Satan’s Rock

Part Three of Conversations

Quimple

What could have befallen Toqus?  Peter’s mind had already lost itself – his nightmare examination of the afternoon, European History and the dusty room with the dusty, pacing invigilator – all gone.  The history which had fascinated him since he was first old enough to read was written in local history books.  The bricks and mortar of Levenport, its traditions, superstitions, atrocities and victories, all laid out around him.  The Rock – St. Benedict’s Rock, sometimes reputed to be inhabited by Satan himself – that loomed above them all, loomed large in his vision now.  Callow youth, chin on hands, fingers gripping the cool steel of the handrail, the retreating tide singing to his question in ripples among the stones.   Toques, the manservant who never left Crowley’s side, where did he go?   That seagull, gripping the rail likewise a dozen yards away, remained inscrutable.   

“How would you know?”  Peter murmured.   The gull cocked its head.  “Do seagulls talk about history at all?   In the evenings, maybe, perched up there on the ridge tiles, before the kebab shops open?”

The bird fluffed a few feathers as an adjustment, clucking awkwardly, as references to its scavenging lifestyle were obviously discomfiting.

For several years following his memorable dip in the Levenport waters, Horace, Lord Crowley did nothing about the rocky island that was his royal gift.  During these (it should be said) quite happy times for the town of Levenport, ownership of its rock was a matter of no concern: a trickle of rent flowed through to His Lordship’s ample London coffers, paid by the tenants of the odd few cottages which nipped like bulldog clips onto the side of the track that led to its summit, but that was all.

Lord Crowley never came, and happily for those who eked a living from certain continental trading activities, The Revenue rarely came – the rock languished in its own particular peace.

At last there befell a time when Crowley’s sun began to sink lower in the Palace sky:  the older ‘Prinny’, soon to be King George IV, with his love of laudanum grew tetchy and difficult to please, so many of those friends who, true or otherwise, had found their fortunes at his noble feet were distanced.   After Prinny’s coronation Crowley spent less and less time at Court.  The parties grew fewer, the invitations sparse.  Also older and more circumspect, he took as his wife one Elizabeth Grey, a society beauty who, though herself considered to be past her prime, was yet thirty years his junior. 

At such a distance of time and space it was hard to know exactly when the old warlord decided to retire from London and Brighton life, still harder to comprehend why, of all his estates, he picked the Rock of St. Benedict as the windy cradle for his autumn years.   He alighted from a coach-and-pair one brisk morning outside Roper’s Hotel on Levenport’s esplanade with his manservant Toqus in his wake, making no secret of his intention to stay.   The town was afire with excitement:  the news that their distinguished guest intended to build a mansion on the rock flew through the salons and drinking houses so rapidly that the proprietor of Roper’s Hotel learned of it from his fishmonger before he heard it from Crowley himself!

In the weeks before construction began the town was full of rumours: what sort of dwelling could the great man be thinking of, to crown the rock and still satisfy his undoubted subtleties of vision and taste?   Would he follow the fashion, so popular at the time, of the Indian Palace, with those great Sezincote windows and high exotic domes?

Unfortunately, enormous wealth does not always imply good taste.  Crowley worked hard upon his plans for a mansion to be perched upon the rock:  he employed the best architect, listened to the wiser counsels of his wife, his family, his friends.  He listened, but he never heard.  One by one, the architect’s best endeavours were rejected until at last the poor man found he could suggest no more.   He returned to London, leaving in his wake a hotchpotch of drawings and uncompleted notes. These, the noble Lord studied for some time.

Days later there was summoned to Roper’s a certain Mr. Quimple. Mr Quimple was well known within the town as the architect who had created, among other things, Levenport’s charity hospital. This was a fine building, although less artistic than functional.   His subsequent commissions, drawing upon this early success, were equally unimaginatively designed, but had the virtue of being built like fortresses, so no-one relished the idea of knocking one down.

“Quimple!”   Lord Crowley instructed him grandly:  “Build me that!”

Joseph Quimple was a mild, slightly oily little man with disorderly clothes and straggly hair which fell on his head like a well-tossed salad.   His outward appearance was in total contrast to that of his buildings.  They were flat and uninteresting.  Joseph Quimple did not have a flat bit anywhere.

“Er, what did you want built, m’Lord?”

“Dammit, have you no eyes, man?  That!”

Crowley’s hand gestured expansively towards a large board propped against a wall:  Quimple had already seen it.   He felt a lump of horror rising in his throat.

“Well!”   He said. 

“My word!”  He said.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Glued to the board were bits and pieces of architectural drawing, cut apparently at random from the work of an obviously talented architect and reassembled to make a plan for a mansion.  Although what resulted was obviously intended to be a vision of a great house, upon first appearance it looked like nothing more than a page from a scrap-book.   There were bits of roof turned on end to make walls, gable-ends stuck over the top of windows, chimneys turned into pillars. Where the scraps failed to fit into the rest of the picture an expansive hand had joined them with bold lines in black ink with brief notations beneath:

‘Add step to match with first floor’

‘More roof here’.

Quimple felt his diminutive soul shrivelling deeper within him.  He struggled for words:

“It’s a very original concept.”  He managed to blurt out at last.

Crowley swelled with pride: “Glad y’think so!”

“But there are gaps.”  Waving a finger at an obvious space:  “Here, for example?”

“Stick in a water-closet, or something. You’ll think of it.”

Quimple felt as though the space beneath his feet was no longer supporting him.  He struggled in vain for firm footing.  “It defies description.”   He said finally.

“Excellent!”  The Lord took this as a compliment.  “Pleased you like it.” 

The little architect’s personal diary had provided an account of this conversation, but it was the last regular entry, and thereafter Peter had been unable to discover much concerning Joseph Quimple, or how he took Crowley’s dream glued to a large piece of board up to the summit of the rock and, somehow, brought it together in the agglomeration of styles and peculiar angles which came to be St. Benedict’s House.   He did know that the little man regarded the house as his master work, that it eventually sent him mad.   He found some clue as to why in a letter from the richly embossed Lord Crowley dated 18th August 1825.

Sir,

I have received missives from you concerning your progress with the house at St. Benedict’s Rock, and I am disappointed that you should feel cause to repeatedly complain about, as you would have it, “constant importuning of tradesmen for payment”. I surely need not remind one such as yourself, sir, that tradesmen are incessant in their pursuit of money and it is a necessary duty to rebuff them.  I do, however, send a draft for a further one hundred and fifty guineas to settle the most necessary accounts, but kindly do not trouble too much with decorators and the like, of whom there are an almost unlimited supply.

You reprimand me for my absence from the project, sir, but I say to you that I placed my complete trust upon you when I gave you instructions, which I expected to be followed to the letter.  Reports which I have received suggesting that there are, in fact, substantial variations from my plans, are disturbing to me, sir.   I am hopeful for an improvement to my health which shall allow me to return to England to correct these matters, but for the meanwhile I must advise you that you should persist no further with extravagances which, I am persuaded, lend to the house a quite undignified appearance.  

 I intend to limit my further investment in the house to a further nine hundred and fifty guineas, which will follow at the commencement of next year. You should dispose of this in such manner as will finish the house to an acceptable standard of accommodation.  I enclose my plan for the finished building.

I am,

Lord Horace Crowley

In even those distant times, though riches beyond the wildest dreams of many nine hundred and fifty guineas for such a project was a completely unrealistic sum,  but Crowley was, of course, by this time stumbling down a dusty road towards bankruptcy.

         “A book of account, Ma’am,”  he said once to Lady Crowley, on one of the few occasions when he spoke to her;  “Is a dreadful devious foe.   Whichever way ye turn him there’s always another within his ranks to find the weakness on your flank.   Set me against an army of the Frenchie and I’ll take ‘im on and thrash ‘im for ye:  but this?   Ye can never beat him Ma’am.  Ye never can!”

In eighteen-twenty-five, after some three years during which he never returned to the seaside town, the old Lord was still battling the elusive book of account.  Now, however, he had a second enemy gathering in his lungs.

On the rainy morning when the messenger arrived bearing Quimple’s request for further funds, Crowley had just seen his doctor.   He was ordered abroad. He must stay a winter in the warmer climate of the south of France; take the waters regularly, rest as much as possible.   If he did not he would live for….a year – two?  Who could say?

So Quimple worked alone, with very little money, constantly battling his Patron’s amendments and alterations to a plan which was structurally unworkable.   This alone, Peter thought, might have driven him insane.  But there were other enticing snippets of history surrounding the rock and its new crowning glory, other pieces to a puzzle which intrigued him and helped, as he returned home this evening, to distract from memories of a bad history examination.

Contemporary accounts relate that a bright summer morning in the Year of Our Lord 1822, when one Matthew Brightley, master mason, laid the first stone of Crowley’s Great House, marked an ending as well as a beginning.  Quimple had hitherto been untroubled by the rock’s natural inhabitants, but from that morning on, as if some truce had been broken, the snake population of the rock  attacked remorselessly.  Viper venom was a constant hazard for all who laboured there.   Several were made very ill by it, and two older stonemasons died.  It was also the time when the seabirds’ yelling became ceaseless, their molestation unpredictable and vicious.  The old title of Devil’s Rock was resurrected more than once in the taverns of Levenport.

Joseph Quimple’s final entry in his diary had always fascinated Peter:

21st August 1825:

Today completed excavations to level the surface of the central courtyard.  Exposed a shelf of stone apparently intruding deep into rock – possibly a seam.  Not granite.  Warm to touch.  Suggests hot spring, or similar – investigate.

He never did investigate.

In the gathering darkness of evening on 22nd August, the very day after this entry, those who chanced to be looking seaward were just able to distinguish Joseph Quimple’s bent form running atop the rock, inexorably running towards the lip of the cliff and its three hundred foot plunge to the sea.  There were those at the subsequent inquest who testified that madness and obsession were the cause of the little man’s lonely end.  There was one townswoman who saw the event, and her evidence spoke of Quimple as being pursued by a large flock of gulls.

© 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

Featured Image: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Seven: The Relief of Balkinvel

In the previous Episode:

Ellar doubts Sala’s loyalty, as the mediator seems unable to elaborate upon her encounter with Celeris.  Alanee employs a friend of Toccata’s to ‘remodel’ Casix’s old chambers.  Finally left to herself, she is able to study the mirrors.  They reveal a doorway to the wooden room and an ancient figure sitting within it, then show images of her home village, ruined and deserted.  Before she can turn away, they force her to witness reflections from an apocalypse in which thousands die.

While the High Council meets to discuss Trebec’s report in The City, Dag finds civilization in the river valley, only to be captured…

Trebec’s report has been heard in solemn silence.  While the High Council ruminates, The old General himself sits contemplating the fold of his fingers across his ample belly.  At length, the Domo asks:  “How many?”

“Ten thousand,”  Trebec mutters into his chins.

“Ten thousand.”  Leaden words.  “And the injured, the unhomed?”

“None survive.”

The Domo murmurs, “It is dispensed with, then.  Let the matter rest.” 

“Sire!  No, Sire!”  Carriso’s protest echoes among the vaulted hammer beams of the Council Chamber:  “This can never rest!”

“Carriso,”  The Domo soothes.  “It is all that could be done.”

“They were people!  They were injured, burned, deformed by grief, and we slaughtered them like pigs!  That is a crime of unforgivable immensity!”

Trebec raises eyes in which each blood vessel may be traced, like distributaries of an arcuate delta.  “You, Carriso, you have no blame in this – it is my sleep that will be sacrificed, not yours.”

Carriso snaps back.  “Aye – but my people, not yours, who were condemned.”  He rounds upon the Domo.  “How do we justify this deed; how?”

Remis intercedes.  “If a citizen is deprived of Word even for a day his loyalty will be affected.  For a cycle…”  He shrugs his shoulders.  “They were irretrievable, Carriso.  Nothing could be done.”

Carriso is far from placated.  “Nothing? How should I accept ‘nothing could be done’?  We must ‘accept’; always, always ‘accept’.  Death is a price we pay, in our thousands and tens of thousands, for our unquestioning acceptance!’.”

Trebec shakes his head.  “If it consoles you at all, and I know it won’t, those who died by our hand were few in comparison with those eradicated by the actual event.  This evil, whatever it was, turned the whole of the North Dometian Plain and the Kaal Valley into a wasteland, a grey desert.  I cannot imagine how anything will ever thrive there again.”

Selech, who Cassix once named the ‘Continuum Dissident’, asks.  “Was it a volcanic event, an earthquake?”

 “Cassix would say, indeed Cassix did say, it was the Continuum,”  Calvin the Ancient challenges:  “We have a new Seer, do we not?   Why is she not here?”

The Domo says; “She is too fresh in her position to be of value.  We need not trouble her with this.”

“But if the affair concerns the Continuum?”

Continuum, Continuum, Continuum!”  Selech vents his frustration.  “Has anyone apart from Cassix seen this damned Continuum?  Or is his departed word all we have to vouch for its existence?”

Ellar says quietly:  “I have seen it.  Cassix showed it me.”  She rises to her feet.  “It does exist, sires; and in Cassix’s last days he was deeply concerned at its growth, both in size and strength.”

“This Hakaani stripling….”  Trebec returns to the conversation.  “Was Cassix delusional, or does she have even a fraction of his gifts?”

“I do not know, Sire.  She certainly appears to have visions.”

“And we must be content with that.”  The Domo says, with an air of finality. “She is not here, so we must move on.  Are there any other matters concerning Sire Trebec’s report?”

“Yes.”  Carriso has been tapping his frustration upon the edge of the Council table. Now his anger bursts out in speech.  “I ask that Sire Trebec’s conduct be investigated by the Criminal Court.”

The Domo nods.  “I expected no less.  Your charge?”

“Genocide.”

Trebec looks up sharply. The Domo draws a breath.  “Very well.  A little strong, though, sire, wouldn’t you say?”

“What else was it?”  Carriso asks.  “And to you, sire….”  This in Trebec’s direction:  “For your crime against my people, I withdraw the hand of friendship.”  He turns back to the Domo:  “I also demand that the Seer be summoned.  There is no precedent for a meeting of High Council without that office, and I suggest it is dangerous.  She may be able to prevent another similar tragedy.”

The Domo sighs.  He has no choice.

Valtor’s nervous buzz is a surprise to Alanee, though not entirely an unwelcome one:  four glasses of paia and the arrival of Sala have raised her mood to a point where she would entirely erase the manner of her friend’s last departure from her mind, yet Sala is unresponsive to her acclamation of Prinius’s improvements; “See how much he has done already!” and after waving at the obstinately hideous wooden ‘shed’ “Even he can’t think of anything to do with that!” she is lost for words.  Sala’s conversation stares like an old blade – monosyllabic replies, devoid of reactions. 

“They want me at the High Council.  Oh, Habbach, now what have I done? Sala-ba, you will have to take me.  I don’t know the way!  You know it, don’t you?”

“Valtor will come for you.  You should wear the robe.”

Alanee rushes to the bedroom.  She calls through: “You don’t want to be here, do you?”  And when Sala doesn’t respond: “They’ve instructed you to be here.  To watch me, yes?”

“Yes.”

The door chime sounds.  Alanee returns, her robe hurriedly thrown about her.  “Do I look alright?  No, don’t answer that.  Sala, while I’m away, dearest, get drunk, will you?  Paia there, look?  Get horribly, revoltingly drunk and when I come back we’ll talk.  OK?  Love you!”

She breezes out into the obsequious gale of Valtor.   “May I say, Lady, how wonderful it will be to have a lady as our Seer?  We are truly blessed by Sire Cassix’s percipience,  although I lament his passing; I do, of course.  Of course, very sad.  A great loss.  So noble…”

“Yes, Valtor dear.  You can stop now.  We’re all very sad.”

The Convenor leads her deceptively quickly along softly carpeted corridors to an elevator the interior of which is as lavishly appointed as any wealthy noble’s reception room.  Gilt-framed chairs upholstered in plush blue velvet, a series of masterfully executed graphics depicting rural scenes around its dark red walls, subdued, honeyed light.  The only mild surprise is an artistically drawn and very buxom nude on the rear wall (Alanee thinks she can guess at whose wish that was included).

“Sire Portis?”

Valtor nods in a manner which contrives to look as if he is bowing.  “The picture was of his selection, yes.  The others show each of the great nations:  Mansuvenia, there; there Braillec…”

Alanee stops listening.  After a brief descent, the elevator passes beneath the courtyard of the palace; and ascends once more.  The doors open directly onto the council ante-chamber.

“Lady, are you prepared for their Sire-ships?”

Sire-ships?”   Alanee tries to dispel the image that instantly forms in her mind of the Domo as a galleon in full sail, but she is still stifling laughter as the Convenor throws open the doors of the Council Chamber, and sixteen expectant faces turn in her direction.  At the sight of the seated Domo looking exactly like the prow of a large ship her laughter breaks through.

“Sires greet you.”  She splutters helplessly.  “You…oh, Habmenach!  You sent for me?”  Behind her, Valtor has disappeared.  The doors have closed.

A murmur returns to her from the assembled Councillors.  The Domo tacks in her direction.  “Greet you, Lady.  You find us amusing?”

“Sire?  Oh, Sire, no:  it was him – Valtor.  He cracked a joke.  I’m sorry.”

Sixteen unconvinced faces:  perhaps contemplating the unlikely idea of a joke from Valtor.

“I’m sorry.”  She repeats.  “How can I help?”

The Domo rumbles:  “Lady Alanee, you are of the High Council now.  You are a ‘Sire-ship’ too.”  Discovered, Alanee blushes.  The Domo nods to an empty chair at the far end of the long table.  “Please, take your place and be welcome.”

It is an upright chair worked in gold gesso, with well-padded seat and arms of red brocade.  She treasures the moment, feeling some pride at her reception into that somewhat severe, privileged place.  When she is seated, the Domo continues.

“Lady, there was an incident in Dometia recently concerning which, I am given to understand, you may have some knowledge.  Do you know what I am talking about?”

Alanee feels the stares turned upon her.  She feels the paia in her head, relentlessly working.  In a moment they will discover her – she is drunk.  No; no, not drunk, but light-headed, certainly.  She replies with as much gravitas as she can muster:  “I know something has happened, Sire.  The aerotran pilot who brought me to the city crashed there, and there are stories; but what exactly it was; no, I don’t know that.”  Then she adds brightly:  “I suppose if I am a good Seer I should, shouldn’t I?”

Trebec grunts expressively.  It was the wrong thing to say.  Nervous, stupid:  tongue running away with her.  All at once she finds herself badly needing a friendly face at that august table.  No-one wants her here:  Cassix’s choice was not popular here, either, and she will find no sympathy in these hostile stares.  To this worthy gathering, who once called the old Seer their friend, she is a bumpkin from the plains of the Hakaan – a worthless dullard without any contribution to make.  Their collective look is one of disdain.

Yet?

Yet.

No, not so High, my lords of the High Council:  not immune to the baser instincts of normal men.

“I suppose;”  Alanee says slowly, and with great deliberation:  “It must be a change for you all, seeing me with my clothes on?”

“Young woman!”  Portis expostulates.

“Especially you, Sire.”  Alanee knows what she is saying:  she no longer cares for the effect it may have.

“Gentlemen!”  To her surprise it is the dark rumble of the Domo’s voice which cuts across a rising clamour:  “Lady Alanee has cause to be offended with us.  The blame for the animosity we all feel does not lie with her.  Sire Carriso, you demanded the Seer’s presence?  Would you care to proceed with the explanation?”

“If you wish.”  The aggrieved Councillor begins nervously, reluctant to put his tragic story into words:  “Lady, many lives…”

As soon as he starts to speak, Alanee’s eyes are drawn to Carriso, seeing at once he is a Dometian:  hearing instantly the emotion in his voice.  From that point, from his first few words, she gains all she needs to know, though what within her has nurtured this kernel of knowledge is a mystery to her.  Hakaan in the mirrors – it has happened!  It happened to Dometia!

“How many?”  She cuts across Carriso’s tale before it is begun, though she hardly knows what part of her speaks.  “How many died?”

The cynicism of the High Council floats away like a cloud.  The eyes that turn to Alanee now share an altered expression.  Taken completely aback, Carriso murmurs:  “All those of my people who lived in the valley of the Kaal, Lady.”

Dust, empty streets:  the Terminus in unattended flames:  that was why!

“The same!”  The unsourceable voice that inhabits her cries:  “The same for the Hakaan.  Balkinvel, the northern uplands; the same.  Get the people out, Sires!  Save them now!”

Those stares that fix upon her face!  They might well dismiss her words as drunken raving, ridicule her, scorn her, but they do not.  For her face is pale and possessed, her eyes not the eyes of a Hakaani widow. They are those of a Seer in the throes of a vision. 

“Sires!  They must run!”

The gathering is dumbfounded.  No-one speaks for seconds that seem to stretch into minutes.  Trebec breaks the spell:  “You have seen this? Is this true?”

“I have seen it.”  Alanee answers to herself as much as to the gathering, as if she must affirm her own belief in her gifts.  “And yes it is true.”

Carriso rises to his feet:  “If no-one else will….”

The Domo recovers himself.  “Yes:  Yes. Carriso, you see to it, will you?  Evacuate the whole area!  Sire Selech, will you organise Word and camps for the displaced population?  The Council will excuse these Councillors?”

The Domo delegates these tasks without moving his eyes from Alanee’s face.  “Lady, can you answer me a question?”

“Sire?”  She is barely aware of him; all of her thoughts are with Shellan-mer, with Carla, Paaitas, old Malfis.  They must be saved!  Yet a calmer part of her inner self is saying they will be, that she has done her work.  Balkinvel’s streets will be as she saw them and though she might grieve for her friends’ loss of their homes, she must rest content.

“Have you seen the Continuum?”

“Yes, sire.  Cassix showed it to me first.”

“What is it, Lady?  Do you know?”

“No.  I know it isn’t important, of itself.  The important thing is behind it, hidden.  When something happens to that, the skies are thrown into some kind of fury.  It isn’t anger, though:  more like pain – agony….”

“And this ‘thing’, can you describe it for us?”

“A white light.  A white light that floods everything so brightly your eyes can’t look at it.”  Alanee replies:  then she adds, though she can’t put a meaning to what she says:  “It isn’t now.”

Portis clears his throat.  “Explain?”

“I can’t, sire.  It has no place in time.”

“It seems;” Sire Calvin says quietly:  “That Cassix chose well.”

“But what is the meaning of it?”  Vast and ungainly as he is, Alanee sees and hears: the Domo is pleading with her.  He is no longer fearsome, no longer in control:  beneath the vast exterior of this calmly authoritative man boils a ferment of superstition and doubt.  He is like a great bird feeding from her hand.

“I do not know.”  She says with truth.  “I must study the Lore.”

The Domo nods.  “It shall be arranged.  Valtor will take you to the Inner Library in the morning.  Perhaps you might persuade him to tell you one or two more of his jokes?  We will convene again tomorrow afternoon.  In the meantime, thank you, Lady Alanee.”

The Council moves to disperse, each with their own agenda (for evacuating the population of an entire region is no minor task), each with their own message in their hearts.  In the elevator Alanee finds herself in the company of Trebec; though he offers little conversation, standing apart with fists clenched as if he would beat himself in the intensity of his rage.  Alanee, who was not present at the earlier part of the meeting does not understand this, but despite her instinctive dislike of the man she feels his guilt and an honesty; a vulnerability she can respect.

Sala is sprawled upon Alanee’s new couch, her white silk shift in disarray and stained with pink paia.  By the half-emptied carafe she clutches to her chest Alanee can see at once that her friend has obeyed her orders to the letter, but inebriation does not seem to have lifted her spirits; in fact, she guesses that Sala has been crying.

Without a word, she takes the carafe from Sala’s grasp to pour a measure for herself; then goes to the kitchen to brew a mug of strong, treacly tsakal. 

“Oh my; we have worked fast, haven’t we?”  Alanee says gently.  She places the tsakal in Sala’s hands.  “Try and drink it, darling.  Do you know, I made quite an impression tonight?  I believe I may even have made an ally or two.”

For a while that is all that is said.  The pair sit in silence, sipping their drinks while rarely meeting each others’ eyes. At last Sala says, in a voice quite clear and succinct:  “I met Cassix a few times, you know?”

“What did you think of him?”

“I liked him.”  Sala glances inside herself:  “Yes, I liked him.  Strong personality – steady, commanding eye:  artistic hands….I’ve always been rather impressed by men with artistic hands.  And he was a Seer, you know – a Seer.”

“Yes.  Yes, I do know.”

“One of the best the City has had, they say.  Now…”  Sala places her mug of tsakal down upon the table with elaborate care,  pressing her finger-tips together.  “Where was I?”

“Best the City…”

She gazes up at Alanee helplessly.  “He never made a lover appear out of empty air; not’s far as I recall.  Never.  I didn’t know him that well, you see?  Alanee – what are you?”

Alanee sighs:  “I wish I knew, ba.   I know who I thought I was; before Cassix saw a part of me I hadn’t dreamed of.  All that time I was just living my life and they were watching…”  She pauses.  “This I know.  I am your friend; no matter what you think of me.  I need you; I really do.  All this other stuff” She gestures at empty air, “It isn’t anything to do with you and me.”

Sala does not speak; not immediately; because within her the clockwork is grinding to a stop, the mechanisms of her training and dedication are breaking down as the gentle fingers of alcohol pull at those strings which still tie her, loosening the bonds, exhuming the entombed.  “And suppose…”  She picks up the words one by one, little pieces that shattered and are lying there waiting:  “Suppose I still needed you?”

Alanee grips her hands:  “That would be wonderful, ba!”

But Sala shakes her head.  “No.  I mean needed you, Alanee.  Putting aside all my ‘stuff’, suppose I was an insecure, emotional child who has just by chance met the one person I could selflessly love, only to find she doesn’t love me – love me, Alanee.  Suppose I wanted you so badly and I couldn’t turn and walk away because of my work and my…..”   Sala pauses:  “Because of my bloody work.   Suppose that, my darling.  Suppose that.”

Hopeless, helpless, more than a little drunk, what else can she say?  Sala turns her head aside, knowing tears will come again and not wishing, this time, to be caught. Alanee, who perfectly comprehends, will not let Sala hide herself.  This much she can do for her friend.

“Oh my dearest!  Come with me, ba.”

Taking her, raising her, holding her: embracing her as only a lover would, or could: leading her to bed, accepting no protest, laying with her in a sacrifice of love: who is to say what Alanee wants or feels tonight?

Perhaps in the lyricism of a very private music she finds a harmony that is new to her, perhaps she does not.  For this night, for this person – for Sala – it doesn’t matter.  To see a smile on the face of an angel, a smile the innocence of which has been interred for so long, is all she could ever ask.  And to hold so closely one who means that much to you, as together you drift above the lapping waves of sleep, is all anyone in any life should desire.

For tomorrow, all things must change…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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:

Council Chamber roof: Ron Porter, Pixabay

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-Five The Journey North

“He’s ready for sleep now.”  The woman told the one she had nicknamed Oddjob, who had not moved far from the door to Edgar’s new domain.  “The things I warned you about – make sure you get them done.  I’m not getting into that bed where it is.”

“I could bloody throw you in!”  The man grumbled.

“You could.  I’d be dead by morning.  Something you would have to explain to whoever pulls your strings.”

Another word.  ‘Morning’!   There were such things as day, and night, and they could be separated.   Their significance was unfamiliar.

“You already look like a f***ing corpse,”  Oddjob said.

“Thank you.”  She replied.

In her room, she cleaned off her make-up and with a mind otherwise unoccupied she began to revive a concept of time.   Circadian rhythms reasserted themselves: how long was a day?  What day was it?  What week, what month, what year?  How many days, weeks, years had she been Edgar’s companion, with no window to the outside world, no concept of day or night?

In the beginning, though she had few memories of the beginning, she had kept pace with time by counting her body’s rhythms and throwing casual questions into conversation with Edgar’s cantankerous addict of a nurse.   But although she developed a friendship of sorts with him the nurse was under strict instruction to tell her nothing.   The pregnancies finally put paid to those early judgments; impregnation and termination.  After the second one of those it was made clear to her she could no longer bear children:  sufficient damage had been done to prevent another ‘inconvenience’.  In her heart she knew this had been done to her, rather than by her, but by then all hope of a normal life was gone, and in some ways she was thankful, grateful, even, to the oily little man who came to administer to her on each occasion, who was supposed to be a ‘doctor’.  He was also the ‘doctor’ who attended her after the concussions.

Edgar was still prone to episodes of extreme distress.  When they descended upon him he went through phases of virulent protestation, angry paranoia and, finally, quite uncontrollable violence.  The old nurse was adept at predicting these phases and she had quickly learned from him.  Not quite quickly enough.  If she was left alone with that screaming fury, even in the padding of his room Edgar was capable of snapping her neck like a twig.  If he caught her anywhere apart from his room he could, and did, bang her head against walls, chairs, the floor – anything, until the life was almost knocked out of her.

Such inducements encouraged her to create strategies of her own.  She found ways to turn his obsession with her into something like affection, so in recent times he had begun to recognize the onset of a crisis and allow himself to be manacled.  This was a boon he had bestowed upon her and his long-serving nurse: but now the nurse was gone, and the woman wondered if these thugs would be able to cope.  There were no manacles in this new place.  If she were capable of worry, she might have worried about that; but she was, in truth, beyond worrying, or caring.

The woman dug into a box of belongings the removers had left beside her bed and discovered her nightdress.  She slipped it on, worming between unaired covers, and lay back, ready for sleep.

As she drifted, her shattered mind returned to a question that troubled her deeply.  She had a name.  She had no notion what it was.

#

Rebecca shivered.  York railway station was not a warm place to be, even on a Spring afternoon.  The plastic cup of machine coffee in her hand was hot, but its heat spread no further than her wrist.  An intense weariness pervaded everything; the cold, that was the cold of the Boulter’s Green tunnel and the water that had nearly drowned her.  Her sense of fatigue was sudden and overwhelming.  She tucked the telephone receiver into her shoulder just as it answered.

“Record, desk.”

“Pauly, put me through to Harve, darlin’.”

‘Becca!  ‘Becca, come on!’   With eyes that would scarcely drag open, hands that could barely grip she found a little black and white box in her shoulder bag and, tipping two little white pills from it, she fed them to herself.

A swallow of coffee – too hot.  “Harvey!  Yeah, Becca Shelley.  Where am I?  York.  Greased lightning, mate, me!  Listen, did you check over the stuff Tarq gave you?  Good story, huh?”

From the window table of a snack bar across the station concourse, Tarquin Leathers watched, sidelong, as Rebecca’s body language betrayed her.  “Oh, dear.  Not good.”  He sighed.  Patrick, seated at the same table, cocked an eyebrow.   “She’s having trouble selling it, darling,”  Tarquin told him informatively.  “Harvey’s such a toad!”

“Harvey?”  Patrick asked.

“Harvey Fitzgibbon, our editor.  The Ape.  We mustn’t worry, though, must we?  How long since we met, dear Patrick. Eight years? Do spill.  Are you still – what word shall I choose – interested – in this Eversley lady?”

Eight years, was it?  Tarquin had changed very little.  If anything, the journalist who had managed to turn Karen Eversley’s disappearance into a sensationalist ‘jilted lover’ story was a little more extravagant, and he had acquired a hat.  Exhausted as he was when he and Rebecca had boarded the York train to find Leathers waiting for them, he had managed a complimentary comment for the Fedora.

“Dear boy, I am a serious member of the Fourth Estate these days.  A certain attention to image is obligatory, don’t you think?”

“It suits you.  You look a bit like Oscar Wilde,” Patrick had told him, as he drifted once again into sleep.

He dragged himself back into the present.  “I’m married now.”

“Ah.”   Leather’s discerning stare probed him.  “Ah.  Oh, Lord, they’re arguing now!  I hope our Purvis is having more success.”  Purvis, who had shared their carriage on the journey north, was finding the party some accommodation:  he was also sourcing a hire car, which filled Patrick with alarm, having been witness to Rebecca’s comment when they met Purvis at Paddington:  “You can’t drive, can you Purv?”

“Oh, he can drive!”  Tarquin had subsequently assured him, “by which I mean, he has a licence.  As for the rest…”

Patrick inclined his head towards the window, “She’s coming over.”

“Oh my!”  Tarquin murmured; “She does look cross!”

Rebecca came straight to their table.  “Well, he won’t run what we’ve given him.”

Patrick was shocked, “Why?”

“He says it’s because he wants Karen Eversley’s exclusive – I see what he’s saying, about putting her in danger if we publish today, but I also smell fear.  I’m betting our beloved owner’s behind this.  The nobility is closing ranks.  We’ll need something extraordinary if we’re going to get this published at all, guys.”

“I don’t get it.”  Patrick said.

“Simple, dear man,”  Tarquin interpreted for him.  “There are two possible stories; the one darling Beccy and I wrote up over the ‘phone last night, about a potential Tory minister sheltering his mad brother in a cellar.  Mad brother with a history of assault, etc., do y’see?  Political scandal, page one, banner headlines, a Daily Record ‘investigation’.  That’s the story I put on Ape’s desk this morning, before I caught the train.”

Rebecca cut in:  “Which he won’t run.   The only story he wants is about Ms Citizen rescued from the clutches of a nutcase.  Two columns on page five which, once the lawyers have got at it, probably won’t even name the kidnapper because so far nothing is proven.  Is that Purvis coming?”  She had identified a figure at the end of the concourse. “He does know we’re here, doesn’t he?”

Patrick felt the old anger returning.  “I thought you shed that kind of negativity when you left the Beaconshire Herald,” he accused Rebecca.  “Are Driscombe Holdings a valued advertiser, then?  Or is the reason a little more sinister, this time?”

Rebecca shook her head sadly.  “Our ‘paper’s owner is  Lord Landseer. Who knows where we go from there – maybe he has shares in Driscombe Holdings? Let’s not worry about it, yet. We still have a story, yeah?  What is Purv doing – he’s going right past?  Oh, look!”

Tarquin Leathers groaned.  “Messrs Tweedle, Dum and Dee.  I thought I saw them on the train.  They must have picked us up at King’s Cross…shall we take evasive action?”

It took Patrick a few seconds to pick out the two men tailing Purvis; not in the least twin-like, they were a grey-headed individual in a blue car-coat and a larger, younger man in sweater and jeans.  At Rebecca’s bidding: ‘Walk casually and don’t look for them,’ He joined Tarquin in following her out of the coffee bar, then briskly down the station concourse to the street outside.

“This way, sweeties,” Tarquin prompted them to turn left alongside the rank of taxis; Patrick, m’dear, see if you can spot a hire car in the wrong place.”

“Like that white Cortina outside the Parcels Office?”

Exactement! I’ll drive.”

A hundred yards needed to be covered to reach the vehicle and they did this at the best approximation to a run they could make, bearing light suitcases.

Tarquin opened the car’s driver door.  “Yup, keys are here.  Well done, Purvy!”

Patrick jumped into the back and Rebecca the passenger seat, glancing over her shoulder as she did so.  “Nope, no-one behind.  Go for it Tarq!”

The car started obligingly.  Leathers spun it around, heading back along the station’s frontage.  “Where can he come out, do you think/”

Rebecca spotted Purvis emerging from a door marked ‘Staff Only’, “There!”

Patrick managed to clear the heap of luggage next to him just in time to avoid a collision with Purvis’s ample rear as he joined them in the car.  “Go, go go!”  Warbled Purvis, and they did.

York in mid-afternoon was busy, its narrow streets a hive of early season tourists prepared to ignore a north-east wind in their buzzing quest for nectar among the antiquarian books, ancient buildings and religious wonders of the mighty Minster.  Upon Purvis’s instruction, Tarquin extricated them from the maelstrom of traffic and sought out the main northern road, the A19.

“I’ve booked us into the Warefield Park Country House Hotel; it’s about six miles out, the manager said.”

“If we make it,” Tarquin responded; “The hire company’s been typically generous with the fuel.   We ought to stop and fill up.”

“I don’t think we should,” Rebecca countered.  “There’s no-one behind us yet, but they soon will be.  We want to get off the road and out of sight.”

“Fingers crossed, then.”

“And legs.  I haven’t had a wee in bloody years!  How the ‘ell did they rumble us, Tarq?  Someone been talking?”

Tarquin shrugged,  “Driscombe’s people, maybe?  Or Special Branch?  They don’t look like Rozzers.”

By the time they arrived at Purvis’s chosen hotel and found themselves a sufficiently hidden parking spot behind a very large van, the car was, in Tarquin’s rich terminology, “Running on fumes,”

“They’ll be looking for it by now, anyway, so it’ll be no use to us.”  Rebecca opined as they headed for their check-in.   “I reckon we’ve bought ourselves a bit of time, let’s use it.”

The four parted in the hotel lobby, agreeing to reconvene in the ‘Fairbrother Lounge’ after a half-hour.  In his room Patrick showered and changed into fresh clothes, although this did little to overcome the fatigue of the previous day’s experience, which hung over him like a pall.  When he descended, still feeling leaden, he found Rebecca already returned to the lobby, and once more on the end of a telephone.

“I’ve ordered tea,” She told him, her hand over the mouthpiece.

Tarquin was waiting in the ‘Fairbrother Lounge’.  He had settled himself in a comfortable armchair by a window.  “Not a bloody hill in sight!”  He complained, “I can’t see why they make so much fuss about Yorkshire, can you?”

Patrick weighed the comment.  “As a matter of interest, why are we here?  I know Purvis badgered the name of the county out of Jacinta Driscombe, but it’s like looking for a needle in a winter cattle fodder resource, isn’t it?”

“Not quite!”  Rebecca joined them.   “Remember I told you we’d been working on the Stafford Driscombe story for a while?  We know quite a lot about Driscombe Holdings, one of whose potash mining concerns happens to be here in Yorkshire.  They own a couple of holiday cottages as a staff facility; a seaside let currently occupied by a team manager, and a get-away-from-it-all moorland house miles from anywhere, which is, as far as we know, empty.  So when he scored a direct hit with Madame Driscombe, Purv was really just joining the dots.  Inspired, but not a miracle.”

Purvis joined the group.  “Someone talking about me?”

Patrick spread his hands; “So what are we doing sitting here?”

“Slight problem,”  Rebecca admitted.  “We don’t yet know exactly where this house is.  Approximately, yes; but it’s a big approximately.  Amy, our researcher, is gettin’ the address – I was just talking to her.  A contact knows it, but she can’t get hold of him.  She’ll call us back.”

“So we’re waiting,”  Purvis said.  “Bugger!”

And the grey man said:  “Perhaps we can save you the trouble.”

He had entered the room silently and unseen.  He was tall, around six-feet-four with the white close-cropped hair of middle age or premature worry.  His eyes hid within deep sockets weighed down by heavy brows, and his skin bore a pallor that had never encountered the sun, or so Patrick thought.   The set of his thin mouth, the squareness of his cheekbones and chin, the impeccable neatness of his grey suit, right down to his expensive Italian shoes all spoke of the company man, but this, Patrick knew, he was not.  He was the hatchet man.

“Miss Shelley, isn’t it?”  He had a hectoring voice that showed a tendency to bark.  “Mr  Hallcroft, Mr Purvis and Mr Leathers, too, I believe.  Apparently you have rooms booked here.   You’ll be comfortable at least.  Then tomorrow no doubt you will wish to return to London – or, in Mr Hallcroft’s case, to Caleybridge.”

The two men who had tailed Purvis at the railway station now joined him, flanking him on either side.  A third, unfamiliar figure lurked in the background.

Patrick was careful to control his response.  “We weren’t planning an early return, Mr….?”   He waited, but hatchet man did not offer a name.  “We have business here.”

The man gave him a sardonic look.  “No, Mr Hallcroft.  You have no business here.”

“I assure you we do.” Patrick snapped.

He felt Rebecca’s touch on his arm.  “It’s all right, Pats.  I think I know what this is about.  Who are you, mate?  Special Branch, or something a bit nastier?  Can I have your name for a quote?”

“No, you may not.  The matter you believe yourselves to be pursuing is being taken out of your hands. It’s a law enforcement issue in need of careful handling.  Telephone your editor, I’m sure he will put things in perspective for you.  Mr Hallcroft, Mr Leathers, Mr Purvis?  These gentlemen will look after you, and in the morning they will see you safely to your train.  I’ll leave you to it then?”

He raised an eyebrow at the man in the blue car coat, who nodded expressionlessly.  Then the hatchet man walked away.

Patrick called after him.  “I ‘m not going back.  You have no legal power to make me go, either, have you?  This is a free country, Mr whoever-you-are.  Unless you intend to charge us with something…”

The man wheeled; “Try me.”  He said.  “Shall we start with obstructing the police?  Go home, Mr Hallcroft, you’re a long way out of your depth.”

“F**k!”  Tarquin said, with feeling, as the hatchet man finally departed.  “Might as well sit down.  Drink, Patrick?”

The men from the train had taken seats to either side of Patrick and their demeanour was enough to tell him they were not slow-witted or likely to be slow in any other respect.   They were not to be drawn, either.  The third man, an Aran-sweatered monolith, took up a position by the door.  They were sentries.  They were on duty.

“So?”  Purvis said.  “Which pack do you boy scouts run with?  MI5, Special Branch, MI6, none of the above?”

No answer.

Patrick was ready to explode.  “So that’s it, is it?   You know what’s at stake, here, don’t you?  They’re going to make this disappear, aren’t they?  And that may just involve making someone we both know disappear too, mightn’t  it?”

“Pats, you’re wasting your breath, darlin’,”  Rebecca said.  “I’m goin’ to have to ‘phone Harve again, although I know he’ll shut us down.  They’re taking care of it in their own way, and we’re goin’ to get a train back to town.  Personally, I’ll have to.  If this story’s lost its legs, I’ve got a lot of other little birdies sitting on my branch right now.”

“You too?”  Patrick stared at her in disbelief.

Rebecca, rising from her own chair, crossed to his and sat on the arm beside him, squeezing his hand.   “They’re coppers, Patsy love, of one sort or another.  They do their duty thing.  It’s all they know how to do.  Me, I’m going to get a sandwich or somethin’, then have an early night.   I haven’t had enough kip to revitalize a sparrow these last few days.  You do the same, yeah?”  And she chucked him under the chin, making him meet her eyes.  He tried not to react to what he found there.

“Okay, I guess you’re right;”   he growled.  “I’ll eat in my room.”

Purvis looked distressed.  “Don’t worry, Purv,”   Tarquin consoled him, “I’ll eat with you.  We’ve got to keep the old tucker sack lined, haven’t we?”

Patrick glanced around those assembled for some sign of an alternative plan but he saw none.  Rebecca said:  “Two shakes of a lamb’s tale – I’ll be asleep in two shakes, betcha!”  She gave Patrick a knowing smile and turned away.  As she passed the most monumental of their guards she patted his bulging hip.  “Nice gun.”

“They’re bastards;” She said casually, over her shoulder.  “Just your average toad-on-a-lily-pad bastards.”

So the party split up in the hotel lobby, Tarquin and Purvis to head for the restaurant and an evening meal, while Rebecca and Patrick ordered food to be sent to their respective rooms.  These conflicting intentions ignited a minor crisis among their warders, who were concerned at leaving any of the four in their care unwatched.   After urgent discussion, they must have reasoned that Tarquin and Purvis were the least threatening, if only because they were nominally in Rebecca’s charge; so they placed them under the eye of the one Rebecca had identified as wearing a gun, and trailed the two early retirees faithfully upstairs.  Patrick felt like making a sudden late break for the lift, just to see what they would do, but it was no more than a passing whim.

His room was a basic double, with basic bedclothes, a cramped en suite and very little else.  A chair and small table squatted by the window, with a view of the forecourt one storey down.  He found himself a miniature bottle of whisky on the mini-bar and downed it in one, then poured out a miniature vodka to chase it, taking this to the little table and the moderately comfortable chair.   The forecourt was relatively quiet at the advancing hour, affording opportunity to stare into the sad, blinking lights that fringed the low wall of the parking lot.

A discreet knock announced the night porter with sandwiches.   He chewed upon tasteless ham and sharp, acid pickles without enthusiasm because for once he did not feel an evening hunger; did not want to eat at all.

Outside his door, the two sentries settled themselves for a watchful night, one a few feet further along the corridor towards Rebecca’s room and the stairs.   Other residents might give them a curious glance or two, but they were used to that, so they gradually lapsed into ‘vigil’ mode, ready for several uneventful hours.

When the bathrobed Rebecca emerged from her room, therefore, they were almost pleased with the diversion, especially as she had been strategically careless in tying her cord, permitting a generous glimpse of leg.

“Evening, boys!”

She trotted slinkily up the corridor towards Patrick’s room.   The two sentries exchanged glances.  They closed upon her so he of the blue car coat stood between her and Patrick’s door.

“Oh, sure!  What are we going to do, set up an armed rebellion or something?  Listen, mate, it gets lonely in these rat-holes, you know.  A girl needs a little company.”

The sentry behind her could have said exactly what he thought, but he saw no reason to make a moral judgment.  He glanced at his colleague, who gave a barely perceptible nod, and stepped wordlessly aside.

The double knock on Patrick’s door surprised him.   Puzzled, he unlocked it and cautiously pulled it open.   Whatever he was prepared for, Rebecca exceeded by confronting him with her cord undone and the front of her white robe held open, revealing a pretty floral bra and the briefest possible pair of matching knickers.  “Yay, Pats – see what I brought specially for you?”   And before his look of surprise could evolve into horror she draped herself against him, arms about his neck, and closed his lips with a passionate kiss.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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