Satan’s Rock

Part Seven

Schemes and Dreams

In a night of troubled dreams, Francine could manage only fitful sleep.  Her heart could not allow her to forget the warmth of Arthur’s enfolding arms, or how natural it had seemed, even though the mere recollection brought a flush of embarrassment, that she should seek refuge there.  Her head was filled by murmurings, strange conversations in words she could not quite detect, invitations that defied all reason in their insistence.  They called to her, awakening her time after time, growing ever stronger as the night passed.  In the early morning while all but a few of the servants in the house were still asleep she yielded to them at last:  she rose from her bed and slipped stealthily through the corridors of the Guest Wing, out into the darkness.

Once out of doors, the sounds in her head left no doubt: they emanated from the place in the park where the old oak had been blown down by a storm.    Oblivious to the dangers of the lingering darkness, she found her way on slippered feet through icy April rain  back to that great overturned giant,   The first vermillion glow of sunrise broke through the clouds to discover her at the brink of the wide pit left by the uprooted tree, staring down into the abyss and its exposed foundation rock.  Now so close, the urge to find union with that unyielding stone was irresistible.  Francine began to clamber down, an enterprise that, even had it been pursued with caution would have proved impossible on feet wet from the grass.  She had no thought of caution.   Within seconds her balance escaped her and she fell.  She fell so her head cracked against the stone and her arm doubled under her.

There was pain; a searing scream of protest wracked her injured skull; but it abated almost immediately.  Neither did her twisted arm complain for long:  where she lay against it the rock’s warmth, if that was how it could be described, flowed into her like balm, inducing her to seek more from its embrace.   This, it seemed to tell her, was the place she was meant to be.  She did not question it.  It offered the solace she needed so badly.  

She had been lying there how long?  Who could know?  The rain had ceased and the sky was becoming light, a morning chorus of birdsong surrounded her, yet she did not hear it:  all she heard came from beneath her; from the rock itself.   Words, indistinguishable at first, then drifting around her head like those that had invaded her sleep; so much stronger now, so much more assertive.   So much like those strange utterances she had shared with Arthur at the Bleanstead lighthouse as the sea beat in upon them that wild morning, when she had spoken of their experience as being ‘real’.  These, though, were not her own words; they were the words of a young voice, a female voice:

“Wow!    Are you weird or what?” Some other unintelligible words in the same voice, then a male response.

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all…”

#

Peter, his mind still filled with visions, had been ushered back to the room where he and Alice had first met.  Vincent had parked him on some cushions as a seat and Alice, kneeling in front of him, was trying to engage his eyes.  She did not seem quite as furious as before.   “Do you know where you are?”  She asked him.

“I don’t.”  Her hand was on his knee.  He didn’t like it: there might have been no threat, but those fingers, those tentacles were like a cat’s claws, ready to dig into his flesh.    “There seems to be a clock. I keep seeing a clock.  I can’t read the time from it – it’s all liquid and sloshing about…”

“Town, city?  Like London?   Like Big Ben, or something?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s just a clock face, only it’s old; like, ornate hands and everything…”

Vincent was further across the room, pacing.   “A street on its end, part of a big place like a city, a clock.   Don’t worry about it Pete, it’ll come through.  Describe the people you saw.”

As he told his host of the woman whose pain had reached into him, the angry man and the black figure of despair, Peter felt a return of sensation, as if, his head gradually clearing, something new, something dark was revealing itself.  He began to view Alice differently – there was an elusive part of her he had to reach, and for a reason, although he could not grasp what the reason was.

“It’s a strange thing – I never had this happen before.  I’m really sorry!”  He said humbly.

“No, mate, you don’t need to apologise!”   Vincent was magnanimous.  “I’d like to say it could happen to anyone, Pete, but that wouldn’t be true.  Listen, I think we should take you home now:  I’ll get my bloke to bring a car round.”

The red Aston Martin which arrived at the great doors to take Peter back to the mainland was impressive enough to allay his regrets at leaving.   Alice stood beside Vincent under the Arch, watching him leave.   Again, as he said goodbye, Peter experienced that urge to say something left unsaid.  But there was a menace in Alice’s beauty which deprived him of speech, and after a few hesitant mumblings he withdrew into silence.

Alice watched him go, ignoring the faint churning she had felt in her stomach when she caught his parting look.  “A street on its end?    A clock which could be from anywhere?  A woman in some sort of trouble and a big sad guy?   Okay, Vince, how am I going to explain that to my people?”

Vincent hugged her shoulders:    “You’re not, are you?  This is very much our bird, innit?  Look, darlin’, I told you he was special, didn’t I?  And I was right, yeah?”

“So why, if he’s that special, are you just letting him go?  Vince, this is really urgent!  We don’t have any time!”  Alice spelled the words out to him, slowly, as if that would penetrate what she saw as density in his head:  “If there is something there, I need to know it now!   Why not just get him back and sit him on that rock until he sorts out what street, and what city, and who the hell is the giant guy?”

“You get so, so uptight!”  Sighed Vincent.  “Just now you were accusing me of abducting a minor, now you want me to!  If we put him through that again now, he would probably go insane.  He doesn’t understand what is happening to him yet.  Maybe he never will.  But I know this much – if he comes to the answer, he’ll do it in his own way, and his own time.  We can’t rush it.  Besides, I don’t think he’ll be working alone.”

“How do you mean?”

“I didn’t say he had to be the only one, did I?”

Peter sat holding his breath as the man he had met at the gate, now his chauffeur, steered them carefully through Crowley’s tunnel. He felt he was still too close to everything that had happened to even try to make sense of it all:   maybe Mel would help him do that if they could meet up on FB tonight.   Meanwhile, Vincent’s parting words to him still reverberated in his head.    The rock guitarist had gripped his shoulders so as to make him look straight into his eyes as he said them.  Vincent was being ree-ally serious.

“Listen carefully Petey, alright?   Sort out that dream, yeah?  And when you have – when you can tell me what it means, or even if you’ve got an idea of what it might mean, whatever time of night or day, you call me immediately.   Doesn’t matter if it makes no sense to you, if you just feel like it’s an answer, ‘phone me.   I’ll be waiting.    Now, here’s my number.   Keep it safe, yeah?”

Avoiding college that afternoon did little to improve Peter’s cataclysmic sense of something that was just beyond his range of vision:  something black and somehow threatening.   He wandered aimlessly through the remains of his day, unable to concentrate, frightened to revisit his dream.  The recurring image of the dark man, so all-consuming and melancholy, loomed like a thunderhead over everything.  

“Petey?”  His mother looking in through the door of his room, gently concerned, seeing that something was wrong, but wise enough not to intrude.  “Are you ill, love?”

“No mum, I’m fine.”   Lena did not persist.   “If you need us, you know where we are.” She closed the door.

Mrs. Cartwright: Lena.   Graduated from ‘The Slade’ with a fine arts degree, met Robert Cartwright at a ‘Varsity ball in Cambridge when he, a student of theology and a little younger, was still an undergraduate.  Lena had been a mysterious, introverted companion; given to sudden outbursts of exhibitionism which were the more remarkable for their unexpectedness.   Bob was as radical then as now, by no means a convinced student of the conventional theologies, or, as he would put it:  ‘Trotskyite religion’.   They remained friends, she painting and establishing a reputation for herself as a graphics artist, he a struggling Anglican whose worldliness was forever in question.   Nevertheless he achieved his Doctorate and, when the Levenport living was offered to him, proposed to Lena.   She gave up a promising career to become the wife of an irascible and altogether unconventional priest.   They were, with certain reservations, dutiful parents, doting on each other and upon their only son:  but they rarely showed, and never spoiled, with their affection.  Peter was who Peter was:  a lonely child but a well-adjusted one.  Robert was a faintly dysfunctional father, perhaps, possessed by demons of a practical nature:  Lena at times very much the artist – self-obsessed, demanding, often terminally depressed.  Yet she still painted: it was the income from her art, rather than Robert’s living, which kept their lifestyle ticking over.

Once he was sure that he would not be interrupted, Peter turned his computer on and used the keyboard to text Melanie, describing everything he could remember of his day.  She called him back at once.   “Wow!   Are u weird or what?  Did you, like, throw up on his carpet or anything?

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all.”

Melanie thought Alice should have impressed him,  “What was she like?  Describe her for me.  Was she sexy?”

“Alice?  What care I what Alice was like!  Tall, black hair – could have done with a comb…

“Heavy eyebrows, big nose, sort of long?”

“Not that big!”

“Alice Burbridge!”  Melanie cried, triumphant,  “I bet it was Alice Burbridge!  She’s dead famous, Pete!”

“Yeah, right! I kind of thought she was going to stab me, some of the time.   Tell me what you think the dream – vision – whatever. was about.     You’re good at these things.”

“I think it was about too much happy cake.”

“Mel, serious, please?”

“Okay, okay.   There was a street, you said?”

“Yes, but on end.  I’m falling down it instead of walking.  The pavement’s vertical, and I fall into the sea at the bottom.”

“Was there anything else about it you remember?  Like the name on a shop, or something?

Peter searched his memory, “No, nothing.  It all happened too fast.   Vincent thought it might represent some sort of code, you know?  With the clock and everything?”

“I don’t see that.    I think it may be a series of clues.  Dreams draw on your experiences, don’t they?  Peter, try this.   Is there somewhere in your past – a place you visited that was so special…”

“…that I didn’t want to leave?   Like the West End, you mean?

“Right: London.  What made you think of that straightaway?”

“Dunno.  I sometimes remember it.  Kensington; went there with olds when I was, like, five or something.   Wicked day.   We did the Natural History museum.   Tiny kid, big skeletons; I was well impressed.”

“You didn’t want to come home?”  Melanie asked.

“No.  I wanted to stay longer, but you know my dad, he’s time-obsessed.   He kept lantering on about missing the train….Oh shit, the clock sloshing around!”

Melanie was triumphant,  “Yep.  Your dad is the clock, and the large place is one of those museums, or maybe just London.   Now, the street; are we looking at this the wrong way round….can u remember falling down, or anything?

“What,  on that trip?  No.”

“Ha ha.  Or panicking?   Did anything make you frightened?   You were only five.”

Peter shook his head, “I don’t think so.”

Melanie sighed,  “Well, we’ve got London, anyway.   Where else did you go, do you remember?”

“Not really.   I mean, we probably did the tourist places, like the Tower and things, but I don’t think they mean anything.”

“Explain?”

“\I can’t, honestly.  I just think that this – whatever it is – I’m supposed to be seeing, should kind of stand out, u know?  Like really obvious, if you know what I mean.    Thing is, Vincent made it sound so urgent and important; I feel like I’m letting him down, yeah?”

Melanie made a face.  “I think he needs a big slap, giving you puff and putting you in this position.    I’ll keep working on it, but I can’t think of anything else right now.  Tell him London.  Maybe that’ll help?     See you at coll tomorrow, if you’re coming, that is.”

“Sarcasm  now!   Yep, I’m coming.  Come round here, if you got time, we’ll go in together.”

“Half-eight then.  ‘Night babes.”

“Mel?”

“Yeah, what?”

“I should have said something to Alice.”

“Like what?”

“Dunno.  Just something.”

Peter closed his call with Melanie before he tapped out Vince’s number.

#

Alice was at home in her Lancaster Gate apartment when Vincent called:

“It’s London.”   His voice said.

Alice was not feeling charitable.  “Great!”   She growled:   “That’s just great!    That narrows it down a lot!”

“Alright, alright!  We still have four possible days when this could happen, don’t we?    Give the lad time, Al.”

“No time.” Alice told him, with resignation in her voice.   “If – and I do say ‘if’ because I don’t believe this whole cockamamie thing with visions and stuff anyway – if it is London it’s going to happen in the next eighteen hours, because tomorrow night the whole circus is moving on to Manchester, then Newcastle.  It flies out from Newcastle on Friday, doesn’t return to London; and I’m not supposed to be telling you this oh Jesus what’s the matter with me!!  We don’t have any time at all, Vince!”

“Well, do you know the itinerary for tomorrow?  That might help a bit, yeah?”

“Yes, I do.   And no, I can’t tell you, because that’s top secret.   You know we aren’t disclosing any details of his schedule.  I’ve already said far too much.”

“I’m not a bleedin’ spy!”

“If this goes belly up you might as well be!  If they discover I’ve been feeding you information the Court’s ‘ll mince us, Vincent. So you’d better pretend you don’t know me for a while, okay?”

#

Salaiman Yahedi rose early as a matter of habit.    Six o’clock was, for him, the best time of the day.   When he strolled in the Park,  joggers, deliverers and carriers, all with a head-down purpose of their own, would scarcely notice him.   If he now and then acknowledged a stranger as they passed, there was no inquisitiveness on either’s part:  no-one studied faces; no-one noted, specifically no-one noticed him.  Yahedi was an expert at these things.  Salaiman Yahedi, who was wanted in almost every country in the western world, might, you would have thought, have been happier in the crowd, losing himself in a host of faces, but no: he preferred the few to the many, the early-morning people who were lost in their own world as much as he was lost in his.

Those who placed barriers for an event later that day were not security men, they were just workmen with barriers.   They had no interest in who was around, who might be attending to the detail of their work.   So Yahedi was able to wipe the dew from a bench and sit watching them for a while, just casually.  None but the most discerning could have seen that, whilst he sat there, he was sizing up the relationship between those barriers and a certain window on the third floor of a prestige hotel across Park Lane.   No-one else could see (for Salaiman was satisfied that he himself could not) the small, circular hole he had so painstakingly incised in all three layers of glazing in that window; working for hours into the previous night.

Yahedi relaxed, enjoying the morning.    There was no smell quite like that of English grass before the day had bullied and bruised it.  It offered some compensation for the eternally low temperatures, the ever- present threat of rain.   Curious, though, that on a morning so fine there should be flocks of seagulls as far inland as the Capital: he assumed the weather on the coast must be less kind.  Salaiman amused himself as he watched their wheeling, spiralling flight for a while, before he returned to his hotel for breakfast.  His day’s work would not begin for a couple of hours yet.  He stood up, preparing to do battle crossing an already busy Park Lane, and in a moment’s carelessness nearly collided with a woman in a red tracksuit who was jogging past.

“I am very sorry, excuse me!”   He apologised.

“It’s okay.” The woman seemed preoccupied, troubled.  As she ran on, Yahedi watched her retreating back thinking how beautiful she was, so tall and with such a shock of black hair, and how he would relish practising his very specific arts upon her.   Some would always escape.  There was nothing he could do; unless, of course, they should run across each other again….

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

Header Image: Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Dinosaur: Harald Matern from Pixabay

Sebastian

Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows:  a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.

The boy looked back.  Sebastian looked back.  “My front yard!  Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”  

“No, I don’t.”   Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist.  “But I’m not a postcode snob,”  she said.

He stopped,  turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks.  She knew, as did he, why she was here.  “It would be nice just to have a postcode!”  He waved to the high wall on her left:  “almost there!”

‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart.   Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock.  Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction.  Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers.  A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life.  But here?

A switch flooded a staircase with warm light.   “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her;  “I count them every time I go up.  Helps fill in the time.”

“You’re lucky.  Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”

He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible.  “Over a garage, actually.  It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on.  Better than any alarm clock.  Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”

On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed.  Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple.  Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads.  Thirty-three.  Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…

“Here we are.”

So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering.  Her birthday gift to herself.  She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke.  Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders.  Was she nervous?  Yes.  She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that.  But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.

It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills.   As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…

“Oh, my goodness!”

…yet the  hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair  Stairs that once again led upwards.

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

Sebastian slipped his hand into hers.  She was being coaxed, gently.

There was no door atop these stairs.  There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage – 

“Nell?”  He prompted her.  He was expecting a response.  Nell had been stunned into silence.

She found her tongue.  “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.”  She said.

Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin.  All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green.  Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place.  An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls.  Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life.  A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.

“Do you like her?  If you do she’ll be yours for a while.  They know if they are loved.”

“What kind is she?”

Sebastian shrugged;  “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know.  She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she?  How do you like my gaffe?”

“It’s amazing!  Are you actually living here?”

“Of course – where else?”

Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation.  Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps.  But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?

Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…”  and let the sentence rest.

“Freshen up?  I mean, not that you don’t look…”  His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little.  He recovered himself,  “Through there.  The date palm and turn left.  I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”

“Oh, anything!   This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”  

“She’ll fly off.  Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.”  She did.  Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.

“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian”  Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression,  “They love the flowers.  For the nectar, I guess.”

Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel.  The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof.  From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal.  If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated.  There was even a mirror…

“I fixed us these,”  Sebastian said when she returned to him;  “I hope you’ll like it.”

He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her.  She glanced at the contents suspiciously.  They were green.

“Swop you!”  She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible.  Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink?  She wanted to remain in command of her situation.  

He just grinned.  “Of course.  They’re the same.  I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”

She hoped she was arching an eyebrow,  “I’m sure there are some things we could try.”  Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves.  Her knees were about to give her away by shaking.  “This place is stellar!  Did you do all this yourself?  You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?”   As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something.  The room was unquestionably affecting her.  A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.

“On my gosh!  Whatever is this?”  Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates.  Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.  

“Do you like it?”  He was smiling more broadly now.  “I make these myself, you know?  This is one of my favourites,”

“It’s a bit heady,”   was Nell’s verdict,  “Some serious alcohol.”

“Really not.  Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”

Nell stared into her cup in disbelief.  How had she finished the drink so quickly?  Never mind; she enjoyed its taste.  “Yes, please.”

“Let’s sit down,”  Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs,  “Are you hungry?  Would you like something to eat?”

“No,”  She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit.  The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood.  She needed to relax.  “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah?  What made you do all this?”

“My jungle, you mean?”  He nodded,  “Fair question.  I like plants and stuff – will that do?”

Nell frowned.  Somehow, she had necked her second drink.  It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic…  “Maybe just one more,”  she said, uninvited.

He poured.  There was a bottle.  It was half-empty.  “I wanted a garden,”  he told her,  “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”

“So this.  Okay.  Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they?  They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door.  I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”

He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile.  “Does that matter?”

“To me?  I mean, no, I guess not.”   Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here.  Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…

“You like me, don’t you?”  He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact.  “You want us to boogie, don’t you?”  Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.  

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her.  Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.

“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”

His answering smile feigned innocence:  “And I really feel close to you,”  he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak.  “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”

She giggled,  “Maybe not yet.”  Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”

“I don’t understand.”  He clearly looked as though he didn’t.

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

The intimacy, how did it happen?  When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one?  How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance?  Did ‘how’ matter?   In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty.  She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand. 

Which was when he did this curious thing.

Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply.  Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her.  Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts.  Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm.  It was intelligent.  It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.

She panicked at first.  She would.  She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.   

Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass.   The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same.  Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter.  If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient.  That was enough.  And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.

In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.

#

Jarvis  Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise.  After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything.  So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience.  He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.

“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?”  He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared.  It’s a feckin’ jungle!  Are those butterflies or bats?”

“They’re butterflies, Inspector.”  The oily man offered the explanation.  “Tropical varieties.  And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot.  I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”

Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable.  “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son?  Suspicious death?”

“Hard to say, sir.  We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon.  Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.” 

“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes?  Our biologist?   What’s gone on ‘ere, then?”  Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively;  “All this?”

“Nothing.  Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway.  This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years.  Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”

“Did a runner, most likely,”  the DC opined;  “On account of the death, Sir.”

Bowbeaker sighed,  “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water.  Where’s the deceased?”

“Well, that’s it, you see…”  D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room.  “Watch where you tread, Sir.  This place is due for demolition.  It was the demolition lads who found it.  They  had to hack through here…”

“No snakes, are there?”  Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it.  After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers  of every kind.  Why wouldn’t there be snakes?   “Is that rain?”

“There’s hardly any roof.  It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through.  Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”

“Indeed!”  Professor Lombard acknowledged;  “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture.  Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”

“And here she is.”  The DC waved a hand aloft.

They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled.  Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture.  Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.   

“‘She’?”  Bowbeaker questioned.  “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”

By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall.  The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name;  T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy  ‘Nell’.”

“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,”  Lombard contributed.  “You’ll probably recognise most of them.  The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”

Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.

“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.”  The DC said.  “Weird, Innit?  Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think?  Do those other names mean anything?”

Bowbeaker nodded, because they did.   “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci.   Nell Wrekins, too.  All a bit before my time.  Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing.  I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.”  He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.

“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down.  That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity.  Who owns this place, do we know?”

“Trying to trace that now, Sir.  It was a Council repossession  A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago.  The owner died last March.  All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Dead ends;  yes.”  Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains.  “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer?  I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”

But he already knew, didn’t he?  No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right.  Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man.   He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago.  Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.

Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat.    He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.

“Nell Wrekins, is it?”  He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear;  “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough.  Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin.  And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”

Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot.  He extricated himself gently.  “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor.  He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”

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

Picture Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Seven Music Man

The story so far:   Far away from the City, a mysterious force, which will become described as a ‘wall’ takes the life of a Dometian peasant girl in front of her intended, a boy called Ripero.

Meanwhile, Alanee is questioned by the High Council, again perplexed by her immunity to their control.  Later, Alanee’s mentor Sala expresses an interest in her that implies much more than friendship.  When Alanee rejects her advances, Sala storms out.   Disgusted and a little afraid, Alanee decides she must escape the City…

Alanee has no idea how long she has been sleeping.  After Sala’s angry departure she lay upon her bed for hours, trying to plan a means of escape.  At some time those plans must have been interrupted by sleep, for now her brain is so fogged she can think of nothing clearly. Her head aches, her stomach cries for food.

Beyond the window wall of her living room, the palace is bathed in a gentle rose pink which speaks of approaching sunset.  A day – she has slept for a day?  Never in her life has she slept so long! 

She surveys herself in the mirror.  A gaunt, sleep-feathered face returns her stare.  A black fleck upon her shoulder reminds her the strange ant-like thing she had taped there the day before is still there.  The tape has gone, yet the little device sticks to her skin; the tiny wires cling.  With a hand-mirror she sees how determinedly they have buried themselves into her flesh!  Panicking, she rushes to her kitchen, pulls a knife from her drawer, tries to slither its blade beneath the body of the device, only to find its grip is too tight – what is more, as she works to prise it loose, she feels certain it begins to dig deeper, almost as though it were a real ant, intent upon burrowing into her.  Angry now, she grabs a larger, heavier knife and uses the blunt side to swipe at the thing, sending it across the kitchen to land somewhere on the floor.  Blood streams from her shoulder:  she staunches the flow with a cloth from her sink, and surveys the damage.  Her shoulder is punctured with a tiny hole which courses blood, and two of the fine metal tendrils remain in her skin, prompting a further ten minutes of probing with tweezers.

“Habbach!  What manner of demon was that?”  She demands out loud, of no-one in particular.

When at last her blood-flow has ceased, Alanee dresses the wound.  Some time is required to find the minuscule invader and when she does discover it behind a waste-bin she will not touch it with her fingers, but picks it up with the tweezers instead.  Close investigation reveals nothing.  It does look slightly broken, but there is no explanation for its apparent tenacity.  She throws it disgustedly into the sink and witnesses its satisfying little flash of electro-static protest as she flushes it away.

Time, now, to take a breath.  Her stomach reminds her once more of the necessity for food, and, obligingly, it seems someone has loaded her kitchen worktop with a fresh supply of batter for xuss-bread and tsakal leaves, together with a small platter of meats. There is also a neatly-wrapped package.   Of her two needs, hunger is more pressing than escape, so while griddling some xuss batter Alanee occupies her time, by opening the package to discover a wad of two thousand credits inside!

Two thousand credits!  Comfortably a thousand credits more money than she has ever seen in one place!   The shock is physical.  She takes her food and the package of money into her living room and slumps upon a chair, staring at it.  Is this really meant for her?  She pours herself a draught of the yellow liquor that has become her favorite drink, sipping it slowly as her head clears, letting an escape plan form once more in her mind.  The money will be useful: a browse through the bazaars will help her to work her way across the City without arousing suspicion.  Her aim, she decides, must be to find Dag, the aerotrans pilot who brought her here, and who, she is sure, she can persuade to fly her out.

Her shift is bloodied:  in her bedroom she removes it, arranging the courtier’s robe about herself then, with a wad of credits safe in her clutch-bag, quits her apartment for the wide thoroughfares of the City.

Alanee is unaware she has been watched by Councillor Portis and Lady Ellar on screens in the Mediant’s office,  Screens which have blanked, as they do each time Alanee leaves her apartment.  The street cameras will follow her now.  Ellar remarks upon Portis’s obsession with vigilance.  “She is very alluring, don’t you find?”

Portis grunts.  His enjoyment of the female form is no more than is natural, in his opinion, but he is aware of the jibes that are aimed at him.  “Very.”  He assures her.  “But we have heavier considerations:  how do we proceed now she has rejected the limiter?  Nothing will induce her to wear it again.”

“Perhaps she won’t need it?  If she does she will beg to put it on.”  Ellar rises from her chair.  “Now I have wounded egos to soothe.  Who, Sire, would be a Mediant?”

“I take it you refer to Sala-mer?  She was not a good choice, Lady Ellar.”  Portis may speak frankly.   They are alone in the room.

“Their quarrel?  It was an inevitable result.  Sala is of a…”  Ellar chooses her words… “of a passionate nature.  Yet she is a true friend.”

“Surely there are other type-matches?  Someone less partial to laskali, perhaps?”

Ellar considers: “Seil-mer, maybe?”  She smiles.  “Sala is not a devoted laska.  She has preferences in either direction.”

“You seem reconciled to the little storm we witnessed yesterday?  How so?  Did you not notice the Domo’s reaction?  Lady Ellar, he was not amused.  Of all who sit in upon this decision, the Domo must be the most convinced.  He already harbors doubt – today’s conference was not easy.”

“Really?”  Ellar has wondered why Portis has chosen to catch her alone.  For all his proclivities, it seems unlikely he is drawn here entirely by voyeurism.  “Well, Sire, I cannot be privy to the affairs of High Council.  The Domo will make the right decision I’m sure.  It’s his duty to question and his right to be afraid.

“As for Sala, a good mediator must be more than just a guide:  she must become a friend, a confidant, and yes, if necessary, a lover.  She must have the acumen to achieve this as quickly as is asked.  You think she moved too fast, I do not.   Sala has great gifts, Sire.  Trust her.”

Portis has a habit of avoiding eye contact when he speaks, but although this irritates Ellar she does not let it blind her to the significance of his words.  So when he stares at the blank screens she listens intently.  “Have you considered, Lady, where you stand in this matter?  Where might be the safest place?”

Ellar has, but she is not about to divulge those thoughts.  “I stand with the will of High Council, Sire.”

“Come now, Lady, you are versed enough in politics to know the High Council is not of one will.  There are those who dissent; always.  There are those who would advance themselves by one means, those who favor another….”

“Sire Portis, you take me where I would not wish to go.  My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whims of individuals.”

Portis challenges her.  “Is it?  This is meant kindly, Lady Ellar.  Do not take it ill.  Your handling of the Braillec affair, though skillful, has been questioned.”

Ellar knows it.  “I had no time to consult the High Council:  I did consult one of its members.”

“In the eyes of some you controverted Sire Hasuga’s will.  In the eyes of some that is blasphemy.”

“I averted a war.”

“Yes.  Woman, do you not hear what you say?  Your use of the word ‘I’ betrays you!”  Portis grasps her shoulders; he is looking directly at her now.  “You altered Hasuga’s will by a trick, by cunning, and that is blasphemy.  His will must not be changed.  If he wishes a war, a war must happen.  Whatever you do, and I say this as a friend, do not use those words again – to anyone, do you see?”

For all her self-possession, Ellar is affected.  “Yes Sire.  Though please understand I was following a High Councillor’s instruction.”

“What were your words; ‘My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whim of individuals’?.  Great Seer though he is, Cassix does not have the confidence of the whole Council, especially certain members whose relatives await preferment.  Now you have given them ammunition, and a further worry.  Those who do not thoroughly believe in this young woman mention your curious ability to ignore a limiter.”

“Indeed?  Do they?”  Ellar flares.  “And these doubting Councillors, do they like to see their people dying by thousands in an adolescent game?  Have they never thought what the effect would have been on Mother when her family was murdered?  I did not ignore the limiter, Sire, I merely resisted it a little.  As I often do – I have to.”

“The Mother is devoted to her cause.  She would not have thought of it.  That is the function of a limiter.  You instilled that thought, you vied with a system that has served us throughout the whole of our history.   That is a crime, Lady Ellar!”

Though she seethes inside, Ellar understands Portis’s argument.  She speaks levelly:  “The limiter has been with us for all of history too, has it not?  I have faith in it.  It allowed me just as much latitude as I needed, no more.  Either your judgment has to accept that, or concede that my work has no value.  Hasuga becomes increasingly impulsive and he no longer waits for meetings of High Council.  I consulted whoever I could find – in this case it was Cassix.  Perhaps the Council needs to dwell upon this.  I certainly am.”

Sire Portis nods.   His gaze is again focussed upon the darkened screens.    “Very well; I return to my fellow Councillor’s issues, then.  You have faith in your limiter.  We all share its defense.  But this new woman – this chit – won’t even wear one!”

As he wanders back towards his apartment Portis contemplates Ellar’s arguments.  He knows how capricious the newly pubescent Hasuga can be:  it is as if the chrysalis of childhood he bore for so long had become a prison, and Portis fears more than he will admit how strong Hasuga’s wings of youth will become once they are stretched and dried.  The Mediant’s task, so difficult now, may become untenable in generations to come.  How many war games will there be – must he decimate the population before his wisdom has grown?  Yet even to permit these questions in his own head is a blasphemy, is it not?  The word of the child is incontrovertible – the Third Principle.  Which is why the Inner Council, by bringing the woman Alanee  to the Consensual City, are themselves acting blasphemously.  She will not wear the limiter, and the deeply, deeply disturbing argument he must now face is the question whether she should wear it!

“We set ourselves upon a furious ride.”  The Domo had said in Council that morning.  Portis begins to believe he is right.

The High Councillor’s summoner buzzes at his hip.  “Sire, you are summoned to Council.”  Valtor the Convenor intones.  “Sire Cassix has called an emergency session.”

“Blast him!  What is it this time?”

#

Beyond its residential corridors the Consensual City at night is a sparkling pool with ripples of light and sound that flicker and dash so brilliantly Alanee is at first quite afraid.  She weaves her way through the groups of rowdy, laughing people who gather in the colonnades about the Great Square, or converse in twos and threes around doors of opalescent blue, the color, as Sala has already informed her, of nightspots – places where entertainment happens.  Extra alleyways seem to have opened up, reinventing the bland, relentless walls of the day, links between avenues shrouded in diffuse light of blue, peach, or amber.  Those who gather in these seem closer to one another, almost intimate:  but for all the vital pulse of the place, there appear to be few devoted pairings.  Many such as she walk alone, or drift from group to group.  Women walk with women, men with men.  There is a fluidity with which she might easily join, were she not so timid.

Alanee’s inhibitions are compounded by her mode of dress, for now night has fallen all formality is forgotten.  The young wear form-fitting styles in myriad shapes and colors; some flirtatious, some seductive, some quite formidably beautiful.  The more gifted girls wear tabards reminiscent of her country clothes, though expensively immodest.  Men are similarly extravagant in close-cut one-piece garments, while their elders, bedecked in robes or suits of matching hue look benevolently on, commune and mix freely, often seeming to vie playfully with one another.

There are no children: the hour is not too late – where are the children?

“Music, Lady?”

Alanee is unprepared.  This odd creature has come upon her in a crowd: singled her out, it seems.  He (is it a ‘he’?)  has exaggerated limbs that weave a peculiar, angular dance, a starved scaly body clad loosely in a shift and a wart-disfigured brown face, upon which all features are implanted on a single plane so his eyes are without sockets, his nose completely flat and wide, and his mouth as lipless as it is formless, working around his words like a thin snake wrapping itself about a rock.  Alanee gets ready to run.

“Nay, nay!”  There is a strange intoxication in that high voice that steadies her nerves.  “You should not fear me!”  The big eyes scrutinize her.  “Now I think of it, though, I have not met you before, Lady.  Are you new to the City my dear?”

To her alarm, Alanee feels those thin scaly fingers on her arm.  Yet she does not push them away – why?  Instead, she finds herself glancing guiltily about her, for in her own village acceptance of such familiar behavior without invitation would bring disgrace.  But no-one spares her, or her curious companion, a second look.

“You are sad!  So, so so sad!  Oh, my child!  Do you know I am three hundred years old?”

For the life of her she can think of no reply.

“Yes three hundred.  I have been sad lots of times, yes?”  This seems to amuse the creature immeasurably, for he flails his free arm around at everyone in the avenue and blares out:  “Sad a thousand, thousand times!  Suicidal!  Habbach I wish I was fucking dead!  But then…”  His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper:  “I am fucking dead – have been for two hundred years!”  He shakes with mirth.  “Lucky – yes?”

“Yes.”  Alanee fervently wishes he would go away.  She wonders at whose expense that virility was lost.  Are there more of these, these things, in the City?

“One of a kind, my dear.”  Has he read her mind?  “Besides, I never could work out which side I was on!”

Before she can stop it the hand is moving, probing towards a much more intimate destination.  Outraged, she slaps it away and her eyes fly about her for help.  It seems, though, that this too has gone unnoticed.

“Don’t be offended child;” The creature croons, in that same hypnotic note.  “You are in the Consensual City, not at home in your village.  We behave more freely here.  This you will learn.”  He has resumed his odd, twitching dance.  “You are sad, my dear.  I have something to give you.  Take this from me.”  Again the hand is quick.  Before Alanee can brush it aside it has touched her temple on her left side – the imprint of three dry fingers.

“Remember me!  Seek me out if you are sad again.  I shall be your music man!”  With this, the music man’s dancing limbs whirl into rapid departure.  In seconds he has vanished in the crowds.  Oddly, as Alanee thinks, she is almost moved to try and follow him.

She is mystified, but there is nothing for it but to walk on, feeling much as before, with her destination of the aerotrans port firmly in her mind, yet with the impression of those three fingers on her head, almost as if they had not left her.  When she reaches to touch them, though, there is nothing; no indent of her skin, no physical evidence of the warmth she feels.  From nowhere and scarcely audible at first, music begins, a soft, inveigling melody that is in her and around her – a sweet, mysterious song that pours over her like a tincture of roses; with it, a scent so subtle and indefinable that her mind is emptied of all but the mystery of its presence.

Now it is much louder, so she stares around at passers-by, sure they must hear it too, wondering how they can avoid exhibiting the same stupid smile she has on her face.  But no, this music is entirely for her.   As she walks she finds herself wanting to dance:  little involuntary skips enter her pace, she even twirls – this time to the amusement of a pair of middle-aged men.  She hears their sotto-voce ‘Music Man’ as they pass.

Where was she going, now?  Alanee can’t remember; neither  knows nor cares.  The sounds in her head are so utterly her master that when at last the song has faded, it is as much by chance as anything that she finds herself outside the red and pink-lit door of an emporium specifically for women’s clothing.  She tries it, enters it with the lightest of hearts, alarming the proprietor with an impromptu dance.

“I want evening clothes!”

Some half an hour later she emerges, in a mood of illogical optimism and a short, short dress of glittering silver cut almost to her waist at the back.

“And not a credit left to my name!”  She admits to herself cheerfully, swinging the large incongruous bag that holds her robe dangerously.

All at once the delirium of her music is gone; the incessant mill-race of people and the grand proportions of the avenue close in on her.  Women with high-born looks stare disdainfully in passing; men show a kind of interest that she feels rather than sees.  The dress is a mistake – a mistake!  Suddenly afraid that exposure of so much flesh is considered vulgar in this foreign place, Alanee’s color rises.  Her discomfiture does not go unseen.

“Your pardon, Lady.  You look a little lost?”  The voice is hesitant, suppressing a nervous squeak.  “I wonder are you….I mean, may I …help?”

A deferential figure has detached from an indifferently-dressed group of both sexes engrossed in conversation at the far side of the avenue.  The other members of his group scarcely seem to notice him leave, and pay Alanee no attention at all.

“You look lost.”  The man repeats.  He is shorter than Alanee by almost half a head, pale-skinned and fair, hair as fine as powder flopping lifelessly over his high, domed forehead in a fringe.  His features are small, his chin delicate and pointed, a face altogether feminine in appearance but entirely redeemed by his eyes; black, flashing coals set in snow-clear whites that might have their own light-source, they seem so bright.  A blue tunic drapes his body.  His bare arms are slender, his feet so tiny they almost defy the act of balance.

“I am Celeris, at your service, Lady.  You seem distressed.  May I help?”

© 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.