Satan’s Rock

Part Forty-One

Audience with a Prince

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway, where the killers Yahedi and Bourta had bowed to superiority and mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A large, subtly under-lit  kidney-shaped pool tenanted by ornamental fish occupied all space, save for a surrounding walkway paved in mosaic of blue and gold. At about two-thirds of the pool’s length away from the visitors a low bridge formed a crossing to a central island where seating and cushions offered luxurious rest beneath lighting that was softly tinted and discreet.    As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi Fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of crystal clear water cascaded or sprayed.  To either side  salons and apartments, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole courtyard in warm, gently humid air.      The glazing was layered for soundproofing, with gas between the layers which would cloud when charged with electricity, so when the rooms’ occupants wished it, privacy could be provided at a button’s touch.

            Persuaded forward by two armed escorts, Bourta and Yahedi took in all these testaments to the fabulous wealth of the villa’s owner, but their focus of attention quickly fell upon the sole occupant of the island, whose eyes had watched them from the moment they crossed the threshold. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst a mountain of silk cushions the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though the figure beckoning them to approach was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it was not of the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features exuded arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crooked Prince Shumal, but his older brother, and the rightful heir to the throne of Khubar.

 This was El Saada.

 “Two fine heroes!  Welcome!”   The Crown Prince’s voice was sing-song and cracked.  “Join me, please.   We will take tea.”

 “Discourse upon some matters is difficult.”  Said the Prince in his brittle voice, after the escorts had withdrawn and his visitors settled, hesitantly, each upon a chair.  “We must know whom we trust.   That is why I have had you intercepted on your journey to meet my brother.  That is why I brought you directly to me”

Yahedi and Bourta exchanged glances.  Neither man spoke.  Their allegiance to Shumal, the crooked Prince, would be known to Saada, as would Shumal’s implacable hatred for his brother.   Only Saada’s heavy security, with perhaps a little diplomatic expedience, kept him alive.   What force of necessity had led him to meet two of Shumal’s most dangerous assassins face to face?

“And is this ‘interception’,” Mahennis Bourta’s voice cut the air like the stroke of a scimitar:  “Wise, Highness?”

El Saada could not fail to sense so fatal a chill:  “I see I have chosen well. Touch me, my dear, and you will not live another breath.”

Salaiman Yahedi smiled a steel smile, his fingers feeling out the end of a cheese wire garrotte he kept sewn into the undersleeve of his jacket;  “But if this one breath is so sweet, El Saada:  why should it not be the last?”

The heir to the throne of Khubar was not a nerveless man; he needed all his royal breeding, all his belief in his own infallibility, not to fail at this moment.  If he had not known he was holding two tigers by their tails, the glint in Yahedi’s eye would convince him.  

The Crown Prince went on huriedly:  “Let me make an explanation.  When my spies inform me you are returning to our land, I see an opportunity.  Yes, I do!   I see you as my messengers, my ambassadors, even.”

Bourta interrupted dourly.  “You want us to give a message to who?  Your brother?”

“Exactly him!  My brother yes.”  The Crown Prince confirmed enthusiastically.  “More than a message, in the matter of a fact:  I want you to tell him we must put our differences aside and be working together, pretty damn soon, too.”

“Why do you need us, Your Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi permitted himself use of the accepted royal address,  “ A simple message, surely?  An email, a text?”

“Yes, yes, that might be fine.  That might suffice, yes.”  The Prince sat for a moment, his jaw clenched, staring at the koi carp in the pool.  They stared back.  “This thing I am thinking,”  He said at last,  “Is that we should all the time be working together, but he will not hear me.  My own brother disrespects me, he will not listen.  He trusts you; you are his friends.  To you he will listen.”

“Does this have any bearing on the nation’s finances, Your Highness?”  Yahedi asked quietly, “Because…”

“No, no.  Worse.  Far worse.”

“How, then?”

Saada leaned forward, dropping his voice.  “Our father the King is well enough to travel.   It is a great mystery!  He claims he was woken from his sleep by a seabird of marvellous white plumage, I ask you!  The bird has told him he will travel to England, of all places.  And the next day – the very next – he is invited to some godforsaken place to meet with the English Crown Prince and – well, how should I tell you?   The American Senator, Mr bloody Goodridge!”

Yahedi frowned, waiting for the information to make sense.  It didn’t.   The name ‘Goodridge’ struck a chord, though.  That man had already dodged his bullet once, and he was fairly sure Shumal would not want him to miss a second time:  or had the  priorities altered?

 The Prince went on:  “Next year, Senator Goodridge will become President Goodridge.  For once my crooked brother and I are in agreement, or would be if I could damn well speak to him:  this must not happen! But this meeting, this cozy little chatty- chat with my father on an English rock, is almost upon us!  For my father, an alliance with this soon-to-be POTUS person would be so fine – a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished service for his country; for us, though, bloody disaster!  It will be my father’s last great act of statesmanship.  He signs a contract with Goodridge to allow the American’s GAM Oil Corporation drilling rights for three new sites in Al Khubar.  Mr oh-so-ambitious Goodrige will gain an interest in the City State’s existing wells and refineries.  In return, Al Khubar will offer Goodridge the land at Dhobattli Point for an American military base.  By this we would gain western protection, the  premium US market for our oil and endless opportunities for trade.  It is all too bloody marvellous, and it is to happen next bloody week!”

Intuitive needles were shooting through Yahedi’s mind:  “But Highness, we had thought – even your brother thought – you fully supported your father’s marriage of Khubar to the interests of the United States?  We cannot have been mistaken.  Surely, if this has altered, Shumal would welcome your change of heart with open arms?”

The Prince’s mouth acquired a bitter twist, “You would be expecting so, would you not?  But no; he thinks I am plotting, he thinks I am tricking!  And I cannot say, openly, what must be said, because no word must reach our father.  If I had time, perhaps, I could weedle-deedle him, I could talk him round, but there is no time!  Our destiny is upon us!”

Bourta grunted,  “So you persuade us to persuade him.   Why, are we so much easier to convince?  Or is this your device for turning our true Prince upon us, causing him doubt?  You mention trust, Your Highness:  why should we trust you?”

El Saada nodded gravely, returning his attention to the fish that still waited in a small shoal in the water, anticipating leavings from the Royal table.  “If your offices can bring myself and my brother together you will be rewarded:  emissaries and contracted assassins now, you will be given Offices of State, serving the true successor to my father.  When you hear the message I must send my brother I am sure you will be as convinced as I of its veracity:  it is too bloody serious to be making up of the fake news, you see.  Too serious.”

“And what is it, Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi prompted gently,  “What is this serious news?”

El Saada’s whole demeanour had darkened.  His reply was sombre.  “While our father is ill, I have overseen much of the affairs of state; my brother, some, but mostly myself.  Since his coma, I may have allowed certain things to slide.  The worry, you see?   The worry.

His audience, putting aside the rumours they had heard of wild parties and drug abuse, both nodded.   Satisfied, apparently, with so small a gesture of empathy, El Saada braced himself:  “The oilfields, my dears.  Employing our best estimates, they will become unviable on the fourth month of next year.”

Bourta hissed through his teeth.  

Yahedi, kept his voice level.   “Is that for all of the wells, your Highness, or just “Mahadeni?”   He named the largest of the Al Khubar oil fields, the original discovery, sixty years ago, and the mother-load, so to speak, from which all of the wealth of Al Khubar had been generated.

“Mahadeni.    The others will follow within eighteen months.”

“No oil!”  Bourta’s face split into a smile.

“Not a bloody damn pint for my car, even!”   The Prince confirmed.  “Can you even try to imagine what will happen then, my darlings?” 

 “The State will collapse.”   Yahedi acknowledged.   “It must.   Your Highness, who else knows of this?”

“Less than a few, beside ourselves.  It is a dangerous thing to know.   Millions of dollars in debts unpaid, millions more promised.  Not only our dear, beloved nation in meltdown, but confidence in all the Middle East shattered.   Should this privy knowledge get out into the world, my dears, the price of oil will hit the ruddy roof, I tell you!  The King my father does not know:  in his illness it was easy to keep from him.  Engineers whose lives have, unfortunately, ended prematurely, and we three.  Until you tell my brother, no-one else.”

Salaiman remembered the headline: ‘Plane Missing.   Khubali Oil Executives Lives feared Lost’.   “So His Majesty is about to sign away oil resources he does not have?”

“To an American President-in-waiting whose expansionist policies are targeted on our glorioius Kingdm!”   Bourta exclaimed.  “Now there is irony!”

“Tell my brother!”   The Crown Prince’s voice did not rise by as much as a decibel but its intensity drove his message home like a nail:  “This agreement can never be signed,.  Whoever is present at this meeting, whoever can become a signatory to it, even our own dear father, must be prevented.  Our secret must remain a secret for as long as we can fortify ourselves against the future; not a whisper must leak out, you see?”

“And by prevented,” Yahedi said,  “You mean killed.”

“I mean killed.  No Plan B!”

#

“I am determined to marry the lady,”  Arthur Herrit affirmed, playing the last brandy in his glass idly against a beam of sunlight that had penetrated the salon window.   At Montcleif’s startled response he added;  “Nay, Abel, forebear!  You shall not continue to remind me I know nothing of her past, for no-one does!”

The two men, one the legitimate heir to the Mountsel Park Estate, the other the manager of his businesses had in past years been accustomed, with the coming of winter, to hold their more convivial meetings at their Mountchester club.  With the arrival of Francine Delisle at the Park this arrangement had altered, for although the Estate had staff enough to offer a doughty defence to most forms of trespass, the threat to Miss Delisle seemed to Arthur serious enough to warrant his personal presence at all possible times.   Therefore, Montcleif proving willing enough to make the ride to the great house, his business affairs travelled to him, rather than the other way around.  The changed venue did nothing to detract from the pleasantness of those afternoons that ensued, especially with the year’s turning and spring being announced by all in the park that could sing, or hop, or thrust above the tilth in their greeting for the sun.

 “I should be condemned to wait forever if investigations in those quarters proceed at their present pace,”  Arthur continued,  “So we shall take the initiative.  Unless some person from the congregation stands up to proclaim just cause, we shall be married forthwith.  I’ve consulted with Parson Pettigrew, who is, I’ll grant, somewhat concerned about the Parish Records, but not sufficiently so to put his Living at risk.  The banns are to be read – is that not splendid?”

Montcleif gave one of those barely perceptible shrugs he practised when he was forced to concede a point without necessarily agreeing with it.  “Then I wish you the greatest happiness!”  He said.   “Miss Francine is a very fortunate lady.”

Arthur’s tone lowered to a more serious timbre.  “Suppose I were to question you, Abel, upon another matter – not unrelated, but where answers would put my mind at rest?  You knew my father well?

“I did, of course. We worked together for many years.  Arthur, he was a very careful man.”

“Yes, yes:  one who would not be so hot-headed as to sweep a girl off to his marital bed without knowing a great deal about her, I take your point.  You worked for him, I never knew him; you have the advantage on me there.  Yet he built our fleet of merchantmen, he discovered markets all over the world – there must have been some entrepreneurial flare in him, surely?”

Montcleif gestured his agreement.  “Indeed, he and Amelia did the travelling, the negotiation:  the leg-work, as it were;  they were aboard the ‘Derry Lad’ for no other reason when the Frenchies sunk her with all hands off Cape Finisterre.”  Montcleif contemplated his glass.  “Utterly tragic!   Yet I cannot help but feel it was a way they would have preferred.  So intrepid a couple would ill befit old age.”

Arthur nodded.  “But you will know how tightly the documents and deeds are arranged, Abel?”

“Does this relate to your entitlement?  Of course, Sirrah!  Sir David was your father’s legal partner and his closest friend.  He became your Ward upon your parents’ death, and with no issue of his own he also made you his sole heir.  The will has yet to be finally read but for the sake of the business Sir David discussed the matter openly with me.  Fear not; there will be no dissenting voices raised from your side of the congregation!” 

“And I was born the year before my parents went to India…”

“They left you here, in Nanny Freecombe’s care.  You played in this very room!  They were afraid of exposing you to the heat and disease of that journey when you were so new.  ‘Twas as well they did, Arthur; or we wouldn’t be talking here now.”

The master of Mountsel Park considered his next question carefully:  “You’ll think this a rum thing to ask of you, Abel, but tell me; have you ever heard of a religious organisation that goes by the name of ‘The Brotherhood’, or anyone refer to me as ‘The Pilgrim’?”

Montcleif stared, and Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling he was suppressing laughter.  “The Brotherhood?  One supposes that could refer to almost any radically inclined cult, but ‘Pilgrim’?  Heavens no, Arthur.  Where on Earth could that come from?  What would it mean?”

Arthur closed his shoulders, suddenly smaller,  “I wish I knew,”  He said.  “Very droll, or so it would seem.  Yet my wife-to-be insists I am the very spit of the fellow.  What does a ‘Pilgrim’ do to prove his identity, I wonder?”

© Frederick Anderson 2022.  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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Forty

El Hacienda

Around a bend in the desert road, and still practically within sight of Al Khubar’s  South City business district, a white-walled hacienda-style estate lay sprawled upon rising ground against a backcloth of illuminated gardens.    Bourta and Yahedi  were chauffeured alongside its least elevated boundary wall, which was yet high enough to obstruct their vision of the villa at its heart.   They would not pursue this parallel path for long.   Two pillars crowned by sculptures of rampant lions framed bronzed double gates which parted expectantly as their limousine approached.  Closed windows, bullet-proof and sound-proof, stifled Yahedi’s vocal outrage at this lurid display from the hearing of the armed guards, who waved them through.

 Beyond, a driveway affecting to be made of crazy pavement led between cypress trees for some two hundred metres before it swept onto the forecourt area of the house. Blank stucco walls, interspersed with little windows of one-way glass stared out upon two other limousines, already drawn up before theirs..  A small group of figures, maybe four or five, were gathered in the luminescence of an open portico which admitted visitors to the inner courtyard.    The driveway ran with a thin film of water just deep enough to splash almost musically up into the wheel arches of the Mercedes as it passed.   To either side, huge fountains of irrigating water thrashed to and fro, symbolic of wealth the owner of this house must possess to defend himself and all that was his against the ravages of the desert sun.    In the Kingdom, water was as negotiable, and as valuable, as gold.   You had to have money to get it, you had to have connections and power in order to keep it.

At the margin of the forecourt, Bourta commanded: “Stop!”  

Unspeaking, their driver drew the Mercedes to a halt, as, of one accord, Yahedi and Bourta opened their respective doors to slide out of the car, whilst keeping the bullet-proofed metal of the doors between them and their welcoming committee.  Instantly the night chill of the desert caught them.  Feet braced upon the stone of the driveway, handmade leather shoes gently moistened by the water on the driveway, they waited.

For what seemed like minutes, nothing happened.   The decanted passengers from the other limousines, men expensively tailored, women glistening in very western fashion, idled through pools of conversation as they filtered into the belly of the villa and their transports moved away; until the few who remained, clearly staff, were free to focus entirely upon the hardened assassins.  Neither Bourta nor Yahedi showed any intention of leaving the protection of their shielding doors, and their driver sat impassively waiting.   A protocol long understood by those who guard and those who are guarded was being meticulously observed.  At what seemed to be an agreed moment, one member of the welcoming party, a rotund figure of cummerbund and shining face, spread his hands to show he was unarmed, and kept them spread as he walked carefully forward.  His voice had an almost febrile pitch:  “We should have insisted you leave your arms at the gate, yes?”

“Far enough!”   Yahedi said quietly.

The approaching man nodded, standing still.   “Salaiman Yahedi, Mahennis Bourta.   Welcome, my brothers:  advance in peace.”

“Abu Khubis.”   Yahedi had recognised the voice.  “Why are we brought here?”

“To meet with the Crown Prince, Salaiman.   He rests here tonight.”

At this, the tensions in the air seemed to disperse.   Mahennis Bourta’s wide slit of a mouth broke into a demonic grin.   “Khubis, you will never know how close you were to losing your manhood then.”

Abu Khubis nodded towards the villa roof, at its extreme eastern and western points where the moonlight reflected softly from the two AK 47s which were trained upon them.    “Nor you to yours.”  He said brightly.  “Come, my friends.  You are awaited.”

As Salaiman and Mahennis moved to join Khubis, their limousine whispered away from behind them to be parked in twilight with the other cars.   Inside, its driver allowed himself to exhale for the first time in what seemed like an hour.   Just once in a while in his drudge of a job, there were moments. This was one.  Light of heart, he sampled the exquisite pleasure of a breath he thought he might never take.

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway.  Here, Yahedi and Bourta mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A blue, subtly under-lit pool occupied almost all space, sloped at its front edge, inviting easy access to its central depths.  As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of liquid gold cascaded or sprayed. Around the margin of the pool there was laid a wide apron in a continuous mosaic of mythic sea creatures in blue and gold,  from which the level rose in six even stages into those salons and apartments which surrounded it.  At this hour these rooms, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole space in warm, gently humid air.      Although the glazing might have been layered for soundproofing its principle function was privacy, for gas between its layers would cloud if the rooms’ occupants so wished, veiling them from prying eyes.

            On the pool’s eastern side a mosaic walkway joined a bridge to a central island where was set a table, some upholstered chairs, and a mountain of casually scattered silk cushions.   At the sight of the figure reclining amongst these the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though this was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it had not the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features bore arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company.  This was not the Crown Prince Shumal:  this was his older brother, and the heir to the throne of Khubar.  This was El Saada. 

#

In late afternoon an oppressive silence clung to the cloister’s grey stones, only broken once and again by a door slam as some cathedral servant or other emerged unwillingly into its icy precincts.    They would pass through with a spatter of chill-hastened footsteps, to be quickly snapped up by a further door. Sagging gutters dripped steadily, their issue tracing ice-fringed paths to interlace among the grey flags.    It was too late in the year to draw tourists to this sombre shade: too cold for the middle-aged woman with her rubbings, or contemplative strolls of the residing clergy.   Notwithstanding the view the cloister offered of the South Tower, now glowing a gentle pink in late afternoon sun, or the filtered wafts of choral plainsong from the cathedral school, its walks were deserted, its sculpted tombs and memorials unremarked.   The two men seated upon a grey stone settle there were alone in the most absolute sense; their words, hushed with conspiracy, sinking without echo in the damp air.

“Apparently there is to be a meeting.”  Bishop Harkness said, his hawk nose at real risk of frostbite despite swathes of scarf and his huge overcoat:   “Between King Assan of Al Khubar, the American Senator, Goodridge, and some other personage whose identity we have not established yet, but of sufficient worth to lend credibility.”

The monk studied his feet.   A  Chaffinch feeding in the frost-tipped grass regarded him warily.  “So, a political bun-fight?  Which is of what significance to us/”

“The venue will be St. Benedict’s Rock.  It cannot be coincidence.  There is an agenda here.”  The Bishop’s sharp gaze did not miss a twitch of his companion’s eyebrow, “You smile, Brother?  Does this amuse you?”

“No, no!”  The monk demurred; “Although the choice of venue is certainly surprising.  I merely thought of the irony:  we have always seen preferential access to the Holy Stones as culmination of our mission to convert the Moslem to the true faith;  what if the Moslems got there first?  I digress; agenda for whom, I wonder?  King Assan’s well-being is a somewhat temporary thing, is it not?”

“Something of a miracle.”  Bishop Harkness agreed heavily.   “In remission, conveniently pre-empting a forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election.  I am deeply, deeply suspicious of it:  the powers in his administration are aware of The Stones, I’m certain.  How much more do they know, is what we have to ask.”

“One suspects very little,”   The monk raised that sardonic eyebrow again:  “As agency to avert one of their professional assassination attempts, perhaps:  not much more.  Although, if this specific  Middle Eastern presence on The Rock constitutes itself as I predict, it might attract the attention of the Egyptian Portal sect.”

“Their devotion is not dissimilar to our own,”  Agreed the Bishop levelly; “I would be better content if this were not a political gathering of such obvious sensitivity.  Again, I ask, to fit with whose agenda?   If it’s one of those blessed Ethereals driving this, what possible motive can it have?  We may be missing something – this might be the precise reason the stones are awake.”

“Senator Goodridge is a Republican, is he not?”  The monk smiled indulgently,  “Surely, Bishop, our God is a Democrat?”

Harkness’s features were insufficiently exposed for the monk to tell if his companion had taken his bait.   When the Bishop made no reply, he went on:  “The girl – have we found her yet?”

“No, we have not.”  Muttered the Bishop; “I am not discouraged.  Whoever has her, she must surface soon.”

#

As had recently become his custom, Marak stayed late at the King Abur Hospital.  On this particular night Lindemann, the doctor in charge of Melanie Fenton’s care, made a point of  expressing his concern.

“The poor child has gone. There is no sign of mental activity.  Yes, there are anomalies, but of brain-death I am certain.  What we do here is ethically wrong. I assume she will still be a juvenile, with a family somewhere?  They should be informed, Marak, and soon.”

Later that evening, those remarks had formed the substance of a telephone conversation with Prince Shumal.  The Prince’s response was predictable. 

“If the girl is dead, then she is dead.  But she is not dead, Marak.  While she still breathes while there is hope, would you have me sanction her death?”

“This is medical opinion, Highness.   I fear there is no prospect of recovery in even the smallest measure. Her family must be inormed.”

Shumal did not reply for a moment.  At length he said:  “Did we expect too much?”

It was a curious, almost fatalistic question; was it merely rhetorical?   Marak thought not.  There was something in Shumal’s voice.   “Okay.  Like this, she is of no use to us.  

 Twenty-four hours then, Marak.”

“In which case, her family must certainly be informed forthwith.”

“That would be problematic for us all.”

“Your Highness, Lindemann will not be complicit in withholding such information.  He will see it as tantamount to murder!”

“Marak, Marak!  We have not murdered her!  We have done all we can to save her!  In her country she is listed as missing, is she not?  No-one knows where she is; or whether she is alive or dead?  Is it not essential to us all she remains that way?   Police, Press, politocians – awkward explanations?  At this critical time?   Pull the damn plug, man! Allow her the dignity of death.”

“If that is your wish, Highness.”   Marak stared at the lifeless figure amidst its bulrush cradle of tubes and lines, listened to the shallow, assisted breaths as they pumped out their rhythm, for what he felt would be a final time.  He could scarcely recognise in this dried husk the vital girl with the hungry eyes of just three months ago.  He sought in vain some tiny sign, some memory of movement., but found none.  Very well; he would call Lindemann tonight with the Prince’s verdict, and no doubt LIndemann would take his protest back to the Prince, but when Shumal reached a decision there was no possibility of change.   Melanie’s family would never know what became of their daughter.   For himself, his vigil ended here:  he would not return to this sad room, but when, tomorrow, the time came, he would pray for her.   Filled with a deep sense of failure, he turned and walked away.

Word was handed down from Lindemann’s high office.   This would be the last night.   Nurses drew screens around the inert creature in the bed to bathe it, then, finally, because there was really so little to be done, withdrew.  A pair of administering angels remained in accordance with their superiors’ command.   For a while, with the screens back, they sat each side of  their patient;  they would do this for a day if their Prince commanded.   But they seemed unable to stay long in such proximity: soon, irresolute, they each stood, walked away, returned to their charge for a moment or two, then retreated once more.  There was a time when it might appear they, the nurses, might all be planets in orbit around the cold, dark sun which occupied the bed;  attracted yet repulsed, fearing to be too close, unable to leave.  But after all, it no longer really mattered.   At last one nurse made her excuses: her feet clacked briskly away across the shining floor and the doors digested her.  The remaining nurse hesitated in the middle of the room, then walked slowly to a couch upon its further side.   Here she sat, watchful.   The hours passed.

It was the afternoon of Melanie’s appointed day.   Lindemann had dropped into the intensive care ward, made a few necessary checks and departed with a promise to return at 5:30pm.  Only the nurse remained, idly browsing a magazine.  Periodically she would move to Melanie’s bedside, confirm the readings on the machines, examine the integrity of the tubing and its connections.  Once, an adrenaline bottle needed changing.   Behind the bed the picture window was full of dust-blue sky, darkening.    Afternoon sun cast a ribbon of light onto its occupant, light which flowed in a softly-defined river over the floor to make a shadow upon the opposing wall.  It projected a complex profile of bed and tubes, stems of long reeds which seemed to move, slightly, with the flexing of their lens.    Gradually these, in the dwindling light, began to fade until only the river of sun-glow remained.   The nurse looked up, slightly impatient that she could no longer read.   Then, like the throw of a switch, the sunlight was gone.

Lightning split the air.    A jagged saw-blade of blue light photographed the room.

A thunder bomb crashed against the window.   Startled, the nurse leapt to her feet, afraid its force might shatter the stalwart glass.   It did not.     A second lightning bolt followed the first, a second thunder-shock, as violent as the first.   And, when the lightning went, when the room was completely dark to human sight, there came the voice:

“Al-yannnn!  Aneyah!    Anye-caaaaa!”

Remembering her duty, the nurse rushed to ensure her patient was safe.   She got only halfway to the bed.

“Aateh!   Aateh!”

Rising from the sheets as though levitated by some invisible force, tubes radiating from her like snakes of Gorgon hair, Melanie Fenton stood erect.   The starved girl’s body seemed to crackle with static charge.  Her eyes were wide and unblinking, and her mouth was a yawning chasm from which the chant was pouring:    “Aa-aateh!  Aa-aateh!   Aa-aateh!”

The nurse stood rooted to the spot.   Like some terrible angel, refulgent in its own light, Melanie’s wasted form floated towards her.   In the middle of the royal floor, all professionalism forgotten, though she was one among the elite of nurses in the land, she gave way to abject fear.

© Frederick Anderson 2022.  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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Nine

Out of Dreams…

Could Peter reconcile himself to the extraordinary peace that came over him whenever Lesley was close by?  Maybe not.  Maybe his experience of love was not so deep he could harvest contentment there, although his reluctance to slip from  beside her already slumbering form in his bed generated a sweet longing which could not be in the least disturbed by an unmistakeable odour of root vegetables.  Nevertheless he had slept enough when she had not, so he left her to her rest.  There was much to do. 

There were so many questions to ask.   Once he had closed the door on the room Vincent had allocated to him it was easy to become intimidated and lost, for Crowley House’s interior, which upon his first visit had seemed a paragon of modern luxury, now tormented him with its maze of carpeted corridors, twisting past door after featureless door, cheaply reproduced plaster mouldings on granite plinths, and reproduction light fittings that conspired to throw him from his purpose.   The things about the house that had meaning for him were all nineteenth century features a contemporary architect had seen fit to bury:  he sought the honesty of that original regency chamber which had framed his vision of the lady who had called him Arthur.  The cavernous candle-lit space from which she had hailed him, even though he had only seen it in a mirror, had greater significance than this modern frippery.  He somehow guessed that if Simeon and Vincent succeeded in convening their ‘summit’ within these walls that would be their guests’ desire too; but for their own reasons.  Those who knew of the Truth Stone’s existence must surely hope it had suffered the minimum disturbance? 

 In Peter’s opinion if their hosts thought they could somehow control access to the ‘Stones’ they were deluded, although he had to admit Simeon seemed unlikely to fall victim to delusions. 

Once he had extricated himself from the temptations of his room, for reasons he might have found difficult to explain Peter headed not for the courtyard garden with its allure of exotic butterflies and mind-altering rock, but for the roof.  It was the right choice.  Emerging from narrow stairs into a chaotic acre of high chimneys and low lead guttering, the random pitches of a score of roofs made instant sense.  This was the glorious incompetence of Lord Crowley’s design made manifest, evidence of Quimple the architect’s genius in bringing it to fruition.   Yes, Matthew Ballantine’s efforts had resurrected the place from the ravages of the storm, but the handwriting of both the mad old general and his draughtsman’s masterwork was plain.

Beneath low grey cloud the winter air from the bay had a keen edge.  Peter sheltered from its worst afflictions by hunkering down on the landward side of one of the main chimneys and finding some warmth there, almost as if a fire burned in a grate somewhere below.  It was still too cold for comfort; too cold, almost, to think.  But he had much to think about.

In poor winter daylight the lights of the Lord Crowley Inn across the Causewaytwinkled like apologetic stars.  The ‘Lord Crowley’, one-time  ‘Roper’s Hotel’, where the old campaigner had pitched his tent for his assault upon the dignity of the rock.  There had been the ruins of a monasteryhere then – long abandoned, but once a source of powerful rumours – tales of Devil worship, even human sacrifice.     In a cave somewhere far beneath him the bones of Toqus, Crowley’s manservant, knelt in eternal atonement.  He knew how to find his way back to it, and so did Melanie, his erstwhile friend.  What made him think of that?  At this precise moment…

With nothing but the intimacy of an offshore breeze to punctuate his personal silence, Peter could feel at last as though some pieces of his jigsaw were falling into place. 

In his understanding those who, by living here, comprised some sort of guard around The Truth Stone were placed in two camps:  Toby and the dancing female figure in the  hill cottage were true residents and in the person of Toby, at least, well versed in the Rock’s history, though otherwise free of any active part in events, whereas  Vincent and Estelle had a more active role, close to Simeon and ready to follow his spiritual lead.

Peter’s father would have been gratified that his son had remembered ‘Simeon’ as a recurring presence in The Bible – mentioned in Genesis, present when Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem, a relation of the Christ child, and a church member in Antioch.  All individual people, of course, but Peter was reasonably convinced ‘Simeon’ had chosen the name as a nod towards his self-described entity as an ‘Ethereal’, one without a physical form and therefore impervious to the passage of time.   He could adopt various identities that would appear differently to different people: to Peter who needed his leadership he was the brilliant and misunderstood seagull, to Estelle just ‘Simon’,a messy, quarrelsome inconvenience, because that was all she needed.  

Vincent was the intermediary:  he had the wealth, the ways and means to make profound changes possible.  Vincent must understand the mission Simeon had given Peter – to read the lost messages of the Truth Stone and reset instinctive forces that had become drowned by the tidal waves of time.  Estelle should be his able lieutenant, although (so far) she seemed to share no such high ideals.  She was politically motivated, a missionary, whose ambitious ideas were helping to steer Vincent towards Simeon’s ‘summit’ meeting.  From all that had been said, Simeon would appear to go along with this idea, even favour it, and there Peter’s understanding hit a wall.  Why?  What was Simeon’s interest in bringing together these heads of states?  Did they have some function in the performance of communicating with the stones?   The timing was astute and there was every likelihood their summit would happen, but how did that benefit the grand plan?

“I’m a puppet!”  Peter shouted at the sky, “A passenger!  You’re using me, Simeon, and I want your reasons!  Come if you dare!  Come and answer!”

The sky made no reply.  There were few gulls about, and none with a tell-tale orange diamond on its neck.   Simeon was elsewhere.

At some point Peter must have closed his eyes, or conceded to the struggle in his brain.   He began to see himself as a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the wind; finding how little effort was needed to 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: he might even attune to the thoughts of his family inside.   Yet there were things he still could not do, answers down there he might not yet find:  and, although the wires of his soul glowed hot with all they had to watch and store, there was more room to learn:  there was a flame of frustration too.

That which followed did so with such subtlety he could not have said, exactly, when a change occurred.   One moment he was flying with the mad freedom of a bird in a gale, the next he was closeted inside a car again, just as he had been on the stormy night of his escape from Charlie and Klas, the denizens of the unmarked van.  He was seated with Toby at his side, squinting ahead into darkness.   He had just enough light to see they had safely clerared the Causeway and gained the road that climbed St. Benedict’s Rock, yet somehow the vivid glare of car headlights had reduced to a sorrowful glow which did little but throw vague shadows on the cliffside to the left, leaving the way in front mysteriously shrouded by night and rain.   Progress was much slower, also, as the wheels bumped and banged with metallic irritability over rough stone, tossing him less like an ocean swell than an unmade, mudded track.  Steadying himself against this gut-churning motion he pressed against the seat, which was hard leather, reaching for a grab-handle:  he found, instead, a heavy sash.

“What’s happened to the lights?”  He asked of Toby.   He was becoming aware of a pervasive smell of camphor.

“Lights?  What lights?”   The reply, unsteady with age, was not Toby’s voice.

“The headlights…..”   Peter’s words tailed away, acknowledging his foolishness.  For his eyes were becoming accustomed to the blackness; enough to see the outline of a swathed, sickly figure beside him.  This was not Toby: this was not the estate car with which he had just braved the wrath of Ocean.   This was a carriage, with a pair of horses to draw it, and headlights were oil-fed affairs in eighteen twenty-six.

“Don’t know what ye mean.   Head lights?  Have ye seen to me chair?   Is it at the gates?”  demanded Lord Crowley.

“Yes m’lord, it will be there.”   Peter knew that it would.   All accounts spoke of the old man being chair-born into his new house.  Lord Crowley fell silent.  Only his stentorian breaths could be heard above the grinding of wheels, the steady clack of hooves.   He seemed barely conscious, though whether comatose or merely dozing it was hard to tell.    After a while he emitted a tiny cry of distress.   This he repeated, as though talking in his sleep: soon recognisable words began to form.

“Don’t understand.  How could the mare do it to me, dammit?   How?”   Crowley’s wavering old voice asked of the wind and darkness.   “How can a woman….how can she?”

Rain beat against the glass of the carriage window, seeped around its wooden frame. The carriage dropped into a pothole with a sickening lurch.   The coachman cursed.   Peter reached out quickly to prevent his companion’s fragile form from toppling sideways.  There was so little weight in Crowley’s spare carcass he might have re-balanced him with a finger!   He settled the old man into a better position, tucking his rugs and blankets around him and.   Crowley seemed to recover himself for a moment, opening his tiny, almost sightless eyes.

“Thank ye.  That’ll do well.  Thank ye.”   Then he lapsed back into whatever chasm of his mind he called home.   He said nothing more, even when his carriage turned a final bend and the eccentric vista of his Great House opened out before it:  a grotesque shadow silhouetted by intermittent flickerings and glare from the troubled sky.   It is doubtful if he saw it.   Three servants greeted them as they drew up by the main door; their bodies huddled around a wicker wheelchair.  Between them they manoeuvred their master from the carriage, battling with its heavy door as it slammed back and forth in the storm.  Once, at least, this loosened beast escaped attention for long enough to deal the old Lord a heavy blow.   Peter felt this as if it was his own back that was smitten.  He was, for a brief while, inside Crowley’s body.   He felt everything:  the age, the pain, the hopeless despair of a man who has loved someone and lost them.

The grip of a  hand on his shoulder brought him to himself.  Lesley’s bright face was all the more illuminating against a grey winter sky.   “Hey, Pete, you alright mate?”

“Good, I guess!”  He said.

“You don’t look it.  You look like a dropped Raspberry Ripple!”  Better get you inside…”

#

At moon-rise over the Gulf the Khubali royal family’s helicopter chuttered homeward, its silhouette a little black wasp in the silver reflections on the sea.   The pilot did not disguise his relief at seeing the towers of the Hyatt and the King Abur Hospital, with their red navigation lights pass beneath him. He was, of necessity, a quiet, respectful man:  the seats behind him had supported many a crowned head, and conversation was not a strong suit in the Khubali Royal family.   Rarely, though, had he felt afraid of his passengers.   There was some quality, some undeniable menace, in the two figures seated at his back:  a malign presence which made the hair on the back of his neck prickle, made the sweat bead coldly on his forehead.   The creature to his left, a granite tower of a man, whose scars etched out the story of his life, sat in silence, hands clenching and unclenching to a secret inner rhythm.   To his right a slender, urbane figure, who might be a businessman on his way to a conference, a gunrunner or a common thief.   His unassuming appearance did nothing to betray his calling in life; nothing until, as the pilot had done, you looked into his eyes and saw the ice of death within.   Neither had spoken since he met them from the Prince’s private jet at Tehran.   The Prince’s army was small, select, and usually unspeaking.   Yet wordless as they were, the emanations of threat from these two killers were the most dreadful he had met.

They landed upon the helipad of a wealthy landowner a dozen miles north of the city, on the desert fringe.   Here, a quiet Mercedes glided to meet them.   Bourta and Yahedi slipped easily from the helicopter, to be whisked away.     The pilot saw them go without regret.  They had not thanked him, or exchanged a word; but they had not shot him either.  For this, he extended his own unspoken gratitude.   He had no doubt, if the covert nature of this journey were important enough, that he would be dead by now.

In the car, Salaiman Yahedi threw Bourta a questioning glance.  Few would venture to judge the granite man, at least within his earshot, but the marksman wondered, not for the first time, why he had permitted a witness to live.

“We leave a trail.”  Bourta said quietly.   “I know this.”

“The woman, the pilots?”

“I think, brother, it is meant to be so.   It is the will of Allah.”

Yahedi thought, privately, that he had no wish of his own to join Bourta in his quest for paradise.   “You seek this, then?”

“The royal pilots?  You would have us eliminate them?   Do we not have troubles enough?  No, I do not seek my martyrdom;  but I accept it if my master demands.”

The limousine whispered over the midnight sand.   Salaiman sighed.    “Ah, if only we knew:  who are our masters, Mahennis?  Tell me that.”

“Maybe not the ones we supposed?”   Bourta said quietly.   He was leaning forward as he spoke, his fingers running over the lower extremities of the partition which separated them from their driver, a sullen, moustachioed man of uncertain race or age.

“It will be armoured”.   Yahedi confirmed, speaking of the glass.  “Have we changed our route?”

Bourta nodded.   “The road to the West Town passed by us a kilometre since.   This is not a road I know.”

“We do not go to the Palace, then.”  The pair exchanged glances.  Salaiman reached down to the case at his feet, opening the latch with extreme care.  One by one he extracted the sections of the weapon it contained, passing them below the level of his knees to Bourta, who methodically assembled each piece.   In a matter of seconds, the big Algerian had a fully-primed sub-machine gun on his lap.   Two grenades lay on the seat to Yahedi’s left:  an automatic pistol rested beneath his hand.

There was an intercom.   Mahennis Bourta switched it on.   “Where are you taking us?”   He asked the driver, quietly.

If the moustachioed man had noticed the unsubtle change of atmosphere in the passenger compartment behind him, he did not show any sign of it.   His glance in the mirror was perfunctory, his answer non-committal.   “Not far.   Two minutes, that is all.”

Bourta smiled:  the slow, glittering ice-smile many had seen, few lived to remember.  “Drive carefully, friend.   Drive very carefully.”

The driver made no answer.

“Look in your mirror.”

When he did as he was bidden, he saw Bourta’s big hands clasping the black shadows of the two grenades.   Their message was unavoidable.

“Stop when we tell you to stop, O.K?    Or we all will meet in Paradise.”

The driver seemed unperturbed.    He merely nodded.

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