Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Six

Seekers in Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Shumal had left, Schulmann and Marak exchanged glances.

“You did not elaborate.”  Marak accused.

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

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

And to speak of witchcraft…

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

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

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

“So, all is well…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama?  Is all well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Three

Convocation

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

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

The voice:  that voice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

There had been a calling together of the secret ones.

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

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

“We are concerned…….”

“Too vital to lose….”

“One chance to shake the world……”

“The end of all false truths…..”

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

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

“….but Holy Father?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dinner’s at seven.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can call you one, sir.”

“No.  No good.  Need it now!  Now!”

“Restaurant closes at nine-thirty, sir?”

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

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

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

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

“Last chance?”  Roderick asked.

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

“All I could find.”

“A hearse?”

“I know.  It’ll suffice.”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The stone…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”  She whispered.

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

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

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

“Nevertheless, sir, my reputation…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satan’s Rock

Part 32

Did I make us Fly?

Beset by an array of emotions between hope and despair, Howard, Karen and Lesley  departed the  Cartwright home to disperse into the night, with so much to distract them they scarcely heeded the gathering tumult above their heads.  Seabirds, a hundred, maybe more, swirling and eddying on cardboard cut-out wings around the chimney pots, quarrelling in their language of cackle and keen.  Their talk was of conspiracy and plot.   There was an excitement filling the air, a rushing, a fervour.

The Rock’s western cliff stood gaunt in the last blush of sunset against the shadows of advancing night, a sky fading from vermillion through darkest purple into black.   Thunder growled, a distant mutter lingering to rattle in brassy pinball echoes among the headland crags.   As its echoes died, nothing.

 Silence. 

Even the gulls seemed to pause. 

Then, a first fusillade of raindrops battered the pavements.   Lightning came like the tearing of glass, a brittle scar of brilliance searing heaven and turning night into blue-white day.  

Lesley walked past the silent van that crouched before Peter’s house not thinking, perhaps not caring she might be accosted or attacked.  She was aware of neither thunderclap nor lightning, undaunted by the deluge that soaked her thin clothes.  For the space of two streets, her heart clamped by a second bitter parting with Peter, she was conscious of nothing but loss.  She only barely acknowledged the unlikely vehicle which had stopped just a few metres in front of her; although when its occupant emerged she was compelled to pay attention. 

“Last chance?”   The driver planted his feet so he was directly in her path.  

“How did you know I was here?”   She demanded dully.    The figure’s pinched shoulders and pigeon feet were familiar even in darkness.

“Oh come on!  You can’t shout so loud and not be heard!”

She stood like a child, scuffing and kicking the pavement with expressive feet as the storm poured over her.  This for guilt, this for angst:  this for a promise not kept.    “I can’t.  I won’t.  I didn’t expect this.”

“What else did you expect?  A cosy little provincial eccentricity?  Nights by the fire with beneficial herbs and readings from Dante?  You were told how it would be.”

“Maybe.  Yeah, maybe.  Not – not this!  It’s, like, too intense, you know?”

“You speak as though you had freedom to choose.  Do you?”

Lesley fought back the threat of tears:  “I don’t want to.  I’m in lo…  I like him a lot, alright?  That wasn’t meant to happen was it?”

“But it did.  It would be a sad world indeed if there were not space in it for ‘liking a lot’.”   The man’s words were kind:  “You always liked him, right from the first.  You can’t deny your feelings, Lesley.”

“I might have to, mightn’t I?   I mean, I’ve got a life, yeah? It’s not all ‘Whither thou goest I will go’ and stuff.  I just want to think!”

The strange vehicle’s driver put his hands on Lesley’s shoulders.  He was shorter than she.  “Reason doesn’t always have to win, Lesley.”  He smiled into her eyes.  “You know where you want to be and it might seem mad to you right now, but it’s all about acceptance, isn’t it?”

Lesley shook her head,  “I dunno,”  she replied sadly.  “I just don’t know.”

After Karen and Howard left, the Cartwrights joined Peter in their drawing room.   Peter had never felt less empowered.   Tom and Lena were no longer acting as a father and mother should act:   they prowled about him like bobcats around a porcupine.   Tom, shifting from foot to foot as he sought an apt phrase when even the best of his sermon words proved elusive was reduced to sporadic humming, punctuated by half-formed hand gestures and whistling through his teeth.   Lena stalked hither and yon, drying her sweating hands compulsively on the wool of her skirt, peeping from the window, listening at the glass.

“Well?”   She demanded shrilly:  “Are we going to just wait until they come in here and get you?”

“It’s all in hand, Mum.”   Peter reassured her.   His mind was much more upon Lesley than his possible abduction by Howard’s ‘people’.   Frankly, he did not much care if they did ‘come and get’ him.   Lesley had gone and nothing mattered.   He knew this time there was no reparation he could make that would induce her to return.

“I don’t believe this.  I don’t believe any of this.”  Lena muttered. “This is some juvenile prank.   God!  My God Peter, how did you get yourself involved in – in this?”

Tom seeing his wife in danger of becoming hysterical, moved to comfort her.   “It’ll be alright, dear.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Tom was correct.   When a motor droned in the back lane Peter was expecting it.

“You’ll be glad to be rid of me,” He said:  “I mayn’t be able to get in touch for a while, but you mustn’t worry, Mum.   I’m going to be well taken care of.”

An estate car waited with its tailgate open.   As Peter slid inside, hands reached over the back seat to cover him with a large blanket.   Then the tailgate closed and his transport bumped out of the back lane into the road, gaining speed with a surge of power surprising in so nondescript a vehicle.   

A hundred yards further down the road in the van Charlie  had posted Klas to watch the back of the Cartwright residence, so she tracked both Howard’s departure with Karen and Lesley’s solitary walk.   She conferred with Piggott on an open line.

“The girl’s out of there, so is Sullivan.   We don’t get too many chances like this, Ger…”

“So Howard’s gone with the woman?”  Piggott said.   “Wonders never cease!”

“Ger, are we doing this?”  Charlie urged, impatiently.  “Do we lift him, or what?”

“Yes, if – and only if – he comes out.   Don’t go in after him, for fuck’s sake!   Not tonight.”

Klas’s radio voice was harsh.  “BMW Estate, heading east.  He is in the back!”

“They’ve got him.”  Charlie snapped.  “I’ll pick you up from the end of the alley.  We have a go!”

Charlie picked out the red dots of the estate car’s rear lights as soon as it emerged from the alley.   She   fired the  van’s engine into life and raced to pick up Klas, who dived into the passenger seat beside her.

“He must be going it alone.”   Klas said breathlessly, as Charlie slid into the passenger seat beside him.

“Foolish child.”  Charlie murmured.  “Let’s see if we can catch him before he gets to the main street.  How many in there?”

“Two, I think.”

“You only think?”   The departing rear lights of the BMW were still in view as she gunned the van up through the gears.  It was a narrow road, and Charlie not the most careful of drivers.  Gears screamed, door mirrors flew.   Her blood was up.  “There it is!  We have him!.”   

Then:  “Oh!  What the f..….?”

Rain swept down the road in a dense curtain into which the van, already moving fast, must plunge.   Concealed behind the rain, suspended in the thundery air, a spiralling white mob of seabirds waited.   As soon as the vehicle was immersed in the cloudburst they attacked.  They slammed into the van’s windscreen with their powerful beaks and thrashing wings.  Their screeches and cries blotted out all other sound, their claws brought ordure, discarded food, waste paper, polythene bags, plastic trays snatched from tourist-frequented streets to plaster over the glass.     Blinded, Charlie threw the wiper switch.   

“Can’t see!”   She shouted above the din.  

She could only hit the brakes, but in a narrow road lined with parked traffic it was already too late.  The van demolished a lovingly-tended hatchback with a single, glancing blow.  Charlie fought frantically with the wheel – to no avail:  striking through a garden wall with crunching impact, the van climbed a toppled ramp of bricks before rolling gently onto its side.    Less gently, Charlie, who had scant respect for seatbelts, catapaulted into Klas’s lap.

Their part in the mission achieved, the seagull mob wheeled away en masse, quitting the heavy tattoo of rain in favour of their foraging in the bay.   They were gone as swiftly and as purposefully as they had arrived.   One gull alone remained.   Throughout this attack it had watched from its advantage on the Cartwright chimney as a general might watch a battle.   Now it took off, lazily accepting the rain’s bruising punishment as it swooped over the stricken van, briefly hovering  as if to satisfy itself no-one was badly harmed, before it, too, went in search of jetsam the trawlers had left behind.   Even generals have to eat.

For the second time in the space of a day Peter found himself back on the road to Old Ben.  This was no surprise:  he had known as soon as he was shut into the car that at least one of its other occupants was Toby.   The cottager who cared for Vincent’s estate on The Rock had a signature aroma which was unmistakeable in a confined space:  not an objectionable odour, but a very characteristic and individual one.  Toby’s were the hands which had quickly mantled him with a blanket as they drove away:  the voice which cheerily gave the all clear from his driver’s seat was equally easy to identify – the gatekeeper who had announced him upon his visit to the Great House was, it seemed, also in on their plot.

“There’s no-one following us, lad!   Pop over and have a seat if you like?”

“Ah!”  Toby said.   “You come and sit aside me, young Peter.   I’m not as you might say a good traveller, see?”

Rain hammered, lightning flickered, thunder boomed, once, close by, a huge boulder-on-the-roof bang.   The causeway barriers, normally dropped whenever high tides or weather threatened, were mysteriously raised for their passing.

“Tricky tonight, Tobias my son!”   The gatekeeper yelled above the din. “Where’d this seaway come from?  It was as calm as a mill pond half-an-hour ago.”   Headlight beams, neutralised by spray and rain, struggled to pick out a safe path: in Peter’s eyes, seeing how the storm surge had raised the sea-level to the same height as the road, it appeared they were driving deliberately straight into the waters of the bay.  He flinched instinctively, holding his breath for total immersion: none came.

“It’s in here somewhere!”  The gatekeeper shouted, referring to the road,  “What do we aim for, Toby?  The third lamppost on the left?”

“And straight on ‘til morning.”  Peter found himself saying.

“What?”

Although a valiant row of enfeebled streetlamps showed the line, the causeway itself was completely obscured by waves, themselves scarcely visible in the blackness.  Every now and then, a lightning lantern-slide revealed a snapshot of wet concrete.   Somehow, their car remained central to it, skimming like a pebble:  lifting, skidding, sliding, but still safe.   And the great slab of The Rock, the starry lights of the village road, grew ever closer. 

Suddenly wary, the gatekeeper slowed right down.    He was still revving the engine hard, fighting to keep water out of the exhaust.   “Last bit’s the worst.”  He said quietly, all humour drained from his voice.   “Don’t like the look of this, Toby old mate.”

In the topography of the bay, the water deepened as it reached away from Levenport beach towards Old Ben.   Here, just before the road turned upwards onto the man-made shelf where Crowley had once intended to build his railway station, it described a horseshoe bend some hundred metres in length, into which the sea was piling, breaker after breaker, crashing over the causeway in titanic shows of force.   If only one of them should catch the car the most glancing of blows, it would be thrown into the sea beyond like a discarded toy.

“’Tis too deep. Reckon as we needs you, young Peter,”   Toby said.  “Affer all, us can’t go back, can us?”

Peter understood.   He leant forward to study, as best he could, the movement of the sea. The road was already below sea level and the breakers were truly massive.  There would be no second chance, no room for error.   Nor was there the luxury of delay:  the car must keep going in this deepening water, or its engine would die.

“Us’d feel better if ‘ee stopped shakin’, lad,”  Toby advised him seriously,

Peter nodded.   He watched the swelling sea intently:  the highest, shortest wave would come, then a space.   The undertow would clear the causeway completely, but only for a moment before the next onslaught buried it.   Like a machine, it had a pulse, a rhythm, a beat.   He fed himself into it and he learned its meaning.

He said quietly: “Now.”

There was a wall of water across the causeway when he said it, but the gatekeeper stepped on the pedal without question and ploughed straight in.    The foaming sea drew back before them like a chemise of white silk.   Through a mist of spray the road glistened naked in their headlights – a flash of lightning turned it momentarily to silver.   But the same lightning showed a new, advancing roller, huge and threatening at their side.   The gatekeeper slammed through the gears; the car flew for shelter and The Rock.   The road was rising, rising fast,  but the breaker pursuing them was faster.   It reached them just as they leapt over the hump between causeway and island, catching the tail of the car to thrust it sideways and hoping, maybe, if it had sense and feelings this storm, to clutch it in its fist.  A second too late, it succeeded only in tipping them forward, helping them the last dozen yards of their way.   Moments later they were safely clear of the sea and through the barrier at the island end of the causeway.

“Bloody hell!”   The gatekeeper breathed.

Now  they sped along Crowley’s narrow road towards the summit of Old Ben, Peter awed by the ferocity of the seaway gathering momentum below them.

“Never knowed it come up so sudden.”  Toby sounded bemused.   “There’ll be no-one troublin’ us from the land tonight, I’d reckon.”

Peter remained silent.  Some of him, some part of him, was no longer bound by flesh:  it was out there, at one with wind and rain, learning.  He was a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the gale; finding how little he needed to incline his head to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: police clustered around an upturned van.   He could see the van’s occupants, hear them if he wished, as they engaged the officers in earnest conversation.  

“Were we really flying, Simon?’  his mind asked.  “Did I make us fly?”

‘Simeon, dear boy!  Allow me the distinction of the ‘e’.    As to your question, I don’t know’ the seagull replied.  ‘In my experience when your path is clear, many means of travel it are open to you.’       

 “Dunno.”  This was Toby’s voice.   “Us got over the Causeway an’ then ‘e sort of passes out.  He jus’ sort of drifted off.”

“Don’t worry, me old son. He’ll be all right.”  Peter opened his eyes to see Vincent’s concerned face looking down on him.   “Hey, Pete!  You OK, man?”

Gentle hands were helping him from the car.  The car door was slamming, hitting his back.

“Ow, shit!  I felt that!”   Vincent sympathised.  “For Christ’s sake, loves, get him inside before we kill him!  Bloody weather!”

Floodlights held back the darkness.   The whole of the west-facing front of the Great House was bathed in light, as it could never have been in Lord Crowley’s time.   This, Peter thought, was the lynch-pin of civilisation; a light-bulb.   The dark ages only truly ended when Edison threw the switch.

He was indoors.  He was standing unsteadily, as caring hands supporting his arms.   Vincent, his rock guitar hero, was mopping rain from his face.

“I thought you had to keep away from here,”  Peter said weakly.  “Something about staying out of sight?”

Vincent laughed:  “Yeah, so did I.  But what can you do?  When we realised what was breakin’ down here we had to come.  ‘Struth, Pete, we get around, don’t we mate?   Better get him a bit of a drink, love.  Looks like he needs it.”

“Hi Peter.”  Estelle’s voice chimed from somewhere beside him.  “Come with me, hon.   We’ll sort out a bath for you and something to change into. I’ve put you in the South wing.   Hope you’ll like it.  We better feed you, too, hadn’t we?”

  After his last visit, Peter had no expectation of returning to any of Vincent Harper’s luxurious ‘Guest Bedrooms’ in St. Benedict’s House.  Then, he had grown tired of their repetitive opulence.  Now he had time to enjoy the luxury of bathing in a bath comfortably large enough for two people his size, toes caressing idly around a gold faucet, and fatigued by his day he was glad of the softness of warm towels and the yielding luxury of a bed every bit as accommodating as the bath.  Only the mirror troubled him, for Lesley’s was the reflection he imagined there, not his own: now and then, entirely without his permission, his face would crease as he fought back tears.   It was not over.   If there was ever any love in the world…but each time he pictured her, she wore the same look of farewell.

          For the sake of his sanity, he made a deliberate effort to close his mind to the looking-glass and the pictures it showed him.  The moment he did so, a most peculiar thing happened.

First it was a touch, a gentle, feminine touch upon his arm, just above his wrist.  Then he heard the words,  in tones instilled with longing:

“Arthur my dear?   Arthur?”

When Peter looked again at the mirror, he saw he was not alone.

© 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.

Photo Credits:

Featured Photo Athanasios Papazacharlas on Unsplash

Lightning David Moum on Unsplash

Seascape Annie Spratt on Unsplash