Smokedogs (A Short Story)

Science fiction?  I admit I don’t pass this way often these days, so just for a change…a big one, this, but splitting it doesn’t seem to be an option, so I cordially invite you to make a night of it – bring a friend, if you want?

“We’re in for a storm.”  Jaca says, absently rubbing the fur behind Quietus’s ear with her long fingers.

From the observation platform we have a perfect view, an uninterrupted vista of the Great Plains.  Beyond the ascending wisps of haze from Smokedog fires I too have seen the dark sky, clouds building before the Periclean sun.

I draw Jaca to me, engaging her in a kiss.  We are alone on the platform and I want more, but she desists gently, hands on my chest.

“Not now, Malcor.”  She murmurs, forehead against my own.  “We have things to do, yes?”

I agree reluctantly.  We have things to do.  Before evening there are insect nets to bring inside, outdoor experiments to cover.  Jaca turns from me, stares towards the sunset; pensive, reflective, remote.

“Ixce arrives tonight.”  Her voice is almost a whisper.

“So he does.”  I will not look at her.

Yes, Jaca my love, we are in for a storm.

I call Quietus to me:  he obeys, of course, tail wagging, brown eyes bright.  Together we leave Jaca to her thoughts, descending the circular stairway which leads into the Spartan crew quarters of Periclea Settlement J8.

Periclea is our sun star, a tiny part of the constellation of Orion, a mote in the eye of The Hunter only visible to those who seek her:  the unromantically-listed J8 is her only habitable planet, with just one research station:  this one.

It was not always so.  When you speak to the Silusians of J8 they will submerge their small sharp features into their big fleshy necks and pretend they have not heard.  Only the Mariaca will talk of the place; the legends, the tales.  In their Gordian tones they will tell of times when the sunlight floods the plains in a blood-red hue; when a million ghosts of a doomed Palataian race rise to walk their forgotten world, and all who dare to stand upon its sacred soil tremble in fear of that sight.

I?  I do not listen to such tales.  Nonetheless, when I was asked to come here I hesitated:  for a young geologist J8 was hardly a career move.  It was only when they told me that the senior archaeologist was Jaca Icindae that I agreed.

During my university days Jaca moved at the margin of my world.  In the year above mine, this graceful, elusive girl with her soft curves and softer voice had seemed beyond the reach of my dreams.  I loved her from afar with that desperate, unrequited longing that is the tragedy of youth;  knowing she was not for me, seeing her walk hand-in-hand with another, the man with the greatest intellect that had ever graced our college.

So J8’s forgotten space in the universe became somewhere to be.  A small settlement, a research station really, no more.  And I would like to say the geology is interesting, but the only interest here, for me, is warmer and more alluring than any rocks: Jaca.  When one loves someone enough it is perhaps only gratitude, or loneliness, that will make them love you in return, yet for those of us without pride that will be enough – until Ixce comes.

Ixce: that great mind:  Ixce – Jaca’s first love.

Our crew are in the communal area, lounging around as usual at this time of day.  The games plates are all live, their hologram superheroes thrashing through rituals of conquest and slaughter.

“Now you are mine, Jacoranda!”

“Die, Mastachian dog!”

“Seek the sacred keys of Morcal!”

I pass through, warning of the storm, reminding them they too have duties to attend.

The passage to the airlock is lined with our ‘outdoor suits’ – light self-contained clothing we wear whenever we pass beyond those bland steel doors to the outside.  I slip one over my uniform, grip the air-lug between my teeth.  The doors open with a sibilant wheeze.  Quietus follows: he needs no suit.

Nor do I, if truth be told.  I stand with Quietus in the vestibule, waiting patiently while the system stabilises so I may walk outside, knowing that the atmosphere beyond the doors is not toxic, or even mildly debilitating.  For our species it is breathable; just not in quite the ideal balance.  So we follow this ritual each time we go out without any real need.  This mystifies Quietus, and maybe slightly amuses him:  he sits watching me, head to one side, then trots after me as the doors close.

I work quickly, packing, folding, and retrieving the little pods of data as I shut down the machines.  All the while I watch the western horizon, half-expecting a lander with Ixce aboard to soar into view, even though I know it is not due for hours yet.  And as I watch the sunset turns the land as red as blood, and the Smokedog fires glow like tiny lanterns from their lairs on the Plain.

Smokedogs:  wild wolves of the Plains, the Mariaca say; enigmatic beasts hunting the Kessa deer in packs with an intelligence and guile that has never ceased to fascinate me.  We have known them so long, yet we know so little about them.  Those fires, for instance: we know the dogs create them but we have never seen one created.  We do not know how, or why; although one of our more humorous colleagues once suggested that perhaps they liked their meat cooked?

Approach the fires and they extinguish:  by the time one draws close, the dogs are gone – ash, hot ash is all that remains.

Quietus nuzzles my hand, reminding me that he never makes fires.  Ah, I didn’t mention, did I?  Quietus is a Smokedog.

My predecessor, whose name was Dev, discovered that certain of the Smokedogs were attracted to our settlement.  They would gather outside in the night just sitting patiently, staring up at him on the observation deck.

“Not all of them, you understand?  Those out on the Plains, they’re wild, untameable creatures – vicious, probably.  But these, the ones with the darker eyes, they seem to like us.”

Dev adopted one, brought it inside, treated it as a pet.

“Curious thing.”  He told me:  “As soon as I allowed Quietus in, the others went away, as if he were a sort of emissary, or something.”

When Dev left at the end of his tour of duty, Quietus stayed behind.  Oh, he pined for a while, but I befriended him and he soon came around.  He gazes up at me now, those adorable, honest eyes set in the perfect symmetry of his little face, the image of unquestioning love.

“You are distressed.”

He could catch you like that.  He did me, the first time.  I had my back to him when he did it.

“Do I serve you?  Are you content with me?”  He doesn’t actually speak, of course – cannot, with those canine teeth and that elongated jaw; yet he can find a place in your head, and if you answer him with words, he seems to understand.  Sometimes I think he reads my mind, too.

“Me, distressed?”  I make a show of denial, but he can see right past that.

“Ixce.  Who is Ixce?”

“Oh, only the greatest biologist of our generation, that’s all.”

“A superior brain.”

“A superior brain.”  I acknowledge, thinking that Quietus is unusually interested in Ixce.  But he will recognise that Ixce is the cause of my disquiet, of course.

“And your woman will mate with him?”

I shrug.  This is a little too direct for my present depressed state.

“It is natural.”  Is all Quietus ‘says’.

I pat his head, gaining some comfort from the warmth of that thick, dense flesh.  If you tried to pick him up, Quietus would not object, but you would be in for a surprise.  A third my size or rather less, he is nevertheless heavier than me by several kilos.

“Yes. Natural.  Quietus – don’t you ever get homesick for your family?  You’re a pack animal, aren’t you?  This isn’t a natural way for you to live.”

“My pack is always with me.”  Quietus tells me in my mind.  “Do you want me to go back?  Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

“Yes of course; of course you serve me.”  Sometimes, when I feel already a little sad, just that gentle voice within me will make tears come.  “No, don’t leave me, Quietus.  I’d miss you like hell.”

I finish packing up the equipment, crying like a baby.

Back inside the settlement I leave Quietus to consume some choice comestibles from the galley while I go to our private quarters to change into more formal clothing.  Jaca is already there, already undressed.  She drifts about the cabin before me as insubstantial as a spirit, a naked wraith, knowing how I watch her and indulging me with a breathtaking vision of beauty.

“I’ll shower first.”  Jaca decides.

“We could shower together.”

She gives me an arch look.

“It might be the last time.”  I say, wishing instantly that I hadn’t said it.

Jaca does not reply, but gives me a quick smile, then closes the wet-room door upon me.  “Lock.”  She instructs.  The door does as it is told.

I remember how you looked in those first summers, when the bright Itake flowers were fresh on the bud and the sands of the Great Plains shone like burnished amber.  Five years now – five years knowing he is forever in your heart – five years of solitary grief for a love that is always on the edge of extinction.

Outside the storm is gathering:  thunder crackles, rain beats upon the skin of our little home.  Ixce descends from its epicentre like an avenging angel, his lander’s engines roaring out a trumpet call.

We all stand in the corridor to the airlock in orderly submission, awaiting the great man.  Jaca stands at my side, her skin glowing, the subtlety of her scent placing her intentions beyond doubt.

The hatch opens and  Ixce is among us.

“Jaca!  My darling, how gorgeous you look!”  And to me, curtly: “Malcor.  Nice to see you again.”

Oh, Jaca!  How easy you make it for him, this Gabriel of the fearsome look and the golden hair!  How you quake before him – how your eyes are alive now, the way they were when I first coveted you, the way they have never lived for me!

I turn away, the decisions of my life all made on my behalf.  I see at once a battle I cannot win, a mountain I can never climb.

Jaca returns to our quarters late this night.  I have been awake for hours when she steals in and undresses on tiptoe, sliding furtively beneath our coverlet.  I do not ask her where she has been.  I know.

And so it is, for the next few interminable days, while I rub along with Ixce as best I can, liaising with him as I am meant to do.  In so small a community our respective sciences converge and overlap in many ways.  He is interested in the Smokedogs just, I am afraid, as much as Quietus is interested in him.  For it is not only my girlfriend and love who has deserted me:  Quietus has too, fawning over Ixce quite disgracefully every chance he gets.  Now, while we discuss his kindred together he sits by his adored’s feet, head resting on Ixce’s knee as he dotes upon the great man.

“No-one knows what the fires are for.”  I tell Ixce.  “We’ve tried to find out, but it’s almost impossible to get near them.  Even Quietus won’t discuss it.”

“How do they breed, do we know?”

“Not really my field, although I must admit I’m curious.  Again, it seems to be a closed book.  Strange, though.  No-one’s ever seen a puppy.”

“Really?”  Ixce is intrigued.  “Well now, we must discover these things, mustn’t we, Quietus old chap?”  Quietus looks into his eyes with total devotion.  I am sure he is giving his reply – but not to me.

Over breakfast on the morning following our discussion Ixce proposes an expedition.

“Quietus is an impressive little mutt.  I rather fancy finding out a bit more about his country cousins.  Care to join us?”

This invitation comes as something of a surprise, especially since the ‘us’ includes Jaca.  But as soon as we set out I discover Ixce’s reasons for having me along:  I carry things.  Our two buggies are loaded to the gills:  Ixce’s with Jaca and Quietus, mine with everything else.  It turns out that Ixce’s lander is full of experimental surprises, nearly all of which weigh more than Quietus.

We bump over the untracked Plain, Ixce and Jaca side by side in the lead, Quietus next to Ixce on his other side.  Jaca frequently needs Ixce’s supporting arm to steady her as their buggy lurches:  he is quick to assist, but she does not appear to complain when his hand steadies her thigh more than it needs, or accidentally touches her breast.

My supporting arm is employed in a manner similar to Ixce’s, but the stray leg of a tripod has not the same frisson of allure.  The thing – I never do find out what it is and Ixce certainly never uses it – actually falls off the buggy once, so that I have to stop to retrieve it.

“Careful with that!”  Ixce reminds me.  He murmurs something and Jaca giggles foolishly.

We journey for rather more than an hour, down into the basin where the greatest intensity of Smokedog fires occur.  As if by some prearranged signal, Quietus suddenly jumps from his seat on Ixce’s buggy, at which Ixce stops.  I nearly run into the back of him.

Now we set off on foot behind Quietus’s eager rear, Ixce and Jaca in earnest conversation, I in my role as porter.  Upon a rise thick with tall grasses Quietus stops and lays down, his dark stare focused on the depression beyond.  As soon as I see the look upon Ixce’s face I know that my pet has been communicating with him – probably all the way from the settlement.

“Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

You treacherous little rat!

Easing my burden from about me while making as little noise as possible, I join my prostrate colleagues at the rim of the basin, cautiously parting the grasses enough to see down into the undergrowth below.

“A Smokedog den.”  Ixce whispers to me, indicating a spot where the greenery appears to have been flattened, trodden into a natural circular amphitheatre.

“Rather light on Smokedogs.”  I point out.

“Quietus thinks they’ll be here soon.”  Does he now?  “Get my cameras, there’s a good chap.” For an hour we wait, while the sun climbs higher in the sky and cloud-galleons sail across the ocean of heaven.

Ixce asks, to pass the time:  “There was a dominant species here, wasn’t there?  Some form of anthropoid?”

“There are remains, for sure.”  Jaca replies.  “Ruined cities, stone monoliths, graves and grave goods.  We have quite a lot of archaeology back at base.  They reached a state of advancement rather similar to the Incas on Earth, then they died out.”

“We have no idea why,”  I add.  “Why they disappeared, I mean.  A sudden episode of some kind, like a meteor strike perhaps – no idea.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Oh, recent; quite recent.”  Jaca shifts herself uncomfortably.  “No more than a thousand years ago.”

I lie there, half-listening as Ixce and Jaca’s conversation dribbles on, but more intent upon the grasses rippling hazily in the midday heat.  So beclouding is the haze I nearly miss a sudden, purposeful movement in some scrub to our left.

“There!”

Within seconds our depression in the landscape is brimming with Smokedogs;  rangy brutes more than half as big again as my unfaithful servant Quietus – who now lies next to Ixce in the grass, his head between his paws; for all the world as though he were asleep.

No domestic pets these:  their eyes are the yellow of the timber wolf, their fangs long and curved. They move and weave among one another, collisions resolving themselves with a quick snarl and a flash of saliva-slick teeth as they enforce their seniority in the pack.  At the centre of the meeting-place the elder, larger Smokedogs gather, while those less prominent in the hierarchy retreat to form an outer circle.

As the lesser dogs settle themselves, those nearer the centre of the basin form groups of three or four or five.  From time to time, a dog will break from one group to join another.   All stand head to head as if engaged in conversation.    Fascinated, we watch this process, our personal difficulties put aside:  we are the first humans to get close to a Smokedog parliament.

“They are interacting in social groups!”  Jaca whispers. “Malcor, does this remind you of anything?”

Then, as if upon some spoken command, all the Smokedogs lie down, old and young in two concentric circles, facing an arena which is now completely clear.

Silence.  No movement – not even a breath.

We wait.

From somewhere in the long grass to the east there rises a deep, resonant baying sound – a Smokedog giving tongue.   Every dog in the pack raises its head, stretches its vocal cords to give one united answer; rising and falling – a sound to chill the warmest heart, a threat of something more direful than doom itself.

I hear Jaca gasp.  Out into the clearing comes a lone dog, emerging from the grass with slow, uncertain tread – but such a dog!  Whether from great age or from disability (I cannot know) it is gnarled and twisted into a grotesque parody of its species:  lips drawn, tongue lolling, eyes closed.  Its pelt hangs from it in matted festoons of fur, its legs drag it along as if they might any moment give way beneath it.  But all these trials are as nothing by comparison with the immensity of its belly, which gives the animal the appearance of an obscenely bloated bladder with legs, so stretched and hardened that it looks as if it must burst at any second.

Reaching the centre of the arena this repugnant creature staggers and falls.  Around it, the mature dogs begin a gentle whimpering, while those younger bloods of the outer circle give vent to their excitement in yaps and yelps.

I know something of import is about to happen – I cannot possibly predict what.  Glancing at my companions I see similar expectation written upon their faces.   Jaca is first to understand.

“Oh my god it’s catching fire!”

A flicker of red flame has appeared, around the elbow joint of the dog’s front leg.  Tiny at first, it dips and dances in the wind – innocent, almost as though it has strayed there, quite by chance; a burning leaf perhaps, or some wraith conjured by spirits.  But within the wreckage of the creature a much fiercer heat is gathering – its flesh begins to ripple and crack.   Daggers of fresh flame escape, piercing skin, splitting joints apart with cushions of white heat; and yet it moves!

Ixce points to the paws, still probing feebly at the soil.  “It’s dead!  It must be dead!”  But it is not.

With a last despairing howl from its blackened mouth it rolls, exposing a stomach burned open by a forest of flame – and now its whole carcass is ablaze – a raging inferno of such heat that even with our gift of distance I feel compelled to shield my face.

“Spontaneous combustion!”  Ixce whispers, awe in his voice.  “Oh, look at this!”

The burning dog is now no dog at all.  It is a furnace, but a furnace with purpose.  For squirming and shaking itself in the midst of the flames a vague shape, a Smokedog shape, is forming.  No sooner has this creature found its feet than it leaps from the fire: naked of fur but unmistakeably one of Quietus’s brethren – nearly-grown and refulgent with flame!

The fiery creature stands before the inferno which spawned it – head low, white-hot eyes intent upon its mother’s remains.  At once all the dogs around the arena give tongue – a sound I have so often heard but never, until now, understood – then the outer circle of the pack parts to make room for its new member and it bounds through the space that is made, right to the very eastern rim of the basin, before turning to give a long howl in answer, a majestic, luminous miracle baying fire to the sky.  We look on, deprived of speech, as the newly born’s flesh seems to finally extinguish itself, gradually cooling.  Only when the hot fury of its cremated parent has diminished to more moderate proportions does it join the outer ring.  Two dogs move aside to provide space and it lies there, scorched, a haze of smoke hanging over it.

The pack stays for a while, its senior dogs conversing approvingly, we must assume, in their little groups, before drifting away, two by two, back into the long grass.  And their new comrade follows, leaving a smouldering carcass to burn on into the dusk.

That evening we gather on the Observation Deck, Jaca, Ixce, Quietus and I, ready with our assembled thoughts to explain what we have seen.

“Simple.”  Ixce says.  “We see dogs, we think puppies.  But Smokedogs don’t have fluffy little babies, they reproduce by fire.  It isn’t such an untenable concept:  the ancients believed that a certain breed of lizard – the Salamander – was born in a similar way.  We witnessed a pregnant female giving birth – now we have to develop upon the science surrounding it.”

“Awesome!”  Jaca breathes.  “One thing troubles me, though.  Did we, or did we not witness the behaviour of a dominant species today?  I mean, why have they never interfered with us?”

“They don’t see us as a threat?”  I suggest.  “One small settlement – a research station, really, nothing more.  Perhaps if we tried to expand it would be different.”

“I’m new here.”  Ixce interjects; “You’re the geologist, Malcor:  have we any reason to expand?”

“Possibly.  I’m finding evidence of ore, although no sign of deposits yet.”

“If we do,”  Jaca says,  “I think we should be very careful.  I can’t exactly explain why, but I believe those creatures were responsible for wiping out the Palataians.”

“And learnt from them,” I agree.  “That was just like a Palataian religious gathering today.    Their meeting-place was organised like a temple.”

“Wow!  Wild stuff!”  Ixce thumps the air with his fists.  “Come for a drink,  Malcor;  I want a word, if I may?  You stay here, Jaca my darling:” He gives my darling a meaningful look; “Keep Quietus company, will you?”

Jaca distracts Quietus, tickling his tummy in a way he finds irresistible as we leave together.  This is an unusual grouping and from Ixce an unusual request.  I confess myself puzzled.

“I needed to get us away from that damned animal.”  Ixce explains:  “Do you know, Malcor, the blessed creature has been picking my brains with mathematical and quantum theory questions all day?  It’s a dog, for god’s sake!”

“Anything you couldn’t answer?”  I ask mildly.

“That’s cheeky!  No.  But what a brain!”  He takes my arm.  “We’re on the edge of something very big, here, Malcor – very big!  I require your help.”

“How?”

“All the way back this afternoon I was worrying about a way to get hold of a specimen of these creatures, and then it struck me – we have one in our midst!  We have to dissect Quietus, old chap.  I’m going to need an extra pair of hands to subdue him.”

“Quietus?  You’re going to kill him?”

“Name of research, Malcor – we have to do these things.  I want to see how he works – understand that incredible density of his.  First thing after breakfast tomorrow, bring him to the lab.  Don’t be late!”

As it happens, I do not see Quietus again that night.

In the quarters we have shared for most of five years I find Jaca folding the last of her clothes into a travel bag.

“Malcor, my dear:  I’m so sorry.”

“You’re moving in with him?”

“We both knew….”

“Yes.”  I am plunging into some bottomless pit.  “I suppose we did.”

“We have to work together.  We mustn’t fall out over this.”

“No.  Mustn’t fall out.  Friends.”

I do not rise early the next morning:  for a while I lie in our bed, wondering whether to bother to rise at all.  When I get to breakfast I cannot really eat, but pick absently at my food – drink too much coffee; a lot too much.

I am alone.  The crew, who always start early, have finished and gone about their business.  No sign of Ixce – I try not to imagine him lying with Jaca – try not to picture them together:  but no sign, either, of Quietus.  Has he divined his fate with that perfect instinct of his and gone into hiding somewhere?

Jaca comes to the table.  We glance awkwardly at each other, I for my part half-expecting to see the flushed complexion of new love, but Jaca does not reward me:  if anything, she seems a little flustered.

It is a while before the silence is broken.  One of us has to do it.  Me.

“Where’s Ixce?  Sleeping late?”

Jaca mutters so quietly I cannot hear.

“Sorry?”

“I don’t know where he is.”  She says with a hint of bitterness.  “When I woke up this morning he had gone.  I think Quietus must be with him – he’s gone, too.”

An unwelcome presentiment prompts me to look inside the lab, but it is empty and as pristine as it was after cleaning last night.

When I return to the breakfast table, Jaca is still there, her head in her hands:

“Something happened, didn’t it?”  I ask her.

“No!  No, nothing….”

“Come on, Jaca.  I can read your moods well enough by now.  Tell me!”

“It was wrong!  I can’t explain it – he’s different somehow.  It’s as if his head is somewhere else – as if he’s almost forgotten who I am!  Then, when I woke up….  Look, I’m sure it’s nothing; nothing at all.”

“Sure.”  I can see the truth in Jaca’s eyes.  Right decisions, wrong ones.  We all make them.  “History doesn’t always repeat itself,”  I say, and she understands.

Slowly, the hours of morning pass.  We attack our work mechanically, going through our tasks with minds apart, thoughts too deep and personal to share.  Out on the plains the Smokedog fires burn.  I am outside with my seismic experiments, watching as one of the newer fires flares, and because of my greater knowledge closer to it than I have ever been.

At around midday, as I walk down the hill to check upon a malfunctioning receptor, I discover the blood.  There is a considerable quantity of it; dark and tacky, no more than twelve hours old.  The bushes around it are broken and trampled with struggle:  studying it more closely I begin to find particles of flesh and bone, shreds of cloth from an outdoor suit.  With churning stomach I extract slides from my kit, taking samples.

Jaca joins me in the lab, made fearful by my urgency.  Together we work to identify the victim, a deepening horror growing within us both.  There is no doubt.

When the final hammer falls, Jaca runs sobbing from the room.  I gather the crew together for a solemn announcement.

“Science Officer Ixce was attacked and most probably killed – either last night or this morning.”  I tell them. “We have to try and find him.  Draw arms from the secure cupboard and break out the armoured buggies.  We may have a fight on our hands.”

“Do we know what got him, Malcor?”  A security officer asks.

I shake my head.  “I only know of one predator on this part of the planet.  It has to be the Smokedogs.”

Then I ask, as an afterthought:  “Has anyone seen Quietus?”

No-one has.

It occurs to me that no-one has ever tried to shoot a Smokedog, and I wonder briefly how susceptible that thick, solid flesh will be to our primitive bullets:  we are, after all, a research station, unworthy of sophisticated weaponry.

Jaca joins me as I work over my gun, her features pale and strained.  “Ixce’s lander is fuelled up;” She reminds me:  “Wouldn’t it be useful as a scout?”

I shake my head.  “Too fast.  Not much in the way of censor equipment, either – it’s just a standard shuttlecraft.”

The crew are at the back of the settlement, starting up the three armoured buggies we use in a security alert.  I have no battle plan.  I am not a soldier.

“Let’s go and do it.”  I say.

We get no further than the communal area.

At first, the sight of Ixce’s naked form standing in the centre of the room refuses to register in my brain.  It is as if I am accepting an illusion; giving credence to a ghost.  Then, as the recognition that he is there slowly imposes itself, I can say or do nothing.  I find myself rooted to the spot.

Jaca’s strangled cry barely reaches my ears.  “Ixce!  Oh, Ixce!”

She starts forward as though she will embrace him, but somehow doesn’t:  a wall of doubt is there – science is there, saying no.  No, this cannot be.

“You – your blood.  Darling you must be hurt!  You must be!”

But you aren’t, darling, are you?

I find my tongue.  “Ixce.  You are supposed to be dead.”

Ixce cocks a quizzical eyebrow:  “Reports exaggerated?”

“No, my report.  You look extremely healthy for someone who must have lost at least eight pints of blood.”

He looks puzzled, really perplexed; as though he cannot fathom what either of us is talking about.

“Where have you been?  Where are your clothes?”  Jaca asks.

“Out.  I went out early. It’s so warm out there, and we all know each other’s bodies, don’t we?  I had to go back and have another look at those dogs, Malcor.  I told you I would, didn’t I?”

“No.  You told me something quite different.  Ixce – where’s Quietus?”

“How would I know?”

“Not certain, but I think somehow you do.”

Ixce shakes his head.  “Sorry, no bells ringing.  Now, I have to leave I’m afraid.  Everything finished here – all packed up!  If I’m prompt I’ll manage a rendezvous with the Silusia freighter:  get home quickly, eh?  Be nice to make Earth-fall again before summer’s over.”

“You’re leaving?”  Jaca cries incredulously.  “Just like that?  You said you’d stay – a tour of duty, you said.”

“Change of plans, Jaca dear.  Sorry.  Way things are, you know?”

I can only imagine the turmoil inside Jaca’s brain:  the scientist in her vying with the woman – the realist with the lover.  Yet it will take more than a psychological barrier to keep her from him now, her Gabriel, her Archangel.  She runs to him, arms wide to enfold him, heart bursting in her breast.  “Ixce darling, please?  You can’t!  You can’t!”

Before he can restrain her she has thrown herself upon him, arms around his shoulders, lips seeking his in a frightened, soulful kiss.  In that awful second he moans something, a word I cannot hear because the whole settlement is racked by Jaca’s scream.  She staggers back from him, arms akimbo, staring incredulously down at herself, her face frozen in shock.  She is burning, smoking, her flesh rising in blisters.  She stares at her hands:  “Ixce?  My god!”

Now for the first time I fix upon Ixce’s eyes – yellow eyes, slitted and angry:  I see his fingers, long and bent, the nails pointed.  I see the stoop of his flanks, full of spring and speed.  And I see the truth.

The last of our crew are coming back into the communal area, alerted by Jaca’s scream.

“Stop him!”  I tell them.  “Don’t let him get to the lander!”

Raising my own gun, I position myself between Ixce and the passage which communicates with our landing pad.  He advances.

“Worthless!”  His lip curls, his stare despises me.  “I was not for you, Malcor – I could never waste myself on you!”

I am backing off as I try to keep my gun trained upon him.  The malevolent yellow orbs of his eyes pierce my soul.

“So you waited, didn’t you?”  I am trying to keep my voice controlled, calm.  “You waited for a brain greater than any of the Palataians – the next step in your evolution – even if it had to come from another world.”

“We’ve waited years for this intellect – years!”  Ixce snarls.  “As it was with the Palataians, so it is with Ixce – consumed and reborn of fire!  Don’t try to stop me:  nothing can stop me!  You know that, don’t you, Malcor?  Don’t you!”

A hot hand, or claw as it may be, shoots out:  a vice grips my throat. I am held aloft, the flesh searing from my neck – spun around and flying, a helpless projectile aimed at the crew who do not scatter in time to avoid me.  In the melee of arms and legs I hear two shots fired before I black out.

By the time I come to the air is filled with the roar of the lander’s engines.  Quietus is right: nothing can stop him now.

Horribly burned, Jaca stands shaking with a rifle in her scorched hands.

“I fired twice,” she mumbles between swollen lips.  “I’m not sure if I hit him.”

And so it is.  I have sent a message to Starfleet, of course, but I am not believed – we none of us are.  Shortly after it was sent Jaca got her own confidential memo from them asking her to comment upon my ‘mental condition’.

I am packing now, taking a last look from the observation platform at the plains and the distant Smokedog fires.  Below me, a little semi-circle of Smokedogs sit, gazing up at me with looks which exude devotion.  I am of no use to them, of course.  Since Jaca confirmed my ‘apparent frailty’ I am bound for rehabilitation in the Betelgeuse system.  Realistically, I may be back at work within a year – maybe two.  Jaca and I speak rarely; we avoid each other most of the time – I doubt if she will even say goodbye.

And do the wires buzz with Ixce’s name?  Well no:  you see, shortly after Earth-fall he took a vacation with a very great friend of his, a political genius named Paka Sind.  When the hotel where they stayed caught fire only Paka Sind survived:  Ixce’s body has never been found.

Everyone speaks well of Paka and they say he will be Secretary-General one day.  Those who know him well remark upon his energy and the strange colour of his eyes……..

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eleven                     Grounds for Suspicion

The story so far:

Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death.  In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.

Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.   

At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own.  Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness.  Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.

They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith.  By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head.  Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite.   The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place.  He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel.  She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.

This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner.  Emma brought so much to his table:  she was spiritual, a life force.  She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims.  She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.

Then Rodney died.  When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen.  By then there was no news to break.  Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead.  Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day:  the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they?  And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn.  Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.

Emma understood.  Joe was hanging himself from the inside.  He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.

“Charker Smith’s looking for you.”  She repeated the news she had heard.  She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed:  something she could not cross.  “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”

He had been thinking of it anyway, he said.  There wasn’t any future for him here.

“I could come with…”  her voice tailed away.

“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live.  Then I’ll write….”

It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors.  She did not say the things she felt.  They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes.  By morning Joe had gone.

#

 “Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”

Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.

Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack.  Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space.  His hair could not become scarcer because he had none.  He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.

“Come in, sit down!”

The office was the same, too.  The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which  Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there:  hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.

“Well now:  I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him.  You know the substance, I suppose?”

Joseph replied in the negative.  “I know very little.  I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk.  “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor.  I thought of you, of course.”

“Kind of you, Joseph.  Kind of you.”   Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger.   “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative.  He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”

Joseph choked:  “Sorry – what?”

“Yes, dear boy.  At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients!  My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable.  A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance.  I expect you know about that.  What was the quote he gave me?  Ah yes.  ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”

“Her entire estate?”

“Almost.  There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert.  In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds.   Dear boy!”  Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face.  “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”

Joe managed to breathe.  “No, I’ll be fine.  Mr Carnaby…”

“Alistair, please!  However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air.  “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph:  Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”

Morris Wayland Brubaeker.  Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce.  He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.

“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued.  “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged.  “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”

Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him.  “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”

“Well now.  Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding.  However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.”  Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks.  “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”

“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.

Carnaby pursed his lips.  “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation.  Very odd, but there you are.  The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy!  What do you think of that?”  Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that.  “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death.  You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”

“No.  No certainly not.  I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”

Carnaby nodded.  “He believes a police investigation is warranted.  If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”

‘Autopsy’.  The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain.  He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days.  The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked:  “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”

“We don’t at this stage,”  Alistair replied.  “Would you like me to find out?”

After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he.   Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.

“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself:  “I wonder where this may lead us?”

It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts.  The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.

He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth.  Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea.   Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him.  Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury.  Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt.  The driver opened the doors.

They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck.  The driver knew them.

“Come on, Martin!  Nearly missed ‘un this week!”

“’Tis ‘er!”  The old man accused.  “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”

.  “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,”  His elderly companion scoffed,  “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”

They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly.  As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded.  Joe heard them mutter between themselves.   He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died.  Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.

Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open.  He squinted into the light.  “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”

In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms.  He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal.  He had calculated that, this being Friday night,  Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.

“How’re you, Ned.  Good fishing?”  He ordered a pint.  The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “Pint, Aaron?”

Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top.  “Ah.”  He said.

Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry.  He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish.  The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight?  Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?

He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him.  It was time.

“Quiet tonight, Ned?”

Ned looked at him.  “Ah.  They all goes to town Fridays, see?”

Joe nodded thoughtfully.  “I saw Michael the other day.”

Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name.  Why, Joseph wondered?  The old publican must remember Michael well.  The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time.  Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?

“Your brother, isn’it?”  Ned replied.

“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned.  Michael said I should come and see you.  Urgent, he said it was.”

Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly:  not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.

“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?”  Ned murmured.  “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you.  ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet.  That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.”  Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.

“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”

They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe.  Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed;  yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own.  To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting.  Ned, however, was becoming restless.

Joe kept stoking the fire.

“One yourself, Ned?”  He offered as his next round was delivered.

Eventually nature took its course.  Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house.  Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety.  “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”

Aaron grinned back at him:  a row of blackened pegs.  “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.”  He slurred.

“You know about it, though, don’t you?”  Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door.  “Did she tell you?”

“’Er didn’t have to tell me!”  Aaron rejoined.  “I seen ‘er!   She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!”  He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale.  “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind!  That were a sight and no mistake:  titties jigglin’ up and down!  Bugger me!”

“Who else is in the coven, then?”

Aaron leered at him.  “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?  There’s folks round here I could tell on, see?  But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be.  An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too.  I likes they, mind!”

Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further.  Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open.  His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.

Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow.  Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.

“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.”  And he set himself to wander home.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-Two. Missing

Inga, who everyone regarded as Radley Court’s housekeeper,  discovered Jacqueline in the ‘snug’.  She was solicitous.  “You want I make some tea for us?  You should eat.”

Jacqueline Hallcroft inclined her head slightly, murmuring:  “Please,  Inga,”  without breaking her mood.  A reminder that the year was still young, a wood fire, hissing and snapping in the fire basket painted her white blouse with a whisper of rose  Her hands rested upon the back of the old leather sofa, her chin upon her hands, watching through the window as curtain-folds of rain swept the darkened vista of Radley Court’s green acres.  Inga, so sensitive to every nuance of her employer’s emotions, doubted she had even heard.

“You are worried, yes?”

“Yes.”  Jacqueline took a long breath.

“This rain is so heavy, I hear it on the news.  They are saying it will be floods soon.   The River Boult, it will not bust itself, Mr Jackson says.  He says it never does.”

Jacqui smiled absently, “You think I should be worried?”

“No, I think you are.”

“Look, Inga, he’s probably managed to get the car stuck somewhere, you know how he is.” Privately, she doubted.  She had never visited Boulter’s Green or driven down Nowhere Lane, but what could Patrick possibly find to do for seven hours in a muddy field with three piles of stones?  Or how might he pass the time, sheltering from this rain with a young, nubile journalist in tow?   In the car, or maybe already back at The Huntsman?  Seeing Inga beside her did not help.   Could the girl not stand for ten seconds without posing?  God, why was she everywhere surrounded by youth?  Long legs, short skirts…  Three days after her bloody honeymoon, why did she feel so dreadfully insecure?

A telephone ring came echoing from the hall.

Inga trotted cheekily away, leaving Jacqui freedom to repeat that question of herself.  Patrick had never been anything less than devoted to her, since those first London days.  It had been as if the fates had invented two new people, as if she had been reborn, yet sometimes it seemed as though there was nothing Patrick could do to convince her of his own rebirth.  There was a corner of his mind (or was it a corner of hers?), a not-so-often cast in his eye she saw – a reservation he could never hide.  And the more she tried to ignore it, the more it drew her, so there were times when she looked at Patrick and could see nothing else.

“It is for you, the call.”  Inga had returned, framed by the doorway.  “Is a Mister Leathers, I think.”  She giggled,  “He called me his ‘darling’.”

Jacqui found the receiver parked neatly across the main body of the ‘phone.   “Who is this?”

“Ah, Mrs Hallcroft, have I found you?  Leathers here, the ‘Record’.   I don’t suppose Miss Shelley is with you?”

“I’m afraid not, Mr Leathers.  She’s out with my husband.”  Had she let a trace of cynicism creep into her voice?  Leathers heard it.

“Ah, my dear, you have absolutely no need to worry, you know.  Our ‘Becca’s a consummate professional.  That’s one of the many things I hate her for.  No, she promised to call in at lunchtime, and it’s unlike her to be careless in matters of punctuality.  She asked me to chase up some information for her, and she’ll want to know the results, I think.   Did she mention anything to you?”

“No, I’m afraid…”

“No matter.  I called her hotel, she went out this morning and hasn’t returned yet.  She’ll call, I’m sure.  So sorry to have troubled you…”

Without wasting any further time, Jacqui dialled Jackson Hallcroft’s office.  “Jackson, can you get away?  I’ll pick you up in the Landrover.  Something’s wrong.”

#

Stafford Driscombe withered beneath Jacinta’s stare.  His wife was seated more or less as he had left her, eight hours before, by the front window of their apartment in Kensington.  The curtains were drawn, now, and a glass of gin had supplanted her lunchtime platter, but the look she was giving him was chillingly sober.  He could not avoid seeing the air ticket that lay defiantly displayed on the table.

“I think you had better level with me.”  She said, quietly.  “What’s going on, Staffy?  Who were those people?  Who was that woman?”

“I have not the faintest idea what you mean.”  He crossed to the cocktail cabinet to pour himself a whisky.  “I have had a hard day, can this not wait until tomorrow?”

“No.  I repeat, who were those people – the ones who accompanied you this morning?”

“Why do you feel you need to know?”

“Why?   Turn off the light.”  Jacinta’s voice was edged with steel.  “Go on, do it!”

“Good God, for what reason?”  Stafford blustered.  But he obeyed, nonetheless.

“Now come here.”  His wife beckoned him to the window, drawing the curtain aside just a little.  When he hesitated, she said stridently:  “Stafford, come on!”

“What am I looking for?”  He muttered, joining her.

“See the first floor display window over there?  Take a moment to adjust your eyes, then tell me what you see through that window, my precious darling.”

“All right, I see him.”

“He’s been there all day!  He has a camera!  Is he press?” Then, because Stafford did not seem to want to reply:  “Well, is he?   I’m going to ask you once more, Stafford, and if you don’t answer me I am out of that door!”

“Bloody hell, woman!”

“I’m leaving you.  I’ve packed a bag, and I’m going to put as much distance between us as I can in twenty-four hours.”  Jacinta picked up the air ticket and waved it in front of his nose.  “I‘m used to being kept in the dark, Stafford, but not when the consequences of your stupid actions are likely to implicate me!  Now, who were those people today?  Who was the woman?  Yes, the woman!  You weren’t going to tell me about her, were you?  And why is that odious little man with his camera so interested in taking my picture?  Did he get a clear shot of her, do you think?”

Stafford sighed a long sigh, then slaked his thirst with a generous slug of single malt.  “I don’t know, I imagine not.  Don’t leave me, Sweetie, please?  I don’t want to lose you, you know that.”

“And the timing couldn’t be worse, I know that, too.   So, explain, Staffy.  Explain now.”

“Very well.  Come away from the window.  I will tell all.”  Slumping into an easy chair by the far wall of the room, Stafford switched on a standard lamp that shone down upon his features, illuminating the flab of his advancing years; the balding scalp now grey, the heavy eyes, the slack, spoiled lips.  “There are times when I wish I had avoided politics altogether, you know.”  He said.  “So many things have to be looked into, so many ‘i’s dotted, ‘t’s crossed, and so on.  Those people today were specialists, my dear.  Their business is sweeping up the dust of a misspent life and disposing of it tidily.  They are really very good at what they do.  Today, I was just helping them do their job, that’s all.”

“And the woman?  Who was the woman?”

“Honestly, you really don’t need to know about her.”

Jacinta snorted,  “Yes, Stafford, I do.  I can’t watch over your carelessness if I don’t have the opportunity to question the suitability of these little dalliances of yours.  Remember Lucy Bedington-Carey?  Have I met this one?  Or is she part of your ‘dust’?”

“Possibly.”

“Is that all you have to say?”  Jacinta’s stare was unremitting.  “Do you expect to get away with that?  What kind of damned fool do you take me for?  I want to know details, Stafford.  I want to know why I am involved, and exactly what I am involved in.”

“Of course you do!  And I will explain, but it is complicated.  To be truthful, I am trying to pick upon a place to start.  You see, the mess is a minor issue; it isn’t as serious as you seem to believe.  And it isn’t  mine, not entirely…”

#

The rain had begun a little before noon, as Patrick and Rebecca were embarking upon their subterranean discovery.  It had become harder as the hours passed, until by evening it was a deluge of some substance.  In the open landscape of the Boult valley the river did its natural duty, which was to drain the onrush of surface water from the hills and offer a conduit to the sea.   It was a disciplined, partly engineered watercourse that would not ordinarily flood, but merely rise to its task.  There was an effect, however, that lay unseen.

Patrick and Rebecca, entombed beneath the turf of the riverside meadow, could only feel the creeping embrace of water in the old tunnel as, rendered invisible by darkness, it rose silently around them. At the foot of the steps which finally led up to their blocked means of escape the river came seeping, pooling around Rebecca’s ankles, her calves, her knees.   It was advancing steadily.  Neither of them knew how high it would rise, nor if it was possible the tunnel might become completely flooded.  That was a question left unasked.   In the meantime, they were left in no doubt of the severity of the deluge from above.  Although they could not see or hear it, it found every means of penetrating their tiny space.

Rebecca’s immediate danger of total immersion could be avoided by crowding up to the top of the steps where  Patrick knelt, working with hammer and chisel to try and cut around the flagstone that blocked their path.  He was chipping against impacted stone and clay, aggregate five centuries old, the fabric of a tunnel that was as stalwart as it was cunning, whilst becoming seriously concerned for Rebecca.  Her spare flesh was ill-suited to resist the onset of cold.  “’Becca, you can’t stay down there, you’ll freeze to death.  You’d better come up.”

“Yeah?”  She was shaking so hard she could barely talk.  “If I do you’ll have no room to work.”

“I’m not getting anywhere, as it happens.   I could use your ideas if you have any.  And we’ve got to get you warm.”

“I’m not goin’ to refuse.”  As once before, when they had first put their combined efforts into trying to raise the stone, Rebecca fed herself up into the space Patrick could provide for her.  “There, that’s nice.  Are you goin’ to cuddle me, then?”

“I can hardly help it.  It’s a bit like squeezing a wet sponge.”

“Funny!  Very funny!  Here’s me trying to spark a bit of romance…Patrick, there’s somethin’ I ought to tell you, somethin’ on my mind.  In case we don’t get out of this, you see?”

“We will get out of this.  Jacks knows where we are.”

“Yeah?  It’s been a long time, and she ain’t turned up so far.  I’m beginnin’ to doubt it, mate.  She might reach the ruins; after that I’m not sure there’d be anyone up there who’d know where to start looking.  Anyway, see – this mad bloke, it’s not much of a stretch to assume it was him lived in that room, and we’ve got to suppose he’s been responsible for a few missing persons, not just Karen.”

“Possibly.  I’m sad for the others, of course, but only Karen concerns me.”

“Yeah, well listen.  There were three bodies down there….”

“Do we have to talk about this?”

“Yes.  Because it’s very possible Karen wasn’t one of them.  Two were killed around the same time – that ties in with those two kids you told me about – Gasser something and Anna Parkin?”

“Gasser Gates and Anna Parkinson.  God, poor Gasser!  And I never thought I’d say that.”

It’s no surprise though, is it?  You thought they vanished around here, and it seems very likely they did.  The third body’s been down there a lot longer, Patrick.  Years longer – nothin’ left but the bones.  D’you remember tellin’ me about a red Riley parked with Karen’s car in that old boathouse?”

“I do.  It was a basket case.  Someone found a way to move it, though.”

“Fifteen years ago, a woman disappeared somewhere around Caleybridge.  It’s hard to find out much about her because most of the records have been lost, but we know she was called Rachel Priest.  We know that, and we know at the time she disappeared she was driving a red Riley Pathfinder.”

Patrick nodded, because at some level the information had reached him and been absorbed.  His mind was on the advancing water because at that precise moment it had reached his feet…

Above their heads what light the day afforded was melting slowly into night.   Close by, on the road to High Pegram, the headlights of Jackson Hallcroft’s Landrover lanced through failing visibility and ever-increasing rain, as Patrick’s new wife and his father searched for, but could not find, the lane to Boulter’s Green.

“It should be somewhere here.  He said it was here!”  Jacqui’s voice was brittle with desperation.  “An old signpost, a lane on the left.”

“There’s no signpost, honey. We’ve been this way three times and we haven’t found anything.  I reckon he meant the upper road, on the other side of Pegram.”

“Which is nowhere near the river!”

“Maybe; but maybe the lane he was talking about led down to the river.  The road might loop round.  Hell, it could go round in circles in this weather and we wouldn’t know.  Anyways, I can find nothing along here.  I’m going to try.”

Neither Jackson nor his daughter-in-law had ever visited Boulter’s Green.  Although Jacqui had worked in Patrick’s department for years she had never even seen the marking on the Council’s map that had first led Karen to the place.   Other than by Jacqui’s vague memories of Patrick’s description, upon the only occasion they had discussed the location of the old ruins in any detail, they had no clear idea of what they sought:  the signpost might have been the only thing to guide them, and the signpost was gone.

The headlights sped off into the twilight, probing fruitlessly for a sign that was not there.   Later, a despairing Jackson would visit the duty sergeant at Caleybridge Police Station to ask for directions to Boulter’s Green, and he would be met by a blank stare.

“Boulter’s Green, was it sir?  No, I’ve never heard of it, I’m afraid.”

“Are you new here?”

“No, no.  Been here thirty years.  I’ll be retiring soon.”

“Ask around.  Is there anyone else who can tell us where it is?”

“Well, no.  Everyone’s out, see?  A busy evening, the weather being the way it is.”

“Then radio them!”

The sergeant’s bland expression was unchanged.  “I don’t think we need to do that, sir.  Boulter’s Green – it doesn’t exist, now, does it?  Your little joke, isn’t it?  You know it’s an offence, wasting police time, don’t you?”

“Sergeant whoever-you-are, two people who went out this morning to visit this place you insist is a figment of my imagination have not returned.  They are missing:  just like Karen Eversley is missing, just like two other people before her were missing; all of whom disappeared after being seen near this non-existent place.  Doesn’t that at least get your attention?”

“Sir, there is nothing I can do for you tonight.  If you wish to file a missing persons report, you need to wait for twenty-four hours, sir.  Now take my advice and go home.  You’ll probably find them there.”

From beneath a stone slab, buried by rocks in Boulter’s Green, if you were standing close by, you might have heard two voices weakly calling, needing help.  No-one was close by.  In the world above those plaintive cries the hour was passing midnight, below and around them the water had risen until only a small chamber a few feet square remained, and now, though the stone that thwarted their freedom left gaps sufficient to admit a limited amount of air, there was little enough to breathe.

“This is f***ing ridiculous!”  Rebecca managed between short gasps.  “This is the coldest I’ve ever been, the longest I’ve been this close to a fanciable bloke without any nookie, and all I’m really interested in is keeping my bleedin’ camera dry!”

“Definitely a turn-off.”  Patrick conceded. “Especially stuck in my neck.  Keep quiet, and try to save your breath.”

“Patrick, mate, you know there’s no point, don’t you?  At best no-one’s going to come until morning, and I won’t last ‘til then.”

“Just don’t give up.  Keep breathing for me, will you?”

“Yeah.”

“Just keep breathing.”

“Yeah.”

And soon there was only that; the faint whimper of breathing to break the silence, while the rain beat steadily down.

#

Jacqui, waiting in the Landrover outside Caleybridge Police Station, could read the frustration in Jackson’s face as he clambered back into the driver’s seat.

“It’s down to us,”  he said wearily.  “I guess I knew that already.”

“Then one more try!”  She urged him, determination etched into every line of her face.  The Pegram road, and really slowly, this time.  I want to get to know every inch of that damned hedge!”

Another fifteen minutes, then, to reach the road, watch-hands tracking faster than motion as the rural miles crept by.  Time so substantial they could feel its passing, fence and hedge unremitting, no clue betraying the whereabouts of a tiny, wooded lane in the rain-drenched darkness.  Blasts of anger from those with simpler destinations, some dangerously late in picking out the little Landrover in their headlights, to remind them of their precarious state.

It was Jacqui who spotted it, finally; Jacqui who saw how the hedge disappeared for a moment into shadow – no more than an undulation, perhaps, but then…

“There!”

Jackson turned the wheel blindly, no signal – drawing blaring ire from one more frightened motorist who had seen those weak tail lights almost too late.   Her eyes closed tightly, Jacqui braced for the impact that must surely come, but no:  the Landrover thrust through brushwood that had been dragged across the entrance to Nowhere Lane and its two occupants crowed their victory as if this stony backwater was the gateway to Atlantis itself.

Backwater, certainly.  The downpour had turned their path into a minor river which better defined its course than the growth lining its either side.  Headlights blinded by brush were less an indication than the splashing onrush of floodwater beneath their wheels, which Jackson quickly learned to use to his advantage, steering to follow the sound.   In such fashion they arrived at the final sharp incline that marked the lane’s conclusion, and almost collided with Patrick’s car.

With an oath, Jacqui’s father-in-law managed to stop only fractionally late, slewing sideways as his wing nudged the stationary vehicle’s fender.  Jacqui was already primed to leap from her seat.

“There’s someone inside!  Patrick?”

The car’s driver door swung open, and the figure who emerged was not Patrick.  Caught in headlights, Jacqui saw the cadaverous features and owlish eyes of a much older man who did not seem disposed to stay around, but set off down the remaining yards of the lane like a hare, with Jackson in close pursuit.  Hunter and hunted got no further than an old gate which barred escape long enough for Jackson to grab an ankle and bring his quarry down.  Ancient though he may have appeared, this fugitive fought like a man possessed of demons, demanding the combined efforts of his pursuers to finally restrain him, with Jacqui’s foot firmly planted in his groin as insurance.

Jackson shouted above the rain.  “Listen, buddy, we don’t want to do you any harm, okay?  No harm! We need your help!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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