society dealt me, something I was too  young to change.”

“Poor woman!”

“Ali?    I don’t think I’ve ever made her regret my mistakes.  But there,”  He hesitates as if he has a Rubicon to cross with his next words:  “When we parted thirty years ago, my energy died where love was concerned.  So were you to ask me if I love her…”

“That’s tragic!”

“No, I suppose I do love her,in my way,”  He retreats behind his coffee cup,  “Anyway, now it’s your turn, woman.  I heard not a breath about you.  Are you with someone?”

She too will find the props on the table helpful.  She can toy with them and does so – her cup, then the cake she refused that now seems so tempting.  “Maybe I will just have a bite of this?” She will not look at him as she speaks.    “I did marry.  I met someone in London in a show I was working on.  It didn’t last.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!  You have to stop apologizing for things, especially my inability to hold my marriage together!   He started cheating and I ran out of reasons to stay.   We divorced, in the end.”  She adds reflectively;  “Same diagnosis as you, I suppose – were we ever really close?   Anyway, that was a long time ago.  I’m promised to someone, so I’m not really free.  What a horrible word that is – ‘free’!  What does it mean?”

“In this case, I’d say it means there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”

“Which is another horrible word; one I use too often.  Circumstances have changed, can I say that?   I’m not sure if I should keep my promise, Paul.  I’m not sure I can live up to it, you see.”

“Because?”

“Lots of reasons.”  Her eyes at last agree to meet with his, for she can no longer hide that same melancholy he detected in the coffee bar on Praed Street six weeks before.  “I’m not sure I’m capable of giving someone the depth of love they will need.   Perhaps I’m like you, my energy for love is dead?  You said that so well, you made me think…”

“Is he still around, your father?”

 “He died two years ago. We hadn’t spoken for some time before that.”  She reaches across the table so their fingers may touch, a gentle invitation he takes, and their hands join. 

“I’m sorry,”  She whispers;  “Sorry for all the hurt he caused you.  I wish we’d kept in touch somehow, or things had been different.  I just…”  She shrugs, smiles;  “…wish.”

He says, quietly, that he would join her in that wish, and  he asks, quietly, what she is doing with the rest of her day; has she plans?  When she replies in the negative, he asks if he could spend her day with her.  She says, gladly, that he may.

Come evening, as they wait for the taxi that will take him home he wants to know if she will join him tomorrow, or the day after that, and she bites her lip before she asks:   “Paul, will you tell your wife about today?”

He nods.  “I won’t hide it from her.  I don’t think it’ll surprise her  too much.  We’ve been huddled together on a raft of deception for a long time, now.  She’s been seeing someone I’m not meant to know about. It might even be a relief to her if I wasn’t quite so intensely loyal.  The climb to the moral high ground might be rather less steep.”

Three weeks pass:  three weeks of stolen encounters, some short, some longer, the precious minutes of which they count, and fill with new memories.  With each new tryste another bridge is crossed, another precious affinity revived until their harmony is such that although they both fear it, there is a conversation that can no longer be postponed.   

This Saturday, this epic meeting day, they greet each other familiarly with a kiss, and walk together beside the river which divides their town.   He knows it must be his obligation to speak.

“How long can we go on like this?”

She turns to face him.  “Do you want to stop?”  There is a plea in her eyes which speaks for her better than words.

“No.   No, I don’t!  Every time we part it feels like a little piece of me dies.  I feel closer and closer to repeating the mistake I made all those years ago.  Listen, Eve, I’m not the only one with a life to dismantle here.  If I asked you to come to me, to break with this guy I don’t know, go somewhere so we can both start afresh…If I asked you?”

Her face betrays her troubled heart.  For an age, it seems, although she must have turned her answer over in her mind again and again, she delays her reply:  “I would do it.  I would do anything you wanted me to do.  You know that.”  She puts her hands on his shoulders,  “But think, darling, please?  You have a marriage, someone who’s been there for you for a long time.  Think of her, too?”

“I have,”  He takes a deep breath.  “I told you I wouldn’t deceive Ali.  She’s (he chooses the word carefully) aware of you, and all you mean to me.  She’s been surprisingly understanding, really.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re still together, in much the same sense we’ve been for the last ten years.  We share the same house and greet each other when we meet.   But I don’t think she’ll be surprised if I vacate my half of it.”

Her eyes brim:  “Are you asking me?”

“To live with me, yes, that and more, if you want? I mean, will you – could you do that?”

“Of course!”  She draws him close and they kiss as passionately as teenagers, then crease with laughter as a boy no more than twelve years old scooters past offering advice.  “Please!  Get a room!”

Thereafter for a while they say nothing, wandering aimlessly, arm in arm, along the riverbank until they find a park bench where they can rest and watch the river.   “Goodness!  Where do we start?”  She says.

In a week or two Paul has found a little flat close to his work which they both agree upon, and they furnish it together.  Ali, Paul’s wife, has exhausted her fount of patient understanding, so he has moved into this new home, where Eve will join him on a day that she has set.  Much of their time is spent together now, fulfilling the demands of the missed and neglected years.  Both are as happy as their moral sense will allow.

No time at all, it seems, elapses before the morning when Eve moves in.  She will wait for him at a corner near their favourite bookshop at eleven am.  

“Leave room in the back of the car.  I’ll still have a bag or two, I expect,”  She advises him happily.

A little after ten o’clock on the appointed morning Paul is dancing with anticipation, his emotions turning somersaults more becoming a man half his age.  The knowledge that within the hour he will be embarking on a new life after so many unhappy years so excites him he finds the inaction of waiting intolerable.  The bags she mentioned would be heavy, would they not?  He supposes there might be extra things she needs, weighty items not accounted for, awkward burdens unsuitable for carrying through the streets.

As the minutes tick by Eve’s imagined burden grows greater, until his mind’s eye sees her struggling that half-mile to the bookshop under a Sisyphean load.   It does not occur to him that in such exigency she might simply get a taxi – no, he must help!  He tries to call her, only to find she has not switched on her ‘phone, so ignoring their arrangement he gets into his car and drives to her house.  After all, what can be wrong with picking her up outside her door?  He need not go into the house, if there is any chance the person she is leaving is there, and anyway, she has never made reference to them actually living together.  It has been, from the little she has divulged of her relationship, a stilted, rather distanced affair.

Ten-thirty sees him drawing up before her house.  There is little chance, he tells himself, she has already left, so all he need do is wait.  Minutes elapse:  five, ten….

The front door opens.  Paul climbs from his car, advances, ready to help.  The plangent whine of an electric motor reaches his ear.   

At first he thinks the doorway must be empty, that the door has just swung open, improperly latched. Then he looks down; he sees the ramp that covers the steps, the handles bolted to the walls.  He sees the pair of weary  eyes that are fixed on his midriff somewhere, the wheels of the chair, the fingers playing on the keyboard that make up the rudiments of a voice – a cold monotonous voice:

“Is it you?  Are you the reason she is going?  What is your name?”

In horror he retreats the few steps that will take him onto the street,  a guilt that has yet to find a name compelling him to glance right and left, as if he is afraid of being seen.   Eve, carrier bags in hand, is rounding the corner, not four houses down.  She stops when she sees him.  The voice, now behind him, repeats:  “What is your name?”

Eve raises the bags a little to support her explanation.  “A bit of shopping.  Some food for…”

“What is your name?”  An electronic accusation, not a question.

“Before the accident,”  She says helplessly,  “I could have coped.  I could have, before then.  Before  us.”

The street is suddenly so, so long.  She is very far away and the sky is darkening:  “It’s going to rain soon”, she says.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty Seven

The Inquisitors

Beyond Hemlington, Peter’s train was much emptier than before.   Walking back through the aisles toward his own carriage, Peter’s eyes met those of Howard.  There was no mistaking the surprise on the big man’s face, however quickly he attempted to disguise it.   Both knew, in that moment of encounter, the gloves were off.

“Well done!”    Howard murmured.

Peter may have smiled.

#

” So does my mother know?”  Melanie asked.

“Karen?   Bless her, not yet.    Not at this moment.  And she will be afraid, I do not doubt.”

“But Bianca?”

“Bianca.   Ah yes.   She knows.  My dear, she has always known.”

“Always?”

“Since you were very young.”   Agnes replied.  The rain still beat upon the window.   The bay, furious now with the intrusion of the North Sea  gale, was a race of white horses, galloping to shore.   “She recognised the signs in you – told us of them many years ago, my dear.   You were marked with your gift, even then.   When we heard you were going to leave Levenport, we almost jumped at the chance, you might say.  We had to persuade your aunt, rather, I’m afraid. She didn’t want to be placed in the invidious position of telling her sister you were missing – as doubtless she will have done by now.   We couldn’t divulge where we were taking you, you see.  She had to feign ignorance and contact the police to protect her own position.”

This was evening.   Agnes had returned in the Land Rover, after a protracted absence, amidst a flurry of protest and coughing and smoky blueness.  The day was far gone, but there was still no sign of the weather abating.   They sat facing one another amid the clutter of Agnes’ life, each vaguely discernable to the other in gathering twilight.

“I wish I had recognised the signs, whatever they were.”  Melanie mused.    “It might have changed some things.”

“The knowledge would have been of little use to you.  Without the innocent years we are incomplete:  you deserved to grow up somewhat before you took this burden upon yourself.”

“But I don’t want this – what:  burden – gift – whatever it is?  I’m not taking it upon myself at all.  I’m not accepting it.”

“The choice isn’t yours.   You have it inside you.  The decision, if there ever was one, is made.”

Melanie sighed resignedly.  “Okay, then.   How long am I to stay here?   Since my life is pre-ordained and you seem to have my schedule, you must know that.”

“Until tomorrow.”   Agnes said.  “And no, I don’t know what is to become of you, my dear.    I would that I did.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Someone is coming to see you; someone very important.  They will have a much better idea of your future than I.   My part in this is very small, believe me.  I have a secluded lifestyle, that is the sum of my worth.  I offer a safe resting place.  You will have few enough of those, I think.”

“Is that who you went into town to meet?   Is this ‘someone’ here already?”

“No, he comes from far away.”   Getting to her feet, Agnes moved towards the kitchen.   “It’s time for you to sleep.   I would guess you got very little rest last night, hmm?”

At this the spell, the mist of perfect tranquillity in which their conversation wafted around them, was lost.   Melanie felt that all peace, all contentment, all of her childhood, was taken away in that moment.   The storm in the bay was finding a silent, stealthy way in, through the fastened windows, under and over and around the battened doors.   It gathered in rage behind her as she went up the stairs.  White horses in a demonic race, a hunt to the death.   And she, Melanie the gifted, was their helpless, hopeless prey.

There were nine text messages on Peter’s phone.   They were all from Lesley.   The last one said simply: “Y won’t U answer Yr feckg fone?”

When he called her number she didn’t answer.  He knew she was there, holding the little red and green mobile in her hand, looking at his name on the display.   Lesley went nowhere without her ‘phone.

It was a difficult afternoon.   Peter’s parents were hanging close, taxing him with questions:  what was his friend’s house like, who else was at the party, had Manchester changed much?  He excused the absence of his bag and jacket by saying he had absent-mindedly left then unattended at the railway station in Manchester.  Otherwise, he answered all of their questions  as truthfully as he could, describing Vincent’s cottage in a way which made it sound like a house in the city suburbs, adding Simeon himself to the picture using Vince’s modified version of his name (Simon) as a ‘really nice guy from somewhere out on the moors’ with whom he had met and formed a friendship at ‘the party’.   Somehow, though, he knew he was not believed.    In fact, his father’s disbelief tingled in his spine like a pincushion full of needles: as soon as he could, he escaped through the kitchen door and headed for the seafront.

The incident at Framlington had gone unmentioned.   When Peter’s train pulled into the station at Levenport Howard Sullivan failed to emerge, and Peter liked to imagine him cowering down in his seat until he had gone, before sneaking from the station by some devious route.  There seemed no good reason for panicking his parents with tales of attempted abduction, yet there were many pressing reasons for doubting his safety.  Whoever it was, if they wanted him badly enough it could only be a matter of time before they got him.   On the seafront, at least, it was open enough to see them coming.

Lesley was still refusing to reply to his calls.   He sent a text.    “Pleze Lesley. Hennik’s.   Now.”

It was twenty minutes before she appeared, running across the street to the coffee shop, a magazine shielding her head from the rain.  She sat down opposite him, fixing him with an angry look.

“I don’t know why I came here.”  She said.

“I forgot to take my ‘phone:  left it behind.”

“Oh, right!   And you couldn’t be arsed to use a landline – just call me?”

“I’ve only been away two days!”   Peter sipped miserably at his coffee.  “I just – didn’t – that’s all.  I wanted to.  I missed you.”

“Yeah?   Well, shall I tell you the crack from round here those two days?   Melanie Fenton’s gone missing.   She left her aunt’s on Friday morning and hasn’t been seen since.”

“What?”  Peter was genuinely shocked.

 “And shall I tell you what else?  When Peter Cartwright went missing on Saturday morning too, word got out that he was with Melanie Fenton:  that you two buggered off together!    Even Mel’s mum thinks that’s what happened.”

Peter was trying to absorb the news that Melanie had disappeared.

“I thought you’d dumped me, you bastard.  I thought you’d gone.  I warned you, didn’t I?   Don’t dump me.”  Lesley felt all the insecurities of the last few days welling up in her eyes.  “Oh shit!”

Groping through the confusion in his head, Peter tried to find words of consolation, but nothing came.   “I’m not with Melanie.  I’m here.”   Was all he could come up with.

“Yeah?   And for how long?”

“What do you mean?”   Lesley who, behind her spectacular appearance was always uncertain of herself, had a penchant for self-destruction.  Peter was seeing this process eating at her now, and he wanted so badly to put it right, but its logic defeated him.  Why should she be so furious with him, when all he had done was drop out of sight for a day or so?

“Peter, you never forget your phone.  You’re so bloody methodical you never forget anything!   You just didn’t take it with you, wherever you went.   And you didn’t call me to tell me where you were, or what you were doing, because you didn’t want to.  You didn’t bloody want to!”

Lesley got up and stormed out, back into the evening rain.   Peter hurrying to pay for his coffee, followed.   She ran as though she did not want to be caught.   He was breathless when he finally drew up with her.

“Les, don’t do this, please?”

She stopped.   He said:   “I’m sorry – really sorry.  Don’t break us up over this?”

Her eyes still brimmed with anger, but her voice had calmed.   “Peter, I can’t handle it.  I really can’t.”

“Handle what?  I don’t understand.”

“Handle you!.   There’s something about you, something secret inside I can’t get to, and its just doing my head in, like, totally.   You’ve a whole part of your life I have nothing to do with, something you won’t, or can’t share.  Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Melanie has something to do with it.”    He started to protest but she held her fingers up to his lips.   “No, mate- don’t say anything.  I know it’s true.  I know whatever it is kept you from calling me these last two days:  I know that I can’t fight it.  I love you, Peter.   I – love – you; understand?   I mean, really.   But I’d rather back off now, you see?   It hurts too much, otherwise.   I deserve all of you, Petey.  I can’t have that, so I’m gone.  Leave me alone now, yeah?  Let me get my life back.”   Lesley turned and walked away.   As she rounded a corner of the street that led up into the town she called over her shoulder:   “Hey, maybe I should move to fecking Seaborough!”

Peter did not go home.   Instead, uncaring that he should be pounced upon by the menthol-breath man or any of his associates, he did something in the best tradition of all the great romantic novels:  he went for a long walk in the rain.   As he kicked at the reflections of streetlights on the pavement he tried to weigh Vincent’s email with its dire warnings about secrecy against his sense of love and honour towards Lesley, and, of course, Lesley came out on top.   Lesley, he knew, was more important to him, more immediate than any of the surreal events of the last few days.  Despair in her eyes had told him what he must do.    If he did it, he might not have to lose her.  Yet was it fair to embroil her in his haphazard fortunes?   Would she, like Melanie, choose to walk away?   Melanie was missing, though, and he felt certain that it had something to do with her connection with the stones.  She would never really be able to deny the thing she was.  Had the people who shepherded him to Simeon taken her, or was she in the hands of someone else?

Finally, there was Karen, Melanie’s mother.   What would Howard Sullivan do?   There were too many questions, too many people whose lives were turning, unstoppably, around them.   Desperate for some answers Peter returned to his favourite haunt on the Esplanade.

The short summer season was dying, so there were few tourists:  those there were ran with clacking heels between the pinball stations of pub and club, amusement hall and hotel lobby, their voices raised in lyrical protest at the rain.   It was a hard rain, driving in off a distant tide, battering his face with all of Lesley’s scorn and fury.   He paused to lean against the railings for a while, oblivious to his saturated clothes, staring across at the black mass of St. Benedict’s Rock as if to do so might apprise him of its ancient secrets:  but nothing came.  Although gulls wheeled silently as ghosts in and out of the lamplight above him, none perched or seemed inclined to talk in any language but their own quarrelsome tongue.   Their intermittent cries were just seagull insults, nothing more.

The brisk sound of approaching male footsteps drew Peter’s attention.  Two men, heavily-built and obviously not made for speed, had appeared on the Esplanade to his right, coming towards him more quickly than was comfortable for them.   Were they simply holiday-makers eager to get out of the weather?  Peter felt instantly wary.   All at once the wide, featureless expanse of the seafront seemed to harbour a thousand concealing opportunities for those who pursued him to lie in wait.   What was he doing here?   Was he mad?   Only ten hours earlier he had come within an inch of being kidnapped!    He took off, squelching wetly back across the road towards the East Mount and home.  Once among the early evening revellers on the hill, he broke into a run.

The evening meal was an interrogative affair.   His mother:   “Peter, if you’ve heard anything about Melanie, you really should tell us.  Poor Karen is beside herself with worry.”

“Why should I know anything?  Mel hasn’t called me for weeks.”   Then, mischievously,  “Why doesn’t she ask Howard?”

His father, suddenly attentive:    “Howard?  You mean Mr. Sullivan?    What makes you think he would know?”

Peter shrugged.   “He just seems like the kind of blokey who would, that’s all.   I mean, he’s like some heavy Secret Service agent or something, isn’t he?”

Lena Cartwright snorted.   “Just a big soft armchair, darling, that’s what he is.   But he did go straight up to Seaborough to try and do something, I’ll admit.   Poor Karen, she hasn’t heard anything from him all day, either.”  She stood, stretching to reach Peter’s plate.

Peter said with deliberation:   “Why, hasn’t he gone home yet?”

His mother’s face was a foot or so from his own:   “What do you mean, Peter?”

“Well, he was on my train today.  So he’s definitely come back.”

Lena said:  “I spoke to Karen just an hour ago.”

 “I wonder how he got on my train,”  Peter mused;  “I mean, if he was coming back from Seaborough, I should have thought he would have gone through London, wouldn’t he?”

“I think you must have been mistaken.”   His father said, slowly.

Peter waited, allowing his parents time to exchange worried looks.  Should he be doing this?   “No. It was definitely him.  We talked for a minute.  Funny, though.  He didn’t say anything about Mel disappearing.  He told me he went north for a job interview.”   He shrugged, adding brightly:  “D’you suppose he got it?”

There was a pregnant pause.   Bob Cartwright murmured:  “Maybe.   Peter, old chap, where were you this weekend?”

“I told you, Dad.   Went to a party.   Good party, too!  Lots of eats!”

“Then tell me why we, who have known you these many years, don’t believe you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re a bad liar, darling.”  His mother said flatly.   “Where were you tonight?”

“I said where I was.   I went to meet Lesley!  What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”   There was nothing Spanish about the process or religious either, come to that:  it was just the first protest that came into Peter’s head and he was no longer being careful about what he said.   “After I left her, I went for a walk, okay?  Dad, is that okay?”

“Now don’t get angry, dear.”

“You don’t believe me!  You don’t believe anything I say, so what’s the point of asking me questions?    I told you I went to a party; you don’t believe me.   If I tell you I went for a walk because Lesley and I broke up tonight, you won’t believe that, either!   I went for a walk, mum, all right?  A bloody walk!”

“Peter!”    His father’s voice menaced; but Peter met Bob Cartwright’s warning stare with a stare of his own.   Their relationship had passed beyond the point when the father could discipline the child.   The son stood taller and probably stronger now than the self-effacing cleric who had never, in all of his erratic ministry, been a man of authority, within his family or without.  His father’s look emitted worry rather than anger, anyway; it spoke of a man struggling to understand, trying vainly to re-enter the mysterious world of youth from a place too far off.

“I’m sorry you have had a tiff with Lesley;” Bob said gently;   “She’s a sweet girl and you go well together.   Peter, when you’re ready – or when you’re able, I’m not sure which it is, please share the burden you are carrying?   We only want to help?”

Peter sighed.   After all, they had a right to know.   The pursuit would not end and sooner rather than later it would reach their door – a door he knew could not be his for much longer, though he tried to deny the thought.   Not tonight, though.  He couldn’t tell them tonight, and if he did they would not believe him.   His father, a man of God?

“I will, dad.   I promise.”

As he walked out of the room, he heard his mother say: “So there is something!”

Later, in his room, Peter sent an email to Lesley. ‘Dearest Les, I need you too much.  I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.   Please meet me at the Causeway Café?  I’ll be there at 10.’  Then he sent a longer email to Vincent, relating the events of the day, and his fears for Melanie.

 Neither replied.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Featured image: Molly Rosalee from Pixabay

Street at Night: Jack Finnegan from Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-Six

Hostages

Fate?   If asked, it is doubtful Melanie could have explained the motives which were guiding her – why it was, for instance, she had wandered down to Seaborough’s fish quay the previous morning, rather than just taking a shorter stroll on the beach: or why she had boarded the trawler so willingly, or why, be he ever so scary, she had not been perturbed by having her personal goods confiscated by the smartly-dressed man.

Was she aware that, to the rest of the world, she had been abducted?    Almost certainly.   Did she care that Karen and Bianca would be distraught?   Of course – although youth never truly appreciates the anxieties of the old:  in her present frame of mind there were higher priorities than appeasing her own mother’s lack of confidence in her.   Bianca was of less concern.   In the moil of feelings surrounding her break-up with Peter, Bianca had not been the life-line she at first promised to be.  Seaborough was not the haven it had appeared.   Melanie had disliked it almost on sight: and the condescension her aunt had shown her, the reluctance of welcome, did nothing to affirm its virtues or relieve her torment.

The nature of the ache inside her was something she did not understand.  Although she and Peter had been great friends for longer than she could remember they were both too young to have been lovers, in the semse she assumed the word to imply.   She had never been close to Peter in any other sense than companionship, never held him to her, or kissed him, although she had wanted to.   So she had expected sadness at their parting, perhaps, a gap in her life that would prove hard to fill; but not a yawning pit of black misery, a sense of total loss:  and no, not the ravening, all-consuming jealousy she harboured for Lesley.   Lesley who had been her friend, Lesley who had betrayed her!    Either she had repressed a deep and obsessive longing for Peter, a hunger which now broke out in her heart, malign and growing like a cancer, or there was something else; something other.   Perhaps, just perhaps, Peter had been right:  perhaps she could never turn her back on her unwanted ‘gift’ and it was driving her helplessly along.   Perhaps it was pushing her forward even now.

Right now she was cold, so cold!   And missing her mobile ‘phone, with which, forgoing all pride, she would have called Peter just for the warm comfort of hearing his voice.   The wind was gathering force, playing through the stone orifice of the tunnel as if it were a reed, with a whistling insistence that it might turn her to stone, too, if it wished.   Agnes’ hastening arm dripped as it steered her towards daylight beyond.    What would she find there – a path to take her away from the sea, she hoped, with maybe some form of transport waiting at its end – certainly not the prospect that did await her.   What she saw drew a shivering gasp of surprise.

The tunnel emerged from the cliff onto a flat, wide shelf, already slick with rain.   Melanie assumed that its margins dropped straight to the sea, for she could hear a swell breaking against it, just below her sight.   But it was the further prospect which took her aback: for she stood at the margin of a small bay; no more than a quarter of a mile across and perfectly semi-circular, its periphery traced by a narrow crescent of sand.  This little beach, complete with short jetty and bobbing row-boat, formed the seaward end of a densely-wooded chine, nestling among the first trees of which was a villa,  a timber-clad house painted green with a wide roof and colonial-style veranda facing the sea.   This in itself seemed remarkable, like a scene drawn from another, much warmer, place: maybe even another time.   Yet more impressive was the contrast which one short bore-hole through a cliff had affected:  a transition from wildness to calm, from malevolence to beauty.   Melanie felt moved enough to cry.

Agnes, clumping wetly, herded her quaking charge down a narrow track of clay fringed with wild Campion to saturate her denim-clad legs even more, if that were possible.   Upon closer examination the house was a structure much larger than it had at first appeared.   As their path followed the curve of the bay, it brought into view a driveway and a parked Land Rover, looking as depressed and soggy as Melanie.   Now that solace seemed so near she shivered even more and the tears rolled from her, as she realised how much she needed warmth,  dry clothes, and food.  But what reason had she to believe this awaited her – this, or imprisonment in some cold dark room?

A simple wooden door at the rear of the house opened into a small lobby, the walls of which were lined with all manner of ephemera, from a cane fishing rod to a rather apologetic-looking lawn mower.    Here Agnes revealed herself, peeling off first the Sou’wester, then multiple layers of coats and woollies.   What remained was a woman dressed in twin-set and plaid skirt, whose scant grey hair straggled down the cheeks of an oval, middle-aged face.   Her glasses had steamed up and she removed these to expose keen, quick eyes, with which she surveyed the dripping Melanie sympathetically.

“Now, dear, it’s a hot bath for you, I think.  Come along indoors.”

‘Indoors’ was a kitchen, if the elderly gas stove at the far end was to be believed. It stood forlornly next to a large boiler on one side and a stack of lobster pots on the other, beyond a table stacked with papers of all descriptions:  catalogues, junk mail, magazines and bills.   The wooden chairs around the table were arranged as though their occupants had been warned of an earthquake.   A dusty welsh dresser, similarly overwhelmed with paperwork, and a fridge nestled uneasily together on the inside wall: a long window, its sill gathering dust and yet more papers, looked out at the Land Rover.   In all, Melanie thought, this was the sort of place her mother would have had nightmares about:  but it was warm and intimate, in a curious way, and for that she was grateful.

Agnes led her briskly on to a large hallway, then up sparsely-carpeted stairs.

“This will be your room.  There’s a bathrobe in the cupboard.   Get yourself out of those clothes while I run you a bath.”

The room, more functional than palatial, sported a comfortable-looking bed, a small plywood wardrobe and dressing table of pine.  It shared the same unpretentiously homely feeling of the kitchen:  the radiator was piping hot, so she felt no reluctance as she shed her sodden clothes beside it.   Standing before the window, cocooned into a luxuriously thick towelling robe, she could look across the little bay to open sea, now white-capped and growing a little angry, and still feel the peace of this quiet place.   It did not matter that the rain tattooed the slates above her, or battered at the window glass.  When she was shown the bathroom she knew what kind of plumbing she would find, and none of that mattered, either:  this was a place of beauty and magic, and it felt right that she was here.

Much later, after Melanie had bathed and Agnes had sated her with hot soup and sandwiches filled with something stramge but undeniably nice, they sat together in the “living room” on a faded suite amongst yet more piles of papers and books, as Agnes explained about the chilly little harbour.

“It’s an unpleasant place.

“A hundred or so years ago it was a working harbour: there’s a small fishing village at the top of the cliff.    There are many such villages up and down these coasts, where fisher people eked out their living from the sea; communities of maybe no more than a dozen families, each with a small boat of some description.”

“I suppose they couldn’t compete as fishing methods changed?”

“No, of course not: and the times have changed too.  You won’t find many of your generation wanting to live in that way.”

Melanie thought of the boy on the trawler.  How different his life must be, compared to her own.   Perhaps that was his attraction? 

 “It must have been a hard life.”

“Certainly it was.   In 1906 a storm drowned every male family member of the village – eighteen men and boys.   So the community died with them.  No-one lives there now, nor have they done for more than a century.   A place of ghosts.”

 “Why have I been brought here?”  Melanie asked.

“’Brought’ here?”    Agnes raised a quizzical eyebrow.   “Is that what really happened, dear?”

 “I was kidnapped, wasn’t I?”  Melanie’s protested. 

Her host ‘tutted’ disgustedly.   “Now is that what they did?   For shame.   You came with me willingly enough, though?”

“I was cold and wet.  I wanted to get out of the rain.”

“Ah.”  Agnes appeared to contemplate this.  “And do you want to leave, now that you are drier?”

Thinking that her answer should be truthful, Melanie said:  “No, I like it here.   But my mum will be worried, and they took my phone.   Maybe if I could just use yours?” 

Her host shook her head.  “There’s no telephone, I’m afraid.   Now, I think you have spent enough time lounging around in that bathrobe, my dear.   I’ve laid some fresh clothing out on your bed.   You go along and change, now.   I have a few errands to run.”

Climbing the stairway to her room, Melanie heard the Land Rover splutter into life in the driveway outside.   Agnes evidently felt confident to leave her alone in her house, and she had to wonder at this, if she truly was a prisoner.   But what happened next changed all of her thinking in an instant.   For she found, neatly laid out on her bed, a set of warm clothing which was entirely suitable to the climate of her current circumstances, yet at the same time exactly in tune with her fashion taste and a perfect fit – as they should have been; because they were the very clothes she had packed in expectation of cold weather when she left home in Levenport, clothes which yesterday morning had been hanging in her closet in Bianca’s house.

#

.           The last thing Howard had expected (though, if he’d thought about it the possibility must have occurred to him) was to come face to face with Peter Cartwright on the train.  Yet as he opened the door between carriages there he sat, not two metres away.  Their eyes met.   It would have been difficult to judge who jumped the highest.

“Good lord!  Peter!”    He contemplated walking on by, concluding the episode with a casual:  “Fancy meeting you here!   Have a nice trip, old son!” but decided against this.   What came out was even lamer.   “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Hello Howard.”   Of all the people Peter would have wished to meet, Karen’s large, over-effusive boyfriend was the least welcome.  What the hell was he doing here?  An enquiry would mean a conversation, a rigour endured too often where Howard was concerned.

“Job interview!”  Howard drew the excuse from thin air.  “Just testing the waters, mind; no intention of moving at the moment.”

“No.  I suppose not.”   Peter tried to sound interested.

“You?”   Howard coaxed.

“Oh!   Party!   A friend invited me to Manchester for the weekend.”

“Ah.”   The train was full, affording Howard no opportunity to sit for a lengthier encounter.  “Well, pleasant journey, then.  See you back in Levenport, yes?”

Moving awkwardly along the central aisle, he suppressed a desire to break into a run,  something difficult to achieve on a fast-moving passenger service.   Safe in his seat, he spoke quietly and urgently to his mobile.   “He’s here!   On the train!”

“A little late, now, mate.”  Piggott’s reply was harsh. “But at least he’s found.  Now all we have to do is lift him.”

Howard was astounded.  Now?  Here?  Gathering himself, he said:  “O.K.  Do you want me to do it?”

“No!  No way!  I want you back in Levenport, acting the frantic step-parent.   Our line is elopement with the Fenton girl; but that means he mustn’t reach home, so I’m going to have to organise something quick.   What’s your last station before Levenport, do you know?

“Hemlington, I think.”

“We’ll pick him up there.   I’ll need to know which carriage he’s in – but Howard?”

“Yes, Jerry?”

“You stay out of it, right?  We must keep your cover intact.  If the boy realises whose side you’re on, we’ve lost a valuable lever.  Stay out of the way.”

An hour later, four minutes from Hemlington, Howard told his seated neighbour that he felt travel sick, requesting he sit by the train window for a while.  Fortunately for him the woman concerned willingly agreed.   He settled into the corner of the seat, covered his face with a newspaper, and pretended to try to sleep.  In the next carriage, Peter watched through his window, casually interested, as the train slowed gently.  It had been a troubled hour.

Enduring his hard seat alongside a woman who seemed to need far more than hers, Peter had felt himself slipping into depression.  The dread image of his future returned, bringing a sensation of impending doom and he drifted briefly into a light, dreamless sleep until the prospect of a stop roused him; travellers weaving their way past his seat, hold-alls and carrying cases probing before them or trundling obediently behind.   Doors opening and closing, the static crackle of announcements; voices, too, from the platform outside:  sounds of greeting, howls of childish distress.

“Hello Peter.”   A voice soft in his ear, thick menthol on its breath – a male voice:  “You’re getting off here, son.   No fuss, alright?”

Peter started up, tried to dodge away, but a heavy hand gripped his shoulder, lifting him from his seat.   “Just nice and slowly, lad.   And look friendly, like we’re your long-lost uncles, or something, right?”

A second man, exaggeratedly casual in posture and dress, stood beside him in the aisle. Peter found himself between them, the man with the breath leading and the other following, being escorted from the train. A concerned-looking woman blocked their path for a moment:  the man with the breath flashed an ID card at her.  “Escapee.   Absconded from Juvenile offenders at Martonbyers yesterday….I know!   They look so innocent, don’t they, these lads?  Robbery with violence.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  “My bag!”  Peter protested, still under the hypnosis of surprise, already alighting from the carriage into the cold air.

“Gottit.”   The casual man assured him.

Peter’s thoughts were in turmoil.   He was being hustled so quickly along the platform by these two heavily-built figures, he hadn’t time to think clearly:  yet he knew he must think clearly.   He must gain some space.

“Where’s your ticket?”  Asked the menthol-breath man.  He wore a Ferrari red rally jacket: it had a slight tear at the shoulder where the sleeve began.

This was Peter’s opportunity.   He fumbled through his pockets, pretending to search.

“Why do you want it?  Why did you make me get off here?”

“Nothing to worry about son.”  The casual man lounged above him, leaning (casually) against a pillar of the station canopy.  “Someone wants to talk to you, that’s all.   Won’t take long.”

“But my parents are meeting me off the train.”   Peter lied.  “Who wants to talk to me?  Who?”

“You’ll find that out soon, if you ever get hold of your ticket.  Here, let me look.”

The casual man dragged Peter’s hands out of his pockets, thrusting his own big hands in their place. Finding nothing, he commenced to frisk the rest of Peter’s clothing expertly, until his fingers encountered the thin contours of what felt like the missing ticket in a patch pocket at the back of his jeans.   “OK son, take it out.”

A northbound train had just come in, its passengers adding to the throng passing through the station foyer.  The morning trains were busy:  students returning to the university, punters for Hemlington’s popular Sunday race meeting.   A group of female students had gathered before the barriers, assembling luggage, chattering happily as the body of the queue edged by them.  Peter was thinking fast.  His captors had no tickets, did not seem to be concerned about them.  So they were some sort of officials:  the pass that the menthol man had shown to the woman on the train was in his hand again, ready for inspection.   Peter reasoned they must have met the train here, at this station.  They had anticipated his coming.   Howard!  Who else but Howard!  Casually-dressed man, holding his jacket firmly at the back, propelled him forward.    Here, in the funnel of travellers at the station entrance, was his chance.   Just a few dangerous seconds as he surreptitiously unzipped his jacket. The line of travellers compacted into a coascervation of humanity as it forced its way, grumbling, past the girl students and their growing pile of baggage.

Once again Peter drew on that perfect timing when the entire world apart from him seemed to move at quarter speed.   His arms slipped easily from the jacket, his shoulder dropped beneath the casual man’s frantic lunge.  In the moment of this escape he also knew, instinctively, which way to go and what to do.  He was at ground level, diving on all-fours into the midst of the students, slithering through a forest of elegant legs which scattered in alarm before him.  Their reaction turned the limited space of the station entrance into complete squealing pandemonium amidst which it would have been easy to escape in any direction; but Peter’s unerring sense led him back onto the platform, where, at that precise second, his train was ready to leave.   His body propelled itself through the closing doors, the safety locks clicked home.   Through the window, Peter came face to face with the menthol-breath man, but now there was glass between them and as the train began to move, the face worked in helpless anger until it could keep pace with him no more.   Hemlington slipped back into history: he was free.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

The Mind in Flight

It is three o’clock in the morning.  I sit at my desk, the white screen of my monitor glaring at me defiantly, lost in the silence.

There are so few moments like these, when the world around me is sleeping and I am not;  when the eastern horizon is still black and the landborne stars of streetlights are my only witnesses.   At such times I am free – truly free – without the need of speech, without the relentless city burr, without the determination of the media to fill every pocket of the universe with lighted sound.   My mind can do the travelling, and it does.

Tonight, long after a septuagenarian such as I should be tucked up in bed with a memory of Horlicks, I can take flight.  A single thought occurs, maybe inspires?  It is this:

Somewhere at this precise moment, at this very second, a new life is coming into the world, taking a first breath.  At this same moment another is leaving,taking their last.  Somewhere in an impact far beyond my fluffy hearing an injury is changing a life irreparably, while in some other place someone who was told they would never walk again is taking a first step.

Out there is a young man nervous for his future, feeling the gentle touch of a hand on his which says he need not be afraid; while out there, too, a solitary tear is falling from the cheek of one who sees their life’s love broken.  A million games of win and lose are being played, a billion dice cast at this very second.   Now.   Again now.  And now.

To someone whose eyes behold the rope, the chair; who sought to drink into numbness the pain beyond forgetting, or to those on that lonely walk home from rejection, those smarting from their first rebuff, or out on the streets gripping the knife of revenge, I can say nothing.  I cannot ever know if you changed your mind.  I can neither comfort nor discourage you.

But you exist for me.   I have imagined you, or somehow reached out for you, in this moment; and that is the miracle of life we all should cherish.   This huge complexity of chance, and consequence, disaster and triumph, that in some sense we all may touch.   Now.  Again now; and now, until the end of time.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

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Featured

The Skinny and the Mule

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him his sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of the catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited  success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s fluid, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   Her voice lowered suggestively.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  I have done a deal with Carlos Eduardo.  It is a very good deal.  He is very generous man.  Your boat, it will be loaded with the very best merchandise!  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”  Pietro wondered what this girl had done for Carlos Eduardo that could have aroused his generosity.  “I want two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight?”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Adriana, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Adriana’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Adriana and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.   

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Adriana, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Adriana was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Adriana slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Adriana’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.  

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

                                                                  #

“We have lost them, yes?”  Adriana hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Adriana sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Adriana said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not skinny girl!  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Adriana answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo, he helped me.”  Adriana grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Wait a minute!  You made your deal with Paolo?  You said your deal was with Carlos Eduardo, Adriana!”

“So?  I tried, but Eduardo, he is fat man, and he is very drunk.  So Paolo, he does dealing for me.  I am very nice to Paolo, and he does me good deal.   What is wrong?”

“Just this.   My boat is filled with Eduardo’s property, not Paolo’s.  Paolo has no property.  My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but drunk or sober Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Adriana, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Adriana fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Adriana.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

 “Then what can we do?”

                                                                  #

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Adriana had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look. 

Naturally,  since Adriana had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Adriana, she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.   

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite. 

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Four

Of fish and Fishing

Peter’s slumber, in a welcoming little bedroom at the north corner of Vincent Harper’s cottage, was deep, and awash with dreaming. Yet, as with all such nights, the only dream he would carry into memory would be the last; his dream before waking. 

He stood beneath a burning sun upon a hill.  Around him and stretching to infinity were grasslands uninterrupted by hedges, or roads, or any natural feature save an occasional clump of scrubby and rather apologetic trees.  Groups of animals grazed, moving lazily, their tails flicking at a drifting mist of flies. 

One of the herds passed close enough so he could see they were not unlike Wildebeest though smaller, and hear as they spoke among themselves in tones curiously evocative of weeping.

As he looked on, a commotion in the grass behind the creatures exploded and a huge cat with gaping jaws and grotesque tusks for teeth sprang from cover.  Its intended victim had no time to turn or run before raking claws and those great teeth put it to death.    Legs crumpling beneath it, with its last breath the poor creature emitted a long, sobbing cry.   The herd scattered. and Peter woke up.

Slowly, as sleep receded, he became aware of breathing.  He was not alone.  His first disorientated thought was that he was back in Levenport, that he and Lesley had taken some time from study and they had fallen asleep together.   He probed softly, half-expecting to be rewarded with the thrill of her warm flesh.   Instead he found a coarse, tight pelt of fur.  It took only a second to realise that this was not human skin, that the owner was much, much larger than Lesley.   He opened his eyes to come face to face with the big cat of the plains, its fantastic fangs still scarlet with blood, eyes angry and lips drawn back in a long, slow feline snarl. Its eyes were craven and yellow, its big paws tensed to strike.  It disappeared.  Daylight peeked through the curtain, and the smell of frying food wafted through the gaps in the planked door.  Just to be sure, Peter pinched himself/

Estelle greeted him in the kitchen.

“Hi.  I was going to give you a shout, but blubber-ball downstairs said you’d be awake.  Are you OK?   You look like you saw a ghost.”

Thirty minutes later, with a calming plate of bacon and eggs inside him, Peter was ready for Vincent when he emerged from that mysterious door.  “Come on, Pete.  This is what you  came for.”

Peter follow Vincent down the flight of stone steps the door concealed.  Halfway down Vincent paused;

“One thing, man; be prepared – a bit of a shock, this.”

Another door: to a basement room, obviously; and their footsteps must have been heard because that oddly familiar voice bellowed from within:  “Not you, Vincent, I need the woman to attend to me.  I demand it!”

  “She’s washing another bale of your clothes, you old f****r!”  Vincent responded unceremoniously.  “We need a bleedin’ laundry!   Keeping you clean’s an industrial enterprise!”   Over his shoulder, in a more modulated voice, he said,  “Come in Pete.  If he throws something at you, throw it back!”.

“Blame me!  My dear, it’s so convenient!  Blame me!”    The voice was suddenly petulant, a soft received English accent with a peculiar dryness, almost a rasp.  Now Peter was sure of its owner, though he hadn’t expected to find him here.

“Right!  Sure, I will!   All I ask, Simeon, is you keep your shirt clean for just, like, an hour or something, huh, baby?   Maybe if you don’t eat for an hour, try that?”

“Not eat?  For a whole hour?”  Expostulated the voice,  “I need food, my dear!  Need it!   You know I need it!   Get me fish.”

“Later.”

“Not later, NOW!”

Peter managed to pass through the door without molestation, into a well-lit space which had all the appearance, although windowless, of a normal sitting room.  A pendant light in the centre of its ceiling provided the illumination; walls were painted a predictable magnolia; wooden features in a contrast tan.  A darker tan carpet fitted the entire floor.   A television of mammoth proportions graced one wall, an over-stuffed chair, a low settee and a smaller upright chair ranged around a large glass occasional table central to the room.

Peter’s attention instantly focused on the occupant of the room – a most unusual-looking human who Vincent introduced:

“Peter, this is Simeon.”

Simeon was seated in a low armchair.   The floor around him was covered by a pair of protective sheets in the form of plastic shower curtains, one bearing a penguin motif, the other a single full-length graphic of a nude female.  

 Simeon’s person could best be described as a vast jelloid balloon topped by a completely hairless head.   Into this, like craters of the moon, were sunk two large, saucer eyes, pinhole nostrils, and a mouth uncluttered by more than the necessary minimum of teeth.  

The lower layers of the apparition were clad in a voluminous pair of blue trousers, partially zipped to respectability:  the upper ones a clean white cotton shirt with cruelly tortured buttons and short sleeves.  The trousers were, like everything else in the immediate vicinity, decorated with splurges of food.   The shirt was not, as yet, though its fate was clear.

A breakfast plate rested neatly upon the shelf of Simeon’s torso.  Peter guessed at Eggs Benedict which Simeon steadily transported to his mouth with both his hands.  Mastication was a very open affair.  Sauce dripped and spattered.   The clean shirt became unclean extremely quickly, especially when speech took place.

“Is this the boy?”  Simeon assessed Peter with a disbelieving stare.   “Bigger than I remember – much bigger.”   He extended a podgy hand, inviting a handshake.   Peter flinched away.

“Sorry!”  Simeon apologised.  “Bit messy, it’s true.  I have difficulty eating this trash, you see.  Bloody stupid idea, leaving sauce all over the place.”

Estelle had followed Vince and Peter into  the room.  “He has difficulty eating anything politely.”  She commented.  “He’s a PIG!”

“Of course he has difficulty;” said Peter a little sententiously, because he was certain now his first encounter with Simeon’s voice had been on Levenport seafront.  “He’s more used to having  a beak.  He’s really a gull.”

Simeon exploded into laughter, a voluble bellow which scattered hollandaise sauce like napalm.   “A GULL!  Of course I am.  You see, my pretty little waitress, how you wrong me?   Dear boy, how well we shall get on!   Simeon Ward-Settering, MSc, BSc, MA, BA, DD, MD, CD, VD, OD, Eton and Balliol here.  How do you do?”

Simeon resumed his gorging:  massaging the remaining contents of the plate into a wad, he stuffed this into his mouth, to be swallowed by a single gulp.

“There. I am replete!   Vincent, you sweet soul, bring me those towels, will you?”

There were towels in a pile by the door.   Four or five were needed, before Simeon looked anything like clean, another two to mop detritus from the table and floor.   To withdraw the shower curtains, Vincent had to prompt Simeon to raise himself, which he did with some difficulty.    Peter noticed that movement induced a ripple effect across the uneven contours of his body, and a made a sloshing sound.

“Not my dear little Popsy!”   Simeon affected grief as the nude woman curtain was taken.  “Do bring her back soon, won’t you?   I shall miss her frightfully!”

“You’re a dirty old bastard.”  Estelle told him, as she gathered up the soiled towels.   There was some humour in the statement, but not too much.

“I know; my failing.  Sit down – Peter, isn’t it?  Vincent, you have told our friend here what this is about?  Broken the ice, as ‘twere?”

“Yeah.”

Peter gingerly lowered himself into a chair which looked relatively free of food.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Estelle said with meaning.  “I have to do laundry.”

“Fish!”   Simeon shouted at her retreating back.

 “Vincent and I, we go back a long way.”  Simeon cocked an eye at Vince, “He didn’t tell you that, did he?”

Vincent shook his head.  “I left it to you, mate.”

“I first appeared to Vincent after a concert in California.  My path was smoothed by several mind-altering drugs…”

“What a gig that was!”  Vincent laughed,  “He tied me up, literally!  I thought I was having a bad trip.”

“I did a thing with a python materialisation – a favourite of mine at the time.  In retrospect a bit cruel, I suppose.”

“I was that spaced out I thought he was God!”  Vincent exclaimed,  “As you can see, he wasn’t”

 “Now, let us be serious,” Simeon exclaimed.  “We met before – you’ve worked that out, you clever thing – so it is time for you to know who I really am.”

“You were that gull on the rail at Levenport,”  Peter said,  “That’s how I first saw you.  You spoke to me, but inside my head, not with a voice like now.  .  You  invited me to meet Vince, didn’t you?”

Simeon spread lily-pad hands:  “I confess it all, guv’nor.  Guilty as charged.   I suspected you shared our receptiveness, but I had to find out. ”

Vincent grimaced,  “Quite useful timing, in the event.”

“My dream?”  Peter muttered, “That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?  How many times do I have to keep saying this?  It was just a dream!”

Simeon affected a sigh of patience:  “Dear child, remember what happened.   You touched the Truth Stone, and it flooded your head with pictures.  You passed out, but you weren’t asleep.  Then you found another part of the Stone in the Toa shrine, and you repeated the exercise there.  Denial of this is pointless!  Accept your gift!”

“Truth Stone?  Toa shrine?  You mean that cave, the one with Toqus’s body in it.  Who are the Toa?  Come to think of it, you haven’t told me yet what you are.”

“The Toa are a religious sect that existed secretly within the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, and probably in other multitheistic religions long before that;”  Simeon answered.   “Unheard of for four hundred years, they are active again because they know, as do we, that the stones are awake.  As to who I, and possibly you, are?  I don’t precisely know.  We call ourselves Ethereals, but that is only a name. 

“The species that thrived on this planet for a hundred million years, and those who went before them, ‘documented’ their knowledge and their law by some means in stone.  I and some of my predecessors are possibly older, even, than they.   I believe we were once the readers of those records.   If you think of stone as the ‘hard drive’ on which their lore was stored, then we were the lasers that read, and possibly also wrote, that information.”

Peter was struggling:  “That’s pretty radical.  So you must be really old.  I mean, if you were reading their stuff. I mean, seriously?”

“I have to accept I may be very, very old.  Having no physical body apart from those forms I assume for convenience from time to time so people, humans, can better understand me.  I could be as old as the stone itself.   Time relies on substance, and as far as I know I,  and the few brethren who have shared this state with me, have no physical form at all.”

“Supposing I believed all this?  Like I’m sitting in a room with a ghost who looks like the Michelin Man on acid, and he isn’t really there.  He’s what…invisible?  Where do I fit in with that?”

“We can no longer read from the stones.  More importantly, dear boy, we can no longer write into them.  We can’t ‘programme’.  That means destiny is set upon a path we can’t control, and something desperate must inevitably happen.  We had to find someone from your generation with the power to interact with that resource…”

“And you’re it, Pete.”  Vincent cut in.   “Because we’ve seen that you can interact with the Truth Stone.  You’re lovely girlfriend, too, if we can find her, but we think maybe one of the others has got her.”

“Melanie’s not my girlfriend,” Peter reminded them. “Others?  What ‘others’?”?”

 “Others who want to use the stone ‘drive’ for their own ends,” Simeon replied.  “The Toa, some other religious groups and extremists who think they can earn from the power it could give them.”

“Alright,”  Peter said, “What do you want to use it for?  How do I know you’re not another bunch of mad scientists, or whatever?”

  Vincent took the question.  “I suppose you don’t.  You would have to judge us by what we ask you to do, if you can do it.”

“Which is?”  

“Perform a reset, if you like.  Wipe the catastrophic event which has caused the error and if possible extract the information we need to get ourselves back on track.”  Simeon tried to look persuasive – an expression that didn’t sit easily on his moon of a face.  “Not much of an ask, Petie Pooh, is it?”

Vincent cut in with a grimace:  “It’s urgent, Pete. We have to get you back to the Rock and get this sorted like yesterday, man, and I don’t know if I can help you.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had to drag you up here to tell you all this, but I daren’t go near the place at the moment.  I don’t think they know about you, but they know me, and I’m a prime target.”

“Why should they – whoever – target you?”

“For the same reason I sought out Vincent at that California concert,” Simeon answered more soberly; “His is the House on St. Benedict’s Rock.  The place where you touched that black stone – the Truth Stone – is your best hope of accessing the information we need and re-establishing control – as Ethereals must have done, I am sure, for millions of years.  It’s the only place, as far as we know, where the Truth Stone is exposed.”

“What’s to stop ‘them’, whoever they are, from simply moving in and taking over?  If all they need is this Truth Stone?”

“It isn’t all they need.  They need you, Pete.  You or your friend, ideally both.  Together you’re the lynchpins.  You’re the readers.”   

#

Melanie had never slept on a small boat before.   The coastal trawler, a sturdy craft built for the short, choppy waves of inshore waters, made few concessions to the inexperienced: and Melanie was scarcely a sailor.   After struggling for a couple of queasy hours against forces dedicated to tipping her from the hard wooden shelf of her bunk, trying to blot out the bang of waves against a hull only inches from her right ear, she surrendered.   Midnight found her on the foredeck, staring emptily towards lights on a distant shoreline.

“Thinkin’ o’ swimming for it?”   The deck-hand, for that was what Melanie assumed he must be, was a spindly youth in a shabby navy sweater.   “’Tis further ‘an it looks.”

“Where are we, exactly?”   She asked.

“See those lights there?   Those’d be Peterhead.   Us’ll be losin’t coastline in a while:  crossin’t mouth of Mor’y Firth.    Could get rough.   Lucky to ‘ave it this calm, time o’ year.”

“How much further are you taking me?”

“Not far enough, nice lass like the’.   Us’ll be dropping the’ off tomorra morning.”

“Where?”

The boy shook his head:   “can’t tell the’ that.”

So it was to be somewhere in Scotland: the north, too.  What; an island somewhere?

Melanie recalled her first conversation with the boy.   She had not intended, when she left Bianca’s nice seaside semi-detached that morning, to wander as far as the fish-dock: she still wondered why she had.   But, having done so, and having leaned over the rail to watch the vessels departing on the tide, it was natural to someone of her enquiring mind to ask questions of this frail-looking youth, who was stacking white plastic trays on the deck of a neat and sweetly-painted green boat.

“Coom aboard if the’ likes.”

She did like.   It never occurred to her there might be -; what – danger – adventure?

“Tha’d not like it, where us has te’ live when wor ut sea, mind.   Coom on, Ah’ll show the’.”

It never crossed her mind.

She marvelled at the little galley:  the smallness, the compactness of it all.   And the forward cabin: two bunks, a locker, no room for more.

            A quite different figure was from nowhere, all at once standing behind her, removing any thought of retreat; a tall man dressed un-nautically, blunt though not unkind of speech.

“We’ll want your possessions:  purse, mobile.  PDA if you have it.   Now, please.”

A man brooking no dissent: impatient of delay.

“Now, please!”

He blocked the door: or was it a hatch, now she was on a boat?

“Gaffer!”  The boy whispered.   “The’ better do it like.  Do like ‘e says, lass.”

How had it happened?   What had brought her here?   The pulse of the diesel was noisy, the throb of its dissent endemic to the steel of the hull.  Unaccountably, though, she was hearing music.  Oh, not a radio, or anything: no, this was inside her head:  like the music of the rock.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Feature Image Dinosaurs Darius Sankowski on Pixabay

Fish: Gregory Moses on Unsplash

Trawler: Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

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Strings

Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,

Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach.   “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”

I grin at her,  “Periclean?”

“A ‘First Athenian’?  More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?”   She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.”  Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string,  “Run him past me again?”

“Kapadopoulos, George.   Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”

“Really?”  Melissa sounds approving,  “Wealthy family?”

“Nope!  Beach bum.  He married the money, five years ago.   His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies.  Does it quite well, actually.  Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”

“Didn’t she choose well?”  Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play;  “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”

“Oh, she’s not that young:  forty-fifth birthday next week.”

Melissa growls at me,  “That girl is not forty-five!”

“No, she isn’t.  But that girl is not George’s wife.”

“You see?”   Melissa purrs.  I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile;  “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you?  You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you?  I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!”  She sits up,  “Shall I give it a dry run?”

I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope.   “No harm in it.”

If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa.   Each step in the soft sand is carefully  placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze.  I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.

It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon  the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt.  How far have I come?  How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa.  And where is Jorges now, I reflect?  When did we last meet? 

Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed.  Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.

She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her.    “He was watching?”

“Of course!”  I reassure her.   “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back.  He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”

“Is he sizing you up?”  She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail.   “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”

“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?”  (Sorry, my  love, but I am curious).

“Jorges?”  Melissa sounds surprised.  “Why do you ask about Jorges?”

“I haven’t seen him in years.  Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”

Melissa gives me a long look,  “He gets his ten percent, darling.  And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing!  Now; business!  Our Achilles – is he hooked?”

“I should say so,”  I tell her,  “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”

Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute.  “Who’s the girlfriend?”

I sigh.  “Ah!  As there are ointments, so there are flies.  She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored.  She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”

Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply,  “Indeed she has.  When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”

“Awash with the stuff.  In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million.  At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”

“Was?  What happened?”

“He moved to Italy.”

So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent!  I profit hugely from my  relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent? 

Melissa is asking:  “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out?  Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”

I would not refuse her:    “If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I don’t.  It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling.  We’ve done well this summer.   It’s time to go home, I think.”

Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever.  We perform a very valuable service for the private client.   In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.   

‘B********l?

Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer.  With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves.  But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers.  Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.

We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel.  There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach.  George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio.   They are not of interest.

At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight.   Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave:  “I’ll be up soon, darling.  It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”

The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor.  I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.

“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini,  “I wonder if you can help me?  These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”

This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful.  It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,

“Two hours, sweetie;”  She says, in a mildly censorious tone,  “That’s something of a record, even for you.  I take it you decided to override my decision?”

“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,”  I reply, emboldened by recent triumph;  “In lieu of my ten per cent.”  I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket:  “I taped the complete transaction.”

Melissa cocks an eyebrow,  “How felicitous of you.  Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”

“I thought the young lady herself:  save her the expense of a marital tiff?”

“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed.  She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all.  Business comes first.  “You’d better pack,”  She says.  “Be careful in the bathroom.”

I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then.  Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself.  Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.

“My lord, Mel, what happened?   What’s he doing here?  I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”

“Very dead, darling.  Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me.  It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research:  your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”

I frown at her,  “Where are we going with this?  Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”

“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money.  All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us.  They have been for most of the season, apparently.  Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’.  Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand.  When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”

“So you killed him!”

“What else could I do?  Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”

“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now!   I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy?  She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”

Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me,  “It’s all being taken care of.”  She says reassuringly,  “But for both our sakes,  I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now.  Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”

“What about you?   How will you manage?”

“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you.  You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while.   At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own.  We’ll travel separately.  Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London.  That’ll be our rendezvous.”

Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue?  In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards.  She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant.  So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out.   And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges!   I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs.  I call out to him;  “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”    

My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t.  Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor.   I understand instantly.  This is a very serious matter.  Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up.  Jorges is earning his ten per cent!   

A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection.  I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there?  George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength.  In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could.    Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously:  England is eight hours away.  Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur?  If so, what does that say about my role?

 I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in.  The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board.  Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble?  Have I left her to fate, failed her?  Has she, for that matter, left me?  Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?

So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that  I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank.  My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.

I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste.  When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.

My taxi delivers me to the door.  My key card buzzes me through.  Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall.  I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end.  I step into the salon…

At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted:  this is a dream – it must be a dream.   To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!

George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.

“You’re dead!”  I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice.  He must already know.  He doesn’t look dead.  He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose.  His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.

Melissa positively beams.  “Darling, did you have a good flight?  You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you?   This is George.”

George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet.   His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand.  I take it.  It is cold, very cold.

“You must forgive him,”  Melissa says;  “He hasn’t really recovered yet.  He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”

“Hello George,”  my tongue is very definitely on autopilot,  “How’s your neck?”

George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat.  The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt.   “Ask away, Sweetie,”  She says.

“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him?  Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”

She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me.   George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly:  is his head sitting a little crookedly?  “We’ll start with Jorges,”  Melissa says,  “Because that’s a simple answer.  I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead.   He’s quite comfortable there.”  She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment;  “Now I have to tell you a little story.  Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.

“I am not as I appear.  Does that sound too dramatic?”

“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky.  “Explain?”

“I come from a very old family.”

“Ah!  I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”

“Close,”  Melissa says.  “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been.  We were nobility; we were owed respect.   Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles.  This makes us very cautious.”

I have stopped pouring.  Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”

 “Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile,  “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true.  But we changed.  Yes, we changed.”

I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable.  “What changed?”

“Certain appetites,”  She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down.  It has been a tortuous road.  Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”

“And now?”  I say, heavily.

“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground.  I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges.  Science is a wonderful thing.”

“Jorges is…?”

“Oh yes!  Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now.  It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”

I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”

“Completely mortal?  Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.”  She pats George on the arm.  His head turns slowly in her direction;  “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”

“Yet you still beat me home?”

“Private transport, shall we call it?  Not used often, and not without risk;   The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception.     Now, about you…”

“What about me?   Did you take your percentage out of me?  I don’t remember any biting.”

“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses.  You even say they make your mouth sore, at times.  Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”

“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”

“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie.  We seal the wound.  Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”

The true horror of what is happening overcomes me.  “Stop!  Stop, please, my darling!  I made one mistake – just one!   Don’t push me away!  I love you!”

“Oh, now who’s being dramatic?  Love?  It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good.   On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use.  I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent.  You will enjoy it!” 

Melissa squeezes George’s hand,  “Meanwhile George, who  as we discovered yesterday is also very, very  good, is my new recruit.  He shall learn from me,  and you will teach a new companion your wizardry.   You must meet her.”

Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too.   In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.

“Hi again!”  Lavinia says softly:  “No strings this time, huh?”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Airport – Jeshoots.com

Header: QK from Pixabay

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To Extinction Rebellion

With gratitude for placing the poor people of our cities under even greater stress, and for your relentless efforts in alienating the rest of us to the entire concept of climate change.

Can you take comfort, when you exercise in synthetic clothes, drink from plastic bottles instead of the tap, when you drive a car the battery of which is a disposability nightmare akin to that of nuclear waste, in the unwelcome truth that your contribution to ‘saving the planet’ is approximately zero?

Yes you can.

Please, recognise two simple, fundamental truths.

The sun is getting hotter.  There is nothing we can do about this, it is just a fact. 

There are too many people.  We can do something about this; we can say “miss out a generation”.  We can, but we won’t.  Think of the clamour!  The weeping protests!  The gnashing of teeth!  (I always fancied a bit of teeth gnashing – never tried it).  

We can recycle, we can:

  • Reduce our dependency on fossil fuels,
  • Harness the power of the wind (goodness knows we’ll get enough of it in the next ten years)
  • Empty our Jacuzzis and our hot tubs,
  • Stop wearing our clothes with once and throw away extravagance
  • Control our fetish for foreign travel,
  • Stop making unnecessary journeys
  • Retire to our energy-neutral pods. 

We can, and should, exploit the extra heat that is coming our way and re-deploy it:  after all, exploitation is something we’re good at.

But the bottom line is, my friends, we are a frail species when it comes to dealing with stuff like this.  

The megalomaniacs will still seek to take control, to conquer; the ‘not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know closet class will still fill the vital positions of management and mismanage them, the rabble-rousers will stir up insurrection when we should all be working as one, and the religionists will do much the same.

“Not my god’s fault, bro.   We kept telling you, didn’t we?  Your god should have listened!”

Personally, do I think our species will be wiped out? 

No.   We have reached a hiatus, that’s all; a much greater one, I think, than most of us understand.  Some of us will survive, just as the crocodile survived the extinction of the dinosaurs.  And if the planet has not been enveloped by the sun as a red giant, perhaps the ornithologists of fifty thousand years hence will be able to point out that we were probably warm-blooded and had feathers.

So this is my recommendation:  live life as though tomorrow is The Big Day.  

Do the sensible things like recycling; prefer natural fibres and wear clothes for longer, eliminate plastics as much as you can, perhaps travel a little less.   But beware of exploitation, because your fear is a fat contract that pressure groups and governments will seek to finance from your pockets, not always – in fact very rarely – with beneficial results.

The first rule for survival is – Be Wise.  

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Satan’s Rock

Part 23

A Silent Wisdom

Vincent Harper was standing behind a table laden with food and the paraphernalia of cooking.   He  seemed smaller than Peter remembered him, in fact shorter than himself: and his lined face in a caught-in-the-act smile of welcome added to this impression, as did the quantity of flour and grease adorning his apron, grey shirt, forearms, and face.  The wild guitar player in an apron: it was difficult to assimilate.   Peter tried not to betray his amusement, but of course Vincent noticed.

“Been doin’ some baking, Pete.   You eaten, man?”

Peter had not, at least since his burger that lunchtime.  It was now evening.  The kitchen, a warm, enchanted place laden with shining copper, wrapped itself around him as he accepted offers of bread just baked and cakes so fresh they crumbled to the touch with large brown earthenware mugs of tea to wash them down.    Ignoring the pain of his bruised hands Peter set about the feast while Vincent, saying or doing little except to offer more when he felt it needed, or to cut another slice, or pass a different pot of jam, was content to watch.

“Good stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Peter answered truthfully.  It was so easy to dispense with formalities and slip into familiarity with this man, in spite of the difference in their ages. “What are you doing here, Vince?   Why didn’t you say it was you in your email?”

“Staying out of sight, mate.”  Vincent began clearing plates.  “After our little session back-along, you and I, it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the Rock.  Too many inquisitive people who know what I’m all about will be looking for me.  Can’t even trust email, not with these guys.  They are seriously heavy:  seriously.”

“What are you – and what exactly is this all about?”

Vince would have answered, had not a door in the opposite wall of the kitchen burst open, admitting a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers that should have been fluffy, had they not suffered visible food damage.

“He wants fish, now!   Have we got any bloody fish?”  She stopped short as she saw Peter.   “Oh hi!   Oh, wow, Vincent, is this him?”

“Peter, this is my lady, yeah?  Her name’s Estelle.  Estelle, meet Peter.”

“Hello Peter.”

Estelle was not at first encounter elegant or possessed of Alice’s frail beauty, although with acquaintance her inner grace would find the light.  There were ways about a movement of her hands, or a quickness of her look, which in time could draw the attention of a stranger and make them a fast friend.  The same could be said of her voice, which, with her Mid-Atlantic accent to enrich it, was deep, almost boyish.   In her welcoming smile there was the self-consciousness of the surgically enhanced; leading a critical eye to that strategic placement of her dark hair which covered sins of age not quite effortlessly enough to convince.  To Peter, whether she was thirty-five or fifty-five mattered little, for her greeting was warm and genuine, and her inner softness beckoned:  he instantly liked Estelle.

Vincent asked:  “Is he ready to receive visitors?”

“Not yet.”   Estelle said.   “He’s still eating.  I have to clean him up first.”     She took Vincent’s arm, and, with an apologetic look at Peter, led him out of the room, part-closing the door behind them.   Beyond it, Peter overheard her saying, sotto-voce, “Vince, is this quite all right, huh?  I mean, the old creep tried to grope me just now!  He’s got fingers everywhere- he makes me crawl!”           

“Sorry, sweetheart.  He’s hard to take, I know.  He won’t stay here after tonight, yeah?”

“OK.  I’ll just mop him over a bit.  You find him some goddamn fish for his supper.  If he’d only just stop eating!”

Vincent grinned around the door, then re-joined Peter.   “Someone you should meet.” He explained, as Estelle departed, presumably to renew her confrontation with the ‘old creep’,  “But not for a bit.  Come on through to the front room, Peter mate.  I owe you a few answers.”

Departure from the kitchen and all its temptations was a wrench, but Peter took it well.   Estelle, in the haste of her leaving had left her door ajar, so as he passed he was able to hear raised voices from what he took to be a basement.  The words exchanged were undistinguishable if their sentiment was not:  one of the voices belonged to Estelle, the other, a tenor with an hysterical edge, struck a chord in Peter’s memory.  He could not recall where, but he was certain he had heard that voice before.

Beyond the kitchen a narrow, timber-clad corridor led to a parlour as Dickensian and out of character with the Vincent Peter knew as it was possible to be.  Soft upholstered wing chairs in old brocade, drawn up each side of a luxuriously deep Chinese rug, stood like sentries before a large fire-blacked grate where a crackling wood fire burned cheerfully.  Its flickering glow threw into sharp relief a dark wooden sideboard loaded with Spode and Meissen that leant against a further wall.  Windows of warped and shrunken joints moaned softly in the September wind, their prospect of valley and open moor framed by heavy curtains of dusky red velvet.   A cat had curled itself contentedly on the soft pile of the rug.  

After ensuring Peter was ensconced in one of the chairs, Vincent perched on the sill of the window and began to talk in a voice so mellifluous and comforting that Peter might have been lulled into sleep, were this not an explanation of so much that he did not understand.  He hung, riveted, upon every word.

“I’m not all I seem, Pete.  There’s stories about me livin’ in houses in LA and havin’ a yacht down Barbados way.  Not true.  Oh, yeah, I’ve got the place at St. Benedict’s:  that’s where I play at bein’ twenty-one again and do me music.  And I put it about that I’ve got all these other places.  But it isn’t me; not any more.   I lived all that once, but now I’m getting older I find meself spending more and more time here.   It’s my hideout, yeah?   Oh, and me and Estelle, we’re together, you know?  Have been for ten years now.  She’s a great girl, see?”

“Toby told me you were single.   Didn’t have any regular companions, he said.  I thought you were with Alice.”

“Nah.  Alice?  Just a mate, Pete, like you.  Again…”  Vince spread his hands:  “not something I talk about.  Doesn’t fit the image, yeah?  The rocker thing.

“Sometimes;” He went on, “I like to sit here and watch the dale through this window.   In the spring the curlews come, in autumn the geese pass by.   And for all the years that I’m here, they come and go just the same. To all of us living things, man, bird or beast, the land don’t seem to change.  That stream, curlin’ along the valley bottom there, it’s been there longer than any man can remember, and it’s always looked just the same as it does now.”   He smiled reflectively, leaning forward to catch Peter’s attention. “But through thousands of years that stream cut this valley.   It made the slope where this house stands!   It worked and worked, for time beyond memory, to carve the groove it needed to get it to the sea.  Think of that, Pete!  Think of the time that took!

“Looking out there, mate, I‘m so amazed how little, we know. Us, Homo-whose-‘is-face; everyone assumes that we sort of spewed out of some genetic witches’ cauldron somewhere and started world domination.  Adam and Eve, y’know: all that? We view other species we share the planet with  along the barrel of a gun, most often, or fattenin’ up prettily in a field, just for the privilege of being eaten by us.”

He turned from the window, suddenly fierce.   “It wasn’t always like that.   It wasn’t never meant to be that way at all!”

“Life started in the sea,” Peter said cautiously, trying to dispel some of Vincent’s surprising anger; “Single-cell creatures, then fish; amphibians, eventually.  I know the dinosaurs developed from the first amphibians, the birds evolved from them, the smaller ones, that is:  Mammals came along and the larger reptiles perished because of climate change, or maybe….no-one knows, really.”

“Or maybe because they over-stretched their food sources, got too bloody big and so over-populated they couldn’t survive?  Anything sound familiar, so far?”

Peter nodded.  “It’s one explanation, I guess, but there are others – volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere, a meteor strike?”

“Could be, mate,”   Vincent agreed.  “Could be.  Thing is, the thing to remember, they were a dominant species long before we came along, a dynasty of creatures which were powerful and clever enough to rule their world.”

“They died out, though.”

“After a hundred million years during which their world changed mightily, for a lot of which they must have been walking a tightrope between their numbers and their resources?  Millions of years of learning, of gathering wisdom?  Perhaps they did die out, but now, Pete;” The guitarist leaned forward to emphasise his words,  “Perhaps their intelligence didn’t.”

Peter didn’t take the bait at first.  He sipped from the mug of tea he had brought with him from the kitchen, contemplating a response.  At last he said, slowly, “So if Archaeopteryx was, as I’ve read it, a dinosaur that evolved into a bird, he’s flying around now with an IQ of umpteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine.  Why wasn’t he the dominant species instead of us?  What about crocodilia, aren’t they a hundred and twenty million years old, or something?  They could have literally had us for breakfast if they’d wanted, couldn’t they?  They’ll have missed a chance there.”

Vincent laughed, “No, it wasn’t quite like that.  For a start, there’s a little matter of equipment, yeah?  Like the old opposable thumbs thing?  The birds aren’t fluttering about with huge brains – for a start they wouldn’t be able to fly.   Put it this way, Pete: You’re learning for your Degree, how do you remember everything?  How are you going to pass on the things you’ve learned?”

“It’s all on my laptop, I suppose.  Disks, flash drives, things like that.”

“Exactly!  You’ve got something not permanent, but more durable than you or I.  Now the big lizards didn’t have laptops. For a long time we had no idea what they did have, but now, just maybe, we’re getting close to an answer.  That’s real exciting, yeah?”

The guitar-player waved at the atmosphere with a manic finger, and sounding for a moment not unlike Toby:  “We’ved always known the kind of wisdom that’s gathered in a hundred million years doesn’t die.   It’s there, somewhere, and god knows we need its guidance, because we’re feckin’ up, man.  How long has Homo-what’s-his-face been around?  Not even one million years, and we’re already well on the way to extinction.  Too many of us, too much plundering and too little planning!”  

The cat, at this precise juncture, elected to forgo its warm nest by the fire and slink gracefully over his  hands to sit upon the window sill.   From there it climbed the scaffold of Vincent’s arms with its front legs and began elegantly grooming his stubble with its rough tongue.  Vince and Peter both collapsed, for a moment, into laughter.

“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!”  Vince cried, his sides aching.  “Animals, yeah?”

He raised the cat up in his hands, cradled it and began chucking its chin.  “See, this stupid creature, he’s got more stuff locked inside his head than you’d ever credit.   He knows when a car’s coming at least half a mile before it arrives – and if Estelle’s in the car he’ll be ready for her in the kitchen twenty minutes before she pulls in.  He can sense a storm; he can tell if you’re ill.  How does he do all that – and much more besides?  We put it all down to ‘instinct’ because we don’t have ‘instinct’ anymore and we don’t understand it.”

Peter’s quizzical look betrayed his thinking.  “Anymore?  Meaning we had it once and we lost it?”

“Yes, Pete!  Precisely, mate!  Not very strongly, maybe, but we did have it, before we got too civilised, too wrapped up in our fully-lined and comfortable world.  Like those dinosaurs, we’ve lost touch.”

“So you’re saying the thing we call ’instinct’ is knowledge left for us by reptiles?”  Peter’s furrowed brow betrayed the seeds of a headache. “That’s kind of hard to believe, Vince!”

“It is, isn’t it?  And it isn’t quite like that, to be fair, because we’ve just picked on one previously dominant set of species whereas that knowledge is the sum of everything that’s gone before.  Think of it a source of wisdom without being too specific as to its origins, and you’re there.”

 Vince’s narrative was easy to understand, simplistic even, but he could not see where it was going to lead:  clever extinct dinosaurs, pollution and all the warning signs of impending disaster; what did they have to do with his being brought here?  “I’m sorry, I…”

“I know,”  Vincent nodded;  “I found it hard enough to take in, at first.  But this is all about you, and that girl of yours.”

“She is not ‘mine’.  Anyway, me?  What have I got that has any bearing on species extinction?”

“You rediscovered instinct.  You had a moment, only a moment, but you tapped into that knowledge,  A couple of moments, actually –Toby told me about the cave.”

“No!  I just had a sort of dream!”  Peter’s denial was vehement.  “ I wouldn’t have understood it, even, if Mel hadn’t helped.”

Vincent chuckled and shook his head.  “You can’t run from it.  Let’s start from somewhere else, just for a minute, Pete.  Do you understand Time?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ah, but do you?  If I said to you, time is the process of aging, would you accept that?  You should live, God willing, for your three score years and ten, and that’s a good long life, to you.  But a fruit fly lives no more than a day or so, and that’s a good long life to a fruit fly.

An elephant’s life is more like ours in terms of years, but this puddy-tat, he’ll be lucky if he gets fifteen years.  That’s what time is – a perception; the way we see things through aging.”

“I gues so, but…”

“So what’s a good long life to a rock?”

“But rock’s aren’t living organisms, so they don’t count.”

“Pete, we wouldn’t know if they were living organisms, because with a life-span of billions of years, their metabolism would be undetectable to us.  Nevertheless, mate, they do age.  They erode, too, just like us.  Think about it!”  Vincent urged. 

Peter, with the warm room and the dimming of the light closing around him, felt his eyelids getting heavy,  He wasn’t sure if he could believe what Vincent was saying, and he couldn’t, after the rigours of the day, absorb anything more.   Vincent, watching him, saw the advancing clouds of sleep and grinned.  “Sorry old lad, a bit much, ain’t it?   Bed for you, I reckon,  Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to him downstairs.”

#

A mile after luncheon at The Royal Oak Inn at Mountchester, Arthur Herritt’s landeau took his guests, Francine Delisle and her son Sauel on the turnpike, which followed the course of the River Leven for some miles.   This was a scenically gratifying journey, the road being forced by the Chewlett Hills to run close by the waterside, drawing young Samuel’s fascinated gaze with uninterrupted views of the navigable river, in width by now almost a full estuary.   Question followed question:

“Uncle Arthur…”  (Arthur had acquired the honorary rank of ‘Uncle’)  “Why are no boats going to Mountchester?  They all seem to be headed for the sea.” 

It was true; whether sailing ships, or barges, or mere dredgers, all traffic was headed west.

“The river is tidal here, Samuel, and the tide is ebbing.  They are using it to draw them towards the sea.”

 “What if one should want to go the other way?” Samuel objected.

Arthur smiled, “Why then it would endeavour to sail, given a fair wind, or wait for the tide to turn.  The  Master would put into Levenport harbour and pray for a good westerly to blow him home in the morning.”

“What if it couln’t?”  The boy was rapt, his chin resting upon his hands on the lowered covers of the carriage.

“Samuel!”  His mother rebuked him sharply.

“No, Mama, I mean if its cargo was needed urgently?  Or the ship required repair?”

“Then the Master might resort to  kedging,” Arthur explained.  “An anchor boat must row ahead of the ship, and drop its anchor so the crew might wind it in on the capstan. A second anchor is then transported forward after the manner of the first, and the action repeated all the way up river. That’s very hard work.   As of custom, the larger ships dock in Levenport anyway, and off-load their cargoes onto barges.  Only the smaller ones make sail all the way up to Mountchester.”

“It must be dreadful slow.”  The boy said.

“It is, Samuel.  We hope that Mr  Telford might one day install a tidal lock for us, although I fear it will be a long time hence.”

Samuel sighed weightily.  “You are right, Mama.  I no longer wish to become a sailor.”

It was late afternoon when their Landeau rolled onto Levenport’s esplenade.

“I have taken the liberty of reserving rooms for us at Roper’s Hotel here,”  Arthur informed his guests.  “It is a respectable establishment, indeed I believe Lord Crowley himself stayed here.  In the morning I intend an expedition to the island, I would be honoured if you would join me?”

Later that evening, Samuel accompanied his mother and his adopted ‘uncle’ for a leisurely walk on the waterfront in the gloomy shade of St. Benedict’s rock.    It was a pensive, abnormally quiet affair, during which the boy could not help but sense his mother’s odd distraction, which he attributed to the large and largely ruined house across the Bay.   It was hard to ignore it, for the legacy of the Christmas storm had left a large part of its structure in disarray, and the wreckage of part of it lay in a tangled heap at the foot of the rock which had once supported it.  Yet it seemed to Samuel there were other reasons for his mother’s peculiarly restrained excitement, and being worldly for his age, he wondered if she could be quite trusted to behave acceptably in the night ahead.

  © Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Header Image: Julian Hochge Sang-huepD on Unsplash
Cat: uros-miloradovic on unsplash
Sailing Ship: Enzol from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-two

Encounter at Maslingham

At about the time of Jeremy and Maurice Shelley’s meeting in a Surrey garden, Peter Cartwright was alighting from a car in the market place of a small northern town.   Since his unusual exit from the Manchester fast food restaurant he had been transported in the back of a plain white van to a large house in Willenshaw.   Here he was met by Hal, a portly northern businessman, in whose BMW he rode for another one- and-a-half hours to Maslingham, the town with the market place.

Although he had asked, Peter had been unable to elicit any information concerning either his destination, or with whom he was supposed to finally meet.    The wiry little man in overalls had stayed with him no further than a carpark below the restaurant, where the van’s driver had concealed him politely, but without comment.   Hal, though talkative, seemed reluctant to answer questions.

“Furniture, lad.  That’s all I know.  Been a remover all me life, me father before me.”  Said Hal, who looked as if he hadn’t moved a piano in years.  “When I took over the firm it were dying on its feet: not worth a snuffed candle.   I built that firm, lad, with’t sweat of me brow.  Worth two million now.  Two million!”

This and similar jewels, interspersed with long, considered silences, made the hour- and-a-half in the car pass slowly.  As this was also Peter’s first intimate acquaintance with cigar smoke (Hal puffed regularly on a fairly generous Havana) he came close to travel sickness.   All in all, he was grateful to finally be decanted in Maslingham.

Having parted with Hal: (“You’ll be waiting a bit.  We can’t afford a direct link up, y’see; too easy to trace us back through the vehicles.  Good luck lad – you’re in‘t badlands up here, mind!”) Peter found himself completely alone.    Maslingham had one of those town centres you could encompass at a glance: a market building stood in the centre of the flagged whinstone square, supporting a rectangular tower with a clock face on each side.  Each face told a different time.   Along two sides of the square were functional shops, a Chinese takeaway, a couple of touristy cafes.   The third side was lined with town houses.   All the buildings were of green sandstone. One or two were still possibly in private hands, the rest given over to office accommodation, except for ‘Luigi’s Italian Pizza Takeaway’.  Luigi’s disported a fading yellow menu in the downstairs front window, and emitted a heavy aroma of stale fat.

On its fourth side the square was cut by a road, busy with traffic en route to somewhere else.   A ‘bus pull-in with a shelter of black wrought iron and glass stood beside this artery: a small group, scarcely a gang, of youths draped around it, like gibbons on a climbing frame.   They regarded Peter with more than casual interest: he was probably the first new face they had seen in a week.

“Are yer lost, ma-ate?”   Asked one; a question which, though innocent enough, initiated sniggers from the others.

“Fook all to find.”   Another commented.   Again, the giggling.

The first questioner was a lanky lad with a shock of black hair and a long, pinched face.  He swung himself down from the bus shelter:   “Can we ‘elp you, like?  Where are you lookin’ fer?”

“I don’t know.”   Peter replied, truthfully.  “Someone’s supposed to meet me here.”

The shock-headed boy was clearly the group leader.   He approached, the rest of his gaggle grouping dutifully around and behind him:  three other boys, two girls.

“No-one ever cooms ‘ere, ma-ate.  Yer must be in the wrong place.”

“I think he’s swank.”    A second lad said.

“He coom in a swank car.”   One of the girls piped.   “Have yer got any money, like?”

“Not much.”   Peter was becoming uncomfortable, although he tried not to show it.  The youths sidled around him, like sniffing dogs. 

“Reckon he ‘as.”  The first boy said.  “Reckon he’s got cash!    Buy us some chips, ma-ate?”    Everyone laughed.

“Chinky’s closed.”   The third boy said.

“Oh aye!”   The leader looked regretful.  “Still, he can give us the money so we can get ‘em later can’t he?”   He looked to Peter for confirmation.  “Can’t yer, ma-ate?”

“I’m not giving you any money.”  Peter replied, as steadily as he could.

“Why, that’s not very gen’rous, is it?”

There comes a moment in such encounters when the inevitable must be faced.   Peter was not unversed in gang culture.  It was as prevalent in Levenport as anywhere else.  There had been groups like this around his school, even at college:  rarely students themselves, these skulks of vulpine sub-humans with shifting, cunning eyes huddled in dark covens around the perimeter walls, at the amusements in the town, by the corner shop with cheap lager to sell.   These were not the sophisticates, the Ross Copelands with scams and wit, of a kind:  they were an altogether a more primitive, and by definition a more dangerous species.   Peter usually managed to avoid them.

            A rapid scan of the group revealed that, of the girls, the taller black-haired one who had asked him about money was likely to be a problem.  Her arms and hands were a picture gallery of bad tattoos, her cat-like features set in a cadaverous half-smile, eyes thirsting for violence.  Of the boys, who had the knives?  Two were his own age or possibly less, one a convinced introvert with downcast eyes and no opinion to share, the other eager but too generously-built to be a threat.  The older, shock-headed boy who had first challenged him, though rangy in stature had the self-confident face of a fighter.  Yes, he would be one.   His immediate companion,  stockier, heavier,  and less assured?  Maybe he was also carrying some sort of weapon.  The second girl, his girlfriend obviously, draped gothically over his shoulder.

“Berrer tak it off ‘im then;” intoned the stocky lad.  “Gan ter ‘elp yer find yer wallet, swank.”

Some instinct drove Peter forward, singling out the shock-headed lad.  He did not know how he had detected the blade in that right sleeve, or how his stare had become so icily cold it could induce the fingers reaching for it to fumble and fail to grip?   Neither had the shock-headed boy time to understand how the roles had altered, how the stranger was his intended victim no longer, and instead he had become the prey.  Those eyes fixed unblinking upon his were as hypnotic and as binding as a cobra’s.   Peter the vicar’s son was hunting. 

To Peter one point and one point only mattered, the shock-headed lad’s chest closest to his heart.  Inside  he was a spring, coiled to its tightest; a whip, primed to crack.  Vaguely, he felt the group jostling around him.  Felt it, but ignored.    Peter’s first blow lifted the shock-headed boy head and shoulders above the would-be plunderers, the second launched him through and beyond them, its impetus carrying him backwards several meters before slumping to the pavement, where he lay without moving.   Immediately, Peter sensed the second threat.  That spring rewound itself instantly, the trigger primed once more.   He cast about him for the source, found the stocky young man was reaching into his jacket, drove his hand like a wedge into the flesh of the young man’s neck and gripped.    A screech of pain echoed in the empty square, a knife clattered to the stones of the pavement.   Now there was space around him, room to move.   Those who remained were backing off, worsted and frightened, horror in their faces   Far away in the back of his consciousness Peter could hear the Goth girl screaming as he raised her boyfriend clear of the ground and dangling him from the end of one extended arm turned slowly, like the second hand of a clock until he had aligned him with his shock-headed friend.   Then he let him fall.  His two most dangerous adversaries lay crumpled beside one another on the paving, while the traumatized remainder of their group backed well away, whining obscenities.

“Come on son; better get you out of here.”  

His shoulder was being held by a restraining hand, a hand that was large and kind.    Sensing this instantly, Peter felt the tensions inside himself release and he allowed the hand to draw him back.  A car had parked behind him with its door opened.  Unquestioning, and with as yet no clear sight of the owner of the hand, he got in.

As he was driven away in a flurry of tyre-smoke three images printed themselves onto his cerebral cortex:   two slumped bodies, lying very still, and the form of the raven-haired girl in a foetal crouch.   Her eyes followed his departure: they were the terrified eyes of one addicted to terror – mirrors of insatiable hunger.

“By god, lad, they weren’t joking when they said you might be dangerous!”    Chortled the big man who was the owner of the hand:  “Still, at least I know I’ve got the right one!”

He was clean-shaven and muscular, this latest of Peter’s drivers; dark of skin and casually dressed in an Arran jumper and he was driving fast, but with precision.  The narrow back-streets of Maslingham were quickly behind them and they were climbing a steep, winding hill overshadowed by trees.   The little town glimmered in late afternoon sun to the right of them as they ascended. Although dusk was still some hours away other vehicles sharing this shady road glowered behind angry headlights while the big man’s car remained unlit, a grey ghost in flight towards the hills.

“Just in time.   Looks like someone called the fuzz.”

Further down on the valley road Peter could see the blue lights of two police cars flashing rapidly towards Maslingham.   He felt cold fingers of shock creeping around his throat; what had he done?  He was mad, he was lethal!   Something inside him was beyond his control and he was a killer!   An involuntary moan escaped his lips; slumping back in his seat he stared at the branches flitting past, suddenly aware of the agony of his swollen fists, and consumed by furnaces of guilt.

In no time at all they had cleared the trees and their car was driving across open moor.   Early autumn winds gusted at the car; low sun forced the big man to squint his way with a hand shading his eyes.  Then they were off the main road, scraping down a twisting lane into a deep, narrow trough between the hills where, at last, the driver guided the car more slowly, wary of the wild life which seemed to use this road as their highway:  rabbits, weasels, the occasional hedgehog all promenaded here, scornful of human company and reluctant to give way.  More than once he had to stop, chivvying a four-legged pedestrian with bips from the car’s high-pitched horn.

“Come on, sunshine, move yer fluffy arse!”

For mile upon mile, turn after turn, Peter was oblivious to all but the memory of those few minutes on Maslingham Square.   Where had he learned such a capacity for brutality, gained such strength?     In the lea of his confrontation with Copper Copeland he had spared a moment to wonder just how he had achieved an upper hand, recognising that some new-found ability must have come to his aid,   but nothing as devastating as this!   Was he a murderer now, wanted by the police?   Would he have to be locked away, for the sake of public protection?   He must have asked these last questions out loud, for the big man chipped into his thoughts.

“Don’t worry, lad, you didn’t kill anybody!   Gave ‘em a few bruises, maybe,and a few bad memories, but they’re tough, those lads.   An hour in Casualty and they’ll be right as rain.  Mind you;”   He grinned:  “If I hadn’t got there when I did….”

Around a sharp, declining corner, squatting above them on a steep grassy bank a house came into view.   This was not, like so many of the dwellings on the moor, a lonstead built by smallholders in the mine-working days:  a crude construction of random rubble.   No, this was an imposing if somewhat grim building of dressed stone:  the windows were large – weavers’ windows made in days when no electricity helped working eyes – and the slate of its roof glared orange where it caught an oblique shaft of evening sun.  A rough driveway led up to and around the rear of this house with the light from an opened back door to welcome them.

The big man got out, came to help Peter with his door.  “Hop out now!  I’m not staying.   I’m going to drive on, in case we were followed.  If you trot up to that door, they’ll make you welcome.  I just want to say…”   He faltered:   “I just want to say I’m honoured, young man.   I never thought I’d see this day, I never did!”   Before Peter could ask him what he meant, he had turned away.   And with a slam of the car door, a tearing of wheels and flying grit, he was gone.  

Peter’s feet crunched through gravel.   Save for a distant rushing of wind through heather, his was the only sound.   A faint odour greeted him as he approached the open door.   It told of recent cooking, of herbs and freshly baked bread.

  Cautiously, he peered inside, to find himself face to face with Vincent Harper.

“Hello mate!”   Vincent said.  “Long time no see.  Have a nice trip?”

Upon a similar sun-blessed evening separated from that moorland house by some distance and almost two centuries of time, Arthur Herritt was seated in a chair in the Salon Parisien at Mountsel Park, watching Francine Delisle, who was perched upon a sofa opposite him, making irritable stabs at embroidery.  Her needlecraft, he allowed himself to think, was at least as inadept as her musicianship, and her posture nearly a match for both, yet the woman was undeniably charming.  Hurriedly, he rebuked himself for his thoughts.   As always, he felt compelled to limit his time with her, for fear of absolutely betraying his feelings.

“I’m contemplating a small excursion,” Said he, “From which I am loathe to exclude you, Francine.   I am hoping you will agree to accompany me.”

“Well I am sure, sir, that  as grateful as I may be for your hospitality, I shall go mad if I do not have a change of scenery soon, so I beg you to take me wherever you intend to go!   May I know your purpose?”

“Truthfully I am not sure of that, I want merely to investigate a place with which you may possibly have a connection,  We shall be on the road, of course, but I shall see to it you are protected.”

“Arthur, please!  I am assured enough!  May I be apprised of our destination, then?”

“It is not far.  I wish to visit Levenport, to view the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.”

“The Crowley place? You would take me there?  Oh, Arthur, would you take me there?  Oh, Arthur!”

So impulsive a reaction took Arthur by surprise, if not by Francine’s very vocal enthusiasm, then by her physical response, for she seemed disposed to throw her arms about his neck like a child, possibly even to kiss him!  He caught her shoulders to restrain her fervour as kindly as he could:   “Francine, I thought that we agreed…”

The full significance of her impetuosity came over Francine, and she blushed furiously, though insufficiently: her true feelings expressed themselves in the soulful blue lakes of her eyes; “We did.  For goodness sake, whatever came over me?”

“At least until we know more of the history that brought you to me…”

“Oh, Arthur, what is this?  What makes me act so wickedly?” And the unspoken question.  ‘Why do I feel for you in this way?’  Dare she even think it?

“That is what we shall endeavour to find out,” he said, turning away to hide the flush of colour in his own flesh.  “Although those answers may not come to us tomorrow, we shall set forth bravely in the forenoon!” 

As she watched him leave a black cloud of depression enveloped Francine so that she began to weep.  Tears spilled over, coursing almost unregarded down her cheeks.  It was not Arthur’s invitation to visit St. Benedict’s Rock that affected her so, not that.  She had heard of the place, of course, in her years in Mountchester, but it had held no special significance for her then, and very little now.  No, it was the invisible cage imprisoning her that distressed her so, the prison of a past she did not have, compounded by a danger she could not understand.  In her mind she perceived Arthur as standing beyond the bars, beyond her reach.  The journey of the morrow would not resolve these puzzles, but just the chance to share them without the constriction of Mountsel Park, which, for better or worse, she saw as her cage.  The Great House in which she felt so very much the guest of Arthur was also the barrier that stood between them.

How might she explain this growing affection for Arthur?  She took no pleasure in it.  Her undisciplined feelings were a constant embarrassment to her.  A daughter of a good family must deny herself simple transports of affection, and constantly defend her reputation; so what were her true feelings for this man who sparked such wildness in her?  What would be the price she would have to pay for his rescue?

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits: Featured Image Free-photos from Pixabay

Hooded Man: David Ortega from Pixabay

Moorland Scene: Gamopy from Pixabay

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I Don’t Often Comment on American Affairs, But…

I do have to say this:

President Joe Biden is too old.

I say it in a non-political way, because I have previously been advised that I don’t know enough about American politics, and I have no wish to offend those who do, but can a man who apparently gets lost on his way to the end of a sentence be competent to conduct the orderly withdrawal of forces from a remote tribal hunting ground like Afghanistan?

President Biden was born in November 1942.   In November this year he will be 79.   Just in case you think I am making a political argument, can I also point out that his most likely rival in the last race for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, is also 79.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is 75.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives (have I got that right?) is 81.

Nancy Pelosil.

As a quick comparison, I offer Boris Johnson (UK Prime Minister) at 57, Emmanuel Macron (French President) at 43, Angela Merkel (Retiring German Chancellor) at 67, Vladimir Putin 68, and Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, 49 (I know, he dyes his hair).

Boris Johnson

There are things I would like to know, as a small cog in this giant wheel of the ‘Free World’ and my reason for wanting this knowledge is vested interest:  I want my children to stay alive.

emmanuel Macron

In total, how many grams of statins, Bisoprolol, Irbesartan, Rivaroxiban, Fuorosimide or similar are required daily to keep these extravagantly senior politicians functioning?

Angela Merkel

Is there some controlled environment solution for their rest periods, those times when they are away from the public eye (I understand about three days is the average)?  I think back to Michael Jackson, although he was much younger, of course.

Who really pulls the strings?  You see, I can’t believe it is the will of the American people that they should be represented by geriatric wealth magnets who presumably accumulated their fortunes by leeching off them for generations.  The job of President does not seem to be a sinecure, therefore unless you believe its incumbent is fully capable, somebody is doing the work.   If I were the American voter, I would feel entitled to know who that is (or ‘they are’ – see how conspiracy theories can grow?).

Justin Trudeau

It would be disappointing to discover that the cut and run from Afghanistan without regard for the lives it would waste or the pleas of allies it would ignore was truly at the centre of American thought.  It would be preferable, and more plausible, to believe the shambles of withdrawal was at the behest of a congenial old man who, if you discovered him loitering and confused on your doorstep, the charity in you would demand you call the Nursing Home, at the very least.  Will you extend that charity, though, when you have it in your power to reconcile him to a contented old age and keep him away from the nuclear button?

There are so many challenges to this generation – so many pivotal issues.  The balance of superiority is poised to topple towards the East, and there are those of us who do not wish that to happen.   Climate change, internal strife and ‘human rights’ in all their various guises are not restraints that inhibit the ambitions of the Chinese, the Iranians, the newly-emergent Russians.  South America will spill over, not matter how hard or high we build the walls.

In this humble British view, America needs to rediscover the dynamism and vitality of those in middle years who have wisdom enough but also energy enough to recognise and manage change.  Has the political class of whatever colour so fortified itself against the needs of its people that it can’t be questioned or allow its structure to be examined?

Ever since the inception of the nuclear solution it has been hanging there, increasingly accessible to more and more primitive people.  No-one has yet introduced the final spark.  Isolation and confrontation are the flints ready to strike, yet I tend to follow the notion that the trigger to the fatal conflagration will be more likely a tragic accident – a hand in panic, or a mind not fully engaged.

These are very dangerous times.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-One

The Vanishing Game

Lena Cartwright’s son Peter had gone away for a weekend, on the pretext of staying with an ex-school friend, and when the two mothers met in Lena’s kitchen Karen Fenton suggested that her missing daughter Melanie might be with him.  Lena’s response was to call Peter on his mobile.    It could be heard ringing unattended in his bedroom.

Lena snapped her ‘phone cover shut in irritation.  “No.  No, it’s very unlikely they’re together.  If you start thinking in that way, you might equally ask where Howard has gone.   That would be ridiculous.”   Lena instantly regretted the blunder:  “Oh s**t, what made me say that?   Karen I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t worry, I‘ve wondered that too – about Howard.”   Karen acknowledged glumly.  “I mean, bloody hell, that’s all you can do when you are in my situation; wonder and invent until paranoia takes over completely.   And it has, believe me.   Oh Melanie, where the hell are you?”

The friends stayed together for the duration of Lena’s sherry bottle.   After they had parted Lena climbed the stairs to Peter’s room, checking his ‘phone for any tell-tale messages and trying to pick up the threads of her day.   All she picked up, though, were seeds of doubt.  Karen was unbalanced: it was palpable nonsense, wasn’t it, to suggest that Melanie and her son had absconded together?  Yet, he had been so uncharacteristically secretive about his intentions before he left that morning, and it was so, so unlike Peter to go anywhere without his mobile.    More and more ‘what ifs?’ stacked up before her, question upon unanswerable question.   She indulged herself with twenty or so minutes of wanton self-destruction before returning to break into the reserve sherry bottle.  By the time Bob returned from his parish duties that evening, she was almost leglessly drunk.                         

The train-ride was a long one.  When he alighted at Manchester Piccadilly, Peter was already tired from the jostle of weekend travel, befuddled by his early morning awakening, and tense with expectation.    The email had offered very little in the way of detail.  What the hell was he supposed to do?   He checked in his ticket and followed the stream of the disembarked as it moved towards the foyer.  Everyone else had somewhere to go – taxis to take, buses to catch.   He knew nothing about this northern city, had no idea where to go and only just enough money for a fast food lunch.

“Only one of you?”   The voice behind him was cool and clear. “You must be Peter.  I am honoured to meet you.”

The words belonged to a woman of about his own height:  she was mature, possibly in her late forties, and dressed casually in autumn colours of camel and brown.  “I’m Janice;” She explained in a comfortable voice; “I’m supposed to look like your mother.”

Janice did not waste time.  Guiding Peter with a gentle yet insistent hand, she threaded through the crowded station and out into clear air beyond.   The taxi stand was queued up with people waiting for rides, most of the cabs having already gone.   One, however, with its “Out of Service” sign illuminated, stood at the back of the rank:  it drove forward as they approached.

“This is ours.”

The taxi whisked them from the station into the troubled traffic of the city.  Janice did not seem excessively alarmed at the absence of Melanie, although she took care to confirm that she had left no-one behind.

“Have you eaten?”   She asked Peter.

They pulled over outside a Burger Restaurant.   As they alighted from the taxi, Janice asked its driver:   “Anything, Ben?”

‘Ben’ looked in his mirrors before giving a brief nod.    “One.”   He said.

“Okay, thanks.”

Inside the restaurant Peter found a table while Janice paid for tray meals which they consumed, mostly in silence.    Janice asked a few pleasant, meaningless questions:  how were his studies going, what did he want to do when he left university, did he like living by the sea?    Peter responded with small-talk answers that he hoped were appropriate. There seemed to be no real attempt to communicate, and no reference was made either to where he was going, or why he was there.  Eager as he was to discover these things, Janice’s demeanour seemed to stall such questions.  He doubted if she even knew what his final destination was.

“Now,” she said, when they had finished eating,   “I think I need the loo.   I expect you’ll be wanting to go, too, by now?”

Peter protested that he was not particularly in need, but Janice was emphatic.

“You have a long journey in front of you…”

“The message said it wouldn’t be far.”

“Nevertheless….   I’ll go first.  You can go when I come back.”

Left alone in the restaurant, Peter wondered what the next move would be.  Obviously his guide felt he could be trusted not to leave, or could it be that he was still being watched? How had Janice recognised him at the station?  How many people, like the taxi driver, apparently, were involved in organising this journey;   who were they, and were there more of them here?   He looked around the busy tables, packed and clambered over mostly by children on their Saturday family routines, for someone or something which looked out of place, but everything, and everyone, looked normal.   Harassed parents, groups of teens in animated conversation:  one very fit-looking girl who caught his eye and smiled…

“Your turn.”   Janice was back.

Chastened by the woman’s insistence, Peter wound his way through the throng to the restrooms.  In doing so, he had to pass the girl, who gave him a shy glance.  The facilities were partitioned from the seating area by a door opening into a short lobby with an expected but pervasive odour of disinfectant.  Three clearly labelled doors lined the lobby’s left-hand side: ‘Baby Station’, ‘Women’ and’ Men’;  a ‘Disabled’ bathroom was accessed from the right.  A single fire exit door with a panic bar formed the end of the lobby.  As Peter approached the Men’s Room a firm hand gripped his shoulder, propelling him forward.  Alarmed, he tried to turn, allowed only a second in which  to catch a glimpse of his assailant, a small, weathered man in a boiler suit, before he fell into, and through, the fire door.

Over his initial surprise, Peter recovered his equilibrium with lightning rapidity.  In one sweeping turn he dislodged the invasive hand and rounded upon its owner, thrusting him back against the nearest wall and all but lifting him from his feet.  The weathered-looking man raised one defensive hand   “Whoa!  Whoa!  It’s alright, lad.  Don’t worry!  You were being tailed, see?”

Peter did not see, not immediately, but what he did see when he relinquished his grip was.  the weathered man place the fire door’s detached panic bar and its fittings against the wall (“it were only on wi’ double-sided tape, like”)  then strip the ‘Fire Exit’ transfer sign rapidly from the open door panel and substitute a smaller door plate from his pocket which read ‘Janitor’.   A few curious eyes from within the lobby might have watched, but the process was so rapid and the door closed again so fast very few had a chance to take it in.   Once latched back into place, the leathered man threw home three steel bolts.

“Take ‘em a while to get through those,” He said grimly.  “Come on, lad!”   

They were in a narrow, dimly lit stairwell with walls of naked brick.    The stairs from it led only down.

Approximately a hundred metres from the fast food restaurant, parked very illegally, a van claiming to belong to a logistics company was not all it seemed.   In the back of the van, Melanie’s putative step-father Howard had set up a temporary office.  Wearing a Bluetooth set  and perched upon a tiny stool, he was watching a pair of monitors.

“What’s happening?”   He asked the screens.

Down the street a girl in a blue overcoat appeared to be searching for something in her purse.   “Nothing.  He went to the bathroom.  He’s still in there.”

“The woman?”

“She hasn’t come out.  She went back into the restrooms a couple of minutes ago.  Maybe she’s forgotten something?”

“Or she’s getting a bit worried because he’s been ten minutes…”

“Well, it could be um….?”

‘No,’ Howard thought, ‘it isn’t.   I know this sinking, stinking, black feeling of failure all too well, and it isn’t number bloody twos!’    And he switched to the other screen with its view of an alley behind the restaurant.  “Tom, anything?”

A huddle of clothes against the alley wall moved as the tramp wearing them acknowledged:  “Nope, nothing.”

“OK, people;”   Howard sighed.   “Let’s go in.  And I want the woman as well as the boy!”

Janice had waited for a precise measure of time before returning to the restrooms.   She had, she knew, very little margin to complete her task successfully: but it had been rehearsed many times, so she was confident.  She even managed to smile, distantly, at the fit girl who, because of her interest in Peter, also noticed her passing.

Two minutes later a dishevelled and tattered creature looking like a mad prophet barged through double doors into the open plan restaurant kitchen, to a concerted “Ooooh!” of surprise from crowds of Saturday diners.   Simultaneously a woman in a blue coat entered briskly through the customer entrance, pushing between tables towards the restroom area.   The prophet leapt with surprising agility over the counter to follow her, so swiftly that in a moment both had disappeared into the lobby, closing the door behind them.  In the eating area, nobody spoke for a few seconds.   Then, as the necessary activity of eating ensued, conversation crept back too.   It was as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile the blue-coated woman and the prophet were outraging public decency by slamming open doors to each of the private areas,  questioning anyone they found.  In the last of these, the Men’s Room, the blue-coated woman surprised a fair-haired man in a leather jacket, standing at a urinal.  He glared at her:

“Wrong one, love.  Yours is next door.”

“There was a tall teenager in here.”  The woman rapped;   “blue sweater, grey chinos.   Did you see him?”

The blond man shook his head.  “No.  In here I tend to concentrate on what I’m doing.  Are you deaf, love?  Feck off, will yer?”.

Outside in the corrido woman and prophet coferred.

“Janitor’s cupboard?”

“It’s locked.  We’d need a ram for that one.”   They exchanged hopeless shrugs.  Opening her handbag – something she seemed to have to do abnormally often – the woman said quietly:   “He’s not here.”   A series of expletives rang in her ear, so loudly that the man in the leather jacket, brushing past her on his way out, could actually hear them.

The prophet shrugged philosophically,  “It’ll be a while before ‘Branch’ gets here,”  he said,  “Let’s do lunch.” 

They returned to the restaurant, where, although they checked thoroughly, there was no sign of either Janice or Peter.  The leather jacketed man, having apparently concluded his meal had left and it was a normal, busy weekend lunchtime, a milling chaos of young and old.   The doors to the street were opening and closing constantly as a steady string of new supplicants to the broiler god entered, and sated worshippers returned to the street.  The tramp inched into a space beside the fit girl, who glanced nervously at him and moved aside to provide more room.  She was engaged in a mobile ‘phone conversation, which, had he listened, might well have interested him.   The woman in the blue coat braced her shoulders as she left, preparing for her rendezvous with Howard.

Howard himself found it – at the back of the Men’s Room stall.    Forced into a small cabinet which concealed the lavatory cistern was a supermarket carrier bag containing a wig, handbag, camel-coloured woman’s sweater, dark brown skirt and block-heeled shoes.   The bag also contained a liberal amount of toilet-paper smeared with a fine, greasy mixture of make-up foundation and removing cream.

“We lost him.”  He tried to imagine the expression on Jeremy Piggott’s face as he framed a reply.

“How?”   Piggott rejoined quietly.

“A janitor’s cupboard door in the restroom area.  We had to break it down with a ram eventually.  It led to a basement car park.  We followed when we realised, but he must have been long gone.  He had an accomplice.”

“So, do you have the accomplice?”

Howard swallowed hard:  “No, we lost her, or him, as well.”

Zimzamzu from Pixabay

That afternoon, Jeremy Piggott strolled in a peaceful Surrey garden with a silver-haired grandee, a senior who had long retired from the organisation he served.   Maurice Shelley was a man in whom he occasionally confided, a cool head he turned to for advice whenever the regular channels of command were lacking.   Now well into his seventies, Maurice had served a lifetime with the service as soldier, agent and coordinator.   He was tall, still unbent by the ravages of time, with a hundred campaigns etched into each line of his craggy visage.  His mind was as needle-sharp as it had ever been.   He was the Old Man of Hoy: a rock standing steadfast in a moving sea of politics and intrigue, and  Jeremy was one of many who still sailed, from time to time, to his door.

As Jeremy retold the failures of his day, the old man nodded sagely once in a while, listening without interrupting.  A thoughtfully placed wooden bench hid among trees at the end of his garden, with an advantage from which it was possible to overlook the roofs of neighbouring houses.  These were older, established houses, with gardens wherein older, established trees bore witness to the changing season.  The leaves were just beginning to fringe with autumn yellows and browns.  

“The colours are so subtle, aren’t they?”  Maurice suggested they rest on the bench; “Tell me what you actually have on this boy?”

“Specifically?   A sequence of events in which he appears to be pivotal. There was the picture….”

“Ah yes, the portrait from the sky…”  The old man sighed, barely disguising his scepticism.

“…that first led us to him.    Then our operative found the original file on the girl’s computer, implicating her, but nothing more.  Enough to justify surveillance, which we did, of course,  unproductively, for quite a long time – to a point where I was just about to pull the plug.   I mean, maybe the whole falling paper thing was just a coincidence?”

“What altered your mind?”  Shelley asked.

“Our operative inside Amadhi, who got wind of the Anzac Day assassination attempt, was terminated.  She kept an audio diary on flash drives; her killer probably has one of them, but it might have been quite new.  We found an older one which links her to our boy – she met him – and to a Rock guitarist, Vincent Harper.  She kept those associations from us.

“There are other curious irregularities, A second girl – Lesley Walker.   She’s very into our boy, and her background doesn’t scan.  There’s his association with the first girl, who’s also disappeared and now we have a transvestite with a very professional organisation in Manchester – who could have abducted the girl as well, for all we know.”

“I would guess he’s just a stepping stone.”   Maurice mused, “Is Amadhi directly involved?”

“None of the hallmarks.  Only, I suppose, because it was their hit he fouled up.  No, someone else wanted to draw our attention to the boy.  There’s definitely a pattern behind it all, but I’ve no clue what it is!”

Maurice smiled.   “I imagine you want me to tell you what I might do?”

“I’d value your opinion.”

The old man shifted his position: the wooden seat was hard and his bones not as well padded as they once were.   “First, I’d ask myself why I wanted to do anything.  Does this boy present a threat?  Has a crime been committed, or is he likely to commit one?  Or is this merely unsatisfied curiosity; in which case there are better uses for Service funds?  Either way, there’s nothing you can do until the boy or the girl surface – as they will, eventually, one way or another.   Then I suppose you might pull them in, apply a little pressure and see what they have to say for themselves.   I’d try that.   Evading surveillance is suspicious but it’s hardly a crime, so I’d only be pursuing enquiries and that picture links them pretty stoutly to the assassination attempt, doesn’t it?”

Jeremy considered.  “And hold them for what?  If I get nothing…”  he shook his head.

Maurice asked quietly, “Why do you want them Jerry?  Why, especially, do you want the boy?”

“Honestly?  I think he has something important to tell us.  He’s a messenger.  Alice was trying to tell me about him before she was rubbed out, but her machine was too badly smashed to make out much…”

“So it’s a hunch, isn’t it?  Hunches are notoriously unreliable old boy; even yours.”

“Not this time, Maurice,  Not this time.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: William McCue on Unsplash

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Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty

Marionettes

Jeremy Piggott’s phone bleated piteously enough to make him answer it.

“Hi Jerry, its Sullivan.”

“Howard, how nice!   I thought you’d forgotten us.”

“Nothing to report, Jerry old thing; until now, at least.   Whole issue’s gone a bit stale, if you ask me – my prospective stepdaughter’s out of the picture….”

“That was a pun, I take it – since she created the bloody picture?”

“Oh very good!”

“What is our boy up to, then?”  Piggott asked:   “Exams and such?  Being ordinary?”

“Well yes, actually.”  Sullivan replied.  “Apart from the physical differences we spoke about last time – lads do grow around about his age, don’t they?  He’s picked up with this rather nice little girl (surname Walker, Lesley;  I’ve asked office to get some background) and they have a pretty warm thing going, I can tell you.   He took her to the house at Crowley yesterday, so he’s obviously still obsessed with the history issue…”

“Did they find anything?”

“I don’t know:  I’m curious about that.  I went over the place myself quickly afterwards and there’s something odd.  It’ll be in my report.  History wasn’t all they were researching, by the way.   A certain little girl will have paid a visit to a chemist’s this morning, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Okay, send the photos – I’ll see if there’s anything in the gen. on this Walker girl.   Cartwright hasn’t been back to the rock, or met up with your girl?”

“Photos should be in your mailbox.   And no to both:  in fact, my young friend with the stepdaughter potential is still as mad as a cat with him: I doubt if they even speak.    Look, how much longer should we keep this up?   Melanie senior is spewing wedding bells whenever she opens her mouth, so it’s getting difficult to side-step, if you see what I mean?”

“Maybe for years.  Cartwright could be a sleeper, your Melanie girl may take us off on a different route?  I don’t know, perhaps it is time for a change.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right’o.  Just a thought, hm?   Take care, Jerry.”

The line closed, leaving Jeremy Piggott, British Secret Service, to ponder events in Levenport.  Howard Sullivan’s brief  had been to keep tabs upon Peter Cartwright, but the whole investigation had begun to look like a dead end.  Since his bureau had traced this boy; he whose printed image adorned the scrap of floating paper which saved a Senator’s life, surveillance had revealed little or nothing.  Yet a burning question remained:  why the picture?  A clue, a signpost to something more?

“Someone’s pulling your strings, Jerry old mate.” Piggott mused.  “You’re a bloody marionette, that’s what you are.”

            He dialled a number from the phone’s memory.   “George,”   He said when a voice answered.  “Levenport file.   I’m sending you some stuff on a family called Walker, focus the daughter.  Pictures follow.  Check it out.  Then I want a conference call tomorrow morning with anyone still on the case.  Circulate the appropriate memo, will you?”

Piggott replaced the ‘phone, settling down to an interrupted viewing of a television soap for which, were he quite honest, he had little regard.

In the meanwhile, returning from his day at Crowley, Peter Cartwright had to submit to some well-meaning interrogation by his mother and father.   Lena’s horror was limited initially to the state of his clothes.

“Well, you might as well throw those away.”

“I can’t!  They’re designer jeans!”

Bob, who knew both where Peter had been and who had been there with him, was concerned for different reasons; but he was wise enough not to say so.   There were questions he did not need to ask – the alterations in his son’s demeanor told him all he needed to know.

“Well, Peter my son, the Crowley place must have impressed you mightily, that’s all I can say.  He seems to have brought most of it back with him, doesn’t he, darling?”

Lena was fussing:  “Go up and run a bath.   And get those clothes off you, for heaven’s sake!  I’ll do what I can with them.”

There was an interlude while Peter went through the business of undressing, and Lena ran his bath for him, collecting his soiled clothes from outside his bedroom door.   She re-entered the kitchen, laden with these, to find her husband in reflective mood.

“Odd, I’d say.”

“What?”

“Well, I had a call from our novice Bishop today.  He asked about Peter again!  Again!  And I told him where Pete was going today.  Strange thing is, he seemed to know already.”

Lena frowned, “You’re imagining it,” she said.

Somewhat later on this same evening, Peter finally broke free of parental curiosity and bathing rituals for long enough to switch on his PC.    There was one email with an enclosure.  

Hi Peter:

You deal with this.   I can’t.

Melanie.

He opened the enclosure.  It read:

Hiya:

You don’t know me, or I you, so I’m hoping I can convince you I’m not some pervert by using a phrase that’ll mean something:  ‘ the stones are awake’, gettit? Because it’s vital that we meet.  

Here’s the plan.  For the weekend of 8th September you and Peter are going to stay with an old school friend, Mary Wilson, who’s moved to Mancheste.  Birthday?  House party?  You choose.    You’ll forget to take your mobiles, so you’ll be difficult to trace.   You and Peter can both use this same story – the pitch is that there will be six of you going.   That’s just in case you’ve got parents who worry (Sorry, but I don’t know your parents!).

 Train tickets to Manchester for you both on the reference number below.   You’ll be met at Piccadilly, and measures taken to see you aren’t followed.

  Look, this is for real.  Keep it between yourselves.   We believe you are being watched, so be careful.   I know how iffy this looks but if you travel together and if I add that Vince Harper gave me your email I hope that will be enough to persuade you.

 Bung this in your trash straight away.  It’s got a little gizzy all its own to take care of it from there.   Then wipe your history and we should be safe enough.

PS.  If your parents get suspicious or I haven’t earned your trust,  don’t worry – we’ll set up something else.   Remember, no mobiles.   See you soon!

The mail concluded with ticket references.   There was no signature.

Peter thought for a moment, and then sent to Melanie:. 

 “I’ll go.  Are you coming?” 

He waited for a reply, that night and the next day.   Nothing came.

#

These early days of September were the countdown days, last precious remnants of the long summer break.   Lesley and Peter spent as much of this time as they could together, although it was littered with tedious bouts of revision.  For light relief Lesley practised on an acoustic guitar, melodically enough to inspire Peter to join in with vocals until he lost the key so entirely she made him promise to stick to his intended mathematics-based career choices. For most of the time they could work in each other’s company:  their disagreements were rare.

Peter dwelt less and less upon thoughts of Melanie in these days.  He was loyal to his friendship with her, even a little guilty at allowing Lesley to eclipse her so completely, but he could not relate to her if she wanted no contact with him, and the silence was thunderous.    So he went on with the business of preparing for his final year with fewer backward glances than he might.  And he was taken by surprise when Lesley gave him the news.

“Melanie’s gone.”

They had broken from studies for a morning coffee at Hennik’s.

“What?”   Peter could not help a reaction:  “How do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“Like – gone – gone away.   To live with some relation or another up-country, I think.  She’s changed to another college.  She won’t be back next term, for exams or anything.”

Lesley studied Peter’s face, trying to suppress the tiny lump which kept coming back into her throat:   “You still fancy her, don’t you?”

He came to himself.  “No.”  He said, rather too quickly.  “No, I don’t.   I never – I mean we never…..we were just friends, Les.  But I hoped we still would be, you know?”   

There was a wisp of betrayal in his girlfriend’s eyes.   “No.”  Peter repeated more carefully.  “I could never feel for Melanie the way I feel about you.  I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.  You know that really, don’t you?”

Lesley tried to tell herself she did.

“It was just a shock.”  Peter reasoned.   “I mean, why?   I know she didn’t get on with that Howard bloke who lives with her mum, but surely…”

“Exam year?   Has to be a good reason, doesn’t there?   The reason is you, Peter dear; or rather, us.”

‘This honesty thing is out of control,’ Lesley thought to herself: ‘What are you doing to me, Petey?  I’m turning honourable!’   She said:   “Mel may just have been a friend to you; but to her you meant a great deal more. You were, like, the love of her life?   Oh, don’t look like that!  I’m sure of it.   I shouldn’t say these things to you, but I can’t help it.  Mel is – or was – my friend too, yeah?”

Wisely, Peter made no reply.  He could not tell Lesley what he believed to be the real reason for Melanie’s departure, any more than he could admit to the bereft feeling now clawing at his heart.   Okay, so maybe there had been something deeper there, once, but what use was there in revisiting it now?   Melanie had gone; not in flight from a lost love, but running from the inevitable. Like his, her life had changed irreversibly:  that email had to have been the catalyst.   She did not want to be found so easily again.

Lesley meanwhile knew, despite Peter’s pretense, that he thought a lot of Melanie; that they had been more than simply friends.   She was also aware of a mystery in Peter, a part of him she had yet to see.  There were no deliberate lies or subterfuges, no evasive moments or avoided looks:  but he had something within him that was hidden.     All of which would not matter, if her relationship with him had not become, that afternoon at Crowley, at once so simply definable and so complicated:  she was very young, but she was also very much in love.

“Don’t you dump me, Peter.”  She warned him:  “Not ever, do you hear?”

Hidden away in her bed room under the guise of shared homework, Peter did his best to reassure her he would not.

#

Lena Cartwright led a chaotic life: this was the construction she always placed upon her ‘higgledy-piggledy days’ as she called them, when anyone asked why she seemed to be flying about for no reason.   Should any of her friends try to pin her down to an itinerary, or to delicately suggest that, for all her rapidity, she was actually going nowhere and doing very little, she was inclined to fall back upon ‘her art’ and given to explaining that artists don’t think in the same way as other people.   These were the only times when she would refer to ‘her art’ at all:  for the most part she kept her paintings very close to herself.  They were personal to her, the hours she spent in her studio, and very carefully unrecorded.  Production was slow.   A sherry bottle was usually present.

This is not to say Lena was lacking in work or commitment: she had plenty of both.  Long ago, she had forfeited all pretensions to “High Art”.   Her talent, she knew, would never rival Rauschenberg or Hockney, she had no great message to leave to the world.   But that did not inhibit a modestly profitable stream of local commissions, seaside views alongside sketched portraits and a smattering of graphics.   Besides, she had, as she put it to anyone who would listen, ‘a vicar to run’,  in her role as a vicar’s wife.   Altogether these things, generally, filled her day from eight o’clock breakfast to eight o’clock supper. 

Lena exercised one strict discipline; she would never drink in the presence of her only son.   These days Peter was usually somewhere other than home, he touched base more and more rarely, so the sherry bottle was wont to stray into the kitchen as well as her studio, guaranteeing her affability for the evening to come.   On this particular Saturday,  Peter being elsewhere, the mistress of the house could be found doing a little desultory baking when a knock on her kitchen door announced a very distraught Karen Fenton.

 “I didn’t know where else to go.”  Karen said.   Her face quivered on the brink of collapse.

“Come in, love.  Come in.”     Lena shepherded her friend hurriedly indoors.   As soon as the door was closed, Karen broke down.  

“Oh god, I had to come to you – I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to do this!”

Clutching Karen’s sobbing shoulders in her arms; Lena guided her into her kitchen.    “Sit down and I’ll make some coffee – or maybe you’d like something stronger?   What’s happened?”

“Melanie.”   Karen said simply:   “Has disappeared.”

This was not a Richter-scale shock.   Peter had already told his mother that Melanie had ‘left town’.

“She’s moved to Saurborough, hasn’t she?  To your sister’s?”   Solicitously pouring  solace from the sherry bottle, Lena presumed this was the cause of Karen’s misery. 

“You know she and Peter aren’t close anymore?”  Karen sniped,  “Lesley Walker, now, isn’t it?    A  focussed young lady is Lesley.  She sets out her stall really rather well, doesn’t she?  But the let-down wasn’t exactly gentle, Lena dear, was it?   No ‘Let’s still be friends’; no ‘Let’s still see each other, just play it cool for a while’?”

Lena would not be goaded.   It was the old vicar’s wife thing again.  She knew how to resist such crudely cast bait.  “Ah, the young!”  She went for a fatalistic sigh and very nearly made it:   “My lord, it’s hard to believe we were like that once.  Karen, I’m deeply sorry for the hurt Peter caused her, you know that. But we can’t live their lives for them, darling!”

 “No.   No, we can’t I suppose.   And Peter wasn’t the only reason.  Apparently – Christ, I didn’t know – she really hates Howard!  Hates him!  I suppose that happens, doesn’t it?  I mean, just because I love him, it doesn’t mean….”   Karen accepted the proffered glass, pausing to drink.  “She wanted to get away:  start fresh somewhere. I said it was a shame, with it being exam year, and everything, but it seemed for the best.”

Lena listened as her friend recounted how Melanie had left to stay with Bianca, Karen’s younger sister.    Bianca was no stranger to her niece and at last Melanie appeared happy – happier than she had been for some time.   Then the hammer fell.

“She sent me a text.”  Karen said:   “She never texts to me.  Everyone else, yes, but when she wants to tell me anything she likes to talk, you know?   But then, suddenly, a text!    It just said that she was well and I wasn’t to worry.   All day after that I went about trying to tell myself there was nothing wrong.   It was half-past seven when Bianca called.  She hadn’t come home.  Oh, Lena!

“This was yesterday.   No-one’s seen her since yesterday morning.  The police found her ‘phone – it was still switched on – in a waste-bin in bloody Thorngate.  That’s about thirty miles away!  Someone’s got her, I know they have!”

Melanie had left her aunt’s house early, determined to take advantage of some September sun.   She had declared her intention to go for a walk on the beach, but had, in fact, been last seen heading for the fish-dock further up the seafront.   The police?    An officer had visited Karen this morning.    Oh, they were doing everything they could, but really, apart from circulating her description, what else could they do?

Where was Howard?

He’d gone up there, to Saurborough; rushed off early that morning – strange, though, that he hadn’t contacted Bianca as expected. 

“He hasn’t called me either.”   Karen managed a wry smile:   “I suppose it’s possible I’ve lost both of them….”

The sherry bottle had joined them at the table, a centre-piece of telling significance, its level sinking like sand in an hour-glass.    In the dwindling light of a late summer afternoon the two women faced each other both through it and around it, and the words hung unsaid for a long, long time.

“Lena,”   Eventually breaking the silence, Karen spoke carefully; “The policewoman who came to see me said violent abductions are more likely to happen at the end of the day, you know, after dark?   Disappearances in the morning, well, sometimes there’s a plan, like running away with somebody, or something?   It got me thinking.”    She drained her glass.  “Lena, where’s Peter?”

Karen’s words cut through the gentle gauze of sympathy like a woodman’s axe.  Lena bridled:   “Good god what do you mean?”

“I mean, is he here?”

“Well, no.  He’s away for the weekend.  An old schoolmate is having a bit of a birthday and he’s staying over,”   Lena was brusque;  “My stars, Karen, just now you were censuring him for dumping Melanie, are you now saying he’s abducted her?   That’s nonsense, surely!”

“Am I the only one who’s noticed?  There’s something between Peter and my daughter – something that has nothing to do with relationships.  It’s a sort of connection which I know is there but I can’t put my finger on.  Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it?”

 “Well,”  Lena scrabbled her mobile ‘phone from the worktop beside the ‘fridge and tapped Peter’s speed-dial angrily;  “We’ll find out!”.

In the pause which followed, Karen said:    “You don’t believe they could be together?   I do.   I’ve tried to add up the possibilities, and that is one.  It really is one.”

Faintly, from above them in Peter’s bedroom, they both heard Peter’s ring tone. 

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits: Header Image: Sagar Dani from Unsplash

Bottle: Vinotecarium from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Nineteen

Reflections

Arthur Herritt toyed with his glass, rotating the thick leaden stem between finger and thumb, staring into its deep ruby charge of Port as though some vision might appear.  He would discard no possibility of resolution these days.

“I feel – I cannot deny it – such attachment to her.  This extraordinary sense of familiarity is most perplexing.”

Across the polished walnut acres of his desk, Abel Montcleif frowned.  As Arthur’s business manager he had several caps to wear.  As his lifelong friend, he had only one.   “You know so little of her…”

“That I concede.  In spite of my sensibilities, that I must concede.”

“And I have been able to discover little more.”  The higher pitch of Montcleif’s voice found greater clarity in the dark lustre of the panelled room.  “In essence all we have is a woman who arrived in our city a decade since, already bearing someone’s child.  Even her name is not her own.”

“Her guardian?”

“Jebediah Fletcher?   I spoke with him, and found him quite pleased to be rid of her.   Whether that reticence is motivated by guilt, or fear, or both, is open to question.  He certainly seems more than willing to relinquish any claim to Mrs Delisle.”

“Guilt?”

“Knowing the man as we do, is it not difficult to believe he gave her shelter merely as an act of charity?   She is a fine young woman, Arthur…”

“I know it…”

“And therefore vulnerable – or calculating.  I don’t wish to impugn her character, but we do not know it.  And the Hart-Witterington fortune is an inestimable prize.”

Arthur sighed, “No, that is too obvious.  I shall not accept she is merely clever.”   He sipped from his wine; “What news of the lady’s assailants?”

“None, I fear.   The one you shot wore only that simple robe.  There were no brands upon his body.  I spoke with the Justice and he is satisfied the man was a scoundrel:  you shall hear no more of that.  The other?  No trace, although it does seem the pair of them together may tally with Mrs Delisle’s accounts of two men who she saw loitering by Jebediah’s house.”

“So, we have gained no ground?”

Montcleif cocked an eyebrow; “A certain young lady would seem to have gained considerable advantage, would she not?   Albeit (I shall add hurriedly) she may be in no doubt wisdom – and caution – will prevail.”   He rose to his feet, walking slowly past Arthur’s desk to the window.  “Yet there is something…”

Arthur  turned in his chair “Something?”

“Aye, sir.  Something troubling, in its way…or, should I admit, it troubles me?  It has no direct connection to Mrs DeLisle, however.  Ye recall the night of the great storm?”

“Most certainly.   My blessed guardian first took ill upon that night while I sojourned in Bleanstead, a distance down the coast where the storm was less severe.     There, of course, I first met with Mrs Delisle; is that of significance?  ”

“As to its significance, I must leave you to judge.  Though none so grave to us as Lord David’s mortal illness, that night certainly brought a confluence of events.  We were fortunate not to lose two of our ships.   The ‘Pietrie’ was torn from her moorings, and the Pelligore was lucky to make safe harbour.  Less widely acknowledged, yet nonetheless important, Lord Crowley lost his life that night.   You may have heard?”

“I believe I did – although he had been unwell for some time, had he not?  Eccentric old buzzard, ’tis said; built himself a bird’s nest on top of St. Benedict’s Rock.  The ugliest house in the land, I have heard it called.  Yes, that was a fatal night indeed.”

“What if it was more than that?”

“How say you?”

“That night the gale did its best to strip old Crowley’s house from the rock.  There were those who said it should never have been built there, that the rock was an unholy place, the haunt of a monkish clan who consorted with the Devil.  Those same voices insist the storm unleashed the rock’s venom upon this valley; a plague of snakes, gull attacks on anyone who ventured to make safe the house, or even recover the old Lord’s body. The ingress of vermin has led right up the River Leven to our very doors!  Peculiar, is it not, that Jebediah Fletcher’s fears for his safety as Mrs Delisle’s ward have burgeoned from that time?”

You paint a powerful case, Abel.  I shall keep my rabbit’s foot close to hand.”

“You jest, but how many murders have there been in Mountchester this year?   Street crimes, motiveless stabbings, child killings?”

“Oh come!  This is the currency of the mob, surely?  Have you forgotten the cholera has only recently left us?  There are penniless war casualties everywhere – these are troubled times!”

“I know, Arthur, I know, but still I have suspicions.  ‘T‘is as if the storm spilled over a pot of imperfections and they run through the streets like an Egyptian plague.”

So Lord Hart’s death, and Crowley’s, and Mrs Delisle’s misfortunes – all were ordained upon that night?”

“Well, sir, mayhap they were.  Meanwhile, does the good lady seem secure here?”

“Indeed she does, Abel.  She and the maid we picked for her have become fast friends.  They seem quite conspiratorial at times.  Ah, and I have employed a teacher of pianoforte to give her lessons, which will please you.  He is as perplexed as I, for she has skills as a musician, he thinks, yet no notion of an instrument she might have learned to play.”

#

Saturday afternoon was a time for relaxation, a quest for inner peace of which Alice Burbridge’s bathing ceremony was an implicit part.  She had risen at six-thirty, sneezing from a slight cold, donned her black, lavender-piped track-suit and taken her usual run in the park.    Dressed for the day in sloppy Pringle and Ralph Lauren she had breakfasted  (a little cereal, a piece of pawpaw, some black coffee) then shopped;  a taxi from Lancaster Gate to Kensington, a spidery lunch of green salad with a friend before, surrounded by fashionable bags, a taxi back to her flat, to close her door on the world.    There was  magic in the clicking of locks as they secured her against intrusion, a moment of purity as she threw the switches to turn off her intercom, trip out the doorbell.  These were the things, once in each week, that she treasured.  Alice’s time, and hers alone.

In her bathroom she shed a white towelling bathrobe in front of a triptych of full-length mirrors to survey her nakedness critically, rather as an aesthete  might evaluate a work of fine art, and here pause, increasingly with the years, to wonder: where had all the cynicism come from?  Why were those little lines around her mouth always and always creeping back?  What had spawned the empty pool of hopelessness behind her great, dark eyes?

Alice put all doubts into a little box of forgetfulness to leave stashed by the mirrors for another week, running her bath carefully, adding the cocktail of oils she favoured, testing its temperature to perfection.     When she wrapped herself in the waters they must caress, enfold, cradle her.   Head back, she could close her eyes, and there would be her mother waiting for her as she pushed her bike through the wicker-gate in the garden of her childhood; Sid the rough collie pursuing that toy ring she used to throw; air thick with the scent of gardenia and lilac, fresh in the morning sun.   Home in summer.

    Pleasant lethargy would set her mind adrift to her early career: that first hesitating entrance to a room of stern faces, the auditions which so amused her now, so tormented her then.  The questions, the eyes that crept and saw too much, no matter who was a friend of a friend, a contact, a recipient of her father’s money, or next season’s shining star.  The young, successful model, in the good days.

Then the memory forever present: Paul Bascoe.  He who spoke softly with just the lilt of an accent, like warming her hands by a fire.   His gentle voice commanded, and how gladly she had obeyed!  Her body still purred when she remembered.  He had taken her with no fumbling uncertainty, no doubt or imprecision.   He had taken her as she had always wanted to be taken and still did; smoothly powerful, impossible to deny.   Oh, how he had opened her, exposed the whore in her, taught her about herself as no other man had done before or since!  Never in her direst nightmares could she have imagined it was just a test!   What did it say about the woman in this bath that the greatest night of her life had been an application for a job?

She did get a letter from him, just one, inviting her to recall how she had admitted to enjoyment of risk – the threat of discovery; could she see herself risk-taking in other situations, perhaps in pursuit of information, or in seeking people who were missing?  If so, there was someone she should see…

Alice went to her first meeting with Jeremy Piggott more in the hope of finding Bascoe again than anything.   She had never thought of herself as physically brave.   When Jeremy had told her what he wanted her to do she was hard put to avoid breaking into a run as she left; yet within a month she was in his office again, signing documents which bound her by the Official Secrets Act. 

The work?  It started slowly at first, then, as contacts led to other contacts a few leads proved productive: a modelling Agency importing cocaine, a colleague who was people trafficking.   Small fry.

Her big break came on a high profile shoot in Bahrain.  She met Prince Shumal at a royal reception and found the heady perfume of power intoxicating: in a week of debauchery she underwent recruitment to the Prince’s Amadhi cause.   Her double life had begun.

Thereafter the chess-game of existence as a double agent pleased Alice: no, it did more than that, it excited her, it thrilled.  Wherever her modelling work took her, she excelled; manipulating, juggling relationships, even casual meetings under the ever-present gaze of two jealous masters.   British Intelligence as her official paymaster gave her an office, a security clearance which passed muster with the Amadhi.  Even when fate had thrown her a curved ball – tripping over Yahedi in Hyde Park, not knowing she had accidentally kicked the American Senator’s intended assassin – not until she saw him again in the Prince’s Apartments, she was able to handle it:  she was comfortable as long as she was within the structure, knew whose side she was on.  This was why she found the circumstances surrounding Peter Cartwright so disquieting.  Her loyalties were confused.

Feeling a first chill as the waters which embraced her cooled, Alice emerged from her bath with aphrodisian grace.   She took a warm towel from the rail and returned to her bedroom where, donning a fresh bathrobe, she seated herself at her dressing table.   More mirrors: a fresh triumvirate of mirror-glass, and a chance for a little private game she liked:  a companionable conversation with herself, the Alice in the looking-glass.  In a drawer of her dressing table lay the tablet she used to record her thoughts.  While it was booting up she rehearsed the questions she would ask.

 Piggott had learned who and where Peter was, but not from her.   Although she had known his whereabouts from the first she had said nothing to Piggott about their first meeting, nor had she implicated Vincent Harper.   Why?

 “Why didn’t you tell Jerry you had met the boy?”  The mirror asked her.  She was pleased by her questioning stare, the slightly creased brow.  So cool!

She answered, “Because I don’t think they can understand what he is.”

“Does that matter?”  Asked her reflection.

“Yes, it must.  Jerry just sees him as a pawn.  If Vince is correct, there’s a chance he may be a lot more than that:  he may be the White Knight.  God knows we need one.”

The mirror scowled, “What gives you the authority to make that judgement?”

“Nothing, no-one.   Jerry will lock him in a room, treat him as a spy.  The Arabs want him dead.   They want everyone who gets in their way dead.   So what are the choices?  Nobody speaks for the boy:  I don’t think anyone can.  And now there is a girl, too.   She made the picture, didn’t she?  Is she the kingpin?”

“Vincent does.   Vincent speaks for the boy!”   Alice paused:  startled by the simplicity of the mirror’s answer.    “Vincent…..he’s the key to this!    Where did he learn about the boy?”   She was deep in the throes of her little play, pleased with the way her eyes came alive, the fresh flush of her cheeks as she spoke: how lovely, how flawless those features still were!   See the way she could still turn on that arch look, her head downcast, eyes suddenly raised to see …?

Oh no!

Bourta was a reflection in the glass just long enough for Alice to recognise him before his big hands swung her round in her chair.   Overbalanced, she clattered to the floor and her head hit the corner of her dressing table with a bang.  An array of flashing lights filled her vision, blinding pain exploded in her head. Jerry had warned her, shown her pictures of what this man could do.  Oh god those pictures! 

“Allah…Allah protect you!”  She prattled the words, “Brother, we are both Amadhi.  Why do you steal in here like a thief?”

“Beautiful woman – beautiful Alice Burbridge!”   Bourta smiled down, a row of glistening teeth.  “Are you Amadhi?   I do wonder so.   Please tell me, who is ‘the boy’?”

She was aware of her robe being torn aside.  She felt the pressure of Bourta’s arousal as he knelt over her and she knew that those photographs had not lied. 

 As she knew she was already dead.

“What boy?”   She tried to say.  Then the knife cut her face in half.

Pain entered her like a fire which invaded so many places on her body that all the agonies became one.  The cut across her mouth was just the first, for the knife was in skilled hands, butcher’s hands.    Alice may have been conscious of two people in the room, may have heard their questions, registered the anger of one with the other as it was recognised not that she would not answer, but she could not.  She had no means left to speak.   Inside her some tiny vestige of a voice told her this was not for ever, it was just a gateway.  Soon she would pass through; soon it would all be gone.

“Who is the boy?  Tell us of the boy.  Tell us where this boy lives!”

Where was the white light?  She had been told about it; she had read about it – the long tunnel and the white light which always came.    Where was the fucking white light?

“There is a female?   Does she live with the boy?  Who is ‘Vincent’?  If you cannot say it, write it!”

Paper thrust in front of her, something, maybe a pen, pressed into her hand – but fading, not important anymore.   No pain now. She was standing before the gate and there was her mother in the garden: And here at last, at the very last, was home.

#

The telephone call had brought Piggott news he half-expected and dreaded.   So the ring on his doorbell found him ready in coat and hat to make a solemn evening journey.

A sallow youth who was his driver for the night stood waiting, a staff car murmured on the street.  When Jeremy opened the official envelope passed to him by the youth’s cold hand, saw the photographs it contained, there was no shock, no surprise. God help him – how many had there been of these?   He barely looked at them.   The Alice Burbridge they showed was not how she would want to have been remembered, and they had nothing to do with the woman he had known.  As the car whisked him across twilight London to the blood-soaked flat where her life had ended, he called in an APB on Mahennis Bourta, knowing it would be fruitless:  the man – if man was what this monster was – would be far away.

#

Flying at thirty-five thousand feet over the Caucasus, Bourta, his eyes turned to the cabin window, may have known  he had gone too far this time, that he had overstepped a final line.  Salaiman his friend – how many men had friends like Salaiman Yahedi?  – had turned his face.   Salaiman the Prince of Assassins turned away, showed him his back!    Had he outraged the conventions of death so grossly?    Was it not a momentous deed?    And in her death – yes, in her last agony how he had wanted, needed, desired that woman!      Bourta stared long and deep into the eastern night, searching for the first red of approaching dawn.  Only when he saw it, only when he had cleansed his hands of the day that was gone, would he rediscover sleep.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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‘Alice’ Ractapopulous at Pixabay
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The Goatherd

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price Martin already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, my sweet.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder. 

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”  

As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a window table with a settle while Martin ordered drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a bothy.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, staring intently at Jacintha, now.  Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Finding she was breathing too fast,  she collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged. 

“I believe so.”   Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

 “That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.”  Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look,  “Not that Squire knowed.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin gave the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin broke it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He didn’t wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of Draught.”

 “I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said. 

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!” 

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took ‘em over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they strip to the soil – leavin’ nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.”

Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied.  He pushed it across the table to Martin.  “Thank ‘ee kindly?”

“Another?”  Martin offered, not without reluctance.

“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”

“Yes, alright.”

While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them.  As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures.  Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful.  Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.

Martin’s return was a little quicker this time.  “ What happened to her?”  He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”

 “ Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his replenished beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

The silence was palpable.  It was Jacintha’s turn to break it;  “Sorry…did you say…?”

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’re going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered. 

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

“When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?” 

“No-one rightly knows.  Some said she was took to ‘Sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her.  Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.

“Didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of offendin’ Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

 “Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  He decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!” 

His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger,  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.” 

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.  

Abe watched his two drinking companions scuttle from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe agreed, as he ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’?   It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer?  Two-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Close it straight away!  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Of course,  you can rely on me.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: Capri23auto on Pixabay.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Eighteen

From Dust

An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.

Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor.  She was visibly distressed.

“Les?”  Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah?  Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.” 

She shook her head vehemently.  “It wasn’t.  Someone – he was resting there!  Where is he, Peter?  Who took him?  Where’s he gone?”

At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing.  “He?   How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?”    This prescience in  Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily;  “No!  No, I can’t be sure!  How would I know that?”

For now the answers could wait.   “We’re both getting spooked.  Let’s get out of here.”  He decided.

As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he?   Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing.  Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why?   What had he, Peter, missed?  He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened. 

Lesley remained subdued for some while.   She pretended interest in other features of  the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation.  At last, in the midst of a paved circle  less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support.  Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.

Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her.   Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real.   Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind.   Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary?  He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right.  Had Ballentine been the father? 

“Are you going to sit there all day?”   Lesley’s toe nudged him.  He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically.  “Sorry Petey.   I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe.  Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”

It took them a while.  Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables.  Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies.  Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows.   Crowley’s defences were breached.

The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles.   Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.

“We’re not the first!”  Lesley hissed.

“Squatters!   What if they’re still inside?”   Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.

“You go first then.”   She whispered back.

Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room.   The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.

“Try not to touch the paint.”  Peter advised:   “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”

From the room they discovered  a passage leading into the belly of the house.  Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way.    “Oh piggit!”  Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble.   “Peter, this is seriously scary!”

“There’s a door here.”   The door fell with a crash.

Lesley yelped:  “Don’t DO that! “

They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house.   This cavernous space reached two storeys high.  Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls.     Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds.  Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence. 

“Wow!”   Lesley shivered at her own echo.   “Castle Dracula!”

They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay.   Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun.   Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s.   This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other.   It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.

These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have.  He felt nothing to connect him to the place.

“Last one to the top!”  Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.

“No!”  Peter came to himself with a jolt.  “Don’t, Lesley!   The stairs won’t…”

A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t.   Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead.  “Oh!   Oh, shit!”   With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side.   “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter?   PETER!”

Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head.   “Over the rail!” He yelled:  “Jump, Les!”

“Oh no!”   Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.

“Come ON!  It’s easy.   I’ll catch you!”

If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough.   With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space.   Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest.   The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both.    It took a long, long time to clear.  When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter.   Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked.   Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out:  “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?”  Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter.   “Am I the same colour as you?”

Peter coughed,  “Yep.”

Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.” 

Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move.  Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage.  Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.

“Do you think anyone heard the noise?”   Lesley said.  “That was one serious crash!”

“Dunno.  Soon find out!”

Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands.   Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place.    “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”

“You’ve been badly frightened…”

“I’m not really like this!  I’m not!”

“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love.  You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“My hero!    You did a sort of Superman thing.  You saved me, didn’t you?”  Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears,  He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.

“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl.  It makes you lighter to catch.  Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”

They were masked in dust.  Lesley beamed white teeth.  “I don’t think we passed a laundrette.  We need water.”  She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”  

Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables.  This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues.  A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.

They turned to face one another.  Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?”   She murmured.

“Well,”   Peter felt equally awkward.  “You first?”

“Not likely!”

“Together then.”

“Yeah…together.”

“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?”  Peter said.  “We can keep the small stuff on.”

“Yes, of course!  Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?”   Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”

“Right then!”   Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.

She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare;   “What?   It’s a bra, innit?   Are you seriously repressed?”  Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed.   Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley:  suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest:  “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”

“Not yours.  Not you.”    He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him.  She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself.  She did not resist.  For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.

At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”

And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”

He had never wanted anything more in his life.

Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace.    He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping.  Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty.  With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.

Lesley twitched and opened an eye.   “Hiya!  She whispered:  “Who are you?”

“I was about to ask the same.  I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead.   I think it’s wet.”

She snorted:  “Really?   You’re surprised?”  She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone:   “Oh, Peter?  What time’s the train back?”

“Six-fifteen, I think.”

“Do you know what the time is now?”

Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry.   They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans.   Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair. 

One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see.   In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was.  Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell.  If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.

   No ghosts lingered.    The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition.  The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten.   Only the trees retained any secrets:   he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if  they might just have something to say:  but they remained silent.   Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.

A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye.  He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.

“Come on, Les, let’s go.”   He felt uneasy:  “We’ll miss that train.”

They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.

“Look at us!”  Lesley said brightly:  “Two scarecrows!  Will they let us on, do you think?”

The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.

On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past.   And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep:  “Because I held him in my arms.  Just for a second I held him, Peter.  One day I’ll find him again.  I will!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Cherie

“Are you not going to talk to me, then?” 

“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.”  Martin knew he was blushing.   The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage.  Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.  

“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Did Ah?”  That was different.   Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding.  This was face to face.   A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.

“So I thought you fancied me.  Was I wrong?”

Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide.  Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white.  She was wearing the same red top as yesterday.  The same blue denim shorts.

“No.”  He muttered.  “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.”  He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.

“Well, what we going to do about it then?  It’s all right, you can talk to me you know.  I won’t break.”

#

“So what ‘appened?”  Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch.  “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”

“No – no I didn’t!”  Martin defended.  “Of course I didn’t!”

“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then!   She were tasty, her.”

“Aye.”   His mate was right about the cats.  “She’s real nice, like.  We’re goin’ out Thursday.”

“Yer lucky bustard!    Why Thursday?”

“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”

“What’s her name?”

Martin thought for a moment.  “Don’t know.  Never as’t her.”

#

Her name was Cherie.  Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her.  By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing.  Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge.   Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.

“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it.  Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”

#

Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt.  He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street.  As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.

For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner.   As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth.   But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street.  Eyes were drawn.  She liked that.  She hugged his arm.

“Go clubbin’ yeah?”

Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge.  “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”

“Why man, you’d be fine.”  Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse.  “You tried some of these?”

Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion.  “What are they, like?”

“They make you dance!”

And dance Martin did;  wildly.  And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it.  And Cherie?  She was delighted.

It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club.  Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him.   Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.

#

“Chuffin’ ‘ell!   Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!”   Jack commented the next morning.  “Good night, was it?”

“It were all right, like.”  Martin blinked at his watch.   “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”

“I know, lad.  I know.”  Jack soothed.  “It’s joost an expression, see?”

“Ah.”

“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”

“She were all right, like.”  Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like.  He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged.  Those little white pills were responsible.  He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’.  And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing.   That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.

Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime.   “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”

“Ah.  Awreet.”  Martin assented unenthusiastically.

“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”

“Aye.  Ah think so.”  This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly.  “Saturday, I think, like.”

“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.”  Jack told him.  “Have fun, lad!”

#

Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.

“Ah.”  Martin said.

“Hello Martin.”  She said.  She sounded upset.

A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view.  “This is your Martin?”  His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections.  “You are lucky boy, Martin.  Yes?”

“Ah.”  Martin said.  “Who’re you, like?”

#

Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.

Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”

“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!”  Martin moaned.  “She never said, like, did she?”

“Oh aye!  Like she would!   And he was her brother, this big bloke?”

“Ah.  One of eight.  Eight brothers!”

“Chuffin’ ell!  What sort of people have that many kids?”

“Ah’m aboot to find out.  Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight!  About my ‘plans’.”

“Plans?  Chuffin’ell.  Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”

“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from.   I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”

Jack’s hell chuffed once more.   “It’s ridiculous, that.  I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer?  I mean, first date and all?”

Martin probed the fog mournfully.  “Ah don’t rightly remember.  Ah think ah might ha’ done.”

#

Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs.   Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom.  Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones:  their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music,  while he sat in silence for hours.  His hosts prattled happily in their own language.  Only Cherie  spoke to him in English. 

#

“Where is she now?”  Jack asked.  It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.

“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.”  Martin explained.  “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly.  Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”

And Jack said:  “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”

“Ah, well that’s the thing.    ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im.  Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says.  Ah says, ah’m norra plumber.  ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like.  Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah?   Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”

“Well, tell ‘im that.”

“Oh ah, you try!  An’ Cherie’s brothers, see?  They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt.  Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie.   It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’.   And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”

“Let me think.”  Said Jack.

#

Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time.  But he was concerned.  Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale.  He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.

The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family.  It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties.   The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration.   Ideas were not his strongest suit.  A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.

Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.

“Hello, love!  Are you a newbie?”   She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat.  “I’m Ethel.  Come on in and let me introduce you.”

In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism.  It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan.  Oh yes, Jack had a plan.

“That’s why I’m ‘ere!”  Jack proclaimed.   “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel).   They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes!  They’re ruinin’ our Church!”

“Oh, I agree!”  Ethel said.  “Er…who, exactly, love?”

“Them Scientologists!”

“Oh aye, them.”  Ethel nodded.

“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere!  I’ll give thee an example!  Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks.  He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please;  and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”

“Oh, my good Lord!”  Ethel said.

“Yes!   An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads.  Blasphemy, that’s what it is.   Blasphemy!”

Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm.  “I so agree!”

#

“Ah don’t understand it!”  Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning.   “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me!  T’wedding’s off!  Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like!  What have ah done?”

Jack grinned.  “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad.  Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?”   It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration.  What does Cherie think about it?”

“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t.  Ah’m Church of England, man!”

“Strange ‘ow things works out.”   Jack nodded, sagely.  He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage.  Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth.   “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”

“Oh ah.   She’s dead unhappy.”  Martin flushed and muttered into his chest:   “She says she loves me, like.”

“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”

“Ah don’t see how.  ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age.  Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about  ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country.  They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter.  Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”

#

“Gretna Green?”   Cherie’s face lit up.  “We can really get married there?”

“Ah.”  Martin nodded.  “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says.  Sixteen’s old enough up there, see?  We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like.  Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”

“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”

“We’ll have to be careful, mind.”   Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.

“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…”   She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home.  She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise:  he would understand.  After all…

Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks.  “Not want to?  Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”

“Anyway;”   She patted her stomach.  “There is another little problem.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay

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Audience/Club, Pexels, from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits: Patty Jansen, from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Russell Grimley

“You want your usual?” 

“Has she been in yet?”  Russell Grimley was on edge.  Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.

“Marika?  No.   She don’t come in this early.  You want your usual?”

Russell gave a single eyebrow response.  Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive.   “And coffee.”  Sol completed his order for him.  “I’ll get it for you.”

Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery. 

He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana.   Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode.  However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore.   Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?

“Does it hurt?”   Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off.  Russell yelped.

“When did you first notice this?”  The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.

“A couple of nights ago.”

“It was the pain, you felt?”

“No.  It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that.  I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something.  Then, last night, worse.”

“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long.  In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics.  Any allergies?”

#

Mr.  Greybasin, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely.   At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.  

“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr.  Cringey…”

“Grimley.”

“It says here you are Cringey.  Are you not Cringey?  You seem to have the same complaint?”

“Never mind.  Cringey will suffice.  Can we do something?  This is getting worse!”

Worse?   Much worse.  The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback.   At work, his specially made jackets and his built-up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.

Mr Greybasin turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.

“Your case is most interesting.   Most int-er-est-ing.   Yes.  The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome.   Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”

“No!”

“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae.  There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”

“What are you saying –  I’m like the Elephant Man?   Can’t you do anything?”

“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”

#

In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable.  His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts at sleeping, as had always been his custom, on his back.  What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability.  Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.

“You don’t look well, Russell!  Why  are you walking so odd?   Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”

Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him.   And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony.   One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.

Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back.  His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street.  Unconsciousness, sweeping over him in a merciful grey veil, was his saviour at last.

#

In time he must wake, Russell told himself:whilst wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment.   Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones.  Was he awake after all?  Was he drugged?

Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again.  He tried turning his head to one side.  Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense.  He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realized, being Sol Abrahams’ nose!   So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognize Sol, a moment more to see that the café proprietor, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him.  There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!

#

Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk.   “Let’s get this straight.”  He said.  “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”

“Yes.  Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.”  Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult.  “I panicked!”

You panicked?   Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window?  And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”

“These?”   Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders.  They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.

“Don’t!”  Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created.  “Don’t flap those things in here!”

“I didn’t think!  I mean, when did I learn to fly like that?  I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all.  It all seemed so natural.  Will he be all right?”

“I won’t lie to you.  It was a heart attack.   He’s doing OK.   But what the hell do I do with you?  Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again.  So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”

“You could call my doctor.  He’s been following my case.”

#

Mr Greybasin’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided.   Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes.   Eventually Mr Grebasin looked up.

“There can be no doubt about it.”  He said.  “You are a bird.”

“Is it curable?”  Russell asked.

#

The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage.  His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration. 

His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition:  “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”

Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide.  The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss the smirk upon her face, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.

Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties.  She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge.  Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks.  And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped.  Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait?  No, there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent.  In May, they ceased altogether.

“It’s a miracle!”  Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage.  “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last.  I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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Satan’s Rock

Part Fifteen

New Alliances

Peter watched Melanie’s retreating back as she walked quickly away.   Her last words to him:  “I don’t think we should see each other for a while,.” and the cold marble lump in his stomach prevented him calling after her. Did she hesitate, hoping that he would?  He wanted to see reluctance in her step, but in his heart he knew this was something she must resolve on her own.    For some time he remained there, on the St. Benedict road, churning over sorrowful thoughts in his head, before he too started unwillingly for home, with his emotions brimming.   He could not contemplate life without Mel.

#

In the days and weeks that followed, Peter saw little of Melanie.     She was neither waiting on the Esplanade in the morning, nor was she to be found at the Mall when he was there.  She even stayed away from college for a while: not yet strong enough, perhaps, to overcome those inevitable meetings; passing between lectures, in the library or the canteen during study time.  When she did come back she would barely return Peter’s greeting, which, in a way, saved pain for them both.   She made her desire to end their friendship so obvious that eventually Peter tired of attempts to make contact; wearied by unanswered emails and texts, he resigned himself to his loss.

The injustice, in Peter’s eyes, lay in Melanie’s reasons for their separation.   After all, he would have as gladly dropped the baton the Rock had passed to them as she, if he could believe it possible that the force which lurked there was so passive as to let him go.   But he well knew that this would not happen and he knew that Melanie, though she chose to deny it now, was no more immune than he.   He could be fearful, if he allowed himself, of the consequences for her when she faced this truth alone; but he could not change it.   He had to respect her choice.

Meanwhile, he was altering.   Others noticed this first: Lena, his mother, seeing him enter her studio one afternoon was struck, not just by how tall he had become, but by his developing physique:  “My word. Peter, how you have growed!  Are you doing weight training, or something?”

“It’s the steroids.”   Peter explained lamely.  “The little sods keep biting my legs.”

“Well, you slow down, Peter dear, or I shall have to accept you’re inheriting your father’s terrible sense of humour, and feel compelled to paint you.”

“Agh! No; not that!”

Then there was a small flame of self-confidence, which flickers inside everyone who knows that they are, for some reason, different from the crowd.   Peter had always been the quiet child, the loner, the unobtrusive intellect at the back of the class.  He had never exactly been troubled by bullying, but there were those who, back in his school days, he was content to avoid.   The redheaded Ross ‘Copper’ Copeland  had been one such.

Ross, completely and utterly ginger from his shock of untidy thatch to his toenails,   had densely-freckled skin  and  a fine, fluffy beard  which grew untamed around his features in the same angry hue.  His physique – a girth best described as ‘ample’ – arms and wrists tapered thickly down to short, stubby, carriage-bolt fingers; his walk the stamping stride of a Sumo and the  fight in every stare from his steely green eyes meant the world would step aside for Ross Copeland; it was easier that way.

At school, Copper had supplemented his income and his diet from the resources of his fellow students.  Because it pleased him to think of himself as a ‘businessman’ rather than a thief, he had a number of  ploys – ‘selling’ some trivial or useless item to his victim, or offering  protection ‘insurance’ to those with courage enough to resist.  

After school had ended Peter and Copper went their separate ways.  One a  college student, the other an apprentice highways engineer, their paths should never have crossed.   But Levenport was a small town, and Copper’s instinct for commerce flowered among the dark corners and fetid alleys where small white packets were stock in trade.

Peter was wandering through the Woolmarket, a system of narrow streets on the East Side, when Ross  caugh up with him: 

“Hello Worm.   Haven’t talked to you in a while, have I?”

Copper’s considerable form blocked Peter’s path; a little gaggle of hangers-on sniggering in his wake.

“Hello Ross.”  Peter was amazed at his own relaxed reply:  “So true.   We must catch up.  How are the guinea pigs?  Win any prizes?”

This brought a suspicious glance, because Ross did not generally let his hobby be known:  “They’re all right,” He said staunchly, looking very like a large guinea pig.  Then, with the light of ‘The Fancy’ glinting in his eyes, “Got a couple of ‘Thirds’ last week.”

Somebody behind him quickly stifled a giggle. “Look here now,”   Copper went on, hurriedly, “I’ve got something you’ll want.”   He began ferreting around in his trouser pocket, producing, at length, a tattered ‘Get Out of Gaol Free’ card from a Monopoly game.   “Useful, eh?”

Peter looked at the crumpled item: “And still warm, too.”

 “Only a score, to you Worm.   Special price.”

“Twenty pounds!   For that?”   Peter was incredulous.  “Sorry Ross, none on me.  Catch you later!”   And he walked away.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you don’t like my merchandise, Worm, really I am.   It’s a very good opportunity.   Maybe you needs some business education, do y’ think?”

“Seriously?”   Amazed by how rapidly his eyes could move and focus, Peter rounded upon Copper, who was totally unprepared for what came next.   “Would you like to begin teaching me now?”   Outfaced, Copper stepped back.  Somehow, Peter found he was able to detect the precise position of Copper’s feet, analyse his point of balance so as to know exactly when, where, and how hard to lunge.    In a breath, Ross Copeland was lying on his back on the pavement, with Peter standing over him, offering his hand:   “Geez, sorry Ross, must’ve tripped?  Here you go!”    And Copper, maybe slightly winded, allowed himself to be helped up.

It was a huge moment, one in which the reputations of both youths hung by a thread. 

“All right then, Cartwright….”   Copper began, his complexion boiling to a bright pink.

“Worm.”  Peter gently corrected him. In a low, confidential voice, he added:  “You used to call me ‘Worm’.  I miss that.” A gathering throng of onlookers tittered nervously.

Copper glared.   His anger rested upon Peter’s face, which was smiling, although his eyes were not. “We’re not at school anymore, Ross.  If you want to try and re-educate me, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.”    And he walked away again.   This time no heavy hand restrained him.

The importance of this re-balancing of strengths was not lost upon Melanie.   At the time of Peter’s confrontation with Ross she was elsewhere, but the buzz traveled quickly.   As is the way with rumor, the details had already changed.  Peter was accredited with having worsted Copper in battle.   She tried to fit this piece of the jigsaw into the image she kept of Peter; an image already visibly transformed.  It only added to her misery.

It was a time of trial.  The autumn of that year was punctuated by examinations, tests of many different kinds.   There were challenges for which there were simply not days enough, so that the weeks, the months, the seasons plunged into each other with unrecognised speed – autumn into winter, winter becoming spring. No summons came from the powers or the personalities that dwelt upon St. Benedict’s Rock, so Peter began to forget that visionary day in Toqus’ cave:  greater things occupied his mind.

As Peter grew strong, Melanie became beautiful, a melancholy, gentle girl with large, dark eyes and a soft smile which betrayed a wisdom beyond her years.   Neither found any relationship which matched the one they once shared: each dallied briefly with new love, then turned away.   It seemed that although they were not together anymore, they were never far apart.

Perhaps if Melanie’s home life had been happier, she might have sloughed the skin of Peter more readily:  her aversion to Howard was undying, though, and it looked unlikely he would go.  So she was left with reminiscences and might-have-beens, and a reputation with the local lads for being remote and cold.    She fell deeper into depression, and her mother Karen might have seen this, had she wished, and were she not already weary of the tightrope she walked between her lover and her daughter.   Howard tried; she could not blame Howard, but the gulf of Melanie’s mistrust was too wide for either of them to bridge.

Howard, in fact, remained something of an enigma.  A haze of mystery surrounded this large, ungainly man who, whenever questioned closely concerning his work  role at Catesby’s, the local heavy engineering Company, would be evasive, attributing his involvement ‘more to the sales side’.   And it was true he spent long periods away on business, with a predilection for suits with collars rather than suits for boilers.

There was something further that Karen might have seen:  did she not wonder why, when Melanie had declared the cessation of her friendship with Peter, Howard had seemed so concerned?  Why did Howard, normally not much exercised by Melanie’s affairs, earnestly entreat her to think again?   Then, when it was clear that the relationship had died, why did he go to such lengths to remain in contact with Peter?

To supplement his meagre finances, Peter had taken a job as car cleaner at Ensell Street Motors, a main dealer with showrooms in the town.  Howard transferred the servicing for Karen’s car from her local garage to this firm at some extra expense, apparently just in order to gain some conversation occasionally with ‘the Cartwright lad’.  Since Peter was only employed for two days in a week, around his college commitments, this was a fairly unrewarding means to keep in touch, but Howard seemed content with it.

Peter had, by now, got past his early dread of Howard, so that he was willing to engage in some discourse with him, although he never enquired after Melanie, or acceded to Howard’s persistent suggestions that they “get together over some computer stuff.”  Peter often considered that Howard might be stalking him:  the guy turned up at the oddest moments; around the corner from the café where he stopped for coffee, or on the Esplanade where, despite his commitments and the march of time, he often still walked.

Did Melanie notice these things?  Perhaps.  She noticed most that Howard was more and more a part of her life; that Karen took less care to keep them apart.  And as the seasons passed, their alienation grew.

Then, when it seemed that affairs were at their lowest point, there was Lesley.

Melanie was still socially gregarious enough to have a small, but much-treasured circle of friends.   Trisha, the eldest of three sisters and a serious student, her alter ego, Kate – who had never, to Melanie’s certain knowledge, been serious about anything – and Lesley.  ‘Trish and Kate were both local girls, they had grown up in the same town.   Lesley was an outsider who had moved to Levenport a year or so ago to stay with an aunt after a family break-up.  The four of them would communicate often through college, where they studied the same subjects, or on the Net, from time to time.  The most sacrosanct of their meetings took place each Saturday across the road from the Mall, at a café called Hennik’s.  Seated at one of the outside tables, they sipped latte and shared their news.

 “I just think it’s so the right thing,”   Kate was saying:  “I mean, this town’s, like, numb, isn’t it?”

They were discussing Trisha’s results, which made her certain of a place at St. Andrews for the coming year.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”  Trisha said:  “I couldn’t stay here for another three years, I‘d start biting my nails for a hobby.  It’s tragic already.   I‘ve only been off studies for three weeks and its s-o-o boring.”

“Get a job, girl!”  Kate urged: “A little currency might help, yeah?”  She added, to Melanie:  “Your Peter has, hasn’t he?  He looks so cool in those overalls.”

“He’d look cool in anything.”  Trisha’s voice betrayed just a hint of reverence.

There was then a drop in the conversation, because Kate had broken a taboo by mentioning Peter’s name and each of the companions knew this.  Melanie’s permanently ruptured heart was common knowledge among them, something which, though they thought it unnatural, they never broached as a subject.

“He isn’t my Peter.”   Melanie said carefully, after a moment or two.

Kate chuckled:    “Have you tried snapping your fingers?”

“It’s true, then?  You finally laid the ghost?”  Trisha touched her friend’s hand. “Does that mean you’re moving on at last?”

“I guess, I suppose    It isn’t like we were ever serious, or anything,   We were just friends.”  Melanie managed a weak smile.   “I’m a bit of a wuss, aren’t I?”

“Oh, get real!”  Kate came back:  “We know you two were joined at the hip for years.”

“And that was, like, years ago.  We aren’t ‘joined’ any more.”

“Big move!”  Kate was respectful.  “Mind you, we do all think you’re mental.”

“No, she isn’t.   He isn’t everybody’s idea of love walking, is he?”  Said Trisha.   “I mean, not long ago most of us thought he was a geek?”

“Not any more.”  Kate came back.  “You’re doing a good thing, Mel.  You really are.  It’s just that he’s, well….”

“…..He’s the silverback?  Don’t I know it?”   Melanie twisted her fingers in her hair.  And she said, with a detectable sadness:  “It’s not like we were ever married or anything…”

“Oh, bless!”  Kate sympathised.  There was a reflective pause.

“So you two are really, finally and definitely, over?”  Lesley had been listening to the conversation quietly.   Lesley, who was deep and intelligent and fun; who had an overt personality and so many qualities which boys, distracted by her long legs and melting curves, never really cared about.   Ash blonde Lesley, for whom it seemed all the most trending clothes had been specifically made, and whose weakness, undeniably, was anything to do with the male sex.

“I know that tone.”  Said Trisha.

“Well, that makes him a free agent, doesn’t it?”  Lesley said defensively.  “And he is, like, fanciable, yeah?”

“Alpha male!”  Kate agreed.

“Oh, Lesley!”  Trisha chided:   “You wouldn’t do that to Mel, would you?”

“NO!”   Lesley protested:  “No, of course not!”

“Serious, Mel?”   Trisha asked:   “There’s no way back?  Face it, he’s so hot right now?   Before we let Foxy loose on him?”

“Here!”  Protested Lesley: “As if I would!  And I’m not, like, a dog or something!”

Nevertheless, on Monday morning, when Peter took the seaside route to college, someone was clearly waiting for him, leaning with their back to the rail which warded the sea wall.  Someone tall and undeniably feminine, even while her long coat whipped about her and her blonde hair tangled in the breeze.

“See?”  Said Lesley,   “I knew you’d come this way!   Walk with me, Peter?”

            This was one of those dramatic mornings when the sky was heavy with cloud and spray fizzed off the sea; the sort of weather Peter relished, but not what he would have expected Lesley to enjoy.  In fact, she looked as if she was enjoying it hugely.

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  She shouted above the noise of the foreshore.   “Isn’t it perfect?”

“I like it.”   Peter responded.

“Me too!”  Lesley snuggled her pretty chin into the collar of her coat.  “It’s real!”

#

Maud Reybath squinteded at the hooded figure who stood before her door, masked by darkness.  “Come in.  Were you seen?”

“I stayed in the undergrowth away from the road, then I followed the backs of the houses.  I do not think so.” 

Shepherding her visitor into her hallway, Maud peered past him, glancing anxiously up and down the village street.  Difficult though it was to tell under the cloak of night, she could discern no sign of life. She closed the door carefully, to find her visitor, whose habit was rank with the scent of damp bracken, shedding the sandals from his rugged little feet. She, motioned him to lower his hood and he did so, revealing sharp features arranged around a hairless cranium.  His stature and girth were small, his anxious grey eyes darted and switched hither and thither, as if he did not believe them to be alone.

“I  am commanded to bring you this,” he said,  “On pain of my life.”   He retrieved a sealed scroll from beneath his clothing, offering it to Maud.  She broke the seal without hesitation, “It was delivered to us by a  child.” 

“Her son?”  Maud responded, a little too quickly.

The man looked puzzled.  “Perhaps.”

She quickly scanned the neat handwriting the scroll revealed.  Its import was simple and direct;  

“My dear Maud,

 The man I encountered when last I visited with you at Bleanstead, one Arthur Herritt, Esquire, is undoubtedly The Pilgrim.   I presently enjoy his hospitality at Mountsell Park by the City of Mountchester, but I fear I may have to move ere long:  I am discovered, I think.

With Sincere Affection,

Francine

 Could she disguise the delight, or relief in her eyes?  Maud turned away so her face might not be seen.   “Very well.  You should take refreshment.  I have bread and some good fowl to restore your energy. You have many more miles to travel this night.  I will write a further message for you to deliver, which must be  for the eyes of the Brotherhood alone, do you understand?  For their eyes alone.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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The Lady in the Wood

The Lady in the Wood

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From the horizon of my memory there was, had always been, a lady in the wood.

Walking or running among the fallen of an autumn morning when I was very young I met her there, picking wild herbs and toadstools from among the trees.  This was in the year my mother first sat me down before a piano.  The lady’s clothing was new to me, so as I described her to my father I likened it to the piano keys.  I did not mean it unkindly, Such was the picture I had of her, which would stay with me over time.

My father explained that the lady lived alone in the wood, and I must always be polite to her, so the ‘Piano Lady’ joined my list of those to whom I must always be polite, which in those days was just about everybody.   Was she another aunt, like the ones who visited at Christmas?

“She is not one of your family, Dominic.  Sister Augusta is a recluse, a very religious person.  In many ways, we are her guests.”

This seemed strange to me.  The wood was ours, a part of the ‘grounds’ surrounding our home.  Why was it acceptable for this oddly-clothed lady to live so freely among us, almost as though we were honoured by her presence?

“She’s a bride of Christ.”

“Does she talk to Him?”

“Quite possibly. I wouldn’t be qualified to judge.”

Further answers would trickle down to me gradually, with the years.  Long before I was born, my mother told me, Madders End was a priory.  The peaceful acre of green patrolled by our mower each summer once yielded to the feet of a dwindling order of nuns who tended vegetables in the walled garden where roses now grow or chattered noisily through echoing corridors where I ran, roller-bladed and played chase with a streak of white fur called Taffy.

For centuries Madders End novitiated a steady supply of fledgeling nuns, earnest women who craved the peace to be found within its doors.  But as centuries change fashions and devotions must alter too, so there came an age that brought no new brides to plight their troth to Christ.  One by one His ancient harem kept their appointments with Him in Paradise until so few remained they could no longer sustain their living at Madders End. The old house came up for sale.  My parents saw the place and loved what they saw.  They bought it, the house and all its grounds together – the stony beck which runs down to the River Madder past the orangery, the tranquil little garden alight with spring flowers where those who gave their love to God now rest, and the wood – the five-acre wood, with its solitary tenant.

Sister Augusta, like the little garden, came as part of the deal, her right to remain enshrined as a condition of purchase.  Years before, hearing the priory had a ‘hermit’ in its midst, a benefactor had supplied Sister Augusta with a caravan which was pitched, at her request, within the five-acre wood.  When the Church moved the last two of her Sisters in Christ to a care home Sister Augusta remained, stubbornly self-sufficient and really quite charming, to become my constant companion throughout those special growing years.

Our relationship began with the simple, direct language of childhood.  “How old are you, Sister?”

She looked genuinely perplexed.  “Do you know, I’m not sure.  How old do you think I am?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Well, that must be about right.  How old are you?”

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

“You’re very brave, coming into the woods alone.”

It was neither a very large wood nor a very attractive one.  No tree was particularly tall, or statuesque.  There was a lot of ground cover, brambles and the like, over which an anaemic mob of silver birches and struggling oaks milled like hungry gulls.   Early conversations between Sister Augusta (“You must call me Gussy, it’s easier”) and I were conducted sitting on a fallen birch log she favoured as a place for contemplation.  When winter came I would visit her at ‘home’, bringing newspapers from our house and a casserole or two prepared by my mother.

Sister Gussy’s caravan, for some reason, possessed no wheels.  It rested on railway sleepers to one side of a clearing in the wood, glaring defiantly out from the undergrowth with its big windows at one end, buried deep in verdure at the other.  Inside it was as clean and austere as you might expect, its only furniture a bed, a table, two elderly leather chairs and a little cooker that hissed and hiccupped its way through a cylinder of gas tucked from sight beneath its skirts.

Skirts?   Yes, ‘skirts’ were a distinctive influence in Sister Gussy’s décor.  From the heavy velvet divide shielding the dormer end of her caravan to the odd pieces of cloth that draped from curtain wires over every cupboard, nook and cranny; wherever there might be doors there was a ‘skirt’ instead, and each ‘skirt’ had an identity of its own. If Gussy needed the pewter dish from which she ate I would find it ‘behind the rabbits’, a shelf covered by a fragment of child’s pyjamas with a rabbit print; so, too, for her religious artefacts (behind the pink stripes), her toiletries (the pandas), and so on.

“So much better than cupboard doors which are forever falling off, or swelling and becoming stuck when the weather’s wet, you see?”

She had very few cubby holes in that caravan and very few possessions.  With a child’s frankness, I pointed this out to her in one of our early overtures of conversation.

“I have all I need.”  Gussy told me.  “The Lord provides, but He is a bit naughty sometimes, because He lets me forget where He puts things.  He is particularly mischievous in the spectacles department!”

Gussy’s heavy, brown-framed National Health specs were a constant vexation to her.  “They persist in hiding from me the moment I turn my back.”

The only other structure in Gussy’s clearing was a small wooden hut discreetly tucked away in the overgrowth behind the caravan, which she referred to as ‘The Necessary’.  The remaining open ground was her garden, planted with neat rows of turnips, carrots, beans and every naturally rooted comestible you could think of.  There were clamps of potatoes, forcing pots of rhubarb, stakes for peas to climb and raised beds full of herbs, although the visual clinicity of this earthly paradise was rather ruined by an array of polythene cloches and netting.

“The birds are absolute terrors, you see?  They are convinced they need my food more than I,”  Gussy explained, musing, as an afterthought,  “Perhaps they do.”

A small bed of marigolds grew discreetly in one corner of the garden.  I remarked upon these being her only flowers.

“Flowers are rather sinful, aren’t they?  An indulgence.  The Lord said I can get away with marigolds because they are quite nice as a tea and good for the skin, but He knows the truth, you see.  I believe I pointed out that chrysanthemums are very tasty too, but He thought that was a step too far.”

Many were the enchanted hours I spent, child and later youth, talking and reading with the ascetic recluse of our woods, while my family shared in the bounty of her garden because, like all well-tended gardens, it unfailingly exceeded its carer’s needs.   Her protest:  “I shall never eat all these!” as she sent me home with a trug full of goodness became familiar to our kitchen.  She might have shamed us for our feckless treatment of grounds that had once fed an entire priory; now so devoted to lawns and vanity they produced not so much as a lettuce, but she never did.

If I have given the impression that we had our darling Sister entirely to ourselves I have misled you. The winding lane by which, at some distant time presumably, the caravan had made its way to Gussy’s clearing was frequented by others too.  Father Macalbee, our local priest, visited once a week to take her confession, and I remember an acutely shy old man in a black coat who I unwittingly interrupted one day, deep in discussion with her.  I was about to retreat but he spotted me and retreated sooner.  He had a car parked in the lane.  He drove away.

“That is Paul,”  Gussy told me,  “A dear friend!  I am obliged to him for the provision of this caravan, and I have known him since the days when our priory prospered.  Alas, we are not so young these days, but he has been most generous to our church and he does not forget me.  We often pray together.”

For whatever reason, it may have been a visit to the caravan of a supplicant with a media presence, or maybe even an initiative by The Church itself, Gussy’s reputation as a solitary all at once became ‘viral’, and spread far and wide.  As I grew to youth I saw more and more visitors make the pilgrimage up the muddy lane to her door; some who sought only her blessing or her company, others who wanted scraps from the plate of her wisdom, which encompassed much.

In a media-savvy generation the fame of such a good and truly honest person was inevitable, my father said, and it seemed he was right, for soon executives in big cars came creeping over the ruts in the lane, bearing offers from newspapers, radio, and television.  Gussy responded to them all with enthusiasm, never once showing impatience with those who trampled her garden or intruded upon her devotions.

“I have become rather a failure as a recluse,” She confessed when I light-heartedly accused her of straying from her mission; “I have to tell myself I am doing the Lord’s work, and I never take a step without asking Him.”   Her face split into a delighted smile; “If only I didn’t enjoy it so much!”

Our family watched Gussy’s first television appearance on a morning show, unsurprised by her calm, almost lyrical defence of her God but afraid for her then, and with reason.  Soon she was holding down a regular spot on national television, contributing short accounts of episodes in her life which exemplified triumphs of faith.  Those stories were compiled as a book that, if it did not exactly top the sales charts, at least made royalties she could pass on – as she passed on any fees – to her beloved Church.

Throughout these adventures the caravan remained Gussy’s retreat, her garden her consolation. As her travels made increasing demands on her I saw her less frequently, as much my fault as anyone’s because I was immersed in my studies, you see, with the Royal Academy beckoning.  I was committed, by this time, to my music.

Sitting at my bedroom window the other day I recalled the last conversation we shared before I departed for college.  I asked her if she felt there could be any chance she could return to her former life.

She pondered my question gravely for a moment.  “If God asked it of me, of course I would.  He makes the running, Dominic, not me.  If He tells me I am more useful spreading His word, I can’t refuse, any more than you can close the lid on your piano when the world means you to play.  I know you do not share in my belief, but I assure you He lives and moves in us both.”

“You must miss it; the peace, the turning of the seasons, all that?”

“Bless you, they still turn.  I am still here, much of the time.  I miss my few special friends.  You, I shall miss when you are away; Paul, I miss him, too.”

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

“No.  His years are a heavy burden, and Paul is a very private person – he rejoices in solitude, you might say, as much as I.  With all the dashing to and fro I have to do these days, he is put off, I think.  I haven’t seen him for almost a year now.  It is God’s will.”

I met Sister Augusta just once more, a year later, on the very day I returned from Academy for the winter break.  Previously, between terms I had called at the caravan,  finding it locked and the precious little garden neglected.  I knew she had many engagements; everyone, it seemed, wanted a share of her: ‘a piece of her’ to echo my father’s words.  I would hear news of her successes from all over the world, from the Americas, Australia, Europe – she even had an audience with the Pope. So when my father told me she had come home, that November, I was almost surprised until the look on his face told the rest of the story.

“A friend of hers, someone called Paul, died this summer, and it seemed to rip the heart out of her,  She’s very ill, Dom.  Too ill to live on her own anymore, so Father Macalbee has arranged for her to be cared for by the nuns over at Monckton Delaval.  She knows you’re home today, so Father Macalbee is bringing her here, because she especially asked to see you.  You should prepare yourself, my boy.  She’s extremely frail. Much has changed.”

In my young years I had yet to be close to one who was dying.  The Gussy who Father Macalbee helped from his car outside our door was not the bright star I had known, but a shrunken husk of a life no more than a step or two from eternity.   She brought a parcel wrapped in brown paper which the good Father carried for her and placed by her chair.

She spoke with difficulty, “It is a picture given to me by my blessed friend Paul, who has left us, so I thought it fitting it should come to you and your wonderful family.  It is a gift, a token of my gratitude, now my work here is done.

“The land is yours, now.  I have arranged for my caravan to be transported to Monckton Delaval: the good sisters there are taking me in, and that is my legacy for them.  God will always protect you, and I pray we shall both have some small memory of each other.”

Mercifully quickly, within a week, my dear Gussy was dead, and I was left to mourn, as we all mourned.  She asked, at the last, if she could be buried alongside her Sisters in the little garden where the spring flowers grow, and we gathered there to watch her take her place in earth I like to believe is made warmer by her presence.  That, we thought, closed the book upon our life with Sister Augusta.

The picture she gave us had a place of honour on our dining room wall.  It was old, an oil painting on board of a pleasant country scene featuring a stone monument beside a river.  My father thought it looked Dutch but of no special merit.  Its value was in the gift.  Gussy wanted us to remember her by it, and this we did.  Before long, though, it began generating memories of its own.

My father’s curiosity led him to some old catalogues.  What he found he laid before us all in the dining room.  What he suspected the internet seemed to confirm.  We deliberated for a long time before we telephoned the police.

An art expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum shared our suspicions, and a representative from a Boston art gallery seemed jubilant that Govert Flinck’s seventeenth-century ‘Landscape with Obelisk’, stolen from his gallery many years before, had been found.

The police acted quickly, and it was good that they did, because the sisters of Monckton Delaval were already stripping Gussy’s old caravan down when they arrived and declared it a crime scene.  Within a false inner wall they discovered three more stolen works of art and more than four hundred thousand pounds in used bank notes, a bequest their priory would never get to spend.

Gussy ’s shy friend Paul, later investigations discovered, as Paul Massingberd, international criminal, had every reason to be shy.  To his unwitting friend, he had given a generous ‘gift’ – a caravan large enough to conceal a portion of his ill-gotten gains, in case forced retirement curtailed his gangland income.  He died, though, before he had a chance to make any withdrawals.  No-one was ever charged.

I like to think that Gussy would have been greatly amused by this turn of events, and beyond the reach of mortal man she could quietly smile, as she saw a fresh aspect of her life’s story unfold.  After all, she had lived most of her life in poverty, sleeping within a few inches of a fortune.  She couldn’t have known, could she?

Photo credit: 

Banner: Marc Pell from Unsplash

Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Fourteen

A Beaten Heart, Part Two

Melanie entranced, no longer confined by the cave but lost within the scene playing out before her, could neither snatch her hand away from the black rock, nor cry out in protest.

Three figures there were, gathered in that sumptuously furnished bedroom as it was buffeted by the storm. An enfeebled Lord Crowley, Toqus, his African manservant, and coldly watching as the old Lord descended into death, Matthew Ballentine, whose noble countenance belied his black heart.

“You are a monster, sir!”  Crowley’ wavering voice was barely audible.  His blue lips writhed.

Toqus said, slowly:  “I will not let my master die.”

Toqus’s and Ballentine’s eyes met.   The younger man’s shrug belied the sibilance of tension that stretched between them .   “You would save him?  I know you have done so, once; but ask yourself, how else can this evening end?”    He drew a pistol from beneath his coat.   “Let your master’s life slip away, kindly, or receive this ball yourself.”   He levelled the pistol at Toqus’s head.   “Consider –  your loyalties, are they changed? “

Crowley shook his head.  “No!   No, Toqui, he would not!  The shot would be heard, he would be undone!”

“Who will hear a shot, above this wind?  Who knows that I am here this night?” Ballentine sneered;  “ No, the faithful servant it must be who found his master dead and took his own life in his grief.   It would be his hand upon this side-arm when he was found, not mine.   I am passing Christmas at Crowley – with your wife, my Lord.   Oh, she will swear it, never fear!”     Ballentine chuckled, cocking the pistol, “Be done with it, man!” He motioned to Toqus.   Moaning, the servant bent over his master, so that Horace Crowley might see the sorrow in his eyes.  The look was of one who strayed for just a little, never knowing it should come to this.  ‘When I first took money from this man,’ the look said, ‘it seemed to be for the good.  We are both betrayed.’   The noble Lord expostulated, feebly; a whimpering sound lost upon the wind.   Shaking, he reached for his servant’s neck (to, what, restrain, embrace, who can know?), and gripped the gold chain suspended there.

“Forgive me.”  Toqus said.   He placed a huge hand on the old general’s chest; and in one second, with just the pressure of his palm, stilled Crowley’s failing heart for ever. A last breath rattled in Horace Crowley’s throat as he slumped back upon the bed, fingers still locked around the chain. It snapped, its broken links tinkling musically to the floor.

As Melanie watched,  Ballentine move methodically about the room, re-ordering the furniture, collecting papers from the table.  There was a shouted exchange with Toqus:  yes, Toqus would be careful to clear up any dossiers, or letters; no, he would not leave with Ballentine by his secret route; rather, he would stay to mourn his master.    So Ballentine slid aside a panel in the oak wall behind the old Lord’s bed and stepped through into the black cavity beyond.   As soon as he had gone, Toqus closed the panel behind him.  

For a long time Toqus sat beside Crowley’s death bed, rocking  himself back and forth, head buried in his hands.   Finally he got to his feet, lifting Crowley’s inert form in his arms to carry it towards the door.   There he hesitated, unsure; should he call for help, announce the death?  Did he fear the consequences? Undecided, he laid his master down upon the floor.   The vision faded.

“Did you see it?   Did you see that too?”  Melanie choked:  “Peter?   Is that what your dream was like?”

It was Toby who answered:  “Give ‘un a minute, Missy.  He needs to come out of it, see?”

Peter’s face had the tint of old vellum. Although his eyesight was impaired by the departing mist of the dream, his mind was not: connections were being made.

“I’ve seen Toqus, now,” He said at last.  “The big dark man in my first dream, the figure of Death, that was Toqus!”

“Ah now!”   Said Toby brightly.  “You’m back!   Come on now, folks, I think it’s time we was out of ‘ere!”

Peter found the return journey less fearsome:  in some small way he had acclimatised to the terrifying traverse which defended the cave from curious eyes.    He could picture the monks, bare-legged and sandaled, as they stepped nimbly and often across that space, and if they could do it…He willingly took the lead, and although his legs were quaking he found his footings easily.   Melanie dallied, taking time for a final look around the cave before following; which was how she spotted the talisman.

In a corner by the cave entrance lay a small black cylinder of wood, the entire eight-inch length of which had been carved with immaculately detailed shapes depicting snakes and winged beasts.  It felt light and tactile, and it seemed to fit comfortably in her hand, bringing a burst of music into her head.   Her smile did not escape Toby’s notice.

“You keep that, Missy.   ‘Twill be a memory o’ this place.   ‘Er wants to belong to ‘ee that does.”

Melanie understood completely.   Before she clambered back across the slope she hid the talisman beneath her blouse.  That evening she would place it in the top drawer of her dressing table where it would lie forgotten for a while.

Later, returned to solid ground, Melanie reminded Toby of her question.   “You never did tell us who expected me today.  Was it you, Toby?”

“Bless you no, Missy.   I were told.”

“When?”  Peter asked.

“Why, ‘tis difficult to say.  ‘Bout a week ago, I ‘spect.”

A week ago?”   Melanie was astounded.   “Before we knew ourselves?”

“Ah, but they know, Missy.  They know.”

“All right!”   Peter ran in front of Toby, turned to stop him in his tracks.  “Time to ‘fess up, Toby.  Who are ‘They’?”

The cottager sighed.  “Aye, it’s time , I s’pose.  Come up home and we’ll ‘ave a nice cup o’ tea or summat.  Us’ll talk then.”

The invitation was one Melanie and Peter had both been dreading.   Toby’s tumbledown cottage with its torn and faded gingham curtains, promised only filth, darkness and damp.  Given all that had passed that afternoon, however, there was no excuse they could make.   Evening on St. Benedict’s Rock, when the fresh breeze came in from the sea, was usually cold.

In the event, Toby’s kitchen proved surprisingly warm and clean, if a little sparsely furnished.    If the curtains were old and none too fresh, the windows they covered were at least fairly transparent.  The pinewood table, pitted by generations of use, had been scrubbed.

“I knowed you was comin’;” Toby reminded them, noticing Melanie’s relief.

They sat around the table clutching big, warm mugs of strong tea.   Beyond the kitchen window a pink sky glowed with impending sunset. The homely, subdued light of the room wrapped itself around them.

Peter sat beside Melanie, their thighs touching, just accidentally, absently; sending a warmth through them both.  Without really knowing they had done so, they clasped hands beneath the table.  Melanie allowed herself to wish that they were alone together.

 “Now, you wants to know who called you here, young Missy,”  Toby said  “ An’ there’s a lot I needs to tell you, but you got to unnerstand there’s a lot I don’t know, see?  Some ways you already knows more ‘un me; that’s a solemn fact….”  His voice had an easy drone which might almost have lulled Melanie into sleep.  She let her head rest on Peter’s shoulder as he spoke of how he had always lived here, on this island, in this house, and how he had learned to accept his part in the island’s story.

“See, I can’t never leave ‘ere.   If I does, I won’t have nothin’!   I be a servant to the old rock, that’s what I be.  An’ bein’ like this….”   He gestured to his neck as though to remind himself of that disability Melanie had sensed when they first met:  “World won’t ‘ccept me no-how.   See?”

“Would you want to live anywhere else?”  Peter asked.

Toby shook his head.  “Nope.  Not for ever-one to know, but this place’s sommat special, young Peter.  Sommat very special indeed.”

He spoke of younger days, when he first realised he was ‘different’ and how one day he had gone to the cliff-top half-determined to finish it all.   It was then he discovered the cave.

“’Course, I’d always knowed about the path.  When you’m a young ‘un you finds these things, don’t you?  But that slope, I never tried to climb over there.  This day I jus’ didn’t care, see?  I thought as ‘ow if I went over, I went over.  Didn’t matter, see?”

Toby slurped at his tea.  Melanie saw that he did not drink easily, because from certain positions he was unable to tip his head back.

“I reckon I was the first ‘un in that there cave for best part two ‘undred year!  Didn’t look nothing like as good as now.   I cleaned ‘un up, see? This cave, it gets to be a sort of favourite place o’ mine, don’t it?  Once I almos’ lived in ut!”

The young Toby had often spent hours alone there, looking out over the sea or staring at the drawings which embellished the cave’s walls.  Later, when his father died and his mother seemed to want no-one near her, he had taken to sleeping there.

“Me and my dad, we did lots of things together.   But ‘er, she never got used to me bein’ like I am.  No, she never got used to that.   An’ what with my old dad passin’ on, she didn’t want me.”

Peter shuddered, trying to picture a young Toby, stretching out to sleep in the cold of that rocky nook with only a dead body for company.   Toby told of the first time he touched the rock behind the altar.

“Kids will touch things, won’t they?  Nothin’ ‘appened at first.  There was no vishuns, or nothing like what you ‘ad.   But after I done it a few times, this music started comin’ into me ‘ead.”

“The song of The Rock”   Melanie said.

“Aye, Missy – jus’ like you’m ‘earin’ now.  Took some time afore it got to be more than that, though.”

“More?”  Peter asked.  “Do you have the dreams, too?”

“Not like your’n, no.  I starts hearin’ voices, on’y in the cave at first.  Now, I hears ‘em anywhere on the island – an’ then one day this fella comes to see me.”

“What ‘fella’?”   Peter sensed the awkwardness in Toby’s voice.

“He were a diddy-squat man, comes knockin’ on the door ‘ere one day….”   Toby described a dapper little man in an office suit and yellow waistcoat which stretched over his corpulence like a net over a football.   “’Calm as you please, ‘e tells me ‘ow ‘e knows all about me, an’ I got a gift that only he and a few other people knows about.  An’ it comes out that this gift is all to do with this ‘ere rock.”

The little man had told Toby the secret story of the island; of how it drew a small, exclusive brethren of monks to begin a monastery here,.   He confirmed what Toby already knew:  that a seam of very special stone ran through the island’s heart.   It surfaced in only a few places:  one at the summit, where Peter had experienced his first vision, another within the cave.   There was supposed to be a third (apparently there had to be three) although Toby had not found it yet.  Many might touch this stone and feel nothing, but those with Toby’s ‘gift’ who touched it were given an understanding of the magic of the place.

“He tells me I be the guardian of this stone.   I has to live ‘ere to watch over ‘un; an’ I says I doesn’t see ‘ow I could.  I’m in trouble, like, keepin’  up the ‘ouse now father’s died.   But he says someone’s comin’ to ‘elp with that an’ I’d be looked after.”

Peter nodded,  “And you were.”

“Aye.  That’s when Mr. Vincent comes to live in the big House.   He sees I don’t go short.   He’s even made an allowance for me if sommat should ‘appen to ‘im.”

“Then Vincent is one of them, these few special people.”

“I don’ know that.  Some’ow I don’think no-one’s told ‘im about the stone.  An’ I’m not to tell nobody, see?”  Toby leaned forward across the table.  “This diddy-squat chap, he says I’m to wait, ‘cause ever’ so offen, like once in a cent’ry or sommat, someone comes along who can get much more from the stone than us folks.   And that once in a very long time, mebbees never yet, two people comes together!   An’ that’s when sommat important is goin’ to take place as hist’ry won’t forget.  I’m to wait for they, an’ when they comes I’ll know them.   Well, looks like you’m ‘ere, don’t it?”

In the silence, Peter fancied he might hear even the smallest sound.  A tap dripping somewhere, a soft breath of wind on the casement, the flap of a bird’s wing outside the glass.   At length it was Melanie who spoke.  “You still haven’t explained how…”

“’Ow I knowed you was comin’ today?”  Toby interrupted, his face creased in a smile that was, for him, close to angelic;  “Why, The Rock tells me, Missy – Old Ben!  ‘Er’s been getting excited ‘bout it for a week gone!”

“Oh, Peter,”  Melanie sighed,   “Does this mean we’re going to be famous?”

Within that room, none of them knew what it meant.  Toby, who understood the island well, lacked the insight to read the deeper messages within Peter’s visions.  Peter, who thought the stone probably imbued him with a gift of foresight, nothing more.  And Melanie, who struggled, as yet, to find any meaning:  it was there, she knew, but out of reach.

By the time Peter and Melanie left the cottage, a red haze of cloud disguised the discreet departure of the evening sun.   Walking together down the old road they passed the summer let cottages, where the little girl played and sang in her back yard.  She smiled at them with a sweet, slightly empty smile, but she did not stop playing.

Melanie asked,  “Peter, do you want this?”

They had entered the tunnel and Peter was probing its roof and walls for  crystalline signs of stone.   “See…”  He gestured as they emerged onto the north side of the island.   “If Toqus’s cave is just around there…”

“I asked you a question.”   Melanie said.

“I don’t know what you mean, ‘do I want this’.”  He met Melanie’s eyes and saw that they were red.   “What, Mel?   It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.”

She paused by the roadside, trying to frame her thoughts:  “You – me.  We’re friends, aren’t we?   We…we’ve known each other a long time, Babes.”

“Okay, so?”

“Well, I thought: I mean, I sort of hoped…..Oh god!”   The tears came.   Peter watched them happen, not understanding, half-frightened by them.   One day in a shelter on the Esplanade not so long ago, he had decided he hated it when Melanie cried.   He offered a faltering arm but she threw him off.   “Don’t!”

He stepped back.   “Mel, what’s wrong?”

“I just assumed someday we would be, like, boy and girlfriend, you know?  You – me?  I thought we might be together, stay together, do all the normal things you do when you’re, well, more than just friends.  That’s what I thought.   Until today – until this.”

“Okay.”  Peter replied cautiously:  “So, what’s changed?”

“What’s changed?  What’s changed?   We’re not normal.  That’s what’s changed.   We’re some sort of monstrous double act – ‘special people’ with a peculiar talent for seeing things which aren’t there and doing things normal people don’t do!  Peter, I don’t want to be a freak!   I don’t want to be ‘special’ and spend my days in a cold cave with a withered old corpse for company.  I don’t want to see anything like the things I saw this afternoon ever, ever again.  It was just – so horrible, so evil.”

“It wasn’t nice,”  Peter agreed.   “But you have.  What do you suggest we do?”

“We exercise our freedom of choice.  We turn our backs on this bloody rock and we never come back here, ever again.   If we dream about it, we turn over and sleep on the other side.  If a seagull pesters you, throw pebbles at it until it goes away.”    Melanie caught the guarded look in Peter’s eye.   “But you don’t want to do that, do you?”

“No.  Well yes, too, in a way.”  Peter sighed.   “I don’t think I we’re going to be allowed freedom of choice.  Now these ‘They’ people have seen what we can do, they’re going to want me – us – to do it again; so I don’t think things can ever be normal from now on.”

Across the bay, Levenport glistened with summer lights – the twinkling stars  of hotel windows, the bright neon colours of the arcades.  Leaning on the railing together with the sea washing the cliff below, they shared a moment of unspoken truth.  Although neither moved, the distance between them grew.

At last, Melanie said: “Sorry Babes, I choose normal.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Header Image: Artem Kovalev from Unsplash

Cave Mouth: Bruno Van der Kraan from Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part Thirteen

A Beaten Heart – Part One

Melanie stared at the sanguine figure who Peter introduced as Toby.  Toby, large and fragrant, who sat on the grassy slope waiting for her to appear as though her visit to the island was planned.  “How could you possibly know I would come to The Rock today?  I just came for an afternoon out with Peter.  We nearly went to the Mall.”

“But you came, didn’t ‘ee?   Some just has a tune as calls ‘em, tha’s all.  They needs that, see?”

“What tune?”  Melanie scowled, because her dislike for the old countryman was instinctive, and she couldn’t hear any ‘tune’ – or could she?   She remembered lying in the grass at Peter’s side just a little way from here and just a little while ago,,,

Toby seemed unperturbed, “You can ‘ear ‘un now, missy, in your ‘ead.  I knows you can.   You’ll hear ‘un more an’ more, now you knows ‘tis there.”    He rose to his feet, a violent spinning movement which involved Dervish-like thrashings of arms.  “Come along wi’ me, now.  I think you needs to start learnin’.  ‘Til you do, there‘ll always be them as is ready to take ‘dvantage, see?”

He strode in an oddly uncoordinated lope up the remainder of the hillside towards his cottage.  Peter made to follow.

“Oh, no!”  Mel whispered:  “Not in there!” 

She need not have worried.  At the boundary of his immaculately-kept garden the big man turned, taking them on a path that plunged into a tangle of  under–brush and bramble, leading towards the sheer side of the rock.

“Toby?”   Mel called after him.

“Aye, missy?”

This song I’m supposed to be hearing.  Do you hear it, too?”  She bestowed Peter with a significant look, and hissed under her breath, “Is he a head-case, or what?”

“Oh, aye.   I hears it all the while, I does.  See, it’s part of Old Ben, to them as lives ‘ere.   ‘Tis as old as time, that is.”

“Yes,”  Melanie whispered to herself,  “He is.”

            Through the under-brush, with the high wall of the Great House to their left and open sea some three hundred feet below them to their right, their way led into a converging V between wall and precipice, so Peter and Melanie began to feel that their very breath was being squeezed.  They were following the boundary of the Great House as it rounded the eastern face of the rock. Now they could see the coastline stretching away north eastward, with Levenport Head’s sheer basalt slab frowning at them from across the bay.  Here  the path swung right, doubling back upon itself so tightly there was barely room to turn for fear of stepping out over four hundred feet of uninterrupted air with foaming rocks at the bottom.   They were descending; clinging to the cliff-face along a stony ledge.   Toby wobbled ahead with a casual disregard for the drop.   Peter, led Melanie, for whom the sight of his shaking knees lent an unwarranted sense of encouragement, as shared adversity often will.  The wind, barely a breeze when they were up on the slopes above, screamed and whipped around them, threatening to prise them from the cliff-face altogether.

“Peter!”  Melanie called above the din:  “Do you really want to do this?”

“I don’t want to try turning round!”  Peter shouted back.

Men had carved this path.   There were steps, the worn steps of ages, carved into the steeper reaches: there were passing places, too, though so confined it was hard to imagine even the sparest of bodies being able to edge around one another without falling.

“This ‘ere, ‘twere an old monk’s path.”  Toby called back:  “This bin ‘ere since the mon’stry times.”  They reached a turn in the face of the rock and the path apparently ended.  Two vertical spurs of rock barred their way, like the prongs of a fork.  “On’y they didn’t want ever’ body to know about ‘un, they monks.   Reckon not even the Abbott knew ‘bout this.  This las’ bit’s a bugger, so careful now!”   He legged himself up into the cleft between the spurs, and disappeared over the far side.

Peter saw that the main pathway had actually doubled back again, dropping away below them.   Eroded by time, it had diminished to a grassy lip, a ledge for nesting sea-birds: beyond that, the drop to the sea was uninterrupted.  Yet there was evidence the monks had used this means to reach the shore, for at the foot of the cliff a tiny shelf had been hewn from the stone.  Shale washed up around it rattled uneasily, chivvied constantly by the waves.    The height made Peter’s head swim.   Steadying himself for a moment, he made to follow their guide, levering himself up into the gap between the two rocks.  What he saw on the further side turned his bones to ice.

There was no path,  just a wickedly steep traverse, at the far side of which, some twelve feet away was a ledge, apron to a dark recess in the rock offering sanctuary to those who might reach it.   Toby was standing braced against the cliff-side upon this ledge.

 “There’s six foot–‘olds.   They’m solid enough.   If you looks for ‘em you can see.   You can see six ‘and-‘olds too.  They’m just right for ‘ee, I reckon.  Take it slow, and don’t ‘ee lean in towards the slope.   Use your balance, see?  Now, give me yer left ‘and!”

“Slope?  It’s sheer!”  Peter protested.

“Don’t look down!”  Toby advised.

“They always say that!” 

“You can do ‘un!”  The big man stepped nimbly onto the traverse, stretching out a large, safe-looking hand.  Peter thought he could see the holds Toby had pointed out.   It would still be a huge act of faith, and if Melanie had not been behind him he might never have stretched tentatively for the first of those foot-holds, a mere fragment of levelled stone nearly a yard away.  Shaking with fear, he placed his weight on the tiny pad of rock, grabbing frantically at a protruding stone as he stepped out into space.

A further handhold would be higher up on his left – he had seen it, knew it was there.   Transferring his weight to his right hand and forcing himself to stand away from the slope, he shuffled his right foot alongside his left.   For a terrifying moment his whole body was pivoting on those two points, with the wind trying to take him like a sail, until he could reach out to the next handhold.  His left foot waved in empty air, seeking a projection large enough to take his weight.   The welcome firmness of solid rock formed under his foot.  His hand found its second grip.

Almost sick with terror, Peter tried to draw himself across the last foot or so separating him from Toby’s outstretched hand, but his legs quivered convulsively and his arms refused to co-operate.  Stuck in an ungainly star-shape, he was unable to move, he was going to fall…

“Let go that right ‘and young ‘un.   I got ‘ee.”   Toby’s big hand grasped his arm, 

Within seconds it was over.   Feeling foolish, a breathless Peter allowed himself to be half-dragged onto the rocky platform then guided into shelter away from the edge.  As soon as he had his breath back, he warned:    “Don’t try it, Mel!  It’s too dangerous!”

“Too late!”   Mel informed him blithely.  “I already did.”

She stood behind him with a broad grin on her face.

Toby guffawed loudly, so his voice echoed up and down the rock.

 “She’m like a moun’ain goat, that ‘un!   No danger!”

“Rock-climbing.   Last holidays.  Glen Coe.”   Mel summarised. “Now tell me why I did?”

“Because as ‘ow you has to see this. I’ll show the’”   Toby led them into the deep shadow within the crevice, where they discovered the concealed entrance to a cave,   the portal of which, small and round, had been widened and shaped by human hands.  The marks of their chisels, ages old, showed what a labour this had been.

“Come on, Babes!”  Melanie urged,  “Let’s explore!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that!”

Leaving the gale behind them, they followed Toby through the narrow neck of the entrance, which quickly widened to a small chamber, no more than four meters across.  There was scarcely any natural daylight, so their eyes took time to become accustomed to the gloom.

“Oh!”  Melanie breathed, feeling a little overawed.

At its further end, the chamber wall had been carved to reveal a seam of crystalline rock which, if its short, exposed section were to be believed, ran vertically up through the basalt above them.  At its foot had been hewn a stone altar table, draped with the dry threads of ancient embroidered cloth.    A terra cotta chalice rested there, flanked by two tallow lamps, their spouts blackened by use.   But Melanie’s eyes passed all this by, frozen moment of a forgotten time though it was, to rest upon the figure before the altar, who half-knelt, half laid before it with its faded cloak, or robe, pulled up to conceal its head; as if sleep had overtaken it as it prayed.

“Well!”  She exclaimed, “You just never know how things will turn out, do you?  There was I, expecting a quiet afternoon picnic in the sun, and what did I get?  A cold cave and a dead body,”  She touched the edge of the robe experimentally;  “I hope he is,like, totally dead?”

“Don’t worry, now, Missy.  ‘E can’t do ‘ee no harm.”   Toby’s voice was comforting. “’E been gone these two ‘undred years.”

“Who was he, do you think?”  Melanie asked:  “One of the monks from the Abbey?”

“No, I don’t think so.”   Overcoming his revulsion, Peter stepped closer to examine the mummified form.  It had been tall when it had lived, with shoulders that were broad and very, very strong.   Prompted by some innate knowledge, he reached down past the dry leather and the drawn grin of the face, delicately pushing its garments to one side, to expose a gold chain around its throat.

“Toqus.”  He said. “So you never left.”

“That’s right, young Peter.” Toby murmured softly, taking the young man’s shoulder to draw him back. “’E never did.   Come ‘ere after the old man died, likely, an’ jus’ starved hisself to death.   ‘Tis a solemn fact.”

Somehow, Peter did not find it too incredible that Toby should know enough of the island’s history to have heard the story of Lord Crowley’s death, and the mysterious disappearance of his servant, Toqus.

“What brought him here?”   He wondered.

“Ah well now!    This place ain’t exac’ly a Godly one, now, is it?   Look around ‘ee.   What do y’ see?”

By now, with eyes thoroughly accustomed to the scarce light, Peter and Melanie were able to take in more detail of the chamber.   The walls were daubed with crude pictures of strange horned beasts, dragon-like flying creatures, and indecipherable writing: on the front of the stone altar, half-obscured by Toqus’s body, an inverted cross was engraved.

“Devil worship?”   Melanie asked, with a slight tremor in her voice.   She was not superstitious, but the thought was a little disquieting.

“Maybe – or prob’ly jus’ a bit angry, like.”   Toby sat down on the shelf at the cave entrance.   “See, the old Abbott, ‘e wouldn’t have been too ‘appy if ‘e’d knowed what ‘is flock was doin’ down ‘ere, now would ‘e?   And I don’t think as ‘e ever did know.  That path us come down jus’ now, ‘twasn’t no official path, see?   An’ that landin’ stage down below us there, that ain’t the official dock, neither.   So there was some, like, alternative kind of goin’s on in ‘ere while they up there was prayin’ their socks off. See?”   Toby smiled secretively:  “Nope, I don’ reckon all they monks were quite so godly as they pretended, were they?   No!”

He raised himself to his feet, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the chamber roof.   “Mind old Toqus, now, and come over here.  There’s somethin’ you should do.”

Toby beckoned Peter over to the altar. “Whenever you’m ready, see how the crystals in that seam feel to ‘ee.   Be they sharp, or what?”

“OK.”    Peter touched the black band of rock.   Immediately, a surge of warmth tingled through his finger-tips, sending a little pulse of heat up his arm.   He snatched his hand away.

Toby nodded approvingly:  “Now, you know what that’s all about, don’t you, young ‘un?”

It was tempting to deny it; to lie. Peter would have preferred not to acknowledge that this cave with its musty sitting tenant, with the approach which so terrified him, was another source, and possibly a very special source, even the promise of an explanation for the powers that gave him his extraordinary moment of foresight the day before Anzac Day.   But there was no choice.  He looked at Mel and saw recognition in her eyes, too.   “They’re connected, aren’t they?.”  She murmured:   “This stone and the stone in the House – they link to each other.  You felt it, didn’t you?”

“Not linked, Missy.  They’m all one.  This stone runs right through the whole island. The heart of Old Ben, this is.   ‘It’s beatin’ eart.  Come ‘ere, now.  You try.”     Toby gestured to the seam.

“I don’t want to.”   Melanie protested.

Peter felt equally sure Melanie should never touch the black stone.  “No.   No, don’t do it, Mel!  Please, just….don’t?”

Toby’s eyes showed how deeply he understood.   With something like pity, he said:  “’As to be, young ‘un, see?  ‘As to be.”   He nodded to Melanie:   “There’s nothin’ to fear, Missy.   ‘Specially for you!”

Although she harboured some misgivings, Melaniewas tempted.  She reached out with one probing finger-tip, dabbing at the black crystal.   She tried one finger, then two, finally her whole hand.   The rock gave her no answer.   There were no visions, no sensations of warmth, just cold stone.

“Nothing!”  She said, feeling quite glad.

“Ah, but you ain’t used to ‘un yet!”   Toby told her.   Nevertheless, he seemed confused.

Peter had withdrawn to Toby’s shelf at the cave entrance, where he sat with his head on his chin, trying to convince himself that he still had control of his own thoughts.  A drawing on the wall to the left of the stone altar fascinated him.  He could not drag his eyes away from it.   A crude cartoon, it depicted five matchstick figures.  One prostrate, either injured or dead, two others standing over it, one bearing a club and the other a spear:  he presumed they must be the prone figure’s assailants.  To their right a figure in a full robe and head-dress bent to release an asterisk creature, a lizard or snake, perhaps?  To their left and above them all, a stick figure with unmistakeable wings looked down, one of its arms extended as if in a blessing.  It was hard to dismiss the moral portent of what he saw – murderers watched by a higher being, as if sanctifying their deed..

Melanie had satisfied herself that the stone seam held no fears for her.    She traced it with her fingers, absently sensing its dense, gritty structure as the soft song of the island that Toby had described began to play once more in her head.   There was a dreamy contentment in everything that was part of St. Ben, even this gloomy room of death.  Hadn’t she always wanted to be here?  Wasn’t it a part of her soul?   The music was in the trees, the grass, the sea-borne wind:  it was in this rock, too, as clear as if its singers were all around her.

The music very slightly increased in volume when she realised that Peter had joined her: that was alright; it was meant to be so.   When his hand covered hers the music filled her, strong and vibrant, like a possession, like a sleep.

When he pressed her hand to the stone, so strong and firm, determined, knowing, the music overtook her, so she found herself living entirely within it.    Her mind was drifting…drifting…

It was another time, a room in another place; an oak-panelled bedchamber, lavishly furnished, with a great four-poster bed.

A banshee wind howled, battering at the oak doors of the room, slamming the shutters of the tall windows open and closed.   There were three men here; one, an expensively attired gentleman in his thirties, the second, a great midnight tombstone draped in an African robe who stood like a monument beside the third, a sickly old man in a nightshirt reclining on the bed.  Melanie could hear the old man’s voice above the wind, full of quivering rage:

“This is a trick, sir, and I shall not stand for it!”

“I fear you have no choice….”  The well-dressed man soothed.   “I have all your notes!   I could bankrupt you tomorrow if that were my wish.   But I will do nothing to sully your family or their name.  I will be discreet…”

“Discreet, sir!  Aye, I’ll wager you will be discreet!”   The old man interrupted.   “I have been looking into your affairs, Mr Ballentine!”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed, indeed!  You are not a reputable man, are you Ballentine?     How, I wonder, will my capricious wife respond when she learns of your upbringings and your past dealings, with which my letter will acquaint her?     Answer me that, sir!” The old man’s voice was rising hysterically.   “You are an upstart, a pipsqueak of a stock clerk who made his fortune by stealing his master’s merchandise and selling it for himself.   You may cut something of a figure, here, sir, but what will you answer should my wife suggest a tour in Spain, or in the America’s, eh?    Will you tell her there are warrants for your arrest in those places, eh, Ballentine?   Or should I call you by your real name?  Wilbert, is it not?

The well-dressed man’s finely chiselled features paled:  “How have you…?”

“Found ye, sir?   Found ye?   Did you think I was a nincompoop, a fool?   I have made you my study, Mr Wilbert!  You have been my sole occupation, these last months!”

The dark-skinned sentinel rested a big hand upon his master’s shoulder.  Urging him not to excite himself further, but the old man was incandescent.    “You sought to rob me of my fortune, sir! Now I shall deprive you of yours.   I have a dossier which I shall publish if you do not withdraw.   Return me my land, and my wife.   If I don’t get them Society shall know you for a scoundrel.  I doubt you will have your freedom long.”

In his excitement, the old man failed to notice changes in Ballentine’s demeanour.   “Had you researched more thoroughly, my Lord,”   Ballentine snapped, “You would also have seen what becomes of those who discover too much. Toqus – work your craft!”

The dark man’s great eyes widened:  “What …”   He asked (his voice is thick as treacle); “Would you have me do?”

 “You know where your future lies, do you not?” Ballentine answered,  “ Have we not agreed?”

“We did not agree to murder.”

“Ah! Such an emotive word.  I  prefer to think of it as timing.  Let death promote itself.”   He turned his stare upon the old Lord.  “How chill it feels, eh, old man?   How wildly leaps the beast in that decrepit chest?  You cannot still it, can you?   No, Toqus: not murder.  Just take your master to the brink….he will do all of the jumping.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:  Features Image:  Freephotos from Pixabay

Waves: Ilyuza mingazova on Unsplash

 

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Doctor Basu

“He’s at it again!”   Muriel Hornbellows announced angrily.  “Half past seven on Sunday morning!  There’s no peace!”

Burton Hornbellows groaned and pulled a pillow over his head.  His wife’s obsession with their neighbour’s DIY activities was more irksome to him than the sound of hammering that vibrated through his bed frame.

True, since Doctor Basu had moved into their quiet Plushbrough street peace had been a much rarer commodity.  The Doctor’s neighbor concluded that his complete makeover of the little terraced house had to end eventually, so they tolerated the sawing, the grinding, and endless deliveries from lorries, even the ones that disgorged complete wagons-full of concrete through the good doctor’s front door.  From the evidence of splintered floorboards in his backyard they deduced that he had filled his old cellar and laid the ground floor to concrete.  This despite publican Harry Bugle’s observation that, if the four lorry loads of soil leaving the property were anything to go by, the depth of the cellar must have been increased rather than filled.  There was the ironwork – a substantial load of steel joist – after delivery of which Basu’s windows flashed with sparks from acetylene cutters for a month and a half.  Then, finally, the roof.

The original roof had been veiled by scaffolding and green tarpaulins from the day the doctor arrived, and everyone assumed that the old one had been beyond redemption, in keeping with their own experience because every roof in the terraced road was composed of old slates, and almost all of them leaked.    So that was the explanation, wasn’t it?

Muriel Hornbellows was unconvinced.   “Why don’t t’ Planning Department do nothing?”  She complained.  “He must be doin’ thousands of illegal fings in there, as we can’t see!”

In fact, the Planning Department had done something, in the person of their local officer, Barry Muntjac, who performed one of his surprise visits to the house one May morning.  Doctor Basu answered his knock.  “Make an appointment,”  The doctor advised him.

“I don’t have to make appointments,”  Barry retorted.

“Talk to your superior,”  Said the doctor.  The door slammed shut.

To be fair to Mr Muntjac, he did approach the County Planning Officer, but the result gave him little satisfaction.   Resources, his superior told him, were scarce at the moment, and a small matter of a purely internal property renovation, which was obviously desperately required, was of little concern.

There were reasons for the doctor’s neighbours to bite their tongues, not least of which was grudging admiration, for he was working alone at what everyone supposed was a major building project behind those closed green curtains.  Also, as their local medical practitioner, Doctor Basu had a certain power over them.  Should they be too vocal in their complaints, they feared repercussions.  He ran a National Health Service surgery; dissenters could be struck off.  

And anyway, it had to end soon, didn’t it?

After four years, it hadn’t. 

“Look at ‘im!”  Muriel Hornbellows muttered as an aside to her neighbour Clara Gusset as the slightly built, bespectacled doctor shuffled deferentially past them on the far side of the street.  “I don’t know where he gets the energy!”

“Well, he do save a lot in prescriptions what he don’t write.”   Clara opined.  “An’ there’s a powerful lot as were regular customers for ‘un afore he came, who’s on no bugger’s list but St. Peter’s now.” 

“That’s true.”  Muriel acknowledged.   “He’s lost another one.  Susan Garflute passed on t’other night.”

“No!”

“I’m tellin’ you.  One day, like that..”  Muriel made a vertical gesture with her hand.  “Next day…”

“No!”

“She only went to see him for a boil on her neck.”

In spite of its small population, Plushbrough had become a Klondike for the undertaking profession, and three new parlours had opened since the benevolently smiling Doctor Basu had taken over medical practice in the town.   His snap diagnoses were the stuff of legend – invariably inspired, and frequently wrong.   His keen diagnostic eye identified the only epidemic of Dengue Fever ever to strike an English country town, though he had to stoutly resist a visiting second opinion’s verdict, that of common influenza.   When Albert Sloopwater developed sickness and a cough the local water company had to counter Basu’s diagnosis of cholera, an exercise that cost them several hundreds of thousands of pounds.  

The wheels that rolled towards Basu’s nemesis may have ground slowly, but their destination was obvious.  At the time of Muriel Hornbellows’ Sunday morning observation a public enquiry into Basu’s competence had been in progress for some time.  There was an inevitability about the verdict it would reach, and everyone felt sure his days were soon to be numbered.  Yet there were sympathetic voices: his gentle charisma had built him a substantial vote of support and public sympathy.

“Yer house must be coming on, Doctor dear!”  Hettie Boosey challenged him, as he eyed a large television in the window of TV World speculatively.  

“Nearly finished!”  Was Basu’s smiling response.

“I expect it’ll look marvellous when it’s done.”  Hettie was never shy of an opportunity.  “You’ll have to invite me round, dear.  I’m good with wallpaper, you know.”

Speculation was rife.  Whenever the doctor was known to be in surgery, a small gathering would form outside his home, probing for a peek between those thick green curtains.

“It’ll be minimalist, certainly;”   Gwen Hawkes opined.  “He’s a minimalist man, you can see that, can’t you?”

Jack Spencer was of a different opinion:  “More of a brutalist approach, I’d say.  And industrial – yes, industrialist!”  Jack saw himself as a man with a superior artistic sense.  “All that concrete, you know.  And a lot of sheet metal he had delivered the other day, didn’t he?”

While the British Medical Association minutely scrutinised Doctor Basu’s unusual record, his neighbours watched his remodelling efforts with equal intensity.  But everyone missed the two large lorries that slipped quietly up to his house at three-thirty one morning.  They made their deliveries silently, they departed unnoticed. 

The next morning Doctor Basu found two visitors waiting at his surgery.   One wore a police uniform.

“We’ve been looking into your past, Doctor.”  The suited man from the BMA told him severely.  “And you haven’t got one, have you?  No medical training, no qualifications, and no previous experience as a general practitioner; although we suspect you are the Mr. Banarjee who passed himself off as a consultant cardiologist at St. Bretts in 1998.  Anything to say?”

Doctor Basu had nothing to say.  His patients were sent home and so, after lengthy questioning and a successful application for bail, was he.   It had been a momentous day – not least because the scaffolding that hid his house’s new roof had been peeled away that very morning, and the roof it revealed, an apex of gleaming steel, was spectacular!  But events had moved on, and the eyes that now accused him with such determination barely glanced at it.  Instead, they were focussed entirely upon Doctor Basu.  They watched him disdainfully as he entered his front door, locking it behind him.

“I told you so!”   Hettie Boosey said triumphantly.

“I knew right from the start!”  Said Clara Gusset.  “He’s a wrong  ‘un, that ‘un, and no mistake!”

“Maybe us’ll get some peace now!”  Muriel Hornbellows said, gratefully.

She was mistaken.   Enjoying the midnight silence and wrapped in sleep Muriel did not witness the opening of that steel roof – no-one did.  No-one saw as it spread its steel sections like the petals of a gigantic flower.

The rumble began at two o’clock.   Merely a threat at first, like distant thunder, it grew to an earth-shattering, ear-splitting crescendo.   What at first was a familiar vibration in Burton’s bed frame became a shaking of epic proportions, so violent Muriel could not keep her feet to get to her window – and this alone was fortunate because had she done so the white light would surely have blinded her.

Mortar loosened, glass splintered, chimney stacks tottered.  The parked cars in the street were tossed into the air.  From the eye of the cataclysm in a final orgy of quaking noise the rocket, with Doctor Basu seated in a capsule at its head,  rose; slowly at first, but with ever-increasing velocity.  The little houses that had flanked the residence of the doctor were flattened like a procession of dominoes, and Muriel, along with Hettie, Clara, Jack, Gwen and many others did finally find the peace they had been seeking.

So the undertakers of Plushbrough rubbed their hands together, ready to reap the good doctor’s final harvest, and alone of all in his street, Burton Hornbellows – saved by his iron bedstead – stood gazing dumbly at the vast crater that was all that remained of Doctor Basu’s house.  It took him a while, shocked as he was, to understand the meaning of the concrete pit within that crater, but at last he found an answer.  He raised his eyes to the heavens and he almost laughed.

No-one else would attest to the logical explanation for that huge explosion,and no expert eyes were present to watch the trace of Basu’s rocket as it ascended through the night sky.  The catastrophe was identified instead as a bomb that had exploded prematurely, and Basu, though his remains were never found, dismissed as a fanatic.

A strange radar signal remained on screens at several tracking stations in the northern hemisphere for some days, but it was slowly fading and, with other more important projects to pursue, was soon forgotten by the scientific community.

As for Basu, I cannot tell you – I simply don’t know.  Fanatic he was, of a kind, whose whole life had led him towards one moment of glory between Earth and the stars.   That his crude, almost comic home-built launch platform actually worked is beyond doubt.  Did he survive?  If he did, for how long?  Is his new surgery on Mars diagnosing Dengue Fever among a new list of little green patients there?  We’ll probably never find out.  But, sorry as I am for those whom his extreme focus destroyed, I sort of like to think of him in his module among the panoply of the stars, polishing steam from his glasses so he might better see Jupiter or Neptune, with his face set in that gentle, respectful smile.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:  Features Image:  Muhammed Hassan from Pixabay

Milky way:  Free Photos from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.

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Catalogue of Shattered Dreams

When I was young I was designed to become a writer.   Of course in those days we knew nothing about DNA but in the sunshine of my bright ideal I saw myself:

Hunched over a typewriter,

in a dim room with a high window of nicotine-stained glass,

Chain-smoking myself into a coughing stupor,

Careless – utterly careless, of the greater world around me.  

Let the scripts pile up on the desk, on the floor, in the passageways and arbors; I would be oblivious to the chaos.  I would write.  Day, and night, write.

Why didn’t it work out like that?  Why didn’t it?   Well, to begin with, but also with annoying persistence, I could not perfect the art of typewriting.  Canute-like, I could not restrain the Tippex tide, nor the quasi-D’Artagnan-duelling clash of rival keys, the log flumes of paper jams, smudges, crumples, and mechanical accidents.   Who has not cried out in pain as they see their paper-carriage skip the return stop and fly across the room?  Why was the Japanese vase, the recuperating cat, the hapless hamster positioned there – just exactly there?

The day the Word Processor came into my life was like Richard III’s best bit:  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by these salesmen from Sharp’.  Differences between RIchard  and I are many – I for example, am unlikely to be exhumed from a car park, but I have to take his point:  I was liberated.

Life and Art, eh?

Unfortunately, there were storms in other seas.   Spouses unappreciative of piles of manuscripts in passageways or scattered upon disorderly desks, for whom creative chaos held no romance   The word ‘dust’ has been mentioned pretty frequently throughout my life, closely followed by the more nebulous  “Urgh – what’s that?!”   

Spouses are also prone to materialism.   ‘Putting bread on the table’ has dominated many a meaningful conversation, and rebuffs by taking the phrase literally treated with scorn.   I was compelled to accept that there had to be bacon, or beef, or vegetables lumped in.  As my self-addressed manuscripts to ‘1, The Garret’ cascaded back through my door and a wallpaper of rejection letters accumulated, I grudgingly accepted the need to do ‘work’.  

I had to find something that paid.  Writing was not the crock of gold it promised to be.  It was just a crock.

I won’t deny that I take pleasure in money; I am darkly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t, but to the bug of creativity it is pure insecticide.  Wherever you spray it, the Inspiration Aphids are consumed.   Why, after all, spend hours preparing a piece that will reward me with a pittance when I could be doing something more productive, more creative, more lucrative?  Except the ‘creative’ in this sentence refers only to creating money, and the productive in this sentence has to do with making more money, and the ‘lucrative’ in this sentence refers to the worship of MONEY.  Somehow, money always offers very good reasons to ignore the pleading noises Noble Poverty makes inside my head, where  Elizabeth Barrett argues strongly for distinguished starvation, and we even share a bad back, but no time for starving selflessly when there is always another conference to attend, a buying trip to make, a new range to review.  And when all those mundanities are finally overcome, home life has a catalogue of new ones, as in “When are you going to fix that drain?”

“I’m an artist, for God’s sake, my darling:  I DON’T DO DRAINS!”   

“Yes you do.”

You’re right.  This is the real world, and the real world has drainage.

To souls as torn and tortured as has been my own in my advancing years, retirement shone like a beacon.   In retirement I would find solace.   There would be nothing to fill my day!   I could sit in my corner, I could create magical images upon the page.  I WOULD HAVE NOTHING TO DO BUT WRITE!

Wrong!

It is an unwritten law, but it is ineluctably true:  if in life you were busy, in retirement you will be busier!  Once you make your diary aware the pressure is off it will fill itself with small, inconsequential things.   Your family will aid this process by demands for home improvements, shopping trips, ‘visits’ to nice country houses (the kind where your host will make you pay an entrance fee, then rebuke you for touching their furnishings or walking on their grass) and finally – the big one – Sitting.

In extreme cases Sitting may tie you up for several days:  

“Dad, can you take care of Bruce the Hellhound or Tibby the curtain-ripping cat while we go on a weekend break to Moscow?  Or a week in Bulgaria?  Or a round-the-world trip?”

More normally, it will be no more noxious a duty than care of The Precious for an evening, and no more exhausting than that ritual chase around the sofa you instituted last year and have been regretting ever since, with a bit of story-reading to initiate sleep.

If any diary spaces remain, there is always the National Health Service, and I’d like to conclude this blog with a personal message to them.

Dear NHS,

Yes, my body mass index figure is almost as far adrift as most of your overworked nursing staff,   You understand, as do I, that my body will inevitably deteriorate with the years, and I should be thrilled that you want to catalogue my demise and itemise each failing function so avidly…

But I’m not.    Okay?

Your obsession with type 2 diabetes drags me out to repeated Doctors’ Surgery and hospital visits to have my eye pupils stretched with painful chemicals, my blood sampled and my (forgive the word) piss taken with unnerving regularity.

Why unnerving?  Well, because the cleanliness of your premises is self-admittedly not always of the best, so each time I subject myself to them, with the health conditions you are so insistent I have, not to mention those that I ACTUALLY have and haven’t told you about, I run the very real risk that the infection I catch could be fatal.   Capiche?

Thank you, good readers, for tolerating my excess of bile this week: perhaps it’s because, to find a space to write this piece, I had to cancel an NHS appointment to ‘test my feet’.  Don’t worry girls, I have two; I tested them myself this morning by going for a walk.

A more normal posting, the latest episode of ‘Devil’s Rock’, follows shortly.

Image Credits for today:

Featured Image: Keyboard, by Alisonmiller1969 on Pixabay

Typerwriter Image: Devonath on Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Eleven

The Crooked Prince

“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto.   Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command.  “Those of us who know each other already know too much.     Those who can should remain strangers.”

There were murmurs of assent from around the circle.   All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.

“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning.   We are free to discuss.   Now, our brother,”  He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress,  “will explain a problem which has arisen.  A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”

“Highness.”  The man was an Arab.   His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier.   He spoke in measured words:  “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well.   A target survived.”

Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.

“You refer to the London target?”

The Arab inclined his head.

“The security cordon was warned.”   Yahedi stated.  “Such was my report.”

“But a target was missed, right?”   The American intervened.

Yahedi responded quietly:  “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”

“No-one here is accusing you,”   The Prince cut in hurriedly.   “Your efficiency is not in question.”

“The target was, indeed, warned.”   The Arab continued.  “The warning was given by one of us.”

“Really?”    Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning.  “Why, can I ask?”

“I had to.”  This time it was the woman who spoke.  “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call.   If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”

“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,”   The Prince said:  “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence.   She was very clever, in fact.   Were you not, sister?”

“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line.  US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence.    They allowed your target to present himself for you.   That insured you would still have a clear shot.  You just didn’t hit him.”

Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper.   Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm.  But there were ice crystals in  his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore:  “The man simply ducked.”   He said with exaggerated gentleness.   “He was warned.”    His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.

“He did not ‘duck’.”   the Arab said.

“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”

The Prince took up the thread.  “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him..  He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.”   Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!” 

True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head.  He had not seen any piece of paper.   Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not.   He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself?   The Arab?  Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money.   The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more.   She was ill at ease.   Why?   What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working?   He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?

Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind,  “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot?    Did it drop from a tree, or something?”

“And to place it so exactly!”  the Indian chimed in.  “To drop paper on a precise spot?   Not possible, I think.”

“You know what I think?”   Asked the smiling American:   “Bullshit!   That’s what I think, Sheik.   Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”

“It happened.”  Said the woman.  “The paper does exist.  I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way.  MI6 have it in their possession.  And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”

“We think.”  The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”

“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually:  “For a bird.”

“Can we get to this paper?”    Yahedi asked.

The woman shrugged:   “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far.  I only have the surveillance footage.”

“I got my own theory.”   The American’s voice had a steely edge.  “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit.   And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”

“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.”   Shumal said gently.  “It will be taken care of.”

“Why, thank you, your Highness!   But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”

“Peace, brother, peace! “  The Prince commanded:  “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers?  You test our hospitality!”

There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard.  The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.  

At length Prince Shumal spoke:   “Let us examine this from an added perspective.  We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary.   Brother,”   He gestured to the Arab;  “ I think you have something to tell us.”

“YourHighness.”  The Arab addressed the whole group.  “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution.  Your informer was anonymous, yes?”   He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent;   “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place.   So, an insider, a mole?    But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”

The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience:   “We are all professionals.  We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment.    That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”

“A what?”   Said the American.    “What, like a wizard or something?   Oh, come on!”

The Arab spread his hands:  “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”

“It is the only explanation,”   Shumal cut in:  “Unless you truly believe in coincidence.   I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel.  It was a very important barrel.   And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery.   I do not believe in such coincidences.”

“Prince, you can’t believe this.”   The American was astounded.  “I cannot believe you believe this!”

“The pieces fit.”  The Arab said.   “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar.   A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air.   There can be no other explanation.”

“I’m damned sure I can think of one!”  The American muttered.

“Then I invite it.”

Prince Shumal got to his feet.   “We cannot change what has been.   But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects.  Our brother here…..”   He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning.   Our brother has special skills:  he will be of great value to you in this.”

Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman.    There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal.   And now he was convinced.   He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too.  There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.

“This execution is deferred for a while.”   The Prince continued:   “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date.   In the meantime, brother….”   He smiled crookedly at the Indian:  “We have your affairs to sort out.  Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”

“That’s it?”  The American asked, coldly.   “We just let it go at that?”

“We will do all we can, my friend,”   The Arab said.   “We cannot change the past.”

“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged:  “But you guys are in the business of changing things.   Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed.   OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today:  I want something back.”

“Of course, of  course!”   The Prince was placatory:  “We understand this.   These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I.   We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.”   He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture:  the meeting was concluded.

There was a procedure to follow now:  discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion.  So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done.  A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave.   Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince.  A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance.   Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure.   Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.

 Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab.  Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained.  It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.

 “Do you like the look of our brother?”   Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart.  “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi?   An exemplary man at arms, hmmm?    And a creature of such intelligence!   His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause.   Walk with me.”  Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room.  “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny:  is that the expression?   They fall over themselves to work for us.   One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”

“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers.   They are food for killers.”   Yahedi responded.   “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”

The Prince patted his hand.   “I have faith in you, Brother.   I know your stamp.   There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities.    I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this.  Yahedi is our friend.    It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar.   I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you.  I believe you do work for us.   I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”

“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today.   You would have sent him after me long before now.”

“How do you know the hunt does not start here?”   The Prince chuckled.  “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning?   What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”

Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion.  “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed.  Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post.   I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah.   But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”

“So be it.”  The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further.  An hour when you will both be needed.  In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.”   He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother.  Take this with you.  Allah keep you until we next meet .”

Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand.  It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credit: Abuli Munaravi on Unsplash

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Hansel and Gretel

 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.  

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.  

Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is).   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially. 

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me.  “We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest. 

“We go each side, I think.”  Emil advised.

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours. 

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.  

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food.  As I tried to enter he barred my way.  “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

I could not miss the solemnity in his tone.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently.  

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”

“Hmmm?”  

“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?” 

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

   © Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.     

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The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

   © Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.     

Image Credits:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part Eight

A Revealing Breakfast

Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself:  the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him.   The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table.   His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.

“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.

“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.

“Yes!  Yes!”   His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”

“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas.  I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.” 

Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table.  “Your father likes it,” she explained.  “He doesn’t know many jokes.”

“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery,  “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”

Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel.  “Yes.   Yes I do.   Dinosaurs!”

Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten?   I suppose you have; you were only five, after all.  There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata.   You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”

Yes, Peter remembered.   He often, still, made drawings to recapture  those images.   “Where else did we go?”

“Oh, everywhere!  We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…”   Lena recollected.  “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder?  It must be at least ten years ago.”

“Almost exactly,”  Bob Cartwright chipped in,  “It would have been April 25th.  That’s the date today, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”  Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity.  I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”

“You did, darling.   Well, apart from one bit.”

His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory.  “How do you mean, mum?”

“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you?   Well, maybe that’s a mercy,” 

“No,”  Peter prompted her:  “Tell me?    Was there a problem?”

“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all.  It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”

His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know?    So we took The Tube – The Underground.”     She went on:   “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”

“All hell broke loose.”  His father cut in.  “You screamed, you fought, you scratched.   You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”

“I carried you.”  Lena went on.  “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit.   You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe.  It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”

“You soon got over it once we were down, though.”  Bob said.  “You liked the tube train.”

“Where was this, mum?  What’s the Tube Station called?”

“Hyde Park Corner, darling.”   Peter’s mother regarded him with concern.  “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”

“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained.  “Paying respects, you know?  I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war.  I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”

As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing.  Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream.  Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though.  It was a junction of several streets.  

He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject.  “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me.  It’s so absolutely you!”  She enthused.

Peter frowned.  “It isn’t that special.  Have you been photo-shopping me again?”

“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked.  “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”

“Oh, what?  What did you do to me this time?”

“As a female?”   She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot.  “Pathetic!”

“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you?  Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  All right, I did – once.  I was stupid and I’m sorry.”

“So where is it?”

“It’s at home, somewhere.  I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning.  The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”

Mel asked, after a pause:   “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”

“Battledress, why?”

“Describe it to me.”

Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead.   His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain.  “Hats, trench coats, boots.  You know.”

“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”

Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs!   They were Australian soldiers, yeah?   And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!” 

“Right!”  Melanie crowed.  “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum!    Quick!   Find your ‘phone!”

#

By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.

“How are you, sweetness?”

“Look, Vince, I’m busy.  I don’t have time for social calls.”  The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog.  “Have you got anything else for me?”

“I have.  It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.  Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”

“The kid gave you this?”  Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil:     “How the hell could he know?”  

“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”

“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is.    Anzac Day.  Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that.  Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.”  She checked her watch.   “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks!  Vince, you’d better be right!”

Alice had to consider carefully what she should do.  An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this.  Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent.  Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response.  But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country!  Did she believe him?  

With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it.  She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt.   Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.

“U.S. Embassy, please.”

Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:

“Are you serious?”

“Sir, she recommends you abort.”

“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves.  This is British Security again isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.  I had no choice but tell you.  She insisted I log the call.”

“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls.    If we did, we’d never go any damn place.   Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to log the call.”

From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car.  His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.

“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation.  We’ll be going to code amber.”

“Is it serious, Hal?”

“Sir, it’s amber.  We take everything seriously.  But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry.  We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”

“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”

From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort  scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual.   Yahedi was unconcerned.   Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability.   Not yet, though,: not yet.  Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.

The ceremony was brief.   Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial.   Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall.   Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon.  There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars.   He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window.    Carefully, methodically, he took aim.

The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.

As he did so, a  sheet of paper floated right past his nose.  He dodged it instinctively.

Thwack!     A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.

Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body.  In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.

“Stay down sir.  Are you hit?”

“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right.  By the way, I never got to ask you….?”

But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over.  Doors slammed.  The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.

Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets.  Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life.   It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress.   He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.

“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?”  He asked himself:  “No, you do not.”

He flagged down a passing member of his team.   “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.”   He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding:  “The top bit, of course, not the body.”

Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.

            Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan.  Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days.   Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay.   He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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Tarpington’s Grass

Tarpington’s Grass

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“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little notebook and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “Not much to be gained from an entry like that.  No details.  I mean, how did it move?  Where did it move?  For what reason did it move?”

“It was an event.  It didn’t need a reason.”  Vicki Blomquist stated with finality, placing the matter beyond question.  She tried to find the page Peregrine had closed upon, unaware she was turning to the wrong end of the book.  “I presume that was his last entry?”

“Event, event!”  Marcus Batt cried impatiently.  “It can’t just be dismissed as ‘an event’.  Tarpington has disappeared – there must be more to it than that.  Why was he awake at half-past-three?  How could he see if the bin moved – in the darkness?”

“Perhaps he heard it?”  Peregrine craned his neck to see out through Tarpington’s kitchen window.  Three plastic wheelie bins, Recycling, General Waste and Garden Waste, were sitting beside the path in an orderly row.  “They don’t look as if they’ve moved at all.”  He said.   “What’s Chipperby doing out there?”

“Investigating probably,”  Marcus said.  “Chipperby’s always investigating.”

Peregrine frowned.  “Isn’t that why we came?”

“No, it most certainly is not.”  Vicki had taken up a stance in the middle of Tarpington’s kitchen,  her eyes raised towards the ceiling and her hands spread in a gesture of supplication,.  “Oh Mighty Ones, hear us!  We await you!  Show us your beneficence we beg you, and allow us to extend to you our humble welcome!  Ah, each day brings you nearer,   I feel it; I feel it! Peregrine – can’t you feel it?”

“She’s gone off on one again,”  Marcus said.  “She’s beginning to twitch.”

“Well, he’s definitely not here, and no-one’s seen him for days.  He could be on holiday?”  Peregrine suggested.  “No, scrub round that.  Tarpington never goes on holiday.”

Outside in the passage, Saul Chipperby was seeking clues to substantiate his friend Donald Tarpington’s cryptic final note.   A member of the ‘Lallybridge Alien Life Society’ or LALS for several years, he sometimes found their collective company a little overwhelming; but that was not to say he disbelieved their mission; oh, no.  Lallybridge was a hub for alien activity, Saul was convinced of that.  Hadn’t he seen those mysterious silver discs in the eastern sky sunset after sunset, heard the strange hum that persisted behind the moan of a north wind, the creak of the trees in the birch wood on the night when the blue light shone from behind St. Wilfrid’s Hill?

Donald Tarpington had gone – abducted, without a doubt.  Like seventeen-year-old Shona Trott from the Post Office and Glen Tebbit, the butcher’s boy.  They had been returned, fortunately – found together in Margate six months later with no memory of their miraculous experience.  And Shona was carrying what would inevitably be an alien child.  But Donald Tarpington, he was a member of LALS. His abduction could only mean the visitors were ready to make contact at last!

Saul wasn’t sure what evidence of Donald’s abduction there might be.  When the Society met on the first Tuesday of each month, signs of alien activity were freely discussed, and scorched circles generated by great heat from landing craft featured highly in those discussions, but when it came to specifics – size and so on – no-one had actually seen one.  Nevertheless, scorch marks on the concrete could not be discounted, in Saul’s opinion, any more than signs of a struggle, or a pungent alien type smell.  There was a pungent smell certainly, but it emanated from the three neatly aligned wheelie bins.  He approached them cautiously, opening them one by one; first the blue Recycling bin, which was half-full, then the General Waste bin which was black and very full, and then the green Garden Waste bin…

“Don’t tell them I’m here.”

The creature was a caterpillar, wasn’t it?  Except that it had limbs – or possibly tendrils, it was difficult to tell.  It was certainly very green, as a mallard drake’s head is green, and it spoke:  well, it sort of spoke, because its words entered Saul’s head by means other than his ears.

“I won’t,” said Saul, astonished at his lack of astonishment.  The creature’s eyes were large, dreamy and the clear blue crystal of a mountain lake.

“Can you get me food?  I’m hungry.”  The creature’s thoughts read.  “I simply love these little short things, but I seem to have eaten nearly all of them.  They taste delicious.  What are they?”

“Grass cuttings.”  Said Saul.

“What on earth is Chipperby doing?”  Peregrine demanded, watching his LALS colleague passing back and forth beyond the rear window of Tarpington’s lounge, into which room the quorum had adjourned and within which they were helping their absent host by downsizing his decanter of vintage port.

Peregrine opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing, Chipperby?”

“Mowing the lawn,”  Saul replied.

“Good lord, why?”

“It needed to be cut.”

“Did you check out the Garden Waste bin?”

“Where do you think I’m emptying the grass box?”  Snapped Saul.

Vicki Blomquist’s ‘Event Temple’ took a further half hour and two more generous measures of port to complete, during which time Marcus and Peregrine prowled around their erstwhile friend’s home, ostensibly looking for anything which might help them understand the method of his abduction, while allowing their focus to constantly stray into criticism of his choice of underwear or his loudly coloured ties.  Their efforts were curtailed by Vicki’s loud proclamation:  “Griselda’s been abducted too!”

The assembled company were jointly rendered aghast.  Griselda Burdock, a member of LALS like themselves, had been prevented from joining their investigations at Tarpington’s house by a need to visit Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were expecting to join her for a post-abduction drink at the Skinner’s Arms later that evening.

“Her aunt’s texted me three times,” Vicki told them.  “Griselda returned from shopping, it seems, without ever re-entering the house.  “The bags of shopping were abandoned, their contents scattered on the path by the side gate.  That was three hours ago!”

“Did her Garden Waste bin move?”  Saul enquired, with what he hoped would sound like a thin veneer of sarcasm.

“I think we’d better go and check this out.  It sounds to me like they’re finally ready to invade.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “Her aunt’s place is only three streets away.”

“Yes,”  Saul agreed.  “I’ll come back here later and clear up.”

“This must be reported,”  Peregrine said.  “It’s a major news story, at least!”

Saul, Vicki and Marcus greeted Peregrine’s enthusiasm with sad, downcast eyes.  The people at the local paper would, as usual, laugh and offer unkind suggestions as to the real reasons for their colleagues’ absence, and if they were lucky enough to avoid a charge of wasting police time, the reactions of the local constabulary would run along similar lines.  The LALS reputation for extravagant claims of alien invasion was well established in Lallybridge.

“Where are you going with that wheelie bin?”  Miles Purvis called across the road as Saul Chipperby rumbled past.  “It looks heavy!”

“I’m taking it up to the Tarpington place,”  Saul responded.  “It’s Griselda Burdock’s.  While she’s away I’m getting both bins emptied from Tarpington’s house. It’s easier!”

“I suppose,”  Miles said doubtfully, trying to follow Saul’s logic.  “By the way, has Chipperby Lawn Services got a slot free to cut my back garden this weekend?  Great idea for a company, that.”

“I’ll maybe have some space on Sunday.  I’ll give you a call.”

Saul was not unaccustomed to the odor of fermenting grass, although its smell was the more malodorous for being confined within the walls of Tarpington’s living room.  Wherever he looked there was grass – grass in bags, grass in boxes, grass in basins, grass in bottles.  He wondered what Tarpington would make of it if he returned unexpectedly from the holiday Saul still darkly suspected might be the cause of his absence.

“Circumstances dictate cases.  I wouldn’t object in the slightest.”  It was the familiarity of the voice in his head that made Saul jump.  He shot a glance at the two creatures, one dark green, the other dark blue but remarkably similar in every other respect, that lay entwined comfortably on Tarpington’s brown leather corner unit.  Two pairs of dreaming eyes returned his look.

“Donald?”  Saul frowned.  This didn’t make sense.

“Of course, dear chap.  Who else would I be?”  The dark green creature’s response filled his mind.

“And you can address me as Griselda,”  ‘Donald’s dark blue companion’s ‘voice’ was equally familiar.  “Although we aren’t, actually.”

“That much we can agree, at least,” Saul said. “You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald. You actually look more like, well, caterpillars, I suppose.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“Caterpillars.”  Blue Griselda exchanged glances with Green Donald.  “That could present a problem.”

“It would explain the appetite,” Green Donald agreed.  “Could I have another bag of cuttings, by the way?”

“By all means!”  Saul slid a box of cut grass across the floor in the creature’s direction.  “You haven’t explained who you really are, yet.  What has happened to Donald and Griselda – I mean, you’ve given me their names, but…”

“We’re placeholders.”  Blue Griselda jumped into his thoughts.  “You can think of us as exchange students, if you like.”

“We’re Zoggians,”  Green Donald continued.  “The Donald and  Griselda you speak of have been teleported to our Mothership for modification, and we’re keeping their place for them until their treatment is complete.”

“The difficulty with teleportation – it’s a new system for us – is displacement of matter.”  Blue Griselda explained.  “If we break a creature down into its constituent atoms and then remove them we leave a hole.  That can cause quite a commotion!”

“But nothing like the disturbance that will result when we try to put them back!”  Green Donald added.  “So we swop – two Earth people out, two Zoggians (that’s us) in.  We’re keeping a window open for their return, when they’ve been upgraded to Zoggian specification.”

Saul was incredulous.  “Donald and Griselda are being turned into Zoggians?”

“Obviously!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Zoggian?  New, increased functionality, superb telepathic communication (including teleconferencing and augmented visuals) and full connectivity for our sensory navigation package – and that’s just to begin!”

“If you attract our gold package, for less than five pounds a month you can even download your own music on Zoggify!”  Blue Griselda chimed in enthusiastically.  “Although, this caterpillar thing does seem to be a bit of a problem.  We were supposed to appear identical to the earth creatures we are body-sitting for, but something seems to have become confused.”

“I found you in the garden waste bin,” Saul found himself explaining to Green Donald.  His long-held belief in alien abduction was helping him overcome the profound shock of seeing his convictions validated. “You could easily have got mixed up with a caterpillar or two in there.”

“And I sent up my transmission pattern for you to copy,” Green Donald mingled his thoughts with Blue Griselda; “So we are the same, effectively.”

“Which doesn’t solve our problem,” Blue Griselda reminded him.  “Am I the only one who feels a little stiff this morning?”

High summer approached and Saul’s Lawn Services business fell into decline as an increasing weariness overtook him; so he was quite glad to arrive one Sunday at the Tarpington house to discover not a pair of voracious caterpillars but two extremely large dry chrysalids, one green, one blue, in their place.  Even then he refrained from informing the membership of LALS (the Lallybridge Alien Life Society) what had passed.  Only when, upon a regular weekly visit, he thought he detected movement in one of the chrysalises, did he summon them to the Tarpington house, relating all that his larval companions had told him.  The members were not pleased.

“Why didn’t you inform us earlier?”  Marcus demanded.  “We might at least have averted the chrysalis crisis.”

“They asked me not to,”  Saul replied.  “I think they were afraid of publicity.”

“And now look what’s happened!”  Cried Peregrine.  “They’ve turned to bloody rock!  Vicki dear, what are you doing?”

Intoning the words of an unintelligible mantra, Vicki Blomquist was busily producing cards decorated with mystic symbols from her handbag and positioning them around the room, glancing frequently up to a point on the ceiling for reference.  “I’m generating the Event Temple, Peregrine.  One of us has to, or Donald and Griselda won’t find their way back, you see?”

“I think they will,”  Saul responded.  “The blue one’s splitting;  look!”

A tiny fissure had opened in the Blue Griselda chrysalis.  Marcus, ever thoughtful, brought a bath sheet from Tarpington’s linen cupboard and held it up, ready to preserve the hatching alien’s dignity as she returned to Earth.  “I don’t care whether she’s still one of us or not, she deserves a little respect,” he excused himself (somewhat lamely, Peregrine thought).

The assembled company would have to wait a further half-hour, regaled by Vicki’s chanting, before the familiar head of Griselda Burdock finally appeared, her hair passably well styled, and looked around her. She registered no surprise at the presence of her welcoming committee as, giving a final heave she rose, thrusting the two halves of her chrysalis from her.  Marcus, about to bring her the towel, froze.  Griselda looked down at her large, bedraggled wings and her six furry legs.

“Dammit!”  She said.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Featured Image – Thomas Budach from Pixabay

Grass Mower: Ulrika Mai from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Seven

Schemes and Dreams

In a night of troubled dreams, Francine could manage only fitful sleep.  Her heart could not allow her to forget the warmth of Arthur’s enfolding arms, or how natural it had seemed, even though the mere recollection brought a flush of embarrassment, that she should seek refuge there.  Her head was filled by murmurings, strange conversations in words she could not quite detect, invitations that defied all reason in their insistence.  They called to her, awakening her time after time, growing ever stronger as the night passed.  In the early morning while all but a few of the servants in the house were still asleep she yielded to them at last:  she rose from her bed and slipped stealthily through the corridors of the Guest Wing, out into the darkness.

Once out of doors, the sounds in her head left no doubt: they emanated from the place in the park where the old oak had been blown down by a storm.    Oblivious to the dangers of the lingering darkness, she found her way on slippered feet through icy April rain  back to that great overturned giant,   The first vermillion glow of sunrise broke through the clouds to discover her at the brink of the wide pit left by the uprooted tree, staring down into the abyss and its exposed foundation rock.  Now so close, the urge to find union with that unyielding stone was irresistible.  Francine began to clamber down, an enterprise that, even had it been pursued with caution would have proved impossible on feet wet from the grass.  She had no thought of caution.   Within seconds her balance escaped her and she fell.  She fell so her head cracked against the stone and her arm doubled under her.

There was pain; a searing scream of protest wracked her injured skull; but it abated almost immediately.  Neither did her twisted arm complain for long:  where she lay against it the rock’s warmth, if that was how it could be described, flowed into her like balm, inducing her to seek more from its embrace.   This, it seemed to tell her, was the place she was meant to be.  She did not question it.  It offered the solace she needed so badly.  

She had been lying there how long?  Who could know?  The rain had ceased and the sky was becoming light, a morning chorus of birdsong surrounded her, yet she did not hear it:  all she heard came from beneath her; from the rock itself.   Words, indistinguishable at first, then drifting around her head like those that had invaded her sleep; so much stronger now, so much more assertive.   So much like those strange utterances she had shared with Arthur at the Bleanstead lighthouse as the sea beat in upon them that wild morning, when she had spoken of their experience as being ‘real’.  These, though, were not her own words; they were the words of a young voice, a female voice:

“Wow!    Are you weird or what?” Some other unintelligible words in the same voice, then a male response.

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all…”

#

Peter, his mind still filled with visions, had been ushered back to the room where he and Alice had first met.  Vincent had parked him on some cushions as a seat and Alice, kneeling in front of him, was trying to engage his eyes.  She did not seem quite as furious as before.   “Do you know where you are?”  She asked him.

“I don’t.”  Her hand was on his knee.  He didn’t like it: there might have been no threat, but those fingers, those tentacles were like a cat’s claws, ready to dig into his flesh.    “There seems to be a clock. I keep seeing a clock.  I can’t read the time from it – it’s all liquid and sloshing about…”

“Town, city?  Like London?   Like Big Ben, or something?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s just a clock face, only it’s old; like, ornate hands and everything…”

Vincent was further across the room, pacing.   “A street on its end, part of a big place like a city, a clock.   Don’t worry about it Pete, it’ll come through.  Describe the people you saw.”

As he told his host of the woman whose pain had reached into him, the angry man and the black figure of despair, Peter felt a return of sensation, as if, his head gradually clearing, something new, something dark was revealing itself.  He began to view Alice differently – there was an elusive part of her he had to reach, and for a reason, although he could not grasp what the reason was.

“It’s a strange thing – I never had this happen before.  I’m really sorry!”  He said humbly.

“No, mate, you don’t need to apologise!”   Vincent was magnanimous.  “I’d like to say it could happen to anyone, Pete, but that wouldn’t be true.  Listen, I think we should take you home now:  I’ll get my bloke to bring a car round.”

The red Aston Martin which arrived at the great doors to take Peter back to the mainland was impressive enough to allay his regrets at leaving.   Alice stood beside Vincent under the Arch, watching him leave.   Again, as he said goodbye, Peter experienced that urge to say something left unsaid.  But there was a menace in Alice’s beauty which deprived him of speech, and after a few hesitant mumblings he withdrew into silence.

Alice watched him go, ignoring the faint churning she had felt in her stomach when she caught his parting look.  “A street on its end?    A clock which could be from anywhere?  A woman in some sort of trouble and a big sad guy?   Okay, Vince, how am I going to explain that to my people?”

Vincent hugged her shoulders:    “You’re not, are you?  This is very much our bird, innit?  Look, darlin’, I told you he was special, didn’t I?  And I was right, yeah?”

“So why, if he’s that special, are you just letting him go?  Vince, this is really urgent!  We don’t have any time!”  Alice spelled the words out to him, slowly, as if that would penetrate what she saw as density in his head:  “If there is something there, I need to know it now!   Why not just get him back and sit him on that rock until he sorts out what street, and what city, and who the hell is the giant guy?”

“You get so, so uptight!”  Sighed Vincent.  “Just now you were accusing me of abducting a minor, now you want me to!  If we put him through that again now, he would probably go insane.  He doesn’t understand what is happening to him yet.  Maybe he never will.  But I know this much – if he comes to the answer, he’ll do it in his own way, and his own time.  We can’t rush it.  Besides, I don’t think he’ll be working alone.”

“How do you mean?”

“I didn’t say he had to be the only one, did I?”

Peter sat holding his breath as the man he had met at the gate, now his chauffeur, steered them carefully through Crowley’s tunnel. He felt he was still too close to everything that had happened to even try to make sense of it all:   maybe Mel would help him do that if they could meet up on FB tonight.   Meanwhile, Vincent’s parting words to him still reverberated in his head.    The rock guitarist had gripped his shoulders so as to make him look straight into his eyes as he said them.  Vincent was being ree-ally serious.

“Listen carefully Petey, alright?   Sort out that dream, yeah?  And when you have – when you can tell me what it means, or even if you’ve got an idea of what it might mean, whatever time of night or day, you call me immediately.   Doesn’t matter if it makes no sense to you, if you just feel like it’s an answer, ‘phone me.   I’ll be waiting.    Now, here’s my number.   Keep it safe, yeah?”

Avoiding college that afternoon did little to improve Peter’s cataclysmic sense of something that was just beyond his range of vision:  something black and somehow threatening.   He wandered aimlessly through the remains of his day, unable to concentrate, frightened to revisit his dream.  The recurring image of the dark man, so all-consuming and melancholy, loomed like a thunderhead over everything.  

“Petey?”  His mother looking in through the door of his room, gently concerned, seeing that something was wrong, but wise enough not to intrude.  “Are you ill, love?”

“No mum, I’m fine.”   Lena did not persist.   “If you need us, you know where we are.” She closed the door.

Mrs. Cartwright: Lena.   Graduated from ‘The Slade’ with a fine arts degree, met Robert Cartwright at a ‘Varsity ball in Cambridge when he, a student of theology and a little younger, was still an undergraduate.  Lena had been a mysterious, introverted companion; given to sudden outbursts of exhibitionism which were the more remarkable for their unexpectedness.   Bob was as radical then as now, by no means a convinced student of the conventional theologies, or, as he would put it:  ‘Trotskyite religion’.   They remained friends, she painting and establishing a reputation for herself as a graphics artist, he a struggling Anglican whose worldliness was forever in question.   Nevertheless he achieved his Doctorate and, when the Levenport living was offered to him, proposed to Lena.   She gave up a promising career to become the wife of an irascible and altogether unconventional priest.   They were, with certain reservations, dutiful parents, doting on each other and upon their only son:  but they rarely showed, and never spoiled, with their affection.  Peter was who Peter was:  a lonely child but a well-adjusted one.  Robert was a faintly dysfunctional father, perhaps, possessed by demons of a practical nature:  Lena at times very much the artist – self-obsessed, demanding, often terminally depressed.  Yet she still painted: it was the income from her art, rather than Robert’s living, which kept their lifestyle ticking over.

Once he was sure that he would not be interrupted, Peter turned his computer on and used the keyboard to text Melanie, describing everything he could remember of his day.  She called him back at once.   “Wow!   Are u weird or what?  Did you, like, throw up on his carpet or anything?

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all.”

Melanie thought Alice should have impressed him,  “What was she like?  Describe her for me.  Was she sexy?”

“Alice?  What care I what Alice was like!  Tall, black hair – could have done with a comb…

“Heavy eyebrows, big nose, sort of long?”

“Not that big!”

“Alice Burbridge!”  Melanie cried, triumphant,  “I bet it was Alice Burbridge!  She’s dead famous, Pete!”

“Yeah, right! I kind of thought she was going to stab me, some of the time.   Tell me what you think the dream – vision – whatever. was about.     You’re good at these things.”

“I think it was about too much happy cake.”

“Mel, serious, please?”

“Okay, okay.   There was a street, you said?”

“Yes, but on end.  I’m falling down it instead of walking.  The pavement’s vertical, and I fall into the sea at the bottom.”

“Was there anything else about it you remember?  Like the name on a shop, or something?

Peter searched his memory, “No, nothing.  It all happened too fast.   Vincent thought it might represent some sort of code, you know?  With the clock and everything?”

“I don’t see that.    I think it may be a series of clues.  Dreams draw on your experiences, don’t they?  Peter, try this.   Is there somewhere in your past – a place you visited that was so special…”

“…that I didn’t want to leave?   Like the West End, you mean?

“Right: London.  What made you think of that straightaway?”

“Dunno.  I sometimes remember it.  Kensington; went there with olds when I was, like, five or something.   Wicked day.   We did the Natural History museum.   Tiny kid, big skeletons; I was well impressed.”

“You didn’t want to come home?”  Melanie asked.

“No.  I wanted to stay longer, but you know my dad, he’s time-obsessed.   He kept lantering on about missing the train….Oh shit, the clock sloshing around!”

Melanie was triumphant,  “Yep.  Your dad is the clock, and the large place is one of those museums, or maybe just London.   Now, the street; are we looking at this the wrong way round….can u remember falling down, or anything?

“What,  on that trip?  No.”

“Ha ha.  Or panicking?   Did anything make you frightened?   You were only five.”

Peter shook his head, “I don’t think so.”

Melanie sighed,  “Well, we’ve got London, anyway.   Where else did you go, do you remember?”

“Not really.   I mean, we probably did the tourist places, like the Tower and things, but I don’t think they mean anything.”

“Explain?”

“\I can’t, honestly.  I just think that this – whatever it is – I’m supposed to be seeing, should kind of stand out, u know?  Like really obvious, if you know what I mean.    Thing is, Vincent made it sound so urgent and important; I feel like I’m letting him down, yeah?”

Melanie made a face.  “I think he needs a big slap, giving you puff and putting you in this position.    I’ll keep working on it, but I can’t think of anything else right now.  Tell him London.  Maybe that’ll help?     See you at coll tomorrow, if you’re coming, that is.”

“Sarcasm  now!   Yep, I’m coming.  Come round here, if you got time, we’ll go in together.”

“Half-eight then.  ‘Night babes.”

“Mel?”

“Yeah, what?”

“I should have said something to Alice.”

“Like what?”

“Dunno.  Just something.”

Peter closed his call with Melanie before he tapped out Vince’s number.

#

Alice was at home in her Lancaster Gate apartment when Vincent called:

“It’s London.”   His voice said.

Alice was not feeling charitable.  “Great!”   She growled:   “That’s just great!    That narrows it down a lot!”

“Alright, alright!  We still have four possible days when this could happen, don’t we?    Give the lad time, Al.”

“No time.” Alice told him, with resignation in her voice.   “If – and I do say ‘if’ because I don’t believe this whole cockamamie thing with visions and stuff anyway – if it is London it’s going to happen in the next eighteen hours, because tomorrow night the whole circus is moving on to Manchester, then Newcastle.  It flies out from Newcastle on Friday, doesn’t return to London; and I’m not supposed to be telling you this oh Jesus what’s the matter with me!!  We don’t have any time at all, Vince!”

“Well, do you know the itinerary for tomorrow?  That might help a bit, yeah?”

“Yes, I do.   And no, I can’t tell you, because that’s top secret.   You know we aren’t disclosing any details of his schedule.  I’ve already said far too much.”

“I’m not a bleedin’ spy!”

“If this goes belly up you might as well be!  If they discover I’ve been feeding you information the Court’s ‘ll mince us, Vincent. So you’d better pretend you don’t know me for a while, okay?”

#

Salaiman Yahedi rose early as a matter of habit.    Six o’clock was, for him, the best time of the day.   When he strolled in the Park,  joggers, deliverers and carriers, all with a head-down purpose of their own, would scarcely notice him.   If he now and then acknowledged a stranger as they passed, there was no inquisitiveness on either’s part:  no-one studied faces; no-one noted, specifically no-one noticed him.  Yahedi was an expert at these things.  Salaiman Yahedi, who was wanted in almost every country in the western world, might, you would have thought, have been happier in the crowd, losing himself in a host of faces, but no: he preferred the few to the many, the early-morning people who were lost in their own world as much as he was lost in his.

Those who placed barriers for an event later that day were not security men, they were just workmen with barriers.   They had no interest in who was around, who might be attending to the detail of their work.   So Yahedi was able to wipe the dew from a bench and sit watching them for a while, just casually.  None but the most discerning could have seen that, whilst he sat there, he was sizing up the relationship between those barriers and a certain window on the third floor of a prestige hotel across Park Lane.   No-one else could see (for Salaiman was satisfied that he himself could not) the small, circular hole he had so painstakingly incised in all three layers of glazing in that window; working for hours into the previous night.

Yahedi relaxed, enjoying the morning.    There was no smell quite like that of English grass before the day had bullied and bruised it.  It offered some compensation for the eternally low temperatures, the ever- present threat of rain.   Curious, though, that on a morning so fine there should be flocks of seagulls as far inland as the Capital: he assumed the weather on the coast must be less kind.  Salaiman amused himself as he watched their wheeling, spiralling flight for a while, before he returned to his hotel for breakfast.  His day’s work would not begin for a couple of hours yet.  He stood up, preparing to do battle crossing an already busy Park Lane, and in a moment’s carelessness nearly collided with a woman in a red tracksuit who was jogging past.

“I am very sorry, excuse me!”   He apologised.

“It’s okay.” The woman seemed preoccupied, troubled.  As she ran on, Yahedi watched her retreating back thinking how beautiful she was, so tall and with such a shock of black hair, and how he would relish practising his very specific arts upon her.   Some would always escape.  There was nothing he could do; unless, of course, they should run across each other again….

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Dinosaur: Harald Matern from Pixabay

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A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

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To Molinaphoto885 and whomsoever else it may concern…

I have been accused in my ‘Contacts’ page by the above addressee of infringement of copyright on an image or images on this blog. The email sought to direct me to a site wherein, it said, there would be references to the material in question. It did not give me direct references to the image/images. or the articles in this blog where they are purported to have been used.

I will not open links sent to me in communications of any kind, unless they are from trusted senders. Any information which requires action from me must be included in the text of the email, or other communication, itself.

I never intentionally breach copyright, to which end it is normal for me to use sites that offer material free for commercial use. There are plenty out there to choose from. If I unintentionally display copyrighted material, the copyright owner need only contact me as stipulated above and I will immediately remove it. I have no wish to offend.

My attempted response to this accusation will not ‘send’ to the email address supplied – it is refused by the server, which makes me think I am justified in treating this as a scam. I may be wrong, and if I am I will happily apologize to Monica at Molinaphoto885 as soon as I receive the relevant information, including an email address to which I have the right of reply.

If I am not, this is a warning to all my blogging friends out there of a possible scam I have not encountered before. Maybe you have? Please let me know!

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Satan’s Rock

The Chapters So Far:

The Wild Sea:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

The Prince’s Gift:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Quimple:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Intrusion:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

The Cuckoo and the Nest:     Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Honoured Guests:             Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

An Invitation:                      Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Exploration and Discovery:      https://frederick-anderson-stories.org/2021/05/02/satans-rock-9

Part Six: Butterfly

At first, in spite of the miasma Vincent’s welcoming spread of food had induced, Peter found his introduction to St. Benedict’s House fascinating.   Shepherded by the erstwhile rock star, yet with scant guidance from either Vincent or Alice, he was able to interpret what he saw in his own fashion.  Whatever drug Alice had introduced to him, although it did nothing for his balance, seemed to heighten his perception.  The small wooden paneled door which now led into a quiet informal garden could be the side door Toqus had secretly used.  He could visualize the big man’s form and the shining bronze of his skin, even believed for a moment that he saw his fleeting shadow, and he explained this to Vincent, who asked:   “Who was this ‘Toqus’ geyser, then?”   Peter managed to garble out the story of Crowley and his mysterious servant.

The long gallery, once buttressed onto the rock beyond these windows, had been torn off by the storm on the night Lord Crowley died, its debris cascading down three hundred feet to the sea.   Now full length sheets of glass replaced it to form a sky-walk with a view which took Peter’s breath away.

Here might be the room where poor old Crowley spent his last night alive.    Too ill to use the great stairway that fed the upper parts of the house, his bedroom was on the main floor.  Although the décor was entirely changed, its oak doors opening now into a warm, modern dining room with a beautifully polished central table and Mackintosh chairs, still it was easy to imagine the big Georgian four-poster bed with its poor, huddled occupant.  

“This is where we do the posh eating.”  Vincent explained, unable to see, as Peter saw, beyond the recessed lighting and the plain, smooth walls in their sympathetically soft terracotta hue.  Peter refrained from telling him of the likelihood that the house’s original owner had died in just this doorway.  Certain information might be best left unsaid.

This, then, must have been the corridor along which the maidservant brought news of the old man’s death.   In this smaller salon a widowed Lady Crowley had very likely entertained her scheming lover: of course, the designing Mr. Ballentine would have known all there was to know of the house in his day.  As in Lord Crowley’s bedroom, though, little real clue to its distinguished past remained: just as the structure of the Great Hall had been gutted to accept the new, so most of the rooms had lowered ceilings with crisp, fresh interiors, refurbished for the comfort of Vincent’s music industry guests.   Low volume audio played in most of them, and the air was redolent of nineteen-seventies glam rather than Regency hauteur.

Led hither and thither through so many different rooms all looking so much the same, Peter’s befogged brain began to descend from the height of its euphoria and to tire of the experience.   Yet Vincent,  clearly regarding his ‘place to be’ with pride, wanted him to absorb each space.  Peter noticed, too, that Vincent was moved occasionally to leave him alone in a room, as though his presence might interrupt Peter’s appreciation in some way.  He would have been intrigued had he overheard Vincent and Alice on one such occasion.

“Nothing!”  Alice hissed in exasperation.  “He doesn’t feel anything, he doesn’t see anything – he just wants to talk about bloody history!”

“Right, yeah, right!”   Vincent soothed, “Maybe if you hadn’t dosed him up so much?  Give him time, girl?    He’s got to tune in, right?”

“Vince.   Vince?   Time is what we don’t have?”   Alice paced as she spoke.  “I agreed to this, God help me.   I came down here because you told me you had the answer.   And you’ve got nothing!  Just a schoolkid and some crazy fantasy you dreamed up – probably after one of those iffy fags of yours.   Well, I’m dead!  I’m finished!”

“Will you calm down?”  Vince said.   “Have some faith, Al?  He hasn’t seen everywhere yet, has he?”

“Where else?  The guest bedrooms?  He’s out on his feet now – are you going to take him around all of those?  You said yourself the answer was down here.  Where did you get him from anyway?   How on earth do you know he’s ‘the right one’?”

“Trust me.   I just do.  Let ‘s take him through the atrium and do the studio now, right?”

Alice gave him a look of trust betrayed:  “I can’t believe I’m going along with this!  This is abduction, do you know that?  You’re keeping this kid against his will!  Look, ask him, Okay?  Just ask him if he gets – oh, I don’t know – some vibe or something: whatever he’s supposed to get.  Ask him.”

“Can’t do that, love.”  Replied Vincent.  “It has to be spontaneous.  We’ll know when it happens, though.”

“If it doesn’t hurry up I’m going back to London – see if I’ve got a job left.”   Alice shook her head sadly.  “I did trust you, Vince – you, and your miracle solutions.  I went for it, didn’t I?”

“Faith, Al, have faith.”  Vincent urged, as he returned to the room which had once been the great kitchen of the old house.   “Come on, Peter, mate.   Come and see where I’ve got me own personal recording studio!”

The architect Quimple’s original plans for St. Benedict’s House had depicted a main building surrounding a central courtyard in a sort of horseshoe on three sides.   Part of this courtyard had been intended as a sheltered garden, where his client could take the air while tempests raged and hurricanes blew, the rest, discreetly veiled by a columned palisade, a cobbled yard whereon much of the business of the house, deliveries of food, cleaning and drying of linen, etcetera, could take place.

The stable block with its attendant noise and odour was designed to be away from the house, forming part of a boundary wall on the seaward side, near the gatehouse.   But with the fall of Crowley’s fortunes, and after the more physical fall of Quimple, Matthew Ballentine  insisted that economies must be made; the stable was built across the open space which Quimple had intended as a garden.   Thus the stables formed the fourth side of the courtyard, so other than access gates serving the tradesmen’s yard it completely enclosed the cobbled area.  No-one had much objected to this transformation, in part because all the main windows of the house opened outwards onto the seaward sides, and in part because they knew no differently:  Ballentine ensured the original plans were destroyed.

“This used to be a courtyard,” Vincent explained as he opened the small door from the one-time kitchen;   “We threw a glass roof over the top, so it’s an ‘Atrium’ now.   We got all sorts of stuff in here.   The studio used to be a stable.   Come and see!”

He led Peter into a small, enchanting garden, dissected by a path among giant tropical foliage and a bridge across a pond where golden carp swam sedately.  A fountain played at one end of the garden, sending a tiny stream over a series of little cascades.    Water plants scented the humid air and sun from the glazed roof created a rainbow.  The mist was dusted with exotic butterflies, some catching the sunlight in vibrant flashes of pure color as they flew, others perched with gently flexing wings upon stone carvings of mythic creatures that lurked in the undergrowth to either side of the path.   The enchantment was brief but liberating for Peter.  Here, in a tiny tropical paradise, anxiety, stress, his worries about being missed, all dissipated.  

It was an experience soon over, however, because for all its variety, Vincent’s  temperate house was quite small and the studio-come-stable all too close.  Not that Peter was uninterested in what was, after all, the first recording studio he had ever seen.

“Is this the mixing desk?”

Vincent nodded.   “Yep. Just as good as any they got in the big company studios.   I can do a full recording session here, editing, everything.   Come and try the booth, Pete.”

So Peter stood in the sound booth, where he could not help imagining himself with headphones on and a band behind him as he sang.  And there was a high stool to sit on, and there were guitars strewn carelessly about the place, and a drum set he wanted to play; but he could tell that for some reason Vincent was not so enthused, while Alice in her shuffling slippers inside the sound booth was positively twitching with impatience, so he did not ask if he could do these things.   Instead, he made his excuses.

“Thank you for taking the time to show me all this;” Peter said,   “But I think I really have to leave now.”

“Yep, I guess that’s it.”  Vincent agreed with an odd, resigned sigh:  “Thanks for visiting us, mate.  I’ll show you out, Pete, yeah?”

Alice said nothing.  Outwardly she seemed the same rather laid-back person who had greeted him at the beginning of his visit.   There was a smouldering undercurrent, though, which Peter could not help but detect; and as he and Vincent made to return through the enchanted garden she flounced ahead of them, her hips swinging angrily and her squid-hands clenched so the tentacles were white.

In his dejection, Peter nearly missed the little drama playing out in by the pond.   Had he not chanced to look down he would never have seen the giant white butterfly which, presumably while feeding on a piece of rotting fruit lying at the margin of the water, had got itself caught in weed.   Two legs were firmly wedged in a frond that tightened its grip every time the poor creature struggled, and the golden carp were circling ominously like u-boats close by.   Peter leaned down and released the captive, gently pulling the strands of weed apart until he could lift it clear of danger.  The great insect then, far from flying away as he might have expected, clung to his finger as if in gratitude.

“What should I do with it?”  He asked Vincent, entranced.

“Do you think he wants to go home with you?”  Vincent smiled sadly:  “Better let him settle somewhere to dry out, man.”

There was a rock beside the stream, a nice flat table-shaped stool of sparkly black granite where a butterfly might sunbathe, so Peter let it settle there.  As he persuaded the creature to leave his hand he had to lean against the rock.

            A scream wrenched itself from somewhere deep inside Peter’s head.   He recoiled, clutching pointlessly at pain which was firing some furnace in an untouchable place: he twisted around, nearly fell, yet he could not snatch his hand away.  Pulses of heat were radiating from the stone, engulfing his thoughts, turning them into shapes – images of people, places, exploding through his mind at terrifying speed. The figure of a faceless woman lost in an agony which cried out to him, wrenching at his heart:  behind her, grasping her shoulders, a powerfully-built man whose eyes were filled with hate.   A thin, enigmatic male image in clothes of a bygone time whose cadaverous features twisted and worked at some imagined discourse.   As these three rushed by they were pursued by rows of soldiers; hundreds, no, thousands of soldiers in battle dress. A tall dark man of utter sadness broke from their ranks to come straight towards Peter, reaching out as though to claim him.   The dark man grew larger, ever larger, until Peter knew he must be swallowed by the image:  he was bound for oblivion, bound to be submerged, lost in the mass of this gargantuan figure.   Then, just as he was about to give way, to plunge into the dark man’s despair, he seemed to tip backwards, and he felt himself tumbling, over and over, through featureless space.  He was falling.

From out of the emptiness a townscape came rushing up to meet him.   There were no figures now, no people or faces, just a street of buildings, shops, offices maybe:  but the street was a pit, standing on its end and he was plunging helplessly down into a hot, raging sea which lay at the bottom.  He cried out in terror.  Boiling waves consumed him. He could not breathe, could not see.  This was it:  this was what drowning was like; the water reaching between his lips, into his nose, his throat, down into his lungs.   Then, when he thought that death had come, there was a hand – soft plump skin, a persistent grip – a child’s hand.  It slipped between his own scrabbling fingers as soft as dove feathers; and it led him, it guided him away.  As abruptly as it had begun, the pain stopped.

Peter was back in the garden again.  A few panic-induced gasps for air were needed before he could persuade himself he was free of the illusion, that he was not truly drowning.   He slumped to the ground, his head gripped between his clenched fists.  Looking up, he found his two hosts staring at him.

Vincent grinned broadly.  “Bingo!”   He said.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Gone

The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip.  Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.

Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly.  The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought.   “Yeah mate?”

“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”

The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none.  “Hall Park Gardens?  Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens.  Wrong bus, mate.”

“Oh, no!”  Randall pushed himself back into his seat.  The bus banged over a pothole, jarring his spine.  He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets.  Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?

“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train.  It’s ever so simple!  The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station.  It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”

More or less.  More or less!  Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions:  a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.

“Smartly dressed.  Funeral I’d say.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again.  Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.

“Yes.  Yes, that’s correct.”

“Thought so.  White shirt, black tie.  Thought so.  Family?”

“No, no.  A friend – an old friend.”

“Sad, very sad, that.  What church?”

“Sorry?”

“What church is the funeral at?  That’s where yer goin’ innit?”

“Oh.  Oh, yes.   St. Mary Magdalene.  Yes, the funeral’s there.”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus!  Lissen,”   the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat.  “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway.  Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah?  Get off at The Broadway.  Take the Number Twelve goin’ east.  It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front.  St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate?  Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?”  Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat.  “Good luck, mate.”

Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone.  He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.

The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks.   Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens.  Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.

A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet.  He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose incumbent to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanor was less than communicative so he held his peace.  A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.

Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving toge