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.

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.