Satan’s Rock

Part Thirteen

A Beaten Heart – Part One

Melanie stared at the sanguine figure who Peter introduced as Toby.  Toby, large and fragrant, who sat on the grassy slope waiting for her to appear as though her visit to the island was planned.  “How could you possibly know I would come to The Rock today?  I just came for an afternoon out with Peter.  We nearly went to the Mall.”

“But you came, didn’t ‘ee?   Some just has a tune as calls ‘em, tha’s all.  They needs that, see?”

“What tune?”  Melanie scowled, because her dislike for the old countryman was instinctive, and she couldn’t hear any ‘tune’ – or could she?   She remembered lying in the grass at Peter’s side just a little way from here and just a little while ago,,,

Toby seemed unperturbed, “You can ‘ear ‘un now, missy, in your ‘ead.  I knows you can.   You’ll hear ‘un more an’ more, now you knows ‘tis there.”    He rose to his feet, a violent spinning movement which involved Dervish-like thrashings of arms.  “Come along wi’ me, now.  I think you needs to start learnin’.  ‘Til you do, there‘ll always be them as is ready to take ‘dvantage, see?”

He strode in an oddly uncoordinated lope up the remainder of the hillside towards his cottage.  Peter made to follow.

“Oh, no!”  Mel whispered:  “Not in there!” 

She need not have worried.  At the boundary of his immaculately-kept garden the big man turned, taking them on a path that plunged into a tangle of  under–brush and bramble, leading towards the sheer side of the rock.

“Toby?”   Mel called after him.

“Aye, missy?”

This song I’m supposed to be hearing.  Do you hear it, too?”  She bestowed Peter with a significant look, and hissed under her breath, “Is he a head-case, or what?”

“Oh, aye.   I hears it all the while, I does.  See, it’s part of Old Ben, to them as lives ‘ere.   ‘Tis as old as time, that is.”

“Yes,”  Melanie whispered to herself,  “He is.”

            Through the under-brush, with the high wall of the Great House to their left and open sea some three hundred feet below them to their right, their way led into a converging V between wall and precipice, so Peter and Melanie began to feel that their very breath was being squeezed.  They were following the boundary of the Great House as it rounded the eastern face of the rock. Now they could see the coastline stretching away north eastward, with Levenport Head’s sheer basalt slab frowning at them from across the bay.  Here  the path swung right, doubling back upon itself so tightly there was barely room to turn for fear of stepping out over four hundred feet of uninterrupted air with foaming rocks at the bottom.   They were descending; clinging to the cliff-face along a stony ledge.   Toby wobbled ahead with a casual disregard for the drop.   Peter, led Melanie, for whom the sight of his shaking knees lent an unwarranted sense of encouragement, as shared adversity often will.  The wind, barely a breeze when they were up on the slopes above, screamed and whipped around them, threatening to prise them from the cliff-face altogether.

“Peter!”  Melanie called above the din:  “Do you really want to do this?”

“I don’t want to try turning round!”  Peter shouted back.

Men had carved this path.   There were steps, the worn steps of ages, carved into the steeper reaches: there were passing places, too, though so confined it was hard to imagine even the sparest of bodies being able to edge around one another without falling.

“This ‘ere, ‘twere an old monk’s path.”  Toby called back:  “This bin ‘ere since the mon’stry times.”  They reached a turn in the face of the rock and the path apparently ended.  Two vertical spurs of rock barred their way, like the prongs of a fork.  “On’y they didn’t want ever’ body to know about ‘un, they monks.   Reckon not even the Abbott knew ‘bout this.  This las’ bit’s a bugger, so careful now!”   He legged himself up into the cleft between the spurs, and disappeared over the far side.

Peter saw that the main pathway had actually doubled back again, dropping away below them.   Eroded by time, it had diminished to a grassy lip, a ledge for nesting sea-birds: beyond that, the drop to the sea was uninterrupted.  Yet there was evidence the monks had used this means to reach the shore, for at the foot of the cliff a tiny shelf had been hewn from the stone.  Shale washed up around it rattled uneasily, chivvied constantly by the waves.    The height made Peter’s head swim.   Steadying himself for a moment, he made to follow their guide, levering himself up into the gap between the two rocks.  What he saw on the further side turned his bones to ice.

There was no path,  just a wickedly steep traverse, at the far side of which, some twelve feet away was a ledge, apron to a dark recess in the rock offering sanctuary to those who might reach it.   Toby was standing braced against the cliff-side upon this ledge.

 “There’s six foot–‘olds.   They’m solid enough.   If you looks for ‘em you can see.   You can see six ‘and-‘olds too.  They’m just right for ‘ee, I reckon.  Take it slow, and don’t ‘ee lean in towards the slope.   Use your balance, see?  Now, give me yer left ‘and!”

“Slope?  It’s sheer!”  Peter protested.

“Don’t look down!”  Toby advised.

“They always say that!” 

“You can do ‘un!”  The big man stepped nimbly onto the traverse, stretching out a large, safe-looking hand.  Peter thought he could see the holds Toby had pointed out.   It would still be a huge act of faith, and if Melanie had not been behind him he might never have stretched tentatively for the first of those foot-holds, a mere fragment of levelled stone nearly a yard away.  Shaking with fear, he placed his weight on the tiny pad of rock, grabbing frantically at a protruding stone as he stepped out into space.

A further handhold would be higher up on his left – he had seen it, knew it was there.   Transferring his weight to his right hand and forcing himself to stand away from the slope, he shuffled his right foot alongside his left.   For a terrifying moment his whole body was pivoting on those two points, with the wind trying to take him like a sail, until he could reach out to the next handhold.  His left foot waved in empty air, seeking a projection large enough to take his weight.   The welcome firmness of solid rock formed under his foot.  His hand found its second grip.

Almost sick with terror, Peter tried to draw himself across the last foot or so separating him from Toby’s outstretched hand, but his legs quivered convulsively and his arms refused to co-operate.  Stuck in an ungainly star-shape, he was unable to move, he was going to fall…

“Let go that right ‘and young ‘un.   I got ‘ee.”   Toby’s big hand grasped his arm, 

Within seconds it was over.   Feeling foolish, a breathless Peter allowed himself to be half-dragged onto the rocky platform then guided into shelter away from the edge.  As soon as he had his breath back, he warned:    “Don’t try it, Mel!  It’s too dangerous!”

“Too late!”   Mel informed him blithely.  “I already did.”

She stood behind him with a broad grin on her face.

Toby guffawed loudly, so his voice echoed up and down the rock.

 “She’m like a moun’ain goat, that ‘un!   No danger!”

“Rock-climbing.   Last holidays.  Glen Coe.”   Mel summarised. “Now tell me why I did?”

“Because as ‘ow you has to see this. I’ll show the’”   Toby led them into the deep shadow within the crevice, where they discovered the concealed entrance to a cave,   the portal of which, small and round, had been widened and shaped by human hands.  The marks of their chisels, ages old, showed what a labour this had been.

“Come on, Babes!”  Melanie urged,  “Let’s explore!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that!”

Leaving the gale behind them, they followed Toby through the narrow neck of the entrance, which quickly widened to a small chamber, no more than four meters across.  There was scarcely any natural daylight, so their eyes took time to become accustomed to the gloom.

“Oh!”  Melanie breathed, feeling a little overawed.

At its further end, the chamber wall had been carved to reveal a seam of crystalline rock which, if its short, exposed section were to be believed, ran vertically up through the basalt above them.  At its foot had been hewn a stone altar table, draped with the dry threads of ancient embroidered cloth.    A terra cotta chalice rested there, flanked by two tallow lamps, their spouts blackened by use.   But Melanie’s eyes passed all this by, frozen moment of a forgotten time though it was, to rest upon the figure before the altar, who half-knelt, half laid before it with its faded cloak, or robe, pulled up to conceal its head; as if sleep had overtaken it as it prayed.

“Well!”  She exclaimed, “You just never know how things will turn out, do you?  There was I, expecting a quiet afternoon picnic in the sun, and what did I get?  A cold cave and a dead body,”  She touched the edge of the robe experimentally;  “I hope he is,like, totally dead?”

“Don’t worry, now, Missy.  ‘E can’t do ‘ee no harm.”   Toby’s voice was comforting. “’E been gone these two ‘undred years.”

“Who was he, do you think?”  Melanie asked:  “One of the monks from the Abbey?”

“No, I don’t think so.”   Overcoming his revulsion, Peter stepped closer to examine the mummified form.  It had been tall when it had lived, with shoulders that were broad and very, very strong.   Prompted by some innate knowledge, he reached down past the dry leather and the drawn grin of the face, delicately pushing its garments to one side, to expose a gold chain around its throat.

“Toqus.”  He said. “So you never left.”

“That’s right, young Peter.” Toby murmured softly, taking the young man’s shoulder to draw him back. “’E never did.   Come ‘ere after the old man died, likely, an’ jus’ starved hisself to death.   ‘Tis a solemn fact.”

Somehow, Peter did not find it too incredible that Toby should know enough of the island’s history to have heard the story of Lord Crowley’s death, and the mysterious disappearance of his servant, Toqus.

“What brought him here?”   He wondered.

“Ah well now!    This place ain’t exac’ly a Godly one, now, is it?   Look around ‘ee.   What do y’ see?”

By now, with eyes thoroughly accustomed to the scarce light, Peter and Melanie were able to take in more detail of the chamber.   The walls were daubed with crude pictures of strange horned beasts, dragon-like flying creatures, and indecipherable writing: on the front of the stone altar, half-obscured by Toqus’s body, an inverted cross was engraved.

“Devil worship?”   Melanie asked, with a slight tremor in her voice.   She was not superstitious, but the thought was a little disquieting.

“Maybe – or prob’ly jus’ a bit angry, like.”   Toby sat down on the shelf at the cave entrance.   “See, the old Abbott, ‘e wouldn’t have been too ‘appy if ‘e’d knowed what ‘is flock was doin’ down ‘ere, now would ‘e?   And I don’t think as ‘e ever did know.  That path us come down jus’ now, ‘twasn’t no official path, see?   An’ that landin’ stage down below us there, that ain’t the official dock, neither.   So there was some, like, alternative kind of goin’s on in ‘ere while they up there was prayin’ their socks off. See?”   Toby smiled secretively:  “Nope, I don’ reckon all they monks were quite so godly as they pretended, were they?   No!”

He raised himself to his feet, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the chamber roof.   “Mind old Toqus, now, and come over here.  There’s somethin’ you should do.”

Toby beckoned Peter over to the altar. “Whenever you’m ready, see how the crystals in that seam feel to ‘ee.   Be they sharp, or what?”

“OK.”    Peter touched the black band of rock.   Immediately, a surge of warmth tingled through his finger-tips, sending a little pulse of heat up his arm.   He snatched his hand away.

Toby nodded approvingly:  “Now, you know what that’s all about, don’t you, young ‘un?”

It was tempting to deny it; to lie. Peter would have preferred not to acknowledge that this cave with its musty sitting tenant, with the approach which so terrified him, was another source, and possibly a very special source, even the promise of an explanation for the powers that gave him his extraordinary moment of foresight the day before Anzac Day.   But there was no choice.  He looked at Mel and saw recognition in her eyes, too.   “They’re connected, aren’t they?.”  She murmured:   “This stone and the stone in the House – they link to each other.  You felt it, didn’t you?”

“Not linked, Missy.  They’m all one.  This stone runs right through the whole island. The heart of Old Ben, this is.   ‘It’s beatin’ eart.  Come ‘ere, now.  You try.”     Toby gestured to the seam.

“I don’t want to.”   Melanie protested.

Peter felt equally sure Melanie should never touch the black stone.  “No.   No, don’t do it, Mel!  Please, just….don’t?”

Toby’s eyes showed how deeply he understood.   With something like pity, he said:  “’As to be, young ‘un, see?  ‘As to be.”   He nodded to Melanie:   “There’s nothin’ to fear, Missy.   ‘Specially for you!”

Although she harboured some misgivings, Melaniewas tempted.  She reached out with one probing finger-tip, dabbing at the black crystal.   She tried one finger, then two, finally her whole hand.   The rock gave her no answer.   There were no visions, no sensations of warmth, just cold stone.

“Nothing!”  She said, feeling quite glad.

“Ah, but you ain’t used to ‘un yet!”   Toby told her.   Nevertheless, he seemed confused.

Peter had withdrawn to Toby’s shelf at the cave entrance, where he sat with his head on his chin, trying to convince himself that he still had control of his own thoughts.  A drawing on the wall to the left of the stone altar fascinated him.  He could not drag his eyes away from it.   A crude cartoon, it depicted five matchstick figures.  One prostrate, either injured or dead, two others standing over it, one bearing a club and the other a spear:  he presumed they must be the prone figure’s assailants.  To their right a figure in a full robe and head-dress bent to release an asterisk creature, a lizard or snake, perhaps?  To their left and above them all, a stick figure with unmistakeable wings looked down, one of its arms extended as if in a blessing.  It was hard to dismiss the moral portent of what he saw – murderers watched by a higher being, as if sanctifying their deed..

Melanie had satisfied herself that the stone seam held no fears for her.    She traced it with her fingers, absently sensing its dense, gritty structure as the soft song of the island that Toby had described began to play once more in her head.   There was a dreamy contentment in everything that was part of St. Ben, even this gloomy room of death.  Hadn’t she always wanted to be here?  Wasn’t it a part of her soul?   The music was in the trees, the grass, the sea-borne wind:  it was in this rock, too, as clear as if its singers were all around her.

The music very slightly increased in volume when she realised that Peter had joined her: that was alright; it was meant to be so.   When his hand covered hers the music filled her, strong and vibrant, like a possession, like a sleep.

When he pressed her hand to the stone, so strong and firm, determined, knowing, the music overtook her, so she found herself living entirely within it.    Her mind was drifting…drifting…

It was another time, a room in another place; an oak-panelled bedchamber, lavishly furnished, with a great four-poster bed.

A banshee wind howled, battering at the oak doors of the room, slamming the shutters of the tall windows open and closed.   There were three men here; one, an expensively attired gentleman in his thirties, the second, a great midnight tombstone draped in an African robe who stood like a monument beside the third, a sickly old man in a nightshirt reclining on the bed.  Melanie could hear the old man’s voice above the wind, full of quivering rage:

“This is a trick, sir, and I shall not stand for it!”

“I fear you have no choice….”  The well-dressed man soothed.   “I have all your notes!   I could bankrupt you tomorrow if that were my wish.   But I will do nothing to sully your family or their name.  I will be discreet…”

“Discreet, sir!  Aye, I’ll wager you will be discreet!”   The old man interrupted.   “I have been looking into your affairs, Mr Ballentine!”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed, indeed!  You are not a reputable man, are you Ballentine?     How, I wonder, will my capricious wife respond when she learns of your upbringings and your past dealings, with which my letter will acquaint her?     Answer me that, sir!” The old man’s voice was rising hysterically.   “You are an upstart, a pipsqueak of a stock clerk who made his fortune by stealing his master’s merchandise and selling it for himself.   You may cut something of a figure, here, sir, but what will you answer should my wife suggest a tour in Spain, or in the America’s, eh?    Will you tell her there are warrants for your arrest in those places, eh, Ballentine?   Or should I call you by your real name?  Wilbert, is it not?

The well-dressed man’s finely chiselled features paled:  “How have you…?”

“Found ye, sir?   Found ye?   Did you think I was a nincompoop, a fool?   I have made you my study, Mr Wilbert!  You have been my sole occupation, these last months!”

The dark-skinned sentinel rested a big hand upon his master’s shoulder.  Urging him not to excite himself further, but the old man was incandescent.    “You sought to rob me of my fortune, sir! Now I shall deprive you of yours.   I have a dossier which I shall publish if you do not withdraw.   Return me my land, and my wife.   If I don’t get them Society shall know you for a scoundrel.  I doubt you will have your freedom long.”

In his excitement, the old man failed to notice changes in Ballentine’s demeanour.   “Had you researched more thoroughly, my Lord,”   Ballentine snapped, “You would also have seen what becomes of those who discover too much. Toqus – work your craft!”

The dark man’s great eyes widened:  “What …”   He asked (his voice is thick as treacle); “Would you have me do?”

 “You know where your future lies, do you not?” Ballentine answered,  “ Have we not agreed?”

“We did not agree to murder.”

“Ah! Such an emotive word.  I  prefer to think of it as timing.  Let death promote itself.”   He turned his stare upon the old Lord.  “How chill it feels, eh, old man?   How wildly leaps the beast in that decrepit chest?  You cannot still it, can you?   No, Toqus: not murder.  Just take your master to the brink….he will do all of the jumping.”

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

Image Credits:  Features Image:  Freephotos from Pixabay

Waves: Ilyuza mingazova on Unsplash

 

Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

   © 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.     

Continuum – Episode Twenty: A Garden Meeting

In the previous Episode:

While Alanee is making love to Celeris in his apartment she is hidden from Ellar the Mediant who, fearful what Alanee can do when she is not on her radar, sends Sala to search The City for her.  Sala discovers her friend in the Grand Park in an apparently drugged state and takes her to her home so she may rest.

In Braillec, Commander Zess, deeply  affected by the genocide of thousands of Dometians has abandoned his post, to seek expiation at the merciless hands of robbers on the highway, a fitting death sentence, as he feels, for his actions in the chain of his command.   The robbers will throw his body into the canyon below Wagoner’s Leap.

Meanwhile, the one escapee from Zess’s purge lies helpless and dying on a forested riverbank, watched by scavengers eager to devour him… 

Dag Swenner has lain motionless for many hours now, while the carrion creatures move ever closer.  That drip of water which found its way to his pale lips ceased long since:  the warmth from his body is all but gone.  Cold is a friend, for it admits the sleep of death with quiet dignity, and this is neither a quiet nor a dignified place to die.

The snapping and snarling amongst those closest to the feast, wild dog and serval, tree rats and hyenas, is unceasing.  The big cat is long dead, the man beside it defenceless: the bravest might rip an arm from him and be gone without fear, yet no creature will touch him.  They sneak and creep in the cover of the woods, afraid of something, some other presence lurking there, something unseen.  It is this way until morning comes, when first light dapples through the trees.

#

In Sala’s northern bed, Alanee stretches herself in sleep, dreaming of something – something she will not remember in the morning; of a forest, far away.  And in that forest the eyes of a dying man blink open.

Day is well advanced when she wakes.  A thought has entered her head that she would share, so she shakes Sala to consciousness.

“Celeris!”

Sala groans.  “Him again!”

“I can prove he exists.  Of course I can!  He left his number on my summoner the other day.”

She jumps from the bed and searches through her jumbled clothing, producing the instrument triumphantly.  “Here, see?  Stop looking!” She throws her robe about herself to avert Sala’s hungry stare.  Giggling, she stabs buttons.  The giggling stops.  “Only I can’t seem to find it?  Sala – what can have happened to it?  Could it be erased?  Who could have erased it?”

Sala shakes her head sadly.  “I’ll get us some breakfast.”  She slides from the bed and then the room, not troubling to put on a robe for herself.

“No.  I’m not hungry, really.  I must get back to my apartment.  There are some new clothes there I have to try on.”

Sala’s expression conveys her belief that this is the lamest excuse she has ever heard.  “In front of those cameras?”

“Maybe they’ve gone.  I told Lady Ellar I wanted them taken out. I have to think.  This afternoon perhaps we could look for a new place?”

Sala contacts Ellar as soon as Alanee has left, a loyalty she owes her patron.  But Ellar’s reply to her summoner – “Say nothing now.  We will meet in the gardens.”- is a surprise.

The gardens beyond the city walls greet her with the bright optimism of spring.  Ellar, formally attired in her court robe, waits where a bridge of weathered redwood crosses one of many brooks which feed the ornamental ponds as they descend, step by step, to the river. 

“You discovered her, Sala.”  Not a question:  just a statement of fact.  “Is she stable?”

This choice of adjective takes Sala aback.  “She seems well enough, Lady.  We stayed together in my apartment last night.  She left just before I called you.”

“Where was she?  How did she evade us?”

Again, that curious choice of phrase;  “Evade, Lady?”

“Come Sala!  You know very well how closely she must be watched.  Where was she?”

“She was with a man.  A man she claims she has been with before; at the spring celebration.”

“Who?  With whom?”

“A bit of a rogue by her account.  He upset her.”

“Who, girl?  Who?”  Ellar’s impatience is not typical of her.

“He called himself ‘Celeris’.  I checked.  No such person.  Whoever he is, he’s using a false name.  If we could catch him we could charge him with that offence at least, but in that perverse way of Alanee’s she seems inclined to defend him.  And she was vague about where he lives, or what he does in The City.  Very strange.”

 “Merely a liaison, then,” Ellar sounds relieved, “She is found.  That is good.  I will investigate this ‘Celeris’.”

Both stare down at the water.  “Sala, you hold a position of great trust.  Greater than you know.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“We meet here so we are not overheard; our words may never be repeated, you understand?”

“Yes.”

“In my work, child, I have to constantly reconstruct a bridge – just like this bridge – between two worlds; The City on one side, The Land on the other.  And whether I like it or not, Alanee has become the pier upon one side of the water: she holds the stability of the city in her thrall.  My difficulty, but at the same time my great relief, lies in her ignorance of her true position.  My fear is that she may, unwittingly, put all of us into danger.

“So, you are her friend:  are you her lover?  No, I thought not.  But you are her confidante.  Encourage this, Sala:  talk to her, elicit her thoughts, lend her your arm, your shoulder, whatever she may want from you.  And bring all you learn back to me, do you understand?  All.  It is vital, Sala.”

“No more than is my duty, Lady.  Of course I shall.”

Shocked by Ellar’s evaluation of Alanee, Sala’s thoughts fill with the memory of a figure.  He sits across a desk – a big, pedagogic desk of shiny red burr-cherry upon which he plays a little table game among his papers with sticks and a ball.  Professor Leitz, a small, rotund man with a short white beard and kind grey eyes has gone now, died some years ago, but his image and his words never leave her.  Today, as he sits behind that desk, his stubby fingers running thoughtfully through the white hairs at his neck, she is eighteen, ready to leave the Porstron for the greater world.

“Sala my dear you always had a penchant for the divisive, didn’t you?  Argue, argue, argue!  Passion, too, I shouldn’t wonder.  So why do you choose to train as a Mediator?  The challenge to your intellect, I suppose.  Well, you have that challenge:  you will be constantly forced to make the choice between loyalty and love when the two should be on the same side but aren’t:  you will sacrifice friends, colleagues, everything to the cause of expediency.  Is it for you, do you think?  Should you devote your life to betrayal, simply as an exercise?  Think profoundly, Sala.  Think long.”

Well, she did think long.  She accepted her challenge, and it has come to stab her through the heart time after time.  Now Alanee; so is she, should she be, intrigued by the importance Ellar places upon her friend – or is Alanee just another knife?  Whatever the truth, she sees her role has changed.  She must take care.

Ellar watches her turn back towards the City with a new weight upon those graceful shoulders, feeling reasonably content because she knows Sala is her best, the recommendation of Professor Leitz all those years ago, and because the girl’s inspired excellence was honed to perfection by her own hand.

Ellar could not define precisely when her feelings concerning Alanee began to change, only that they are very much changed.  Reports reach her hourly, tales of excitable activity from Hasuga:  wild thoughts so dominant and inviolate the customary filtration process of The City can no longer moderate them.  Alanee’s influence is surely responsible for most.  Out there (she looks towards the distant horizon of the mountains) the people are paying her price.  Whatever follows, Sala’s abilities will be put to the supreme test.

Alanee neither knows nor understands why she has to be alone that morning, only that it must be so.  The compulsion to take leave of her friend has its own momentum, as if she is driven by some force outside herself.  The clothes she collected from the dressmakers the day before have no bearing upon it:  they are just the excuse Sala supposed them to be, but something makes her run through the blocks of the city until she reaches her home avenue, and that same insistent impulse overcomes her revulsion at any thought of spying lenses.  Still she pauses within her street door, to read a terse note that is pinned above her mirror in the foyer.

‘All cameras removed.  By order of Lady Ellar, Mediant’.

The clothes are much as she left them, hanging on the wardrobe wall.  Someone has moved them, but they are all there.  Her bedclothes, her furnishings, though slightly altered in arrangement, are clean and tidy.  Although everything has been disturbed, nothing is missing, nothing is soiled; unless she considers the small pile of leaves lying upon her coverlet an exception – the same leaves she gathered at the riverside the day before!  The very same leaves she has dismissed as a dream, exactly as she dreamt them, still damp from the rain!

Not a dream, then, but how did they come to be there? 

They are real enough.  She picks up each of them delicately and in a sequence.  From where her guidance comes she has no notion; any more than she understands why she must press the foliage to her as she did at the river.  The urge is fierce, undeniable.  Immediately, a fire ignites inside her; a flame so intense she must respond by pressing the poultice to herself harder and yet harder, as if to extinguish it.  The heat expresses itself in dart-like needles, sparks that fly about her body, burning sharply, deeply.  Not today the gentle permeating warmth of the afternoon before – this is agonizing, searing, cauterizing:  though all the while, through each torso-wrenching lance there is an otherness, a separation.  That feeling alone keeps Alanee from screaming aloud, for although her flesh is tortured she is certain the damage is not hers, and somehow her strength will heal another’s wounds, though she does not know who, or where, that other may be.

For a writhing hour the pain consumes her.  Morning becomes afternoon before the effort of healing abates: until, in a bed soaked with her perspiration, she may sleep, exhausted, for much of the remaining day.  In this time Sala will call and receive no answer:  Lady Ellar will page her insistently; but Alanee will not stir.  Only when Valtor the Convenor’s insistent buzz wracks her inner ear will she wake, and only to Hasuga’s summons will she answer.

#

“Are you stronger now?”

Hasuga sits with his back to her in his bedroom, his misshapen silhouette distinct against the evening light from his window.  Around him, the machine has grown again and Alanee is more than a little nervous of it:  she has seen what Hasuga can make it do.

“Stronger?”  She no longer addresses him as ‘Sire’ for she does not respect him.  Ascending through the Palace to this place she has wondered how she will face him, after his cruelty.

  “The task you have performed requires strength and fortitude,”   He turns to her swiftly; “You will have been tired, weakened.” 

“Explain.”  She can outface him, she feels:  “What ‘task’, Hasuga?”

“Healing is a task.  To heal others you must first experience their pain, share their wound, take it upon yourself.  That weakens.  Now you must share the recuperation.”

“Truly?”  Alanee returns his scrutiny blankly, “So you think I was healing someone?   How would you know?  I told Ellar I wanted the cameras out – are you still spying on me?”

“I do not need cameras, although they are fascinating, I admit.  I do not like the ‘spying’ word.  I have to learn, Lady Alanee.”

 “About me?”  Alanee snaps bitterly, “You’ve stripped me bare.  I’ve no secrets.  No secrets and no dignity.”

Hasuga manages a wan smile, “The things I have to learn about you are things you do not know yourself.  Come.”  He reaches for her hand.  She snatches it away. “Let us walk outside.”

“If you command it I suppose I must,”   She will not disguise the loathing in her voice:  “Just don’t touch me!”

She follows Hasuga’s loping stride through the marble-pillared room with its colourfully decorated murals.  They still warm the chill heart of this immense space, though there are subtle strokes of an artist’s brush here and there, hints of incipient change.  The fantastic machines have grown in majesty, high of gantry and noble of spire.

Those animals so cosily humanised when last Alanee saw them are pure now, their anthropomorphic features over-painted with fleet, graceful features that depict their own natural beauty.  They run, rest, or feed on landscapes so brilliantly real she feels the breeze from distant tempura mountains upon her cheek, even thinks that once or twice those sleek antelope heads lift to watch her pass.

But it is within the body of the room that the greatest alterations have been wrought.  No more the dolls houses, models and toys of a few days since:  now the basic furniture plays host to a bizarre collection of ephemera more suited to Hasuga’s student phase.  There are several anatomical models, including a human skeleton which reclines upon the chaise longue with its metacarpals riveted convincingly about a wine-glass.  A flight simulator for an aerotran occupies one corner, exercise machines that would be the envy of any private gymnasium and a climbing frame scatter randomly about amid antique instruments, shards of broken pots, diagrams and print-outs of illimitable complexity.

The garden, by contrast, is no longer bathed in the summer heat of her last visit.  The plants have returned to their proper cycle, as yet only budding themselves for the coming summer, while the fountain plays into a chill spring sky where sunset is already fading.  Alanee cannot suppress a shiver.

“Must we be outside, it isn’t exactly warm, is it?”  She growls, “Or are you going to perform your summer garden trick?”

“No.  That would attract notice.  If we do not draw attention to ourselves we may speak more freely here.  But there is a warmer corner; we can talk there, if you wish.”

Beyond rows of immaculate borders where crocuses and sun-daisies are already shutting up shop for the night, and past newly-planted beds towards the lower end of the lawns, in a corner of the garden’s high wall, there is a summer house, a small, hexagonal wooden hut with lead glass windows and a pagoda roof.  Hasuga invites her to sit within it: its benches are hard, worn and devoid of paint, but its shelter, Alanee will admit, does offer warmth.

“We are unobserved in this place.”  He explains, and Alanee thinks she detects a leer in his voice.  “In the city everybody watches everybody.  Now you have insisted upon the removal of your cameras they must find another way to observe you:  they will do it.  In the meantime you – we – have some space.”

“Why do we want space?”  It is dark in the summer house; she can hear his breathing though she cannot clearly see him.  “Why don’t you want them to see us?”

“Because there are things – intimate things we must speak of together.”  His breath is strong and rapid.  He has moved closer in the darkness.

Where does it come from, this sudden feeling of threat?  And why does she feel powerless to resist it?  Is she so tired?  She should not have answered his summons, not tonight.  “You said you wanted to talk,”   she reminds him, coldly.  “I don’t want you close to me, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I so repulsive in your eyes?  If I asked your forgiveness would you…”

She cuts him off.  “Cold or not, I think I would rather be outside!”  Her heart is pounding and her words come in a rush.  She is on her feet moving purposefully towards the door when his arm shoots out, detaining her.  “Let go of me, Hasuga!  What are you doing?”

His grip is invincible as steel and she is being drawn back into the gloom.  For the first time in his company she can feel the pulsing heat of his flesh pressed to hers, hear the feverish excitement in his sharp command.   “Sit down!   Now!”

#

Upon a wooded river bank far away a hyena has waited patiently for a day and a night.  It is characteristic of her breed, this persistence which has no quality of stillness and is by no means restful for the beast.  She has cubs to feed.  Pacing, whimpering, yapping, she has passed the hours in a torment of indecision:  should she attack or should she flee?  And now it seems both the sources of meat in front of her are lifeless and cold, why does she still hang back?  Why do the hairs on her brindled spine bristle with fear?  What is wrong?

The dogs, the wild cats, the rats – they all sensed it.  In the night they slunk away, seeking other game.  But that is not the hyena’s way.  Where there is meat….

The smallest creatures of the forest are aware of it too.  Although an unmoving demi-corpse, a massive hulk of protein lies across their path they have contented themselves with just the cougar’s carcass.  No leach has attached itself to pale human flesh, no worm or louse has found a path of entry:  the man-figure that lies so motionless beside the cat is somehow inviolate, in the protection of something unseen.

The hyena decides the time has come.  Hunger draws her forward, terror holds her back.  In distant cries of her cubs far away, the demon hunger wins the battle round by round, step by step.  Snarling, snapping yellow teeth inches now from Daag’s face, stale dog-breath hot on his cheek – ready for the bite, the ripping, tearing bite…..

Perhaps the hyena has not seen the corpse’s fingers move, or its hand close around the gun; or perhaps it moves as she moves, when she is already committed to the lunge.  She hears the explosion, though, feels the missile searing through her scrawny chest.  And before she expires she sees the food she should have spurned glare with flaming eyes down upon her, as Daag Swenner, reborn, rises from the floor of the forest.

© 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 Credit: Mana5280 on Unsplash