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Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Six The Tragedy of the Commons

The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

© 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.

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twelve         A Very Private Gathering

The Story so far:

Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby.  By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will.  However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.

In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder.  At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.

After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night.  But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight.  When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.

#

“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.”  Marian had her back to him.  “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit.  You’d better start looking right away.”

That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said.  “I don’t understand!”  He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”

She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare:  “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult.   I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”

But that was then.  That was before he had learned to love her.

“Have you found somebody else?”  Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice.  “Is there someone else?”

“What if there were?  You have no claim on me.  I told you, Joe!”

“Yes, you told me.  A long time ago, you told me.”

Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London.  “Finchley, as a matter of fact.”  The money languished in his account.  He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new.   Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose.  He tried different things, new things:  as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off.  Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her.  In her mind she was already elsewhere.

Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.

She had gone to work as normal.  She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.

Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying.  How often had he seen her like this?  Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed.  They were talking, just making small talk.  He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard.  She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.

“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself.  Get on with your life, my love.  Move on!”

She was close, so close for a moment.  She pressed a small parcel into his hand.   “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you?  Promise?”

Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in  Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen:  Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked.  Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside.  He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.

This night she was early.  She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.

“Give me the stuff, Joe.”  She said.

“Do you want to eat first?”

“No.  I want the stuff,”  suddenly angry.  “Give me the fucking stuff!”

He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject.  Minutes later she was back.

“You too.”  She said.

Half an hour, it took.  He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge.  The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.

Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.

“Don’t want me yet, Joe.  Not yet!”

The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog.  If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof.  “Mustn’t.  Bad boy! Naughty!”

With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game.  But this night was too special.  It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much.  His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury.  Her eyes blazed.

“My neck, Joe Palliser!  My neck!”

So it was, on the night when everything changed.

#

Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence.  They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.

“Came up ‘ere the other day;”  Tom said.  “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain.  Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”

Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains.  More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance.  There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.

Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still.  “Joe old lad!”  He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said.  “Super little motor!”

They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients.  A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”  Enthused Maybury.  “Jowett designed they were, you  know?    Lovely leathers – come and see!”

They came and saw.  The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts.   They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.

“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.

On the journey back, Tom said.  “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days!  I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”

Joe nodded.  Times had changed, he said.

#

The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.

“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily.  As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.

“When’s he coming back?”

“For you to talk to?  Never.”

“Oh, come on, Caroline!  You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake!  Tell him to call me, will you?”

“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!”  She clipped.  “Very well, I’ll tell him.”  And she replaced the receiver.

Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour.  When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell.  In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze.  He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.

“Are you interested?”

The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips.  She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet.  She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.

“In the house?  I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.”  She waved airily towards the summit of the hill.  “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.  How do you do?”

Joe realised immediately.  Of course!  He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice.  The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.

“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly.  “How do you do, Sophie?”

“There!  You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already.  How neighbourly can one get?”  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down.  Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin.  “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser.  Why would that be?”

Joe smiled.  Now she was facing the sun he could see her face.  She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light.  Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting;  though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use.  “I prefer ‘wary’,”  He said.  “Would you like to examine my teeth?”

Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”

Joe didn’t answer.  She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“Well, I must go now.  No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house.  I hope you will come and visit us.  We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”

Joseph watched her as she walked away.  She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current.  When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.

‘Very good!’  Joseph thought to himself.  ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’  His next thought was less complimentary.

Sunday dawned hot and sultry.  At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.

“What do you want, Joe?”  Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.

“How are you, Ian?  Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“Get on with it.”

“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”

There was a pause.  Eventually Ian said:  “How on earth would I know that?  It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware.  Anyway, I hardly remember the woman.  Is that all you called me for?”

“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”

“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”

“She was murdered, Ian.”

“Really?  So?”

“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”

Ian’s voice had calmed.  “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall.  Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race.  Some of them lived under the house, he told me.  I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip.  Why are you so interested, Joe?”

“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed.  I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak?  I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”

“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.”  Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge:  “Try asking around the village.”

“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”

“I imagine they would.  Look, Joe….”

“Yes, I know, you’re busy.  Keep well, Ian.”

That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.

Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury.  They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups.  At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.

They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose.   Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband.  The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature.  She was not, by instinct, a baroness.  Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on.  Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.

Each found their way to time-allotted pews.  They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.

Joe sat with Owen and Julia.  In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion.  Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company.  Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.

Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields!  As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased.  With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns.  Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone.  Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair.  He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.

A strange hour.  Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands.  At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.

After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones.  From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering.  While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.

“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!”  Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise.  “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”

Joe smiled,  “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head.  What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”

Tom grinned,  “I’d say ‘tis likely.  What do you reckon to our Sophie, then?  D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”

“I met her yesterday.  She has a clear understanding of her place in the world.  How old is she?”

Tom pondered this:  “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”

“She’s grown.”

“Everyone has, Joe.  Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch.  Ah, I’d say so.  But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while.  Do you fancy a go, then?”

Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma.  There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice:  he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.

“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”

Tom nodded.  “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”

Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church.  He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’.  He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went.  They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.

 

© 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.

 

Photo Credit:  Ovidiu Creaga on Unsplash