Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Nine

Out of Dreams…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good, I guess!”  He said.

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

#

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

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

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

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

“The woman, the pilots?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The driver made no answer.

“Look in your mirror.”

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

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

The driver seemed unperturbed.    He merely nodded.

© Frederick Anderson 2022.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Six

Seekers in Darkness

The year in Al Khubar reaches its nadir in December.   Which is not to say that the sun ceases to burn, or the day grows too short: but a southern wind, merciful to some as a respite from desert heat, blows strongly enough to trouble the placidity of the gulf, and sand devils, whipped up by this wind, scour the beaches.   A few ardent surfers, a scattering of sail-boarders, maybe some low-season travellers might brave the gale:  for the most part, though, the sea-front is deserted and the markets are quiet:   the hotels fall back on their business traffic, and the tiny Kingdom is rested from one facet of its great wealth for a while.

Marak looked down upon the ribbon of white sand which bordered the bay and reflected.   The fuselage-like capsule wherein he stood, atop Al Khubar’s expensive King Abur Clinic gave a feeling of flight, as though, on the thirty-second floor, one was not attached to the ground at all; but rather in some palatial zeppelin which moved, or at least swayed a little, in the wind.   He sighed.   For all of the comfort the Royal Suite provided, he was not a man accustomed to idleness.   He had attended this place every day for two months and that was too long for a man of his disposition.    However important his role here, he would wish it to be done with.   Mohammed Al Fait, the man known as Marak, was unquestioning of this city state.   If he disapproved of its vast coffers of oil-generated gold, he did not speak of it, or allow the diplomatic glove to slip from his hand.  He moved carefully here.

Jordanian son of a wealthy family of importers Marak had travelled many leagues, both politically and geographically, from his childhood home:  this even though, on a clear day, he might almost descry his father’s warehouses from such a high window.   The Gulf was not so large, after all.    His father had sent him to Oxford for a first class degree, expecting the travels of his rather quiet and deferential child to end there, and carrying the expectation that he would return to take up his family’s business interests.   But the maelstrom of university life offered another perspective to the keen-brained Marak.  Upon the banks of the Isis he met a beautiful and idealistic sociology student called Ydala, and it was in the spell of her challenging intellect that he learned to ask questions of his privileged life.  After his graduation he went, not back to the family firm, but to America with Ydala to train as a soldier.   His first career steps were through cloying assault course mud in backwoods Montana.   His philosophical metamorphosis occurred in the chrysalis of Ydala’s sleeping bag.   The emergent butterfly dried its wings and flew to Iran with her to sip at the nectar of fundamentalism, but did not find what it wanted.   Marak understood his place in the universe the first time he took up an assault rifle, and, although this was something of which Ydala was less certain, she followed him to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, and to Syria to attack the demons of Zion.

Ydala died in Southern Lebanon, her flashing black eyes dimmed by the absolute obliteration of an Israeli rocket.   Something of Marak died there too.   He never fully recovered from Ydala’s death.   For a while he became a machine; a total mercenary without conscience or creed.  If guns were to be hired Marak’s meter was always running, be it in Palestine or Georgia, in Ethiopia or Ecuador.  Then, when that aspect of his grief was satisfied, he turned to terrorism for his revenge.  He learned the clandestine art of the bomb-maker, the steady aim of the assassin.  He became, to some extent, what Salaiman Yahedi already was.   In that at least, Yahedi had been wrong about Marak in his characterisation of him for the Crown Prince, but correct in discerning that killing of itself was not to Marak’s taste.   For all of his action-filled life, Marak remained quintessentially rather above the blunt end of struggle.  He venerated the symbolism of the gun rather than the fell justice of the bullet.   Very westernised and scarcely a practising Moslem, he was, despite his history, in all things a charmer:  a gentleman with a revolutionary fire in the thing that passed for his soul.

This morning it was important to conceal that fire.   A visit by Prince Shumal was due. 

His royal personage would enter the building by a private access, travel up to the suite in his own private lift.  In a few moments the doors behind Marak would open and he must be facing them when they did.    It was etiquette: it was expected.

Beside Marak stood a doctor whose input to this meeting would be as important as his own.    To their right was a critical care unit: a tented bed surrounded by electronics and machinery dedicated to the preservation of life at the edge of extinction.   Occupying this bed, amid a tangled waft of tubes and wires, was Melanie Fenton.   There was little to remind Marak of the brittle, vibrant young woman who warmed the damp air of a Scottish morning for him, now some eight weeks since.   Melanie, pitifully thin and pale as death, lay crumpled before him, a discarded snakeskin.  She made no movement, no sound save the regular rhythm of her assisted breathing.   A monitor bleeped out each tortured beat of her heart.

There were approaching footsteps, murmurs of deferential conversation.   The doors to the suite were thrust aside by an irruption of white-suited security men, who peeled back like the petals of a rather vulgar lily to reveal the Crown Prince, a stamen in a yellow robe, in their midst.

Shumal paused in the doorway as he took in the room; Marak and the doctor, Melanie’s comatose form.  As though aware of the incongruous picture this made, his own truncated form little more than waist high to the tallest of his guards, he gestured to his aide, an earnest, darker-suited young man who waited behind him:   “Where are nurses?   This is our guest:  she is precious to us.  She should be attended constantly.”

Then, bowling into the room with arms outstretched, he greeted Marak and the doctor warmly.

“My friend!   And Doctor Schulmann!   Thank you for coming!”

Each man bowed slightly and smiled.   Shumal’s diminutive stature belied his power, yet he commanded respect.

“This is the girl?”   Shumal moved to Melanie’s bedside, brushing aside enough tubing to gain a full view of her face.   “Ah, so young!”

“Her name is Fenton, your Highness.”   Marak murmured.  “She is the one we spoke of.”

“And resourceful of you it was to find her, my dear Mar- ak.”   The Crown Prince emphasised the second syllable of Marak’s name in the ancient tradition.  “But then when you told me of her illness….”  He sighed:   “I did not dream of such as this!”

He brushed aside the film of the tent, taking Melanie’s hand and lifting it, with its attendant catheters, from the bed.  “She has fine skin – a beautiful child, no doubt.   Doctor, does she make progress?”

Schulmann pursed his lips, allowing Shumal to see a diplomatic reply coming before it left them.  “Do not hold anything back from me, Doctor:  I want your honesty, you understand?”

Schulmann nodded sagely.  “Frankly, your Highness, no.  Her vital signs are weak, she does not breathe without assistance, as you can see, and she has support for all her physical functions.  There is no obvious evidence of brain activity beyond that which you might expect in a deep coma patient.”

“And will she recover?  How long does this take?”

“Who can say?   She is stable.   Sometimes such a patient may regain consciousness, sometimes not; but as to when?   It might be in a day, a week, a year.  Or never.”

“She is in a vegetative state.”  Marak explained.   “She lives because we do not let her die.  That is all.”

“Were she less important to Your Highness;” Schulmann said, “We would have discussed her prognosis before now.”

The Crown Prince regarded the girl in the bed solemnly.  “How did this come about?  You say she was well when you found her?  Can she have been poisoned?”

Marak could only repeat aloud the story he had turned over in his head for many weeks now.   “She was in robust health on the plane until about thirty minutes after we took off.   She appeared to suffer some form of stroke, or perhaps an epileptic fit.   After a few minutes of spasm this subsided, so that all seemed normal; though she complained of head pain. She collapsed a half-hour later.   She had to be defibrillated twice in the plane.”   

Marak left his original plan unsaid, which had been to recruit Melanie into the service of ‘The Portal’ in Cairo – to turn her great gifts as a seer to his cause’s use.   A plan that had to quickly change in mid-flight when he realized there was no hope for his prophetess without the best medical help, which within his circle of influence only the Crown Prince could provide; Al Khubar was the one conceivable destination.  So he had telephoned Shumal with his tale of an opportunist kidnapping and a hostage useful to the Amadhi cause.

He shrugged:  “As for poison, Your Highness, I think not. My crew are trusted.”

“We made all necessary tests for poisons, Highness,”   Schulmann said.  “Nothing was discovered.   The symptoms are more consistent with some episode of a neurological nature.   Yet there are things there which do not fit.”

The diminutive prince cocked an eyebrow:   “How so?”

“I say she does not respond to our treatments, Highness.  That is not quite accurate.   It might be more precise to say she is impervious to them.  There seems nothing we can use which will register any affect – nutrients, stimulants….her body remains in absolute stasis whatever we attempt.   This is odd:  I might even say unique.”

“So perhaps if you took away these machines….”

“Maybe so.”   The Doctor secretly thought that such a measure would be more than his career was worth, but he did not say so.

The Crown Prince nodded.   “You will do your best, Schulmann, I am sure.   She is in the most capable hands.”    He turned to Marak:   “We must meet soon.  My aide will call you.”

After Shumal had left, Schulmann and Marak exchanged glances.

“You did not elaborate.”  Marak accused.

“No, I did not.”  Schulmann spoke almost as if he did not want Marak to hear him.  “Because I am a medical man, Marak, and what I see here is unnatural.  If I am asked to explain it…”  He left the sentence unfinished, “I am not sure I believe it myself.”

Schulmann could not explain; not even to himself, how it was that the tiny almond of the Amygdala, an inch or so of simplicity in that great unknown which is the human brain, should be so active in a coma patient:  how it was that the pulses from that one region of Melanie Fenton’s torpid intellect should be so strong.  It was, indeed, unnatural.  To the more susceptible of his superstitious proclivities it smacked of witchcraft.

And to speak of witchcraft…

“Beloved?”   Francine’s lips whispered in Arthur’s ear;  “Have I found you?”

“Francine,”  opening one eye Arthur turned his head to hers, inhaling the rose scent of her morning.  “When could you have lost me?  We have been no further than a breath apart tonight.”

“I did.  In my dreams I could not find you and I was afraid.   The darkness is filled with shadows – yet here I am.”

“So, all is well…”

“Indeed, sir?  How can all be well?  I am a fallen woman!” 

At this more spirited response Arthur stretched, revelling in the nakedness of the feminine flesh that pressed to his.  He gently bit Francine’s nose.  “We have certainly travelled many a mile, you and I, but not one yard of it felt like a descent to me.  I love you, foolish child.  If you fret so about your reputation, it takes no more than a mere proposal of marriage from me to make of you a Lady as high as any in the land (should you do me the honour of accepting it, of course).  Don’t tell me you didn’t consider that?”

“Oh!  I am a fortune-seeker now, am I?”  Arthur suffered a playful blow from a cushion to his head for this insinuation.  “And I suppose all the blame for this liaison must lie with me?”  She leapt from the bed, treating him to the perfect curves of her hips and back as she half-strode, half-danced to the window, gesturing theatrically at towards St. Benedict’s Island;  “And not with this monster of an ugly rock?”

Arthur was delighted, but concerned.  “Francine, my darling.  You can be seen from the street?”

The effect of his remark was far greater than he intended.  Francine squealed, genuinely shocked enough to jump back from the glass, clutching her arms to herself.  “My nightdress!  Arthur, my nightdress!  Did you take it from me?”

“My dear, you never wore it!  Do you have one?”

“How do you dare?  How… Of course!  Of course I have one!  What must you think of me?”

“I think you must be in danger of freezing.  Come back to bed.”

“Nay, sir!”  Francine would not, but snatched her valise from the settle before retreating behind her screen.  A minute of fumbling and foolishness so intense Arthur could almost read the confusions in her mind followed.  When she emerged she was respectably gowned, and measurably calmer.   “I feel weird!”   She said, in a voice not quite her own; “This is just mad!”

Arthur enunciated a thought that had been long in growing:  “At times of great stress…”

The hotel room door opened enough for Francine’s son, Samuel, to peer in.  He had heard his mother’s cry of alarm.  In an instant his eyes had taken in the bed, and Arthur lying upon it.

“Mama?  Is all well?”

Did the child miss, as Arthur certainly did not miss, the few seconds of complete estrangement in his mother’s eyes – an expression which nearly found a voice:  “Who…?”

Francine recovered herself quickly, “Yes, yes.  Go and dress yourself, my sweet.  We shall take breakfast shortly,”

Samuel had already interpreted the scene:  “Mama?  Is this…”

“Yes, Sam.  There are things here you do not understand, but trust me, I beg you?   Go and ready yourself.   We must journey back very soon.”

Reluctantly, the child’s head withdrew and the door was gently closed.   As soon as she was certain he had gone, Francine sat by Arthur’s side of the bed and he would have held her hand but she snatched it away.  

“You  had no idea who he was,”  Arthur said gently;  “There was an instant there when you and he were strangers.  There are times you and I are strangers, are there not?”

“Aye.”  Francine stared at her lap,  “Yet there are times too when I am closer to you than anyone I ever met or could imagine meeting.  Those times are such that I cannot feel shame for the things we have done together here.  Shameful as I know they should be,  I cannot!”   She stood, no longer afraid for her modesty, to cross to the window once more.  “Nevertheless there was a time I was alone last night, and I cannot explain it.   I had lost you.  It was dark and there was some one far off I thought might be you.  I called out to you, but you made no answer.  Oh, Arthur, am I mad?  Have you fallen into the clutches of a madwoman?”

Arthur rose from the bed, pulling his shirt about himself and preparing to dress.  “No, Francine, you have fears perhaps, but you are not mad.   Even if you were, I could not deny you.   I can console you by this much, that the strange utterances you make are clues to your hidden past, and we shall discover their meaning.  For myself I only have one fear, that we shall find as the skein unravels that you were – and therefore haply are – wedded to another.  My dear one, last night you were never further than a whisker from my side and in sleep, with such contentment on your face as I could wish to be writ for me, you uttered a name.   You said, ‘Peter’.”

© 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.

Image Credits:
Featured Image Adam Borkowski from Unsplash
Darkened Hall Rui Silvestri from Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Four

Of fish and Fishing

Peter’s slumber, in a welcoming little bedroom at the north corner of Vincent Harper’s cottage, was deep, and awash with dreaming. Yet, as with all such nights, the only dream he would carry into memory would be the last; his dream before waking. 

He stood beneath a burning sun upon a hill.  Around him and stretching to infinity were grasslands uninterrupted by hedges, or roads, or any natural feature save an occasional clump of scrubby and rather apologetic trees.  Groups of animals grazed, moving lazily, their tails flicking at a drifting mist of flies. 

One of the herds passed close enough so he could see they were not unlike Wildebeest though smaller, and hear as they spoke among themselves in tones curiously evocative of weeping.

As he looked on, a commotion in the grass behind the creatures exploded and a huge cat with gaping jaws and grotesque tusks for teeth sprang from cover.  Its intended victim had no time to turn or run before raking claws and those great teeth put it to death.    Legs crumpling beneath it, with its last breath the poor creature emitted a long, sobbing cry.   The herd scattered. and Peter woke up.

Slowly, as sleep receded, he became aware of breathing.  He was not alone.  His first disorientated thought was that he was back in Levenport, that he and Lesley had taken some time from study and they had fallen asleep together.   He probed softly, half-expecting to be rewarded with the thrill of her warm flesh.   Instead he found a coarse, tight pelt of fur.  It took only a second to realise that this was not human skin, that the owner was much, much larger than Lesley.   He opened his eyes to come face to face with the big cat of the plains, its fantastic fangs still scarlet with blood, eyes angry and lips drawn back in a long, slow feline snarl. Its eyes were craven and yellow, its big paws tensed to strike.  It disappeared.  Daylight peeked through the curtain, and the smell of frying food wafted through the gaps in the planked door.  Just to be sure, Peter pinched himself/

Estelle greeted him in the kitchen.

“Hi.  I was going to give you a shout, but blubber-ball downstairs said you’d be awake.  Are you OK?   You look like you saw a ghost.”

Thirty minutes later, with a calming plate of bacon and eggs inside him, Peter was ready for Vincent when he emerged from that mysterious door.  “Come on, Pete.  This is what you  came for.”

Peter follow Vincent down the flight of stone steps the door concealed.  Halfway down Vincent paused;

“One thing, man; be prepared – a bit of a shock, this.”

Another door: to a basement room, obviously; and their footsteps must have been heard because that oddly familiar voice bellowed from within:  “Not you, Vincent, I need the woman to attend to me.  I demand it!”

  “She’s washing another bale of your clothes, you old f****r!”  Vincent responded unceremoniously.  “We need a bleedin’ laundry!   Keeping you clean’s an industrial enterprise!”   Over his shoulder, in a more modulated voice, he said,  “Come in Pete.  If he throws something at you, throw it back!”.

“Blame me!  My dear, it’s so convenient!  Blame me!”    The voice was suddenly petulant, a soft received English accent with a peculiar dryness, almost a rasp.  Now Peter was sure of its owner, though he hadn’t expected to find him here.

“Right!  Sure, I will!   All I ask, Simeon, is you keep your shirt clean for just, like, an hour or something, huh, baby?   Maybe if you don’t eat for an hour, try that?”

“Not eat?  For a whole hour?”  Expostulated the voice,  “I need food, my dear!  Need it!   You know I need it!   Get me fish.”

“Later.”

“Not later, NOW!”

Peter managed to pass through the door without molestation, into a well-lit space which had all the appearance, although windowless, of a normal sitting room.  A pendant light in the centre of its ceiling provided the illumination; walls were painted a predictable magnolia; wooden features in a contrast tan.  A darker tan carpet fitted the entire floor.   A television of mammoth proportions graced one wall, an over-stuffed chair, a low settee and a smaller upright chair ranged around a large glass occasional table central to the room.

Peter’s attention instantly focused on the occupant of the room – a most unusual-looking human who Vincent introduced:

“Peter, this is Simeon.”

Simeon was seated in a low armchair.   The floor around him was covered by a pair of protective sheets in the form of plastic shower curtains, one bearing a penguin motif, the other a single full-length graphic of a nude female.  

 Simeon’s person could best be described as a vast jelloid balloon topped by a completely hairless head.   Into this, like craters of the moon, were sunk two large, saucer eyes, pinhole nostrils, and a mouth uncluttered by more than the necessary minimum of teeth.  

The lower layers of the apparition were clad in a voluminous pair of blue trousers, partially zipped to respectability:  the upper ones a clean white cotton shirt with cruelly tortured buttons and short sleeves.  The trousers were, like everything else in the immediate vicinity, decorated with splurges of food.   The shirt was not, as yet, though its fate was clear.

A breakfast plate rested neatly upon the shelf of Simeon’s torso.  Peter guessed at Eggs Benedict which Simeon steadily transported to his mouth with both his hands.  Mastication was a very open affair.  Sauce dripped and spattered.   The clean shirt became unclean extremely quickly, especially when speech took place.

“Is this the boy?”  Simeon assessed Peter with a disbelieving stare.   “Bigger than I remember – much bigger.”   He extended a podgy hand, inviting a handshake.   Peter flinched away.

“Sorry!”  Simeon apologised.  “Bit messy, it’s true.  I have difficulty eating this trash, you see.  Bloody stupid idea, leaving sauce all over the place.”

Estelle had followed Vince and Peter into  the room.  “He has difficulty eating anything politely.”  She commented.  “He’s a PIG!”

“Of course he has difficulty;” said Peter a little sententiously, because he was certain now his first encounter with Simeon’s voice had been on Levenport seafront.  “He’s more used to having  a beak.  He’s really a gull.”

Simeon exploded into laughter, a voluble bellow which scattered hollandaise sauce like napalm.   “A GULL!  Of course I am.  You see, my pretty little waitress, how you wrong me?   Dear boy, how well we shall get on!   Simeon Ward-Settering, MSc, BSc, MA, BA, DD, MD, CD, VD, OD, Eton and Balliol here.  How do you do?”

Simeon resumed his gorging:  massaging the remaining contents of the plate into a wad, he stuffed this into his mouth, to be swallowed by a single gulp.

“There. I am replete!   Vincent, you sweet soul, bring me those towels, will you?”

There were towels in a pile by the door.   Four or five were needed, before Simeon looked anything like clean, another two to mop detritus from the table and floor.   To withdraw the shower curtains, Vincent had to prompt Simeon to raise himself, which he did with some difficulty.    Peter noticed that movement induced a ripple effect across the uneven contours of his body, and a made a sloshing sound.

“Not my dear little Popsy!”   Simeon affected grief as the nude woman curtain was taken.  “Do bring her back soon, won’t you?   I shall miss her frightfully!”

“You’re a dirty old bastard.”  Estelle told him, as she gathered up the soiled towels.   There was some humour in the statement, but not too much.

“I know; my failing.  Sit down – Peter, isn’t it?  Vincent, you have told our friend here what this is about?  Broken the ice, as ‘twere?”

“Yeah.”

Peter gingerly lowered himself into a chair which looked relatively free of food.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Estelle said with meaning.  “I have to do laundry.”

“Fish!”   Simeon shouted at her retreating back.

 “Vincent and I, we go back a long way.”  Simeon cocked an eye at Vince, “He didn’t tell you that, did he?”

Vincent shook his head.  “I left it to you, mate.”

“I first appeared to Vincent after a concert in California.  My path was smoothed by several mind-altering drugs…”

“What a gig that was!”  Vincent laughed,  “He tied me up, literally!  I thought I was having a bad trip.”

“I did a thing with a python materialisation – a favourite of mine at the time.  In retrospect a bit cruel, I suppose.”

“I was that spaced out I thought he was God!”  Vincent exclaimed,  “As you can see, he wasn’t”

 “Now, let us be serious,” Simeon exclaimed.  “We met before – you’ve worked that out, you clever thing – so it is time for you to know who I really am.”

“You were that gull on the rail at Levenport,”  Peter said,  “That’s how I first saw you.  You spoke to me, but inside my head, not with a voice like now.  .  You  invited me to meet Vince, didn’t you?”

Simeon spread lily-pad hands:  “I confess it all, guv’nor.  Guilty as charged.   I suspected you shared our receptiveness, but I had to find out. ”

Vincent grimaced,  “Quite useful timing, in the event.”

“My dream?”  Peter muttered, “That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?  How many times do I have to keep saying this?  It was just a dream!”

Simeon affected a sigh of patience:  “Dear child, remember what happened.   You touched the Truth Stone, and it flooded your head with pictures.  You passed out, but you weren’t asleep.  Then you found another part of the Stone in the Toa shrine, and you repeated the exercise there.  Denial of this is pointless!  Accept your gift!”

“Truth Stone?  Toa shrine?  You mean that cave, the one with Toqus’s body in it.  Who are the Toa?  Come to think of it, you haven’t told me yet what you are.”

“The Toa are a religious sect that existed secretly within the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, and probably in other multitheistic religions long before that;”  Simeon answered.   “Unheard of for four hundred years, they are active again because they know, as do we, that the stones are awake.  As to who I, and possibly you, are?  I don’t precisely know.  We call ourselves Ethereals, but that is only a name. 

“The species that thrived on this planet for a hundred million years, and those who went before them, ‘documented’ their knowledge and their law by some means in stone.  I and some of my predecessors are possibly older, even, than they.   I believe we were once the readers of those records.   If you think of stone as the ‘hard drive’ on which their lore was stored, then we were the lasers that read, and possibly also wrote, that information.”

Peter was struggling:  “That’s pretty radical.  So you must be really old.  I mean, if you were reading their stuff. I mean, seriously?”

“I have to accept I may be very, very old.  Having no physical body apart from those forms I assume for convenience from time to time so people, humans, can better understand me.  I could be as old as the stone itself.   Time relies on substance, and as far as I know I,  and the few brethren who have shared this state with me, have no physical form at all.”

“Supposing I believed all this?  Like I’m sitting in a room with a ghost who looks like the Michelin Man on acid, and he isn’t really there.  He’s what…invisible?  Where do I fit in with that?”

“We can no longer read from the stones.  More importantly, dear boy, we can no longer write into them.  We can’t ‘programme’.  That means destiny is set upon a path we can’t control, and something desperate must inevitably happen.  We had to find someone from your generation with the power to interact with that resource…”

“And you’re it, Pete.”  Vincent cut in.   “Because we’ve seen that you can interact with the Truth Stone.  You’re lovely girlfriend, too, if we can find her, but we think maybe one of the others has got her.”

“Melanie’s not my girlfriend,” Peter reminded them. “Others?  What ‘others’?”?”

 “Others who want to use the stone ‘drive’ for their own ends,” Simeon replied.  “The Toa, some other religious groups and extremists who think they can earn from the power it could give them.”

“Alright,”  Peter said, “What do you want to use it for?  How do I know you’re not another bunch of mad scientists, or whatever?”

  Vincent took the question.  “I suppose you don’t.  You would have to judge us by what we ask you to do, if you can do it.”

“Which is?”  

“Perform a reset, if you like.  Wipe the catastrophic event which has caused the error and if possible extract the information we need to get ourselves back on track.”  Simeon tried to look persuasive – an expression that didn’t sit easily on his moon of a face.  “Not much of an ask, Petie Pooh, is it?”

Vincent cut in with a grimace:  “It’s urgent, Pete. We have to get you back to the Rock and get this sorted like yesterday, man, and I don’t know if I can help you.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had to drag you up here to tell you all this, but I daren’t go near the place at the moment.  I don’t think they know about you, but they know me, and I’m a prime target.”

“Why should they – whoever – target you?”

“For the same reason I sought out Vincent at that California concert,” Simeon answered more soberly; “His is the House on St. Benedict’s Rock.  The place where you touched that black stone – the Truth Stone – is your best hope of accessing the information we need and re-establishing control – as Ethereals must have done, I am sure, for millions of years.  It’s the only place, as far as we know, where the Truth Stone is exposed.”

“What’s to stop ‘them’, whoever they are, from simply moving in and taking over?  If all they need is this Truth Stone?”

“It isn’t all they need.  They need you, Pete.  You or your friend, ideally both.  Together you’re the lynchpins.  You’re the readers.”   

#

Melanie had never slept on a small boat before.   The coastal trawler, a sturdy craft built for the short, choppy waves of inshore waters, made few concessions to the inexperienced: and Melanie was scarcely a sailor.   After struggling for a couple of queasy hours against forces dedicated to tipping her from the hard wooden shelf of her bunk, trying to blot out the bang of waves against a hull only inches from her right ear, she surrendered.   Midnight found her on the foredeck, staring emptily towards lights on a distant shoreline.

“Thinkin’ o’ swimming for it?”   The deck-hand, for that was what Melanie assumed he must be, was a spindly youth in a shabby navy sweater.   “’Tis further ‘an it looks.”

“Where are we, exactly?”   She asked.

“See those lights there?   Those’d be Peterhead.   Us’ll be losin’t coastline in a while:  crossin’t mouth of Mor’y Firth.    Could get rough.   Lucky to ‘ave it this calm, time o’ year.”

“How much further are you taking me?”

“Not far enough, nice lass like the’.   Us’ll be dropping the’ off tomorra morning.”

“Where?”

The boy shook his head:   “can’t tell the’ that.”

So it was to be somewhere in Scotland: the north, too.  What; an island somewhere?

Melanie recalled her first conversation with the boy.   She had not intended, when she left Bianca’s nice seaside semi-detached that morning, to wander as far as the fish-dock: she still wondered why she had.   But, having done so, and having leaned over the rail to watch the vessels departing on the tide, it was natural to someone of her enquiring mind to ask questions of this frail-looking youth, who was stacking white plastic trays on the deck of a neat and sweetly-painted green boat.

“Coom aboard if the’ likes.”

She did like.   It never occurred to her there might be -; what – danger – adventure?

“Tha’d not like it, where us has te’ live when wor ut sea, mind.   Coom on, Ah’ll show the’.”

It never crossed her mind.

She marvelled at the little galley:  the smallness, the compactness of it all.   And the forward cabin: two bunks, a locker, no room for more.

            A quite different figure was from nowhere, all at once standing behind her, removing any thought of retreat; a tall man dressed un-nautically, blunt though not unkind of speech.

“We’ll want your possessions:  purse, mobile.  PDA if you have it.   Now, please.”

A man brooking no dissent: impatient of delay.

“Now, please!”

He blocked the door: or was it a hatch, now she was on a boat?

“Gaffer!”  The boy whispered.   “The’ better do it like.  Do like ‘e says, lass.”

How had it happened?   What had brought her here?   The pulse of the diesel was noisy, the throb of its dissent endemic to the steel of the hull.  Unaccountably, though, she was hearing music.  Oh, not a radio, or anything: no, this was inside her head:  like the music of the rock.

© 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.

Image Credits:

Feature Image Dinosaurs Darius Sankowski on Pixabay

Fish: Gregory Moses on Unsplash

Trawler: Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash