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Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© 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.

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Six The Vale

“Ciggy?”  Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick.  “Oh, you don’t, do you?  Do you mind if I do?  I’m absolutely gasping.”

Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft.  When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course).  Patrick Hallcroft?  He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking!  But now?

Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore?  He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary.  His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked.  Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return.  Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.

“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?”  He asked.

“Everyone has, darling.  At least you got demoted to an inside page.”

“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’?  It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”

Bea shrugged.  “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect?  That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that.  I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering.  The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something.  ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue?  It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”

“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”

“At least you tried.  Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch.  Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick.  So the least you can do…”

“Would a timeline help?”

“Timelines are always good.”

“Right; Saturday morning.  I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”

“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute.  Why didn’t you follow those three cars?  Karen would have.”

“Oh yes.  And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!”  Patrick rejoined.  “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”

“But you didn’t.  You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”

“No ‘thought’ about it!  At least give me a hearing!”

“Where next?”

“I didn’t want to go to the police.  All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway.  I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.”  Patrick thought for a second.  “No, wait.  That isn’t what I wanted.  I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”

“Why?  Does he have his doubts?  More to the point, do you?  My god, Patrick!”

“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start.  And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know?  I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him.  I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course.  It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself.  Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north.  It wasn’t much of a delay though.  We were there by one-thirty.”

“No car?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.  I guessed.  By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone.  It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick.  Bad karma!”

“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone!  The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something.  A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy.  Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”

“Your old man didn’t believe you?  No, wait – brains, Bea!  He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”

“Our little snake!  Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught.  I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself.  ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too.  All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”

His hand was resting on the table.  Bea squeezed it consolingly.  “No, mate, she isn’t right.  Go on, fill in the rest.”

“My mother lived up to her promise.  She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant?  She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”

“Isn’t he supposed to be ill?  It was on the local news.  He had a heart attack or something.”

“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather.  You’re right, though.  His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson.   That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you.  Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”

“And..”

“And I saw him.”  Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes.  “I wanted you to keep some faith in me.  I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”

Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand.  “Pat!  Avoiding the question, yeah?  What happened with Wilson?”

“He’s a strange guy.  Enigmatic, I think that’s the word.  Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home;  corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing.  I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew.  Much more than my mother told him.  He already knew.”

“Well, what did he say?  Can he do anything?”

“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”

#

The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth.   Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed.  The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.

All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner.  Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident.  The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.

“Hallcroft, isn’t it?  Come in, young man.”

There were further surprises to come.  Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe.  A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.

“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.”  And Wilson added, pointedly,  “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.”  Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke.   “Now, why did you want to see me?  Your mother was most insistent.”

Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design?  He had to clear his throat before he responded.   “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  I believe you met her.”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her.  A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate.  Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson.  I am sure you remember.”

Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances.  “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”

“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”

Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder.  “Impudent whelp, aren’t you?  Why are you here, boy?”

“To find Karen,”  Patrick retorted.  “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return.  They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”

Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody;  “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft.  If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature.  It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”

“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton.  Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder?  Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson.  I will find out who.”

“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken.  Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour.  She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone.  She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions.  She sent a letter to that effect to her parents.  I take it you have read that?  After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”

Carmody’s eruption happened.  “I won’t stand for any more of this!  See here, Hallcroft:  the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation.  Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning.  My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority.  The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one.  Is that understood?  Is that final enough for you?”

“Public nuisance?”

“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens.  Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one.  If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground.  For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman.  I‘m sick of the sight of him!”

#

“Unbelievable!”  Bea shook a troubled head.  “And that was it?”

“Not quite.”  As he – what would you say – showed me out?  Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’.  A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”

“It’s not good, yeah?”  Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears.  “Poor Karen.”

“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?”  Patrick said, tight-lipped,  “Very professional.  They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off.   And then, finally, last night…”  He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face.  For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down.  But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.

“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess.  A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home.  I saw the red glow against the sky.  Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road!    From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.”  Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face!  Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower!  All gone.   I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before.  I never want to see its like again.”

“You think?”

“Of course I think!  I was warned, wasn’t I?  Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory?   There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage.  One police car turned up – one!  A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids!  I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”

Patrick drew himself up.  “Anyway, nobody slept last night.  It was sunrise before they got the fire out.  It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer.  It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire.  Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.

“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”

Bea interrupted him,  “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”

“I can’t answer that…”

“You do!  You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere!  And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it!  He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim.  This will happen again, Patrick!  Again!”

“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea.  I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing.  But there’s a family – my family – to consider.  You, too.  I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”

“I don’t care.  She’s my friend,  she was always my friend.”

“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know?  Right from wrong, good from bad, all that?  This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose.  I’ve never seen him that way.  In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,.  He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back.  This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it.  He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is.  He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”

“So you’re giving up.”

“In my heart, no.  Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now.  I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.”   Patrick sighed.  “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was.  I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t.   Not without causing more harm.”

Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now.  “You are, you’re giving up!  Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably.  It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”

“I know,”  Patrick acknowledged miserably.  “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger.  Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”

“You can trust me, Patrick.  You can trust me.”’

#

There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends.  It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by.  Not without regret, however, and not without damage.

Patrick?  He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins.  All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.

Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows.  It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career.  She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears:  it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.

Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers.  Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months.  He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end.  His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.

Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too.  Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life.  For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him.  But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.

It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did.   Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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

The Ride

hospital-image

Above him, strips of light rush past: beneath, the onrush of the gurney wheels, rhythms in counterpoint, treble and bass.  Their song teases his memory –what is it?  He cannot think.   He cannot remember.  ‘It means nothing to me…’

Concerned faces look down upon him as they steer his progress, watching his face, clinical figures in clinical scrubs – clinical concern.  So many times now he has taken this desperate ride, each time with that vague, intangible strand to reach for:  but there is no strand this time – this, he knows, must be the last.

He clasps his hideously bloated abdomen and he knows.   He feels that great alien presence inside him that has grown relentlessly through months of burgeoning agony, consuming him, and he knows.  All the therapies, all the treatments; all done.  His destiny lies at this journey’s end.  ‘It means nothing to me…’

In a momentary remission and before the next wave of pain’s powerful fist clamps down on him, his arms flail wildly.   “Mr. Carmody?”

“I’m here,  Michael.”   The consultant stoops over him, his gentle hand touching,  an oasis of calm in the hot sands of his terror.   “Be of good heart, Michael.  It is soon over now, you know.”

“I know.”

The pain has lost him for a time.  He wonders, ludicrously, if the pace of the gurney was too fast for it?  Could it have been left behind?  Maybe it is somewhere back there, writhing in impotent fury upon the tiled floor, lashing out at all who pass?  But no; it finds him.  It creeps in, uncertain.  It probes.  It seizes.

Oh no! Oh no!  Oh please, please God!   Worse this time – worst this time.  This must, must, must be over, please!   Let me go?  ‘It means nothing to me; nothing to me, nothing…’

“We can manage your pain.”  Carmody had assured him in those first days.  “Things have improved so much, Michael.  You needn’t be afraid.”

He had hope then.  Oh, the hope he had then!  But he was still very afraid.

“We’re going to do everything we can.”

“Is there any possibility…?”

“Well, we have come close to a solution many times…”

The gurney has turned a corner.  Doors opening, closing; floating figures in gowns, new and different lights.   Operating Theatre One.

“Right, people!  Places, everyone!”  His consultant’s authoritative voice.

Pain coming again; a tsunami this time of massive, unstoppable proportions.  The needle he so needs thrusts home, imparting a little numbness, a moment of comparative peace, helping him, finally, to remember:   ‘This means nothing to me….Vienna’.

Carmody’s words murmur in his ear:

“Alright, Michael, this is our time.  Let’s make history together.   Push!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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.

 

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