Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty Eight

Maud’s Obsession and Melanie’s Dream

Although the décor of Mountsell Park’s Venetian Salon seemed, in general, too lavish for Francine’s tastes, she enjoyed a particular large south-facing window at which, in her enforced idleness, she would spend sometimes hours of her mornings dreaming up her ideas for formal gardens that could so enhance Arthur’s well-kept, but somewhat masculine landscape.  This morning, however, though her eyes beheld they scarcely saw.  She was seriously troubled.

Upon arriving home from their excursion to St. Benedict’s Rock, she had tucked an already slumbering Samuel into his bed before taking a late supper wih Arthur from trays in the withdrawing room.   It was a restrained affair, far from the tète-a-tète either had anticipated, each hesitating, though much wanting to pursue their passion of the previous night.  In the end they took to their individual rooms with the sweetness of one kiss as compensation.  Alone, Francine had scribbled the letter which now waited concealed within her escritoire, for urgent dispatch to Maud Reybath, at Bleanstead, though by what means she had no clue.  She had slept late.

The mantel clock had struck the half-afterr-eleven when Arthur discovered her, her slippered feet up upon the sofa as she dozed lightly, a book unregarded in her lap.   He came to stand behind her, his powerful, gently determined hands finding the bare flesh at her shoulders.  She stemmed their advance with restraining fingers:  “Desist, sir!”

He obeyed immediately, “Because you fear discovery, my love, or for other reasons?”

She rested her cheek against his forearm; “Oh, Arthur! There are a thousand reasons!  If I were ever free of all that boils inside me, of all my confusion.  You are right.  I shall always feel in danger of discovery here.”

“Confusion?  Inner torment?  This bodes ill!”  He said seriously, coming to sit beside her; “A thousand reasons you  could never be persuaded to become the mistress of this house?”

Francine smiled; “If when all is known, that were still your wish?”

“Most certainly!  I have sent for a goldsmith this very morning.   He will be here before nightfall, I guarantee.”

“Ah!”  Francine sensed an opportunity, “Then if I have good news may I also send a messenger?   Why are you laughing, sir?”

“Because you said ‘if I have good news’ – that implies a certain consent, does it not?  Madame, you may send as many messengers as you want!”

“Nay, I need only one.”   As the humour left her, Francine rose from the settle and crossed to her favourite window, head bowed to avoid her lover’s discriminating eyes.  She was silent for a while, allowing Arthur, who sensed her need for time, to wait pensively.  At last she murmured, only half aloud:   “No, I may not do this.”

“Do what?”  Arthur prompte her gently.

“Deceive you.”

“Ah.  Was that your intent?”

“I need to get a letter to Maud Reybath…”

“She of Bleanstead?  Samuel’s aunt?  No deception is necessary there, surely?”

“We both know that ‘Aunt’ is a courtesy title, for my dearest boy and I have no relations in this world.  Oh, how to begin?   Arthur, I must forewarn you concerning Maud Reybath.”

“I have not had the pleasure of this woman’s acquaintance.  Does she pose some threat to you?”

“No, Arthur, no.   We have always been – were, are- friends!   Maud first made herself known to me in my very early days in the care of Mr Fletcher, my former guardian, while Samuel was still a baby.  We met at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Mountchester; I was seeking answers to my situation and she seemed to single me out.   She too, as it transpired, was new to Mountchester and in need of friends.   She perceived my shyness in society to be a characteristic she shared; so we revealed as much of our histories as either of us knew – which, in my case was barely a minute of explanation – and discovered we had this much in common: we were both foundlings, Arthur!”

“When you say ‘foundlings’, d’ye mean Miss Reybath was abandoned on a doorstep too?”

“As she explained it, yes!  Yes indeed, exactly that!  Although she was a matter of months old when she was found and in a location in common with some few others – before the gates of a monastery!   The monks took her in, educated her and raised her in their faith until, upon a certain day that was claimed as her eighteenth birthday they received an allowance that was sufficient to provide for her independence.”

Arthur pursed his lips, “A pretty story.  An anonymous benefactor.”

“When we met she was living in her own rooms.  We were close for years, and she seemed inclined to marry a young solicitor’s clerk for a while, but as it transpired there was a higher mission  – in the end Mountchester proved too much for Maud.  She had saved enough from her allowance to purchase the property in Bleanstead and this she did.  I was visiting her for the first time in her new home when I met you.”

Arthur frowned;  “I see this journey has a destination, though I cannot hazard as yet what it may be.  So far you have revealed no deception, unless you intend to depart by the light of the moon and live with your friend Maud?  When you first arrived here, did you not fear putting her in danger by leading your pursuers to her?”

“I did, very much.”  Francine’s eyes were distant, even lost, letting her train of thought move freely.  “No sooner had I returned to Mountchester after that visit than the pursuit, the menace that drew me to your door began.  I was being watched; my guardian threatened.”

“And you believed that whatever endangered you might implicate your friend as well.”  Arthur raised a quizzical eyebrow, “Perhaps in some manner more particular than the mere risk of damage:  what is it you share with this woman, Francine?  Would the same villains we despatched at the fallen oak have an equal interest in her?”

Sighing resignedly, Francine turned to meet Arthur’s eye.  “You must know this, although the story is not really mine to tell, and I pray the knowledge will not cause you pain.

“When Maud’s time came  to leave  the monastery the Father Abbott told her that those she believed to have abandoned her were a conclave of a church he referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’.  This close band of monks had told him she was the child of a seer who died at the hands of their enemies, so they left her to be raised, hidden in the anonymity of his monastery.   Now of age, she must continue her mother’s dangerous mission, which was to lead them to the one they called ‘The Pilgrim’.  They believed ‘The Pilgrim’ alone could read a Holy Scripture they kept in a secret place, and with his guidance they might re-write all the evils of history”   Francine took a deep breath.  “Their judgement of Maud was justified, because she saw something in me that would lead her to you.  It is you, Arthur.  I am certain, as is she.  You are the one they seek with great urgency.  You are The Pilgrim.”

His eyes were kindly when he laughed, she thought; a humour turned in upon himself with no hint of mockery.  He did not believe her; she scarcely expected him to, but neither did he scoff or ridicule.  Instead he came to her as she loved him to do, and closed her explanation with a kiss.

#

  Melanie Fenton was beginning a dream.  The dream opened with a brief, almost subliminal image of a frightened woman, a woman in a nurse’s uniform staring at her.  It seemed, although for sure she could not tell, the cause of this woman’s fear was none other than herself, but the scene flashed by so quickly it was gone almost as soon as it came.

Then there was sunlight; the weak, struggling sunlight of an English morning, and there was a scent of rosewater.  There were warm sheets enfolding her, a soft pillow of duck-down cushioning her cheek.  Behind heavy brocade curtains (which her maid had drawn when she brought her tea) and beyond the open lattice windows a blackbird announced its entitlement in song, with a choir of garden birds as witnesses.   She loved their music, was loath to rise when she might spend the hours here, just on the borders of sleep, listening.

She was thirsty.  Lazily, she rolled to her other side, taking in as she did so the soft, warm colours, the hangings and the rich furnishings of the room.   There was no doubting its tranquil beauty, yet, although in a part of her mind she had never seen this place before, another part of her barely noticed its charm; was even slightly disapproving of a tall oriental vase which stood upon a what-not in the corner.  And there was a passing of time, how much she did not know, or care.  When she reached for her tea it was still warm: the maid had not yet brought the ewer of hot water she needed to wash, something which struck her as faintly unusual, for she was certain the hour was already late.   But then, there was an expectation, a frisson of excitement, too.   She could not account for this, though she felt she should have a reason.

The tea roused her a little.  She slipped her feet over the side of the bed, sat up. Her nightgown rode up over her knees and she sat, for some minutes it seemed, inspecting them.   They were, she thought, quite passable knees.

Satisfied as to the acceptability of these particular joints she stood and walked across the floor with them, her bare feet tingling at the chill of the boards.   At  the furthest of the windows she paused in her night attire to take in the colours of the day, quite uncaring that the gardeners would be at work outside, aware how the thin cloth which was all she had to cover her might fail to entirely do so in some respects.   It would amuse her, this particular morning, to attract the percipient upward glance of a young face, see how she might captivate its owner, and then how hastily it turned away when it realised who it looked upon.

Her way took her past the cheval mirror, her dressing mirror. She was surprised by her own face:  the delicate features, the swan-like neck.  So poised, so assured, so refined.   And so old!   In the unforgiving light of day, she saw herself as only a woman of advancing years might see.   Mirror, mirror…..

“You are thirty-six;” the mirror said.

“Five.  I’m thirty-five.”   Was she?

“You will be thirty-six soon, my dear.   You are no longer in the bloom of youth, you know.”

“Is not my skin still smooth; my hair still fair; my figure neat?”

“Not as neat as once it was.  Turn to the side.”

This was a silent conversation, but real enough, nonetheless.  She stood critically examining her body this way and that, making certain she was sufficiently far from the window before she shrugged her nightgown from her shoulders – there were things that even a young gardener should not be allowed to see.  She scarcely recognised her own body.   Where had the time gone?

Hurriedly, she reached down to retrieve the pool of filmy cloth around her feet.  She should not be here in this vulnerable state, in the middle of her room, knowing what was going to happen.   What?   What was going to happen?

Only as she straightened, drawing the gown back over her breasts, did she catch sight of the figure in the open doorway.  The dark figure of one who had entered silently – who had been watching her for – oh, how long?

She felt the blood rushing to her neck, her cheeks.  

“You have discovered me, sir!”  But despite her instinct to blush, she did not move to cover herself further.

“I apologise.”   The figure said in a dark voice.  “Should I withdraw?”

She did not answer.  She moved back towards her bed, sitting primly upon it.

The figure came further into the room, closing the door behind him.  “You think I should have let him die.”

At this she shook her head: not emphatically, but with sorrow.   “I could not possibly wish that.   He is my husband.”

“Even having seen him?   Last night I thought…”

“Last night I was…confused.   He is so, so very ill.  How soon may this pass?”

“If by pass you mean recover?”  The dark intruder drew closer to her.   “He will not.   I restarted a heart that wished to beat no longer.  I could not restart the man.”

“Then…”

“Then with time he will die.  We both must seek new masters.   I think you already have yours.”

Ah, mine!   Why did a faint rancour come into her mouth when she thought of that ‘new master’?  Why was there a disappointment, a feeling of betrayal?  Oh, she knew why.   A fateful conversation of a January afternoon here, upon this very bed.  So soon after their first meeting, so soon after she had committed herself completely to his care:  but so late, far, far too late to climb back from the mire of discredit she had willingly entered in return for his attentions.

Matthew Ballantine had no wish for there ever to be an heir. He abhorred the thought of children.  She had gone so far for him, down the road to disreputability.   And now the years would slip by without hope, without the consolation, ever a chance at motherhood!   She took a sip of tea, a moment to reflect and measure what she was about to say.  What she was about to do!

“You are very perceptive.”  She said.  “And a little familiar.”

“I am honest.  We both know this.   He is your lover, and soon he will be my master.  But he is less your lover than you would wish, and not the lover you need.”

The dark man stood right over her now, his shirt open so she could see the sweat glistening on his ebony skin.

“Have a care!”   She tore her eyes away from the brazenness of his manhood to meet the hunger in his stare.  “We both must serve him.”

He was not to be diverted.  “You bade me come.”

“That was last night.  I was,,.”

“Confused?”

“Yes.”

He placed his hands upon her shoulders.  They were gentle, but strength pulsated from them.   “Then should I go?”

She did not answer; could not.   Once their eyes had met there was no turning, no going back.  There was such a heat within her, a desperation which only this man might fill.   And so she stood, and took him to her, and the dream faded, and stillness returned.

There were three people by the bed.  One, a technician, turned and adjusted the monitors, his concentrated expression lit by their glow.  The second person present wore the uniform of nurse in charge, the third was a doctor.   He was speaking.

“There is absolutely nothing irregular.  I can find no changes in the girl’s condition and I take it there isn’t anything wrong with the equipment?”

The technician shook his head.  “No. All fine here.”

“So just run this by me again,”  said the clinician.  “What did the nurse say?”

The nurse in charge shrugged helplessly.  “She screamed.  That’s what brought me in here.  She said the patient’s eyes had opened and stared at her.  That’s why she knocked the drip over, she said.   Then she said the monitors went wild…those were her words.  They were throwing up peaks consistent with violent activity.”

“And when you came in?”

“Everything was normal.  As you see it now.  Except for the nurse – she was in hysterics.”

“And on her own.”   The Doctor said.

“Yes.  Her partner seems to have taken it on herself to go home because she was “ill”.  She did not trouble to report to me first, unfortunately.”

“Very well.”  The clinician nodded.  “Let the new team come in.   Make certain this Aneesha woman is transferred to less demanding duties.  She should never be allowed near this patient again – you understand?”

He need not have been concerned.  Aneesha was already in the air, on a flight to England.

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

Satan’s Rock

Part 35

Cabbages and Kings

Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”

“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said;  “Come and take him off my hands, will you?  I have to go to work.   Oh, and don’t let him in…”

#

“I’ve found someone.”

Lesley regarded Roderick blearily:  “How sweet!   But I thought you were a monk?”

“No.  Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”

“Come in.”  Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm.  “You do know what time it is?”

“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”

“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.”  Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee   “Go away.”   Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle.  “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”

“I just do.  I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find.  You have to trust me.  And you have to put water in that kettle.”  

After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.  

“Logical, really.  Only one place he could have gone.  You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”

Lesley opened her eyes:  “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it?   You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already!  It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”

“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult.  We won’t force you to do it.”

“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”

“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose.  Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”

“What for?”

“For helping me through – for being right.  For being wise…”   She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee.  Stuff’s  in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”

Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs,   “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that.  Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”

Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white.   It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’.   It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.

“Hallo, lass!”   Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles.    “So you’m my cargo, eh?”

Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo?  Oh, Cyril, you old romantic!  You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”

Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then?  You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”

“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!”   With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.  

“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”

Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter.   Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods.   Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.

“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,”  Cyril said.  “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”

Roderick gave a supporting hand.  “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”

Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril.   Everyone knew him.   A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed.   His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.

“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick.  “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”

The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks.    She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves.   The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose.  There was a pause, then the engine revved and  the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.

Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil.   An apple dropped on her neck.   Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking.  Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another.  Outraged hooting broke out on  one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes.   In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.

 It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock.  If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.  

Then – anxiety.  The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt.   Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.

“Sorry about this.”   It was a woman’s voice.    “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room.   We’ll have it clear in a jiff.      You don’t have any oranges in there, do you?  I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”

Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges.  “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”

“Onions, then?  Some greens, maybe?   Can I have a look?”

Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter.  Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg.   She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.

“Don’t you go opening my van!”   Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.

“I’m sorry!  I only wanted a look!”   Charlie’s voice was all innocence.  Her face was set in steel.

“’Tis my property.   ‘Tis private, right?”

Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes.  A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her.  She was obviously a professional. 

Cyril had joined Charlie at the back.    “See?  You have got some oranges!   What else have you got down behind there?”  She made to climb into the display.  Cyril was equally resolute.  He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.

“I dissent sell from the van, missus,”   Cyril said severely.  “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”

Charlie’s voice had an edge:  “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”

“Twice weekly.  What of it?”

“Where?  Which houses?”

Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied.  “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.”   He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down.  Charlie’s hand stopped him.

“Now look!   I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!”  Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down.   From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured:  from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind.   Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van.  Backing off gave her great pain.  No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.

From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.

“Anything?”   Klas asked.

“I couldn’t see anything.   The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”

“You could have made it official.”

“We could follow it, too, but no.   Low profile, remember?   Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more.  This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation!  He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”

Klas glanced apprehensively skyward.  “Do we include seagulls in that?”  The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock.  “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.”  He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”

“Possibly.  It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though:  the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”

“How should we deal with the van?”

“Wait for it to come back.   Then follow it.”

#

Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen.   Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her.   They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come.  He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his.  He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind:  saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him.   He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.

What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door?   Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of  furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.

The intruder was near, approaching.   Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.  

“Hi.” Lesley said.

He could not respond.   He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.

She said:  “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”

“Yeah.”    Peter could hear his own heart beating.  It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too.  But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.

“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now.  I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”

#

The office window overlooked  the River Thames.   Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move.  Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed.  Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window.  They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three.   Jeremy felt at home among their cushions.  Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.

“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?”  Jeremy accused his operatives,  “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”

Charlie said:  “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”

“Not that late!   Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie.   You lost him.  Too casual, way too casual!”

“The rain, the birds…it was dark.  Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours.  Now he can’t remember it…”

Klas said:  “I think I must have read it.  It will come back to me…”

“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.

Klas shrugged.  “It will.  One cannot predict these things, but it will.  The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.”  he murmured.

“What is?”

“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion.  I have never known such a thing.”

Charlie asked:   “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt?  Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper?   Ah!  It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”

“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”

“They were really determined, the birds!”   Klas mused.  “A methodical attack, almost.   It was as if they knew…..”

“Is he quite with us?”   Piggott asked Charlie crudely.   “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”

“They did assist in his escape.  Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”

“Oh, very odd!”   Jeremy seethed.   “Anyway he’s gone.  Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.”   Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”

“Unlikely.  There was a big storm and the tide was running high.  No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north.  The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”

  “And your reasoning?”

 “We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?”  Charlie said;  “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days:  only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”

“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?”  Klas asked.

“It’s possible.”  Charlie nodded.  “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it?   Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”

“The boy went north, too.”  Jeremy said.  “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours.   That could have put him in Scotland, too.  Two separate trips, one shared destination?   So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”

“I don’t know!”  Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice!  Anyway, this is pure conjecture.  For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”

Piggott grunted;  “Where’s our Howard now?”

“He’s dropped from sight.   The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”

“Seriously?  We didn’t actually lose them, did we?” 

Charlie ignored the sarcasm.  “We can’t be everywhere, chief.  I had to put local lads on it.   It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know, now.  Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”

“So what do we do, drop this?   Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”

Jeremy Piggott shook his head.   “I would.  I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed.   Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get.  With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into.  He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic?  Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”

“Al Khubar?”  Charlie asked. 

“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously.   “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead.  They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.”  Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge.  “He’s a man with a mission.  Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs  can reach.   Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better.   He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”

“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”

“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate:  but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway.  We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process.  And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”

“Ah!”   Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted.  Very intriguing!”

Jeremy smiled grimly:  “Can you imagine?   Look, our people are working on this, OK?  Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be.  For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath,  find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down  – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”

© 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: Inigo de La-Maza from Unsplash

River Thames: Kevin Greive on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Three

Convocation

The first thing Peter remarked was the darkness.   The room in which he stood, the room Estelle had given him was not dark; the room he saw in the mirror was.  It was not even the same room, but a cavernous hall with candelabra-decked walls, walls freshly clad in panelled oak and hung with tapestries.   Through the gloom he could distinguish little else, a bed, perhaps, a well-upholstered chair in the Regency style.    Every objective observation he tried to make, however, was overlaid by the presence.  

Other than in the touch of those gentle feminine fingers on his arm it had no substance at all, just a skein of grey shredded light that wavered and altered itself into various images, sweeping towards the mirror-glass then tumbling away again, rearranging itself to spiral upwards, almost finding shape before once again descending.    At its best it made a half-drawn figure that might be the owner of the voice, at its worst the coiled menace of a snake.

The voice:  that voice!

  “Arthur?   Arthur my dear?  Arthur?”   A pleading, abandoned sound as of a woman drowning.

 And the snake?  The snake came slithering and robbing, taking each strand of the woman’s so nearly finished sketch to integrate within itself.   Too much!  Fearful of spirits that threatened to overwhelm him, Peter tore off his bathrobe, throwing it over the glass, and the voice cried out:  “No!” As if defying him.   The glass cleared.  Exhausted he fell back into the bed and his consciousness left him, but his dreams would not.

Peter spent the rest of  his night somewhere in a hinterland between sleeping and waking.   His dreams led him first to Crowley House – by the lake where he and Lesley had made love together, and she was there; they were looking down into the water, into reeds which grew at the water’s edge, to something floating there they wanted to reach but could not:  Peter woke for a moment, or thought he did.  He saw Melanie far away across the lake, her spy-glass glinting in the sunlight.

Was he dreaming again?  The man’s approach was undisguised, the heavy boot-tread of one who worked the land.  And when he came into view so he proved to be; a gaunt, mean creature whose hardened years had left their trace, like the dendrochronology of a tree, upon his scored features.  This was a man of deeds, a worker who, had he not spotted the same small irregularity that had drawn Peter’s and Lesley’s eyes, would be stooping to some merciless peasant labour even now.   But his keen eye, which knew every inch of this estate and its lakeside, bade him investigate.

Where Peter and Lesley might hesitate this man did not even pause, but slithered and waded in among the weed-choked shallows.   What he found there caused him to draw breath.

“Lord bless us!” He exclaimed, in genuine amazement.

When the man raised a small box from the waters’ edge Peter’s dream followed him, so that he was able to see and understand why he, whose name was Micah, and  his wife should take the little naked child inside the box as their own; because they were barren and they thought it a gift from God,  They called it Moses because of how they had found it, and in the years that followed they would raise it as their own.

In a single night Peter’s dream revealed the  early history of the child (who they named Moses because of the manner of his discovery) through his growing years;  how he came to be known in his local Parish, where his past was never discussed by citizens because they lived a little in fear of his deeply religious and ascetic adopted family.   Peter found himself a fading witness to those passing years, as Moses grew and proved a true son of his adoptive father; one about whom more would be forgotten than known.   But questions, reserved for hushed moments in private corners, were nonetheless asked.   For not everything about Moses added up.

#

There had been a calling together of the secret ones.

They had come by night, in stealth:  quiet cars with darkened windows, solitary figures on footpaths which eschewed the beaten track.   They came, cowled and silent, to the little monastery because the tolling of a Sanctus bell commanded them, but not to pray.   And the plainsong beckoning them from cloister to their holy place was not a holy song, and the monks who sang were not of any order whose name dared be spoken, even there.

Words of wise ones were uttered in hushed tones, so their whispered echoes might not be remembered by the stones they passed across.   Their faces in the guttering candlelight not so plain they might be remembered, or want to be.   And when their hour was done and they melted back into the dark night, their words would be consigned to darkness too.

“We are concerned…….”

“Too vital to lose….”

“One chance to shake the world……”

“The end of all false truths…..”

The frailest, oldest of them all, a gargoyle from the wall of Mother Church supported behind a lectern of stone, led this faceless gathering:  “Be advised!”  His wracked voice ranted:  “There is one transcendent moment coming,  one God-given chance to convert the lost hosts of Islam and bring them to the one true path.   It must not be squandered!   Our weapons are God’s weapons!   Our mercy is His mercy – accept God’s blessing upon your accomplishment, for our war, dear brothers, is a Holy war – our right, the right of Heaven!”

Outside in the cloister as the mysterious ones, these words ringing in their concealed ears, dispersed on their homeward path, two cowled souls met: one, an abbot, the other a monk – a slighter, smaller man whose habit flapped around his ankles as he walked.

“….but Holy Father?”

“Still we must be sure.  Sure, Roderick, are you really sure?”   The Abbott’s tone was urgent.  “You heard his Holiness, did you not?  This – this day:  it is a day given to us.  We must not let it go to waste.”

“I am confident.”  Roderick replied.  “Yet, if you wish it, I shall set the seal.  I will go to Levenport this very night.”

The Abbott nodded and smiled, though behind the anonymity of his hood  it was a secret expression even Roderick would not know.

            The train journey south was a protracted affair: there were few fast links at so early  an hour of the day, the operators preferring to wring every last customer from every station.  It was mid-afternoon before Roderick reached Levenport, and near to dinner-time before he found a hotel.

“Will it be just for one night, sir?”  The desk clerk sounded suspicious.  He eyed the little man’s cheap, well-worn suit, his battered suitcase.   “And how will you be paying – cash or card?”

The instant he stepped off the train, Roderick knew something was wrong.  He had been here many times, and Levenport always affected his psyche to some degree; be it because of the closeness of the rock, or all the myriad lines of energy which converged upon the town.  Today there was a sensation of disturbance, an electricity not attributable to any natural source.    In his hotel, he tried to prepare logically for an evening of waiting.   Something was coming, something palpable and strong, he could feel it.    Yet it would come in its own time, not his, and he must simply be patient.

“Um, is the restaurant open?”   He asked the clerk.   He was unused to restaurants, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Dinner’s at seven.”

Roderick was dressing, preparing for dinner, when the cry from Peter and Lesley blundered into his head – a scream like a cannon shell in flight pursued by a soft, almost muted feminine presence.  Peter was still learning to cope with his enormous powers, while Lesley was encountering them for the first time; but their message, though not intended for him in particular, was clear enough.

For all of his experience Roderick was not the coolest head to have around in a crisis.    His first instinct, to throw his arms in the air, running around the room cursing fate and the small “g” gods in general, was, given consideration, probably not wise.  The curtains were open and he had neglected to dress his lower self; so there may have been a witness or two to this strange ritualistic dance who would go to their homes that night with his image implanted upon their inner eye for ever.   It did not last long, though, this invocation of heathen deities.   Gathering his thoughts, the fully-clothed Roderick raced for the stairs.

“Dinner is being served, sir?”   The desk clerk hailed him as he almost ran through the hotel lobby.

“Ah!  Yes!”   Roderick slid to a halt, pivoting on a precariously balanced heel:  “Hire cars – have any?”

“No, not here sir.”  The desk clerk replied carefully.  “Did you want a taxi?”

“Yes!  Taxi!”  Roderick thought for a moment:  “Here?”

“I can call you one, sir.”

“No.  No good.  Need it now!  Now!”

“Restaurant closes at nine-thirty, sir?”

Wrestling with the old-fashioned swing door, Roderick almost fell out onto the street.   He had selected, or rather wandered into, a hotel on one of the minor thoroughfares which ran down to Levenport Esplanade:  a peaceful back alley as likely to produce a passing taxi in October as fishing in a swimming pool might ensnare a trout.   He cast desperately about him for some sign of transport.   There were, of course, ranks of parked cars.   Swiftly adapting to the role of car thief he peered through car windows looking for keys, attracting the suspicion of a couple of passers-by.   Whilst he had no compunction, in the gravity of his cause, about taking without consent, Roderick was not expert at this trade and it showed.   Anyway, there were no carelessly abandoned vehicles with open doors or inviting keys, so it dwindled as an option.

Panic was beginning to set in once more.  He stilled himself, breathed deeply, looking again at the road and at the buildings which lined it.   He had begun to accept defeat and even started to run down to the seafront in the hope of finding a taxi there, when he spotted the yard.   Its steel gates were open, and within it stood a vehicle with engine running and driver’s door flung invitingly wide.   There was a light in the office behind it, otherwise no sign of life.

Roderick looked dubiously at the vehicle.   “It’ll do.”  He decided out loud.    Without another thought he slipped into the driver’s seat.

Fully ten minutes had elapsed before the vehicle’s absence was discovered; another five before the police were informed by a rather perplexed owner of its loss, by which time Roderick was working his way through the back-streets of Levenport.  It was not entirely by chance he came upon Lesley’s disconsolate figure, walking towards him in the rain.

“Last chance?”  Roderick asked.

When Lesley had recovered a little, and they were driving away, she said:   “Nice choice of car.”

“All I could find.”

“A hearse?”

“I know.  It’ll suffice.”

“Yeah,”  Lesley thought for a little before she said:  “Have you seen what’s in the back?”

#

‘Well,  here’s a pretty pass!’  Francine Delisle scolded herself.   She stared from the window of her rooms in Roper’s Hotel at the sunset profile of St. Benedict’s Rock as if that great black basalt mass might provide her with an answer;  ‘It seems I cannot trust myself when I am with you, Arthur, nor can I be trusted when I am without you.’

They were taking supper together, Arthur Herrit and she, before Arthur retired to his adjacent suite.  Raising his cup to his lips, Arthur asked, “How may we resolve the matter, pray?”

She had spoken these final words aloud, had she?  That had not been her intention.  The reaction in his eyes told her he had divined the unspoken part.  Did they even think alike, now?

He raised an eyebrow.  “It vexes me,”  he admitted, “Yet I cannot say I find the dilemma unpleasant.  Should we discuss your impressions of Lord Crowley’s ruin?”

Francine inclined her head.  “There is little more to discuss, than that about which we have already spoken.  It is a residence in dire distress, I can see that, not so much from the physical assault of the storm, as from Mr Ballentine’s choice of Housekeeper.”

“The redoubtable Mrs. Cruikshank,”  Arthur smiled.  “She provided a lunch upon which I must compliment her, although she seemed lacking in certain mannerly aspects of her appointment.”

“I thought her blunt, at best; her warning to beware of snakes even before we had alighted from our carriage, as an instance.  She appeared quite anxious to see us from the door, Arthur.  I know my behaviour might have been odd, but nonetheless…”

“Nonetheless!”  Arthur agreed.  In his level of society part of a housekeeper’s function was to show visitors around the property in their charge, but he was prepared to make allowances.  “There has been a minor plague of snakes on the island, ‘tis said, since the night of the storm.  Could the wind’s destruction have led to their release, I wonder?  She did mention that it is impossible to find servants for fear of them.”

“And I did not entirely disgrace myself, did I?  What do you suppose will become of the house?”

“Oh, Ballentine will make good the damage, have no doubt of it.  He has some special connection with the widowed Lady Crowley, so I imagine she will persuade him.”

“Indeed, sir!  A ‘special connection’!  He has a reputation, then?”

“Ballentine?   A strong business head, mayhap a ruthless nature. Nevertheless he has promoted Levenport’s cause admirably.   I would like to turn over a few opportunities with him, should he be of a mind.  I left my card.”  Arthur’s  chair seemed to make him uncomfortable;  “Francine?  What happened to you there?  What could you have found so disturbing…”

“As to so nearly rob me of my senses?”  Francine closed her eyes because they were still full of the island.  “In faith, Arthur, I do not know.  It besets me still.   From the moment our coach’s wheels touched The Rock I believe I knew what I should discover there.  Then there was the vision of those two young people on the hill which somehow further convinced me.”

“The stone…”

“Yes!  In the stable yard, of all places!   How could something so noble occupy so lowly a space?   Who could have cobbled all about it yet left it exposed, if they had not shared my experience?  You see what it tells me, Arthur?  I am not alone!  There are others who know, or knew, the worth of it as certainly as I!” 

 “Does this not bring us closer to the answers we  seek?”

Francine scowled.  “I had hoped that would be so, until I tried to touch the stone.  Remember how the stone beneath your great oak charmed me so strongly I I was powerless but to fall upon it and hold it near to me?  This was the reverse case.  Although I feel compelled to get near it, reach out to it, even feel its warmth; when I tried to touch it I thought my head might explode!   It thrust my hand aside so brutally I did indeed fear I should faint.”  She drew a deep breath to steady her voice above the turmoil she felt inside; “And yet now, with the night, it summons me, just as before.  I fear it, Arthur:  I am afraid for myself!” 

Francine had risen to her feet before the window, her fingers gripping the sill with such intensity Arthur was concerned they might break.   His heart bursting, he rose to stay her arm.  “This is a temptation to which we may not yield,”  he insisted.

“’We’?   The temptation is mine, surely.  It is I who cannot be trusted.”

“And I must bear the fault for bringing you here.”  With a steady hand he drew back a frond of hair that had fallen across her cheek, and stroked the pale flesh at the arch of her neck.  Her breathing slipped from her control once more.

“Sir?”  She whispered.

“Is young Samuel safe abed?”   His hand rested about her shoulder now, and she should have resisted such familiarity, but somehow she could not.

“He is,” She answered; then, unsteadily:  “Would you protect me, Arthur, from myself?”

“I would.”  There was sternness, but also honesty in his words; “I would not leave you on your own tonight.  You need not fear:  the couch looks conducive to a night of rest.  I will take it gladly.”

“Nevertheless, sir, my reputation…”

“Ah, the bubble reputation!” He smiled down upon her, but kindly, and at this she gave way, melting shamelessly into his arms – that full embrace she had longed to repeat ever since she sought it once in fright at the discharge of a servant’s gun.

“Alas yes,”  She managed to say;  “It seems if you stay to ward me, my reputation is forfeit…”

“If I leave, can I trust you not to throw yourself on the mercies of that tide?”

“And there, alas, no, for the call of the place is quite beyond my power of resistance…”

“So, am I condemned to take a chair outside your door?”

“I might escape through the window – the fall is not far…”

“So,”  He said. “I must be in the room with you, it seems.”

“I would have to know, Arthur.  I would have to be sure that we…”

“You do know.”  Arthur replied.  “Since the day we first met, you have known.  We both knew.”

“Indeed, did we?  Was I so remiss?”   A small tear of affection escaped onto her cheek.  “I am glad, sir.  That couch seems fearfully uncomfortable, to me.”

© 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.