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.

Header Image: Comfreak at Pixabay
‘Alice’ Ractapopulous at Pixabay
Mountains: Confused_me from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Five         The Dream of Karkus  

The Story so Far:   Alanee, widow of a successful sportsman, has been transported from her village to the seat of the High Council, the Consensual City.  Believing she is to be punished because she does not follow her village friends’ slavish conformity, she finds herself installed in a luxurious apartment and mentored by Sala, a beautiful Mansuvene woman.

The day after her arrival Sala tells her she must wear a ceremonial robe, for she is to be employed in the City Palace.

“Suppose,” Alanee says slowly;   “I do not want this work.  Will I then be free to go home?”

Sala knows the shock her answer will induce.  “No, my dear.  No-one ever leaves the Consensual City.  This is where you will live for the rest of your days.”  She sees that Alanee’s is close to tears:  “Oh come!  That’s not so bad!  Life is very good here – especially when summer comes!”

She pats Alanee’s knee. “Enough despondency.  We have a city to explore, you and I.  But first, we need to dress you in one of those robes, I’m afraid.”

#

“Laskali!”  High Councillor Trebec glares at the screen, his cheeks flaring purple outrage.  “Is that the sort of language we must expect from our mediators?  What manner of woman is this Sala?”

The Lady Ellar protests mildly.  “You would be hard put to find a woman anywhere within the court circle who has not at least experimented, Sire.”  She catches the look in the florid old general’s eye.  “Oh, yes, even me.  Sala is a very accomplished mediator: the best, perhaps, of my current brood.  The woman Alanee could not be in better hands.”

Four are gathered in Lady Ellar’s office, viewing live cameras that display Alanee’s apartment on screens; High Councillor Portis, a tall man of middle years, not always fragrant, his iron-grey hair slicked back to streamline a pointed nose and the pinched features of one immersed in life; Trebec the campaign-hardened soldier and Ellar herself are three.  The fourth, impressive for his sheer size is the Domo, or leader of the High Council.  Together they observe as Sala helps Alanee to shed her personal clothes before dressing her in a formal tunic and robe.

“How think you, Portis?”  Trebec asks.  “Does she please you?”

“She is certainly a temptation.”  Portis acknowledges.   “Cassix has a discerning eye.”

“Also the opinion of Proctor Remis, I believe,”  Trebec says.

Portis concedes with a nod.  In this august company he will not profess his weakness.  It was he who tussled with Ellar concerning the placement of the concealed cameras that spy on Alanee now.  Ellar prevailed, so none are trained upon the rest-places in the apartment.  Alanee has that much privacy at least.

“High Sire; may we know your thoughts?”  Ellar asks.

“Thoughts, Ellar-mer?”  The Domo speaks with jaws so fleshy they follow rather than accompany the movement of his small mouth, like wavelets around a sinking stone.  His voice is deep and resonant – the voice of one who can command attention with a word, for all that his weight suggests.  “I have no thoughts at this time.  I have reservations; I have severe doubts.  No thoughts.”

“By all accounts she is a remarkable woman?”  Trebec ventures.

“She is dissident, and by no means unique in that regard.  Cassix interviews two more such today.”  The Domo says.  “Once, we would simply have dispensed with her.  Now…”  He heaves a shrug from the mighty yoke of fat about his shoulders:  “Severe doubts.”

The others wait until his cheeks stop moving, lest they should interrupt.

“She received the Word last night?”  Portis enquires.

Ellar answers him.  “Yes.  She has received the Word all her life.  It has no detectable effect on her.”

The Domo raises two stubby hands.  “A dissident, then.  There is no more to be done here.  We wait for Cassix and Remis to return.  Tomorrow we shall interrogate this young renegade and see where our future lies with her, or whomsoever else they bring us.”  He labors to his feet.  “Sires; go well with you.”

One by one the distinguished company depart, until Ellar is left alone to watch as Alanee moves before her, a figure on a screen – two dimensions, without reality, without a soul.  A dissident.  How brutal was the Domo’s choice of phrase?  “Once we would simply have dispensed with her…” and how harshly truthful; the icy heart behind the fondant warmth of ‘The Dream’; the steel blade that sleeps beneath.

How else could it work, this Utopian world of theirs?  Once, just once, she has seen the world’s cold heart; the Book of Lore, where Cassix left it opened upon a table.  A chance acquaintance and a brief one, for the Book is only open to the High Council.  Outside their aegis, few even know of its existence.  Yet that book rules them all, from courtiers to drabs, from the towers of the fortress of Braillec to the smallest Proteian village thousands of miles away.

Did Cassix know what jar he opened when he left her with the Book for an hour one autumn afternoon?  How he had also opened a window in her mind?  Did he foresee how quickly she could learn?  Was it his intention that she, Ellar the Mediant, should join those honored by the truth?  Well, she had learned.  She had gained the gift of history:  she knew how the world turned, now, and was the richer for it.

The Book of Lore described a time when it had seemed the world might end; when humanity was imbued with an arrogant, aggressive spirit that drove it close to its own destruction.  She read how belief in a super-being and peculiar differences of opinion as to how this being must be defined had drawn men close to self-destruction; how they had devoted their lives and their minds to inventions for the sole purpose of killing.  And when they finally succeeded…

Out of the ashes had risen a very few Chosen People.  Burned and molded in the furnaces of death these creatures (you could barely call them men) foresaw a better future.  But of all who survived, they were least equipped to implement any future at all:  they were stunted and weak.  It took the vision of a normal one, an unscathed survivor, to see how their gifts might transform his world.

Christophe Carr-Villoise had risen from the fire itself.  Before the Great Conflict, he had been no more than a hill-farmer; a mountain man.  In the barren world created by The Conflict, so legends tell, he found a fertile valley where his skills raised green crops from barren soil.  He taught those who followed him to live from the land, and they, in turn, gave him their allegiance.  He rose to prominence through new follies of skirmish and conflict, but he was wise.  He sought a better way, and in the Chosen Ones he found it.  He saw how these pathetically mutated beings spoke without words among themselves; sometimes even communicating their unuttered will to him.  He saw how slowly their own world turned and how they lived to great age:  yet because they could only rarely reproduce themselves he saw how, in the end, they were doomed.

A captain with a high purpose does not always have a ship to sail.  Fortunately, however, among the Chosen there was one who shared Carr-Villoise’s vision.  The creature history would remember as Karkus unified The Chosen behind a cause – a dream he, together with Carr-Villoise, would draft into the Book of Lore.  They would work upon The Chosen’s slow mortality, they would develop those telepathic powers so from their ranks when the time came a child imbued with the essence of all their strengths might be created,.  When he came, such a child would rule them all – all the peoples of the world – with unblemished innocence.

In a hot Arcanian summer two millennia since The Dream became reality. Hasuga was born.

Ellar sighs.  Why had Cassix wanted her to know all this?  By reading the pages of that ancient book she had become privy to first principles Carr-Villoise and Karkus had composed five centuries before Hasuga’s birth.  Both those great visionaries would be dust and Carr-Villoise’s original valley consigned to myth long before their dream was realized.  But their predictions were clear and the High Council they set up for their perpetuation did its work.  Knowledge of those edicts was a privilege shared by very few, because the first principle was incorruptibility.

Knowledge of the child shall be kept among his wards:  never should the people know how, or by whom, they are ruled.

The second principle:

The child must be protected as a child, his innocence must be inviolate.

And the third:

The Word of the child must reach all of the people, and all of the people must live according to The Word of the child.

Success was gradual.  Although the High Council had long years of waiting in which to prepare, Hasuga’s birth marked a beginning, rather than a conclusion.  At first the distribution of his Word was clumsy, ineffective.  Where today there is the merest scattering of dissidents, then there were battalions of them, far from complacent at having their minds occupied by infantile occupations such as the building of snowmen or feasting on honey cakes; people not given to unquestioning obedience, with no understanding of how they were being manipulated.  Those were fierce, bloody times.

Stabilization took a thousand years, but when it came, as Karkus had foreseen, a population whose consciousness was shaped by a young unblemished mind no longer sought aggrandizement or power; and meanwhile, the High Council was promulgating the fourth, most vital of the principles written on that first page of The Book of Lore.

Production and consumption shall remain in balance.  Maintenance of this level shall be the High Council’s responsibility alone.  The words ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ are blasphemy.  Those who espouse them must be dissuaded or removed.  This is intrinsic to the Lore.

It was a good principle, maybe the key to the comparative success of the last millennium.  Out there in a world united in purpose the citizenry goes to work each morning and returns each night with no thought of any but the most menial of ambitions.  To become foreman, or to be elected as Domo of their community, these are the highest pinnacles to which anyone can aspire.  And it brings happiness.  Broadly, there is balance.

There have been flaws, crises when fears for Hasuga’s life sent scientists into furious huddles of activity, frantic searches for a missing component, a slight adjustment, a life-saving inspiration.  Hasuga is not quite immortal.  In just this last year, the High Council has been forced to concede to his puberty.  After a thousand years as a child he is child no longer.  Karkus had foreseen all this.  What else had he foreseen? The Chosen Ones are long gone now, rendered extinct by their own biological failings.  Must Hasuga, their last progeny, eventually fail?  If so, what lies beyond?  What will happen to The Dream?

No surprise then, that Ellar is troubled, watching Alanee move about her new world.  Ellar believes Cassix harbors the same concern and he wants her mind focussed as he is focussed, upon answering that question.  Cassix is a Seer, a great one, honored within the Court.  His gift gives him the ability to detect a breeze unfelt by others, and the panache to sail close to it when he has the inclination.  She believes such an inclination may be guiding him in this.

The Mediant’s curiosity concerning Alanee is exhausted.  She turns off the cameras that spy upon the Hakaani girl.  Sala’s body-language as she drapes the formal robe over Alanee’s form has not escaped her notice, but she treats it philosophically:  after all, one can never stop laskali.

#

“Try these!  You must try these!”  Sala, insistent.

“Oh no!  No, I can’t!”  Alanee – shocked.  Although she has known Sala only a few hours, already they giggle as if they have been together for years.  “It’s – it’s disgusting!”

There is no mistaking the shape of the candy Sala has dropped into her hand.  “Come, you’re only offended because you’ve never seen a blue one!”

“I have!”  Alanee protests.  “On a cold night!”

“Bite the end!”

“What…?.”  The vendor is watching Alanee, leering all over his face.  She feels a blush rising in her cheeks. “No!”

“Alright…you!”  She waves dismissively at the vendor.  “This is personal.  Look the other way.”  She bites, as Sala looks on suppressing a rising gale of laughter.  A hot flood of intense methol flavor explodes into her mouth.

“Oh Habbach!” At the change in Alanee’s expression, Sala all but collapses with mirth.  “Now is that realistic, or not?”

“It tastes better.”  Alanee confides when she has finished choking, out of the vendor’s earshot.  “How much are they?”

“Oh, Alanee-mer!  Shame on you!”  Sala turns to the vendor:  “She’ll take twenty.”

“I will NOT!”

In the noise and bustle of the bazaar the pair move from stall to stall, sampling this, commenting upon that.  Sala’s infectious humor reaches through the shroud of Alanee’s depression and draws out the child beneath so effectively that soon she has forgotten where she was just a day before.  They stroll through avenues of fountain colors; bright cloth, facetted glass, tinted light.  Vendors bark for their attention, passers-by in the robes of court greet them. Alanee is introduced to a hundred names, may only remember a handful.  Morning passes into afternoon.

“Do you never eat?”  Alanee asks at last.

“Habmenah I forgot!  Oh you poor darling you must be famished!”  Sala cries, genuinely distressed,  “Come on, I know a really nice little place.”

Alanee has already learned that journeys between Sala’s ‘nice little places’ can be long.  This morning she has been led it seems forever through the labyrinthine fabric of the city.  Rarely outdoors (a couple of times they have braved the open air, shielded their faces to rush through snow) they have gone from ‘nice little’ emporium to ‘nice little’ emporium, stopping at a view of the Phoenix Square with its statue of Carr-Villiose above the central fountain, pausing to look up at the Watchtower’s lofty extended arm stabbing an accusing finger at heaven.  Alanee, footsore by now as well as hungry, will be glad if this ‘little place’ is not too far.

“Not far at all.  Just along here.”  Along here, up some stairs, around a corner, more stairs.  A door lit by rich green light.  “I do hope you will like it.  It is quite special to me.” Alanee will welcome anywhere she can rest.  Her brain is too befuddled to discriminate, but appearances do not suggest any more than a thousand other doors. A simple plaque above it says ‘Toccata’s’ and there are no windows to betray its purpose; so what will she find within?

Well, first is fragrance; the sweet tang of tsakal, a leaf so rich, a blend so strong she can almost taste it.  Then there is ambiance; deeper, darker, enriched by red hangings and brown shadow, flickering gently as tallow does when it plays upon a dim twilit room.  And next there comes the sound, a low plainsong of subdued voices, the falling inflections of earnest conversation.  Sala leads her between booths screened by silk or velvet.  Words waft out to them as they pass, laughter greets them softly.  Much of that human sound seems to come from nowhere at all.

“There’s a lot of red!”  Alanee whispers.  She is unsure why she is whispering.

“Why yes!”  Sala seems surprised.  “Do you not just love red?”

By a white counter stands a man of uncertain years, tall and erect of bearing.  As they approach his eyebrows arch to an expression of delight and he greets them, hands outstretched.

“Sala-mer my dearest; now who have you brought me today?”  His voice is not the voice of any man Alanee has known; his kiss upon her cheek a familiarity that surprises her.  “Oh, such bone-structure, such divinity!”  He whispers confidentially in her ear.  “You have the power to make old men regretful, sweet child.  Take care of your dear, dear soul.”

Sala has been watching this exchange with amusement.  “This is Toccata, Alanee-mer.  You be careful of him, he’s not as disinterested as he sounds.  Toccata-meh, we want my best table today?”

“Sala-mer, sublime one, it goes without saying.”  Toccata leads the way.  He walks with tiny steps through the forest of drapes which stir with his passing like willows in a breeze.

The café is quite small.  Ten effete paces later Toccata draws aside curtains of amber velvet, revealing a low bleached wood table between two over-stuffed settles.  Yet it is not the furnishing of this snug hideaway that draws Alanee’s breath, but the window it offers to the outer world; another spectacular view, within a more modest frame than that which dominates Alanee’s own apartment, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.

Sala sees her admiration. “The countryside beyond the City – the Balna Valley, and beyond, those are the Pearl Mountains.  On a clear day you can see Kess-ta–Fe, the great needle.  Magnificent, is it not?”

Toccata brings them tsakal with a platter of fruits and cheeses far stronger, and more piquant, than any Alanee has tasted.  And they fall into conversation about small things the day has brought them while snowflakes drift past the window, sometimes pausing, eddying by the glass, as though they would gaze inside.

“It is quite private.  These curtains are excellent for deadening sound, and we will not be disturbed unless we ask it.  That is why I like this place so much.”

An hour passes; maybe more.  As a second cup of tsakal comes and goes, the dark leaf works its magic:  does Alanee notice how Sala’s hand touches her – lingers a little longer with each touch?  Maybe she does, maybe she does not.  Everything is hazed and a little confused.  All except one thing.

Sala senses her mood:  how Alanee’s eyes are drawn back to a place in the far-off sky, somewhere beyond her own seeing.

“What are you looking at, Alanee-ba?”  When did she begin to use the familiar suffix to Alanee’s name?  “What do you see out there?”

Alanee smiles wistfully.  “It’s so hard to believe this is the same sky that looks down on the Hakaan.  I guess I’m just dreaming of home.”

“It will pass.”  Sala’s fingers brush Alanee’s thigh. “You have so much to discover, ba.”

Alanee nods.  She will not divulge the truth, that there is something in that sky which speaks of wrongness, something fearful in its menace.    There is a warning voice in her head – a whisper not for Sala’s ears to hear.

Instead:  “Do you never feel a longing, Sala-mer?  To go beyond these walls, walk to the river?  Play in the snow?”

At the formal use of her name Sala withdraws her hand.  “I have no taste for snow.”  She says primly. “But I do go out there, and so may you.  I hope we will, when spring comes.”

“I thought we were never to leave the Consensual City?”

“That’s true.  But the city boundaries extend across the Balna River, so we need no-one’s agreement to go there.  And we may wander further, even into the mountains, if we have permission.  We just have to promise to return.”

Alanee sighs, pleased to know her punishment, which she remains convinced awaits her, may not hold her a complete prisoner here.  What would she do if she knew?  How would she react, had she been among the little throng of villagers who gathered that day, curious to see the strangers in white overalls pulling her house apart, piece by piece – packing her possessions into sealed cases for transport?   And when it had gone, her house – all gone, every brick, every tile so there was nothing in the street but an empty space – would she have gazed at her precious vista of the plains with Malfis’s rheumy eyes for as many hours as he, or turned her back and walked away with the Domo’s heavy heart?

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

 

 

 

Chroma keying

 

A breathless moment: two action heroes run for their lives through corridors of a building while, behind them, a bomb is ticking down through its final seconds.  They find their exit, sprint away from danger as the ticking stops.   In leaping for cover they seem to be thrown forward by an explosion which consumes the building and lights up the entire screen. Miraculously not even scorched, they continue in pursuit of the pantomime villain behind all the mayhem.

Of course, the explosion scene is an illusion.  Our heroes have performed their leap towards camera in front of a green or blue backcloth.  The pyrotechnics boys fill in the background afterwards.

The result is very convincing.  It works perfectly, as long as one of the components of the foreground shot does not share a colour with the screen.  In other words, if you are working in front of a green screen, don’t wear the same shade of green.  Why?  Because that portion of you will vanish from the finished shot.  You’ll disappear like Chevy Chase in ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’!

The same is true of life, really – something it has taken me a long time to understand.

Comedy derived from humiliation or humour which relies upon misfortune has never seemed funny to me.  Characters who are loud, wisecracking or patently insincere (include most politicians and ‘fixers’ in that category) are anathema.  They jar my consciousness so profoundly I often cannot remain in the same space.  I will switch off or walk away rather than continue the conversation, while others will be inveigled or even charmed.  How is this so?

I would be the last to invent a crutch for myself by saying my childhood was not a happy one, or excuse my misspent youth and my disastrous first marriage as the fallout from a relationship that was broken.   We all bear responsibility, right from the beginning, for our misfortunes and frequently contribute to them.  I do not believe in fate.

It takes the gift of maturity to look back upon each slight, each humiliation, each vicissitude of fortune and put it in its proper place within the background picture of our past.  We all do it.  Yet it remains a living image, and if we are truthful there will be nights when, in the darkness and the silence, we recall those times as if they were yesterday.  We re-live them, we ask ourselves how, if we had done this or said that, our future might have been altered.  Some might call this regret, I do not.  Only if those arguments persist in the light of day can they be considered so.  Otherwise, we are simply looking back at the green screen, and reminding ourselves of the colours we cannot wear.

My green screen sequences – those I find most comfortable – are not, for the most part, violent or contentious.  The humour I enjoy does not insult, the characters I like, the people I like, bear the light of humanity in their eyes.  They know how to pity and how to love.  Those who deceive or demean find a colour in common with those from my experience and they take a part of me away.  My reaction might be mere distaste, or more extreme.

They might arouse anger in me; no, not in a violent way, or as is the case with some, comically  (Basil Fawlty is one of my favourite comedy characters, by the way.  I’ve met my share of real ones).  No, this is more a constructive anger – one which wishes to correct the wrong, and, as a writer, to express a layer of emotion in my portrayal that tints the sentence or nuances the phrase.  If I have a skill, it is that.  My missing colours are layered upon the page.

Of course, my explosive scene is an illusion.  My characters are unharmed by it, they move through the plot, contemporary to their time.  But I am watching the background shot, and finding them from among the missing colours in me.