Satan’s Rock

Part Forty-One

Audience with a Prince

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway, where the killers Yahedi and Bourta had bowed to superiority and mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A large, subtly under-lit  kidney-shaped pool tenanted by ornamental fish occupied all space, save for a surrounding walkway paved in mosaic of blue and gold. At about two-thirds of the pool’s length away from the visitors a low bridge formed a crossing to a central island where seating and cushions offered luxurious rest beneath lighting that was softly tinted and discreet.    As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi Fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of crystal clear water cascaded or sprayed.  To either side  salons and apartments, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole courtyard in warm, gently humid air.      The glazing was layered for soundproofing, with gas between the layers which would cloud when charged with electricity, so when the rooms’ occupants wished it, privacy could be provided at a button’s touch.

            Persuaded forward by two armed escorts, Bourta and Yahedi took in all these testaments to the fabulous wealth of the villa’s owner, but their focus of attention quickly fell upon the sole occupant of the island, whose eyes had watched them from the moment they crossed the threshold. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst a mountain of silk cushions the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though the figure beckoning them to approach was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it was not of the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features exuded arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crooked Prince Shumal, but his older brother, and the rightful heir to the throne of Khubar.

 This was El Saada.

 “Two fine heroes!  Welcome!”   The Crown Prince’s voice was sing-song and cracked.  “Join me, please.   We will take tea.”

 “Discourse upon some matters is difficult.”  Said the Prince in his brittle voice, after the escorts had withdrawn and his visitors settled, hesitantly, each upon a chair.  “We must know whom we trust.   That is why I have had you intercepted on your journey to meet my brother.  That is why I brought you directly to me”

Yahedi and Bourta exchanged glances.  Neither man spoke.  Their allegiance to Shumal, the crooked Prince, would be known to Saada, as would Shumal’s implacable hatred for his brother.   Only Saada’s heavy security, with perhaps a little diplomatic expedience, kept him alive.   What force of necessity had led him to meet two of Shumal’s most dangerous assassins face to face?

“And is this ‘interception’,” Mahennis Bourta’s voice cut the air like the stroke of a scimitar:  “Wise, Highness?”

El Saada could not fail to sense so fatal a chill:  “I see I have chosen well. Touch me, my dear, and you will not live another breath.”

Salaiman Yahedi smiled a steel smile, his fingers feeling out the end of a cheese wire garrotte he kept sewn into the undersleeve of his jacket;  “But if this one breath is so sweet, El Saada:  why should it not be the last?”

The heir to the throne of Khubar was not a nerveless man; he needed all his royal breeding, all his belief in his own infallibility, not to fail at this moment.  If he had not known he was holding two tigers by their tails, the glint in Yahedi’s eye would convince him.  

The Crown Prince went on huriedly:  “Let me make an explanation.  When my spies inform me you are returning to our land, I see an opportunity.  Yes, I do!   I see you as my messengers, my ambassadors, even.”

Bourta interrupted dourly.  “You want us to give a message to who?  Your brother?”

“Exactly him!  My brother yes.”  The Crown Prince confirmed enthusiastically.  “More than a message, in the matter of a fact:  I want you to tell him we must put our differences aside and be working together, pretty damn soon, too.”

“Why do you need us, Your Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi permitted himself use of the accepted royal address,  “ A simple message, surely?  An email, a text?”

“Yes, yes, that might be fine.  That might suffice, yes.”  The Prince sat for a moment, his jaw clenched, staring at the koi carp in the pool.  They stared back.  “This thing I am thinking,”  He said at last,  “Is that we should all the time be working together, but he will not hear me.  My own brother disrespects me, he will not listen.  He trusts you; you are his friends.  To you he will listen.”

“Does this have any bearing on the nation’s finances, Your Highness?”  Yahedi asked quietly, “Because…”

“No, no.  Worse.  Far worse.”

“How, then?”

Saada leaned forward, dropping his voice.  “Our father the King is well enough to travel.   It is a great mystery!  He claims he was woken from his sleep by a seabird of marvellous white plumage, I ask you!  The bird has told him he will travel to England, of all places.  And the next day – the very next – he is invited to some godforsaken place to meet with the English Crown Prince and – well, how should I tell you?   The American Senator, Mr bloody Goodridge!”

Yahedi frowned, waiting for the information to make sense.  It didn’t.   The name ‘Goodridge’ struck a chord, though.  That man had already dodged his bullet once, and he was fairly sure Shumal would not want him to miss a second time:  or had the  priorities altered?

 The Prince went on:  “Next year, Senator Goodridge will become President Goodridge.  For once my crooked brother and I are in agreement, or would be if I could damn well speak to him:  this must not happen! But this meeting, this cozy little chatty- chat with my father on an English rock, is almost upon us!  For my father, an alliance with this soon-to-be POTUS person would be so fine – a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished service for his country; for us, though, bloody disaster!  It will be my father’s last great act of statesmanship.  He signs a contract with Goodridge to allow the American’s GAM Oil Corporation drilling rights for three new sites in Al Khubar.  Mr oh-so-ambitious Goodrige will gain an interest in the City State’s existing wells and refineries.  In return, Al Khubar will offer Goodridge the land at Dhobattli Point for an American military base.  By this we would gain western protection, the  premium US market for our oil and endless opportunities for trade.  It is all too bloody marvellous, and it is to happen next bloody week!”

Intuitive needles were shooting through Yahedi’s mind:  “But Highness, we had thought – even your brother thought – you fully supported your father’s marriage of Khubar to the interests of the United States?  We cannot have been mistaken.  Surely, if this has altered, Shumal would welcome your change of heart with open arms?”

The Prince’s mouth acquired a bitter twist, “You would be expecting so, would you not?  But no; he thinks I am plotting, he thinks I am tricking!  And I cannot say, openly, what must be said, because no word must reach our father.  If I had time, perhaps, I could weedle-deedle him, I could talk him round, but there is no time!  Our destiny is upon us!”

Bourta grunted,  “So you persuade us to persuade him.   Why, are we so much easier to convince?  Or is this your device for turning our true Prince upon us, causing him doubt?  You mention trust, Your Highness:  why should we trust you?”

El Saada nodded gravely, returning his attention to the fish that still waited in a small shoal in the water, anticipating leavings from the Royal table.  “If your offices can bring myself and my brother together you will be rewarded:  emissaries and contracted assassins now, you will be given Offices of State, serving the true successor to my father.  When you hear the message I must send my brother I am sure you will be as convinced as I of its veracity:  it is too bloody serious to be making up of the fake news, you see.  Too serious.”

“And what is it, Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi prompted gently,  “What is this serious news?”

El Saada’s whole demeanour had darkened.  His reply was sombre.  “While our father is ill, I have overseen much of the affairs of state; my brother, some, but mostly myself.  Since his coma, I may have allowed certain things to slide.  The worry, you see?   The worry.

His audience, putting aside the rumours they had heard of wild parties and drug abuse, both nodded.   Satisfied, apparently, with so small a gesture of empathy, El Saada braced himself:  “The oilfields, my dears.  Employing our best estimates, they will become unviable on the fourth month of next year.”

Bourta hissed through his teeth.  

Yahedi, kept his voice level.   “Is that for all of the wells, your Highness, or just “Mahadeni?”   He named the largest of the Al Khubar oil fields, the original discovery, sixty years ago, and the mother-load, so to speak, from which all of the wealth of Al Khubar had been generated.

“Mahadeni.    The others will follow within eighteen months.”

“No oil!”  Bourta’s face split into a smile.

“Not a bloody damn pint for my car, even!”   The Prince confirmed.  “Can you even try to imagine what will happen then, my darlings?” 

 “The State will collapse.”   Yahedi acknowledged.   “It must.   Your Highness, who else knows of this?”

“Less than a few, beside ourselves.  It is a dangerous thing to know.   Millions of dollars in debts unpaid, millions more promised.  Not only our dear, beloved nation in meltdown, but confidence in all the Middle East shattered.   Should this privy knowledge get out into the world, my dears, the price of oil will hit the ruddy roof, I tell you!  The King my father does not know:  in his illness it was easy to keep from him.  Engineers whose lives have, unfortunately, ended prematurely, and we three.  Until you tell my brother, no-one else.”

Salaiman remembered the headline: ‘Plane Missing.   Khubali Oil Executives Lives feared Lost’.   “So His Majesty is about to sign away oil resources he does not have?”

“To an American President-in-waiting whose expansionist policies are targeted on our glorioius Kingdm!”   Bourta exclaimed.  “Now there is irony!”

“Tell my brother!”   The Crown Prince’s voice did not rise by as much as a decibel but its intensity drove his message home like a nail:  “This agreement can never be signed,.  Whoever is present at this meeting, whoever can become a signatory to it, even our own dear father, must be prevented.  Our secret must remain a secret for as long as we can fortify ourselves against the future; not a whisper must leak out, you see?”

“And by prevented,” Yahedi said,  “You mean killed.”

“I mean killed.  No Plan B!”

#

“I am determined to marry the lady,”  Arthur Herrit affirmed, playing the last brandy in his glass idly against a beam of sunlight that had penetrated the salon window.   At Montcleif’s startled response he added;  “Nay, Abel, forebear!  You shall not continue to remind me I know nothing of her past, for no-one does!”

The two men, one the legitimate heir to the Mountsel Park Estate, the other the manager of his businesses had in past years been accustomed, with the coming of winter, to hold their more convivial meetings at their Mountchester club.  With the arrival of Francine Delisle at the Park this arrangement had altered, for although the Estate had staff enough to offer a doughty defence to most forms of trespass, the threat to Miss Delisle seemed to Arthur serious enough to warrant his personal presence at all possible times.   Therefore, Montcleif proving willing enough to make the ride to the great house, his business affairs travelled to him, rather than the other way around.  The changed venue did nothing to detract from the pleasantness of those afternoons that ensued, especially with the year’s turning and spring being announced by all in the park that could sing, or hop, or thrust above the tilth in their greeting for the sun.

 “I should be condemned to wait forever if investigations in those quarters proceed at their present pace,”  Arthur continued,  “So we shall take the initiative.  Unless some person from the congregation stands up to proclaim just cause, we shall be married forthwith.  I’ve consulted with Parson Pettigrew, who is, I’ll grant, somewhat concerned about the Parish Records, but not sufficiently so to put his Living at risk.  The banns are to be read – is that not splendid?”

Montcleif gave one of those barely perceptible shrugs he practised when he was forced to concede a point without necessarily agreeing with it.  “Then I wish you the greatest happiness!”  He said.   “Miss Francine is a very fortunate lady.”

Arthur’s tone lowered to a more serious timbre.  “Suppose I were to question you, Abel, upon another matter – not unrelated, but where answers would put my mind at rest?  You knew my father well?

“I did, of course. We worked together for many years.  Arthur, he was a very careful man.”

“Yes, yes:  one who would not be so hot-headed as to sweep a girl off to his marital bed without knowing a great deal about her, I take your point.  You worked for him, I never knew him; you have the advantage on me there.  Yet he built our fleet of merchantmen, he discovered markets all over the world – there must have been some entrepreneurial flare in him, surely?”

Montcleif gestured his agreement.  “Indeed, he and Amelia did the travelling, the negotiation:  the leg-work, as it were;  they were aboard the ‘Derry Lad’ for no other reason when the Frenchies sunk her with all hands off Cape Finisterre.”  Montcleif contemplated his glass.  “Utterly tragic!   Yet I cannot help but feel it was a way they would have preferred.  So intrepid a couple would ill befit old age.”

Arthur nodded.  “But you will know how tightly the documents and deeds are arranged, Abel?”

“Does this relate to your entitlement?  Of course, Sirrah!  Sir David was your father’s legal partner and his closest friend.  He became your Ward upon your parents’ death, and with no issue of his own he also made you his sole heir.  The will has yet to be finally read but for the sake of the business Sir David discussed the matter openly with me.  Fear not; there will be no dissenting voices raised from your side of the congregation!” 

“And I was born the year before my parents went to India…”

“They left you here, in Nanny Freecombe’s care.  You played in this very room!  They were afraid of exposing you to the heat and disease of that journey when you were so new.  ‘Twas as well they did, Arthur; or we wouldn’t be talking here now.”

The master of Mountsel Park considered his next question carefully:  “You’ll think this a rum thing to ask of you, Abel, but tell me; have you ever heard of a religious organisation that goes by the name of ‘The Brotherhood’, or anyone refer to me as ‘The Pilgrim’?”

Montcleif stared, and Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling he was suppressing laughter.  “The Brotherhood?  One supposes that could refer to almost any radically inclined cult, but ‘Pilgrim’?  Heavens no, Arthur.  Where on Earth could that come from?  What would it mean?”

Arthur closed his shoulders, suddenly smaller,  “I wish I knew,”  He said.  “Very droll, or so it would seem.  Yet my wife-to-be insists I am the very spit of the fellow.  What does a ‘Pilgrim’ do to prove his identity, I wonder?”

© 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 Forty

El Hacienda

Around a bend in the desert road, and still practically within sight of Al Khubar’s  South City business district, a white-walled hacienda-style estate lay sprawled upon rising ground against a backcloth of illuminated gardens.    Bourta and Yahedi  were chauffeured alongside its least elevated boundary wall, which was yet high enough to obstruct their vision of the villa at its heart.   They would not pursue this parallel path for long.   Two pillars crowned by sculptures of rampant lions framed bronzed double gates which parted expectantly as their limousine approached.  Closed windows, bullet-proof and sound-proof, stifled Yahedi’s vocal outrage at this lurid display from the hearing of the armed guards, who waved them through.

 Beyond, a driveway affecting to be made of crazy pavement led between cypress trees for some two hundred metres before it swept onto the forecourt area of the house. Blank stucco walls, interspersed with little windows of one-way glass stared out upon two other limousines, already drawn up before theirs..  A small group of figures, maybe four or five, were gathered in the luminescence of an open portico which admitted visitors to the inner courtyard.    The driveway ran with a thin film of water just deep enough to splash almost musically up into the wheel arches of the Mercedes as it passed.   To either side, huge fountains of irrigating water thrashed to and fro, symbolic of wealth the owner of this house must possess to defend himself and all that was his against the ravages of the desert sun.    In the Kingdom, water was as negotiable, and as valuable, as gold.   You had to have money to get it, you had to have connections and power in order to keep it.

At the margin of the forecourt, Bourta commanded: “Stop!”  

Unspeaking, their driver drew the Mercedes to a halt, as, of one accord, Yahedi and Bourta opened their respective doors to slide out of the car, whilst keeping the bullet-proofed metal of the doors between them and their welcoming committee.  Instantly the night chill of the desert caught them.  Feet braced upon the stone of the driveway, handmade leather shoes gently moistened by the water on the driveway, they waited.

For what seemed like minutes, nothing happened.   The decanted passengers from the other limousines, men expensively tailored, women glistening in very western fashion, idled through pools of conversation as they filtered into the belly of the villa and their transports moved away; until the few who remained, clearly staff, were free to focus entirely upon the hardened assassins.  Neither Bourta nor Yahedi showed any intention of leaving the protection of their shielding doors, and their driver sat impassively waiting.   A protocol long understood by those who guard and those who are guarded was being meticulously observed.  At what seemed to be an agreed moment, one member of the welcoming party, a rotund figure of cummerbund and shining face, spread his hands to show he was unarmed, and kept them spread as he walked carefully forward.  His voice had an almost febrile pitch:  “We should have insisted you leave your arms at the gate, yes?”

“Far enough!”   Yahedi said quietly.

The approaching man nodded, standing still.   “Salaiman Yahedi, Mahennis Bourta.   Welcome, my brothers:  advance in peace.”

“Abu Khubis.”   Yahedi had recognised the voice.  “Why are we brought here?”

“To meet with the Crown Prince, Salaiman.   He rests here tonight.”

At this, the tensions in the air seemed to disperse.   Mahennis Bourta’s wide slit of a mouth broke into a demonic grin.   “Khubis, you will never know how close you were to losing your manhood then.”

Abu Khubis nodded towards the villa roof, at its extreme eastern and western points where the moonlight reflected softly from the two AK 47s which were trained upon them.    “Nor you to yours.”  He said brightly.  “Come, my friends.  You are awaited.”

As Salaiman and Mahennis moved to join Khubis, their limousine whispered away from behind them to be parked in twilight with the other cars.   Inside, its driver allowed himself to exhale for the first time in what seemed like an hour.   Just once in a while in his drudge of a job, there were moments. This was one.  Light of heart, he sampled the exquisite pleasure of a breath he thought he might never take.

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway.  Here, Yahedi and Bourta mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A blue, subtly under-lit pool occupied almost all space, sloped at its front edge, inviting easy access to its central depths.  As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of liquid gold cascaded or sprayed. Around the margin of the pool there was laid a wide apron in a continuous mosaic of mythic sea creatures in blue and gold,  from which the level rose in six even stages into those salons and apartments which surrounded it.  At this hour these rooms, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole space in warm, gently humid air.      Although the glazing might have been layered for soundproofing its principle function was privacy, for gas between its layers would cloud if the rooms’ occupants so wished, veiling them from prying eyes.

            On the pool’s eastern side a mosaic walkway joined a bridge to a central island where was set a table, some upholstered chairs, and a mountain of casually scattered silk cushions.   At the sight of the figure reclining amongst these the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though this was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it had not the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features bore arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company.  This was not the Crown Prince Shumal:  this was his older brother, and the heir to the throne of Khubar.  This was El Saada. 

#

In late afternoon an oppressive silence clung to the cloister’s grey stones, only broken once and again by a door slam as some cathedral servant or other emerged unwillingly into its icy precincts.    They would pass through with a spatter of chill-hastened footsteps, to be quickly snapped up by a further door. Sagging gutters dripped steadily, their issue tracing ice-fringed paths to interlace among the grey flags.    It was too late in the year to draw tourists to this sombre shade: too cold for the middle-aged woman with her rubbings, or contemplative strolls of the residing clergy.   Notwithstanding the view the cloister offered of the South Tower, now glowing a gentle pink in late afternoon sun, or the filtered wafts of choral plainsong from the cathedral school, its walks were deserted, its sculpted tombs and memorials unremarked.   The two men seated upon a grey stone settle there were alone in the most absolute sense; their words, hushed with conspiracy, sinking without echo in the damp air.

“Apparently there is to be a meeting.”  Bishop Harkness said, his hawk nose at real risk of frostbite despite swathes of scarf and his huge overcoat:   “Between King Assan of Al Khubar, the American Senator, Goodridge, and some other personage whose identity we have not established yet, but of sufficient worth to lend credibility.”

The monk studied his feet.   A  Chaffinch feeding in the frost-tipped grass regarded him warily.  “So, a political bun-fight?  Which is of what significance to us/”

“The venue will be St. Benedict’s Rock.  It cannot be coincidence.  There is an agenda here.”  The Bishop’s sharp gaze did not miss a twitch of his companion’s eyebrow, “You smile, Brother?  Does this amuse you?”

“No, no!”  The monk demurred; “Although the choice of venue is certainly surprising.  I merely thought of the irony:  we have always seen preferential access to the Holy Stones as culmination of our mission to convert the Moslem to the true faith;  what if the Moslems got there first?  I digress; agenda for whom, I wonder?  King Assan’s well-being is a somewhat temporary thing, is it not?”

“Something of a miracle.”  Bishop Harkness agreed heavily.   “In remission, conveniently pre-empting a forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election.  I am deeply, deeply suspicious of it:  the powers in his administration are aware of The Stones, I’m certain.  How much more do they know, is what we have to ask.”

“One suspects very little,”   The monk raised that sardonic eyebrow again:  “As agency to avert one of their professional assassination attempts, perhaps:  not much more.  Although, if this specific  Middle Eastern presence on The Rock constitutes itself as I predict, it might attract the attention of the Egyptian Portal sect.”

“Their devotion is not dissimilar to our own,”  Agreed the Bishop levelly; “I would be better content if this were not a political gathering of such obvious sensitivity.  Again, I ask, to fit with whose agenda?   If it’s one of those blessed Ethereals driving this, what possible motive can it have?  We may be missing something – this might be the precise reason the stones are awake.”

“Senator Goodridge is a Republican, is he not?”  The monk smiled indulgently,  “Surely, Bishop, our God is a Democrat?”

Harkness’s features were insufficiently exposed for the monk to tell if his companion had taken his bait.   When the Bishop made no reply, he went on:  “The girl – have we found her yet?”

“No, we have not.”  Muttered the Bishop; “I am not discouraged.  Whoever has her, she must surface soon.”

#

As had recently become his custom, Marak stayed late at the King Abur Hospital.  On this particular night Lindemann, the doctor in charge of Melanie Fenton’s care, made a point of  expressing his concern.

“The poor child has gone. There is no sign of mental activity.  Yes, there are anomalies, but of brain-death I am certain.  What we do here is ethically wrong. I assume she will still be a juvenile, with a family somewhere?  They should be informed, Marak, and soon.”

Later that evening, those remarks had formed the substance of a telephone conversation with Prince Shumal.  The Prince’s response was predictable. 

“If the girl is dead, then she is dead.  But she is not dead, Marak.  While she still breathes while there is hope, would you have me sanction her death?”

“This is medical opinion, Highness.   I fear there is no prospect of recovery in even the smallest measure. Her family must be inormed.”

Shumal did not reply for a moment.  At length he said:  “Did we expect too much?”

It was a curious, almost fatalistic question; was it merely rhetorical?   Marak thought not.  There was something in Shumal’s voice.   “Okay.  Like this, she is of no use to us.  

 Twenty-four hours then, Marak.”

“In which case, her family must certainly be informed forthwith.”

“That would be problematic for us all.”

“Your Highness, Lindemann will not be complicit in withholding such information.  He will see it as tantamount to murder!”

“Marak, Marak!  We have not murdered her!  We have done all we can to save her!  In her country she is listed as missing, is she not?  No-one knows where she is; or whether she is alive or dead?  Is it not essential to us all she remains that way?   Police, Press, politocians – awkward explanations?  At this critical time?   Pull the damn plug, man! Allow her the dignity of death.”

“If that is your wish, Highness.”   Marak stared at the lifeless figure amidst its bulrush cradle of tubes and lines, listened to the shallow, assisted breaths as they pumped out their rhythm, for what he felt would be a final time.  He could scarcely recognise in this dried husk the vital girl with the hungry eyes of just three months ago.  He sought in vain some tiny sign, some memory of movement., but found none.  Very well; he would call Lindemann tonight with the Prince’s verdict, and no doubt LIndemann would take his protest back to the Prince, but when Shumal reached a decision there was no possibility of change.   Melanie’s family would never know what became of their daughter.   For himself, his vigil ended here:  he would not return to this sad room, but when, tomorrow, the time came, he would pray for her.   Filled with a deep sense of failure, he turned and walked away.

Word was handed down from Lindemann’s high office.   This would be the last night.   Nurses drew screens around the inert creature in the bed to bathe it, then, finally, because there was really so little to be done, withdrew.  A pair of administering angels remained in accordance with their superiors’ command.   For a while, with the screens back, they sat each side of  their patient;  they would do this for a day if their Prince commanded.   But they seemed unable to stay long in such proximity: soon, irresolute, they each stood, walked away, returned to their charge for a moment or two, then retreated once more.  There was a time when it might appear they, the nurses, might all be planets in orbit around the cold, dark sun which occupied the bed;  attracted yet repulsed, fearing to be too close, unable to leave.  But after all, it no longer really mattered.   At last one nurse made her excuses: her feet clacked briskly away across the shining floor and the doors digested her.  The remaining nurse hesitated in the middle of the room, then walked slowly to a couch upon its further side.   Here she sat, watchful.   The hours passed.

It was the afternoon of Melanie’s appointed day.   Lindemann had dropped into the intensive care ward, made a few necessary checks and departed with a promise to return at 5:30pm.  Only the nurse remained, idly browsing a magazine.  Periodically she would move to Melanie’s bedside, confirm the readings on the machines, examine the integrity of the tubing and its connections.  Once, an adrenaline bottle needed changing.   Behind the bed the picture window was full of dust-blue sky, darkening.    Afternoon sun cast a ribbon of light onto its occupant, light which flowed in a softly-defined river over the floor to make a shadow upon the opposing wall.  It projected a complex profile of bed and tubes, stems of long reeds which seemed to move, slightly, with the flexing of their lens.    Gradually these, in the dwindling light, began to fade until only the river of sun-glow remained.   The nurse looked up, slightly impatient that she could no longer read.   Then, like the throw of a switch, the sunlight was gone.

Lightning split the air.    A jagged saw-blade of blue light photographed the room.

A thunder bomb crashed against the window.   Startled, the nurse leapt to her feet, afraid its force might shatter the stalwart glass.   It did not.     A second lightning bolt followed the first, a second thunder-shock, as violent as the first.   And, when the lightning went, when the room was completely dark to human sight, there came the voice:

“Al-yannnn!  Aneyah!    Anye-caaaaa!”

Remembering her duty, the nurse rushed to ensure her patient was safe.   She got only halfway to the bed.

“Aateh!   Aateh!”

Rising from the sheets as though levitated by some invisible force, tubes radiating from her like snakes of Gorgon hair, Melanie Fenton stood erect.   The starved girl’s body seemed to crackle with static charge.  Her eyes were wide and unblinking, and her mouth was a yawning chasm from which the chant was pouring:    “Aa-aateh!  Aa-aateh!   Aa-aateh!”

The nurse stood rooted to the spot.   Like some terrible angel, refulgent in its own light, Melanie’s wasted form floated towards her.   In the middle of the royal floor, all professionalism forgotten, though she was one among the elite of nurses in the land, she gave way to abject fear.

© 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 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.